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Thread: 2007 Repertory: Oldies but Goodies

  1. #16
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    THE THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (Raul Ruiz/1983/France)

    Tadeusz, a theology student in a Polish port city in 1958, relates how he killed his mentor and met a sailor in the street while fleeing to the train station. The sailor (Jean Bernard Guillard) offers his job on a merchant ship in exchange for three Danish crowns. The sailor takes him to a dancing hall and tells Tadeusz his life story. The sailor becomes the narrator and the film switches to color (with effective use of 2-color polarisers by DP Sacha Vierny). The sailor's story links elements of fantasy, legend, myth and folklore with daily life. It's an episodic tale that opens in Valparaiso, Chile and travels to faraway places including Dakar and Singapore.

    The premise and the tales-within-tales were inspired by the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the novel "The Night in Lisbon" by Erich Maria Remarque and informed by stories by Stevenson, Kipling and friends of Ruiz's father, a sea captain. It's a wonderfully intoxicating mix created, as explained by Ruiz, "in the spirit of bricolage". The Three Crowns of the Sailor features all kinds of patterns and correspondences between the narrative threads within it. Equally striking are the formal elements, especially deep-focus photography with a third of the frame occupied by an object inches from the camera. It reminded me of some scenes in Orson Welles' pictures but Ruiz claims he was inspired by American cartoonist Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates").

  2. #17
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    What's "bricolage"?

    I'll watch anything with Sacha Vierny as cinematographer. Someone should do a documentary on him. He contributed a lot to cinema: films with Resnais, Bunuel, Greenaway, etc.
    Great directors aren't really great without visionary DP's...
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  3. #18
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    Vierny was one of the great cinematographers, wasn't he? Ten films with Alain Resnais and everything Greenaway directed between A Zed... and 8 1/2 Women. He made several films with Ruiz.
    Ruiz uses the word "bricolage" to describe how he incorporates into his filmmaking process anything that's "at hand". He talks about being open to the possibilities of what's around during the shoot. This is true of both low-budget films like 3 Crowns and expensive productions like Time Regained and Klimt. Ruiz is willing to make last-minute changes to the script or to the mise-en-scene; to be spontaneous.

  4. #19
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    OVERLORD (UK/1975)

    American director Stuart Cooper and his co-writer Christopher Hudson spent years at the Imperial War Museum in London and other European archives selecting WWII footage to incorporate into the story of a fictional but average young recruit. His name is Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), a 20 year old living with his parents in East Yorkshire. We meet him on the day he leaves home to undergo basic training in preparation for the Normandy invasion. What is truly remarkable about the film is how DP John Alcott, veteran of several Kubrick films, selects the film stock, lenses, and camera angles to match the archival footage being used. As a result, Overlord (one of the code names for the invasion), feels like a documentary even at times when the young lad is shown reminiscing or fantasizing just prior to battle. The archival material depicting bombing raids and devastation is awesome and tragic, and the experience of an "everyman" at wartime is conveyed most convincingly.

    Overlord was not released in commercial theaters in the US until 2006. The film is now available on Criterion dvd with the usual extra features that enrich the experience.

  5. #20
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    THE BIG KNIFE (USA/1955)

    Robert Aldrich had just released the darkest film noir (Kiss Me Deadly) when he directed this independently produced film. It's not a noir at all, but a Hollywood-on-Hollywood tragedy faithfully based on a play by Clifford Odets. Many studio films set in Hollywood were released before (What Price Hollywood?, Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful) and after (The Barefoot Contessa, The Day of the Locust, The Legend of Lylah Clare). None of them serve as an indictment of the Hollywood star system and the dictatorial power of the men who run the studios quite like The Big Knife. All of it takes place in the large Beverly Hills living room of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a once-idealistic actor married to a woman (Ida Lupino) who loves him but has recently left him because of his philandering and his forced surrender to studio mogul Stanley Hoff. Gossip columnists, publicists, managers and studio honchos enter Castle's place as if they owned it. The Big Knife pulls no punches when showing how actors were turned into fetishistic commodities and manipulated during the Studio Era. Hoff is played by Rod Steiger as a composite character, with traits associated with Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner. Shelley Winters shines as a wounded wannabe starlet. Aldrich makes no attempt to soften the blow or to water down Odets' florid and poetic use of language. The jazzy score is a bit too punchy for my taste but it befits The Big Knife's angry and appalling mood.

  6. #21
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    THE BIG COMBO (USA/1955)

    Low-budget films were usually referred as "B movies" during the Studio Era. It was easier to make stylish and daring movies when the budget was low because they attracted less studio interference. Three artistically-minded directors thrived making "B movies": Edgar Ulmer, Jacques Tourneur, and Joseph H. Lewis. French New Wave directors were highly influenced and inspired by the pictures these three men made in the 40s and 50s. Lewis was a film noir specialist who made two of the best films in that genre: Gun Crazy and The Big Combo.

