Federico Fellini developed director's block before making his 1963 classic 8½ , out next Tuesday on Blu-ray, but the way the Italian master resolved it inspired legions of other writers and directors. His exploration of the angst of a director who can't figure out what film he wants to make, and who is endlessly besieged by backers, actors and hangers-on, was so deeply tied to Fellini's own life and to his fertile imagination that nobody came close to replicating it. But they tried.
Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980) was a direct homage to Fellini's film, although Allen's conceit was of a director who seeks to make serious films but is pigeonholed as a maker of comedies. The conclusion of 8½, in which the entire cast magically appears to participate in a circus-like celebration, was seized upon by lesser filmmakers as a surreal way to wrap up their films. Christian Marquand's Candy (1968) ends with the Candide-like heroine wandering through a field and meeting all the actors (Ringo Starr, James Coburn, Marlon Brando, you name it) from the movie. Michael Sarne's Joanna (1968) appears to end on a downbeat note as a train pulls out of a station, only to reveal the entire cast on the opposite platform performing a high-kicking dance. (I was so wowed by Fellini's ending and by those of his imitators that I chose to major in film production at university - earned the degree, but that was it.)
It's essential in a fantasy to have the right music, and Fellini was blessed with a gloriously jaunty score by Nino Rota. For his ending, Marquand used a song by the Byrds; Sarne used an upbeat number by Rod McKuen. Maury Yeston wrote the music and lyrics for an entire stage musical based on 8½, upping the number (which originally referred to how many films Fellini had made) to Nine, the film version of which just received a lukewarm reception. But then, Fellini was no stranger to musicals; his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, starring wife Giulietta Masina as a too-trusting prostitute, was the basis for the musical Sweet Charity.
The surprising note about Fellini's ending is that, while he had mused in 1960 about such a scene, he planned to conclude 8½ aboard a train, with the philandering director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) and his unhappy wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) inching toward a reconciliation. He shot the scene twice, once with the cast dressed all in white and once with them all in black. Then his producer asked him to make a theatrical trailer. Fellini revived his circus idea, and was so pleased with the result that he scrapped the train scene and used elements from the trailer as his ending.
Those who have seen 8½ will need no selling on its beauty, on the dream-like logic that propels many of its scenes, on the fluidity of the camera and on the calibre of the actors. Alongside Mastroianni and Aimée, Claudia Cardinale plays Guido's muse, Barbara Steele plays the panther-like fiancée of a much older diplomat and Sandra Milo plays Guido's mistress. Milo starred as the temptress in Fellini's first colour film, Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and she and the director had a long affair. As with so much else in 8½ , art and life co-mingled.
Robin Hood: Season Three (2009)
It's shaping up as a Robin Hood year, what with the forthcoming Ridley Scott film starring Russell Crowe as the legend of Sherwood Forest. In this final season of the dark and gritty BBC series featuring Jonas Armstrong as Robin and Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne, Robin begins by trying to avenge Gisborne's murder of Maid Marian in the previous season. It doesn't go well. Friar Tuck (David Harewood) shows up to stitch him back together. Don't marvel at the English scenery; the series was shot in Hungary.
Kathy Griffin: She'll Cut a Bitch (2009)
It follows the usual format for a cable-TV standup comedy special, but Kathy Griffin's latest 45-minute outing unspools more like a well-acted theatrical (and expletive-heavy) one-woman show. The emphasis is less on punchlines than on her infectious energy and store of anecdotes about life backstage at the Emmys (she has won two) and spending a day with Cher. In bonus deleted bits, she says hi to her large gay following in the audience and tells the straight women, "You're so not getting laid at this show."
Japanese director Yojiro Takita's gentle drama "of decidedly measured pace" and "predictable plot" (said The Globe's two-star review) surprised many last February by winning the Oscar for best foreign-language film, beating out such estimable contenders as The Class and Waltz with Bashir. A cellist (Masahiro Motoki) whose job in Tokyo has vanished returns to his home town. His new job, preparing corpses for funerals, suits him, but the stigma is such that he won't even tell his wife what he does. 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action Collection (1974-75)
The "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s had the virtue of reflecting black faces to black audiences and the vice of painting everyone as a pimp, a hooker or a gangster. The model is spoofed in Black Dynamite, a new film being released on Feb. 16. Meanwhile, here's a set of four lesser examples of the genre. Martial-arts champion Jim Kelly stars in three of them: Black Belt Samson, Hot Potato and Three the Hard Way (with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson). The fourth is Black Samson. Mob bosses loom large.
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Producer-director Kathryn Bigelow had to finance this film outside the Hollywood system. The advantage, she says in a commentary, is that Hollywood wouldn't have let her shoot the movie in the Middle East. Much was filmed in Jordan, the rest in Vancouver. Actor David Morse rightly says this gripping drama about bomb-disposal experts in Iraq captures the sense of a world that "doesn't care who anybody is - anybody can go at any time - and at the same time there's a real surreal quality to it."
The notion of humans isolated in space is familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, but writer-director Duncan Jones (David Bowie's son) puts an intriguing twist on it. The twist is too good to give away here, but suffice to say that lonely Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is working at a moon base with his sole companion, a robot named Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey). Then something happens. In the bonus features, Rockwell explains the tricky way he had to act after that point.