A Guide to Picking Daisies (1966)

DAISIES (1967)

Following up on my look at one of my favorite films of the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), it seems only appropriate to follow up with another astonishing film from that period told from the perspective of young women: Daisies (1966). However, this one’s a bit different as I’d also rank it as one of the most fascinating films ever from a female director, in this case the endlessly creative and unpredictable Věra Chytilová, who would likely have prime placement in the pantheon of great world directors if all of her films were easier to see.

There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in cinema over the past few years, with a particular focus on female directors since Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough Oscar win for directing The Hurt Locker (2008). However, while American filmmaking has certainly made some progress in recent years (and we definitely have a healthy number of highly accomplished American female directors), Europe has been ahead of the curve for a much longer period thanks to helmers as disparate as Lina Wertmüller, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Agnès Varda, Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Susanne Bier, to name but a few. There’s no way you could ever confuse any of their films for the work of anyone else, and that applies especially to Chytilová, who managed to make avant garde techniques fun, accessible, and even dangerous at a time when it was needed most.

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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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Youssef Chahine: Communicating with Humanity

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One of the best perks of going to college back in the day was the campus film series. Each weekend, I eagerly attended the movie of the week, which could be a Hollywood classic, a recent popular movie or a foreign film. The campus film program was my introduction to international classics by Bergman, Fellini, Bresson and many others. Not having any control over the programming forced me to expand my personal canvas, reshaping my tastes and introducing me to the art and cultures of other lands. My friends and I were always excited to see a movie we knew nothing about it.

It occurred to me that FilmStruck is a streaming equivalent to the campus film series: For just a few bucks, viewers can escape the confines of their tastes and experiences and select an eye-opening film outside their comfort zone.

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GILLIAMESQUE

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Gilliamesque is the title of the recent autobiography by Terry Gilliam (co-written by Ben Thompson). On the cover, the byline announces “A Pre-posthumous Memoir,” but when you open the book this byline has a black mark through it, as does the byline below that, “TG’s Bio(degradable) Autography,” also marked through is the third byline: “A singular person’s first first person singular Palin-dromic biograph.” A fourth line is left alone: “My Me, Me, Me Memoir.” Those four pronouns promise to give readers a focused look into Gilliam’s life that is sure to be of interest to any fans of his work. Folks in that latter category should also know that FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films that also put Gilliam in the limelight.

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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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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

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I once took a couple of noncredit courses on the early films of John Ford. I thought I knew a great deal about Ford, but, as taught by talented filmmaker and learned film scholar Michael G. Smith, the courses proved to be a revelation. I was surprised at some of Ford’s influences (German Expressionism!!!!), and I enjoyed the diversity of genres and stars that made up his pre-Stagecoach output. I was reminded of this experience when I came across “John Ford in the 1930s,” a collection of films currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Included in this collection is The Whole Town’s Talking, a 1935 comedy that doesn’t have much of a reputation among Ford biographers. I admit that the first time I saw it, I didn’t realize that it was the work of Hollywood’s premiere director of westerns. In this little comedy, Edward G. Robinson stars in a dual role as mild-mannered hardware clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and cold-blooded gangster Killer Mannion, who has just broken out of jail. The police arrest Jones, believing him to be Mannion. After they release him, reporters create front-page headlines out of this unfortunate case of mistaken identity, which draws the attention of the real Mannion. The gangster kidnaps his look-alike to use his identification papers in order to continue his crime spree.

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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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Black & Blue Christmas: Placido (1961)

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

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