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June 25, 2016
David Kalat
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Rififi

It’s a venerable cliché, the idea of “one last big score.” The hero, reluctantly recognizing his glory days are behind him, deciding to make one last play for glory.

And so we find “Le Stephanois,” an aging gangster released from prison to a world that has passed him by. He has scores to settle, and dreams of a legendary haul. What if he could assemble a crack team of experts, and deploy them on a meticulously planned heist to rob a jewelry store? What could possibly go wrong? (As it turns out, quite a lot)

And behind the cameras, we find an echo and an inversion. Here is Jules Dassin, an American expatriate director on the run from the Blacklist, increasingly desperate to get back into movies. It’s been years, and the long arm of the Blacklist has been stretching across the Atlantic to frustrate his every move. An offer is given, but it’s a poor one—only a fool would take this assignment. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the desperate man will do almost anything. Somehow, improbably, he turns straw into gold. His film is more than good, it is influential, and with it he changes the rules for everyone.

This is Rififi.

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KEYWORDS: Jules Dassin, Rififi, The Blacklist
COMMENTS: 6
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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Ghost Goes West

blogopenerTomorrow night, May 24, at 9:45pm EST, TCM airs a charming romantic comedy with the unfortunate title of The Ghost Goes West. Unfortunate, because the title is misleading. The film is neither a horror tale, nor does it have anything to do with the Wild West. Released in 1936, The Ghost Goes West is a British film set in Scotland and Florida.

Robert Donat plays a dual role as the 20th century Scotsman Donald Glourie and his 18th century ancestor Murdoch Glourie. During a skrimish with British Red Coats, Murdoch is too busy chasing girls to fight for “the glory of Scotland,” a vague reference to the various tensions with Britain in that century. During battle, Murdoch is blown to bits, save for his Scottish tam o’ shanter, which flutters lightly to the ground. While in limbo between heaven and hell, the Scotsman is dubbed a coward by his deceased father for his shameful behavior in battle. Murdoch is returned to earth as a ghost and cursed to wander the halls of the Glourie castle.

 

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Kid Stuff: My Little Loves (1974)

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Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls, and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahiers du Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial  city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast. My Little Loves is screening on 35mm in the Metrograph’s Jean Eustache series, one of the inaugural programs for this ambitious new theater on NYC’s Lower East Side.

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January 16, 2016
David Kalat
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The Fall and Rise of Max Linder

There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”

The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian.  Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder.  When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.

Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though.  His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations.  There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.

That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background.  Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true.  But being available and being watched are two different things.

Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life.  If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.”  At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.

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KEYWORDS: Max Linder
COMMENTS: 6
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FANTOMAS
December 5, 2015
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol vs. Fantomas

It was a little over 100 years ago that the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre first began cranking out Fantômas mystery novels for a voracious European public. To keep apace with the relentless publication schedule, Souvestre and Allain traded writing duties. They would playfully build impossible cliffhangers before handing off to one another, daring the other to concoct a solution. It was perhaps the first commercial application of the Surrealists’ famous “exquisite corpse” game.

Over the years, the Fantômas character has appeared in a frenzied array of movie adaptations of differing degrees of quality. Arguably the most faithful adaptation to date is the 1979 TV miniseries–not necessarily the best, mind you, but the truest to the books. And as it happened, the authenticity extended behind the scenes: the producers decided to hire two visionary filmmakers to direct alternating episodes, in the spirit of Allain and Souvestre’s gonzo writing habits.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Fantomas, Jean-Luis Bunuel
COMMENTS: 8
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November 14, 2015
David Kalat
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The Story of Chabrol

They called Claude Chabrol “the French Hitchcock,” but this was always more a marketing hook than a meaningful comparison. Alfred Hitchcock made crowd-pleasing suspense thrillers; Chabrol made vicious satires disguised as suspense thrillers. For decades, Chabrol had been crafting spiky, embittered dramas simmering with disgust for humanity in general and the French bourgeoisie in specific.

And in 1988, he took aim at Nazi-occupied France. That was impressive enough, but the bullet he fired was a tangled, M.C. Escher-like self-referential puzzle surfing waves he’d set in motion two decades earlier.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Isabelle Huppert, Landru, Story of Women, Violette Noziere
COMMENTS: 5
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PICKPOCKET

Pickpocket - French Poster

(Editor’s Note: Pablo Kjolseth unexpectedly found himself on the road assisting with Cory McAbee’s latest film project, so he handed over the reigns for today’s post to Michael J. Casey, film critic and reporter for The Boulder Weekly.)

Above all things, cinema is a style. Movies are a glorious and exciting exploration of the human condition, but without style, the images simply hang to the screen, failing to be anything more than a light flickering on a blank canvas.

That’s why those who crack the code are so lauded, and few have been as voraciously lauded as the French director, Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Though he only made 13 features over the course of four decades, every one of his films bear a signature style, the mark of a master. Of these 13, TCM is showing five of his most acclaimed works on Sept. 25, and though all of them explore Bresson’s thoughts on style, cinematography and spirituality, none convey his ideas quite like his 1959 masterpiece, Pickpocket. [...MORE]

Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

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November 8, 2014
David Kalat
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Comedians in cars, getting French-style coffee

Jacques Tati’s Trafic is a comedy gem that tends to get lost in the shuffle. Setting aside the tendency for this thing to be mistaken for a similarly titled but completely unrelated drama a about drug smugglers (that extra “f” makes all the difference in the world) the 1971 swan song for Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot” character was poorly reviewed on its original release. Compared to the other Hulot films it is a curiously narrative effort by Tati—although the film’s languid Tati-esque pace caused contemporary reviewers to miss that aspect.

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KEYWORDS: Jacques Tati, Trafic
COMMENTS: 6
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October 11, 2014
David Kalat
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How Not to Stay Awake, French Style

Once upon a time I was very tired. More to the point, I was very tired in Montreal.

Julie and I were in Montreal for a child-free vacation, and we were so happy to have some time to ourselves we hadn’t done much planning. On arriving in the city we just looked around at what was going on, and saw that the Art Museum was going to be showing Marcel L’Herbier’s Fantastic Night (1942). I’ve been fascinated by the history of French horror and sci-fi films, and at the time I was considering fleshing out my chapter from Fear Without Frontiers into a book of its own—catching an actual 35mm print of this treasure was clearly must-see territory.

But how to spend the day leading up to it? Why, the Montreal Beer Festival, of course! And after a full day of sampling Canadian microbrews and eating sausages, we decided to burn off some of the woozy haze by walking to the Art Museum—some 4 miles away. We got there to find the Museum screening room’s AC was on the fritz, making the theater toasty. And so, warm and boozy and tired, we settled in to watch a B&W subtitled movie about a man who can’t stay awake. Hoo boy.

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KEYWORDS: Fantastic Night, La Nuit Fantastique, Marcel L'Herbier
COMMENTS: 4
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