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November 23, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol – Beyond Criticism

A few years ago I made a poorly-thought-out attempt to pay tribute to Chabrol here in this blog, by (what was I thinking?) focusing on his worst film.  OK, so that didn’t work.  But I’m coming back to Chabrol, this week and for the next few as well, to try to give the man his due.  Tomorrow night, TCM is screening Chabrol’s first two features—and while both are terrific, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.

As far as I’m concerned, Claude Chabrol launched the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge—and then he went and ran off in a different direction away from the very movement he helped found.  For aficionados of the New Wave, here is a seminal work—for aficionados of Chabrol’s own unique brand of cinema, here is a frustratingly unfamiliar work.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
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The 2013 New York Film Festival

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In its 51st edition the venerable New York Film Festival is testing its boundaries. While still a small, tightly curated affair compared to the industry bacchanals of Toronto and Cannes, they’ve been slowly increasing their scope. There are 36 official selection entries this year, thirteen more than 2011, and have expanded the Revivals and Views of the Avant Garde sections to the point where they could stand on their own. A mammoth Jean-Luc Godard retrospective is also running concurrently with the festival. The official selection was heavy on the Brits this year (with four, although I didn’t see any), and otherwise tried for their usual balance of star power (Captain Phillips) and experimentation (Norte, the End of History, all of Views).

The Centerpiece screening was the world premiere of Ben Stiller’s The Secret World of Walter Mitty, the second adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, following the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle. Stiller’s directorial outings, from The Cable Guy (1996) to Tropic Thunder (2008), have been dark and masochistic comedies about pop culture’s corrosive power. Mitty, on the other hand, is a nostalgia piece, mourning the transition from analog to digital. Having little relation to Thurber’s moody miniature, Stiller’s Mitty takes the daydreaming office drone and shunts him into a world-hopping, mountain climbing  journey of self-discovery, kind of a middle-aged male’s Eat Pray Love. Where Thurber’s story ends with Mitty fantasizing about his own demise, Stiller’s closes with all of his dreams coming true.

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Someone is Bleeding: Les seins de glace (1974)

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Before Richard Matheson etched out a name for himself as a popular writer of horror and science fiction he dabbled in crime fiction and mysteries. His very first novel was a pulpy noir titled Someone is Bleeding (aka The Frigid Flame or The Untouchable Divorcee) and it features many of the genre’s typical tropes. But Matheson was anything but a typical writer and this psychosexual thriller contains some surprising twists and turns including an ending that would have been right at home in an Edgar Allen Poe story or an EC Comic book from the ‘50s. In fact, after enjoying all the brash and snappy dialogue exchanges in Matheson’s 1953 literary debut you half expect the Crypt Keeper to appear at the end with some kind of funny anecdote to lessen the horror of the book’s final chapter but there’s no simple escape from this grim story. Like many of Matheson’s best tales, Someone is Bleeding leaves readers with an unshakable sense of dread and despair. In Matheson’s imperfect world everyone and everything is suspect. No one is safe and nothing is sacred.

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Francois Truffaut – Friend, Teacher & Film Critic

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Throughout the month of July TCM is spotlighting the films of François Truffaut. Every Friday night viewers can tune in at 5PM PST or 8PM EST and expect to see a well-rounded selection of the French director’s films hosted by film critic David Edelstein.

I never met François Truffaut but I’ve long felt a sort of kinship with the man and his movies. 25 years ago I wept through my first screening of THE 400 BLOWS (aka Les quatre cents coups) and a few years later I was introduced to Truffaut’s film criticism when I stumbled across a beat-up & battered copy of The Films in My Life at a used bookshop. I eventually learned more about the director who helped usher in a New Wave of French cinema and today Truffaut and his films feel like old familiar friends that I’ve grown-up with and appreciate more with each passing year. But writing about them can be difficult because many of Truffaut’s films are tied to difficult and often painful experiences in my own life.

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Better Than Nothing: The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka

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The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”

He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease.  The scrupulous Masters of Cinema label (the Criterion Collection of the UK) has released his surviving works in an essential two-DVD set (make sure you have an all-region player): Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

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Derelict Dancers: Gerard Depardieu vs. Roman Polanski

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I’m fond of mysteries that evolve through conversation and unravel in small spaces such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and Robert Hosseins DOUBLE AGENTS (1959). The claustrophobia they evoke seems directly linked to our primal fears and primitive suspicions. One of the most interesting films in this vein is Giuseppe Tornatore’s A PURE FORMALITY aka Una Pura Formalita (1994). I recently revisited this opaque thriller after almost 20 years and was surprised by how effective it still was. Even though I was well aware of the surprise twist ending I was mesmerized from start to finish thanks to Tornatore’s deft directing choices, Pascal Quignard’s brilliant dialogue and the masterful performances etched out by two powerhouses of European cinema; Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.

