Friday 31 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Is BOMBSHELL (Jay Roach, USA), the greatest ever piece of cinematic schadenfreude?

One of my Christmas presents was the book “Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune” by Tiffany Watt Smith. It devotes 160pp to the subject in a most amusing way, most notably in delineating the subtle variations that schadenfreude takes in our daily lives, with copious actual examples large and small. I recommend it. One thing it does is explode the myth that only the German language has a single word to describe this phenomena. Quite a number of languages have a similar word it seems. One anecdote I can recall is of the film-maker Kenneth Anger who in discussing schadenfreude called it “the peculiar Hunnish characteristic”. Whoops.

But now to Bombshell, Jay Roach’s clinical dissection of the life and times of Roger Ailes, a political and personal thug whose work went all the way back to advising the arch political thug Richard Nixon in the practice of his evil art. I have to immediately say I haven’t seen the recent Russell Crowe impersonation yet so I came to John Lithgow’s performance uninformed by any recent knowledge of the ogre.

What’s immediately apparent is that this is going to be a serious hatchet job. Among the first words Ailes/Lithgow utters are a taunt about James Murdoch to the effect “You cant tell me those lips have never done a blow job.”… or something like it. Interesting that it’s directed at James but there you are.

But the movie is really the greatest example I’ve ever seen of schadenfreude on a screen. Nothing is left out in Lithgow's rendition/impersonation of Ailes. From his odious and bloated face, his walker, his technique of getting pretty young women to perform sex acts, the lies to his wife, the bullying of his staff, the wife's ludicrous anti-liberal politics, the dedication to Ailes' pro-Trump (eventually) goals. It’s all there or enough of it to keep you smiling as the downfall looms.

The film is quite tricky. It does make the drama turn on Megan Kelly’s final decision to join in the dance on Roger’s destruction rather than try and analyse what a pack of turds the whole lot of them were/are and why and how it operates. And Murdoch and his sons come off as principled…please. But the collective schadenfreude at Ailes downfall drives the whole thing and the details of it are what you revel in.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare recommends LANCELOT DU LAC (Robert Bresson, France, 1974)

Bresson in his most elemental formal mode for vision and sound. 
Four neighs from four horses announce each very rapid shot in this dazzling montage of four striking colors of saddles as attendants sheathe the four horses for battle, and in the last screen Luc Simon, centre, as Lancelot in the first act of the staggering Lancelot du Lac from 1974. 
These are from a newly released Jap IVC BD of Gaumont's absolutely superb 4K restoration, performed with Lab Eclair in 2018.
This is not only a celebration of Gaumont's release of the movie in this fantastic quality, but also to Eclair, who seem to have finally overcome the curse of their Magenta biased LUT color grading work from the last 10 plus years.
What a beauty, this new 4K is screaming out for retro theatrical and Anglophone disc release, Gaumont's onerous leasing fees notwithstanding.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

The genius of Australia Post - revealed when you pay for Tracking

An item lodged at Waverley Post Office on Saturday 4 January for delivery to Potts Point.

Here's the record so far:

  • 28 Jan 202008:08
    Item processed at facilityMELBOURNE VIC
  • 22 Jan 202001:46
    Item processed at facilityALEXANDRIA NSW
  • 21 Jan 202021:25
    Item processed at facilitySYDNEY NSW
  • 17 Jan 202020:15
    Item processed at facilityMELBOURNE VIC
  • 15 Jan 202018:28
    Item processed at facilitySYDNEY NSW
  • 10 Jan 202023:41
    Item processed at facilityALEXANDRIA NSW
  • 10 Jan 202016:27
    Item processed at facilitySYDNEY NSW
  • 09 Jan 202012:04
    Arrived at facilityKYNETON VIC
  • 07 Jan 202018:31
    Item processed at facilityMELBOURNE VIC
  • 07 Jan 202000:17
    Item processed at facilitySTRATHFIELD NSW
  • 04 Jan 202009:32
    Received by Australia PostWAVERLEY NSW

Monday 20 January 2020

A New Film a Day (8) - QUEEN AND COUNTRY (John Boorman, UK, 2014)

Queen and Country  apparently sank without trace after it premiered to a good critical reception in the Quinzaine at Cannes in 2014. Then again I often claim something never appeared or sank without trace only to have supercinephiles like Barrie Pattison or Tina Kaufman promptly fire in corrections. 

The copy I just watched has Chinese titles all over the cover packaging. Otherwise the disc itself is the same as the Brit Curzon/Artificial Eye DVD release from back in the day. So without remembering its origin or source I suspect it’s a copy someone brought back from China and passed on. 

