Snapshots of the Fall

The art house film calendar that I program goes to press in two days and, although I’m still waiting for some confirmations, I’m sharing the rough-draft with TCM readers, along with some brief thoughts regarding the choices made.

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Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne

During Toshiro Mifune’s impressive career in front of the camera he was often referred to as the “John Wayne of Japan.” Like Wayne, Mifune was a powerful and commanding screen presence and one of his country’s biggest box-office stars. His rugged good looks and macho posturing seemed to represent a distinct kind of masculine ideal that post WW2 film audiences found particularly attractive. Both Wayne and Mifune often played characters that were tough, strong-willed, courageous, self-sacrificing and more than willing to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They also shared a sense of humor and natural confidence that allowed them to occasionally take on challenging roles that threatened to tarnish their universal appeal.
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Home Video Roundup: Witches and the West

I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

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Blake Edwards’ Sunset

The recent success of Hugo and The Artist has sparked interest in the silent era and film history in the press and among the public. This attention has already waned, but, in an era when silent film is completely off the radar of most movie-goers, entertainment reporters, and bloggers, the focus was nice while it lasted. As a film studies instructor, I have taken advantage of both films to help my students connect to silent film in a way previous classes could not. After spending a week grading midterm papers, I am proud of my students who wrote about the films with depth and feeling, analyzing everything from the differences between silent and sound-film acting to references to movies or historical figures to the filmmaking techniques used by the directors. I was gratified that students applied what they had learned about Georges Melies and his special effects to draw comparisons to the CGI-laden films of their generation, and I was touched by their passionate declarations that the pioneer should never be forgotten.  Though some of my colleagues dismissed the Oscar-winning The Artist as a pleasant trifle, my students recognized the visual techniques director Michel Hazanavicius used to complement the actors’ performances and to compensate for the lack of spoken dialogue. I liked The Artist very much, but their observations and discoveries made me appreciate the film even more. Recognizing techniques, references, and ideas beyond the level of plot is like having the keys to unlock any film, and, once my students realize this, they are excited by the possibilities.

The prominence of Hugo and The Artist combined with my students’ clever critiques of both films reminded me of another movie set in the silent era that references historical events and real-life film legends. Directed by Blake Edwards, Sunset features Bruce Willis as cowboy star Tom Mix and James Garner as Wild West legend Wyatt Earp. In honor of both Bruce Willis and Wyatt Earp’s birthday, which is today, I thought it fitting to bring some attention to this film.

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The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 2

This is Part Two of a four-part series that looks at the career of director Robert Mulligan. You can find Part One here.

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula made five straight films together to close out the 1960s, before Pakula departed to become a director himself. Using Mockingbird as a template, the duo chose projects that dealt with hot button issues (Love With the Proper Stranger and Up the Down Staircase), or were prestigious literary adaptations (Baby the Rain Must Fall and Inside Daisy Clover). Their final collaboration, The Stalking Moon, with a story taken from a Western novel, is the exception. Regardless of their middlebrow origin, these are films sensitively attuned to the social and geographic landscapes of their subjects, to the ebb and flow of urban overcrowding and the oppressive emptiness of the open plains. These films also continue Mulligan’s interest in outsiders adapting to new realities, in “dramas of experience intruding upon innocence”, as Kent Jones eloquently put it.

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Warner Archive Roundup: Smilin’ Through (1941) and Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

The Warner Archive continues to summon the ghosts of Hollywood past onto DVD, a bit of studio witchery we should all get behind. One of their most intriguing recent séance jobs is Frank Borzage’s Smilin’ Through (1941), a haunting WWI melodrama. Despite the mammoth Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set, there are still great stretches of Borzage’s career missing on home video (including essential titles like Man’s Castle (’33, hopefully a Sony MOD candidate) and Moonrise (’48), which is streaming on Netflix)). Smilin’ Through, though flawed, has moments of doomed romanticism that rival anything else in his work, with superimpositions establishing the intractable hold the past exerts on the present. A similar theme is lugubriously told in Welcome to Hard Times (’67), a Western in which old studio hand Burt Kennedy flails to channel A Fistful of Dollars on a low budget. Originally made-for-TV, MGM decided to release it into theaters before airing it on ABC, after which it disappeared. Featuring a spate of studio standbys, including Henry Fonda and Aldo Ray, it’s a fascinating failure in which MGM hires old studio craftsman to make a film that blatantly reaches for the youth market.

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Life With Father

“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until it finally buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody who says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to.”
- Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)

I recently became an aunt again so I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately and with Father’s Day right around the corner I thought I’d share some thoughts about my own dad and how the movies we watched together helped make me the person I am today.

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From REPO MAN to Westerns: A Conversation with Alex Cox

Alex Cox was born in Liverpool and later moved to the U.S. and went on to direct some of the most iconoclastic arthouse films of my youth with titles like Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell, and Walker. That was the eighties. Then came the nineties and I was still being amazed by his unique aesthetic as he spent more time south of the border, directing the criminally under-appreciated Highway Patrolman, followed by Death and the Compass, and also landing several other gigs that put him in front of the camera as well as working on a prodigious number of scripts, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. By a strange twist of fate, I found myself sharing beers with Mr. Cox at my kitchen counter last Tuesday and he was kind enough to let me interview him for the purpose of this blog. [...MORE]

Digging Through the Warner Archive: Wild Rovers and Restored Minnelli

Despondent cineaste Jack Andrus should buck up. First, he’s seated in an eye-blazingly Technicolor red chair, which one assumes is also of sensuously high-grain leather. Second, he’s being played by Kirk Douglas at his most flamboyantly masculine, a dream come true for characters of dissolutely manic personalities like Jack. Third, the Warner Archive has released a fine remastered DVD of the film that houses him, Vincente Minnelli’s convulsively beautiful Two Weeks in Another Town. For the rest of us, they also recently put out a remastered version of Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and an un-restored but handsome-looking edition of Blake Edwards’ Wild Rovers (1971). We’ll start with the last first just to get Jack’s goat, but also because the Minnelli greats have already been covered by more seasoned minds, although I’ll still get my thoughts in.

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The Horror: Only the Valiant

The next few months promise an embarrassment of film criticism riches. On March 15th, J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms drops, the second entry in his breathless and exhaustive cultural history of Cold War cinema. In April, the long-overdue first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing, When Movies Mattered, will grace bookshelves. I’ll have cowed reviews of both near their release, but for now I’ll stick to a title Hoberman singles out in Phantoms, and which he programmed for his series at BAM: Gordon Douglas’ despairing cavalry Western, Only the Valiant (1951, also available on a DVD from Lionsgate).

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