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Black Angel

Black Angel

directed by Roy William Neill

starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre

Arrow Academy

Musicals and film noir are not two film styles one would think could live together harmoniously but Roy William Neill’s Black Angel manages to stitch the two approaches together into a curious and satisfying film that not only blends disparate story elements but plays actors against type and plays with audience expectations in a way that elevates the entire affair.

Director Roy William Neill, best known for directing the Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes series and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, helms this quirky noir weaving the seemingly incongruous styles of musical and noir together in a captivating, unique film. Black Angel is based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote the source novel for Robert Siodmak’s sublime noir Phantom Lady and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. Dan Duryea, best known for playing creepy heavies in film noirs like Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, and Criss Cross, plays Martin Blair, a complicated leading man, a hopeless drunk who attempt to rehab his wasted life while teaming up with Cathy Bennett (June Vincent) to try clear her husband’s name of the murder of Blair’s estranged wife. Blair and Catherine go undercover as a nightclub singing act to gather evidence on nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) the man they suspect is the real killer. Blair’s battle with the bottle and his growing infatuation with Cathy complicates matters and causes questions about how motivated he can remain in clearing her husband’s name while Cathy herself begins to doubt her own feelings.

Peter Lorre and Dan Duryea made their respective careers out of playing the bad guys that contemporary audiences (and modern viewers familiar with the actors) must have been jarred by the revelations of the true nature of the actors’ characters. In fact all three major characters in Black Angel are remarkably complex especially for a post-war B movie thriller. The playing Lorre and Duryea off type probably add more to the tension in the film than the screenplay by Roy Chanslor, especially as the middle act is heavily padded out with June Vincent’s singing.

Arrow Academy’s video presentation is exemplary, especially when considering it was created from multiple source elements. The black and white photography is crisp with great shadow detail, always a plus in film noir. The mono soundtrack is sparkling, especially in June Vincent’s numerous musical numbers which Vincent does her own singing and Dureya actually plays piano.

Alan K. Rode provides the films audio commentary that manages to combine analysis of the film, biographic info on cast and crew, and production history in a spirited talk that never bogs down in mere recitation and includes great anecdotes including one about George Raft punching Peter Lorre and Dan Duryea’s difficulties in balancing his personal life as a family man with his usual on screen persona as a violent sociopath.

The other main extra on the disc is A Fitting End, a 20 minute video essay from author and film studies professor Neil Sinyard, who has written books on Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Zinneman, and William Wyler. Sinyard with the driest of wits provides a fascinating analysis of the film, breaking down the film, its players, and the author Cornell Woolrich, and director Roy William Neill.

www.arrowvideo.com

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Screen Reviews

Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho

Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho

directed by Liam Barker

starring Pete Townshend, Will Ackerman

MVD Visual

Of all the guitarists that are associated with the renaissance of the acoustic guitar that came to pass in the late ’60s and ’70s, Robbie Basho’s name is rarely mentioned. Everyone has heard of Leo Kottke and John Fahey (if only because of Fahey’s Christmas records), but Basho is known only to guitar nerds, despite his stellar technique and large volume of work. One reason might have been his influences which guided his art. Fahey took his love of bluegrass and country blues as totems, inventing almost single-handily the genre of “American primitive guitar”, while Kottke came more from a folk background. Basho instead wanted to create “guitar ragas”, based on his love of Eastern music, primarily the droning art of Ravi Shankar and his sitar from India.

Another reason for his lack of commercial recognition forms the basis for this illuminating documentary – The Enigma of Robbie Basho. Basho, born Daniel Robinson and orphaned as a child, was a very private soul. Living in Baltimore, he became a Sufi, and his religion came to dictate his daily life. Once he moved to Berkeley, he eschewed pot smoking hippies that were becoming a force in society, opting for his studies into religion and higher planes of being, to the point that a family member thought he would become a priest. Instead of performing folk music, ala the Kingston Trio and other more pop-oriented artists, his elaborate, complex instrumental compositions for 12-string guitar put him at odds with more mainstream acts. Even today his albums are startling and fresh, demanding full attention, unlike the bland, “new age” background music that came to rule the acoustic guitar world.

This film includes interviews with fellow guitarists such as Will Ackerman, Henry Kaiser and The Who’s Pete Townshend, who, like Basho was a follower of Meher Baba. His recollections of Basho’s life and work show a deep respect for both his artistic creations, and admiration of a fellow devotees faith. Director Liam Barker is to be commended for his persistence in making this film, and providing a definitive look at an overlooked American genius of the guitar, Robbie Basho. Highly recommended.

www.robbiebashofilm.com

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Screen Reviews

The Emperor of Michoacan

The Emperor of Michoacan

directed by James Ramey and Arturo Pimentel

Amadis Films

Having been initially drawn to the restoration of the majestic Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in the town of Pátzcuaro in the Michoacán state of Mexico, directors James Ramey and Arturo Pimentel, would become witness to and subsequently chronicle the history and growing revitalization of the culture of the suppressed Purépecha people in their feature documentary, The Emperor of Michoacán.

Beginning in the dark early morning hours before the celebration of the Purépecha New Year, we follow the residents of multiple towns in Michoacán as they continue their resurgence of an indigenous tradition that saw a renaissance in 1983 after several hundred years of silence following the torture and execution of the Purépecha empire’s last emperor, Tangaxoan II, by Spanish conquistadors. Tangaxoan II’s death led to the Spanish government’s installation of puppet rulers who began a reign that sought to extinguish all remnants of the religion and customs of the Purépecha people.

Directors Pimentel and Ramey then examine the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin where we see the remnants of the Augustine convent that was originally part of the building, as well as significant murals that depict the geography and culture of Michoacán’s residents: a visual tribute to the accomplishments of Don Lázaro Cárdenas, the former governor of Michoacán, during his tenure as President of Mexico and a mural that portrays the fateful moment when conquistador Cristóbal de Olid was welcomed by Tangaxoan II. What follows are interviews with residents and scholars who then explain how the Spaniards pillaged the land, brought disease, and forced the people of that region to abandon their faith and customs while moving the location of the capital city multiple times to build a more Spanish-centric place. However, in weaving these accounts together, the directors confusedly deconstruct the timeline between Cristóbal de Olid’s arrival, the execution of Tangaxoan II, the unification of Pátzcuaro under Don Vasco de Quiroga, and the revitalization of the Purépecha New Year in 1983. Specifically, Pimentel and Ramey break away from the historical timeline of the Michoacán state that they establish in the first thirty minutes of the film to explain the shifting of the Purépecha centers of worship during the pre-Hispanic period in the region and the relocation of capital cities under Don Vasco de Quiroga’s reign as Bishop post-colonization, before disclosing the circumstances that led to the brutal death of Tangaxoan II, which took place in 1530 before Don Vasco’s appointment as the Bishop of Michoacán in 1536. This segment provides some more historical information about the state and the tensions between the cities within, but its timing and execution in the narrative fundamentally distract away from the understanding of the suppression and revitalization of the Purépecha culture.

As the directors delve into the pre- and post-Hispanic history of the Purépecha people in Michoacán and richly document today’s Purépecha New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, they similarly interrupt the narrative of the history and the restoration of Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin. During this interruption, we get the opportunity to understand the tensions between pre- and post-Hispanic elements in the Purépecha New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, and in turn, we are able to see how the current community reconciles and addresses these tensions in the rituals themselves, which is the strongest element of the film. Consequently, when we return to the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in the final fifteen minutes of The Emperor of Michoacán, the transition is awkward, for the directors speed through the theater’s restoration and ultimately leave gaps in understanding how the theater fits into the preservation of the Purépecha culture. By this point, we understand the theater’s tribute in name to Tangaxoan II, and we understand the importance of the elements of history and culture in the artwork showcased in the theater. But, we still don’t fully know if the theater was ever used for gatherings or celebrations dedicated to Purépecha traditions in any way. As the film approaches its end, we see dance performances for the film’s own screening at the theater as well as the preparation of the fire for the New Year ritual outside, suggesting a conclusion that the theater can be a new space to facilitate the preservation of Purépecha traditions, which is commendable, but the return to the theater is too brief, and the narrative around it feels too incomplete to draw this conclusion satisfactorily.

