BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

Bowery at Midnight (1942), directed by Wallace Fox, is a surprisingly dour crime melodrama, with a dash of horror (no doubt mandated by Lugosi‘s casting). It borrows heavily from another Lugosi vehicle, Dark Eyes of London (1939), although the earlier movie was from an Edgar Wallace story. Bowery At Midnight is comparatively muddled. As in Dark Eyes, Lugosi again sort of plays dual roles, and does some actual acting. The explanation of why his professor character needs a second identity (he uses a soup kitchen as a front to recruit gang members) is nonsensical, however, as is his need to keep … Continue reading BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

Professionally and personally, Bela Lugosi’s best decade was the 1930s, but even that was a Grand Guignol roller coaster. Shortly after his star-making turn in Tod Browning‘s Dracula (1931), Lugosi, known for throwing lavish parties for his Hungarian cronies, filed for bankruptcy. Paradoxically given his financial difficulties, he simultaneously became a prima donna, and was subsequently fired from Frankenstein (1931), which would have secured his inheritance the horror crown of the late Lon Chaney. Instead, the role of Frankenstein’s Monster went to Boris Karloff. Lugosi was denied a contract with Universal and forced to freelance during the heyday of the studio system. … Continue reading BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”((Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in WonderlandDVD.)) (on the life of Lewis Carroll), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces. Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal … Continue reading DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: SAFE IN HELL (1931) AND MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-known pre-code film, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone. Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with … Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: SAFE IN HELL (1931) AND MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.) Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and … Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

Fantômas (1913) is Louis Feuillade‘s first crime serial, and probably the best (a fourth serial, 1918’s Tin Minh, has survived and is purportedly on par with the three better known series, but has oddly never been restored or released on home video). Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas, which was released as five separate films (Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate), sets the pattern for the Feuillade serials that followed. Despite its age (105 years old!) it is insanely entertaining and the most surreal of … Continue reading FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

“THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight(2005), Reagan(2011) and The House I Live In(2012). His latest, The King, focuses on as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:

“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–

Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.

Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), (a certified Elvis fan and the film’s producer), Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers (startlingly lucid), Ashton Kutcher (the most misplaced), and church folk. The last viewpoint is important, because they’re the very same evangelicals that sacrificed their ethics to vote for Trump (and other morally bankrupt characters, e.g. Roy Moore) to secure their white bread system. We can, of course, succumb to condescending platitudes that the low-informed are easy targets; but it was underestimating their numbers that secured Trump’s ‘Murica.

Yes, The King is devastatingly political. It damn well should be, because we can’t accept the (borrowed) excuse of  someone like the WWII-era Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who feebly spin-doctored sitting on his hands with the justification of avoiding politics. Rather, he avoided an ethical backbone. Jarecki’s politicizing of American culture is justified because now, more than ever—in an age where some restaurants require a college degree and 3-4 years experience to get into management—we elected a blatantly misogynistic, racially pandering, trash TV host, with no previous governing experience, to the highest office in the land. We did so in adulation of his (inherited, not earned) money and pop celebrity status. When Jarecki paints a connection between the fat Elvis of casino excess dying on a toilet to the fat blowhard and pornstar-lubbin’ casino baron, in way over his head, retreating to the golf course, it’s done so with the subtlety of a Batman KAPOW!

The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “A symphony, like the world, should contain everything.” That is the inherent, authentic spirituality of Jarecki’s The King. Admittedly, by encompassing everything, it occasionally gets away from the filmmaker, but there is also a refreshingly idiosyncratic sprawling quality that renders it unforgettable.

Continue reading ““THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)”

INGMAR BERGMAN’S FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (1982) was Ingmar Bergman‘s final cinematic work, although he did make a handful of TV movies afterwards, ending with the poignant Saraband (2003). After decades of desolation within an agnostic cosmos, Bergman keeps Fanny and Alexander in check. Although his obsessions are present, it is sort of an autobiographical release, which results in an immensely  enjoyable, epic[1]coda to one of the most consummate cinema oeuvres, and could even be recommended as a starting point to the Bergman novice. As with most of Bergman’s films, Fanny and Alexander was received with a degree of controversy. Some criticized Bergman’s previous work as … Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

Ingmar Bergman is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of Buñuel, Tarkovsky, and Dreyer. Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that 366 Weird Movies asked me to; I did it to myself. For Autumn Sonata, … Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)

The iris of Ingmar Bergman‘s Cries and Whispers (1972) is a red deathbed of intense and frightening passion unequaled in the whole of cinema. As the filmmaker himself indicated, Cries and Whispers is a film predominantly told by color. I first encountered Cries and Whispers in the early 1980s and it lingered: an unforgettable, altering experience. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I stood before one of Pablo Picasso’s rose period paintings of a maternal subject. It stirs you in a way that makes you feel simultaneously alive and small, and glad to be … Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THE SILENCE (1963)

Throughout Ingmar Bergman‘s “Silence of God” trilogy, the divine voice becomes increasingly faint, until the vaguely concluding The Silence (1963), which is the world of a dead God. Whether or not The Silence is related to Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light is debatable. Bergman himself never referred to the films as being concretely connected. It was later film enthusiasts (and home video marketing) who alternately lumped them together (not altogether incorrectly). Silence‘s anti-theology theology is prominent in the first lines, when ten-year old Johan (Jorgen Lindstorm) points to a sign in a train compartment and asks his aunt … Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THE SILENCE (1963)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: WINTER LIGHT (1963)

Winter Light was said to be Ingmar Bergman‘s favorite of his own works, and one is tempted to concur. Having read about it for years, I was hesitant to see it after reading it described as Bergman’s bleakest film. This surprised me, because what I saw was akin to a clerical farce. Perhaps one has to have degree of experience with and appreciation for the clerical model to appreciate the humor. It’s icily humorous, similar to the way that monk/philosopher Thomas Merton is never funnier than when he shrieks at the bad taste of his Trappist fellows in his journals, replaces … Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: WINTER LIGHT (1963)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

The first of Ingmar Bergman‘s scorching “Silence of God” chamber trilogy, Through A Glass Darkly (1961) takes its title from one of St. Paul’s most famous passages: “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” The key to Bergman’s film, and indeed to the trilogy, lies in this passage that is as much about alienation as faith. In some quarters, Bergman’s triptych has been inadequately referred to as a “Trilogy of Faith,” but faith is not tangible. One cannot see, touch, or … Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

For fifty years, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) was locked in various disputes over ownership, and was only sporadically seen in wretched prints. It was talked and written about so much that inevitably seeing it (as I did in Chicago in the 90s) amounted to an ordeal. With both poor visual and audio, it was unquestionably a disappointment. Thankfully, Janus Films came to a long overdue rescue in 2015. The restoration (available on the Criterion Collection) is miraculous, revealing one of Welles’ most astonishing, loving creations. While F for Fake was Welles’ final finished film, Chimes at Midnight is … Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

In hindsight, Orson Welles‘ F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.” Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction … Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE SACRIFICE (1986)

Andrei Tarkovsky was dying as he made his final film, The Sacrifice(1986). It can be likened to the epic last testaments of Ludwig van Beethoven, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Luigi Nono, John Huston, and David Bowie. Tarkovsky dedicated the film to his son, Andrejusja, “with hope and confidence.” Like Mahler, Tarkovsky exits in a universal communication: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Despite the milieu of finality that permeates The Sacrifice, it was a narrative that had long been percolating with Tarkovsky, who referred to it as a parable, open to multifarious interpretations. It should … Continue reading ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE SACRIFICE (1986)

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE MIRROR (1975)

Andrei Tarkovsky is a staple at 366 Weird movies, so it’s only apt that we get around to what many believe to be his most personal film: The Mirror (1975). The title alone indicates as much. According to Tarkovsky’s memoir “Sculpting in Time” (an essential read), The Mirror began as a novella, reflecting on the artist’s years during the Second World War. He started the first of many script drafts a decade before filming commences, and with its pointed criticism of the Soviet Union, it’s remarkable that it was even produced, let alone distributed. Tarkovsky predictably found himself embroiled in … Continue reading ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE MIRROR (1975)

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic … Continue reading ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

Andrei Tarkovsky cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being Ingmar Bergman). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema. Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in … Continue reading ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)