Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

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There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

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A Relic from the Past: Gas Food Lodging (1992)

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When people think of old movies, they think black and white, grainy, studio-driven and set bound. It’s a common go-to for most casual movie fans but for a film lover, there are no old movies, only classics. There are, however, relics. Movies from not just a different time but a different state of mind, and for me, the independent films of the 1980s and the 1990s are now the relics of cinema. Movies made decades before them seem less dated, movies made just a few years after them seem a century ahead. But I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. For me, the movie most representative of what I’m talking about is the 1992 independent feature Gas Food Lodging, directed by Allison Anders and starring Brooke Adams, Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk. Filled with promise, it went nowhere and the cast, with the mild exception of Ms. Balk, got no real boost from its acclaim. Shortly afterwards, independent movies starting getting higher budgets, bigger celebrity star turns and technology put them on the same plane as the studios.

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Everyone’s Gone Crazy: Violent Cop (1989)

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“Beat” Takeshi Kitano has been making headlines recently. Late last year the 70-year-old Japanese filmmaker, actor, author and entertainer was awarded France’s coveted Legion of Honor for his contribution to contemporary arts while film retrospectives in New York and Rio de Janeiro, along with a spate of fresh Blu-ray releases from Film Movement and Third Window Films, have spawned renewed interest in his work. Kitano is also wrapping up production on his latest directorial effort, the third film in his lauded crime trilogy Outrage: Final Chapter (2017), and we can look forward to seeing him in the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017) soon. As a longtime admirer, it has been a joy to see the arc of his career take shape from popular television comedian to celebrated film auteur and beloved cultural figure.

Through April 28, FilmStruck subscribers have access to four of Takeshi Kitano’s earliest films including Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) and my personal favorite of the bunch, Violent Cop (1989). Violent Cop was the first feature film Kitano directed and its impact should not be underestimated. As he continues to gain new admirers around the world, I thought I would revisit the movie that launched Kitano’s filmmaking career and transformed his public persona from a fun-loving clown into a cinematic powerhouse in Japan and abroad.

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Part Doc, Part Comedy, All Sex

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Did you know that the energy harnessed by orgasm is the same energy responsible for the Northern Lights? No? Well, perhaps you are unfamiliar with the Orgone, an energy that exists everywhere and in all of us. It can be harnessed in an Orgone Accumulator, a wooden/metal box created by Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich in the 1930′s, that one sits in to accumulate Orgone energy. Once inside, the good energies build up within the subject, breaking through their “body armor,” as he called it, meaning their collective neuroses, and the good feelings begin to flow. For the rest of us, the bathroom works just fine. In 1971, Serbian director Dušan Makavejev, fascinated by Reich and his energy accumulating cabinet of curiosity, put together a movie, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, part documentary, part fictional narrative, part satirical, part propaganda. What makes it work so hypnotically well, is that all of those parts overlap with each other without a care or concern as to linear narrative or even functional argument.

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Talking Heads: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Last week, I delved into documentaries and asked how much was real and how much was fiction. Specifically, I was looking for the appearance of reality and wondering if documentaries and their overlap with fiction was a problem at all or just something to be expected when watching someone’s account of what happened. All of this led me to ponder a movie I have long considered a fictional documentary, My Dinner with Andre (1981), which is currently streaming under the Food for Thought theme in FilmStruck. The movie itself has become the butt of jokes from The Simpsons (Martin Prince plays the My Dinner with Andre game in an arcade) to movies like Waiting for Guffman (where Corky sells My Dinner with Andre action figures). Both of those jokes play well but let’s be honest, it’s pretty damn easy to parody a movie that is almost entirely two men sitting at a table, talking. The fact that such an undertaking not only had a director (instead of simply a cameraman saying, “Okay, I think we’re ready… I mean, action!”) but the internationally famous, highly acclaimed director Louis Malle, is a miracle in and of itself. Surely Malle saw this decidedly uncinematic scenario as an irresistible challenge as a filmmaker and set out to see what he could do with two men at a table talking. So what did he do? And what is the point of all of this anyway?

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Faceoff: Sabotage vs. Foreign Correspondent

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It’s that time of year when I ask students to select one or more Hitchcock films as part of the course material in my upper level film history class. I like to offer a pre-WWII Hitchcock film as one of the choices to represent his early spy thrillers, in which various spies and secret agents dash about Europe either defending or undermining the forces of democracy.

Last year, after asking for the input of the Morlocks (now StreamLine) readers, I selected The Lady Vanishes (1938) to represent this phase of Hitchcock’s work. It was a resounding success. This year, I have narrowed the choices to Sabotage (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), both available for streaming through The Criterion Channel. (Foreign Correspondent also airs on TCM on February 8 at 8:00pm ET.) Please weigh in on which film you think is the better choice, especially for young viewers who have heard of Hitchcock but are unfamiliar with his earlier work.

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Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, 1956

I just did a Fritz Lang movie last week (The Big Heat from 1953) and there have been other posts on the director around these parts lately as well so forgive me if I dive into familiar waters one more time. You see, I tend to focus on the ethical dilemmas of Lang’s work, in movies like M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and, of course, The Big Heat*, where the good guys and the bad guys tend to overlap. But before I take a break from writing about Lang, I’d like to throw in one more post on what may be my biggest Lang surprise in all my years of watching him. It’s a movie that throws so many genre tropes together into one big pot, it’s a miracle any of it works at all. But it does, magnificently so. It’s one of those movies that came and went and despite having plenty of big names in the cast, it feels like a low budget movie shot on the run. This amazing little piece of work called While the City Sleeps (1956) may be Lang’s most purely enjoyable film.

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Joan Bennett: Fritz Lang’s Muse

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Joan Bennett got her start in Hollywood as a lovely, demure, fair-haired ingénue but made her mark as a sexy, feisty, dark-haired femme fatale. Her transformation was atypical in Tinseltown where many natural brunettes such as Carole Lombard, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, found success after becoming bottle blonds. Bennett’s makeover happened during the production of Trade Winds (1938), an amusing crime-drama where she plays a woman on the run from the law who is forced to change her appearance. She looked so striking as a brunette that she was inundated with fan mail after the film’s release and got approval from national hairdresser associations who publicly admired her exotic new ‘do. Critics disapprovingly compared her to Hedy Lamarr but according to the actress’s autobiography (The Bennett Playbill), she relished the idea of escaping the “bland, blond, innocent” image that had dogged her and the change of appearance brought about a newfound personal and professional confidence. Afterward Bennett became politically active, fell in love with producer Walter Wanger and began a creative partnership with director Fritz Lang that would forever alter the trajectory of her career.

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A Man’s World: Ginza Cosmetics (1951)

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Ginza Cosmetics (1951) is an unassuming, nearly plotless wander through Tokyo from director Mikio Naruse. It is remarkable for how unremarkable it is, focusing on the everyday lives of bar hostesses at a failing nightclub. Anticipating the setting of his 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza Cosmetics takes place in a world absent of functional men. They have all been lost to gambling, infidelity or the war. The ones that are left are damaged beyond recovery, appendages to a barstool. So the women make do with what is available to them, treating romance as their business and making arrangements with bucktooth middle-managers to create the illusion of intimacy. The film, diffuse in its focus, touches on these faux-mances but also finds time for the afternoon wanderings of a latchkey kid and his exhausted bar hostess mother, whose schedules are almost exact inverses. When he is wandering the city, she is holed up inside a bar, and when he is in bed asleep, she is finally freed into the night. Ginza Cosmetics is streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with eleven other Naruse titles.

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Culture Shock: La Cérémonie (1995)

LA CEREMONIE, Sandrine Bonnaire, 1995, © New Yorker/courtesy Everett Collection

If you’ve never seen a Claude Chabrol movie, you’re missing out. If you’ve heard he’s the French Hitchcock, you’re not getting even half the picture. And if you didn’t realize his 1995 movie, La Cérémonie, is one of the most profound statements on class warfare, mental illness and violence, go see it now. It’s not only the best movie I saw in 1995, it contains the best performance of the year by anyone I saw, male or female, in Isabelle Huppert as a cold, angry and morally stilted sociopath who unwittingly creates the means of her own demise.

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