In The Emperor of Michoacán‘s seventy-seven minute runtime, directors Pimentel and Ramey aim to execute a complex portrait of the suppression, preservation, revival, and adaptation of Purépecha culture. Though the film allows for rare and appreciated views into Purépecha history and traditions, its structure prevents it from achieving its goal. The restoration of the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin could have been the compelling connective tissue between the history of the Purépecha people in Michoacán and the ethnographic documentation of the revived New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, but instead this component feels abridged and ultimately highlights an identity struggle in the film—it’s partially an ethnographic observation piece; it’s partially a historical documentary; it’s partially a study of a building. The Emperor of Michoacán has a scope that is too large, and though it is likely that this emerged from the filmmakers’ desire to give the fullest respect possible to the Purépecha community, the film needs more time and a clearer structure in order to accomplish a full and nuanced analysis of the endurance of Purépecha traditions in the past and in the years to come.

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Screen Reviews

Hitch Hike to Hell

Hitch Hike to Hell

directed by Irvin Berwick

starring Robert Gribbin, Russell Johnson

Arrow Video

In 1990 Joe Bob Briggs released a short-lived VHS series “The Sleaziest Movies in the History of the World”. The films were mostly H.G. Lewis and Doris Wishman movies, but had the series continued Irvin Berwick’s Hitch Hike to Hell would have been an easy choice for inclusion. The early to mid 1970s vans and hitch hiking were weirdly prominent in youth culture that was reflected in and influenced by music, TV, and movies. Naturally anything the kids are into must become a source of moral outrage and dire warnings of doom from the older generation so depictions of thumbing rides turned dark, and few hitching movies were as affably grim as Hitch Hike to Hell.

Howard Martin (Robert Gribbin) follows a long cinematic tradition of homicidal, simpleton mama’s boys, intent on punishing young women for their moral shortcomings. He give a credible if wildly over the top performance in this film. Howard is a nice guy always willing to give a girl a lift, unless she says she’s a runaway who hates her mother. Those words are turn Howie into a deranged psycho. Howie rapes and murders a number of hitchhikers, often with a wire hanger, after which he has no memory of his deeds. He does have a sense that he has done something untoward as he suffers from headaches, night terrors, and an unhealthy root beer addiction. Things spiral so badly out of control even his mother can’t put things right and Howard’s killing spree continues unabated.

Director Irvin Berwick had a long, mostly anonymous career behind the scenes in Hollywood and managed to make a small number of horror and exploitation movies as well as being the creator of educational and industrial training films. It is fitting that Hitch Hike to Hell functions largely as a educational warning film to impress the dangers of hitch-hiking that you might be shown in a church youth group or driver’s ed class, but with rape, nudity, and gore thrown in to keep it interesting. The film has some definite Ed Wood style on screen frugality as the dry cleaners, police station, and one crime scene all appear to use the same white cinder block building for exterior shots. There is a murder scene early on where you can actually see bugs crawling on the actress’s nude body.

Despite the film’s notable technical shortcomings the acting is surprisingly good for this kind of joint, especially from Robert Gribbin and Russell Johnson. Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island adds a touch of class to the proceedings, and at times it feels like he’s in an entirely different movie, while Gribbin plays such a cheery, clean cut mama’s boy (when he isn’t raping a murdering young women) there must be a parallel universe where he starred in Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie.

Arrow has remastered the film in 2k from some rough looking elements. This is not a film to show off your home theater, but it is watchable and the super grainy picture actually adds to the grimy atmosphere of the film. Arrow has included 1.33 and 1.78 aspect ratios. I don’t know which version was preferred by the director, but the 1.33 feels less cramped.

The on-camera interview, Of Monsters and Morality: The Strange Cinema of Irvin Berwick, genre film historian Stephen Thrower (Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci) does a deep dive on the career of director Irvin Berwick. Thrower covers Berwick’s colorful career as a mercenary film maker who was as comfortable shooting porn as he was shooting Southern Baptist inspirational features. Berwick and his wife had a production company making educational films and Thrower posits that Berwick’s approach to the social issue educational films overlapped with the rape & murder exploitation in Hitch Hike to Hell, helping to create the film’s singularly off kilter vibe. As is so often the case with maverick film directors, the stories behind the scenes are more interesting than the film they made. According to Stephen Thrower, Berwick was teaching a college course on low budget filmmaking at the time of the production of Hitch Hike to Hell and drafted his students into the cast (and presumably crew) for his film resulting in a number of one credit IMDB cast pages.

Australian author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality) explores the history and culture of hitch hiking in the movies, especially the films where thumbing a ride has dire consequences. She touches on true crime cases including the Ivan Milat “Backpacker Murders” in Australia and the likely inspiration for Hitch Hike to Hell, the unsolved “Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders”. Heller-Nicholas explores the tropes of hitch-hiking films from film noir, horror, and exploitation films and TV. Clocking in at around 20 minutes the piece feels really short and certainly leaves you wanting more, and you’ll need a rewatch to jot down the titles of some of the more obscure films covered.

Nancy Adams on the Road is an on camera interview with Nancy Adams. Adams, who sings the the film’s theme song, recalls her colorful career beginning with cutting her first record at Les Paul’s house, doing jingles for Newport cigarettes, and working on Disney’s Robin Hood (1973), including attending the Oscars watching Johnny Whittaker and Jodie Foster singing her song “Love” at the awards show.

Arrow rounds out the package with a full color booklet featuring an essay by film writer Heather Drain (The Bizarro Encyclopedia of Film Volume 1). Drain not only places the film into cultural context, she examines distributor Harry Novak’s marketing and digs deep into the grime to expound on the film’s whiff of incest and the nihilism of the film that enables it to get so dark that even innocent 11 year old girls who are escaping a terrifying home life are not sparred.

www.arrowvideo.com

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Screen Reviews

I’ll Never Forget You: The Last 72 Hours of Lynyrd Skynyrd

I’ll Never Forget You: The Last 72 Hours of Lynyrd Skynyrd

directed by Jonathan Braucher

starring Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gene Odom, Leslie Hawkins, Craig Reed

MVD Visual

In a fashion similar to how the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell the story of Jesus’ life, ministry and crucifixion, the tale of the tragic Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash also has been recounted numerous times over the years from various perspectives. However, these accounts often have been conflicting versions told by actual band members.

What makes this DVD different and special is that the story is told by those who were on board that day on October 20, 1977 when the plane carrying the Skynyrd band, backup singers and crew crashed in Gillsburg, MS – insider eye witnesses with nothing to lose by being candid.

Based on the 1983 book, I’ll Never Forget You by Gene Odom, the documentary is riveting and real. A lifelong friend of founding Skynyrd frontman, Ronnie Van Zant, Odom was a member of the band’s security team, and he was on the plane. Odom also serves as one of the film’s producers and primary storyteller, along with back-up singer, Leslie Hawkins and guitar tech, Craig Reed.

The absence of actual Skynyrd music and the presence of reenactment footage indicates that the Skynyrd “machine” was neither involved with the film nor endorses it. Which is exactly why it feels so darn honest.

Without casting spoilers, I’ll simply say that Odom comes off as completely credible and likable. Despite the “Last 72 Hours” subtitle, Odom also provides engaging personal as well as band back story. Through his first-hand accounts, he further succeeds in offering the viewer with an authentic fly on the wall view of the band’s last 72 hours.

In sum, for fans who still crave insider glimpses into the Skynyrd world, particularly details surrounding the legendary plane crash, I’ll Never Forget You: The Last 72 Hours of Lynyrd Skynyrd will prove to be a bitter sweet treat, indeed.

www.MVDb2b.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

Best of Film 2019

Best of Film 2019

As the decade draws to a close, we are seeing an influx of the hybrid documentary as a growing and necessary force driving cinema worldwide. 2019 saw many of our favorite features brilliantly combine elements of fiction with reality, which ultimately left the judgement of what is the truth to the personal interpretation of the viewer. Much to our delight, this year also saw a wider distribution of films from Central and South America to the United States, and this positive trend was key as it allowed us the opportunity to view and appreciate voices from regions that were woefully underrepresented in years past. Three features from South America made it to our lists this year including the film that sits at the top, La Flor, from Argentine director, Mariano Llinás.

What is now being considered as Canada’s Next Generation of filmmakers have time and time again impressed us throughout the year with young talents such as Kazik Radwanski and Sofia Bohdanowicz leading the way with features that are helping to define this growth of Canadian cinema. And last, but by no means least, our list this year includes exceptional films by two of the finest talents of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda. We dedicate this list to Agnès who sadly left us in March of this year, but thankfully she left us a final goodbye in the form of a film that summed up her life and career unlike few closing statements that we have ever experienced. Thank you Agnès.

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1. The Flower (La Flor) / Argentina / dir. Mariano Llinás

One could argue that La Flor belongs on this list simply because of its grand scale. In fourteen hours, director Mariano Llinás gives us six chapters that each separately examine the role of fictional storytelling and the necessity of actresses in cinema. Could the exercise have been tedious? Absolutely. Could it have been completely pretentious and unwatchable? Of course. However, every second of La Flor is captivating, for Llinás embeds his analysis on the nature and future of fictional filmmaking into rich stories gorgeously helmed by his four lead actresses: Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa. In doing so, we get to see kaleidoscopic performances from Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they flourish in a vast array of roles that demand something completely different from each other, and as a result, we understand the power of the actress as a muse for great creation and how this power can only manifest itself in fictional filmmaking. Much of this list consists of films that experiment with the lines between reality and fiction, and one of the chapters in La Flor does playfully examine Llinás’ own reality as the director of a massive film that required many years of dedication from his actresses, but overall, La Flor is a celebration of all that fiction can accomplish. It awes us. It underscores our fears. It makes us feel in an abstracted space away from our daily lives. It allows us to escape beyond the barriers of the self. And most importantly, it doesn’t lie to us, for it doesn’t pretend to be the truth, but it does hope to evoke true emotions. Our full review of La Flor is available here.

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2. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan) / China / dir. Bi Gan

In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Bi Gan told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Gan Bi’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience. Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us. As much as the first part of the Long Day’s Journey Into Night utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality by using jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same problem with the contrast between the two parts of the film. Our full review of the film is available here.

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3. The Tree House (Nhà cầy) / Singapore | Vietnam | Germany | France | China / dir. Quý Minh Trương

Part naturalist documentary, part space diary, part discourse on ethnography, part thesis on the value of physical media, The Tree House (Nhà cầy) weaves stories about home from members of the HMong, Jarai, Ruc, and Kor people together with the reflections of a film director (portrayed by director Quý Minh Trương himself) on Mars in 2045 recalling his previous filming activities in Vietnam as he attempts to begin a new project documenting the red planet. In his film, Trương primarily focuses on Hậu Thị Cao, a Ruc woman who grew up in a remote cave system, and Lang Văn Hồ, a Kor man who grew up in a tree house deep in the jungle of Quảng Ngãi province. Both Ms. Cao and Mr. Hồ were displaced from their original homes by war or the ruling government, and in presenting their stories and memories of their original homes and their experiences of becoming outsiders in their own country, Trương opens up a line of questioning that first addresses the physical and mental representations of home as a concept, then naturally expands into the right to ownership of the physical, be it the home or the image, and then finally suggests the value of memory over the physical. By the end of The Tree House, Trương leaves us with many questions about the purpose of any attempt to document reality and the moral quandary of doing so in environments where we don’t belong, making us wonder about the purpose of his own work, yet forcing us to face our own tendency to document everything in our social media age and our desire to see into places far away where we have no investment, all of which lead us to fail to look and experience what’s in front of us and what’s in our own memories. Our full review of the film is available here.

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4. The Image Book (Le livre d’image) / France / dir. Jean-Luc Godard

As with Godard’s work over the last few decades, The Image Book is a montage piece, editing together concepts and created with a narrative, or rather the creator’s personal thoughts, that appear selected by the current era. We must gaze upon this work as an installation piece, gathering the combination of sounds and visuals as a combined form in a single viewing and releasing any sense (and expectation) of traditional film language, as it has been Godard’s goal to further the language of film past any sense of where we feel entirely comfortable viewing it. When experiencing Godard’s construction here, you see attempts to look at the ability of sound and image capturing and playback to actually freeze, perceive, and repeat reality, and without being pessimistic about the form, for this may be the director’s way of dismissing the medium, The Image Book‘s primary concern is whether or not film is an appropriate conduit to capture reality. We understand that we experience what is real and recall what is real in desperate ways, and fundamentally, if cinema does the same, then it may be the closest way to show how we understand our world, even though that recollection, that attempt to recall the real may result in a falsehood. Fundamentally, the overwhelming success of The Image Book, as with most of Godard’s work throughout his career, comes primarily from the experiments attempted. Successful or not as these experiments may be, they operate within the structure of the film to create a unique cinematic language. With his 47th feature, Godard, through the daring exploration and manipulation of old and new visuals and sound, has been able to duly note and thoughtfully deconstruct the core facets of cinema in order to find paths for its continued evolution as a vital device for interpreting reality. Our full review of the film is available here.

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5. In Fabric / United Kingdom / dir. Peter Strickland

Two films in this year’s top ten share one thing: an obsession with the physicality of our humanness. Whereas Claire Denis’ High Life looks at humans in the lifelessness of space, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric looks at humans in the lifelessness of early-90s consumerist society before the emergence of e-commerce. Three working people fatally encounter a haunted red dress. The first is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), whose work and home life allow her no place to be herself. At her workplace, a bank, her bosses watch and time her every move and call her into awkward meetings where they dig far too deeply into her personal life. Outside of work, she’s trying to bounce back from her divorce, and she’s trying to handle her son’s sexual exploits with an older woman in her home. Without many options to boost herself up, Sheila treats herself to a flattering red dress from the eerie department store Dentley and Soper’s during their January sales. Haunted by its past model, the dress leaves a bizarre rash on Sheila and eventually brings her misfortune before making its way to Reg (Leo Bill), a washing machine repairman. Reg is about to marry his childhood sweetheart, Babs (Hayley Squires), and on the night of his stag party, in order to break him from his usual mechanical facade, his friends force him to wear the red dress. When Reg brings the dress home, Babs takes a liking to it, and she is so amazed that she can fit a size 36 garment that she wears it back to Dentley and Soper’s in search of another dress in the same small size. As with any Peter Strickland film, cinematic references are abound in In Fabric, but underneath all of the stylish giallo references and the bizarre magical happenings inside of Dentley and Soper’s, there’s a bold examination of self-image and discomfort in human intimacy through clothing and the human residues of wear—fluids, skin, and hair. With In Fabric, Strickland dares you to think about all of the personal history, hope, and disappointments embedded in a piece of clothing, a realization that can be as terrifying as a haunted dress.

