Vigilante Justice: The Big Heat (1953)

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William P. McGivern created Harry Callaghan, better known as Dirty Harry. Not literally. He created the literary environment that made Harry Callaghan possible, as well as Paul Kersey, the vigilante at the center of Death Wish (1974). McGivern was the writer who gave us The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954), both made into movies in the fifties and the former, The Big Heat, gave us the character of Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, the cop at the heart of the film who fights against a corrupt system outside the lines, quitting his job to pursue vigilante justice on his own. It’s a good story but is Dave Bannion a good guy? Is there a good guy in the story? Maybe.

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There Are No Safe Spaces: An Arturo Ripstein Double Feature

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Of late, I’ve been exploring the work of director Arturo Ripstein after coming across El castillo de la pureza aka The Castle of Purity (1972) and Foxtrot (1975) streaming on FilmStruck. Ripstein was brought up in Mexico’s thriving post-war film industry by his Polish-Mexican father, a prominent producer who cultivated his son’s cinematic interests. During a screening of Louis Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) at age 15, Ripstein developed an appreciation of film as art recognizing that movies could illuminate and inform viewers as well as entertain them. He was so impressed by the film’s vision that he reached out to Buñuel who admired Ripstein’s tenacity. Buñuel eventually allowed him to visit the set of The Exterminating Angel (1962), where Ripstein studied the accomplished director’s methods and was inspired to embark on his own filmmaking career. Much like his idol Buñuel, Ripstein’s films are critical of social mores and establishment hypocrisy. He tackles these sensitive subjects with dark humor and a critical eye while encouraging viewers to reconsider their own assumptions and beliefs.

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A Guide to Picking Daisies (1966)

DAISIES (1967)

Following up on my look at one of my favorite films of the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), it seems only appropriate to follow up with another astonishing film from that period told from the perspective of young women: Daisies (1966). However, this one’s a bit different as I’d also rank it as one of the most fascinating films ever from a female director, in this case the endlessly creative and unpredictable Věra Chytilová, who would likely have prime placement in the pantheon of great world directors if all of her films were easier to see.

There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in cinema over the past few years, with a particular focus on female directors since Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough Oscar win for directing The Hurt Locker (2008). However, while American filmmaking has certainly made some progress in recent years (and we definitely have a healthy number of highly accomplished American female directors), Europe has been ahead of the curve for a much longer period thanks to helmers as disparate as Lina Wertmüller, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Agnès Varda, Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Susanne Bier, to name but a few. There’s no way you could ever confuse any of their films for the work of anyone else, and that applies especially to Chytilová, who managed to make avant garde techniques fun, accessible, and even dangerous at a time when it was needed most.

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Killing Them Softly: The Executioner (1963)

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Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

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Youssef Chahine: Communicating with Humanity

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One of the best perks of going to college back in the day was the campus film series. Each weekend, I eagerly attended the movie of the week, which could be a Hollywood classic, a recent popular movie or a foreign film. The campus film program was my introduction to international classics by Bergman, Fellini, Bresson and many others. Not having any control over the programming forced me to expand my personal canvas, reshaping my tastes and introducing me to the art and cultures of other lands. My friends and I were always excited to see a movie we knew nothing about it.

It occurred to me that FilmStruck is a streaming equivalent to the campus film series: For just a few bucks, viewers can escape the confines of their tastes and experiences and select an eye-opening film outside their comfort zone.

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When Context Matters: Nine Days of One Year (1962)

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Ever heard of Nine Days of One Year (1962)? Chances are, the answer to that question is no. It was for me when TCM assigned me to write it up a couple of years ago. I tried to find some info online but came up empty. There’s an old review I found from Bosley Crowther and then one more from decades later by J. Hoberman. Neither was too enthused. And that was it. I mentioned both in my article. If you go to the Wikipedia page, there’s a whopping three external links: an almost willfully pointless AllMovie writeup, its IMDB page, and a link to my TCM article which, of course, wasn’t there when I first went looking (please read it for a more thorough discussion of the story). So anyway, I got the screener from my editor, settled in to watch it and find out what this movie was all about and I was quite surprised by what I saw. I had to ask myself several times in the first few minutes, “Wait, this was made in the Soviet Union? In 1962? And the director wasn’t sent to a gulag? The movie wasn’t even banned?!”

