April 25, 2017

Anatahan

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Josef von Sternberg - 1953
Kino Classics BD Region A

At this point, I would think most people with any interest in Josef von Sternberg's last film are aware that it was primarily shot inside a studio, and was based on a true incident of a group of Japanese men and one woman found on a small Pacific island, virtually abandoned during and after World War II. That the film continues von Sternberg's penchant for artificial and stylized settings is no surprise. What none of the other reviews of Anatahan that I've read bother to note is the orientalism found here. Sure, the basic story actually happened, and the characters are treated respectfully.

At one point, some of the men create a Shinto shrine. Von Sternberg, as narrator, mentions that four of the men were Buddhists, and two were Christians. I don't know if this detail was in the novel that provided the basis for the film, but I do know that Shinto was established as the state religion of Japan during this time, and any other religious practice would have been done in secret.

As for the "Queen Bee", Keiko, von Sternberg has the lone woman living in a jungle island introduced wearing one very nice kimono, with a sea shell necklace. Not realistic, and not appropriate for the setting, but this is a von Sternberg film, made by the guy who sent Marlene Dietrich chasing after Gary Cooper in the desert while she was wearing high heels. Nineteen year old Akemi Negishi is introduced looking more like someone's idea of a geisha, than a woman stranded far from civilization. Again, this is history as filtered through von Sternberg, kind of like The Scarlet Empress. A more recent book as been published about the survivors of Anatahan, and the description of the woman who inspired Keiko, is, well, less inspiring as noted in the Japan Times - "It was certainly not her looks. Kazuko Higa was a diminutive, lantern-jawed woman who could have been charitably called handsome."

By 1953, Josef von Sternberg's career as a Hollywood director was over. Unlike E. A. Dupont, a top silent director reduced to making The Neanderthal Man that same year, von Sternberg was able to make Anatahan mostly on his own terms. That the budget was limited is most obvious in the last ten minutes, with the survivors off the island, Japan seen as a rear-projection still of an airplane on the landing strip. Von Sternberg gets credit for the screenplay, cinematography and direction, while his work as narrator is anonymous.

The blu-ray has both the original 1953 release version, as well as the 1958 revision, notable for showing more of Akemi Negishi with less clothing. In his visual essay, film historian Tag Gallagher mentions how Negishi went on to have supporting roles in several films by Akira Kurosawa, but doesn't mention that fellow Toho house director, Ishiro Honda cast Negishi in several films as well, including King Kong vs. Godzilla. Additional Kaiju connections include a score by Akira Ifukube, and special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. An interview with son Nicholas von Sternberg includes discussion of working methods, and the display of a chart Josef von Sternberg created to map out the drama. What is pointed out is that von Sternberg did not know Anatahan would be his last film. The blu-ray includes English subtitles transcribing von Sternberg's narration, but not the Japanese dialogue. The justification may be that this is in keeping with the original spirit of the film, with von Sternberg acting as the mediator between the viewer and his visual story. As it is, for those who have familiarity with von Sternberg, the themes and some of the visual motifs are those to be found in his films from the Thirties, any one which might have been titled, The Devil is a Woman.

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April 23, 2017

Coffee Break

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Jeremy Irons in Night Train to Lisbon (Bille August - 2013)

April 18, 2017

Broken Arrow

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Delmer Daves - 1950
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There has been a good amount of discussion regarding Delmer Daves quest to make the presentation of the Apaches in Broken Arrow as authentic as possible within the context of a Hollywood production. Likewise, the film has been oft noted for showing for showing the settlers and indians where both are capable of sympathy or villainy. And in terms of genre, Broken Arrow, even while dated with its casting of white actors as native Americans, is still worth noting.

What I found interesting, and not mentioned, is that a significant number of shots are extremely tilted, especially in the opening scene, with the camera looking up at a character against the blue sky, or almost overhead, looking almost straight down against the tan, rocky surface. There are very few shots with the camera focused straight ahead, or eye level. The camera angles become less extreme as a visual corollary for those moments when the characters may be seen as equals. The casting of Jeff Chandler as Cochise could well have been due as much to his being as tall, actually one inch taller, than James Stewart, again providing a visual shortcut to the film's message.

Two visually striking moments are reminders that previously Daves had made films now regarded as film noir classics, Dark Passage and The Red House. After a skirmish, three white men have been hanged by their indian captors. The three bodies are seen in silhouette against the red sky, one of the bodies is upside down. While not fully graphic, the grotesque nature of the punishment conveys why there is fear of the indians. Later, James Stewart is seen alone, illuminated by a camp fire. His face is seen half in shadow.

