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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Raymond Burr + Natalie Wood = Cute Couple

You probably couldn’t find a more unlikely friendship in Hollywood during the fifties than the one between Raymond Burr and Natalie Wood but most biographies of Wood document this little-known period of the actress’s life. The 38-year-old actor and the 17-year-old ingenue became close friends and possibly more during the making of A Cry in the Night (1956), in which he played an unhinged stalker and she was his victim.  

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Postcards from the Edge: Louis Malle in India

Unaccountably missing or overlooked on most reviewers’ top DVD releases of 2007 was a remarkable set from Eclipse (Criterion’s no frills, affordable editions division) – The Documentaries of Louis Malle. Among the 7 titles featured were the relatively obscure God’s Country [broadcast on PBS in 1986, but filmed in 1981], And the Pursuit of Happiness [1986, also made for television), Place de la republique [1974] featuring man-in-the-street interviews on a busy Parisian boulevard, Humain, trop humain [1974], a fascinating time capsule of French auto workers with industrial noise and Godard-like imagery and the 18 minute short Vive le tour [1962]. But the real highlights of the collection were Phantom India [1969], a 378 minute portrait of that nation that was distributed theatrically as a 7-episode series, and Calcutta [1969], which was filmed at the same time but released separately (It was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival). To call both films an overwhelming experience is an understatement to say the least.

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Tarot Cards, Talismans, Seances and Telekinesis

People usually have certain expectations when they invest the time to watch a movie, especially if it has been advertised as a genre film like a western, sci-fi or horror thriller. This must have been a perplexing problem for the distributors of Arcana (1972), Guilio Questi’s mysterious tale of a widow and her brooding son who use fortune telling, tarot cards and seances to con a gullible clientele. The film dabbles in the supernatural but it also flirts with other topics like voyeurism, incest, Macedonian rituals, neglected children, middle class despair and inept bureaucracies. Some critics have pigeonholed Arcana as a horror film and it is certainly horrific in tone and attitude but don’t expect the movie to conform to genre conventions. The director even issues a disclaimer at the beginning: “To the watchers: This movie is not a story but a game of cards. For this reason both its start and the epilogue are not believable. You are the players. Play smartly and you’ll win.” Make of that what you will, I think Arcana works best as a puzzle, even if it is an often inscrutable and unsolvable one that is presented in two acts. Continue reading

The Family Mole

If you are a post-WW2 baby boomer, you are probably familiar with the term ‘the Red Scare,’ which refers to a time in the late forties-early fifties when anti-communist sentiment in the U.S. was at its height (The “red” refers to the color of the Soviet flag). This Cold War era paranoia was not just reflected in American politics and daily news stories but he popular culture as well, especially movies. Some of the more famous examples are the Howard Hughes’ produced noir I Married a Communist (1949 aka The Woman on Pier 13), the 1951 tabloid-style expose I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. and John Wayne as an undercover commie hunter in Big Jim McLain (1952). Yet, of all the cinematic depictions of Communist infiltration in America, few are as blatant or as infamous as My Son John (1952), which was released when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was at the height of its power and Senator Joseph McCarthy was still fanning the flames of a political witch hunt that had already taken its toll on the entertainment industry.

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Party Out of Bounds

Tired of reading about new DVD/Blu-ray releases that are being released in other parts of the world but are not viewable here because they are produced in a different broadcast format? (The U.S. standard is NTSC; PAL is common in Europe and the U.K. and SECAM is prevalent in China and the USSR). If so, why not consider the purchase of an all-region Blu-Ray player. They are relatively inexpensive and will allow you to finally purchase and view films you’ve always wanted to see or dreamed about revisiting. To give you some idea of what you’re missing, especially if you are an anglophile, I point to BFI Flipside, a classy underdog in the world of DVD/Blu-Ray distribution, who launched this label in 2009 with the following explanation on all of their box art: “The Flipside: rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions.”

Earlier releases have included Bill Forsyth’s debut feature That Sinking Feeling (1979), a comedy about a quartet of working class lads with a dubious black market scheme, Gerry O’Mara’s The Pleasure Girls (1965) a Swinging London soap opera starring Francesca Annis, Suzanna Leigh, Ian McShane and Klaus Kinski, and Don Levy’s Herostratus (1967), an avant-garde curio with a surprising cameo by a young, undressed Helen Mirren, who has never been one to complain about nude scenes. One of my favorite releases from BFI Flipside is The Party’s Over (1965), a stylish and edgy study of some bohemian Londoners during the mod sixties with a scene-stealing performance by Oliver Reed and enough disturbing elements to make the censors froth at the mouth. In fact, their negative reactions, prevented the film, which was filmed in 1962, from receiving a theatrical release until 1965. During the interim, the film was subjected to numerous rounds of cuts and revisions before finally being slapped with a ‘X’ certificate – a rating that spelled box-office poison for exhibitors.      

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A Marriage of Convenience?

Almost everyone has a good reason for why they want to get married but for Hugues, there is a very specific need. He wants to find a woman with a place of her own, preferably one with ample square footage that includes a sitting room and a large, walk-in closet. Love or companionship isn’t a main objective. Nor does he have any particular preferences concerning the woman’s appearance or personality as long as she is close to the same age. Strangely enough, Hugues finds the ideal candidate through the Duvernet Agency, a professional matchmaker. Jeanne is not only lovely and charming, if a bit elusive, and she has never been married before. Plus, she resides in a sprawling ground floor apartment once owned by an uncle. What could be better?  So begins 1970’s L’Alliance (also known as The Wedding Ring), an exceedingly peculiar tale that slowly lures the viewer down a rabbit hole.

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Off the Grid

The Swedish film poster for The Outlaw and His Wife (1918).

A master of 20th century cinema, the Swedish director and actor Victor Sjöström is best remembered for his moving performance as the elderly physician reflecting on his life in Wild Strawberries (1957). As a director, his highly acclaimed 1921 adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel The Phantom Carriage convinced MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer to bring him to America where Sjöström directed the prestigious projects He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with Lon Chaney, and two starring Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), arguably the pinnacle of his Hollywood tenure. While The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) is not as well known, it is considered by many film historians to be Sjöström’s silent-era masterpiece and, nearly a century after its release, is enjoying a revival that should elevate its stature in the director’s pantheon.

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