Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Comedy of Remarriage: The Moon’s Our Home (1936)

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Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.

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LOLA

     “Cry who will, laugh who can.” So begins Lola; with this Chinese proverb that makes clear its intentions.
Anouk Aimée plays Lola, a cabaret dancer and singer waiting for the father of her child to return.
     How does Jacques Demy’s Lola, released over a half-century ago, in 1961, still work its magic on me? Normally any kind of conceit involving a love triangle that includes one character who serves as a veritable knight in shining armor simply would not stand any chance of seducing me. Yet, despite some minor distractions (like an American soldier who speaks both his English and French lines with a jarring accent that doesn’t seem to belong to either language), the film has buoyancy and charm that never flag. It’s a pure delight, one that serves to remind us of the power of innocence.

Caught on Film: Hollywood Romances That Ignited On Set

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Tomorrow is February 14th, otherwise known as Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by taking a look at some sizzling screen romances that ignited while the cameras were rolling. Anyone who knows a thing or two about Hollywood history knows that it’s not uncommon for actors to fall head over heels for their costars. And who can blame them? When two attractive actors are asked to feign love while kissing and cuddling for our amusement I suspect that the lines between fantasy and reality can easily become blurred. These on set affairs seldom last but they can wreck marriages and leave a trail of broken hearts in their wake. But the heart wants what it wants and on some occasions these romantic rendezvous develop into long lasting loving relationships. And best of all? They often leave us with some passion filled films that make for great viewing on Valentine’s Day!

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Heat Waves: A Summer Place (1959)

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The infernal weather system that soaked the Northeast in sweat this past week was moving backwards. In the United States these systems usually travel west to east, but this persistent “dome of hot air” was  traveling in reverse. I feel a kinship with this contrarian gasbag, so in its honor I will look back at an undervalued movie set during summer. A Summer Place (1959) is mainly remembered for birthing the #1 instrumental single by Percy Faith (adapted from the Max Steiner score), but it was a sensation at the time for its frank discussion of sex. It marked a transition in director Delmer Daves’ career from macho action-adventure films into melodramatic women’s pictures, one of the more reviled shifts in film history. He completed his twilight Western The Hanging Tree in August of 1958, and made four candy-colored romance pictures for WB afterward. Dismissed by both critics (the NY Times memorably called it “garishly sex-scented…. The whole thing leaves a rancid taste”) and ardent admirers (Jean-Pierre Coursodon called this period “dangerously close to artistic suicide”) , today they are ripe for rediscovery. A Summer Place is bursting with erotic energy that spreads out in the Technicolor widescreen frame, and treats adultery and teen sex with a forthright shrug.

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The Love Song of Capt. McGloo

Hollywood’s fascination with itself has generally meant that movies about movies–or, more precisely, movies that celebrate movies–tend to be overvalued by the film establishment relative to their actual merits. For example, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels tends to show up on a lot of classic movie lists, it was singled out for the Criterion treatment back before Criterion’s management really cottoned on to the idea that comedies can be classics, and when writers try to summarize why Preston Sturges is important, Sullivan’s Travels is almost always cited as his one or two most significant accomplishments. What Sullivan’s Travels is not, however, is terribly funny–it is one of Sturges’ tamer works. If you want to ask me what Sturges should be most remembered for, I’d have to say Palm Beach Story–a profoundly anarchic comic masterpiece that wholly abdicates any responsibility to make a lick of sense.

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Picnic-ing

The intrepid Twilight Time label continues their line of limited edition Blu-Ray releases with an absolutely gorgeous version of Picnic, Columbia’s romantic smash of 1955-1956. Sold exclusively through on-line retailer Screen Archives, it presents James Wong Howe’s Technicolor cinematography in eye-titillating detail. Based on William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1953, Picnic is a garishly entertaining melodrama that sets earthy he-man William Holden after prim beauty queen Kim Novak, upending a small Kansas town in the process.

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A New Film Roster

Today marks the last day of my Fall calendar film program. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get working on the next one. My goal is to find 50 titles that provide repertory programming, community and academic outreach, festival favorites, cult oddities, challenging cinema, quality docs, along with enough arthouse money-makers and crowd-pleasers to keep the whole damn thing alive. The ideal mix honors the past, is grounded in the present, and has an eye for the future. Like a good friend, it needs to have the temerity to confront you with uncomfortable truths, take you to new places, introduce you to new talents, provide a window to other cultures, feed the mind, feed the soul, provide catharsis, tears, laughter, and a wide variety of surprises.  A few directors come to mind who try to do all those things in one film, but this at risk of making you nauseous. (I’m looking at you Takashi Miike!) What follows are some of my top-picks (so far) as I consider titles to include in my Spring calendar. [...MORE]

38th Telluride Film Festival

In case you missed it, the Telluride Film Festival had its 38th bash last Labor Day Weekend, September 2-5. It included the latest films by Aki Kaurismäki, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Béla Tarr, David Cronenberg, and many more. But the reason I still love Telluride is not because it delivers the newest works from so many talented directors, but because they also focus on the past (showing silent films, archive prints, and various repertory titles), along with some unexpected programming courtesy of guest directors who are given Carte blanche to select anything they like, no matter how esoteric that might be. (This year the guest director was Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist, writer, and political activist Caetano Veloso, who has worked on soundtracks for Michelangelo Antonioni and Pedro Almodóvar). Telluride also eschews the competitive awards-system that drives so many other festivals and has managed to sidestep being mobbed by industry professionals, brand-obsessed sponsors, or party-obsessed socialites. In sum, Telluride has managed to still be that rare festival that bends over backwards to bring obscure 35mm movies while simultaneously providing viewers with cinematic experiences that challenge them to broaden their horizons rather than simply pandering to market whims or popular taste. And, yes, I say that despite the fact that this year its tribute star was George Clooney.  [...MORE]

Skyscraper Souls: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011)

The evil geniuses over at Hong Kong’s Milkyway Image productions (above, looking evil) have begun their takeover of the Mainland.   Johnnie To (seated) and his long time co-director and screenwriter Wai Ka-fai (flashing the horns) have had their last decade of gangster sagas (Election, Triad Election, Exiled, et. al.) banned or censored in China. So in an effort to expand their audience, they are making two Chinese co-productions, both romantic dramas, back-to-back. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was released in March of this year (and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray), and Romancing in Thin Air recently wrapped production in Yunan province, and should open early in 2012.

Regarding Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Johnnie To told the South China Morning Post that, “we believe in our ability to bring our own style of filmmaking to audiences up there.” But then went on to hedge that, “It’s not exactly the kind of film that could best bring our skills to play – but if we were to do something else, like a police thriller, we would have to attend to a lot of potential problems with the censors.” A director, like any artist, is also a full-time hustler, and has to follow the money in order to get their work made. With Hong Kong’s film industry in an across the board decline and the Mainland still flush with cash, Milkway Image is making artistic concessions to keep afloat. The strange thing about To’s comment is that they’ve made superb romantic comedies before, including the smash hit Needing You in 2001 and the wonderful cult item My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (’02). Their skills certainly play well in that genre, although it’s clearly not where his creative interests lie right now. In the downtime between the Chinese super-productions, he shot a low-budget HK thriller starring Lau Ching-wan, Life Without Principle, whose release date is unknown.

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