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Mixed Reviews: Guilty Pleasures

Mixed Reviews: Guilty Pleasures

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Perhaps the most futile sin of all is envy, and to this I must plead guilty, as I am jealous of the career of journalist Jason Wood, author of Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview (Wallflower Press, $25.00).

Though I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many fascinating directors, my list doesn’t compare with the roster of moviemakers in this new book. A compilation of 31 interviews (some of them previously published in magazines such as Sight & Sound) with some of international cinema’s most significant directors, the book is most impressive and enlightening when it focuses on moviemakers seldom interviewed in English-language media like Laurent Cantet (Human Resources), Tranh Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) and Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven). The interviews with more established directors like Claire Denis (Beau Travail) and Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) are excellent, too, but these figures have been heavily queried elsewhere.

Some of the discussions are regrettably brief, as if Wood was only given 20 minutes in a hotel room as part of a press onslaught. But the writer manages to triumph even in these quick chats. The strength lies in Wood’s questions; never generic or glib, his inquiries always demonstrate an assured insight into the director’s work, and the moviemakers respond with the appropriate intelligence (and gratitude that the journalist actually did his homework). Talking Movies could have easily been a cursory collection of existing pieces, but instead it has the cohesion of an original book.

If I confess to envying Wood’s career, I must also confess to coveting Robert Mitchum as, well, a man. Perhaps the ultimate icon of cool American masculinity (the existence of Clint Eastwood being my only reason for qualifying the statement), Mitchum is often mistakenly regarded as a lazily laconic screen presence more than an actor, and that’s wildly inaccurate. John Huston once cited him as an exceptional actor who could play anything if he desired, and Mitchum himself contributed to minimizing his own skill at the craft. Warner Bros. recently released a six-DVD set, Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection ($59.98), that allows one to enjoy some of this underrated performer’s work. I would have liked to have written “best work,” but this isn’t the case. While Mitchum is always exceptional, the films in which he appeared often weren’t. His best work—Out of the Past, Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter—is available elsewhere, so we wind up with a random grab bag of RKO, MGM and Warner Bros. leftovers here. Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) is a solid film noir; Home from the Hill (1960) is an overlong but undervalued Vincente Minnelli drama; Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960) is a meandering but affecting Australia-set family drama; and I have a soft spot for Sydney Pollack’s Japanese action film The Yakuza (1974), too. But I think most viewers could live without the remaining two entries: The uneven noir Macao (1952) and the clumsy western The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969). Providing any sort of overview of Mitchum’s career is a hopeless undertaking, and in a way that makes this collection all the more remarkable in that Mitchum is never less than riveting—no matter the quality of the films themselves.

I admit that I approached Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand (Stone Bridge Press, $19.95) with considerable trepidation. With an image from Oldboy on its cover and a list of entry-level Asian genre films on the directory of reviewed titles (Battle Royale, The Ring, A Tale of Two Sisters, etc.), I feared the publication would do little more than rehash fanboy Internet hyperbole in print form. But author Patrick Galloway transcends this by bringing a level of keen insight to accompany his equally infectious enthusiasm for these films. His book emerges as an entertaining read for longtime devotees of Asian genre cinema and an outstanding primer for newcomers. Galloway doesn’t break much new ground, as most of the reviewed films will be familiar to those acquainted with the territory, but he possesses a keen critical eye—not to mention great taste—and that’s enough to make the book a solid endeavor.
The most shameful acknowledgement of them all: I live in Philadelphia. In addition, I must also disclose that Irv Slifkin, the author of Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies (Middle Atlantic Press, $17.95), and I both program the Philadelphia Film Festival (though I really don’t know him personally). Still, objectively speaking, this book is an enjoyable and compulsively readable tour through this most cinematic city, one that thankfully covers not only the most obvious selections (Rocky, Philadelphia and M. Night Shyamalan’s films), but also some interesting obscurities (Mikey and Nicky, Trick Baby). Slifkin’s reviews are always fun and informative, but there is one noticeable problem with the book: For a publication that celebrates such a photogenic metropolis, how about some decent photos?

I now have to own up to a fascination with cheesy 1970s softcore erotica, particularly if it hails from a European country—just as I must also admit that I don’t find the films to be particularly erotic. As the mania for releasing even the most obscure horror movies seems to have been exhausted, independent DVD labels have turned to the retro erotica genre as a new potential cult niche. Two labels have leapt to the forefront of this new wave: Impulse Pictures has released three DVDs (all priced at $29.95) with no extras and just serviceable transfers, but one of them is a very critical unearthing for those interested in 1970s Euro sleaze. One can safely forego both Justine & Juliette (1975), a Swedish sexploitation romp from director Mac Ahlberg (better known as a renowned cinematographer) that features some of the most unattractive genitalia ever displayed on film, and Carlos Tobalina’s Refinements in Love (1971), a fascinatingly bizarre and inept “mondo”-styled mockumentary about liberated sexuality of the era (actually, this one is almost worth a look). But Impulse has also uncovered Schoolgirl Report, Vol. 1: What Parents Don’t Think is Possible (1970), the first in a series of 13 (!) German pseudo-factual exposés of the sexual escapades of teens. Enlivened by the jaunty scores of Gert Wilden (already popular through CD reissue), these films were hugely popular at the time, and Impulse plans to release further entries. (Be advised that while Schoolgirl is softcore, the other two Impulse releases are most definitely not.)

Severin Films has already emerged as the sort of “Criterion Collection” of ’70s erotica, with stunning transfers and multiple supplementary features on many of its releases (most of which are priced at $29.95). One can safely skip the two French omnibus films they offer: Private Collections (1979) features a trio of tales helmed by three directors—Just Jaeckin, Shuji Terayama (the film is almost worthwhile just for his segment alone, an incoherent but gorgeous bit of Kabuki-fried visual insanity) and Walerian Borowczyk—whereas Immoral Women (1979) finds Borowczyk (a generally awful director who is often given soft treatment by more mainstream critics due to a certain stilted pictorial sensibility often mistaken for beauty) helming all three stories, to little effect. But the two Italian offerings from Severin are essential: Perversion Story (1969) is actually a thriller with minor erotic elements from horror director Lucio Fulci (Zombie), and it’s an outstanding example of the “giallo” genre. But the new label’s real accomplishment is Black Emanuelle’s Box (Volume One, no less, priced at $69.95), a gorgeously packaged set of four discs (three films and a soundtrack CD) representing entries in the Black Emanuelle series that starred Laura Gemser in the title role. Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle Around the World and Emanuelle in Bangkok accompany Giuseppe Vari’s Sister Emanuelle (all 1977) in a collection that provides an excellent introduction to the world of 1970s Euro sleaze at its unabashed finest (although the series’ best entry, Emanuelle in America, has been released elsewhere).
From D’Amato to that other great master of Italian cinema, Vittorio De Sica. (Yes, I’m kidding.) I have no confession to disclose about Bicycle Thieves (1948, better known as The Bicycle Thief but given a more accurate translation for this special edition). It is considered one of the great classics of cinema, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that. If anything, Criterion’s wonderful new two-disc special edition ($39.95) only confirmed that for me. Perhaps the film most closely identified with the Italian Neorealist movement by Americans (though it’s much more sentimental and contrived than Rossellini’s work from the same period), Bicycle Thieves deserves more analysis than space permits here. Simply stated, it’s one of those DVDs that every self-respecting cineaste must own (watch it on a triple bill with Criterion’s discs of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and René Clément’s Forbidden Games and see which one makes you weep the most). De Sica’s deceptively simple portrait of one man’s determination and defeat remains a profoundly moving film, and Criterion’s set also provides an excellent overview of both De Sica’s career and the Neorealist wave of cinema, with a second disc of noteworthy extras.

Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) is a film that I loved years ago—and I still remain excited by the stunning New York location shooting (the climactic Williamsburg Bridge chase remains a knockout). But after having seen so many other examples of film noir in recent years, I can’t help but find Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald’s screenplay plodding and turgid. Despite the fact that it does give the film one of cinema’s most famous final lines, the incessant narration now grates my nerves. But I’m in the minority. The Naked City is one of two Dassin films just released by Criterion (both $39.95), but I prefer its less well-regarded predecessor, the prison escape drama Brute Force (1947). The storyline may be more formulaic, but Brute Force is enlivened by forceful performances from Burt Lancaster as the con with a yearning for freedom and Hume Cronyn as the sadistic head guard. Ultimately though, both are great releases, with informative commentary tracks and several new video interviews.

A final confession: I have always loved Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising, two later films by famed experimental moviemaker (and Hollywood Babylon muckraker) Kenneth Anger, so I awaited Fantoma’s long-delayed The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 1 ($24.98) with great anticipation. Now that it has arrived, I wish my expectations hadn’t been so high. Not that I’m not grateful for its release—or that there isn’t extraordinary material on the disc. But while the company’s desire to carefully catalog Anger’s short film work in proper chronological order is admirable, Fantoma has subsequently begun their series on this director with a disc that has just as many unsatisfying fragments as it does fully realized work.

Truthfully, I found the first three shorts—Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949) and Rabbit’s Moon (1950)—to be of little more than pure historical interest (though, to be fair, the latter two are only excerpts of unfinished works). But Anger definitely matured with the sublime Eaux d’Artifice (1953) and, of course, his surreal and hallucinatory magnum opus, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), which is still entrancing. Still kicking at age 80, Anger also provides commentary on the five shorts, and there’s a beautiful 48-page booklet featuring essays by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Anais Nin.

Okay, so I live in Philadelphia, I don’t like The Naked City as much as I used to and I enjoy the occasional slice of 1970s Euro sleaze cheese. Twelve Hail Marys should cover it, right?

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