In 1945, Billy Wilder was still becoming himself, but he wasn’t a Hollywood newbie. The Lost Weekend, would win him two Academy Awards for writing and for directing (he would win again for writing in 1950 for Sunset Boulevard and become the first person to win separate Oscars for writing, directing, and producing in the same year with 1960’s The Apartment). It would firmly plant him in the big leagues of Hollywood, but the picture was made on the back of his supremely successful hard-boiled exercise in nihilism, Double Indemnity, from the year before. In this light, had it not been for Double Indemnity, it would be easy to claim that The Lost Weekend just wasn’t quite there yet, or that it was still the product of a director and a writer identifying their place in Hollywood. But then, Double Indemnity burns with Wilder’s patented fiery brand of ice, and The Lost Weekend is merely a sharp noir in full-on potboiler mode. Good Wilder, surely, but not Wilder at his best. Continue reading
Ahem. “Faced with the overwhelming stubborn mule that is the American girth of racism and backward stagnancy, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) uneasily fuses together a coalition of the willing (and unwilling) toward showing America the full extent of its wrongs and doing whatever he can to pursue a greater right”. With a story like that, one would be forgiven for assuming all the hype around Selma boils down to a work of reigned-in Oscarbait, safe and streamlined and ready and willing to fall in love with its own saccharine self. It would seem this crowd-pleasing lull is the de facto state of the corporate biopic, flying high on easy, over-written drama and hagiography, indifferently filmed, edited, composed, and photographed, and resting almost entirely on the laurels of the main actor/ actress in the lead role.
There is nothing, and I mean nothing, like a “based on a true story” historical biopic and a popular lead actor/ actress to lull a film, and its director, to sleep. Released in late 2014, at one of the most pressing and pointed periods of racial tension and heated, boiling conflict in the modern era of the US, the thought of a work like Selma is exciting and invigorating. And the worry, the ever-crawling feeling that it may just be hope, is even greater. In this state of the world, if Selma was simply a work of moderate visual panache, it would be a godsend, but as we know, biopics like this, works about the “great men” of history with their great performances backing them up, are not the friends of “visual panache”. Prior to release, the fear that Selma was just another embalmed, wheezing biopic about the past, designed almost entirely to make the people of the present feel good and sufficient about themselves, couldn’t have been greater. Continue reading →
Preface: Now that I’ve finally decided to go “old” with the blog, I’m doing it in style with not just a regular “old” film, but two, and two that have ripened with age. For this week’s Midnight Screenings, the ’90s, ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, and ’40s wouldn’t do. I’m taking it back to two of the granddaddy’s of filmmaking from the early ’30s, two of the earliest “talkies” and two supreme influences on Midnight Cinema from a time where films could be more openly playful and subversive as filmmakers were still trying to prod and poke at the medium to expose its limits and possibilities.
One of the most controversial films made during pre-Code era Hollywood, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang appears shockingly modern viewed from 2014. It’s blunt, direct, and forthright about its, admittedly very obvious, message, and from its implicatory title to its haunted fade to black it makes no bones about what was then, and still is today, a significant issue with a justice system that favors harsh abuse over human rights. The movie plays things scruffily and with a hound-dog broadness, perhaps for the best; the freed-from-the-shackles primal qualities afford the film a harshness and a blunt edge giving way to a simply told but severely felt indictment of the American justice system. The film, released in 1932 just before the Hays Code, breathes new life into that eternally soulless void of a garishly emotive genre of filmmaking: the message movie. Continue reading →