Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is an underrated gem from a Czech New Wave director that hardly anybody has heard of. It plays on the conventions of comic strips, the mystery of dreams, and communist efforts in Czechoslovakia—with mad scientists who represent brainwashing.
Ruzenka (Dana Medricka) and Jindrich (Jiri Sovak) are a married couple who are both scientists. Each is trying to come up with an invention that will lead them to a Nobel Prize, and both are fairly eccentric. Ruzenka is in the medical field and has found a formula that she's named “KR VI” that can take undesirable qualities about dreams and replace them with pleasant ones. Jindrich is an engineer trying to find a way to increase production in his otherwise incompetent firm.
Songs from the Second Floor
This film is one in which everyone is a spectator, being human is extremely difficult, and the viewer is given a looking-glass into the sordid lives of characters who function in a gray existence.
Many compare the film to Swedish Opera, but for me it is like a blend of performance art and visual poetry that takes everyday life and heightens your awareness of its many disappointments to the point that it is both painful and funny.
For over thirty years director Errol Morris has been redefining the visionary guidelines of what a documentary is and can be. He brought a deeper understanding of visual and sound construction techniques that pushed the documentary into a more compelling medium than the films that preceded his work. In the ‘80s, his film The Thin Blue Line helped get a guy off death row, but maybe more importantly, it brought the documentary genre into the mainstream and helped expose a lot of audience members and future filmmakers to the new possibilities that documentaries can achieve both socially and technically. Where many of the acclaimed filmmakers of his generation have lost their golden touch, every few years he keeps turning out a new film and he may of peaked with his last one, Tabloid, an insanely epic story of love and loss and the seedy nature of our voyeuristic society.
Morris, at his best, finds grand stories of people who live on the fringe of our culture with twisted obsessions, whether pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), holocaust denying (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) or mole rats and trapezes (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Morris has a canny ability to park his camera inside the brains of these kooks and come to understand or appreciate their causes. His best films have been his eccentric bios, also usually about a sort of obsession that eats at his subjects like Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) and Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War). Tabloid is almost an accumulation of his life’s work, combining all of what he does best and turning the dial up. It’s a bio of a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who sits on camera and tells her crazy and kinky story, aided by other talking heads and archive footage and a lot of press clippings. Without moralizing or taking sides, this is Morris’s most creatively laid-out spectacle, yet the quirkiness and perversion never outweigh the filmmaking.
The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew
Movies that originate as television sketches and skits usually lead to lame products: A Night at the Roxbury, The Ladies Man, Stuart Saves His Family (has anyone ever heard of or seen the Laugh-In spin-off The Maltese Bippy?), to name but a few of the forgettable titles. There have been a few good exceptions: The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, and even The Coneheads has its admirers. The most unusual adaptation of a skit and a very special movie in its own right is the Canadian flick The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew, which emanated from Saturday Night Live’s northern and usually better little cousin SCTV. The characters, Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas), became SCTV’s first breakout stars and even a minor cultural phenomenon with their catchphrase “take off, you hoser.” Like Wayne’s World years later, they were a couple hicks—brothers who hosted a public access cable show called “Great White North” and the jokes usually centered on Canadian stereotypes and their love of beer and hockey. Though their minor-hit song “Take Off” (with Geddy Lee of Rush) might have caused a bigger ripple then their movie did, over the years Strange Brew has found more fans and can now be appreciated for what it is, an incredibly goofy but lovable laugh-out-loud comedy.
Adding elements of science-fiction and thriller, while referencing everything from Omega Man to Hamlet to Star Wars to the early Canadian gross-out flicks of David Cronenberg, Strange Brew opens with a movie within a movie within a movie. Surrounded by cases of Canadian beer, Bob and Doug host their TV show “Great White North” on the big screen. They run a projector of their homemade “Max Maxy” post-apocalypse flick, which leads to pandemonium in the actual theater where now Bob and Doug sit watching. They refund a distraught father his admission money (his crying kids saved all year to go see the movie), and this gets the real plot rolling—that it was their father’s beer money (the father’s voice is supplied with an amazing voice-cameo by animation legend Mel Blanc).
My Dinner with Andre
French director Louis Malle’s incredibly diverse career ranged from the exciting rule-bending era of the French New Wave to his documentary period, his work during the cinema revolution of the ‘70s, and finally to his American phase. Perhaps no film was more ground breaking then his astonishingly simple, yet hugely entertaining My Dinner with Andre—what is essentially a couple hours of two men who hadn’t seen each other in some time having a fascinating discussion over dinner.
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both known from the New York cultural and theater scene, play “Andre Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn,” which is to say they play themselves or at least variations on themselves. In real life Gregory had made a name for himself as an experimental theater director, traveling the world in search of groovy artistic expression. (He was a sometimes actor post-My Dinner with Andre, most memorably as John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ). Shawn, the son of legendary long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn (which gave him lifelong NY high-brow street-cred) had some success as an off-off Broadway playwright, but ever since Woody Allen cast him as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in Manhattan he has worked steadily as a character actor. The two started to record their own conversations and then got director Malle involved to help shape it into a script.
Set in the rapidly changing times of 1960s England, Billy Liar tells the story of a young man who's impervious to change and weak from imagination. Most teenagers go through a phase of deception—one in which they exaggerate their circumstances and experiences in order to get respect and acceptance from their peers. Young boys and girls brag about certain sexual encounters or invisible spouses, or some claim that generic items bought on sale were expensive. These claims at excellence are sometimes made out of boredom, but oftentimes are done just for the chance to exercise their imaginative muscles. When they reach adulthood, these traits are usually written off as juvenile and grown-up mentalities eventually set in. Our protagonist, Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), is one of those young adults who can't seem to make that transition.
His town accentuates his conflicting views towards change and offers a great metaphor. The majority of the people there don't change, nor do they stray from their safety zones as far as relationships and employment. Housewives wait on edge to see if someone has dedicated a song to them on the popular radio station, “Housewives’ Choice.” Young men scuffle for employment and young ladies work towards becoming their future housewives. But as these people carry on their daily routines, change invades them via demolitions of prized structures and the increase of blacks in many positions. Billy is constantly trying to play by the rules and bend them at the same time, but what he really wants to do is tear down the entire foundation and start anew.
Loves of a Blonde
New Wave filmmakers are given credit for the way that contemporary cinema has developed. French and Italian directors in the '60s were, and still are, given the most attention abroad for their work, but there are many films from Iran, East Asia and Czechoslovakia that are lesser-known gems. Milos Forman's filmography consists of many acclaimed films, including One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, but Loves of a Blonde marks the beginning of his worldwide popularity and his first Academy Award nomination. When the film premiered at the New York Film Festival, it was considered to be as endearing and classic as Truffaut's The 400 Blows, which had its premier a few years earlier. The prevailing formalistic approach to filmmaking is absent here; the film is simple, realistic, and shot in real-time.
The story takes place in Zruc, a desolate Czech town adjusting to Communist rule. The war has rendered the female to male ratio 16 to one, and women of all ages are more or less forced into factory labor making shoes and textiles. The factory manager is sympathetic to the changing times and their needs, and he's concerned about the town's fate. Like a doting father, he worries about the hundreds of girls under his employ and approaches an army officer for help. He asks him to bring a regiment of soldiers into town in order to cure the longings of the young ladies.
After the success of student lunch counter sit-ins, anti-segregation forces, led by a little know group called CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), decided to push the envelope in an attempt to secure their rights and bring attention to the discrimination of black Americans in the psychotically racist American South. PBS’s American Experience does it again! Freedom Riders is another historical masterpiece; with spectacular archive footage and engaging talking heads, director Stanley Nelson perfectly lays out this dangerous and complicated story. Along with the epic Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Riders is essential viewing for anyone interested in the civil rights movement or just a fascinating and entertaining slice of brutal American history.
In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-'50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Southern white Democrats.
CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws. Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.
As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer).
As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.
The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.
The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.
The Wild One
Though that amazing string of performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront earned Marlon Brando four straight Oscar nominations (finally winning for Waterfront) and made him the most celebrated acting talent of his generation, it’s actually his work as Johnny in The Wild One that made him an icon of rebellion and helped inspire the youth culture that was just beginning to emerge in America (and abroad). The Wild One was the first “biker picture” to penetrate mainstream consciousness, a genre that would become very popular in independent film ten lean years later.
Though produced by issue-director/producer Stanley Kramer, giving the film an overly dramatic “this is important” vibe, it’s actually a really fun B-movie, carried by Brando’s cocky performance. His Johnny leads his biker gang almost like a cult leader. The gang, with their rowdy antics, tries to impress their messiah, but Johnny, with his southern/ be-bop accent, is a man of few words. Hitting the road looking for kicks, Brando and his gang stumble on a small town where they instantly catch the attention of the law and some uptight citizens, and a saloon owner invites them to stay for beer and sandwiches. The innocent young barmaid Kathie (the very beautiful Mary Murphy) catches Johnny’s eye. It doesn’t help when he declares “I don’t like cops,” even though her dad is the town’s sheriff (Robert Keith, father of Brian), and is actually very evenhanded and sympathetic to Johnny and his pals.
In the film’...
The Best Years of Our Lives
It's not a great movie but then perhaps it is still the best of its kind of film. There's an element of national catharsis that The Best Years of Our Lives channels, redeeming it from whatever middlebrow pretensions it uses to get there. In aesthetic terms it may be nothing more than a syrupy drama that presumes to show the "reality" that G.I.s from WWII faced when they returned home but, clunky soap operatics aside, it does fulfill a need for some kind of closing statement from Hollywood about the emotional toll the whole wretched thing took on average people.
Similar ground had been covered by the turgid Since You Went Away two years earlier but whereas that celluloid headache made you pine for the hours lost trudging through its "epic" pretensions, The Best Years of Our Lives has enough good stuff to make it worthwhile viewing.
The film follows three G.I.s at varying levels of command returning home, just as World War II ends, to a Midwestern town modeled, apparently, on Cincinnati. Frederic March plays a genial middle-aged boozy banker with a grown daughter and Myrna Loy for a wife while Dana Andrews plays a young war hero who returns to his crummy soda jerk job and terrible marriage. Harold Russell, a non-actor who had his hands blown off in WWII combat, plays a variation on himself (he would go on to win two Oscars for the role—Best Supporting Actor and a special honorary Oscar). The three men, heretofore unknown to one another, become fast friends on the plane ride home. We follow all three of their stories as they adjust to life at home and see their lives intertwine in meaningful ways.
For such a grand Samuel Goldw...