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By Joe Bendel. Prior to October 30, 1938, Orson Welles was considered a talent to watch, but his Mercury Theater on the Air did not have a proper sponsor and it regularly got beat by a variety show featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummy Charlie McCarthy (it was a great act for radio, because you truly couldn’t see his lips move). Then Welles staged an innovative adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic and suddenly everything changed. American Experience marks the 75th anniversary of Welles’ controversial broadcast with War of the Worlds, which airs this coming Tuesday on most PBS stations.

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Orson Welles performing "War of the Worlds."

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Welles was already a cottage industry before he transplanted War of the Worlds to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Best known as a stage director, he frequently performed on radio, often without credit. The media and the smart set closely followed his career, but he had yet to breakthrough with Middle America. For his weekly radio showcase, Welles had a notion to adapt the Martian invasion novel. Producer-adult supervisor John Houseman thought it was a terrible idea, but Welles had his way as usual. However, the script just didn’t come together until they decided to stage it as a series of breaking news bulletins. This was not a completely original strategy. It was inspired by Archibald MacLeish’s radio play Air Raid, which had just aired with much less fanfare.

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According to American Experience’s historical experts, most listeners missed Welles’ introduction, dial-twisting over to the Mercury Theater once Bergen had finished his shtick. As most everyone knows, a mild panic then ensued. All the talking heads try their best to excuse away the mass hysteria, arguing that the stress of the Depression and the constant news flashes trumpeting European war left the general public primed to believe Welles’ Americanized War of the Worlds. Maybe there is a kernel truth to that, but that would have been one heck of an exclusive for CBS to score.

Just about everyone now recognizes Welles as one of the most important film directors of the Twentieth Century, but AE’s WOTW reminds us he was also probably one of the greatest radio directors as well. Director Cathleen O’Connell and tele-writer Michelle Ferrari include some fascinating behind-the-scenes details of the in/famous broadcast, but the black-and-white dramatic recreations of angry listeners’ letters of complaint are rather corny and just generally unnecessary.

Arguably, Welles’ fictionalized news flashes represent an early forerunner to found footage genre films, in which a carefully produced narrative deliberately approximates some form of on-the-fly documentation. O’Connell and her battery of experts, including Welles’ daughter Chris Welles Feder, nicely put the episode in the context of Welles’ career and the development of mass media. Easily recommended for fans of Welles and Wells despite the over-stylized recreation interludes, American Experience’s War of the Worlds premieres on PBS Tuesday the 29th (10/29), seventy-five years after the fateful broadcast, nearly to the day.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on October 25th, 2013 at 12:54pm.

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By Joe Bendel. In an inspiring example of artistic resiliency, the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra maintained their public performance schedule throughout the Bosnian War. Of course, getting to and from their concerts was often the most difficult part of the show, particularly for those traveling through “Snipers’ Alley.” The day-to-day life-and-death experience of pedestrians during the Siege of Sarajevo is recreated in Šejla Kamerić’s 1395 Days with Red, which screens this Thursday as part of Disappearing Act V.

Originally conceived in collaboration with Albanian artist Anri Sala, the 1395 Days project resulted in two like-titled films. This is Kamerić’s, which is somewhat longer and features a little art-house star power. Maribel Verdu, the wicked stepmother of Blancanieves, appears as a woman trying to get from point A to point B. She seems to be walking through the peaceful (but still war-scarred) Bosnia of today, but she and those around her act as they did during the Siege. That means they avoid wearing bright colors and run for all their worth at each intersection. Her long walk is accompanied by the Sarajevo Orchestra rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique.

Essentially, Kamerić’s 1395 Days (the length of the Siege) is experimental, non-narrative filmmaking, but it represents the most accessible tip of the genre. There is a real point to the film, but it is not didactic or obtuse. Viewers can easily grasp what it has to say about the lingering post-traumatic stress of the Siege as well as the healing power of music. Indeed, the city’s Orchestra and the choice of the stirring but not overplayed Tchaikovsky symphony are quite powerful.

From "1395 Days without Red."

Likewise, Kamerić and cinematographer Patrick Ghiringhelli (ironically shooting with Red digital) create some striking visuals, well capturing the damage that continues to mar Sarajevo. Verdu also gives another silent but potent performance as the woman. We can see her body tense whenever she passes an intimidating looking man on the street, while her eyes speak volumes about the resolve required simply to cross a street during the siege.

However, 1395 might have benefited from a mild injection of narrative, such as establishing where she is coming from. Is it from work? If so, we can double her trek for a full day and then multiple by the 1,395 days, backing out weekends and days the fighting was too intense to leave home, thereby approximating the cumulative terror of the Siege.

1395 demonstrates how much the right music can add to a film. As a result, it is not a bad starter candidate for someone looking to dip a toe into experimental cinema. Nonetheless, 1395 Days without Red is only recommended for those who know they will be receptive to its aesthetic nature. It screens this Thursday (4/11) at Bohemia National Hall on the Upper Eastside. Films also screening during Disappearing Act V enthusiastically recommended for wider audiences specifically include the richly mysterious interconnected German trilogy Dreileben, which will screen the following Thursday (4/18) at the IFC Center, and Wojciech Smarzowski’s gritty and haunting post-war drama Rose (featuring Spies of Warsaw co-star Marcin Dorociński) screening at MoMI the following night (4/19).

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on April 9th, 2013 at 9:10am.

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By Joe Bendel. Perhaps nothing signified the all-encompassing totalitarianism of National Socialism better than the Hitler Youth. Likewise, the Komsomol, or Communist Union of Youth, was emblematic of Soviet oppression. According to independent observers, the names are different, but the Komsomol has risen again in the guise of Nashi, a Kremlin-backed youth group fiercely loyal to the current Russian Prime Minister. Though once a prominent spokesperson for the group, one young woman began to understand the realities of the regime she served. Lise Birk Pedersen documents her fascinating story in Putin’s Kiss, which opens this Friday in New York.

Masha Drokova was an ambitious student who believed the government’s propaganda. She joined Nashi, rocketing up the ranks after she famously kissed the titular Russian strongman on state television. She became a national media figure and dogged foe of Putin’s democratic critics. However, her interest in journalism brought her into contact with independent reporters, like Oleg Khasin.

While remaining committed to Nashi, she found she enjoyed the open and robust debates with her new friends. Unfortunately, this did not bode well for her standing within the Putin Youth. When Khasin is brutally beaten thugs considered by everyone except the most willfully blind Nashi loyalists to be acting at the behest of the Kremlin or its allies, Drokova reaches a crossroads.

Only in her early twenties, Drokova is still at an age when peer pressure has very real consequences. To her credit, she stood by her injured friend, joining those demanding a proper inquiry, at no little risk to her well being. Yet she does not repudiate her time serving Putin’s interests. As real journalists say, this story is still developing. Shrewdly, Pedersen never tries to impose a preset narrative, scrupulously recording the messy ambiguities of Drokova’s circumstances instead. Indeed, that is what makes the film so fascinating. Rather than a neat and tidy epiphany, we watch her reservations and doubts begin to stir.

Frankly, Drokova is not yet a fully mature adult, which can lead to viewer frustration with her as their POV protagonist. However, it is important to remember this is exactly why Nashi recruited Drokova and those like her. Indeed, Pedersen conveys a frighteningly vivid sense of Nashi’s reach and influence. After watching Kiss, it is impossible to accept claims that the group is a nonpartisan service movement.

Kiss is an important film that shines an international spotlight on Putin’s youthful enforcers. Pedersen rakes a fair amount of muck, while capturing a very personal story with wider political implications. Mostly scary and only occasionally encouraging, it is highly recommended for viewers concerned and interested in the state of the world. It opens this Friday (2/17) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Posted on February 15th, 2012 at 10:35am.

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Lillian Roth.

By Jennifer Baldwin. A few weeks ago I watched my new Warner Archive DVD of Madam Satan, a 1930s Pre-Code oddity extravaganza that was Cecil B. DeMille’s first and only musical. It’s famous (infamous?) for the wild costumes, Art Deco sets, bizarre musical numbers, and a spectacular finale that includes a zeppelin crash and the sight of parachuting party-goers landing in trees, Turkish baths, and the lion cage at the Central Park Zoo.

But what I really loved about the movie was that it introduced me to Lillian Roth. I didn’t even realize as I was watching it that the sexy, saucy Trixie was played by Lillian Roth of I’ll Cry Tomorrow fame. I knew that Susan Hayward played a woman named “Lillian Roth” in that 1955 biopic, but since I’d never actually seen it, I knew nothing about the real Roth. She must have been someone famous or else they wouldn’t have made a movie about her, but what exactly she was famous for I had no idea.

Well, now I know. The minute Trixie appears on screen in Madam Satan, the film starts to pop. If you want to know what I mean GO HERE TO SEE.

As the indispensable Self-Styled Siren puts it in her review of the film: “When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the Low Down number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie.” AND HOW! I remember thinking that Lillian Roth’s Trixie was a million times sexier and spunkier than Kay Johnson’s “Madam,” the supposed “star” of the film.

So, of course, dutiful obsessive that I am, I started scouring YouTube for videos of Lillian Roth’s performances, just to see what else this sassy dame had to offer. Her voice has got the power and verve of Ethel Merman, but with a warmer tone and a bluesier, sexier bend. And she’s got charisma. Whatever that might be defined as, it shows whenever she’s on screen: she lights it up.

Which makes her brief movie career all the more tragic. This is a woman who should have been a bigger movie star, someone who could have been in the sexy/sassy comedienne ranks with Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow. While her honest and unflinching autobiography is justly credited with raising public awareness about alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s really too bad that she’s more famous for beating her addiction (and having Susan Hayward portray her) than for her talent.

Madam Satan has kicked off a Pre-Code spurt in my movie watching these days (as I write this, Night Nurse, Ladies They Talk About, Two Seconds, and The Divorcee are on my desk waiting to be devoured), so I’m excited to see that Turner Classic Movies is featuring Pre-Code goddesses Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell in their Summer Under the Stars tributes on August 9th and August 24th, respectively.

On Ann Dvorak day, Scarface and Three on a Match are must-sees, of course, both two of the defining films of the Pre-Code era. Three on a Match, in fact, is still quite shocking, and Dvorak’s performance as a drug addicted woman is stunning and unshakable. I’m also excited for The Crowd Roars (1932), a Howard Hawks film I’ve never seen before, starring Dvorak and Jimmy Cagney as a fearless race car driver. Continue reading »

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By Jennifer Baldwin. I’ve been thinking lately about how art is often more “real” to me than real life. As Truffaut said: “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” One of the reasons I spend so much time watching movies, in fact, is because after I’ve watched a good movie I feel renewed. Beautiful art has that ability to renew and enliven the spirit. Highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow – to me it really doesn’t matter as long as I get that kick of delirious pleasure.

An American in Paris gives me that kick. It’s everything that’s great about mid-century American popular culture, fusing elements of high art with low art to create a joyful, exuberant experience. American pop art at its best is confident, playful, eclectic, improvisational, and spontaneous. It has energy and rhythm, a freewheeling delight in its own creativity. An American in Paris, at its heart, is about our relationship to art, about our desire to be renewed and enlivened by it. Continue reading »

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By Jennifer Baldwin. When featuring an intriguing star, TCM’s Star of the Month tribute is an overdose of straight-up, hardcore, pure pleasure. For one night each week, the month is turned over to a movie star and we witness, with relentless intensity, every curve and turn and height of the star’s career – until the month ends and we feel indecent over how much we’ve come to know this person.

We don’t really “know” them, of course. We only see their performances. But film is funny in its deceptive intimacy, and saying farewell to the Star of the Month is like saying farewell to a summer camp best friend or a wartime romance: “It was wonderful, darling. I’ll never forget the good times we had. We’ll always have that April on TCM!” The star is in your life, in your living room, for a whole month and then, suddenly, the star gets snatched away. The light goes out.

Of course, some months I’m just not interested in the chosen one. Singing Cowboys in July? Don’t fence me in, baby, I’d rather be out playing beach volleyball at the park. But just this past month of June, Jean Simmons had me glued. I hadn’t realized it until she passed away last year, but Jean Simmons was around a lot in my teenage years. I really identified with her, with the intelligence, strength, and vulnerability she brought to the screen. Young Bess at fifteen; Guys and Dolls at sixteen; Elmer Gantry at seventeen. I must have watched these movies on an endless loop when I was in high school.

When I finally got around to Angel Face in college, it bothered me for weeks. I told friends and family and random people on the street about this movie, about this character — Diane Treymayne — and how I just couldn’t shake her. She creeped me out, and I just couldn’t shake her. She was a murderer, a psychopath, but I just couldn’t let her go. I SYMPATHIZED with her. It was disturbing.

You’re not supposed to sympathize with the Spider Woman. Sure, you can understand her motivations, even get some perverse pleasure out of her power and wicked determination, but you’re not supposed to feel bad for her. But there I was — and here I am — feeling sorry for Simmons’ Diane Treymayne.

And that ending! That last, stomach-shocking scene, throwing all my emotions for a fireball crashing loop. Every time I watch the finale in Angel Face I go, “Oh my God! What the hell?!” Every time. Every single time. And I’ve seen it at least a dozen times. Continue reading »

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