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Italiani brava gente (1964)
Impressive WWII Epic By Underrated Italian Neo-Realist
"Italiano Brava Gente" the original title of this film (literally, Italian man good people) is what a Russian says, an hour into the story, when his partisans beg their WWII Fascist enemy to lend them a doctor to help an injured fighter. Because it required an international collaboration, including participation by Hollywood producer Joseph Levine, to make this epic, the doctor is one of several leading roles played by American actors, in this case Peter Falk, who despite dubbing of his memorable voice into Italian, gives the most striking characterization. The movie was directed by Giuseppe De Santis, an important figure in the history of neo-realism who is unfortunately not as well known as his more prolific colleagues De Sica, Visconti, or Rossellini. In a series of episodes, such as the one mentioned with the doctor, all drawn from authentic military memoirs, De Santis who also co-wrote brings across the overriding theme that the common Italian soldier, skeptical about his government's attack on the Soviet Union, has actually more sympathy for, and more in common with, the Russian peasants and workers on the other side than with Mussolini's supposed allies the Germans. In one scene an Italian soldier who likes the Communist anthem The Internationale actually plays it on his harmonica which leads to the Russians singing along- a moment comparable to the famous one in "Casablanca" where the Marseillaise is sung in defiance of the Nazis. In contrast, there is an elite group of shock troops, called the "Superarditi," brought in to reinvigorate Il Duce's assault, and the role of their balding, crippled, fanatic officer is here played by another U.S. actor, Arthur Kennedy. I watched this movie partly as an homage to the recently deceased Russian actress, Tatiana Samoilova, who is prominently billed but in the longest subtitled version I've been able to see (137 minutes) has only a couple of big scenes toward the end, as the woman one of the deserting Italians hides with underground; after the Germans, with whom it is mentioned she had been fraternizing, have started their hectic retreat, she is afraid of being caught by her fellow Soviets. While we had a brief glimpse of her with a German earlier, it seems that some of her footage may be among what was cut, when the movie was edited down from its original full length of 156 minutes. While there are a number of vivid images in this film, the climax, in which Cossacks mounted on horses hurtle by against the remaining enemy, is especially impressive.
Flame and the Flesh (1954)
Underrated Turner Vehicle That Is Hard To See
Flame And The Flesh, due to the literary rights of the French book it's based on, has not been available for years through official channels. Sometimes the serious cinephile has to be like an archaeologist, who looks at a pile of ancient ruins and can extrapolate what the building once was. In this case a dupey, washed out video doesn't compare to what an original Technicolor print would have offered. Nonetheless director Richard Brooks' fusing of the different elements that went into this melodramatic vehicle for Lana Turner is an impressive achievement that comes through. First element to single out is a series of four melodies composed by the underrated Nicholas Brodsky, who worked in early European sound films, then for British movies, before becoming a Hollywood tunesmith. Melodrama means drama with music, and the songs here are beautifully interwoven with the story, and stay in the memory. Next is the location photography of Naples and its surroundings, typical of the mid 50s American penchant for shooting in different parts of Europe. Turner herself was not a great actress and the writing (due to censorship) and her playing of a loose woman who gets around by picking up different men and then abandoning them, pale in comparison with the same characterization as played in the earlier, more explicit 1937 French version of the story, by the great Viviane Romance, who specialized in femmes fatales. Brooks, however, brings out some of her sexiness and bitchiness the way he would later famously do with Liz Taylor in "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof." The symbol of a caged bird in the apartment where Turner has shacked up, which she eventually releases as she is about to consummate her feelings for the singer (Carlos Thompson) is somewhat heavy handed, however. This man's attitude toward such a woman is complicated, and summed up when he tells her, "Why do I love you, when I don't like you?" The film ends a bit differently from the French one. The singer and his roommate (Bonar Colleano) both ditch Turner and drive off together into the night (It is suggested that there may be something more between them, or at least a "Casablanca" type friendship at the end.) Turner has a tempting set up with a rich restaurant owner (Erich Pohlmann) but instead walks off in a superb finale,into the blue seaside mist. We can only speculate what she will do next!
