India Song: The River (1951)

The River (1951) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Adrienne Corri (right)

To view The River click here.

“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” - André Bazin

I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.

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Ingrid Bergman: From Luminous to Scandalous to Illustrious

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To see the Ingrid Bergman films available on FilmStruck, click here.

Ingrid Bergman stepped in front of a camera for the first time 85 years ago. Bergman fans will be delighted to discover that FilmStuck offers 13 of her films, including a recent documentary by Swedish critic and filmmaker Stig Bjorkman titled Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words (2015).

Instead of Bergman’s glamorous Hollywood star turns—Gaslight (1944), Casablanca (1941), Notorious (1946)—FilmStruck offers her lesser-known European films, including seven early Swedish roles, four melodramas by husband Roberto Rossellini, one film made for Renoir, and her penultimate screen performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).

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The Tragedy of Lineage: Tess (1979)

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To view Tess click here.

A haggard, beaten down farmer walks home down a quiet country road in Wessex and greets, and is greeted by, another man on a horse. The man on the horse is Parson Tringham (Tony Church) and the grizzled farmer is John Durbyfield (John Collin). The parson jokingly calls him “Sir John” and John, who prefers “Jack,” asks him why. This simple exchange sets in motion a series of events that will eventually lead to rape, murder and the complete ruin of John’s family and the imprisonment and execution of one of his daughters. How this comes to be is the story of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a sprawling and extraordinary tale of how one man’s obsession with his family’s roots leads to the destruction of all around him and how Victorian society victimizes an intelligent, educated woman whose entire life lies at the center of the upheaval. That book was adapted to film in 1979 by Roman Polanski as Tess, and it remains one of most beautifully shot and richly detailed adaptations of any of Hardy’s works. It is also inexorably linked to the personal legacy of its director, a man making the film as a final wish to his late, murdered wife, Sharon Tate, while on the lam from the law for the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl.

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Targets (1968): Proof There Are Still Good Movies to Be Made

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To view Targets click here.

A few years ago, a friend convinced me to buy, sight unseen, Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, 1968′s Targets starring Boris Karloff. Because of the newly released DVD, there had been renewed interest in this rarely seen film. My friend promised that it would be money well spent, and that it would completely blow my mind. “[Roger] Corman produced it, it’s got Boris Karloff and the ending is…trust me, you just need to watch it,” he said. Rarely wrong in his film recommendations, I snagged the DVD during a sale and put it in my ever-expanding “to-watch” stack. Late one Friday night, after coming up empty during some mindless channel surfing, and after months of harassment by my good-natured cinephile friend, I decided to give Targets a try. I’ll be honest: I was skeptical of my friend’s endorsement of the film, despite his good taste and solid track record of recommendations. Now, don’t get me wrong–I love Boris Karloff. But many of his late-career films are a bit cheesy and seriously underuse and undermine his talents as an actor. And so, knowing absolutely nothing about the film, except my friend’s vague comments and my own preconceived assumptions, I thought, “What do I have to lose? Two hours?” I could easily spend all night watching Bert Convy-hosted game show reruns or infomercials for Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, so this seemed like a reasonable investment of my time.

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Hannah Arendt (2012)

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There’s a rather clunky scene early on in Hannah Arendt (2012), one whose purpose seems clearly to provide a quick bio of Hannah for the novice viewer. It takes place inside the office of William Shawn (Nicholas Woodsen), editor of The New Yorker. He has just received an offer from Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover the Adolph Eichmann trial for them. Francis Wells (Megan Gay) scoffs, asking who she is. Another editor, Jonathan Schell (Tom Leick), scolds her. “She wrote The Origins of Totalinarianism!” Shawn adds, “It’s one of the most important books of the 20th century!” Aside from the fact that there is no way an editor of The New Yorker didn’t know who Hannah Arendt was in 1960, and trying desperately to ignore the forced New York accents of all three non-American actors in the scene, the main problem lies in the scene so clumsily listing Arendt’s creds for the audience. It is the main failing of the movie encapsulated into that one scene. Throughout the film, characters will constantly state and restate the obvious but at its core is the real life figure and trial of Eichmann, and the moral questions surrounding that trial, that make Hannah Arendt an arresting movie to watch. At other times, it is as prosaic a biopic as any ever made. And through it all, Barbara Sukowa’s masterful performance keeps the audience engaged.

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Dueling Delons: Spirits of the Dead (1968)

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To view Spirits of the Deadclick here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion

In the 1960s anthology (also known as omnibus or portmanteau) films became extremely popular and were attractive to producers who wanted to appeal to a broad range of viewers. The segmented format also encouraged audiences to make multiple trips to the concession stand, which pleased theater owners. Sex comedies were particularly trendy but the most successful anthologies appealed to horror fans.

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Let’s Go Crazy with Betty Blue (1986)

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To view Betty Blue click here.

We might have a few NSFW films lurking around here at FilmStruck (1974′s Sweet Movie springs to mind right off the bat), but for my money, nothing you could watch here at this moment combines the beautiful and the shocking in quite the same way as Betty Blue (1986). An intense and visually striking saga of amour fou, this was the third film by the remarkably unprolific Jean-Jacques Beineix, still most famous on these shores for one of the biggest crossover art house French films ever, Diva (1981). Since then he’s been a cinematic mad scientist of sorts (with only six narrative features to his credit so far), and this would be the only film of his to get American distribution of any kind in theaters. [...MORE]

This Land is Your Land: The Southerner (1945)

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To view The Southerner click here.

Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.

(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)

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The Man Ray Movie Challenge: Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

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To view Caesar and Cleopatra click here.

In 1951, surrealist artist Man Ray, who was a fan of the cinema, quipped, “The worst films I have ever seen, the ones that put me to sleep, contain ten or fifteen marvelous minutes. The best films I have ever seen only contain ten or fifteen worthwhile ones.” Man Ray made this provocative statement because he liked to gripe that popular movies were too long. I don’t necessarily agree with the reason for his comment, but I like the idea behind it in general, especially the first half of the statement. I often find a scene, sequence, performance, shot or ten marvelous minutes in movies I don’t like. In the spirit of Man Ray, and with the entire FilmStruck catalogue at my disposal, I decided to challenge myself by occasionally watching and writing about a film that I detested. The challenge is to find something about the film that I did like, or to offer a suggestion on why it should be viewed.

This is not to suggest that any of the films available on FilmStruck are “bad,” which is vague criteria to begin with, but to recognize that viewers don’t all have the same tastes, and to acknowledge that some films don’t age well.

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Shoot First, Die Later (1974)

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To view Shoot First, Die Later click here.

Here’s how I’d pitch Fernando Di Leo’s Shoot First, Die Later (1974) to any of my friends: If you’d like to see a gritty Italian crime movie that evokes The French Connection (1971) and surely influenced Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, look no further than this grim bit of business. Heck, I’ll toss in one more movie reference for good measure. Are you familiar with the re-release poster for Le Samouraï (1967), the one where Alain Delon stares expressionlessly down the barrel of a gun? Imagine him grinning instead (if you can) and there you have Shoot First, Die Later. It’s as if the French shrug at the abyss whereas the Italians meet the same raw nihilism with a smile. [...MORE]

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