Category Archives: First Watch

First Watch Club: March 2018

March wound up being a lackluster month overall for personal moviewatching quantity, but not necessarily quality, as life and work seemed to intervene in normal viewing time. I finished strong, taking advantage of some Spring Break time (aka, the let’s-flee-home-renovations trip to the sister-in-law’s) to catch up. First-Watch Club March of 2018 offers a wide variety of cinema spanning 106 years.

Since the April edition will likely be dominated by TCM Film Festival offerings, this one will be the last whole-grain, non-homogenized, organic First Watch Club, untarnished by the glow and spectacle of Los Angeles and the TCM Film Festival, for some time. Next month I’ll still be sleep deprived and basking in the warm glow from a trip to Los Angeles. The kind of glow one can only achieve, however, by spending 16 hours per day inside a movie theater.

First-Watch Cinema Club: March 2018

#5. Frankenstein (S. Searle Dawley, 1910)

I stumbled onto the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel as I researched clips on early silent serials for a forthcoming article in Action-a-Go-Go. Instead of a proper two- or three-paragraph blurb, I’ll mix this up and include my solo, impromptu live tweet commentary because it will better capture my surprise and enthusiasm for the film.

So the creation of Frankenstein’s monster was actually a pretty cool effect. This figure was set on fire and then edited into sequence in reverse. The flames give away the trick, but visually interesting nonetheless. #Frankenstein1910

I’m pretty sure Dr. Frankenstein called his monster “Gene Simmons” but I have no support for this theory other than this image. #Frankenstein1910

Okay, #Frankenstein1910, that was a really cool ending. The monster sees himself in the mirror, flies into a fit of rage and then disappears, except for his image in the mirror. Dr. Frankenstein enters and the image of the Dr. syncs with the image of the monster in the mirror.

This concludes my #Frankenstein1910 broadcast day. I really do need to get back to research. If you’d like to view FRANKENSTEIN (1910) dir. J. Searle Dawley for the Edison Company, here’s the link:

#4. Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980)

first watch club march somewhere in timeThe narrative simplicity creates an unusually proximate intimacy with our time-crossed lovers. That something as minimal as a character staring into the eyes of a photograph has the ability to orchestrate a crescendo of emotion speaks volumes about the potential power of the film.

I say “potential” because you must give this film access to the emotions. Skeptics will find it hokey or schmaltzy — and in truth, it is both of those things in some measure, with a little bit of TV-movie atmosphere mixed in.

Time travel undertaken with the least amount of exposition. Convince yourself you’re in a certain place and a certain time. And it works because you’re not forced to question any brand of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. Suspension of disbelief becomes an emotional leap rather than rational acceptance.

Despite the brief runtime of the film, the viewer and our protagonist — Christopher Reeve in a wonderful performance — experience a swell of emotion in step. So when it all comes crashing down, we’re also invested in this perfect, timeless romance. Who wouldn’t be madly in love with 1980’s Jane Seymour?

Somewhere in Time works because the value of this movie lies in the spaces between the unusual narrative beats. It’s about getting swept up in a believable romance despite the impossibility of time and distance.

Much respect to Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny for calling attention to this film on their wonderful 80s All Over podcast.

Somewhere in Time is available on DVD.

#3. The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)

first watch club march the love witchI love that this movie exists more than I love this movie. But my love of the movie also supersedes my individual caveats with the execution.

The film is overlong and occasionally too blunt. It’s in need of an editor that isn’t the director. My criticisms, however, don’t do justice to the individual accomplishment of director Anna Biller.

The Love Witch is a perfect homage to low-budget films of the late 1960s/early 1970’s. Is she borrowing from exploitation? Horror? It’s really hard to say. (I know much has been made about critics misunderstanding filmmaker intent.) At the same time, however, calling this “homage” would be selling the film short. It exists in that world. It breathes that same air. And don’t you dare call it camp, because camp is ribald and often referential mockery.

