A Star is Born (1937)
A Star is Born. What a title. It promises greatness, wish fulfillment and a kind of immortality. What could sustain such a fire? What could possibly bring forth such legendary light? Even a star has humble beginnings and we meet our speck of star dust in a provincial home on a snowy day in Smalltown, USA. It is classic Americana movie making that marries depression era silents to the slow emerging prosperity of WWII America still harboring a romantic vision of manifest destiny.
There is an embittered aunt, a struggling pop, a bright but unformed kid brother, but most importantly and impressively a wise grandmother played with brilliance by May Robson. If you ever need inspiration watch her speech to Janet Gaynor's young and determined Esther, as she encourages her to follow her dreams of being an actress in Hollywood. It practically sings with the spirit of the wild west, not to mention female empowerment.Continue Reading
Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!
Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.Continue Reading
Meet Me In St. Louis
Judy Garland, in my book, has always been one interesting persona to watch on screen. Her eyes glitter when she sings, she is always bathed in some wonderful soft light, and somehow the camera is always doing the best dolly moves when she’s on screen. She’s also a separate entity from the real world, so it seems. Her films, just as fascinating to me as Busby Berkeley musicals, are no less from the escapist realm. It’s amazing that 1945 marked the end of World War II, and, well, also produced the completely irrelevant musical, Meet Me In St. Louis. Meet Me in St. Louis is directed by Vincente Minnelli, who married Garland after working with her on set. The story is set in St. Louis, Missouri, in the year before the 1904 World Fair. The middle-class Smith family leads a comfortable and happy life. The four daughters are equally charming in their own separate ways. There’s Rose, Esther (Garland), Agnes, and the youngest, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). The family anxiously awaits the World’s Fair in their hometown, yet the father breaks the news that they must move to New York City to find a job. The story follows the family’s devastation in the end of summer through their lessons of life, love, and family well into the Christmas holidays, where they make the decision that breaks or makes their bond as a family.
The film features some tunes and dance-numbers, just as pie in the sky as the daughters’ names, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Under the Bamboo Tree."Continue Reading
Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).
Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.Continue Reading
The Gathering Storm
What I know about history I learned from movies and documentaries. So whether the facts behind The Gathering Storm are accurate I can’t argue, but as a piece of entertainment this BBC/HBO telefilm is wonderful and certainty feels factual. Chronicling the years before World War II in the 1930s, the doddering Winston Churchill stands alone in The House Of Commons as he seems to be the one politician in England speaking out about the rise of Hitler. Played brilliantly by Albert Finney, Churchill begins the film an all but broken man and as England slowly catches on to his German paranoia he regains his footing as a visionary (the film only chronicles a few years and ends before he becomes Prime Minister and leads England though WWII).
A lifetime military man and vivacious history writer, Churchill was a disappointment to himself. He hadn’t amounted to the greatness he expected and is reduced to tinkering around the house, annoying his staff and his devoted wife, Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave), as well as his fellow Tory members in Parliament for his increasingly outdated views on India. But when a spook (or “civil servant”), Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent), starts passing him disturbing documents that reveal the true nature of German industries, Churchill begins to speak out of place. Typical of politicians, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi), wants to appease Hitler because opposing him could be bad for the British economy. Even in his old age, Churchill proves to be a total badass rebel, single-handedly pushing his country to prepare for war. Of course history was on Churchill’s side, now those like American Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s old man), who groveled to Hitler, would forever be remembered as cowards. If nothing else Churchill was no weakling.Continue Reading
Moving pictures concerning WWII concentration camps have a tendency to romanticize the subject matter, and probably for good reason. But since Polanski experienced it for himself, the film naturally becomes personal for the viewer. The Pianist is filled with raw intensity and beautiful storytelling. Instead of focusing on the account of such an incredible turning point of world history, Polanski chooses to emphasize human character, conditions, flaws and strengths.
The story is based on the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist who performed for Polish Radio and composed classical and popular music. His survival in the Holocaust is an incredible and moving tale. There is no way to define the tragedies of the Nazi march through Poland in any simple terms, but here is a film that depicts an intimate portrait of one who has traversed the witnessing of human death, loss of career, home, and family, and the persecution among his own race.Continue Reading