    The Big Combo stars Cornel Wilde as a cop infatuated with the blonde lover of an elusive mob boss (Richard Conte). It's one of the sexiest and most violent films made during the 50s. It's also a quintessential film noir with the camera placed at extreme angles, high contrast between shadows and light, scenes shrouded in fog and neon, etc. Turner Classic Movies broadcasted The Big Combo recently as part of its "Screened Out: Gay Images in Film" based on how the film suggests that Conte's hit men Fante and Mingo are gay and in love with each other.

  7. #22
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    RED ANGEL (Japan/1966)

    Red as in blood and passion. Yasuzo Masumura's muse Ayako Wakao is Sakura, a 24 year-old nurse assigned to a hospital in China in 1939. She gets raped by a soldier about to be discharged and returned to the front. When this soldier comes back gravely injured, Sakura gets a reluctant doctor to perform a blood transfusion in exchange for spending the night with him (she doesn't want the rapist to think she is being vengeful). Turns out the doctor is impotent, probably as a result of morphine addiction, and simply wants Suzaku to inject him and keep him company. The medical staff can do little for the wounded soldiers besides limb amputations. Sakura takes pity on a young soldier missing both arms, who is not sent back to Japan because it would deflate public morale there. She performs sexual favors for him but falls in love with the stoic, drug-addicted doctor. Life during wartime becomes more perilous when Sakura and the doctor are sent deeper into China where Japanese troops are experiencing heavy losses.

    Red Angel is a remarkable anti-war film with a strong-willed protagonist who refuses to lose her humanity under most dire circumstances. It presents an absolutely hellish view of war in b&w CinemaScope, and a frank depiction of the sexual needs of men and women. Masumura's radical mise-en-scene (radical in the context of Japanese cinema but reminiscent of Sam Fuller's war films), the brilliant performances by the whole cast, and Masumura's eloquent expression of his sociopolitical values yield one of the masterpieces of the Japanese New Wave.

    Previously reviewed Japanese New Wave films:
    Seijun Suzuki (Gate of Flesh, Story of a Prostitute, Princess Raccoon)
    Yasuzo Masumura (Blind Beast, Manji)
    Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Parade of Roses)

  8. #23
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    SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN (China/1948)

    Tian Zhuangzhuang's 2002 remake of this classic drama brought it out of obscurity. In 2005, the members of the Hong Kong Film Association compiled a list of the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures and Spring in a Small Town was number one. The film has recently become available on dvd in the USA. It's a chamber drama set shortly after WWII in the ruins a small town. Liyan, a 30-year old man who has lost his fortune and his health, lives in the dilapidated family mansion with his wife Yuwen and his cheerful 16-year old sister Xiu. The moody Liyan and his dutiful wife have slept in different rooms for several years. Liyan's spirits brighten when he receives an unexpected visit from Zichen, a dear friend he hasn't seen in 10 years. Liyan doesn't know that Zichen and Yuwen were neighbors and sweethearts once, and that they didn't marry only because of the disapproval of Yuwen's mother. In fact, Liyan believes his handsome doctor friend could make an excellent husband to his sister Xiu and asks Yuwen to serve as matchmaker.

    Director Fei Mu's superb script, adapted from a short story by Li Tianji, features sparse and precise dialogue and a voice-over by Juwen that alternates between subjective, first-person confessional and objective narration. The drama is intensified by the absence of peripheral characters (except an old servant) or extras_the town is seemingly depopulated even though Yuwen goes to market daily and Xiu attends school. Spring in a Small Town takes us to the ruined walls that surround the town, Juwen's favorite place, but never peeks outside. The film conveys the plight of its heoine, trapped by duty and propriety, very effectively. It's a highly affecting piece of work by a director with obvious skills.

    Wei Wei, the magnificent actress who plays the lead role, returned to acting in the 1990s after a 30 year absence. She is still active at the age of 85. Fei Mu directed China's first color film Remorse of Death (also 1948) then emigrated to Hong Kong after the communist revolution and died in 1951 at the age of 44. Spring in a Small Town was deemed "bourgeois" and banned by the party until the late 1980s.

    *Both available dvd versions of the film are taken from the same print, which needs major restoration. Readjust your expectations of what a film from 1948 looks like on dvd and cherish the fact that it's been made available for home viewing.

  9. #24
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    FACES OF CHILDREN (Switzerland-France/1925)

    My first encounter with the films of the Belgian director Jacques Feyder were the clips from his silent films shown in the remarkable documentary Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996). Until this week, the only Feyder film I had seen was his American film Anna Christie starring Greta Garbo. Last October, Image Entertainment released a box titled: "Rediscover Jacques Feyder: French Film Master". It consists of three discs: Queen of Atlantis, Crainquebille and Faces of Children, which many consider the best of these three silent works. It concerns a 10 year-old boy having great difficulty adjusting to the death of his mother and, subsequently, to her father's marriage to a widow who has a daughter. What makes Faces of Children particularly accomplished is the location photography shot on location in the Swiss Alps (including a stunning avalanche sequence) and the performance by the young actor Jean Forest (who debuted in Feyder's Crainquebille). Forest retired from acting in 1935 at the age of 22.

  10. #25
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    FAT CITY (USA/1972)

    John Huston's adaptation of the titular novel by Leonard Gardner was well-received at its Cannes premiere. When it was released in the States, it got uniformly excellent reviews. It was a flop.

    "My God, what happened? Why didn't anybody see it? So they took out an ad in the LA Times, full-page ad, signed by hundreds of movie stars. Paul Newman and all kinds of people urging you to go see this picture. They re-released it. Guess what? Nobody went to see it. It's a cult film. Nobody wants to know about failure." (Cinematographer Conrad Hall).

    John Huston had been making films about failure for over 30 years. Great films about losers like the prospectors looking for The Treasure of Sierra Madre and the adventurers in The Man Who Would Be King. One can sense from the start that Stacy Keach's tentative comeback as a boxer in the amateur circuit is doomed to fail and that teenage wanna-be Jeff Bridges won't amount to much. They will never make it to "fat city". Their environment, the underbelly of Stockton, California is rendered with pungency and amazing detail by Huston and Hall (American Beauty, In Cold Blood). The pictures exudes a gritty realism and a complete lack of artistic compromises. Candy Clark (soon to become famous in American Grafitti) and the bizarre, edgy Susan Tyrrell are both wonderful in supporting roles. Tyrrell got an Oscar nomination, a rare moment of mainstream acceptance for the decidedly unconventional actress. The film captures the downbeat historical period in which it was released yet nothing about it has dated at all.

  11. #26
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    MON ONCLE ANTOINE (Canada/1971)

    This film directed by Claude Jutra has been chosen as the Best Canadian Film of All Time in three separate polls of Canadian critics and academics _the latest poll was conducted in 2004. Runners-up: Jesus de Montreal ('88), The Sweet Hereafter ('97), Goin' Down the Road ('70), Atanarjuat (2002). Mon Oncle Antoine was also the Grand Prize winner at the 1971 Chicago Film Festival.

    It's a coming-of-age film about a 14 year-old orphan named Benoit who has lived for an unspecified amount of time with foster parents Cecile and Antoine. They run a general store in a mining village in Quebec in the late 1940s. The store is a gathering place for the community, particularly during the Christmas holidays. Mon Oncle Antoine is both a sprawling portrait of village life and an intimate account of how Benoit gains awareness of the plights of the adults around him and confronts his own mortality. Benoit accompanies his "uncle" Antoine, who doubles as village undertaker, to retrieve the body of a teenage boy who has died in a remote homestead. The hazardous trip on sled provides a formative experience to the boy.

    Screenwriter Clement Petron writes from personal experience, with a perceptive eye for the foibles and heartbreaks of the villagers. Jutra's apprenticeship with the likes of Jean Rouch in France is evident in the documentary feel of several scenes. He also plays the pivotal role of Cecile's lover. Jutra made several interesting films in his 25 year directorial career but most are very hard to find. He developed early-onset Alzheimer's and commited suicide by drowning, like the protagonist of his film A Tout Prende. He was only 56 years old.

  12. #27
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    CANYON PASSAGE (USA/1946)

    Director Jacques Tourneur became famous for his poetic dramas of the supernatural billed as "horror" and given inappropriate titles by the studio for box-office's sake. Films like I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. He directed one of the classic film noirs, Out of the Past and a nifty iron-curtain thriller, Berlin Express. Familiarity with his remarkable career reveals a filmmaker as versatile as Howard Hawks. Period dramas like Stars in my Crown and westerns like Wichita and Canyon Passage are just as worthy of praise as the earlier films. Lamentably, to a large number of classic film aficionados, they remain unknown quantities.

    Canyon Passage is his first color film, a Western as the title implies, set in 1856 Oregon with no canyons in sight (probably another studio-imposed title). Logan (Dana Andrews), a mule train owner, is robbed of a gold shipment while sleeping in a Portland hotel. He thinks the bandit was Honey Bragg, whom he believes had earlier killed two miners, though their murders were blamed on local Indians. Logan escorts Lucy (Susan Hayward), the fiancée of his friend George (Brian Donlevy), to the mining town of Jacksonville. They stop at the ranch of Ben Dance and his family. Logan gives a locket to Caroline, an English immigrant staying with the Dances, though Lucy doubts his serious intentions. Upon his arrival in Jacksonville, Lucy chastises George for his gambling, unaware that the problem is so severe that the banker is embezzling funds to cover his losses.

