43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Life Really is a Cabaret at the Egyptian Theater

Last night at the SIFF Egyptian Theater, I was presented with a dizzying mix of glamour, glitter, bare buns and sobering reality.The 43rd Seattle International Film Festival presented a screening of Cabaret (1972) with a real cabaret before it, just like those live shows they used to have before movies in the early days. Headliner Robbie Turner led a lively cast of characters through a revue that had me laughing so hard I cried.

The evening began with a cocktail hour, where film goers had the opportunity to mingle and have their photo taken with Robbie and the evening's MC Mackenzie Miller. When I saw how gorgeous they were, I had to get a pic:

Robbie, KC and Mackenzie

I mentioned that I felt underdressed in the face area and Robbie said that I was fine and they were the clowns. I honestly replied that I love that, but later I wished I'd told him how important the glamour and entertainment they offered was to lifting our spirits. The act is fun, but their impact is serious business.

It really was a fun act too. Miller pranced on the stage in a glittering jacket and G-string to start the proceedings. Then came Turner, a dead ringer for Ms. Minnelli in his Liza drag. The adorable Abbey Roads pranced through a high-energy number and astoundingly leggy Visage "Legs" Larue made a few appearances, but for the most part this was Turner's showcase.

Several audience members were dragged on stage to participate in the act and they were all so game and amusing themselves that you had to wonder if they were plants. Of course, they seemed a little too embarrassed at first for that to be the case. I don't think I'd ever seen such a game group of people thrust into the spotlight.

Turner really captured the snap and bubbly energy of Liza, while mostly discarding the star's self-deprecating humor. It was great to see a full-on fierce Minnelli. 

I think the audience was primed to more fully enjoy the film, though it has a great deal of sobering reality mixed in with its glittering delights. Based on a pair of novellas by Christopher Isherwood, that are usually published together as The Berlin Stories, and a Broadway musical, director Bob Fosse takes this tale of hedonistic life in a city starting to kneel to the Nazis in a bitter, raunchy direction.

Cabaret has a gorgeous, affecting cast of characters, including model-turned-actress Marisa Berenson and the handsome Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper and Michael York. However, this show belongs to Liza and her master of ceremonies Joel Grey. The film captures the best of what these stars of the stage had to offer.

As the MC of a 1930s Berlin nightclub show, and a sort of one man Greek chorus of the Nazi terror to come, Grey is all edges and knowing grins. His decadence is candy coating for the fear and frustration at his core. He knows the good times are ending and he is going to dance all the way to hell with a face-stretching grin forced onto his face.

It is Liza that really grips you though. When she hits the stage she is fully in the moment, sacrificing everything she has to her performance. Watching her perform always makes me think of a passage in Sam Wasson's Fosse biography where she is leaping around telling the choreographer how much she loves show business. You can sense that when she's on the stage. Performing gives her life and that is intoxicating.

Much like her mother Judy Garland, Minnelli can be a goddess on the stage one moment and reveal her deepest hurts the next. She has her mother's gift for showing vulnerability, whether by speaking a little bit too loudly at a dinner party where she feels out of place or by speaking simple truths, with her huge eyes rimmed in tears, little droplets attaching themselves to those long, false eyelashes.

Liza's is a performance for the big screen. Though I had watched Cabaret at home several times, last night was the first time I truly saw it and appreciated the grand visuals and performances juxtaposed with horror and heartbreak.  

I am glad SIFF is dedicated to promoting great films through its archival offerings. This screening was evidence of why that attention to our cinematic heritage is so important: for the lessons that always need to be relearned, the beauty of the films that have come before and the charisma of the greatest stars.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Those Redheads From Seattle (1953) Come Home, In 3D!

I had the opportunity to see Those Redheads from Seattle at the TCM Film Festival this year, but it is so much more appropriate that I saw it for the first time in Seattle, the city where it premiered at the Paramount Theater in 1953. Last night Robert Furmanek, archivist and founder of the 3D Film Archive was on hand at the SIFF Uptown Theater to introduce this 3D Technicolor musical extravaganza for the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival and held a brief Q&A after the film.

