January 15, 2019

Citizen Kane

CITIZEN_KANE 1.jpg

Orson Welles - 1941
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Is the cinema more important than life? - Francois Truffaut

Admittedly, I don't know the context of this quote. Would Truffaut have had an answer had he known that he would die at a relatively young age? Would he have traded making movies if it meant living longer? My own feelings about film, writing about those that have been sent to me to review or may have piqued my interest, even the act of watching another movie, have become more ambivalent since I was made aware of my own mortality.

I've have stomach trouble before, including a major operation back in 1975. But last May I was sick enough that it seemed that I had no choice but to check in at a nearby hospital. Had I not been hospitalized, I might have never known that there was a mass discovered in my left kidney. As it was, I had already by diagnosed with only partial function. A couple of doctors, independently of each other came to the same conclusion that I had cancer. My choice was to keep both kidneys and my partial kidney function, or remove the kidney, go on dialysis, and have even less kidney function, though theoretically extending my life. One of my doctors is blonde, attractive, and sometimes has a noticeable Oklahoma twang. She looks a bit like a backup dancer in a "Beach Party" movie from the mid-Sixties. Being told you have about two years to live doesn't sound so horrible when you get the news from a doctor who looks like she could have been a high school cheerleader.

CITIZEN_KANE 3.jpg

So what does any of this have to do with Citizen Kane? It's the image of the sled that stuck in my mind. It's the idea that people have possessions that are meaningful to them, but without that same kind of importance to others. For the workmen in Xanadu, the sled was just junk to be disposed of, tossed into the fire. For Charles Kane, it's a reminder of the day his life changed when he was eight years old. For myself, it meant giving away some of my possessions, mostly books and movies, to friends who would appreciate them, rather than having them get tossed out of ignorance of any value, or put in an estate sale. If I remember correctly, Welles described the revealing of "Rosebud" as "dime store Freud". And it simultaneously does and does not answer questions. But having spent most of my life in Colorado, I did feel motivated to seen Citizen Kane, paying more attention to the scene of Charlie Kane's childhood.

First, there is no Little Salem, Colorado. Second, the mining towns are all along the Rocky Mountains, and there is no mining town that would have been three miles from the any part of the Colorado state line, as indicated in one brief shot. Nothing is stated regarding the kind of mineral or minerals were in the mine owned by Charlie Kane's mother, what was thought to have been a worthless deed left as boarding house payment, though it could have been most likely silver. Colorado was still not a state in 1871, and Denver was still considered a frontier town, so sending Charlie to Chicago for his education is not implausible. As for catching the train to go "back East", in reality it would be a treacherous trip by stagecoach in the snow to travel to Denver, which had only completed a rail connection to Kansas City the year before. What is undeniable is that Charlie Kane doesn't want to leave his parents, appearing to love both his strong-willed mother and powerless father equally. That Charlie's sled has great personal significance is shown when he gets a new sled from Mr. Thatcher on Christmas, and immediately tosses it aside.

The last time we see the parents, they are to receive $50,000.00 per year from Mr. Thatcher. Aside from a mention by Charles Kane that his mother had died, there is no indication of what they had done with their newly acquired money, or if there was any kind of family reunion. There is what might be regarded as an indirect closure as Buddy Swan, the child actor who portrayed Charlie Kane, died in Colorado Springs.

I am planning to make this the last full year I write about films. What this means is hopefully rambling about more films of personal interest, as well as being a bit more discriminating about the films I watch. I've seen eighty-eight of ninety Oscar Best Pictures. If a film is considered part of "the canon", I've probably seen it at least once. That includes every theatrical film directed officially and unofficially by Orson Welles. I just need to get around to watching that DVD of The Green Room, the only feature I haven't seen by Francois Truffaut.

CITIZEN_KANE 2.jpg

January 11, 2019

Buffalo Boys

Buffalo_boys_oscar.png

Mike Wiluan - 2018
Samuel Goldwyn Films

While the release of two Indonesian "westerns" in 2018 is coincidental, it is less of a novelty when one considers how the genre has truly become transnational, especially after the advent of Italian westerns. One might even argue that Asian westerns have been around since at least the time of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Curiously, both Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and Buffalo Boys were up for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Marlina was Indonesia's submission, while Buffalo Boys was entered as a Singaporean film, based on that country being Mike Wiluan's base of operations. As a producer, Wiluan had a hand in Crazy Rich Asians. Buffalo Boys is Wiluan's debut as a director, as well as screenplay cowriter.

Taking place around 1860, the story is about two brothers and their uncle who return to the country known at that time as Java, from the United States. Java was a Dutch colony. Their goal is to seek revenge for the death of the brothers' father, murdered by a Dutch government official who as essentially enslaved the peasants within his region, and controls a small town and fort.

In terms of the story, all the familiar tropes are there. This is the classic template of the stranger(s) in town who, following an awkward entrance, a couple setbacks, encounters with nasty henchmen, deaths of friends and relatives, a final shootout, find love and bring justice to the community. If you've seen a western with Audie Murphy, nothing in the story will come as a surprise. But the pleasure in this film is in part the familiarity with the story, and how Wiluan reworks it within a different context.

Wiluan doesn't directly quote any older films but those who have followed the genre through its various cycles will recognize most of the sources of inspiration. Certainly the moment when the brothers step into town, ready for the final showdown, echoes a similar moment in The Wild Bunch. And John Ford is virtually paraphrased here with his line, "print the legend", regarding frontier mythology. The portrayal of racism by the Dutch recalls the revisionist westerns of the 1970s. And the influence of Sergio Leone seems inescapable, with a couple of extreme close-ups of eyes, and musical themes reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone.

That final showdown is a hoot, with four-barrel shotguns, cannons, arrows, knives, axes and hatchets among the various implements of death and destruction. Imagine that finale in The Wild Bunch, with fewer people, but bigger explosions and bloodier deaths. There's also some Southeast Asian kickboxing in the mix, but seeing a couple of unlucky guys blown backwards a hundred yards or so from the force of a powerful blast through a thick wooden barricade offers greater visceral pleasure. In something like the same way one can enjoy a familiar Shakespeare play done with a different kind of setting outside of Elizabethan England, so is the fun of seeing the cowboy movie cliches transplanted to another time and country.

January 08, 2019

Let the Corpses Tan

Shaw_Corpses_Sm_1024x1024.jpg

Laissez bronzer les cadavres
Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani - 2017
Kino Lorber BD Region A

One of the details I had forgotten about Let the Corpses Tan is that the robbers are wearing Frankenstein masks during the heist. More precisely, masks modeled after Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. One might even describe the films of Cattet and Forzani as being similar to the Frankenstein monster as they are created from the eclectic parts of other movies as their sources of inspiration. As the Australian pair of film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and historian John Edmond explain in the commentary track, what Cattet and Forzani do is not the same as the kind of cinematic quotations from Quentin Tarantino or Jean-Luc Godard. And the filmmakers themselves also allow for the viewer to create their own reading of their films, equally as valid as whatever Cattet and Forzani may have intended.

Unlike the previous two films, Let the Corpses Tan also has a literary source, the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid. While not (yet) translated to English, John Edmond has read the novel and makes some reference to it in both its use in the construction of the film's narrative, and how the filmmakers created visual equivalents to literary passages. For myself, prior to seeing Let the Corpses Tan theatrically last Fall, I read one of the few novels by Manchette in English, Fatale. The short novel is about a female assassin who decides to take some time off in a small, provincial French town. After getting to know who the most influential townspeople are, she sets off previously suppressed rivalries. The basic set-up appears to be inspired by the novel, Red Harvest, and its better known film offspring, Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. So Cattet and Forzani, who make films inspired by genre filmmaking and the expectations that it brings have made a film from a writer who also plays with genre and its expectations.

The film opens with film shots matching gun shots through a painting. Heller-Nicholas mentions the stated influence of sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, who created assemblages that were marked by gunshots. Saint Phalle's influence can also be seen in the use of the film's setting, a remote, crumbling monastery and cottage with bizarre assemblages inside and outside. The use of primary colors, first seen in the painting in the opening shots, and then used to create monochromatic images of the characters would echo the colors Saint Phalle uses in her work. Saint Phalle created a series of abstract sculptures called "Nanas", shaped like big, curvy women. Actress Elina Lowensohn plays the artist whose home is site of most of the film's action. But Lowensohn is also arguably presented as the film's Nana, allowed to be seen nude, proudly showing off a mature and fleshy body. Each photographic shot is framed and lit with such care that a casual observer would note the influence of abstract expressionism and action painting.

