What’s it all about, Monte? The Shooting (1966)

SHOOTING, THE (1967)

His horse rears up his head and looks around, as if something is amiss. The horse’s rider, Willet Gashade, looks around too and as the first notes of a flute make their way into the viewer’s ears, a wave of disquiet has already inundated the surroundings. Something’s not right. Things seem… off kilter. Uneasy. Unsure. The rider makes his way to his destination but soon enough will realize it’s only a starting point to a journey that may or may not end with any sense of meaning or purpose whatsoever. Thus begins Monte Hellman’s extraordinary 1966 film, The Shooting, one of the best films of the 1960s, or any decade, really.

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The Curse of Eternal Life: Cronos (1993)

CRONOS (1993)

Guillermo del Toro was still in his twenties when he wrote and directed Cronos (1993), a horror movie, yes, but also a movie about time and age and what it means to live forever. One might think 29 too young an age to tackle such subjects but when it comes to horror, in particular, and moviemaking, in general, del Toro could easily be the subject of Count Dracula’s famous response to Van Helsing, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man.” Since then, del Toro’s reputation has grown and his movies have become blockbusters at the box office but his first one out might still be my favorite.

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Is It Ever Really Easy? Blood Simple (1984)

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

It seems hard to believe, but the Coen Brothers made their debut film well over thirty years ago now. In 1984 they put together their own trailer, a trailer for a movie they hadn’t even made, and went about getting the financing to make the film come true. The result was Blood Simple, a crime thriller that was also a showcase for some of the best talent in the movies at that time, talent that, to this day, has never gotten its full due. But it also stands as a testament to how artists change, how they view their work and whether any of it matters in the final analysis.

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A Relic from the Past: Gas Food Lodging (1992)

GasFoodLodging_1992_gasfl06h

When people think of old movies, they think black and white, grainy, studio-driven and set bound. It’s a common go-to for most casual movie fans but for a film lover, there are no old movies, only classics. There are, however, relics. Movies from not just a different time but a different state of mind, and for me, the independent films of the 1980s and the 1990s are now the relics of cinema. Movies made decades before them seem less dated, movies made just a few years after them seem a century ahead. But I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. For me, the movie most representative of what I’m talking about is the 1992 independent feature Gas Food Lodging, directed by Allison Anders and starring Brooke Adams, Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk. Filled with promise, it went nowhere and the cast, with the mild exception of Ms. Balk, got no real boost from its acclaim. Shortly afterwards, independent movies starting getting higher budgets, bigger celebrity star turns and technology put them on the same plane as the studios.

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Elvis & Nixon: A Match Made in Pop Culture Heaven

blogopenerElvis & Nixon opened over the weekend with little fanfare but with a barrage of unconstructive, ineffectual reviews. Liza Johnson directed this slice-of-Elvis-lore, which chronicles the time that Presley flew to Washington, D.C., on the spur of the moment to meet President Richard Nixon. Their meeting resulted in a famous photo of the two iconic figures shaking hands, which is the most requested image from the National Archives. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as Presley and Nixon.

The movie prompted me to go back to my collection of Presley bios and resources to reexamine the incident. I checked in All Shook Up: Elvis Day by Day, 1954-1977, which is my favorite reference because it objectively and succinctly chronicles Presley’s actions on a day by day basis. I also reread parts of Peter Guralnik’s definitive, two-volume biography. I offer a pared down version of the event here, not to accuse the film of inaccuracy but to provide a proper backstory. On December 19, 1970, after an argument with his family about overspending for Christmas, Elvis boarded a commercial flight in Memphis bound for Washington, D.C. He checked into the Washington Hotel as Jon Burrows, one of his aliases. That night, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles, arriving well after midnight. Jerry Schilling, a former member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia, met him at the plane with a limo. After dropping off at least two stewardesses, whom Elvis had promised a ride, he and Schilling arrived at Presley’s house on Hillcrest Drive. The following morning, December 20, the pair flew to Washington, D.C., with Elvis using the alias Dr. John Carpenter (his character’s name in his last film, Change of Habit).

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‘Midnight Special’ Coming Your Way

blogmidnightspecialThe 18th annual Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) has wrapped, and, as usual, I have mixed feelings about the event. But, I am always glad to attend because of the opportunity to catch indie, foreign, and documentary films that will never be widely released in theaters or touted by reviewers. Some of these titles may find outlets for distribution, but if they don’t get any buzz in the media, viewers will not know to look for them.

Such are the conditions of film exhibition and consumption in America. For example, way too much attention has been paid in the press to that clunker of a comic-book flick that shall remain nameless. The stars worked the talk-show circuit; the film’s opening made the news; and, even its box-office disappointment generated Internet headlines. Meanwhile, I have seen very little buzz for a far superior film, Midnight Special, which premiered at South by Southwest and played opening weekend at SFF. Directed by one of my new favorite filmmakers, Jeff Nichols, this slice of sci fi tells the story of a gifted boy named Alton who is on the lam across the South with his father and a family friend. Alton, who is played by Jaeden Lieberher, knows way too much about secret codes and satellite coordinates, and he has unusual powers that are gradually revealed. Small wonder that various government agencies, who have not lightened up much since E.T., are pursuing them.

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Flickering Florida: The Sunshine State on Film

blogposterOver the weekend, I participated in a conference called Flickering Landscapes, which was organized by Bruce Janz and Phil Peters of the University of Central Florida. The conference focused on the representation of Florida in film and television as well as the state’s extensive cinema history. Florida is unique in the way that its distinctive landscape has affected the state’s identity and image in popular culture. In addition, tourists, vacationers, and Hollywood image-makers have played a major role in shaping that identity—something native Floridians have learned to live with.

I thought I would share some of the history and ideas that I learned at the conference.

I recently wrote about Florida’s role in early cinema history after I discovered that director George Melford had been part of an effort to launch a film industry in St. Petersburg. (See October 26th  post.) I expanded on this piece of Florida history for my part in the conference, and I discussed two other attempts to establish film production on the Gulf Coast. In the mid-1920s, a real estate investor built a beautiful film studio half way between Tampa and Sarasota. Dubbed Sun City, the production center was considered a movie colony, which was supposed to include housing for actors and crew members, a school, a church, a city hall, a power plant, and other facilities necessary to be self-sustaining. The secretary-treasurer of the Sun City Holding Company decided to plat out the streets, pave them, and name them after famous movie stars of the era. He sent maps of Sun City to every Hollywood movie star with a street named after them, hoping they would relocate to Sun City to make films at the new studio. Unfortunately, the land bust caused by rampant real estate speculation destroyed any chance for Sun City to become successful, and the studio never produced a feature film. The only vestiges of this film colony are the town’s streets, which are still named after stars of the 1920s. I am sure current residents have no clue.

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October 24, 2015
David Kalat
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Tura Satana vs. the World

I was recently traveling in Oregon, and marveling at what Lewis and Clark must have thought as their years of travel across unknown terrain led them, at last, to such a wonderful and unexpected prize. It is hard in this modern day to find a similar thrill of discovery. The world is too well mapped, too known. It seems very very unlikely that we will ever again experience, on this world at least, the opportunity to find an uncharted island, to discover a new element, to describe a new species. You might as well hope to see a new color.

But, there are such thrills in other avenues of exploration. That is one of the attractions of watching obscure movies—to uncover lost treasures, so see something magical the rest of the world overlooked.

Consider what cult movie audiences in the 1970s and 80s must have thought as they stumbled unawares across the VHS release of Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill! Here was a thing that was not so old, yet almost throughly forgotten—a low-budget indie film that was at best destined for niche market appeal but which had sunk into oblivion on its initial run. It was so thoroughly drenched in 1960s style (That music! Those fashions!) but also so ahead of its time that we’re still playing catch-up with it. It was somehow sexist and feminist at once, a leering piece of cinematic oogling that also pushed men wholeheartedly away. What happens to a work of male gaze if men aren’t invited to do the gazing? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

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KEYWORDS: Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, Russ Meyer, Tura Santana
COMMENTS: 9
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October 17, 2015
David Kalat
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Just Another Indie Filmmaker

Later this week, TCM is screening the 1992 indie drama Just Another Girl on the IRT. I remember very distinctly seeing this on its first run, when I was fresh faced college graduate. It’s an atypical selection for TCM, but I’m glad of it and hope you tune in. But my memories of the film have relatively little to do with its content or quality, both of which have faded in my memory in the intervening 20+ years, and more to do with its role in the then-blossoming American Indie Film scene.

At the time, I was an aspiring filmmaker myself, so I proselytized the story of Just Another Girl and its kindred indie flicks as proof that American cinema was undergoing a revolutionary moment that would throw its doors open to—me, I guess. I was foolish and follhardy on that count, and willfully ignorant of the true meaning behind the success of things like Just Another Girl. Wiser minds tried to get me to see reason, but I refused to learn the lessons until many years later. Only know, with the sober perspective of age, can I look back on that early 1990s American indie scene with objectivity and see what I refused to see back then…

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October 10, 2015
David Kalat
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If you don’t wanna know, don’t go looking

It’s not uncommon for well-established movie directors to return to the scene of the crime, as it were, and revisit old successes. The defining masterpieces of brash young artists get remixed by older artists with a new perspective: Fritz Lang’s M and While the City Sleeps, Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion and The Elusive Corporal, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo… and then there’s Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin.

Both films begin with the death of a Great Man, and ruminate through intersecting circles of flashbacks as an investigator attempts to retroactively recreate that life and understand the man behind the legend. One was a blockbuster triumph that changed movies forever and remains hailed as one of, if not the, greatest films in Hollywood history. The other was a slapdash independent concoction brewed up far from Hollywood’s industrial organization and distributed in a scattershot way as if marketed by ADHD-addled amnesiacs.

Guess which one I prefer :)

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KEYWORDS: Confidential Robert, Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles
COMMENTS: 7
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