Wednesday, September 20, 2017

'Swept Away' and other films by Lina Wertmüller at the Castro Sept 23

By Moira Sullivan
Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini

In the annals of women and film history, Italian director Lina Wertmüller was the first woman to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Seven Beauties made in 1975. Four of her films and a documentary made about her will be screened at the Castro Theater on Sept 23, sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute– in a tribute to this prolific director who made over 20 feature films. The films to be screened are the ones most known outside of Italy - “Love and Anarchy” (1973), “Swept Away” (1974) "Seven Beauties” (1975) and "The Seduction of Mimi” (1972).

All feature Giancarlo Giannini who today appears in the James Bond films Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as a rogue cop –and as Inspector Pazzi in Hannibal.

“Behind the White Glasses”, made in 2015, will also be screened in the program, a documentary by Valerio Ruiz featuring interviews on Wertmüller with Martin Scorsese, Sophia Loren, Nastassja Kinski, Rutger Hauer, and Harvey Keitel.

Swept Away - its original title Swept away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August was a controversial film when it was released in the early 70s at the beginning of the second wave of the women’s movement. It is the story of a boat trip with upper-class Italians who are serviced by a crew of Southern Italian proletariats. Looking back at the film today many of the beliefs of the lead character Raffaella (played by the late Mariangela Melato) are important today – free abortion, divorce sanctioned by the Catholic Church and concern for overpopulation and pollution. However, in her frequent and chaotic outbursts she makes fun of working class Italians. In particular, she stirs up the wrath of Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) who bides his time and endures her insults since the boating party will pay him and his colleagues a good wage when the yacht trip is over.

During the journey, Rafaella and Gennarino set out in a small dinghy at dusk so that she can find the rest of her party, but the boat breaks down and her friends do not look for them. They manage to get to a deserted island. Despite being marooned, Rafaella continues to lash out at Gennarino who finally snaps and refuses to share food with her that he catches from the sea. In order to "housetrain" Rafaella he has her wash his dirty underwear. The entire time on the island is a lesson in Italian Communism. He teaches her that many Italians are on a"strict diet called poverty". In between political lessons, he hits her. Eventually his domination results in her becoming so dependent on him that she eventually falls in love with him. The circumstances are typical of the "Stockholm Syndrome" where the abducted find alliances with their captors. When the marooned couple finally see a ship, they are reluctant to be rescued but eventually resume their places in the class society of Italy. For Gennarino he must resume his life as a poor fisherman in a loveless marriage; Rafaella returns to her privilege.

The screening in San Francisco when the film was first released was met by protests from feminist groups reacting to the treatment of Rafaella. Wertmüller's  preoccupation in the film is with class differences but it was a miss on her part to not understand the inequality of gender. It is for this reason that her films have not been popular with women.

Wertmüller's  style is audacious and colorful. Her characters are emboldened caricatures of Italian society that tradeoff between sexual politics and political engagement. In The Seduction of Mimi, a Sicilian miner loses his job because he refuses to back a Mafia politician. He leaves his wife to start a new life in Turin and abandons his political beliefs in the Communist Party much to the chagrin of his colleagues who despise him for being a coward. In Seven Beauties, Giancarlo Giannini plays a soldier who deserts the army and is sent to prison, a man with seven unattractive sisters who are forced into prostitution while he is incarcerated. To save himself he provides sexual favors to the female prison camp director. In Love and Anarchy Giancarlo Giannini plays an anarchist who lives in a brothel as he plans to assassinate Benito Mussolini.

Wertmüller's films are interesting today because of the political themes raised at the time, but also for her interesting and provocative film style.

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan- Air Date: 09/20/17
Movie Magazine International

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Dead on Arrival” - modern noir set in the Bayou to the tune of Bach.

By Moira Sullivan
Billy Flynn as Sam Collins 

“Everyone’s got a transgender story around these parts”.

