An Unexpected Farewell: Leslie Howard’s Spitfire (1942)

FIRST OF THE FEW, THE (1942)

With World War II ramping up in his native Britain, Leslie Howard felt compelled to redirect the focus of his film career to the war effort. He also wanted to expand into producer and directorial roles, spending less time in front of the camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear path for him to do so in Hollywood, further adding to his desire to return home to Britain. After a successful string of starring roles in American films such as Of Human Bondage (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) and of course Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard bid adieu to Hollywood (and apparently quite a bit of money). Once returned home, Howard didn’t waste much time, immediately beginning production on two important propaganda films: Pimpernel Smith (1941), a modern take of the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Pimpernel (in which Howard starred in an adaptation in 1934) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Both of these films were instrumental in building morale for British citizens and encouraging support from the United States, which remained neutral at that time. Following the success of Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel, Howard continued his contribution to the war effort with the 1942 film The First of the Few (released under the title Spitfire in the United States), a biopic on the aircraft developer R.J. Mitchell, whose accomplishments included the Supermarine Spitfire, an important component of the Royal Air Force’s fleet.

[...MORE]

Living in the Past: The Music Room (1958)

MUSIC ROOM, THE (1958)

Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard both use similar visual motifs to communicate the decay of body and spirit with their principal characters. We see their homes, those of Charles Foster Kane and Norma Desmond, looking abandoned and in utter disrepair. The pools are empty, the grounds are unkempt and overgrown, and the owners are either at death’s doorstep (Kane) or living on the brink of complete irrelevance. The images are beautiful and surreal and effortlessly communicate the idea of two once powerful people now living in quiet anonymity. In The Music Room (1958), directed by Satyajit Ray and available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, the idea is similar but the motifs are different. The house and its surroundings have the same sense of abandonment but the focus is not on the real estate but on the central character, sitting in a chair, motionless and quiet. As his servant approaches, he asks “What month is it?” What month. Not the time, or the day, or even the week but the month. That’s how completely out of touch he is with the world around him. He’s not dead but he may as well be.

[...MORE]

Adventure in Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)

TOPKAPI (1964)

Today (Dec. 8) is Maximilian Schell’s birthday. The handsome Swiss actor is one of my favorite screen performers and he would have been 85 today if he hadn’t passed away in 2014 after abruptly contracting pneumonia. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d take a look at one of my favorite Maximilian Schell films; the stylish and highly entertaining caper, Topkapi (1964) directed by Jules Dassin (Brute Force [1947], The Naked City [1948]). If you’re searching for an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, this playful, frothy cocktail of a film is sure to warm your spirits. Topkapi is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. You can also occasionally catch it playing on TCM.

[...MORE]

Ooh La La Land

YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, THE (1967)

With the unabashed love letter to director Jacques Demy La La Land now hitting theaters, there couldn’t be a better time to hone in on a singing and dancing delight from the French filmmaker himself: The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) (1967). If you can’t afford to take a tour of France, Demy’s films are probably the next best thing as he had a knack for highlighting its cities over the course of his career, from his hometown of Nantes to the one film that overshadows them all, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).  The Young Girls of Rochefort is usually regarded as a kind of also-ran to that legendary, Oscar-nominated milestone, but it’s really best if you just set aside any comparisons and watch it on its own terms as a buoyant, Gallic take on classic MGM musicals, made obvious with the importing of Gene Kelly and West Side Story’s George Chakiris as two of its stars. [...MORE]

On the Road Again: A Poem is a Naked Person (1974)

LeonR_Short_Textless_R1_0128471.tif

On November 14th Leon Russell passed away at the age of 74, after a remarkable career in music. He started as a sought-after studio session ace, working on everything from the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra to the “Monster Mash.” Drawn to roots music of all kinds, when he started his rock band it played an ecstatic blend of country-blues-R&B (known as the “Tulsa Sound”) that became one of the top touring acts of the 1970s. In 1972 Les Blank started filming a documentary, A Poem is a Naked Person, that would follow one of Russell’s tours as well as the recording process of what would become the album Hank Wilson’s Back. It was shot over two years, and has the vibrancy and surprise of Blank’s improvisatory style. He captures anything, whether it’s an intense studio session or a random girl singing a Three Dog Night tune before a wedding. A Poem Was a Naked Person was not a traditional concert doc, so due to creative differences and contractual snags, it did not see the light of the projector for decades. But it was finally released by Janus Films in 2015, and is now available to stream on FilmStruck.

[...MORE]

A Martinez: The “A” Stands for Actor

POWWOW HIGHWAY (1988)

Late in the fall of 1999, the British film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett in her breakthrough role, was released to great critical acclaim. I couldn’t believe reviewers and critics touted a film that was so clearly flawed (can anyone say “the 180-rule” or “screen direction”). And, the hyperbole surrounding Blanchett accelerated as awards season grew closer. Echoes of “the best acting of the year” were everywhere. Blanchett was fine, but for me it was another example of that stiff-upper-lip style of acting that Hollywood has been enamored with since Charles Laughton won the Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1934. As I reflected on America’s Anglophilia, I pondered what I thought might be the best acting of the year. It did not take me long to figure it out: It was A Martinez and Jacklyn Zemon in an episode of the ABC soap opera General Hospital.

[...MORE]

The Moral Arc of Mamet

OLEANNA (1994)

David Mamet has enjoyed a career as one of the most expressive and manipulative playwrights of his time. When I say “manipulative” I do not mean that in any sense to be an insult. Rather, Mamet understands how to manipulate his characters and situations precisely (you’ll see that word a lot in this piece) to evoke strong emotion and opinion in the viewer, often at odds with each other. Watching a Mamet production (if you’ve never seen one performed onstage, you’re missing out) is a maddening, engaging, often bewildering experience. As a filmmaker, Mamet started out adapting his own work from the stage but gradually began to create original works for the screen. Before directing, Mamet had already been writing for the movies, with hits as varied as The Verdict (1982) and The Untouchables (1987). Eventually, his directing skills caught up to his writing skills and he directed some of the best mentally challenging thrillers and dramas of the nineties.

[...MORE]

A Call to Arms: 49th Parallel (1941)

49TH PARALLEL (1941)

In 1940, the British government asked director Michael Powell to make a film supporting the ongoing war effort against Nazi Germany. Along with his partner, Emeric Pressburger, Powell wanted to use the sanctioned platform to sway the United States, who remained neutral at the time, into joining the fight alongside Britain. To attempt this complicated feat, Powell and Pressburger set the story for this propaganda film in Canada, a friendly ally of the United States and a country involved in World War II since September 1939. The end result was 49th Parallel (1941), a cautionary tale based on realistic, albeit fictional events. The title is in reference to the latitude at which most of the Canadian-U.S. open border is located. Powell and Pressburger hoped that by showing the German enemies right at America’s doorstep, it would frighten its citizens into demanding their country join the war.

[...MORE]

The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

ascent_1976_3

The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

[...MORE]

Screen Sorcery: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BelladonnaofSadness_1973_bella4

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) begins with a joyful wedding. We first meet the lovely Jeanne, our guide through this strange fairy tale, and her beau Jim as they exchange marriage vows. When the couple returns to their humble abode, their wedded bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the reigning king and his minions who brutally assault Jeanne in an act of ceremonial rape that leaves her broken and bewildered. In her despair, the young beauty makes a pact with the Devil who takes the shape of a mutating phallus that promises her pleasure and power. Afterward Jeanne’s world descends into a dark hallucinatory nightmare of swirling colors propelled by sorcery, perpetual pain and erotic ecstasy.

[...MORE]

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.