The Lion in Winter (1968)
Directed by Anthony Harvey
“Did the Channel part for you?” A film, yes, but also a towering, regal monument to the healing power of sarcasm and sniping, the things that keep us sane, from which life, dreams, are made. Intelligence curdles into bitterness and every smile is a box of knives in this most voluptuous Christmas film. The Lion in Winter centers on a never-better Katharine Hepburn, winsome in her venom, doting over a brood of actors she helped foster, the ones she “raised but didn’t bear.” There’s her husband Peter O’Toole (“I could have made a career playing Henry II”), who greets her calm maneuvering with sweeping boisterousness and lovable volume. He goes up, she stays down, “tusk to tusk throughout history.“ There’s sweaty Anthony Hopkins, learning his craft and hanging on Hepburn’s every word like the son she never had. He’d pay her back for the guidance by recreating her as the greatest serial killer of the late 20th century. And finally Timothy Dalton, who became Hepburn in all but sex, preening deliciously in every role he took. The Lion in Winter is a meal for students of language, and eerily prescient regarding the climate of most holiday dinners “back home.” Everyone digs into the rich script with knife and fork as if it were a Christmas ham. Scout Tafoya (December 16-27 at Film Forum, showtimes daily)
The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)
Directed by Lois Weber
At the time of its making, The Dumb Girl of Portici was the most expensive film that Universal had ever produced. It was also the largest film production ever directed by a woman, and one of ten features that the prolific, socially conscious filmmaker Weber made for the studio that year. This century-old, recently restored film embodies a beguilingly Hollywoodian paradox by using large sets and a cast of hundreds in the service of an epic 17th-century-set period drama about the struggles of poor and oppressed people. Weber even focuses in intimate fashion upon one person whose struggles are rendered with sensitivity, delicacy, and a touch of grace: Fenella, the deaf-mute Naples fisherlass of the title, who regards her impoverished beachside surroundings with an open face and an open heart, and who remains throughout the injustices surrounding her as what a title card calls “the lightest-hearted slip of thistledown girlhood in the world.”
Fenella is played by the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, who had previously starred in a production of D.F.E. Auber’s opera of the same name and carried her work into her only film role. The plot surrounds Fenella’s doomed affections for the Spanish nobleman Alphonso (a sweetly moonish Douglas Gerrard), who is part of a wealthy force occupying her city, and the ways in which their love is ensnared in the crosshairs between brutal taxations placed by the occupiers upon the locals and the ensuing peasant rebellion led by Fenella’s brother Masaniello (a ferocious-yet-soulful Rupert Julian). Skullduggery and intrigue ensue as war is waged in fiery fashion. Yet the greatest spectacle the film affords is that of Pavlova, who had herself been displaced from her homeland by the outbreak of World War I, and whose dance numbers throughout the film take on emotive life outside the action. The short, scrawny Pavlova was acclaimed for innovating ballet by emphasizing the work involved in moving the body in addition to mastering fine points of technique. At some points in Dumb Girl, Fenella appears alone in abstract settings, and the incredible lengths to which Pavlova stretches her limbs express a freedom of spirit transcending specific time and place.
The Dumb Girl of Portici has been restored by the Library of Congress’s George Willeman and Valerie Cervantes, who worked from a 35mm BFI print and a 16mm print found at the New York Public Library. The gorgeously tinted DCP result is being distributed by Milestone Films in tandem with Lois Weber’s great 1916 film Shoes. A lovely new score composed by John Sweeney and grounded in Dumb Girl’s source opera accompanies the dancer’s movements gently. Aaron Cutler (December 16-18 at Anthology Film Archives; showtimes daily)
Il Sorpasso (1962)
Directed by Dino Risi
While we often celebrate post-war Italy’s cinema—the neorealist films about the everyday malaise, the hustle, and the struggle of the common Italian by the likes of Visconti, Rossellini or De Sica—we tend to overlook the equally masterful comedies that emerged later. Italy’s prolific film industry was at an all-time high in the early 60s. Amidst these wonderful films, Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life) is a delightful example of a commedia all’italiana. This odd-couple road comedy, co-written by Ettore Scola, stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Roberto, a painfully shy and handsome young law student and Vittorio Gassman as Bruno, a forty-something, reckless bachelor. The film begins on what appears to be a summer holiday. Bruno speeds through the empty streets of Rome and meets Roberto. Seeing that they’re the only two souls in Rome and all the bars are closed, Bruno persuades Roberto to take a ride in his Lancia Aurelia convertible. What was supposed to be a quick lunch in the outskirts of Rome ends up as a 48-hour adventure around Tuscany, chasing German girls and carelessly racing with strangers, all while visiting some poignant and more intimate places of their romantic and familiar pasts. Alejandro Veciana (December 14, 6:30pm; December 18, 5pm at MoMA’s Risi series)
The Heroic Trio (1993)
Directed by Johnnie To
Before founding his lucrative film production company, Milkyway Image, and before receiving critical praise for his crime films, musicals, and romantic comedies in the 2000s and 2010s, Johnnie To was a journeyman director deep in the trenches of the Hong Kong film industry. The Heroic Trio sees To in the second decade of his career.
A commercial hit in Hong Kong and a cult movie in the US, The Heroic Trio is a whacky pastiche of superheroes, comic book violence, and martial arts (directed by Ching Siu-Tung of A Chinese Ghost Story). Three superheroes (the powerhouse team of Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, and Anita Mui) unite to fight a Chinese eunuch hellbent on snatching babies in the hopes that one of them will be the future king of China. The Heroic Trio has more verve, invention, and fun than the dour, bloated, and straining seriousness of the Marvel Craptastic Universe. Tanner Tafelski (December 15, 2:45pm, 7:15pm at Metrograph’s Maggie Cheung series)
Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)
Directed by Mike Judge
With visions of Idiocracy dancing in our American heads, it’s best we evaluate Mike Judge as an underrated mainstream satirist. Over eight seasons, Beavis and Butt-Head cynically and endearingly exaggerated the qualifiers leveled at its MTV audience: lazy, stupid, hungry for junk, yet fully functional. They could fail school, barely hold a job, throw trash cans at each other, and still live another day to eat nachos and watch television. Alternately dead-pan and brashly crude, Judge’s comedy explores various drafts of the American Dream, be it in King of the Hill‘s Texas suburbs, Office Space‘s drab cubicles and tacky eateries, or Silicon Valley‘s tech bubble. For Beavis and Butt-Head, they’re living their own American Dream, even if they’re too oblivious to know it. The Easy Rider vibe of their sole feature’s poster would be lost on them.
When Beavis and Butt-Head “do America,” they expose how cluelessness and apathy aren’t unique to them. Propelled by the burglary of their beloved television (which, hilariously, takes some time to figure out), the duo become embroiled in a cross-country manhunt involving an drunk ex-con (Bruce Willis), his estranged wife (Demi Moore), a staunch CIA agent (Robert Stack), and a bioterrorist unit (cue the trademark nasal giggles). Judge—continuing his vocal duties as Beavis, Butt-Head, and most of the supporting characters—keeps the pace and look of a typical episode, even managing to fit in a, uh, music video directed by Rob Zombie. As the boys venture, no target is safe from a good dumb joke, be it a beloved landmark or government ops; there are few moments in 90s comedies more satisfying than Robert Stack ordering a cavity search: “Don’t stop ’til you reach the back of his teeth.” Max Kyburz (December 15, 20, 8pm at Anthology Film Archives)
Hands of Steel (1986)
Directed by Sergio Martino
Claudio Cassinelli, the Stacy Keach of Italy, had rather awful luck despite his poise and dignity. His movie star handsomeness made him Martino’s first-choice leading man in the late 70s and he acquitted himself with stolid gusto. When his looks began to fade, he stepped into character roles so quickly it might have taken even a fan a moment to recognize him behind dad glasses and a beard. He gave himself fully to rounding out edges for Lucio Fulci and yes, to Martino, whom he tragically died in service of. It was on the set of Hands of Steel that he was killed in a helicopter crash. The film, a plastic Terminator rip-off starring Daniel Greene, would make a nice pairing with the similarly supercharged wackness of the same year’s Maximum Overdrive, also about machines gone rogue. Casinelli is typically composed and appealing as the grinning, gun-toting villain. He died in the line of duty, and he deserves more posthumous celebration than we’ve ever gotten around to. The real tragedy of the Italian film industry in those days: so much of its finest work was done in shadow in service of producing cheap knock-offs. Make no mistake, there were giants in those days. Scout Tafoya (December 15, 10pm; December 17, 7:30pm at the Spectacle)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Directed by Hal Ashby
Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic is memorably beautiful, a big-budget, earnest production from the great director of 70s cynicism and chill. Working with cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who deservedly won an Oscar for his efforts), Ashby’s film is lyrical and epic, sweeping across a sun-baked, dusty America tramped over by hobos, grannies, and blind men, desperate Americans on their way to California. A surprising choice, then and now, to play Guthrie, David Carradine is brilliant in the role. His muted, unheroic performance—restless, selfish, deftly intuitive—manages to accomplish a difficult thing: it undercuts the Guthrie myth while betraying why it could have been so popularly believed. Jeremy Polacek (December 16, 28, 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Going Steadi: 40 Years of Steadicam”)
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Directed by Freddie Francis
This horror anthology opens with a camera prowling the grounds of an English ruin, garden to graveyard, accompanied by the drowsiest Toccata and Fugue ever organ’d. It’s no rum-tum-tum-tum Danny Elfman theme, and no haunted house model fogged and cobwebbed to perfection, but the similarity to the opening of the later HBO series based on the same source material is striking. Likewise, Ralph Richardson is no John Kassir—um, at least not in this context—but he makes a fine Cryptkeeper just the same, truer to the funny books with his flesh-covered face and wine-red cloak.
He hosts five strangers (Joan Collins et al.) touring a crumbling manor, who wander off and get stuck in a spacious stone crypt, where Richardson materializes to impart to each a personalized tale of the immoral thing they’ve done—killing a husband, abandoning a family, devastating an eccentric neighbor, Monkey Pawing recklessly, terrorizing the institutionalized blind—and the delicious comeuppance that followed: death by mental patient, by car crash, by wrongèd revenant, by embalming fluid in the veins, by a thousand razors and a starved dog. Each tale is taken from the title comic book or its sister publication, Vault of Horror (which was well-mined by HBO, as well), and retains what those EC Comics did, not to mention the TV show: wicked wit, squealing suspense, marvelous moralizing, guffawsome gross-outs and creatureful charm. Henry Stewart (December 16, 17, midnight at the Nitehawk)
Dialogues of the Exiles (1975)
Directed by Raúl Ruiz
Ruiz has just been exiled by the military regime funded by Nixon presidency, and he falls into France, alongside a plethora of actors and directors who escaped the savage killing machine that was the Chilean government after Pinochet’s coup. The only way Ruiz can make sense of his situation is to make a film with his friends and fellow exiles, which at the same time closes up his Chilean period and opens up a new era for his cinema in Europe. He films common situations of the exiled in their first months in Paris, as they struggle to settle and adapt, most of them artists or politicians; Ruiz doesn’t make a denunciation (though at times it can be read that way), but a farce, portraying Chileans just as they are, not as martyrs.
Vignettes show the different ways in which the Chileans try to come up with money or a place to spend the night. All of them constantly ask the French government for more money given their status as political refugees. The only way the exiled can survive their situation is to try to live just like they did in Chile, and that’s their main goal: get drunk, live off their art, send letters to newspapers… all of which is told in a way that makes them seem pathetic, but also celebrates their efforts in a country leaning towards the right.
I can’t imagine how this will play for a non-Chilean audience, but Diálogos de Exiliados is one of the funniest and politically sound films of Raúl Ruiz’s career. Jaime Grijalba (December 17, 2pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Ruiz retrospective)
The Aviator (2004)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
With Scorsese’s long-gestating Silence finally coming out later this month, and Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes-related Rules Don’t Apply having recently come and gone in theaters, Scorsese’s own Hughes biopic has surely popped back into people’s minds recently. But The Aviator is worth revisiting now in light not only of Beatty’s truly strange screwball comedy-drama, but of Scorsese’s output since then. Unlike Beatty, who depicts and plays the older Hughes as a tragicomic fool, Scorsese sees mostly tragedy in the notoriously eccentric film and aviation entrepreneur in his younger years: a man of unruly ambition who was eventually undone by his OCD-induced paranoia and womanizing ways. But it’s not so simple to say that Scorsese empathizes with Howard Hughes, any more than he empathized with Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, or Rupert Pupkin. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he views these icons of machismo with a kind of wary fascination. Scorsese clearly admires Hughes’ megalomaniacal ambition to some degree; it’s reflected in the film’s lavish period recreations and overall grand manner. But there are no charitable impulses to Hughes’ dreams; it’s all about satiating his own ego, a wholly selfish pursuit that, for all his momentary triumphs, ultimately leaves him alone with his demons. Tucked into the relative good manners of The Aviator is the capitalist anger that Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio once again in tow, would unleash with greater black-comic force in The Wolf of Wall Street, another chronicle of an alpha male who appears to only know how to do one thing: make money. Kenji Fujishima (December 18, 3pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Martin Scorsese in the 21st Century”)