The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Godard, Mon Amour (2018)

My first day of the 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival was a varied and long, starting with a Secret Festival screening at the Egyptian Theater (that’s all I can say about that) and traveling through time, from feudal Japan to 1960s France.

I didn’t know anything about Sansho the Bailiff (1954) going into the film, except that director Kenji Mizoguchi is among the most celebrated Japanese filmmakers. I looked forward to seeing a restored version of the film for my first viewing and I was not disappointed. It sounded great and the mistily beautiful cinematography was presented to great effect.

Sansho is the story of a wealthy family who are separated when their governor father is exiled. They each fall into misfortune, primarily due to the heartless actions of the titular Sansho, whose trade is human bodies and the labor and pleasures they offer. Imprisoned and abused, all these unfortunate souls possess is the strength to stay true to their beliefs, though even that is not always assured.

Mizoguchi had a talent for finding the right people and setting them free on his productions. The wisdom of this approach is most evident in the achingly elegant, long shots of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and the simultaneously enchanting and menacing music score composed by Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, and Tamekichi Mochizuki. These beautifully composed elements give the film a grace that does nothing to diminish the horrors on display, but does give the viewer the strength to absorb it all.

You do need strength to watch this film too, because it isn’t out to bring villains to justice, but rather to bring their evil deeds into the light. No resolution is offered, but in the end, everything lands in a place of love and forgiveness which can only come from the pursuit of integrity.

Godard Mon Amour (2017) is the lighter, vaguely slapstick story of film director Jean Luc-Godard in the period after he had made the revolutionary Maoist flick La Chinoise (1967) and married its young star, Anne Wiazemsky. 

The film passes through the decade plus they spend together. In this time Godard is faced with fans who want him to “be funny again” and engage him in conversations with no purpose or end. The director struggles to find acceptance for his new work, a film about revolution, while he tangles with what it means to be a revolutionary in the first place.

This exploration takes place in public, in the midst of protests and rooms of passionate youths who are always pained and outraged when Godard takes the mike and tries to work out what he means to say in real time. He realizes he is aging out of being an angry young man and that his youthful wife will not turn the clock back for him.

As Godard, Louis Garrel captures some of the edgy, itchy restlessness of the filmmaker in a mostly comic performance in which he is shown to be out of sync when it comes to interacting with the world, a fact emphasized with a running gag in which his glasses are constantly broken.

Rather than exude the pouty reproachful look of Wiazemsky, Stacy Martin has the appearance, and passive air of Chantal Goya in Godard’s 1966 film Masculine Feminine. Because of this, I was never able to accept that the woman on the screen was meant to be the same person as that budding revolutionary in La Chinoise. The real Wiazemsky appears more passionate and intelligent than this blank-faced, if strong-willed waif.

There are laughs and insight enough for Godard aficionados in Godard Mon Amour. Fans of director Michel Hazanavicius will likely not get the same charge here as with The Artist (2011) or the OSS:117 films, though at times there is similar humor at play. Overall, it gives you the feeling that you are passing time with these characters without ever understanding much about them but that they existed.

The film plays SIFF again at the Majestic Bay Theater on Tuesday, 5/22 at 9PM.

On Blu-ray: The Passionate Charge of Gun Crazy (1950)

I can never get enough of Gun Crazy (1949). It’s an addictive flick. The high-energy performances, its erotic charge, the rhythm of it, and director Joseph Lewis’ economical, effective style elevated this ‘B’ production to classic status. Now it is making its Blu-ray debut with a new 1080p HD master, from Warner Archive.

The story itself, based on a short story by MacKinlay Kantor is basic crime noir: a pair of gun fanatics meet at a carnival, become fanatical about each other, and start robbing people. In the performance that made her a noir legend, Peggy Cummins is Annie Laurie Starr, a sideshow sharpshooter who will not hesitate to kill in order to get what she wants. Bart Tare (John Dall) wants her the moment he sees her, because he has always been obsessed with guns himself, though he is her opposite in that he is strongly averse to killing.

Nestled within this dark, violent story is one of the most passionate and true cinematic love affairs. So often romance is insincere in noir. It’s the tool of a femme or homme fatale, used but not felt. That is not the case here, where Annie and Bart are so ecstatically in love that they sometimes can’t think straight. Cummins is most adept at demonstrating this passion, though it should be noted that she appears to get the same erotic charge from robbing a bank.

The film is at its best when Lewis films his lovers as if they have been caught in a candid moment, interacting casually instead of acting. The best example of this is in the famous bank robbery sequence that was shot with one camera, set up in the backseat of the getaway car. As they drive towards the scene of the crime-to-be, Annie and Bart speak casually, like a couple heading to the grocery store. He lights her a cigarette and gives her directions; she comments on the heavy traffic and makes little explanations with the appearance of spontaneity. No romantic clinch could demonstrate their intimacy better than this scene.

