Based on a True Story: 8 Documentaries that Inspired Feature Films

True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become an inspiration for adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, a fictionalized version of the story told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall: Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.

While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.

We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plan some quality based-on-a-true-story double-features.

The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)

Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Blu-ray: ‘Dillinger’ by Milius

John Dillinger was the most notorious of the Depression-era gangsters and his exploits (and attendant newspaper coverage) made him a romantic anti-hero to many of the folks who felt betrayed by the bankers and businessmen of the country.

DillingerDillinger (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), the 1973 gangster film and directorial debut of John Milius, plays on that image of the gentleman gangster who courted the public and the press while he robbed banks across the American Midwest. It was one of the best of the many period gangster films that poured out in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and made anti-heroes of outlaws.

Warren Oates stars as Dillinger and it is great casting; not only does he resemble the real-life gangster but he brings a rugged charm to the role, whether cautioning bystanders and bank tellers during the robberies (“This could be one of the big moments in your life,” he says at one point. “Don’t make it your last”) or genially bantering with the press after he’s arrested the first time. Ben Johnson plays Melvin Purvis, the Midwest FBI agent who made Dillinger a priority as his fame became an embarrassment for the Bureau. The film covers his brief rampage across the Midwest states, his romance with Billy Frechette (Michelle Philips), his flamboyant prison break, the supergang that included Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and the bloodthirsty Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), and his bloody demise outside of a Chicago movie theater in 1934 in the company of “the lady in red” (played by Cloris Leachman). Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John P. Ryan, and Frank McRae co-star as members of Dillinger’s gang through the years and Milius gives them all distinctive parts.

Milius was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood when he made the film for AIP, taking a cut in exchange for the chance to direct, and AIP (famed for drive-in pictures) poured money into this film in hopes of a mainstream breakthrough and a little prestige. Though small by studio standards, it was the biggest budget of any AIP picture to that time and Milius creates a terrific evocation of the era and delivers impressive action scenes, shoot-outs, and car chases on a tight budget.

Arrow’s edition is restored in 2K from the original 35m interpositive and features both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film with commentary by film historian Stephen Prince and new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon (10 minutes), director of photography Jules Brenner (12 minutes), and composer Barry De Vorzon (12 minutes), plus an isolated music and effects track and bonus booklet.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Jafar Panahi: The Courage of ‘Closed Curtain’

Closed Curtain

I don’t believe that we in the West can truly comprehend the magnitude of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s courage and accomplishments as a filmmaker since he was arrested in 2010. Prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” he was officially sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden from making films for twenty years. The government has kept the sentence hanging over his head as a form of intimidation. They must be stymied by an artist who refuses to be intimidated.

Panahi’s response began with the defiantly-titled This is Not a Film (2011), which he shot on a friend’s video camera and his own camera phone and smuggled out of Iran in a thumb drive hidden in a cake (call it a cinematic jail break). Then he proceeded to make two more films, which have played around the world.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’

marriedwomanBDA Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.

Charlotte has no close friends (at least that we see), lives in a sleek modern apartment devoid of lived-in warmth, and shrinks from the touch of her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy). He’s an intellectual with a condescending attitude and she’s more comfortable living in the moment than grappling with history and memory, which becomes all too apparent in their uncomfortable post-dinner dialogue. In between the lovemaking and the conversations, Charlotte discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t know which man is the father

It is one of Godard’s most visually handsome films, even while it becomes a study in alienation and disconnection. Advertising images, logos, newspaper headlines, and scraps of text fill the film. Lingerie ads are found in every magazine she peruses and loom over her from massive billboards and the sides of buildings as she walks the streets, reducing women to their sexuality. She’s practically a commodity herself (the ideal of woman as seen in the ads) desired by her husband in a marriage disintegrating out of a lack of communication and her lover in an affair from which she is increasingly detached. She’s so alienated from her life that she does not seem to realize how unhappy she is.

A Married Woman has since been overshadowed by Godard’s more overtly political and confrontational films, such as Vivre sa vie and Weekend, and playful genre exercises like A bande a parte and Pierrot le fou, yet at the time it was a cause célèbre in France when the censorship board banned the film until Godard made minor changes and it became one of the most financially successful films of his career. Charlotte is a product of her environment, giving in to her consumerist impulses driven by the cacophony of advertising around her, but his feeling for Charlotte is genuine—few of his movies evince such emotional sympathy—and his criticism of consumer culture is part of her story.

