Fox and His Friends (1975): Remembering Two German Giants

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975)

To view Fox and His Friends click here.

The recent death of legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is one that stings just as much as any movie titan in recent memory. Fans of American cinema know him as the gifted eye behind such films as The Departed (2006), The Age of Innocence (1993), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Broadcast News (1987), to name just a few of the titles that earn him a place in the upper Hollywood ranks. However, the Berlin-born maestro really cemented his reputation on the world stage with his decade-long collaborations with the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a collaboration that spanned from Whity (1971) through Lili Marleen (1981). [...MORE]

Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

BIG KNIFE, THE (1955)

To view The Big Knife click here.

In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the The Lives of Actors theme.

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I Know I Am: Breaking the Waves (1996)

BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)

To view Breaking the Waves click here.

There are two moments near the beginning of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) that capture a little bit of what I love so much about his style of filmmaking, moments that make the film seem unrehearsed, almost as if it weren’t a narrative piece at all. The first is after Bess (Emily Watson) walks outside after meeting with the council of her church elders seeking permission to get married. She breathes in the air and then looks directly at the camera, smiling. The second occurs during the wedding of Bess and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) as we see Bess coming down the aisle. She smiles shyly at everyone then looks right into the camera and sticks her tongue out. Both are fourth wall breaks but are done without irony or sarcasm, done not to wink at the audience but to leave the impression that you’re there, with Bess, in the moment, sharing her story. Lars von Trier makes movies that infuriate people and I admit, it took me some time to appreciate his nuances, but once I did, I found myself rewatching his works and rediscovering an emotional intimacy few other filmmakers accomplish.

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Sister, Act: English Lit, French Style with The Brontë Sisters (1979)

BRONTE SISTERS, THE (1978)

To view The Brontë Sisters click here.

The love affair between European cinema and the literary works of the Brontë sisters has been a fascinating one for decades, though it’s often overlooked in favor of Hollywood’s more publicized adaptations like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Jane Eyre (1943). Over the years we’ve seen versions of their novels come from such disparate filmmakers as Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, Franco Zeffirelli, Andrea Arnold and Robert Fuest, all of whom offered their own unique takes on the windswept, tormented romanticism that fueled their classic novels. The fascination with the Brontës continues to this day, as seen by the buzz over the BBC One television film, To Walk Invisible, a biography of the Brontës that debuted this month in the United States on PBS’ Masterpiece.

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Margaret Lockwood is The Wicked Lady (1945)

WICKED LADY, THE (1945)

To view The Wicked Lady click here.

“I’ve got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them!”
- Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood) in The Wicked Lady (1945)

During WWII, many British citizens were desperate for movies that allowed them to forget about the destruction and mayhem engulfing the world. Against the backdrop of war, it’s not surprising that female film viewers began flocking to historic melodramas offering a momentary escape. The horrors of modern combat were left at the ticket counter while audiences immersed themselves in another time and place. Gainsborough Pictures was at the forefront of this trend buoyed by a stable of attractive and talented actors that included James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc, Michael Rennie and Margret Lockwood. Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes [1938], Night Train to Munich [1940], Cast a Dark Shadow [1955]) was Gainsborough’s most popular female performer and although she never had much success in Hollywood, the actress became a household name in Britain during the 1940s. Her voluptuous beauty attracted both sexes but women were particularly drawn to the strong-willed characters she portrayed and her most successful film was The Wicked Lady (1945), which is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck.

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Adolescent Adventure: The World of Henry Orient (1964)

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

To view The World of Henry Orient click here.

FilmStruck has been singled out as a great resource for film aficionados but it also includes exceptional family friendly entertainment that can provide younger viewers with an eye-opening introduction to classic and foreign cinema. From Charlie Chaplin’s silent antics as the lovable Tramp in The Kid (1921) to the colorful Japanese fantasy film Jellyfish Eyes (2013), subscribers will discover a wide range of films available for all-ages. One stand out example is The World of Henry Orient (1964), a charming and extremely funny coming-of-age drama directed by George Roy Hill that is currently streaming as part of the “Female Friendships” collection.

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Best Friends Forever: Girlfriends (1978)

GIRLFRIENDS (1978)

Claudia Weill described her companionable film Girlfriends (1978) with a quote from the Eleanor Bergstein novel Advancing Paul Newman: “This is a story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life.” Or to put it in modern parlance, it’s a comedy of FOMO (fear of missing out). Girlfriends portrays the NYC friendship between the Jewish brunette Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) and the WASP blonde Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner). Susan is delaying family life to pursue a career in photography, while Anne speeds into marriage and kids while putting her writing to the side. They envy the other’s freedom and security, respectively, and their once unbreakable bond begins to fray. Girlfriends began as a documentary project on Jewish American identity, with funding from the AFI, but instead Weill funneled all her research into an independent feature, one so well-received it was picked up by Warner Bros. for distribution. Though the set-up can be a bit schematic, Weill has the patience of a documentarian and allows the actors to build their characters from types into complex personalities (shooting on location in shabby NYC apartments helps with the verisimilitude). The cast is superb all around, from Mayron and Skinner to the men who pursue them with varying degrees of success (an anxious Bob Balaban, flighty Christopher Guest and a charismatic Eli Wallach). Girlfriends is streaming on FilmStruck, and is also airing on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday March 8 at 9:15am.

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My Melancholy Valentine: Dans Paris (2006)

DansParis_2006_4

Love is complicated. Some see it as a priceless gift or blessing while others describe it as an unshakeable disease. It can be comforting, enriching, elevating, thrilling and divine. It can also be messy, unruly, feral, ferocious and cruel, particularly if you are suffering from acute depression. In Dans Paris aka In Paris (2006), French filmmaker Christophe Honoré (Ma mère aka My Mother [2004], Les chansons d’amour aka Love Songs [2006], Les Bien-Aimés aka Beloved [2011]) introduces us to a family in the throes of a profound depression although this fact is kept hidden from viewers throughout most of the film’s 90-minute runtime. Instead of focusing on the hows, whys and what fors of the situation, Honoré shows us how each family member is trying to cope and for better or worse, their drug of choice is love. With Valentine’s Day looming on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Dans Paris, one of my favorite French films of the past 20 years, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Honoré’s delightful, difficult and bittersweet romantic drama is part of their holiday appropriate “City of Love” theme featuring films set in Paris, a city that’s mere name conjures up scenes of romance and passion.

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Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead

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There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. [...MORE]

Cooley High (1975): Coming of Age and the Lens of Nostalgia

COOLEY HIGH (1975) In 1973, George Lucas, at the time known only to those few people who had seen THX-1138 (1971), unleashed the most successful coming of age film of all time, American Graffiti. Coming of age movies not only took off at the box office, they became nostalgia movies for the Baby Boom generation. Unlike Andy Hardy or Gidget movies, which were always contemporary to their production, these new Coming of Age movies took place in the past. From American Graffiti to The Lords of Flatbush (1974) to Animal House (1978) and straight through to Porky’s (1982), nostalgia was the go-to for teenage/early twenty-something romps. One of them, Cooley High, made by American International Pictures, became a sleeper hit and it was the only one addressing African American teens and their own hopes and dreams.  [...MORE]

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