Gun Crazy a great film, because it effortlessly combines its seemingly offhand scenes of intimacy with more conventional, and adeptly framed action scenes and passionate declarations.

The picture quality is great, retaining that bit of grain necessary to emulate the warmth of film. Special features on the disc include commentary by author/film-noir specialist Glenn Erickson and the 2006 documentary Film-Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, which is an excellent primer to those new to film noir and has some interesting tidbits for genre enthusiasts.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics

Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics
Anthony Slide
University Press of Mississippi, 2018

Even from the early days of film, cinema fanatics have existed in some form. Though not always known as film buffs, these mostly white, male, and socially awkward aficionados have been present and of an essentially consistent character over the decades. In a new book, prolific film writer Anthony Slide explores the world of these super fans for whom the movies are a life-consuming obsession.

This is a community with which Slide is intimately familiar, which gives the book an authenticity that would be impossible to achieve as an objective observer. He goes into the history of movie fandom, collecting, and the connecting culture, even explaining the origin of the term “film buff.” There is also much attention given to the habitat of the film fanatic, from theaters and bookstores to trade shows and private screenings.

Most fascinating of all though, are the people from this world. Slide has known many of them personally and they are an unusual bunch. Though I already knew a lot about the social awkwardness, theft, and eccentric personalities to be found in this milieu, I found plenty to surprise me here. I had also had a taste of the bizarre behavior to be found in this scene via a series of difficult and oddly amusing phone calls with one of the men featured in this book in the process of arranging an interview with an actor several years ago. Despite all this, I didn’t expect the level of aggressively antisocial, sexually depraved, and mentally unstable behavior I found here. 

There are plenty of likable, or at least enjoyably eccentric characters featured in the book, but for the most part this is an unpleasant bunch. There’s the man who stalked Leonard Maltin, calling him in tears in New York from LA, (unsuccessfully) inviting himself on a trip with him and his wife Alice, and actually showing up at their apartment building and leaving a letter for the film critic in the lobby. Another film fanatic kidnapped a woman who lived in his building, stripped her naked, taped her to a chair and spray-painted her black. And among the most devoted collectors of film and memorabilia there are many who took advantage of those who wanted access to their rare collections, some even exhibiting psychopathic behavior.

In the midst of these lurid can’t-look-away tales of social dysfunction is a mostly unorganized, and in some cases unintended movement to save and promote cinematic history. The beauty of that passion and preservation in the midst of this fandom is like a rose in a trash heap. 

All told, it’s a fascinating story, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Slide doesn’t hesitate to share who he thinks is boring, sleazy or unattractive. He also has plenty of love for those he admires in this scene. Often, he feels both ways about the same subject. You need never wonder what he really thinks.

The digs, which come with a sort of affection for these people who have through their obsession done much for film history, give the book a personal feel. Slide is often a a part of the story, whether through his presence at various events he describes, the friendships he has had with film buffs and those connected with them, and his connection with the community as a writer and film expert. Whether or not he sees himself as a film buff is not made clear, but he knows the world of film fanatics intimately. The title of his book is apt; this is truly an "Outrageous History."

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway (1938)

No actress gave the classic melodramatic weeper more depth than Kay Francis. In a genre crafted to manipulate emotions, she threw herself into the drama with such abandon that you can’t help forgiving her for working your tear ducts so relentlessly. Now on DVD from Warner Archive, Comet Over Broadway (1938) showcases the actress at her glamorous, self-sacrificing best.

Francis plays an ambitious newsstand worker who lives with her husband and baby daughter. She spends her days reading Variety and her nights performing in community theater, always dreaming of big stage success. When her husband accidentally kills a visiting famous actor who he suspects of putting the moves on Francis, he is put in prison for life.

Determined to get her man out of jail, the guilt-ridden Francis hits the road with her daughter, working her way up from carnival entertainer to Broadway star. Along the way she meets an aging actress on the verge of retirement. She notes the trouble Francis has raising a child on the road and insists that she take on the task of raising the young girl. Though reluctant to part with her, she agrees that it is the best for her daughter.

As the years pass, Francis falls in love, reunites with her daughter and fights for her husband. She is criticized for her ambition and her poor mothering, but is nevertheless determined to do things her own way. There are syrupy strings, eyes full of tears always on the brink of falling, and sacrifices galore.

Sybil Jason plays Francis’ daughter. It’s her second pairing with the actress, they were also mother and daughter in I Found Stella Parish (1935). As in that film, they have a pleasing chemistry, playing off each other well in some of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes. Jason was groomed to be a sparkling Shirley Temple type, but she was more appealing as a dramatic star, always approaching her roles with sincerity and genuine warmth.

