Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Two of US Turns 50

Claude Berri’s The Two of Us is a charming and sentimental comedic drama set in occupied France during WWII. Here, a rambunctious Jewish kid from Paris (Alan Cohen) is sent to live out the war in the relative safety of the countryside near Lyon. With the Nazi occupation, Cohen’s parents have seen the writing on the wall. Life in Paris is consumed by tension and dread, and they would prefer their son spend his childhood chasing butterflies instead of fleeing bombs.

Young Cohen is placed in the care of an elderly couple (Michel Simon, Luce Fabiole) whose rough hewn, rural ways are quite the eye-opener for this city kid, giving the film plenty of humorous culture shock. While Parisians face the terrors of violence and death camp deportations, Cohen’s new village is chiefly concerned with head lice, and local kids are comically subjected to daily hair inspections.

But The Two of Us is really the story of the unlikely bond that develops between Cohen and Michel Simon as his foster grandfather named Pépé. Simon’s character is a gruff pensioner - a sort of Gallic Archie Bunker - who despises Englishmen, Jews and Russians, in that order. While Cohen keeps his origins a secret, he and Simon slowly overcome their 70 year age gulf as they provide each other with inspiration and a path to redemption. The crusty Pépé begins to see his own long-lost childhood in the boy and, in his dwindling days, embarks on a cheerful voyage of self discovery as he teaches young Cohen a few important life lessons.

The film is a tour de force - there is no other way to describe it - for Michel Simon, proving once again why he was considered acting royalty in France. His reading of Pépé remains lovable and bouyant despite a few crabby and ugly moods along the way. Simon starred in well over a hundred films throughout his long career, many of which have attained the stature of European classics. For director Claude Berri, The Two of Us was his first feature length film. A year earlier, he had won an Oscar for his short Le poulet (1965), and The Two of Us proved that his success was no fluke. Berri would also go on to a stellar career in the industry, scoring major international hits with Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring 20 years later.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Angel Heart Turns 30

Angel Heart is a darkly entertaining film that applies the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective template to a story steeped in mysticism. Within its smokey folds, a low-rent private eye (Mickey Rourke) will follow a trail of deception and murder from the hipster heights of Harlem to the sultry breezes of Louisiana in search of a missing Jazz singer. Along the way, the scruffy Rourke will encounter corrupt cops, Voodoo high priestesses and a few grisly sacrifices, both animal and human. But his greatest enemy will be his own cryptic history, and an ancient evil that ruthlessly seeks to exploit it.

Director Alan Parker and his favorite cinematographer Michael Seresin created an iconic visual language for the film, rich with dusky symbols and gloomy metaphors. It was a photographic style that appropriated, and was later appropriated by, popular music videos of the 1980s and 90s. Seresin’s dreamy images and Parker’s assured storytelling proved to be a winning combination, creating films that not only entertained, but told complex stories with clarity and charisma. As their combined filmography - which includes such popular titles as Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980) and Angela’s Ashes (1999) - attests, Parker and Seresin were influential figures to a generation of filmmakers, and Angel Heart finds them at the top of their games.

Angel Heart also marked important milestones in the lives of its actors. Robert DeNiro, who plays Rourke’s mysterious employer Louis Cyphre, began to settle into middle-age with this performance, shifting away from the hyper-active, hyper-aggressive street punk persona that made him famous. For love interest Lisa Bonet, the film loudly announced that she had shed the adolescent larva of Denise Huxtable, and was now ready to be taken seriously in the full flower of womanhood.

And for Mickey Rourke, it was one of the last performances to fully capitalize on his distinct eccentricities. Despite a career as a dodgy tough guy, Rourke evoked a gentle, vulnerable quality often at odds with his cold-blooded characters. This trait enabled him to create fascinating portraits of thugs on the brink, only one nudge away from redemption, but ultimately undone by destiny. A few years after Angel Heart, Rourke would make a horribly wrong-headed choice to abandon acting for a career as a professional boxer. He endured so much punishment in the ring that his face had to be surgically rebuilt a number of times, costing him the tender, expressive quality that made him unique. Rourke now generally plays caricatures of his former self, with varying degrees of success. After watching his great work in Angel Heart, one can only wonder what might have been.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Young Girls of Rochefort Turns 50

Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort offers a distinctly French take on the Great American Musical. The film has delighted and enthralled audiences for half a century, and after a recent re-watch, I can attest the film has lost none of its groovy luster. From its miniskirts and go-go boots, to its candy colored set design, to its breezy Jazz score by Michel Legrand, the film epitomizes the brash, carefree cool of the 1960s. It’s rumored that Damien Chazelle studied the film obsessively while prepping for La La Land, and the 2016 Oscar nominee is heavily steeped in homage to Demy’s bouncy epic.

The film concerns a traveling musical show led by Etienne (George Chakiris) and Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who roll their convoy of equipment laden trucks into the town square for Rochefort’s annual Fete de la Mer. In between rehearsals, the guys roam Rochefort’s sleepy streets and get to know a few of the locals, including the mega-hottie Garnier twins (Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Françoise Dorléac) who have a musical act and twinkly ambitions of their own. Along the way, there’s plenty of lively singing and dancing, with lavish production numbers and even a cameo from the great Gene Kelly as a visiting American songwriter.

After all these years, The Young Girls of Rochefort remains a feast for the senses, with colorful, eye popping spectacle and an assortment of catchy tunes choreographed to the nines. It also served as a launching pad for several long careers in the industry. Chakiris would relocate to Hollywood, where he would become a fixture of American television, appearing such shows as The Partridge Family and Dallas. Perrin would remain in Europe, but achieve international recognition for his pivotal role in the sentimental hit Cinema Paradisio (1988) and is still active today. Deneuve, of course, has gone on to iconic stature, even though she was more eye-candy than actress in those early days. Her sister was not so fortunate, however. A few months after shooting this film, Françoise Dorléac was killed in an auto accident on the beach road near Nice. Her tragic death stunned the French nation, but her spirit lives on in The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

La Collectionneuse Turns 50

La Collectionneuse is best viewed as a transitional work, and Rohmer’s first attempt at adapting his patented talky romance format to feature length. The two previous entries in the Moral Tales series, La Boulangère de Monceau and Suzanne’s Career, both produced in 1963, were B/W shorts, shot in Paris in a gritty, documentary style. La Collectionneuse was filmed in color by the great Nestor Almendros (who would go on to win an Oscar for Days of Heaven) and takes place in the rural south of France, in one of those stone farmhouses that make American tourists swoon.

A Parisian named Adrian (Patrick Bauchau), who has taken navel-gazing to an art form, has come to the villa for one of those interminable French holidays. He shares the house with his friend Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) and a free-sprited – to put it mildy - young woman named Haydee (Haydee Politoff). Haydee’s vacation plans consist almost entirely of having sex with, well, everyone. Everyone except Adrian, that is.

In an interesting reversal of the usual sexual politics, it is Haydee who views sex as a series of one night conquests, and she ‘collects’ trysts with men  the way others collect stamps or rare coins. All of this throws the handsome, and quite spoiled, Adrian into a blasé sort of tizzy, as he finds himself unable to seduce the unselective Haydee, and his self esteem, which is basically his entire raison d’être, is mortally threatened.

Despite having a loyal fanbase, La Collectionneuse is not one of this reviewer’s favorite Rohmer films. There are issues with the casting – usually Rohmer’s strong suit – that prevent the film from fully capitalizing on its intriguing premise. Patrick Bachau (who has gone on to have a long and successful career, including the wonderful HBO series Carnivale) seems generally too ambivalent considering he's supposedly The Worlds Most Self Absorbed Man, and Haydee Politoff (who went on to do a couple of low budget vampire movies) simply isn't very interesting.

The slightly tomboy-ish ingénue is a Rohmer archetype, serving as the narrative lynchpin in much of his future work, and here, through Politoff’s shortcomings, we gain a deeper appreciation of the many times the director would get this character exactly right. Politoff was 20 years old when the film was made, but she photographs much younger, giving the film an accidental unattractive edge; it’s as if we’re watching the story of an older man obsessed with a bit of slutty jailbait. This is an idea Rohmer would explore with much more finesse a few years later in Clare’s Knee, and there he pulls it off thoughtfully and with a minimum of ickyness.

La Collectionneuse is a bumpy ride that will appeal mainly to hard-core Rohmer fans and completists. But we do get a peek at the evolution of the director’s unique brand of insightful humanism.

Red River Turns 70

Red River is a sprawling epic western, with just enough unique and offbeat artistry to make it a true American classic. It is a hig...