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]

Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)

MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

Biopics can be predictable and formulaic affairs. They often rely on a checklist of theatrical high points and low points, which restrict the scope of the drama and transform the rich panorama of life into a cheap paint by numbers routine. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) is an exception to that tired rule thanks to some innovative directing choices that challenged standard Hollywood tropes at the time it was made. In turn, this stirring dramatization of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief life is a brooding contemplation of the artistic process and a celebration of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris.

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Getting Away with Murder

PLAYER, THE (1992)

Today’s topic is probably not the one you were expecting to see on Christmas Day proper, but as a film programmer I’ve always enjoyed counter-programming. With that in mind, my double-feature recommendation for FilmStruck viewers comes in the shape of two black comedies: La Poison (Sacha Guitry, 1951) and The Player (Robert Altman, 1992).

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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)

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“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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