From Hot Wax to the Silver Screen: Quadrophenia (1979)

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To view Quadrophenia click here.

Since film got sound, filmmakers have been making musicals. And much of the time the inspiration was the music itself. That is to say, while many musicals are composed originally, like Oklahoma (1955), others, like An American in Paris (1951), are adapted from music already in existence, music that inspired the filmmakers to, essentially, turn songs into plots. After the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, and its late 1960s/early 1970s predilection for concept albums, rock operas and good old fashioned wretched excess, there was new fertile ground from which filmmakers could excavate a storyline. Some were strict adaptations, some were songs as story and some were loose inspirations. In the 1970s, several movies were made with rock songs as their basis with decidedly mixed results, until finally, they seemed to have given up on the singing part altogether.

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Donkey Skin (1970): Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

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To view Donkey Skin click here.

I always love seeing what happens when international directors make it big on the foreign-language film circuit and start getting pressured to shoot films in English. The results tend to fall into certain categories: divisive but with fan followings, as in the case of François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) or Fellini’s Casanova (1976); interesting but almost immediately forgotten, as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch (1971) or Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007); or, on rare occasions, a language-transcending masterpiece like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), something he didn’t quite manage to replicate again with commercial audiences. (Exactly where John Woo falls on that spectrum is still being sorted out.) [...MORE]

Just Some Guys from Jersey

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To view Eddie and the Cruisers click here.

In the past week or so, my illustrious peers at StreamLine have written with knowledge and insight about international classics like Mon Oncle (1958), rare foreign films such as Black Jesus (1968), and key films by notable auteurs Douglas Sirk and Richard Lester. But, not me. Today, I am writing about Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)—make that happily writing about Eddie and the Cruisers.

I didn’t realize how much I adored Hollywood movies from the 1980s until I taught a section on them in one of my classes last spring. I discovered that it is an era as distinct as the ones before and after, with specific characteristics and genres associated with it. And, it serves as a transition from the serious content and experimentation of the Film School Generation to the wholesale corporatization of Hollywood by the early 1990s. One of the characteristics that I like most about some of the films of this era is the interest in mythic protagonists who are larger than life, including action heroes, genre archetypes or self-aware characters. The title character from Eddie and the Cruisers, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, falls into that category.

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The Politics of Singing: Une Chambre en Ville (1982)

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To view Une Chambre en Ville click here.

Jacques Demy’s reputation has long suffered from an inferiority complex among the French New Wave filmmakers. Fans and critics find movies like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960) challenging and daring while movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) are beloved all time classics, certainly adored but not considered the kind of serious art that the others were doing. If you’ve read my pieces on Demy before, you already know I think this is rubbish. But as Demy’s career grew, it expanded outwards and allowed for far more risk-taking and innovation than his earlier work. By the time he got to Une Chambre en Ville, he was making movies that were as innovative and daring as anything coming out of the early days of the New Wave. Une Chambre en Ville, not nearly as famous as many of Demy’s earlier works, is riskier and more challenging than almost anything he ever did.

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The Slipper and the Rose (1976): A Different Kind of Cinderella Story

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To view The Slipper and the Rose click here.

For some movies, finding a receptive audience is all a matter of timing, Upon its initial release, The Slipper and the Rose (1976), a sterling reinterpretation of the Cinderella story, missed its window of opportunity because it came out after a string of box office disasters had nearly buried the musical forever. And make no mistake; this is a musical through and through courtesy of intricate, tongue-twisting and enchanting songs written by the unbeatable team of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Distanced from its musical cohorts, let’s reexamine the merits of this film and give it a fair shake. [...MORE]

Yes He Can: Jean Gabin and the French Cancan (1955)

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To view French Cancan click here.

Jean Gabin, the great French actor and star, had worked with Jean Renoir three times before called upon to play the role of impresario Henri Danglard in Renoir’s salute to the Belle Epoque, the Moulin Rouge and the theater at large in French Cancan (1955), so he was ready for anything, and seasoned enough to deliver. It’s a movie I’ve seen multiple times and written articles about elsewhere, including for TCM. Yes, it’s a favorite, obviously. But more than that, it’s a fascination. A fascination with the way its simple story, one that could have easily been a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” movie, speaks to something much grander, and yet more intimate at the same time. Fascination with the way the film uses artifice and theatricality to tell a story, not so much about people or characters, but about art and history. And finally, a fascination with the way both Gabin and Renoir tell their own story in the process.

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You’re Never Too Old to Discover Danny Kaye

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, Danny Kaye, Joey Walsh, 1952.

To view Hans Christian Andersen click here.

I have a confession to make, and this is just between us, ok? Up until a few months ago, I had never seen a Danny Kaye film. Not a single one. And before you think I’m accidentally forgetting White Christmas (1954) –nope. Never seen that one, either. For whatever reason, all these years I had rather stubbornly made up my mind that I didn’t like Danny Kaye. I had no explanation and entirely no basis for this formed opinion of mine. I even playfully argued with a good friend, and when he pressed me for a reason why, my response was simply, “Meh. Not my cup of tea.” How ridiculous is that? It’s a completely unfair, unreasonable and irrational stance. And after watching my very first Danny Kaye film, I felt embarrassment and regret for casually reducing the enormous contributions of such an immensely talented entertainer, one who left an indelible mark on Hollywood and pop culture, to an arrogant “meh.” The more I think about it, perhaps I owe my unfounded dislike to Clark Griswold and his hysterically colorful Christmas Eve tirade. I’m sure at some point I thought, “Ha! That’s a funny joke. Well, that’s all I need to know about Danny Kaye. I think that’ll do.”

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Singing the Last Song: Dancer in the Dark (2000)

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To view Dancer in the Dark click here.

Long before he was famously excoriated by the press for his remarks at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, director and reliable provocateur Lars von Trier was already a familiar face at the annual event with a string of awards under his belt including the Cannes Grand Prix for Breaking the Waves (1996) and the Prix du Jury for Europa (1991). Anticipation was riding high in May of 2000 when the film he dubbed the third in his “Golden Heart” trilogy appeared in public for the first time (following Breaking and his explicit, button-pushing The Idiots in 1998): Dancer in the Dark, his first musical. Publicity at the time centered on the use of over a hundred digital cameras to capture the elaborate musical sequences, but in retrospect it would be other factors that contributed to the film’s legacy after it went home with the Palme d’Or that year. Now streaming here as part of a series of Cannes-winning films, it’s still a dazzling and troubling film that sinks its teeth into you and won’t let go for days. [...MORE]

A Poet’s Life: Pyaasa (1957)

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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.

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Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)

MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

Biopics can be predictable and formulaic affairs. They often rely on a checklist of theatrical high points and low points, which restrict the scope of the drama and transform the rich panorama of life into a cheap paint by numbers routine. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) is an exception to that tired rule thanks to some innovative directing choices that challenged standard Hollywood tropes at the time it was made. In turn, this stirring dramatization of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief life is a brooding contemplation of the artistic process and a celebration of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris.

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