No, I Won’t Forget the Thrill of It All

If you’re a fan of the English “art rock” band Roxy Music, which was active from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, you may recognize the title as a lyric from the song “The Thrill of It All.” You probably also remember their most well-known single, “Love Is the Drug,” which actually only hit #30 on the Billboard charts but was still pretty popular. If you remember that hit, then you remember how important a role the bassline played in its catchy sound. John Gustafson, the performer of that distinctive bass part, passed away recently. His work on three consecutive Roxy Music albums – Stranded (1973), Country Life (1974) and Siren (1975) – helped create the sound that I grew to love so much when I discovered the band at age 17. After all, every member of a band has an essential, pivotal function, not only the lead singer or songwriter.

When you listen to “Love Is the Drug,” the opening track from Siren, it does more than the usual job of an earworm. The lyrics tell a story but the instrumental, especially the bass, enhances your sense of the scenario so that you really feel the mood of it, as though you were on the prowl in the singles bar right alongside Bryan Ferry’s song-narrator.

Gustafson also played on my all-time favorite Roxy song, “The Thrill of It All” from Country Life. It’s another unforgettable album-opener. No matter how many times I listen to “Thrill,” it’s always fresh and innovative. The style of it, the pure coolness, is like nothing else. It’s four decades old and yet it has not aged or grown dated. Like the song says, “it’s pure whiskey reeling ’round and around my brain.”

The bass line on “Both Ends Burning,” from Siren, is also memorable for me. It’s just a really good beat, a foot-tapping gem. This one’s a strong contender for all-time favorite, although I could easily say the same of the tracks from my favorite Roxy album, Avalon (1982), which was the group’s final studio album before they disbanded. By that point John Gustafson was no longer recording with Roxy Music, but I think that the influence of “Love Is the Drug” and other great songs from the three albums that he played on remained even in the more synthesizer-heavy music from the last albums in the early 80s.

Saturday Night Spotlight #8: Muriel Box

I spoke of the director Muriel Box (1905-1991) in last week’s Saturday Night Spotlight post when I mentioned that actress/director Mai Zetterling was in one of Box’s movies, The Truth About Women (1957). Now I am turning the Spotlight on Box. I consider her one of the most overlooked names in English cinema history as well as in the history of women directors. She has fourteen feature films to her credit, directed between 1949 and 1964. Box was also a distinguished screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for her original screenplay The Seventh Veil (1945, directed by Compton Bennett), a script co-written with her husband Sydney Box. Another of Muriel’s most famous screenwriting credits was when she collaborated with her husband and with Cyril Roberts to adapt Rafael Sabatini’s novel Christopher Columbus for the screen in 1949, a production which starred Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as Columbus and Queen Isabella. I don’t know if there has ever been a Muriel Box retrospective in any American museums or theaters, but I think it’s high time for one. Her interest in the day-to-day lives of the working-class woman ought to be better remembered.

Street Corner (aka Both Sides of the Law) (1953) – Tackling a subject centered on the female experience in a male-dominated field, much like her own identity as a female director, Box directed a story about women police officers. The leading ladies in the film were all mainstays of English cinema at the time: Anne Crawford (who would pass away from leukemia just a few years later), Peggy Cummins (best known as the “bad girl” from the 1950 noir Gun Crazy) and Rosamund John (whose husband was John Silkin, a Labour MP and Cabinet Minister in the 1960s-80s). Many other notable actors appear in the film as well, including Barbara Murray, Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard), Michael Medwin, Dora Bryan, Michael Hordern, Maurice Denham and Thora Hird. As was the case with a number of Box’s other films, Street Corner was edited by a woman, Jean Barker.

To Dorothy a Son (aka Cash on Delivery) (1954) – Box’s comedy of inheritance, a sort of a twist on Seven Chances by needing a person to stay unmarried in order to earn the dough, stars one of Hollywood’s most popular and versatile actresses, Shelley Winters. Based on a play by Roger MacDougall, Winters’ character stands to get millions of dollars from her uncle so long as her ex-husband doesn’t have any offspring. The fly in the ointment is that her former spouse has remarried and his new wife is on the brink of giving birth. Winters must decide whether to steal her ex away from his new family or to somehow convince a judge that the new marriage is not legal. The film co-stars John Gregson as the ex-husband, Peggy Cummins as the new wife (the “Dorothy” of the title), Wilfrid Hyde-White and Mona Washbourne.

Simon and Laura (1955) – This charming comedy stars two notable figures from British cinema at that time, Peter Finch and Kay Kendall (the latter soon to be Mrs. Rex Harrison, although the marriage would be cut short by Kendall’s death in 1959). The duo plays the title characters, whose marriage serves as the inspiration for a television drama that they agree to star in, a kind of precursor to modern-day reality TV. The show presents them as a happy couple but of course there are complications in their lives off the set. Muriel Pavlow, Maurice Denham, Ian Carmichael, Thora Hird and a young Jill Ireland also appear in the film and once again Jean Barker worked for Box as the film editor.

Rattle of a Simple Man (1964) – Here Box directed one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, Diane Cilento, who had just gotten married to Sean Connery in December 1962 and was already an Oscar nominee for her supporting role in Tom Jones (1963). Cilento plays a prostitute, but unlike usual movie conventions, the film is not a tragedy nor is the character a cliché. The story is quite a sweet little romance between Cilento and her shy suitor, played by Harry H. Corbett (later the son in the British sitcom “Steptoe and Son”). As in some of Box’s earlier films, Thora Hird and Michael Medwin have supporting roles, as well as Charles Dyer, who wrote Rattle’s screenplay. This was Box’s swan song when she was not yet 60 years old, but as swan songs go, the film is a beloved one.

Thanks to the Warner Archive, the Pre-Code Era Continues to Shine

In recent years, Warner Bros. has made hundreds (maybe over a thousand, for all I know) of films available on DVD through their Warner Archive Collection. The collection spans many decades, but what’s most exciting to me is that so many Pre-Code films, especially talkies from between the late 1920s and 1934, are now obtainable. Titles starring such beloved stars as Lon Chaney (in his only sound film, 1930’s The Unholy Three), Helen Hayes, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore, John Gilbert, Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo, films which may never have been available on DVD – or even years ago on VHS – can now be purchased. I highly recommend the 1929 version of Maugham’s classic story The Letter, starring Jeanne Eagels in an unforgettable performance, as well as Christopher Strong (1933), the Dorothy Arzner-directed drama that has Katharine Hepburn in her first starring role. You can search the DVD collection at http://shop.warnerarchive.com/. Have fun!

My Mom’s Favorite Movies

In honor of my mother’s birthday today, I’m posting a list of 36 (it was hard to settle on exactly 30) of her all-time favorite movies. They all come with Mom’s highest recommendation.

Girl Shy (1924)

The Kid Brother (1927)

The Cameraman (1928)

Speedy (1928)

Movie Crazy (1932)

Red Dust (1932)

Counsellor at Law (1933)

Reunion in Vienna (1933)

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Zoo in Budapest (1933)

Twentieth Century (1934)

The Good Fairy (1935)

Hands Across the Table (1935)

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Desire (1936)

Dark Journey (1937)

Easy Living (1937)

Block-Heads (1938)

Three Comrades (1938)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The More the Merrier (1943)

Deception (1946)

The Stranger (1946)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Stalag 17 (1953)

North by Northwest (1959)

Bells Are Ringing (1960)

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

La Cage aux Folles (1978)

Foul Play (1978)

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Awakenings (1990)

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Saturday Night Spotlight #7: Mai Zetterling

Swedish director Mai Zetterling (1925-1994) first made a name for herself as an actress of international renown. She starred in the Swedish-language drama Torment (1944), directed by Alf Sjöberg and written by a young up-and-comer named Ingmar Bergman. Zetterling then played the title role in the English drama Frieda (1947), directed by Basil Dearden and co-starring David Farrar and Glynis Johns, played the lead in the Bergman-directed romantic melodrama Music in Darkness (1948) and appeared in one of the segments of the Maugham anthology film Quartet (1948), which also featured British actors like Dirk Bogarde, Hermione Baddeley, Angela Baddeley, Cecil Parker, Honor Blackman and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

In the 50s and early 60s, Zetterling continued to be a presence in international film. She worked with many of the most popular actors of the era, including Danny Kaye in Knock on Wood (1954), Tyrone Power in Abandon Ship (1957), Richard Attenborough in Jet Storm (1959) and Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play (1962). In 1957, Zetterling co-starred in The Truth About Women (1957), a dramedy starring such notable actors as Laurence Harvey, Julie Harris, Diane Cilento, Eva Gabor, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Marius Goring and Christopher Lee, but which was perhaps most interesting since it was directed by one of England’s few female directors, Muriel Box. Just a few years later, Zetterling made her directorial debut with the short The War Game (1963), which won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for Best Short Film and was nominated for the BAFTA Film Award for the same prize. Zetterling focused on her career as a filmmaker for the next two decades, although she had a comeback as an actress in two films released in 1990, the Ken Loach thriller Hidden Agenda and Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story The Witches (Zetterling played the grandmother of the protagonist). Mai Zetterling’s career is unique: not only was she a beautiful actress, she was a director who challenged the usual patriarchal ideas and images of women and sex across many decades.

