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Saturday, 21 July 2018

On Italian DVD - Not DARLING, HOW COULD YOU! (Mitchell Leisen, USA, 1951) but WOMAN OBSESSED (Henry Hathaway, USA, 1959)

So, settle down for an evening's viewing.

An unseen Mitchell Leisen film Darling, How Could You! which the Wikipedia entry describes thus:

Darling, How Could You! (1951) is a comedy film directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring Joan Fontaine and John Lund. The script is based on the James Barrie play Alice Sit-by-the-Fire.

The copy was bought at the beloved Dischi Alberti on Borgo San Lorenzo in Florence and was published by the dreaded Golem Video, the company that puts out dozens of American titles each year and whose quality control does not run to putting the original English-language title anywhere on the cover or the disc itself. This one went by the title La Mia Donna E Un Angelo. 

There it was, unseen Leisen as  I said, with the extra added attraction of a music score by the Great Man Friedrich Hollaender, he of the inspirational "Falling in Love Again", "See What the Boys in the Back Room will Have" and those three magnificent songs in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), "Black Market", "Illusions" and "the Ruins of Berlin", all sung by Marlene Dietrich.

But not to be, the title that pops up when you pop the DVD in the player is Woman Obsessed, produced and written by Sydney Boehm and directed by Henry Hathaway in 1959, made the year after star Susan Hayward won an Oscar for I Want to Live. 

Now Woman Obsessed  is not entirely without interest. In the manner of the day Hayward plays a young wife who not long after the movie starts is widowed when her husband is killed fighting a forest fire. Notwithstanding her loss and the trials and tribulations of running a farm, or at least about an acre of it that we see, she never looks other than perfectly made up and doesn't have a hair out of place ever. Still the same trope was applied to Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain forty five years or so later so some things are really ingrained in the Hollywood psyche. Actually the title on the movie is also a bit enigmatic. Has it simply left off the word "A" thus describing the Susan Hayward character or is it more descriptive of the male character Fred Carter's state of mind and thus is properly titled as "Woman Obsessed"  in which cases in some places there would be a hyphen between the two words. But I digress....

Cue the arrival of enigmatic, but occasionally violent, Fred, played as an Irish-accented farm hand by Stephen Boyd, fresh from his triumph in Ben-Hur. He shows up without notice and starts chopping wood and quickly makes himself indispensable around the place. They marry but her son isn't happy and then she's not happy and (Spoiler Alert) she loses a baby conceived in a marital rape. Oh, on and on it goes for 98 minutes until the (Spoiler Alert) happy ending.

I would have preferred to take my chances with Darling, How Could You!  and Mitchell Leisen, Friedrich Hollaender, John Fontaine, even John Lund. Bad one Golem Video.

Final NB. You have to read the fine print on the poster to realise that Susan Hayward did not win an Academy Award for this picture.

Friday, 20 July 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare revels in one of the greatest films of "the greatest living film director" - SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (Stanley Donen)

"A man can't sleep when he sleep with sheep". Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, with Matt Mattox, Russ Tamblyn and Tommy Rall (screen below, click on the image to enlarge). The song is "Lonesome Polecat". One of the very greatest numbers in the American Movie Musical done, at Michael Kidd's insistence, in a single four-minute take. They don't get any better than this, the only thing to come close might be Chuck Walter's Dreyer-esque "Friendly Star" from Summer Stock with Judy and Gene Kelly shot in two long takes with a corkscrew crane to an invisible edit in the middle.

