Category Archives: Film

“THE WITCHES”— An Anthology

“The Witches”

An Anthology

Amos Lassen

“The Witches” is essentially a vanity project with five different stories designed to show off the range of actress Silvana Mangano, the Miss Italia contest winner who went on to marry Dino De Laurentis in 1949 and became something of a star. The film became a instant curiosity piece because of Clint Eastwood’s participation. Each story stars Silvana Mangano and the results are hit-and-miss, with some moments of interest but there is little depth and cohesion in any of the five stories. There is really no theme that connects the stories which makes it impossible to review the film as a whole. As if that is not enough, the title “The Witches” only really is for the first story and only as the name of a song.

 “The Witch Burnt Alive”

Luchino Visconti directed the first story, which is the longest of the five, taking approximately a third of the film’s running length.  Mangano plays a superstar actress and model who travels to a mountain resort, only to find the well-to-do inhabitants have prejudices and preconceived notions about her based on her public persona.  The women are all jealous and the men all want to sleep with her, but all Mangano wants is to be left alone. This is a satire about the realities of being famous. 

“Community Spirit”

Mauro Bolognini directed this visual gag that features Mangano offering to take an injured man to a hospital, driving him at breakneck speed throughout the city, but not stopping at locations where he might find aid.

“The Earth Seen from the Moon”

Pier Paolo Pasolini directed the most artistic and memorable of the five films.  Reminiscent in style to “Don Quixote”, a recently widowed father and his son travel around the country in search of a new wife and mother, and after a long period, they discover the literally speechless Mangano.  She brings joy into their lives, but they are poor, and in order to find a better life for themselves, they concoct a scheme to try to make some quick cash.  The story is contrived but the outlandish performances, artwork, and costumes does evoke great charm and likeability.  Although she plays mute, this is probably the most appealing of Mangano’s five performances,.

“The Sicilian”

Franco Rossi directs the fourth and shortest piece. It is a straight-forward revenge story that comes and goes before it ever has a chance of becoming interesting.  It’s violent, and, for me, the least satisfying of the five stories.

“A Night Like Any Other”

Clint Eastwood’s appearance is clearly the biggest attraction here and it is an enjoyable departure from his normal roles, playing a comedic romantic lead.  Director Vittorio de Sica does a great job with the story that blends the mundane and fantasy in a visually satisfying way.  The story is about a bored housewife who tries in vain to get her husband to realize that he is not as romantic as he used to be.  The scene is interspersed with comedic romance sequences revolving around the couple’s past romantic interludes, and dreams of how their lives should be. 

“ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH IN”— Season Two

“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”

Season Two

Amos Lassen

“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was an American television program that ran for 140 episodes from January 22, 1968, to March 12, 1973 on the NBC television network. The hosts were comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. The title of the show was a play on the ”love-ins” and “be-ins” of the 1960s hippie culture. The humor of “Laugh In” came from vaudeville and burlesque but it also added satire and the show consisted of gags and sketches, many of which used sexual innuendos and politics.

At various times the show featured announcer Gary  Owens, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Richard Pryor, Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley, Henry Gibson, Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin, Teresa Graves, Larry Hovis, Chelsea Brown, Sarah Kennedy, Jeremy Lloyd, Dave Madden, Pigmeat Markham, Pamela Rodgers, Jud Strunk, Richard Dawson, Moosie Drier, Barbara Sharma, and Johnny Brown.

During season two, each episode followed a somewhat similar format, often including recurring sketches. The show started with a short dialogue between Rowan and Martin. Shortly afterward, Rowan would intone: “C’mon Dick, let’s go to the party”. This was made up of all cast members and occasional surprise celebrities dancing before a 1960s party backdrop as they delivered one- and two-line jokes interspersed with a few bars of dance music. The show then proceeded through rapid-fire comedy bits, taped segments, and recurring sketches.

