Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make.

Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Nippon Noir: I AM WAITING (1957)

iam1In recent years I’ve seen a critical push to apply familiar terms like Film Noir to all manner of Japanese crime films made during the 1950s and 60s. The term has even been applied to the culturally specific Sun Tribe films (please see my previous post that discusses Sun Tribe films), Pink Films of an adult nature and the more experimental and political films that exemplify the Japanese New Wave. I don’t always agree with this “roping in” because it often limits our understanding of Japanese cinema, which contains historical and cultural influences that typically defy simplistic categorizations. But sometimes the term fits.

It’s worth remembering that after WW2 the Japanese film industry was largely controlled by the U.S. occupation forces. Japanese filmmakers faced immense pressure from American censors to make films that resembled Hollywood’s output at the time and in postwar Hollywood Film Noir was thriving. The concentrated effort to destroy much of Japan’s cinematic history and modernize the country led to an onslaught of gun totting detectives, dangerous dames and cutthroat criminals in Japanese cinema that began replacing the sword wielding samurais, kimono-clad ladies and gentle families that had previously populated the movies. Amid these changes filmmakers created their own distinct body of work that became more progresses and subversive after the American occupation ended. But the impact of Hollywood’s aggressively imposed influence is undeniable and in this postwar climate elements of Film Noir became deeply rooted within the Japanese film industry. One particularly striking example of this is Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I am Waiting (1957), which makes its debut on TCM January 18th (1am PST/4am EST).

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The Wonderful World of Disney Comes to TCM

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As a kid growing up in 1970s my Sunday nights revolved around The Wonderful World of Disney. It was my cherished respite before the much dreaded school week began and I savored every last minute spent in front of the family television set. At the time, residents in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was born and mostly raised, only had access to 10 or 12 available channels to choose from and many of those were locally run and operated. There were no video stores renting movies in those days and the idea of streaming films directly into your own home was merely a faraway fantasy. In these limited environs, The Wonderful World of Disney offered kids and adults of all ages a surprisingly diverse and family friendly smorgasbord of programming that included animated and live action films, nature documentaries, educational shorts and special broadcasts made especially for television. Much to my delight, Turner Classic Movies has recently teamed-up with The Walt Disney Studios for a new on-going program called Treasures from the Disney Vault hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and film critic Leonard Maltin that’s making its debut this coming Sunday night on December 21st. TCM’s impressive 8-hour block of television is a throwback to The Wonderful World of Disney of my childhood and I hope it will introduce a new generation to the wonderful treasures hidden deep within the vaults of the Disney Studios.

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Mummy Dearest

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Hammer Films produced four Mummy movies between 1959 and 1971 and this coming Saturday (Oct. 25th) TCM is airing one of my favorites, Seth Holt’s BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1971). This unabashedly sexy horror extravaganza was the last Mummy movie produced by the ‘Studio that Dripped Blood’ and thanks to a great cast and some creative directing choices it turned out to be one of their best. But before it reached the screen the production was plagued by some serious setbacks that seemed to resemble the effects of a ‘mummy’s curse’ that’s often associated with doomed adventure seekers and tomb raiders. Was it just circumstance and bad luck or did something supernatural interfere with the making of the film? Read on to find out!

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Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact on Napa

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Carole Lombard will be headlining TCM’s Summer Under the Stars line-up on Sunday, August 11th.

While pursuing my personal interest in local history here in Napa I was pleasantly surprised to discover how one of my favorite funny ladies, the brassy blonde bombshell Carole Lombard, had made a lasting impression on the area when she visited California’s Wine Country in 1939 to star in Garson Kanin’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). This notable RKO production was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Sidney Howard that chronicled a complicated love triangle between an ambitious San Francisco waitress (Carole Lombard), a simple-minded Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) and his affable ranch hand (William Gargan). Much of the film was shot on location in the Napa Valley and during that time Lombard, along with her costars and husband Clark Gable, toured wineries, mingled with locals and befriended some well-heeled residents who still fondly recall family stories about encountering the lovely Lombard.

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The Malaise of the Ghetto: LA HAINE (1995)

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It’s about a society on its way down. And as it falls, it keeps telling itself: “So far so good… So far so good… So far so good.” It’s not how you fall that matters. It’s how you land. – LA HAINE (1995)

In light of recent events at home and abroad it seems strangely appropriate that TCM will be airing LA HAINE (aka HATE;1995) on Sunday night. This low-budget film written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three friends of different descent, an Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui), an African (Hubert Kounde) and a Jewish man (Vincent Cassel) who have befriended one another in the harsh climate of the suburban French ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. Facing discrimination, poverty and a lack of opportunity the three young men turn to drugs for escape and impulsively get caught up in the civil unrest and rioting that plagues their troubled neighborhood. While it’s easy to appreciate the film as a snapshot of the social tensions that continue to erupt in Paris today, the emotional message at the heart of LA HAINE actually speaks to a much wider demographic and the film has understandably struck a chord around the world. For better or worse, this modern day classic expressed the frustrations of a generation and many marginalized young people of all nationalities have continued to discover the film since its initial release and embrace its street-wise aesthetic.

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When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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They Wore It Well: Actors & Mustaches

mustache1James D. Barnes in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)

Throughout the month of June you’re going to be seeing a lot of mustaches on TCM. Every Friday night you can tune in and enjoy some carefully coiffed facial hair in a series of Pirate Pictures hosted by funny man Greg Proops. And on June 9th mustache lovers won’t want to miss Mustache Monday. This special one day event will feature a series of films with famously mustachioed actors including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Groucho Marx, William Powell, Peter Sellers and Sean Connery, which segues into a tribute to British born actor Richard Harris who often sported a mustache as well as a full beard.

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Comic Relief with Artists and Models (1955)

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This has been a rough week. And when the bad news starts to outweigh the good I like to escape my worries with a great comedy that makes me laugh out loud and allows me to forget my troubles for a few short hours. I recently found some comic relief in my favorite Martin and Lewis film, Frank Tashlin’s ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955). I grew up watching this brilliant musical satire and it never fails to put a big goofy grin on my face. Your own mileage will vary of course but here are 10 reasons why you should consider watching ARTISTS AND MODELS today.
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Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

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John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

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