The sequel to Hope and Glory (1987),John Boorman’s previous autobiographical memoir about his childhood during WW2, Queen and Country follows Bill Rohan into his two years of National Service in the early 50s. They were years of the Korean War, the death of King George VI, loss of virginity and the relationships between officers and men on the army base where Bill serves out his time.Boorman treats much of it as fairly gentle comedy – incompetent, lazy and obsessive military officers, an NCO who has memorised the Army Act, a private who knows every trick, and the problems of young conscripts with young women, the latter always seeming to be smarter, more sophisticated and a lot sexier. Only in a visit to a Military Hospital where the eventually humiliated NCO is lying sequestered in deep depression, his world having crumbled around him, does a momentary serious edge take over from lightly satirical scenes involving the theft of a clock and a ridiculous court martial which in a matter of cursory moments sends Bill’s mate Percy to Military Prison.

Maybe the lack of interest was from the film either being not funny enough or not heart-rending enough or not anger-making-at-injustice enough. No Good Morning, Vietnam (or even Dad’s Army). No Last Detail.  No Paths of Glory or King and Country. Gentle nostalgia didn’t do it anymore.

Sunday 19 January 2020

On DVD (from the remainder bin) – Barrie Pattison discovers AMERICAN ULTRA (Nima Nourizadeh, USA, 2015)

This scaled down Bourne ripoff, with a bit of A History of Violence and Telefon thrown in, appeared from nowhere and went back there, though headed up by hot couple Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart who register here as effectively as they did in Adventureland and Cafe Society.

Jesse is the town stoner clerking in the super market in fictional small town Liman, West Virginia with some time out drawing his King Kong Comic strip. Though the sheriff is tired of seeing him in his jail, Jesse has a panic attack whenever he tries to leave town. His narration describes him and girlfriend Kristen “We were the perfect fucked-up couple.”

However, in the first of the film’s moderately surprising developments, things are not what they seem and mean suit Topher Grace plans on putting them right by sending in the men in black, which upsets motherly Connie Britton. “We’re supposed to look after assets. We don’t kill them.”

After a flashback where the scenes are running in reverse (I thought that was great in the first film I saw it) and some so so digital footage of a satellite, guys in Hazmat suits are blowing things up and shooting people in a quite lively way. Psycho Walton Goggins is ticked off at losing his teeth and wants Kristen to watch as the car Jesse is trapped in goes up in a ball of fire - as if it was that easy. Her brandishing the paper clip triumphantly is a particularly nice moment. One of the things that lifts this movie out of routine is Stewart’s ability to produce reactions that make vivid the intention of her scenes. She’s so good that it’s a disappointment she still hasn’t had the breakthough part. Maybe Seberg will do it.

Topher has Tony Hale trembling at the prospect of being taken out of his office and shot on the spot for treason and the body count is getting a bit high even for one of these. It’s time for severe Bill Pullman in dark coat and hat to get in there and sort things out in the rain. This puts Connie on the spot but she comes through.

The movie’s last minute switch into Gary Leib’s animation is a welcome way to take the edge off some nastiness. “I didn’t know I could speak Mandarin.” 

First time director Nima Nourizadeh is not disgraced. The script has its moments. There’s money on the screen and the cast are way superior even though it’s a pity they don’t get value out of John Leguizamo and his fluoro nightclub. 

Why I had to see this one via a remaindered DVD takes some explaining.

Friday 17 January 2020

A new Film a Day (7) – A CAUSE, A CAUSE D’UNE FEMME (Michel Deville, France, 1962)

Michel Deville was a director who started to direct his own movies around the time of the French New Wave. His first films, starting in 1958, had some of the same stars/actors that featured in  movies by the ‘official’ New Wave directors – the Cahiers group, the Left Bank directors Resnais, Varda, Demy, and the likes of Jacques Rozier, Jean Rouch and so on. I know, I know… But Deville, who began as an assistant in the early 50s, graduated to features much in the manner of Philippe De Broca. He made saucy films about young people with gorgeous young women (here it’s Marie Laforet, Juliet Mayniel, Mylene Demongeot, Odile Versois and Jill Haworth) and lots of fast-moving sexual intrigue. Deville’s biggest hit was the 1968 Benjamina sexy costume drama starring the young Pierre Clementi and scripted by Deville’s regular collaborator Nina Companeez. Deville’s career arc was similar to De Broca’s, graduating to bigger budget movies like Dossier 51  and Eaux Profondes/Deep Water (1981, Melbourne Film Festival, 1982).

Á cause, á cause d’une femme tries very hard to look like a New Wave movie. Black and white photography, lots of location shooting in the fancy parts of Paris and, as I said once already, gorgeous young women, a handsome leading man (Jacques Charrier, and another, German actor Helmut Griem, in a sympathetic secondary role). It starts with Charrier as Remi Fertet, leaving his current flame, being accosted by another flame before he has left the property and heading for the arms of another. After hooking up with her they head off for a drive in the country whereupon he’s promptly arrested for murder. He escapes police clutches and spends the rest of the movie in the arms of ever more women until he manages to prove his innocence. (Ooops. Spoiler Alert should have been inserted before that sentence.)

Charrier’s character is a lounge lizard and a creep but the women who fall for him seem to be somewhat accepting of these character traits. Oh well, this was the sixties where Mr Smooth alpha male heart throbs were all the rage in French movies. Jill Haworth explains her presence by saying she’s Scottish, in love with a German music producer (Griem) visiting Paris and staying at the Prince of Wales Hotel, and the only language they can communicate in is French. She’s gorgeous as are Laforet, Mayniel, Demongeot and Versois. But I said that already. 

One interesting credit. Pierre Rissient is credited as “Assistant Director”.

Thursday 16 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop dissects the reception for 1917 (Sam Mendes, USA/UK, 2019)

Among the serious Oscar contenders, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is one of the last to find its way into cinemas.
It opened in the United States and Canada on Christmas Day, in Australia and the UK on 10thJanuary and is scheduled for release in another 24 countries by 23rdof January.
Countless preview screenings would have occurred before those release dates, including the 87 Golden Globe voters who gave it Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Director (Motion Picture) earlier this month.
It has received 10 nominations for the coming Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director; nine nominations for the BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Director and has won four of its eight nominations in the Critics Choice Awards, including Best Director.
On the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, at the time of writing, the film is currently running at 90% favourable for reviews (296) and 90% for audience votes (5060).
1917is clearly a big threat to the American filmmakers nominated in the Academy Awards Best Picture category – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Todd Phillips. It’s an American financed British film, that is, oh-so-British.
These are the days of dirty tricks campaigns for positioning and lobbying the Academy voters. Here’s hoping the following nonsense churned out by Richard Brody and Matthew Rozsa - given pride-of-place as the first two reviews featured on Rotten Tomatoes- aren’t part of that game.
Brody in The New Yorker opens his review with this paragraph:
The most vulgar special effect I saw last year…was in 1917, and depicted the death of a soldier in combat. The soldier is stabbed, and, as he bleeds out, his face is leached of pinkness and turns papery white just before he expires. The character’s death would have been as wrenching for viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely fell limp. Instead the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment picturesque – to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove, and that would have stood for the ineffable horror of the experience. Instead, rendered as a special effect, the character’s end becomes merely poignant – not terrifying or repulsive - making for a very tasteful death.”
Brody seems to be saying that writing about or orally describing blood draining from the face of a dying soldier is ok, but showing it in a film by a special effect is making the death “picturesque” “merely poignant” and “tasteful” instead of “terrifying or repulsive”. He thinks leaving the soldier’s appearance unaltered and having his body fall limp, would have been just as “wrenching for viewers”.
It’s an oddly distanced misunderstanding of the way cinema actually works, let alone the realism of a stabbing death. Things get worse as he opens his second paragraph:
That tastefulness [Mendes’ portrayal of the death] is the mark of the utter tastelessness of 1917…the simulacrum of…the so-called long take serves as a mask – a gross bit of earnest showmanship that both conceals and reflects the trickery and the cheap machinations of the script, the shallowness of the direction of the actors, and the brazenly superficial and emotion-dictating musical score.”
Not sure how a “so-called long take…conceals…the cheap machinations of the script” or even “the shallowness of the direction of the actors”. I would have thought it was just the opposite. Without quick-cut editing or the more-than-the-sum of-its-parts techniques of montage, a cheap script and poor direction of actors would be more exposed, not less, by long takes. In fact, I’m sure it would.
The Academy Awards crowd don’t think it’s a cheap script. They have nominated it for Best Original Screenplay. But what would they know?
And what would I know?  I’ve always - erroneously it appears - thought a major purpose of screen music was to underline the emotions in a scene. 
And then we have Matthew Rozsa at who opens with:
1917 is a movie that perfectly fits Donald Trump’s agenda, even if the filmmakers did not intend for that…as I watched it, I felt very uneasy, not for aesthetic reasons, but for moral ones.”
His argument goes: any film set during World War I “…has a responsibility to account for the horrors of nationalism, much as a film that takes place during the Civil War must deal with slavery, and one that occurs during World War II must acknowledge fascism…to do otherwise is to make war seem impersonal, like a natural disaster or a plague, rather than as an affliction caused by human beings – and for which people should be held accountable.”
Natural disasters are impersonal? Try telling that to any Australian living through our summer of infernos.
Rozsa’s argument is all very nice and “woke”, even though I would have thought making war impersonal was more applicable to the USA dropping atomic bombs on Japan from a great height or using satellite technology to watch, on screen, as drones destroy buildings, explode cars and kill people – just like a video game. At least in 1917, the stabbing of the soldier is personal, whatever Richard Brody might think.
Wagging fingers at British filmmakers for not politically explaining the origins of World War I the way Rozsa might wish, is, of course, the right of any critic. But perhaps those filmmakers aren’t as certain as he is. After all, even a renowned American Nobel Prize winner for Literature feels: “The First World War, it came and it went, the reason for fighting, I never did get.”
And Trump? I’ve re-read Rozsa’s piece a couple of times and still struggle with the Trump analogy. Something about Trump’s appeal to nationalism, Mendes not dealing with the nationalist origins of World War I and his film just presenting war-as-hell.  His leap to “1917is a movie that perfectly fits Donald Trump’s agenda” eludes me.
What would he have said about Apocalypse NowFull Metal Jacketand The Deer Hunter? They are “war-is-hell” films that completely failed to address America’s imperialist intervention in a Vietnamese Civil War that left 2 million civilians dead and 5 million sprayed with Agent Orange? And in the case of The Deer Hunter, a film that presented war-as-hell, but many felt was actually fascist. 
1917deserves better critical thinking than Brody or Rozsa can muster. There’s something artificial about the arguments they raise.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Cinema Reborn supports a classic restoration at the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival - OLIVIA (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951)

