Resurrecting The Stunt Man (1980)

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The theme of this semester’s campus film series that I co-direct with my fellow faculty member and partner-in-crime is “Movies About the Movies.” So, I was excited to discover that The Stunt Man (1980) is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Directed by maverick filmmaker Richard Rush, The Stunt Man stars Steve Railsback as a Vietnam vet on the drift who runs afoul of the law. When he stumbles onto the set of a movie shooting on location, the director takes him on as a stunt man to hide him from the police. A raging egomaniac, the director is played by Peter O’Toole, who brings charm, charisma and a dark streak to the roguish Eli Cross.

I first saw The Stunt Man in Chicago in the fall of 1980 in a preview screening arranged by Twentieth Century Fox. Rush was there to introduce the film and to answer questions afterward. He had spent several months that year previewing the film on his own to prove to potential distributors that it would draw audiences. He had been to Seattle, Phoenix and Columbus, and he also arranged for test runs in Seattle and Los Angeles. Finally, Fox negotiated a deal after the L.A. run drew good reviews and packed theaters.

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GILLIAMESQUE

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Gilliamesque is the title of the recent autobiography by Terry Gilliam (co-written by Ben Thompson). On the cover, the byline announces “A Pre-posthumous Memoir,” but when you open the book this byline has a black mark through it, as does the byline below that, “TG’s Bio(degradable) Autography,” also marked through is the third byline: “A singular person’s first first person singular Palin-dromic biograph.” A fourth line is left alone: “My Me, Me, Me Memoir.” Those four pronouns promise to give readers a focused look into Gilliam’s life that is sure to be of interest to any fans of his work. Folks in that latter category should also know that FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films that also put Gilliam in the limelight.

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A Tale of Two Hydes

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th century novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the inspiration for countless stage, film, radio and television adaptations and inspired works. The first adaptation was Thomas Sullivan’s stage play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which debuted in 1887, a year after the novella’s original publication. This stage version of Stevenson’s story included significant changes to the plot, including the addition of a complicated, romantic relationship between Dr. Jekyll and his well-mannered socialite fiancée. In 1920, Paramount Pictures released their version of Sullivan’s interpretation, a silent film starring the original A-list superstar John Barrymore in the title role. Known for his devastatingly handsome looks and “great profile,” Barrymore shocked audiences with his gruesome, monster-like appearance as the vicious Mr. Hyde. A little over a decade later, Paramount began preparing a remake of the 1920 film with plans to have Barrymore reprise his role.

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Dark Days in the Warren: Watership Down (1978)

WATERSHIP DOWN (UK/CAN 1978) NEPENTHE PROD

Richard Adams recently passed away at the advanced age of 96. At the much younger age of 52, but still advanced age for a first time novelist, he published what would become a classic of modern literature, Watership Down. I was going to write “children’s literature” but I don’t know if that’s right. Is something children’s literature simply because it uses animals as its lead characters? Is Animal Farm a children’s book because it has talking pigs? I would say the answers to both of those questions is no. Watership Down is no different and while it appealed to my younger self simply because of the animal characters, my older self understands it a lot better.

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If Only You Believe in Miracles

MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES, THE (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, is a lovely, albeit odd little comedy based on a short story written by H.G. Wells, directed by Lothar Mendes and produced by Alexander Korda. The always endearing Roland Young stars as George McWhirter Fotheringay, an average man who works as a salesman in a small department store. Unbeknownst to Fotheringay, three gods, Player, Observer and Indifference, agree to conduct a celestial experiment by granting the power to perform miracles to a common, unremarkable man. The gods are curious to see how a lowly human will handle such incredible power. Once Fotheringay discovers his newly acquired, if confusing, miracle working abilities (completely by accident, by the way), he keeps it to himself, only practicing magic-type tricks in his home. Soon, however, Fotheringay is quite eager to share his secret, first performing miracles for his co-workers, his boss and even the local vicar. Eventually attempts are made by others to exploit his newly acquired talents in return for monetary gain, vanity and power.

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Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead

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There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. [...MORE]

Potemkin Village Blues: Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (1952)

WELCOME MR. MARSHALL, ( aka BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL), Lolita Sevilla, US poster art, 1953.

Last week I listed Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Placido (1961) as one of my film discoveries of 2016. A devilishly funny account of Christmastime sanctimony, it was the first film I had seen by Berlanga. Luckily, The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck is streaming four more of his films so I can get further acquainted with this acidic Spaniard. The earliest work on display is Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (aka Welcome Mr. Marshall!, 1952), Berlanga’s breakout feature, which lovingly satirizes a small Spanish town trying to lure Marshall Plan funds from the U.S. It won the second place International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but was famously denounced by jury member Edward G. Robinson as “anti-American.” The film is more anti-Catholic Church and Generalissimo Franco than anything else, however, as the Americans are phantoms wielded as symbols by the local government and clergy – described as both wealthy benefactors and agents of moral decay. What the film lampoons most spectacularly and thoroughly is Franco’s attempt to promote Spain in a single image: an Andalusian Spain that was all flamenco and bullfights. Before the Americans’ arrival, the town hides the drunks, throws up fake facades and wears Andalusian costumes to pretend they are a tourist paradise rather than a poor farming town. As in Placido, Berlanga uses thumbnail caricatures to populate his village, hilarious creations like the half-deaf mayor, a broke colonialist aristocrat and a rotund hustler/producer who turns their town into a Walt Disney-fied version of Spanishness.

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On the Passing of Stars

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Movie lovers of all generations are still reeling from the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within a day of each other. Photos, memes and personal testimonies flooded the Internet as an expression of collective shock and grief.

Fisher’s character in Star Wars (1977) and Reynolds’s participation in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) dominated the references to their careers, not surprising since Princess Leia and an energetic Reynolds hoofing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are iconic in popular culture. Coincidentally, both Fisher and Reynolds were 19 when hired to appear in their most famous roles. Common cultural consensus has deemed those roles significant in retrospect, but in the context of their lives, their most interesting work lay ahead of them.

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Redemption and Sacrifice in the Cinema: Babette’s Feast (1987)

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Each January 1st, as we ring in the new year and cast out the old, my mind always drifts to the idea of redemption. The new year is an easy marking point for a new beginning and as everyone knows, most people have great energy at the start that slowly grinds down towards inaction. We have high hopes but rarely the ability, or time, or urgent need, to follow through. And so another year goes by and we set ourselves up for another shot at redemption. If we’re lucky, we’ll achieve some measure of it every few years. Maybe. For me, the idea of redemption and sacrifice, of starting anew and casting out the old, has never been told better in the movies than in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 adaption of Isak Dinesen’s story, Babette’s Feast.

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New Beginnings: Lessons from Dodsworth (1936)

DODSWORTH (1936)

At the end of every year I, like many people, take stock of the events that took place throughout the previous months. I reassess the bad moments, trying to find ways that I could’ve avoided them or handled them differently. I also try to reflect on all of the good moments, no matter how small. Although the difference between December 31st and January 1st is a mere 24 hours, there’s something exciting about starting with a clean slate. Of course, I feel compelled to make a bunch of resolutions that I’ll blow within a week, but it feels good to set them nonetheless. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to lower my expectations and set more realistic goals, attempt to live in the moment and try to appreciate every single day that I’m alive. I also look forward to sharing each day with my loved ones, as they are the source of my true happiness.

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