Saturday, August 27, 2016

Jean de Florette Turns 30

Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette is part one of a sprawling Shakespearean-style tragedy; a multi-generational tale of parched, flinty soils and equally barren human souls. Set in the blinding sunlight of Provence circa 1920, it’s the story of the last surviving members of the Sobeyran family (Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil), a once flourishing clan laid low by decades of petty squabbles and shady dealings. To rescue the Soybeyran name from its death rattles, Montand and Auteuil devise a scheme to virtually steal a neighboring farm rumored to have a hidden spring, thus providing an endless supply of water for their lucrative cut flower enterprise.

A wrench is thrown in their plan when the land is inherited by a hunchbacked Parisian accountant (Gerard Depardieu) with designs on building a life there with his family. Their foul machinations threatened, Montand and Auteuil resort to vandalism and sabotage to ensure the naive Depardieu’s failure. But in pursuing their cruel strategy, the smirking Soybeyrans unwittingly seal their own disastrous fate, opening a Pandora’s Box that will eventually unleash upon them a ruthless justice of recrimination, regret and abject misery.

The film works both as an engrossing rural melodrama, and as a tactile evocation of time and place. Cameraman Bruno Nuytten’s glowing frames are filled with the rocky cliffs, dusty trails and azure skies of the Vaucluse district. It’s a landscape as beautiful as it is unforgiving, and those who attempt to scratch out a living from its hardscrabble wastes must fight and conquer the hostilities of nature. But equally harsh is the bedrock of arrogance and narcissism that lies just below the surface of the Soybeyrans. Berri cleverly makes the family’s odious history visually manifest in Auteuil’s gap-toothed, squinty-eyed portrayal of the appropriately named Ugolin. Looking like a French peasant version of Alfred E. Newman, this role made Auteuil an international star; his embodiment so convincing audiences were shocked to later learn that off screen he was actually a handsome fellow.

But this is truly Gerard Depardieu’s movie. His energetic capture of the urban innocent with dreams of a simple life in the country still rings true today. His attempt to learn farming from musty textbooks is a classic miscalculation that initially amuses, then turns dangerous and deadly as his fruitless toil damages his body and psyche. Depardieu dominates his scenes, emitting a foolhardy passion that seems to jump from the screen. And as we will learn in the sequel Manon of the Spring (1986), underneath Depardieu’s infantile enthusiasm lies an arrogant streak of his own, and he comes by it honestly.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Notorious Turns 70

Those looking to curl up with a sleek and stylish thriller could do a lot worse than Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious from 1946. Now celebrating its 70th birthday, Notorious is an engrossing and - at 101 minutes - efficient piece of moviemaking that artfully avoids spelling out every iota of backstory; often substituting mood and nuance for conventional plotting. It’s a film that feels very modern, despite its shaggy vintage, and incorporates enough noir elements to remain true to its lineage, while charting a narrative course for the legions of spy flicks that followed.

Written by the legendary script doctor Ben Hecht – winner of the first ever screenwritng Oscar for Underworld in 1927 - Notorious is as lean and spare as a haiku. Through just a few laser focused scenes, Hecht and Hitchcock establish their characters’ histories, tendencies and motivations without a single wasted word or gesture. The sprawling plot will involve complex schemes with international implications, yet not a moment feels false, rushed or over simplified. The story gives us only the necessary and savory tidbits, perfectly reduced to the elemental, and Hitchcock commits nary a fumble in its deceptively simple execution.

Set in Miami, Notorious is all about Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who has decided that oblivion drinking and easy virtue are fine methods of forgetting her troubles. During a sloppy party one night at her beachbox bungalow she meets a handsome friend-of-a-friend named Devlin (Cary Grant) and, several bottles later, Alicia finds herself reeling, both from lust and too much wine. But Devlin has designs greater than a quick roll in the hay. His employer, a nameless U.S. spy agency, has determined that Alicia has the perfect resume for a secret mission to save the world from nuclear destruction, and it’s Devlin’s job to transform this hollow-legged floozy into a competent spook.

Notorious features a cast of such stalwart talents its reductive story takes on larger and richer dimensions. Claude Rains is fun to watch as an architect of evil undone by his own mushy lapses, and makes a superb foil for Grant. The great Louis Calhern, as Devlin’s boss Prescott, reprises his sleazy diplomat role from Duck Soup - and a dozen other pictures – and it’s a joy to watch this consummate character actor ply his craft. Bergman’s apparent effortlessness is impressive, and few leading ladies could pull off her transformation from Florida party girl to reserved hausfrau as convincingly. And Grant, despite the gravity of his role, glides through with his patented elegance and beguiling sense of imminent wit.

In the Hitchcock filmography, Spellbound precedes Notorious by a year, but the stylistic differences between the films seems like decades. Spellbound, a Selznick production, feels stogy and stagebound, its sets clunky and overdecorated; brimming with an insecure person’s idea of good taste. Notorious, produced by Hitchcock himself, feels fresh and contemporary and it’s a fitting battlefield for this tale of entrenched European privilege versus the ideals of a New World. While Spellbound wallowed in shadowy plot contrivances, Notorious attacks its narrative with straightforward, determined vigor. Here, Hitchcock tells a tight, muscular story in a tight, muscular style, and provides both a model and a standard for countless Cold War spy thrillers still to come.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Little Miss Sunshine Turns 10

Little Miss Sunshine is a lively ensemble comedy that launched and augmented a number of careers on both sides of the camera. For the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it marked a successful transition from the dwindling music video market that first brought them notoriety, to the world of mainstream Hollywood features. The film quickly catapulted unknown writer Michael Arndt to the A list, where he eventually added such hits as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Inside Out to his illustrious filmography. For young actor Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine drew his unique vulnerability out of the shadows, and made him the industry’s most sought after brooding presence. And for veteran character actor Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine finally brought him a well deserved Oscar, after three failed nominations dating back to 1969.

The film is all about the hectic, struggling Hoover family of Albuquerque headed by Richard (Greg Kinnear) and Sheryl (Toni Collette). Also under roof are a snarling, heroin addicted grandpa (Arkin), a gothy teenager who has taken a vow of silence (Dano), a Proust-scholar uncle who has recently attempted suicide (Steve Carell), and Olive, a chubby 9 year old daughter with dreams of stardom (Abigail Breslin). When Olive is invited to compete in an uber-tacky kid’s beauty contest at the last minute, this motley band piles into an aging VW bus for a poorly planned road trip to Redondo Beach. Through a series of misadventures, virtually everyone in the family has their hopes and dreams crushed to dust, in ways that are both hilarious and disturbing. Yet they bravely venture on, pursuing a dream that always seems to lie just beyond the horizon.

Little Miss Sunshine is a movie that’s more than the sum its parts. Like the films of John Hughes, it’s a lightweight comedy that manages to reach deeply into the zeitgeist. This story of illusions shattered by reality was a unique and resonant reflection of its time. Bogged down in a war launched for illusionary reasons, reveling in an economic prosperity that would also prove to be an illusion, Little Miss Sunshine was a fitting allegory for post-9/11 America. The battered, rag-tag Hoover family, united by bonds of love that bend but never break, traverse the Continental Divide in their sputtering microbus; its rusty muffler belching acrid whiffs of The Grapes of Wrath for a new millennium.