This is an important, living, breathing, clearly personal and sincere film about women’s aspirations, fears and desires. About the dual stations of projected perfect womanhood and private sensuality.

The male gaze does not knowingly want to be called out by a woman in control of her sexuality. Once this character takes control, once she asserts a measure of dominance over a man — he becomes either hopelessly infatuated or tries to burn her at the stake. The clear-eyed observations that comprise the emotional core of the film make this an essential work about gender dynamics for the times in which we live.

The Love Witch is available on Blu-ray.

#2. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Colin Higgins, 1982)

first watch club march best little whorehouse in texasHinges on Charles Durning’s beautifully comic “Sidestep” number. For a man of his size, he moved like a jungle cat.

Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton (aka national goddamn treasures) flash their charismatic best in this “how the hell did this get made” Hollywood musical. Seriously. How did a big budget musical about the benefits of prostitution get a green light? When Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds laugh at the same time, you’ll suddenly think everything is right in the world.

I love the 80’s.

Gonzo mainstream cinema is an odd duck, and this should be one of the greats of the genre, but it just doesn’t get the kind of positive attention it deserves.

Part of me wonders if Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” would have been the same massive chart-topper if the general populace had known that it was originally written about a madam singing to the local sheriff who had closed down her brothel.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is available on Blu-ray.

#1. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)

first watch club march stop making senseLong time concert film appreciator, first time lover.

In practice, the concert film should reveal something new about the band that wouldn’t be readily accessible to the average fan. There’s value in having the “best seat in the house” but that’s less a “film” than a concert on film. Important difference.

As a long time Talking Heads obsessive, I inexplicably never made the effort to watch Stop Making Sense. I never believed a concert film could transcend the genre. It’s not that I didn’t want to watch — “I just never got around to it.” Thank goodness I have Cinema Shame to guilt me into these first-time watches.

Demme’s Stop Making Sense became the first of my Shame conquests that I can’t comprehend not having had in my life. The film straddles the line between David Byrne performance art and music video. It’s the perfect distillation of Talking Heads-ness eccentricities and musicality.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve spun my vinyl or the expanded CD version of this soundtrack. This music has been in my blood for as long as I can remember, but now I finally feel as if I’ve heard the record for the first time.

Stop Making Sense is available on Blu-ray.

First Watch Cinema Club: February 2018

I’ve been making a concerted effort to watch through the movies that have been sitting idly on my shelf for ages. Many of which I picked up second hand for a couple bucks. Stuff I bought that seemed like a good idea at the time. (I’m looking at you, Zapped!) After all, there’s a reason I haven’t been able to mark them off the watchlist until now. At some point they just lost their luster. First-Watch Club February exercised a whole bunch of those demons. None of which you’ll see here today.

As much as I enjoy sitting down to experience any manner of movie, of any genre, there’s a perverse pleasure in tossing a mediocre viewing experience into the sell bin. The most brutal and basic of decisions. Will this ever get watched again?

And then there’s the caveats about the scarcity of the film and if it’ll ever get an improved release… how hard it is to find… maybe I want to be someone that owns this movie and can whip it out to shock and horrify friends and neighbors. Fine. So there’s layers of nuance that I can’t quite get into right now.

Still, I recommend the catharsis that comes along with curation. The creation of *my* most perfect collection of collections. This is just one stop along the way to Xanadu. I’ll keep you posted.

 

First-Watch Cinema Club: February 2018

#5. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson, 2017)

professor marston and the wonder women first watch club february

Terrific performances from the three leads in what could have easily been a laughable and at times torturous melodrama.

This engrossing and erotically charged bio-picture managed to steer clear of all the biographical trappings. Absent the frivolous layering of importance upon mere humans, Angela Robinson’s movie tells the story of three humans and how they come to terms with an extraordinary situation. There’s no glorification of the struggle. No arbitrary symbolism or hyperbolic narrative beats.

Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote walk a miraculous tightrope of performance. First they each, in turn, garner our loyalties before embracing an alternative relationship that challenges our sensibilities and our expectations. Movies and stories that embrace polygamy almost always deconstruct the relationship from within.

Professor Marsten depicts the love of three people who simply could not live without each other. They are torn apart by those who could not accept them, that did not see the ways in which their relationship bettered their lives and the lives of their children. They only saw the perversion of the norm.

Plus, viewers are treated to a version of the idiosyncratic origin story of Wonder Woman — the creation of a disgraced professor that saw comic books as a means to gaining cultural acceptance for his theories on human interaction. Plus some light bondage. And that’s at least as exhilarating as the story on the pages of the comic.

Buy Professor Marston and the Wonder Women at Amazon.

#4. Hitch Hike (Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1977)

hitch hike 1977 first watch club february

This is a disgusting, emotionally unsettling exploitative road trip movie with a dehumanizing, nihilistic perception on human ugliness, greed and psychopathy. And it was pretty damn great.

Franco Nero gives a tremendous, layered and animalistic performance. I don’t know if I “liked” the film, but it’s something I won’t soon forget. Worth watching if you can separate the actions from the ideas Campanile wants to express about nihilism, empowerment, and the subversion of genre by way of a Nietzchean superwoman.

Rape. Rape fetish. Alcoholism. Domestic abuse. It’s all here. But it’s also composed in a way that exposes Hitch Hike as a character study with exploitative elements rather than an exploitation film with a few interesting characters.

Corinne Clery and David Hess both do their best to keep up with Nero, but if there’s anything you should know by now it’s to never start a land war in Asia or go toe-to-toe with Franco Nero.

Hitch Hike is available on Blu-ray from Raro and Kino Lorber.

#3. Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956)

bob le flambeur first watch club februaryMelville is tone and atmosphere. Bob le Flambeur, likewise, is all tone and atmosphere.

As I’m locking down the last remaining Melvilles, I realized that I mostly started with the latter half of the great French auteur’s career. Bob le Flambeur represents the seeds that would become glossy perfection in films such as Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai. An inimitable essence of cool, mood and shadow played out in chiaroscuro and character motivation.

As Bob le Flambeur meandered and meditated on the destructive tendencies of “the flambeur” (which as I learned is not just a gambler, but an extreme gambler — one who would not only wager everything he has, but anything he doesn’t have as well), it pulled me into close proximity due to the minutiae. Roger Duchesne’s mannerisms speak more about the character than 30 pages of dialogue.

By the time we get to the final scene, the choices these characters have made fall right in line with our expectations. Even though Melville wrote a face-value “twist” ending, it’s not a twist if we, the viewers, are paying attention. There’s no subversion of expectation. Bob does what Bob was always going to do.

The most interesting thing about Bob le Flambeur is the perhaps the ways that Bob reflects the personality of Melville as a filmmaker. It may resist any kind of catharsis, but Bob is simmering cool, the kind you can’t fake.

Bob le Flambeur is available on Criterion DVD. It is also available on Blu-ray in the UK on the beautiful Melville boxset released last year.

#2. A Dandy in Aspic (Anthony Mann, 1968)

a dandy in aspic first watch club february

A shocking late entry to the countdown that I viewed as part of a #Bond_age_ live tweet.

Anthony Mann’s final film (he died during filming) displays a keen sense of the espionage genre as a sincere enterprise in the wake of James Bond’s box office megalomania.

There’s no nudge nudge, as was common during these late 1960’s spy films. There’s only a wry smile, a pretty but dim girl, and a bunch double crossing. Oh, and Laurence Harvey’s excellent coif. Mann’s sense of depth and focus presents even tossaway scenes as visual perfection.

