Archive for the ‘Hidden Treasures’ Category

  • Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Recordings Resurface Online

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    Anyone who is a fan of either Alfred Hitchcock or François Truffaut will have at one point at least heard of the legendary series of interviews that took place between the two in 1962. Truffaut, a great admirer of Hitchcock’s work, sat down with the master and conducted half-hour interview sessions that covered nearly the entirety of his films and his filmmaking strategies. Helen Scott of New York’s French Film Office acted as a translator between the two, as Truffaut’s English skills were limited. She would become a great friend to the French filmmaker and assisted him with his only English language film, 1966′s Fahrenheit 451.

    The result of those interview sessions was the book simply titled Hitchcock, with Truffaut credited as its author (Scott assisted in the publication of the American edition). It has been available since 1967 and revised to include Hitchcock’s later films following the interviews, but the audio recordings themselves have been less accessible to current film buffs – until recently. The blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats, run by Tom Sutpen, first made the recordings available for download starting in 2006. Earlier this past week, they unexpectedly re-surfaced online, and now the entirety of the sessions can be downloaded in one zip file – provided here for your convenience.

    As for the recordings themselves? Well, in terms of pure content, there’s nothing new if you’ve already read the book. But (judging from the first few segments I’ve listened to so far) it’s wonderful to actually hear Hitchcock, Truffaut and Scott conversing and sharing the occasional burst of laughter from humorous anecdotes and jokes that arise throughout the discussion. Hitchcock speaks in his patented slow, almost leisurely manner, while it is quite easy to hear some enthusiasm in Truffaut’s voice as he asks his questions and provides his own observations – let’s not forget Truffaut was, first and foremost, a film geek like so many others who hold that particular torch high today. Hopefully, some of them will draw some delight from discovering this treasure of film history for themselves.

    Story info and links to audio recordings courtesy of FilmDetail.

  • 5 Hidden Treasures of 2010

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    [While some of these may have had a theatrical release, in some cases I consider it 2010 because outside of festival showings, it only became available on dvd this year, at least here in Toronto, the center of the universe]
     

    Bjorn Lomborg

     

    Cool It!

    Perhaps I am jumping the gun calling this Ondi Timoner documentary on controversial Climate Change skeptic, Bjorn Lomborg, a ‘hidden treasure’. It is set to come out theatrically this month and people may flock to it in droves; I truly hope so as it is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Timoner has her niche following in the documentary world (with Dig! and We Live in Public), as does Lomborg in his, and maybe the time is right for this counter-argument to An Inconvenient Truth to burst onto the scene. Cool It! is an issue driven documentary that, for once, is not preaching to the choir. I went into the film presupposing Lomborg to be some kind of fringe denier, and the persuasiveness of his opinions and the way Timoner builds upon his thesis in the film completely overturned my presumptions, of him and of the international climate change movement en masse. Despite being steeped in the issues, the documentary has a buoyancy to it, chiding Al Gore’s influential documentary or playing off of the addictive enthusiasm of Bjorn, it breaks free of the talking heads information-spewing propaganda documentaries and becomes something full of heart and hope and courageous fringe ideas about the world and how we can protect it. Coming to a Theater near you, November 12th!

     


     

    Misfortunates

     

    The Misfortunates

    Forget any kind of biases you may have to the description European coming of age story, The Misfortunates is not a weepy art film creaking at a languid pace full of moments you admire but don’t enjoy: it is a balls to the wall tragic romp on par with the manic energy of Trainspotting, mixed with some heartfelt pathos the likes of a Mike Leigh film. Meet the Strobbes’ men, a Flemish clan of layabout misfits with an obsession for Roy Orbison and penchant for beer (and lots of it). Following the youngest of the family, Gunther, as he tries to reconcile his love for his repeat offender uncles and father and his want of a normal life, The Misfortunates depicts the fury of a life on the wrong side of the tracks, and how a past of hardship comes to define the person he is to become. Visually rich, cleverly written, and choked full of characters and performances that are unforgettable (Gunther’s dad is like the fourth member of Spinal Tap), The Misfortunates is not to be missed. Newly available on dvd. Read full review here.
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  • The Yakuza Papers

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    BattlesWithoutHonor

    In my quest to actually contribute some content to the site, I thought I might re-post a few pieces I’ve written previously elsewhere. The following is a merge of several reviews I wrote earlier this year for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow site and looks at Kinji Fukasaku’s sprawling epic “The Yakuza Papers” (sometimes also known by the title of the first of its films, Battles Without Honour And Humanity).

    The five film series is often compared to The Godfather saga. Other than the fact that both series cover gangsters over multiple films spanning several decades with multiple characters, the comparison just doesn’t work very well and is unfair to Fukasaku’s films. This is a terrific energetic set of movies with great character arcs, but the style and intent of them is very different and may not be what first time viewers may expect going in with a benchmark based on Coppola’s classics. Of course, there are also many references to Japanese culture and history that the films assume the viewer already has, but an absence of it won’t prevent enjoyment.

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  • Possibly The Best Film Ever…

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    Hausu6

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    Title of this post a bit too much? Is that an overly dramatic way for me to make my entrance as a new member of Row Three? I suppose the statement is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s pretty much how I felt after recently watching Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 jaw-dropping House (Japanese title “Hausu”).

    After being at the helm of numerous short experimental films and several TV commercials (including ones that starred Charles Bronson and Kirk Douglas), Obayashi kicked off his feature film career with this surreal-comedy-horror movie (he’s since made ~40 other films). The “story” revolves around the summer visit of 7 young school girls to the old mansion that belongs to the aunt of one of them. One by one the girls meet their doom at the hands of ghostly presences. That’s all the plot you need to know. The rest of the movie is filled with candy coloured scenes using just about every film device you can bring to mind -  irises, quick edits, painted backdrops, animation, sound effects, etc. All of this is used to link scenes, give characters focus and move the underlying story ahead. It’s absolutely overkill, but it works by using these shorthands to get across ideas as well as creating some fantastical images. You won’t soon forget the sparkling kitty eyes, the piano death scene, the killer lampshade or the lopped off head chomping down on another girl’s behind. You can’t actually take your eyes off the screen for a single second for fear you will miss something. I tried eating dinner while watching this and spilled half of it on the floor.

    Don’t trust me? Take a look at the screencaps (until I get my own copy of the DVD – thanks Google Image Search!) and trailer below. There’s also news that Criterion is releasing this next year.

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  • Mindwalk

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    Mindwalk
    In response to Kurt’s post about the death of VHS I had to draw attention to a great film that has still not yet made the leap to dvd.

    So a politician, a poet and a scientist walk into Mont Saint Michel… Sounds like the beginning of a lame joke but in fact it is the beginning of a very engaging philosophical musing on life. In the spirit of films like A Dinner with Andre, Waking Life, and Before Sunrise/Sunset, Mindwalk is a film that consists of one uninterrupted conversation that foregoes the traditional concerns of plot altogether. Fritjof Capra’s scientific writings become the source material for the bulk of the dialogue, taking elements of his classic ‘Tao of Physics’ and rendering into life a conversation where holistic thinking takes on the inherent fallacies of Cartesian positivism. The film is tiltilating soft porn for passionate thinkers as the tagline suggests. The genius of the work is how it brings down to earth concepts of science which may be intimidating for the uninitiated and using the three perspectives of art, politics, and science to give a wide survey of opinions on the issues discussed.

    The film inspired me to read Capra’s book which has some of the most lucid writing on the subject of physics that I have ever encountered. At the time it was only available on videocassette, which was still in the last vestiges of popularity, when dvds were considered a luxury. We are now in 2008 and still this film is not on dvd. So I want to voice my opinion on the matter, to Criterion Collection maybe, or to anyone: please release ‘Mindwalk’ on dvd, it definitely has a market among intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals. I can attest to its popularity as I work in a public library and I have had several patrons ask for a dvd version of the film.

    Even if you are not a fan of thinking, the film provides a secondary use as a sort of Rick Steve’s glimpse of one of the most beautiful places on earth, which I was inspired to visit a couple years back. There are even tours going to Mont Saint Michel based on the film.

    At the very least it should be made available for Liv Ullmann completists.

  • Hidden Treasures – Week of Oct. 19th

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    Here’s the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.

    (click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)

    Pretty Poison (1968)
    Movies often use fantasy to create a world for their audience. Pretty Poison does the opposite; displaying, in no uncertain terms, how little time the real world has for make-believe. In fact, there are some fantasies that can lead straight to disaster.

    Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) has just been released from a mental institution. Looking to start anew, he attracts the attention of Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld), a High School cheerleader with an outgoing personality. By lying to Sue Ann and telling her that he’s a CIA operative, Dennis is able to win over the young girl. Unfortunately, Sue Ann isn’t quite as naive as she first appeared, and Dennis may just be heading for more trouble than he’s ever known before.

    Anthony Perkins is quite good as Dennis, the inmate who believed he was ready to face the world again, but it’s Tuesday Weld who steals the show, giving us a seemingly average girl who harbors some very abnormal thoughts. At first, Dennis seems to have won her over, claiming to live a life of excitement in the CIA, and even asking Sue Ann to assist him on his most recent ‘case’. It isn’t long before events spiral out of Dennis’ control, only to be scooped up by the deceptively innocent Sue Ann. The relationship may have started on Dennis’ terms, but it will be Sue Ann who ultimately pulls all the strings.

    Dennis’ case worker, Morton Azenauer (played by John Randolph), had advised Dennis, before his release, that he was going out into a world that had little time for fantasy. In the end, it was advice that Dennis wished he’d followed.

    Suddenly (1954)
    In the pre-title sequence of director Lewis Allen’s Film-Noir thriller, Suddenly, a traveler (Roy Engel) pulls his car up next to a police officer (Paul Wexler) to ask for directions. Before long, the man asks the officer the name of the town they’re in, to which the officer replies “Suddenly”. It’s a strange name, to be sure, one that dates back to the era of the gold rush, when things apparently happened pretty quickly around those parts. Nowadays, it’s a lot quieter, and the officer jokes that they’re thinking of changing the town’s name to ‘Gradually’. This light moment of comedy is immediately followed by the film’s opening credits, where the dramatic score of David Raskin gives us the sneaky suspicion that old times are about to return to Suddenly, and in a big, big way.

    Suddenly’s Sheriff, Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden), has just received word that U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, traveling by train to the west coast, plans to make a brief stopover in his town at 5 o’clock that very afternoon. All at once, the Secret Service descends on Suddenly, where they team up with Shaw and his deputies to check on reports of a possible attempt on the President’s life. Unbeknownst to them all, the danger is already in town: a team of three hit men, the leader of which is an army veteran named John Baron (Frank Sinatra), have invaded a small house overlooking the train depot, holding the family that resides there hostage until they’ve had a chance to carry out their murderous plan.

    The film’s title, Suddenly, proves to be much more than the name of the town where the action takes place; it’s a foretelling of how events will unfold in this fast-paced thriller. With a brisk running time of just 75 minutes, Suddenly is quick and to the point, with thrilling twists and turns anchored by the strong performances of Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra is especially effective, playing a former army assassin with deep-seated resentments that have driven him to despair. In a gripping scene, Sheriff Shaw, accompanied by Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey), the head of the Secret Service team, pays a visit to the house where Baron and his men have set up to carry out the assassination. Soon after the Sheriff’s arrival, gunfire erupts. Once the smoke clears, Carney is dead and a wounded Shaw is Baron’s prisoner. From there out, the hostility mounts as Shaw begins to work on Baron, quickly uncovering the would-be assassin’s primary weakness: his talkative nature. Shaw listens as Baron brags of having killed 27 Germans in World War II, a feat that earned him the Silver Star, and of how his return to civilian life has left him confused and unsatisfied. Shaw plays on these feelings, pushing the killer closer and closer to the edge, all the while realizing that Baron’s fragile psyche could crack without a moment’s notice. The give and take between the two, which grows more intense as five o’clock approaches, is almost as nerve-racking as the story itself.

    Suddenly opens amidst the lackadaisical events of Middle America, and ends with a violence that swoops down quickly, like a hawk striking at its prey. An account of small-town life thrown into chaos by politics and murder, Suddenly is exhilarating to the point of exhaustion.

    Local Hero (1983)
    And now, we come to a movie that I absolutely adore; Bill Forsyth’s criminally underrated 1983 comedy, Local Hero. More than just a wonderful film, Local Hero is a life-affirming experience. No matter what mood I’m when this movie begins, I’m always left smiling at the end.

    Mac (Peter Riegert) is a junior executive with Knox Oil and Gas, a large petroleum company headquartered in Houston, Texas. Knox is planning to build a new refinery off the coast of Scotland, and Mac, an expert at closing deals, is assigned to the project. So, it’s off to Ferness, a remote Scottish fishing village, where he hopes to reach an agreement with the locals to buy up their entire town. Upon his arrival in Scotland, he meets Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), an employee of Knox in Abberdine, and together, Mac and Danny descend on the small coastal community, bracing themselves for what they believe will be some pretty tough negotiations. However, while dealing with local representative Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), Mac and Danny come to realize that these simple folks are in fact all too eager to sell, delighted by the thought that they may soon be stinking rich.

