Movies – A Five-Star Life (Italy, 2013)

 

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Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi in “A Five-Star Life.” credit: musicboxfilms.com

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life (Viaggia Sola, or I Travel Alone) (Italy, 2013) is a pretty straightforward ‘dramedy’ that touches on a lot of issues contemporary women both engage in and are at conflict with. But there’s a not-so-secret subtext running underneath the occupational, romantic and familial issues that our protagonist, Irene Lorenzi (an appealing and confident Margherita Buy) navigates – she is fully, and confidently, herself; genuinely comfortable in her own skin and guiltlessly content with her single and childless status, deservedly proud that she’s very good at her job, but never allowing what she does for a living to define her life.

When I saw the film at the European Union Film Festival last spring, I was struck by the plain fact that we never, ever, see women like this in mainstream film. They either need to be Crusading Heroines Bucking The Old-Boy Network (Norma Rae, Nine-To-Five, Silkwood, Erin Brockovitch) or Women Who Must Reinvent Themselves After Our Long-Cherished Institutions Fail Them (Mildred Pierce, The First Wives Club, Under The Tuscan Sun, countless others…). Even the most independent, self-sufficient female characters we see in film invariably consider couplehood, or motherhood, or their career choices as necessary compromises or practical inevitabilities. The world is full of perfectly content women who have clearly and freely made the same choices as Irene, but, for some reason, filmmakers and writers always need to include an undercurrent of second guessing, or they need to tailor the circumstances to justify their decisions – the world of men has limited their choices, or their family history dooms them to be a particular kind of person, and they either make the constructive best of it or end up lonely and miserable. (And it isn’t just female characters – I’ve lamented in the past about Nick Hornby’s work [High Fidelity, About A Boy, An Education] constructing achingly single-minded hipsters only to have them ultimately ‘learn their lessons’ about the true value of conformity.)

Irene, it must be said, has an enviable job; she’s a ‘mystery guest’ who works for an agency that sets the ratings for very high-end European hotels. She stays at the finest hotels in the world for three or four days at a time – Paris, Berlin, Tuscany, Switzerland, Marrakesh, Shanghai – analyzing the effectiveness and graciousness of the staff, the quality of the housekeeping, food and amenities, and, ultimately, whether the experience is as satisfying and luxurious as promised. And she’s tough – spying a newlywed couple who are clearly not used to such high-end indulgence, Irene fiercely berates the hotel manager for his staff’s condescension towards them.

When Irene isn’t working (and those breaks are getting fewer and far between – she’s very good at her job, and her boss is constantly adding to her workload), she spends time with her sister’s family or her best-friend ex-boyfriend. Her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) harangues her about being a single woman, even though Silvia herself is having some pretty typical marriage and self-esteem issues that Irene simply doesn’t have to contend with. Silvia might like to have more sex with her husband. Might Irene like more sex in her life as well? Sure, but those issues don’t define Irene in the same way they define Silvia. When Irene advises Silvia not to buy a particular dress, it’s because she simply doesn’t like the dress. But Silvia can only ask why the dress isn’t good on her? What is it about her that makes the dress unsuitable? Nonetheless, as sisters, they’re great friends, and make a point to talk to each other every day. Irene even recruits her two young nieces for one of her inspections, giving Silvia a well-deserved break while doing what seems to be a nice adventurous favor for the girls.

Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) runs an organic produce distributorship, and he and Irene share a terrific friendship well after they’ve broken up as an intimate couple. Andrea is now courting a new girlfriend, Fabiana (Alessia Barela), and Irene is nothing if not encouraging. When a particularly tragic occurrence shakes Irene up, she beelines straight to Andrea for comfort. But when aspects of their close friendship start to alienate Fabiana, Irene steps up forthrightly to assure Fabiana of Andrea’s dedicated commitment to their burgeoning new relationship. She defends Andrea, not herself, which turns out to be exactly what Fabiana needed to hear.

One of the centerpieces of the film is a chance encounter that Irene has with a famous sex-positive feminist intellectual, Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville, a terrific performance in a deceptively small role). Irene leads her life day-to-day, rarely having any distance or objectivity. But Kate distills many of Irene’s beliefs about herself and the choices she’s made within a much larger context, and they become immediate mutually-supportive friends.