There’s a clarity of vision and purpose here that was lacking in most straight espionage films. Strong lead performances from Harvey and Courtenay buoy the film by grounding it even as the narrative spins out of control and Mia Farrow threatens to turn her scenes in Laugh-In! interludes.

A Dandy in Aspic is available on a halfway decent UK DVD — I can’t speak to the quality of the U.S. release, however. 

#1. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

prince of darkness first watch club february

One of three John Carpenter films I’d never seen. Prince of Darkness had such a lackluster reputation that I resisted its temptation for 31 years. I regret all of it.

Prince of Darkness could be called The Thing From Another Church as it borrows liberally from Carpenter’s masterpiece of frozen paranoia, The Thing.

This unsettling horror concoction finds a team of scientific researchers trying to explain a vat of green Double Dare goo that appears to be the liquid son of Satan in a incubator. Small flourishes of humor populate the deadly serious consideration of the subatomic evil that lives just beyond the mirror image of our world.

Interesting dialogue about the anesthesia of organized religion and humankind’s skepticism vs. faith. This atmosphere, the creeping post-apocalypse, and this eerie and somewhat unexpected finale crawl under your skin and set up permanent residence. While this isn’t generally considered top-tier Carpenter, it at least needs to be in the conversation.

I viewed this film at the Hollywood Theater as part of the John Carpenter festival. Immediately after the film, the non-profit theater organization had to close its doors. Forced out by another group that aims to turn the oldest movie house in Pittsburgh into just another place to view contemporary films. It makes me sick to lose such a resource right here in my back yard, but I take some solace that I was at the last picture shown at the Hollywood.

Prince of Darkness is available on a lovely Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Shout!/Scream Factory.

If you have a moment, please read and sign this petition to show some support for the non-profit organization that had been programming classic and indie films at the Hollywood Theater here in Pittsburgh. On film, no less. They’re looking to find a new home, and the voices of film-loving patrons still matter. And if you’re interested here’s an article that discusses the nature of the sale. 

 

Prior First-Watch Lists:

January 2018

First-Watch Cinema Club: January 2018

I decided I wanted to blog more in 2018. I don’t know why. I’m already spread wafer-thin as far as time and energy is concerned. So we’ll make this quick and painless and just share some more love of classic and underseen cinema.

Hopefully, I’ll give a few items to add to your own watchlist — you can use them to fill out your Cinema Shame rosters. That was a shameless cross-promotion, mind you. Also a reminder to fill our your Shame Statements for 2018. You’re already late. Every month I’ll highlight my favorite 4 first-time watches. We’ll stick to Pre-2010 offerings to give these films time to recede from your memory.

First-Watch Cinema Club: January 2018

#4. Kid Blue (1973)

kid blue

Surprisingly low-key, often aimless Dennis Hopper vehicle boosted by a strong supporting cast including Warren Oates, Peter Boyle and a scene-stealing Janice Rule.

Looking positively svelte — some might say “gaunt” — in the role of Bickford Waner, Hopper plays a reformed (but inept) trainrobber trying to go straight in a town called Dime Box, Texas that wants nothing to do with him.

He stumbles in and out of menial jobs and eventually befriends Reese Ford (Warren Oates) and his wife Molly (Lee Purcell). The two form a strong bond, true bros, until Molly literally throws her knickers at Bickford and Bickford’s not a perfect man. Reese learns of the affair and severs the friendship.

Screenwriter Bud Shrake took great care in scripting this particular confrontation between Oates and Hopper — and the two actors, Oates in particular, have a meticulous way with damning silence. It was not his wife’s infidelity that has brought them to this point — but the betrayal of someone he’d known as a true friend.

Now an official outcast, casting aside any attempt at cultural assimilation, Bickford consults the other local outcasts (the Native Americans) about a little old-fashioned thieving. The unlikely gang attempts to take a pound of flesh from the society that has unfairly wronged them.