The screens above and below come from a great new Warner Archive Blu-ray two disc set of Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers(1954.) The title had been a problematic one for decades, even past the point when Warner issued a DVD back in 2005 which added a scrubbed up print of the alternate 1.85:1 widescreen version. Earlier this year Warner finally found an original inter-positive (first generation) print with virtually no wear or damage and was able to recomposite image quality and stereo sound in what is probably the closest you’ll ever get to original Scope 2.55 and true stereo release prints in 1954. 
The picture was Metro’s first venture into Scope, along with Minnelli’s Brigadoon, which was filming in an adjacent soundstage. Unfortunately for Donen, Metro very much delegated the production budget for Seven Brides to “B” status, despite his pleading to keep the shooting outdoors (at greater expense.) So they enforced studio bound filming with painted backdrops in place of the glorious Montana mountains and landscape.
Brigadoon meanwhile was given the full “A” treatment, although Minnelli himself preferred and chose soundstage and painted backdrops over the great outdoors, to say nothing of his fascination with the new and incredibly strange Anscocolor process. I think history relegates Ansco to what must have been the most artificial, if not the most outright hideous looking color process in the history of cinema, on the evidence of these two pictures and George Sidney’s 3D Kiss Me Kate, which does have a fantastic color design that seems to suit Ansco's typical color schemes of purples, blues, oranges and kelly green.
This wonderful new Blu-ray edition imports the extras from the 2005 DVD, including a feature length commentary from Stanley Donen which Warner recorded with him back in 2004. I will now counsel all and every film student or undergrad in Film Studies to immediately throw out every text book and lecture note they’ve ever collected and patiently sit down to play back Donen’s commentary track. It’s a masterclass in film making, the greatest one could ever hear, and without either effort or self-aggrandisement, Donen’s passion for the musical form blows a searchlight through this glorious masterpiece. 
Donen took to Scope like a duck to water, like Cukor, Preminger, Ray and Fuller at the same time, if only for the simple reason, as he explains it: “I had up to 18 people on the screen at any one time – six brothers, six brides and six town boys, so I needed the widest screen to do it with.”
His incomparable, elegant, athletic and graceful mise-en-scène was already well established. It had perhaps peaked in the musical numbers for Singin’ in the Rain in 1952, which is co-credited to Donen and Kelly, but for which Donen must take the lion’s share of credit. He keeps his takes as long as fluidly possible, all for meaning and grace, and he only cuts on movement to movement, all the better to shine even more of the frame on the beauties of the choreography. 
Kidd’s choreography for Seven Brides is one of the outstanding masterworks of American dance. Donen shoots the Lonesome Polecat (screen above) number in Seven Bridesin a single take, just a day’s work as he calls it, and for the rest his cutting, like Cukor’s, remains invisible and seamless. It looks to me he has used a crab dolly for every musical number in the picture. One of his visual signatures is the lithe dolly in, swoop, dolly up, then swoop down and dolly back. It’s a gorgeous and incomparable formal structure he gives to Audrey’s “How long has this Been Going On” in Funny Face, and to Kelly and Charisse in the Broadway Rhythm ballet from Singin’ in the Rain, to cite just two numbers. His camera movements are even more gorgeous than Minnelli’s, which are generally concentrated on the spectacle of static composition, and movement within the decor, like the numbers from An American in Paris.
At this point I will stick my neck out and acknowledge Donen as the very greatest director of American Musicals, even greater than Minnelli. Even Donen’s stage to film adaptations, like Pajama Gamefor which Warners at least gave him a budget for more extensive location shooting, are perfect movies, because he had a flawless eye for talent, dancers, singers, actors, and for movement. The great French born cinephile Jean-Pierre Coursodon praises Donen to this level, and I salute that recognition. In half a dozen musicals from 1952 to 1960, and a string of other pictures Donen is unmatched in the cinema for form, grace, the presentation of dance and music in the American Cinema.
Donen turns 95 this year and should also be saluted today as the greatest living film director.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

On DVD - Barrie Pattison unearths a film by a major figure of the modern Turkish cinema THE THIRD PAGE ( Zeki Demirkubuz)

So my chum was learning to speak Turkish and I promised to send him a Turkish movie to practice on. I couldn’t find the old ones I was going to unload but there in the second hand shop stock was a copy of something called Üçüncü Sayfa/The Third Page which proved to be a piece from early in established director Zeki Demirkubuz’ career.
DVD Cover
It appears that Turkish auteurs come one at a time. The only occasion I’ve had real access to Turkish movies was when Yilmaz Güney became flavor of the month on the festival circuit, which curiously coincided with the period of the distribution of Turkish VHSs here, with belly dancers and secret agents blowing up cars and little Müjde Ar in her scanties speaking up for woman’s rights on SBS. 

Since the eighties the curtain closed again until Nuri Bilge Ceylan emerged in the twenty first century.

That made Üçüncü Sayfaa considerable surprise - an intense, innovative, small scale interior melo which his admirers say shows the director’s professed debt to Fyodor Dostoevsky as a version of “Crime & Punishment” though it ends up being yet another “Postman Always Rings Twice” rip off.

In a yellow-walled room, sheepish bit player actor Ruhi Sari is beaten, accused by gangster boss Emrah Elçiboga of stealing $50, with the threat of execution and male rape if he doesn’t come good. Back in the lead’s small flat decorated with Turkish movie posters, landlord Cengiz Sezici is equally aggressive about turning him out on the streets if he doesn’t come up with his month’s back rent (forget the electricity). His agent is unwilling to offer an advance.

Our hero can take no more and shoots the protesting landlord a couple of times. Next day the cops pile all the tenants into a mini-van and drive them off to the station for interrogation. “The man with the dog sees everything!” (what happens to him?). 

When he gets back, Sari is so exhausted that he slumps in his doorway and Basak Köklükaya, the woman with two small children from across the corridor, takes him in. A fellow lost soul she is alone while her migrant worker husband is away. A couple of gun-toting toughs show up to collect the debt and she pays them off at the current conversion rate, receiving change in Turkish Lira.

Meanwhile Sari gets to be a continuing character in a soap (people ask him about the stars when they spot him in it) where the script girl runs ahead of the moving camera shouting the actors’ lines which they repeat - presumably to be re-voiced. There is a montage of auditions including the lead’s - “Can you ride a horse? Will you appear naked?” 

Doomed passion, another murder and betrayal in the best film noir tradition follow.

What looks like a total lack of style (the pistol dropped on the table in close up is a shock departure among the undramatic images) proves to be misleading. The shared corridor with two the peep hole doors becomes a powerful motif and the music free track develops with the sound of TV programs including the ones with the hero as background. Even more striking is Köklükaya’s monologue beginning with her lips moving only to go still as her voice continues and we then cut to her speaking in the same position to repeat the device. Her removing her head scarf prefiguring the ending is disturbingly attention getting. The children are however just set decoration.

Zeki Demirkubuz
The cast often figure again in Zeki Demirkubuz‘ extensive later films trailered on the disk. Several of these are on YouTube. The quality is better there but, unlike the DVDs, they have no subtitles. Seen in isolation, this one is so good it leaves us wondering about the other products from the Turkish Yesilçam ("Green Pine") Hollywood.

... and no I have no idea what the three pages are.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Current Cinema - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison is underwhelmed by ANIMAL WORLD (Yan Han, China)

Yan Han’s manga movie Dongwu shijie/Dungmat saigaai/Animal World is an ambitious undertaking and a big earner (though apparently not as big as expected) on its home turf where it played originally in 3D. It is about to depart from our multiplexes where it’s being run flat.

Animal World, Poster
This one is an attempt to merge a big Hollywood caper flick, like the Ocean’s films, with the Asian gambler movies - think Masahiro Shinoda‘s Kawaita hana/Pale flower(1964) or Wong Jing’s best movie, with Chow Yun-fat as Dou san/The God of Gamblers (1989) both of which kicked off apparently endless successions of follow ups.

In the new film, young penny arcade clown Li Yifeng is doing it tough. He’s already having Men in Black fantasies induced by the hours he has to put in keeping his mother Li Yijuan in emergency care, despite some assistance from his nurse girlfriend Zhou Dongyu. Our hero’s prosperous old school chum, realtor Cao Bingkun offers to cut him in on a sure fire real estate deal that will solve all his problems, if he just gets his comatose mum’s finger print on the deeds to her flat as collateral.

Our hero ought to get out of the arcade and see some movies if he swallows that, which of course he does. Turns out Cao’s been fired and is in the hole to the sharks and he immediately blows the sale of the flat at the Macao Casino. Not only that but the debt collector heavies expect our hero to settle his friend’s outstandings. 

