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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The Horrifying, Mystifying Journey of Walkabout (1971)

WALKABOUT (1971)

Nicolas Roeg, a director not celebrated enough in my opinion, directed some of my favorite movies of the seventies. He directed Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) but my favorite has always been Walkabout (1971), a movie that both shocked me and entranced me the first time I saw it. Multiple viewings later, my reaction hasn’t changed a bit. Be warned, spoilers abound.

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Getting Physical: Athina Rachel Tsangari

SlowBusinessofGoing_going_2001_10_GalleryBig

In the first shot of her first film, Athina Rachel Tsangari depicts a close up of a warring kiss, two tongues battling for position. This image from Fit, her 1994 short film, is one not of love or lust but of utility, the tongue turned into a tool. Throughout her career Tsangari has made a skill out of this kind of estrangement, re-contextualizing how bodies are used in cinema, whether it’s the dystopian sci-fi of The Slow Business of Going (2001), which turns youthful wanderlust into a downloadable commodity, or Attenberg (2010), which poses female friendship as a ritualized comedy of animalistic posing. Tsangari is a cinephile whose education took her to New York, Austin, and her homeland of Greece. FilmStruck is now streaming Tsangari’s entire output to date on The Criterion Channel, including three short films and her latest feature, Chevalier (2015), which pushes male upmanship to its natural, hilarious conclusion.

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Crash Course in Editing: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

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Comic book films and action movies tend to use a fast-paced style of editing combined with close framings and jittery camera movement. The editing has been dubbed post-classical or hyper-editing, while the camera movement is referred to with the derogatory term “shaky cam.” I have also heard this obvious, inelegant style called “chaos cinema” or “intensified continuity.”

Hyper-editing is antithetical to the classic continuity editing innovated by D.W. Griffith and cemented by hundreds of directors over nine decades in Hollywood. Continuity editing prides itself on establishing a clarity of space and logic of action, which pulls the audience into the film, making them participants in the narrative. Viewers identify with the characters, bonding with them. Bona fide suspense is created when the characters are in danger, because viewers can see where the danger is in relation to the characters. The performance of the stars, as well as mood and tone, are part of the experience, which is enhanced by continuity. Hyper-editing trades spatial clarity, star turns, and mood for a visceral experience that is forgotten as soon as it is viewed. Small wonder it appeals to adolescent boys whose attentions spans can be measured in nano-seconds.

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An Unexpected Farewell: Leslie Howard’s Spitfire (1942)

FIRST OF THE FEW, THE (1942)

With World War II ramping up in his native Britain, Leslie Howard felt compelled to redirect the focus of his film career to the war effort. He also wanted to expand into producer and directorial roles, spending less time in front of the camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear path for him to do so in Hollywood, further adding to his desire to return home to Britain. After a successful string of starring roles in American films such as Of Human Bondage (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) and of course Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard bid adieu to Hollywood (and apparently quite a bit of money). Once returned home, Howard didn’t waste much time, immediately beginning production on two important propaganda films: Pimpernel Smith (1941), a modern take of the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Pimpernel (in which Howard starred in an adaptation in 1934) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Both of these films were instrumental in building morale for British citizens and encouraging support from the United States, which remained neutral at that time. Following the success of Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel, Howard continued his contribution to the war effort with the 1942 film The First of the Few (released under the title Spitfire in the United States), a biopic on the aircraft developer R.J. Mitchell, whose accomplishments included the Supermarine Spitfire, an important component of the Royal Air Force’s fleet.

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The Moral Arc of Mamet

OLEANNA (1994)

David Mamet has enjoyed a career as one of the most expressive and manipulative playwrights of his time. When I say “manipulative” I do not mean that in any sense to be an insult. Rather, Mamet understands how to manipulate his characters and situations precisely (you’ll see that word a lot in this piece) to evoke strong emotion and opinion in the viewer, often at odds with each other. Watching a Mamet production (if you’ve never seen one performed onstage, you’re missing out) is a maddening, engaging, often bewildering experience. As a filmmaker, Mamet started out adapting his own work from the stage but gradually began to create original works for the screen. Before directing, Mamet had already been writing for the movies, with hits as varied as The Verdict (1982) and The Untouchables (1987). Eventually, his directing skills caught up to his writing skills and he directed some of the best mentally challenging thrillers and dramas of the nineties.

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A Symphony of Inner Lives

THREE COLOURS BLUE (FR1993) JULIETTE BINOCHE

He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film. [...MORE]

Family Ties: Men Don’t Leave (1990)

MEN DON'T LEAVE

“I squandered a really good career. What can I say?” – Paul Brickman to Salon

After the phenomenal success of Risky Business (1983), writer-director Paul Brickman was offered hundreds of screenplays to adapt. Brickman rejected them all, including future hits Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Frustrated with the Geffen Film Company’s imposed happy ending on Risky Business, he instead bided his time until Men Don’t Leave (1990) crossed his desk seven years later. A finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief – it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.

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Paths of Glory: Remembering the Actors

PATHS OF GLORY (1957)The films of Stanley Kubrick have experienced a resurgence in the past couple of months. TCM teamed with Fathom Entertainment to show Dr. Strangelove on the big screen in September and The Shining in October, while FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films under the banner Early Kubrick. The films include Fear and Desire (1953), the director’s rare first film that he once withdrew from circulation, Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1958). I am in awe of all Kubrick films, especially Barry Lyndon (1975), but I prefer to watch his early work, because the scale is smaller, the stories simpler, and the protagonists still likable. My favorite Kubrick film has always been Paths of Glory.

Scholars such as Michel Ciment have readily documented Kubrick’s use of mise-en-scene in his work, including Paths of Glory. The conflict in this WWI drama is not between the Germans and the French but between the exhausted French soldiers and the callous officers who control them. The story revolves around a failed attack on a German stronghold called the Ant Hill. Over the objections of Colonel Dax, the attack is launched by General Mireau because he was promised a promotion by General Broulard. When the doomed attack fails, an enraged Mireau decides to shoot three French soldiers for cowardice to teach all of his men some kind of misguided lesson. The gulf between the soldiers and the officers is symbolized by the two key settings, the claustrophobic trenches below ground and the opulent chateau that looms far above ground. Much has been made of the trial scene for the three soldiers, which takes place in one of the chateau’s cavernous rooms. The black and white parquet floor resembles a chess board, while the blocking of the characters places them as pawns. A high angle looks down on the participants, suggesting that fate has predetermined the soldiers’ outcome.

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