How Low Can You Go?

Most classic movie fans are well aware of the impressive and versatile film legacy of William A. Wellman, who directed Wings (1927), the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar in the Academy’s history, as well as bona fide classics like the 1937 version of A Star is Born and the gritty WW2 drama, Battleground (1949). It has only been in recent years, however, that Wellman fans have become acquainted with the groundbreaking Pre-Code dramas he helmed in the early thirties thanks to DVD releases from the Warner Archive Collection.  Outside of occasional airings on Turner Classic movies, most of Wellman’s racy, vibrant work in the Pre-Code era had been unseen for years. But suddenly the floodgates were open and film buffs were finally able to enjoy the eyebrow-raising excesses of Night Nurse (1931), Love is a Racket (1932), Frisco Jenny (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933), to name just a few. The diamond in the rough for my money though is Safe in Hell (1931), featuring a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created.

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12 Italian Directors on 12 Italian Cities

In 1989 Istituto Luce, the oldest public institution devoted to film production, distribution and archival material in Italy, produced an omnibus film consisting of 12 segments entitled 12 Registi per 12 Citta (12 Directors for 12 Cities). A documentary/travelogue hybrid, the film was made as a promotional vehicle in support of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Rome and part of its intent was to lure tourists to Italy, particularly to the cities showcased in the film.  The title is not completely accurate; thirteen directors, not twelve, contributed to the project if you count Giuseppe Bertolucci, the younger brother of Bernardo Bertolucci, who co-directed the Bologna section with Bernardo. 12 Registi per 12 Citta is also unconventional in its presentation with each director approaching his subject in his own unique way and the selected cities include some offbeat choices like Udine and Cagliari as well as some major omissions. What, no Venice?

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Can Robert Loggia Save the World?

“See cities reduced to ashes! See oceans turned to steam! See mountains turned to molten lava! See interceptor jets and anti-missiles melted in mid-air before your eyes!” These are all taglines from the original poster for The Lost Missile (1958), a relatively obscure sci-fi thriller from the fifties which features Robert Loggia in a rare early starring role.

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A Suitable Case for Treatment

David Warner in Morgan!

Is mental illness a laughing matter? When it comes to cinematic treatments, it all depends on the filmmaker’s approach and this was an issue that divided critics and audiences over Morgan! (1966, released in the U.K. as Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). Whether embraced as a wild, eccentric anti-establishment farce or derided as a schizophrenic mess that can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, Morgan!, remains a polarizing film even today; there is no middle ground here. Most people either love it or hate it.

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The Girl with the Fishing Spear

Mari Shirato plays a fisherman’s widow who is preparing to avenge her husband in the 1984 thriller Mermaid Legend, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda.

In 1984 ATG (Art Theater Guild), one of the most experimental and artistic of Japan’s film distribution companies, and Directors Company, released Ningyo Densetsu, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda. ATG had already established itself as a cutting-edge visionary with such releases as Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), Shuji Terayama’s Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and Seijun Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen (1980). Ningyo Densetsu was something altogether different – a commercially viable fusion of murder mystery, white collar crime and revenge thriller which looked more mainstream than most of ATG’s previous releases. Also known as Mermaid Legend, the movie is also much more extreme than some of the most infamous exploitation films of its era yet it is distinguished by its artistry in all areas of production. But make no mistake, this is not family-friendly fare or recommended for fans of The Little Mermaid

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Melvin Van Peebles in Paris

Is your dream to become a film director? Well, don’t expect Hollywood to give you a leg up. You need to forge your own path and think creatively like Melvin Van Peebles. When he tried to find employment in the Los Angeles-based film industry, a movie executive told him there were no jobs but there might be an opening for an elevator operator. Van Peebles’s solution was to figure it out on his own and taught himself the basics through making some film shorts. Eventually, he relocated to Paris and reinvented himself as a novelist, journalist and short story author. As a writer in France, he was eligible for a director’s card so he applied, got it and adapted his 1967 novel La Permission as his feature film debut under the title, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). The story depicts a brief romance between a black U.S. soldier stationed in France and the French woman he meets in a Parisian nightclub. The premise might sound simple and straightforward but the execution is decidedly original, resembling a merger between Nouvelle Vague filmmaking techniques and Van Pebbles’ own idiosyncratic directorial choices.

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Playlists for the Apollo Space Missions

July 20, 2021 will mark the 52nd anniversary of man’s first moon landing by Apollo 11 and the perfect way to celebrate the event is to watch Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary on the Apollo space program, For All Mankind (not to be confused with the 2019 TV series of the same name). For those who haven’t seen it, this is not your typical talking heads documentary. The film mixes together footage from all of the Apollo missions (as well as material from the Gemini missions) in a mesmerizing, impressionistic montage with a sound design of audio bites by various astronauts, mission control personal and newscasters (none of whom are identified on-screen) and eerie music by Brian Eno with the inevitable snippet of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprake Zarathustra” and a rendition of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” performed by Lee DeCarlo and Peter Manning Robinson. The emphasis is on the fulfillment of a seemingly impossible quest and not so much the individuals involved but there is one fascinating segment of For All Mankind which reveals some of the music selections the astronauts carried to the moon and is probably still being enjoyed in some distant galaxy right now.       

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Hell is Other People

A random group of strangers being forced to share close quarters during an impending disaster or emergency situation is a familiar trope in genre films. The situation becomes even more dire when most of the stranded individuals prove to be loathsome or extremely annoying. This is essentially the set-up for Something Creeping in the Dark (Italian title: Qualcosa Striscia nel Buio, 1971), a quintessential old dark house thriller which starts as a suspenseful melodrama and quickly descends into the realm of the occult.  

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Ice Capades

George Roy Hill is a name that should be familiar to most movie fans. Although his claim to fame mostly rests on two Paul Newman-Robert Redford hits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), for which he won the Best Director Oscar, Hill is unique in that he could successfully helm big screen epics like Hawaii (1966), art house fare (Slaughterhouse-Five, 1972) or intimate, small scale projects such as A Little Romance (1979). Despite his versatility, he has never enjoyed the sort of critical acclaim or respect afforded such peers as Robert Altman but Hill is clearly overdue for reappraisal and so are some of the overlooked gems in his filmography like The World of Henry Orient (1964) and Slap Shot (1977), which might be his most underrated movie.

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The Isabelle Huppert Revelation

French actress Isabelle Huppert

There was a period of time from around 2000 to 2012 when it seemed like every major French movie that received distribution in the U.S. featured Isabelle Huppert as the female lead. Did she have some kind of special deal with the import/export office? Couldn’t Miou-Miou, Natalie Baye, Isabelle Adjani, Fanny Ardant or some other French actress close to the same age get some equal representation? Don’t get me wrong. Huppert’s talent as an actress is indisputable and she probably deserved the Best Actress Oscar for her go-for-broke performance in The Piano Teacher (2001), which received zero nominations from the Academy.

It’s also heartening to see any actress past the age of fifty getting steady work and not being relegated to a supporting role as the mother or grandmother of the 20-something female lead. No, the issue here is overexposure (Catherine Deneuve had the same problem for years). More importantly, Huppert often seems drawn to variations of the same edgy, extreme character in film after film which can get monotonous if you happened to see her consecutively in Ma Mere (2004), Les Soeurs Fachees (2004) and Gabrielle (2005). Not a hard feat to do since she averages anywhere between one to three movies a year.  So, it was with some trepidation that I approached Private Property (2006, French title: Nue Propriete), by Belgium director Joachim Lafosse with – who else? – Isabelle Huppert in the lead. And once again she’s playing a neurotic and difficult character but there’s something quite different about this one.

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