Furmanek began by asking how many redheads were in the audience, and amusingly enough it looked like there were a good dozen in attendance. He provided a useful background on the film and a brief history of 3D. Though Redheads was the first 3D musical to be released, most markets didn't present the film in the format. Furmanek discussed some of the challenges of projecting three dimensional cinema, from lack of the proper filters to headache-inducing out-of-sync visuals. He also showed the audience an original projector filter and a pair of "Original Magic Viewers" from 1953, in addition to sharing a brief clip showing restoration comparisons (these are always incredible to see).

Despite the fact that its plot is driven by death, deception and violence, Redheads is an essentially lighthearted film. It has all sorts of ridiculous contradictions (a wife who adores her husband, but has the shortest grieving period ever when he dies, a location that requires ten days of sled travel to access at the beginning of the film, though a character leaves the same place from a boat at the edge of town at the end). You just have to sit back and enjoy the silliness of it all, and it is enjoyable.

There is a redhead count of four in the film: Agnes Moorehead as the matriarch of the Edmonds clan; Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer and Cynthia Strother as sisters. The blonde Kay Strother is the often overlooked little sister and with sister Cynthia starred as The Bell Sisters (they a popular singing duo making their screen debut). This jumble of movie stars (Moorehead, Fleming) and vocalists (Brewer, Bells) works pretty well. They keep it lively with dancing, singing and wisecracks and don't let you think too much about the tragedy of their situation.

Gene Barry handles the male lead originally meant for John Payne. You can see what the latter actor could have done to add intensity to the role, but Barry has sufficient charisma to make it work. Singing star Gene Mitchell doesn't have quite the same impact. As good as he is when he sings, his Sinatra-style laidback persona doesn't pop on the screen. He registers as a bit of a cinematic void, though his relaxed presence has a certain appeal; he doesn't seem to be trying too hard to win anyone over.

The film's five songs were written by a variety of reliable tunesmiths, including Jay Livingston, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Teresa Brewer's rendition of Baby, Baby, Baby was a hit at the time and released as a single. I liked her performance and Mitchell's take on Mercer and Carmichael's I Guess It was You All the Time. The Bell Sisters are also cute in their comic performance of Take Back Your Gold.

I've only attended a few 3D films in a theater, so I'm no expert, but this was the first time I really enjoyed the format. While there were plenty of gimmicky shots of things like newspapers, parasols and beer glasses flying at the audience, the film didn't rely on those moments for entertainment value. This was the first time I felt that the composition of the film was arranged to take full advantage of that depth. Director Lewis R. Foster seems to have understood how to make the most of the format, grouping his actors and staging action so that you truly feel a part of the scene.

The restoration was amazing, from the clean sharp image to remarkably good sound. Sometimes the sound levels changed a bit, which could be mildly jarring, but it was always sharp and clear. I felt like the best had been done with the material at hand and the improvement was remarkable.

At the post screening Q&A I asked Furmanek which film the 3D Film Archive was planning or hoped to restore next, and he described the reality-based, 1953 Korean war film Cease Fire! I was struck by how different that was from the film we had just seen, which is also dramatically different from the Archive-restored science fiction film GOG (1954) that made its screen debut before that. At this point I will line up for anything this group produces. If they wanted to attract a wider audience to the wonders of 3D, they've got a convert in me.

Yesterday the 3D Film Archive's restoration of the film was also released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (1962)

One of the most amusing things about Ride the High Country is that as aging cowboys, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are in some ways playing themselves. While director Sam Peckinpah was at the beginning of his career, and still finding the style that would have film fans cooing about "balletic violence", these two were ready to head for the hills. Their retirement-minded insouciance gives this entertaining western a soulful feel that elevates it to classic status. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

McCrea is Steve Judd, a retired lawman who is hired to guard a gold shipment. He enlists his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Scott) and the young Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to help. The two hired men are planning to steal the gold for themselves, hoping that Steve will go along with their plot. He catches them in the act though, and plans to make them pay for it once they reach civilization.

The trio encounters further complications when they spend a night at the farm of an overbearingly religious father and his fed-up daughter Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley). She makes a comment that gives you the feeling he hasn't been so holy with his daughter, so it isn't surprising when she insists on joining the trio so she can meet up with her beaux and get married at his mining camp. He's a rotten guy though, who doesn't seem to mind his leering brothers taking liberties with her (Warren Oates is perfectly cast as one of the sleazy siblings). Steve, Gil and Heck rescue her, bringing even more trouble on themselves.

