Destination: Ferness, Scotland

First of all, there is no Ferness, Scotland. It is a fictitious seaside town created by writer/director Bill Forsyth for his 1983 film, Local Hero. It is also a place that lives on the hearts and minds of moviegoers who were bewitched by its picturesque beauty, eccentric but appealing residents and its tranquil setting far removed from urban blight and the madding crowd. To outsiders, it might look like a slice of heaven, an ideal place to live or revisit. But Forsyth’s film slyly juxtaposes this romanticized environment against the inevitability of progress and creates a gentle culture clash comedy that has far more resonance than you’d expect. It’s not sentimental or cynical but an intoxicating mixture of the wry and whimsical with a bittersweet finish.

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Deadpan Lunacy

Amid the avalanche of overproduced and overmarketed films that flooded movie theaters in the summer of 2006 (Poseidon, Miami Vice, Lady in the Water and Snakes on a Plane to name a few), a gallic import flew in under the radar and delighted any moviegoer willing to give in to its droll sense of humor and fond appreciation of the spy thriller genre of the sixties. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was a huge box-office hit in France and Europe but it barely lasted a week in many of its U.S. playdates.

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Life is a Carnival

The Japanese film poster for THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS (1961).

Most Japanese film fans and cult movie buffs are certainly familiar with maverick director Seijun Suzuki for his ultra-stylish and unconventional yakuza thrillers Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). Not as well known are the numerous genre films he was assigned by his studio Nikkatsu in the late fifties/early sixties. One of his most atypical efforts is The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (Japanese title: Toge o wataru wakai kaze, 1961), which is like a more adult variation on James Otis Kaler’s Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus except, in this case, the protagonist is not a kid but a college student majoring in economics. There is also no circus, just a traveling carnival troupe with an uncertain future. Yet, the tone is surprisingly upbeat and cheerful with moments of slapstick comedy, musical interludes, dramatic incidents and a subplot involving competitive yakuza gangs, who are closer to bumbling schoolyard bullies than menacing gangsters.

A massive lantern float lights up the nightime sky in THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS (1961), a Japanese film about a traveling carnival troupe.
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The New Orleans Streetfighter

If you have never been tempted to see Charles Bronson in one of his many top-billed action vehicles, then you also probably wonder why he enjoyed superstar status on an international level. But put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider Hard Times (1975), a Depression-era tale about a mysterious drifter named Chaney who makes a living as a bare-knuckle streetfighter.

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Having a Wild Weekend

In the late sixties there were a number of sun-drenched erotic romps from Italy filmed in picturesque settings around the Mediterranean such as Giuliano Biagetti’s Interrabang (1969) and Ottavio Alessi’s Top Sensation aka The Seducers (1969). Most of these promised and delivered sexy scenarios with abundant nudity (primarily female), murder and risqué situations for the sexploitation crowd. The Sex of Angels (Italian title: Il Sesso degli Angeli, 1968) comes on like the ultimate softcore fantasy but turns out to be a complete tease. In fact, unlike others of its ilk, The Sex of Angels is actually a morality tale about the consequences of hedonism as well as a critique of the free love generation.

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A Concert Pianist’s Worst Nightmare

The German film poster for the 1924 silent classic THE HANDS OF ORLAC.

What is the worst thing that could happen to a celebrated world class pianist? It would have to be something that destroyed his famous hands, wouldn’t it? The Hands of Orlac, based on a novel by Maurice Renard, has been adapted for the screen numerous times but the 1924 version by German director Robert Wiene remains a masterpiece of silent horror cinema.

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Truckers on Speed

“The Pill Dragnet! Blasting the Blackest Market of all…the girl peddlers of the deadliest thrill for sale!” – one of the taglines for Death in Small Doses (1957).    

In the grand tradition of other B-movie crime expose of the fifties such as Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Phenix City Story (1955), and New Orleans Uncensored (1955), this little known 1957 programmer from Allied Artists (formerly known as poverty row studio, Monogram Pictures) has all the earmarks of a routine, low budget exploitation drama aimed at the drive-ins and double bill grindhouses of its era but it also serves up some surprises and memorably wacko moments for those who think they’ve been down this road before.

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Robert Bresson’s Parisian Reverie

The French film poster for FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER (1971), directed by Robert Bresson.

One wouldn’t normally associate Robert Bresson with such rapturously romantic, Paris-based films as Ninotchka, An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi, and Love in the Afternoon yet Four Nights of a Dream (Quartre Nuits d’un Reveur, 1971) is probably the closest the French director has ever come to making a film about love, longing and desire. You could even say it is almost a musical since strolling street musicians occasionally break into song at unexpected moments in the narrative.

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