Turner Classic Movies Film Festival Wishlist 2018: Thematics

Last week I brought up some “anniversary movies” that would make interesting offerings at the 2018 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. I took the theme “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen” into consideration. Some (Some Came Running) proved relevant, others (Danger: Diabolik) did not. Not everything can be a 100% thematic match.

Since this is merely a fun exercise in thinking about what might be, I decided to extend the thought process to come up with another short list that emphasized movies about writers and the writer’s life. This is the ultimate form of procrastination. With the TCMFF right around the corner, I’ve started to daydream about that schedule, which is surely coming… any… day… now…

(By the way, passes still remain for the 2018 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. If you feel like a trip to Los Angeles in late April, hurry over to the TCM page and pick up a pass today. It’ll be your best purchase of the year.)

Mask of Dimitrios (Jean Negulesco, 1944)

Excellent and underseen noir directed by the prolific and talented Jean Negulesco. Peter Lorre stars as a Dutch mystery writer who becomes fascinated by the sordid story of a dead man that has washed up on a nearby beach.  Available via Warner Archive DVD, this movie might cause Double Harness-brand riots at the small Multiplex auditorium.

 

House by the River (Fritz Lang, 1950)

Falls under the category of movies I’ve had on my watchlist for a long time. Fritz Lang’s films always offer something of interest and this one has had a kind of rediscovery of late after a nice DVD presentation by Kino Lorber. A rich novelist kills his maid after she becomes inebriated and attempts to seduce him. The writer dumps the body in the river, shenanigans ensue. There’s a gloomy mansion, Victorian-era set decoration, murders, chiaroscuro and an avant-garde score by George Antheil. Sounds like something I’d prioritize at the TCMFF.

 

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Because I just watched this Nicholas Ray film and because it was one of the best things I watched in all of 2017, I think we should all have a chance to see this one the big screen. Humphrey Bogart plays a struggling screenwriter who may or may not have committed murder. Gloria Grahame supplies his alibi, but does she believe in his innocence? Beautifully shot and featuring two actors at the peak of their powers.

 

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

This should become an entry on my personal Cinema Shame list. I’ve owned this Criterion DVD for as long as I can remember, and it still remains unopened. This just happens to fit our theme ever so perfectly. A genius playwright is lured to Hollywood to work on an adaption of The Odyssey by a “vulgur” producer played by Jack Palance. Plus Bridgitte Bardot. I tend to appreciate Godard when I get the opportunity to experience him in the cinema. Make it so.

 

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

As I was considering films about writers that I’ve never had the opportunity to see as the Cinema Gods intended, my mind went straight to Kubrick’s masterpiece. An opportunity to see this at the Egyptian or the Chinese Theater would be a dream come true.

 

Castle of Blood (Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Corbucci, 1964)

And finally my writer-themed midnight movie. Castle of Blood features a writer spending the night in a haunted, gothic cathedral on “All Souls Eve” in order to challenge the legitimacy of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (which in this film are presented as non-fiction). An example of the European gothic-style of filmmaking, Margheriti’s film may not be very scary, but his innovative camerawork and use of score makes for a highly entertaining slice of horror cinema. A Barbara Steele classic that should play well among TCMFF attendees — if they give it a chance. It’s style over substance and pure cinema over scares.

 

Turner Classic Movies Film Festival Wishlist 2018: Anniversaries

I had some idle time in traffic this afternoon and my mind started to wander to the upcoming Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. TCMFF attendees get quite edgy the weeks before the final schedule release. To date we only know a handful of films — these can be found here. It’s a rock solid set of films, but nothing that sets my hair on fire. Not yet.

(By the way, passes still remain for the 2018 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. If you feel like a trip to Los Angeles in late April, hurry over to the TCM page and pick up a pass today. It’ll be your best purchase of the year.)

tcmff 2018

Of those films I’m most excited to see my favorite Kurosawa, The Throne of Blood (1957), on a big screen and what I assume will be a 35mm print of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). The Set-Up (1949) also has some timely relevance because Raquel Stecher and I just discussed on a recent episode of Cinema Shame.

Still, I can’t help but consider the possibilities for what is yet to come. The theme for this year’s festival is Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen. We’re talking adaptations of famous works and writers. We’re talking movies about writers and landmark original screenplays. With that in mind, I let my brain ponder some potentials. What would I want to see with these parameters in mind?

Keep in mind I know absolutely nothing. Anything I guess here will likely not come true and anything I guess correctly will obviously be the product of true genius.

I’ll begin my frivolous exercise by considering big anniversaries. Which films do we have a monumental reason to celebrate? What are some films I’d like to see for the first time at TCMFF this year? Maybe some that just deserve a big screen?  Here’s my picks for an Anniversary-oriented Turner Classic Movies Film Festival Wishlist for 2018. 

 

some came running

Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Frank Sinatra plays a drunk novelist in this drama also starring Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. Not only was this Sinatra’s first film with Dino, Shirley MacLaine earned her first Academy Award nomination. Shirley has attended prior Turner Classic Movie Film Festivals, why not another? I’ve been on a Vincente Minnelli kick lately, so I figure I should scratch this off the list, too.