Jacqueline Audry

CINEMA REBORN has been invited to be a partner in a retrospective screening of Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (France 1951). These notes below were written by Eloise Ross for a screening of the film at the Melbourne Cinematheque and were published by Senses of Cinema in its CTEQ Annotations on Film section. Thanks to Eloise for permission to reprint.

The film screens on February 22 and ticketing information can be found if you click here. The link will also take you through to the festival website


Published pseudonymously in 1949 under the author name ‘Olivia’, Dorothy Bussy’s novel Olivia was likely written thanks to the influence of the 1931 German film Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, Leontine Sagan). The film version, Olivia (Jacqueline Audry, 1951), was made from an adapted screenplay by the director’s sister, Colette Audry, and this trifecta of female authors is meaningful as their feeling resonates through the text. Olivia traces a similar track to the German film, taking place at a girls’ finishing school outside of Paris run by two headmistresses, Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Cara (Simone Simon), who are each favoured by factions amongst the students. Jacqueline Audry worked with Max Ophuls in her early career in the film industry, and an influence from the older director can be sensed in her attention to the fascinations of a young woman, and her film’s fascination with the windows, staircase, and hidden spaces of a house. Apparently, Ophuls had wanted to make Audry’s earlier adaptation Gigi (1949), which also focuses on the passionate yearning of an adolescent girl.

Audry’s films are part of a sophisticated period of filmmaking in France, one that saw a wealth of literary adaptations and period films, with intricate characters and camerawork supported by dialogue. This may be a reason for her lack of recognition amongst critics and historians; her work was considered too traditional, lacking creativity and vision, and was disrupted by the irreverence of the French New Wave. But she is set apart by “her consistent interest in transgressive women figures”, something for which she should be praised, with note taken of her relationships with women in her life such as her mother and sister – who was close with Simone de Beauvoir – and also her connection with the professional work of the great early 20th century writer Colette. (As Carrie Tarr notes, Audry’s works are often shown in homage to Colette rather than as part of a focus on the director herself, as shown for instance with Il Cinema Ritrovato’s retrospective in 2017.) In some ways, perhaps Audry was as transgressive as many of her heroines, and tragically held back by a variation on this same conventional narrative – a woman forced to struggle for her own recognition.

While Julie and Cara vie for the students’ affections – Julie by taking advantage of her physical proximity to them, and Cara from the confines of her bedroom, afflicted by a real or imagined illness – they also vie for each other’s. Theirs seems like a relationship that may have existed prior to the film’s temporal spotlight, but was discontinued due to societal restrictions or the complications of desire – and in this space of doubt, Audry and her actors insert a great intensity. The staircase becomes a central element of the school and its entanglements, a place from which girls would observe others, or on which they would perform for others at the school. It is circular, snaking around the walls of the school’s antechamber, a link between the classrooms and the bedrooms of the girls, and leading, too, to Julie and Cara’s boudoirs. The camera, which often circles or moves freely through the building’s spaces and amongst its residents, has a sensual openness that aligns with the freedom given to the girls at the school.

When Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) first arrives at the school, she is greeted by Mademoiselle Julie; both characters are placed within the doorframe, the interior behind them bustling with schoolgirl activity. Thus, from this early moment, Olivia is separated from her peers, and her individual fascination with the school is differentiated from her alliance with the headmistresses. Later, Olivia flushes over the symptoms of desperate love and adoration to a friend, as though not recognising what they are signs of. Julie tells Olivia that she is too passionate, and yet cannot entirely hide that she is drawn to the student. Her intentions remain restrained, mysterious, and both women may be manipulative, but neither she nor Cara’s actions are seen as outright perverse; their behavior, instead, is tinged with sadness as they each abandon what they love. These are all moments that betray a confusion in the characters, suggesting that something so simple as a need for comfort is out of reach in their society.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster includes Olivia in a genre she refers to as “lesbian soft-core, girls’-school films”, within which she also includes Mädchen in Uniform and The Wild Party (Dorothy Arzner, 1929) as films that deal with the very specific scenario of female bonding. Given that Audry was often criticised, or at least, like Arzner, left out of the spotlight for her adherence to conventional narrative and storytelling practices, it may be hard for some historians to consider her feminist. Yet perhaps it should emphasised that, as she was introducing non-traditional perspectives – including, for instance, those of cooks and service women in the school – into an otherwise classical format, she was in fact being more subversive than she’s given credit for. As Tarr writes, “Olivia’s discovery of love and desire is thus never experienced through feelings of guilt and shame, though it is accompanied by a realisation that such knowledge cannot be trusted to outsiders.” Her private moments shared with Julie are thus framed as extensions of the first moment they met, alone against a backdrop of students whose interests, although also directed towards the headmistresses, are much less intense.

There are almost no male characters in the film, and when on screen they are not privileged in the frame; seen only from behind, or in profile at some distance, they appear to enforce law from the outside world, with no interest in the minutiae of life inside the school. Their disinterest in the experience of the school, of the feelings and statements of women and girls as individuals and as a group, is symbolic of much of women’s suffering in a world in which women are treated as lesser than men and a hindrance to patriarchal order. This final appearance of a structure of male sensibility, presented without the male gaze, highlights further the misunderstanding amongst men and women; there are occurrences at the school that these men do not comprehend, and their attempts to present some solution render them all but useless.

In the United States, Olivia was released as The Pit of Loneliness, attributing to it some greater sense of melodrama than was contained in the film, and thus aligning it with a number of other Hollywood pictures about isolated women, like The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948). But Olivia has a lasting power and uniqueness, as much due to its classical French origins as in spite of them. That the actress playing the title role was prompted to change her name to Marie-Claire Olivia was perhaps due to the powerful sensuality of the script and of her interactions with Feuillère and Simon on screen. Whether or not you interpret Olivia as condemning lesbian desire, Audry’s film manages to explore complexities and subtleties in how women act in their relationships and in their professional spaces, precisely by allowing them an unresolvable ambiguity.

Monday 13 January 2020

A New Film a Day in 2020 (6) – WOMAN IN HIDING (Michael Gordon, USA, 1950)

As part of a run through of Ida Lupino’s career, I came across this title, made at Universal in 1950 by the unfashionable Michael Gordon.

The convoluted plot is a breathtaker. Ida, as Deborah opens in a car careening far too fast along a country road until it crashes over a bridge into a river. Twenty seven minutes later it has been revealed just how all that happened and the sequence is replayed (spoiler alert) but this time we see that the brakes and doors have been tampered with. Deborah has married in a rush and the honeymoon night is ruined when her new husband’s old flame shows up with a gun.

Deborah makes her escape and goes searching for the old flame who, inconveniently, is out of town for a while. She takes on a new identity but the husband (stone-faced Stephen McNally) knows she’s not dead and wants to find her so that he can take over her family’s business. She is befriended by a smiling drifter (played by Ida’s then husband Howard Duff) but he’s interested in the reward money until….lashings of plot…

…and so on until a noir-filled ending in the much desired factory, the location where the husband has previously offed Deborah’s father via an ‘accident’. The black and white photography by William Daniels, especially in the climax, is, to put it mildly, sensational and Gordon even manages to get some semblance of suspense into the chase around the factory stairs. The villainess/thwarted lover is played by Peggy Dow, quite a beauty. 

