Tag Archives: first watch cinema

First Watch Club: April 2018

I’m behind schedule. Ideally this post drops the first week of the new month. The TCM Film Festival happened, and I had to write some features to put food on the table. And if I’m being honest I still have some of that writing to do but I’m avoiding it so I’m on here writing posts for free.  You know how it goes.

Speaking of TCMFF, this month’s First Watch Club will not include ANY films I viewed for the first time at the festival. (I already covered them here.) Instead, these five picks are going to come straight from the garden variety home viewings from April of 2018. The benefit here is that you’ll get another edition of First Watch Club in only a couple of weeks. Huzzah!

First-Watch Cinema Club: April 2018

#5. Remote Control (Jeff Lieberman, 1988)

remote controlIf you’re a child of the video store-era, Remote Control will carry extra resonance. This is Lieberman’s indie-film commentary on 1950’s sci-fi by way of 1980’s kitsch. Intriguing Videodrome/TerrorVision ideas tossed about without a lot of cohesion.

Kevin Dillon’s an interesting actor but I’ve always found him best as part of an ensemble.  Deborah Goodrich might be the best thing going for for the film — which is generally true for just about any film in which Deborah Goodrich appears. Jennifer Tilly gets offed in the first 15, which is a mistake. Obviously. Because if you cast a Tilly — any Tilly — you need to keep that Tilly around for the duration.

Nostalgia for 1988 rental shops will ferry this into the hearts of a specific generation, but others might be nonplussed. Of course, I belong to this particular generation so Remote Control scratched a whole bunch of those 80’s itches.

Remote Control is available on Blu-ray directly from Jeff Lieberman.

#4. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

asphalt jungleThere are certain films, based on the time they were made and the nature of the narrative, in which our anti-heroes cannot and will not survive. We know this from the beginning based on extratextual information. Yet, still we cling to the hope that just this once our good-natured bad guy (Sterling Hayden in this instance) gets away, undermining the system, shaking the oppressive “bad guys must be punished” production code stipulation to the core.

Soderbergh feels Asphalt Jungle in his loins when he directs a heist movie. It feels as if the film has infiltrated and transformed his DNA. He recognizes how much the audience wants that catharsis, despite the good-people-doing-bad-things conflict of interest, and because of the era in which he directs, he’s allowed to make that movie. Huston must punish his evildoers in the name of righteousness. So it goes.

I can love Asphalt Jungle and I can still wish for hope.

The Asphalt Jungle is available on Criterion Blu-ray. 

#3. The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926)

black pirateFairbanks doing what he does best.

The most impressive part about The Black Pirate is that these pirates are true, merciless big screen monsters. The brutality is always just off-screen, but the aftermath leaves no doubt as to what just occurred. This sets the film apart from most of these early swashbucklers, hell, really any swashbuckler.

Take the following scene for example: a captured privateer swallows a ring to keep it from the pirate captain — the captain has his musclebound heavy “fetch” it by slicing the man open. The heavy returns covered in 2-strip Technicolor red and cleaning his knife.

I’m coming around to this notion that this Fairbanks fellow was a true entertainer. I’m just a century behind the curve. After also recently viewing The Mark of Zorro (1920) for the first time, the big Fairbanks picture is finally falling into place.

The Black Pirate was released on a now out of print (and crazy expensive) Kino Blu-ray but can still be purchased on Kino DVD. 

#2. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)

Haunting melodrama, supernatural romance — Wuthering Heights turned out to be much more accessible and entertaining than the novel that I can’t seem to finish.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon make you feel their pain in your bones. The house becomes an omniscient third party to their labored relationship. The set design and cinematography set the mood, everything else falls into place around it. Olivier’s furrowed brow and Oberon’s eyes.

Thanks to Kristen Lopez for adding this to my original Cinema Shame list. Without her recommendation I likely never would have made the effort — I mean have you read (or tried to read) the book?

Wuthering Heights is available in HD on Amazon Prime Video. 

#1. California Typewriter (Doug Nichol, 2016)

california typewriter

Passion-filled documentary about the contemporary place of the typewriter and the struggle to keep the dream alive. This film resonated all over this typewriter believer.

I don’t often love a documentary. I’m fairly entertained and solidly informed. California Typewriter, however, moved me as a document to disappearing technology that has been deemed outmoded. I firmly believe that our lives would be richer if we still used typewriters on a daily basis.

I use a typewriter to compose first drafts of articles and stories for the same reasons that Tom Hanks, Sam Shepherd, and David McCullough discuss in this film. Shortly before viewing this film, I learned that all three of my known typewriter repairmen in Pittsburgh had retired within the past two years.

You don’t have to be a typewriter nut to appreciate the message in this film. You just need to be a human that’s lived long enough to see how Digital Age technology has shaped our lives, for better and for worse.

California Typewriter is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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