Irene is a great character because, despite her ‘cushy’ job, she deals with all of the issues we ourselves contend with every day – sharing and supporting the experiences of our families and our friends, constantly assessing and re-assessing whether our work defines us and/or whether it’s worth doing at all. Irene lives a rich and varied life, and doesn’t feel like she lacks for anything, but, like all of us, isn’t oblivious to the other life options she’s weighed, accepted or rejected. If there’s one thing her job has taught her, it’s the importance of standards. Not rules, but empirical standards.  Irene is essentially the same person at the end of the film as she was at its beginning, and that’s an immensely good, and distressingly rare, thing. Other reviews and plot synopses are stuffed with words like “conflict,” “fractured,” “struggles,” coming to terms,”  “Irene must re-think.” Why should she?  I think Irene may work somewhat like a Rorschach test for a lot of viewers – she must be unhappy, she must have regrets, she’s kidding herself. And Irene Lorenzi would be the first person to admit that all of that might be true. But she’s going to move along and get on with her life anyway, taking it as it comes and, ultimately, loving herself through it all. Hollywood needs Meg Ryans and Whitney Houstons and Barbra Streisands to convince us that it’s possible. Italy has Margherita Buy, and in her own modest but impressive way, she might just blow those other divas out of the cinematic water.

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Movies – 8 Women (France, 2002)

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Emmanuelle Béart in “Eight Women.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

If you’re in the mood for a big, fun, campy, stylish, melodramatic potboiler with world-famous actresses artfully shooting fish in a barrel, I direct you to 8 Women (Huit Femmes) (France, 2002), Francois Ozon’s Agatha-Christie-meets-Douglas-Sirk-via-Knots-Landing-withmusical-interludes extravaganza. It starts as a standard Poirot-like murder mystery (who killed Marcel in the bedroom with the knife?), and works its way across endless scandals and revelations to finally conclude with a nice twist ending (also textbook Christie) that’s surprisingly dark.

Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) is home for the holidays to visit her parents, Marcel (Dominique Lemure, in the Kevin Costner ‘Big Chill’ role) and Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), her grandmamy (Danielle Darrieux), her younger sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and her spinster Aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert). In their employ are the beloved cook Chanel (Firmine Richard) and the new maid, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart). After the family exchanges early pleasantries, and Suzon performs a quick ‘Grease’-like ditty about how clueless her fuddy-duddy Papa can be, Louise is dispatched to awaken M. Marcel and deliver his breakfast tray. After the requisite blood-curdling scream, the women discover that Marcel’s been murdered, the phone lines have been cut, the car won’t start, and the front gate has been blocked. Quel horreur! Arriving soon afterward, having received a mysterious phone call, is Marcel’s black-sheep sister Pierrete (Fanny Ardant), and we have our full complement of suspects.

Of course, each has a reason to see him dead; each has a grave secret, or chequered past, that they cannot, but yet must, reveal; each confides in, and then condemns, each of the others; and each gets a silly non-sequiter musical episode that illustrates their general character while completely stopping the actual plot in its tracks. Mon dieu, someone’s pregnant! Zut alors, someone’s having an affair! Incroyable, there are lesbians in this house! Ozon smartly keeps the proceedings irony-and-wink-free; each of these thespian amazons fully commit to the hothouse intrigues, whispered conspiracies and free-flowing estrogen mania. They play it all straight, trusting M. Ozon to wrap things up in a pleasantly vinyl package. Mlle. Ledoyen is criminally charming, and Mme. Huppert shamelessly chews the scenery as the Gatling-gun-neurotic eccentric-but-sympathetic aunt. Fanny Ardant oozes woman-of-the-world slinkiness, and the legendary Mme. Darrieux displays impressive gravity, wiggy-ness and humor as Gaby’s maman. Mlles. Beart and Sagnier don’t get a lot to do early on, but rise to the occasion in timely fashion. And Mme. Richard acquits herself well with perhaps the best song of a disappointingly generic bunch.

It’s refreshing that, in the face of lame celeb-fests like whatever Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson are phoning in these days, these French icons are literally eating scripts like this alive. They know exactly how silly this stuff can be – they use that as an excuse to work all the harder, rather than take their fans for granted and cash the check. Where else can you see Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant making out on the living room floor? On screen or at home, this movie is highly recommended viewing for a lightweight and deeply goofy refresher course on Pros At Work.

 

 

 

The Luis Buñuel Project – That Obscure Object Of Desire

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Carole Bouquet and Fernando Rey in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit: tasteofcinema.com

Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet Obscur Objet Du Désir) (France / Spain, 1977), is an adaptation of the 1898 novel La Femme Et Le Pantin (The Woman And The Puppet) by Pierre Louÿs, which served as an effective vehicle for both Marlene Dietrich (Von Sternberg’s The Devil Is A Woman) and Brigitte Bardot (Julien Duvivier’s The Female). Once again he collaborated with Jean-Claude Carrière on the screenplay, and the basic narrative of the book is left intact. But Buñuel and Carrière nonetheless put their own irreverently surreal cast on material that had already taken some politically incorrect liberties, even in 1898.