    What I love most about Local Hero is that it is essentially the story of a man who has lost his way. Before his trip to Ferness, Mac was completely caught up in his modern existence. His job as a negotiator for Knox rarely gave him cause to travel outside of Houston, so Mac would simply close a deal in one afternoon with a few telephone calls. He never wandered far from his desk, and would even communicate with co-workers by way of the telephone (even those who sat only a few feet away). His world was quick, convenient, and completely impersonal.

    But as Mac soon discovers, life moves pretty slowly in Ferness, which provides him with a lot more free time than he’s used to. As he waits for Urquhart to finalize the deal, Mac whittles away the hours by strolling on the beach. At first, these strolls resemble power walks, with Mac never really taking the time to look out at the water. After several days, however, he finally notices the sea, and realizes that it is beautiful. He then looks to the sky, amazed at the brilliant light show of the Aurora Borealis. For the first time in a long time, Mac is noticing things; he is mingling face-to-face with real people, and discovering that doing so can be a genuinely enjoyable experience. At one point, he even takes an afternoon off to collect seashells on the beach, an event that leads to one of the film’s most memorable images; as Mac is crawling along the rocks hunting for shells, he removes his expensive watch, the one that sounds an alarm whenever it’s conference time in Houston, and places it on the ground next to him. Before long, Mac has become so preoccupied with his shells that he completely forgets about this watch. The last we see of it, it’s submerged in water, and the alarm is sounding in a faded, muffled tone. Conference time in Houston, and Mac couldn’t care less.

    Local Hero is a first-hand account of Mac’s spiritual transformation, and I, for one, fully believed this tale of one man’s conversion from active player to passive observer, mostly because, in the end, I, too, fell in love with the town of Ferness. It’s a love I renew each and every time I watch this marvelous film.

    (click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)

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  • Hidden Treasures – Week of Sept. 28th

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    Here’s the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.

    (click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)

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    Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
    One of early Hollywood’s most influential personalities, Cecil B. DeMille was renowned for making “big” movies, which boasted larger than life stories and casts grand enough to support them. Initially, one might be reluctant to place his 1942 adventure Reap the Wild Wind in the same category as the great director’s other works, yet I believe it is a movie as ambitious in scale as any of DeMille’s more popular epics, and certainly deserves a place among his most exciting tales.

    In 1840, the business of America was conducted by sea, and the waters surrounding the Florida Keys were among the most traveled in the country. Along with the merchants, the area also had its fair share of pirates and profiteers, men who found quick riches in the salvage of ships lost at sea. Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard), a Captain of her own salvage ship, rescues Capt. Jack Stuart (John Wayne) and his crew, whose vessel has struck a reef. While Loxi is busy rescuing the crew, the areas most notorious profiteers, the Cutter Brothers (Raymond Massey and Robert Preston), make off with Stuart’s cargo. To end the tyranny of the Cutters, Stuart must team up with Steve Tolliver (Ray Milland), the second in command of the shipping company for which they both work, a partnership that is complicated by the fact that both Stuart and Tolliver are in love with Loxi..

    If you’re looking for excitement, then Reap The Wild Wind will surely give you your fill. The film starts strongly, with the extremely tense shipwreck described above, and continues at a similar pace throughout, culminating in a nail-biting underwater battle with a giant squid. The many scenes at sea are especially thrilling, with DeMille showcasing his flair for both action and high drama every chance he gets. In true Cecil B. DeMille style, Reap the Wild Wind is a good, old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle.

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    Quest For Fire (1981)
    A good movie draws its audience into the world it creates. The fact that Quest for Fire achieves this does not in itself make it a unique motion picture; the fact that it’s set eighty thousand years in the past, recreating a time and place when mankind was unable to communicate verbally, does. I admit that I was skeptical going into this film, wondering how director Jean Jacques Annaud could possibly pull off a narrative story set in so primitive an environment. Would I even be able to follow what was going on? Well, not only did Quest for Fire keep me in tune with its story, it did so in a manner that was awe-inspiring. Quest for Fire is a remarkable achievement; a film to watch in stunned silence.

    Quest for Fire is the story of a prehistoric tribe that, like all others, needs fire in order to survive. When their only source of fire is accidentally extinguished, three members of the tribe; Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi), set out on a quest to bring back more. On their journey, which is both perilous and fascinating, the three meet up with a strange woman named Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a member of an advanced tribe that has mastered a way to make fire, just one of the many mysteries of life Ika introduces to her three new companions.

    The most basic of human emotions, such as fear, anger and desire, which have their roots in man’s most primitive past, are captured quite effectively in Quest for Fire, yet there are much deeper feelings at play here as well. In unison with the primordial, Quest for Fire also sets out to give us a glimpse into the beginnings of mankind as a sentient being, aware of his own possibilities. There’s even one scene where we witness what is best described as a very early occurrence of self-defined morality. After days of going without food, Naoh, Amoukar and Gaw stumble upon the remains of another tribe’s feast, and begin gnawing at the bones left behind. Suddenly, Naoh lifts up a human skull, and the three realize the meal they’re enjoying is the leftovers of cannibals. Upon this discovery, Amoukar spits the food onto the ground in disgust. In that moment, the primitive feeling of hunger is overtaken by a more personal judgment of what is right and what is wrong. Obviously the other tribe had no qualms about eating human flesh, thus laying out for us what is perhaps the earliest example of societal mores. In moments such as these, which includes the exploration of love in a monogamous form, Quest for Fire takes on a deeper purpose than a simple tale of our primitive ancestor’s fight for survival; it gives us mankind at a crossroads, revealing the emotional and social struggles that will hamper humanity’s existence for thousands of years to come.

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    In The Mood For Love (2000)

    “Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.”William Butler Yeats

    Lost love can be devastating, but not nearly as distressing as true love left unexplored. In The Mood For Love examines two people who have lost loves, yet in each other find consolation, reassurance, and, eventually, much deeper feelings, feelings that their personal moralities prevent them from acting upon. They have doubly suffered; first losing love, and then failing to grasp it when it was again within reach. While exploring turbulent emotions, In The Mood For Love is simultaneously heartbreaking and poetic, flowing as smoothly as a sonata composed by a maestro.

    Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) is renting a room in an apartment building in 1960’s Hong Kong. Her husband is often away on business, so she spends a lot of time by herself. Renting a room in the apartment right next door is Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Mr. Chow also spends a lot of time alone, as his wife frequently works late hours. Soon, each one begins to suspect that their absentee spouses are having an affair, and upon comparing stories and situations, learn that the ‘other woman’ sharing Mr. Chan’s bed is none other than Mr. Chow’s wife.

