Mister Total Irreverence

Among most Fields’ enthusiasts, The Bank Dick is considered one of his best films, right up there with It’s a Gift (1934). It’s also the only film in which Fields enjoyed full creative control and it would be his last. His final starring role in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) was an unhappy experience and turned into one long battle with the Universal top brass over scripting and censorship issues. 

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Through the Eyes of a Child

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) is generally acknowledged as the film that ushered in the neorealism movement and set the tone and style for the postwar Italian films that followed. But the roots of neorealism can be traced back to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (1944, I bambini ci guardano), both of which were filmed in 1942 but encountered distribution problems upon their release in the fall of 1942 when the war finally came to Italy and the bombings began. Ossessione was also the victim of Fascist censorship which reduced the film to less than half of its original running time and for years it was denied distribution in the U.S. due to an infringement of copyright (it was an uncredited adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice). The Children Are Watching Us didn’t fare any better during its limited release and for years it was a difficult film to see in its original form, even in its own country. 



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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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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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The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

During the summer of 1961 a double feature aimed at children was being distributed in selected cities across the U.S.. If you saw the titles on a theatre marquee, you might think they were Walt Disney releases – Bimbo the Great and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. But anyone who ventured inside the theatre immediately realized that these films were NOT made in Hollywood. And in the case of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, it didn’t even look like the film was made in the 20th century!

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Bernard Wicki’s Die Brucke

When film critics compile their favorite top ten lists of anti-war movies, you can usually expect to see titles like King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plains (1959), Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) among the favored elite. It has only been in recent years that Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (German title: Die Brucke) has popped up on lists, thanks in part to The Criterion Collection, which remastered it on DVD and Blu-ray in June 2015. Almost forgotten since its original release in 1959, the film is just as powerful and moving as it was over sixty years ago.

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Season’s Greetings from Arnaud Desplechin

Misery loves company, and if you are anticipating a stressful holiday season due to an unavoidable reunion with family, in-laws or friends you’d rather not see – even if it is only a Zoom meeting – then you may find a kindred spirit among the dysfunctional gathering in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (French title: Un Conte de Noel).  

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Balm for the Soul

The Japanese poster for The Burmese Harp (1956)

In 1955 Kon Ichikawa was a well established filmmaker in Japan who was mostly known for satiric comedies like Mr. Pu (1953) and A Billionaire (1954) and the occasional literary adaptation like Young People (1952). His work was still unknown outside of his own country but that would change with his 27th film, The Burmese Harp (Japanese title: Biruma no tategoto, 1956). It would prove to be his first major critical and box office success in Japan but also one that would bring him international acclaim. “That was the first film I really felt I had to make,” Ichikawa later admitted to author and film scholar Donald Richie.   Continue reading

My Name is Ivan

“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” – Ingmar Bergman

Nikolai Burlyaev gives a stunning performance as a war refugee turned Russian spy in Ivan’s Childhood (1962), the feature film debut of director Andrei Tarkovsky.

A harrowing yet poetic account of war seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy, Ivan’s Childhood aka My Name is Ivan (1962) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and one that had a major impact on Russian cinema and the international film world (It won the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice International Film Festival). Continue reading

The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading