Friday, September 30, 2011


Plenty of DVD's come and go and we often miss them or don't even know they exist. These are a few rarely seen films that are not necessarily hard to find.

Circle of Deceit [Kino]
This German film deals with a journalist in a war zone who must come to grips with what is going on around him in war and in his life. Bruno Ganz stars as the journalist and Hanna Schygulla is the woman he has fallen in love with. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff with a terrific amount of verve the film was shot in Lebanon while a war was going on. They shot in and around actual abandoned bombed out buildings and it feels at times like a documentary.

Danzon [Facets]
Okay, this one is sort of rare because it is out-of-print. It's a well made, engaging Mexican film about a woman who goes in search of her missing dancing partner - an older gentleman she hardly knows. While looking for him she ends up in Veracruz where she befriends a cross-dresser who helps her find herself. [The films is not as salacious as it sounds; This is not Almodovar territory].

We All Loved Each Other So Much [BYU]
This one goes by the title C'eravamo Tanto Amati and is rather expensive and hard to come by but if you like fast paced delightful Italian comedy/dramas this is the ticket. Directed by Ettore Scola and starring Nino Manfredi, Vittorio Gassman, Stefania Sandrelli the film deals with a group of friends recalling their tumultuous lives growing up together - all of which deal with the men falling in love with the woman at various stages.

25 Firemans Street [Kino]
I would categorize this Hungarian film as Eastern European, communist, surrealism. Directed by István Szabó it has a unique style that is almost completely alien to us today. Each shot is precise and involves rather intricate roving camera tracking shots that often utilize the zoom lens. It takes place entirely in one run-down apartment building that, quite clearly, is a metaphor for Hungary circa the early 70's.

Mr Thank You [Eclipse / Criterion] [Also on Hulu Plus] [[Maybe not so rare]]
This film by Hiroshi Shimizu is an amazing snapshot of Japan in 1935. The main character is a bus driver who does a daily trip from Tokyo to the nearby mountain towns that exist in the area. Along thee way he encounters the many peope in the region. It is very simply directed yet has an endearing quality and some rather inventive editing to move the story along. This film is rather easy to get now - although it is part of a box set, which has many other terrific films by the same director

Monday, September 26, 2011

Il momento della verità

Every time I see a Francesco Rosi film I wonder how is it possible he is not better known. Even among cinephiles he doesn't get his due. Of course, his films are hard to come by so that certainly plays a part.

Il momento della verità [aka The Moment of Truth] is not one of his well known films but thanks to Criterion / Hulu Plus it is now available. And what a masterful film it is.

The basic story is that of an Andalusian farm boy who in order to get out of poverty moves to Barcelona to become a bullfighter. The film is both a documentary and a feature film. The bullfighting scenes, as well as various bullfighting festivities - such as bulls running through crowds and plowing into spectators - are all real. Very real. When the bull is gored and blood spills profusely out of his mouth it is all real. And disturbing. Yet it is this authenticity that makes the film all the more effective.

Despite the narrative arc about the young man's rise to fame this is not a film about bullfighting so much as a neo-realist film [in color] about the travails of the working poor in Spain circa 1965. It shows us in blunt terms that the choices are limited. If you are a male you can remain on the farm working just to survive or you can go to the city and work for someone who forwards you money, which you then become indebted to thus never really getting ahead. Or, if you are a fearless and athletic young man, you can try bullfighting and makes a good living - albeit one that is very risky.

It should be noted this film could not have been made in the mid 60's by a Spanish filmmaker due to the Franco dictatorship. So it took Rosi - an Italian - along with his great cinematographer, Gianni Di Venanzo, shooting the documentary scenes with a 16mm silent, color camera - to get it done. The fictional scenes were - I believe - shot in 35mm as they could be under controlled direction.

The actor who plays the lead is a real [legendary] bullfighter named Miguel Mateo 'Miguelín' and he is truly amazing to watch. Not only in the way he handles the cape and the muleta but in some of the scenes in which he brushes up against the bull and pats him on the head before eventually thrusting the sword [estoque] into the bull's shoulder blade are astonishing.