    From this simple story, In The Mood For Love develops a complex emotional tale of how convention and ethics can give way to loneliness and betrayal. Wong Kar-Wai, whom I consider to be one of the most dynamic directors working today, enjoys dabbling in themes of lost love. His earlier film, Chungking Express (a movie I adore), follows two separate stories of failed romance. With In The Mood For Love, he brings two injured parties together, yet does not follow the standard plot line by having them become romantically involved (at least not on a physical level). In unison with this fascinating tale of unrequited love, the cinematic style of the film is quite impressive. To artistically capture the exquisite settings and costume design (which perfectly present the look and feel of 1960’s Hong Kong), Wong Kar-Wai employs a manner of photography that comes across as lyrical, almost trance-like. As the scorned duo make their way through the lonely Hong-Kong streets, the director follows their movements via a very fluidic slow-motion, as if they are walking along in a dream state. These slow-motion shots, aside from stylistically enhancing the film, also work towards developing the characters of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. As the world around them passes by, they are either unable or unwilling to keep up with it.

    (click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)
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  • Hidden Treasures – Week of Sept. 14th

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    Welcome to the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.

    (click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)

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    Spellbound (1945)
    Right out of the gate, Spellbound had all the makings of being something very special. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most respected filmmakers in cinematic history, and starring screen legend Ingrid Bergman as well as a fresh newcomer named Gregory Peck, it was a movie destined for greatness. Yet remarkably, neither Spellbound’s director nor it’s stars could overshadow the film’s most famous scene; a dream sequence designed by none other than Salvador Dali, one of the most prolific surrealist artists of the 20th century.

    Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has recently taken over as director of the Green Manors mental asylum, replacing the very popular Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). Before long, resident psychiatrist Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) starts to sense that something is very wrong with their new administrator. After doing some research, she discovers that the man calling himself Edwardes is not only an imposter, but one who suffers from amnesia as well. On top of that, this man also believes he may have killed the real Dr. Edwardes, even though he can’t actually remember doing so. For assistance, Dr. Peterson asks her mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), to examine the imposter, all the while realizing that the man she’s helping may, in fact, be a killer.

    “I was determined to break with the traditional way of handling dream sequences”, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1962. “I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of his work”. It proved to be a very successful collaboration. Rarely had such vivid imagery been produced for the screen; tables and chairs were held in place by human legs, large curtains were emblazoned with staring eyeballs, and a faceless man pushed a skier off a high roof, all the while holding what appeared to be a wheel in his hand. The whole sequence runs for only two minutes and 40 seconds, yet, despite it’s almost cameo appearance, stands out as a breathtaking collection of images that are as compelling as they are bizarre.

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    The Vikings (1958)
    The casting of Ernest Borgnine as a Viking Chieftain in Richard Fleischer’s 1958 action epic, The Vikings, was a stroke of pure genius. Borgnine is very convincing as Kirk Douglas’ father (despite the fact he was a year younger than Douglas); a king who harbors both a marauder’s stature and a Viking’s penchant for violence. This lust for violence is a trait his character would share with just about every other one in this film.

    Set in the Dark Ages, when raiders from the North were wreaking havoc over all of Europe, The Vikings weaves a tale of two men who have more in common than either imagined. Einar (Douglas) is a Viking prince who has just kidnapped Morgana (Janet Leigh), a Welsh Princess betrothed to marry the English King, Aella (Frank Thring). Before long, Einar has fallen in love with Morgana, but she has, in turn, fallen in love with Eric (Tony Curtis), a hot-blooded slave who had insulted Einar on several occasions. What none of them realize is that Eric and Einar are half brothers, each a son of the Viking chieftain Ragnar (Borgnine). Driven by their love for Morgana and a deep hatred for one another, Eric and Einar recognize that a showdown is brewing, and to the victor will go the spoils.

    Both director Fleischer and star Douglas (who also served as the film’s producer) sought to make The Vikings as realistic a portrayal of Viking society as was possible at that time. Portions of the movie were shot on location in the Fjords of Norway, and Fleischer spent a considerable amount of time at a Viking museum in Oslo, where he learned to design, among other things, the magnificent ships used throughout the film. This realism, however, was not limited to the settings and props. As Einar, Kirk Douglas is splendidly brash and arrogant, a Viking warrior in every way imaginable; drinking heavily, carousing with women, and living for the thrill of battle. The role of Einar was certainly not a glamorous one, nor was it very sympathetic, yet Douglas turns in a performance bursting with gusto and personality. This, coupled with the film’s painstaking attempts at accuracy, succeeds in carrying us back to the Dark Ages, recreating a most dreadful period mankind’s history.

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    In America (2002)
    So what is it that keeps director Jim Sheridan’s In America from slipping into the category of a truly sappy melodrama? At first glance, not much. Many of the standard clichés are here: a tragic death, a difficult pregnancy, a terminally ill neighbor, etc, etc. Sounds like a television movie of the week, doesn’t it? Well, I’m here to tell you that if you dismiss In America with a ‘been there, done that’ attitude, you’ll only be depriving yourself of a wonderful experience. Jim Sheridan has been called a master storyteller, and In America may be his crowning achievement.

    Johnny (Paddy Considine), an actor who hopes to make it on Broadway, moves his family from Canada to New York City. With him are his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their two daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). Once in New York, Johnny hopes to not only start a new life, but leave behind the tragedy of losing his only son, Frankie, who died as the result of a fall. Finding work in New York isn’t easy for Johnny, who struggles with Frankie’s death on a daily basis, yet he finds the strength to carry on through the love and support of his young family.

    One thing that saves In America from the lowly fate of becoming just another standard melodrama is its excellent performances (along with the wonderful turns of Considine and Morton are those of the Bolger sisters, who shine in every scene they appear in, bringing light to a family suffering incredible torments). Yet the pivotal character of the entire film is one who never appears on-screen: the deceased son, Frankie. Johnny has never fully recovered from Frankie’s death, and at one point says, “The last time I talked with God, I made a deal with him to take me instead of Frankie. Instead, he took us both”. Johnny walks through life as if he were a ghost, devoid of all feeling, which is a definite drawback for a man trying to get a job as an actor.

    In America takes all the stereotypical plot lines and molds them around a wonderful small family, with characters that breathe life into each and every scene. It is a perfect example of how a standard formula, when injected with warmth and energy, can still seem entirely fresh.

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  • Hidden Treasures Crosses the Century Mark

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    With this week’s three entries, Hidden Treasures finally crosses the century mark, with over 100 films (102 to be exact) presented since its launch back in January. Thanks to everyone for their continued support.

    (Click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)

    Black Caesar (1973)
    Black Caesar opens with a young African American (Omar Jeffrey) giving a well-dressed white man a shoeshine. This typical scene of racial inequality quickly dissolves, however, when the young man grabs a hold of his customer’s leg, allowing an assassin to pump several bullets into the man before he has a chance to get away. This is the first example of a stereotypical table being turned in director Larry Cohen’s Blaxploitation classic, but it won’t be the last.

    Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) desperately wants to be part of New York’s criminal underworld, a desire fueled in part by a childhood incident in which Tommy’s leg was broken by a racist cop. Hot for revenge, Tommy gathers up as much power as he can muster until the day he’s finally noticed by the head of a New York mafia family. With his sharp business sense and a knack for getting any job done, Tommy’s accepted into the rank and file of the mob, but try as he might, Tommy still can’t resist lashing out at the hatred and intolerance around him. Before long, his temper will have started an all-out gang war.

    The success of Black Caesar can be summed up in two words: Star Power. As Tommy, Fred Williamson delivers an incredibly sturdy performance, creating a character whose ambition is matched only by his violent temperament. Early on, Tommy is willing to suffer the abuses heaped upon him by a racist society, but only because he knows that doing so will help get his foot in the underworld door. Once he’s finally ‘inside’, though, Tommy immediately turns around and slams that same door in everyone else’s face. The mob first takes notice of Tommy when he shoots a man named Grossfield (Patrick McAllister), who had upset local mob boss, Cardoza (Val Avery). As a reward, Tommy is given his own territory, which he builds slowly, biding his time until the day arrives that he can exact his revenge against the racist police chief (Art Lund) who crippled him so many years earlier. Having spent the better part of his life being spit on by white America, Tommy’s suddenly ready to start spitting back. In Black Caesar, Fred Williamson displays both natural talent and a commanding screen presence, creating a character who’s more than just another small-time thug.

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    Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
    Jay Adams. Tony Alva. Skip Engblom. Stacey Peralta. For many, these names won’t mean a thing. However, sit down with Dogtown and Z-Boys, an entertaining documentary on the surf and skate culture of the mid-70’s as influenced by the small beachside community of Dogtown, CA, and you will conclude, as I have, that they were part of something very special.

    Narrated by Sean Penn, Dogtown and Z-Boys combines modern interviews with archived footage (comprised mostly of still photos and home movies) to tell a tale of rags to riches on 4 wheels. The film immerses us completely in the culture; we learn how the sport of surfing, combined with advancements in the construction of skateboards, influenced a group of kids from the bad side of town to experiment with different skating moves, moves so revolutionary that they eventually brought each one of them a level of fame and fortune they never dreamed possible.

    Along with the history, Dogtown and Z-Boys also gives us the attitude behind the culture, adopting the personality of the Z-Boys by way of its very style (best described as a cross between informative documentary and music video). Yet, even with such a rapid-fire pacing, the subject matter of Dogtown and Z-Boys is always treated with the utmost respect. Surfing, skating, and all those who surf or skate (or both) are presented with a veneration usually reserved for much loftier topics, or more important individuals. This is not just a film about a bunch of kids having fun; it is the history of a movement, as seen through the eyes of those who were part of it.

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    Trouble in Paradise (1932)
    Gaston (Herbert Marshall) is the most sophisticated thief in all of Paris, or at least he thought he was until he met Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a woman whose skills at trickery and deceit are as refined as his own. Together, the two devise a scheme by which they’ll bilk wealthy perfume executive Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) out of her vast fortune. Gaston manages to set himself up as Colet’s personal assistant, thus giving him ample opportunity to dip into her healthy bank account. But when Gaston inadvertently falls in love with Colet, an angry Lily demands that he make a choice: either stay on the straight and narrow path of wealth and privilege, or come back to her to experience more adventures of the illegal variety.

    Trouble in Paradise is a film of perfect sophistication, which is amazing when you consider it’s essentially a movie about crooks (dashing, urbane crooks, mind you, but crooks nonetheless). As the story opens, Gaston has invited Lily, whom he first sizes up to be nothing more than an easy mark, for a romantic dinner in his hotel room. What he doesn’t know is that Lily is also a thief, and is wise to Gaston’s intentions. As the two are sitting across from each other at a makeshift dining table, Lily surprises Gaston by revealing, quite matter-of-factly, that she knows he’s “robbed the gentleman occupying rooms 253, 5, 7 and 9”. Gaston smiles, and informs Lily he has recently become fully aware of her background as well. How? Well, for starters, she’s just lifted the wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9 from his side pocket! The exchange between the two grows wittier as the scene progresses. Lily asks Gaston for the time, a less than subtle way to get him to notice she’s stolen his watch. Gaston replies by asking Lily if he might be allowed keep her garter, which he’s just removed from her leg without her knowing. At that, a love-struck Lily leaps into Gaston’s arms and kisses him. It’s a romance born in chicanery, but it is undoubtedly love, and in the hands of director Ernst Lubitsch, it’s also quite graceful.

    But then grace and elegance were always Lubitsch’s strongest suits. After arriving from Germany in 1922, Lubitsch went on to direct a number of classy American comedies, including To Be or Not To Be, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait. Yet as polished as these works were, Trouble in Paradise stands alone, a shining example of a talented director’s mastery of the sophisticated. Trouble in Paradise is 100% pure gold.

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  • Hidden Treasures – The Westerns of Anthony Mann

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    This week, Hidden Treasures takes a look at three Westerns directed by Anthony Mann, a versatile filmmaker whose career spanned a variety of genres, from film noir in the 1940’s (Railroaded, T-Men) to big-budget epics of the 60’s (El-Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire). However, it’s the westerns, five of which teamed him with Hollywood legend James Stewart, for which Mann is best remembered. I’ve already presented one of them, Winchester 73, in a previous Hidden Treasures. Here are three more, each an excellent example of Mann’s preference for gritty realism over the more stylized Western “mythology” that many of his contemporaries chose to explore.

    (As an added bonus, click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)

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    The Furies (1950)
    Unlike this week’s other two entries, The Furies was shot entirely in black and white; but then it couldn’t have been presented any other way. With a brooding story, populated by characters equally as dark, there were no colors in the spectrum that could have possibly penetrated this film.

    The year is 1870, the setting, New Mexico. T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, in his final screen appearance) is a cattle baron who used his incredible wealth to construct an enormous ranch, which he named the Furies. His daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), has a lot in common with her father, including a love of the Furies. T.C., who has fallen on hard times and owes money all over the territory, has promised to turn the Furies over to Vance one day, whom he feels is the only person capable of running it the way it needs to be run. However, a love of the Furies isn’t the only thing they share; both are headstrong, and clash openly over everything from potential husbands for Vance to how to handle the squatters who have been trespassing on their land for years. When T.C. turns against a series of suitors for Vance, the stage is set for a face-off, one which ultimately threatens to destroy not only their relationship, but the Furies as well.

