Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

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There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

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A Surrealist Anti-Nationalist for All Ages – And All Countries.

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Luis Buñuel died in 1983 at 83 of cirrhosis of the liver in a hospital in Mexico City. The Spanish-born filmmaker was famous, in part, for being fearless in his critiques of organized religion and the bourgeoisie. His cinematic career started in 1929 with Un Chien Andalou (aka: An Andalusian Dog), a short film he made with Salvador Dali. Fans of The Pixies probably can’t hear that title without also hearing lead singer Black Francis (now Frank Black) barking out the words to the song “Debaser”: “Got me a movie, I want you to know, slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know, Girl so groovy, I want you to know, Don’t know about you, But I am Un chien andalusia.” This a nod to the famous scene where a cloud cuts across the moon and then a razor seems to cut a woman’s eyeball (it was actually that of a dead calf with bleached fur). Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris. Things like that happened almost a hundred years ago before Netflix and binge watching.

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Mad Love: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.

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My Melancholy Valentine: Dans Paris (2006)

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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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The Search for Common Ground: A Separation (2011)

A SEPARATION, (aka NADER AND SIMIN, aka JODAEIYE NADER AZ SIMIN), from left: Leila Hatami, Peyman Mo

When the U.S. government decided to abruptly impose a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) last week it caused pandemonium in international airports across the country. Travelers were removed from planes and denied passage while others were handcuffed, interrogated without legal representation and isolated from family and friends. Massive protests erupted and flights faced delays as the public tried to make sense of the situation.

Amid the chaos, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (About Elly [2009], A Separation [2011], The Past [2013]) expressed concern that he would not be allowed to enter the country to attend the upcoming Academy Awards in Los Angeles where his latest film, The Salesman (2016), is an Oscar contender for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film. When it became clear that his safe passage could not be guaranteed, Farhadi announced he wouldn’t be attending the award’s ceremony citing that officials were responding to his questions with “ifs and buts, which are in no way acceptable to me, even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.”

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Little Big Strongman

LONG GOOD FRIDAY, THE (1980)

(You want spoilers? We got spoilers! Tons of ‘em! Beware!)

He’s not very big in stature but thinks he is. Put another way, he realizes he can be physically imposing but likes to think his true power comes from his ability to sway people to his side, including wealthy foreigners who, he insists, will pay for his real estate project. They’re even coming to meet with him to discuss it and, as far as he is concerned, he is at the top of his game. This is his shining moment, when he will consolidate power and respect, and finally show everyone how much they’ve underestimated him. Then, for reasons this little man cannot understand, his world begins to fall apart. Hidden enemies lurk behind every door and, even though it’s clearly a lie, he trys to assure everyone around him that he’s hugely popular and everything is under control. That’s Harold Shand, gangster with a chip on his shoulder, at the center of the 1979 crime thriller The Long Good Friday.

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A Man’s World: Ginza Cosmetics (1951)

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Ginza Cosmetics (1951) is an unassuming, nearly plotless wander through Tokyo from director Mikio Naruse. It is remarkable for how unremarkable it is, focusing on the everyday lives of bar hostesses at a failing nightclub. Anticipating the setting of his 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza Cosmetics takes place in a world absent of functional men. They have all been lost to gambling, infidelity or the war. The ones that are left are damaged beyond recovery, appendages to a barstool. So the women make do with what is available to them, treating romance as their business and making arrangements with bucktooth middle-managers to create the illusion of intimacy. The film, diffuse in its focus, touches on these faux-mances but also finds time for the afternoon wanderings of a latchkey kid and his exhausted bar hostess mother, whose schedules are almost exact inverses. When he is wandering the city, she is holed up inside a bar, and when he is in bed asleep, she is finally freed into the night. Ginza Cosmetics is streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with eleven other Naruse titles.

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Culture Shock: La Cérémonie (1995)

LA CEREMONIE, Sandrine Bonnaire, 1995, © New Yorker/courtesy Everett Collection

If you’ve never seen a Claude Chabrol movie, you’re missing out. If you’ve heard he’s the French Hitchcock, you’re not getting even half the picture. And if you didn’t realize his 1995 movie, La Cérémonie, is one of the most profound statements on class warfare, mental illness and violence, go see it now. It’s not only the best movie I saw in 1995, it contains the best performance of the year by anyone I saw, male or female, in Isabelle Huppert as a cold, angry and morally stilted sociopath who unwittingly creates the means of her own demise.

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There Are No Safe Spaces: An Arturo Ripstein Double Feature

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Of late, I’ve been exploring the work of director Arturo Ripstein after coming across El castillo de la pureza aka The Castle of Purity (1972) and Foxtrot (1975) streaming on FilmStruck. Ripstein was brought up in Mexico’s thriving post-war film industry by his Polish-Mexican father, a prominent producer who cultivated his son’s cinematic interests. During a screening of Louis Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) at age 15, Ripstein developed an appreciation of film as art recognizing that movies could illuminate and inform viewers as well as entertain them. He was so impressed by the film’s vision that he reached out to Buñuel who admired Ripstein’s tenacity. Buñuel eventually allowed him to visit the set of The Exterminating Angel (1962), where Ripstein studied the accomplished director’s methods and was inspired to embark on his own filmmaking career. Much like his idol Buñuel, Ripstein’s films are critical of social mores and establishment hypocrisy. He tackles these sensitive subjects with dark humor and a critical eye while encouraging viewers to reconsider their own assumptions and beliefs.

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A Guide to Picking Daisies (1966)

DAISIES (1967)

Following up on my look at one of my favorite films of the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), it seems only appropriate to follow up with another astonishing film from that period told from the perspective of young women: Daisies (1966). However, this one’s a bit different as I’d also rank it as one of the most fascinating films ever from a female director, in this case the endlessly creative and unpredictable Věra Chytilová, who would likely have prime placement in the pantheon of great world directors if all of her films were easier to see.

There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in cinema over the past few years, with a particular focus on female directors since Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough Oscar win for directing The Hurt Locker (2008). However, while American filmmaking has certainly made some progress in recent years (and we definitely have a healthy number of highly accomplished American female directors), Europe has been ahead of the curve for a much longer period thanks to helmers as disparate as Lina Wertmüller, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Agnès Varda, Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Susanne Bier, to name but a few. There’s no way you could ever confuse any of their films for the work of anyone else, and that applies especially to Chytilová, who managed to make avant garde techniques fun, accessible, and even dangerous at a time when it was needed most.

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