Comes to Blu-ray and DVD in a new restoration from the original negative. It’s sharp and clean and beautiful black-and-white. The new release features a 30-minute interview with star Macha Méril and interviews with contemporary fashion designer and film producer Agnes B. and Godard scholar Antoine de Baecque, all recorded in 2010 for the British Masters of Cinema release, plus original rerelease trailers of the film. The film and the bonus interviews are in French with English subtitles and there is a bonus 8-page booklet with stills from the film.

A Married Woman [DVD]
A Married Woman [Blu-ray]

Also new and notable:ManhunterMann

Manhunter (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), Michael Mann’s film of Thomas Harris’ novel, is doomed to live in the shadow of the Oscar winningSilence of the Lambs, its sequel in essence if not detail. An undeserved fate for such a sharp, coolly attenuated thriller. William Petersen is haunted but precise as the intent, troubled serial killer profiler whose methods literally lead to madness and is, frankly, a more insidiously scary Hannibal Lektor (as his name is spelled in his original cinematic incarnation) than Anthony Hopkin’s more theatrical take. Mann’s direction is a triumph of austerity and cinematic precision, and he shatters the carefully controlled mood in a blistering climax choreographed and cut to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The “Director’s Cut” features an additions 5 minutes of detail. It was remade under the novel’s title, Red Dragon, with Hopkins as Lector, but it doesn’t hold a candle to this. The two-disc set features the original theatrical cut in HD and the Director’s Cut with alternate footage in standard definition and a commentary track by Michael Mann from a previous release. It features a 40-minute interview with Brian Cox, newly-recorded interviews with actors William Petersen, Joan Allen, and Tom Noonan, director of photography Dante Spinotti, and composer Michel Rubin and soundtrack contributors Barry Andrews, Gary Putnam, Rick Shaffer, and Gene Stashuk, and archival interviews with actors William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Tom Noonan and director of photography Dante Spinotti.

BusterKeatonCompleteBDBuster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923 (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD) features the short films Keaton made with Fatty Arbuckle, the first director to direct Keaton, and all 19 short comedies made by Keaton between 1920 and 1923. Keaton always cited Arbuckle as his early mentor and you can find the seeds of Keaton’s style in Arbuckle’s assured, meticulously constructed final collaborations. The 19 shorts that Keaton made between 1920 and 1923 are, along with Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, the peak of creativity, ingenuity and comic grace in American silent comedy shorts. Though he did not take director credit for these films (or, for that matter, many of his feature), he was the creative artist behind every aspect of the production, including the direction. I haven’t seen this set but it features restorations by Lobster Films in Paris, an alternate version of “The Blacksmith” with new material, and alternate endings to two Arbuckle shorts.

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Woman on the Run’ and ‘Too Late for Tears’ restored

The Film Noir Foundation, creators of the San Francisco-based Noir City Film Festival and its companion travelling version, expanded its purpose a few years ago to raise money to restore orphaned films, those independent productions made outside the studio system in partnerships formed in some cases to make a single film. Two of their most recent restorations have come to disc in lovely sets: the superb Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Ann Sheridan and the fascinating Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Lizabeth Scott.

toolateIn Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most ruthless heroines in film noir in, a status-conscious middle-class wife who will do anything to keep her hands on a suitcase of cash that lands in her lap by accident. Arthur Kennedy is her husband who wants to take it to the police but is tempted enough to hold onto it for a night or two (just to think over the ramifications, you know) and Dan Duryea is a mercenary crook who comes looking for the cash (payment in a blackmail scheme) and ends up her wary partner. Scott has played her share of heroines and villains both but here she’s pure avarice and cold-blooded greed. She stares at the money piled on the bed with wolfish hunger and childish ecstasy and she’s ready to murder to keep it. The money doesn’t corrupt her, it merely unleashes her suppressed greed. She’s nervous and perhaps even reluctant to carry out the first—fate steps in with a nudge when she hesitates—but she follows through without a regret and doesn’t even flinch the second time. Scott may be a poor man’s Bacall but is no man’s fool. Duryea is in fine form as a weasel of an opportunist, sneering his dialogue in the early scenes and then slipping into disgust and drink as Scott slowly takes control of the partnership. In a genre defined by corrupt, ruthless, and conniving characters, this film features two of the most reprehensible and cold-blooded. Don DeFore is the old “army buddy” who hides his own secrets.

The budget went to the high-caliber stars, resulting in a somewhat starved production. The apartment sets are utterly bland and impersonal, almost generic, and Byron Haksin’s direction is perfunctory, as if rushed. The location shooting, however, is effective: the lonely roads in the canyons, the lake and the boat rental, the train station baggage check, and a few city street scenes. It’s a minor noir in the scheme of things but it has some major pleasure, not least of which are Scott’s utterly rapacious turn and Duryea as a sleaze who is appalled at depths of her amorality.

The film was produced independently of the Hollywood studios and fell into the public domain years ago, which meant that no one was looking after the film’s elements but plenty of labels putting out inferior versions from whatever battered TV print or video copy they could get their hands on. The Film Noir Foundation produced this restoration with UCLA Film and Television Archive, with support from the Hollywood Foreign Press, from an archival 35mm re-release print and a complete 16mm print. It shows minor wear and light scratches but is otherwise undamaged and a massive improvement over previous editions, with a solid, crisp image with strong (maybe too strong) contrasts and vivid detail. This is the definitive edition by a huge margin.

The set features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, both with commentary by film noir historian Alan K. Rode (who gives us the histories of the players along with production details and critical observations), the 16-minute “Chance of a Lifetime: The Making of Too Late for Tears” with film noir historians Rode and Eddie Muller and film critics Kim Morgan and Julie Kirgo, and the shorter “A Wild Ride: Restoring Woman on the Run” with Muller and film archivist Scott McQueen, plus a booklet with stills, artwork, and an essay by Eddie Muller.

WomanRunWoman on the Run (1950) is a much more compelling—and far more deftly directed—film even with its somewhat misleading title. Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan) isn’t really on the run. It’s her estranged husband Frank (Ross Elliott) who has gone missing after witnessing a gangland killing. The killer has already taken a shot at him and the police want him to testify. He’s dubious of promises to keep him safe and Eleanor is on Frank’s side. Their marriage has become mere formality—they lead separate lives connected only by a shared address and a pet dog—and she answers the cops’ questions with acerbic remarks, but she’s the first to tip him off that the cops are looking for him. She slips the police surveillance easy enough but dogged, fast-talking reporter Danny Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), a newspaperman with a mercenary streak and a snappy patter that could have come from the lively newspaper pictures of the early 1930s, is more resourceful. Danny joins her search for Frank across San Francisco, helping her track him down in return for the exclusive story.

“Frank’s done nothing wrong,” Eleanor argues, to which the veteran inspector replies, “Oh yes he has. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” That’s a classic film noir situation, the wrong man targeted by bad luck, but it’s just the starting point for the real story. Sheridan dishes out sardonic cracks with deadpan snap and O’Keefe matches her with snappy repartee delivered with an all-American grin as they go searching Frank’s old haunts. But Eleanor softens along the journey as she discovers new dimensions of her estranged husband on her odyssey. He’s simply a failed artist now doing window displays in a San Francisco department store as far as she’s concerned but as she turns detective she sees that he’s simply transformed his art into displays (many of which feature her likeness) and learns that he has a deadly medical condition, which he’s kept secret from her. The tart snap and cynical edge gives way to concern as her feelings are rekindled. In a genre known for predatory relationships, one-sided love affairs, and sexual obsession, this is the rare film noir that opens in indifference and resentment and becomes a story of rediscovery and renewal. Eleanor transforms from hard-bitten cynic to revived romantic as she falls in love with her husband all over again.

Director Foster was a B-movie veteran who worked briefly with Orson Welles and it appears to have inspired him. delivers a film filled with unexpected dashes of character (the heavy accents of the dancers at a Chinese restaurant give way to all-American voices when the rubes are gone and they’re among friends) and marvelous style and atmosphere. Along with the usual picture postcard views, he takes the viewer through parts of San Francisco the aren’t part of the tourist checklist. He makes excellent use of location shooting, from the dynamic murder scene from the bottom of a plunging set of stone steps through the climax on the waterfront amusement park. The low angles and tilted framing give the shots a dramatic punch, but also suggests a world off balance, an appropriate state of affairs for characters uprooted from their familiar lives. The rollercoaster sequence is particularly effective, a marvelous metaphor for the panic, helplessness, and emotional turmoil of the rider trapped on the ride while a murder is underway.

The restoration is terrific. It’s not pristine, mind you, as the original negative was gone and the only complete original print destroyed in a fire a few years ago, but the British internegative (a copy of the original negative that was used to strike prints in Britain) was preserved by the BFI, who loaned it to UCLA for this restoration. The day scenes have a documentary immediacy, the night scenes are plunged in shadow, and all of it is crisp and clean with excellent contrasts.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, with commentary by Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller (informative as always; Muller has long been a champion of the film and its interesting use of San Francisco locations), the 20-minute featurette “Love is a Rollercoaster: Woman on the Run Revisited” with Muller and film noir historian Alan K. Rode and film critics Kim Morgan and Julie Kirgo, the 5-minute “A Wild Ride: Restoring Woman on the Run” with Muller and film archivist Scott McQueen, the 7-minute video tour “Woman on the Run Locations Then and Now” with Brian Hollins (aka City Sleuth), and a 10-minute featurettes on the Noir City Film Festival, plus a booklet with stills, artwork, and an essay by Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Deadpool’ and ‘The Witch’

DeadpoolBDDeadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.

It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.

He plays Special Forces veteran turned soldier-for-hire Wade Wilson, a cynic who emerges from a sadistic experiment with an indestructible body, a face like ground beef, and a penchant for turning to the camera to crack jokes about the absurdity of it all. By which I mean everything from the creatively violent mayhem of the moment to the superhero genre as a whole. He’s out for revenge against the mad scientist (Ed Skrein in generic British baddie mode) who made the transformation as painful as possible and then tried to leash him as an attack dog for an international assassination business. Not so successful in the last part. Wade escapes, takes the name Deadpool, dons a red spandex costume that covers him from head to toe, and tracks down his sweetie (Morena Baccarin), a hard-bitten hooker with whom he found true love and great sex. A lot of sex. Among the surprises of this R-rated superhero lark is its sex-positive attitude toward adult play and kinky games between consenting adults.

The rest is an unconventional treatment of a conventional superhero story. Allies will be recruited (auxiliary X-Men players Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a true believer and a sneering teenager, respectively), comic relief applied (T.J. Miller), and battles engaged, which will lay waste to property and extras with tremendous outlays of CGI. No end of the world stuff here, which is a little refreshing in the increasingly epic showdowns in bigger and bigger movies. It doesn’t reinvent the genre but it has fun with it, delivering the spectacle that fans appreciate while winking at them, as if we are all in on the joke. And it turns out we are. Deadpool came in at under $60 million, a bargain in the age of superhero bloat, and may outgrossBatman v Superman, which came in at more than four times the budget and even more in worldwide promotion. Not too bad for a hero unknown outside of die-hard comic book collectors, a first time director (Tim Miller came out of music videos and commercials), the star of one of the biggest comic book movie flops in the rocky history of the genre, and an R rating for blood, sex, and bad attitude.

Fox knows that this is going to be one of its biggest sellers of the year on disc and they load up the Blu-ray accordingly, beginning with not one but two commentary tracks, one by Ryan Reynolds with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the other by director Tim Miller and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. “From Comics to Screen… to Screen” is a collection of five production featurettes that runs 80 minutes all together and “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” a collection of short, jokey promotional videos running about 24 minutes. There are also and extended scenes, galleries of art and storyboards, and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

The DVD extras are limited to “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” and a gag reel.
Deadpool [DVD-
Deadpool [Blu-ray]

WitchBDThe Witch (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), subtitled “A New England Folktale,” is a primal horror film rooted in fear and superstition, and there is plenty of both in early 17thcentury New England, where a devoted British Puritan family has started a new life. Adding to the general hardship of carving a new colony out of a frontier of deep forests an ocean away from their urban birthplace, this family is banished from the protected village. The religious devotion of pious father William (Ralph Ineson) is so absolute that he challenges the elders and refuses to repent. The irony that this sect left England to escape religious persecution is lost on them all, but then it’s not really what the film is about.

