The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

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Paths of Glory: Remembering the Actors

PATHS OF GLORY (1957)The films of Stanley Kubrick have experienced a resurgence in the past couple of months. TCM teamed with Fathom Entertainment to show Dr. Strangelove on the big screen in September and The Shining in October, while FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films under the banner Early Kubrick. The films include Fear and Desire (1953), the director’s rare first film that he once withdrew from circulation, Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1958). I am in awe of all Kubrick films, especially Barry Lyndon (1975), but I prefer to watch his early work, because the scale is smaller, the stories simpler, and the protagonists still likable. My favorite Kubrick film has always been Paths of Glory.

Scholars such as Michel Ciment have readily documented Kubrick’s use of mise-en-scene in his work, including Paths of Glory. The conflict in this WWI drama is not between the Germans and the French but between the exhausted French soldiers and the callous officers who control them. The story revolves around a failed attack on a German stronghold called the Ant Hill. Over the objections of Colonel Dax, the attack is launched by General Mireau because he was promised a promotion by General Broulard. When the doomed attack fails, an enraged Mireau decides to shoot three French soldiers for cowardice to teach all of his men some kind of misguided lesson. The gulf between the soldiers and the officers is symbolized by the two key settings, the claustrophobic trenches below ground and the opulent chateau that looms far above ground. Much has been made of the trial scene for the three soldiers, which takes place in one of the chateau’s cavernous rooms. The black and white parquet floor resembles a chess board, while the blocking of the characters places them as pawns. A high angle looks down on the participants, suggesting that fate has predetermined the soldiers’ outcome.

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That Ealing Touch

Alec Guinness in The Lavendar Hill Mob
If you know the name “Ealing Studios,” chances are it makes you think of a string of astonishing comedies the British studio cranked out in the decade or so after World War II, usually starring Alec Guinness, including such essentials as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, seen above and airing this Saturday, September 10), The Ladykillers (1955), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and Whiskey Galore! (1949). If you haven’t seen any of those, put them at the top of your “to watch” list pronto! However, there’s much, much more to the Ealing name than most Americans ever saw, and only in recent years has it been possible to really appreciate the scope of its output.  [...MORE]

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July 30, 2016
David Kalat
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I Did It My Way (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Buster Keaton’s Doughboys)

So, gentle readers, this is my farewell. I started writing for TCM’s website ten years ago; I joined the Movie Morlocks six years ago. Since my debut here in the fall of 2010 I’ve posted over 300 blog posts. Between the Morlocks posts and my work on the website, I’ve contributed significantly more than 500,000 words—the equivalent of something like 6 full-length books.

It has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to share the stage with my fellow Morlocks—an extraordinary collection of worldclass film writers—and speak to such an engaged, knowledgeable audience. It’s been a blast. But I’ve chosen to resign from TCM so I can spend more time yelling at the raccoons in my neighborhood. Raccoons have got to be an atheist’s best argument for evolution—what Intelligent Deisgner worth his salt would deliberately invent hyper-intelligent trash-eating scavengers with thumbs? And really, if after 500,000 words I haven’t totally exhausted everything I could possibly have to say about classic movies, you’ve got to agree I’ve certainly long ago run out of useful or interesting things to say.

In the spirit of going out as I came in, I’m going to take my final post as an excuse to once again bang the drum in favor of an unloved, underappreciated gem by a slapstick clown. My first post was about Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races, and today I’ll go down swinging in favor of Buster Keaton’s MGM talkie Doughboys. Yes. Seriously. Come on, click the fold to keep reading –this will be our last time together, let’s make it special!

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KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Doughboys, MGM
COMMENTS: 18
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This week TCM Underground is on shore leave for the celebration of Memorial Day

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In observance of the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend, TCM Underground has a 3-day pass and will be absent — with leave — to clear the deck for a lineup of movies about men (and women) in war. As the son of military parents (my father was a sergeant, my mom a corporal), we always had time for war movies and a lot of personal favorites are in the queue for Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday. In no particular order: THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), THE BIG PARADE (1925), MR. ROBERTS (1955), KELLY’S HEROES (1970), and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961). A lot of the actors in these movies actually served in the United States military, among them Lee Marvin (USMC), Henry Fonda (USN), Robert Ryan (USMC), Aldo Ray (USN), James Garner (Army), Charles Bronson (Army), James Coburn (Army), Don Rickles (USN), and Jack Warden (Army) — to name a few — while Sean Connery served with the British Royal Navy and David Niven left a promising Hollywood career to return to England for the duration of World War II.

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Hawk or dove, conservative or liberal, you don’t have to be a warmonger (or ignore the sad plight of many or our veterans — a situation that hasn’t improved all that much between World War I and The War Against Terror) to appreciate war movies or to value the sacrifice of the men and women of our country’s armed forces. As a boy, combat films taught me about purpose, dedication, and devotion and I’ll be tuning in over the long weekend to relive some fond boyhood memories while reflecting on the contributions made by the best of us in the worst of times.

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November 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Goat-Staring for Fun and Profit

So here we are, in the middle of November, sandwiched between the release of the latest James Bond flick and the upcoming release of the new Star Wars.  The War on Terror rages on, with no end in sight.  The Coen Brothers have migrated to TV where Fargo is ripping it up.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow, all these different experiences could be smoothed together into one event?  Wouldn’t that just save so much time?

So, I present to you, The Men Who Stare At Goats.   A spy-comedy derived as a fictionalized adaptation of a controversial non-fiction book about “psychic soldiers” fighting in Iraq, with overt Star Wars in-jokes…I can’t say it’s a good movie, but it has so much else going for it, quality might be beside the point.

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KEYWORDS: Ewan MacGregor, George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats
COMMENTS: 2
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January 10, 2015
David Kalat
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The Ministry of Fear

So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?

OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.

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KEYWORDS: Dan Duryea, Fritz Lang, Ministry of Fear, Ray Milland
COMMENTS: 9
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May 17, 2014
David Kalat
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2B OR NOT 2B (2)

As part of TCM’s tribute to the films of Mel Brooks, his 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be is screening on Tuesday.  It’s a curiosity to be sure—too slavish to the Lubitsch original to really find its own voice as a Mel Brooks film, yet too much of a Mel Brooks film to bear easy comparison to the Lubitsch version.

Brooks and Lubitsch are ultimately very different filmmakers with very different comic sensibilities.  Lubitsch was known for his oblique, indirect touch—often mistaken for “subtlety.”  But there’s a difference.  Lubitsch lobbed bawdy joke after bawdy joke at his audience, but in ways designed to just barely miss the target cleanly, and instead not fully register as dirty.  The viewer is inundated by these off-target gags to the point they know they’ve seen something ribald, even if they can’t quite put their finger on quite what.

By contrast, Brooks nails every gag.  He nails every gag to the floor, that is, and then sets up flashing hazard lights around them to make sure everyone spots them.

My choice of language probably gives away that I prefer Lubitsch’s dry wit to Brooks’ rimshot muggery, but so what?  Yes, I have my tastes and preferences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also admire Brooks and enjoy his films, too—this isn’t a zero sum game.

But when both men set out to film the same script, comparisons are going to be made, winners are going to be chosen.

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KEYWORDS: Ernst Lubitsch, Mel Brooks, To Be or Not To Be
COMMENTS: 10
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February 22, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean Renoir’s Less Grand Illusion

There’s a risk in peaking too early.  Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act.  Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again.  And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion.  As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin.  But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.

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KEYWORDS: Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, The Elusive Corporal
COMMENTS: 6
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November 16, 2013
David Kalat
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2B/not2B (or, Lubitsch vs. Hitler)

The repetition of certain lines of dialogue is one of the defining characteristics of Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema.  Lubitschean characters repeat certain lines as a way of creating double-entendres on the spot.  Audiences are expected to recognize the repetition, and to remember the context of the original lines, so that those memories get overlaid on top of the repeat, imbuing the words with a weight of additional meaning beyond the literal significance of the words themselves.

To single out an especially piquant example from To Be Or Not To Be, consider what Lubitsch does to the phrase “Heil Hitler.”  Over the course of 90 minutes it is yawned by Jack Benny, treated like an Abbot and Costello routine by most of the rest of the cast—Heil Hitler!  No, I Heiled Hitler first!—there is Bronski’s fake Hitler says “Heil myself,” and of course Carole Lombard’s orgasmic moan.

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The central conceit of the movie isn’t about making fun of what the Nazis took from Poland, it’s about creating a fictional space where the Poles take everything from the Nazis.  This isn’t a movie about the German invasion of Poland—it’s about a Polish invasion of Germans.

During the course of the film, our heroes subversively appropriate the Nazis’ uniforms, their identities, even their salute—and as these icons of Nazi terror are systematically taken over by the Polish actors it simply serves to undercut the power of those totems.  They turn “Heil Hitler” into a punchline before the first German troops set foot in Poland. [...MORE]


KEYWORDS: Carole Lombard, Cluny Brown (1946), Ernst Lubitsch, Greta Garbo, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be
COMMENTS: 7
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