Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Breathless (1960) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless gave France’s nascent La nouvelle vague a solid international underpinning and it has remained a vibrant, stylish and entertaining influence on filmmakers for 54 years. Largely improvised and capriciously photographed, Breathless tore away the final threads that bound films to novels - and the formal elements of novels - leaving each medium a little freer to reach their own respective potentials. The narrative of Breathless, and unlike some later Godard films it does have one, is not dispensed through written dialogue designed to advance plot points but rather a capturing of fleeting ideas and quickly dissolving moments in time. Like life itself, some of these moments are big and important while others simply banal markers on the timeline of existence. Breathless gives equal dramatic weight to the climactic and the mundane, throwing a greasy yet elegant monkey wrench into 1960‘s accepted orthodoxy of what a movie was supposed to be.

Not only was the film’s storytelling shockingly new, the director repackaged 20 years worth of popular cinema iconography into a gateway to a new aesthetic; one that combined wispy absurdity with standard crime drama alienation. In essence, Godard celebrated the conventions of Film Noir while banishing them to irrelevance in a speeding Citroën; the dust of a generation in its wake. The rugged, big shouldered men of Noir, complete with dark suits and tamped down fedoras, had darted about the screen for two decades, their pockets crammed with cryptic messages on cocktail napkins and loaded roscoes at the ready. These shadowy, laconic figures always had heavy agendas, filled with big deals and important things to do. 

The generation of Breathless also has their appointed tasks, but seem uncertain if all the effort is really worth it. The film’s main character - protagonist doesn’t seem like the right word - a hunky young thug named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is one of these confused souls. Weened on the imagery of American gangster movies, Michel spends his aimless days pursuing the twin pleasures of petty theft and venery; a fat Gauloise perpetually dangling from his lips. Michel seems unable to think more than two hours ahead - the typical length of a movie in other words - but one day his short sighted hedonism results in more than existential ennui. With the gendarmes closing in, Michel retreats to Paris and the bohemian flat of a visiting American student (Jean Seberg), where the couple hide out while Michel tries to raise funds for an escape to Italy. True to Godard’s genre-bending vision, Seberg is no gum chewing, bottle blond gun moll, but a tough-minded journalist charting her own course, Vastly superior to Michel in cunning and guile, this pixie-faced savant serves his emotional needs while holding the key to his eventual undoing.

The transformational aspects of Breathless aren’t limited to what appears on the screen. Godard broke filmmaking rules by the bushel, running a set so rife with creative chaos crew members doubted if the film would even be watchable, much less a historic achievement. Writing the script as he went along, Godard would shout directions and newly created lines of dialogue at his actors, often in the midst of scenes with the camera still running, leaving Seberg and Belmondo to define their characters on the fly. Jump cuts - prior to this movie considered an amateurish mistake - were frequently employed to shorten scenes due to Godard’s refusal to shoot conventional coverage. Shots were “stolen” all over the city of Paris, without permits or attempts at crowd control, as innocent passersby gawk into the camera with dumfounded curiosity. In a famous sequence that foreshadows the film’s violent finale, shot by Godard while seated in a wheelchair, Seberg and Belmondo ruminate on life and love while pacing around an apartment in a myriad of directions. Godard covers it all, tossing the trite notion of a 180˚ camera axis out the window and onto the cobblestones of Montparnasse.

Criterion’s cinephile edition is an excellent way to add an indispensable piece of film history to your archives. The many ways Breathless has influenced the course of moviemaking over the last half century cannot be overstated, and new innovations seem to reveal themselves with each viewing. In the interim, Jean-Luc Godard has made well over a hundred films, and while many have been remarkable, some even extraordinary, none have topped Breathless as a harbinger of style and approach.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

TCM for March 2014

TCM ushers in Spring with some fresh and interesting choices. There's an experimental film festival, the foodie fave Big Night, great interviews from the Johnny Carson vault and Olmi's Neo-Realist classic Il Posto. My picks below, all times Eastern. Full Schedule HERE.


Johnny Weissmuller partys with the Amazons

6:30 AM
Archaeologists trick Boy into helping them find a hidden valley ruled by women.
BW-76 mins, CC,

8:00 AM
Tarzan fights to keep a seductive female big game hunter from capturing too many animals.
BW-72 mins, CC,


11:45 AM

A man falsely accused of his wife's murder escapes to search for the real killer.
BW-106 mins, CC,

1:45 PM
A Victorian gentleman bets that he can beat the world's record for circling the globe.
C-182 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

5:00 PM
After a mysterious blackout, the inhabitants of a British village give birth to emotionless, super-powered offspring.
BW-77 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

6:30 PM
A blood-sucking monster stalks the crew of a U.S. spaceship.
BW-69 mins, CC,

8:00 PM
A lonely butcher finds love despite the opposition of his friends and family.
BW-94 mins, CC,

Novak and March get cozy in Middle of the Night

9:45 PM
A widowed businessman courts a younger woman who works for him.
BW-117 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

