Bizarre Streaming Picks for the Pandemic Mind

As I’ve looked to occupy myself at home over the past several months, I’ve found comfort in the many moods of cinema. Cheerful flicks for a crummy mood, horror movies to get my blood pumping, and long films because I don’t have a lot of places to go and that has freed up a lot of time.

Going deeper into this strange time though, I’ve found myself seeking out weird movies: both old favorites and new experiences. I guess my feeling is that bizarre times call for corresponding cinema. 

I’ve been enjoying the ride and I wanted to share some of my favorites. I’m sharing the movies I watched on the Criterion Channel, though I have also noted other places you can stream these films when possible. Most of them can also be rented from the usual suspects:

 


The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

The only film written by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) is just as bizarre and inventive as you would expect. A boy who objects to his life of routine and parental control imagines a frightening, but vibrant world ruled by his strict piano teacher.

 


8 ½ (1963) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHBO MaxKanopy

Federico Fellini’s quasi-autobiographical tale of a film director surrounded by chaos offers the perfect example of how one must give in to the carnival and abandon the fantasy of an orderly life.


             

Alice (1988) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHoopla, Kanopy

Surrealist filmmaker, puppeteer, and animator Jan ┼ávankmajer’s nightmare-inducing take on the story of Alice in Wonderland is a perfectly fascinating plunge down the rabbit hole, but maybe not for most kids.





Black Lizard/ Kurotokage (1962) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

While I prefer the more devious vibe of the 1968 Black Lizard, an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s classic crime novel, this light, absurd musical take on the story is a lot of fun. The famous detective Akechi pursues the notorious criminal Black Lizard while showing himself to be a criminal of the heart.

 

Cab Calloway’s Hi Dee Ho (1934) [short]

The Criterion ChannelPrime

With his floppy forelock and alternately jittery and fluid dance movies, Cab Calloway always had an otherworldly air, like surrealism personified. He takes the crackling jazz of his sizzling band to another plane with his uniquely delirious and unpredictable style. The bland stiffs in the Cotton Club audience seem oblivious to the magic they are witnessing.

 

A Chairy Tale (1957) [short]

The Criterion ChannelKanopy, NFB

There’s a lot of wonder to be found in the work of Canadian filmmaker Norman MacLaren; take a look at his short films on the National Film Board of Canada website for plenty of pleasurable distraction. I’m especially fond of this stop motion fantasy though. Accompanied by the fanciful strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar, a man struggles to sit on a chair which always slides away from him whenever he approaches. It’s a silly, but touching story which is ultimately about mutual respect.

On Blu-ray: A Garland and Rooney Double-Header, Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy


When I finished up my double feature viewing of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films Strike up the Band (1940) and Girl Crazy (1943) (both newly available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive), I felt a familiar mixture of exhilaration and confusion. There’s so much to love about these classic musicals: the top-shelf tunes, entertaining supporting cast, uplifting production numbers designed by Busby Berkeley, and the transcendent marvel that is Judy Garland. 

The everlasting point of confusion for me is Mickey Rooney. I wonder how many classic film fans appreciate Mickey Rooney more than they enjoy him? It’s clear that he had talent; I’m not entirely immune to his zest, but don’t think I’ll ever get him completely. I’m sure part of it is that some of his humor and vigor haven’t aged well, but it’s also hard for me to pay him much mind when Garland is there busting your heart open with those smooth tones and soulful brown eyes. He seems like a cheerful wind-up toy in comparison.

That confusion has always affected my feelings about Garland and Rooney films. They have an undeniable chemistry, but I’m always baffled that the miraculous Ms. Judy would be mooning over this self-absorbed, oblivious guy. I know it is very much of the times that she sits there cheering him on while sitting on her own monster talent and intellect, but knowing isn’t everything. 

I suppose it says a lot for these films that despite all that, they always leave me happy. Strike up the Band is rightfully most famous for a dream sequence that features an orchestra of stop-motion figures with fruits and nuts for both their heads and instruments. The moment is the product of aspiring band director Jimmy’s (Rooney) imagination: he is using the contents of an overflowing fruit bowl to explain his musical plans to his friend Mary (Garland). The scene is full of bizarre images, like a walnut-headed figure playing a nutcracker like a harp and a line of pear-noggined musicians playing pear halves like violins. An early career George Pal designed the number, which could stand on its own as an entertaining short film. 

