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sabato 29 gennaio 2011

Vanessa Redgrave the natural Isadora

A free woman defeating society conventions, hypocrisy  and behaviours, Isadora Duncan broke the rules of classic ballet and introduced new life into an exhausted art form, opening the stage curtain to modern dance. A proto feminist and scandal maker Isadora lived adored by both men and women. She was regarded as a model to follow, imposing new trends not only in dance but in fashion and lifestyle as well. Who disliked her, did it out of envy for this beautiful young woman, achieving success with her charm and bravura.
Karel Reisz was one of the funders, with Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, of the free cinema movement that like nouvelle vague in France, was storming the English film business using new techniques and styles to change the approach to filmmaking. An unconventional director for a peculiar character, looked like a perfect match, and in 1969 the movie Isadora was released to critical acclaim with Vanessa Redgrave in the main role.
The movie faithful follows Duncan’s life omitting just few aspects of her personality (there’s no trace of her declared bisexuality) and it’s a great artistic achievement as well as technical. Reisz, whose editing theories have been summarized in a book dated 1953, approaches the subject matter with a storytelling that fractions episodes of Duncan’s life and mix them together jumping from past to the present day (an older Isadora is writing her memoirs just before her death). This choice is a winner, as the movie avoids the typical structure of the biopic usually following the celebrity from the rise to the fall. It was uncommon specially in the 60’s, while today we have seen this kind of approach used many times. The memories rising from the past, seen today through an elder Isadora’s eyes, let us feel all the pain, the regret, the sorrow of some tragic events of her life, like her children’s death in a car accident, but even the joy, the success, the passion she had while loving her work and the people that surrounded her.
It was the right way to go, also because there’s no real fall in Isadora’s life. Even full of debts, living out friends’ compassion and support in her later years, she has always been up to something new, and God only knows what she could have done more, if her sudden and bizarre death (her scarf entangled to the wheel of a sport car she was riding, strangled her) would have stopped her.
This is a figure of mythic proportions that only one of the greatest actress of our times could have delivered in the proper way.
Vanessa Redgrave at the peak of her talent and beauty, was a natural choice. Muse of free cinema, having being married to Tony Richardson, Redgrave offered a memorable performance, the one that could define a career. She won the Palm d’Or for best actress at the Cannes film festival for this role and honoured best actress 1969 from The National Association of Film Critics (US).
There’s so much in common between the two, being free, involved with politics and extremely talented; and it’s amazing to see how well Redgrave renders Isadora from early years till her death, using just a slight change in makeup and clothes. She’s a natural Isadora as I said, so believable you almost think it’s the real one acting in the movie; even because Redgrave does her own dancing without any body double’s help.
Reisz and his cinematographer opted for a reddish Eastmancolor to light up the scenes with the passion that was driving Duncan’s life and political belief (a declared communist she proclaimed during a show wearing a red drape: “This is red! So am I!”).
The movie is first time available on DVD courtesy of French distributor Doriane Film in a Pal region 2 disc; original audio in English with removable French subtitles.
Officialy licensed from Universal, Doriane DVD is a beautiful rendition of the original film with a nice extra: Maja Plissetskaja (star of the Bolshoi) and choreographer Maurice Béjart discuss Isadora dancing.
Unfortunately nor the cast neither the crew of the film have been interviewed. The DVD aspect ratio is 1.78:1 16X9 enhanced, even if on the cover is stated 1.66:1 (OAR) and shows just few specks and dirts on the original film materials, that have been digitally remastered.
Being said this, the only concern is about the running time.
The movie was shown at festivals and in its first run at 168 mins. Universal cut it down at 138 for general re-release later (The loves of Isadora). In the late 80’s Reisz edited a director’s cut at 153 mins. While the cover reports a 144 mins. running time, the movie runs actually 134 and considering the 4% Pal speed up, it is in fact the 138 Universal cut. I mailed Doriane about this and they did confirm the latter  cut was the only one remastered available.
But even in a shorter form than the director envisioned, the film is worth watching, if it was only for Redgrave’s performance and for Reisz’s style and his unique editing that was so appreciated in the past.
Karel Reisz is another director whose star is fading. His great success of the 80’s The French Lieutenant’s woman, seems long time forgotten since his death in 2002. This is a good chance to go back to his work, watching one of his best films that has been long unavailable in a proper format. I suggest also for those not familiar with his work: Saturday night and Sunday morning, Morgan: a suitable case for treatment, Who’ll stop the rain.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

