I watched a bunch of theatrical releases and rewatched a number of 2017 offerings this June. As a result my First Watch Club June feels a little light in the loafers, but make no mistake — these are four films worth your time.
My daughters being home from school cuts into a ton of personal movie watching time. Plus they don’t go to sleep until the sun goes down. What madness is this? You’re 6 and 9. GO TO BED. I need to move further east in this time zone where the sun goes down at 5pm.
Alas, they’re a lot of fun and I don’t really mind. I just need them to get a little older so they can watch all these movies with me or at least choose to ignore me. I’m leaving one of my first-time watches off this list because it’s a Cinema Shame and I’ll be writing up a more lengthy report on that one in due time.
4. The In Crowd (Mark Rosenthal, 1988)
Joe Pantoliano plays a 1960’s TV teen dance party emcee. That should at least pique your interest in this obscure gem directed by the screenwriter of The Legend of Billie Jean, Superman IV and Star Trek VI. The film remains, perhaps unjustly, Mark Rosenthal’s only directorial credit.
The In Crowd is an earnest and entertaining film about teenage love and optimism at the dawn of the rock and roll era. That it was never released on DVD probably has to do with its soundtrack, which features dozens of 1960’s chart-toppers that might have caused licensing trouble for home video release.
Promising high schooler Del (Donovan Leitch) dreams of appearing as a dancer on “Perry Parker’s Dance Party.” Despite being mocked by his friends and stepsister (sexual tension between these two, by the way) for even considering such a thing, he sneaks on set and into a show recording. He turns out to be a skilled dancer and slips in as the partner of dream girl Vicky (played by Daisy Runyon, she of the “Couple of wavy lines” scene in Ghostbusters). The two become romantically entangled while her Fonzie-like former boyfriend and dancer (Dugan) looms over their courtship.
At a crossroads in the film, Del’s friend Popeye clarifies a choice bit of subtext. “Dancing or fighting. What’s the difference, right?” This leads us to the scene that best represents the film’s tone. The angry Dugan confronts Del in his home. The film had been leading us toward certain fisticuffs, but instead of bloody knuckles the two teenagers engage in a righteous and unexpected living room dance battle. In many ways it’s a double slice of nostalgia. Though the film lusts over the rock and roll 60’s, it’s a fully realized 80’s film in terms of form and fun. Some might quibble over the lack of closure, but that would have undermined The In Crowd’s message that even if the show ends, the rock and roll goes on.
Here’s the opening sequence to this unfortunately unavailable teen dramedy.
3. Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915)
Clocking in at a total of 400 minutes, Louis Feuillade’s second silent serial masterpiece has run in fits and spurts throughout the month, and while I’m just wrapping up the final few episodes I’ll sneak into this June countdown.
I find it overall slightly less impressive as an achievement in silent cinema than Feuillade’s Fantômas, which blew my mind. So it’s all relative.
Les Vampires is a fast-paced and highly entertaining serial that oozes atmosphere and influenced dozens of subsequent films in both style and substance. Part of the joy is recognizing the source of certain references throughout the history of more recent cinema. Most importantly, I finally fully understand Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep.
2. He Walked By Night (Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann, 1948)
Soggy, narrative-driven police procedural turns into a gripping thriller, inspires Jack Webb to make the Dragnet TV series. Two scenes set this film apart — the chase through the LA storm drains and a cringeworthy, bowel-clutching segment where Richard Basehart digs a bullet out of his side. It’s all silence, and squishy noises and Basehard grimaces. It’s visceral and unforgettable cinema.
The film’s overbearing silence (there’s largely no score) contributes to the tension as does the steady and stoic camera that makes a study of the face and psychology of a murderer. If you didn’t know John Alton’s name before this film, you certainly learned a thing or two about light and shadow. A clinic in cinematography.
John Patrick Shanley’s screenwriting debut focuses on the lives of teens coming of age in the Bronx during the 1960’s. John Turturro plays an unhinged youth who was sent to prison for trying to rape Jodie Foster. Tim Robbins plays the born-again revolutionary who clubbed him with a lamp to prevent the rape.
Directed by Tony Bill (My Bodyguard, Crazy People), Five Corners dwells on the time and place and imagery. Shanley’s script sounds like a play — which makes perfect sense as he was an accomplished playwright before trying his hand at screenwriting. As a result some of the dialogue feels stage-y and artificial. If you’re watching this for verisimilitude, you won’t find it — unless you’re looking at the details.
I found the artificiality provided a greater clarity of message as the movie unfolds in vignettes aimed at nostalgia and breaking down Boomer nostalgia, in ways not entirely dissimilar to The Big Chill. Instead of looking back, however, Five Corners depicts that era in the moment as filtered through the memory of John Patrick Shanley, one of our most vibrant contemporary voices. Shanley would go on to win an Academy Award for Moonstruck and write and direct Joe Versus the Volcano before largely abandoning Hollywood for the stage.
I don’t normally talk about theatrical releases in this space, but I feel forced to mention that I saw Solo: A Star Wars Story twice in the theater. In a fair world, it would totally have a spot on this list. I’m already calling it violently underappreciated and if you want to have some actual fun in the movie theater in 2018, you should go. You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan. In fact, if you don’t have any preconceptions about what this movie is *supposed* to be, you might even enjoy it even more. Ehrenreich and Glover give referential performances, but they each inject much of their own personality, and I’m excited to see how their frenemance blossoms in the planned future Solo films.
In the absence of Solo, what you will notice about my May 2018 First Watch list is that it features three musicals. Spoiler alert: the next Cinema Shame podcast will feature a conversation with Jessica Pickens about classic Hollywood musicals. I watched a lot of musicals last month. It just so happened that three of them made the list alongside another future Cinema Shame podcast spoiler.
First-Watch Cinema Club: May 2018
#5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954)
Knowingly(?) cringe-y sexual politics scattered throughout a colorful, imaginative 19th century wife-grabbing musical romcom. Elaborate dance choreography and inventive depth of staging make this a memorable classic Cinemascope musical. Still — hard not to question how the movie played the lady stealing with such a straight face.
Jane Powell carves her own slice of female empowerment in a movie about “just needing a man.” It’s a wonderful performance. I also can’t stress enough how this wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, but there’s something totally charming about the relationship between Keel’s woodsman and Powell’s love-struck cook.
Busby Berkeley out the wazoo. Elaborate, mass kaleidoscopic choreography scattered throughout a passable showbiz tale that provides the venue for Jimmy Cagney to do some hoofing in a not-so-vaguely racist grand finale.
The end of this film is a 40-minute four-course feast for the eyes and ears. Joan Blondell and Cagney needed 200 movies together. They’re positively combustive on the same screen. Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee round out the impressive cast.
I dare you to watch this and not feel conflicted about having “Shanghai Lil” being stuck in your head for three days.
Rather than treat the Fantomas films as separate entries, I’ll tackle them all individually, but as one continuous serial, as it was intended.
Fantomas I: In the Shadow of the Guillotine
Stoic, early silent narrative camera can’t quite keep up with Feuillade’s ideal pacing and style. It’s something akin to the silent film equivalent of the cart before the horse. The narrative techniques have yet to develop the necessary language to match Feuillade’s ambition.
Solid opening Fantomas entry suggests room to grow as Feuillade pushes the language of narrative film in interesting ways. Excellent introduction and establishment of Fantomas as a legendary evil mastermind.
Fantomas II: Juve Against Fantomas
Fantomas #2 gives us a far stronger inspector/nemesis relationship by foregrounding Inspector Juve rather than Fantomas’ machinations. More engaging start to finish with a better cinematic pace. Narrative polish that feels way ahead of its time for 1913. Feuillade’s made huge strides between these first two episodes.
Fantomas III: The Dead Man Who Killed
This one gets dark. Fantomas wears skin gloves made from a dead man to leave false fingerprints and truly becomes the twisted evil worthy of a serial detective story. Feuillade weaves multiple narratives and establishes a larger Fantomas network of villainy. Plus a twist ending. Top notch serialized silent entertainment.
Fantomas IV: Fantomas Against Fantomas
In the realm of the image, this fourth Fantomas left a potent legacy. The bloodstained wall where Fantomas entombed one of his victims must have left scars on unsuspecting 1914 viewers. Very Edgar Allan Poe. Dual pit traps abruptly ends the episode with a haunting final message.
Ultimately falls short of the narrative admiration earned in Part III, but still incredibly advanced and layered. Feuillade has proven himself influential in nearly every genre that would form during these early days of cinema. He is horror, suspense, spy and police procedural. They all owe something to Fantomas.
Fantomas V: The False Magistrate
I don’t even know what to think about early silent cinema anymore. I once believed that the pre-1920’s era consisted largely of whimsical vignettes and static-shot mugging as filmmakers worked on ironing out the techniques that would guide narrative cinema through the 1920’s.
It’s generally not too difficult to keep up with a silent film what with our brains already trained to navigate rapid editing and layered narrative. The nature of the production itself — the title cards and deliberate miming — gives the viewer ample time to process the on-screen events. Don’t get me wrong, I adore great silent cinema, but misdirection was rarely a strength. The False Magistrate weaves such a complex tale of crossing and double-crossing and red herrings that I had to rewatch multiple segments because I couldn’t believe what Feuillade accomplished in a film from 1914. (For the record, some of them didn’t quite add up… specifically as the motivations of our heroes are concerned.) Still, I’ve never seen anything like it from this era.
Some of the Fantomas V becomes bogged down in text and letter reading — and much of that became necessary to detail Fantomas’ complex web of lies and intrigue with a number of segments missing from the print. Ultimately that makes this film hard to rate as a standalone entry. I’ll tell you one thing though — you’ve never seen anything like what Feuillade does to the man stuck in the bell tower.
The final confrontation doesn’t disappoint, and the aftermath is a solid kick in teeth, re-establishing Fantomas as the greatest criminal mastermind of all time. Essential viewing for film fans interested in the roots of all narrative filmmaking.
Astaire’s good, you know, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Eleanor Powell. I didn’t miss Ginger when the two of them appeared on-screen together. She seems to bring more elegance out Fred, whereas Ginger harnesses some playfulness.
My first exposure to Eleanor Powell, somehow. I discussed how she mesmerized me in the Cinema Shame podcast, but maybe it bears repeating. She’s a revelation and I wish the Astaire/Powell coupling had born more fruits, but Broadway Melody of 1940 offers a tantalizing morsel of what could have been a long and fruitful partnership. Though the two of them might have danced the other into the ground due to their perfectionist natures.
Dassin escaped his Hollywood blacklist by traveling to France to make films where sane individuals didn’t care about such things as attending meetings related to communist activity in the 1930s. Rififi serves as a potent response to the unfortunate hand he’d been dealt. The film’s grim, disillusioned tone feels angry, perhaps even fatalist. What it does so well, however, is establish characters of both likable and unlikeable qualities and eventually depict individual revelations of their true selves. Charm and charisma turn into cowardice and malice. A face-value cretin becomes the film’s lone representation of altruism.
The legendary 32-minute silent heist scene has the power to change cinematic frames of reference. There’s a reason that Rififi has been billed as the greatest bank heist in cinema history. Dassin’s girtty city noir lived up to the hype.
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)
If 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.
There 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 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.
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.
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.
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)
The 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.
I 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.
#2. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Colin Higgins, 1982)
Hinges 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.
Long 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Melville 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.