It is evident from the first moment he steps into the ring that he has talent. In fact, if the film has one weakness it is believing that a peasant can come from a farm and in such a short time become such an accomplished torero. Nonetheless, since the time it takes for him to become a bullfighter is never really established it is a minor point.

As in most all Rosi films the hero's demise is imminent. Most Rosi film's actually begin with the main character's death and then go back in time to show us what lead up to that death. This film begins with a ceremony from Holy Week - shot as a documentary giving us a full flavor of Spain in that period - and then dives into the story.

Rosi and Di Venanzo frame shots beautifully. And the editing of the documentary scenes with that of the fictional scenes are both convincing and compelling. Particularly so because the main actor is often in both making for a smooth transition. Of course, the film is dubbed into Italian from what appears Spanish. But it is so visually rich, well paced and put together that dialogue becomes secondary to the overall effect.

This is a terrific film with a sound political message. It's also has the best [and brutal] bullfighting scenes I've seen in a movie. I am glad Criterion has made it available on Hulu Plus.

Postscript: Bullfighting has been banned in parts of Spain.

Update: Soon to be available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Drive is a mainstream art house movie. Or maybe that's an art house mainstream movie? Either way the reason that a lot of people won't like it is because it's not really for the mainstream audience but it is being marketed as though it was.

Ryan Gosling plays a laconic mechanic / movie stunt driver who occassionally lends his services as a robbery getaway driver. He also has compassion, a mean streak and the ability to sacrifice himself for the right reasons, which often makes for a good movie character. He has no name in the movie but at one point he identifies himself as a shark [are there good sharks?] and a scorpion [a scorpion is emblazoned on his jacket]. Yet his nature is not threatening so much as just focused and intense.

If you combine the movies Le Samurai by John Pierre Melville and The Driver by Walter Hill and maybe Bullitt by Peter Yates then you'll get an idea of what Drive is like and what it is about. With a particularly stronger attachment aesthetically to Le Samurai.

Both Drive and Le Samurai take an American ideal genre - the crime film or film noir [not a genre] - and turn it on its head by slowing it down and giving it something contemplative and intellectual while still maintaining a modicum of Hollywood.

Overall, I think Drive does exactly what the director (Nicolas Winding Refn) and writer (Hossein Amini) want it to do. But the question is do they succeed? I would say yes and no. What works in the movie is the overall mood as well as the build up to the [inevitable] violence. What doesn't necessarily work is the development of the characters as well as the development of the relationship between the driver (Ryan Goslin) and the young woman (Carey Mulligan).

The director / writer essentially give us interesting archetypal characters that are not necessarily mainstream but are also not necessarily well-developed. The movie is also perhaps a bit too consciously clever of itself. Part of the problem is that in slowing the movie down Refn lets the audience think about each scene a little too much and in most crime films if the audience has time to stop and think about it they will find reasons to question what they are watching. With Drive this is particularly true early on when the movie has a lot of awkward pauses and moments of silence.

However, the pacing is not a bad thing. In fact, it is rather hypnotic to the point that if you get into the rhythm of the movie [which may also remind some of Michael Mann's Collateral] then you will overlook all the shortcomings as you gear up for the second half as the tension builds and the violence comes.

Overall, it is a rather effective movie; Especially in the second half when the pace picks up and the narrative focus becomes a little stronger as well as more dramatic and bloody. The movie goes exactly where is should go - if you think about it. And that's one reason to recommend it since it is essentially a formulaic film - albeit with art house street cred but mainstream aspirations.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Soviet humor

Here's the terrific opening scene from Boris Barnet's The House of Trubnaya Square. At once a humorous, realist, Soviet montage style scene.

The film too is wonderful and it can be seen in full here. [No subtitles for the intertitles but it is easy to follow]. It will also be released on a Soviet film collection DVD this week.

More on little known Russian director Boris Barnet here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bromberg's silent show

Serge Bromberg of Lobster films is a great entertainer who each year presents a show in Paris of short found and restored silent films. The last few years he has taken the show on the road. Recently he has been presenting a show at the Telluride Film Festival and then he hops over to Los Angeles.  I watched his show a couple of years ago in Telluride and it was terrific. I just attended his most recent show at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater and while I don't think the show was as good as the one from two years ago it was still entertaining and - as always - a learning experience for film buffs.

