The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

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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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Offbeat Otto: Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

bray One of my favorite Otto Preminger films has finally found its way onto DVD and Blu-ray thanks to Olive Films. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) was never released on home video so this marks the first time Preminger’s offbeat comedy-drama has been made easily accessible outside of airing on television where it was often edited or given the pan and scan treatment. Hopefully the Olive Films release will help the film find a new audience that appreciates its thought-provoking premise and quirky charm.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was originally based on a 1968 novel by Marjorie Kellogg, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. It tells the story of three misfits who form a makeshift family after leaving the hospital where they had been convalescing. Liza Minelli plays Junie Moon, a quirky and resourceful young woman disfigured in a vicious attack by a psychopath she once dated. Her compatriots include Robert Moore as Warren; a wheelchair bound gay man crippled in a shooting incident and Ken Howard as the childlike Arthur. Arthur is suffering from an undiagnosed form of epilepsy or neurological disorder as well as mental trauma after being involuntarily institutionalized when he was a child. We get to know these three unlikely companions as they move into a dilapidated old house owned by a flamboyant landlady (Kay Thompson), find work with a local fishmonger (James Coco), adopt a neighborhood owl and stray dog and frolic at a seaside resort with an affable beach boy (Fred Williamson). Things don’t end well for the troubled trio but they make the most of their short time together.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Patterns

blogbook“The patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world—lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it.” So said Rod Serling about his 1955 tele-drama Patterns, which was adapted into a feature film the following year. The quote by Serling is from the Bantam paperback version of the narrative, which was published in 1957. The story was produced in three separate mediums—television, film, and written fiction (left)—suggesting that it hit a nerve with audiences during the 1950s.

The film version, which airs on TCM this Saturday, September 24, at 10:15pm EST, differs from the tele-drama primarily in the casting of movie star Van Heflin as protagonist Fred Staples. Industrial engineer Staples and his wife, Nancy, played by Beatrice Straight, relocate from friendly Mansfield, Ohio, to cold-hearted Manhattan after Fred takes a job with Ramsey & Co. He and veteran vice-president Bill Briggs, played by Ed Begley, hit it off until Fred learns from company president Walter Ramsey that he was hired to replace the older man. Everett Sloane costars as Ramsey, who brow-beats Briggs in meeting after meeting, hoping to force the older executive to resign or retire. Caught in the middle, Staples struggles with his conscience. Though he protests the unfairness of Ramsey’s tactics, he stops short of making any real sacrifice on his friend’s behalf.

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That Ealing Touch

Alec Guinness in The Lavendar Hill Mob
If you know the name “Ealing Studios,” chances are it makes you think of a string of astonishing comedies the British studio cranked out in the decade or so after World War II, usually starring Alec Guinness, including such essentials as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, seen above and airing this Saturday, September 10), The Ladykillers (1955), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and Whiskey Galore! (1949). If you haven’t seen any of those, put them at the top of your “to watch” list pronto! However, there’s much, much more to the Ealing name than most Americans ever saw, and only in recent years has it been possible to really appreciate the scope of its output.  [...MORE]

The Whole World is Watching: Medium Cool (1969)

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“This is America quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events . . . the roots and fruit of social turmoil, and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains . . . goodbye to us. Which brings the picture full circle. The media continues.”
- Actor Robert Forster on Medium Cool from a 1969 newspaper interview

Haskell Wexler’s quasi-documentary Medium Cool (1969) airs on TCM this coming Sunday (10 PM EST / 7 PM PST) and I can’t think of a better film to watch before the start of the RNC and DNC conventions this month.

If you’ve been paying attention to the election this year, you’re well aware of the fact that both of our major political parties are in upheaval at the moment while the country is engulfed in racial and economic strife. This, along with an unremitting war on a nebulous enemy, gender disparity, unaffordable health care, inadequate education opportunities, environmental concerns, gun violence, an invasion of privacy by government as well as commercial interests and a growing distrust of our corporate run media (just to list a few of the hot-button issues propelling the debate), has concocted a Molotov cocktail of social unrest. When Haskell shot Medium Cool in the long, hot and discordant summer of 1968, a similar political climate was sweeping the country. It was an alarming and dispiriting time and many of the concerns troubling Americans 50-years ago are still with us today.

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The Circus Comes to Town

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This Tuesday’s daytime theme on TCM is Under the Big Top. Yes, the circus is coming to town with 12 hours of chronological carnival fun from 1928 through 1959, and I can’t help but feel that some mischievous TCM programmer purposefully lined up these goodies as a warm-up for the presidential debates happening later that evening. But, who knows? Maybe it was wholly serendipitous. Either way, let’s see who all got stuffed into the classic-movie clown car coming our way. [...MORE]

Carnal Knowledge

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TCM will be highlighting films by Ann-Margret this Thursday. The memory of her basking in a spray of beans and chocolate as she then makes love to a man-sized, hotdog-shaped pillow are so well-seared into any young stoner’s mind that I was tempted to write about Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975). However there is something in the air right now that pointed me, instead, toward Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971). It has to do with a perennial hot-button topic that will never go away as long as humans are around, be it Elvis’ gyrating hips in 1957 or whatever Miley Cyrus is licking right now: Sex. Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015), for example, is currently well on its way toward raking in over $100 million and is getting a lot of ink for Amy Schumer’s portrayal of a sexually liberated woman who grows up thinking monogamy isn’t realistic. It would be nice to think that we’ve come a long way since Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Richard Brooks, 1977), which portrayed the drama of a free-spirited and promiscuous woman (Diane Keaton) as a slippery slope into inevitable tragedy. But it was scarcely two weeks ago that a deranged religious extremist with a gun in Lafayette, Louisiana, picked a screening of Trainwreck for an act of terrorism. [...MORE]

Silents on Demand: Flicker Alley’s MOD DVD Program

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).

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How steve mcqueen blew it on a movie that almost had stampeding elephants, and other stories behind CALIFORNIA SPLIT

CALIFORNIA SPLIT poster

I spent the Labor Day weekend at the 41st Telluride Film Festival. There were many highlights, but at the top of my list was a 35mm print screening of California Split (Robert Altman, 1974), which was presented by TCM. And, no, I’m not just sucking up to the folks who sign my paycheck on this one, because if you search “California Split” on the Morlock site you’ll see that I refer to it in a 12.30.12 post as a title I’ve been wanting to watch for quite a while. Since writing that post I did purchase an out-of-print DVD that then proceeded to collect dust along about 100 other “must-watch” titles that currently sit on a bookshelf near my entertainment system. In retrospect, I’m glad it got lost in the shuffle. Why? Because thanks to Kim Morgan and Guy Maddin (this year’s Guest Directors at Telluride), I got to see a nice, uncut, Panavision print of California Split that was followed by a very entertaining Q&A with actors George Segal and  Joseph Walsh (who was also its producer and wrote the script based on many autobiographical elements). Frosting on the cake? The film print is three minutes longer than the DVD, due to legal issues involving musical clearances (strange how the ubiquitous “happy birthday” song can cause so many problems). I want to give an additional shout-out to both Morgan and Maddin for the excellent lineup of other selected films, which included A Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933), Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957), The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936), and Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse, 1953). The fact that all of these titles were screened on 35mm film and are each rare and off-the-beaten-path works worthy of a future lengthy post is testimony to both a great film festival and inspired curators. But, for now, let’s get back to California Split, and the story behind how it was almost appropriated by Steven Spielberg, Dean Martin, and a pack of rampaging elephants.  [...MORE]

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