“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” William proclaims as they march away from the last outpost of European civilization in their world. He is pious, yes, but he’s also devoted to his family, protective and even loving in his emotionally restrained way, and he creates a home at the edge of a forest that seems to grow darker and more ominous with each calamity. The crops don’t just fail, they turn black as if cursed. The adorable goats turn aggressive and their bleets and baas begin to sound ominous. And an infant disappears in an innocent game of peekaboo played by apple-cheeked Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter. It’s simply gone with no natural explanation, at least not as experienced through their perspective. The isolation takes its toll on the homesick mother (Kate Dickie), who becomes increasingly drawn and disconnected as she pines for her English life, and failing crops and dying livestock send Father and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) deeper and deeper into the forest for food. It turns a tough, trying existence into the trials of Job as reimagined as a horror movie.

Thomasin is coming of age, as they say, becoming a young woman and given more family responsibility without accompanying respect. Sexuality is very much a presence here, though it is never talked about or acted upon, which makes even thinking about it something shameful to be repressed. Clearly these kids won’t be getting the sex talk.

Filmmaker Robert Eggers drew upon journals and other records of the era for his screenplay, which gives the archaic language a quality both alien and organic, and painstaking recreates the texture of their world, from the heavy, rough clothing to the Spartan home. He shoots with natural light, which makes the shadowy interiors of the rough-hewn cabin of a home gloomy even in daylight and reduced to pools of visibility at night with only candles and lamps to light the rooms. Set against that realism are visions of a forest witch preying upon the vulnerable family (real or simply the nightmares of a family clutching for explanations?) and the creepy games of the young children, who taunt Thomason with nursery rhyme curses and name the goat Black William and proclaim it a demon. In a world where the devil is every bit as real as God, it gets under the skin of the characters. And the audience too.

The horrors are very real, just not necessarily literal, and the film suffered a backlash from a contingency of horror fans reacting to rave reviews with complaints that it wasn’t scary. And if you’re looking for more traditional shocks or scares, this isn’t going to deliver. This is more ambiguous and all the more compelling for it. It’s not easily dismissed after the credits roll. It’s dark and spooky and suggestive and at times genuinely terrifying, and it leaves you wondering just how much belief guides our perceptions.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Robert Eggers, the eight-minute featurette “The Witch: A Primal Folktale, and a panel Q&A on the Salem Witch trials featuring Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy. The Blu-ray also features a bonus Ultraviolent Digital HD copy of the film.
The Witch [DVD + Digital]
The Witch [Blu-ray + Digital HD]

More new releases at Cinephiled

‘Death’ Walks Twice – Two films by Luciano Ercoli

Nieves Navarro in ‘Death Walks at Midnight’

Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.

In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray/DVD: On a lonely disc – ‘In a Lonely Place’ on Criterion

Criterion

Criterion

In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel in which is was ostensibly based beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.

Dixon is a classic literary type—the hard-drinking, hot-tempered, scrappy artist who turns down assignments beneath his dignity, insults the industry players who hire him, and gets into bar fights at the slightest provocation—with a darker soul than we usually see in such characters. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” he tells Laurel, a line he wants to put into his screenplay but is surely inspired by his happiness with Laurel. It’s lovely and yet it predicts the inevitable doom of their romance. There’s a bitterness under his cynical banter and an anger that fuels flashes of jealousy or betrayal into vicious, violent responses. Laurel sees it play out with strangers and it starts to scare her, especially as the investigation into the murder (which is otherwise swept to the sidelines of the story) keeps circling back to Dix.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

I don’t usually compare movie adaptations to the original novels—apart from bestsellers and literary classics, Hollywood tended to treat the books and stories it purchased as raw material to be reworked for the needs of the moment—and I don’t intend to here, but I love the way the film itself comments upon the process. Dix rewrites the novel in his latest assignment, inspired by the romance that blooms with Laurel, just as Andrew Solt’s screenplay rewrote the novel and his script was subsequently rewritten by director Nicholas Ray to reflect his unraveling marriage to  Grahame, who he cast after Bogie’s first choices were unavailable. It would have been a great role for Lauren Bacall and Grahame delivers Bacall’s confidence and command and model’s poise, but she also has a dreamy vulnerability that is uniquely her own. It’s one of her best performances and Ray shows off a glamour and grace she didn’t get in other roles as well as a smart, powerful performance. Bogie himself had a reputation for drinking and bar scraps and he’s clearly all in on the rewrite; he developed and produced the film through his own Santana Productions. Bogart has played hard-edged characters and violent anti-heroes before but none are as damaged and dark and out of control as Dixon. The romance comes off the two-fisted tough-guy literary hero in this portrait.