He is tied in with Flicker Alley which released such DVD titles as Saved From The Flames and a great collection of Georges Méliès films so he knows his stuff and has a treasure trove of films to present.

For this show the main focus was a restoration of a hand colored version of Melies' A Trip To The Moon as well as an assortment of 3-D films.

Here are the titles he presented - a good number of which can be found online. I've included links.

A Trip Down Market Street - a 1906 short single take down Market St in San Francisco a few days before the 1906 earthquake. The reason they know it was only a few days before the quake was because a historian did some work to find out weather conditions as well as license plates on some of the cars that passed by in front of the camera, which was mounted on a cable car. The short is available online here.

San Francisco Apres La Catastrope - A very short film from 1906 of the devastation. Found in Europe.

Metamorphoses du Papillon
- A hand-tinted 1904 short that shows a centipede turning into a butterfly. Only it's all done with an actor. Pleasantly funny. Watch it online here.

The Acrobatic Fly - Described - with a smile - by Bromberg as 'atrocious' it is rather funny until you realize why the fly can't move. Then it is grimly funny. This was shown as part of Bromberg's show at Telluride in 2009. Watch it online here.

La Peine du Talion - A 1906 hand-tinted fantasy film about a guy out chasing and catching butterflies who gets his comeuppance. Watch it online here.

Flirt en Chemin de Fer - A 1902 short that Bromberg said was one of the first films to deal with 'sex'. A man kisses a woman on a train. The train goes through a tunnel very quickly and whatever they did together is over.

Apres Le Bal - An 1897 Méliès film that Bromberg described as erotic. A woman comes home and her maid gives her a bath. The 'water' the maid throws on her looks more like coal dust than water. Watch it online here.

Gwalior - A 1907 travelogue through India. Hand-tinted images of people and an elephant strolling though the town and country.

Joy of Living - A beautiful free flowing animated short from 1934. The film did not necessaily fit with the rest of the program but it is a nice bit of art work. I had seen this before it is an extra on the Mauvaise Graine DVD - an early Billy Wilder film. Watch the short online here.

La Donna e Mobile / Als Wie So Trugerisch
- A 1907 sound film! An actor lip synchs a few moments from the famous opera sung by Enrico Caruso. Mildly amusing but more notable for the sound element which [in its day] utilized a cylinder to play the audio in synch with the image.

Les Kiriki - Very humorous 1907 short with 'Japanese acrobats'. In truth, actors wearing Japanese style hair pieces and the director / editor using trick cinematography to make it look like the troupe is doing magnificent acrobatic tricks. Hand-colored. This was shown as part of Bromberg's show at Telluride in 2009. Watch it online here.

Bunzli System - This was a series of three really short films that were originally processed on a machine developed by Rene Bunzli in the 19th century. Rather that celluloid the film is made of a paper-like substance and utilizes a glass disc and was run through a hand-crank stand-alone viewing contraption that presented the films with a stereoscopic 3-D effect. These shorts were presented to us in 3-D so we had to don the fancy glasses. One dealt with the arrival of a train, one dealt with a brothel and I don't remember the other one. All were about 10 seconds long so they showed them twice.

The three Méliès shorts shown were not originally meant to be seen in 3-D but ironically because of the way Méliès filmed them they were able to be seen that way. The reason is because once Méliès became popular he began to shoot his films with two cameras side by side. One print would be sent east and one to the west. Years later historians would stumble upon the films and notice that one print was slightly off-kilter from the other. Due to this phenomena they were able to lay one film over the top of the other one and create a 3-D effect. Pretty amazing.

The three films were:

Le Chaudron Infernal - A short film with a devil and a cauldron he tries to stuff people into. Hand tinted. Watch it online here.

L'Oracle de Delphes - 1903 short in which a thief attempts to steal some jewels from an Egypian tomb and gets caught by a ghost and some statutes.