Buñuel regular Fernando Rey is Mathieu, a wealthy, well-groomed man-about-town who becomes obsessed with a poor but pretty Spanish working girl named Conchita. He relates the story of the relationship (in flashbacks) to the other passengers of his train coach, who have just watched him dump a bucket of water on the pursuing Conchita’s head before embarking. Mathieu, who regards himself as a devoted and generous find for any woman whom he might take a fancy to, has treated Conchita to enormous amounts of attention and indulgence. Conchita, nonetheless, torments him with varying and escalating degrees of tease and denial, imploring him to not see her as a possession but as another person with her own full life and desires. By the time Mathieu boards this train, he’s seemingly done with her.

Conchita first appears as a chambermaid in Mathieu’s household, inexperienced but earnest. That evening, Mathieu wastes no time in conveying his affections towards his strikingly lovely new employee. She demurs and they part, minutes later, on seemingly flirty good terms, but Mathieu discovers the next day that Conchita has quit. Months later, while languishing in Switzerland, he encounters her again; she’s touring with some musician friends (as a dancer) and they’ve just been stiffed by their agent. He helps them out with some cash (after being oddly pranked by them), and learns where Conchita lives in Paris. He visits often, ingratiating himself with Conchita’s mother and offering them favor upon kind favor. He eventually asks Conchita’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage, and offers her a large financial incentive. But Conchita again refuses, feeling that Mathieu is buying off Mom instead of earning her own affections patiently and honestly, and disappears. A few months later, Mathieu and his magistrate brother Edouard (Julien Bertheau) are having lunch at a posh restaurant and discover that Conchita is the recently-hired coat-check girl. Once again reunited, Conchita agrees to live with Mathieu at his country estate.

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Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit: dvdactive.com

Here, at roughly the halfway point of the film, is a good spot to assess the larger context. Mathieu‘s Paris, and greater Europe for that matter, is plagued by terrorists blowing up cars, shops and restaurants, shooting dignitaries down in the streets and bombing planes. The insurgents are a vague mish-mash of lone wolves, anarchists, religious extremists and other various small groups, all with fearsome acronyms like the P.O.P., the G.R.I.F. and the O.U.T., and all allegedly in the service of the R.A.O.I.J., the Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. Mathieu wields enough privilege and wealth to avoid most of this, but it’s an insistent background. Conchita is a fascinating character made even more complex by the famous stroke of Buñuel and Carrière’s of casting two separate actresses in the one role. Carole Bouquet – French, tall, willowy and wry, making her feature debut, seems more elegant, and somewhat regretful at denying Mathieu his way with her. Ángela Molina, an earthy and cheery Spanish actress with a bit more experience, is more extroverted and engaging, but also more directly defiant. Neither performer is used for particular consistent purposes, though – Buñuel and Carrière alternate them almost at random, a few times within the very same scene. Mathieu’s having to contend with two Conchitas adds extra complexity, and extra boundaries to negotiate. But Buñuel the surrealist is far more interested in letting created associations reverberate than in setting up specific symbols or allegorical contexts. The film is full of visual non-sequiturs: mouse traps, pet baby pigs, a fly in a cocktail. A seamstress repairs an embroidery tear on a blood-streaked piece of fabric, and there are recurring guest appearances by a burlap bag – sackcloth, perhaps?

Mathieu’s country estate is quite nice, but terrorists have disabled the nearby power station. The candlelit evening would seem to be conducive to mutual romance, and Mathieu is delighted that he can finally be intimate and alone with Conchita. But Conchita is adamant about protecting her chastity; he can be as intimate as he likes, but she won’t surrender that. (“Just wait a little while longer. You know I’m yours and yours alone. What more do you want?”) Days go by, they spend lovely recreational days together in Paris, but she still insists on remaining chaste. One night after being turned down again, Mathieu discovers that Conchita’s musician friend has been sleeping over with her in the other room after being tossed out of his hotel. (“But don’t worry, we slept back to back – exactly as I do with you!”). Mathieu throws her out, but he’s irretrievably smitten. He has Edouard use his connections to get Conchita and her mother deported back to Seville, but he then pursues them there anyway. He becomes more obsessive, more pos-sessive, and she continues to profess her love while making him jump through more increasingly demeaning hoops. “I belong to no one, and I am my most precious possession.”

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Ángela Molina in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit: pinterest.com

