Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Chinese Movie Time.

Yi miao zhong / One Second is something of return to form for Mainland Chinese Cinema heavy weight Yimou Zhang, with his personal take on the Cultural Revolution front and centre again.

Yi miao zhong / One Second - Wei Fan & Zhang Yi. 



Coming over the bleak dunes, Zhang Yi (in Zhang Yimou's 2021 Xuan ya zhi shang / Cliff Walkers), the ragged lead gets into the dusty strip mall town in time to see an equally scruffy figure steal a reel of film from a courier’s motor bike left outside the bar. It takes some time to find out why this is so important while they fill  in the back stories of the characters.

The thief is Liu Haocun (also Cliff Walkers), one of those “My goodness - you’re a girl” characters familiar from the Kung Fu movies and earlier and wider. She’s a companion to  Minzhi Wei  in Zhang Yimou’s best film, the 1999  Yi ge dou bu neng shao / Not One Less, both children called on to carry adult responsibilities with their Cultural Revolution backgrounds a key element of the plot.

Zhang Yimou

Along the way the purloined reel gets to to change hands as the protagonists flannel truck driver Yang Yu with conflicting stories and Newsreel Nunber 22 falls off a truck to be dragged along a dirt road.

The damaged reel is important for each of  the leads - income for the impoverished girl (lampshades made of movie films are trendy), his Mr. Movie  status and that of his tiny Community 2 for Town movie house operator Wei Fan (I Am Not Madam Bovary) and the powerful significance of one second (actually several) for Zhang Yi, who proves to be on the run from a prison camp.

The film’s most memorable passages is set in Wei Fan's undecorated district cinema where he involves the entire tiny community in the work of restoring the damaged film reel, preparing bowls of distilled water and drying racks to clean it while stressing to the stranger the importance of his work to his family and his community.

Heroic Sons & Daughters.

The film takes immense care with the technical stuff, finding a fifties hand joiner, utilising film cement with a steel blade and wooden applicator stick and contriving a looping set up, which Wei Fan proudly tells Zhang Yi his fellow operators are unable to manage, so you've got to wonder why the restored reel shows negative damage when it should have been black scratching marks. 

They have to wait till the house empties after Wei's regular showing of  Zhaodi Wu’s  Ying xiong er nü / Heroic Sons and Daughters  (1964) which the clips make look livelier than the few movies we get to see from that era. Wei explains that the audience will stay watching anything he puts on the screen with a hint of pride.

The security division are on the trail of  Zhang Yi and it is the film’s most poignant concept that neither they or Haocun Liu are able to understand when Wei slips frames of the image to the fugitive.

There is another tacked on happy ending, when the now scrubbed up and freshly clothed protagonist is given his liberty and returns to the village. It has been suggested that this tampering is the cause of the delay in the film’s release.

Not the least appealing aspect of the piece is it’s place in the line of movies lingering
on the importance of the movie shows of the maker’s youth - obviously Cinema Paradiso (1988) along with  The Last Picture Show (1971), Etore Scola’s  Splendor (1989)  Australia’s 1997 Picture Show Man or the 2007 Hong Kong Lo kong ching chuen / Mr. Cinema. One Second is not disgraced in this company.

Barrie Pattison 2022

Friday, 21 January 2022

Walking.


Back in 1949, The Walking Hills was obviously considered one of Columbia's minor efforts - seventy eight minutes running time and black and white - a B movie knock-off of the The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (gold hunters fall out in the desert). 

I still had a full head of hair when I discovered this one and after decades it's interesting to come back to the film I rated a find - the first western by John Sturges, director of cowboy movie high points in my then expanding experience of film. I considered Sturges a big man after his The Law and Jake Wade and Bad Day at Black Rock.

 The film gets attention straight away. Rather than the old west, its setting is unfamiliar Mexicali on the then present day U.S. - Mexican border.  This registers as a scaled down version of Touch of Evil’s Tijuana (which was actually filmed in Venice California). Investigator John Ireland and agitated client Houseley Stevenson (Dark Passage's plastic surgeon) have followed young cowboy William Bishop, who pauses in front of Ella Rains' souvenir shop. The old man prompts that Bishop could escape them into Mexico without the one dozing border control officer taking any interest 

 Ireland follows Bishop, who takes his beer into a neighborhood bar’s back room two dollar poker game. There Columbia's resident genial character actor Edgar Buchanan (star of Sturges' Best Man Wins) is regaling the players with his account of the historic wagon train that got lost in the walking hills sand dunes. Card players horse breeder Randolph Scott, young Jerome Courtland (later to direct series TV), sullen Arthur Kennedy and guitar playing Josh White aren't all that interested until their conversation alerts them to the fact that Courtland has stumbled on the location of the lost wagons and suddenly the room goes into lock down with the prospect of  “five millions in gold, already dug out of the ground” that loose talk could lose to a hoard of treasure hunters. Bishop warns that no one is going to stop him going through the door and bar man Russell Collins’ offer to stay silent is dismissed. They all have to keep together.

Scott adds his associate, horse wrangler Charles Stevens, to the expedition. Stevens, still billed well down the cast, even under black folk singer Josh White, at least gets to do a rounded sympathetic character instead of his usual murdering savage or drunken Indian. Race is more sensitively handled here than most of what was done around it. Josh White’s colour is never an issue in the film.

When store keeper Ella Rains, who has a history with both Scott and Bishop, comes riding over the dunes following them, Kennedy, complete with a knife strapped to his wrist, objects to a further split, with shares now also including Stevens. Randy downs him summarily. "That's one way of settling an argument" Ireland observes.

 The most memorable segment has the party fanning out digging in the sand radiating "like spokes of a wagon wheel." from the point where they found a vintage ox bow,  Throw in a heliograph and signals from the distant hills.  Further complications with Courtland injured and Scott’s mare foaling. The script gets away from the makers at this point. However when the action arrives, the film does assert with a striking fight using shovel fulls of sand after Ireland’s pistol is disposed of.

Rains, Bishop & Scott.

