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June 18, 2016
David Kalat
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Border Incident

There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.

I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.

I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.

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KEYWORDS: Andre Previn, Anthony Mann, Border Incident, Howard da Silva, Ricardo Montalban
COMMENTS: 26
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Page to Screen with Soylent Green

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Harry Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! in 1965. It was published a year later and in 1973 was turned into the feature film Soylent Green by Richard Fleischer, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison was clearly influenced by Malthusian theory, a stance that might be summed up by the 18th-century British cleric and scholar in one concise sentence: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Over the years, critics of Thomas Robert Malthus have found plenty of fodder with which to reject his dire premise, mainly because the models used by Malthus didn’t account for the many ways in which human ingenuity would make many resources more readily available, and at lower prices, to the growing number of people inhabiting the planet. Malthusian critics might also point to the divide between Harrison’s scenario, which envisioned life in the Big Apple circa 1999 as being multiplied by a factor of five, going from seven million people in the sixties to 35 million by 1999. That didn’t happen, not in NYC at least (Tokyo, on the other hand, has now surpassed that number). Today, the population of of NYC hovers under the nine million mark, perhaps held in check by the exorbitant price of a martini, not to mention the going rate for monthly rent. Fleischer, working in the 70s, decided to hedge his bets by extending the date for Soylent Green out to the year 2022. He also contributed powerful imagery not found in the book of people being scooped up by garbage trucks, which also made for a very compelling poster. [...MORE]

Blogathon 2012: Toshiro Mifune and the Strange Case of Stray Dog

A boilingly hot summer day, a crush of commuters, a moment of carelessness. With these universal ingredients, Akira Kurosawa set up a film that would mix the grim obsessions of film noir with a documentarian’s observation of postwar Japanese life. Talk about universal–Stray Dog is a mashup of pulp pop and reportage, of true crime and intimate drama, of buddy cop movies and art house cinema, of East and West. There isn’t much a movie can do that Stray Dog doesn’t put on its agenda.

That being said, the international critical acclaim that greeted this film requires some dissection, because there’s something really weird going on here. Stray Dog was never a barn-burning commercial splash, and it wasn’t even distributed in the US until 1963 (almost 15 years after it was made) but it was an award-winning and highly regarded art house release that contributed substantially to Akira Kurosawa’s growing renown, and there’s something screwy about that.

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Edward Dmytryk vs. the Blacklist

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.

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Hate Binges: The Big Heat and The Lawless

The post-WWII economic expansion exploded in 1950, as the GI Bill’s low mortgage rates stoked a housing boom and pent-up consumer demand propped up retail. Success was there for the taking, but not for all. Two early 50s films that are hitting home video in impressive transfers,  Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950, on DVD 5/29 from Olive Films) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953, now out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), documented some of the anxieties caused by this enormous upheaval in American life, what would be the start of the greatest stretch of economic growth in U.S. history. More money meant more crime, and The Big Heat is a nightmare rendering of the American Dream, as good cop  Glenn Ford loses his nuclear family and just goes nuclear. The Lawless is an earnest morality play about the plight of migrant fruit pickers in Southern California, doing the work Americans left for office gigs (by 1956 a majority of U.S. workers held white rather than blue collar jobs).

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FARMAGEDDON

“This film has cross-over appeal that connects with progressive hippies and Tea Party members alike. It’s about government raids on local and organic farmers.” I’d had a long working relationship with the distributor who was telling me this over the phone, but in the past Jessica had been a broker for classics of the silent era as well as representing some of the biggest names in both the realm of foreign and contemporary arthouse movies. This was a very different and far cry from Dersu Uzala. It was a debut low-budget documentary called Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms.   [...MORE]

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, pick five Masumura films. Ready? Go.

A few weeks ago the Consulate-General of Japan at Denver sent me a stack of titles by Yasuzo Masumura (1924 – 1986), a director largely unknown to American audiences despite a prodigious body of work and plaudits by film critics who have placed him within the same pantheon as Kenji Mizoguchi (with whom Masumura worked with as an assistant director), Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa. Masumura also had an influence on Nagisa Ôshima and the Japanese New Wave. Despite Masumura having about 60 films to his credit, only a half-dozen of those can readily be found on Region 1 DVD’s here in the U.S.  [...MORE]

INDY CIRCUIT CONTENDERS

I’m in the process of assembling a spreadsheet of films that I’d like to bring to my fall calendar program. As an exhibitor, I wish I could give all (or, at least, most or many) of these films a home. But as the market place keeps shrinking the theatrical windows, and as V.O.D. becomes more rampant, the harsh reality is that a balance has to be struck between viable money-makers and smaller niche titles that are very interesting and compelling but lack high-profile visibility, this despite being top-shelf items. In the former category are titles such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the latter category are movies like Marwencol or Bill Cunningham New York. I never need to see advance screeners for films in the former category as, for the most part, it’s pretty obvious what the big hitters are. In the latter category, however, it’s essential to watch the preview screeners sent to me by distributors because I really need to know if the material stands a chance of connecting with the audience in our area despite a low profile. Or, at very least, whether it resonates so strongly with me that I’m willing to champion it personally in the hopes that I might, despite long odds, find it an audience. Here’s what I’ve got queued up for the coming week. [...MORE]

THEM’S FIGHTIN’ WORDS!

In my last post I wrapped up my interview with Alex Cox by talking a bit about John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Alex said: They Live holds up for the first 45 minutes, and then there’s this long wrestling match between Roddy Piper and Keith David, and it never recovers. But those first 45 minutes are amazing. Pretty much the only good science fiction film I’ve seen post 2001: A Space Odyssey.” When I heard that, I thought for sure there would be a long tussle of words in the comment section to rival what John Carpenter claimed was “the longest fight scene in movie history.” To my surprise, only two people chimed in, both in support of the film in general. Where were the cries of bloody murder from the fans of THX 1138, Brazil, Videodrome, RoboCop, A Clockwork Orange, Tetsuo, Inception, Alien, and so on? There are plenty of bones to fight over here, but I’ll stick to They Live for the purpose of this post. As to the long fight scene, I’ve gotten into my own fights with people who dismiss it as ridiculous. Agreeing to some extent with Alex Cox is author and music journalist Greil Marcus who says of They Live that it is “a fabulous movie (except for the endless fight behind the building).” Again, I strongly disagree. [...MORE]

Sundance 2011: 20 paragraphs for 20 films

Last week I saw 20 films in five days at Sundance. With just over 200 films listed in the index, that means I barely covered 10% of the slate. Documentaries are a Sundance forté, so it’s not surprising that almost half of the films I screened fall into this category. Similarly, as most docs these days never get transferred to film that accounts for why about half of all my screenings were digital projections. Happily, despite many rumblings by industry pundits regarding the eminent death of 35mm film, most of the narrative features were still on celluloid. Huzzah! [...MORE]

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