Mathieu is the protagonist here, and in seeing the relationship through his eyes  we’re naturally sympathetic to his frustrations concerning Conchita. But Buñuel, throughout the film, is just as much on Conchita’s side, and is clearly admiring of her self-protective tendencies; there’s no evidence that Mathieu wouldn’t toss her over if given his full indulgences. It’s why she won’t ask him for money; as long as he sees it as a means to his end, he’ll always give it to her anyway. He’ll pay her and Mom’s rent, she can have a room on his country estate, he’ll buy her a small villa in Seville. She meets his frustrations with cruelty, and vice-versa; at one point he strikes her, repeatedly, and, face bloodied, she responds with “Now I know you love me.” Conchita’s reaction may distress us these days (it distressed some back then), but it’s true to Louÿs’ book – after this episode, it’s definitely her pursuing him now – but Buñuel uses this moment to obscure things further; is this another manipulative tactic, or is she truly relenting? Has he done enough for her by now to earn her acquiescence? The privileged Mathieu never changes throughout the entire story, but Conchita has no choice but to strive,  adapt, and oftentimes submit, in order to keep a roof over her head, food in her mouth, and love in her modest life. By the time we end up back on that train, though, near the end, it’s pretty clear what each of them know they need, and how pointlessly, even maliciously, they’re willing to treat each other in order not to just admit that to each other. The terrorists are the least of our problems, some might say – just look what we do to each other. And Luis Buñuel has a good laugh at our expense, again…

The Giallo Project – Assorted 1970-71

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Eleonora Rossi Drago in “In The Folds Of The Flesh.” credit: filmforum-bremen.de

1970, and the transition to the Golden Age Of Giallos begins. Let’s get right to it with Sergio Bergonzelli, assisted by co-writer and future giallo director Mario Caiano, combining some Hitchcock-inspired Freudian hijinks with a little Jess Franco-inspired fever-dream sex-and-violence. Our first film actually opened just a month or two before Dario Argento’s watershed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, preceding Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon and his Hatchet For The Honeymoon. Bergonzelli went on to do more straightforward sex thrillers after this – the man can bring the sleaze – but his one-off giallo is weirdly admirable, and championed by many film geeks. Or, as one wag on IMDB stated “…to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of unrepentantly sleazy, morally degenerate, sacrilegious trash to anyone, but it’s always worked for me.”

In The Folds Of The Flesh (Nelle Pieghe Della Carne) (Italy / Spain, 1970) opens abruptly on the shot of a decapitated head – … OK, then… – on a bedroom floor, and an observing family; presumably, the mother, Lucille (Eleonora Rossi Drago), her young daughter and younger son. Suddenly we switch to the road pursuit of a prison escapee on a motorcycle (Fernando Sancho). Veering into the family’s estate, on a large lake, to hide, he witnesses Lucille burying the body of the bedroom victim. The fugitive is eventually run down by his pursuers, but we’ll see later that he never forgets seeing her.

Thirteen years later we meet Uncle Michel (Víctor Alcázar) dropping in for a visit with his cousins. An old friend of their late father André, he now finds the children are grown – Falesse (Pier Angeli, as Anna Maria Pierangeli, her real name) the now-gorgeous grown daughter and Colin (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) the arty younger son – and makes himself a little too familiar. Unbeknownst to him, the family’s comfortably adept at murdering unwelcome snoopers when required. Falesse dispatches him with disturbing lethal ease, and Lucille and Colin find a letter meant to be sent to Michel’s business-partner Derek. They decide to forward Michel’s invitation – if Derek already knows Michel should be here, then let’s have him along, too, and tie up all the loose ends.

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Pier Angeli and Emilio Gutiérrez Caba in “In The Folds Of The Flesh.”  credit: filmforum -bremen.de

But before Derek’s arrival, and before Michel’s finished dissolving in Lucille and Colin’s acid-bath, Alex (Gaetano Imbró )shows up to meet Michel. (Sheesh, homes in the country aren’t nearly as secluded as they once were.) Falesse once again alluringly entertains the guest, but this time the psychedelically-inclined Colin chips in with some of his tape-recorded erotic writings while interpretively ‘dancing’ with his sister. Falesse’s odd manner, and some pretty obvious indications of incest between Falesse and Colin, doesn’t dissuade Alex from having his way with the accommodating Falesse later, and his head predictably rolls as well. But now we’re getting the picture that Dad’s own demise years ago was Falesse’s defense against abuse, both Lucille’s and her own, and her continued acting out of that episode is clearly being put to use for the three of them. The plot thickens…

…and that escaping criminal, Pascal? Heee’s baaack. Having done his homework on exactly whose estate he was pinched in all those years back, he knows all about Papa André and the elaborate criminal blackmailing syndicate he ran (and now we do, too). So the widow must clearly be loaded, right? The film now transitions from an exceedingly lurid serial-murders thriller to an exceedingly lurid sadistic hostage drama. Pascal meets a fitting end, but not without some exceedingly lurid back-history. Excessive sex and violence is one thing, but, unless your last name is Visconti, there are diminishing returns on using concentration camps as an ancillary plot device. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s in noteworthy bad taste. Gauge your own tolerance accordingly.