While they try to variously enrich themselves, save their skins and find redemption for a lifetime of sins, Gil and Steve bond over their contemplation of old age. When a bar full of young toughs launches into a fight, they watch with amusement, perhaps remembering how they used to live for that kind of chaos, though they want nothing to do with it now. They talk about the women they have lost, how they now have husbands, and grandchildren, while the two men haven't changed much themselves.

Steve and Gil see a greater future in Elsa (and Heck is turned on to the point of aggression). She is sharp and energetic and arouses in them a romantic longing for the days they could court her, in addition to fatherly concern. They protect her out of decency, and perhaps for the better way of living she represents. Though young, Hartley already has a stronger moral compass than these men ever had and they seem to admire her character as much as her beauty.

Though it doesn't go for a strictly happy ending, in Ride the High Country there is the feeling that violence is inevitable, but true good can prevail. These old cowboys know that they are good enough, though they haven't much more to offer than their honor. They begin to see it as their legacy and that takes the edge off their disappointments.

This would be Randolph Scott's final film. McCrea had also planned to retire, but while this was his last notable performance, he did get pulled back in the saddle for a few more flicks.

The disc image is clear and clean, with a nice bit of grain to it. Special features on the Blu-ray include the previous DVD featurette A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country and commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.

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

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Restored Marx Brothers and Rediscovered Nitrate

I started my 43rd Seattle International Film Festival experience yesterday with a pair of films that could hardly be more different. The Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers is familiar to many classic film fans, while the experimental documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time is a mysterious work, full of discoveries.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Marx Brothers expert and author Robert Bader spoke before the screening at the Egyptian Theater and answered a few questions at a brief Q&A afterwards. It was great to have his perspective, because I don’t think I would have appreciated what a treat this screening was otherwise.

The print was fully restored, which made me realize how many bad prints of Marx Brothers movies I'd been watching over the years. It was such a novelty to see everything sharp and clear, even in scenes when the lights went out. Now that I've got a taste of it, I really want to see a great print of Duck Soup (1933).

Some moments that are believed to have been trimmed for a 1936 release, after the production code started to be enforced, were restored for this version as well. The scenes only amount to a few minutes, and they don't stand out much, but it was nice to see a print without the awkward jumps that are familiar to film fans.

I was also intrigued by Bader's comment that Marx brother Zeppo had a lot more to offer as a performer, but through various circumstances never had the opportunity to fully develop his comic persona. That got me wondering about what kind of an impact the famous brothers would have had if four of them fully flexed their comic chops. That certainly didn't happen with Zeppo's brief moments in this film; a practically blink-and-you'll-miss-it role. Poor guy.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Director Bill Morrison's dreamily-paced documentary plays essentially like a silent film, with a collage of film clips, photos and subtitles. I enjoyed viewing it in the intimate setting of the SIFF Film Center. It tells the story of a gold rush town in the Yukon and the discovery of a stash of over 500 nitrate films found under its ice rink, many of them thought to be lost. Several clips from the recovered film clips are shared, sometimes with titles added to give historical perspective. I look forward to writing more about this fascinating film upon its full release. Suffice to say, the unusual, nostalgic tone and visual style had me thinking: this is the greatest documentary Guy Maddin never made.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans

This is a great year for documentaries of interest to classic film fans at the Seattle International Film Festival. In this first week of the festival I will be attending Dawson City: Frozen in Time (2016), a film about the discovery of a stash of nitrate films in Yukon territory.

In the weeks to come, classic film fans will also be treated to screenings of the highly anticipated My Journey Through French Cinema (2016) and Robin Lung's film about the Chinese American woman behind the first Academy Award-winning documentary, Finding KUKAN (2016).

I was able to preview these films and enjoyed both. My thoughts:

Tickets are already beginning to sell out for the two SIFF screenings of My Journey Through French Cinema, featuring director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight [1986], Coup de torchon [1981]). While it covers many films, filmmakers, actors and craftspeople, the movie has a relaxed feel, like an afternoon spent wandering a museum with a knowledgeable art expert. The film has been aptly compared to A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995); both men explore their passion for film with a similar wonder, knowledge and excitement.

