Monday, April 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Joseph Losey's Stranger on the Prowl (1953)

A casualty of the midcentury Hollywood blacklist, Joseph Losey's Stranger on the Prowl in many ways epitomizes an era of widespread paranoia and suppression which would cinematically cripple some of our greatest auteurs. Independently produced and shot in Italy throughout 1951, the film was clandestinely distributed at the height of the Red Scare following a number of years during which Losey had been named and subsequently summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to effectively testify against himself and fellow filmmakers with communist ties. Indeed, Losey had joined the Communist Party in 1946 after working on many leftist film and theater productions over the preceding decade, and was soon unemployable, retreating to Europe to forge the second act of a career which had already proven as formally provocative as it was politically progressive.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Film Review: Joanna Hogg's Exhibition (2013)

If, as the saying goes, home is where the heart is, then in Exhibition it is also sanctuary to the mind, body and soul. Uncommonly attuned to gradations between cognitive existence and physical experience, British director Joanna Hogg’s third feature turns aesthetic determinism into a narrative framework by which action directly corresponds with the surrounding environment. The film’s simple story, concerning a husband and wife in the process of selling their home of many years, is rendered complex by an internal compositional logic which reflects tremors among the couple and their modernist surroundings alike. In Exhibition, architecture translates as the physical, psychological and emotional infrastructure of its characters—one seemingly cannot advance without altering the material identity of the other.

Blu-ray Review: Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Andrew Sarris once observed that Don Siegel's best films "express the doomed peculiarity of the antisocial outcast." This was in 1968, three years before the journeyman director would reach his widest audience with the vigilante crime classic Dirty Harry and nearly a decade prior to The Shootist, a mournful depiction of an aging cowboy starring John Wayne that plays at once like an elegy for its waning star, a dying breed of western mythology, and the equally imminent destiny of practical genre filmmaking. This interest in the ill-fated vagabond was a consistent feature of Siegel's work for almost 40 years. But perhaps its most singular expression came early on with 1954's Riot in Cell Block 11, a rousing mid-'50s B movie with a thoroughly American topicality. Siegel may have had only a handful of credits to his name prior to making the film, but it's now all but understood that Riot in Cell Block 11 not only set the thematic template for his career, but also solidified an efficient aesthetic model which the director would spend decades reviving and recalibrating.

Film Capsule: Anthony Mann's Side Street (1950)

Side Street (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann

Though primarily remembered today for his Westerns, Mann had an almost equally notable career as a director of crime pictures. Yet his major themes—namely, masculine struggle against societal strictures and the volatile environments such attitudes reinforce—are present throughout. This initial phase of the director’s development arguably culminated with this mid-century noir concerning advantageous father-to-be, Joe (Farley Granger), who unwittingly falls into an extortionist plot when he harmlessly decides to steal a couple hundred dollars from a lawyer’s office. As Joe attempts to right his wrong only to get pulled further into an elaborate underworld plot, questions of morality and loyalty rise like steam from the surface of the character’s dank urban surroundings. Shot mostly on location in New York City, the film stands as both nostalgic timepiece and aesthetic watershed, proving a seamless transition for its director’s move out West. (Apr 26 at Moving Image, part of its Anthony Mann series)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fandor Feature - China Behind: J.P. Sniadecki's Eastern Ethnographies

As his press bio makes a point of reminding us, director J.P. Sniadecki was born on a goat farm in Michigan. But coming of age amidst the rustbelt—and later studying philosophy during his time at Grand Valley State University—is about the least interesting aspect of Sniadecki’s personal and professional maturation. For over a decade now, Sniadecki has been living and working itinerantly in China, producing a unique body of films concerned with the political and cultural implications of his chosen medium. His films, mostly observational documentaries influenced equally by contemporary Chinese mixed-media and the European ethnographic movement of yesteryear, are serene, highly tactile excavations of far-flung locales. But in forgoing the temptation to exploit the exotic elements of his surroundings, Sniadecki has quietly painted a portrait of modern day China as a diverse, demanding, and ever-evolving country, one occasionally at odds with its historical, industrial, and sociological makeup, yet nonetheless alive with cultural nuance and endurance.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Film Capsule: Thom Andersen and Noël Burch's Red Hollywood (1996)

Red Hollywood (1996)
Directed by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch

One of the key works in the evolution of the essay film, this incisive video documentary, now remastered and reedited, attempts nothing less than to rewrite the established cinematic record. Commonly marginalized, the talents of the Hollywood Ten—a selection of mid-century communist filmmakers forced into anonymity by the Red Scare and the industry’s efforts to indict such unquantifiable threats against the American moviegoing public—are reconsidered on aesthetic rather than social grounds, while the political undercurrents of the more than 50 excerpted films are illuminated by House Committee footage and interviews with the erstwhile communists themselves. A work of both acute cinephilia and noble conviction, this historical rejoinder to an era of rampantly misplaced paranoia traces an alternate cinematic history that nevertheless played out before our very eyes. (Apr 12-13 at Lincoln Center, part of its Art of the Real series) [The L]