 Randolph Scott is still a plausible cowboy hero here, even without his shirt. His stunt action is doubled by Jock Mahoney but Randy does ride his horse in the sand storm which couldn’t have been easy. Though he’s the star-producer, his character is allowed to lose the girl to a younger man. The way Scott gradually emerges to dominate the group is particularly skillful. His performance here is notably more plausible than in his run of his films under directors like Edward Marin or Bruce Humberstone and the difference must be credited to Sturges at the point where he emerged from the ranks of B movie directors after his stark 1944 war documentary  Thunderbolt, co-directed by William Wyler, finally received distribution.

There’s a flashback to  Rodeo Rider Bishop winning Rains (“All weeks I’d batted off cowboys with a short club”) and a nasty turn in a Denver rain storm which takes the film into the noir world of Sturges' crime movies. His The People Against O'Hara with Spenser Tracy was particularly deft. Sturges will go on to be be one of the promising fringe directors absorbed into Dore Schary's MGM, only to be let go and, when they wanted him to direct Tracy in Black Rock, the studio had to hire him back at a substantially increased fee.

White gets a couple of his folk numbers which do add resonance. The music, credited to Arthur Morton normally an orchestrator, echoes White's singing "I Gave My Love a Cherry" in the background scoring.

Scott, Bishop, Rains, Buchanan, White, Collins.      

 

 

Cameraman Charles Lawton jr. never achieved a major profile despite a long credit list that ran from the Marx Brothers to John Ford and Orson Welles. He worked regularly with Scott. His monochrome group shots immediately distinguish The Walking Hills from other films at it's level of ambition.

As with their previous The Gunfighters, the first of Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown's independent films, writer Alan Le May's work is both the strength and the weakness of Walking Hills. A western specialist, he had moved to scripting for Cecil B. De Mille, including Reap the Wild Wind, and Raoul Walsh on Cheyenne and San Antonio. We can see his struggles to solve the script problems. After we hear about the difficulty of moving a pack train into the desert and not attract attention, there's a cut without explanation to shots of the group riding in the Death Valley National Monument. The picture has set itself a big ask in providing so many characters. Le May has the work party conveniently divide during the storm, getting support players off screen. Giving multiple characters unexpected reasons to fear Ireland's connection with the law is clumsy. The production was able to secure A feature performers when Ireland and Kennedy tuned up on the lot needing work but was stuck with splitting the villain role between them. The script clearly should have gone through Le May's typewriter another time. He is now best known as the source of John Ford's The Searchers and the John Huston The Unforgiven.

The wry ending does just about get by. “You know Shep would never be able to think straight with a hat full of money.”

Not unlike High Noon and Bad Day at Black Rock, with all its limitations I prefer The Walking Hills to it’s ponderous Sierra Madre model, where the shift to studio built desert is more distracting.  I can now see that the film has taken on board  Victor Seastrom's classic The Wind, drawing on the menace of the approaching blizzard, where the sand will cover activity, a major dramatic element set up by the discovery of the Ox skull ground bare or the account of  the car high polished by the blown sand blasting away paint and trim.

Sturges & Lee Remick - The Halleluja Trail 
As a record of the re-shaping of the Hollywood scene and emerging talents and for it's  memorable central concept The Walking Hills deserves more attention than it has had. The film remains agreeable entertainment and occasionally more. It crackles with the energy of talented people getting a chance to escape their work routine.

The You Tube copy is excellent.



Monday, 17 January 2022

 Ready When You Are Mr. De Mille.

Mitch Leisen, De Mille and Kay Johnson.  

I've already mentioned my satisfaction in finally seeing the early films of Cecil B. De Mille, after hearing about them for the better part of a life time. Thank you Pordenone, You Tube and import DVDs.

It's interesting to recognise the things I enjoyed in my early years of film going with the re-runs of his big sound epics. The same personality shows in his silent era beginnings. Doing these justice is a major undertaking. I'm not sure that I'm going to get through it. Consider this a down payment on the De Mille account.

De Mille was one of the few people (Jack Warner was another) who had the foresight to take a personal interest in archiving his work and the greater part of it does survive.

We are lucky that a beautiful tinted copy of 1921's Forbidden Fruit is still about though this is minor De Mille. More a curiosity, it fields all the crassness that De Mille is abused for, alongside sophisticated camerawork, overpowering design and determined miming by a cast of De Mille regulars.

We find Oil magnate Theodore Roberts (Moses in the silent Ten Commandments) with a wall chart with little derricks on it. Katharine Williams, whose busy career includes playing Cherry Malotte in the 1914 The Spoilers, is his “Mrs. Fix It” wife, also into visual aids, with name tabs on her diner table model. To further her husband's deal she conspires to keep independent oil man Forrest Stanley (The Cat & the Canary) around by promising him he’ll be seated at diner that evening next to the most beautiful woman in New York but their choice ‘phones in sick. (inset of pudgy girl with tooth-ache). However poor (of course) seamstress Agnes Ayres (opposite Valentino in The Sheik) is fingering the glittery Mitchel Liesen and Natacha Rambova costumes and they put it to her that she can be rung in.  Agnes gets the attention of hair dressers and maids to turn her glamorous.

What De Mille’s target audience will take as manifestations of luxury abound - giant cigars, meals with five forks, an art deco indoor ‘phone booth, “Clothes by Poiret, Perfume by Coty, Jewels by Tiffany." Servants include Ethel Wales, Julia Faye, uncredited Claude Allister and Theodore Kosloff  (“served the best families in NY but also two years in Sing Sing”).

Agnes is married to abusive (of course) Clarence Burton  (King of Kings) who is agro when she’s not there to make his evening meal and he has to put coins into the meter to light the
functioning gas bracket. He cheers up when he sees the extra $20 that she brings home.

Forbidden Fruit - Ayres
Agnes and Forrest of course hit it off with her treasuring the orchid he takes out of the center piece to give her and Kathryn bribes her to come back so he will stay for the week end.  They watch the “Forbidden Fruit” play with Katharine Loomis and Conrad Nagel, from Robert’s velvet lounge seat box. The little band of gold which Agnes removes to put on the finery gets to stand for duty.

