History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)

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To view The Last Emperor click here.

In 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor, a movie about the life of Puyi, sometimes spelled as Pu Yi, who was the last emperor of China before it became a republic in 1911. The film was notable for having obtained permission from the Chinese government to film inside the Forbidden City, the storied site of the Imperial Palace. And possibly starting there, the movie began its clash with history, not so much by altering historical outcomes in the life of Puyi, but by leaving out information that might make the viewer less empathetic to those outcomes. Was this because Bertolucci was trying to placate the Chinese government and make sure he retained their permission to film? Possibly. Judging by how much of the real history is left in, though, it’s more likely that Bertolucci was trying to make a film about a child put into an impossible situation and leaving out disturbing facts that might make the audience a little less inclined to feel sorry for the small boy. For instance…

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Inside Chuck Barris’s Head: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

To view Confessions of a Dangerous Mind click here.

Innovative game show creator Chuck Barris, one of my favorite showbiz figures, died in March of this year. Obituaries rightly acknowledged his influence on reality television. While he created many game shows as head of Chuck Barris Productions, there are three that made pop culture history. The Dating Game (1965-1986), The Newlywed Game (1966-1974) and The Gong Show (1976-1980) shared in common a format designed to exploit the spontaneous and the unpredictable. The shows’ premises—dating, marriage and the desire to be the center of attention—often resulted in responses from contestants that could be embarrassing and downright humiliating.

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Sister, Act: English Lit, French Style with The Brontë Sisters (1979)

BRONTE SISTERS, THE (1978)

To view The Brontë Sisters click here.

The love affair between European cinema and the literary works of the Brontë sisters has been a fascinating one for decades, though it’s often overlooked in favor of Hollywood’s more publicized adaptations like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Jane Eyre (1943). Over the years we’ve seen versions of their novels come from such disparate filmmakers as Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, Franco Zeffirelli, Andrea Arnold and Robert Fuest, all of whom offered their own unique takes on the windswept, tormented romanticism that fueled their classic novels. The fascination with the Brontës continues to this day, as seen by the buzz over the BBC One television film, To Walk Invisible, a biography of the Brontës that debuted this month in the United States on PBS’ Masterpiece.

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Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)

MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

Biopics can be predictable and formulaic affairs. They often rely on a checklist of theatrical high points and low points, which restrict the scope of the drama and transform the rich panorama of life into a cheap paint by numbers routine. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) is an exception to that tired rule thanks to some innovative directing choices that challenged standard Hollywood tropes at the time it was made. In turn, this stirring dramatization of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief life is a brooding contemplation of the artistic process and a celebration of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris.

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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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