A rip-snorting 92 minutes with Ida yet again demonstrating that she could do a woman in peril like no other. 

Sunday 12 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison unearths the South Korean blockbuster ASHFALL (Byung-seo Kim & Hae-jun Lee)

Cecil B. De Mille once explained that a good film should start with an earthquake and develop to a crescendoWell now we've got another one of those. After Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and the Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, include Byung-seo Kim and Hae-jun Lee’s Ashfall which is being pushed as an event film for South Korean cinema and is headed up by their big stars Byung-Hun Lee (I Saw the Devil, the new Magnificent Seven, P.S.A.) and Jung-woo Ha (The Handmaiden, 1987, Yellow Sea). Their unit are trying to do an effects super spectacle for a mere seventeen million U.S dollars. But that’s not the problem.

The opening holds promise with Ha’s team in their Hurt Locker gear digging out a rusted bomb.  But he is bored with all the procedures, takes off his face mask and bangs the thing with a spanner. They’ve never had one go off in the history of the unit and he’s only got a day to go before his retirement anyway. He’s going to take off with his pregnant wife Suzy Bae.

However, (the fictional) Baekdu Mountain volcano is about to blow and take three quarters of the peninsula with it. Scruffy professor Dong-seok Ma, who predicted it years back, has a plan. They have to send a unit into North Korea, steal the nukes they are surrendering there as part of the de-nuclearisation program and use them to blow up a copper mine next to the magma lakes. That will drain off the menace. So a secret nuclear explosion on the Chinese border without telling the Americans who are racing in with their weapons leveled. 

The plan’s guide is the imprisoned double agent Lee, located by a G.P.S. transmitter under his skin. He’s got issues of his own having been in the cage so long that his daughter by his junkie wife may not recognise him. To give them credit, none of the on-screen characters has much confidence in this. Well, it’s only a movie Ingrid.  

Never the less Ha and his (sadly under-characterised) lot suit up to fly the in the plane next to one full of elite troops who are going to do all the rough stuff. Of course Ha and Lee end up forming an uneasy partnership to complete the mission.

The explosions, earthquake and tidal wave are quite well realised and there are a few nice touches like using toppled statues of The Great Leader to locate their way through the chaos. Killer is that we keep on getting things that were better in other films – the quake fissure running along the buildings in Aftershock, the macho types dropping out to leave the tech guys to do the heroics in Executive Decision, the military only equipped with non-lethal ammunition in Southern Comfort, or the speeding escape vehicle showered with big bang debris in Chain Reaction just for starters. At least they don’t outrun the shockwave here.

We end up with an action effects piece undermined by familiar plot and visuals. Finally, it’s kind of boring – occasionally accomplished film making wrapped around a core of cliché. 

We’ve seen the leads do better.

Saturday 11 January 2020

A New Film a Day in 2020 (5) – THE TRAITOR/IL TRADITORE (Marco Bellochio, Italy, 2019)

The director of Fists in the Pocket,  China is Near, Vincere, The Eyes the Mouth,  Sleeping Beauty  and a half dozen more has come to this. 

The Traitor  is a two and a half hour trek through the life of Tommaso Buscetta, a man who, under pressure, gave up his Mafia associates and put a heap of them in jail. Bellocchio meticulously takes us through the process of Buscetta’s fear of exposure, his self-exile to Brazil, his exposure, the threats made to force his hand to give up his Mafia associates and the seemingly endless judicial process whereby he put criminal associated after criminal associate into jail. 

The Mafia, thanks to the drug trade, survives though that doesn’t seem to be Bellocchio’s point.

Interesting that Bellocchio should tread in the steps of Francesco Rosi and many other film-makers in exposing the criminal enterprise that is twisted and insinuated into every element of Italian politics and society. Mafias, however, exist in every country, driven and sustained by the criminalisation of the drug trade, pornography, sex trafficking and just about anything else that is illegal but desired by many. But maybe only in Italy, possibly Russia, have the criminal oligarchs taken over the mainstream of society, buying politicians and other pillars of society to make themselves and their criminal behaviour totally exempt from any oversight, sanction or punishment.

Bellocchio’s movie just tells us of one episode even if it does attach to itself the story of the evil Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti who for decades served Italy’s Christian Democrats, the Papacy and the Mafia so well. Rosi did it in a more interesting way twice. First with the untold story of the bandit Salvatore Giuliano in the film of that name, second in his adaptation of Leonardo Sciascia’s “Cadaveri Eccelenti” filmed as Exquisite Corpses.  Matteo Garrone also did it with far more energy and excitement in Gomorrah. It makes you wonder why the director of those remarkable films cited in the first paragraph wanted to go down such a well-trodden path and make this movie.

