On Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.
I Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.
The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Hathaway’s own Call Northside 777 (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.
Private Property (Cinelicious, Blu-ray+DVD) – Put this 1960 film in the “Lost and Found” category. The directorial debut by Leslie Stevens, a playwright and screenwriter and protégé of Orson Welles, it’s a neat little sexually-charged psychological thriller set in the sunny California culture of affluence and trophy wives and drifting hitchhikers crossing the stratified social borders.
Corey Allen and Warren Oates are Duke and Boots, the George and Lenny of angry drifters, and Kate Manx is the beautiful trophy wife that Duke spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in a white Corvette. They coerce a travelling salesman to follow that car and trail her to her Hollywood Hills home, taking up residence in a vacant home next door. They ogle her through the second floor window as Anne sunbathes and skinny dips, and then they insinuate themselves into her home. A student of the Method school, Allen plays Duke as an angry young con man who has perfected the sensitive soul act, while Manx, who was Stevens’ wife at the time, is a limited actress who Stevens directs to an effective performance. Oates is the revelation, walking that tightrope between loyalty and suspicion, slowly figuring out Duke’s games but slow to act until practically pushed into action.
“And do not, please do not, get him started on the people who approach him after the show with a Sling Blade DVD to sign. You just watched him perform his heart out for you and you are going to present him with a Sling Blade DVD? ‘Sure, I’ll sign your Sling Blade DVD,’ he says now. ‘And you can go home and fuck missionary like a metronome and never have an original creative idea in your life.’” Taffy Brodesser-Akner spends four days on tour with Billy Bob Thornton’s band, and with acidic comic precision captures the pretension and solipsism of the frustrated actor and swears-he’s-never-doing-that-again director, while making clear how under that remains a unique, untamable talent—and right under that, the survivor of horrible abuse trying to make a life for himself that works. Via Longform.
“Though Dreams received some appreciative reviews, many critics knocked it for what they saw as overt didacticism and stasis. They found the main character (played as a child by Toshihiko Nakano and Mitsunori Isaki and as an adult by Akira Terao), to be frustratingly passive, and the director’s themes—his fears about humanity and nature—to be mired in simplistic moralizing. Such criticisms, however, fail to appreciate the layers of meaning in Dreams, not to mention its stylistic strangeness. The film’s surfaces may be gentle; the experience of watching it is anything but.” Bilge Ebiri considers the autobiographical elements and experiments in stylization that make Dreams—not surprisingly—arguably Kurosawa’s most personal film.
The 8th Cinema Italian Style series plays through the week at SIFF Cinema Uptown. It opens on Thursday, November 10 with Paolo Virzi’s Like Crazy with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and ends a week later on Thursday, November 17 with closing night feature Opposites Attract, a romantic comedy directed by Max Croci, who is scheduled to attend the screening and the closing night party. Among the 15 features and documentaries are Anna (For Your Love), which earned Valeria Golina the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival, the romantic comedy Solo, written and directed by actress Laura Morante, the award-winning documentary Libera Nos about the continued practice of exorcism on the Italian Catholic Church, and a new restoration of Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (1977) starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. It continues for a week. Series and individual ticket available. Complete schedule and tickets here.
The 6th Seattle Shorts Film Festival opens on Friday, November 11 at SIFF Film Center with a feature film: Before I Disappear is Shawn Christensen’s feature-length adaptation of his 2012 Oscar-winning short film Curfew. The rest of the festival, which plays through the weekend at SIFF Film Center, presents 49 short films and music videos, including numerous Seattle premieres and works by local Seattle and Pacific Northwest filmmakers, and two panel discussions. Complete schedule and other information at the festival website here.
The Seattle Sephardic Network presents The Midnight Orchestra (2015) from Morocco, a drama about the son of a Jewish musician returning home to Morocco to bury his father. One show only on Wednesday, November 16 at The Majestic Bay in Ballard.
Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray)
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
Sure, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, and the animated toy musical comedy Trolls are competing for audiences this weekend, but there’s a lot more out there.
Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome Edition, the black-and-white version of the film that George Miller called “more authentic and elemental,” plays exclusively at Cinerama for a ten-day run. Schedule and ticket information here.
The 8th Cinema Italian Style series opens Thursday, November 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown with Paolo Virzi’s Like Crazy with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. It continues for a week. Series and individual ticket available. Complete schedule and tickets here.
