Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stella Cadente aka Falling Star [dir. Lluís Miñarro]

Normally, Second Run DVD is home to the less-known classics of European cinema (especially Czech and Polish), but they also sometimes do new releases like 2014's Spanish entry Stella Cadente, which was interesting but less satisfying than one hoped.
The falling star of the plot is Amadeo I, who came from Savoy to Spain in 1870 after being elected king by the Spanish legislature, only to find that the country as a whole did not want a king. Against advice, he refuses to abdicate, determined to be an ideal monarch. He bubbles with ideas of progress, freedom and prosperity, but is roundly ignored by the politicians he interacts with and even the palace staff, who tend to his needs but snigger at his back. His vegetarianism, compassion to animals and fidelity to his absent wife are seen as weaknesses in character. Till a time, his only companion is his Man Friday Alfredo (who masturbates into melons in open fields). The arrrival of his wife provides relief from the loneliness, but only temporarily. She makes him aware of the uselessness of his position, that of an abandoned captive in the palace (not unlike his bejeweled tortoise pet). Just 3 years after he arrived, Amadeo left Spain, which then declared itself a Republic.
Stella Cadente is a handsomely mounted vehicle that takes references from Lucino Visconti in its depiction of decadent nobility (albeit at a 106 min a lot less indulgent in running time), and Alex Brendemühl as Amadeo I gives a fine depiction of the ineffectual ruler. But the film is confined to too narrow a scope for us to experience Amadeo's frustration, and so much of the social backdrop is kept off screen, there is a paucity of context. Instead we get an anemic character study with some (bizarre or otherwise) sexual asides from the supporting cast (If you have a problem with male frontal nudity you have been warned). Also, I found the anachronistic song interludes off-putting.
While your mileage may vary with the film itself, Second Run's release looks great, although I was jarred by the idea of seeing a historical drama captured on digital video. This may be on DVD only, but they really push the limits of the format, offering lush colors and texture.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pit Stop [dir. Jack Hill]

Jack Hill's Pit Stop may lack the sophistication of the benchmark noir films, but in its scruffiness is a little gem. Set in the dangerous world of figure eight and drag racing, the film's protagonist (Dick Davalos) is an impetuous maverick who gets persuaded by race promoter (Brian Donlevy aka Quatermass) into pitting himself against current champ (a young and energetic Sid Haig). Davalos does that only to bear the brunt of Haig's fragile ego and destructive temper. Later the two team up to run interference at the Nationals for another champion racer (George Washburn). Washburn's initial arrogance puts off Davalos to the extent that he aims to show up the champ and makes a play at Washburn's neglected wife (Ellen Burstyn in an early role, already charismatic). In his quest to rise above his circumstances our hero ends up selling his soul.

Large swathes of footage are devoted to the races themselves, which look downright dangerous. Hill shot footage at actual figure-eight races - using up to 5 cameras, and himself manning the one in the most hazardous position - and edited them together selecting the most spectacular crashes, then had the actors' cars made to look like the participants. The actors take their work seriously too, with Haig's character undergoing a stark but believable transformation when he turns from foe to ally for Davalos. Brian Donlevy (whose footage was apparently captured in a few days, but carefully edited to make him appear throughout the film) perfectly conveys the ruthlessness of the promoter for whom winning counts more than anything else. The gritty high-contrast B&W visuals lend a documentary realism to the film. The soundtrack is also a live-wire mix of blues-jazz guitar with a dominant presence in the film. Pit Stop may be simple in structure, but its energy and earnestness make it memorable.

Arrow's blu-ray comes off an in-house restoration job sourced from Jack Hill's personal 35mm film print. Under James White's supervision, we get a beautiful image with gorgeous contrast, detail and grain, very faithful to the history of this vintage low-budget feature. The lossless mono track is clear and impressive in its reproduction of the flashy soundtrack and audio cues. Extras include video conversations with Jack Hill, Sid Haig and producer Roger Corman.