    Huston and Stanwyck are absolutely stellar as T.C. and Vance, two individuals so incredibly alike, sharing the same boisterous, egotistical personality, that their eventual clash seemed inevitable. At the wedding reception of T.C’s son, Clay (John Bromfield), who has always taken a back seat to his more ambitious sister, a rival of T.C.’s named Darrow (Wendell Corey) unexpectedly turns up. T.C, who had killed Darrow’s father years earlier, insults Darrow and orders him to leave. At that, Vance turns to the unwanted ‘guest’ and asks him to join her in a dance. Before long, Darrow and Vance are seeing each other regularly, and even talking of marriage. It’s an open challenge to T.C., who earlier had presented Vance with a dowry of $50,000 that he promised to turn over only if he approved of her choice of husband (to which Vance snapped back that she’d marry whomever she pleased). Less a courtship than a showdown between father and daughter, it’s the first in what will become a series of standoffs between them.

    Ultimately, there are very few likeable characters in The Furies, and while we do feel a certain degree of empathy for T.C. and Vance, it’s an empathy that shifts back and forth between the two, never once coming to rest on both of them at the same time. The two are like a dark cloud hanging over the film, in much the same way they hang over the Furies ranch and everyone who resides within it. From the moment we met T.C. and Vance and watched them interact, it was obvious that a storm was brewing, and heaven help anyone who got caught in the middle of it.

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    The Naked Spur (1953)
    As mentioned above, James Stewart and Anthony Mann worked together on five westerns, starting with Winchester 73 in 1950 and culminating in 1955’s The Man from Laramie. Aside from turning out five excellent films, this pairing also marked a change of pace in the career of James Stewart. Gone was the loveable underdog of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the disillusioned do-gooder of It’s a Wonderful Life and the eternal optimist of Harvey. With Mann, Stewart was exploring characters that had an edge, hardened by life and never afraid to do whatever it took to come out on top. Under Mann’s direction, James Stewart was given an opportunity to walk on the dark side, and he appeared to be just as comfortable in this darkness as he was in the light.

    Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter from Kansas, has been tracking wanted murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for hundreds of miles. Picking up two partners along the way; unlucky prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged Union soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), Kemp is finally able to capture both Ben and Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), a young girl Ben has been looking after. Unfortunately for Kemp and his partners, the journey to Kansas to collect their reward is fraught with dangers on all sides, not the least of which is the danger they pose to one another. With greed rearing its ugly head, each of the three is tempted to somehow find a way to claim the $5,000 reward on their prisoner’s head for themselves.

    As is Mann’s style, there are no clear-cut heroes or villains in The Naked Spur. Stewart’s Kemp is working to bring a wanted man to justice, but only so he can collect the reward. The fact that Ben may be innocent means nothing to him (“it’s him they’re paying the reward on”, he reasons). Kemp even tries to swindle Roy and Jesse, who helped him capture Ben, out of their share of the reward. On the reverse side of the coin, Ben is wanted for murder, but has also set himself up as a father figure to Lina, the daughter of his best friend, taking care of her when there was nobody else to do so (even if he does use Lina from time to time to stir up the tension between Kemp and his ‘partners’). Then there’s Roy, wonderfully played by Ralph Meeker, a soldier who was thrown out of the army for taking up with an Indian chief’s daughter (whether or not the chief’s daughter was a willing partner is never fully disclosed). Roy has a nasty disposition, and makes advances towards Lina every chance he gets. There are no trustworthy characters to be found on either side of The Naked Spur, bringing a level of unpredictability to the film. With each man capable of anything, good or bad, we simply don’t know what to expect with each new scene.

    Therein lies the true appeal of an Anthony Mann western. Formulas be damned; here’s a director who’ll gladly guide his story in any direction it wants to go.

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    The Man From Laramie (1955)
    The Man from Laramie marked Anthony Mann’s first experience with Cinescope, a widescreen format introduced in the early 1950’s. With the goal of filling the screen with action, Mann took his western in an entirely new direction. Within his typically well-composed tale of drama and intrigue, Anthony Mann introduced a level of art; giving his audience the added bonus of breathtaking imagery to coincide with a story they could sink their teeth into.

    Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is searching for the man responsible for the murder of his brother, even though he’s not completely sure who that man might be. Knowing only that the killer trades guns with the Indians, Lockhart travels to Apache country to continue his quest. Once there, he runs afoul of the bad-tempered Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), son of powerful rancher Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). Left wounded by his run-in with the younger Waggoman, Lockhart learns that he has inadvertantly placed himself in the middle of a family struggle, with Dave Waggoman and his adopted brother Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) fighting each other for control of Alec Waggoman’s vast estates.

    The Man from Laramie has all the elements of an Anthony Mann western, where vigilante justice is preferable to law and order, and family members fight each other for control of a piece of land. Throw in the added bonus of a wide screen, and you have a film that is truly unforgettable. Along with Director of Photography Charles Lang (who received 18 Academy Award nominations over his 47-year career), Mann utilized every inch of his available canvas to relate this story of deception and revenge. From the opening scene, where two horse-drawn wagons make their way across a desert landscape, it’s obvious that Mann plans to take full advantage of everything the Cinescope format has to offer. Even the moments of violence are stylized, such as when Lockhart, on his first meeting with Dave Waggoner, is roped by one of Waggoner’s henchmen and dragged ten feet across the dirt and sand. It’s a terrible scene, to be sure, yet presented here in such a way that it becomes equally as spectacular.

    The Man from Laramie is an example of an artist working within a genre that he is wholly familiar with, while employing technology that is entirely new to him. The result is a film of incredible power, not to mention incredible beauty.

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  • Hidden Treasures – Week of August 24th

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    Here’s the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.

    Black Sabbath (1963)
    Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath is a horror trilogy, telling three separate, yet equally effective stories. In “The Telephone”, Rosy (Michèle Mercier), a prostitute, is receiving threatening phone calls from pimp, Frank (Milo Queseda), who’s just escaped from prison. Alone and frightened, she turns to her former lover, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), for comfort. But as it turns out, Mary is hiding a secret from Rosy, one that could prove quite deadly. “The Wurdulak” is the story of a Russian peasant named Gorka (Boris Karloff) who, after ridding the countryside of a menacing vampire, returns home as little more than a creature himself, a Wurdulak who is damned to drink the blood of those he loves. Vladimir (Mark Damon), a stranger to the area, refuses to believe such stories are true, yet becomes a first-hand witness to the horror when he falls in love with Gorka’s daughter, Sdenka (Susy Anderson). In the third and final tale, “Drops of Water”, Nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is preparing the body of a recently deceased fortune teller for burial. Noticing a diamond ring on the dead woman’s finger, Nurse Chester gently slips the ring off and puts it in her pocket, an act that initiates a night of horror when the dead woman returns from the grave looking to reclaim that which was stolen from her.