Christine Chubbuck, the local Sarasota TV newswoman who committed suicide on air in 1974, is the subject of two films opening in Seattle this weekend. Christine, from director Antonio Campos, stars Rebecca Hall as the newscaster spiraling into depression. It’s scheduled to play for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
Kate Plays Christine, from dramatic / documentary hybrid from filmmaker Robert Greene, follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she attempts to get into “character” as Christine Chubbuck. It won the Special Jury Award for screenplay at Sundance. Plays through Sunday at NWFF.
Linas Phillips is probably better known to fans of American indie cinema as an actor than as a filmmaker. A graduate of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing, he co-starred with Jay Duplass in Manson Family Vacation (2015) as the Charles Manson-obsessed character who drags his estranged brother on a tour of Mason murder sites. Phillips has supporting roles in Craig Johnson’s True Adolescents (2009, starring Mark Duplass) and his buddy Todd Rohal‘s Uncle Kent 2 (2015), and he appeared in the HBO shows Togetherness, working again with the Duplass brothers, and Eastbound and Down, with director David Gordon Green.
In 2006, after moving from the East Coast to Seattle, Phillips directed his first film, the non-fiction feature Walking to Werner. He became an active member of the Seattle independent scene, constantly developing projects and working with other local filmmakers trying to get their films made. “I originally came here because I wanted to change my life,” he explained. “I just checked out, I stopped everything I was doing in my life, like babysitting work and performing, and I decided I was going to learn to be a filmmaker. It was great to be in a whole new city while you are re-identifying yourself.”
Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)
A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.
Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.
Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.
Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…
Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.
“In retrospect, the authentic set of the film looks mostly unreal, and in spite of minute attention to details, even by the 1920s standards, it is a décor which looks like décor. It has an MGM quality to it. The camera never makes any attempt to hide the fresh paint on the walls (in reality, when Joan of Arc was on trial the castle was already 200 years old and ravaged by wars and natural elements). In fact, the sets were painted pink to look grey in the final film—more Frank Tashlin than “transcendental.” But was Dreyer looking for any sort of realism at the first place?” A tour of the models and photos at the Danish Film Institute has Ehsan Khoshbakht considering anew the full-scale set built for Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, whose every carefully researched detail was radically fragmented, deconstructed, and “ignored” in the filming and editing.
The new issue of La Furia Umana contains a dossier on Jack Smith, including Marc Siegel’s career overviews of both the filmmaker (“While Smith found redeeming social and aesthetic qualities in all of these undervalued genre films that allowed visual spectacle and exotic settings to trump narrative and character development, he reserved a special place in his personal pantheon for the films of director Josef von Sternberg and actress María Montez.”) and one of his stars, Mario Montez (“At that point they were releasing Cleopatra [Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963] with Elizabeth Taylor. And there were these wide-screen posters in the subways in New York City. (I stole one. I used to steal posters and things like that.) I said, ‘Jack, why don’t we do a version of Cleopatra. And we’ll title it Cleo Pot Roast.’”). Andrea Lissoni argues his centrality in American underground art (“How could I summarize the essential traits of such a dense body of work, spanning film, theatre, performance, photography, visual art and life? It could all be wrapped up in one word: authenticity.”), while J. Hoberman recounts Smith’s live performances of the later years. (”At the performance [of Smith’s staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts] I attended, Regina was played by a large pink plush hippo suspended in a pulley-operated basket, Engstrand and Pastor Manders by a pair of toy monkeys, each placed on a little wagon, while Mrs. Alving had a human interpreter (NYU drama professor Ron Argelander) who sat inside a supermarket shopping cart, swathed in scarves and a thick, black veil.”) There’s an essential interview (by Renaldo Censi) with Jerry Tartaglia, the restorer of Smith’s film archive (“There never was any Normal Love movie in a complete form that he preordered. His life and his art were an ongoing process of mixture and reinvention. That is the point. The “restoration” was not a scientifically ordered procedure. It was a preservation of the works in the state that they were in at the time of his death.”), and some short, rancorous personal anecdotes from Ken Jacobs and David E. James that testify to the affronted paranoia almost inevitable when an artist as personal and rapturous as Smith is greeted mostly with censorship and harassment.
The Canadian coming of age comedy Closet Monster plays for a week at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.
Miss Hokusai, an animated Japanese feature from director Keiichi Hara and the creators of Ghost in the Shell, opens for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
Archival and revival screenings:
Grand Illusion presents two contemporary twists of the vampire film on 35mm this weekend and on Halloween night: The Hunger (1983), the feature debut of director Tony Scott featuring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea) leaves behind the austerity and cool tone of his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker to return to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy. The story of con artists in 1930s Korea, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex of a classy softcore picture. Park shifts the setting from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial occupation, which adds national tensions to drama already roiling with class division and sexual exploitation.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.
Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.
Violent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.
In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.
Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.