The visual aspects of Let the Corpses Tan are such that narrative concerns almost seem besides the point. The basic story of the robbery of some gold bars, the attempt to outwit the cops on the trail, and the robbers betrayal of each other, is familiar territory. Things get more complicated when unplanned for guests show up a the artist's home. Cattet and Forzani play with the narrative structure by showing what occurred during a specific time period from the viewpoint of different characters. Unlike the first two films that took place in urban settings, sunbaked Corsica, a bright combination of brown and yellow, dominates the daytime exteriors.

Some of the discussion of Let the Corpses Tan referring to Italian westerns for some context shortchanges the other films and filmmakers whose influence is worth noting. The opening with the extreme close-ups of eyes and lips will indeed make most viewers think of Sergio Leone, as would virtually any musical queue from Ennio Morricone, whether from a Leone film or not. Cattet and Forzani have mentioned Andrea Bianchi's Cry of a Prostitute as inspiring the move to a sunny, rural location. The repeated use of shooting someone by placing the barrel of the pistol in the mouth echoes Lucio Fulci's Contraband, although in one scene, instead of blood spurting out of the back of the victim's head, we see a spray of gold. Certainly, an advantage to having the new blu-ray is the ability to enjoy the film for its visual pleasures by removing the English language subtitles.

January 01, 2019

El Paso

el-paso-movie-poster-1949.jpg

Lewis R. Foster - 1949
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Especially knowing that writer-director Lewis Foster won the Academy Award his part in writing Mr. Smith goes to Washington, I wish that a little more care had been put in the writing of El Paso. Taking place immediately after the Civil War, the basic plot is of a Confederate veteran who shows up in town for business with an old family friend from Charleston, South Carolina. The town is run by a corrupt strong man with the sheriff and deputies doing his bidding. Operations are from the back of the bar. Former soldiers are losing their homes in the name of unpaid taxes that built up during the war years. The lawyer realizes that his skills as a lawyer are needed, but he also learns how to best be effective with a gun.

Had more attention been paid to history, El Paso might have been more interesting. Most of the film takes place at the western set of the Iverson Ranch, making the cinematic El Paso look like a generic western town. The real El Paso was a bit more developed during the Civil War era, and an active center of activity on behalf of the Confederate army. Most Texans supported the secession from the United States. The basic plot premise is also faulty as there is no explanation as to what the bad guys were doing during the war years. Essentially, a vaguely historical set-up is ignored once John Payne and the rest of the cast steps off the stagecoach in that town that looks like it is part of almost any random Western.

Foster is stronger visually, with a penchant for tracking shots within the length of the bar where several scenes take place, as well as following along on the street where the final gun battle takes place. There is also some nice second unit work with stunt doubles seen from the distance, camera aiming up with the riders against some very imposing rocks or sky. Best is the final gun battle, filmed during a wind storm, with the dust and sand creating a very hazy effect, blurring the details in shades of brown, and providing an abstract quality to that scene.

The film was produced by William Pine and Willam Thomas, who previously provided low or modestly budgeted action movies for Paramount. This was the team's first million dollar production, though several cost cutting measures are apparent. The film played at New York City's Paramount Theater, and received quite a harsh review from the New York Time's Bosley Crowther: "It is billed as a top-flight production-by William C. Thomas and William H. Pine. Well, the boys may now be billed as Williams and they may have hit the Paramount, but El Paso is still Pine and Thomas in the same old low-budget groove. Indeed, if our memory serves us, it isn't even them at their best, but is rather a third or fourth rate rehash of a standard Western plot. And Mr. Payne's performance as a young lawyer who finally puts to rout a gang of frontier villains is way below their grade."

El Paso will probably be of most interest for those devoted to older Hollywood Westerns. The film was shot in an inexpensive color process called Cinecolor, a two-color process favored by some of the poverty row studios. Maybe I needed to do some fine-tuning on the color, but reds appeared as Halloween orange. It's fairly easy to why Cinecolor was a short-lived process.

Gail Russell is on hand as the obligatory love interest. Considering that she seems to have less screen time than bad guys Sterling Hayden and Dick Foran, I had to wonder if the role was taken simply as part of Russell's contractual obligations with Paramount, or if her alcoholism had in any way affected her performance. Gabby Hayes provides what passes for comedy as "Pesky", the worst entrepreneur in the West, who begins with a suit and top hat, and ends wearing nothing but a blanket. Film historian Toby Roan's commentary track for the blu-ray covers the history of Pine-Thomas productions, the production of El Paso, and brief biographies several cast members. The film will probably be most appreciated by hardcore Western aficionados. For others, El Paso serves as an example of genre filmmaking at a time when the studio system was coming apart, and two former studio publicists proved prescient in the ways that film production would eventually evolve.

