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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Johnny Cash in His Film Debut

Even hardcore fans of the “Man in Black” might not know that back in 1961 the bad boy of country-western music decided to dabble in motion pictures and made his film debut in a low-budget wonder entitled Five Minutes to Live (aka Door to Door Maniac). It’s an enjoyably trashy genre mash-up that is part bank heist thriller, part home invasion psychodrama and part family sitcom in the style of Father Knows Best. Plus, in addition to Cash chewing up the scenery, the cast includes Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis as a bowling alley manager, little Ronnie Howard (who was already appearing on television in such series as Dennis the Menace and The Andy Griffith Show) and Vic Tayback, the Emmy-nominated co-star of the TV series Alice. It’s not their finest hour but if you’re a Cash fan or appreciate wild card obscurities like Blast of Silence (1961) or Shack Out on 101(1955), you know you want to see it.       

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The Great Displacement

At the end of WW2, it was estimated that more than 6 million people had been displaced from their homes and roughly 180,000 of these were children. Some were concentration camp survivors, other were orphaned or separated from their families, hiding in monasteries or living with strangers. There have been a handful of films that dealt with this traumatic situation and Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) is probably the most famous post-war American film on the subject. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won a special Juvenile Oscar for Ivan Jandl as a homeless kid separated from his Czech mother. Europe also produced some landmark films about displaced children during WW2 including Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) and Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952) but Somewhere in Europe aka It Happened in Europe (Hungarian title: Valahol Europaban) from Hungarian director Geza von Radvanyi was one of the first films to address war orphans trying to fend for themselves. Released in 1947, the film is less well known than other post-war dramas from the same period but it is a harrowing portrait of a dire situation affecting Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, during the final days of the war.

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Superdrago to the Rescue

One of countless Eurospy actioners released in the wake of the James Bond film craze in the sixties, Secret Agent Super Dragon (aka New York chiama Superdrago, 1966) has been mercilessly ridiculed on MST3K but served straight up, it’s often funnier in its own poker-faced way and has some oddball flourishes to set it apart from its fellow spy wannabes. I know it denotes a certain immaturity in the writer to even do a post on this, yet I am compelled…I must!

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Nothing is Off Limits: The Art of Eva Hesse

Most major art movements in America during the 20th century were led and dominated by male artists but the post-minimalist movement that emerged in the mid-1960s in New York City was unique for the number of female artists that captured the attention of the art world. Foremost among them was Eva Hesse, whose work utilizing plastics, fiberglass and latex represents some of the most radical and influential creations from that group. Unfortunately, she was struck down by brain cancer at the height of her fame at age 34, but the 2016 documentary Eva Hesse provides a wonderfully immersive deep dive into her art, life and career.

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The Cunning Inspector Cockrill

Classic movie lovers in the U.S. probably know Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the perennial holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version. He is also memorable for his supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) but, more importantly, British comedy fans adore Sim specifically for his eccentric comedic characters in such popular films as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), Laughter in Paradise (1951) and Innocents in Paris (1953). Less familiar to American audiences but guaranteed to turn you into an Alastair Sim fanatic if you’re not one already is Green for Danger, a 1946 suspense thriller starring Sim as the sly-as-a-fox Inspector Cockrill.

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In the Kingdom of G

In the film world of the 20th century, there were not too many animators who made the transition to live action feature film directing. Certainly Frank Tashlin was one of the most famous, going from Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoon shorts to manic pop culture comedies like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Hollywood or Bust (1956). Another rare exception was George Pal, who became famous for his Puppetoon shorts for Paramount before establishing himself as a director of fantasy features such as Tom Thumb (1958) and The Time Machine (1960). It is far easier to name more contemporary filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Brad Bird,  all of whom graduated from cartoons to live-action features successfully. The above are all artists who worked in the commercial cinema but, if you are talking about art cinema, the list is much smaller and Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk should be in the top slot. Goto, Island of Love (1969, Polish title: Goto, I’ile d’amour), his feature film debut, is a fascinating achievement that successfully brings the avant-garde sensibilities of his animated shorts to a live action feature.

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Growing Pains

I’m a sucker for any film starring Tuesday Weld. Ditto any high school/teen angst/juvenile delinquent flick from the fifties and sixties. Toss in American radio and TV personality Dick Clark in his dramatic film debut and musical appearances by the “King of Twang” Duane Eddy and Because They’re Young (1960) becomes essential viewing.

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Thomas Schamoni’s Almost Forgotten 1970 Experiment from the New German Cinema Movement

The New German Cinema of the late sixties-early seventies introduced the world to some of the most original and provocative filmmakers of the 20th century such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlondorff, but some of pioneers never attracted much attention outside their own country and their films are in danger of being forgotten. Among them are Helma Sanders-Brahms, Peter Lilienthal, Hans W. Geissendorfer and Thomas Schamoni, who is probably the most obscure of them all. Schamoni worked for most of his career in television, turning out documentaries and made-for-TV movies, but in 1970 he directed his only feature film, A Big Grey-Blue Bird (German title: Ein grober graublauer Vogel). A lo-fi mashup of sci-fi and spy genre elements reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), it is a playful and surprisingly entertaining cinematic “experiment” that should have found a wider audience.

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Life After the Bomb

What would life be like after a global apocalyptic event or would there be any life at all? It is certainly a topic that has inspired filmmakers to create an entire subgenre upon the premise. Some of the more famous and/or infamous efforts have usually focused on a handful of survivors like Arch Oboler’s low-budget message melodrama Five (1951), Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), the interracial menage-a-trois of The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) and Roger Corman’s similar three-character B-picture, The Last Woman on Earth (1960). Other variations have been more epic in scope and ambition with a distinct sci-fi/horror approach like the various film versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, The Road Warrior (1981) and other Mad Max sequels and clones as well as post-apocalyptic zombie flicks like World War Z (2013).  Comedies about life-after-the-bomb, however, are a rarity but probably the weirdest and most deeply cynical of them all is The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), directed by Richard Lester.

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