Bette Davis rejected the lead of Comet Over Broadway because she felt it was beneath her, which is fair, it was. However, in Francis’ hands this is a perfect melodrama. She knew exactly what she was doing in this kind of film and in her way she is just as good as Davis because, like her, she knew her lane and she kept in it.

Few genres are more derided that melodrama, but if it is done well, it essentially thrives in its own universe. It is a heightening of reality, grabbing directly for your emotions and if it is the ride you want to take, Comet Over Broadway is the perfect expression of the form.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On Blu-ray: Peter Boyle in Joe (1970)

As the title character of Joe (1970) Peter Boyle spits out a stream of bigoted patter that would have come as a shock a couple of years ago. Now it is a familiar fact of life, an unpleasant reminder that hatred may go into hiding, but never fully fades away. While some of the issues it explores are relevant to today, this gritty, bleak drama is very much of its time, a sort of farewell to a turbulent era. Now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, it is a surprisingly good-looking film despite its brutal feel.

Boyle plays an angry factory worker who hates black people, hippies, drugs, and youth culture. While drunkenly spouting off at a bar, he meets Bill (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive who has killed his daughter’s drug-dealing, junkie boyfriend in a fit of rage. Delighted to meet a man who has fulfilled his dreams of murdering hippies, Joe attaches himself to the frightened executive, finding common ground in their hatred and clashing uncomfortably on just about every other level.

They drink together, have an awkward dinner party with their wives, and go on a scornful tour of hippie-dom where they don’t mind enjoying the attentions of a couple of free-love endorsing women. Adding to the discomfort is that Bill’s strung-out daughter (Susan Sarandon in her first film role) is the same age as these women and living the supposed hippy lifestyle he protests, while enjoying the benefits of the looser morals it inspires. There’s always a feeling of dread when these two are together, but it is Joe who generates the most fear. Bill has already killed, but you always have the feeling that Joe, encouraged by his friend’s perfect crime, could do a lot worse.

Much like the shocking rock documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), released the same year, Joe feels like a sort of death knell for the free-loving, experimental aspects of the sixties. All the hippies are burned out and the establishment remains intact, and ever more determined to maintain control.

It is a grimy, bummer of a story, and so it is astonishing how beautiful it can look. In a film made for a washed out palette, colors are instead often vibrant and sometimes dreamily beautiful. The landscape is bleak, but somehow something pleasing comes out of it.

Boyle plays a repulsive character, but he is true to himself and entirely lacking in pretension. It is likely that these qualities, in addition to his giving voice to views that were becoming unpopular, but remained strongly-held by many, contributed to the heroic image he had among fans of the film, a worship that horrified Boyle, who was repulsed by the man he played.

While for the most part compelling, in the end Joe’s message loses its subtlety. It circles back on previous conversations in a way that would almost be risible if it weren’t so gut-wrenchingly sad. What remains is the feeling that the party has ended, drugs aren’t fun anymore, and not much has changed.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

On Blu-ray: Friz Lang Does Noir in While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Director Fritz Lang had an astounding career. Influential, enduring, and inventive, he was able to adapt from silents to talkies and then from European to Hollywood filmmaking while keep his own unique style. I recently had the chance to watch two crime noir titles from late in his career: While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), both of which are available now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

It can be difficult to focus on the twists and turns of While the City Sleeps (1956) because of its astounding cast. I found myself spending most of the running time in disbelief that Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino all somehow ended up together in a movie. It has the effect of an explosion of personalities. They’re all so charismatic and there are only 99 minutes to cover their various story lines, and so it is incredible that the final result is as entertaining and well balanced as it is.

That said, there are so many appealing personalities that you never feel like you get quite enough time to enjoy everyone. They all have their moments though: Sanders plotting with Lupino while he bruises peaches in a champagne glass, Price smirking under a portrait of his father as he wrecks havoc on a media giant, and Rhonda Fleming looking like a trophy wife, but acting like a bruiser, both mentally and physically.

The story is set in the media world, where newspaper, television, and wire service magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) dies suddenly, leaving his empire to his underqualified son (Price). At the same time, a young man (John Drew Barrymore, Jr.) is murdering ladies who live alone, a case that Kyne had been following with interest. The younger Kyne decides to use the murder to play his company executives Mitchell, Sanders, and James Craig against each other in a competition for a juicy promotion. Whoever solves the murder first gets the job.

For the most part, the plot zips along efficiently, performances are solid and the proceedings are alternately thrilling and humorous. Barrymore is the weak spot, playing his psychopathic character too far over the top and contrasting badly with his more subtle costars. There is never any mystery as to who is doing the killing, making the methods these men use to win the focus of the action. There’s a lot going on here; it’s the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), has less zing, but is a solid, for the most part straight forward thriller. It once again stars Dana Andrews, in addition to Joan Fontaine as his fiancée. Andrews plays a writer who plots with Fontaine’s father, a newspaper publisher (Sidney Blackmer) to prove the danger of the death penalty by making it appear that the younger man has committed a murder. The plan is for the publisher to exonerate Andrews before conviction, but a car accident disrupts their plans.

