Oh The Humanity: Dirigible (1931)

DIRIGIBLE (1931)

To view Dirigible click here.

Summer movie season is already upon us, with superheroes saving the world from various varieties of destruction. I’m turning back the clock to 1931 to look at a disaster film that uses the same playbook, Frank Capra’s blimp inferno Dirigible. (For the throngs of readers who have been following my Jean Renoir series, it is taking a month-long break, returning on July 18th.) Dirigible‘s thrills are premised on scale, on framing the enormity of these cruising zeppelins against the sky, and realistically rendering the chaos of such a behemoth coming apart at the seams. This was a million dollar production, with a lot of effort at authenticity, and much of the flying footage was shot on real Navy blimps with the compact Eyemo camera (cinematographer Joseph A. Walker says only two insert shots – of a train station and a sealing ship – were stock).  The movie alternates between these awe-inspiring feats of technological wonder and a rote love triangle that barely gets off the ground. This is a movie about the machines, not the people, which makes for dulling drama but stunning spectacle.

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Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956)

BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)

To view Bigger Than Life click here.

In 1955, Nicholas Ray made the technicolor family drama Rebel Without a Cause, which focused on the experiences of teenagers in the seemingly perfect confines of postwar suburbia. The film was not only a huge success, but it helped to make its star, James Dean, a household name, as well as leaving a significant mark on American culture. The following year, Ray revisited suburban middle America with Bigger Than Life (1956), a melodrama starring James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau. Unlike Rebel, Bigger Than Life had a disastrous run in theaters and was critically panned. But like so many films that are highly regarded today, Bigger Than Life has been reevaluated, and is considered by many to be Ray’s masterpiece.

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The Beast In Me: Le Bête Humaine (1938)

LA BETE HUMAINE (1938)

To view La Bête Humaine click here.

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise ([1938],which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine (1938). The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

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Being Happy Together (1997)

HAPPY TOGETHER, (aka CHEUN GWONG TSA SIT), Leslie Cheung, Tony LEUNG Chiu Wai, 1997. ©Kino Internati

To view Happy Together click here.

One of my favorite directors, Wong Kar-wai, is represented in FilmStruck’s new theme “Gay and Lesbian Cinema.” His film Happy Together (1997), a deceptively simple story about a gay couple in a turbulent relationship, earned him the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.

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Ireland in the Movies

ODD MAN OUT (1947)

The following is a guest post by writer Gareth Higgins:

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a news story covering events of which we have first hand knowledge, and saying, Huh? That doesn’t sound like what I know. It’s even more pronounced in fiction – Italian American organizations protested The Godfather (1972), weekend sailors I know blanched when they saw Robert Redford fail to carry out apparently basic seafaring tasks in All is Lost (2013), and don’t get my Baptist pastor husband started on the portrayal of Southern clergy in the movies.

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Revisiting Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

HAMLET (1996)

To view Hamlet click here.

Late last year I had the great pleasure of seeing Derek Jacobi perform MEASURE + DIDO (directed by Jacobi’s partner of 38-years, Richard Clifford), a modern update of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that includes excerpts from Henry Purcell’s chamber opera Dido and Aeneas. Jacobi was marvelous as Angelo, the lusty, scheming and very funny deputy to the Duke of Vienna. With apologies to the other players, Jacobi owned the stage and effortlessly commanded Shakespeare’s ornate language. I was in awe of his powerful performance and in the process, I gained a new appreciation for Shakespeare’s comedy. But if truth be told, I prefer the Bard’s tragedies to his comedies so with the experience of seeing MEASURE + DIDO still somewhat fresh in my mind, I decided to revisit Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Justifiable Homicide: Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

LE CRIME DE MONSIEUR LANGE (1936)

To view Le crime de Monsieur Lange click here.

Jean Renoir considered  Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country (1936) and The Lower Depths (1936) immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prévert. Renoir invited Prévert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet, Sylvia Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.

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Party Girl (1958): “Long Live This Rubbish”

MMDPAGI EC002

To view Party Girl click here.

In 1958, Nicholas Ray directed his last film under the old studio system in Hollywood. Titled Party Girl, the film did not inspire a lot of passion among the participants during production. According to Ray in a biography, Party Girl was merely a down and dirty movie produced by MGM for the neighborhood theaters. “No one thought much of it,” he recalled. Stars Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse were making their last contract film for MGM, and the studio seemed eager to be rid of them. Taylor believed Party Girl was a kind of punishment by the studio—an unceremonious farewell because studio execs felt he had lost favor with the audience. Without much of a push by the studio, it fizzled at the box office.

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Sequel or Stand Alone? Stolen Kisses (1968)

STOLEN KISSES (1968)

To view Stolen Kisses click here.

Sequels and continuing series installments have no obligation to adhere to the original tone of the work from which they derive. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), a half-hour sitcom, had a spinoff, Lou Grant (1977-1982), that was an hour long drama. It worked because the characters were presented in a realistic light (well, not counting Ted Baxter) and so the shift was easy to achieve. But if the spinoff was a drama about a newspaper editor, and not a sitcom about a television news producer, why say it’s a spinoff at all? To leverage the character’s name, obviously. Moving in the opposite direction, François Truffaut thrust The 400 Blows upon the cinematic world in 1959, presenting a tough and passionate look at a troubled and confused youth, Antoine Doinel, as he makes his way through an uneasy childhood. Then, after a short film showing Doinel at twenty, gave the world Stolen Kisses, a lighthearted and at times utterly silly comedy about the same character now somehow transformed into Harold Lloyd, bumbling Jack-of-all-Trades. But if all of it is autobiographical of Truffaut himself, does it even matter?

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Billy Bob Thornton and the Southern Gothic

SLINGBLADE_1996_FP_130

To view Sling Blade click here.

Articles about Billy Bob Thornton’s films, scripts or starring roles inevitably bring up some combination of his eccentric behavior, Southern background and strange marriage to Angelina Jolie. Any one of those personal details might drive mainstream reviewers to ridicule or dismiss the films he has written and/or directed, but the three together have likely tanked any significant critical appreciation of his entire body of work.

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