Tavernier began his career as an assistant director and press agent to director Jean-Pierre Melville, and has thus met some of the filmmakers and actors he admires. Aside from tales of his somewhat contentious relationship with Melville, he shares his conversations with Jean Gabin and stories of Jean Renoir. He talks about how it felt to watch these films in a post-war French theater and then how those kinds of experiences were later filmed by other directors. Actresses like Simone Signore and Romy Schneider are also given their due and Tavernier pays great tribute to the composer Maurice Aubert (L'Atalante [1934]), who had an enormous influence on the mood of classic French cinema. There is an overall feeling of being enveloped by the experience of cinema.

Having only experienced French cinema from an American point of view, I found it fascinating to learn about a wider breadth of films from an expert on the country's output. While most of the movies that Tavernier considers classics are familiar to many fans around the world, he introduced me to some new faces and lesser known works of directors I admire.

It's hard to believe this film is over three hours; you get caught up in its easy flow, drifting from one film, star or conversation, to another. I am delighted that a second installment is in the works. Can't wait to hear what this man has to say about Jacques Tati.

In 1942, KUKAN:The Battle Cry of China (Bitter Struggle) won the first Academy Award for best documentary. Then it disappeared. For decades, no one seemed to care than a pioneering Oscar winning work had dropped so completely out of sight. 

That changed when filmmaker Robin Lung became curious about the film, suspecting that the technical advisor Ling-Ai LI had played a more significant role in its production. Finding KUKAN follows Lung on a search of seven years as she attempts to unravel the mysteries of the film and Li.

It is both a personal and wide-ranging film. As simple as a fourth generation Chinese American digging into her own culture and as complex as decades of relations between Americans and Chinese. Lung shares the frustrations and triumphs of her quest, and in the process communicates why learning the truth about Li is so important to her and film history. The camera captures her joy when she makes a new discovery and her disappointment when film going to vinegar, disinterested interview subjects and the limitations of the restoration process impede her progress. 

Li, with her confidence, charisma and undying energy is appropriately the spiritual center of the film (a fascinating 1993 interview she gave in her eighties is heavily featured), but KUKAN filmmaker Rey Scott is also given his due. It is interesting to watch Lung begin to appreciate more fully the sacrifices the adventurous photographer made to capture his footage, acknowledging his contributions while helping Li to receive credit for her full participation. The film is as much about Lung coming to terms with her discoveries as it is about the journey she makes to uncover the truth.

Here's the schedule information for these documentaries. Links go to the film's page on the SIFF website:

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Friday, May 19, 6:30 pm, SIFF Film Center
Saturday, May 20, 9:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Finding KUKAN (2016)
Saturday, May 27, 12:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown
Sunday, May 28, 7:00 pm, AMC Pacific Place
Friday, June 2, 4:30 pm, Ark Lodge Cinemas

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
Saturday, June 3, 3:00 pm, SIFF Film Center
Friday, June 9, 7:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Sci-fi in Cinemascope, World Without End (1956)

Word Without End (1956) is an essentially unremarkable 50s sci-fi flick made more interesting by a few elements of its production, cast and design. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, it is a good-looking film that plays it straight, though there are some unavoidably campy aspects to it.

It's the story of a pioneering space crew who become lost in time after completing the first mission to Mars. Finding themselves forced hundreds of years into a bleak future nuclear wasteland, the crew accepts its fate and tries to make the best of the situation. This involves dealing with the one-eyed, hairy mutants that terrorize all who attempt to set foot above ground and the odd population of apparently more civilized people who live below the Earth's surface.

Terrified of the beasts above, the men and children who have sought refuge underground have begun to shrivel away. Not the women though, who are vibrant, healthy, ready for the burlesque stage and very curious about the hearty, muscular crew that has dropped out of the sky. Jealous of these intergalactic hunks, the men are suspicious, even devious, as they resist the efforts of the crew to fight for life above ground.