At the end of every show, Rowan turned to his co-host and said, “Say good night, Dick”, to which Martin replied, “Good night, Dick!”. The show then featured cast members’ opening panels in a “joke wall” and telling jokes. As the show drew to a close and the applause died, executive producer George Schlatter’s clapping alone and it continued even as the screen turned blank. The arrangement of the segments was often interchanged. The second season had a handful of new people, including Alan Sues, Dave Madden, and Chelsea Brown. “Laugh In” was once of the guilty pleasures of my youth.

“THE CAT O’NINE TAILS”— A Thriller

“The Cat O’ Nine Tails”

A Thriller

Amos Lassen

“The Cat O’Nine Tails a thriller that adheres to the theory that a murderer’s homicidal nature can be discovered by studying their chromosomes. When a break-in occurs at a secretive genetics institute, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arno (Karl Malden), had overheard an attempt to blackmail one of the institute’s scientists shortly before the robbery. He teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to crack the case. However, bodies begin to pile up and the two amateur sleuths find that their own lives were in danger as they their search for the truth. As if that is not enough still, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), Franco’s young niece, may also be in the killer’s sights…

While the film might not be Darion Argento’s favorite of his work, it does hold the test of time as being a solid gialli that showcases Argento’s sense of style.

As Franco Arno and his young niece Lori walk down a street late one evening, they overhear two men in a parked car mentioning blackmail.  Lori is able to spot a man with brown hair, but is unable to discern the other.  They continue walking but once home Arno hears a scuffle outside.  A night watchman at a nearby medical facility was clubbed over the head and someone broke into the building.

The next day, Carlo bumps into Arno and makes mentions an attempted robbery the night before at the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research.  The police discuss the break-in with Giordani and how Dr. Calabresi’s (Carlo Alighiero) office was compromised but nothing appears to have been taken or tampered with.  Calabresi later confides in his fiancée Bianca (Rada Rassimov) that he knows who broke into his office and what was taken and that in the end it will work out in his best interest.  Things however take an unexpected turn for Dr. Calabresi.  While at a train station he meets an unknown man and ends up thrown in front of an approaching train.

When the morning paper arrives the next day Lori reads the day’s events to her uncle and the top story showcases Dr. Calabresi’s death.  Lori tells her uncle that Calabresi was in fact the man from the car.  Knowing such information Arno meets with Giodani to discuss the incident further. 

The film contains some grisly murders (strangulation, train death and others.

All of the murders are centered on The Terzi Institute that is a medical centre involved in research to find a genetic marker that could indicate a tendency towards murder. Malden initially appears to be the film’s lead, but is replaced in that role by Franciscus for most of the film. The plot eventually resolves itself with a great rooftop climax, but the very abrupt ending leaves the fate of key characters unexplained but there is a great deal to enjoy in this film otherwise so we can excuse that.

BONUS FEATURES include:

Brand new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations

Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc)

Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack

New audio commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman

New interviews with co-writer/director Dario Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, actress Cinzia De Carolis and production manager Angelo Iacono

Script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time

Original Italian and international theatrical trailers

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp

Double-sided foldout poster

4 lobby card reproductions

Limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay on the film by Dario Argento, and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes.

“THE TEACHER”— A Little Bit of Power Can Be a Dangerous Thing

“The Teacher” (“Ucitelka”)

A Little Bit of Power Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Amos Lassen

Since the arrival of Maria Drazdechova, to a Bratislava suburban school in the year of 1983, life has turned upside down for students and parents. She is a new teacher to the town and she has very strange behavior. Then one of the students tries suicide that might or might not be connected to Maria but nonetheless makes the principal call the students’ parents for an urgent meeting that will suddenly put the future of all the families at stake. They are asked to sign a petition to move Miss Drazdechova out of the school. However, the fact that the teacher has high connections within the Communist Party, everyone feel threatened. They must make a decision whether to go against Drazdechova and stand up for what they believe in at any risk, or remain silent and let things be.

