A Call to Arms: 49th Parallel (1941)

49TH PARALLEL (1941)

In 1940, the British government asked director Michael Powell to make a film supporting the ongoing war effort against Nazi Germany. Along with his partner, Emeric Pressburger, Powell wanted to use the sanctioned platform to sway the United States, who remained neutral at the time, into joining the fight alongside Britain. To attempt this complicated feat, Powell and Pressburger set the story for this propaganda film in Canada, a friendly ally of the United States and a country involved in World War II since September 1939. The end result was 49th Parallel (1941), a cautionary tale based on realistic, albeit fictional events. The title is in reference to the latitude at which most of the Canadian-U.S. open border is located. Powell and Pressburger hoped that by showing the German enemies right at America’s doorstep, it would frighten its citizens into demanding their country join the war.

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The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

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Screen Sorcery: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

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Belladonna of Sadness (1973) begins with a joyful wedding. We first meet the lovely Jeanne, our guide through this strange fairy tale, and her beau Jim as they exchange marriage vows. When the couple returns to their humble abode, their wedded bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the reigning king and his minions who brutally assault Jeanne in an act of ceremonial rape that leaves her broken and bewildered. In her despair, the young beauty makes a pact with the Devil who takes the shape of a mutating phallus that promises her pleasure and power. Afterward Jeanne’s world descends into a dark hallucinatory nightmare of swirling colors propelled by sorcery, perpetual pain and erotic ecstasy.

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Polly Maggoo Is Back in Fashion

QUI ETES-VOUS, POLLY MAGGOO?, (aka WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?), 1966

We all find different passages into movies we love. Sometimes a film grabs you in the opening moments and you know right away it’s something you’ll love and watch over and over for years. Then there are others that take some time and effort, growing on you gradually after you’ve watched them and only becoming favorites with repeated visits and reflection.

One film that fell into the first category for me is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), the debut feature film for American photographer and filmmaker William Klein. A controversial and oft-censored purveyor of fashion fantasies at Vogue, he had little but contempt for the fashion industry and particularly the magazine’s tastemaking editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland (fictionalized here as Ms. Maxwell). You’d think this film about an American ingénue entering the European fashion world would be filled with venom and vitriol, but no, it’s actually more of a quirky, witty takedown, so deliciously stylish and enjoyable that you can easily watch it without any knowledge of Klein’s behind-the-scenes axe to grind. It also has one of my favorite opening scenes in movie history. [...MORE]

Ornette: Made in America (1985)

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Ornette Coleman’s symphony “Skies of America” was conceived in 1965, recorded in 1972, and performed intermittently in the ensuing decades. It was something of a grand introduction to Coleman’s “harmolodic” compositional method, the term a portmanteau of harmony, motion and melody, and required a full orchestra alongside Coleman’s working jazz quartet. Due to budget limitations the recording eliminated the quartet (Coleman played solo) and cut out a third of the symphony, due to the length limitations of vinyl. Coleman sought to realize the original vision of the piece over the ensuing decades. Shirley Clarke’s hyperkinetic documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), is an attempt to track the artistic evolution of the project from the sixties into the eighties, using a performance of “Skies of America” in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas as the fulcrum. Available to view on FilmStruck, or on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it eschews historical context for the immediacy of performance, making it more of a piece for fans rather than newcomers to Coleman’s work. But it is a rare peek into Coleman’s artistic process – which means it is a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.

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Chaplin Takes Us to Easy Street

EASY STREET (1917)

Charlie Chaplin had been in Hollywood only two years when he signed a lucrative deal with the Mutual Film Corp., but he was already a star because of his one-reelers with Keystone and Essanay. The years 2016-2017 mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers, which I believe rank among the best comedies of the silent era.

FilmStruck offers Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies in three parts for your streaming pleasure. My personal favorite, Easy Street (1917), can be found in Part 3.

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A Symphony of Inner Lives

THREE COLOURS BLUE (FR1993) JULIETTE BINOCHE

He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film. [...MORE]

Love in Enunciation: Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938)

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Aside from George Cukor’s visually stunning musical masterpiece My Fair Lady (1964), Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith (with Leslie Howard receiving co-director credits), is the only other significant film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play of the same name. Of the two films, Pygmalion is the more faithful adaptation and arguably the better movie. Although it lacks the splashy technicolor, catchy Lerner and Loewe musical numbers and intricate Cecil Beaton designed costumes featured in My Fair Lady (and those incredible hats!), Pygmalion tosses aside the showiness (although Schiarpelli fashions are nothing to sneeze at) for a more genuine and authentically English production. Its stripped down approach accentuates the stark contrast between the ill-mannered, uneducated, poorly dressed flower girl, and the simple, well-spoken, dignified elegance of a duchess. The success of this adaptation is likely due to Shaw himself. Producer Gabriel Pascal obtained filming rights from Shaw directly, who was originally hesitant to make the deal. The playwright was involved in the production, lending his talents to the adapted screenplay, which won him the Academy Award in 1939. Despite his involvement with the film, Shaw was greatly disappointed with the tacked-on happy ending. Shaw was aware that his original ending wouldn’t be in the film, so he negotiated a reasonable compromise with Pascal. Unbeknownst to Shaw, Pascal had filmed an ending which was different from what was agreed upon. When he discovered Pascal’s changes, the notoriously difficult Shaw was quite mad, and rightly so. Maintaining his integrity as a well-respected playwright was paramount, and altering the outcome of two of his most famous characters jeopardized that, or so he thought. Moviegoers in the 1930s wanted to see even the most flawed of characters find some sort of happiness, especially in their romantic lives.

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Yves Montand: My First International Star

Z (1969)

We all have performers or movies that grant us entry into genres, eras, or styles. Spencer Tracy was one of the actors who got me hooked into classic cinema. Boris Karloff hooked me into horror. And Yves Montand was the first international star I ever really knew. Like many stars appealing to a new generation, it was his later work that I saw first and precisely what interested me in seeing his earlier work. I didn’t take too much notice of him at first but as he began appearing in more and more of the movies I was watching on Saturday afternoons in my childhood, I began to wonder where this fine actor got his start. For Montand, it started with singing and live performing until he was discovered by Edith Piaf. For me, it started with Z (1969).

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Nippon Noir: Celebrate #Noirvember with FilmStruck

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Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ Social Media Specialist Marya Gates (@oldfilmsflicker) November is now known as Noirvember among many classic film fans who enjoy watching Film Noir throughout the month and discussing it on social media sites using the hashtag #Noirvember. This month-long celebration of criminal activity, dangerous dames, desperate men and shadow-lined surfaces is coming to a close but before it does I thought I’d highlight a few of the interesting Japanese crime films currently streaming on FilmStruck. If you’re celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at home this year, it’s a great opportunity to play catch up with a genre I like to call Nippon Noir.

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