A Roar, Not a Whimper: The Wind and the Lion (1975)

WIND AND THE LION, THE

To view The Wind and the Lion click here.

A stunning epic adventure that would have been a massive hit had it been released ten years earlier, The Wind and the Lion (1975) is one of those movies I always look forward to revisiting every few years. Its unusual, clear-eyed look at global relations and the weirdness of national politics hasn’t dated a bit, and in fact, I’d say time has helped this film look even better and more relevant than when it was originally released to respectful but muted reviews and box office sales. Additionally, it was only nominated for two Oscars, Best Sound and Best Music (Original Dramatic Score) for one of the best scores Jerry Goldsmith ever wrote. (However, Goldsmith would have to wait a year to bring home his first and only Academy Award for The Omen.) Despite the modest initial reception, I’m here to announce it’s a film worth exploring. [...MORE]

The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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To view Bardelys the Magnificent click here.

By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

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To view Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance click here.

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

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Vengeance is Hers: Lady Snowblood (1973)

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To view Lady Snowblood click here.

Lady Snowblood (1973) is an aria of arterial spray, gushing in myriad patterns against a variety of white fabrics. It takes Jean-Luc Godard’s tossed off comment that the blood in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is “Not blood” but “red” to its logical conclusion, a festival of artfully composed throat-slittings and torso hackings. Blood spits out of human bodies like when Mentos are dropped into a bottle of Diet Coke. It frames killing as pure artifice, executed with impassive grace by the beautiful Meiko Kaji, seeking revenge for the mother she never knew. The story is faithfully adapted from the original comic book, of a child marked from birth to be a vengeance machine, to hunt down her mother’s tormentors regardless of the sacrifices to her own life. One of the greatest comic-book adaptations, it serves as the template for all subsequent female one-man-army films, from Ms. 45 (1981) to Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) all the way up to the upcoming Atomic Blonde (2017).

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Cowardice and Colonialism: The Four Feathers (1939)

FOUR FEATHERS, THE (1939)

To view The Four Feathers click here.

The novel that The Four Feathers (1939) is based upon was written by A.E.W. Mason in 1902, just a few short years after the Mahdist War ended. Containing far more detail and side-stories than any film version, its central theme, cowardice in the face of possible death, does rings true in the cinematic adaptations of the story. The primary character, Lieutenant Harry Faversham (John Clements) decides he cannot face the possibility of dying in battle. As such, he resigns from his commission in the army and does not join his friends, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Lieutenant Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Lieutenant Willoughby (Jack Allen), as they head off to war. Following his withdrawal, they each send Faversham a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. That’s bad enough but it’s the fourth one that pushes him beyond what he can accept in himself, as a man and a soldier.

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Street Grand Prix: Ronin (1998)

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To view Ronin click here.

An Audi S8 sluices through the country roads outside of Nice, running down a trio of anonymous sedans. With the aid of pinpoint braking and navigational support, the Audi sideswipes its final target in the center of the city, taking out an outdoor cafe with it. This brutally exciting sequence halfway through Ronin (1998) typifies its fuel-injected virtues, one in which the cars are the stars just as much as Robert De Niro. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I could still recall the make and model of that Audi S8 before the wheelman (Skipp Sudduth) requests it from his handlers. But while the cars are the main attraction, the rest of the film is a slyly elliptical bit of post-Cold War spycraft, as a group of out-of-work spooks are hired to steal a MacGuffin that both the IRA and the Russians are after (Ronin is streaming on FilmStruck as part of its nine-film series “A Movie History of the IRA”). The script was heavily re-written by David Mamet (credited as Richard Weisz due to WGA wrangling), and the film is filled with his weighted repetitions, tangy slang and allusive phrasing, the ex-agents communicating in code, trying not to give themselves away. As on his 1966 racing film Grand Prix, director John Frankenheimer required all the stunt driving to be done at full speed with no special effects. The results are pleasurably stressful, as reflected in De Niro’s white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel – he was actually in a car going 100mph, with his stunt driver operating the vehicle in the opposite seat.

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Scanners: Cronenberg, Existence, and Body Horror

SCANNERS (1981)

Scanners (1981) is a movie lacking in almost every area of cinematic showiness: Its locations, in and around Toronto and Montreal, are plain and dull. The film’s protagonist is practically emotionless. The editing is thoroughly unobtrusive, mostly cutting back and forth between speakers in conversation. The camera doesn’t waste any time or energy moving around the sets, preferring to sit idly, for the most part, and observe. The music matches the quietude of the movie and simply provides an aural backdrop to the action.

It is a masterpiece.

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The Greatest Films of the 21st Century

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I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.

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Tippett Studio

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A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit Tippett Studio and was given a tour by Phil Tippett himself. He was seven-years-old when he saw Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and knew what he wanted to do with his life. Since then he has worked on Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, received his first Academy Award nomination for his dragon in Dragonslayer, was awarded his first Oscar in 1984 for his work on Return of the Jedi, worked with Paul Verhoeven on both RoboCop (the terrifying ED-209) and Starship Troopers (the even more terrifying alien arachnids), would win another Oscar for his visual effects on Jurassic Park, and the list goes on… [...MORE]

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June 18, 2016
David Kalat
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Border Incident

There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.

I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.

I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.

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KEYWORDS: Andre Previn, Anthony Mann, Border Incident, Howard da Silva, Ricardo Montalban
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