4:45 AM
A young Catholic faces guilt when he discovers the love of his life has been raped.
BW-90 mins, Letterbox Format


2:30 PM
A horse thief marries for profit, but doesn't reckon with his wife's determination to reform him.
BW-80 mins,

8:00 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Bob Hope from 10/13/78
C-10 mins, CC,

8:12 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Bing Crosby from 3/5/76.
C-8 mins, CC,

8:24 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Tony Randall from 9/17/74.
C-10 mins, CC,

8:36 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Truman Capote from 11/27/72.
C-9 mins, CC,

8:48 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Gregory Peck from 7/8/76.
C-10 mins, CC,

9:00 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Lauren Bacall from 1/11/80.
C-10 mins, CC,

11:15 PM
A journalist sets out to expose a female sex expert but falls for her instead.
C-114 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

1:15 AM
A broken-down private eye sets out to find a rich woman's missing husband.
C-121 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

Gina Lollobrigrida Festival!


12:15 PM

Chaos results when a mild mannered man tries to have an affair with his neighbor's wife.
C-95 mins, Letterbox Format

2:00 PM
A powerful businessman opposes his son's involvement with a woman with a past.
C-103 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

3:45 PM
A cook turns to theft so she and her lover can marry.
C-121 mins,

6:00 PM
A womanizing tycoon ends up chaperoning a group of American girls who have rented his Italian villa.
C-113 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
A conversation between a globe-trotting theater director and a playwright playfully explores ideas about art, theater, and daily life.
C-111 mins, CC,

2:00 AM
A group of friends who hang out in a Baltimore diner face the problems of growing up.
C-110 mins, CC, Letterbox Format


The adventures of Baby Langston in The Sugarland Express

8:00 PM
An ex-convict springs her husband from prison to keep their child from being adopted.
C-110 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

The dangers of marijuana are outlined in this educational short film.
C-21 mins,


3:45 AM
A child's world collapses when his mother runs off with her lover.
BW-84 mins,


The Seven Ups gets my vote for Best Car Chase Ever.

10:00 PM
New York City cops wage a war against assorted hoods and criminals after one of their own is brutally killed by a hoodlum.
C-103 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
An aging cowboy faces changes in the West with the rise of civilization.
C-99 mins, CC, Letterbox Format


8:00 PM

TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Lucille Ball from 4/28/77.
C-12 mins,

8:12 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Carol Burnett from 8/10/79.
C-12 mins,

8:48 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Jack Benny from 7/20/73.
C-12 mins,


Zardoz proves there's nothing worse than truly bad Sci-fi.

2:00 AM
In the far future, a savage trained only to kill finds a way into the community of bored immortals that alone preserves humanity's achievements.
C-105 mins,

3:45 AM
A mysterious fungus invades a space station and turns the inhabitants into monsters.
C-90 mins, Letterbox Format

5:15 AM
This anti-porn short film shows a floodtide of filth engulfing the country in the form of newsstand obscenity.
Cast:  Damian O'Flynn ,
C-31 mins,


10:00 PM

A U.S. agent recruits a German expatriate to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring in Brazil.
BW-101 mins, CC,

12:00 AM
In this silent film, a small-town boy raises a ruckus when he writes a book about how to handle women.
BW-80 mins,
2:00 AM
A deeply disturbed young man subject to seizures decides to murder members of his dysfunctional family.
BW-105 mins,

4:00 AM

Lives of quiet desperation in Il Posto

A young man fights to become a cog in the big business machine.
BW-93 mins,


4:00 PM
A sheltered girl uses music as a means of winning her independence.
BW-98 mins,

5:45 PM
A young cowhand rebels against his rancher stepfather during a perilous cattle drive.
BW-133 mins, CC,


8:24 PM

TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Sean Connery from 12/5/75
C-12 mins,

9:00 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with George C. Scott from 11/3/87
C-12 mins,

9:12 PM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Gene Kelly from 11/7/75.
C-12 mins,


8:00 PM

A French refugee in Denmark transforms the lives of the elderly women for whom she works.
C-103 mins, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM

Big Night. Don't watch it hungry.

A failing Italian restaurant run by two brothers gambles on one special night to try to save the business.
C-107 mins,

1:45 AM
A space probe unleashes microbes that turn the dead into flesh-eating zombies.
BW-96 mins, CC,


2:00 AM
A documentary focusing on the history of experimental film.
C-83 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

3:30 AM
This hypnotic, experimental short film presents a tilted figure with a series of straight lines and curves that occasionally sprout from the existing design.
BW-5 mins,

Some cool experimental films on the 29th.

3:36 AM
This experimental short film incorporates repeated images, slow motion, and a mysterious cloaked figure to examine an emotional experience.
BW-14 mins,

3:50 AM
This short film documents the daily life on Orchard Street, a commercial street in the Lower East Side of New York City
C-12 mins,

4:03 AM
This experimental short film contains four separate sequences of avant-garde performances.
Dir: Ken Jacobs
C-15 mins,

4:18 AM
This short film compresses one day at the port of Cassis, France into one shot.
C-5 mins,

4:24 AM
The short film is a montage of sped up video clips of The Ringling Brothers Circus in action.
C-12 mins,

4:37 AM
This experimental short film focuses on perspective differences of variously sized and shaped rectangular figures.
BW-3 mins,

4:41 AM
Everyday objects rebel against their daily routine in this experimental short film.
BW-7 mins,

4:48 AM
This experimental short film uses stop motion animation of still photographs to convey images of politics and science in the nuclear era.
C-10 mins,

4:58 AM
A series of simple line drawings form into complex patterns in this experimental short.
Dir: Wade Shaw
BW-6 mins,

5:15 AM
In this short film, a police officer tries to prevent a gang war by bringing the rival groups together over dinner.
C-27 mins,

5:15 AM
In this educational short film, tips on proper nourishment are given.
BW-10 mins,


5:45 AM
TCM presents an interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with Henry Fonda from 3/26/80.
C-10 mins, CC,

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Serial Saturday: The Lightning Warrior starring Rin-Tin-Tin (1931) ✭✭✭

It’s hard to believe, but even I am not old enough to remember serials playing at the local movie theatre. So I won’t bore you with warm and fuzzy stories of Saturday afternoons at the Bijou and how for one thin dime you got an afternoon of exciting entertainment. But I do want to share with you some of the serials I’ve seen on DVD over the years, in hopes that you’ll include a few of these unpolished gems in your own viewing.

Serials go back to the earliest days of commercial film projection. The first silent features were only about 20 minutes long - two-reelers, they were called – and a variety of short films were added to the program for sheer bulk. But even as films got longer and more ambitious, the habit of short subjects continued because audiences had grown to expect them. The action-adventure serial was an important part of that mix, nestled in between the newsreel and countless travelogues with titles like Manitoba: Land of Contrasts. Serials also had an important marketing function: each episode ended with a cliffhanger designed to bring patrons back to the seats next week to see how the hero escaped his impossible pickle.

The Lightning Warrior was an early sound serial produced by Mascot – the only serial production company not wiped out by the Depression – and starred the iconic German Shepherd Rin-Tin-Tin. It’s sketchy if this production features the actual shell shocked canine found by American servicemen wandering the French countryside during WWI, but indications are favorable. For one, this beast does not have the classic Shepherd markings and profile found on later Rinty incarnations. The real Rin-Tin-Tin’s first screen appearance was a portrayal of a wolf (The Man From Hell's River 1922) and this critter could certainly pass as a Canis Lycaon.

The plot of The Lightning Warrior involves a western mining town in fear of imminent slaughter by a band of marauding Indians. The local tribe has been peaceful for twenty years, but they have recently come under the influence of a mysterious cloaked figure known as The Wolf Man, who has been exhorting them to commit random acts of violence. The Wolf Man himself has wacked a few people along the way, including the father of a kid named Jimmy (Frankie Darro – more on him in future articles) and the brother of a federal marshall named Alan Scott (dreamy George Brent).

Scott’s deceased brother was the owner of Rin-Tin-Tin, who now roams the rocky cliffs in search of his master’s killer. Jimmy, Scott and Rinty form an unlikely partnership to bring the Wolf Man to justice and save the village from a collective scalping. Along the way there will be fistfights, gunplay, and narrow escapes aplenty.

I don’t have sufficient grounding in the genre to say if The Lightning Warrior is any better or worse than the average serial. It’s generally engaging and fun to watch, if you can overlook the quality of the print, which is dreadful. The soundtrack is noisy and scratchy, and no amount of fiddling with your equipment settings will totally rectify it. The filmmaking has the sloppiness traditionally associated with cheap shows, with some scenes just plain overexposed (no re-shoots allowed), and supporting actors recycled as several characters over the course of the production with no explanation or justification offered.

The Lightning Warrior also suffers from the flabby midsection often found in serials, i.e. the middle chapters are largely devoted to chasing red herrings down blind alleys - if I may mix my metaphors -  and do little to actually advance the narrative. Many of the cliffhangers are a cheat as well. When we see the recap of the hero’s peril from the previous week, a shot will be inserted of Rinty or Jimmy standing nearby ready to affect a rescue. Of course, this shot was conveniently omitted in the earlier chapter to build suspense.
With so many wonderful TV series out there, it’s difficult to build a case that modern audiences seeking episodic stories should spend their time immersed in this creaky example from the Paleolithic Age of cinema. It’s not quite bad enough to be funny, although the Italian American day players who attempt to act (and talk) like Indians are unintentionally amusing. But entertainment value is only a secondary reason for curling up with a serial. The point is to experience an ancient and extinct narrative format and revel in vintage American cinematic oddities. And speaking of oddities, don’t miss the next exciting installment when we'll examine the oddest serial of all…