Friday 10 January 2020

A New Film a Day in 2020 (4) – SWORDSMAN OF DOUBLE FLAG TOWN (He Ping, China, 1990)

Blu-ray box from Diskino
Back in the 80s the esteemed Wu Tian-ming, a director of some repute, was made head of the Xian Film Studios. The dark years of the Cultural Revolution had ended and graduates from the reopened Beijing Film Academy were on the lookout for work. Wu set out to make some high quality films and to do so gave jobs to a bunch of those first graduates. Among them were Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou. Another whom Wu employed was the young but established director He Ping.

A little after Chen, Tian and Zhang made their first films, He Ping made Swordsman of Double Flag town a movie designed quite consciously to draw upon the traditions of the American and Italian westerns of both antiquity and recent times. I suspect He Ping may have also seen and admired Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai  and maybe Yojimbo  but that’s not a matter dealt with in the extras on a splendid disc of He Ping’s Swordsman of Double Flag Town (1990) produced at Xian Film Studios, a big hit in China and a hit abroad in the Chinatowns. 

Now the wonderful Diskino company, an independent DVD and Blu-ray publisher operating in China, and managed by serious enthusiasts, has released Swordsman of Double Flag Town,  the fifth film in its World Cinema Library collection devoted to restoring and re-releasing the major works of the Xian Film Studio from back in Wu Tian-ming’s day. It follows Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou), The Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang), The Black Cannon Incident (Huang Jianxin) and King of the Children (Chen Kaige). Believe me, even if you saw those four films back in the day when they were released here on 35mm and VHS by Ronin Films (the 35mm prints are still held by the NFSA) you never saw anything like the images now on display in the new Blu-ray editions released over the last couple of years. 

Swordsman of Double Flag Town  came a little after those films in its production and Ronin didn’t pick it up for distribution. It had screenings at the Sydney Film Festival in 1992 and probably in local Chinatown cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne. (Thanks Tina Kaufman and Barrie Pattison for this info.) 

He Ping (and Wu) wanted to transform the conventions of the western and create a film, as Tony Rayns says on one of the extras, “rooted in the local reality, topography, customs and people”. The western would be re-invented and in the process break new ground for both Xian Studios and the Chinese film industry. Wu had a sharp eye for the leading edge.

The story riffs on so many conventions as to be dizzying. The bandits terrorise a small village, one built in otherwise desert of Shanxi. It substituted swordplay for gunplay and above all its design - urban brown from sky to land, to costumes of fur and dark interiors, would be even more unique than Zhang’s red dominated colour design in Red Sorghum. In fact, in a brilliant stroke, beyond some navy blue clothing worn by the village extras, the only standout colour belongs to that of the would-be bride Haomei. She always wears a soft red jacket which causes the eye to go straight to her wherever she is placed in the scene.

Its story of a naïve boy come to claim his bride and on the way through displaying remarkable agility, natural grace and sharp self-taught sword fighting skills, follows a number of arcs that keep you guessing. In an interview/visual essay that accompanies the superb Blu-ray, Tony Rayns notes the connections with Leone and with High Noon, another film where eventually the hero has to go up against the villain alone.

At a time when DVD and Blu-ray are in retreat and streaming services offer a barebones experience (no extras like audio commentaries, making ofs, filmographies) the work of Diskino and its World Cinema Library is to be applauded. 

Two things.

Maybe we can hope at the very least that someone on the jury at the Bologna DVD awards takes notice of the work Diskino is doing. 

Regrettably it seems Diskino has no theatrical or international distribution rights and thus cant supply DCPs or even Blu-rays for festival events like Cinema Reborn. Thus the opportunity to see, for instance, beautifully restored copies and such additions as the alternate Tibetan-language soundtrack, which is included on The Horse Thief  Blu-ray, but doesn’t exist on any screenable 35mm print, is available only on home video. 