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Pier Angeli in “In The Folds Of The Flesh.” credit: houseofselfindulgence.blogspot.com

Meanwhile, we return to the exceedingly lurid serial-murders thriller already in progress. The father, André, was presumed lost in the lake those years ago – Lucille set the boat alaunch before burying the body, and the boat was found later pilotless. So André is presumed dead, since Lucille’s efforts paid off so well. But, finally Derek arrives, who, honest to God, claims he’s … André! With a surgically-altered face (belonging to Alfredo Mayo), he’s convincingly well-informed about practically every aspect of their lives. Didn’t Lucille bury him? After Falesse murdered him? Well… no, it seems. Lucille is the governess, and Falesse isn’t Colin’s sister! Michel and Alex were André’s men, sent ahead to assess the situation for him. Ooops!

One of the more renowned aspects of In The Folds Of The Flesh is the astonishing number of plot twists, role reversals and characters-appearing-from-nowhere occurring in the final 30 minutes. The above instances only scratch the surface. On first viewing they seem like nonsense, and, of course, they are. But they all make their own sense, and they all follow a tortured but ultimately logical linear path. *Whew!* Ya gotta see it to believe it.

The violence and gore, while narratively convincing, are unfortunately pretty low-budget threadbare, which is a shame, because in many other aspects this is a pretty entertaining movie in pleasingly tawdry fashion. The unconvincing effects tend to pull you out of the otherwise wildly goofy plot. This was the final film for Eleonora Rossi Drago– she retired after Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray (yes, we’ll check it out here!) and this. Pier Angeli, God bless ‘er, after a second divorce and an appearance in the execrable 1971 Octaman, died of a self-administered barbiturate overdose, reportedly terrified of turning forty. She’d had quite a career in the 1950’s, and was James Dean’s devoted girlfriend for a time.

So here’s another interesting guy – Paolo Cavara is probably best known for being one of the three  documentarians of Mondo Cane (1962), an artless but pruriently salacious collection of violence-as-culture vignettes featuring bullfighting, dogs prepared as food in Taiwan, manhunting, pet cemeteries, cargo-cult rituals and other “can you believe that…!” human atrocities of varying degrees. Made on a relatively modest budget, the film was very popular and profitable. Cavara made a few more of his own ‘mondo’ style films, but he broke off from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi as partners. It’s all relative, of course, but Cavara’s docs, reportedly, weren’t nearly as maliciously lurid as Jacopetti and Prosperi’s later efforts. Indeed, Cavara’s debut fiction feature, L’occhio Selvaggio (The Savage Eye) (1967) was a dark and dismal send-up of his former associates, and the expedient cruelty and dismissiveness into which the whole ‘mondo’ genre of filmmaking had devolved.

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Giancarlo Giannini in “The Black Belly Of The Tarantula.” credit: 101horrormovies.com

His Black Belly Of The Tarantula (La Tarantola Dal Ventre Nero) (1971) wastes no time in paying scrupulous homage to both Mario Bava and Dario Argento. There’s a fairly conventional crime plot to move across here, but Cavara’s hip to the Argento formula of emphasizing the sex, violence, stylish visuals and Ennio Morricone musical score to exponentially increase the entertainment value of his film. He also managed to assemble an Italian Dream Cast of exploitation and arthouse pros – Giancarlo Giannini, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudine Auger, Silvano Tranquilli, Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach, along with a terrific supporting cast displaying the requisite eccentricities of the genre.

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“The Black Belly Of The Tarantula.” credit: itsonlymovies.wordpress.com

Combining lurid murders with Actual Scienceä™, another Argento touch, we learn that our trench-coated, fedora-wearing, black-gloved homicidal maniac is emulating the tarantula hawk wasp, who paralyzes tarantulas with its stinger and then keeps them alive for further nastiness (the wasp incubates eggs in the tarantula’s stomach, the killer just likes that his female victims are awake and aware of being disemboweled). Our perp here employs acupuncture needles to facilitate his dispatch, and, of course, leaves no trace for the polizia to track down. But there’s no sense in casting Giancarlo Giannini as the intrepid Inspector Tellini if he’s not going to show a sensitive side; he’s endearingly tolerant of his window-dresser wife Anna (Sandrelli), and quite observant about where the list of victims leads, despite the clumsy blundering of his colleagues and his misgivings about being a cop in the first place. The killer turns out to be an enforcer of sorts for a blackmailing ring conducted by the owner/manager of an exclusive spa, but the killer’s actual identity is a nice twist, even if there’s an unnecessary psycho-splanation after the fact. Hard-edged film stocks and inventive angles merge with gauzy-green-and-purple-lit backgrounds and interiors full of looming mannequins – all pretty well done, all pretty effective, even if completely bereft of actual originality. For appearing so soon before the deluge of other giallos to follow, and executing its business in admirable fashion, I’d have to say this one is recommended viewing.

