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

Karl Loves His Work

Popular Czech actor Rudolf Hruskinsky is the demonic central character in Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969).

One of my favorite movements of the 20th century in cinema was the emergence of the Czech New Wave. Out of this creative period, which lasted from roughly 1962 through 1970, the film world was introduced to such innovative filmmakers as Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, 1964), Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting, 1965), Jiri Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966), Vera Chytilova (Daisies, 1966) and Jan Nemec (A Report on the Party and the Guests, 1966). In recent years, other Czech directors have been reappraised and elevated in stature thanks to the proliferation of DVD and Blu-ray restorations of such movies as The Sun in a Net (1961) by Stefan Uher, Pavel Juracek’s Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970) and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from Jaromil Jires (1970). We can now add to that list The Cremator (1969), Juraj Herz’s macabre fable, which is finally being recognized as one of the key films from the Czech New Wave.   Continue reading

All of Them Witches

Lisbeth Movin stars as Anne Pedersdotter, a young widow accused of witchcraft in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943).

When social order breaks down, rational thought or common sense do not always follow. The result could be the kind of mass paranoia and hysteria that created the persecution of people as witches in Europe during the 13th to 15th century as well as in America (the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692). That shameful chapter in history has been the subject of numerous books and literary works such as Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible.  As for the cinema, most movie critics seem to agree that the finest film to ever address this kind of aberrant phenomenon is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vredens dag (1943, English title: Day of Wrath).   Continue reading

Akira Kurosawa’s Record of a Living Being

The Japanese film poster for I Live in Fear (1955), directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune.

One of the first Japanese commercial features to directly address the fear of nuclear holocaust and the implications of the atom bomb, Record of a Living Being, which is better known as I Live in Fear (1955, aka Ikimono no Kiroku) was an unusual and unexpected movie for director Akira Kurosawa. He had recently completed Seven Samurai (1954), a huge box office and critical success in both Japan and around the world, but his new work was much smaller in scale compared to that sprawling period epic.   Continue reading