The New Wave Wonders of Tinto Brass

Bring up the name Tinto Brass and, if you recognize it at all, the first thing that comes to mind is Caligula, the notorious and grotesque X-rated Roman epic produced by Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione (who also added explicit footage into the already sleazy spectacle). There’s also the Nazisploitation Salon Kitty (the film that earned him the Caligula assignment) and finally a string of lighthearted erotic romps notable for their fascination with the ample derrieres of his usually unclothed leading ladies.

But before he plunged headlong into Eurotica, Brass was a free-wheeling cat mining a vein right out of the nouvelle vague. We’re not talking Godard, mind you, but here was an ambitious young Italian director looking to break out of the comedies and westerns cranked out by the industry by getting young and hip and groovy, dabbling in social satire and pushing the boundaries of film conventions and subject matter.

'Deadly Sweet'

And thus was born Deadly Sweet (aka I Am What I Am, 1967), a spy thriller turned kooky murder mystery romp. Adapted from a novel by Sergio Donati (a frequent screenwriting partner of Sergio Leone and Sergio Sollima), it plays like a psychedelic Bond spoof directed by Richard Lester. Jean-Louis Trintignant is the out-of-work actor who spots sex kitten Ewa Aulin (the Swedish baby doll of Candy) at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene and into pop-art playground of shifting film stock, multi-pane split screens, and Mad magazine gags. Brass embraces the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tosses every pop culture impulse he can grab into the film: comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave, the British New Wave, cinema verité street scenes, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot), TV’s Batman (Pow!).

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DVDs for 9/29/09 – New Wallace & Gromit, old Tinto Brass and The Wizard of Oz on the Blu-ray Way

The cheese loving inventor and energetically eccentric entrepreneur Wallace and his silent but astute canine companion Gromit have become one of the most popular comedy duos in the movies after only three animated shorts (two of which won Oscars) and one feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Not bad for a couple of plasticine creations brought to life through the painstaking process (and increasingly neglected art) of stop-motion animation. A Matter of Loaf and Death (Lionsgate) is their first screen appearance in four years and only their fifth film longer than three minutes since their debut twenty years ago, which makes it all the more exciting for fans young and old. Creator Nick Park is back at the helm for this “bread-based murder mystery,” which casts the pals and partners as bakers with a delivery business based out of an urban windmill that powers yet another magnificent collection of mechanical devices and Rube Goldberg contraptions. While Wallace falls in love with a former bakery pin-up girl, someone is killing the bakers around town and Gromit has a pretty good idea who… not that grinning goof Wallace will pay any attention to him in his starry-eyed infatuation.

Wallace and Gromit earn their bread and butter
Wallace and Gromit earn their bread and butter

It’s another half hour comic classic, with marvelously intricate bits of comic choreography and visual gags with the invention of Charlie Chaplin shorts and Bug Bunny cartoons, all rooted in the comfortable character of the moldable clay heroes. Fans of the series will be delighted. The DVD features the twenty-minute “How They Donut: The Making of a Matter of Loaf and Death” (it’s always a treat to see the models and the animators bring them to life) and a bonus “Shaun the Sheep” short, and it debuts in Blu-ray on a special edition disc featuring the Blu-ray debut of the previous three Wallace and Gromit shorts, A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1998), plus making-of featurettes for each short and all ten Wallace and Gromit: Cracking Contraptions of adventures in inventing (each under three minutes).

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DVDs for 8/4/09 – Ladies of Screwball and Italian Culture Wars

Jean Arthur is one of the greats of screwball comedy, at once the girl next door and the sardonic smart cookie, the idealist and the sophisticate rolled into a snappy, sassy, yet still romantic package. Sony has come up with a nice way of showcasing some of the lesser known films by their marquee players in their new Icons of Screwball Comedy collection. The first two volumes debut with a quartet of films on two discs, each volume spotlighting a pair of actresses with two films apiece: Volume One featuring Arthur and Rosalind Russell, Volume Two with Irene Dunne and Loretta Young.

Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars
Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars

Jean Arthur had been more than ten years in the business, bouncing between stage and screen, when she made If You Could Only Cook (1935), but she had only recently come into her own as a leading lady, a talented comedienne and a formidable actress with a personality that bursts out of the frame. She’s second billed to Herbert Marshall, who plays an auto company president frustrated by a conservative board of directors and about to marry a woman he clearly doesn’t realize is all wrong for him. Marshall may have been no matinee idol – he was ten years older than Arthur and looked even older, with his thinning hair and doughy frame – but he was one smooth, suave, elegant leading man, a real class act with a wonderfully wry and underplayed sense of humor. He’s the society gent without the aristocratic snootiness and he seems to sense a kindred spirit in Joan (Arthur), who meets while she scours the want ads in the park. Before he knows, he’s posing not just as her husband but as a butler and takes a job serving a nouveau riche gangster (Leo Carrillo) with gourmet tastes. It’s a light little trifle of a romantic comedy with larger than life characters who carry the film for director William A. Seiter. It’s a treat watching Marshall get tips from his butler without a trace of self-consciousness and it’s not hard to see his attraction to Arthur, who is all spunk and street smarts but drops her no-nonsense front when flustered by the pangs of romance.

It’s paired with Too Many Husbands (1940), with Arthur top billed over Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas (the husbands of the title). It’s a pretty predictable set-up (lost at sea husband comes back to find wife remarried – to his business partner, no less) and a fairly conventional script, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, of all things. The minor pleasures come from Arthur’s sly delight in watching the two men compete for her affections. The two-disc set also includes a pair of Rosalind Russel comedies: the original screen version of My Sister Eileen (1942), co-starring Brian Aherne and Janet Blair, and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) with Lee Bowman, both directed by Alexander Hall.

The gem of the collection is on Volume Two: Theodora Goes Wild (1936), one of the great comedies of the thirties. Irene Dunne is magic as small town girl Theodora Lynn, a grown woman living under the suffocating strictures of her moralistic aunts. She vents her frustrations and indulges in her fantasies of uninhibited living by writing (under a pseudonym) a scandalous novel that she is forced to condemn when her own town paper starts serializing it. Melvyn Douglas is pure, unbound charm and impish attitude as the social butterfly determined to “free” Theodora from her double life and unleash her inhibitions. He succeeds all too well and she moves to New York to return the favor: it turns out self-styled artist Michael Grant doesn’t live the life he preaches. He’s an unhappily married man playing at bachelor while careful to keep out of the paper, lest he tarnish his politician father’s image. I would never have pegged Richard Boleslawski for a sense of humor, let alone a talented director of comedy, but he masterfully guides his cast through Sidney Buchman’s sparkling screenplay. “There’s nothing more deadly than innocence on the manhunt,” remarks one New York observer as Theodora embraces the reputation of her alter-ego and tramples through the polite manners and paper-thin veil of appearances of New York society. The film hammers the small-town hypocrisy much harder than the parallel high society double standards (gossiping biddies jumping on every scandal they pretend to abhor is an easy target), but it’s still a fun double reflection when it’s Dunne blowing through the social events of New York’s high and mighty. Her spirit is adorable, her laugh is to die for and her drive is commendable. This is screwball at its finest. The set also features Dunne and Charles Boyer in Together Again (1944) and Loretta Young in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and A Night to Remember (1942).
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DVDs for 4/28/09 – JCVD, Deadly Sweet, The Hit and Star Trek

JCVD (Peace Arch)

In the opening scene of JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme takes out one heavily-armed, vaguely military bad guy after another with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way) in an elaborately choreographed long take. He comes out the other end huffing and winded as the set falls down around and ruins the take. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.” And we can see the toll that age, exertion and high-living have taken.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Inaction hero
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Inaction hero

JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy. Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a monologue dropped into the middle of the movie, a self-pitying apologia, where he spins his story of a simple Belgian martial arts champ seduced by Hollywood, the naive innocent destroyed by the liars and corrupted by the sudden fame and decadence. It plays like Van Damme’s version of Bela Lugosi’s “Home? I have no home!” speech in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Beast, with Van Damme showing his thespian skills by letting a single tear roll down his cheek up as he rakes over the coals of his screwed-up life. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky and it’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.

But that ambiguity makes the scene so much more interesting and Van Damme is surprisingly engaging as a version of himself who is more vulnerable human being action hero as he tries to survive an armed gang of unraveling personalities. In the real world, he’s more apt to talk than take on a trio of thugs with guns. It’s his first feature in French, his native language. And he manages to maintain self-effacing dignity in the face of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s take on his troubled private life. It’s an impressive stunt that pays off in an action film for art movie aficionados and a foreign film for the popcorn crowd. As long as they don’t mind reading subtitles.

I wrote about JCVD for my blog here and for for MSN here.

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

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