Set in Slovakia in the 1980s, we see that Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry), makes her students stand up on the first day of school and state what their parents do for a living. People fear Maria feared because of her high-level communist party connections and she manages to get students and parents to do her favors, like cleaning her flat, fixing her washing machine, and sending cake to her sister in Moscow. If they refuse to help her, she retaliates by giving bad grades or humiliating students in front of their classmates. It seems that there are no limits to pleasing Mária in a world where subjection to tainted power is the most pervasive. We forget that it was a time when everyone was locked into place with the promise of social mobility that never happened.

Director Jan Hrebejk shows that there’s no way out of corruption because it is the vernacular of any and all institutions. It metastasizes dishonesty and fraud in domestic spaces and disarms men, women, and children from any possibility of leading a principled life. Here, the only way to escape is through suicide, which, as it turns out, works to further reinforce the static subjugation of those left behind. Social despair and corruption are a way of life.

The film is built around flashbacks to the inappropriate encounters inside Mária’s classroom and a present-day meeting with the school principal and parents after the student’s suicide attempt. The fact that the parents sit in the desks of their children’s very own classroom in order to decide whether to risk honesty or to get on the right side of the communist party says quite a lot— in a system run by corrupted figures, everyone is either a child or a master. Maria is corruption— she contaminates everything and we see the abuse of power at a middle school. Maria is a terrifying instructor who heads the local Communist party and uses her pupils to manipulate their parents for her own personal benefit.

But not every parent is willing or able to satisfy Drazdechova’s demands. Marek Kucera (Csongor Kassai) works as an accountant at the airport. When the teacher asks if he could facilitate the illicit transport of a cake to the Soviet Union for her sister’s birthday, he is unwilling to risk his job. But Drazdechova does not like to be crossed. She takes out her displeasure on the Kucera’s young gymnast daughter Danka Kucera (Tamara Fischer), ultimately driving the youngster to try to take her own life.

Drazdechova also has it in for Filip Binder (Oliver Oswald), a talented wrestler with a crush on Danka. At first, the brutish Mr. Binder (Martin Havelka) doesn’t understand what is going on and savagely punishes his son for missing practice, unaware that Drazdechova more or less forces kids to go to her house after school to clean and run errands. But even though Mr. Binder has a reputation as a drunk and a troublemaker, he has principles and refuses to be blackmailed into providing free work for the teacher.

Littman (Peter Bebjak) was once a respected professor of astrophysics but was demoted to manual labor after his even more brilliant wife left the country. Drazdechova takes a shine to Littmann and arranges for him to be the school’s caretaker, all the while none-too-subtly pressuring him to take a romantic interest in her.

The script is based on a real-life incident and has humor and irony. Hrebejk’s direction is smooth and the performances are uniformly excellent. This is an emotionally grueling film, because it shows how Drazdechova strikes at her victims’ weakest spot: their children. It is one thing to stand up to do the right thing when you will be the only one to face the consequences and quite another when your son or daughter stands to take the punishment. It is in their collective interest to stand against Drazdechova, but individually, they each have an incentive to knuckle under. Maurery as Maria gives a chilling performance and because it is so close to life that it is all the more disturbing.

“L.A.M.F.: LIVE AT THE BOWERY ELECTRIC— Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers’ Classic 1977 ‘L.A.M.F. Performed by Members of Blondie, MC5 & Replacements

“Lure, Burke, Stinson & Kramer – L.A.M.F.: Live At The Bowery Electric”

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers’ Classic 1977 ‘L.A.M.F. Performed by Members of Blondie, MC5 & Replacements

Amos Lassen

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers’ classic 1977 ‘L.A.M.F.’ album is performed live by members of Blondie, MC5 & Replacements. The sole surviving Heartbreaker Walter Lure is joined by Blondie’s Clem Burke, The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson and MC5’s Wayne Kramer. The event was captured live at the Bowery in 2016 and welcomed guests including Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome.