Back in the tenement home with the sewing machine, Burton gets meaner and Agnes’ chirping tweety bird is victim. That’s going too far, with Agnes going back for more high life with Forrest while Clarence heads out to The Happy Hour Social Club where they keep gin in a hidden bin. There he meets Kosloff, who alerts him to the house guest with all the jewelry. If Clarence steals it, he gets half. The characters converge and Agnes is humiliated. Tempo picks up in a tenement confrontation with bodies stuffed in the Murphy bed.

The main intrigue is simple minded and not helped by panel filling captions and labored Cinderella allusions, complete with with over the top inset sequences featuring see-through hoop skirt and glass floored ballroom but no slipper. Forrest putting a leaf from the table decoration over the saucy place marker at diner sets the tone. 

Performance is quite animated for this period but without any subtlety. The grotesque women’s costumes get attention and the camerawork is remarkably sophisticated - horizontal wipe between scenes, dollar signs appearing in Burton’s eyes well before Tex Avery, the shadowed menacing close up of him when Agnes wakes, the tiny live action figures of Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother vignetted into the lower right of the title explaining their scene.

This one is for movie history enthusiasts who will find their time repaid. The unprepared viewer possibly less so. 

Dynamite of 1929, his first sound film, is recognisably De Mille, mixing intriguing and preposterous at two hours plus. A few years back I was at a fan conference in the Tri State Area where they showed De Mille's Madam Satan (Kay Johnson in form fitting demon outfit and a zeppelin) The collectors there wanted to know if I'd seen this one which was thought inaccessible. My having watched his sound The Squaw Man on Oz TV cut no ice. Since then TCM has come to the rescue and a murkey copy of their version is on You Tube.

We kick off in court with Charles Bickford in his first screen role. He hears the judge sentence him to death for murder, watched by his distraught little sister Muriel McCormac. Charles is quite casual about it “These birds are only doing their stuff, OK.”

Meanwhile in a sky scraper office, the trustees of her grandfather’s estate are telling heiress Kay Johnson that the old man foresaw her irresponsibility and bad company and made a lawyer proof will where she only gets his fortune if she’s married by the age of twenty three - in a fortnight! Kay is skeptical. “Will someone please tell me what money will do with settling down?”

  Dynamite - Nagel, Johnson, Faye & McCrea.

Her idea of the good time is cutting it up at the Napewood Country Club. Entertainment there includes a sword swalower and a women in hoops race, which ends in the Club pool. They film synch. dialogue with the women leads as rolling contestants - but not much. Kay has her eye on polo playing Conrad Nagel who is married to Julia Faye (Kay objects “I’ve only got the next option on you”) Julia in turn is squired by young Joel McCrea in his first major role. Kay and Julia are in negotiation about how much she gets if she lets spouse Conrad go. (“I’ve never bought a husband before”) Man of integrity Nagel resents this.

We cut to a track along Death Row, with the obligatory black prisoner in one of the cells and the guard playing the radio. There’s an abstract shot of hammers banging on the scaffold which provides background noise for the scenes. Kay has read about Charles’ offer to leave his remains to science for ten grand to cover the up-keep of the sister after he’s gone and Kay spots an opportunity. They stage their wedding ceremony complete, with all the implied ironies noted by the condemned man.

Meanwhile Leslie Fenton is goading the real killer in a night club. (“The guards with three knives are taking their places” -  like Intolerance) This works out with released newly wed Bickford presenting at Johnson’s luxury home ("You sure make a swell widow”) where the aged butler is unsuccessful at expelling him and Charles rejects the prospect of the servants’ quarters.

The obligatory De Mille wild party ensues with Tyler Brooke’s comedy, “limousine sports” doing suspiciously well rehearsed variety turns  and “Kiss of Fire” playing in the background. “I never call anything informal while people are still standing up.”

Dynamite - Bickford, Johnson & Leisen mural.    

 

 Charles throws the party people out with Kay distraught at him ruining her social status, and punches in the door she locks (“Stop it you brute!”) against him before returning her ten grand and  leaving - if Dynamite finished there, it would be one of the more presentable of the twenties sound films, comparable to the Norma Shearer vehicles.

However there’s more - lots more. Cut to the wide shot of Bickford's home town where Charles has gone back down the mine. Sitcom developments present when Kay turns up in the jazzy roadster he insists she lock in the tool shed for the duration of her stay. She explains she has to be cohabiting with him for the Trust Fund to pay out. He agrees on the basis that she undertakes wife duties - “You don’t mean?” “No, not that” - and we go into joke mode with her failing to make a cake from a cook book like Dorothy Dalton in De Mille's Fools Paradise, both anticipating Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, and Kay having trouble with the hick neighbors like the problems he had with the nobs. Compare Theodora Goes Wild.

There’s a mining disaster (ahah!) but it happens off screen. Then little Douglas Frazer Scott is in a road accident (also off screen) and Kay, whose fault it was in the first place, saves the day by crashing the car out of the shed and bringing back the specialist in record time. The Towns-women bring her flowers.

Conrad shows up to take her home and, being a man of integrity, he insists they go down the mine to face Charles. “A woman in a mine means trouble” and sure enough there’s a cave-in (OK) trapping the leads in a diminishing air pocket (lamp dims as Charles lifts it) while it will take weeks for rescue to arrive. (“You can pray if you know how”) Master miner Charles plans on blasting through the wall into the next chamber but whoever hammers the dynamite home will be wiped out in the explosion. Both men declare their love for Kay and don’t want to be the one stuck with her remembering a heroic admirer.

Dynamite - Nagel, Bickford & Johnson underground.
     
 

 Who is going to survive? Despite all the Pre-Code daring the matter is decided as always in favor of the marriage knot. By this time the film’s qualities have sunk in a mire of formula plots and unreadable dialogue. (“You know a lot about coal, don’t you?”) De Mille rises to the challenge of the new sound format with only a few lapses - the view of bar stools being re-arranged which doesn’t belong in its sequence. Dialogue shots that look as if they were taken in succeeding runs in the sound proof booth are smoothly edited for the interiors. However his ambitions and crassness defeat a production which would have played nicely at half the length.

