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July 26, 2014
David Kalat
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Pryor convictions

Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.

Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker in Superman III.

Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”

As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.

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KEYWORDS: Arthur Hiller, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Silver Streak
COMMENTS: 19
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Men With Guns: Cold in July

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In one of my treasured yearly rituals, I feign relevance by writing something tangentially related to the Cannes Film Festival, which I have yet to attend. This year I make the bold move of reviewing a feature currently screening at the ongoing Cannes fest, Jim Mickle’s grizzled revenge movie, Cold in July. Opening this Friday in theaters and on VOD from IFC Films, it’s an unrepentant scuzz-fest, from Michael C. Hall’s matted-down mullet to the saturated neon that turns all of East Texas into a Red Light District. It is the fourth film from Jim Mickle (director/co-writer) and Nick Damici (actor/co-writer), two historically-minded genre aficionados who treat their lowdown material with respect and ingenuity.

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Spy Games: Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966)

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In the breezy spy spoof BANG! BANG! YOU’RE DEAD! (aka OUR MAN IN MARAKESH; 1966), which was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films, we’re introduced to Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) who has just arrived in Morocco on business. Jessel is obviously looking forward to a little downtime during his trip where he can relax and take in the local color while sipping exotic cocktails poolside. Jessel’s a friendly easy-going everyman and he effortlessly starts up a conversation with the charming Kyra (Senta Berger), who travels with him by bus to the swanky Marrakesh hotel where they’re both staying. After reaching the hotel Jessel mistakenly ends up with the keys to Kyra’s room and while unpacking he discovers a dead man in her closet. Naturally this grisly turn of events sends Jessel into a panic but when Kyra arrives to reclaim her room she convinces him that’s she being framed for murder and the two agree to get rid of the corpse together. This impulsive decision propels Jessel into the shadowy and secretive world of international espionage where mysterious women and dangerous men are willing to risk everything for political power and ill-gained riches.

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April 20, 2014
David Kalat
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Alfred Hitchcock’s Half-Formed Grab Bag

There are some directors who make their breakout hits early in their careers.  Their landmark films announce the arrival of an important new talent by showcasing distinctive visual or thematic ideas—but these marks of distinction can also serve to limit that filmmaker’s future growth.  Their subsequent films can’t help but be compared to their early classics, and after a while they risk being accused of simply repeating familiar motifs, cobbling together pastiches and Greatest Hits collections.

Not Alfred Hitchcock.  Not only did his later works like Marnie or Topaz veer wildly away from anything in that career that preceded them, it’s in his early films that we find what might be called pastiches—only these are pastiches not of past glories, but patchworks of the masterpieces yet unmade.

Consider Secret Agent.  It’s a 1936 wartime spy thriller (bet you couldn’t guess that from the title, huh?) based on some stories by Somerset Maugham, and made for Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu during Hitch’s British period.

It is by no means one of Hitchcock’s greats—even in 1936, it was only voted the fifth best British movie.  But it’s a template for almost everything great Hitchcock did after it.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Lorre, secret agents
COMMENTS: 4
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April 19, 2014
David Kalat
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Occupy Fritz Lang

There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.

This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim.  It decrees the rise and fall of nations.  It chooses who lives, and who dies.

There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.

Wanna know a secret?  This secret power—he’s a banker.  You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.

So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here.  You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, spies
COMMENTS: 4
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WHEELS IN THE SKY KEEP ON TURNING

Le Mans

This Thursday TCM is featuring four films that fall under the theme of European Auto Racing: Le Mans (Lee H. Katzin, 1971), Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966), The Racers (Henry Hathaway, 1955), The Young Racers (Roger Corman, 1963), and Speed (Edwin, L, Martin, 1936). Last month I sold the Subaru that I’d owned since 1996. The odometer had 102,000 miles on it, and probably only had that many due to the two or three road-trips I’ve taken to visit various film festivals every year over its almost two-decades of service. That’s my way of saying I’m not much of a car guy, so it’s probably not a surprise I’ve missed out on all the aforementioned films except for Le Mans, which I saw for the first time at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Special guests Chad McQueen and race-drivers Derek Bell and Vic Elford were in attendance, and the experience was truly riveting. For the film, Steve McQueen famously tossed out most of the dialogue and it seemed like a half hour went by before anyone said anything at all – leaving viewers instead to marinate in the sound of motors…. motors going dangerously fast and rubbing shoulders with death, both on and off-screen. [...MORE]

Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted – on 70mm VistaVision. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in somethings approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

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Caged: A Nicolas Cage Marathon

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In 1999 Sean Penn said Nicolas Cage was “no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer.” Penn intended this as a criticism, framing a narrative of Cage abandoning art (Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) for commerce (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off). That has been the accepted story of his career ever since: that of an eccentric, gifted actor who wasted a promising career cashing facile blockbuster paychecks because of bad real estate investments. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY hosted a four-film Nicolas Cage marathon last weekend (Con Air, Red Rock West, Vampire’s Kiss and Face/Off - all on 35mm!) that shifted my perception of his career. From the start Cage was a “performer”, a destabilizing physical presence rather than the reflective “method” artist which Penn desires from his actors. In The Guardian, Cage told Emma Brockes that, “if you look at Vampire’s Kiss, it’s all about that memory of Nosferatu; that Germanic, expressionistic acting style.” He has the angular, haunted face of Conrad Veidt attached the quick-twitch tendons of Jim Carrey, blaring his silent film pantomimes out to the back row. You can trace these moves throughout his career, his goggle eyed stare and hunched shoulder lope a fixture of the 90s blockbuster through to his Aughts VOD quickies. Even before his financial difficulties he was a prolific performer – he would have savored the 5-movie-a-year pace of old studio hands.  To follow his breakout year of 1987 (Moonstruck and Raising Arizona), he accepted a part in the deliriously strange black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, while he countered David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with the immortal Sam Pillsbury’s Zandalee.  His relentless work ethic has landed him in more dross than gold, but even in the dregs he’s capable of inspired, movie-imploding madness.

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Martial Fine Artists: Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-Ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

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Siege Mentality: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.

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