We encountered Romolo Guerrieri as the director of Carroll Baker’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah) in 1968; here he once again employs Jean Sorel as yet another morally conflicted pretty boy in The Double (La Controfigura) (Italy, 1971). Guerrero hasn’t acquired any more directorial proficiency in those three years, and this decided non-giallo isn’t nearly as interesting as Sorel’s earlier work in Damiano Damiani’s Moravia adaptation A Rather Complicated Girl, or even the aforementioned Carroll Baker film.  Sorel is Giovanni, an aspiring architect in love with Lucia (Ewa Aulin).  But his midlife insecurities result in his forcing himself onto Lucia’s attractive mother, Nora (Lucia Bosé). He then covers up a murder he thinks she’s committed, but no… It’s pretty convoluted, and far more soap opera than actual giallo. Disappointing.

Also underwhelming is The Weekend Murders (Concerto Per Pistola Solista), an Agatha Christie homage set in provincial England featuring opera diva Anna Moffo (who holds her own in a non-singing dramatic role) and giallo veteran Evelyn Stewart. It’s yet another variation on Ten Little Indians, but Italian director Michele Lupo is fond of incorporating Sergio Leone-like close-ups and dramatic zooms, all to surprisingly little effect. There’s a nice thread of sly parody just below the surface, but it’s not nearly enough to make this genuinely interesting.

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George Hilton in “My Dear Killer.” credit: deadshed.blogspot.com

Tonino Valerii is best known for directing Italian spaghetti westerns, but his one foray into giallo, My Dear Killer (Mio Caro Assassino) (Italy, 1971), is very good, if a bit prosaic. Vincenzo Paradisi has rented the services of an industrial excavator to dredge something up in a rural lagoon. Unfortunately, the operator extracts Mr. Paradisi’s head from his body instead. A former insurance investigator, Paradisi was following clues concerning a nasty case of his from a year back, a child kidnapping that led to two murders. Now Inspector Luca Peretti (reliable pro George Hilton) must pick up where Paradisi left off, only to discover that his witnesses are murdered as soon as he finds them. Valerii knows how to keep the nuts and bolts of his fairly elaborate narrative in good order, he’s aided by a superb Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and there’s a well-executed killer’s-eye-view sequence where it feels like you’re the one searching for a lethal weapon in an apartment. (Of course, you find one.) There’s a nice undercurrent of dark deep familial weirdness and transgression, all culminating in a Thin Man – style group interrogation. Good, not great, but worth checking out if you run across it.

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“My Dear Killer.” credit: horror-extreme.com

While flailing away at the actual giallo formula, a number of these Italian films simply escalated the standard murder mystery elements – both the murders and the sex became more explicit (but no more interesting or inventive). Of the films we’ve seen, Sergio Martino’s seem to be the best at that particular giallo combination of sexual frisson, slow-building suspense, surprising and creative coups de grâce and elaborate visual stylization, all accompanied by excellent music from Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Stelvio Cipriani or Bruno Nicolai. Our next film would be the antithesis of that.

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“Slaughter Hotel.” credit: atthemansionofmadness.blogspot.com

Best known as Slaughter Hotel, but also marketed as Cold Blooded Beast or The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (La Bestia Uccide A Sangue Freddo, its original Italian title), as well as Asylum Erotica and, my favorite, Les Insatisfaites Poupées Èrotiques Du Docteur Hitchcock, it’s a total failure as a giallo but train-wreck-fascinating as pruriently lurid and sleazy softcore Eurotrash. Prolific journeyman writer and director Fernando Di Leo mainly did poliziotteschis (police/crime thrillers) – this is his only giallo, and it’s a mess.

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Piero Nistri, Margaret Lee and Klaus Kinski in “Slaughter Hotel.” credit: atthemansionofmadness.blogspot.com

A medieval castle has been converted into a posh rural asylum ‘rest home’ for troubled wealthy women, including a stressed-out CEO (Margaret Lee), an insecure actress (Gioia Desideri), a relentless nymphomaniac (Rosalba Neri) and an agoraphobic (Jane Garret). But it never occurred to the doctor / proprietors (John Karlsen and Klaus Kinski) to remove the torture devices and weapons when turning the place into a spa and clinic. So when a stocking-hooded caped serial killer starts going after the patients at night he simply window-shops the common areas and corridors for swords, knives, hatchets, axes, maces or whatever else his homicidal self might fancy. After the initial set-up is established, we follow Dr. Francis Clay (Kinski), who has taken a liking to Cheryl, the CEO, and wants to keep her around even though she’s probably cured. The agoraphobic, Mara, befriends one of the young nurses, Helen (Monica Strebel), and familiarities ensue. And the staff has no chance of keeping up with Anne’s (Neri) appetites, whether with the gardener, the orderlies or alone in her room.