This is film noir without guns and gangsters, with no robberies or blackmail schemes, where the only crime on screen is a couple of alcohol-fueled assaults (one of which veers close to manslaughter, admittedly, but doesn’t cross the line), and yet it is among the most devastating you’ll ever see. The murder mystery no more than a backdrop to the ambiguous study of love torn apart from within.

Previously on DVD from Sony, it makes its Criterion debut on a 2K digital transfer from a new 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original camera negative. It’s flawless. This is not a film that was in need of restoration, thanks to fine stewardship of the Sony archive under the able leadership of Grover Crisp, and it shows: crisp and clean with rich black and white

Features commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, a new interview with Gloria Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, a 20-minute piece with filmmaker Curtis Hanson produced for the 2002 DVD release, a condensed version of the 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (this runs about 40 minutes), and the radio adaptation of the original novel produced for “Suspense” in 1948, plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith. You can read Smith’s essay here.

In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

Kinostraum: The Lucid Unreason of ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘House’

Writers and critics have likened the experience of watching movies to dreaming with your eyes open for almost as long as moving images have been projected in front of audiences in dark rooms. But in reality the dreams that movies show are more like the stories we tell ourselves or the fantasies we imagine in our waking lives. When filmmakers attempt to actually recreate the nocturnal odysseys churned up from anxieties and obsessions and the residual thoughts and images scattered through our unconscious minds, they are more like expressionist theater pieces or symbol-laden action paintings. Think of Spellbound, with its Dali-designed sets and loaded Freudian symbolism representing the unprocessed issues of our troubled hero. These films satisfy our idea of “dream” or “nightmare” but don’t actually capture the experience or texture of those twilight journeys which seem to make sense in the moment as they slip from one idea to another but confound us as we try to piece them together when we awaken. If movies are dreams, they have been tamed and rewritten to fit the demands of narrative storytelling.

That’s one reason why I love David Lynch’s waking nightmare Eraserhead and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s haunted-house fantasia House (a.k.a. Hausu). They recreate dream logic in ways that almost no other films do. Is it coincidence that both films first saw the light of a theater screen in 1977? Creative serendipity or primeval synchronicity? Lynch might appreciate the idea of some sort of Jungian breakthrough in such different cultures. They are, after all, the feature debuts of two filmmakers who learned to express themselves cinematically in the world of experimental film. The similarities end there, however. Each of these films spins its own unique dream in its own crazily weird way.

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Jeppe Rønde’s Trueness to Life, and Death

‘Bridgend’

Bridgend is a horror film, but not in the traditional sense. The horror is that the events of Bridgend, a rural county in South Wales, occurred in real life and continue to do so. Between January 2007 and February 2012, at least seventy-nine suicides were reported in this small county, most of them teenagers, most of them by hanging. They left no suicide notes and, though the media have suggested some kind of suicide pact or death cult, to this day there is no explanation.

Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde spent six years traveling back and forth from his home in Denmark to Bridgend, getting to know the people and letting them get to know him. The locals had a deep distrust of outsiders because of years of tabloid reporters exploiting their tragedy, but they opened up to Rønde. Their stories and experiences became the core of his script—though he was a documentary filmmaker by profession and practice, he chose to channel their stories into a dramatic feature—and they even allowed him to shoot the film on location in Bridgend. Many of the kids he got to know appear in small roles in the film.

“When you read that seventy-nine hung themselves in the end of the film, that’s the only official number I could use. The problem is it’s a lot higher,” he explained. “The kids tell me every time one dies and we hear about it in the news, there were two or three that were kept out of the public eye. And on top comes all the people that tried to do it but failed. Sometimes it was several a day, over months, in such a small community.”