    Before finally taking his seat in the director’s chair, Mario Bava had followed in the footsteps of his father, Eugenia, a well-respected cinematographer in the early days of Italian cinema, by working as a cameraman on several films. Watching Black Sabbath, it becomes obvious that his various experiences looking through the viewfinder served him very well. Aside from his clever use of framing (In “The Telephone”, the various shots of the phone itself, whether in close-up or positioned in the background, add a level of terror to an everyday item), Bava also allows his camera to seemingly glide along, in bold, smooth motions, throughout the film. In the opening sequence of “The Wurdulak”, we follow along with Vladimir as he rides to the house of Gorka’s family, then continue on past him when he stops, realizing someone has been watching his every move. Despite the fact that Black Sabbath tells three very distinctive horror stories, the overall style and composition of each remains somewhat consistent. In presenting the action with such eye-catching flair, Bava ensures that his audience will scream in all the right places.

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    Silver Lode (1954)
    Directed by Allen Dwan in 1954, Silver Lode is a western that has all but slipped into obscurity. Dan Ballard (John Payne), a well-respected citizen of the town of Silver Lode, was in the process of marrying his fiancée, Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott), when their wedding was interrupted by a U.S. Marshal bearing a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. The Marshal, a shifty character named Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea), personally accuses Ballard of murder and the theft of $20,000. Ballard denies the charges, and is convinced McCarty isn’t who he claims to be. However, with McCarty telling more and more people in town about Ballard’s ‘history’, Dan Ballard soon finds that he’s not only fighting McCarty, but the good citizens of Silver Lode as well.

    Aside from being a well-crafted western, Silver Lode is also a thinly-veiled take on the McCarthy blacklist era of the 1950’s, when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy ruined the careers of many in the Hollywood community for their supposed ‘un-American’ affiliations. When McCarty (a not-so-subtle play on names) arrives in town and publicly charges Ballard, the townsfolk of Silver Lode begin to question whether or not this man they’ve come to admire is, in fact, a wanted murderer. After all, Dan Ballard only arrived in Silver Lode two short years ago. Who really knew anything about his life before then? Before long, as coincidences build and gossip spreads, McCarty has the entire town believing Ballard is a cold-blooded killer. In the span of only a few short hours, Dan Ballard has become an outsider in the community he once called home, an obvious parallel to those in Hollywood who were shunned by former friends and colleagues on account of their ‘questionable‘ political affiliations. Much like Ballard, these entertainers were condemned with rhetoric, with little or no actual proof to back it up.

    Allan Dwan directed well over 300 feature-length and short films throughout his career, a career that dated back to the days of the silents. By the time he made Silver Lode, Dwan had already established himself as an extremely gifted filmmaker, one who could tell a great story with very limited resources at his disposal. With Silver Lode, however, Dwan did more than merely tell a story; he held a mirror up to his friends and colleagues, challenging them to take a long, hard look at what it was they had become.

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    How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (2003)
    Next, we have what is easily director Mario van Peebles’s most personal film, a movie in which his father, noted filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, is the central character.

    Melvin Van Peebles was the first African-American filmmaker to take on the system, and his 1971 independent movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, literally broke the Hollywood mold. Up to that time, African Americans were depicted in films as little more than background characters, happily existing in an all-white environment. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song took its audience into the ghetto, focusing on an entirely different black experience. Thanks in part to a mobilization of the Black Panthers, which urged all of its members to get out and support the film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song went on to become the top grossing independent movie of 1971.

    How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass is a dramatized account of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, taking us from the creative beginnings; the writing of the script, up to the film’s historic premiere in a small theater in Detroit. The journey would prove to be a difficult one for Melvin Van Peebles (played here by his son, Mario). To begin with, the studios wouldn’t touch Sweet Sweetback, fearing it was far too radical for a mainstream audience, and even Melvin’s agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), strongly advised his client to drop the idea of a film about a black revolutionary. Melvin ignores this advice, deciding instead to make the film independently. Yet still more problems would persist. When the original financiers pulled out, Melvin had little choice but to invest his own money to complete the project. Along with the financial burdens, Melvin also had to edit the film himself, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that he was rapidly losing vision in one eye. If all this wasn’t bad enough, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was saddled with the dreaded X rating by the ratings board, and as a result, only two theaters in the entire country would display the film. Melvin Van Peebles had invested everything he had in this movie, and its reception would determine whether or not he was now financially bankrupt as a result. The rest, as they say, is history.

    In How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass, Mario Van Peebles captures the creative energy and rabid determination of his famous father, and yet, because Mario tells this story from an eyewitness’s point of view (as a child, Mario was on set for much of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), he avoids the usual biographical pitfalls while doing so. Mario does not paint Melvin as a larger than life individual, allowing instead for his father’s true personality to explode on screen. Melvin Van Peebles, it seems, could be nasty, determined, and overbearing. Yet, despite his shortcomings, we ultimately recognize that Melvin was a true cinematic pioneer. Melvin Van Peebles may have had a short fuse, and perhaps he was not the most loving father in the world, but he did have a vision, and possessed the drive and determination to make that vision a reality.

    There was power in Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and that power is successfully recaptured in How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass by his son, Mario. All these years later, the Van Peebles touch is still strong, still powerful…and it didn’t even skip a generation!

  • Hidden Treasures – The Silent Years

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    With this week’s Hidden Treasures, I take a look at three films from the golden age of Silents.

    Broken Blossoms (1919)
    D.W. Griffith’s tragic tale of love and brutality remains just as powerful today as it was nearly 90 years ago.

    Broken Blossoms opens with Chinese native Cheng Huan (played by Caucasian actor Richard Barthelmess) expressing his desire to travel to the land of the white man, where he will deliver the loving message of Buddha to the masses. Aghast at the behavior of white sailors stationed in China, Huan is convinced he can help these people, but when he arrives in London his dreams are quickly dashed. Before long, he has been reduced to running a store that sells Chinese trinkets, smoking opium to pass the time.

    Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is London’s boxing champion, yet his brutality is not limited to the ring. He has a young daughter named Lucy (Lillian Gish), who we learn was “thrust into his arm by one of his girlfriends” 15 years earlier. Burrows abuses and torments Lucy horribly, and the young girl is so distraught that she can’t even muster a smile without using her fingers to curl the corners of her mouth. Cheng has been watching Lucy through his store window, and has fallen in love with her. After a particularly brutal beating from her father, Lucy staggers into Huan’s shop and collapses. Huan cares for her, showing Lucy an affection she has never before experienced. While she’s recovering upstairs in Huan’s shop, one of Battling Burrows’ friends spots her, and rushes off to inform Burrows of where his daughter has ended up. Burrows, who’s training for a match across the river, vows to return after his bout and take his daughter away from that “dirty chink”. The ensuing scenes of violence and despair have lost none of their potency, and would move even a modern, more jaded audience.