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6. High Life / France | Germany | United Kingdom | Poland | United States / dir. Claire Denis

One of the best forays into realistic science fiction since Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film, Under the Skin, Claire Denis’ High Life strips away the extraordinary elements of space travel to look at how exploration of the universe and beyond will likely be used in the future. Harkening back to the science fiction approaches valuing experience over action in film in the decades before Star Wars, High Life avoids fantastic aliens, dynamic spaceships, and laser weaponry and presents a minimal, rectangular-prism spaceship occupied by death-row inmates who represent a diverse array of societal outsiders from multiple nations and who have agreed to take an experimental journey to a black hole to attempt to harvest energy in order to avoid further jail time and execution on Earth. However, the spaceship is its own kind of prison and death sentence even if there may be a tiny bit of hope in the discovery of a new world, and as a result, Denis presents very human reactions to the inmates’ predicament. Throughout High Life, she constantly reminds us of the physicality of the space crew. We see the importance of soil in the garden used to nourish and calm, and, we see a lot of blood and semen, the fluids of life that remain constant in their purpose and their influence on behaviors. Thus, we understand the characters’ motivations even if their setting is beyond ours (for now). With High Life, Denis warns and comforts us with the non-linear narrative following the survival of Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsay and Jessie Ross): Don’t be seduced by the newness and foreignness of space—it will have a real human impact driven by human tendencies toward violence, deception, and conquest that we’ve seen on Earth for centuries, and though this does sound grim, there is some hope, that hope that may seem foolhardy but one that has always been necessary for humans to survive against all odds.

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7. Ivana the Terrible (Ivana cea Groaznica) / Serbia / dir. Ivana Mladenović

In Ivana the Terrible, director, screenwriter, and actress Ivana Mladenović throws herself, her family, her friends, and her lovers into a semi-fictionalized account of the events of summer 2017. In real life, Mladenović—after seeing success from her debut film, Soldiers. Story From Ferentari, and from her role as the intriguing Solange in Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts—experienced severe symptoms of stress and exhaustion, and in order to recuperate, she returned to her hometown of Kladovo in Serbia, and this return set the exposition for the film-version of Ivana, who has to try to heal up while becoming the central ambassador for the Serbian-Romanian Friendship Festival. Co-written with Adrian Schiop, who also co-wrote Soldiers. Story From Ferentari, Ivana the Terrible seamlessly blends fiction with emotions and memories from reality and features shining performances from Mladenović and her friend, the late Anca Pop. Claustrophobic, funny, and often uncomfortable, the film uses Ivana’s clashes and run-ins with everyone around her as the engine to study Kladovo, the relationship between Serbia and Romania, the desire to create and express through art, and the struggle to reconcile one’s identity upon leaving and returning to one’s home country. We had the opportunity to interview Ivana Mladenović at AFI Fest to discuss Ivana the Terrible. See here.

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8. Touch Me Not (Nu mă atinge-mă) / Romania / dir. Adina Pintilie

At the beginning of Touch Me Not, Romanian director, Adina Pintilie’s controversial 2018 Golden Bear winning film, Pintilie herself appears on a screen in front of a camera and asks the question, “Why haven’t you ever asked me what this film is about?” An essential question indeed, as the apparent documentary and fictional elements will soon purposefully merge into one another to raise fascinating questions about the veracity of the events that occur in the lives of the film’s main protagonists, Laura and Tómas, who will soon begin an intense, sometimes cathartic investigation of intimacy where they encounter people who challenge their understanding of the necessity and importance of touch, forcing Laura and Tómas to examine their pasts and how the attitudes of the people around them have impacted their perception of self. The core technique that director Pintilie so effectively utilizes in Touch Me Not is an intentional vagueness of the reality of our protagonists’ interactions for the purposes of examining intimacy without formal construction. Neither narrative nor documentary structures exist within the film to impede the solicitation of our feelings and reactions for what we are seeing on screen. Pintilie’s experimental and courageous approach to depicting intimate conversations and visuals rarely encountered in a non-exploitative manner has given us a much needed thought-provoking manipulation of the medium of film that we can use to examine ourselves and our own fears of how we are perceived by those around us. Our full review of Touch Me Not is available here.

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9. The Whistlers (La Gomera) / Romania / dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

Corneliu Porumboiu’s well-documented, longtime fascination with language culminates in his latest film, The Whistlers. To expand on Cristi, the protagonist of 2010’s Police, Adjective, Porumboiu places his detective in a drug ring operating alongside a corrupted law system; however, Cristi is less occupied by the interpretation of the Romanian language these days. Now, he is learning Silbo Gomero, a language composed entirely of whistling in order to undetectably communicate with his drug ring partners. But, Silbo Gomero is only one of the many types of languages in The Whistlers. In order to form his discourse on methods of communication, Porumboiu weaves together film noir conventions, his own cinematic language, and music into the crime drama plot of The Whistlers to create an experience that toys with our notions of how image and sound can tell a story, evoke an emotion, and modulate our expectations and reactions. Unlike Porumboiu’s previous analytical works, The Whistlers is a complete spectacle where all elements of film have a role to play. The heist storyline in The Whistlers anchors the film, fulfilling that need for plots that we tend to have, but the sensorial experiences prompted by the scenes and the accompanying words and sounds are the most important part, for they require us to be more diligent in how we watch the film, and they take away the responsibility of interpretation from Cristi and place it on us, the audience. We had a chance to speak with Corneliu Porumboiu at AFI Fest 2019, and that interview will soon be published here on Ink 19.

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10. Varda By Agnès / France / dir. Agnès Varda

There is no better eulogy for Agnès Varda than the one she created for herself in Varda by Agnès. Using her signature, wonderfully fantastical, yet enlightening approach, Varda guides us through her films and her installations in order to show us the evolution of her beliefs in the purpose of the image over the course of her career. She explains her desire to capture the veracity of time in Cléo from 5 to 7. She explains her desire to use documentary to examine reality more intimately upon the emergence of the digital camera. She explains her desire to expand on the experience of seeing in her installations. Always the innovator, Varda’s work asks us to think about the many layers of vision and perception in our lives, and throughout the film, she shares with us the images, memories, and sentiments from hers. Few filmmakers are as loving, bold, kind, and humorous as Agnès Varda, and with Varda by Agnès, she humbly explains why all who love her work miss her so very much.

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SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

The Endless Film (La Película Infinita) / Argentina / dir. Leandro Listorti

Director Leandro Listorti’s work with the film archive at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires has afforded him remarkable access to the cinematic history of his country, and in turn, Listorti has begun a personal journey in cataloging the many unfinished films contained in this collection. With The Endless Film, Listorti utilizes an exciting experimental editing method to give life to almost twenty of these never before seen, incomplete works including most notably, Nicolás SarquÃs’s 1984 adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama (attempted over three decades prior to Lucrecia Martel’s version) and Martel’s own animated adaptation of Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López’s political science fiction comic, The Eternaut (El Eternauta). As you watch The Endless Film, you as the cineaste revel in the sights and sounds of what could’ve been if these projects were brought to fruition, but you are also subconsciously informed of the changes in Argentina due to the purposefully non-sequential arrangement of the different clips films from multiple eras of film that are coupled with actual governmental radio broadcasts from the period of dictatorship, which is a dynamic technique to ultimately force viewers to ponder the potential political and social reasons as to why some of these works were never finished in the first place.

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Anne at 13,000 Feet / Canada / dir. Kazik Radwanski

Kazik Radwanski has an immense gift for creating intimate, claustrophobic portraits of characters who are more real than they are fiction. In his 2015 film, How Heavy This Hammer, Radwanski presented Erwin, a middle-aged man retreating from his responsibilities as a father and husband and spending too much time on endeavors such as video games and rugby. In his latest, Anne at 13,000 Feet, he introduces Anne (Deragh Campbell), a woman in her late twenties who precariously attempts to work in a daycare and maintain her relationships with her mom, her best friend Sarah, and her casual boyfriend Matt, all the while on the verge of a mental breakdown. Radwanski’s actors’ performances are so deeply rooted in reality that even if their characters’ situations are familiar conceits in film (man approaching mid-life crisis, woman wrangling mental instability), their expressions, mannerisms, and dialog are able to frighten us in their striking similarities to people we may know. To capture such a performance from Deragh Campbell (one of the most brilliant stars of AFI Fest 2019) for her portrayal of Anne, Radwanski used the daycare his mother has worked at for decades, the same one he attended as a child, as the setting, and he and Campbell intensively worked on shaping Anne’s motivations and expressions throughout the two-year filmmaking process. In addition, Campbell worked volunteer shifts at the daycare, and as a result of this commitment to creating a complete character and setting, all of Anne’s behavior is impeccably consistent. As she teeters back and forth between being able to handle her life or not, we step into her reality. We shudder when she struggles with social interactions. We worry when she exhibits self-destructive behavior. And, we empathize with everyone around Anne who is doing the same.

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The Souvenir / England / dir. Joanna Hogg

“I don’t want to be in that bubble.” That is the response that Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), the protagonist of The Souvenir, sheepishly gives during a meeting where she is seeking funding for her Loachian film project about the struggles of the people of the depressed shipping town of Sunderland after being asked the following question, “What makes you want to leave your own experience so radically?” In her first feature since her superb 2013 outing, Exhibition, Hogg unabashedly draws from her personal experiences in creating her surrogate character, Julie, a young film student, born of substantial privilege, who is desperate to draw from real stories to create her work while she remains virtually untouched by the social and political tumult of Thatcher-era London by the delicately maintained bubble that her Knightsbridge upbringing has provided for her. The reality that Julie craves arrives in the form of Anthony (Tom Burke) a ne’er-do-well of suspicious employment with the Foreign Service who draws Julie into his excessive and abusive life which is falling apart rapidly right before her shielded eyes. Burke and Swinton Byrne are exceptional and give natural unscripted performances in The Souvenir, while director Hogg employs the obliviousness exhibited through Julie’s reactions to her ill-fated relationship with Anthony as a seemingly effortlessly executed allegory for her growth as a filmmaker who is balancing learned cinematic traditions and technique and her desired storytelling ability that comes from her posh upbringing against developing her own voice as an artist through her own self-awareness.

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Bacurau / Brazil / dirs. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho

To fully understand Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new feature, Bacurau, you must imagine, for a moment, a film that strives to be the inverse of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s acclaimed 2013 experimental ethnographic documentary, Manakamana. The setup: A young woman returns home to the village of Bacurau, a town in the Brazilian sertão, to attend the funeral of her grandmother Carmelita, who recently passed away at the age of 94. As the beloved matriarch of the town, Carmelita may have also possessed some level of occult powers, which is a facet that wonderfully checks off the exotic and the mystical requirements of Western filmmakers who desire to explore such a foreign place. Shortly after Carmelita’s funeral, residents begin to see their community disappear off the map, along with their cell phone coverage and electricity, just as a pack of predominantly American professional killers, strangely led by Michael (German actor, Udo Kier), are about to descend upon Bacurau to decimate the population with the help of state-of-the-art gadgets and copious amounts of gunfire. Having few options for survival, the inhabitants of Bacurau, led by their doctor, Domingas (Sônia Braga), and the hitman and vigilante, Pacote (Thomas Aquino), reach out to the wonderfully folksy heroic wildcard figure, Lunga (Silvero Pereira), who will, of course, use his Amazonian killing skills to unite the town to defeat their outsider enemies. Filho and Dornelles’ film not only succeeds by providing a clever and much needed pushback to proponents of culturally invasive ethnographic documentary, but also by twisting action genre tropes and exoticism clichés, which altogether form a feature that is equally enjoyable as a satire of outsiders’ expectations of Brazil’s representation in film and as a form of escapism to the contemporary population of a nation that has survived a history of violence and must now attempt to endure the government of Jair Bolsonaro.

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MS Slavic 7 / dirs. Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell

In the first seconds of MS Slavic 7, directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell present an open book with side-by-side Polish and English versions of, “To Józef Wittlin on the Day of His Arrival in Toronto – 1963,” a poem written by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. From the tone, imagery, and Biblical allusions, the poem evokes an immediate feeling of sorrow, of missed opportunities, of histories filled with too many tragedies and disappointments to allow Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin to be together, and as a result, we as the viewers are instantaneously curious about Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin and prepare ourselves for an investigation of the lives that led to such a tremendously woeful poem. The film then immediately cuts to present day, to the image of Audrey (Deragh Campbell) entering a minimalist hotel room, quashing any expectation that we are going to see a literary adaption or some form of a biopic. Audrey is the great-granddaughter of Bohdanowiczowa, and she is on a self-guided research trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts in order to study the letters between her great-grandmother and the celebrated poet, Józef Wittlin. As the literary executor of the Bohdanowiczowa estate, Audrey wants to shine a light on her great-grandmother’s work, and the letters are her starting point, even if she’s not sure where they will take her. As MS Slavic 7 proceeds, Bohdanowicz and Campbell direct the film’s focus towards Audrey’s connections to Bohdanowiczowa’s writings and more broadly to her own heritage, family, and artistic inclinations. We get to see Audrey at an anniversary party at a Polish lodge. We get to be the listening partner to Audrey as she tries to digest the letters’ contents over a mug of beer. And throughout the film, the poem is omnipresent, maintaining Audrey’s curiosities (and ours) about Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin that guide her research, reflection, and synthesis which open up her own path to self-discovery. With MS Slavic 7, Bohdanowicz and Campbell translate the roman à clef literary tradition to cinema, and the outcome is a wonderfully intimate yet occasionally abstract (in the best way) examination of the self through artistic research. We had a chance to speak with directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell, and that interview will soon be published here on Ink 19.

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While We Are Here (Enquanto estamos aquí) / Brazil / dirs. Clarissa Campolina and Luiz Pretti

Directors Clarissa Campolina and Luiz Pretti’s intimate hybrid documentary, While We Are Here, is composed of part essay, diary, literary fiction, and collage that allows us to experience the story of the relationship that stems from the chance encounter of Wilson, an immigrant from Brazil who is about to leave New York City, and Lamis, a single mother from Lebanon who has just arrived in town. To allow the audience a more unbiased and personal appreciation of the unique dilemmas of immigration, Campolina and Pretti make the decision to never show either of the two protagonists onscreen, opting instead to enlist a single over narration comprised of different voices and languages to express the thoughts of Wilson and Lamis. As the film progresses, the couple’s words are blended with moving and still images that play with the progressing and freezing of time, images of empty rooms and landscapes of the locations where the circumstances of their lives have moved them to: New York, Belo Horizonte, and eventually Berlin. Pretti’s editing of these visual and sound elements result in a film that simultaneously draws you into Lamis and Wilson’s empathetic exchange while maintaining a cold visual distance that is always present and relevant to our current situation of globalization and immigration.

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BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE

The Restoration and U.S. Distribution of Franco Rosso’s Babylon

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were unable to attend any of the BAM screenings of Babylon back in March that included question and answer sessions with star Brinsley Forde and composer Dennis Bovell, but the simple fact that Franco Rosso’s masterpiece about the struggles of an upstart soundsystem crew in Thatcher-era England was finally restored and saw its first distribution in the United States makes it our best repertory film experience of 2019. For decades since its release, Babylon only existed for American audiences as a poorly transferred and ineptly subtitled film where much of the original music and patois heavy dialog along with cinematographer Chris Menges’ (Local Hero, The Killing Fields) brilliant camerawork remained a muddied mess that made the film next to impossible to judge on its own merits. That was the case of course until 2019, when Kino Lorber supervised a restoration that brought the film as close to Rosso’s original vision as possible, and although the film was shot forty years ago, its central message of racial intolerance is sadly as relevant now as it was then. Brinsley Forde, founding member of the British reggae group, Aswad, portrays the film’s lead character, Blue, a sympathetic young English-Jamaican auto mechanic and sound system operator who cannot get over with his family, his neighbors, the police, and even from time to time, his fellow West Indians whom he calls friends. Blue’s raison d’être is to build up his young Ital Lion sound to clash against the mighty and notorious Jah Shaka sound system, but in the days leading up to the event, every positive step that Blue takes is met with a level of resistance that will force his hand to make hard decisions about his future. Released some nine years before Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Babylon remains as dynamic and thought provoking a film that would be produced in the 1980s about the state of race relations. Our full review of Babylon is available here.

Categories
Screen Reviews

An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London

directed by John Landis

starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter

Arrow Video

One of the most delicate balancing acts in narrative fiction is the horror-comedy. You have to allow both of these seemingly disparate elements work on their own and work together to create something wholly unique. If it is just a horror movie with comedy sprinkled in, it dilutes the tension and undermines the fear and just dropping some gory murders into a comedy shatters the tone. When it is done right it is a glorious thing and everyone remembers titles like The Cat and the Canary, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, Evil Dead 2, and An American Werewolf in London.

Fresh off his comedy blockbuster The Blues Brothers, director John Landis was finally able to secure financing for his long dormant werewolf movie. The wait was certainly worthwhile because it allowed Landis to grow and mature as a director. If this has been made after Schlock or Kentucky Fried Movie it would have been a very different film. After back to back films (National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blue Brothers) with the biggest star in comedy, John Belushi, Landis went in a different direction casting virtual unknowns instead of comedy stars. One could imagine the temptation to cast Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd or reunite Tim Matheson and Peter Reigert from Animal House in the project, but David Naughton, who was best known for Dr. Pepper commercials and Griffin Dunne, who was best known for being the son of author Dominick Dunne, were cast as the doomed college backpackers who didn’t heed the warnings and strayed from the road and into the moors on a full moon.

College friends David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are college buddies backpacking around England who stop into a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. It could be any pub in any number of horror films where the room is full of the chatter of the patrons until the strangers enter or say the wrong thing and the entire place drops into silence. This trope has been going since at least 1932 when James Whale used it in The Invisible Man. The Universal connection is made even clearer when Jack and David notice a pentagram on the wall of the pub and being to discuss it in terms of the werewolf lore from the 1940 Universal monster classic The Wolf Man. Yes, characters in a horror movie discussing the rules and lore of horror movies a generation before Scream. Jack’s indelicate query into the five pointed star gets them the needle drag in the bar and they are soon headed back out into the cold night. The pub’s landlady warns the pair to keep to the roads and stay off the moors. There wouldn’t be much of a movie if they heeded her warning and soon the duo are off the road, lost, disoriented, and attacked by a large wolf. Jack is killed and David is injured before the beast is shot dead by some of the Slaughtered Lamb’s regulars. Instead of a wolf, David sees a dead man laying next to him before he blacks out.

Weeks later David awakens in a London hospital being cared for by Doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine, The Devils) and the lovely Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter, Logan’s Run). While David convalesces he begins to be plagued by strange dreams of himself that culminates in one of the scariest sequences, dream or otherwise, in any horror film, the Nazi demon dream. The dream starts with a TV showing the Muppet Show we zoom out to see David and his family enjoying a typical suburban evening when the doorbell rings and the family is besieged by a horde of demonic, sub-machine gun toting Nazis. The dream ends as David’s throat is sliced and he wakes up. Nurse Alex is at his bedside and tell him he’s safe and goes to open the curtains in his room when another Nazi demon comes through the widow and stabs her to death, and David wakes up again. Things get weirder for David as Jack begins to appear to him warning him about the werewolf curse that is on David and how he must die to break the curse and all Jack to rest in peace. With nowhere to go David moves in with Alex, but Jack still visits with his dire warnings, and despite his increasingly rotting flesh her retains his smart ass personality from life. The next day brings the full moon and David does indeed transform into a werewolf in a gruesome bit of body horror set to Sam Cooke’s version of “Blue Moon”. The transformation created by Rick Baker set a new standard for special effects that won him the very first Academy Award for Best Makeup. Post transformation wolf David goes on a killing spree across London before finding himself naked in the zoo the next morning. The longest comedy sequence of the movie involves the nude David trying to get himself across the city and back to Alex’s flat. The next night a distraught David encounters Jack again in Piccadilly Circus. They go into a porno theater where Jack introduces David to the ghosts of his victims. They all offer their advice on the best suicide methods for David. Nightfall comes and David transforms in the movie theater and in wolf form wrecks havoc in Piccadilly Circus. Eventually the police corner David in an alley. Alex arrives and tries to reach David in his wolf form. Momentarily it looks like it works, but the beast lunges for her and the police open fire, killing him. Alex breaks down over David’s dead body and the screen cuts to black to the incongruous doo-wop sound of Marcel’s “Blue Moon” in one of the more deliriously jarring endings in cinema history.

1981 was the year of the werewolf with three very different takes on werewolf movies in the same year. Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen and Joe Dante’s The Howling arriving in theater’s ahead of Landis’ film, but American Werewolf has proven to be the most influential of the trio. The Howling has a rabid fan base and has produced a number of middling or worse sequels, but never dented the cultural consciousness like An American Werewolf in London. The tone of the film with its quippy, irreverent humor mixed with striking gore and make-up effects would infect and overtake the horror genre for a generation. Quirky pop music needle drops are omnipresent and often cringe in current films but were all but unheard of, especially as an ironic counterpoint to the action on the screen before Landis.

The sheer volume of extra material on this disc is nearly overwhelming. There are two audio commentaries, one is the older DVD track from actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne and new track from Paul Davis. Davis is the director of the feature length documentary Beware the Moon: Remembering An American Werewolf in London which is the ultimate document on the creation and legacy of film. Beware the Moon is included in this release along with the feature length doc Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf.

One of the more curious pieces is I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, a 12 minute video essay from writer/documentary filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976). The essay is a compelling read of the film as a reflection of the realities and identity of modern Jewish life. Spira further links links the use of werewolf mythos in the Nazi party and how Curt Siodmak’s script for The Wolf Man (1941) can be read as an allegory of the plight of Euopean Jews in the 1930’s. When you consider that John Landis based his werewolf rules on the rules Siodmak laid out the thesis gains even more traction and adds another level to both films.

After all that you still have interviews and featurettes with director John Landis, make-up artist Rick Baker, trailers, still, storyboards, outtakes, and a terrific booklet featuring new essays from Travis Crawford and Simon Ward.