December 30, 2018

Coffee Break

CRAZY_RICH_ASIANS.jpg
Henry Golding and Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu - 2018)

December 26, 2018

Female on the Beach

female on the beach french poster.jpg

Joseph Pevney - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

First, this film should not be confused with the similarly titled Woman on the Beach by Jean Renoir or Hong Sang-soo.

My own interest in seeing this film was sparked by this examination of Douglas Sirk's career at Universal-International, as it was known at the time time of production. Joseph Pevney is one of the contract directors discussed in some detail, and Female on the Beach has several elements that mark it as the identifiable product of its studio, most obviously in terms of genre, melodrama, with an older female star with one of the studio's top male stars. Additionally, the film was produced by Albert Zugsmith, his first at U-I, with a three year run that included Douglas Sirk's two best films, Written on the Wind and Tarnished Angels, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and ending with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.

The lurid aspects are consistent with Zugsmith's other productions. The film might be described as a battle between Joan Crawford's legs, always her best feature, seen in short shorts, versus Jeff Chandler's bare chest. Being a studio film made when the production code was still very much in effect requires paying attention to some of the euphemisms as well as what is suggested, but never stated outright. There is also the matter of accepting that 49 year old Crawford's character was what she calls a former "specialty dancer". Jeff Chandler's prematurely gray hair does him no favors in the part of the gigolo next door. Most of the film takes place at Crawford's beach house, itself a example of mid-century architecture, with the appropriate accessories.

The film begins with a middle-aged woman shouting for someone named "Drummy", drunk, seen staggering to the beach side balcony, only to break the wooden railing and fall to her death. Was it suicide or murder? The film's theatrical origins a visible with the assortment of characters that walk in and out of the house, including a manipulative real estate agent played by Jan Sterling, a cop (Charles Drake) who appears out of the shadows, and the older couple next door, the Sorensons, (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer), who are revealed to be less lovable than at first appearance. Drummy is the nickname for Drummond Hall, the man with a history of seducing older, wealthy women. And Hall is not only in business for himself, but is expected to financially assist his, er, patrons.

Joseph Pevney was no visual stylist, but he does make the most of the frequently arch dialogue. One nicely done moment is a shot of Joan Crawford taking a phone call from Chandler. She does not want to seem desperate for him, and has held out on contacting him after their last fight. Pevney holds the camera at a medium shot from the waist up, as we see Crawford pick up the phone, and watch her face soften from anger to a look of schoolgirl glee as she makes a date with Chandler. While the trading of insults is entertaining, there is oddness in the formality where Crawford's character is mostly addressed as Mrs. Markham, while Sterling is Mrs. Rawlinson. Some contemporary viewers may have trouble with films of this era, where there was sometimes little distinction between romance and rape. Even when the dialogue skirts around the subject of sexual companionship for money, there's nothing subtle when the Sorensons introduce their new, um, protege, named Roddy. An early scene, with Chandler as a passenger in Sterling's speedboat, anticipates a similar scene with Rock Hudson as the passenger while Dorothy Malone recklessly drives her sports car in Written on the Wind, produced by Albert Zugsmith the following year

The blu-ray source appears to have been a pristine print. This is especially noticeable with the solid, pitch black sky in several nighttime scenes. There are two commentary tracks as well. Kat Ellinger discusses some of the production, how Crawford chose Chandler over Tony Curtis to be her leading man, and the marketing of the film. There are a couple small historical errors, but the one most glaring is in disregarding that Jeff Chandler's stardom was well established following his Oscar nominated performance in Broken Arrow in 1950. What has worked against Chandler in retrospect is that most of his films are either forgotten or simply forgettable. The second commentary, by historian David Del Valle with director David DeCoteau, is aimed more for the Joan Crawford fan, with some discussion of the production of Female on the Beach, but mostly anecdotes about Crawford, Chandler and other cast members. David and David also bluntly explain plot points that are slyly hinted at in the screenplay. There is no mistaking Female on the Beach for an overlooked classic. It's enough that it is a consistently entertaining, and well made, potboiler.

December 25, 2018

Murray Christmas!

ALOHA.jpg
Bill Murray in Aloha (Cameron Crowe - 2015)