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Blu-ray: Jennifer Lawrence is ‘Joy’

Joy15David O. Russell wrote (or rather, rewrote) Joy (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD) for Jennifer Lawrence, who he directed to an Academy Award in Silver Linings Playbook(2012) and an Oscar nomination in American Hustle. Lawrence score another nomination for Joy, based on the true story of Joy Mangano, the divorced single mother turned entrepreneur who invented the Miracle Mop, the first of more than 100 patents in her name. It’s an inspiring true life story and a great showcase for Lawrence, who evolves from overwhelmed mother and unappreciated foundation holding up a dysfunctional extended family to ferocious businesswoman and beloved on-air pitchwoman on the shopping network QVC to self-made mogul over the course of the film.

Also reuniting with Russell and Lawrence are Robert De Niro, who plays Joy’s blue collar father, and Bradley Cooper in a smaller role as a QVC executive with sparkling blues eyes suggests romance even as the script makes him strictly a mentor. This businessman is one of the few allies in Joy’s life. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) dropped out after being abandoned by husband De Niro to lay in bed all day watching soap operas (the same show seems to play 24-7) and her dad moves back into the family basement, where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) is also camping out between gigs as an underemployed singer. They demand more attention than Joy’s own school-age children, and she juggles it all with a full-time job at an airline counter. When she comes up with the design for the Miracle Mop, which she engineers herself and has produced on a small scale, every step is beset with obstacles, from bad advice to crooked manufacturers to a disinterested QVC pitchman, which sends Joy in front of the camera to sell it herself: the working class everywoman selling the American Dream directly into homes across the country.

Russell rewrote an original script by Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote Bridesmaids, and turned it into a Russell film, with a narrative woven through with flashbacks and a dreamy narration from Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), the only member of her family to encourage her apart from her ex-husband. Russell does self-defeating family dynamics, tangled in jealousy and resentment and self-interest, well but the soap opera constantly undercutting her efforts is so overwrought that it never feels authentic. The colorful mess of this family is just another anchor trying to keep her from sailing to success.

Russell manages to put his stamp on what might otherwise be a conventional biopic and Lawrence makes Joy another of Russell’s great fighters, rolling with every punch and getting back up for the next round. She earns every victory. It’s just that the story is all over the place, a mess of colliding tones and cascades of setbacks and obstacles. The flair of Russell’s filmmaking and the dynamic performances, which are turned up to 11 in far too many scenes, fail to elevate the film above the familiar trajectory of the against-all-odds success story. It works almost entirely due to the passion and drive that Lawrence brings to the screen.

DVD and Blu-ray, with the featurette “Joy, Strength and Perseverance” and the “Times Talk with Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell” interviewed by Maureen Dowd. Blu-ray features a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Rebels, Outlaws and Carlo Lizzani

‘Requiescant’

My films tell a little bit of the history of Italy.
—Carlo Lizzani

More than a decade before the French New Wave, a generation of Italian film critics and cinephiles challenged the high gloss and low ambitions of the Italian film industry under Mussolini with a wave of films that addressed social and political life during and after World War II, movies shot in the streets with a rough immediacy dictated as much by threadbare production resources as by stylistic choice.

Carlo Lizzani was not simply shaped by Italian neorealism. He helped create it. As a film critic and an active leftist, he wrote manifestos promoting neorealism and wrote a respected history of Italian cinema in 1952. He co-wrote and assisted on the productions of Roberto Rossellini‘s Germany Year Zero (1948), Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Alberto Lattuada‘s The Mill on the Po(1949). He made documentaries before making his feature directing debut with the resistance drama Attention! Bandits! (1951), a film he got made by organizing the workers of Genoa into a filmmaking cooperative, and he returned to documentaries at the end of his career, making films about the great Italian directors he knew and admired: Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis. His love of cinema and his passion for politics and history came together in his 1996 feature Celluloid, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City.

Between these poles, Lizzano had a thriving career making genre films—westerns, crime thrillers, war dramas—in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than simply a matter of necessity. He loved genre pictures. They were also a superb vehicle for smuggling political commentary into popular cinema. It was a good fit for a filmmaker with an affinity for rebels and outlaws.

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