The Current Cinema - Kevin Anderson enthuses over MRS LOWRY & SON ( Adrian Noble , UK, 2019)

Firstly, the title of this film is interesting as it significantly places the mother before the renowned British artist L.S.Lowry, but also uses an ampersand instead of ‘and,’ as if we were about to see a film about a window-cleaning company, instead of a close examination of a dominating mother and her under-confident son locked in a troubled, codependent relationship. Written by Martyn Hesford and directed by Adrian Noble, who most recently directed the ensemble piece The Importance of Being Earnest  (2015). After setting up his invalid mother in her bed each morning Lowry pounds the gritty streets of Pendlebury in Lancashire, collecting rents from unwilling tenants, before returning home to cook his and his mother’s dinner which they then eat in her bedroom. The meal finished, Lowry retires to his attic studio where he paints into the small hours, before repeating it all the next day.
But despite the verbal abuse Lowry receives from his overbearing mother Lowry is a committed artist, who not only knows what he is looking at, but importantly finds beauty and meaning in these rough streets. Likewise he is moved by the seemingly odd characters he finds around him, such as a bearded woman on a bus, or a coal miner taking a bath outdoors under the watchful eye of his wife, until he is clean enough to venture indoors for dinner. 
This apparently simple man has found his subject among these ‘ugly’ factory chimneys and these rough people and his sense of purpose is stated quite simply as ‘I’m a painter; nothing more, nothing less.’ 
While we see a montage of Lowry at work in his studio near the end of the film, the artist competent and in control of his subject matter and medium, personally I would have liked to see more of what happened in the attic where Lowry escapes to each night to create his ‘unloved’ paintings, if only to leaven the often uncomfortable and sometimes overlong scenes between mother and son. Unlike his role as the corpulent Mr Turner (2014) Spall has shrunk himself to a whippet of a man in this film and it makes him appear all the more vulnerable under the unforgiving gaze of his formidable mother, played beautifully by Vanessa Redgrave. 
Spall manages to convey a repressed and awkward personality via small awkward gestures, vividly conveying a deep sense of pain and frustration. When a letter arrives from an appreciative London art dealer Lowry is physically unable to show it to his mother and wraps it in brown paper before hiding it in the larder. When his mother does eventually see the letter she rips it to shreds, fearful of its potential to upset the delicate equilibrium of their lives. Shattered,Lowry rushes up to his attic and violently destroys his work. Building a bonfire from the remains, he is then unable to make a fire of his canvases should it impact on the neighbour’s laundry.

Thursday 9 January 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare draws attention to COBRA WOMAN (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1944)

Surely an ideal fantasy movie family, Ramu (Jon Hall), Kado (the divine Sabu) and Koko the chimpanzee (above). Here is the fourth and best of the Universal Jon Hall-Maria Montez adventure pictures. Cobra Woman from Titanic Noir Mensch, Robert Siodmak, has a delicately nuanced anti-fascist screenplay by Richard Brooks and is photographed in hallucinatory three strip Technicolor by Howard Greene and George Robinson. 
Second screen (above) delivers the cause of all this trouble, evil twin Naja (la Montez) about to launch into the cinema's greatest choreographed camp, the Dance to King Cobra to appease the Fire Mountain. Montez' movements are appropriately filmed in wide shots to allow the camera to capture every unplanned swing, tilt, lurch and gyration as Montez fingers Virgin after Virgin for human sacrifice to the Fire God (" Fires-of-the-faith-Fire-Mountain-grows-more-angry" read as a single word monotone line by Maria before the dance.) 
To compensate for so much ham and prime campery, Siodmak relies on the oldest trouper in the picture, Koko the Chimp (above), to occasionally give us highly skilled and performed diversions, in the screen below transfixing a hunky guard (no shortage of prime beef in this picture) with his needle and thread routine. The sequence is something Buñuel would have killed to do. (And may well have copied for the shot of Arturo de Cordova doing his needlework in the 1952 El.)
The picture is irresistible and comes from Universal, a studio who manifestly pioneered the translation of silent era Weimar expressionism into their 30s and 40s horror unit with staggering skill and beauty. It seems fitting that perhaps one of the greatest German expats to Hollywood, and one of the three greatest masters of Noir, with Lang and Ulmer, Siodmak should here make his Technicolor debut in an action fantasy picture with a movie so resonant of other genres and new directions without which the American cinema would never have later realized the likes of fifties gay infused avant-garde with Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. 
As I’ve said before about Universal horror, anyone who can't connect with the Universal fantasy genre and the reservoirs of talent and genius that went into it simply doesn't understand American cinema itself.
Cobra Woman is a certified masterpiece, not only as exotica camp, but for hidden intentions, the guiltiest of pleasures, and the exercise of sheer delirium of a genre nobody can resist.
Kino Lorber have just released the title on Blu-ray from what looks like the same source as an older German BD from Alive Media. But with double the file size and twice the bitrate to deliver more grain, depth and detail to one of the greatest Technicolor movies of the three strip era.
Robert Siodmak