The leads are assured and occasionally impressive, with Bickford and Johnson (Mrs. John Cromwell) on film for their first time. She had quite an impressive career at this stage with her  De Mille leads and her husband's films - but twenty three - c'mon! The De Milles must have thought rough-hewn Bickford played well opposite elegant leading women. Brother William De Mille fielded him with Kay Francis in Passion Flower a year later. Julia Faye is awful and McCrea doesn’t have anything much to do except look young. The one who does register is designer Mitch Leisen doing his modern decors - the pan round Johnson’s lavish flat where Bickford inspects the abstract murals before tasting the bath salts. However Leisen's know how defeats some material, as with attention being stolen from the killer by the patterned fabric of the dress an extra passing in front of him is wearing.

Passion Flower - Francis, Johnson, cleric, Bickford and Lewis Stone.
 
It wasn't till he got back to putting the wrath of Jehovah on display back at Paramount that Cecil B. De Mille resumed his dominant position in Hollywood, but these MGM early talkies have a fascination of their own. Dynamite is particularly striking as much for its excesses and missteps as for the pieces of staging that showed it's director asserting himself. I enjoyed it.

Barrie Pattison - 2022.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

STATE OF THE ART.

It’s not since before World War One that we’ve had a situation like the one today where the forms, content and particularly duration of movies have been so fluid.  

The traditional two hour dramatic production, modeled on live theatre, no longer dominates. The take home version of it and other items hang around in forms like disk viewing and set time Free To Air programing, sustained by events like news and sports broadcasts, and the smart money is going into Streaming Series which, despite the celebrated removal of restraints like length and censorship seem to be settling into a recognisable form,  the one hour episode format of the first features and the thirteen chapters of the theatrical serials that only petered out in the fifties.

Streamed dramatic series have developed built-in faults. All the best ideas go into the first episode to get the audience in, this is followed by repetition and reworking till an inconclusive ending which leaves another series possible. Addictive watching, not new, is now codified as binging.

I watch all this a little bemused. I’m not the target audience for what is being produced and I find a lot of it unsatisfying. In that I recognise the familiar generation gap which published criticism has never mastered. Movie critics in particular have been decades older than the people for whom who their stock in trade was made and who frequently knew it better than they did. 

 Where does this leave the old film freak with his allegiances to Soviet Montage, John Ford and giallo?

One effort which consciously attempted to merge its markets was Marvel’s Jessica Jones serieses (2015-2019) already in the rear view mirror.

Jessica Jones - Krysten Ritter

Lead Krysten Ritter plays a character inherited from a minor strip cartoon original, a private eye who used to be a super hero(ine). They reveal her set up in stages. Jessica Hecht, as a character who bears a grudge, after the Mighty Marching Marvel Super Heroes  trashed New York in a previous chapter, puts a round into Ritter’s arm and seeing the blood comments - “Hm - not bullet proof!” 

Jessica Jones - Coulter and Ritter.
Our heroine has a drinking problem, at one stage getting  thrown out with the bar garbage. She is indifferent to her appearance and surroundings, taking the first few episodes to get the smashed glass repaired in her “Alias Investigations” office door and having Rosario Dawson, guesting in the  (2015) Smile episode where she has to tend to injured Mike Coulter’s Luke Cage in Jones/ Ritter’s flat and comment “Your girl friend’s a slob!” Jessica ridicules Susie Abromeit‘s print dress and is told she’s being rude to her, coming back “I’m rude to everyone.” At one stage, she holds a helpless woman in the path of an on-coming subway train - Anyone remember Union Station? One of their devices is to give her a perpetual scowl. When the plot finally calls for her to smile the effect is starting.

They place Ritter in a studied film noir night time city, with heavy leanings towards Edward Hopper, and against deep focus Naked City-scapes for the day time. Interiors are shot deliberately without gelling the windows,  so that the characters’ faces are darker than the the ones we see sometimes in mirrors. One episode goes all Cameron Menzies on us with large areas of the screen left black. This is not a series TV look.

Adult elements are piled in. Carrie Anne Moss (at last a familiar face) is our heroine’s lesbian lawyer involved in her own messy divorce. Rape and abortion are plot elements as is drug addiction. Eka Darville’s habit misleadingly indicates him as a lesser character but he gets a surprise, and not all that convincing, instant cure half way through. Particularly striking is beat cop Wil Traval who comes on as a bit player there to do a bit of biffo with Ritter but re-appears in one of the series stongest scenes, where he shows up at her friend radio talk show host Rachael Taylor’s fortified flat, proving to have brought a weapon for her protection, and they have a conversation through the intercom with him on the other side of the foyer gradually winning her trust and having her open her door to him. The writing allows her and Ritter to have different perceptions of the character.

Unlike the tradition mini series with all the exposition jammed into episode one, they introduce key elements down the track, We don’t get a good look at Svengali villain David Tennant till Ep. 3. or hear about Ritter/Jones childhood till the end. Impressively built Mike Coulter comes on as Ritter’s series squeeze but a plot development removes him from the action early on with the question of what he’s up to hanging over the next episodes.

All this tampering with the form - and the content - suggest Marvel are trying to break the mold to produce something that will satisfy their old fan base and the Twenty First Century viewers. However they make compromised choices. The characters may find themselves in adult situations and curse but they never don't do full frontals. One of Jessica Jones super powers is having sex with her pants on. I can’t see admirers of Sidney Lumet or Alex De Iglesia coming away from this one satisfied. Maybe there are surprises in the later seasons but what I’ve seen has been run up to appeal to twelve year old boys who are curious about elements found in films for Big People - or Big People more at ease with material for twelve year old boys.

Jessica Jones - Sin Bin ep. - Moss

In all this group effort (nine writers are credited on the final episode of series one) we have to wonder what the contribution of directors, traditionally the auteurs of movies, may be. Well, I couldn’t avoid noticing the upswing in tension of  episode 12 - which is the one credited to John Dahl (1994’s The Last Seduction). Is Carrie Anne Moss going to unleash David Tennant’s evil power there? Dahl has been devoting himself to TV eps. including characteristically Dexter.  Is it still possible for directorial style to assert?

 

By comparison look at the new Wes Anderson The French Dispatch, aimed at people old enough to remember Bill Murray or even Luis Feuillade. It pivots on the idea of publishing a little-read supplement to the Kansas Evening Sun (we get a pull back through a corn field) which bears a peculiar resemblance to The New Yorker Magazine and covers events in France’s Ennui sur Blazé. It tries for funny rather than puzzling. 

There is something you could consider order and form concerning a final edition where sections of the film seem to correspond to recognisable magazine features - an obituary, a travel guide, and three feature articles, as dictated in the last wishes of Editor Murray (“He brought the world to Kansas), whose advise to his journalists was “Make it sound as if you wrote it that way on purpose” Murray operates out of an office with a “No Crying”sign on the wall. 

The French Dispatch - Wolodarsky, Murray, Wilson at work.

Owen Wilson bicycling on a treadmill gives an introductory tourist coverage to the town as scenery is pulled past him, highlighting the Le Sans Blague Café, and the pickpocket’s alley then (staged B&W photos) and now.

The first feature story is commentated in full colour by a glamorous Tilda Swinton at the
lectern as a writer and art expert giving a straight faced slide lecture entitled "The
Concrete Masterpiece” about Moses Rosenthaler / Benecio del Toro, a genius modern
artist serving a life sentence for murder and dismemberment. In prison  he  goes on
working and Lea Sedoux his full frontal model doubles as his severe, uniformed prison
guard, who slaps him when he gets touchy-feely.


French Dispatch - Seydoux, Del Toro

Dodgy Art Dealer Adrien Brody concocts scheme where he buys Del Toro’s output (“You can see the girl in it” they comment on an abstract) only to be frustrated by the painter working on the masonry wall of the recreation area. It gets the whole Ken Russel treatment, cutting to colour shots of the art we’ve only seen in B&W.

Next item "Revisions to a Manifesto" deals with student revolt  where young activist - chess master Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) pairs with the paper’s correspondent Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who is soon completing her piece from his bed while Chalamet wears a gas mask.

Third up "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner" gives us writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) guesting on a Talk Show where host Liev Schreiber has nothing to do. In the 1970's. Wright / Wright was a James Balwyn having total recall on every line he'd written. He recites an episode in the career of  famous chef Nescaffier, played by Steve Park who we see sustaining Commisaire Mathieu Almaric during the gang abduction of his young son.

Deliberately perverse, Anderson uses recognisable celebrities in walk-ons. It’s the opposite of
Adam McKay's new Don’t Look Up where its well known cast are there, lured by each one getting a big scene (Tyler Perry was stiffed). Here Elizabeth Moss is glimpsed at an editorial meeting correcting syntax and jail bird Willem Dafoe complains that he’s being neglected.

Not only does the screen shape and use of colour change for no obvious reason but the climax action of the police siege, accommodating a circus strong man, goes to full animation.

The elimination of perspective with sideways movements of camera and scenery, the
irrational changes in format seem to go against film form but there is nothing uncinematic about the piece.

It’s impossible to imagine a major film like this emerging from Hollywood up to this time.
Hellzapoppin' or Norm Abbott’s 1966 The Last of the Secret Agents edge towards it, like Zazie dans le métro or the 1975 Grand Magic Circus movie La fille  du garde-barrière but this one is the extension of Anderson's prevous experiments, the full enchilada unapologetic. It’s where Anderson has been going for all his career and it will be interesting to see if he can get even further - and he does it in single feature running time to be shown in theatres.

Maybe the morphing form is going to be as interesting as the productions themselves.


Wes Anderson

 

Barrie Pattison 2022

Friday, 24 December 2021

 


SPROCKETED SOURCES - Battlegrounds.

In one of those curious accidents, in the last few days I saw two war movie separated by seventy years.

MGM’s 1945 This Man’s Navy is a companion piece to their They Were Expendable, except this time it’s Lighter Than Aircraft instead of P.T. boats and William Wellman instead of John Ford, both propping up a neglected arm of the WW2 military. Old Fly Boy Wellman, like Frank Capra making Dirigible, was obviously rapt with the size of the blimps, putting in background detail like a distant worker, tiny scrubbing the side of the  craft. 

The huge shapes coming through the fog to be moored by lines of land crew of the opening make the film’s best scene.

By this time Wally Beery was the movies' most self indulgent actor.  This Man’s Navy starts off with ridiculously old non-com Beery mugging away and telling tall tales at the blimp controls. Fellow veteran James Gleason ridicules his stories. Wally makes a parachute landing when his boxing instruction to the naval cadet sharing the basket of the weather balloon with him goes wrong, landing in Selena Royle’s recognisable, idealised MGM ranch setting. There Wally finds himself with young Tom Drake, who resembles the son he claims he had, though Tom proves to be on crutches after a horse riding accident.

Maudlin developments as Beery unofficially adopts the kid with his remarkably acquiescent mother going along with the gag for the benefit of Beery’s service mates. To liven up Tom’s love life, Wally recruits the appealing Jan Clayton, a recognisable Metro starlet of the day (think Janet Leigh or Donna Reed) who should have had a better career.

This Man's Navy - Drake & Clayton.
It’s a chat with fatherly Army Medic Sam Hinds, previously consulted for Wally’s alcohol problems, who gives an OK sign and an immediate cut to Tom cured and in a naval officer uniform. There’s a briefing on the mission “You’re going to learn how to track submarines and kill them” and, once aloft, they spot one. Wally ignores orders (“they’ll blast his ship out of the skies”) to wait for naval planes and makes a couple of bombing runs at the thing before its deck gun brings his blimp down - good action scene. 

Apparently only one L.T.A. was actually shot down during their remarkably successful convoy protection duties in WW2.

One of the dodgier passages in Borden Chase’s awful script, has Tom and Jan obscured Wellman style by a lounge back and him telling her “I wanted to run away” for which his answer is to transfer out of the L.T.A.s to Pensacola for pilot training, breaking old Wally’s heart - misunderstandings when Beery hears the pilots joking about his stories and leaves before Tom’s spirited defense.

Shipped to India, Beery finds his old elephant, off-putting Gleason, who thought he made that up, and they get transferred to Chunking where titled Paul Cavanagh in Tom’s plane is shot down by the Nips with Wally volunteering an L.T.A. craft rescue, using cloud cover that fails.