Turns out there is one hope. Suave impresario Michael Douglas tells him the kid has the privilege of participating in the elaborate Rock, Paper, Scissors card game conducted on the wallowing black digital ship “Destiny” for the delight of high rollers tucked away behind the upper deck mirror windows while a digital tiger prowls a cage on the gaming floor. Losers are destined for sinister surgical experiments on the lower levels.

I could explain the rules and the scams the unsavory fellow players use to defeat them but that would imply I understood what was happening or indeed cared. The handling is flashy, effects heavy and derivative. The film soon loses both conviction and attention.

Douglas joins the inventory of Hollywood notables who have rolled dice in Chinese movies. Include Henry Silva in Woo fook/Fox Bat(1977), John Phillip Law in Yao-Chi Chen‘s Yuan (1980), Donald Sutherland in an early Xiaogang Feng, Da wan/Big Shot’s Funeral(2001) or Steve Buscemi in Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe: Der Gute Deutsche von Nanking(2008). Douglas doesn’t do any better than they did.

On Blu-ray - David Hare blisses out over Istanbul and the cats of KEDI (Ceyda Torun, Turkey)

Two of the feline superheroes (below) of Kedi, a film about the cats of Istanbul by Ceyda Torun. The film was released mid-last year and even this US Oscilloscope Blu-ray which we have only just caught up with came out Stateside in November 2017. 

Quite apart from the compulsive nature of its subject, Torun's movie is very much a hymn to Istanbul. Indeed, it had us drooling and wishing we could simply get the next flight back to Turkey tomorrow. When we were last there two and a bit years ago we stayed in an Airbnb in the Beyoglu district hosted by a charming young woman who also cared for her own 'Stanbuli cat, a feisty long haired black girl called Psik whom we cared for while our hostess took off for an extended photo shoot in Antulya. 
We quickly discovered Psik herself was not at all a stay at home type but effectively cruised and held court on the small balcony with a glimpse of the Bosphorus with a tribe of neighborhood cats just outside the kitchen window. One of them was one eyed, another was three legged and all of them even feistier than Psik. We quickly picked up on the vibe, rather than discouraging them by not feeding them, that the opposite was true. 
By the end of our stay I initially sensed this attitude of serene benevolence towards these creatures reflected one of the most sublime aspects of Islamic culture, in fact, charity. As they keep saying in the movie, “Dogs think we're god, but we're the middlemen, and the cats know this." 
Indeed, it was spoken on the rare occasions we heard locals even willing to talk about daily life there under the Government of Erdogan over the last five years which had largely handed over a great deal of formerly state-based welfare and support agencies to the hands of the faithful, sparing the self-aggrandising Erdogan government the expense. I heard this story over and over, and as is always possible when travelling, one had to review many, many preconceptions one held about the many glues and social cohesions that attach to Islamic culture. 
One of the very great beauties of this wonderful little film, after the cats themselves, is the portrait of the city (below), the world's most magical to me, and its denizens. Torun's film manages to unfold without a trace of documentary determinism, or intrusive commentary. One sequence shows several people conversing around an old, now vanished market area up the hill somewhat from the tourist safety of Taksim Square. 
These old timers reflect sadly on the encroaching road and skyscraper development which is replacing the market gardens. While this is true of every global city these days, not least a mega burg like Istanbul with 25 million people, the reality dangerously also predicts the probable demise of the cats, who seem to have prevailed as a kind of physical manifestation of supernatural deity, as gatekeepers themselves of this immense city composed of such immense history, and the whole amazing ongoing confilct that was the twentieth century.
What do the cats foresee? If anything? What do they know? 
Don't miss the picture. It was one of the first titles produced by YouTube Red (their premium service) in a step to the fore on other streaming services like Amazon.
Editor's Note: For further enthusiasm for Kedi click on the link for Fiona Mackie's earlier review on Film Alert

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Scandinavian Film Festival - Peter Hourigan reviews U-JULY 22 (Erik Poppe, Norway)