This unusual scene happens early in a musical that is otherwise full of that “let’s put on a show” vigor. Thanks to Berkeley, the dance numbers really pop. His standard technique of using dancers to make mesmerizing patterns gets a burst of energy from his youthful dancers. They’re all adorable, though it is really something seeing all those white kids attempting Cuban flair in the Do the La Conga! number. 

The then hugely popular bandleader Paul Whiteman (most famous now for his key role in King of Jazz [1930]) appears with his orchestra and even acts opposite Rooney in a few scenes. 


Though it also has its share of big production number flair, Girl Crazy (1943) is for the most part a lower-key affair. This is my favorite Rooney and Garland film because it is bursting with Gershwin standards. Having But Not for Me, I Got Rhythm, and Embraceable You in one movie would be enough to give it classic status, but the topper is the magnificently meandering Bidin’ My Time, with Garland and the The King's Men and chorus, and is practically an anti-production number with its easy pace and lanky cowboy dancers. 

I also enjoyed the presence of character actor Rags Ragland, who shows his burlesque past in the way he adapts smoothly and easily to the performance style of his costars. He had an especially pleasing chemistry with Garland.

Tommy Dorsey and his band are lively presence throughout the film. Director Norman Taurog perfectly frames the fresh, joyful energy of the trombonist and his musicians. The group plays for June Allyson in the opening nightclub number as she croons Treat Me Rough. They are especially magnetic though in the Fascinating Rhythm number, where they all look like they are having the time of their lives.

Both discs feature introductions by Mickey Rooney and theatrical trailers. Strike up the Band also has a commentary by John Frick, the comedy short Hollywood Daredevils, the cartoon The Early Bird Dood It, a Stereo remix of I Got Rhythm, and audio of a Bronco Busters outtake. The Girl Crazy disc includes the Pete Smith comedy short Wedding Bills, the cartoon Romeo in Rhythm, a Stereo remix of Do the La Conga, and audio features including a Leo is on the Air Radio Promo, Millions for Defense and a 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Must-Watch on TCM: Mark Cousins' Epic Documentary, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema

In the opening scenes of Mark Cousin's 2018 14-episode documentary series Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, narrator Tilda Swinton says that “most of the so-called movie classics have been directed by men.” For its television debut on TCM, each episode includes this in the introduction, acknowledging an exclusion of multiple dimensions, from an active desire to suppress female voices, to ignorance, to an incurious carelessness in distributing opportunity. This basic injustice should always be remembered, but the beautiful thing about Women Make Film is that while it acknowledges the struggles of woman filmmakers to make their work and be recognized, it focuses almost entirely on their craft.

Presented like a leisurely road trip through cinema, in which the past is viewed from a different perspective, Women Make Film is a deep appreciation and wide exploration of female filmmakers who have been making art as magnificent as the most celebrated male directors. The work of over one hundred women is sampled in brief clips, their form and effect discussed in the narration. The variety is stunning, demonstrating that “female” filmmaking has innumerable characteristics.

Instead of narrating himself as he did with the equally epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), writer and director Cousins has wisely chosen to have women take the reins this time. The pleasingly varied voiceover talents of Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger do much to enhance the equally diverse films and perspectives discussed.

The series is divided into chapters, about two or three are covered per episode, with subjects ranging from editing and tonal transitions, to themes like love, death, and politics. These explorations probe deep and some can be quite intense and adult. I am guessing that there will be outrage on the TCM message boards about parts of it, but that boldness gives the film an uncompromised potency.

Ultimately, Women Make Film succeeds because it gives the viewer reason to celebrate and encouragement to explore. The injustice and the horrid waste of cinema being so long the domain of white men can never be overcome, but there is still much to enjoy. From the most mysterious experimental works to heart pounding genre flicks and every conceivable form in between, Cousin’s film gives us many reasons to celebrate women who make films and a solid basis from which to reinvent the cinematic canon.

The film, which originally debuted at TIFF 2019, will run on TCM one episode at a time each Tuesday, from September 1 through December. Each of these nights will also feature a wide range of films directed by women. It’s a wide-ranging selection, covering a rich array of nations, races, and styles. TCM hosts Alicia Malone and Jacqueline Stewart will team up to present the films and given how effectively they have collaborated in the past, I am sure they will make this an exciting and illuminating series.

 Many thanks to TCM for providing access to the series for review.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: August Round-up

 


I’m especially impressed with the quality of the podcasts I listened to this month. This wide variety of shows all had something extra interesting or new to offer. Episode titles link to the show: 

The Marx Brothers Council Podcast 
July 23, 2020 

The story of producing a documentary can be just as dramatic as the material being covered, and the production of the definitive Marx Brothers doc The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell follows in that tradition. This conversation with producer Robert B. Weide and writer/editor Joe Adamson is packed with great stories about the challenges of making a documentary before the digital age and the many other aspects of filmmaking that remain difficult, if very possible to overcome. Interesting for anyone, but extra helpful for aspiring documentarians. 