This Man's Navy - Drake, Gleason and Beery aloft.

 
 Despite obvious model shots this does generate suspense, complete with the oldies’ parachute jumping to lighten the damaged balloon. Cheer worthy moment as the navy planes appear in the sky backed by “Here we go into the Wide Blue Yonder...”. Nathaniel Shilkret’s score is suitably rousing throughout. 
 
Comic ending to come.

Flag waving dates the piece. It’s all a reminder of how phoney and over produced 1945 Metro A features could be and a waste of Wellman’s skills but it still manages to hold attention with a layer of nostalgia to help it out. The comic duo of Beery and Gleason work hard but they need better material. There’s a soso Peter Ballbush (The Victor Fleming Dr. J. & Mr. H., Scaramouche, Scarlet Empress) training montage and glimpses of young Blake Edwards and an ailing Noah Beery. The You Tube copy is good.


It’s totally different and remarkably similar to Zhang jin hu  / The Battle at Lake Changjin, on which the talents of at least six directors were deployed, including Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark, Dante Lam and Andrew Lau. It's the current Big Chinese production, their most expensive effort and now number one on their Top Box Office list,

In this one it’s 1950 and a seventy thousand plus US force is advancing on the Yalu river border and carpet bombing North Korea - impressive model and drone footage reminiscent of the John Woo Chi Bi / Red Cliff. The People’s Volunteer Army are deployed to fight the Americans who have dared to cross the 38th parallel and send a fleet into the Formosa straights - Koreans, Poles, Turks - and Australians (what Australians?) don’t rate a mention. This one is about the time that the Chinese military unofficially went to war with the better resourced US - and handed them their asses.

The Battle at Lake Changjin - Wu Jing.

 
 Company commander Wu (Wolf Warriors) Jing, with the urn of the ashes of his soldier brother, is on Autumn leave  headed to his  fishing village home in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, Eastern China. Like Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, all it takes is one wide screen single to convince us that he is someone of rugged integrity. Despite their loss, he is able to encourage his floating family parents Li Jun & Cao Yang with the news that Chairman Mao has given them a three quarters of an acre block and, after generations, they will now have a home on land. His young brother Yi Yangqianxi/ Jackson Yee can’t wait to get into the military.

Tang Guoqiang, playing The Chairman himself living in tasteful elegance in Beijing, is pondering and decides that “If we don’t fight this war, the next generation will have to fight it.”
 
 
 
This all makes a curious comparison with Cease Fire, Owen Crump’s 1953 American 3D shot in battle zone Korean War drama-doc.  where soldiers played themselves. That one puts a similar case for the U.S. position.

Mao commits the People’s Volunteer Army to set up at Changjin Lake in North Korea to repel the invaders, with his son going along - and that’s the last we see of The Great Helmsman.

It’s also the end of Wu Jing’s leave. Horsemen with blazing torches are calling the forces to battle. Our hero is back on a train (another set piece) but this time his young brother is along - stirring moment of the open cattle car door revealing the Great Wall (or a studio model at least) that they are passing at dawn.

The Battle at Lake Changjin - Chen Kaige.
Wu Jing’s unit, with their essential code books and radio transmitters, and the advancing Americans are converging on the Chosin Reservoir. The Chinese have to carry out their mission in the freezing cold, despite not being able to load  all their cotton padded uniforms for the conditions in time. A spy plane having spotted them, the US bomb their bridge and the train and the unit has to disperse through the rocky terrain taking hits from aerial gunning - red splatter kicked up among the grey boulders.

They become involved in one of the film’s set pieces - a battle to destroy a Signal Tower that involves hand to hand fighting and overcoming a tank force. Veteran Lei Jusheng making the heroic drive with the blazing flair bomb is particularly graphic.

The film contrasts the Chinese struggling to eke out frozen potatoes with the Americans having their lavish Thanksgiving banquet, though John F. Cruz’ U.S. General Smith, heading up the Americans on the ground, is under criticism from the Gung Ho Commander of X Force for not hustling the campaign through on the schedule determined in the back rooms. Communist Country films repeatedly make this division between the Brass and the actual fighters - Kurt Maetzig’s 1950 Der Rat der Götter / Council of the Gods.

The Battle at Lake Chanjin stands apart from nearly all of it’s kind in putting forward American characters with plausible English language dialogue effectively delivered, even sparing some dignity and sympathy for General Smith. This doesn’t extend to  James Filbird’s Douglas MacArthur who is shown, in recognisable, corn cob pipe smoking profiles, as a politically ambitious Imperialist.

Needless to say the hard pressed Chinese soldiers overcome even the American’s crack “Polar Bear” troops, inflicting a humiliating defeat, which leads to the eventual U.S. capitulation. A glimpse of ice covered troops frozen in their fighting positions underlines the resolve of the P.V.A.
 



The Battle at Lake Changjing - Blowing stuff up.

The contrast between the Chinese production and the War Films we know is striking. No square bashing, target practice or lecture hall preparation. Yi Yangqianxi’s training consists of hazing by the joking unit members he’s traveling with. The only women glimpsed don’t get to hold up half the sky. They are the hero’s mum and a winning young woman who gives her red scarf to the soldiers being rushed into icy conflict. However the makers provide the impression of having seen (or at least heard about) US films including Sands of Iwo Jima, Three Kings and of course the Rambo movies. Can’t say I’m impressed with their research. They show American troops advancing under flares and motionless when the sky goes dark - the opposite of basic training.

The game here is not praising or condemning the film’s staging and performance, which have been accepted enthusiastically on their home turf. Instead we are supposed to  try to prize out the message content and applaud or damn that in line with pre-existing opinions. There’s already enough of that for anything I might say to be swamped, though I will admit to concern over the fact that such a high proportion of top end Chinese film making is devoted to showing their military triumphs - Operation Red Sea /Hong hai xing dong, 800, the Wolf Warrior films - more so than current material from any other sources we have access to, more so than the bellicose nineteen fifties - The Cruel Sea, Battle Cry etc.

