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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Adventure in Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)

TOPKAPI (1964)

Today (Dec. 8) is Maximilian Schell’s birthday. The handsome Swiss actor is one of my favorite screen performers and he would have been 85 today if he hadn’t passed away in 2014 after abruptly contracting pneumonia. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d take a look at one of my favorite Maximilian Schell films; the stylish and highly entertaining caper, Topkapi (1964) directed by Jules Dassin (Brute Force [1947], The Naked City [1948]). If you’re searching for an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, this playful, frothy cocktail of a film is sure to warm your spirits. Topkapi is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. You can also occasionally catch it playing on TCM.

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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]

‘Night Moves’ vs. ‘The Long Goodbye’

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TCM airs one of my favorite film noirs, Night Moves, tonight at 12:15am as part the evening’s tribute to production designer George Jenkins. This 1975 film has been on my mind recently because I am scheduled to teach a course in film noir in the fall. It has been a long time since I have been able to devote an entire semester to one genre, and I want to give my film selection some serious thought. I am torn between using Night Moves by Arthur Penn and The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman to represent the Film School Generation, when certain directors experimented with the conventions, norms, and standards of Hollywood genres. These films have been dubbed experimental noirs, deconstructed noirs, and even anti-noirs, but whatever you call them, they do represent a different treatment of the genre.

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Aaahoo! She-Wolf of London (1946)

swlposterThe setting is London in the early 1900s, where a young Scottish woman named Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing to wed her beau (Don Porter). The happy couple’s plans are interrupted when someone or something begins killing locals at a nearby park. Terrified Phyllis is certain an old Scottish curse that has plagued her family for centuries is turning her into a bloodthirsty werewolf while she sleeps but her domineering aunt Martha (Sara Haden ) and lovesick cousin Carol (Jan Wiley) seem to think otherwise. Is Phyllis a werewolf? Is she going mad? Or is something else even more sinister stalking the nearby park under the cover of night? SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946) is often dismissed as one of the lessor entries in the Universal monster cannon but while watching this briskly paced B-movie again recently after decades of reading numerous dismissals, I was swept up by the films moody atmosphere and shaken by its surprising brutality. The film may not satisfy viewers anticipating a typical monster movie but SHE-WOLF OF LONDON has plenty of things to recommend it and with Halloween quickly approaching it seemed like the perfect time to praise its unsung sinister charm.

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Unfinished Films: Where Can I Buy My Ticket?

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This month  JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2013) will finally be leaving the festival circuit and getting a wider release on March 21st. Frank Pavich’s new documentary chronicles the long strange and turbulent development of what many consider to be one of greatest unrealized films in cinema history and allows us to imagine what Jodorowsky’s unfinished film might have looked like if it had been completed. Jodorowsky’s unruly vision was based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction opus and featured production design by the Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger and French cartoonist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, a soundtrack by the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd and a cast that included Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Salvador Dali and Amanda Lear. Pre-production on this big-budget film started in 1974 and millions of dollars were spent before the project eventually fell apart. Unfortunately, Jodorowsky’s story isn’t uncommon and there are thousands of forgotten unmade movies that we’ll never get the opportunity to see although they may not have had the same ambition or scope as the long lost DUNE. With this in mind I decided to compile a list of some particularly intriguing film projects that never made it to the big screen. These are the forgotten dreams of frustrated directors and writers but from time to time I find them unspooling in my head and my imagination has transformed them all into minor and, in some cases, major masterpieces.

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LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

Extruded plastic dingus, for kids

Last week I posted here some embarrassing anecdotes about my experiences as a color timer in the early 1990s—and I’d intended to immediately follow it up with a sequel.  The first post was about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—a film I knew was a commercial and critical disappointment, and I thought it was funny trying to pretend I was the reason for its problems.  And so the sequel would flip the story—a Hollywood film I came near, but which soared to great heights because I was kept safely far away from it.

Except when I sat down to start writing this, I was absolutely jaw-droppingly gob-smacked to discover that my whole premise was flawed.  To my utter astonishment, I learned that the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy was not considered a success.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.

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It’s Not Too Late to Start Again (Virus 1980)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were lousy with disaster flicks, a sub-genre to which Virus unquestionably belongs.  Apocalypse thrillers have always been in vogue, but they do tend to shift in tone with the cultural zeitgeist. But there was something about the Cold War era that gave rise to some wonderful end-of-the-world movies the likes of which we don’t really encounter anymore.  The bizarre illogic of the Cold War was somehow more conducive to nightmare poetry: two superpowers armed with enough firepower to destroy life on Earth countless times over, where in order to preserve the peace they each must threaten total war.  The only thing keeping those nukes in their holsters was the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction (quite appropriately, MAD).  Edward Albee couldn’t have thunk up any better.

And Virus, mind you, is the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s a rip-snorting good movie that packs in not just one apocalypse, but two.

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It’s the End of the World and I Feel Fine

If you are reading this, then the world didn’t end. I never put any stock in that whole Mayan calendar silliness–if I had, I wouldn’t have spent any time writing this. And so it is with absolute confidence in the continuation of the world that I am writing this, marking the non-pocalypse by paying tribute to some of my favorite end-of-the-world movies.

Let’s start by noting that in most cases, what we really mean by end of the world movies are not movies about the literal destruction of the planet. Every once in a while you get a Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where the world is actually blown to smithereens, but those are the exceptions. The real point is to explore the end of the world as we know it, that is, the end of civilization.

In my mind, you can divide these movies into three sub-categories, and I’ll offer an example of each.

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