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.

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Black & Blue Christmas: Placido (1961)

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

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The Horrifying, Mystifying Journey of Walkabout (1971)

WALKABOUT (1971)

Nicolas Roeg, a director not celebrated enough in my opinion, directed some of my favorite movies of the seventies. He directed Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) but my favorite has always been Walkabout (1971), a movie that both shocked me and entranced me the first time I saw it. Multiple viewings later, my reaction hasn’t changed a bit. Be warned, spoilers abound.

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Venomous Snakes & Poison Ants: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” – Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings, the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

This puzzling pastoral horror picture is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Cinema Passport: Australia series, a curated selection of films from the land down under that also includes Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Watched together these films provide a thought-provoking introduction to the Australian New Wave that emerged in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Unlike many other international New Wave film movements that launched in the 1960s, Australia’s got a late start but the results are equally compelling.

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An Unexpected Farewell: Leslie Howard’s Spitfire (1942)

FIRST OF THE FEW, THE (1942)

With World War II ramping up in his native Britain, Leslie Howard felt compelled to redirect the focus of his film career to the war effort. He also wanted to expand into producer and directorial roles, spending less time in front of the camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear path for him to do so in Hollywood, further adding to his desire to return home to Britain. After a successful string of starring roles in American films such as Of Human Bondage (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) and of course Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard bid adieu to Hollywood (and apparently quite a bit of money). Once returned home, Howard didn’t waste much time, immediately beginning production on two important propaganda films: Pimpernel Smith (1941), a modern take of the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Pimpernel (in which Howard starred in an adaptation in 1934) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Both of these films were instrumental in building morale for British citizens and encouraging support from the United States, which remained neutral at that time. Following the success of Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel, Howard continued his contribution to the war effort with the 1942 film The First of the Few (released under the title Spitfire in the United States), a biopic on the aircraft developer R.J. Mitchell, whose accomplishments included the Supermarine Spitfire, an important component of the Royal Air Force’s fleet.

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Living in the Past: The Music Room (1958)

MUSIC ROOM, THE (1958)

Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard both use similar visual motifs to communicate the decay of body and spirit with their principal characters. We see their homes, those of Charles Foster Kane and Norma Desmond, looking abandoned and in utter disrepair. The pools are empty, the grounds are unkempt and overgrown, and the owners are either at death’s doorstep (Kane) or living on the brink of complete irrelevance. The images are beautiful and surreal and effortlessly communicate the idea of two once powerful people now living in quiet anonymity. In The Music Room (1958), directed by Satyajit Ray and available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, the idea is similar but the motifs are different. The house and its surroundings have the same sense of abandonment but the focus is not on the real estate but on the central character, sitting in a chair, motionless and quiet. As his servant approaches, he asks “What month is it?” What month. Not the time, or the day, or even the week but the month. That’s how completely out of touch he is with the world around him. He’s not dead but he may as well be.

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The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

ascent_1976_3

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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Polly Maggoo Is Back in Fashion

QUI ETES-VOUS, POLLY MAGGOO?, (aka WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?), 1966

We all find different passages into movies we love. Sometimes a film grabs you in the opening moments and you know right away it’s something you’ll love and watch over and over for years. Then there are others that take some time and effort, growing on you gradually after you’ve watched them and only becoming favorites with repeated visits and reflection.

One film that fell into the first category for me is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), the debut feature film for American photographer and filmmaker William Klein. A controversial and oft-censored purveyor of fashion fantasies at Vogue, he had little but contempt for the fashion industry and particularly the magazine’s tastemaking editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland (fictionalized here as Ms. Maxwell). You’d think this film about an American ingénue entering the European fashion world would be filled with venom and vitriol, but no, it’s actually more of a quirky, witty takedown, so deliciously stylish and enjoyable that you can easily watch it without any knowledge of Klein’s behind-the-scenes axe to grind. It also has one of my favorite opening scenes in movie history. [...MORE]

A Symphony of Inner Lives

THREE COLOURS BLUE (FR1993) JULIETTE BINOCHE

He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film. [...MORE]

Truffaut’s Waltz into Darkness

Bride_Wore_Black_1968_1

Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.

Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.

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