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Jane Garret and Monica Strebel in “Slaughter Hotel.” credit: grindhousedatabase.com

The murder mystery just becomes filler for Neri’s nude hijinks and Garret and Strebel’s extended bath, dancing and make-out sessions. The murders aren’t particularly convincing until near the end, when the killer, revealed, goes on an almost comically excessive rampage, only to be mowed down by an equally excessive amount of police bullets. Even as just a softcore sex film, giallo trouper and veteran scene-stealer Rosalba Neri is the only one acting remotely interested – Garret and Strebel not-so-much. Even with some cheesy body-double Penthouse-type insert shots, things get pretty disheartening pretty quickly. If you’re a trash-cinema aficionado, knock yourself out. But this is by no means an actual good film.

Movies – 3 (Drei) (Germany, 2010)

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Sophie Rois and Sebastian Schipper in “3.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

For such a contrived set-up, I have to admit that Tom Tykver’s 3 (Drei) (Germany, 2010) works admirably well as a thoughtful and intelligent look at fidelity, mutual need, and the ethics and emotions that lead people to more open arrangements. The basic plot outline involves Simon and Hanna, a longtime couple in their forties who never felt the need to marry, or have children. They’re content, and genuinely love each other, but each enters circumstances that cause them to move, together, past their present situation.

For Hanna (Sophie Rois), it’s just flat-out falling in love with Adam (Devid Striesow), a genetic researcher. Hanna’s occupation is hybridized (or, perhaps, just murky and badly explained); she’s a journalist for a very intellectual cultural TV discussion program, but she also seems to serve on a medical ethics panel, and obviously has an extensive medical research background. She meets Adam at a medical ethics panel briefing, and soon afterwards runs into him at a theater performance. A few days later, she’s filming a report on an outdoor installation performance artist when she happens across Adam once again, at an adjacent soccer field. The third meeting is just too fateful – she hangs at the soccer game, joins his friends to watch a pro match that night, and, after some initial awkwardness, acquiesces to their obvious mutual attraction.

Simon’s (Sebastian Schipper) life concerns a series of present turmoils; his mother (Angela Winkler), diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, attempts to take her own life, but only succeeds at turning herself nonresponsive, but still alive. Tending to her until her passing, Simon is informed that he himself has early-detected testicular cancer. And the day (and night) an offending testicle is surgically removed is the day (and night) he can’t get Hanna on the phone to tell her because she’s having her soccer day (and night) with Adam. She eventually joins him the following day, and there’s no question that she’ll love and support him through this, but where she might have been that night is never spoken of.

Weeks later, healed from the surgery and treatments, Simon works out to build himself back up from the hospital stay. Swimming at a local gym and natatorium, he meets Adam, who is curious about his surgery, and they glide into a physical intimacy that’s uncharacteristic of, but welcome to, Simon, who has a whole new perspective on his life and the kinds of emotional support he has or hasn’t felt, or has or hasn’t needed, up until now.

Simon and Hanna have no idea that they’re each having an affair with the same person. But Adam is a very quiet, likeable guy, and seems to be completely guileless, and a great match, with each of them.

How the rest of the movie develops (what I’ve described here is a little less than half), I won’t reveal, but Tykwer settles into a more linear storytelling style than at the start, where he employs overlying patchworks of split-screens, and more abrupt edits between episodes, to emulate the pace of their (inadvertently) overlapping lives. Tywker doesn’t follow all three of them throughout – it’s basically a two-person movie for the most part, with Adam consistently insinuating himself into those two threads. If there are issues here, I’d name two: Tywker works a little too hard to make Adam all-appealing to all-people – he’s a genetic researcher, he’s a swimmer, he’s into martial arts, he’s into soccer, he’s a sailor, he’s into drinkin’ with the boys, he sings in a modern-music choir…some aspects of Adam are just too cumulatively good to be true. And Tywker works a little too hard, as well, on telling us over and over that this is a Modern Story, Happening Right This Minute. Berlin is a very modern city by itself – he doesn’t need to surround every event within the most modern architecture, the most modern interiors, the most modern performances, the most modern art openings, the most modern dance or music concerts – it’s modern, Tom, we get it – we’re not going to mistake anyone for Miriam Hopkins or Frederic March, or, for that matter, Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice; please stop fussing and trust your very good writing.

If it’s at all possible, try to carve out some time for this appealing and agreeable drama; Tom Tywker’s film is smart and articulate, well-acted and uniquely presented. It doesn’t have to avoid clichés or mawkishness – it’s too busy with authentic passions and complexities to even bother working any of that in. Admirable.

Movies – 3 Iron (South Korea, 2004)

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Lee Seung-yeon and Hee Jae in “3 Iron.” credit: flickminute.com.