La Cornue Infernale
- 1902 short that involves a sleeping wizard, a snake and a series of phantasmagorical images that come to life. This one had the best 3-D effect. Watch it online here.

The final film was a color version of Méliès A Trip To The Moon. The fact that is was in color was remarkable because up until 10 years ago no one knew a color version of the film existed. Of course, it had been hand-painted at some point long ago. But the problem was when the reel was purchased it was severely deteriorated and would take a miracle to make it come back to life. With determination and ingenuity Bromberg along with Tom Burton, the head of the Preservation Department at Technicolor, managed to get the film restored.

Even though the film was warped and shriveled Bromberg brought it back by - ironically - building a humidor to speed up the disintegration, which would in time make the reel of film soft enough to slowly peel. Then they took individual digital photos of each and every frame they could. They ended up with more than 10,000 frames, which were then put onto discs and into a computer where a long two year process of reassembling the movie took place.

The final result is pretty cool. It premiered at Cannes last May complete with a [somewhat inappropriate] soundtrack by the French duo Air.

The non-color version of the film can be seen here.

After the screening Tom Burton gave a Power Point presentation of the whole process. And then they screened it again but this time with Bromberg playing the piano.

Overall, a good night at the movies.

[Fellow blogger Phil was there too.]

Friday, September 02, 2011

Telluride Film Festival 1991

Twenty years ago this weekend I was part of the Telluride Film Festival Student Program. I wrote an essay on 'McCabe and Mrs Miller' which was good enough to get me accepted to the festival. [Confession; the student program was less competitive then, plus I attended a college in the area]

I had been to the festival for the first time in 1990 so I was excited to return for the beauty of the area as well as the selection of films and the friendly crowds that gathered each Labor Day weekend in the spectacular town of Telluride.

The festival, then [the eighteenth one], was much, much smaller then than it is now. However, in 1991 they expanded the festival by adding a new large location that they called The Strand, which was a High School gymnasium that they had converted to a theater.

There was no gondola, therefore no Chuck Jones theater. And the Galaxy theater was not there yet either. Instead what they had was a Quonset hut called The Community Center, which was in the same vicinity. The other theaters, still there today, were The Opera House, the Nugget, the Mason's Hall and of course the Abel Gance Outdoor theater.  What was especially notable was the festival was more compact then. When the noon seminars came around each day there were no other events. So people either went to the seminar or went to lunch. And, of course, the lines for each movie were shorter.

In those days they only had 30 movies that played over the four days, the cost of the festival pass was $325.00 [individual tickets per movie were $7.00 or $10.00 for the Opera House] and they had a federal grant for the National Endowment of the Arts. The main corporate sponsor was Premiere magazine.

That year the tributes went to:
Nature's Filmmakers - An interesting cross section saluting various 'nature filmmakers'. That year the 'Trials of Life' series was to be shown on PBS.
Sven Nykvist - The famed cinematographer for many of Ingmar Bergman films. That year he had a film of his own titled 'The Ox'.
Jodie Foster - After 30 years of actiung she had her first directed film there titled 'Little Man Tate'.

The rest of the line-up was the usual interesting cross section of films that Telluride - like any quality festival - was known for. But in those days Telluride was not necessarily known for big premieres - although they had a few every so often. They were known more for the art of old and new films that the cinefiles out there could appreciate.

In 1991 the guest director was Laurie Anderson the eclectic musician who can only be described as unique. She is both funny and wise and is great at weaving intricate and interesting stories, which she did when she came to talk to us in the Student Program.

This was only the second year they had a guest director and so rather than the customary five film selection they have now established there were only two films. She chose a terrific Mexican drama titled 'Danzon' and a selection of short video works titled 'New Video Art'.

