Every Day Is Like Black Sunday (1960)

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Okay, it may technically be Wednesday, but there’s never a bad day of the week to pay a visit to Black Sunday (1960), the grandmother of Italian horror films. Sure, the country produced a few movies with horrifying or macabre elements, most notably Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957), but here’s where the magic really kicked into high gear and set the stage for a dazzling wave of phantasmagorical creations that would run well into the 1990s. [...MORE]

Workin’ Man’s Blues: Man is Not a Bird (1965)

MAN IS NOT A BIRD, A (1966)

Dušan Makavejev made his directorial debut with Man is Not a Bird (1965), a raucous portrait of a Yugoslav mining city currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of the Directed by Dušan Makavejev theme. Made with the full cooperation of the residents of Bor, an industrial town in eastern Serbia, the movie is filled with hypnotist acts, marriage breakdowns, circus routines and brief, bitter affairs. It is based on the real lives of people that Makavejev interviewed before shooting, while indulging the director’s love of the carnivalesque, injecting Makavejev’s absurdist humor into a film that, by subject matter anyway, inherits the tradition of the Communist social realist films of previous decades. But these worker-heroes, while awarded and celebrated by the local government, have made messes of their personal lives. Makavejev said that with this film he “was trying to explain that you can have global changes but people can still stay the same, unhappy or awkward or privately confused.”

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Eight Men Out (1988): Of Greedy Players, Wicked Gamblers and Stingy Owners

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

Long before there was a recognizable indie-film scene, IndieWire magazine, or the Independent Spirit Awards, there was John Sayles—the independent’s independent. FilmStruck is offering five of Sayles’s films for streaming: Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), Lianna (1983), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Eight Men Out (1988) and Casa de los Babys (2004). The release of these titles for streaming affords me an opportunity to write about Sayles, one of my favorite directors.

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Pina (2011): Recreating the Stage Onscreen

PINA (2011)

If you have ever been to the theater, you know the exhilaration of watching actors perform live onstage. There’s something about it that’s completely unique. There is no equivalent in the cinema. By the same turn, the awe and grandeur of the cinema produces a different level of exhilaration, completely separate from the stage. When we watch the Death Star explode, or Popeye Doyle race beneath the elevated subway tracks of New York City, or Chief Brody get a big hello from a hungry shark, we know that’s something that can never be replicated on a stage and have the same impact. On the stage, simply seeing a person sing a song in front of you, or dance, or reveal their deepest fear or greatest joy, is a moment all its own. Pina (2011), directed by Wim Wenders, is one of the few films I have ever seen that replicates the stage experience and provides the best argument yet that cinema/stage fusion can indeed work.

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Hollywood Magic Is Real

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

In the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch (1942), director René Clair serves up an irresistible potion consisting of revenge, sex, politics and romance. Based on the novel The Passionate Witch by author Thorne Smith, I Married a Witch stars Fredric March and Veronica Lake, an unlikely romantic leading couple if there ever was one. From the significant age gap between March and Lake, to tales of feuding and unprofessionalism on the set, to irreconcilable creative differences amongst the directorial and production staff, not to mention threat of censorship, the legend surrounding the troubled production has only added to the delightful curiosity that is I Married a Witch.  

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La Jetée (1963) and the Big Reveal

JETEE, LA (1962)

One of my favorite sci-fi movies of the last year was the Oscar nominated Arrival(2016). When I watched it, I was reminded how much the big reveal has become a part of modern science fiction. Being a big fan of science fiction, I also took in last year’s Westworld, the TV series, and was again struck by how much the big reveal plays into its story structure. Big reveals, also known as twist endings, though I don’t know if they’re necessarily interchangeable, are when key plot elements are revealed near the conclusion that were initially kept hidden. They aren’t necessarily fooling you, the viewer, just keeping vital information from you, while showing you everything else at the same time. La Jetée (1963), the short photomontage movie made by Chris Marker, relies almost entirely on the big reveal for its story to have any meaning at all. But is that a good thing?

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A Double Dose of Boris Karloff

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Life has been throwing me lots of curveballs lately and when I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate towards what I like to call “comfort food films” and my comfort food tends to be classic horror films. During the cold winter months, cozying up on the couch with a warm beverage and a couple of creaky old black and white horror movies can make even the worse week seem manageable. Fortunately, I found exactly what I required streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). Both of these low-budget British thrillers were directed by Robert Day and feature standout performances from William Henry Pratt aka the one and only Boris Karloff.

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Keep an Eye Out for The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1972)

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For reasons known only to the movie gods, Hollywood embarked on a decades-long love affair with the idea of grabbing the rights to successful French-language comedies and remaking them for American audiences, most often with all the quirkiness and local flavor completely sanded away in the process. There were enough hits peppered in this wave to make it profitable for a while; heck, Touchstone almost had a cottage industry with it thanks to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) and its sequel, based more or less on Coline Serreau’s Three Men and a Cradle (1985) but with a ridiculous crime subplot thrown in, and to a much lesser extent, My Father the Hero (1994), a retooling of Gérard Lauzier’s Mon père, ce héros (1991). Then we have the odd case of Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le grand blond avec une chaussure noir) (1972), a wildly successful star vehicle for French comic actor Pierre Richard that turned into The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), an early showcase for Tom Hanks just after his star-making turns in Splash and Bachelor Party in 1984. The American version actually isn’t too bad on its own terms, but it really can’t hold a shaky violin bow compared to the original.

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Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

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There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

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Before James Bond, There was Bulldog Drummond

BULLDOG DRUMMOND COMES BACK, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, John Howard, 1937

As might be expected, the first big-screen detective was Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in Sherlock Holmes Baffled for American Biograph in 1900. Sherlock has enjoyed a long run on the big screen, which isn’t over yet, because Guy Ritchie’s third SH film is currently in the works. The most beloved American detectives are arguably Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe because of their importance to film noir, a genre that continues to fascinate movie lovers and film scholars alike. However, I believe the golden age of the movie detective occurred in the years between the world wars when dozens of sleuths slugged it out in countless film series. The Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy represents a high point in production values and star quality, though most series were created as B-films. No matter the budget, all had their diehard fans who waited anxiously for the next movie featuring their favorite detective, be it Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy, the Falcon, the Lone Wolf, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, Torchy Blane, the Saint, or countless others. The Criterion Collection pays respect to the detective series by offering ten Bulldog Drummond movies for streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

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