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Under the radar movies: A controversial anti-war flick, plus somber & slasher Christmases

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Joe, Mondo Cinema, Talaash, November 2012, Aamir Khan
Horray for Bollywood, and Aamir Khan, right, in Talaash. Doridro.com
Joe, Mondo Cinema, Grand Illusion
Joe, Mondo Cinema, Talaash, November 2012, Aamir Khan
Silent Night, Deadly Night, Santa, axe
austin Poll: Christmas movie_it's a wonderful life
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Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is an anti-war movie without a single battle scene. Indeed, only a handful shots are fired throughout the 1937 drama, which shows soldiers of opposing armies behaving in the most politely civilized manner imaginable — for the most part — while in close quarters with each other.

But despite all that — or, perhaps more precisely, because of it — the film was banned by the fascist governments of Germany and Italy until the end of World War II. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels infamously denounced it as “cinematic public enemy No. 1” after its Venice Film Festival premiere. Three years later, the collaborationist Vichy government also took pains to keep it from the viewing public in France.

 "This film was very successful. Three years later [World War II] broke out.” 

In the United States, however, Eleanor Roosevelt had Grand Illusion screened at the White House for her birthday. And her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, provided the greatest blurb quote ever issued by a Commander in Chief since Woodrow Wilson described The Birth of a Nation as “like history writ with lightning.” Said FDR: “All the democracies in the world must see Grand Illusion.”

A newly restored print of Renoir’s masterwork will be screened this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (7 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday), offering H-Town cineastes another chance — or, for some, a first opportunity — to heed the advice of POTUS No. 32.

On its simplest level, Grand Illusion is a cracking good World War I drama infused with elements of comedy and tragedy, at once engrossing and entertaining as it details the misadventures of three French officers — Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a bemused aristocrat; Marechal (the great Jean Gabin), a blunt-spoken mechanic; and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a scion of a Jewish banking family — held as prisoners of war in a succession of German encampments.

Van Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), a cultured German commander, views Boieldieu as his equal — another well-bred gentleman career officer — and ruefully notes that the two of them are members of a privileged class on the verge of extinction, destined to be overrun by . . . well, the likes of Marechal and Rosenthal.

Boieldieu seems more bemused than upset by this inevitability. But Marechal and Rosenthal demonstrate — after they make a daring escape, and are forced to rely on each other — just how much hard work it may take to transcend prejudice and preconceptions if any sort of universal brotherhood ever is to be achieved.

Grand Illusion is a truly great movie, one that speaks eloquently and compellingly about the absurdities of conflict and the possibilities of connection. And for better or worse, it remains as relevant now as it was in 1936, when Jean Renoir began production.

The celebrated filmmaker often noted that he had set out hoping his movie might change minds and touch hearts at a time when nations appeared poised to produce a terrible sequel to what had been billed as The War to End All Wars. But when asked about Grand Illusion years later by film historian Robert Hughes, his cryptic reply indicated his own illusions had been shattered: “In 1936 I made a picture named La Grande Illusion in which I tried to express all my deep feelings for the cause of peace.

"This film was very successful. Three years later [World War II] broke out.”

A not entirely Merry Christmas movie

Sure, you have ample opportunity every Christmas season to catch It’s Wonderful Life on network TV. But if you have a hankering to see Frank Capra’s 1946 classic on a big screen — the way God and Capra intended you to see it — there’s a special free-admission screening on tap 7 p.m. Saturday at the Vintage Park Shopping Village, courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse.

 How many George Baileys don’t get the miracle they need?  

But be forewarned: If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life before, or if it’s been a very long time since you last saw it, you may be surprised by just how dark a movie it really is.

As I noted here last year, Capra’s classic considers the life of George Bailey (James Stewart at the top of his form), a small-town savings-and-loan manager whose grand ambitions and stirrings of wanderlust have always been stifled by civic duty and family responsibility.

On a particularly bleak Christmas Eve, George thinks of prematurely ending what he feels has been a useless, worthless existence. The guy sells himself much too short, of course. But it requires nothing short of divine intervention — i.e., the appearance of a guardian angel — for him to fully appreciate that his life has touched and enriched many other lives.

And yet: Even as he ends with a comforting tableau of peace on earth, good will toward men, Capra doesn’t entirely dispel the unsettling chill left over from George’s long dark night of the soul.

And we’re forced to consider: In the real world — a place where even harsher lessons are taught and learned — how many George Baileys don’t get the miracle they need? When the best among us begin to think the least of themselves, what happens when their angels don’t show up?

Ho! Ho! Horror!

For those of you who like your holiday movies naughty, not nice, Silent Night  — a remake of the notorious 1984 slasher flick Silent Night, Deadly Night — opens this weekend in limited theatrical release before its Dec. 4 debut on Blu-Ray and DVD. Just how “limited” is this theatrical release?

Well, as far as I can tell, it’s playing on only one screen in the H-Town area, at the AMC Gulf Pointe 30.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: The original Silent Night, Deadly Night — which spawned no fewer than four sequels, including one (1989’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!) directed by cult-fave Monte Hellman — tells the twisted tale of a troubled young man who, years after seeing a crazy in a Santa Claus disguise murder his mom and dad, goes on a slay ride of his own while decked out in a Santa suit.

Among the most memorable of the movie’s many murders: At one point, the very bad Santa impales a young woman on the antlers of a mounted antelope head.

According to The New York Times, Steven C. Miller, director of the new Silent Night, felt compelled to reference that grisly demise in his own movie.

“It was important for me to give a nod to the original and say to fans, I know you’re there, and I love you, but this is a different movie,” the filmmaker told The Paper of Record.

Miller doubtless made a list and checked it twice before casting Malcolm McDowell, Donal Logue, Jaime King, Brendan Fehr and Lisa Marie in his Silent Night. Presumably, those folks think it’s bad form to say “Bah, humbug!” to an easy paycheck.  

Hooray for Bollywood

This week’s import from India: Talaash (at the AMC Studio 30), a noir-style thriller (with songs) about a Mumbai police inspector’s probe into the mysterious death of a Bollywood superstar. The investigation is greatly complicated by the inspector’s ongoing marital woes, and the occasional appearance of a vengeful ghost with her own agenda.

No, really.

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