Mad for Tchaikovsky: Glenda Jackson and The Music Lovers (1970)

THE MUSIC LOVERS

The online theater community practically exploded this past weekend when reviews started hitting for the great Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage with a landmark production of King Lear at the Old Vic, her first time in the footlights in twenty-five years. Jackson hasn’t exactly been in hiding in the meantime; she became a member of Parliament since 1992, standing down in 2015 after an outspoken career including several fiery speeches that became worldwide sensations.

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Star-pics: Biopics of the Stars

Tomorrow, TCM devotes its daytime programming to biopics, or biographical pictures. Fans of this genre know not to expect an accurate chronicle of the life of a famous person; instead, biopics (or, “bi-opics” as a former coworker used to insist on calling them) offer the mythic version of that life. In other words, biopics use the lives of the famous to depict a universal truth, to offer a life lesson, or to represent a value we can all relate to. TCM has selected several film biographies that focus on prominent leaders throughout history, including Alexander the Great, Marie Antoinette, and Gandhi. Expect stirring stories of individual self-sacrifice for the greater good of the people.

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Personally, my favorite biopics are those about show business figures, especially movie stars. Biopics are almost as old as the medium of cinema itself (The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1908), but star-pics did not emerge until the postwar era. By that time, the first generation of popular movie stars had evolved into legendary icons as reflected in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), Valentino (1951), and The Story of Will Rogers (1952). Also during the postwar era, the studios lost vertical control of the industry, meaning they were forced to loosen that vice-like grip on production, distribution, and exhibition. The systems and practices that had led Hollywood to become the most successful film industry in the world began to break down. Not coincidentally, the industry released a spate of movies that looked back on its history, warts and all (Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful). In contrast, the star-pics of the 1950s are affectionate re-creations of early Hollywood—nostalgic valentines to past legends and industry high points.

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Movie Book Round-Up: The Holiday Edition

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Since I began writing for the Movie Morlocks five years ago I typically compile a blog post with summer reading suggestions or a list of favorite film related books released at the end of the year. This year I’ve had access to so many great books that I decided to compile two book lists.

My first was “Midsummer Reading Suggestions” where I covered The Lives of Robert Ryan, Sex, Sadism, Spain, and Cinema: The Spanish Horror Film, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films and Audrey (Hepburn) at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen along with other titles. What follows is my “Holiday Edition” where I share some of the best books (pictured above) that I’ve encountered since July. I hope both lists will encourage you to do some reading during the holidays or provide you with some shopping suggestions while you’re purchasing gifts for fellow film buffs.

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Makeup vs. Acting

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The recent gangster biopic Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as real-life organized crime boss Whitey Bulger, a fixture in Boston’s criminal underworld from the 1960s through the 1990s. Depp gives an intense performance as the ruthless mobster, who was legendary for his unpredictable behavior and violent methods. The actor embraced the role, mastering the South Boston accent and adopting street-tough mannerisms. I recommend Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace; Crazy Heart) whose realist style serves the story well.

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Chuck Workman Finds the Magic in Orson Welles

magicianposterMovie lovers will recognize Chuck Workman as the filmmaker responsible for Precious Images, the original name given to the short documentary that encapsulates the history of American film in eight minutes. Originally commissioned by the Directors Guild, the film is a compilation documentary consisting of brief shots from 470 classic movies. Precious Memories won an Oscar for Live Action Short and is listed on the National Registry of Films. Workman is also responsible for The First 100 Years, a similar compilation documentary produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of projected motion pictures. Workman’s montage style in which he makes visual and thematic connections through clever editing is more complex than the pleasing surface of Precious Images suggests. The approach harkens back to the theories and practice of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Workman’s latest documentary on director Orson Welles also involves film history but in a different way.

At Sarasota’s Cine-World Film Festival, which closed last week, I caught Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. The great director makes for a timely topic considering next year is Welles’s 100th birthday. Given Workman’s skill and background in assembling clips, it is not surprising that the film contains well-organized snippets from archived interviews with Welles and some of his associates long since dead. There are also new interviews with former classmates, associates, and romantic companions.

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When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

 Devin McKinney has written a biography of uncommon urgency and feeling, about a man not prone to either.  Henry Fonda’s performances and, the book suggests, his private life, were built on varieties of withholding. Fonda’s greatest performances are models of underplaying, using his middle-Western sincerity to mask the losses that fissured his characters, manifesting only as haunted stares.   McKinney’s The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda traces the tragedies in turn that marked Fonda’s personal life, those which lined his face and lie hidden behind his icy blue eyes. McKinney draws broad conclusions from these traumas, finding constant echoes in Fonda’s screen roles, an occasionally problematic approach that tends to reduce collaborative film efforts to manifestations of Fonda’s personality. But McKinney is a seductive and patient writer, and whenever he focuses on the physical details of a Fonda performance, his various postures and gaits, it is a revelation of the actor’s craft, how Fonda positioned himself most often to disappear, whether by shading his face or turning his back. McKinney exalts him for this reserve and modesty, a reticence and chastened demeanor the author will trace back to the ghosts that populate Fonda’s past and present, the human wreckage he has left behind in his fabulously successful life. Of all the iconic Hollywood screen presences, McKinney argues, Fonda stands apart, a symbol not of American exceptionalism but of hesitation and regret for the country that could have been.

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Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

How about a “big screen” tennis biography?

It was over 5 years ago that I wrote on these pages about my other passion and its relation to this one, and referred to an ‘essay’ that I’d written on the topic for my site. (The article is really just a compilation of movies that contain at least one scene – or even a glimpse – of my favorite sport “in action”). Since then, I’ve added dozens of additional “tennis-related” films – some foreign but mostly domestic – the most recent being the seventieth title added to the list: last year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist (2011), which has a brief scene featuring Bérénice Bejo on a tennis court, coming to the net to shake hands after a mixed doubles match.
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Summer Reading

Above: Actress Merle Oberon enjoying a book while lounging around the pool

I do a lot of reading all year long but during the summer months I tend to set aside some extra time to catch up with the books that have accumulated on my shelves. This is partially due to a habit I developed as a child. While other kids were outside playing and enjoying the bright sunshine I could often be found in my bedroom pouring over a good book. Even when my family would go on vacation I would always stick a book in my suitcase or duffel bag. For better or worse, many of my fondest childhood memories involve books that I read during the sweltering summer months while on camping trips and during long plane flights to visit grandparents. This summer I’ve started habitually reading some interesting non-fiction film related books so I thought I’d share some recent discoveries.

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