In contrast to the phenomenally popular Wolf Warrior 2 (what happened to number 3?) The Sydney run appears to have been unspectacular, with a dozen or so mainly Asian spectators on the night I saw it.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if this one were shown in seventy years time - assuming the film and it’s audience last that long. Would it look like a piece of flag waving hog wash with unconvincing special effects, the way we see This Man’s Navy today. Of the two, I will admit to enjoying MGM and Wallace Beery more - possibly because it is in a language I speak and a film form I know but also because of the underlying Hollywood know how - clearly recognisable characters, an unconfused plot line with suspense interludes and the union of the beautiful people at the end - dwarfed by giant rubber balloons. 


Barrie Pattison - 2021












Tuesday, 23 November 2021

SPROCKETED SOURCES

 ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Running level with the Sydney Film Festival makes comparisons inevitable and I can't help noticing that running a smallish number of popular movies over a month makes this more approachable. Time and money made me selective with this material but the strike rate was pretty good on what I did see.
 
I've already covered Si mi vuoi bene / If You Care for Me in the report I did on Rome and Ricardo Milani’s Come un gatto in Tangenzziale - ritorno a coccia di morto /Like a Cat on a Highway 2 and Daniele Luchetti’s superior Lacci / The Ties in this event.

The admirable Alba Rowacher seems to have a lock on these. After Lacci we get her heading up Nanni Moretti’s also excellent Tre piani / Three Floors. That one opens with Alba, clearly pregnant, struggling with a suitcase at night as Alessandro Sperduti’s car just misses her and takes out a pedestrian before crashing into the front of the three store condo which houses the narrative. No two reels of waves breaking on rocks on the front this one.

The ground floor space is where Elena Lietti and Riccardo Scamarcio and their seven-year-old daughter live. We learn they have been having elderly Paolo Graziosi sit their young daughter but his behavior is becoming erratic and his memory failing. When the narrative swings back to them the old man and the child go missing and a police search locates them in a nearby park.

Scaramacio suspects the worst and attacks hospitalised Graziosi accusing him of having
molested the child. The old man’s wife, a wasted Anna Bonaiuto, is furious. The shifting plan of the story later has Scaramacio in court for sexual misconduct with teenage girl  Denise Tantucci - a striking, explicit scene which, with its later coda, is both one of the most telling elements of the film and the one which seems to have generated antagonism in published criticism.

Left alone by her oil rig worker husband Adriano Giannini (the son in Lacci), Rowacher is forbidden the aid of his generous brother who once was an admirer and the brother ends on the run after inquiries into his mob connection. Alba acts, haunted by memories of her own disturbed mother and the curiously eerie appearances of a crow in her living space.

The third floor tenants are senior judges Margherita Buy and Moretti and it was their son drunk behind the car wheel in the the opening scene. Moretti is unbending in refusing to bring his influence to give the boy support, turning family relations grim all round. It is this plot strain that ends the film with Buy, as always, touching.

Throw in an aid store-house fire bombed by a racist mob and Moretti signature touches. His Sacher firm made the film and that looks like the front of his Roman Sacher movie house in one scene’s background, while we can spot a Vespa rider, his Caro Dario trade mark, distant behind the dance company in the street. - nice.

Moretti  
The contrasted performances would elevate any production. You could say this is an old fashioned soaper (and people have) but it has a care and force rare in current movies and I rate it among it’s maker’s best.  

With lead roles in Amelio’s Teneressa, the Luchetti Mio fratello é uni figlia unico and La nostra vita and Vicari’s impressive Diaz ; Don’t Clean up the Blood,   Elio Germano has managed to assert himself in a large slice of the most interesting recent Italian films but his new portrayal of renowned primitive artist Toni Ligabue in Giorgio Diritti‘s film biography Volevo nascondermi / Hidden Away  raises the stakes. What he does here is extrordinary. Germano transforms himself to the point of unrecognizablity. We’re channeling Paul Muni.  It means Germano takes on a character who it’s a stretch to accept with sympathy. 
 
  Volevo nascondermi - Elio Germano
Diritti’s film follows the life of the celebrated Toni Ligabue (also covered in a 1977 mini series part scripted by Cesare Zavattini) but a synopsis doesn’t represent the film adequately. They want to display the evolution of Ligabue’s art, going to the extent of making the early sections so dark that it is hard to see what it happening - and using minimum editing.

Young Toni is born in Zurich, and regarded as feeble minded orphan by the people who raise him until the Swiss authorities deport him to his dead mother’s native Italy to save them the expense of his institutionalization. His (and the film’s) misery only increase as we have the grim spectacle of him foraging for something to keep him alive. We are barely aware this is the period of the growth of Italian fascism.

His life of scavenging and squatting brings him into contact with abandoned artists' materials and sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati (Pietro Traldi) recognizes his talent and provides him with the oil paints with which he will do his famous work. Mazzacurati’s mother (Orietta Notari) looks after him in their home - one of the film’s few characters registering sympathetic. The film becomes more coherent as we begin to see what we recognize as the Ligabue style in the work Germano is shown producing.

However an art critic recognizes the power in his paintings of tigers and farm yard animals and a documentary film maker from Rome includes his output in a Po Valley subject he is making. Toni becomes a celebrity and he is able to sell his work at increasing prices, spending the money on motorcycles and eventually a car with a driver who introduces him to the better living - women and restaurant dining.  Toni brings his caged rabbits into his hotel room. The film's actress turns up in his bed and the Fascist mayor, who saw him as a liability, finds him a house to live in and create now that he is a prize winner whose medals impress the locals who never took his art seriously. We recognise from the paintings the rural Alto Adige and Reggio Emilia scenics in the film images. Episodes like the one of the impressive lion statue stranded in the field when the fuel to transport in runs out, have a narrative form. The film making is now more conventional and the images brighter.

Volevo nascondermi - Germano
As is pretty much obligatory in one of these, the character’s waning strength means that he is unable to realise the fantasies he paints on the wall of his home. Her mother dismisses Germano’s interest in pregnant servant girl Francesca Manfredini he would have liked to marry. Germano’s complete transformation, the recreation of the pre-WW2 rural environment and the agony of a vision in a body and mind unable to utilize it, are imposing. 
 
