Dark Days in the Warren: Watership Down (1978)

WATERSHIP DOWN (UK/CAN 1978) NEPENTHE PROD

Richard Adams recently passed away at the advanced age of 96. At the much younger age of 52, but still advanced age for a first time novelist, he published what would become a classic of modern literature, Watership Down. I was going to write “children’s literature” but I don’t know if that’s right. Is something children’s literature simply because it uses animals as its lead characters? Is Animal Farm a children’s book because it has talking pigs? I would say the answers to both of those questions is no. Watership Down is no different and while it appealed to my younger self simply because of the animal characters, my older self understands it a lot better.

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If Only You Believe in Miracles

MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES, THE (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, is a lovely, albeit odd little comedy based on a short story written by H.G. Wells, directed by Lothar Mendes and produced by Alexander Korda. The always endearing Roland Young stars as George McWhirter Fotheringay, an average man who works as a salesman in a small department store. Unbeknownst to Fotheringay, three gods, Player, Observer and Indifference, agree to conduct a celestial experiment by granting the power to perform miracles to a common, unremarkable man. The gods are curious to see how a lowly human will handle such incredible power. Once Fotheringay discovers his newly acquired, if confusing, miracle working abilities (completely by accident, by the way), he keeps it to himself, only practicing magic-type tricks in his home. Soon, however, Fotheringay is quite eager to share his secret, first performing miracles for his co-workers, his boss and even the local vicar. Eventually attempts are made by others to exploit his newly acquired talents in return for monetary gain, vanity and power.

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Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead

stardustmemories1980_3

There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. [...MORE]

Potemkin Village Blues: Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (1952)

WELCOME MR. MARSHALL, ( aka BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL), Lolita Sevilla, US poster art, 1953.

Last week I listed Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Placido (1961) as one of my film discoveries of 2016. A devilishly funny account of Christmastime sanctimony, it was the first film I had seen by Berlanga. Luckily, The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck is streaming four more of his films so I can get further acquainted with this acidic Spaniard. The earliest work on display is Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (aka Welcome Mr. Marshall!, 1952), Berlanga’s breakout feature, which lovingly satirizes a small Spanish town trying to lure Marshall Plan funds from the U.S. It won the second place International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but was famously denounced by jury member Edward G. Robinson as “anti-American.” The film is more anti-Catholic Church and Generalissimo Franco than anything else, however, as the Americans are phantoms wielded as symbols by the local government and clergy – described as both wealthy benefactors and agents of moral decay. What the film lampoons most spectacularly and thoroughly is Franco’s attempt to promote Spain in a single image: an Andalusian Spain that was all flamenco and bullfights. Before the Americans’ arrival, the town hides the drunks, throws up fake facades and wears Andalusian costumes to pretend they are a tourist paradise rather than a poor farming town. As in Placido, Berlanga uses thumbnail caricatures to populate his village, hilarious creations like the half-deaf mayor, a broke colonialist aristocrat and a rotund hustler/producer who turns their town into a Walt Disney-fied version of Spanishness.

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On the Passing of Stars

2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night Gala - Red Carpet

Movie lovers of all generations are still reeling from the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within a day of each other. Photos, memes and personal testimonies flooded the Internet as an expression of collective shock and grief.

Fisher’s character in Star Wars (1977) and Reynolds’s participation in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) dominated the references to their careers, not surprising since Princess Leia and an energetic Reynolds hoofing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are iconic in popular culture. Coincidentally, both Fisher and Reynolds were 19 when hired to appear in their most famous roles. Common cultural consensus has deemed those roles significant in retrospect, but in the context of their lives, their most interesting work lay ahead of them.

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Redemption and Sacrifice in the Cinema: Babette’s Feast (1987)

BabettesFeast_1988_PUB04

Each January 1st, as we ring in the new year and cast out the old, my mind always drifts to the idea of redemption. The new year is an easy marking point for a new beginning and as everyone knows, most people have great energy at the start that slowly grinds down towards inaction. We have high hopes but rarely the ability, or time, or urgent need, to follow through. And so another year goes by and we set ourselves up for another shot at redemption. If we’re lucky, we’ll achieve some measure of it every few years. Maybe. For me, the idea of redemption and sacrifice, of starting anew and casting out the old, has never been told better in the movies than in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 adaption of Isak Dinesen’s story, Babette’s Feast.

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New Beginnings: Lessons from Dodsworth (1936)

DODSWORTH (1936)

At the end of every year I, like many people, take stock of the events that took place throughout the previous months. I reassess the bad moments, trying to find ways that I could’ve avoided them or handled them differently. I also try to reflect on all of the good moments, no matter how small. Although the difference between December 31st and January 1st is a mere 24 hours, there’s something exciting about starting with a clean slate. Of course, I feel compelled to make a bunch of resolutions that I’ll blow within a week, but it feels good to set them nonetheless. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to lower my expectations and set more realistic goals, attempt to live in the moment and try to appreciate every single day that I’m alive. I also look forward to sharing each day with my loved ones, as they are the source of my true happiness.

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Cooley High (1975): Coming of Age and the Lens of Nostalgia

COOLEY HIGH (1975) In 1973, George Lucas, at the time known only to those few people who had seen THX-1138 (1971), unleashed the most successful coming of age film of all time, American Graffiti. Coming of age movies not only took off at the box office, they became nostalgia movies for the Baby Boom generation. Unlike Andy Hardy or Gidget movies, which were always contemporary to their production, these new Coming of Age movies took place in the past. From American Graffiti to The Lords of Flatbush (1974) to Animal House (1978) and straight through to Porky’s (1982), nostalgia was the go-to for teenage/early twenty-something romps. One of them, Cooley High, made by American International Pictures, became a sleeper hit and it was the only one addressing African American teens and their own hopes and dreams.  [...MORE]

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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It’s Okay with Me: The Long Goodbye (1973)

THE LONG GOODBYE, Elliott Gould, 1973

As with many years past, I’m spending the transitional period between Christmas and New Year’s in Los Angeles — and as anyone else around here can tell you, it’s a calm but vaguely spooky environment. All of the usual traffic jams and chattering people have temporarily vanished into the ether, leaving a city still filled with sunlight, palm trees and holiday decorations everywhere. We’ve seen a lot of notable films shot in L.A. over the decades (and you can sample most of them in the superb documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself), but the one that really captures this eerie feeling of being in L.A. at winter time (even if it isn’t specifically set at that time of year) is The Long Goodbye (1973), one of the great ’70s noir films and a highlight in the career of director Robert Altman. [...MORE]

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