Among the too many acts of violence and terrorism the two incidents in Norway in 2011 have stood out. In the middle of the afternoon, there was an explosion in the government quarters of Oslo, killing 8 people and injuring many more. Less than two hours later, an attack occurred on the island of Utøya, where a summer camp for youth members of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party was being held. This lone wolf attack killed 69 people, and also injured several hundred more.
A film based on this latter event is being screened in the current Palace Scandinavian Film Festival. In Norway, the impact of those two incidents is such that you only need to say ‘July 22’ and people know what you’re referring to.  So, the film only needs the name U – July 22, the U referring to the island, Utøya.  The director is Erik Poppe, who made the recent The King’s Choice (2016), which I did not see.
The attack on the island started at 5.22 pm and lasted for 73 minutes when the shooter surrendered to the first police to demand he lay down his arms.  The final single shot of the film also lasts exactly 73 minutes.  But we do not see any shooting, or the shooter aiming at people.  Rather, the hand-held camera stays with one girl for the whole time, and we experience the incident as it would have been experienced by one person caught up in it, trying to find out what is going on, scared for her own life, anxious for her younger sister who she hasn’t seen since before the first shot.
Andrea Berntzen as Kaja, U- July 22
The characters in the film are fictional – there was not a girl called Kaja  or a missing sister called Emilie. But the story was developed from all the accounts of the survivors, and is probably an example where a fiction can get closer to the truth than an actual documentary.
This focus on Kaja means that many of the traps of this kind of story are avoided. There is no graphic violence, no brains spurting out of an exploded head, or malicious grins on the face of a gunman. In fact, in the whole film we only catch a brief possible glimpse of him once, a silhouetted figure some distance away on the ridge of the hill. This denies him the notoriety of becoming a movie character – and I am honouring that by not naming him in this review. 
In fact, people caught up in an incident like this do not know who the gunman is. They would only have their own fears and panic, and by adopting this approach to telling the story, the film puts their experience foremost.  We spend most of the 73 minutes with Kaja who is probably 16 or 17. The camera follows her where she runs, looks out from her hiding places, catches glimpses of people running in panic as she would see them.  
The technical logistics of achieving this in a film are breathtaking.  The island is 11 hectares in size, and Kaja would seem to cover a lot of this area during the 73 minutes, from wooded areas in the centre of the island, to cliffs and cold seas around Utøya.  We also hear what she would have heard – and in particular the dull thud of all the shots, seeming to come from all around.  It must have taken weeks of planning and rehearsal for Andrea Berntzen as Kaja, for the cameraman, Martin Otterbeck and all the extras, co-coordinating action over the whole area.  It is reported that they did five takes of this sequence, able to achieve only one on any single day.
This decision to focus on one character is significant because it really throws the light on those caught up in such an incident, which challenges us to reflect on how we would have behaved. Kaja comes across   others hiding campers, and we can see a range of responses as people try to cope with this terror.  It is also commendable that this approach does not give the perpetrator the oxygen of fame and publicity.
But it is also a limiting approach.  Just as important as asking ourselves how would we have reacted, is trying to understand how such an incident could happen.  And because of its approach, U July 22 cannot address this.  Think of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant,based on the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.  Van Sant’s approach allows us to identify with people who will be caught up in the shooting, as well as enigmatically giving us some insight into the shooters, so we can speculate on possible causes – which is the prelude to hopefully avoiding such events in the future.   From what we learn about the victims we do develop a sense of the value of the lives lost, the variety of their potentials. We do not have that in U July 22.
So, a film certainly worth seeing – but also a film where I’d say what you see on first viewing is probably all you’d get from repeated viewings, apart from being able to admire even more the complexity of that 73 minute final single shot.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare is thrilled by UN BEAU SOLEIL INTERIEUR (Claire Denis, France)