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In Memoriam: Jesús “Jess” Franco (1930-2013)

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If you tuned into TCM Underground on March 15th you may have had the pleasure of seeing Jesús “Jess” Franco’s eerie and atmospheric horror film THE AWFUL DOCTOR ORLOF (1964). When the movie aired I noticed a surprising number of classic film fans discussing the movie on social media sites such as Twitter and I was thrilled that one of my favorite directors was gaining new fans thanks to TCM Underground’s eclectic programming choices. I had no idea that I’d soon be mourning the man who had given me so many moving images to contemplate and enjoy. Jess Franco passed away on April 2 following complications from a stroke. He was 82 years old and still making movies.

Instead of writing another obituary I decided to approach fellow Franco fans and many of his most stalwart supporters who have often championed his work against a tide of indifference. I asked them to simply share their favorite Franco films with Movie Morlock readers in an attempt to introduce you, as well as TCM viewers, to more of the director’s films but what I received was some of the most impassioned and insightful Franco commentaries that I’ve ever come across. I hope you’ll enjoy the results. This is more than just a simple roundtable or survey. This is a lengthy love letter to one of Spain’s most prolific directors and a celebration of everything that made his movies so special.

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Double Trouble: TABU ’31/’12

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F.W. Murnau was a German director with some 20 titles to to his credit who moved to the U.S. in 1926 and is known to most cinephiles for Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), and – maybe, just maybe – the last film he directed before his life was tragically cut short at the age of 42 by an automobile accident, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Miguel Gomes is the young Portuguese filmmaker (born 1972) that – maybe, just maybe – is known for The Face You Deserve (2004), Our Beloved Month of August (2008), The Portuguese Nun (2009), but now is definitely known to discerning cinephiles for Tabu (2012). Or he should be, at least,  as his latest film made the “Best of 2012″ list in Film Comment and also won top awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. As a fan of the aforementioned films by Murnau I was curious: how would Gomes’ film play off of Murnau’s Tabu? Would it be shtick, or would it be true to the legacy left to us by one of cinemas greatest pioneers? The short answer is that Gomes is doing his own thing, but the new Tabu is real to the reels of older film and acts, in part, as a swan song to that wonderful treasure-trove of images that unspooled frame-by-frame in front of innumerable audiences throughout the last century. [...MORE]

Happy Returns: Recent Box Office Hits in China and Korea

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While the first quarter of the year has generally been a quiet time for Hollywood’s coffers, the rest of the world has been packing them in to their local multiplexes. Two of the bigger recent international successes are receiving limited U.S. releases, China’s Lost in Thailand (2012) and Korea’s The Berlin File (2013). Lost in Thailand has already become the highest grossing film in China’s history after only two months in release. An amiable odd couple road movie made for a reported $4.8 million, it has made an astounding $215 million domestically, and snuck into a NYC theater in time for the Chinese New Year. The Berlin File was more groomed for success, with a relatively large $10 million funding four big stars in an international spy thriller, with the talented director Ryoo Seung-wan (The Unjust) at the helm. It had the third highest opening weekend on record in Korea (from 2/1 – 2/3), and arrives stateside in a limited release this Friday.

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Aleksandr Sokurov’s Ghost Stories

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Aleksandr Sokurov’s Soviet Elegy (1989) begins with a tour of tombstones, the camera floating down rows of Communist phantoms. In the next sequence, Boris Yeltsin is shown stalking down a hallway, another kind of ghost, one aware of his coming obsolescence. Sokurov’s work is a series of elegies, in which ghosts of history mourn for themselves. Cinema Guild has illustrated this development in their three-disc box set of Sokurov: Early Masterworks. It contains the three features Save and Protect (1990, DVD), Stone (1992, DVD) and Whispering Pages (1994, Blu-Ray), plus three of his shorts, including Soviet Elegy. Each displays his increasingly idiosyncratic visual sense, in which he uses distorting lenses to produce stretched figures akin to El Greco saints, yearning for a God who doesn’t respond. Sokurov is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, the previous Russian spiritual guide/director. But while Tarkovsky often offers the possibility of transcendence, there is no such hope in Sokurov, just figures circling a void.

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