    There's something of John Ford in Tourneur's rich depiction of communities, the forces that threaten to divide them and those that foster cohesion (the scene in which the whole pioneer community raise a cabin for a newly-wed couple is justly famous). Conflicts involving the nature of business and different approaches to justice are weaved into the plot gracefully. And of course, like every Tourneur picture, Canyon Passage displays his unique lighting schemes and masterful eye for frame composition. It's another beautiful and substantive film from a master filmmaker.

  13. #28
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    THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (USA/1970)

    Sam Peckinpah earned the moniker "Bloody Sam" with the release of The Wild Bunch in 1969. It was controversial but it made a lot of money for Columbia. The studio executives were not happy with this soulful, romantic and funny western. They failed to publicize it and let it die a quick death. It's the story of grizzled frontiersman Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) who's robbed and left to die in the desert. Luckily, he finds a water spring 20 miles from the nearest town, on the stagecoach line, and turns it into a rest stop. He befriends a passing preacher, a young handsome guy who uses his power of oratory to seduce young women, and falls in love with an independent prostitute (Stella Stevens) in town. The opportunity for revenge will manifest itself but Cable is a most reluctant avenger. Peckinpah celebrates the pioneering spirit of his ancestors with warmth and lyricism. Robards and Stevens were never better than here. The recent dvd release is finally giving The Ballad of Cable Hogue deserved exposure.

  14. #29
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    ASCENT TO HEAVEN aka Mexican Bus Ride (Mexico/1951)

    For decades, Bunuel's appreciation has been based primarily on his French language films whereas most of his Spanish language and both English language films languised in relative obscurity. A major retrospective and several dvd releases over the past three years have facilitated a more comprehensive assessment of the Spanish master's amazing career.

    Ascent to Heaven, a film set in coastal areas of Guerrero province, was proposed to Bunuel by Manuel Altoaguirre, an exiled Spanish poet. He based the plot on observations made during a trip through the region with his eccentric Cuban wife. The characters are residents of a remote village who must travel a long distance by bus to a town where they can sell their wares, get medical care, and have access to many services unavailable in their tiny village. Oliverio, the central character, is a young newlywed sent by his ailing, widowed mother to fetch a lawyer. She wants to write a will to prevent her greedy older sons from taking sole possession of her property. Among the travelers, a pregnant woman, a political candidate, and a voluptuous girl (the charming and sexy Lilia Prado) who intends to seduce Oliveiro at all costs. It's a road film that combines comedy and high drama and provides an ethnographic portrait of the region. Ascent to Heaven is a close cousin of the films about poor and working class folk being made in Italy at the time, but it adds a satiric edge and a marvelous surreal sequence that are pure Bunuel.

    *Ascent to Heaven (Subida al Cielo) is now available on a dvd made in Mexico for both region 1 and region 4. It has excellent, easy-to-read English subtitles. Bunuel's American masterpiece, The Young One (1960), was released in the US last tuesday.

  15. #30
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    LOVE ME TONIGHT (USA/1932)

    Maurice Chevalier had become quite a star at Paramount Studios under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch (The Love Parade, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour With You) . The premier director of romantic comedies and operettas was preparing to shoot one of his masterpieces, Trouble in Paradise, so the producers suggested Armenia-born Rouben Mamoulian. He had just had a huge success at the helm of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Chevalier was skeptical because Mamoulian had never directed a musical, but a meeting with the director provided reassurance. This third pairing of Chevalier and the beautiful Jeanette MacDonald is now referred as "the best musical of the 1930s" and perhaps Chevalier's best vehicle.

    Love Me Tonight is based on a French play by Paul Armont, a twist on the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming. Chevalier is Maurice, a lusty tailor who travels to a countryside chateau to collect monies owed by a viscount to a number of Parisian tradesmen. To avoid embarrasment, the viscount (comedian Charlie Ruggles) introduces Maurice as a friend and a baron. Maurice plays along because, outside the chateau, he met and fell in love with a lovelorn princess (MacDonald) and plans to woo her. The direction by Mamoulian, who alternated between film and stage, is unrelentingly innovative, featuring a highly mobile camera, a rare early zoom shot, split screen, fast and slow motion sequences, and unusual camera angles. One of the early musical numbers is often referred as among the best ever filmed, as the tune of "Isn't It Romantic?" travels from a tailor shop to a taxi cab, to a moving train, to a marching platoon of soldiers and to a gypsy caravan until it reaches the chambers of the love-deprived princess. The already established chemistry between Chevalier and MacDonald is undeniable, and the supporting cast (including a young Mirna Loy) is first class. Most of the music score and the wonderful songs were written by Rodgers and Hart. Standouts include "Mimi", the dreamy title tune, and the hilariously witty "The Son of a Gun is Nothing but a Tailor".

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