Magic Lantern Podcast

The Magic Lantern: Episode 110 – The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015) doesn’t reveal all its secrets. We as viewers don’t know the origin of the mysterious fits that one-by-one overtake the girls of the dance team any more than they do. That these fits seem to come with some greater understanding after they are over, occur differently for each girl, and don’t affect the boys, allows for a rich vein of discussion and supposition. Whether the source is environmental, the inevitable transition to womanhood, or ultimately something unknowable, repeated viewings of this film are very rewarding. What is your pet theory about what is going on? Is it informed by your own childhood?

Our hero Toni and her delightful pal Beezy ably join the pantheon of brave and intriguing young girls who must navigate the world and the potential scary monsters in the dark. Happily, this setting is a safe one, with a supportive and protective sibling relationship played out exclusively in the local community center that becomes home. Even though this community of dance sets a high bar for teamwork and demands excellence, it is striking that this environment also does not involve bullying or denigration. I think this film speaks to young people as well as adults, especially with such exceptional girls to root for.

I hope if nothing else you’ll find new favorite characters in Toni and Beezy, and if so inclined, get out and try that thing you have always wanted to try!

What you’ll find in this episode: our theories on what the fits are, how the camera kept the film in a kid’s world, and why dance on film is so important to Ericca.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Fits on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Eighth Grade.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The Q-Kidz bring the fierce in a dance battle.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 109 – Drug War

Johnnie To’s Drug war (2012) is one of those great cinematic cases of having your cake and eating it too. On one hand, you have To bringing his decades of experience making Hong Kong action films to bear on this project. On the other hand, we find ourselves on the ground floor of an exciting new phase of To’s career. This is his first action collaboration with mainland China and what an auspicious beginning it is. There are all the requisite flying bullets and twists and turns, but this time To is creatively weaving those in the margins left to him by Chinese censors. Much the way that some of Hollywood’s best stories were told with a wink during the time of the Hays code, To employs that same cleverness and attaches it to this ice cold rocket of an anti-procedural.

It’s those same qualities that I think make Drug War an excellent entry in To’s catalog for longtime fans and neophytes alike. There’s never a lack of compelling action. It moves like lightning, so it’s easy to get caught up in, no matter your experience level. At any moment, To could take the genre conventions we are used to and turn them inside out. He even keeps old genre hands on their toes with his inversions and doubling down. The sly subtext slipping through the censors’ fingers? That’s just the icing on the bullet-riddled cake. Whether you are coming at this wide-eyed, or you think you’ve seen it all before, Johnnie To has something up his sleeve for all of you!

What you’ll find in this episode: Zero tolerance for drugs, extreme tolerance for violence, doubling up, doubling down, and China as To’s new frontier.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Drug War on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Mission.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Election.
Johnnie To’s top ten films.
An evaluation of China’s anti-drug efforts.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 108 – The Battle of Algiers

Would it surprise you to learn that The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 1966) is on the top ten lists of countless film critics and filmmakers, and was also the favorite film of Andreas Baader, leader of the left-wing militant organization the Baader-Meinhof Group? That the film was banned in France and not shown until five years after its release? That it has been screened around the world for military organizations, including the Pentagon in 2003, as preparation for urban guerrilla warfare? The film clearly has lost none of its power in fifty years. Shot in a documentary style, the film so convincingly captured the Algerian independence movement that upon its American release, it carried a notice that “not one foot” of newsreel footage had been used.

The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, consciously chose non-professional Algerians to maintain this verisimilitude. The film was inspired by an account of the campaign by Saadi Yacef, a National Liberation Front (FLN) military commander, and he very effectively plays an FLN leader in the film. The use of Algerians in these key roles is all the more incredible when you think about the forces at work on the film. At the time, there was a push to have a white Westerner shape the key narrative of the story and to be the audience avatar. This would have kept Algerians as the exotic other, rather than telling the story from their perspective.

When you watch the film, let us know if you think the filmmaker succeeded in his goal to show the truth and the means to which both sides of any conflict will go to prevail.

What you’ll find in this episode: how Jean Martin was uniquely qualified to play his role, how the filmmakers planned and executed the major crowd scenes, and the actor initially proposed to play a lead character.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Battle of Algiers on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The New World.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Is Paris Burning?
More on Gillo Pontecorvo’s process.
The Casbah of Algiers’ last breath.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 107 – The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster (Dieterle, 1941) is truly one of my desert island films. You couldn’t have assembled a more perfect film for me in a laboratory. The cinematic and literary traditions it belongs to are among my favorites and it’s topped off with that unmistakably sulphurous scent of brimstone that is so hard to resist. It’s a brilliant, very specifically American look at the Faustian bargain and how that notion is inextricably intertwined with the development of our young nation. I was taken with it from the very first time I saw it and each subsequent viewing only confirms that I was right to feel that way. I think it is a masterpiece and a career high point for everyone involved.

At the top of that list of contributors sits Walter Huston. He is easily my favorite devil to appear on the big screen. He has just the right mischievous twinkle in his eye and the perfect amount of contempt for humanity and potential for violence just beneath the surface. Other cinematic devils have had excellent diabolical qualities. Robert De Niro had malevolence and eternal patience in Angel Heart. No one was better at capriciously exploiting devilish loopholes than Peter Cook in Bedazzled. Tim Curry certainly had the look in Legend. None of them, though, were the total package the way Huston was in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Of all of them, he is the one I would least like to have on my shoulder. His foul whispers were seductive in the 1840s, the 1940s and they are still powerful today. Mind that your name doesn’t end up in his book!

What you’ll find in this episode: the fate of the real Daniel Webster, our favorite screen devils, Bernard Herrmann and a missing scene that we are dying to see, and the seductive darkness that lives just over the mountain.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Devil and Daniel Webster on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Vampyr.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Faust.
What the myth of Faust can teach us.
Movie devils you might have missed.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 106 – The Second Mother

Caring for children is sacred work, according to writer-director Anna Muylaert and her film The Second Mother (2015). It’s also very undervalued, under-discussed work. Decades ago, Muylaert envisioned a story about this work and the women who do it. At that time, she felt she wasn’t ready to bring the story to life. After becoming a mother and raising her own children, she found the center for the story in the character of Val. Val is a beacon of love and joy, and our hero. Muylaert also worked hard to find the right trajectory for Val’s daughter, Jessica, making her into what you might consider a warrior.

Muylaert wanted to examine the difference in being a parent and raising children, especially when those two tasks are not necessarily done by the same person. Though the characters’ backgrounds are firmly placed within Brazil’s socioeconomic gulf of the urban and the rural, the story has a universal appeal across gender, border, or bank account. Even when the parent is not necessarily the caretaker, Muylaert doesn’t take the easy road or create easy targets. We are encouraged to look at the unique perspectives of our characters: the young woman from a rural area looking to earn money and do the best for her family; the young man who is a product of loving care from a non-parent; the affluent couple who live in a world that relegates childcare to others as an afterthought.

Did you have a second family, or a second caregiver like Val? Were you a person seeking new avenues in a bigger world, like Jessica? Did you have to make difficult choices, like they both did?

What you’ll find in this episode: how Regina Casé is basically the Oprah of Brazil, our trauma of reliving the proposal scene, and more context about Brazil’s rigid class structure.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Second Mother on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Baby Boom.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Boudu Saved from Drowning.
In Brazil, a Hostility to Academe

The Magic Lantern: Episode 105 – Invention for Destruction

There is simply nothing like Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (1958). Taken from the pages of some of Jules Verne’s greatest adventures, these images combine to form one of the greatest cinematic pop-up books ever committed to film. The amount of painstaking detail that must have been involved in bringing this line engraving style of illustration to life boggles the mind. The end result is a film that gloriously straddles the line between the archaic and the state of the art. It’s a wildly inventive hybrid of live action and various types of animation that also addresses the fears and anxieties of living in a world in which the catastrophic potential of weapons of mass destruction has outstripped the creator’s ability to control it.

That being said, Invention for Destruction is no dry, didactic bit of finger-wagging. This is a rollicking adventure full of eye-popping visuals from beginning to end. There are shark fights, giant sea monsters, underwater bicycles, pirates, submarines, hot air balloons, explosions, a secret volcano lair, and so much more! And it’s great for all ages, too. It’s just as thrilling today as it was when it was made. I am so grateful for the restoration efforts that save these films for us and the distributors around the globe that are dedicated to making sure these films stay in our collective consciousness. Because of that, more than sixty years down the road, I have found yet another film that I will never forget.

What you’ll find in this episode: the DIY aesthetic of Karel Zeman, the illustrators that brought Jules Verne’s words to life, the Sears catalogue of 1905, and the first thing we’re going to do if we ever go to Prague.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Invention for Destruction on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Cole’s further viewing pick of The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Japser Morello.
An archive of the original illustrations from Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.
The website for the Karel Zeman museum.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 104 – Noir City Austin 2019 by Lantern Light

In this special episode, we discuss the films of Noir City Austin 2019 and its theme of “It’s a Bitter Little World”, featuring a program of ten stellar examples of the progression of film noir from the end of the 1940s through the start of the 1960s. Noir City Austin is always a highlight of our year and The Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, never fails to bring a stunningly dark vision of the recent past.

Thanks to the great work of the Film Noir Foundation, we were able to escape into glorious 35mm restored and preserved titles from the genre. In counterpoint to last year’s journey through the 40s, there are new forces at work in the world of noir, notably the advent of television and the Red Scare. As always, we hope to see you at next year’s festival!

The Noir City Austin 2019 Festival Line Up:
Trapped (Fleischer, 1949)
The Turning Point (Dieterle, 1952)
City That Never Sleeps (Auer, 1953)
Private Hell 36 (Siegel, 1954)
Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick, 1955)
A Kiss Before Dying (Oswald, 1956)
Nightfall (Tourneur, 1956)
Murder by Contract (Lerner, 1958)
The Crimson Kimono (Fuller, 1959)
Blast of Silence (Baron, 1961)

What you’ll find in this episode: a Dark City dame and new discoveries, the influence of the Korean War, and some cagey teasers on new titles coming from the Film Noir Foundation.

– Cole and Ericca

Links:
The Film Noir Foundation
Noir City
TCM’s Noir Alley
Eddie Muller’s website
Alamo Drafthouse

The Magic Lantern: Episode 103 – The Hitch-Hiker

The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino, 1953) is not officially the first noir directed by a woman, but there is no doubt that director, producer, and screenwriter Ida Lupino was a pioneer. In adapting the true crime story of murderer Billy Cook, Lupino took the opportunity to get inside the mind of a killer to craft an unforgettable character. William Talman then brought the nasty, unpredictable, and savage Emmett Myers to life. Lupino also accomplished something no less innovative in deconstructing the macho tropes surrounding our two trapped average joes. She created a character study that is unlike most portrayals of victims or male friendships of the time. Noir favorites like Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are more than up to the task of bringing life and pathos to the characters. But it’s Talman who truly runs away with the film.

The Hitch-Hiker is a taut 71 minutes, though it never feels rushed or truncated. You might also notice that every single shot, many taking place within the confines of the car, is unique. There is no angle that seems to be repeated. Lupino and company made the most of the claustrophobia in that car, along with the desert, stretching out to nothingness in all directions. You may be more familiar with Ida Lupino as an actress, including some of her indelible noir performances, but you will be no less astonished by her creation here as director and writer. What a way to kick off May, our month for film noir!

What you’ll find in this episode: details of the real-life underpinnings of this story, an examination of the portrayal of the police, and how the desert is the perfect noir landscape.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Hitch-Hiker on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Out of the Past.
Cole’s further viewing pick of The Devil Thumbs a Ride.
The life and times of spree killer Billy Cook.
An overview of Ida Lupino’s trailblazing directorial career.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 102 – Betrayal

I first encountered David Jones’ adaptation of Harold Pinter’s play about his extramarital affair, Betrayal (1983), when I was thirteen years old. Those were the heady days of the early cable television boom and my afternoon ritual was to walk to Head’s Grocery, get a Dr Pepper and some Hot Tamales, and then walk to my grandmother’s house to absorb whatever HBO and The Movie Channel had in store for me for a few hours until my parents picked me up on their way home from work. I saw some incredible films that way, including some eternal favorites that we’ve already discussed on the show, like Gregory’s Girl (1980).

Most of my favorites shared one particular characteristic. They were a window into the world of adulthood. Just having entered my teenage years, I was keen to accelerate the process of growing up. Betrayal may be responsible for that more than any other film. I was enthralled by these urban sophisticates and the adult facades they maintained. The appeal wasn’t just the gossipy nature of Pinter laying his indiscretions bare, either. It was the tangle of melancholy and joy within. It was a glimpse into a world that I didn’t know what to do with. And it was the deft use of the backwards chronology that transcended gimmickry. I was beguiled and perplexed. I knew that I was supposed to be feeling something very specific, but I wasn’t yet fully equipped to understand what. Over the ensuing years, I returned to it again and again and each time I grasped more of it. It’s still yielding its pensive pleasures thirty-odd years down the road. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. Maybe one of these days it will see the home media release it deserves. For now, it languishes in the realm of VHS only. That’s the true betrayal here.

What you’ll find in this episode: tablecloths from Venice, deception, the terrifying intensity of Sir Ben Kingsley, and growing up via cable television.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Betrayal on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Song of Lunch.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Turtle Diary.
A great list of films employing reverse chronology.
A handy introduction to Harold Pinter and his works.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 101 – Shoplifters

Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018) was a revelatory filmgoing experience. So much so that as we were walking out of the theatre, I proclaimed that I would cover it in an episode as quickly as possible. I can’t think of another film in recent memory that I knew immediately was my new favorite as I was watching it. It has been recognized and acclaimed by many critical bodies around the world, and went on to become very financially successful in Japan. I think you’ll get a sense of why we are so attracted to this work of such great intelligence, depth of emotion, and sensitivity.

This film was also my introduction to the work of writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda, as well as to the stellar cast. And though I found the second viewing to be just as emotionally difficult as the first, it’s a film that encourages multiple viewings. Each moment builds upon the last, and the way information is gathered or given to each character, and understood by them at any moment is key. There is also something new to be gleaned from subsequent viewings. I discovered so much visually that hadn’t occurred to me the first and second times just by advancing frames in certain scenes, and of course, by insights from Cole during our discussion.

What you’ll find in this episode: how the cinematographer contributed to the visual metaphor of compartmentalization, true stories that inspired this film story, and how Kore-eda works with child actors.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Shoplifters on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Birds of Passage.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Bicycle Thieves.
One of the pension fraud stories that inspired the film.
More the 230000 Japanese centenarians are ‘missing’.