 

the long hot summer tcmff

The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958)

Steamy Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward melodrama based on the short stories of William Faulkner. All that plus Orson Welles, not a bad scribe in his own right. Prior festival attendee Angela Lansbury. Lee Remick. The film re-established Ritt’s career after the Blacklist and fast-tracked Newman’s career. The title came from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and some of the characters were inspired by Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Authorial pedigree, you guys.

 

swimmer tcmff

The Swimmer (Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack, 1968)

Frank Perry’s excellent David & Lisa (1962) screened at last year’s festival. The Academy gave Perry a director nomination and his wife Eleanor Perry a screenplay nod for this film based on a short story by John Cheever. The Swimmer has received a bit of notoriety after a deserved rediscovery upon the release of the Grindhouse Blu-ray. I’m sure festival patrons would be thrilled to “discover” this Burt Lancaster great for themselves. If we’re talking unique and original voices, this film surely fits the theme.

danger diabolik tcmff

Danger: Diabolik (Mario Bava, 1968)

If I could make one festival request, I would wish this upon everyone as a midnight screening. Not that it wouldn’t play well at any other time, but a midnight screening of Danger: Diabolik would tear the roof off of the Multiplex. I can’t make a connection to “Powerful Words,” except for the fact that it came from a series of Italian comics called Diabolik from  Angela and Luciana Giussani.

 

hooper tcmff

Hooper (Hal Needham, 1978)

Notable for it’s gonzo stunts. Plus Burt Reynolds, Adam West and Sally Field, and I must always hope for a Burt Reynolds film. This would go over really well with a jazzed-up classic film crowd. Fits into the writing category ironically. No writers were needed for the making of this film — yet four are listed in the credits. Maybe Peter Bogdanovich could attend to discuss the Roger Deal character — who was apparently intended as a Bogdanovich spoof.

All that said, what do I know? And per usual, the best and most exciting films at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival are the ones I didn’t know I wanted to see in the first place. I look forward to what TCM has in store for us… but I really wish they’d take the Danger: Diabolik request into consideration.

Please.

Cue Morricone’s opening theme:

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

Crate Diving: Kids in the Kitchen – s/t

kids in the kitchen

Kids in the Kitchen – s/t

Place in Time:

Originally released in May 1985 in Australia under the title Shine, this self-titled debut for the Melbourne band Kids in the Kitchen hit the International market a year later with a different cover and sans the Shine title.

Vinyl Me:

I came across this nugget in a Half Price Books — the one with all the vinyl. If you’re a HPB shopper, you know there’s one in your area that gets all the interesting records. If you’re jonesing for some more Barbara Streisand or Kenny Loggins (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) feel free to visit any of the others.

While my musical tastes skew in all directions, when I visit this particular shop there’s only one thing on my mind. Odd or interesting 1980’s selections. All I need to do is unearth a few before the kids lose their minds. I generally have 12 minutes. On this day, I had 9 before meltdown. Commence extreme crate diving.

Normally by the time I hit the “K” section I’ve got a handful of prospects tucked under my arm and my daughters (ages 8 and 5) are moaning about being bored or asking me how far I think the 45s will fly. That means the fingers start flying faster and I might miss a gem or two. That Kids in the Kitchen cover, however, would not be overlooked. Bright yellow polo shirts? Red scarves? Smug new waveness or post-punk record label conformity? Are those a dozen eggs? Nakatomi Plaza? All bathed in the sickly neon streaming in through the “Kids in the Kitchen” monicker atop the sleeve.

It screams “the record label said we’d make bank if we sell ‘edgy’ but I’m really just thinking about that half-finished bag of Doritos at home in the pantry.” Also, “Cravats are itchy.”

Impressions:

The band definitely falls under the auspices of the angsty, synthesized shadow cast by new wave / new romantic bands such as Ultravox or Visage, but Kids in the Kitchen never met a Duran Duran groove they didn’t like. So while, lead singer Scott Carne likes to elongate his vowels to profess his depth and inner turmoil, there’s a poppier, commercial softness here rather than cold artificiality.

This is probably best represented by the band’s most successful track, “Current Stand,” which serves up a radio-friendly and potently hooky chorus, simple melodies and 1980’s sexy sax. Pure palatability.

The album’s first two singles “Change in Mood” and “Bitter Tears” promise more, perhaps, and would have rightfully qualified them as a band to watch — if they’d hung around long enough to evolve into something more interesting. Solid pop vocals and a pleasant blend of electronics and instrumentation only goes so far.

It’s not too surprising that the band got lost in the new wave shuffle despite registering Australian Platinum. They’re ear-friendly but overly familiar, especially considering this record didn’t reach U.S. or U.K. ears until the middle of 1986 — a time when this new wave had long since reached its peak.