I'm not familiar with the novel that provided the basis for the film. Some scenes can be easily read as referring to the political climate when Broken Arrow was produced. The blu-ray has corrected credits attributing the Oscar nominated Albert Maltz for the screenplay, rather than his front, Michael Blankfort. Maltz was one of the "Hollywood Ten", blacklisted until 1970. The actor playing the most antagonistic of the white settlers is Will Geer, who would also be blacklisted. As the itinerant prospector acting as the self-appointed liaison between the settlers and the indians, Stewart is challenged regarding racial loyalty, and is later almost lynched by an angry mob over his defense of Cochise. While a good distance from the revisionist westerns that often stood in as critiques of the war in Vietnam, Broken Arrow was considered quite progressive for its time.

Stewart's character of Tom Jeffords is similar to the characters portrayed in the Anthony Mann westerns. Jeffords, like the characters in the Mann films, has no fixed home, with the drama initiated by a chance encounter. There is a brief moment when Jeffords is seen as vengeful, the darker James Stewart more frequently associated with Mann, when Jeffords discovers that his young indian wife has been killed in an ambush arranged by Geer. The film is told with first-person narration from Stewart, seen at the beginning and end, riding alone.

The color is quite subdued for a Technicolor production, filmed on location in Arizona. In his first western, Daves finds moments to emphasize the smallness of his actors against the mountains, rocky flatland, and sky. This sense is further underlined when Geer's body is washed away in a river, seen directly above, a view from heaven. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer was an Oscar nominee for his work here. There's one critical study of the films of Delmer Daves, a filmmaker still seriously in need of deeper consideration. The new blu-ray of Broken Arrow is definitely collection worthy.

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April 16, 2017

Coffee Break

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Robin Wright in Adore (Anne Fontaine - 2013)

April 14, 2017

Czech That Film II

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The Denver Film Society is presenting a series of recent Czech films, part of a traveling series entitled Czech That Film. The curious part of this series is that while it is comprised of eight films in total, none of the host cities will be showing all eight films. For readers of this blog who live outside of Denver, but within the U.S., definitely look into the link to see what films may be coming your way. My coverage of this series will be limited to those films scheduled for Denver. With the exception of The Snake Brothers, released in 2015, the films listed here were released in 2016.

Tiger Theory (Teorie tigre), the debut film from former journalist Radek Bajgar, sets its agenda within the first few minutes. An older man, a veterinarian, is seen sewing up a neutered male cat following surgery. Cut to a female university professor lecturing on why men have shorter life spans than women. The man and the woman are revealed to married, and the film is essentially a comic drama about men feeling emasculated by their wives, while the wives are certain they know what's best for their husbands. Tiger Theory was popular in the Czech Republic. Some of the deadpan humor is amusing, with swipes at the former Communist government for good measure. The title comes from the name of the cat, reportedly an amorous pet when on the loose. The score by Jiri Hajek,which would not sound out of place in a film with an American rural setting, made me think of Ry Cooder and Mark Knopfler.

The Noonday Witch (Polednice) is one of the highlights of this series. A mostly psychological horror film, the story takes its inspiration from a Slavic folktale about a witch that appears at the stroke of noon to take away an unruly child. This is an assured debut by Jiri Sadek. That the main characters are a young mother and daughter bears some fleeting resemblance to The Babadook, but unlike that film, as indicated in the title, the horror takes place under the sun of an August heatwave outside a rural village. Sadek has also mentioned the inspiration of Jaromil Jires and Valerie and her Week of Wonders, the classic Czech fantasy from 1970.

A mother and daughter move to a small town, the childhood home of the woman's late husband. There are questions about the husband's death, and the daughter is kept under the impression that the father is away on business. The mother is unnerved by an old woman who claims she is trying to protect the daughter. The school age daughter takes part in an unexplained ritual with several kids about her age running out into a field at about noon. Sadek doesn't overplay the creepiness at an efficient ninety minutes. This is one film worth seeking out.

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The Teacher (Ucitelka) might benefit from a brief subtitle noting that the film takes place in 1983. The film takes place in Bratislava. The teacher, Maria Drazdechova, not only wants to know the names of her junior high age students, but also the occupation of her parents. The film is something of a parable about the abuse of power in Soviet era Czechoslovakia. Students and parents are do favors for the teacher in exchange for good grades. Most of the parents are easily persuaded to be helpful as the teacher is a ranking Communist party member. Several of the parents complain, with the bulk of the film cutting between scenes of the parents meeting, and flashbacks classroom scenes or the teacher's influencing of parents. Director Jan Hrebejk has made several films exploring the Communist past of the Czech Republic. Even if some of the specific political aspects of The Teacher are not understood,
patience is rewarded with a gut busting gag that must be seen and heard, that would be understood even by those unfamiliar with the Velvet Revolution.