The DVD includes bonus interviews with all four band-members, plus guest Jesse Malin (D- Generation). It has been totally remastered. The release comes at the same time as Walter is taking his ‘L.A.M.F.’ show on out the road again – this time with the Sex Pistols’ bassist Glen Matlock, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness on guitar & vocals, and again Blondie’s Clem Burke. They play in Los Angeles, San Diego and New York at the end of November/early December 2017.

Track Listing:

  • Born To Lose
  • Baby Talk
  • All By Myself
  • I Wanna Be Loved
  • It’s Not Enough
  • Get Off The Phone
  • I Love You
  • Goin’ Steady
  • Let Go
  • Can’t Keep My Eyes On You
  • Do You Love Me
  • Chinese Rock

“NATIONAL BIRD”— The Drone Program

“National Bird”
Drones

Amos Lassen

Director Sonia Kennebeck examines the U.S. drone program in her documentary, “National Bird”. She looks at it as a harrowing experience of those who live in foreign areas where drone surveillance and attacks take place, as well as through interviews with U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who actually control and monitor the drones.

“National Bird” follows three people who were in the U.S. Air Force and worked in various capacities regarding the targeting and killing of insurgents. All three now regret their experience. The film finds nothing positive or effective about using drones. It also slowly and persuasively builds its case as it describes the effects of the Americans who were in the program and the civilian Afghans who were mistakenly bombed. By contrasting the war’s effect on members of both groups, it shows a symbiosis between the two cultures with no end in sight.

What we really get here is a profile of three whistleblowers that are very critical of America’s secret drone program. Each of the three former gung-ho Air Force veterans were attracted to the adventure and service to America and each has become a whistle-blower after having worked in the drones program gathering intelligence and following targets to be killed.

Heather is a troubled young woman who battles PTSD and is very critical of what she sees as the total indifference of the military to the trauma suffered by drone program participants who day-by-day watched bodies being blown to bits. The reenactment of a strike where 23 civilians were taken down graphically illustrates the horror of this messed-up operation.

Daniel enlisted to avoid homelessness and was assigned to a top-secret drone-related operation with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. His anti-war activities brought a raid by the FBI on his home. He contacted Jesselyn Radack to counsel him and since has gone into hiding and no one has any idea where he is at present.

Lisa is a former drone system technical sergeant who is shocked when she receives a letter saluting her war efforts of helping to identify 121,000 insurgent targets over a two-year period. In order to make amends, she joined a neighbor on a mission of mercy trip to Afghanistan. Lisa met a family who lost loved ones in a mistargeted drone attack. The dignity of these Muslims is a far cry from the barbarity of the drone operators in the reenacted segment.

President Obama’s speeches where he claims that the drone program has been able to kill insurgents without harming civilians is simply not the case. Here we get a fascinating discussion of our secret military drone program.

“MAGNUS”— The Wizard of Chess

“Magnus”

The Mozart of Chess

Amos Lassen

Norwegian documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree brings us the captivating story of Magnus Carlsen, who was once bullied as an introverted 13-year-old boy, yet he still managed to grow up to become a World Chess Champion. Through home movies and archival footage, we see a unique coming-of-age story that shows us a remarkable boy’s determination to achieve success.

Ree examines the life and skills of Magnus Carlsen, a chess prodigy who was recognized as the youngest grandmaster in the world at age 13 and during the same year earned even more acclaim by gaining a tie with Garry Kasparov, the world’s best chess player.

Magnus’s father Henrik is the narrator of this look at the youngster who was called “the Mozart of Chess” early in his career. As a young boy, he kept to himself and was, according to his dad, often lost in thought. He loved LEGO and other activities that sharpened his mind. As a teenager, Magnus traveled to matches around the world, but at home, he was bullied in school. Early on, he set his goal to become the world’s best chess player.

We see him demonstrate his skills at Harvard University by checkmating ten lawyers while wearing a blindfold. Magnus became world champion in 2013 at the age of 22. Most of the documentary is in English and has family appeal. It is a film about talent and dedication that even teenagers can enjoy. As much as we learn about Carlsen , there’s still a mystery at the core of his remarkable mental agility that sustains an element of spontaneity even when we know how events will turn out.