On top of all of that the film has never looked or sounded better. The transfer Arrow is using is gorgeous and doesn’t over polish the image. It manages to maintain the integrity of Rick Baker’s effect work and the early ’80s feel of the film which is not always the case with films of this era, or this film in particular. With the improved picture quality and the huge amount of extras (including those from earlier releases) there is no reason to hesitate to buy or re-buy this disc. It is a film to treasure and this Blu-ray is a treasure as well.

www.arrowvideo.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

Apprentice to Murder

Apprentice to Murder

directed by Ralph L. Thomas

starring Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara

Arrow Video

Apprentice to Murder is not a film noir nor is it a Lifetime network movie as the jejune title might indicate. It is instead a hidden gem of a film blending elements of folk horror with a fairly unsentimental coming of age story. Films that fall outside of genre conventions often fail to capture an audience and clearly the post-Roger Corman New World Pictures had no idea how to market this film. They doubled down on the scant horror aspects and cut an aggressively misleading trailer combined with garish Exorcist rip-off VHS art damned the film to be a disappointment to the few that actually watched.

Loosely based on the true story of the 1928 Nelson Rehmeyer “Hex Hollow” murder case in York, Pennsylvania, Apprentice to Murder is a slow burn of a film that is often more character study than horror film. Set in Pennsylvania Dutch country, a land marked by hard labor and high reliance on religion and superstition, is the perfect place for a genteel youth to be taken in by a charismatic father figure of dubious repute. Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe, Pretty Little Liars) is a 16 year old artist looking for his place in the world and realizing it isn’t among the farms and tannery where he lives. After suffering a drunken beating from his father Billy strikes up a friendship with the new girl in town Alice (Mia Sara, Legend) who takes him to meet powwow medicine doctor John Reese, played with glorious abandon by Donald Sutherland (Klute). Powwow medicine is basically an American adaptation of Wicca and the practitioners are armed with their grimoire Long Lost Friend. While Billy and Alice’s love blooms he is also becoming increasingly devoted to his mentor, John Reese. Reese not only teaches Billy how to read and write, but opens his eyes to poetry and the ways of powwow medicine which is a mix of Christianity and folk medicine including herbs, hex signs, and incantations. Billy tries to balance his desire to move to the city with Alice with working for his mentor. His naive faith in Reese and the superstitions of his people ultimately lead to tragedy. The romance angle doesn’t become overly saccharine or melodramatic. There is a borderline sweet/creepy runner where Billy leaves drawings he’s done of Alice in her room while she sleeps. It stays on the right side of creepy as it is shown that she frames and hangs the drawings. Billy’s relationship with Reese and his indoctrination into powwow medicine is far more interesting and is what actually drives the plot. Haunting the entire film is the presence of a mysterious man, Lars Hoeglin. Is Hoeglin a malevolent force or simply a recluse? Is Reese a holy man, a manipulative huckster, or insane? The veracity of the various magics, including the supernatural showdown with Hoeglin, ultimately turn out to be purposely ambiguous as Billy’s reality unravels.

For a basically forgotten film Arrow Video has given in a loving release that will no doubt be treasured by the film’s fans and hopefully find it some new admirers. In addition to the lovely presentation of R. L Thomas’ film there are a surprising number of extra content included as well.

Film and music critic Bryan Reesman delivers an engaging audio commentary that balances the delivery of information and analysis while taking full advantage of the film on screen to single out specific shots or scenes for discussion. He does a great job of breaking down the themes and production of the film, going into the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch region, the book Pow-Wows; or, Long Lost Friend by John George Hohman, and the actual murder case the film was inspired by.

Original Sin: Religion in Horror Cinema is an on camera interview piece with Diabolique editor Kat Ellinger discussing the history of religion in horror films. This studiously researched piece actually starts long before film with the works of Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first novelist who laced his work with Colonial culture entwined with the European gothic to create the American Gothic novel and was an obvious influence on Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She then works through the evolving portrayal of Christian and cult religious leaders in films like Night of the Hunter (1955), Witchfinder General (1968), personal fave Eyes of Fire (1983).

Other extras include “Colour Me Kelvin”, an interview with cinematographer Kelvin Pike who recalls his work on Apprentice to Murder and the challenges of working in Norway, and “Grantham to Bergen”, an interview with make-up artist Robin Grantham. The film’ theatrical trailer is also included to round out this surprisingly solid release

www.arrowvideo.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

Ringu Collection

Ringu Collection

directed by Hideo Nakata, George Iida, Norio Tsuruta

starring Rie InÅ, Yukie Nakama, Daisuke Ban

Arrow Video

One of the most susccessful and important Japanese horror films of all time, Ring, and its various sequels have been collected on an opulent 3 disc box set. The original film, and its three sequels Ring 2, Hasan, and Ring 0 have lovely transfers and features a vast collection of extra material that demands a buy or upgrade from any J-Horror enthusiast. These films have some odd naming quirks. The English word Ring is the original novel’s title but due to a Japanese grammar rules ring is pronounced “ringu” and hence the Japanese title for the film. There are some translation issues with the other titles as well, so for the sake of clarity I will use the film titles as Arrow Video presents them.

Ring, based on a novel by Koji Suzuki is built around a simple yet deviously ingenious clever plot device. An urban legend is going around that there is a videotape that if you watch it, a week later you will die. But there is an out, get someone else to watch it and you’re off the hook, but they’re on the clock and marked for death. The films mix of folklore, urban legend, and technology to create a new form of viral horror. The term viral applies to the way the haunting and curse of Sadako, the girl in the well, exacts her revenge like a viral infection. You no longer have to go to the haunted house or conjure spirits on a Ouija board, you simply have to watch a video tape to attract the attention of malevolent forces. The original four films made in Japan between 1998-2000 were largely responsible for the short lived but highly influential J-horror boon. Apart from these films Ring has been remade and sequeled in the US and Korea and Sadako has made numerous Japanese tv and film appearances and been referenced and parodied countless times in different media around the world.

The sequel brings us into murky waters as there are two sequels, Ring 2 (Ringu 2) and Spiral (Rasen). Both films pick up where the events of the original movie left off, but take such divergent paths to continue the story. Producers of Ring were so certain of their success they commissioned this sequel and actually released them concurrently. Ring was a massive hit and Spiral was to be kind of a disappointment. The film delved deep into the mythology of Koji Suzuki’s source novels which deviated greatly from the original film. It attempted to make sense of the Sadako killings through medicine and science rather than the supernatural. Audiences didn’t buy it. They wanted a more traditional sequel and Toho studios were quick to comply. They brought back the first film’s director and screenwriter to get things back on the right track. They shouldn’t have bothered. Ring 2 is so terrible that people watching it want to die. The entire movie is a cinematic run-on sentence. Yet Spiral is the film that is considered the “unofficial” sequel. Neither is a satisfying follow up to Ring, but at least Spiral is a good horror movie, a bad sequel that contradicts too much of the original, but an interesting and entertaining movie. Ring 2 by all rights should have been a franchise killer.

Ring 0: Birthday is third sequel that decides to go the prequel route and focus on Sadako’s story from Sadako’s perspective. Sadako at the beginning of the story is a far cry from the vengeful spirit spreading her viral vengeance across Japan at the close of the 20th century. Here she is a painfully shy girl attempting to heal from trauma by performing as an understudy in a play based on Georges Franju’s 1960 macabre classic Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes without a Face). Yukie Nakama’s sympathetic portrayal of Sadako in contrast to what we know she is going to become adds palpable moral tension due to her inevitable and tragic three decade imprisonment in the well. Ring 0 :Birthday is easily the best film of the cycle and even though we know what evil she will eventually unleash you cannot help but feel deep sadness for Sadako as she begins her 30 years in the well before her justifiable revenge is unleashed via video tape.

This Blu-Ray with its 4k restoration of Ring and 1080 transfers of the other three films alone make it a worthy upgrade from the bare bones Dreamworks DVD set. But since this is an Arrow Video release the films are accompanied by a prodigious selection of extras.