Director James Frawley (best known perhaps as the director of The Muppet Movie) allows this languid film to unfold without any agenda and only minimal genre-styled violence. This kind of thing only happened in the 1970’s — a character study with nowhere important to go. Foiled expectations for a Dennis Hopper western may turn some people off, but if you can survive the first thirty minutes or so, you’ll likely be rewarded with simple charms and an entirely unexpected moviewatching experience.

Kid Blue is available on DVD via the Fox Cinema Archive Collection.

#3. Captain Blood (1935)

While the wife went out of town to visit her family in Santa Fe, my daughters and I set sail to the library to scope out some child-appropriate classic cinema.

My oldest daughter K (8), has just recently discovered a more adventurous moviegoing spirit (because unlike a fortieth viewing of How to Train Your Dragon, I will almost always grant a classic cinema request). She jumped at the opportunity to watch a movie with the word “Blood” in the title because that’s definitely not something mom would have approved.

I don’t know if she witnessed as much bloodletting as she’d hoped, but she was glued to the screen for at least the first hour or so. I attempted to explain Errol Flynn’s status as a piece of 1930’s man meat — and equate his popularity with the only heartthrob she recognizes as an 8yo in 2018 — Brandon Flowers (the lead singer of The Killers). It was a really loose analogy, but I think she understood. More problematic was explaining King James and his predilection toward torture and slavery. This was not a topic I anticipated explaining to my 5yo.

This classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler was one I’ve been meaning to watch for ages. My dad put a bunch of Flynn’s films in front of me at an early age, but this was never one of them. Errol swashed and buckled and fell in and out of love with Maria de Havilland and ran afoul a French scalawag played by Basil Rathbone. This French pirate version of Basil Rathbone might just be my favorite Basil Rathbone.

Captain Blood certainly didn’t undermine it’s status as a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler, but it fell just short of personal favorites The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Captain Blood is available on DVD from Warner Brothers.

 

speedy harold lloyd#2. Speedy (1928)

A good Harold Lloyd film — but a fascinating portrait of New York City in 1928 from Coney Island to Manhattan. What they do with a wild chase through the city streets seems damn near impossible in 2018 or 1928.

This was another daughter viewing. I’ve been attempting to endear them to the classic triumvirate of silent comedians. Chaplin wasn’t a big hit at first glance, but Harold Lloyd seems to have struck a nerve, at least with my 5yo. She refuses to call him Harold Lloyd. As far as she’s concerned his name will always be Speedy.

Since Speedy, they’ve gone on to view a few of Lloyd’s short films, and while I have your attention for a minute can we talk about how dark some of those early shorts were? Lloyd’s character is always trying to kill himself after being spurned by a love interest. Explaining the humor in suicide is a difficult task. Luckily, Speedy is attempted suicide-attempt free and just a fun romp through New York city at breakneck speed on a horse-drawn trolley.

Speedy is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

 

#1. Lifeboat (1944)

lifeboat

Checked this box on my 2018 Cinema Shame statement. Also look for this to appear on an upcoming episode of the Cinema Shame podcast. Consider this a preview of coming attractions.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is an exquisite technical achievement in filmmaking. A true showcase of a cinematic mind at the height of his craft. And then there’s Tallulah Bankhead’s resplendent performance anchoring the entire thing. See what I did there? Anchor. Lifeboat.

Like its single-setting sibling, Rope — Lifeboat takes full advantage of its claustrophobia and limited scope to focus on the frailty of the human condition and the latent ugliness beneath every facade. Hitchcock revels in a filmmaking challenge, and it often brings out the best, most subtle facets of his extraordinary ability. Whereas it’s easy to overlook the nuance in something like North by Northwest due to the film’s constant movement and action, Lifeboat highlights framing, juxtaposition of character, and the movement of actors within a frame.

This is a master class in close-quarters filmmaking. If you want to learn how to piece a film together with nothing but actors and a camera, single-setting Hitchcock is a good place to start.

Lifeboat is available on Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray.