Monday, July 25, 2011

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest: From #620 through #629

Here is a look at the latest ten films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  These ten films were seen between June 24th and July 12th.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#620 - The Sign of Leo (1959)
(#994 on TSPDT)  Helping to usher in the Nouvelle Vague, Eric Rohmer's feature directorial debut is a quiet film and, not to sound too cliche, a quite haunting film as well.  The film follows one man's way through good fortune and eventual ruin, as well as eventual possible redemption.  Rohmer would later grow as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, creating more complex moral tales later in his career (his peak was probably the seventies), but this first film, a more-than worthy debut and one that is as rule-breaking as anything else the New Wave was doing (at least thematically speaking if not cinematically), is a Renoir-inspired, matter-of-factly poetic look at the follies and sheer happenstance of life.

#621 - Opening Night (1977)
(#854 on TSPDT)  Indie icon John Cassavetes has always been an actor's director (obvious point, I know) but it comes to an almost nth degree in Opening Night.  The story of an aging stage actress who becomes haunted (figuratively and literally if you believe everything in the film) by her inability to deal with an equally aging character.  Much of the film has an improv feeling to it (which may come from it being improvised which is Cassavetes typical modus operendi) and the interactions between star Gena Rowlands, costar and director (and real life husband) Cassavetes, and regular Cassavetes costar Ben Gazzara is brilliantly worked.  It is also fun to see Joan Blondell in a small but vital role.  The highlight of the film (of which there are many to choose from) is the finale where it is just Rowlands and Cassavetes sparring together on stage.  I would place this film as my second favourite Cassavetes, displacing Woman Under the Influence to third and landing behind just Killing of a Chinese Bookie

#622 - The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)
(#857 on TSPDT)  Yes, the film, made by Mark Donskoi, a slightly younger and decidedly lesser known contemporary of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, has a strong Soviet feel about (as well it should since it is the story of one the greatest of Russian/Soviet heroic figures) but unlike many of the films by the aforementioned Soviet trio and such iconic films as Battleship Potemkin or Earth, it is not as powerful a cinematic statement as said contemporaries. Still, though to a lesser degree, the film does have its moments and is still a strong story (it is Donskoi's lack of cinematic prowess, not his storytelling ability that makes the film pale in comparison) even if it doesn't hold up to the (possibly impossible) standards of early Soviet cinema.

#623 - Moana (1926)
(#903 on TSPDT)  Having loved Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (the only Flaherty I have seen up until now) I was highly anticipating this film, another look, albeit manipulated in many ways, at a mostly unknown (at least at the time) primitive culture - and incidentally one of the first films to be handled with the term documentary.  Unfortunately I wasn't all that thrilled with Moana, the story of a small Samoan village (as opposed to all those large Samoan villages!?).  A flop at the box office (attributable perhaps to the "West" already showing up before Flaherty and having the village already adopting western clothes and way,  therefore the pure "man vs. nature" aspect so prevalent in Nanook being lessened considerably) Moana ends up being, though visually a well-crafted work, no Nanook.

#624 - The Baker's Wife (1938)
(#980 on TSPDT)  Marcel Pagnol is another one of those directors I was totally unfamiliar with when going into this, the director's sole film on the list, but coming out I wish I knew more.   Taking on the tale of the titular wife and her cuckolded husband searching for her after she runs off with an appropriately musclebound suitor, Pagnol's film plays out as an early sex farce in many ways (censors in France may not have been as strict as in the US, but still it is tame compared to today's standards - or even compared to the pre-code era) and has quite a few hilarious situations within.  With his poetic realism-esque style, Pagnol's film is somewhat akin to contemporaries Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and especially Rene Clair (though not actually in the league of the aforementioned) and is surely worth looking into other films of his oeuvre.

#625 - The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
(#596 on TSPDT)  Vincente Minnelli - how can this not be a great film.  Easily one of my twenty favourite directors, this acerbic look at the film industry, and more specifically one particular egomaniacal cog in such an industry, is one of Minnelli's most engaging films - and that is saying a Hell of a lot considering we are talking about the man who gave us The Band Wagon and An American in Paris and Meet Me in St. Louis and Some Came Running and the oft-overlooked The Cobweb.  Now granted, this film is still below the five I just mentioned, but when you are an auteur the level of Minnelli, even your lesser films are better than many director's better films.  But enough of the Minnelli gushing, there are other aspects to this film - mainly the acting.  The film features Kirk Douglas, who was just becoming a big name at the time, in one of his chewiest roles as the aforementioned egomaniac.  We also get Dick Powell, Lana Turner and the always wonderful Gloria Grahame in the role that would win her an Oscar.

#626 - Forbidden Planet (1956)
(#493 on TSPDT)  Considered one of the best of the 1950's sci-fi films (and the peak of the gorgeous Anne Francis' career - Richard O'Brien even included her in the lyrics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show's opening credits song "Science Fiction/Double Feature") Forbidden Planet, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, stars Leslie Nielsen long before he became the face of parody cinema, and features the film debut of Robby the Robot (later to make guest appearances on many a sci-fi TV show), and of course has Anne Francis in those oh so short short short dresses and acting all come-hither with her burly new friends who have landed their ship on her planet.  You can read more on this film by checking out "The Seductive & Quite Shameless Come-Hitherness of Anne Francis, Robby the Robot & Forbidden Planet" elsewhere on this blog.

#627 - Holiday (1938)
(#616 on TSPDT)  Perhaps I was just too tired to appreciate the film (perhaps unfairly I watched this film late late late one night and was on the verge of dozing off near the end) or perhaps it is just a lesser Screwball than most, but I've got to admit that I wasn't all that thrilled with George Cukor's Holiday.  Granted, there were funny parts throughout, and Grant and Hepburn make for a delightfully manic pair and Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton are a blast as Grant's boho pals, but still the film lacked the classic comedy of things like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday that were made around the same time period and are now considered the creme de la creme of the genre.  Okay, perhaps it was just that I was tired - because the film is fun, even if it isn't the best of its genre.

#628 - Douce (1943)
(#895 on TSPDT)  Like many filmmakers on this list (too many probably) this counts as my introduction to French director Claude Autant-Lara.  Also known as Love Story, Douce is the story of class struggle in 1887 Paris, Autant-Lara shows the interweaving, and quite tangled affairs between a governess, her young ward and a hired hand.  With his roving, promiscuous camera that is more than a little indicative of Ophuls, Autant-Lara's film, a lavish spectacle without seeming too opulent, mesmerized this critic from start to finish - something that was quite surprising, though probably would not have been if I were aware of just how Ophulsesque this director happens to be.

#629 - Devil in the Flesh (1947)
(#981 on TSPDT)  Watching back to back Claude Autant-Lara films was certainly a treat for this rabid cinephile.  The second one, Devil in the Flesh, is the story of an affair between an underage student and an older woman engaged to a soldier off fighting during WWI.  With surface similarities to Visconti's Senso (do not know if this was an influence in any way on that later work) and a camera that spins around in (as I said above) the most Max Ophulsesque manner, Devil in the Flesh is a succulent treat of cinematic artistry.  After watching these two films I long for more Autant-Lara (though these are the only two on the list) and will need to seek him out wherever I can find him.


Ed Howard said...

This is very old, but I just had to chime in: Holiday is not really a screwball comedy, and despite some funny parts, and certainly lots of wickedly witty dialogue, its dominant mood is more melancholy than comedic. It's one of Cukor's best and one of my very favorite films, a beautiful film about the difficulty of choosing one's own way in life. Grant and Hepburn are wonderful in this, balancing their charm and joie de vivre against the sadness they feel as external pressures keep trying to mold them into something more "respectable."

It's not as unrelentingly funny as other top comedies of the era, but it's an incredibly rich and moving film.

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