The band splintered shortly after the release of this debut. The guitarist and keyboardist quit, and Kids in the Kitchen only released one more record, 1987’s Terrain before calling it quits in 1988.

Verdict:

The Kids stay in the Kitchen. As a relative oddity due to the fact that it never saw a CD release outside Australia, vinyl’s the only way to smell what the kids are (still) cooking. It’s not going to be a rotation staple, but I could see some “Change the Mood” cravings coming back around in time for a midnight snack.

keeper

An American in Paris: Cinema Shame

an american in paris 1951 poster

Best Picture Shame: An American in Paris

Cinema Shame comes in all shades; however, the most common variety likely has to do with well-known films that have just never presented themselves or been made a priority. I’ve never avoided An American in Paris nor have I ever made a point to track it down. I once recorded it on my DVR, but forgot to watch it. Considering the number of movies we “need to see,” many so-called essentials fall through the cracks.

For the Cinema Shame February prompt, the great minds at the Shame-Q (yes — myself included) loaded the table with unseen Academy Award Best Picture winners. All well known films, certainly. Some with more lasting power than others. I have a weekly Cavalcade (1933) Fan Club meeting every Tuesday, don’t you?

That’s an imposing list of 89 films — many of which I’m guessing are not high on anyone’s Watchlist. It’s also a fun bit of personal reckoning. How many Best Pictures haven’t you seen? (My answer is 30, which is far more than I expected and just patently unacceptable.) It also speaks to how often, time and tide re-evaluates and re-assigns value to these films. At best they live up to expectation. At worst, they’re a trace memory of a forgotten zeitgeist.

I scanned my library’s shelves for Best Picture Cinema Shame inspiration. First rack. First shelf. An American in Paris.

an american in paris gene kelly kids

Knowing very little about the film itself other than the La La Land-inspiring finale, I went in largely blind — a pleasant change from most of my Shame viewings. Instead of a big, boisterous 1950’s musical, I found a small, wafer-thin narrative wrapped inside the serenity of Gershwin and the warm blanket of 1950’s Technicolor.

Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an expatriate painter looking to enhance his reputation in Paris (#spoiler). His friend Adam (Oscar Levant), a struggling concert pianist hopes to launch a more profitable career (than tinkling the ivories in a lowly Parisian cafe) by working with the famous French singer Henri Baurel. Milo (an elegant Nina Foch), a lonely society woman takes an interest in Jerry’s work (and Jerry himself) and becomes a patron of his arts. Jerry, however, falls in love with Leslie Caron’s enigmatic store clerk Lise, complicating the patron/painter relationship. Further problematic: Lise’s engaged to Henri Baurel. Oh the tangled webs. 

an american in paris 1951

There’s plenty to love about An American in Paris, but the beauty’s found in smaller moments, the technical artistry of MGM in the 1950’s. Color. Set design. Photography. Gene Kelly’s athleticism. Small story. Big package. At least until the last reel when most everything comes together in a grandiose, twenty-minute finale, but we’ll come to that in a moment. The story doesn’t propel the film forward; there’s a sense of narrative listlessness as musical numbers pop in and out and occasionally arrest the film completely. All this plus some moldy 1950’s-era gender politics, contributes to some of the negative hindsight about the film.

And yet.

An American in Paris remains a charming and likable film, in no small part due to Gene Kelly’s natural charisma and Gershwin’s romantic score. Kelly, as ever, exudes joy. He is the embodiment of entertainment, selling every moment as if it’s the most fun/whimsical/romantic/downtrodden moment you’ve ever experienced. In the past I’ve seen that as both a strength and a weakness in his performance style. When it works, however, it’s magical — even if his pure strength and athleticism seems discordant with Minellii’s balletic symphony.

leslie caron an american in paris

Now, I must make a confession within a confession. This is the Russian nesting doll of Cinema Shame posts. I’ve never cared for Leslie Caron — but I’d never seen her dance. How is that I could have wandered the depths of classic cinema but avoided the one thing that made Leslie Caron magnificent. In An American in Paris I found her positively beguiling and I could not take my eyes off her.

I have no doubt that the finale swayed Academy voters. Outside the last twenty minutes, An American in Paris isn’t even in the Best Picture conversation. As I suggested earlier, the majority of the film is an MGM confection of big budget style over substance. Jay Lerner’s script failed to analyze the potentially complex and volatile relationships between Jerry and Milo or Herni and Lise.

nina foch an american in paris

Then again, dissecting what made Nina Foch’s patron of the arts the most interesting character in the film would have more fully humanized her and simultaneously raised difficult questions that the film wasn’t prepared to answer. It’s about true love, mon ami, and that’s all you need to know.  When a perfect, dramatic moment arises in An American in Paris, the conflict thaws and disappears just in time to preserve everyone’s happily ever after. Except Milo, who recedes silently into the background.

That said, sometimes happily ever after paired with something as magical and technically resplendent as An American in Paris‘ final reel is all we really want. The more easily that Milo slips into the background, the less we notice the frayed edges of that visual splendor.

cinema shame February prompt

A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick