Shoot First, Die Later (1974)

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To view Shoot First, Die Later click here.

Here’s how I’d pitch Fernando Di Leo’s Shoot First, Die Later (1974) to any of my friends: If you’d like to see a gritty Italian crime movie that evokes The French Connection (1971) and surely influenced Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, look no further than this grim bit of business. Heck, I’ll toss in one more movie reference for good measure. Are you familiar with the re-release poster for Le Samouraï (1967), the one where Alain Delon stares expressionlessly down the barrel of a gun? Imagine him grinning instead (if you can) and there you have Shoot First, Die Later. It’s as if the French shrug at the abyss whereas the Italians meet the same raw nihilism with a smile. [...MORE]

A Far From Perfect Understanding (1933)

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To view Perfect Understanding click here.

In 1929, after a successful career in silent film and at the height of her popularity, Gloria Swanson was preparing for her transition to “talkies,” the earliest, raw experiments in bringing sound to motion pictures. Her sound debut was in the 1929 drama written and directed by Edmund Goulding, The Trespasser. Swanson earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance, the second of her career. Her first nomination was for Sadie Thompson (1928), one of her most popular films, and her third and final nod was for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), losing out to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday (1950). (Swanson’s loss was a shock to many in Hollywood, and especially the actress herself, creating quite the controversy, and is still a hotly debated topic among fans of classic film almost seventy years later.) Despite her popularity during the 1920s, and like so many of her silent film contemporaries, Swanson’s career didn’t weather the transition to sound. After a handful of films in the early 1930s, including What a Widow! (1930); 1931’s Indiscreet (not to be confused with Stanley Donen’s 1958 film Indiscreet starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman); and Tonight or Never (1931) with Melvyn Douglas, Swanson’s career was floundering. In 1933, Swanson turned to Britain’s Ealing Studios, serving as producer on the romantic dramedy, Perfect Understanding.

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Werner Herzog and the Burden of Dreams (1982)

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To view Burden of Dreams click here.

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

That’s how Werner Herzog responded to his investors in Germany asking him if he had the will to go on and finish his film, Fitzcarraldo (1982). If you’ve come to know Herzog over the years, you know that this statement is nothing out of the ordinary. Herzog has never expressed himself in delicate or fragile terms. He prefers to tell it in the most operatic way possible and he gets away with it because you believe him. You believe his dedication to his dreams does indeed become a burden he must drag behind him everywhere he goes. Fitzcarraldo started out as an idea in the mid-1970s and entered into pre-production sometime around 1977. After a year and a half of mapping out logistics and searching for a suitable filming location along the Amazon, Herzog finally set up camp in November, 1979. That’s when everything went to hell.

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The Living and the Dead: L’Eclisse (1962)

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To view L’Eclisse click here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion.

While recently rewatching Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (aka The Eclipse, 1962) I received the sad news that George Romero had died. The celebrated Italian art house auteur and the American director behind the hugely popular Living Dead franchise aren’t typically associated with one another but I suspect that Antonioni’s work may have inspired Romero early in his career. In The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, author and film studies professor Tony Williams asserts that the frustrated married couple holed up in a shopping mall surrounded by hordes of zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978) resembles the dissatisfied bourgeois couples that listlessly maneuver through Antonioni’s early films. Williams explains that these survivors of Romero’s zombie apocalypse “exist in a world of boredom as a result of their access to a world of conspicuous consumption.” It is an astute observation and one that I can appreciate. In their own unique ways, Antonioni and Romero both addressed the capital driven corrosion of modern society through alienated characters facing an existential crisis. Their means and methods may have been different but underneath Antonioni’s slick surfaces and carefully coiffed characters, there is an element of mystery along with heightened anxiety and a sense of profound dread. These are qualities found in many horror films, including the best work of George Romero, and they are at the forefront of L’Eclisse.

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The Sad, Soulful Shivers of The Others (2001)

The Others (2001) Directed by Alejandro Amen·barShown: Nicole Kidman

To view The Others click here.

A couple of weeks ago, British newspaper The Guardian provoked some vocal reactions from more than a few film fans with an article called “How post-horror movies are taking over cinema,” which made the case that the recent spate of indie films dealing with supernatural tropes represents some evolutionary step within (or beyond) the genre. The argument here is that films from the past two years like It Comes at Night (2017), A Ghost Story (2017), Personal Shopper (2016), The Witch (2015), or Get Out (2017) take a disreputable type of film and make it palatable for critics and art house audiences because they’re trying to say something about the human condition or, you know, not actually stooping to traditional scares.

Of course, anyone familiar with horror films beyond mega-franchises like Saw (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2017) or the spate of toxic remakes of 1970s and 1980s hits will recognize how ill-founded this claim is. Since the silent era the genre has been fertile ground for complex ideas, visual experimentation, unorthodox character development and more social commentary about feminism, race issues and class struggles than just about any Best Picture winner you can name. It’s also the perfect territory for filmmakers to find their voice and take chances that would have been absolutely forbidden elsewhere. Case in point: The Others (2001), directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. [...MORE]

The French Revolution: La Marseillaise (1938)

LA MARSEILLAISE, left: Maurice Toussaint on French poster art, 1938.

To view La Marseillaise, click here.

“It took me some time to understand that, for him, ideas had little meaning in themselves, and that all that mattered in his eyes was the personality of the individual expressing them.” – Alain Renoir on his father

La Marseillaise (1938) was made under intense political pressure, both from the censorious right and the Popular Front left, who partially funded this depiction of the French Revolution. Jean Renoir ended up making a film that pleased neither, depicting not the broad strokes of history but the idiosyncrasies of its individual actors. As Andre Bazin put it, Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.” It obscures the larger political movements but pauses for details like how the soldiers pad their boots or what Louis XVI thinks of tomatoes (he’s pro). After the supernova success of Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir had big plans to capture a larger panorama of the revolution, but kept whittling it down to a few engaging personalities, until we are left with a couple of hotheaded revolutionary Marseilles comrades and the aloofly charming Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir), who seems oblivious to the power shift happening right outside his doors. And yes, this marks the triumphant (?) return of my Jean Renoir series, which will run through August.

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On A Short Film About Killing (1988)

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To view A Short Film About Killing click here.

I used to work in the DVD division of Facets Multi-Media, a Chicago arts organization devoted to showing, distributing and preserving foreign, avant-garde and documentary films. Facets was the first to own the North American distribution rights to The Decalogue, Krysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he made for Polish television. My role in the release of the series on this side of the Atlantic involved everything from checking the authored discs to editing the subtitles to producing the booklet inserted in each package. In the process, I viewed each hour-long episode at least half a dozen times, and to say they hold up on repeated viewings is an understatement. Episodes V and VI were expanded by Kieslowski to feature-length films and released to theaters. A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) are both available on FilmStruck.

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Whatever Lola (1961) Wants, She Has To Wait For

Lola (1961 France) Directed by Jacques Demy Shown: Anouk Aimée

To view Lola click here.

Jacques Demy came up right along with the rest of the French New Wave but his reputation didn’t have the same edge. While Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais acquired a rep for groundbreaking work, Demy was too in love with both the Hollywood musical form and the sweeping camera of Max Ophüls to gain the same overseas cachet as the rest of the gang. Even being as close as he was to one of the most pioneering and acclaimed members of that group, the great Agnès Varda (his wife), Demy preferred the romantic and sentimental breeziness of the 1950s musical. His first feature film, Lola(1961), achieves a beautiful balance between the musical and the new wave with the sweeping camera of Ophüls thrown in for good measure. And all of it done without being a musical at all. Almost.

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Mom, Me and Death Race 2000 (1975)

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To view Death Race 2000 click here.

When I was a kid, probably thirteen or fourteen, my mom and I would often spend Friday nights staying up late watching television. We would watch Letterman and weird infomercials. Sometimes we would catch a late-night movie—like The Birds (1963), or the utterly ridiculous made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). Then there was the romantic drama Violets Are Blue (1986), which would keep us up no matter how late it was on. Mom and I would be hooked-in because of Kevin Kline and Sissy Spacek, two of our favorite actors. But we would quickly remember the film as a godawful mess. Of course, we’d watch it anyway, and laugh at the chewed scenery and Bonnie Bedelia’s character serving gazpacho. Mom would often tell me about bizarre cult films that she saw in the 1970s, hoping that we might stumble upon them during our weekly Friday night channel surfing. There were two films that she always talked about: one was Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975), starring Joanne Nail. Mom first saw it at a drive-in when she lived (and partied) in Daytona Beach, Florida. The second was Death Race 2000 (1975), produced by the King of the B movies, the great Roger Corman, and directed by Paul Bartel (who also has a brief cameo), which she first saw on HBO in the network’s early years, in the summer of 1976. Of the two, Death Race 2000 was the most fascinating to her, and still is, and she’d joke with me about the film’s sanctioned vehicular homicide and humorous point system. “Children and old folks are worth the most points,” she’d say, as I was first learning how to drive.

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Movie as Manifesto: The Fountainhead (1949)

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Forget for a moment the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Forget the unrelenting stoicism of every character involved. Forget, if you can, that the dialogue, from beginning to end, plays like an ever flowing stream of talking points, slogans and mottos rather than actual words any normal human being would ever utter. Forget all of that and simply revel in the fact that, once upon a time, someone put Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey together in a movie in which they, ostensibly, form a love triangle and as an endlessly engaging commercial entertainment, it worked. It worked like gangbusters. Then go back to all the other stuff because, let’s face it, you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. The Fountainhead(1949), directed by King Vidor from a screenplay by Ayn Rand based on her own novel, is one of the most ludicrously naked political tracts ever filmed. But, damn, is it fun to watch.

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