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]

Film Discoveries of 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

MBDWHTO EC017

I once took a couple of noncredit courses on the early films of John Ford. I thought I knew a great deal about Ford, but, as taught by talented filmmaker and learned film scholar Michael G. Smith, the courses proved to be a revelation. I was surprised at some of Ford’s influences (German Expressionism!!!!), and I enjoyed the diversity of genres and stars that made up his pre-Stagecoach output. I was reminded of this experience when I came across “John Ford in the 1930s,” a collection of films currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Included in this collection is The Whole Town’s Talking, a 1935 comedy that doesn’t have much of a reputation among Ford biographers. I admit that the first time I saw it, I didn’t realize that it was the work of Hollywood’s premiere director of westerns. In this little comedy, Edward G. Robinson stars in a dual role as mild-mannered hardware clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and cold-blooded gangster Killer Mannion, who has just broken out of jail. The police arrest Jones, believing him to be Mannion. After they release him, reporters create front-page headlines out of this unfortunate case of mistaken identity, which draws the attention of the real Mannion. The gangster kidnaps his look-alike to use his identification papers in order to continue his crime spree.

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Getting Away with Murder

PLAYER, THE (1992)

Today’s topic is probably not the one you were expecting to see on Christmas Day proper, but as a film programmer I’ve always enjoyed counter-programming. With that in mind, my double-feature recommendation for FilmStruck viewers comes in the shape of two black comedies: La Poison (Sacha Guitry, 1951) and The Player (Robert Altman, 1992).

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Head For the Bunker, It’s A Carol For Another Christmas!

CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS, A (1964)

There are countless film and television adaptations of Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, a mainstay each holiday season. The most popular of these adaptations include the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart; the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim; the animated classic Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962); the musical Scrooge (1979) starring Albert Finney; the modern-day comedy Scrooged (1988) with Bill Murray and Karen Allen; and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) with Michael Caine and the Muppet cast. Dickens’s story of regret, loneliness, reflection and redemption has been portrayed in various settings, from the classic Victorian era and more contemporary, to alternate realities and dystopian worlds. With each retelling the story continues to influence and inspire, remaining just as relevant as it was over 170 years ago. In 1964, writer and producer Rod Serling created a rather unique spin on this well known, beloved tale with the telefilm A Carol For Another Christmas, available on FilmStruck as part of the “Made for the U.N.” programming block. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (his first foray into television), and featuring an incredible cast, including Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Steve Lawrence (yes, that Steve Lawrence), Robert Shaw, Pat Hingle and Peter Sellers, Serling’s story is a cautionary tale for an unsettled America on the verge of nuclear war and societal collapse. You know, real cheery stuff to put you in the holiday spirit.

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Happy, Yes, But Not So Lucky

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)

Several years ago, I can’t remember quite when, I saw Mike Leigh’s first work, Secrets & Lies (1996), and I was more than a little fascinated with how the movie felt. I didn’t see it in its original release, hence not knowing for sure when I saw it, but it felt different than most anything else I was seeing. It had a solid construction to it but a feeling of absolute looseness as well.  It didn’t feel as free-flowing and stream of consciousness as a Robert Altman film but it didn’t feel as utterly standard as so much else either. Later, when I saw his extraordinary Topsy-Turvy (1999), I was hooked. Here was a director who gathered together his actors with an idea and story outline and worked for weeks with improvisations as a solid plot started to make itself known. In part because of that, his films never feel like they’re headed in any obvious direction, even if they are headed towards something climactic. Later, I saw Happy Go Lucky (2008) and wasn’t disappointed. It’s reception at the end of the year, however, shocked me.

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Stranger Than Fiction: The Baron of Arizona (1949)

The Baron of Arizona (1950)  Directed by Samuel Fuller Shown: Vincent Price

“In the movie business, a good ending must sometimes hold sway over the truth.” – Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking

Before Samuel Fuller wrote and directed his own films, he was a gutsy go-getting newspaperman. Fuller first worked at the New York Journal as a copyboy and eventually graduated to the role of crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid newspaper that naysayers nicknamed the “pornoGraphic” due to its explicit content. During the Great Depression, he took his journalism skills on the road and traveled west collecting sensational stories about America, the current crisis it was facing and the rich history that preceded it. One of the stories that captured Fuller’s imagination during his cross-country journey was the strange tale of a nineteenth-century con man named James Reavis. Reavis forged a string of false documents asserting he owned over 18,000 square miles of the Arizona Territories and went to great lengths to convince the U.S. government of his claim. The story of Reavis and his remarkable crimes became the basis of Fuller’s second film, a quasi-fictional account of the events titled The Baron of Arizona (1949).

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Let It Snow: Ikiru (1952), a Different Kind of Holiday Classic

IKIRU (1954)

As we head into the final stretch of 2016, a year that will certainly live in everyone’s memory for a variety of reasons, the holidays seem to carry a bit more weight than usual. Nevertheless, it’s any film lover’s tradition to break out a few seasonal classics to enjoy, giving you a taste of the yuletide spirit or the personal assessment that comes with New Year’s.

You can find plenty of Christmas selections on Filmstruck, not to mention a number of wintertime films to help set the mood. However, there’s one title that might seem a little unlikely as an end-of-the-year viewing choice, but it’s really quite perfect: Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), his fourteenth directorial feature and one of his best-loved films, sandwiched in between his legendary Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), five of whose cast members can be seen here.

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Black & Blue Christmas: Placido (1961)

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

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