Film Festivals


By • Oct 20th, 2005 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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The Film Festival screenings commenced on September 14, 2005–9 days before the public performances began. They are something of an ordeal–31 films in 3 weeks–and, if you don’t arrive ahead of time for the 10 a.m. screenings, which is difficult for me, the press kits as well as the pastries, have all been appropriated.

Worst of all, I got off on the wrong foot with the press rep–a most peculiar person. She told me, by phone, on September 13, the day before commencement, that the screenings began at noon, which I challenged, only to discover, on the 14th, that they had begun at 10.

Why the Film Society declines to send out a preliminary schedule to accredited press is beyond me, but I have learned my lesson–arrive early. (The Film Society has recently mailed a screening schedule of their New Directors/New Films series, so there is hope for this year’s fall Festival.)

The press rep and I were surly to one another for the rest of the screenings, merely acknowledging each other with steely glares. In fact, we never exchanged a word subsequent to my preliminary phone inquiry.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which sponsors the Festival (over and above the 31 featured films), honored “Japan’s Shochiku Company at 110” with a lengthy, sidebar retrospective of nearly 40 films. The opening night film of this remarkable series was a new, samurai film, in color, “The Hidden Blade,” (Japan/Tartan Films) by Yoji Yamada, who is in his 70s and whose 78th film this is. (Read that statistic and weep, Yankee helmers.)

At 132 minutes, “Hidden Blade” is a trifle overlong, but it is both handsome and subtle, revisiting the theme of the rifle outmoding the samurai sword (in the 1860s) in charting the decline of a disillusioned warrior, Munezo (the superb Masatoshi Nagase), in obliging him to hang up his sword and dagger for good. The ‘hidden blade’ is a stiletto concealed in his sword’s scabbard, and Munezo buries this dagger after two, final, lethal uses. These involve rub-outs of Yaichiro, his military academy friend and his superior as a swordsman, who is now a fugitive from his prison cell. This is followed by a deft stabbing of the wicked chief overseer who tups the renegade’s wife with a promise of calling off Yaichiro’s assassination by Munezo and his corps of riflemen.
The romance between the retiring Munezo (Nagase) and his true love, the lovely, but lowly, servant, Kie (played by the touching Takako Matsu) takes the entire two hours and 12 minutes to unfold, but its predictability dovetails as neatly as that cunning dagger hidden in the scabbard.
The scenes of oafish, provincial samurais being trained in the new, cannon-era militarism are far more comic than the solemnities of Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai.” However, the romantic score for this Japanese sword flick, by Isao Tomita, is a trifle disconcerting–it’s much too Occidental for my taste.

“Beyond the Rocks” (USA/Milestone Films)
is a rediscovery–a lost 1922 Paramount film directed by Sam Wood (“A Night at the Opera,” “Kings Row”) and starring two greats of the silent era, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, in their only screen duet. (They were friends off-screen.)
That such a star vehicle, written by the noted Elinor Glyn (“It”), was not preserved by the studio, and only resurfaced last year in a cache of films from a Dutch collector given to the Nederlands Film Museum, is testimony to Hollywood’s contempt for its product once a picture had completed its run.
“Beyond the Rocks” may be a forgettable trifle, according to one eyewitness (I was misinformed of its early, first-day screening and so missed seeing it.) Swanson was rather mature for the ingĂ©nue role, and the not-yet-well established Valentino was far too subordinate to her in this film. However, the chance to revisit the beauty of Valentino and Swanson in their heyday makes this retrospective item an occasion. (Incidentally, the distributor, Milestone, is the company that brought us the delectable silent “Piccadilly,” two Festivals ago.)

The early show for critics on September 16 consisted of two near-hour-length novelties. The first, “Haze,” at 49 minutes, was a new, quasi S-&-M flick by Japanese horror-master, Shinya Tsukamoto, who starred, wrote, edited, photographed and directed. Tsukamoto buries his protagonist Man (himself) in a cement tomb, with no way out except in lateral directions that involve either being cut or crushed. Man finally encounters Woman (Kaori Fujii), who is similarly trapped. They attempt to escape together but, at the close, Man finally wakes alone, in a lighted room, severely bloodied (proving his entrapment and wounding actually occurred), but, presumably, glad to be out of his all-too-real nightmare.
Mr. Tsukamoto is just about the whole show, although his acting mainly consists of mugging in a highly exaggerated manner. Moreover, he has a very unappealing face, so I don’t think it’s wise of him to celebrate it with quite so many close-ups. But as they say, “It’s your picture.”