Loving Couples (1964) – Zetterling’s first full-length feature was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and yet it was also “banned” from the festival, not from competition or judges but from the viewing public (hence its ability to still be nominated for an award). Based on a book written by Agnes von Krusenstjerna (1894-1940), known for sexual frankness in her writings, Zetterling’s inclusion of nudity, explicit sexual content and a childbirth scene led to the problems at Cannes. Despite these setbacks, the film has an eminent cast and crew, including cinematography by Sven Nykvist and acting by Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Gio Petré, Anita Björk, Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Margit Carlqvist, Inga Landgré and Lo Dagerman (daughter of Anita Björk and famed novelist Stig Dagerman). Loving Couples is the only one of Zetterling’s features that is available on Netflix DVD in America besides The Girls (1968), an adaptation of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata.

Night Games (1966) – A nominee for the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, this controversial, sexually-charged drama starring Ingrid Thulin is probably best remembered for its presentation at the San Francisco Film Festival. The festival’s decision to show the film disgusted board member Shirley Temple Black so much that she resigned from the organization, denouncing Night Games as pornography. Like Loving Couples at Cannes before it, Night Games was banned from the Venice Film Festival. One of the film’s biggest fans is John Waters, who chose to include the film at Lincoln Center’s fiftieth-anniversary retrospective of his career (in fact, it’s screening tonight!).

Scrubbers (1982) – Zetterling worked as a director in the UK film industry, as seen in this tough drama of two lower-class English girls (played by Amanda York and Chrissie Cotterill) on the run from the prison system, dealing with pregnancy and suicide along the way. The film also tackles lesbianism with York’s character. Scrubbers has been likened to another searing indictment of the British borstals, Alan Clarke’s Scum (1977), which was scripted by one of Scrubbers’ screenwriters, Roy Minton.

Amorosa (1986) – Zetterling’s return to Scandinavian cinema resulted in this period piece and biopic of the Swedish writer Agnes von Krusenstjerna, played by Stina Ekblad, co-starring Erland Josephson as von Krusenstjerna’s husband, the writer and translator David Sprengel. The cast also features a number of actors who, like Zetterling, had worked in Swedish films since the 1940s: Anita Björk, Gunnel Broström, Inga Gill, Inga Landgré, Mimi Pollak and Margreth Weivers. Besides directing, Zetterling also wrote and co-edited the film. Like Zetterling’s earlier films, it was again met with acclaim, being nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and winning two Guldbagge Awards (Sweden’s Academy Awards) for Ekblad and Josephson.

Indelible Film Images: Drums Along the Mohawk

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) – dir. John Ford

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver, Eddie Collins, John Carradine, Jessie Ralph, Arthur Shields, Roger Imhof, Ward Bond, Chief John Big Tree

Cinematography: Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan

2014: Part 2

Boyhood. Directed by Richard Linklater. For a film that so many critics view as a universal ode to the pangs of growing up, I didn’t find that it spoke to me on a personal level. I recognize the craft of it (as a twelve-year-long shoot) and the amount of dedication put into a project of that length but ultimately I don’t love the film. The actors who play the parents, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, do fine work but they have the benefit of their years of experience, as opposed to Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, who were new to the process. Coltrane is compelling in his early years, but once he hits puberty, the character becomes less interesting. All he ever seems to do is flip his hair and complain rather pretentiously about fellow teenagers who spend too much time on Facebook. Linklater, as Coltrane’s older sister, has so much personality in the beginning of the film but over time she totally zones out and director Linklater (her father) doesn’t give her anything to do in the narrative. To clarify my issues with the film from another angle, New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote in this recent article about how female characters have evolved over the last couple of decades and in particular I would highlight the performance of young actress Quvenzhané Wallis in one of the big little indie hits of 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Films don’t have to only be about the white male part of society; they can be about girls (in Beasts’ case, within the lower-class black community in post-Katrina New Orleans) and those characters can be strong, strong enough to carry the weight of a movie. Boyhood, with its lengthy running time and nostalgia-inducing soundtrack, doesn’t live up to the immense brouhaha that surrounds it.

Chef. Directed by Jon Favreau. Like Boyhood, hype surrounded Chef upon its theatrical release, although definitely to a lesser degree. While there are enjoyable performances from the actors who populate the supporting cast (most notably John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale), there is a sense that the film falls short of its potential and expends too much energy on elements of the plot that do not work. Sure, the food looks good, but for my money, you can’t sustain a narrative made up primarily of pictures of meals that you can’t actually taste. (I have never subscribed to the notion that delicious-looking cuisine in cinema can be experienced in a more sensory way than just observing a piece of paper or a painting. It’s nothing more than an image unless it is real, tangible food literally in front of you. Smell-O-Vision isn’t a possibility at the moment.) Director and star Favreau does a creditable job, though it’s nothing praiseworthy. Casting Scarlett Johansson (who had worked with him earlier in Iron Man 2) as a temporary love interest makes for a pretty picture but ultimately fails to provide any gripping drama. Sofía Vergara was competent in her subdued role as Favreau’s ex-wife – again, not anything really special. I think you know you’re in trouble when you cast Dustin Hoffman in a supporting role and he can’t improve the material. Chef is pleasant, even a little bit fun, but only as a snack, not a main course.

The Giver. Directed by Phillip Noyce. How does one begin to review a film that is based on a beloved novel from childhood? Let me backtrack: when I was ten years old, my fifth grade teacher assigned The Giver for in-class reading. (Not to make any readers feel their ages, but that was in 2002-2003.) A large part of why The Giver is such an effective novel is that its main character, Jonas, is twelve, making the loss of his innocence over the course of the dystopian future-gone-amok narrative much more poignant. The film upgrades Jonas to being eighteen, a considerable difference when the character is on the verge of adulthood and the actor (Brenton Thwaites) is himself a grown man of 24-25. I understand that filmmakers want their products to appeal to as wide a base as possible, hence the age change and the inclusion of a romance between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush) that was not really in the book (only some fleeting, crush-like feelings from Jonas). Meryl Streep has the role of the Elder Chief, expanded from what is in the novel only to deliver exposition for the moviegoers. Jeff Bridges does what he can in the title role – hard, given the screenplay’s changes to the story – but it still doesn’t help. You can watch The Giver and perhaps find it moving, only don’t expect it to be anything like the source that inspired it.

Guardians of the Galaxy. Directed by James Gunn. Ah, a big blockbuster that goes beyond my expectations! The whiz-bang special effects and exciting atmosphere of the latest Marvel adventure are balanced with a soundtrack comprised of a delightfully retro selection of songs from the late 60s through the late 70s, including tunes by 10cc, Elvin Bishop, Blue Swede, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Jackson 5, Raspberries, Redbone and the Runaways. Chris Pratt proves he has movie star appeal as Peter Quill (“Star-Lord”), the goofy but loveable hero at the center of the ragtag bunch of space warriors. Zoe Saldana makes for a tough heroine, perhaps not as interesting as she should have been (unfortunate since one of the film’s co-writers is a woman, Nicole Perlman), but she still has some great lines. Bradley Cooper puts a lot of personality into his voice work as Rocket, while Benicio Del Toro is entertaining as the mysterious and flamboyant Collector, complete with eyeliner and white-blond hair. The only real downside to the movie is that the villains have very little to do other than be menacing, devoid of any depth. That doesn’t really diminish the effect of the film, though. It’s quite a ride.

Land Ho!. Directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. Working with a much smaller budget than any of the other four films in this post, Katz and Stephens created a lovely little comedy. Earl Lynn Nelson (second cousin to director Stephens), who is an ocular surgeon in real life, and Paul Eenhoorn, a professional actor, play two American senior citizens who take an impromptu vacation to Iceland. Eenhoorn has the subtlety of an experienced actor, but the gregarious newcomer Nelson, with his Louisiana twang and resounding laugh, brings a terrific energy to the story. I think the film could serve as an excellent travelogue for anyone interested in exploring the country, especially since the cinematography by Andrew Reed is striking, making even the simplest hot spring into a glorious wonder. Additionally, the score by Keegan DeWitt and the repeated use of the 80s song “In a Big Country” by Big Country gives the film another component of lightheartedness and likeability. I am happy to recommend Land Ho!.