Billy Bob Thornton and the Southern Gothic

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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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“Just shut up and watch!”: Remembering Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017)

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To view the work of Seijun Suzuki click here.

On February 13, we lost Seijun Suzuki. The Japanese director, screenwriter, actor and producer was 93-years-old at the time of his death and a titan in my own cinematic universe but I haven’t had the opportunity to properly mourn his passing. With Suzuki’s birthday fast approaching (May 24th) I thought I would devote some time to discussing the movie maverick who is being commemorated on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck with “Chaos of Cool: A Tribute to Seijun Suzuki.” The programing theme presents seven of Suzuzki’s films including Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Youth of the Beast (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964), Story of a Prostitute (1965), Fighting Elegy (1966), Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) but if you search for the director’s name on FilmStruck you will also find Everything Goes Wrong (1960), which I singled out in the past. If you are unfamiliar with Suzuki or already a fan, “Chaos of Cool” provides subscribers with a fantastic opportunity to explore the work of one of Japan’s most dynamic, influential and innovative filmmakers.

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The Tramp: Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (1932)

To view Boudu Saved From Drowning click here.

“From Boudu I have learned that one of the attitudes to take toward society is to loathe it.” - Michel Simon

In Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) Michel Simon plays a bearded bum who has lost interest in humanity. Boudu would prefer to stroll in the park with his dog or drown at the bottom of the Seine than re-enter the world of neckties and table manners and responsibility. But he is dragged into it by a bourgeois bookseller who hopes to “save” him from his “plight.” But instead of praise Boudu brings chaos, destabilizing the household from within. Simon closely collaborated with director Jean Renoir on the production, and it is a tour de force performance, with Simon a loose-limbed satyr, extending his gangly frame in all the wrong directions so as to most annoy his hosts. It is something of a thematic sequel to La Chienne(1931), which Renoir and Simon completed the previous year and which I wrote about last week. They both center Simon as a sympathetic monster, one who commits despicable acts but only because they are being true to themselves. It is Boudu’s nature to drift, so if he is not allowed to drown in the undercurrent, he will coast above it, roiling all the lives he touches along the way.

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Love and War: The Spy in Black (1939)

SPY IN BLACK, THE (1939)

To view The Spy in Black click here.

“We are at war. Perhaps you forgot that, as I did for awhile. You are English, I am German, we are enemies!”

“I like that better.”

“And I. It simplifies everything.”

That conversation happens late in the 1939 thriller, The Spy in Black, but it strikes at the heart of the movie. The Spy in Black is notable as the first movie that the esteemed filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked on together, though not as co-directors. This first time out, Powell was the sole director and Pressburger, the screenwriter. The movie follows more along the lines of Powell and the duo’s early work, a small, intimate film, high on efficiency, low on bloat. The story is a rather average one (spies fooling each other in an effort to win one for the war effort) distinguished by the performances of Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and the direction of Powell. But it also distinguishes itself in taking its little story and heaping upon it the moral quandaries of love and death in war, something that quote above speaks to. And in that respect, it is one of the best spy thrillers of the 1930s.

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Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

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To view La Chienne click here.

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here. [...MORE]

Poking Fun at Death: Re-Visiting The Seventh Seal (1957)

SEVENTH SEAL, THE (1957)

To view The Seventh Seal click here.

Making fun of Death seems like a risky prank—like poking a stick at a poisonous snake—but, that has never stopped filmmakers, comedians and animators from spoofing the character of Death as seen in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a title currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of series devoted to Sweden’s most renowned director.

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Under the Volcano (1984) with Albert Finney

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To view Under the Volcano click here.

One of my favorite actors is presently getting the red-carpet treatment at FilmStruck; “Starring Albert Finney” is a new theme that presents a batch of Finney’s films for your enjoyment including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tom Jones (1963) and A Man of No Importance (1994). If you’re new to Finney, it is a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with one of Britain’s finest exports and if you’re a longtime fan like myself, it’s a good time to reacquaint yourself with some of his best work.

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Memphis: Last Stop on the Mystery Train (1989)

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

To view Mystery Train click here.

Several years ago, I was visiting Memphis during Elvis Week, which is a week-long series of events in mid-August that commemorates the life and music of Elvis Presley. I made the travel arrangements for me and a companion, booking a motel near downtown. The famous Peabody Hotel was definitely out of our price range, but I wanted to be near the newly revitalized Beale Street area, so I selected something that did not seem too far from the city’s night life. When we arrived in Memphis, it was well after dark, but it was clear that I had selected a rat-trap on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. I walked up to the check-in window with the bullet-proof glass, while a party of mammoth proportions was underway in the parking lot. I remember hoping that the very loud party-goers were not guests of the motel.

As we walked toward our room on the second floor, we noticed most of the doors were missing the doorknobs. You could see into the rooms through the holes in the doors where the knobs used to be. Once inside our room, there was a couple of deadbolt locks and a door chain; fortunately, our door did not have a hole in it, though our outside knob was missing. Inside, the rug looked so greasy that we refused to take off our shoes, and some of the wallpaper was peeling off near the ceiling. And, gosh, was that a gunshot amidst the loud music, or a car backfiring? My companion suggested we stay the night, then look for another motel, though our options would be limited because, after all, it was Elvis Week. We searched for the phone book to start making the calls, but there was no phone book—until I noticed it was being used to prop up the broken leg of one of the beds.

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Jean Renoir: Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

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To view Whirlpool of Fate click here.

In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy. 

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Let’s Go Bananas (1971)

BANANAS (1971)

To view Bananas click here.

Thanks to its frequent afternoon rotation on cable TV, I’m pretty sure Bananas was the first Woody Allen film I ever saw. I don’t think anyone who grew up later than the 1980s will ever say that again, but this is a great film to watch when you’re young (even if, yes, it has a joke about a magazine called Orgasm) and the perfect gateway to Woody’s “early, funny” period. It’s hard to describe the omnipresence Allen seemed to have in pop culture from the mid-1970s into the Orion Pictures period of the 1980s; every middle class home seemed to have at least two or three of his books sitting prominently ­on a bookshelf, film critics seemed to compare every comedy that opened to Annie Hall (1977), and the man himself made numerous TV appearances including some celebrated turns on The Dick Cavett Show (1968-1974). On top of that, Allen and 1970s muse Diane Keaton were seen as the epitome of the urbane, hip New York couple who were attractive because of their wit and intellect.

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