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Take Time for Time Without Pity (’57)

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Isn’t Michael Redgrave simply marvelous? No matter the role, Michael Redgrave brings a sort of respectability and class; he commands the screen. Take his brief performance as the unnamed, mysterious uncle in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961). The few minutes he is on screen, sharing a scene with that naive, inexperienced governess played by Deborah Kerr, Redgrave dominates, casting an unsettled tone over the film from the very start. The uncle never reappears in the film, his character only being mentioned occasionally in passing conversation. And yet, his domineering presence is felt until the last haunting moment of the film. Or how about Redgrave’s performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), a great thriller surrounding mystery, missing persons and intrigue. Then there is Redgrave’s performance in the wonderfully bizarre Dead of Night (1945), which tells its interesting story in a series of vignettes; Redgrave’s insane ventriloquist character being absolutely terrifying. I recently discovered Redgrave’s masterful performance in the little known Time Without Pity (1957), now available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck (and coming to the FilmStruck portion of the service on February 10, 2017). Directed by blacklisted American expatriate Joseph Losey, Time Without Pity is an effective, taut noir thriller.

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I Really Like That Movie, I Just Don’t Care About It.

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Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I had lots of free time, no responsibilities, and no bills on which to spend my hard earned minimum wage income, which could therefore go entirely to cigarettes and movies. I don’t smoke anymore but I still watch movies. Of course, not like I did then. Back then I saw practically every movie that came out. With rare exceptions, I just went to the theater with my brother or a friend and saw whatever was playing. One of those movies, way back when, was Hopscotch (1980). All I knew is it had Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson and I liked them both. I think I might have known it was a spy movie, too. What I didn’t know is that it would become one of my favorite movies, a movie I have returned to time and time again as a kind of cinematic comfort food when I just need to relax and watch Ned Beatty give the F.B.I. a new name that I have yet to shake from my head.

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Gaslight (1944) and the True Meaning of Fear

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Gaslighting: The idea that a person will eventually become convinced of something through conditioning by an individual in a position of power and influence, despite being in direct opposition to what the person knows and believes to be true. It is a word we hear tossed around a lot these days, usually in reference to the behaviors of overtly biased media and their use of clickbait headlines and grossly out of context quotes, and the politicians’ not-so-clever sleight of hand in discussing issues and controversy with the public. We frequently hear our elected officials telling lies, or at best, half truths. If they keep repeating and reinforcing them, the lies eventually become the truth, right? That is the strategy, at least. Fortunately, we have a few sane, respected voices who help parse out the information, while reminding us to stay vigilant. These same respected voices often compare this dissemination of lies to “gaslighting,” a term originated from the stage play Gas Light (1938). “Gaslighting” is a form of psychological torture found in abusive relationships, specifically romantic ones. Using this term to describe the actions of our political and media class is often overreaction at best, potentially dangerous at worst, detracting from individuals, particularly women, who are suffering mental torture in intimate, abusive relationships. By using the term to describe any nefarious action, we inadvertently dilute its originally powerful meaning.

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Coming of Age with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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I’ve been on something of an Eastern European tear lately with the release of the third (and final, for now) boxed set of “Martin Scorsese Presents” Polish classics, which had a tremendous run in New York and (in more scaled-down fashion) Los Angeles a while back. However, with all the attention Poland has been getting the past couple of years from cinéastes, let’s not forget that Czech films have an astonishing history as well and could easily merit a months-long retrospective. But where to start? If you’re browsing around FilmStruck, I’d like to point in the direction of one obvious and very irresistible candidate streaming on the Criterion Channel: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), a beguiling supernatural fantasy that also happens to be one of the finest films ever told from a young girl’s point of view. [...MORE]

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