“Dead on Arrival” (US 2017)  is a neo-noir thriller by Stephen C. Sepher. The opening scene is ripe with irritating events you should never have to experience– listening to bad news on your cell phone voice mail on a deserted Louisiana road, crippling stomach pains, and a “by the book” local sheriff that arrives on the scene who would rather see proof of identity than call an ambulance. Traveling sales executive Sam Collins (Billy Flynn) may have to wait before he makes it to the ER,  however, there are degrees of local law enforcement incompetence as is later shown with wayward cop Deputy Walker, played by Tyson Sullivan.

After this intriguing introduction, director Stephen C. Sepher launches into a “12-hour earlier”  flashback, the scene of a lavish New Year’s Eve party at a private mansion with single white women hired for the event to fraternize with the guests. We learn a couple of details in the flashback. The party bottoms out with a murder, and Sam is mysteriously poisoned.

Earlier that evening Sam meets the party host, Dr. Richard Alexander (Billy Slaughter), 30-ish with dyed white hair who works in the pharmaceuticals industry.  Party waiter Thomas (Travis Farris), later referred to as a “sexual weasel” and Richard have an obvious erotic connection. Bonnie, the party fixer (Scottie Thompson) and Richard note the bottle of champagne Sam brings to the event, certainly welcome at a small dinner party but not one with a local African-American brass band, black jack table and expensive cigars. Despite excessive spending, the interior of Richard’s house has a cheapness to it like the collection of unimpressive vases of various colors and size on a book shelf.  Richard freely dispenses alcohol to his high class low life guests including perv swinger and insurance agent Hans Dunkel (Chris Mulky). Almost everyone in the film seems to be unhappily married with lovers on the side. The 'party girls' work at a place called “The Fun House” as erotic dancers. 

Richard is harshly reprimand by one of his investors Vince (played by director Sepher) because of his slow turnout of cash return, and Sam Collins is signed to change his luck. Vince's home is better decorated apart from the hand sewn pillows with Santa and his reindeer.

Sepher packs noir ingredients with fall guy Sam Collins, and femme fatale Bonnie. New York mobster Zancer dressed in plaid (Soprano regular Lillo Brancato) and Conte (Anthony Sinopoli) sporting a heavy gold chain around his knit sweaters provide comic relief but the power structure that hires them to be "cleaners" keep them in check.  The momentum of the film is relentless and Sepher serves up one atrocity after another, particularly to women who have little agency and ability to influence the narrative. The entire spectacle transpires under the watchful blue eyes of Sam who is like a rag doll in the rough, a lost soul off his grid, far from his wife and children.

Denise Milfort and Christa B Allen

Part of the underbelly of the intricate crime tale is cryptically revealed by Jessy (Christa B Allen) , one of the hired party girls” – referred to as “a stripper with a heart of gold”: “Everyone’s got a transgender story around these parts”.  It is also true that some of the sex workers are bisexual or lesbian. Jessy offers to help Sam by bringing him to a Vodou priestess Agrona (played by Haitian born Denise Milfort, former vocalist for “The Fragile” written and produced in New Orleans in 1999 by Trent Reznor of “Nine Inch Nails”). Both Jessy and Agrona are given limited agency to work through the excesses of the men they serve but like Thomas and others at the "Fun House" their existence is brutal.

“Dead on Arrival” is inspired by the 1950's classic film "D.O.A". starring Edmond O'Brien and stars Edmond’s daughter Maria in a bit part as a suspicious neighbor who lives in Dr. Richard Alexander’s neighborhood. Maria's character has good reason to be on the lookout.  In his weakened physically deteriorating condition, Sam scuffles through the village in a blood stained white shirt looking like the undead.

Cinematographer John Garrett (Man of Steel, Thor, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) captures the decadent night life and beautiful shots of Blood River east of the Mississippi in New Orleans. His color palette includes striking dominant colors for interiors contrasted with boat life and water routes. Creole and multicultural roots – including a lesson on famous Armenians, blend with local mobsters, hangouts, decadent clubs and shady characters – a modern noir set in the Bayou to the tune of Bach.

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 09/06/17
Movie Magazine International