giovedì 20 gennaio 2011

Curtis Harrington’s mind GAMES

While most of Curtis Harrington’s films have been available since the early stage of the digital era; only recently one of his most obscure efforts, The killing kind, has been released to DVD. But one of his biggest achievements, Games, still has to hit stores’ shelves in US and in most of the international markets. A Universal release of 1967, with a strong cast of soon to be stars,  Katherine Ross and James Caan, and the support of veteran French dame Simone Signoret who was Bafta award nominated (best actress in a supporting role) for this film. Games was a major production in every sense and a breakthrough for Harrington as a director moving his first steps out of the Corman’s factory. At that point of his career, Curtis had directed the critically acclaimed but little seen independent production of Night Tide an excellent eerie horror fairy tale starring Dennis Hopper. Plus the over the top Sci Fi extravaganza Queen of blood a nice little film put together Corman’s style in few days, recycling the spfx shots of a big Russian production Corman had acquired for US distribution.
With the decline of the digital market most of the major companies are skipping catalogue titles in favour of new productions. A lot of old films are relegated nowadays to the DVD on demand programs; but peculiar enough is the fact that in Spain some studios like Fox and in this case Universal are releasing low priced catalogue titles not available in their own native country.
As Games case is. While the disc is a no frills edition, with no extra materials and a horrible cover; the movie has been digitally transferred and mastered in its original Techniscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The movie holds on pretty well in this digital incarnation, considering cinematographer William A. Fraker predilection for grainy images; as the original materials shows no sign of wear, dirts or specks.
Paul and Jennifer are an high class married couple. Paul likes to collect games and art, everything is on display in their beautiful house. One day an old woman of French origin, Lisa, rings at their doorbell. She pretends to know Jennifer’s relatives, but this is soon discovered to be a trick just to sell some cosmetics for which she’s an agent. Lisa is sick, she’s not well and she has to manage to make a living, walking all day trying to get some merchandise sold to get her provisions. Jennifer is moved by this flamboyant French, who speaks with a soft accent, telling peculiar stories of her peculiar life.
She offers Lisa a recover for a few days, until the woman will be strong enough to make it by herself.
Lisa is a games’ lover as well as Paul; but her games and jokes are provocative and at times dangerous. The couple soon succumbs to Lisa’s charm and the games will became more and more risky, plunging the two into a frantic research for the next joke.
Like all Harrington’s films Games is more a psychological study than a clockwork thriller. While specially the set up of the story has an intense premise (how far would you go in a game?), this is soon abandoned for a more conventional “who done it?” Approach. The pay off of such promising first act develops in a more traditional way, reducing the movie potential for greatness. One wonders what Harrington could have achieved exploiting more the inner desire that pushes gamers to have another round, or another bet. But even settling down with conventions, Harrington still delivers the goods, strongly helped by the female cast at its very best.
There are some moments of genuine fright here, and a good construction of the suspense specially in a scene involving an elevator. The tension is built up nicely mounting and mounting in a classic Hitchcock style.
What seems to interest more Harrington is people’s mind; like  the movies he directed later on: Whoever slew auntie Roo?, What’s the matter with Helen? (my favourite), How awful about Allan and the mentioned The killing kind. All of them are studies of deranged psyches, of twisted minds; while operating from existing elements like Hitchcock movies (Psycho, Marnie and Frenzy above all), to Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel), Curtis made all these essentials his own, reworking them in an original and underrated way.
The third and final act of the film, it’s again satisfying like the first one. Even if the story at this point has became a little bit predictable, the ending leaves no room for celebrations, being bleak, dark with a funny, bitter black humour. While trying to defeat conventions and rules Harrington (who at the beginning of his career was a celebrated experimental filmmaker teaming with Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren) worked in a genre that at the time was not very much hyped by official film critic. His films, even if successful, were relegated in the Drive-In circuits and in second program movie houses, while one of his latest effort Ruby butchered by the producers failed miserably to find its audience. Harrington is really a director whose work is in need of an in depth examination and every new contribution would be more than welcome.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

martedì 18 gennaio 2011

De dødes tjern – A Norwegian ghost story?

While recently Norway has delivered quite a few nice scary films [Rovdyr (Manhunt), Fritt Vilt 1&2 (Cold Prey 1&2)], for those interested in old films it’s not common to find one specially dated back 1958. 

The lake of the dead (English translation) is based on a book by André Bjerke, that even acted in the film in a main role: the one of a mystery writer.  Kåre Bergstrøm directed it.