As a boy, he was bad at sports, and bullied for it, but he possessed such powers of concentration that somehow he moved from assembling Lego toys to strategy on the chessboard. Magnus isn’t about role models but about formidable inner strength. Carlsen is restless and relentlessly self-critical.

In close-ups, we see that, as on the chessboard, he’s always several steps ahead of the people trying to figure him out.  He is captivating to watch, although Ree seems to know the limits of what his film can explain.

We see Carlsen’s strength tested (always by older opponents) in tournaments and there is great drama here. While the film probes Carlsen’s inner life and his battles to defeat the world’ finest players, we don’t see whether the young man has any conflict with his father, or any interest in girls. And we wonder how the reclusive kid who barely spoke yet he became fluent in English. Eventually Carlsen gets a clothing endorsement deal, the rite of passage of any professional athlete and we see that the superhuman is also human.

Carlsen is a young man who reached the pinnacle of an elite competition on his own terms. We get the same elements as a standard coming of age movie including the awkward and often challenging school years, the internal battle within and finally the rise and success in his later years. The most fascinating aspect of the documentary is Magnus’ thought process and there is no doubt that Magnus Carlsen is a wonder to behold. He’s currently defending his title at the 2016 World Chess Championship in New York and has the highest FIDE rating of all time. He possesses a monumental talent that is difficult to convey on screen and this is quite a fascinating film.

“CAMELOT”— The 1981 Broadway Revival

“Camelot”

The 1981 Broadway Revival

Amos Lassen

This “Camelot” was part of the cable series “HBO Theatre” and is a videotaped presentation of the 1981 Broadway revival of the musical at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. It lasted for only 42 performances and closed in January 1982. Plays on film can be valuable archives of necessarily tenuous live productions yet almost invariably they embody the very least of their two combined mediums. The thrill of watching a live production – the sound of the orchestra, the actual human voice echoing on the stage, and the movement and sheer “aliveness,” of the actors cannot be recaptured on a film or videotaped medium. That indefinable, magical reality dissipates as soon as the cameras roll. As for film, in its infancy, it was locked down tight, and its no wonder that mere reproductions of stage plays were one of the medium’s first subjects. But of course now, the movement of the film camera, along with editing and special effects, can take the viewer to places no stage production could ever dream of recreating.

As we watch “Camelot”, we get the feeling that we’re being short-changed of both medium’s strengths. When it premiered on Broadway in 1960, it didn’t get the raves one might assume that it would. It was a show that the critics found clunky and awkwardly plotted, but which audiences embraced because of the lyrical, haunting songs by Lerner and Loewe, and because of the initial powerhouse Broadway cast of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. In 1967 Warner Brothers turned it into the bloated, misconceived film starring Richard Harris. One of the main complaints of the film (and there were many), was the fact that the stars of the film couldn’t sing. It is even more curious to see Harris take up the King Arthur again. Harris on the stage, singing songs he’s not really vocally suited to, is an exercise in professionalism battling with excess here. Further complicating matters is the fact that this revival takes the 1967 screenplay of the film version as its inspiration, keeping among other things the flashback structure of that film (which isn’t found in the original play). This reliance on the screenplay, along with having the star of that ill-fated movie recreate his role on stage, just makes this all the more ill-conceived.

We, however, still have the lovely songs of Lerner and Loewe, and hearing the score is a pleasure. There is something indefinably haunting and lyrical about those celebrated songs, and it’s not surprising that we love them still after more than forty years.

“IN SEARCH OF FELLINI”— A Journey

“IN SEARCH OF FELLINI”

A Journey

Amos Lassen

Obsessed with Fellini, his films, and his storytelling, and having led a very sheltered life under the watchful eye of her loving but over-protective mother Claire, Lucy strikes out on her own and heads to Italy “In Search of Fellini”. This is a film about cinema and the magic of the medium, its deep history and the joy it conjures in those who truly love the moving picture.

The film opens with a dream-sequence that serves as a statement of purpose and we immediately see that this is a film about cinema and the magic of the medium. This also establishes that this is a coming of age story that uses fantasy.

Lucy (Ksenia Solo) is a 20-year-old who has never really experienced adult life because of her overbearing mother, Claire (Maria Bello). After a voiceover that tells Claire’s back-story and Lucy’s origins, the film quickly moves forward to the early ‘90s, when Claire is diagnosed with advanced and aggressive cancer and Lucy is 20. Claire discusses her ailment with her sister and intends to keep it a secret from Lucy, but Lucy finds out anyhow. It is here that we get the coming of age narrative.

Lucy tries to find a job but has no skills. However, she is interested in film, though, and uses that in an application that leads to an interview with a local porn distributor. A few blocks from the failed interview, she quite literally stumbles upon a Fellini film festival. While Lucy grew up lovingly watching ‘50s-era Hollywood productions so this is her first taste of European art cinema. After seeing Fellini’s “La Strada”, she has an epiphany.

Lucy leaves Ohio to fly to Italy to meet Fellini. This is all set up with increasingly funny phone conversations between Lucy and Fellini’s office manager. Of course, viewers wonder how Lucy, a young woman who has never left where she was born, has the money, travel knowledge and passport required to fly to Italy in the early ‘90s but we go with it since we understand that the film is an homage to cinema.

Director Taron Lexton brings back the nostalgia we felt when we each discovered the master auteur who converted us to become movie lovers. “In Search of Fellini” sits on the edge between being hackneyed and worthwhile while reminding us that cinema is an imaginative and transforming enterprise for both its producers and its consumers.

The story itself is beautiful and resonant.It is filled with characters, locations and visual cues to Fellini’s classics such as “La Dolce Vita,” “8 ½” and “Nights of Cabiria.” Fellini used nostalgia to point out something about ourselves; Lexton uses it to remind us of Fellini’s films.

“HAVE A NICE DAY”—- A Southern Chinese City

“Have a Nice Day”

A Southern Chinese City

Amos Lassen

Liu Jian takes us on a colorful journey through a southern Chinese city through warm colors and an exceptional musical score that mixes classical American jazz with traditional Chinese sounds. Several people from diverse backgrounds with different motives enter into bloody conflict in the darkly comedic, animated feature film, “Have a Nice Day”.

A bag containing a million yuan is the focus and greed and selfish motives come into play. The gangster boss claims the bagful is his recalls days from future past while lecturing to a spunky subordinate who claims to be an artist. Some philosophical discourse takes place on what iconstitutes art and who can call themselves a true artist. We then learn that the bag has been lost and/or stolen and a butcher/hitman is sent to recover the bag full of money.

The bag moves from one point to another and various individuals reveal social and moral issues while holding the bag of money tightly in hopes of having a better life. In the end, however, it’s all just fantasy.

Modern China is in a state of flux and a real war for control is filled with violence and dangerous activities. By using animation, director Liu Jian is adeptly able to circumvent and soften some of the more distasteful aspects of this movement toward progress while at the same time heightening and stylizing the mood in China today.

As he does, he adds some subtle Western influences as he develops nuances of character. A great deal has been made about China’s growing economic power and goal of world dominance and, by the film’s end, the Hitman says that “without high-technologies we just can’t win.” The film closes with an earthy mise-en-scene as a large city in shades of browns and grays that sits silently while a long, steady rain fills the screen.

The film causes discussion and analysis regarding the state of things. One of the most telling aspects of the film is the frequency characters express a need or desire to leave for another country, often for better educational opportunities or plastic surgery to fix the botched work .

This is a film about a caper and viewers should not get too attached to any characters, but neither should they count any out, no matter how bad their situation looks. Liu gives the film noir trappings and little mundane details that really ground it in the real world.