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

Kim Ki-Duk’s 3 Iron (Bin-jip, which I believe translates as ‘Empty Houses,’ but ‘3 Iron’ is equally appropriate for reasons I won’t spoil) (South Korea, 2004) is a very quiet but involving film that starts out as a light realist drama, progressing into a delicate love story, and concluding as a magical-realist fable. A young man (Hee Jae, who has done other films as Lee Hyun-kyoon) hangs restaurant menu flyers on people’s doors in a large Korean city. Flyers that are undisturbed for a few days let him know that the homes are empty for a short while, and enable him to use these homes as crash-pads. He sleeps, eats, showers, and invariably does something nice for the absent occupants – hand-washes their laundry, waters their plants, fixes broken bathroom scales or wall clocks. Watching a businessman leave his home one morning, he assumes the place is deserted for the day. But unbeknownst to him, the man’s wife is still there (Lee Seung-yeon), and she surreptitiously watches him go through his careful, tidy routine. When she finally allows herself to be discovered, he learns that her marriage to the man is miserably abusive. The husband comes home early to check on her, but the young man thwarts his attempts to start in on her again, and they flee together. She now accompanies the young man on his daily routine of hanging flyers and living in other people’s homes.

The young man will probably strike audiences as a little creepy at first, but Kim makes it clear very quickly that the young man is delicate and respectful. And the variety of the homes that the new, remarkably silent, couple visit becomes a little treatise on middle-class life in the Korean city: a married couple who keeps a small studio-garden with a beautiful and fragile tea service in their small living room; a photographer’s studio where, it turns out, the woman has posed for pictures herself; a boxer’s bachelor pad; an apartment belonging to a family’s grandfather. Eventually they are caught by the police; the woman must return to her husband, and the young man is incarcerated. But this episode, rather than being the end of things, propels the story into a far more abstracted, dreamlike and hopeful new beginning.

Kim makes gorgeous movies; he’s ably assisted here by cinematographer Jang Seong-back, but it’s clearly Kim’s vision. The only other film of his I’ve seen is ‘Breath (Soom),’ another modest but lovely effort with an intriguingly original story and a bold visual narrative. He’s apparently made a few films that run closer to the ‘new’ Korean genre traditions of dark psychology and explicit violence, but he’s best known for hypnotic, evocative and minimal gems like this.

 

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 9

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 7. Part 8.

 

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Romy Louise Lauwers and Aaron Roggeman in “My First Highway.” credit: Fobic Films

Kevin Meul’s feature film debut, My First Highway (Belgium, 2016) tells a seemingly typical coming-of-age story with some real tension and teeth. 16-year-old Benjamin (the impressively malleable Aaron Roggeman) is on a trailer-park beach holiday in sunny Spain with his family when he meets Annabel (Romy Louise Lauwers), the teen daughter of the owners of the local convenience store. The usual testing-the-waters flirtations ensue, but then things suddenly escalate, and we find ourselves in some pretty dark and thick film noir intrigue. On the surface, she’s quite manipulative, and he can be quite gullible, but Meul takes each of them to vaguer, and meaner, places. His script is surprisingly dialogue-free – he and cinematographer Menno Mans are quite good at using the visual narrative to express behavior, feeling and overall moods – showing us, rather than telling us, the story. There’s a shortcut here, a missed opportunity there and some dubious soundtrack choices, but overall this debut film leaves a strong impression. I liked it a lot.

“My First Highway” will be shown on Saturday, March 25th at 2:00 pm and Tuesday the 28th at 6:00 pm.

 

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Ksenija Marinković in “On The Other Side.” credit: interfilm.hr

Croatian star of stage, TV and film, the prolific character actress Ksenija Marinković has been featured in two films here at CEUFF. The first was the 2016 comedy All The Best (Sve Najbolje), a generally amusing but indifferently structured bit of Christmas fluff (that she was very good in). Her talents are put to far better use in the solemn but intriguing On The Other Side (S One Strane) (Croatia, 2016). Here Marinković portrays Vesna, a hard-working nurse-caregiver who receives a bolt from the blue one day; a phone call from her husband, Zarko (Lazar Ristovski). Zarko has been imprisoned for twenty years in The Hague for committing war crimes on the Serbian side of the Balkan civil wars, but is soon to be released. He’s eager to reconcile with the family, but that turns out to be a pretty tall order; they’d been shamed and devastated by his actions, and the now-adult children want nothing to do with him. Vesna is resistant as well at first, but a series of late-night phone conversations with him chip away at her empathy, and she considers a reunion. But the news of his release travels fast, and other agendas, both right-minded and sinister, start to emerge.

Veteran director Zrinko Ogresta, with co-writer Mate Matišić, tells an efficient story, only explaining snippets of the history while giving full expression to the emotional stakes for all involved. There’s a real contrast, scripted and visual, between Vesna’s work-driven days and the nights at home weighing her feelings and shared history with Zarko. It’s a well-measured, involving drama with a twisty and serious conclusion, quite well done, and highly recommended.

“On The Other Side” screens on Saturday, March 25th at 6:00 pm and Monday the 27th at 6:15 pm.