Though it is essentially a 'B' movie, the production comes off as 'A' level luxurious, thanks to Cinemascope, Technicolor, elegant, if sparse set design and eye-popping costumes. Those last two were designed by the legendary pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, for the only film in which he would ever participate. For that reason, it isn't surprising that the ladies' dresses in this production don't leave a lot to the imagination (you don't get a close look at anyone bending over or even attempting to sit in the barely legal mini-dresses). These severely constructed garments are more than peek-a-boo frocks though; each is a mini masterpiece of structure and design, and starched so stiff that you half expect them to walk away on their own. Even the considerably more bland male characters below ground get to luxuriate in silky, bejeweled jackets and skull caps.

It makes sense that more established star Hugh Marlowe would be in the lead, but in hindsight the casting appears absurd when charming, hunky Rod Taylor, here in a supporting role, is clearly a more appropriate leading man. When Marlowe jumps into a fight scene with a mutant, you can't help but shake your head at the sight of Taylor standing on the sidelines. This was an early role for the always underrated Australian actor and one of the first hints of how magnetic he could be on the big screen. Amusingly enough, he would get the chance to play a lead with many similarities to this one a few years later in Time Machine (1960), where he would also battle barbaric hairy beasts in the future, though they would live below, rather than above ground (the plots were in fact so similar that H.G. Wells' estate sued the producers of World Without End).

While World Without End is never entirely campy, the outlandish costumes, the absurdity of a population of all anemic men and centerfold women and moments like Lisa Montell's highly expressive conversation with a mutant who is screeching at her from a cave do draw the odd giggle. It's not riotous fun, but it's amusing. Fans of Rod Taylor will not want to miss it.

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

Book Review-- Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood

Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood
Kirk and Anne Douglas with Marcia Newberger
TCM/Running Press, 2017

When I received Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood in my media swag bag for TCM Classic Film Festival, I didn't pay the book much mind. I mean that title: it didn't seem like this was going to be the most revealing of books. I've also never been a big fan of Kirk Douglas. His accomplishments in the movies and beyond are impressive, but even for an actor his ego is a bit off-putting. Eventually I decided to give it a look though, because these two have seen a lot and I figured they had to have some interesting stories to share about their years in the industry and as a couple of privilege.

The book alternates between letters, exchanged by the title couple and with people they have known, and their memories, both about the events they reference and the events leading up to them. There is a lot more biography to this than I expected and it is necessary to put all these communications in perspective. To understand Kirk Douglas movie star and Anne Douglas Hollywood matriarch, you need to see him as a young, impoverished Jew in New York City and her as a privileged, but often neglected boarding school student in Europe.

Douglas' massive ego is on full display here, and if you are not a fan, or even if you are, some of his actions will make you want to scream and throw the book across the room. Anne must have been deeply in love, or insane to put up with the insensitive way he treated her in the early years of his courtship. In one passage, Kirk, who has been stringing young Anne along, takes her with him to pick out an engagement ring for his other love, Pier Angeli. Amazingly enough, this was not a deal breaker.

The Democratic Douglases with pal Ronald Reagan in 1987
After years of uncertainty, the pair marry though, and against all odds, the match endures. While the love letters between them can be syrupy to the point of being vomitous, it is clear that they were deeply devoted to each other. In a time where the husband ruled the roost, Anne always found a way to prevail when she sensed her husband was on the wrong track. While Kirk requires loyalty and submissiveness he can't always return, he also seems to understand that his wife is intelligent, driven and needs power and the ability to pursue her own interests.

Because the Douglases have given each other the freedom to live fully, their stories are that much more compelling. Their correspondence and stories are full of interesting tidbits about the movie business, the people who populated it and its social structures and politics. It's encouraging to see how much of their fortune they have donated to causes they hold dear, like the construction of playgrounds for children who would otherwise have unsafe equipment. There were moments here so touching that I was moved to tears.

While the Douglases don't hesitate to admit that things haven't always been perfect between them, and that Kirk's infidelities and self-absorption have played a role in their story, you get the feeling there's another, darker story beneath it all. It's in the way they reveal some things, but nothing terribly deep. The way Kirk asks his son in a letter, "Was I a good father?" as if he knows something went awry. You look at his massive charity works and see the good in it all, but is there a search for redemption here? It isn't likely that question will be answered. 

This is an engrossing, often touching book. It carefully presents exactly what we are meant to see, while hinting at those mysteries throughout.

Many thanks to TCM for providing a copy of the book for review.
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