Alan Clarke: Director (1991)
Documentary Serviceable As Intro To Great,Neglected Brit Director
The title credit reads "Director Alan Clarke," and this made for TV program runs 53 minutes, so it is feature length, not a short. About 20 people who worked with the recently deceased Clarke are interviewed, he himself is seen in several clips, and writer David Leland who worked with him serves as host/narrator. Still photos are used to document the early part of Clarke's life, before he started directing for stage, television, and later film. Certain episodes are focused on: the 1962 Craig/Bentley murder case in which many felt an injustice had been done with the disproportionate sentencing of two young criminals; it was turned into a 1972 TV play, "To Encourage The Others." Also, ironically for the BBC which produced this documentary,another episode that is dwelt on is the network's refusing to air the 1977 drama "Scum." As a result, Clarke and the writer Roy Mintun had to go to the trouble of shooting an entirely separate theatrical version, released in 1979, to get their points across about the harshness and failure of the British reformatory system for boys, the borstals. Footage in several scenes of Clarke directing the basketball court scene from "Scum," in which a racially charged contest becomes a violent melee, is precious. We also see one of his cinematographers being questioned about Clarke's increasing use of the Steadicam, beginning with "Made In Britain" in 1982. This hand-held camera weighing about 55 pounds was often transported by the lenser for as long as 6 minutes, when Clarke wanted a fluid movement that wouldn't look jittery (like the older style of hand-held) and which could get in closer to the actors than a tracking shot on rails. Producer Mark Shivas stresses how Clarke encouraged the viewer to "watch within the frame," rather than having things drawn to one's attention. Another producer David Rose mentions how Clarke's comparatively "tranquil" style contrasted with other TV shows of the time which were "hustling and bustling" and vying for an American kind of pace. After watching this documentary and seeing only 6 of Clarke's features,out of some 60, I am convinced that he was a great director of the social realist school, comparable to the more well known Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. It is possible that with further viewing of his harder to see TV shows, he will be revealed to have been an even greater artist.
Worthwhile Documentary On Underrated French Comedian
For those who have never seen a Pierre Etaix film,or for those who have and want to learn more about him, this hour long program, which is featured in the recent Criterion DVD set on that auteur, is well worthwhile. It was directed by his wife Odile and features interview material with many of his collaborators. One thing I learned right away is that the proper pronunciation (often a problem with French names) is ey-TEX not ey-TEY. Etaix narrates, telling us first about his interest in clowns, the circus, and the music hall, though the actor Lon Chaney's ability to put on fake faces was an early influence from the movies. His screenwriter collaborator Jean Claude Carriere who would later work with Luis Bunuel and Louis Malle among others, credits Etaix with teaching him about film and cites their shared enthusiasm for several other movie people, Buster Keaton as well as Laurel and Hardy.We move on to Etaix's participation with Jacques Tati, for whom he created gags and drawings not to mention the designs for the contrasting old and new houses in "My Uncle," which are such an important part of that work.Before he made his "Yoyo," Etaix was impressed by Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," though he also drew on memories of the early French comedian Max Linder.(The story was based on the real incident of a Rothschild scion hiring a circus to entertain in his mansion.) Two non-film influences are presented along the way: his beautiful native landscape of Roannes, which affected the way he showed nature in his movies, and the stained glass windows of a local modern artist, Hanssen. At this point we meet someone who was influenced BY Etaix, namely Jerry Lewis.The scenes in which they express their fondness for each other are the most moving in this documentary. Etaix analyzes some of the factors that went into the success of his movies, though he now feels some of the music he used was redundant and that one of his acting troupe, Denise Peronne (whom he borrowed from Tati, a sort of French Martita Hunt) never quite got what he wanted her to do.All of the earlier films were carefully plotted in advance, but his rare stint into documentary, "The Land Of Milk And Honey," especially relied on the use of editing to shape the loosely shaped footage. We meet Annie Fratellini, from a family of clowns, whom he married and with whom he would open a school. The documentary, as well as the Criterion set, leave out a later TV film that Etaix directed and starred in, "L'Age De Monsieur Est Avance" (Monsieur Is Getting Old) that I have so far been able to find only an unsubtitled copy of.Otherwise it gives quite a nice, detailed portrait of this major filmmaker.
Rag Doll (1961)
Not Bad "B" Has Interesting Assets
"Rag Doll" is just a little "B" (only 63 minutes) and its director, Lance Comfort, tended to grind this kind of thing out rather than give it much in the way of style. It does however have some interesting assets.First, for those curious about what London (especially the West End) and its night life looked like in the early 1960s, when this was made, there is much location footage. Later in the story the gangster musician, when he needs an alibi for a break-in he's about to commit one night, gets tickets for him and his girlfriend to see the John Wayne movie "The Alamo," which we see on a marquee. Second, there are several well known performers. Patrick Magee, famed for his roles in Samuel Beckett plays, appears early on as the heroine's stepfather, a small town bar proprietor, whom she soon deserts.(Though he is rather wasted.) When she gets to the big city, she's accidentally befriended by Princess Sophita,a fortune teller in a downtown arcade who later calls herself Auntie, this provides a nice role for one of the great British character actresses, Hermione Baddeley. Auntie also works in one of four coffee bars owned by the middle aged Mort Wilson (Kenneth Griffith) who in turn becomes the girl's protector. Partly out of jealousy and partly out of concern for the girl he orders her to stay away from the hunky,leather-jacketed Shane, a young musician who has a gig in Mort's place and who she falls heavy for. In one of the numbers we see where Shane plays, his back up band consists of what would later become the Dave Clark Five! The girl, not knowing much about music, asks Mort what he thinks of them and he quips, drily, "They make a living." Here is where Mort makes one of the moralistic speeches typical in this kind of exploitation film, denouncing the teenagers and making the point that the seductive musician (who we will later find out is a crook) has named himself after a character in a Western! Jess Conrad, who plays this role, was one of several good looking aspiring British rock and roll actors who were modelled at least partly on the success of America's Ricky Nelson. That is pretty blatant as soon as he straps on a guitar and starts to sing. He also looks somewhat, from today's perspective, like the young Tom Cruise. The denouement does not go well. The girl gets pregnant. The cops are on to Shane. The couple escape into the countryside where things go down in one of those Sturm und Drang finales But for what this was meant to be- part of a double bill- there is enjoyment to be had if you don't expect too much.
The Arab (1924)
Intermediate Version of Edgar Selwyn's Play
It would be interesting to see the first, now lost, 1915 film version of the Edgar Selwyn play, The Arab (1911) as Selwyn himself played the title role and director Cecil B De Mille made a similar movie on the tense relationship between a white woman and a romantic man of color the same year, his more well known The Cheat. Ramon Novarro,the star of this 1924 version also appeared in a loose remake from 1933, more provocatively retitled The Barbarian. Both of these versions feature a scene halfway through where the heroine (here Alice Terry, later Myrna Loy) takes a whip to the Arab. The somewhat ragged video copy of the 1924 version that I was able to see came from Gosfilmofond and is missing the opening (which explains how he is deserted by his father and lands up in Turkey) and the ending, running a total of 63 minutes whereas the original length was a bit longer, 7 reels. There are traces of director Rex Ingram's renowned pictorialism in several shots taken through archways, or from the Arab's tent toward the end; and traces of cinematographer John Seitz's compositions in light and shade.The surviving material also shows the benefit of Ingram's shooting some of it on location in Algiers (not that common in that time) and using real desert natives in the cast. As a whole however it fails to live up to the very enthusiastic review that its first showings got from Variety.From today's perspective, the two Sheik pictures with Rudolph Valentino which play with similar motifs are more enjoyable.
Grim But Well Made Quebec Film, Didn't Make It To US
Marecages (Wetlands) is an example of the numerous interesting French language movies being made in Quebec, that never get distributed (except later perhaps on DVD) in the United States, let alone in the non French speaking parts of Canada itself. This one is a grim story of a dairy farm during hard times, centered on a 14 year old boy. His father dies in an accident with a grain cart, for which the boy takes some blame because of his negligence; he also takes blame for the death of his brother earlier in the family story. When another man tries to fill his father's shoes by courting the woman and helping out on the property, the son takes a dislike to him. Nevertheless the man takes the boy to a local night club where women pole dance, to help bond with him. But the boy is more interested in men, as we see when he watches another man urinate, and later follows that man into a shower in a fair. When the man who is trying to supplant the father forces himself on the mother and she rejects him, things come to a violent end as the man kills some cows, and we hear the ominous sound of rain gathering in the background.(In an earlier scene we had seen a calf die as it was being extricated from its mother.)In trying to say some things about masculinity and patriarchy,director Guy Edoin makes his movie somewhat more melodramatic than it may need to be, but he definitely has an eye and keeps us interested in what he is presenting. Hopefully we will see more good work from him in the future.
Out of the Blue (1980)
Family Conflict Also A Clash Of Musical Styles
Out Of The Blue is on one level an involving look at a disturbed teen and her family, but on another a commentary of sorts on different pop music styles. Cindy (Cebe) played by a feisty Linda Manz is a devotee of the punk culture that has been percolating in North America a few years before the movie was shot. But she is also a Presley acolyte, her bedroom could be described as a treasure trove of Elvis kitsch (Elvis had died just a few years before, as well.) Her father, played by director/uncredited co-writer Dennis Hopper, has been in prison during the five years that punk developed and when he sees some of the punk paraphernalia also on her wall wants to tear it off. The viewer may associate Hopper from Easy Rider and his own bio as a hippie, and we hear several songs on the track by Canadian rocker Neil Young (the film was Canadian financed and shot in the Vancouver area) at the beginning and end, speaking to that kind of music instead. (Early in the movie Manz denounces hippies and talks about killing them.) Music suffuses the film, a scene with a performance by The Pointed Sticks, who invite Manz to join them on stage on the drums, is an interesting record of Canadian punk from the time. Other aspects of the film leave something to be desired. While Hopper sets up some scenes in long takes so that the dramatic intensity of the characters' tensions can build, in others he seems to borrow from John Cassavetes and allow himself and the other actors to dig into their feelings in a raw, unmediated way that is grating. The final explosions of violence, in which Manz kills her father, who is suddenly spelled out as incestuous, then blows up herself and her mother in an old truck, in a kind of Goetterdaemmerung, are rushed and somewhat unmotivated.
Museum Hours (2012)
One Of Those Movies That Help Us See Better And Think
I've liked the earlier work I've seen by independent film maker Jem Cohen,who has experience in documentary and punk rock. (Museum Hours is co-produced by Patti Smith.) This new movie straddles the borders between his non fiction background and a made up story, as it shows us two characters played by non professional actors and presents a number of scenes that could very well be real.(One probable exception, the episode where visitors to Vienna's prestigious art museum are naked.)The key scene in "Museum Hours" leaves the main characters behind for a lengthy time as we watch a lecture by a lady docent in that museum's Bruegel room, an articulate presentation on that artist's depictions of peasant life. The idea we most take away from this woman's talk is that the main points of interest in a painting are not necessarily its ostensible subject. Thus in a canvas on Saint Paul we are drawn to a boy with a helmet and even the rear ends of several horses! Similarly at one or two points in the movie instead of continuing the story of a museum guard and a visiting tourist we are invited to look at a street flea market in windy weather, with its accumulation of things. Cohen also uses a technique I like where instead of always giving us the soundtrack that matches the visuals at that moment, there is sometimes a disjunction between audio and image (For example while we are seeing something else we hear the recorded guide that patrons listen to.) Cohen also plays with a contrast in texture between digital (for the interiors) and 16mm (for the exteriors) though unfortunately this aspect doesn't come across in the DVD that has been made, The DVD however does have some fascinating comments by the director, with which I sympathize, on the distinction between movies that dictate to us where to look and how to feel, and those that invite our eyes to wander, to shift between foreground and background, that leave us more free to make our own connections. In sum, as a movie centered on a museum this is a more stimulating work than Sokurov's showy one-shot wonder on the Hermitage, Russian Ark, which has gotten more of the critical attention.
Definitive Portrait Of A Down And Out Eccentric
Henning Carlsen's adaptation of a famous Knut Hamsun novel is rightly remembered today for Per Oscarsson's performance as Pontus, a starving writer,looking for work, who doesn't want to admit to others (or to himself) how desperate he is and instead puts on airs, There is some precedent for such a character in film, in Louis Jouvet's downtrodden aristocrat in the Jean Renoir version of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths. In a key scene, Pontus sees himself getting down on all fours on a cobbled street to challenge a big black dog for a meat bone. As Pontus walks up and down the Christiana quarter, he keeps running into people. He's also obsessed with an attractive blonde (Gunnel Lindblom) and stalks her and her companion. When she actually invites him in to her place (he has been asked to leave his flat) the story, such as it is ( actually more of a character study) slows down somewhat, and the idea that such a genteel lady would accept a man who is basically a bum as her sexual partner seems more like something out of the 1960s than the 1890s, the film's period.Nonetheless the film doesn't sentimentalize the sad situation and all elements contribute effectively to the convincing atmosphere: the music, by Roman Polanski composer Krzysztof Komeda; the set design; the black and white lensing (though the occasional zoom shot, also a 1960s artifact, is distracting) I would like to compare "Hunger" with other screen versions of Hamsun.