International Film Review: Kapo (dir by Gillo Pontecorvo)

What turns someone into a collaborator?

That’s the question that is at the heart of the 1960 Italian-French film, Kapo.

The film opens in Nazi-occupied France, with 14 year-old Edith (played by 22 year-old Susan Strasberg) practicing the piano at her teacher’s house.  Edith wears the yellow star on her dress and, as she finishes her lesson, her teacher instructs her to be careful returning home.  Edith cheerfully states that she and her family have nothing to worry about.  Edith walks home and, as the opening credits roll, we follow her as she walks through what appears to be a very robust and busy city.  Other than the yellow star on Edith’s dress, there are no outward signs of the occupation in the city.  However, when Edith finally reaches her neighborhood, she sees that her family and her neighbors are being rounded up the Germans.

Edith and her parents are sent to a concentration camp but get separated as soon as they arrive.  Wandering around the camp, Edith meets another prisoner named Sofia (Didi Perago).  Sofia takes Edith to the camp doctor.  He arranges for Edith to switch identities with a non-Jewish prisoner who has just died.  Edith’s new name is Nicole and her yellow star is removed and replaced by a black triangle, which designates Edith/Nicole as being “asocial.”

Edith is transferred to another concentration camp, this one in Poland.  She comes to think of herself as being Nicole.  When another prisoner, Terese (Emmanuelle Riva), asks her is she’s Jewish, Nicole replies that she’s not.  Nicole quickly grows hardened to life in the camp and exchanges sex for food.  She becomes the lover of a guard named Karl (played by future spaghetti western mainstay Gianni Garko) and is made a Kapo, a prisoner who also works as a guard.  However, when Nicole then falls in love with a Russian prisoner-of-war and he asks her to help him and his comrades escape, she is forced to finally decide whether she is Nicole or whether she’s Edith.

To return to the question that started this review: What makes someone a collaborator?  That’s the question that Kapo attempts to answer and it’s a question that was undoubtedly close to  Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s heart.  Pontecorvo was one of the most political of the post-World War II Italian filmmakers.  He was born in 1919 and, as a child, saw firsthand the rise of Mussolini.  As a Jew, he also experienced anti-Semitism firsthand and, in 1938, he left Italy for France.  In France, he befriended Sartre and many other key members of the International Left.  He was reportedly emotionally and politically moved by his friends who left France to fight on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.  During World War II, he joined the Italian communist party and fought in the resistance.  It’s perhaps not a surprise that, in Kapo, Nicole’s chance at redemption comes about as a result of falling in love with a communist soldier.

Unfortunately, Kapo struggles to answer the question of why one would collaborate with the enemy.  The main problem is that Susan Strasberg is miscast of Edith/Nicole, never convincing us that she’s a naïve teenager or a hardened collaborator.  She’s also not helped by a script that continually reduces everything down to who Edith/Nicole happens to be in love with at any given point of time.  It also doesn’t help that Strasberg find herself acting opposite Emmuelle Riva, Gianni Garko, and other actors who all authentic in a way that she’s not.

Kapo is more valuable as an examination of the horrors of the camps than as a character study.  The film’s most powerful moment comes early on, when Edith/Nicole learns that, in the eyes of the Nazis, it’s preferable that someone be a criminal to being a Jew.  In that moment, the film captures both the brutal horror and the arbitrary absurdity of prejudice.  The scene is followed by another harrowing moment, in which Edith can only helplessly watch as her parents are marched to gas chambers.  In those brief moments, Kapo becomes an important film.  You may not remember much about Edith/Nicole but you will remember those scenes.

I should also note that, regardless of its flaws, the film does end on a powerful note, one that will leave many viewers asking how much they would be willing to sacrifice to do the right thing.  Would you sacrifice your life to save hundreds of others?  It’s a question that Edith/Nicole has to answer, though the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether her final decision was made by her or if it was made for her.  Still, the film’s final images do stay with you.

In America, Kapo received a nomination for what was then known as the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  In Europe, though, many critics criticized Pontecorvo for making a film that they felt sentimentalized the Holocaust.  Stung by their criticism, Pontecorvo’s next film, which would be considered by many critics to be his masterpiece, would be the documentary-style The Battle of Algiers, one of the most resolutely anti-sentimental political films ever made.

The Light of Western Stars (1940, directed by Lesley Selander)

In the dead of night, a train stops in an isolated western town.  Only one passenger disembarks.  Majesty Hammond (Jo Ann Sayers) is a wealthy Bostonian, who has traveled all the way to the town to try to prevent her bother from marrying a local woman.  Majesty takes a seat in the station and waits for someone to come get her.

After a few minutes, a drunken ranch foreman named Gene Stewart (Victor Jory) enters the station.  He has made a bet with the local sheriff (Tom Tyler) that he can convince the first new woman to arrive in town to marry him.  Stewart’s friends find a priest but before Gene can force the priest to marry them, a local girl named Bonita (Esther Estrella) rides up and tells Gene that one of the ranch hands, Danny (Alan Ladd, the future Shane in one of his earliest roles), has been forced to flee town after getting into a fight with the sheriff.

As if that’s not bad enough, Gene then discovers that Majesty’s brother is going to marry Flo Kingsley (Ruth Rogers), who happens to be Gene’s employer!  Ashamed of his behavior, Gene leads Majesty to Flo’s ranch.

After some initial weariness, Majesty is convinced that Flo and her brother really are in love.  Flo explains to Majesty how life works out in the frontier and Majesty is even able to forgive Gene for his drunken antics.  Majesty decides to buy a ranch in town but what she doesn’t know is that corrupt businessman Hayworth (Morris Ankrum) is using the ranch to smuggle weapons to the Mexican army and that he’s working with the sheriff!  Majesty is going to need Gene’s help to run the ranch but, after getting into another fighting with the sheriff, Gene goes into hiding.  Can Majesty find Gene and convince him to return to town?

Based on a novel by Western specialist Zane Grey, The Light of Western Stars is only 65 minutes long but it packs a lot of plot and a lot of action into those sixty minutes.  Of course, the plot is pretty standard stuff but, for B-movie fans, it’s a chance to see Victor Jory in a rare leading role and also a chance to see what Alan Ladd was doing before he became a noir mainstay.  Hard-drinking and occasionally irresponsible, Gene is an interesting hero and Jory does a good job playing him.  Alan Ladd doesn’t make a huge impression as Danny but he looks convincing fleeing town on horseback and that’s all the role really requires.

For many viewers, though, the main appeal of Light of Western Stars will be the beautiful Jo Ann Sayers as Majesty.  Primarily a stage actress, Sayers only appeared in 16 films before she got married and semi-retired but she made an impression in every one of them.  That’s certainly the case here, where her beauty makes it very plausible that even a wanted man would return to town just to be with her.

Novel Review: The Power Exchange by Alan R. Erwin

The Northern states are hit by a harsh and deadly winter, one that leads to a nation-wide blackout.  The residents of a Buffalo nursing home die while waiting for help that never comes.  Panics sets in across the nation as citizen realize that the federal government can’t solve all of their problems.  The President, a craven politician, puts the blame on the state of Texas, saying that the state has been hoarding its energy resources and not contributing their fair share to keep the rest of the country running.

With the President determined to make Texas into a scapegoat and proposing a series of new regulations designed to take control of the state’s natural resources, the people of Texas rebel.  The newly elected governor fights back, announcing that Texas is prepared to take advantage of the controversial clause in the article of annexation that he says gives the state the right to secede.  China and OPEC are quick to offer aide to the new Republic of Texas.  While the courts and Congress debate whether or not Texas has the right to leave the union, the CIA decides to take action into their own hands….

That may sound like a particularly paranoid take on today’s headlines but it’s actually the plot of a 1979 novel called The Power Exchange.  As a Texan, what can I say?  The idea of seceding from the Union has always been a popular one down here, even if it’s not something that we necessarily take seriously.  After all, we know that the rest of the States don’t really like us and, for the most part, we don’t like them either.  (Not me, though!  I love every state in the Union.)  So, why not secede and close the northern border and basically kick out anyone who complains about the weather or demands to know why we don’t have a Waa Waa on every street corner?  It’s an enjoyable little fantasy, even if it’s probably for the best that it will never happen.  For one thing, if Texas actually did secede, Austin would probably then want to secede from the Lone Star Republic and form the People’s Collective of Travis.  And if Austin seceded, Dallas would definitely follow, just so we could brag about how much better The Free Republic of Dallas was when compared to all of the other new nations on the North American continent.  Things would get messy.

The whole point of The Power Exchange is that it would be very difficult for Texas to secede.  Not only would there by legal issues but there would also be military conflict.  The new nation would have to make some deals with some less than savory characters.  In the book, it may be Governor Jack Green who masterminds the secession but it falls to Lt. Gov. Margaret Coursey to actually pull it off and she quickly learns that there is no easy way to declare your independence.  The book was written by political journalist so, needless to say, the sections about how secession actually works tend to get a bit overly technical.  Fortunately, there are also secret agents, assassins, and one out of nowhere sex scene that is tossed in to keep things from getting too dry.  One thing I’ve learned from reading old paperbacks is that every novel, regardless of the subject matter, had to have at least one sex scene randomly tossed in.  It’s kind of like when a character in a movie suddenly curses just to make sure that the movie gets at least a P-13 rating.

The Power Exchange was among the many paperbacks that I inherited from my aunt.  I read it the week after Christmas.  It was a quick read and fun little “what if?” scenario.

4 Shots From 4 Films: In Memory of Peter Bogdanovich

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

I just read that director Peter Bogdonavich passed away earlier today.  He was 82 years old.

Bogdanovich’s directorial career serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.  He achieved the dream of many a film journalist by making the jump from writing about films to actually making them.  He went from interviewing Orson Welles to being declared the next Orson Welles.  His first film, Targets, allowed him to give Boris Karloff one final, great role.  His second film, The Last Picture Show, was nominated for Best Picture.  With his next film, Paper Moon, he directed Tatum O’Neal to an Oscar.  At a time when the so-called “movie brats” were rejecting the old ways of making films, Bogdonavich paid homage to the classic films of the past.  At his height, he made films that were both entertaining and, if you got all the references, educational.

Unfortunately, Bogdanovich’s later films were not as successful with critics or audiences.  Bogdanovich himself would later say that he underestimated just how much some of his former colleagues resented both his early success and his very public relationship with actress Cybil Shepherd.  In short, the critics were waiting for him to slip up and they attacked films like Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love like sharks in a feeding frenzy.  By the end of the 70s, he often found himself struggling to raise the money to make the movies that he wanted to make.  So determined was he to see that his film They All Laughed was released that he distributed it himself, at great financial cost.

Regardless of his later career struggles, Bogdanovich remained a tireless advocate for watching and appreciating the films that were produced during the the Golden Age of Hollywood and he was a regular fixture on TCM, where he would discuss the films of Welles, John Ford, John Huston, Howard Hawks, and others.  He oversaw the release of Orson Welles’s long-delayed The Other Side of the Wind, a film in which he co-starred with John Huston.  Along with directing, Bogdanovich was a reliable character actor and those who don’t know him as a director might know him as Dr. Melfi’s therapist on The Sopranos.

Finally, a lot of the Bogdanovich films that were initially dismissed have subsequently been positively reappraised.  Bogdanovich was correct when he said that many of his later films were unfairly criticized or dismissed.  If nothing else, Bogdanovich’s love of the movies came through in everything that he did.  He will be missed for film historians everywhere.

Here are….

4 Shots From 4 Peter Bogdanovich Films

Targets (1968, dir by Peter Bogdanovich, DP: Laszlo Kovacs)

The Last Picture Show (1971, dir by Peter Bogdanovich, DP: Bruce Surtees)

Paper Moon (1973, dir by Peter Bogdanovich, DP: Laszlo Kovacs)

The Thing Called Love (1993, dir by Peter Bogdanovich, DP: Peter James)

The Fantastic Covers of Fantastic

by Ed Valigursky

Fantastic was a magazine that featured stories of fantasy, horror, and science fiction.  It ran from 1952 to 1980, outlasting the majority of its competition and spinning off several other “Fantastic” magazines.  Eventually, after sells started to slow down in the 70s, Fantastic merged with Amazing Stories.  Today, issues of Fantastic are highly sought after by collectors, both for their stories and their covers.

Here are a few of the fantastic covers of Fantastic!

by Ed Valigursky

by Ed Valigursky

by Edmund Emshwiller

by George Schelling

by George Schelling

by Leo Summers

by Leo Summers

by Lloyd Buckingham

by Lloyd Buckingham

by Robert Frankenberg

The Power of the Dog Wins In North Carolina!

Yesterday, the North Carolina Film Critics Association became the latest critic group to announce that Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog was their pick for best picture of 2021!

Here are all of the winners and the nominees from North Carolina!

(Winners are in bold!)

Drive My Car
The French Dispatch
The Green Knight
Licorice Pizza
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
The Worst Person in the World

The Sparks Brothers
Summer of Soul
The Velvet Underground

The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Drive My Car
A Hero
Riders of Justice
The Worst Person in the World

David Lowery – The Green Knight
Denis Villeneuve – Dune
Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza
Steven Spielberg – West Side Story

Nightmare Alley
The Power of the Dog
The Tragedy of Macbeth
West Side Story

Andrew Garfield – tick, tick… BOOM!
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog
Dev Patel – The Green Knight
Nicolas Cage – Pig
Will Smith – King Richard

Alex Wolff – Pig
Jason Isaacs – Mass
Jeffrey Wright – The French Dispatch
Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog
Woody Norman – C’mon C’mon

Alana Haim – Licorice Pizza
Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Kristen Stewart – Spencer
Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
Renate Reinsve – The Worst Person in the World

Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard
Ann Dowd – Mass
Ariana DeBose – West Side Story
Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog
Ruth Negga – Passing

Abbi Jacobson – The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Danny McBride – The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Jacob Tremblay – Luca
Kelly Marie Tran – Raya and the Last Dragon
Stephanie Beatriz – Encanto

The French Dispatch
Licorice Pizza
The Power of the Dog

C’mon C’mon
The French Dispatch
Licorice Pizza

Drive My Car
The Green Knight
The Power of the Dog

The French Dispatch
The Last Duel
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

The Green Knight
The Matrix Resurrections
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Suicide Squad

Black Widow
The Matrix Resurrections
No Time To Die
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Spider-Man: No Way Home

Last Night in Soho
Nightmare Alley

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
House of Gucci
Nightmare Alley

The French Dispatch
The Green Knight
Nightmare Alley
West Side Story

Don’t Look Up
No Time To Die
The Power of the Dog

Every Letter – Cyrano
Guns Go Bang – The Harder They Fall
Just Look Up – Don’t Look Up
No Time To Die – No Time To Die 
So May We Start – Annette

Nightmare Alley
No Time To Die
tick, tick… BOOM!
West Side Story

Fran Kranz – Mass
Lin-Manuel Miranda – tick, tick… BOOM!
Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter
Michael Sarnoski – Pig
Rebecca Hall – Passing

Alana Haim – Licorice Pizza
Cooper Hoffman – Licorice Pizza
Emilia Jones – CODA
Woody Norman – C’mon C’mon
Rachel Zegler – West Side Story

Anthony Mackie (Falcon and the Winter Soldier; Synchronic; Outside the Wire; The Woman in the Window) – Studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Ariana DeBose (West Side Story; Schmigadoon) – From Raleigh, North Carolina
Brian Tyree Henry (Eternals; The Woman in the Window; Godzilla vs. Kong) – From Fayetteville, North Carolina
Jonathan Majors (The Harder They Fall, Loki) – Studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Stephen McKinley Henderson (Dune; Bruised) – Studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Licorice Pizza Wins In Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Film Critics Circle have named Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza the best film of 2021!

Actually, I really like the OFCC’s picks.  They spread the wealth pretty evenly between Licorice Pizza and The Power of the Dog and they remembered two of my favorite films of the year, Pig and The Green Knight.  They also gave out an award for Most Disappointing Film Of The Year and how can I not cheer their selection of Don’t Look Up?

Here are the winners in Oklahoma!

Best Picture
“Licorice Pizza”

Top 10 Films
1. Licorice Pizza
2. The Power of the Dog
3. West Side Story
4. The Green Knight
5. Summer of Soul
6. The French Dispatch
7. Tick, Tick…Boom!
8. C’mon C’mon
9. Dune
10. Nightmare Alley / Pig / Red Rocket (TIE)

Best Director
Winner: Jane Campion – “The Power of the Dog”
Runner-Up: Paul Thomas Anderson – “Licorice Pizza”

Best Actress
Winner: Alana Haim – “Licorice Pizza”
​Runner-Up: Jessica Chastain – “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Best Actor
Winner: Benedict Cumberbatch – “The Power of the Dog”
​Runner-Up: Andrew Garfield – “Tick, Tick…Boom!”

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Kirsten Dunst – “The Power of the Dog”
​Runner-Up: Ariana DeBose – “West Side Story”

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Kodi Smit-McPhee – “The Power of the Dog”
Runner-Up: Ciaran Hinds – “Belfast”

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: “The Power of the Dog” – Jane Campion
​Runner-Up: “Dune” – Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve & Eric Roth

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: “Licorice Pizza” – Paul Thomas Anderson
​Runner-Up: “The French Dispatch” – Wes Anderson

Best Animated Film
Winner: “The Mitchells vs the Machines”
​Runner-Up: “Encanto”

Best Documentary
Winner: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
​Runner-Up: “The First Wave”

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: “Drive My Car” (Japan)
​Runner-Up: “The Worst Person in the World” (Norway)

Best First Feature
Winner: “The Lost Daughter” – Maggie Gyllenhaal
​Runner-Up: “Tick, Tick…Boom!” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

Best Ensemble
Winner: “The French Dispatch”
​Runners-Up: “Licorice Pizza” & “The Power of the Dog” (TIE)

Best Cinematography
Winner: “Dune” – Greig Fraser
​Runner-Up: “The Power of the Dog” – Ari Wegner

Best Score
Winner: “The Power of the Dog” – Jonny Greenwood
​Runner-Up: “Dune” – Hans Zimmer

Best Body of Work
Winner: Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Tick, Tick…Boom!,” “Encanto,” “In the Heights” & “Vivo”)
​Runner-Up: Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick…Boom!,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” & “Spider-Man: No Way Home”)

Most Disappointing Film
Winner: “Don’t Look Up”
​Runners-Up: “Halloween Kills” & “Spencer” (TIE)

Music Video of the Day: Disco Duck by Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots (1976, dir by ????)

I have long been of the opinion that everything that happened in the world of entertainment during the 70s was the result of cocaine.  If you doubt me, then I dare you to explain this to me:

Now, I’m not making the argument that the song Disco Duck was necessarily written while anyone was high, though it probably was.  However, I am arguing that a lot of people probably first heard the song while they were high and perhaps trying to talk to a duck and that explains why Disco Duck became a hit.  Apparently, it also won the 1977 People’s Choice Award for Best New Song and again, everyone knows that the People’s Choice Awards were determined by people who spent most of their spare time with a credit card, a mirror, and rolled-up twenty.  That’s just the truth of the matter.

Anyway, Rick Dees was a DJ and Disco Duck was a novelty record.  The song is officially credited to Rick Dee and His Cast of Idiots but, personally, I think the band was being a bit too self-critical with that name.  I mean, it takes a certain amount of intelligence to turn a song called Disco Duck into a number one hit.  The song, itself, is not actually about a duck but about a man who dances like a duck …. wait a minute, what?  How do you dance like a duck?  (“With great difficulty!  Ha ha ha!”  Thank you, hack comedian.)  It doesn’t matter.  The song was a hit.

This performance was from a show called Midnight Special.  It aired on October 29th, 1976, just a few days before Halloween.  According to the imdb, ABBA, KC & The Sunshine Band, and the Bay City Rollers also appeared on this episode but none of them performed with a guy in a duck costume.