I'm not as enthusiastic about The Snake Brothers (Kobry a uzovky) as others have been. The brothers, nicknamed Viper and Cobra, live in a small town outside of Prague. The characters in Jan Prusinovsky's film live in the margins, getting by. Cobra, a drug addict and thief, always has vague plans for making money. Viper is enlisted in running a clothing store that is a front for drug smuggling. What is of interest is that this is a view of the Czech Republic usually not seen, neither the glamour of Prague, nor the more pictorial countryside, but instead, a community of run-down shops and houses, as attractive as a third rate strip mall. The brothers are portrays by two actual actor brothers, Matej and Kristof Hadek, both of whom have received prizes for their performances.

I, Olga Hepnarova (Ja, Olga Hepnarova) comes with the most advanced critical acclaim. Austere, filmed in black and white, the story is based on true events. Directors Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda follow Hepnarova from the mid-Sixties through 1973, when she drove through a crowd of pedestrians in Prague, up until her death by hanging in 1975. Hepnarova was the last woman to receive capital punishment in Czechoslovakia. Aspects about Hepnarova's life, her reasons for her crime, and death are still controversial and have even inspired a website.

Michalina Olszanska, recently seen as the vampire mermaid, Gold, in The Lure, takes on the title role of the troubled young woman. Parts of the Hepnarova's story are fictionalized, while the quotes from letters provided to two newspapers, explaining her anger at the world, are taken verbatim. Olga Hepnarova casts herself as a victim of bullying, as well as sexual and emotional abuse. As such, the film suggests that Hepnarova would also deliberately be self-destructive, and chose to be the perpetual outsider. The few human connections made include a couple of flings with other young women, and an older man, a drinking buddy, as close to a positive father figure in her brief life. The filmmakers, to their credit, keep enough distance to allow for open ended questions about Hepnarova's life and her response, labeling herself with the German word "Prugelknabe", also translated as scapegoat or doormat. The final shot of the film, of Hepnarova's family, offers a chilling coda to her story.

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April 09, 2017

Coffee Break

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Jason Sudeikis in We're the Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber - 2013)

April 07, 2017

The Violent Shit Collection

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Violent Shit
Andreas Schnaas - 1989

Violent Shit II: Mother Hold My Hand
Andreas Schnaas - 1992

Violent Shit III: Infantry of Doom
Andreas Schnaas - 1999

Violent Shit 4.0: Karl the Butcher vs. Axe
Andreas Schnaas & Timo Rose - 2010

Zombie '90: Extreme Pestilence
Andreas Schnaas - 1991

Synapse Films All Region DVD Three disc set

I'm not the intended viewer for this film, and I'll be the first to admit it. While I have seen, and written about, films depicting extreme violence, I'm hardly a gorehound. But I do think of myself as a lifelong student of film history, and what I have seen is that, especially with genre filmmakers, what may have been dismissed in the past may be re-evaluated in the future. Not that I'm particularly optimistic that Andreas Schnaas will be subject to the kind of critical thoughtfulness given to, for example, Jesus Franco, but I wouldn't completely rule it out.

Schnaas made a film, not in this collection, with a relatively healthy budget of over a million dollars, in English, but with an Italian cast. The heavy accents of his actors doomed any possibility of importing the film. And with the films here, with the nonsensical plots, cheap looking special effects, bad acting and worse dubbing, plus haphazard videography and editing, comparison to Ed Wood, Jr. comes to mind. No angora fetish, but lots of blood, as well as the offerings of a very generous butcher. The first two Violent Shit films would seem to be made for viewers who find the latter films of Lucio Fulci too plot heavy.

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The comparison to Ed Wood is not only based on the competency of the filmmaking. Andreas Schnaas obviously is passionate about making films, but what I've seen would indicate that his ambitions are beyond his abilities. There's some similarity in the subject matter with films involving zombies, science gone wrong, and the grandiose ambitions of the main characters. Like Wood, Schnaas has the ability to round up a group of friends for the cast. Unlike Wood, there is a strain of self-aware humor throughout the films.

I'm not familiar with any of the other German filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s with extreme horror films other than Jorg Buttgereit. Having reviewed the blu ray releases of his films, I have a sense of artistry that Schnaas lacks. I can hardly minimize how graphic these films are with decapitations, breasts carved off, sexual organs mutilated, with one poor guy literally torn a new asshole. Some of the influences are obvious, like Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the post-apocalypse films that followed Mad Max. Even within the context of the genre, the misogyny gets uncomfortably heavy-handed. Then again, these films could well have been made for a less discerning, primarily male, audience that may never have heard or read about Grand Guignol, but simply desires the series of visceral thrills along with a bottle or ten of beer.

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