    To be sure, I found Broken Blossoms a bit difficult to watch at times, due mostly to a constant stream of racist remarks (upon its release in 1919, the film had an alternate title in some western areas and was known as “The Chink and the Child”). Even Lucy, when she is being tended to by Huan, asks “What makes you so kind to me, chinky?” However, Griffith (no stranger to controversy thanks to his earlier classic, Birth of a Nation) took what I must believe was a great chance in making this film. Despite the above racial slurs, the famed director was nonetheless successful in portraying Huan in a very positive light, and even gets a few jabs in at Western hypocrisies along the way (When a priest friend greets Huan on the streets of London, he informs Huan that his brother, also a priest, is traveling to China to convert the “heathen”, a clear contradiction to everything we’ve experienced of both cultures thus far). Griffith took a huge risk in presenting a love story that crossed cultural and racial boundaries, and while the film falls short of physicalizing this love, the feelings are perfectly displayed in the eyes of the performers (Lillian Gish, perhaps the top silent actress at that time, was 23 when this film was made. Despite her age, she is extremely effective in portraying a shy 15-year-old girl who has found kindness and love in the most unlikely of places).

    Broken Blossoms is surely one of Hollywood’s first socially conscience films, designed to coerce its western audience into examining their fears and misconceptions of those in the east.

    The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
    While I am admittedly a fan of the 1960 Roger Corman/Vincent Price version of Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher, I can’t help but think that, given the choice between that film and Jean Epstien’s 1928 adaptation, Mr. Poe himself would choose this silent classic as his favorite.

    The story is well-known to literature buffs and fans of the macabre alike. Allan (Charles Lamy) has received a rather distressing telegram from good friend Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt), begging Allan to come to the House of Usher at once. It seems that Roderick’s wife, Madeline (Marguerite Gance, the wife of famed silent director Abel Gance) is gravely ill, pushing Roderick to the brink of insanity. Upon arriving, Allan finds his good friend in a most disturbed state, while Madeline, who has taken to wandering the halls of their enormous mansion in a daze, barely clings to life. Tragically, Madeline dies and is buried in the family crypt, yet despite his wife’s passing, Roderick clings to the hope that he will see his wife again in this life, leaving Allan to discover the true nature of the curse that befalls all who dwell in the house of Usher.

    Director Jean Epstien (1897 – 1953) was a pioneer of the avant-garde. While he served as both director and screenwriter for many films, he is best remembered as a film theorist, and many of his early works, including The Fall of the House of Usher, were little more than filmed tests of these theories. In a 1928 essay written by Epstien, he details the process of adapting a Poe story for the screen, stating that the only way to successfully bring one of the author’s tales to cinematic life is through a relation of images. The Fall of the House of Usher boasts a remarkable use of imagery and film technique, much of which was relatively new at the time. For example, it had only been three years since Russian director Sergei Eisenstein introduced the concept of montage to the world with his brilliant Battleship Potemkin. In The Fall of the House of Usher, Epstien made this artistic concept part of his own repertoire (in the scene where Roderick Usher plays his guitar for Allan, Epstien skillfully joins this episode with random shots of the Usher estate, thus establishing a montage inviting comparison between Usher, a man in decay, and his estate, which seems to be wasting away with its master)

    In the hands of Jean Epstien, The Fall of the House of Usher was as much a filmed Poe tale as it was a celebration of the art of filmmaking itself. Many special effects abound, from the use of superimposed images (such as when Madeline’s casket is being carried to the crypt), to slow motion shots of curtains blowing in the wind. At one point, the camera actually seems to ‘break free’, flying through the hallways of the house as if carried by the wind. It is rare, especially in the silent era, to see artistic film technique blended so well with an engaging story. With Jean Epstien (the film theorist) and Edgar Allen Poe (the master storyteller) combining forces, The Fall of the House of Usher transformed into much more than a mere filmed experiment; it became a masterpiece.

    The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
    Had it not been for the steadfast determination of Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., The Thief of Bagdad, one of the most popular films of the silent era, may have never come to pass. Aside from his flamboyant performance in the lead role, Fairbanks was also responsible for bringing both the film’s director (Raoul Walsh) and costume designer (Mitchell Leison) to the project. Fairbanks recognized the potential in this story of fantasy and redemption, and he put forth one hell of an effort to make it all a reality.

    The story behind The Thief of Bagdad is the stuff of fairy tales. A lifelong thief (Fairbanks) falls in love with a beautiful Princess (Julianne Johnston), who is the daughter of the Caliph of Bagdad (Brandon Hurst), the most powerful man in the entire city. Despite the fact that he’s a criminal, the Thief is still permitted to compete against other royal suitors for the honor of marrying the Princess, and must undertake a perilous task to prove himself worthy of her. In order to claim the Princess, each suitor must, in one week’s time, return to Bagdad with the most extraordinary treasure they can find. Whichever suitor brings back the most stunning item will win the Princess’s hand in marriage. Transformed by his sudden love for the Princess, the Thief sets out on this quest with the best of intentions, but the Mongol Prince (Sojin), whose only wish is to make Bagdad a province of his vast kingdom, is not as honorable, and will stop at nothing to guarantee that the Princess becomes his bride.

    At the outset of The Thief of Bagdad, the Thief is little more than a man with the mindset of a playful child, one who loves life and takes everything he can from it, both literally and figuratively. The Thief goes about his day robbing the honest citizens of Bagdad in the most ingenious of ways, delighting in each of his criminal triumphs. He steals a magic rope belonging to the court magician (Sadakichi Hartmann) and even uses this rope to escape his pursuers by climbing it to the safety of an overhead balcony. However, the Thief’s carefree outlook on life is doomed the moment he spots the Princess for the first time, a meeting of eyes which ignites a passion within him that he has never felt before. Late one night, after he has broken into the Caliph’s castle, the Thief sneaks up on the Princess to watch her as she sleeps. It is at this moment that he realizes his happy-go-lucky existence is at an end. Alone in the Caliph’s castle, with the treasure of the richest man in all of Bagdad at his disposal, the Thief escapes with nothing more than one of the princesses’ ordinary slippers, an item he now believes is the most wonderful treasure he has ever possessed.

    As the Thief, Douglas Fairbanks gives a colorful performance, complete with flailing arms and a huge smile that seems permanently painted across his face. It’s obvious that the legendary Hollywood performer enjoyed this role immensely, and as a result, the film has a light, entertaining air about it. From all appearances, it seems to be the part that Fairbanks was born to play, and he surely made the most of his opportunity to do so. His additional efforts behind the scenes, as mentioned above, further proved his commitment to making this film a reality. Forget what the film’s credits may say; The Thief of Bagdad was, from start to finish, a Douglas Fairbanks movie.

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