While the action proceeds intriguingly enough, it’s a bit off-putting how low energy everyone is about the shocking events unfolding. You’d expect more emotion than this in reaction to alarming and life-threatening dangers. That coolness is in some ways deceptive though and is perhaps of benefit as the plot unfolds.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

The 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: Selections for Classic Film Fans

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival is coming up fast! I am looking forward to covering SIFF with a focus on the interests of fans of classic film for a sixth year. From May 17 to June 10 I will be in cinematic heaven as I explore the especially fascinating offerings on the program this year.

While the archival offerings are a bit thin as far as older films go, overall the festival has a lot of interesting options for classic movie fanatics. I will report on several of these titles throughout the month of the festival:

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972)
Saturday, 5/19, 10:00AM, SIFF Film Center 

One of the most fascinating selections on the SIFF schedule, this 478 minute television series directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder will screen with two intermissions. For those who are not up for a lengthy marathon, the show will also screen each Wednesday of the festival.

With a an especially upbeat tone for Fassbinder, this series explores the life and community of a toolmaker in postwar Germany. Beloved in Europe upon its initial run, it has not been readily available to American audiences in the years since its broadcast. I’ve been hearing good things about this one. As crazy as it may sound, it may be best experienced as a marathon.

That Summer (2017)
Monday, 5/20, 9:00PM, Ark Lodge Cinemas
Tuesday, 5/29, 6:30PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown

New facets of the story Beales of Grey Gardens, the mother and sister who were made famous in a 1975 documentary filmed by Albert and David Maysles, can be seen in this new film that documents the lives of the famous and the Beales in the Hamptons in the summer of 1972. I’m eagerly anticipating this new perspective on the lives of these endlessly compelling women, with input from the likes of Andy Warhol and Lee Radziwill.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Monday, 5/28, 6:30, SIFF Cinema Uptown 

Catherine Deneuve is placidly dissatisfied as a bored housewife who turns to sex work for afternoon entertainment. Director Luis Bunuel uncovers an exciting and dangerous fantasy world in this French classic. I’m looking forward to finally seeing this on the big screen.

Being There (1979)
Saturday, 6/2, Noon, SIFF Cinema Uptown 

This Hal Ashby film is one of the director’s best and also features top performances from Peter Sellars, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas (in an Oscar-winning role). It’s a timely exploration of how people see what they want to see and give power to those who they think will keep them safe in their beliefs.

Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems (2018)
Wednesday, 6/6, 9:15 PM, SIFF Cinema Egyptian 

VHS collectors Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher share unusual videos from their extensive tape collection. The pair will comment on clips from bizarre commercials, training videos and the like in what sounds like a wild live show.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) 
5/20, SIFF Cinema Uptown, 2:00 PM 

I’ve never heard of this medieval-set tale directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, and am looking forward to seeing it for the first time in a new restoration.

The Changeling (1980)
6/5, 6:30 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown

This gothic horror classic will be of special interest to locals in the audience, because it features several location shots in Seattle. Can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that George C. Scott plays a UW professor though. A new 4K restoration of the film will be screened.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) 
6/3, 2:00 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown 

I am excited to finally have a chance to see this lesser-known title in the filmography of one of my favorite directors, Jean Renoir. It is a story of corruption and worker uprising in the world of pulp book publishing made early in the director’s career.

Godard Mon Amour (2017) 
Sunday, 5/20, 7:00 PM, AMC Pacific Place
Tuesday, 5/22, 9:00 PM, Majestic Bay

The early reviews are mixed of this biopic of Jean-Luc Godard directed by Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist [2011]), but I am curious to see it because it features his relationship with first wife Anne Wiazemsky, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Hazanavicius.

Hal (2018)
Friday, 6/1, 6:00 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown
Sunday, 6/3, 12:30 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown

I’m delighted to see this documentary about Hal Ashby on the schedule, because while many of his films are celebrated, he’s never been fully given his due as a successful and influential director. I mean Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Coming Home, and Being There? That’s a varied and adventurous filmography and I’m looking forward to learning more about the man behind these films.

L’Inferno (1911)
Thursday, 5/31, 7:30PM, The Triple Door

The silent movie screenings with live musical accompaniment at the Triple Door are always a highlight of SIFF, but this year’s selection is especially intriguing. Seattle band My Goodness will be playing with this Italian drama inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The elaborately conceived production features pioneering Méliès-flavored special effects.
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