Juliet Binoche, Un Beau Soleil Intérieur 
The loves of a woman is no more and no less than the subject of Claire Denis' wonderful new film, with the astonishing participation of Juliette Binoche, Un Beau Soleil Intérieur which has just been released in a very fine English friendly Blu-ray by Curzon Artificial Eye in the UK. The movie debuted in English language territories in July last year at the sister Festivals of NZ and Melbourne, and has since enjoyed only limited commercial runs in Europe and the USA. 
Xavier Beauvois, Un Beau Soleil Intérieur 
My only quibble with the new Blu-ray is the appallingly misconceived faux-hip translation of the original French title which should read something like, “A glorious inner sun” to something as hideously banal as the Gerome Ragni-esque homage, “Let the Sunshine In”. 
Nicolas Duvauchelle.
The film has its beginnings in a 1977 text by Claire’s old chum the late Roland Barthes, "Fragments d’un discourse amoureux". Or as Claire would have it, as she does in a disarmingly sweet 30 minute interview to camera on the new disc, 34 Fragments, in effect a sister film to her earlier movie 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008). 

Alex Descas and Valerie Bruno Tedeschi
In both this and that film, a woman languishes, albeit in considerable sensual pleasure and genial ambivalence, with one of Claire’s most present and sustaining male actors, Alex Descas coming late to the picture, as a potentially redeeming figure to the woman and her currently unfulfilled desire for both sex and affection. 
Juliet Binoche
Claire is very much not a director for gender studies devotees, nor indeed much of modern so called western “feminism”. I imagine her effigy being ritually burnt in Gender studies classes the world over for her “sins”. Like several previous essays in transgression, ranging from a serial transvestite granny killer (J’ai pas Sommeil, 1994), to Cannibal Vampires (Trouble Every Day, 2001, admittedly with the odious Vincent Gallo playing lead Vampire, along with the sublime Beatrice Dalle), to lovable but incestuous fathers (Les Salauds, 2013). 
Juliet Binoche, Un Beau Soleil Intérieur 
Such transgressions are redundant in the new film, with a handpicked cast of men whose characters, bar one, are obnoxious almost beyond belief. Her growth as an artist and human being, which already to me seemed complete long ago now reaches the highest levels of artistry by engaging effortlessly with such charmless arseholes through delirious lightly played comedy, rooted in very harsh and very real anguish. 
Bruno Podaldydes.
Thus her current affair and fuck buddy (played by the exceptional director, Xavier Beauvois as a fat, smug self-obsessed status prick who orders “gluten free olives” with glasses of high end Scotch at a bar), is a man whom she confesses to enjoy fucking with because she can always have an orgasm the moment she re-imagines him as the vulgar little shit he actually is. Her possibly even more vile ex-husband Francois, played by Lawrence Grevill, has two brief appearances, only one more than their daughter who also seems completely superfluous to Isabelle’s life in the here and now. 
Gerard Depardieu, Un Beau Soleil Intérieur 
The movie musically glides its way through a gorgeous funk jazz score from the Julian Siegel Quartet through to Etta James’ "At Last". The latter song signals the movie’s epiphany, (if it indeed needed one), just as the Commodores did in Claire’s fabulous 35 Rhums a decade ago, and once again, with perhaps her favorite male actor, Alex Descas. 
Which leads me back to one of her favorite female actors, the unassailably beautiful and moving and flawless and real Juliette Binoche who takes us on this glorious, exhilarating ride into Claire’s life. If one of the perfect subjects of cinema is photographing a woman’s face, Claire surely shares this noble conceit with masters like Sternberg, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Ophuls. One might cede some evidence of ups and downs in the rides Claire has taken with some of her pictures over the last 15 years, notably Les Salauds (2013), L’intros (2004) and particularly White Material (2009) which I feel is burdened by an overly self-conscious performance from Isabelle Huppert and too schematic a screenplay. But the director’s irrepressible impulse to pleasure and pain, and to sheer joy, and the intoxication of her form and image are overwhelming. 
Claire Denis
Un Beau Soleil Interieur is Claire Denis at top form, and she’s back with soul mate, DP Agnes Godard, here shooting on digital Sony F65 cameras with a range of 70mm Panavision primes, most of them very short focal length to give the close and two shots which make up 80% of the movie a blissfully classical feel with the clear supremacy of the face over every other item of the shot and the lighting. 
Claire Denis is a master of cinema. She has been since Beau Travail in 1999, and I hope she keeps making movies for as long as she draws breath.