A group of friends is travelling to a remote mountain location. They are going to have few days off, and will be visiting one of them already there since a while. The guy’s sister is worried by the way; they are twin brother and sister, and there’s a strong bond between them. She tells about few things that occurred before: while serving her tea she broke a cup, it was like something suddenly hit her. Her brother then showed up and he just had a car accident. She is in a weird mood these days, not hearing from him since he left. She’s worried something happened.
The place is also related to an old legend. A guy living in the same cabin before, was in love with his own sister and when he found out she had a lover, he has killed her, her lover and committed suicide drowning in the nearby lake. The peasants keep telling that he’s still haunting the place and once a year it’s possible to hear the ghost screaming for blood and revenge; while few people has disappeared from time to time, never to be found in the bottomless still waters of the sinister pond.
Once at the cabin in the woods, the group finds no trace of his friend. Maybe he’s gone hunting or maybe there’s something wrong with the beautiful but eerie atmosphere that surrounds the lakeshore.
This is a classic ghost story with a few nice twists that I’m not going to spoil. It would seem outdated to a modern audience, asking for a bloody body count; but it’s a well shot and creepy at times supernatural mystery tale that will please oldies’ fans with its authenticity and ingenuity. While a little bit stagey in the execution with few, but very nice, camera movements; the movie has a genuine approach to the subject and a good cast of performers.
The movie is a little bit talky at times, clearly showing its literary origin. It’s a psychological study on a deranged mind mashed up with uncanny elements and the typical police procedure of investigation, so common in 50’s films.
The director and the cinematographer opted for a day for night approach in all the night time scenes; maybe because of the budget and the use of a real location, with the subsequent large use of natural light, or because of the optical limits of the camera. The movie has been shot in AgaScope, an anamorphic process, that like many others in those days required a fair amount of light to get the scenes properly impressed on the film stock.
But instead to be a limit, these day for night scenes, generate a sense of abstraction that fairly serve to the purpose to create the unsettling mood the story requires.
It’s very interesting though, that the movie has so much in common with some Japanese horror films of the same period. The ghostly elements really are very similar to the ones to be found in Nobuo Nakagawa’s movies for instance, and many other Kwaidan eiga of late 50's early 60's like the Shin Toho productions.
This is a little film; it’s not a masterpiece and it fails in some elements of story telling; the mix of genres it’s not always perfectly executed, and the use of pretending to be funny bits of dialogue doesn’t help. But has few moments of genuine fright, and it’s a chance to approach  old Norwegian  genre films, rarely seen out of their native land.
The DVD is part of the Norske Klassikere series of Nordisk Film production. The original materials used were in good shape, with some signs of wear and vertical lines mostly in the main titles. The movie has been digitally restored, and while some DVNR has been applied there are some dirts and specks from time to time but nothing that could be annoying to the viewer.
The movie featuring a scope aspect ratio, it’s 16X9 enhanced: the cover states the ratio to be 2.40:1, but it’s 2.55:1 instead.
The B/W lensing is well reproduced as is the original mono audio. The DVD is English friendly and can be purchased here. This online store it’s completely reliable and they’ll help you to get through the order process that it’s in Norwegian; I strongly recommend to write them, they’ll answer soon and in English.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar

martedì 4 gennaio 2011

What happened to this man?