Hollywood Party 
July 17, 2020 

This is an interesting concept for a show: profile a Hollywood star and then ask at the end, would you want to party with them? Lauren Semar is a natural, engaging host and would probably be quite the party guest herself. She knows her history and she shares it in an entertaining way. As much as I’ve read about Rock Hudson over the years, I learned a few things from this episode and I appreciated the compassion Semar showed in telling his story. And yes, Hudson would have been a great party guest. 


DWT (Drinking While Talking) 
July 30, 2020 

My dear friend Jill Blake and her partner in the RetroSet website Wade Sheeler have a great discussion about the newly revived concept of drive-in movies. They talk about the challenges of going to watch a show at a drive-in (watch out electric car drivers) and then share a fantastic list of ideas for having your own outdoor screenings at home. 


Book vs. Movie 
July 27, 2020 

I’m a longtime fan of this podcast because the co-hosts, Margo D. and Margo P., billed as “The Margos” are sharp-witted, funny, and have fantastic chemistry. I especially liked their comparison of C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen with director John Huston’s adaptation because the book has a more modern perspective than I expected and it was fun to hear them talk about why. 


Such an Old Soul 
August 12, 2020 

In her new podcast, host Dominique Lessing talks about love of vintage culture from the perspective of a twenty-something. I enjoyed her affectionate tribute to the short-lived Honey West television show which starred Ann Francis. Despite its limited run, it was a stylish, fascinating program and Lessing explores what made it interesting and groundbreaking.

On Blu-ray: The Magnificent Esther Williams and Victor Mature in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)


Before I saw Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) for the first time, I read the passage in Esther William’s juicy memoir about the hot after hours affair she had with co-star Victor Mature. For that reason, this film has always been extra spicy for me. I’ll never know how much of my enjoyment watching it has to do with me looking for sparks between those two.

It is a magnificent production though. This was a decade in which MGM reliably crafted boldly-colored, extravagant spectacles meticulously crafted to absorb the masses. While Esther Williams was hired for her abilities as a swimmer and performer in water extravaganzas, she was more than a pretty duck in a bathing cap. She didn’t have designs on being a great actress, but the camera loved her and she had charisma.

My favorite Williams flicks are the fluffiest: like Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and Dangerous When Wet (1953), where she flirts a bit on land, there’s a few musical numbers, and then she does her thing in the water. Million Dollar Mermaid is more ambitious than that; it’s a biopic of Williams’ sister in the water, Australian swimmer and vaudeville star Annette Kellerman. Of course it’s the glossy, MGM take on biography, with a light rendering of the contours of reality shined up with big romance and pretty production numbers.

While it doesn’t go down quite as easily as William’s lighter films, Million Dollar Mermaid works. It contains some of her most magnificently outrageous production numbers, designed with surreal flair by Busby Berkeley. The swimming star had great chemistry with Mature, and Walter Pidgeon is pleasantly avuncular as her father, so the rest of the film flows along nicely, but the unique magic of Williams in the water is timelessly fascinating and is what makes the film a must-see.

As far as Williams was concerned, this was her best work. There are photos of Kellerman visiting the set, posed happily with the star, so I am guessing she approved.

There's a a brief bio of Annette Kellerman and few clips from her films here in a post I wrote several years ago.


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen


Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen
Christian Blauvelt
Running Press/TCM, 2019

In a recent frenzy of pandemic purging and organizing, I was delighted to find a copy of TCM’s Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen, written by IndieWire managing editor Christian Blauvelt. I’d gotten it in my media bag for the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival, but as inviting as it looked, I was too busy to read it then. But now? It’s the perfect time to indulge in some armchair travel.

I suppose New York had to be the first choice for the series. It’s by far the most cinematically represented city in the United States, and maybe the world. A lot of the locations included here are to be expected too: The Empire State Building, Times Square, and The Statue of Liberty among them. When it comes to the films though, there’s a lot of material to draw from and Blauvelt chooses wisely, achieving a good balance of the popular and lesser known.

Most of the book focuses on the most popular NYC filming location: the many neighborhoods of Manhattan. The other boroughs are grouped into a section that makes up the final quarter of the book. Blauvelt looks at the city in a variety of ways: via its hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, and institutions. A map at the end of each section provided basic orientation for film fans interested in touring the locations discussed.

It would be outrageous to omit the cheerful, catchy opening number of On The Town (1949) in which Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin dance through the great landmarks of the city. It was an ideal opening for the book, but I loved how some of the entries got more obscure.

The Hotel Chelsea section alone touches on a silent film about the Titanic which starred an actress who survived the disaster, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen scandal, and 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke. An especially fruitful passage that begins with Andy Warhol and his superstars touches on avant garde filmmaker Marie Menken, speculation as to the inspiration for Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966), and even contains a reference to the brief affair Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin had there. A bustling scenario, just like the city.

I liked the concept for this book, and I thought it was well-executed. It's mostly for fans of the mainstream and definitely contains lots of expected material, but it satisfies more esoteric tastes as well.


Many thanks to TCM for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Sweet Bird of Youth (1961), and Inside Daisy Clover (1965)


I recently had a personal viewing party full of dysfunction thanks to a trio of new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive. Inside Daisy Clover, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Sweet Bird of Youth are a messy, but fascinating trio cataloging the many ways being a human can go off the rails.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

With his typical respect for the work of great novelists, director John Huston filmed friend Carson McCullers’s second novel with the plot essentially intact. This story of illicit passions and mental strife on a southern army base has drawn a few laughs over the years for its over-the-top dramatics, but I’ve always thought the high temperature of many of the performances suited the characters.

As the foursome at the center of the film, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith, Julie Harris, and Elizabeth Taylor are a well-balanced quartet of contrasting vigor and frailty. Taylor in particular seems to understand the psychology of the dim-witted, but emotionally blazing woman she plays. In a calm, nearly wordless performance, Robert Forster cools the proceedings, thought his chill is clearly only on the surface. Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift had both circled Brando’s role, but I can’t imagine anyone but him capturing the mixture of bluster and shame necessary to play an officer who craves control, but can’t even get a handle on his own desires.

One of the best features on the disc is the option of watching the film in standard color as released or with a wash of gold as Huston had originally planned. I like both versions, but the golden hue is effective in making these characters seem trapped in their uncomfortable, insular world, like fish circling a dirty bowl. The disc also includes a short film of silent behind-the-scenes footage, which documents what appears to be a pleasant, professional set in total contrast to the turmoil of the drama being portrayed.



Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

Natalie Wood was under contract to Warner Bros when she won the lead in Columbia Picture’s Inside Daisy Clover. The studio forced her to star in The Great Race (1965) in exchange for doing the film, which reinforced why playing a juvenile film actress who suffers under the control of her employers would have appealed to the actress. She also recognized Daisy’s isolation.

It’s a bleak film. Daisy Clover (Wood) rises from poverty, but doesn’t escape her suffering. Every time she thinks she has found love and affection, be it from her mother (Ruth Gordon), a lover (Robert Redford), or her employer (Christopher Plummer), it is cruelly taken away from her. Daisy needs to learn to love herself, but she’ll need to move through a lot of emotional clutter to understand that.

Wood is at her best in her scenes with Gordon and Redford. She insisted on casting her friend Gordon as her mother and their closeness comes through on screen. In the first of two movie pairings with Redford, she found one of her best costars. They relax with each other in the most delightful way, as if they are at play.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and the classic cartoon War and Pieces.



Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)

Based on the Tennessee Williams play, this production is packed with the passions and power struggles typical of the playwright’s best work. It centers on Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), a never-was in Hollywood who has returned to his small Mississippi hometown with the drug-addicted, alcoholic star Alexandra del Lago (Geraldine Page), to whom he has been serving as procurer and nursemaid, among other things. He pines for his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Shirley Knight) though her corrupt political bigwig father Boss Finley (Ed Begley) is dead set against their reunion. Rip Torn is quietly frightening as his son and reptilian fixer.

Newman, Page, and Torn performed in the Broadway production of the play, and their familiarity with the material and each other gives the film an added emotional vibrancy. They could all be caricatures, but have lived with these characters long enough to view them with humanity. Begley earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance; he’s a superficially charming, self-absorbed monster, full of rage that he cannot control the world around him and determined to bully his way to success. Knight is in an essentially thankless role, but she has a way of looking both into and through others that draws attention and gives her authority.

The play was sanitized a bit for the screen, resulting in a less-explosive ending, but it retains plenty of heat, mostly thanks to its particularly intelligent cast.

Special features on the disc include a featurette about the film, a screen test of Page and Torn, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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