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.

[...MORE]

Killing Them Softly: The Executioner (1963)

Executioner_1963_V1_

Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

[...MORE]

Youssef Chahine: Communicating with Humanity

CAIRO_STATION_1979_Chahine with knife email

One of the best perks of going to college back in the day was the campus film series. Each weekend, I eagerly attended the movie of the week, which could be a Hollywood classic, a recent popular movie or a foreign film. The campus film program was my introduction to international classics by Bergman, Fellini, Bresson and many others. Not having any control over the programming forced me to expand my personal canvas, reshaping my tastes and introducing me to the art and cultures of other lands. My friends and I were always excited to see a movie we knew nothing about it.

It occurred to me that FilmStruck is a streaming equivalent to the campus film series: For just a few bucks, viewers can escape the confines of their tastes and experiences and select an eye-opening film outside their comfort zone.

[...MORE]

When Context Matters: Nine Days of One Year (1962)

NineDaysOfOneYear_1964_CC

Ever heard of Nine Days of One Year (1962)? Chances are, the answer to that question is no. It was for me when TCM assigned me to write it up a couple of years ago. I tried to find some info online but came up empty. There’s an old review I found from Bosley Crowther and then one more from decades later by J. Hoberman. Neither was too enthused. And that was it. I mentioned both in my article. If you go to the Wikipedia page, there’s a whopping three external links: an almost willfully pointless AllMovie writeup, its IMDB page, and a link to my TCM article which, of course, wasn’t there when I first went looking (please read it for a more thorough discussion of the story). So anyway, I got the screener from my editor, settled in to watch it and find out what this movie was all about and I was quite surprised by what I saw. I had to ask myself several times in the first few minutes, “Wait, this was made in the Soviet Union? In 1962? And the director wasn’t sent to a gulag? The movie wasn’t even banned?!”

[...MORE]

A Poet’s Life: Pyaasa (1957)

PYAASA (1957)

Guru Dutt is a tragic figure in Bollywood history, a tremendously talented actor and filmmaker who committed suicide at the age of 39. He was able to direct eight films before his passing, the most famous of which is Pyaasa (1957), an intensely moving melodrama about a struggling poet, Vijay (played by Dutt). It is a movie about failure, as Vijay’s poems are roundly rejected, while his vagabond lifestyle alienates him from his immediate family. Broke and depressed, Vijay wanders the lower depths of the city and finds the first honest people he’s ever met, they just happen to be prostitutes and hucksters. As proper society would rather he disappear, Vijay pursues his art anyway, to destructive and unpredictable consequences. Filmed with a delirious mobility, the camera is always dollying from long distances into huge closeups, the distance between two unrequited lovers closed by the lens. With sinuous, unforgettable music by S.D. Burman and evocatively nihilistic Urdu poetry by Sahir Ludhianvi, FilmStruck is streaming Pyaasa as part of its “Classic Bollywood” package, and if you are looking to start exploring Bollywood cinema, this is a wise place to begin.

[...MORE]

Potemkin Village Blues: Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (1952)

WELCOME MR. MARSHALL, ( aka BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL), Lolita Sevilla, US poster art, 1953.

Last week I listed Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Placido (1961) as one of my film discoveries of 2016. A devilishly funny account of Christmastime sanctimony, it was the first film I had seen by Berlanga. Luckily, The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck is streaming four more of his films so I can get further acquainted with this acidic Spaniard. The earliest work on display is Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (aka Welcome Mr. Marshall!, 1952), Berlanga’s breakout feature, which lovingly satirizes a small Spanish town trying to lure Marshall Plan funds from the U.S. It won the second place International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but was famously denounced by jury member Edward G. Robinson as “anti-American.” The film is more anti-Catholic Church and Generalissimo Franco than anything else, however, as the Americans are phantoms wielded as symbols by the local government and clergy – described as both wealthy benefactors and agents of moral decay. What the film lampoons most spectacularly and thoroughly is Franco’s attempt to promote Spain in a single image: an Andalusian Spain that was all flamenco and bullfights. Before the Americans’ arrival, the town hides the drunks, throws up fake facades and wears Andalusian costumes to pretend they are a tourist paradise rather than a poor farming town. As in Placido, Berlanga uses thumbnail caricatures to populate his village, hilarious creations like the half-deaf mayor, a broke colonialist aristocrat and a rotund hustler/producer who turns their town into a Walt Disney-fied version of Spanishness.

[...MORE]

Redemption and Sacrifice in the Cinema: Babette’s Feast (1987)

BabettesFeast_1988_PUB04

Each January 1st, as we ring in the new year and cast out the old, my mind always drifts to the idea of redemption. The new year is an easy marking point for a new beginning and as everyone knows, most people have great energy at the start that slowly grinds down towards inaction. We have high hopes but rarely the ability, or time, or urgent need, to follow through. And so another year goes by and we set ourselves up for another shot at redemption. If we’re lucky, we’ll achieve some measure of it every few years. Maybe. For me, the idea of redemption and sacrifice, of starting anew and casting out the old, has never been told better in the movies than in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 adaption of Isak Dinesen’s story, Babette’s Feast.

[...MORE]

Film Discoveries of 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

[...MORE]

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).

[...MORE]

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.

[...MORE]

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.