Luck of the Draw: Wild Card (2015)

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I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.

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February 7, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball Part 1: Sturges before Sturges

Jean Arthur is a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion.

No, Jean Arthur is an actress, and in the movie Easy Living she plays a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion, but let’s not get bogged down in such hairsplitting. In any event, she barely holds that job and is fired early in the film. It wasn’t much of a job anyway–the harridan spinsters who policed that magazine must have been insufferable coworkers.

But it paid the rent. Well, no it didn’t–she’s behind in her $7 a week rent when we first meet her, and has only a single dime for her bus fare, so it’s not like the job was some fabulous boondoggle. But things are tough all over–haven’t you heard there’s a Depression on? Of course, if times are so tough, how to explain the fur coat that just dropped out of the sky onto her head?

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KEYWORDS: Easy Living, Jean Arthur, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges
COMMENTS: 6
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True Romance: High Tension (1936)

 

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I don’t know if Allan Dwan ever read the Futurist Manifesto, but High Tension is an exemplar of the what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was celebrating in his incendiary 1909 statement in praise of the industrial age: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” And boy does Dwan like to go fast in High Tension (1936), which packs a screwball comedy and an deep sea adventure into its 63 minutes. Of his films from this period, Dwan said, “I’d eliminate stuff that was extraneous and speed up stuff that was written slowly. A writer stretches a story out, and you’ve got to fix it up. Make it move.” The movies narrative literally moves through telephone wires and underground cables, bringing together the exploits of the swashbuckling cable layer Steve Reardon (Brian Donlevy) and the dime store writer Edith MacNeil (Glenda Farrell) who turns his feats into fiction. The electricity that makes their jobs possible seems to jitter their bodies as they continually break up and smack back into each other across the country. It’s an action-packed ode to wired communication, and is now available for viewing in a very nice looking MOD DVD from Fox Cinema Archives.

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Cowgirl Diplomacy: Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)

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Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

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Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Remembering ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

raisinposterIn the year of the Freedom Rides, in which an interracial group of activists challenged Jim Crow segregation by traveling throughout the South by bus, Columbia released A Raisin in the Sun. A faithful adaptation of the play by Lorraine Hansberry, the film stars most of the original Broadway cast, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Jr., and John Fiedler. On Wednesday, January 14, TCM airs A Raisin in the Sun at 9:45 pm, a reminder of a brief time when Hollywood produced a number of social dramas that directly or indirectly dealt with racial issues.

A Raisin in the Sun marked the second film by director Daniel Petrie. A part of  the generation of directors that included Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and George Roy Hill, Petrie began his career in theater and on television during the late 1950s. This generation believed that  commercial tv and Hollywood films could convey controversial issues to a mass audience—something studio heads had avoided during the Golden Age. As a television director, Petrie had worked frequently with producer David Susskind, who wanted to bring Lorraine Hansberry’s play to the big screen. I remember Susskind’s television talk show, which featured interviews with prominent politicians and controversial figures. Like his talk shows, his television programs and films chronicled the important social issues of the times, including civil rights, war, abortion, drugs, and crime. Susskind, Petrie, and this generation of directors were in sync regarding their belief that popular cinema could effectively be used for social change. [...MORE]

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January 10, 2015
David Kalat
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The Ministry of Fear

So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?

OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.

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KEYWORDS: Dan Duryea, Fritz Lang, Ministry of Fear, Ray Milland
COMMENTS: 9
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Film Discoveries of 2014

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Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

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Final Repose: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

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Albert Lewin is an elusive figure in the history of Hollywood. He was an educated aesthete with a B.A. from NYU and a M.A. from Harvard who took a job as a script reader at Samuel Goldwyn studios. He swiftly rose through the ranks after Goldwyn was absorbed by MGM, and he was one of the five “Thalberg Men” who facilitated the studios success,  overseeing hits like Spawn of the North and Mutiny on the Bounty. When not overseeing super productions, Lewin  directed six unusual features, almost all about artistically inclined loners enmeshed in a debilitating obsession. His most famous film is his 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. It is a startlingly controlled production, from Hurd Hatfield’s evocatively blank lead performance to the deep focus photography of DP Harry Stradling, which gives ample space for Gray’s emptiness to expand.

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The Perils of Colleen: Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good?

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Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

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