There remains the question of whether the skill of the makers has managed to elevate Volevo nascondermi from a boiler plate anguished artist biography into what a theatrical movie audience will absorb and admire or is it just replaying their on-screen narrative, offering something that is too grim and too locked into a high art sensibility to fit comfortably where it finds itself.

Claudio Noce’s Padrenostro / Our Father has a suitably suspenseful present day opening when a power outage creates panic underground in the Metro. It’s easy to forget this as we get to the real narrative, something that might be a Sixth Sense rip-off mixed in with a"Years of Lead" thriller all drawn distantly from director Noce’s childhood experience, when his own father was a targeted deputy police commissioner in Rome.

Young (chosen to look blonde angelic) Mattia Garaci is into slipping chicken schnitzel to his imaginary friend in the attic which he has decorated with drawings. The kid witnesses a jolting shoot out attack wounding his father, star Pierfrancesco Favino dominating his scenes. His teacher tells Garaci’s class mates  his dad is a hero but one of them sees Favino as a traitor. The threat of violent retaliation animates the picture.

Garaci encounters Francesco Gheghi, archetypal older bad boy who is everything his embracing middle class family is not ... so much so that he seems to be the imaginary friend made flesh, as the pair skip school and play soccer together. The film’s most striking moment is when a downwards shot reveals  their game to be sketching out the shooting as chalk outlines on the asphalt. Mother Barbara Ronchi is (understandably) concerned for her child’s mental state.

Padrenostro - director Claudio Noce.
Feeling guilty about his neglect of the family, Favino gets the scorta to use a second car and drives his family to the welcoming grand- parents in the safety of sunny Calabria. Who should turn up there but Gheghi in his same scruffy outfit. That torpedoes the imaginary friend theory. Favino and the rest can see and interact with him and he’s welcomed into the family circle - not all that plausible with the security level at high.

You can put down the inconsisten -sies and unlikely developments as distorted childhood memories but that’s a tough trick to pull off and Noce’s film occasionally irritates and outstays it’s welcome but it’s still well crafted and plausibly involving enough to deserve consideration.

10 giorni con Babbo Natale  / When Mom Is Away With the Family is an agreeable Fabio de Luigi comedy which gets to us down a twisted path. It is the sequel to 2019’s 10 giorni senza mamma which was an Italian language re-make of the Argentinian 2017 Diego Peretti comedy Mamá se fue de viaje,  part of the current cycle of reworking European films in a new language, itself  a curious throw back to  the high days of multiple language versioning in the first years of sound. After all that, the outline of the original film (“The rabbit is on fire!”) is still visible here even if De Luigi is getting the Clark Griswold treatment.

Turns out that he is now a house husband. They reference Mister Mum which has yet more input into this scissor and paste structure - Fabio joining the society of school gate mothers. Unemployed, he’s looking after the three kids while wife Valentina Lodovini (Benvenuti al sud) continues her executive career. This is a big day because Fabio has a job interview (for which he doesn’t shave) with a potential employer who turns out to be a woman executive sending him on his way after a brief talk in the cocktail lounge of a swank hotel. The situation is getting even more tense as Ludovini is up for a promotion in Sweden and will have to be there over Xmas.

The kids have their problems, with young son Castellucci deciding he’s a Nazi, and teen age Angelica Elli having boy trouble (we keep on waiting for her to take off her glasses and be gorgeous) leaving tot Bianca Usai to be super cute. De Luigi has a solution to their problems. He takes the family camper van out of deposito (though he still hasn’t fixed the toilet) and announces that they are going to drive to Stockholm despite resistance from all. Insets of a toy van traveling across a map.

Complications ensue when Ellis finds her boy friend also en route with his new squeeze and Castellucci falls in love with a black teenager while Fabio keeps on working his cell ‘phone to find out if he got the job - oh - and they run over Santa Clause in the amnesiac form of barely recognisable Diego Abatantuono in the red suit who convinces them they should detour via Lapland to deliver him to his elves. This doesn’t make any kind of sense but it does provide some great scenics and manages to fit in with the feel good scheme.

De Luigi is in the business of these franchises with a couple of Worst Days - Worst Xmas of  My Life films and a re-make of the Sordi Il vedovo on his c.v., telling us what to expect. Director Alessandro Genovesi ( Puoi baciare lo sposo / My Big Gay Italian Wedding) works regularly with de Luigi and Abatantuono and coasts through the awkward moments and implausibilities without any visible strain. We get the impression that this was a sure earner and they didn’t hesitate to spend on it.

If you’re going to make a scarey movie set in Venice, you have to go some to override the
memory of Don’t Look Back and, even with it’s qualities, Stefano Mordini’s  Lasciami andare / Sei tornato / You Came Back doesn’t really cut it.

Stefano Accorsi (the Ozpetek Fate ignorante and La dea fortuna) is in therapy after the loss of his young son. He’s an engineer involved in reconstruction work (“Why try to keep a sinking city afloat”) and we see his work site at a time when St. Marks Square is flooded. His marriage to Maya Sansa has broken up but he is about to have a child with Serena Rossi. 

Lasciami andare / Sei tornato / You Came Back - Accorsi & Sansa in Venice.
 

The imposing Valeria Golino (now directing but will you ever forget her in Hot Shots 2?) comes looking for him. He threatens to have her turned in for stalking but her story about living in Accorsi’s old house and her son being contacted by the ghost of his dead child starts to be backed up by physical manifestations - a spooky teddy bear,  a  well informed medium, a figure obscured by moving shadow which isn’t there when the light comes - that one is good.  Between her couple of numbers Serena Rossi goes back home to her parents and desperate Sansa proposes they buy the old home back.


Stefano goes into detective mode but despite all his efforts, Valeria’s piece of sign language remains disconcerting, along with the second trip to the medium just to confuse Stefano and the audience.

The greenish, shallow depth of field images do contribute a dank atmosphere and the cast are on top of their game but the writing isn’t strong enough to make this one fly and it falls into a trough between art movie and exploitation.

 

I can contain my enthusiasm for the event's retrospective on Roberto Rossellini whose already familiar work has had to stand in for the imposing body of forties Italian film for too long and for another go round for the divas of the fifties and sixties.

Padrenostro - Favino & Garaci


Barrie Pattison - 2021