I was aware of Wake in fright amongst director Ted Kotcheff (of First blood fame) first ventures into feature length films, but never got the chance to see it.
I was watching the excellent documentary Not quite Hollywood, the world of Ozploitation films (a doc that analyzes the wave of exploitation films raised in Australia since the early 70's, while a small industry was built up and became a serious local contender to the American one) when a rough, scratchy trailer of Wake in fright transferred from an old positive (there's a reason why, discussed later) was abruptly featured amongst others. The doc not quite covered any aspects of the film, but its preview, displaying the international title Outback, surely succeeded to leave a strong impression on me. It actually blew my mind away. The grainy images, the impressive voice over (What happened to this man? The Outback happened to this man...) and a few more, well put together, scenes from the movie, capture immediately the attention of the viewer leaving him with a feeling of discomfort but eager to see more.
So, I was more than happy to discover that a brand new Blu Ray disc of the film was available in Australia. For the first time the film has been made accessible in the digital format, re-mastered and, most of all, the original negative has been completely digitally restored and a dupe one has been created for a short theatrical re-release down there and for preservation purposes. This miracle has been made possible because few dedicated people at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and original editor Anthony Buckley, were trackin' down the original materials for years, as for ages, the movie has been unavailable since the negative was thought to be lost. The whole search for the film, would deserve a documentary for itself, the quest lasted ten years, spent in calls, faxes, emails, suddenly discoveries (a load of films cans) and painful delusions (the film cans were filled only with old unusable 16mm positive prints), from the final task to save some materials from a garbage bin in the US, to the ultimate discovery of the negative. Finally the film was transported  to Australia at the Atlab/De Luxe labs, that took care of the restoration.
John Grant is a young teacher, a man who accepted the most uncomfortable outpost in the desert, to get a better salary for his job. He's waiting for the final lesson of the season, dreaming a vacation in Sidney to be spent with a girlfriend, he didn't see for months.
When the day comes and the school bell rings, Grant grabs his bag and gets on the local train to reach another town in the outback for a connection to go straight to his final destination. Is the dream coming true? Maybe, but once there, the wait for the connection is long, the place is noisy, the night too hot, the local betting place it's too much of an attraction, with alcohols and its promises of easy money and a better living out of his teaching contract in no man's land.
He wins, lucky strike of the first timers, committing after then only a small mistake craving for more. So, in the end, he loses everything. Now, stranded in an unknown, unfamiliar place where strangers are not very welcome, he has to manage to get through the few weeks of vacation before to go back to his boring teaching. Will he succeed? One thing he doesn't know yet, this trip is gonna be an unforgettable experience that will change his life maybe forever.
Wake up in fright it's a movie that cant' be confined in a category, a genre, or a definition. It actually defeats definitions, each time the story develops in one way, there's an unexpected turn over of the events that makes it transcend genre limitations or classifications. Is this exploitation? It is indisputably not. It's an acute dissecting eye opened on human behaviors, scrutinizing them like an entomologist would do with an insect.
Beware, the movie does contain strong images. A real massacre of kangaroos could upraise more than a boo, from animal lovers, but it makes sense to the story and, to soften facts, it was shot during a local putting down because there were too many in the area.
But the real demolition occurs to the human characters. Few times we have seen such an uncompromising point of view on human nature. A bunch of dirty, greedy, lazy people full of lust and alcohol trying to forget where and what they are, trying not to became the wild that surrounds them outside the apparent cleanness of their huge mansions. And of course it's about the influence of mother nature on us, an influence so strong in Australian movies, with its landscapes and vistas, to become itself part of the cast. No other cinematography has this immense impact of natural beauties and horrors on its own storytelling. There would  be no Mad Max without the long deserted roads; there would be no Picnic without the Hanging Rock or no Long Weekend without the woods and the seashore and so on, or it wouldn't be the same at least. If you think to an Australian movie it's almost immediate the memory of something natural in it, be a stone or a lake or what so ever, even before the story of the film itself. It's nature in the main role all the time. Funny though, that a foreigner like Kotcheff (Canadian) was able to capture this so well on film; only an eye coming from outside could have gazed the true essence of the place, having a distant and different approach to the subject matter.
The film was shown at the Cannes film festival in 1971 and went on an international release through United Artists later that year, with the changed title Outback.
Reactions down under and in some markets were tepid at least, while some complained the brutal impact of the film, some other ravaged it; the above mentioned violence on animals did not help. More, I believe it was a blow on the subconscious of Australians; a people that tried and maybe is still trying to adapt to a country like no other in the world.
It's a multilayered tale of corruption, where a well mannered teacher could become a savage killer and be caught in a frenzy of alcohol, sex and carnage. To adapt to the wild should we become wild as well? When there's no more hope of a different life, should we give up to our untamed desires?
Maybe this tale could be seen as an adaptation of Dante's Inferno.
Touring the many circles of his own private one, Grant will come out a different man, surviving also an apparently friendly wrestling game that leads to an almost homosexual rape.
He will finally find a way out, but instead to see the light of the stars, he'll be back in the bright lights of the desert, even if his cheap school will become a mirage of salvation after what he experienced before. Do we care about him? Yes, and in the same time no. And this was the reason probably the movie failed in the time of its release, because there's no empathy between the audience and the main hero, that is in the end the ultimate prick. He's nonetheless boring than the desolated school town in which he lives, arid and empty like a tin can of beer drunk by one of his fellows hunters. This is the movie true greatness, a fair of wretched lives in a beautiful, inaccessible place that for these reasons it's too miserable for them.
As I mentioned, this is one of Kotcheff's first films, and his best. He never managed to reach such perfection of form and contents again; from a technical point of view the movie is a beauty to watch and all the pursued camera angles and crane movements are finalized to the story the director is telling.
The Blu Ray is excellent faithfully reproducing the warm theatrical color palette with no sign of evident digital manipulation.
There are a lot of scenes with natural day and night light, but no evident brightness and contrast boosting has been applied.
This is definitely a movie that I highly recommend; it was made in a time, the 70's, when filmmakers were more interested in the mankind's soul and they were trying to depict it for what it was, without using a computer generated image most of all.

Film mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar