About JStafford

I am a writer for The Travel Channel, ArtsATL.com, Burnaway.org and other publications. I am also a film researcher for Turner Classic Movies and a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. This blog is dedicated to overlooked, obscure or underrated movies and other cinema topics that I want to share.

The Jimmy Piersall Story

Anthony Perkins plays baseball player Jimmy Piersall in the 1957 biographical drama FEAR STRIKES OUT.

There are enough films about baseball and famous ballplayers in the American cinema to constitute its own subgenre but Fear Strikes Out (1957) is a special case that stands alone. Based on the autobiography by James A. Piersall, the former outfielder and shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, and Albert S. Hirshberg, the film is less about Jimmy Piersall’s brilliant though erratic career and more about his struggle against bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). 

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Siren of the Danube

One of the most important Czech films to emerge during the Czech New Wave of the 1960s was The Shop on Main Street (Czech title: Obchod na Korze, 1965), which was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1966 and snagged a Best Actress nomination for Ida Kaminska the following year. The important thing to note is that The Shop on Main Street was not really a part of the Czech New Wave. The film’s directors, Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, were more than a generation older than the young upstarts of that movement that included Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde), Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting) and Jan Nemec (Diamonds of the Night), among others. And even though The Shop on Main Street made Kadar and Klos internationally famous, their other films are not as well known to most American filmgoers. That is a shame because their final collaboration, Adrift (1971), is one of their most fascinating features but the troubled production behind it is possibly one of the reasons it is almost unknown today.

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Secret Agenda

Is there really such a thing as “The Perfect Crime”? In theory the plot might seem infallible but what about the unforeseen surprise that could wreck the whole thing? It could be the benign interference of a neighbor or a stranger or even an accidental mishap involving the architect of the crime. An excellent example of what could go terribly wrong at the last minute can be found in The Hidden Room (aka Obsession, 1949) directed by Edward Dmytryk.

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Aleksandr Mitta’s Ekipazh

The Russian film poster for Ekipazh aka AIR CREW (1980).

Who said Hollywood holds the patent on the disaster film genre? There have been numerous contenders from other countries that are fine specimens of the form such as Submersion of Japan aka Tidal Wave (1973) by director Shiro Moritani, Ian Barry’s doomsday thriller The Chain Reaction (1980) from Australia, and Renzo Martinelli’s Vajont – La Diga del Disonore (2001), based on the 1963 flooding of Longarone, Italy after the collapse of the Vajont Dam. One of my favorites, however, is a variation on 1970’s Airport and its sequels entitled Ekipazh (English title: Air Crew, 1980), directed by Aleksandr Mitta. It was made in the Soviet Union during the final decade before it became the Russian Federation. The film, which is equal parts soap opera, suspense thriller and disaster epic, focuses on three pilots and assorted crew members who embark on a flight to rescue survivors from an earthquake in a mountain mining town. 

The U.S. poster for the 1980 Russian disaster drama Ekipazh aka AIR CREW.
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Master of Illusions

Director Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon (1969); Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

“Fellini’s work is like a treasure chest. You open it up and there, right in front of your eyes, a world of wonders springs up – ancient wonders, new ones, provincial wonders and universal ones, real wonders and fantastic ones.” – Martin Scorsese

The Oscar nominated director of Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) is just one of the usual suspects (along with Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky) rounded up to pay homage to the great Italian director in The Magic of Fellini (2002), a 56-minute documentary written and directed by Carmen Piccini.

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Don’t Mess with a Vietnam Vet

Among the slew of Hollywood movies that followed in the final days of the Vietnam War and used that as the subject, Rolling Thunder (1977) is a fascinating aberration. On the one hand, it flirts with serious issues and societal problems addressed in such post-Vietnam dramas as Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) but it is also a violent revenge film that exploits a Vietnam veteran as an avenging angel.

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Ode to a Grecian Isle

Hristo (Takis Emmanuel) and Joana (Irene Papas) have a conversation about donkeys on the island of Santorini in STEPS (1966).

Who says trying to run away from your problems can’t be therapeutic? Sometimes you just need some time alone in a completely different environment to sort yourself out and get a different perspective. That is exactly what Joanna does. An aspiring artist who is stuck in a dead end existence in Athens, Greece, she takes a one month vacation away from the city. It is also a brief escape from living with her depressed father, who is still grieving over his wife’s death. Joanna takes a ferry to the island of Santorini and it is there that she opens up to new possibilities in her life as well as a renewed desire to make art again. This is the basic set-up of May Sarton’s 1963 novel Joanna and Ulysses but the 1966 film version entitled Steps (Greek title: Ta Skalopatia) takes numerous liberties with the story and turns it into something much more ambiguous and unresolved, courtesy of screenwriters Vassilis Vassilikos, Glenn P. Wolfe and Leonard Hirschfield, who also directs. It would be Hirschfield’s sole directorial feature.

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Beatlemania Comes to Poland

The Polish film poster for YESTERDAY (1985)

While most of the world fell in love with The Beatles during their emergence in the early sixties, communist controlled countries like Poland viewed the band’s music as anarchic and a corrupt influence on the country’s youth. That is certainly the situation as presented in the 1985 film Yesterday, written and directed by Polish director Radoslaw Piwowarski, which focuses on four high school students who bond over their love of The Beatles, create their own band and defy school authorities and parents over their appearance (long hair) and behavior.

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The Creeper

Most fans of classic Hollywood horror films probably remember the first time they saw a Universal horror picture. My first exposure was at age 5 when my parents allowed me to stay up late and watch The Wolf Man (1941) with them. After that, a lot of those early years in Memphis, Tennessee were spent watching “The Late Show” with babysitters while my parents were either attending or giving a cocktail party. Every Saturday night some horror favorite from Universal would air and The Mad Ghoul (1943) was a particularly fond memory. But the one that really stayed with me was House of Horrors (1946) featuring Rondo Hatton as “The Creeper.”  

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Good Cop, Bad Cop

The Japanese film poster for RED HANDKERCHIEF (1964)

Among the major film studios in Japan, Nikkatsu is generally regarded as the oldest but it almost didn’t survive the post-WW2 years after shutting down production in 1942. When it relaunched in 1954, audience tastes had changed and so had the moviegoing public, which was younger and hungry for films that reflected the problems, attitudes and pop culture of their generation. As a result, the studio began to churn out different kinds of films – yakuza and cop thrillers, youth rebellion dramas and frenetic comedies/musicals – that were partially inspired by American genre films and the rise of rebel icons like James Dean and Elvis Presley. Often categorized as “Nikkatsu Action Cinema,” these films experienced a surge of popularity in the late 50s as such directors as Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, Koreyoshi Kurahara and Toshio Masuda emerged as the most creative filmmakers at Nikkatsu during the post-war new wave. Masuda, in particular, was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers at the studio and helped actor Yujiro Ishihara achieve major stardom after their first collaboration Rusty Knife (1958), a gritty crime drama about a volatile street tough who crosses the mob. They went on to make 25 features together but, curiously enough, one of their most successful films, Akai Hankachi (Red Handkerchief, 1964), is almost forgotten and difficult to see outside of Japan.

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