Here were the film selections that year:
A Captive In The Land - John Berry
Danzon - Maria Novaro
Dogfight - Nancy Savocca
The Double Life of Veronique - Krysztof Kieslowski
Hors La Vie - Maroun Bagdadi
I Want to Fly [aka Volere volare] - Maurizio Nichetti
Let Him Have It - Peter Medak
Little Man Tate - Jodie Foster
New Video Art - various short experimental videos
The Ox [aka Oxen]- Sven Nykvist
Prospero's Books - Peter Greenaway
The Rapture - Michael Tolkin
Rambling Rose - Martha Coolidge
Sanctus / Lyrical Nitrate - Experimental and reconfigured silent films
Scream of Stone - Werner Herzog
A Tale Of The Unextinguished Moon - Yevgeny Tsimbal
A Woman's Tale - Paul Cox
Raise The Red Lantern - Zhang Yimou

3:10 To Yuma - As part of a mini tribute to Glenn Ford and Elmore Leonard
Lucky Star - Frank Borzage 1929 film [rediscovered]
Prix de Beaute - Louise Brooks film from 1931
Ride The High Country - Sam Peckinpah film from 1962

Anima Mundi - Godfrey Reggio
Empire Of The Air - Ken Burns documentary of radio
Hearts of Darkness - Documentary on Apocalypse Now by George Hickenlooper
The Other Eye - Documentary on GW Pabst
The Tourist - a personal diary documentary by Robb Moss
Wild By Law - Doumentary on the Wilderness Act in the US

The closest Oscar contending film was Rambling Rose, which garnered nominations for Laura Dern and Diane Ladd. In a fair world Sheila Florance from A Woman's Tale would have been nominated for her brave role of an elderly woman dying of cancer, which in fact was really what was happening to her when she made the film.

Raise The Red Lantern and The Double Life of Veronique are today classic foreign language films. In the case of Veronique many had not yet heard of Kieslowski. This was his first film outside of Poland.

Hearts of Darkness became the standard for films about filmmaking but the other documentaries quietly came and went as was the case with documentaries until a few years ago,

A good number of films never really saw distribution in the US including A Tale Of The Unextinguished Moon, Hors la Vie and The Tourist. Many had minor releases such as A Woman's Take, Oxen, I Want to Fly and Danzon.

Highlights I can recall:
* The Lucky Star screening at the Opera House with a musical score by Adrian Johnston was transcendent. The film had not been seen, much less heard of, for over 60 years so no one knew what to expect. But what a discovery. Most of the audience were in tears if not because of the subject matter [a Borzage weepy about a man in a wheelchair who learns to walk again] but because of the beautiful score by Johnston.

* Ken Burns addressing the students. As I learned, it became customary for Ken Burns to address the staff before the festival began. He brings an eloquent and friendly charm that wins everyone over to his way of thinking. He got us excited not just about the festival but about filmmaking and the valuable service a good filmmaker [especially a documentary one] can do for the arts and society.

* Watching Werner Herzog run down the mountain after the Labor Day picnic. In those days the Labor Day picnic was held at the top of the mountain [see photo at top]. The main way to get there was to take the chair lift. Once the picnic and the seminar were finished people get back in line and ride down the mountain. Werner saw the line was too long so rather than wait [which technically he did not have to do] he decided to just head off straight down the mountain. Me, being a mountain runner, badly wanted to follow him down the mountain. However, I was already on the chairlift descending to town. So I was able to watch him tear down the grass, weed, and rocky trails. When I got to the bottom I asked him how he enjoyed his route and he said he enjoyed it and had to do it because he wanted to get the the screening of Raise The Red Lantern.

* Meeting Irene Jacob at the Labor Day picnic was a delight too. As is often the case in Telluride it is fairly easy to approach a star and say hello. Irene Jacob was easy going and spoke to some of the students about The Double Life of Veronique. She pointed out to me that the film is edited differently in the two parts of the film. The first part in Poland is analytical while the second part in France was more poetic. She explained it all but it was hard to concentrate on what she way saying. After all she is the same age as me and very attractive.

Telluride has a great film festival and I returned to it for many years from 1992 to 2008. 1991 was special because of many of the people I met in an educational type setting. Of course, it is only 4 or 5 days of film. But it is intense and exciting. I am still in touch with four friends I met that weekend. Which is about as many people I am still in touch with from college.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Monroe calling....

She looks as though she is on an invisble cell phone.

"Hello, Arthur..."