Film historian and author David Kalat does audio commentary on Ring. If you are looking for a scene by scene narration commentary you will be disappointed in this commentary, but if you are looking for a deep dive into the history and influence of the film you will be enthralled.

Australian author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas brings her expertise in gender and horror to the audio commentary for Ring 0: Birthday. She does a splendid job of pointing out and interpreting some of the more nuanced themes of the film that may not be obvious on casual viewing including the moral ambiguity of the film and the toxic femininity unleashed on Sadako and the use of technology both in Sadako’s vengeance and in the creation of the maleficent girl in the well.

“The Ring Legacy” features interviews with Andrew Kasch (Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th), professor/filmmaker Rebekah McKendry, Ph.D, author Alyse Wax (The World of IT) break down the entire Ring cycle from the Sadako character’s roots in folklore and Kabuki to the source novels, to the impact of the film on horror cinema in Japan and around the world that continues even now. Kasch, McKendry, and Wax really dissect the films and what makes them work and how American studios would buy up any Asian horror property for remake in the wake of the success of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring remake. This business model also opened a market for Asian horror in the west.

“A Vicious Circle” has Diabolique Magazine editor in chief Kat Ellinger making her usual, exhaustively researched, takes into the career of director Hideo Nakata. With Ring as a springboard she delves the cultural and religious traditions of Japan versus the west and how the views of death and the spirit world in Buddhism and Shinto are far different that Christian views which heavily influence their horror. She discusses how Hideo Nakata became an unlikely horror icon as he idolized blacklisted American director Joseph Losey (Modesty Blaise) and made horror films as his way into the industry, but created a new style of horror films quite different from the extreme body horrors popular in Japan in the 1990s, taking the classic folk horror traditions and modernizing them with not only technology, but also elements of social commentary.

In the video essay “Circumnavigating Ring” author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Satanic Panic) analyzes the evolution of the Ring cycle, especially through the films’ female characters and she posits the films are connected by the theme of motherhood, especially the ramifications of the corruption of motherhood through abuse or neglect.

“Spooks, Sighs and Videotape” is a video essay by film critic Jasper Sharp (Behind the Pink Curtain) is a scholarly piece tracing the long haired ghost archetype to the vengeful female Onryo ghost tradition in literature, folklore, and theater that became a worldwide phenomenon with Sadako in Ring. The video contains a staggering amount of posters, artwork, photos, and film clips to illustrate the history of Japanese ghost women.

A number of trailers, some behind the scenes footage, and naturally the cursed Sadako video are also included. The extras on this set are more than just some fan service it really is film school in a box. I don’t think a university theory course on these films would be any less thorough than what the experts provide on this collection.

www.arrowvideo.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

Two Evil Eyes

Two Evil Eyes

directed by George Romero & Dario Argento

starring Harvey Keitel, Madeline Porter, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins

Blue Underground

When two legends of horror decide to team up to direct an anthology film based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, what could go wrong? Quite a bit, actually. Two Evil Eyes presents two stories from Poe with The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar directed by George Romero and The Black Cat from Dario Argento. The entire project seemed to be an over-calculated project from the outset as Romero saw the film as a way to work in an Italian production and Argento seeking an entry to the American market. Both goals failed and the film was made in Pittsburgh, not Italy, and was a box office disaster effectively tanking Argento’s bid for the American Big Time. The film isn’t exactly bad, but considering the talent involved it is certainly a disappointment and neither segment is anywhere near either man’s best work.

Even at its short length, George Romero’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar feels overlong and decidedly un-cinematic. It has a basic cable vibe to the production that is just lacking charm that would have benefited from more style and shorter length like Romero’s Creepshow work, or the Amicus omnibus cycle. that but lacking the verve of very similar tales from classic horror anthologies. At half its length it might have worked as a Creepshow segment. The entire project was originally envisioned as a 4-5 part anthology with John Carpenter and Wes Craven among other directors considered to adapt Poe for the screen. It also suffers from a terrible leading man, who has zero chemistry with Adrinnne Barbeau. Tom Atkins shows up late to chew the scenery as a cigar chomping, fedora clad cop straight out of a film noir and he is bizarrely out of place, but is the best thing in the segment. If the whole of Valdemar had the energy of Atkins few scenes it would have worked much better.

Dario Argento’s stalking, prowling camera instantly sets The Black Cat apart from the dull, static, Romero piece, It may not be in the same league as Profondo Rosso or Suspiria, but even second-tier Argento is worthwhile. The script abounds with the Poe easter eggs naming characters Pym, Legrand, Annabelle, and Usher along with allusions to other Poe tales like Bernice and Pit and the Pendulum. Harvey Keitel is absolutely unhinged as sleazy crime scene photographer Rod Usher. He is a thoroughly unlikeable character that makes you wonder what the attraction is between Usher and his beautiful violinist girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter, Slaves of New York). It should have worked better but the film is just lacking Argento’s usual grandeur. He is frankly just handcuffed by his cinematographer and production designer. There are some signature Argento flourishes on display. When a nosy neighbor, Mr. Pym (Martin Balsam, Psycho) stops by after Usher has killed his girlfriend and spies blood on the stairs, Keitel deftly dips his foot into a small pool of blood and explains it away as he must’ve cut his foot coming down to get the door. The one scene that makes the whole affair worthwhile and is one of the best moments of any Argento film is amazing shot of Annabelle’s body, dumped in the bathtub, slowly submerging beneath her own blood as it fills the clawfoot tub. The Black Cat is not without merit, but doesn’t match up to the best of his work.

Eurocult historian Troy Howarth delivers one of his usual, exhaustive, audio commentaries where he skillfully dissects the film’s strengths and weaknesses, its place in horror history and some great tales of the making of this decidedly troubled production. Howarth goes in depth about the very different directing styles of Romero and Argento and how those styles (Romero a lean, practical shooter and Argento who is far more extravagant shooter and editor) are contrasted in the two shorts on Two Evil Eyes. Howarth speaks glowingly of the film throughout the commentary which will certainly please fans of the film.

The second Blu-Ray of this set is an extras disc with nearly a dozen featurettes and interviews from directors George Romero, Dario Agento, Asia Argento, Adrienne Barbeau, composer Pino Donaggio, Assistant Director (and notable Italian genre director in his own right) Luigi Cozzi and much more.

Rewriting Poe is a terrific interview with screenwriter Franco Ferrini as he discusses adapting Poe for the screen, production issues on Two Evil Eyes and the homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne for the dream/hallucination sequence in The Black Cat. He also is joined by a large Manx tabby who apparently heard “gatto” and assumed Ferrini was speaking to him.

On Behind the Wall the Black Cat actress Madeline Porter sits down to discuss her relationship and memories of Dario Argento and how her experiences with him have found their way into her acting and directing style. The way she humanizes Argento is quite refreshing as he is so often deified to unrelatable heights by fans and critics alike.

At Home with Tom Savini is an odd vintage piece shot during the Two Evil Eyes production with Tom Savini giving a decidedly unpolished tour of his home show on shaky low def video. He shows off a staggering amount of casts, masks, props and pieces of his special effects craft he has hoarded in every shelf, counter, nook, and cranny of his home.

The third disc as usual for these three disc Blue Underground sets contains Pino Donaggio’s haunting score. The set comes with a booklet filled with stills and poster art and an essay “The Facts in the Case of Two Evil Eyes” by Michael Gingold. Gingold explores the film’s production, reputation, and place in the world of film adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe.

Two Evil Eyes may not have been the masterpiece that its pedigree may have predicted but it does have a serious cult following and Blue Underground has not disappointed with this splendid release.

www.blue-underground