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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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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.

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Screen Sorcery: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

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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.

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Polly Maggoo Is Back in Fashion

QUI ETES-VOUS, POLLY MAGGOO?, (aka WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?), 1966

We all find different passages into movies we love. Sometimes a film grabs you in the opening moments and you know right away it’s something you’ll love and watch over and over for years. Then there are others that take some time and effort, growing on you gradually after you’ve watched them and only becoming favorites with repeated visits and reflection.

One film that fell into the first category for me is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), the debut feature film for American photographer and filmmaker William Klein. A controversial and oft-censored purveyor of fashion fantasies at Vogue, he had little but contempt for the fashion industry and particularly the magazine’s tastemaking editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland (fictionalized here as Ms. Maxwell). You’d think this film about an American ingénue entering the European fashion world would be filled with venom and vitriol, but no, it’s actually more of a quirky, witty takedown, so deliciously stylish and enjoyable that you can easily watch it without any knowledge of Klein’s behind-the-scenes axe to grind. It also has one of my favorite opening scenes in movie history. [...MORE]

Ornette: Made in America (1985)

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Ornette Coleman’s symphony “Skies of America” was conceived in 1965, recorded in 1972, and performed intermittently in the ensuing decades. It was something of a grand introduction to Coleman’s “harmolodic” compositional method, the term a portmanteau of harmony, motion and melody, and required a full orchestra alongside Coleman’s working jazz quartet. Due to budget limitations the recording eliminated the quartet (Coleman played solo) and cut out a third of the symphony, due to the length limitations of vinyl. Coleman sought to realize the original vision of the piece over the ensuing decades. Shirley Clarke’s hyperkinetic documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), is an attempt to track the artistic evolution of the project from the sixties into the eighties, using a performance of “Skies of America” in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas as the fulcrum. Available to view on FilmStruck, or on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it eschews historical context for the immediacy of performance, making it more of a piece for fans rather than newcomers to Coleman’s work. But it is a rare peek into Coleman’s artistic process – which means it is a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.

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Chaplin Takes Us to Easy Street

EASY STREET (1917)

Charlie Chaplin had been in Hollywood only two years when he signed a lucrative deal with the Mutual Film Corp., but he was already a star because of his one-reelers with Keystone and Essanay. The years 2016-2017 mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers, which I believe rank among the best comedies of the silent era.

FilmStruck offers Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies in three parts for your streaming pleasure. My personal favorite, Easy Street (1917), can be found in Part 3.

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A Symphony of Inner Lives

THREE COLOURS BLUE (FR1993) JULIETTE BINOCHE

He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film. [...MORE]

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