“Haze” was shot in digital video for camera mobility in tight spaces, according to its maker. But to show a film so nearly pitch dark, quite so early in the morning was sleep inducing. Near-sleep mitigated against the intentionally horrifying S-&-M pageant that unfolded. (The film was scheduled for its single, public performance at a more appropriate, midnight hour.)
An occasional pool of blood is the only color in this de-saturated, claustrophobic, and generally repellent picture.

The second matinee screening, “The Green Cockatoo” (1937), was a great rarity–a British Fox “quota quickie,” drawn from a Graham Greene story, directed by the celebrated American production designer, William Cameron Menzies (“Gone With the Wind”), and produced by the noted American director William K. Howard (“The Power and the Glory.”) The fine score of “Cockatoo” is by the 30-year-old Miklos Rozsa, at the beginning of his illustrious film career, and a master from the get-go.
“The Green Cockatoo” is the name of an intimate nightclub in London’s West End (a canvas, studio set), at which the 29-year-old John Mills entertains by singing and dancing expertly, as Mills did in revues, before his discovery by his mentor, Noel Coward. Tough guy James Cagney, whom Mills emulates in this film, had a similar theatrical song-and-dance background before he entered movies. (Mills had been acting in films since 1932, and only died in April 2005, approaching 97–blind, but still active until very near the end.)
This 65-minute, would-be Hitchcock thriller, of a guy and a gal on the lam, a la “The Thirty Nine Steps” (1935), gets off to a good start with Mills’ crooked brother (young Robert Newton) double-crossing a gang of greyhound-race fixers by taking their money and betting on the favorite, instead of disabling the favored dog so that the gang’s long shot will win.

For his treachery, Newton gets repeatedly stabbed and an innocent bystander (Rene Ray) gets caught with a knife in her hand. (I do love the screen name Rene Ray. Women were given such alliterative names then, although Ray was soon eclipsed by the similar-looking Celia Johnson, who was a vastly superior actress.)
Mills shepherds Ray to safety by taking on the pursuing gang as well as the police. But this sluggish, old buggy runs out of petrol long before their final clinch.

Though Graham Greene had naught to do with “The Green Cockatoo,” except to furnish its source material, this lost work was appended to English film scholar Adrian Wootton’s Festival program, “Greeneland: Graham Greene and the Cinema,” which contained excerpts from such actual Greene screenplays as “Brighton Rock” and “The Third Man.” I wish I had seen his entire presentation, as “The Green Cockatoo” occupied only one third of his program.

At 154 minutes, Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (Romania/Tartan Films) becomes an especially hard day’s (Saturday) night in Bucharest. Curiously, the ordeal of “Death” unfolds quite similarly to a Frederick Wiseman documentary, like “Hospital,” for example. Except that Mr. Lazarescu is the film’s sole protagonist and, amazingly, all of the doctors and nurses and neighbors in this Romanian cast are played by actors. In contrast, Wiseman only uses actual “civilians.” In short, “Death” is far closer to a documentary than most so-called docu-dramas. (Only the catty CT scan practitioner can be seen over-acting.) This is verismo acting of a very high calibre, with occasional snatches of ultra-black humor.
Mr. L, who is not raised from the dead like Lazarus, but is mishandled by a succession of overrun civic hospitals, is an unusually wretched looking, 63-year-old (Ion Fiscuteanu). A retired widower, Lazarescu has only his filthy cats for company in his cramped apartment. At the start of the picture, he is medicating himself with strong spirits to quell a splitting headache and nausea, but no one is overly sympathetic to these symptoms, as everyone knows he drinks far too much.
The film takes a full hour for an ambulance to get Mr. L. to the hospital, and the next hour and a half consists of Mr. L’s being dressed and undressed in order to find an available CT scan at 1, 2 or 3 a.m., and to eventually find a willing surgeon to stanch his subdural hematoma. Mr. L. is just about to receive the requisite surgical intervention, but it comes too late. Just when he is finally comatose and incapable of withholding his consent from the one surgeon willing to operate at 3 a.m., he drops dead.
The only truly admirable character in the picture is the sorrowfully played ambulance nurse (Luminta Gheorghiu), who, against her will (she deeply needs to get some shut-eye) shepherds her failing charge through admittance and examination at each successive hospital all night long, as neither Mr. L’s sister nor his neighbors will accompany him. She becomes the sacrificial, martyred agent of Lazarescu’s passing.
“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” fails to equal the pathos of an old man’s aging and incipient death in DeSica’s great “Umberto D.” (1952). However, it reminded me of the indignity and enforced solitude of one’s mortality, as it does of the incivilities of modern urban existence.
(This film, Puiu’s second, took the prestigious Un Certain Regard award for new directors at last year’s Cannes Festival.)

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