Killing Them Softly: The Executioner (1963)

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Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

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I Really Like That Movie, I Just Don’t Care About It.

HOPSCOTCH (1980)

Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I had lots of free time, no responsibilities, and no bills on which to spend my hard earned minimum wage income, which could therefore go entirely to cigarettes and movies. I don’t smoke anymore but I still watch movies. Of course, not like I did then. Back then I saw practically every movie that came out. With rare exceptions, I just went to the theater with my brother or a friend and saw whatever was playing. One of those movies, way back when, was Hopscotch (1980). All I knew is it had Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson and I liked them both. I think I might have known it was a spy movie, too. What I didn’t know is that it would become one of my favorite movies, a movie I have returned to time and time again as a kind of cinematic comfort food when I just need to relax and watch Ned Beatty give the F.B.I. a new name that I have yet to shake from my head.

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A Tale of Two Hydes

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th century novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the inspiration for countless stage, film, radio and television adaptations and inspired works. The first adaptation was Thomas Sullivan’s stage play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which debuted in 1887, a year after the novella’s original publication. This stage version of Stevenson’s story included significant changes to the plot, including the addition of a complicated, romantic relationship between Dr. Jekyll and his well-mannered socialite fiancée. In 1920, Paramount Pictures released their version of Sullivan’s interpretation, a silent film starring the original A-list superstar John Barrymore in the title role. Known for his devastatingly handsome looks and “great profile,” Barrymore shocked audiences with his gruesome, monster-like appearance as the vicious Mr. Hyde. A little over a decade later, Paramount began preparing a remake of the 1920 film with plans to have Barrymore reprise his role.

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Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead

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There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. [...MORE]

New Beginnings: Lessons from Dodsworth (1936)

DODSWORTH (1936)

At the end of every year I, like many people, take stock of the events that took place throughout the previous months. I reassess the bad moments, trying to find ways that I could’ve avoided them or handled them differently. I also try to reflect on all of the good moments, no matter how small. Although the difference between December 31st and January 1st is a mere 24 hours, there’s something exciting about starting with a clean slate. Of course, I feel compelled to make a bunch of resolutions that I’ll blow within a week, but it feels good to set them nonetheless. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to lower my expectations and set more realistic goals, attempt to live in the moment and try to appreciate every single day that I’m alive. I also look forward to sharing each day with my loved ones, as they are the source of my true happiness.

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Cooley High (1975): Coming of Age and the Lens of Nostalgia

COOLEY HIGH (1975) In 1973, George Lucas, at the time known only to those few people who had seen THX-1138 (1971), unleashed the most successful coming of age film of all time, American Graffiti. Coming of age movies not only took off at the box office, they became nostalgia movies for the Baby Boom generation. Unlike Andy Hardy or Gidget movies, which were always contemporary to their production, these new Coming of Age movies took place in the past. From American Graffiti to The Lords of Flatbush (1974) to Animal House (1978) and straight through to Porky’s (1982), nostalgia was the go-to for teenage/early twenty-something romps. One of them, Cooley High, made by American International Pictures, became a sleeper hit and it was the only one addressing African American teens and their own hopes and dreams.  [...MORE]

Film Discoveries of 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

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Getting Away with Murder

PLAYER, THE (1992)

Today’s topic is probably not the one you were expecting to see on Christmas Day proper, but as a film programmer I’ve always enjoyed counter-programming. With that in mind, my double-feature recommendation for FilmStruck viewers comes in the shape of two black comedies: La Poison (Sacha Guitry, 1951) and The Player (Robert Altman, 1992).

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Happy, Yes, But Not So Lucky

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)

Several years ago, I can’t remember quite when, I saw Mike Leigh’s first work, Secrets & Lies (1996), and I was more than a little fascinated with how the movie felt. I didn’t see it in its original release, hence not knowing for sure when I saw it, but it felt different than most anything else I was seeing. It had a solid construction to it but a feeling of absolute looseness as well.  It didn’t feel as free-flowing and stream of consciousness as a Robert Altman film but it didn’t feel as utterly standard as so much else either. Later, when I saw his extraordinary Topsy-Turvy (1999), I was hooked. Here was a director who gathered together his actors with an idea and story outline and worked for weeks with improvisations as a solid plot started to make itself known. In part because of that, his films never feel like they’re headed in any obvious direction, even if they are headed towards something climactic. Later, I saw Happy Go Lucky (2008) and wasn’t disappointed. It’s reception at the end of the year, however, shocked me.

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An Unexpected Farewell: Leslie Howard’s Spitfire (1942)

FIRST OF THE FEW, THE (1942)

With World War II ramping up in his native Britain, Leslie Howard felt compelled to redirect the focus of his film career to the war effort. He also wanted to expand into producer and directorial roles, spending less time in front of the camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear path for him to do so in Hollywood, further adding to his desire to return home to Britain. After a successful string of starring roles in American films such as Of Human Bondage (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) and of course Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard bid adieu to Hollywood (and apparently quite a bit of money). Once returned home, Howard didn’t waste much time, immediately beginning production on two important propaganda films: Pimpernel Smith (1941), a modern take of the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Pimpernel (in which Howard starred in an adaptation in 1934) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Both of these films were instrumental in building morale for British citizens and encouraging support from the United States, which remained neutral at that time. Following the success of Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel, Howard continued his contribution to the war effort with the 1942 film The First of the Few (released under the title Spitfire in the United States), a biopic on the aircraft developer R.J. Mitchell, whose accomplishments included the Supermarine Spitfire, an important component of the Royal Air Force’s fleet.

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