Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Impressionists

François Truffaut once said:

"Renoir does not film ideas, but men and women who have ideas, and he does not invite us to adopt these ideas or to sort them out no matter how quaint or illusory they may be, but simply to respect them." 

The man who would go on to write and direct two of the most influential films ever made (La Grande Illusion; La Règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game) was already born into artistic royalty. The second son of master Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renior would also go on to scribe the definitive biography of his celebrated father. Like the rest of the family, young Jean was a frequent subject of his father's portraits. It wasn't until Jean discovered the films of D. W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin (while recuperating from a leg injury he sustained during WWI that left him with a permanent limp) and later Erich von Stroheim, whom he would one day immortalize in his greatest screen role, that Jean Renoir began to fully understand what his own artistic direction should be. Below are some of the portraits painted by the elder Renoir next to various photographs of his subject, the man who some consider to be the greatest filmmaker there ever was. Jean Renoir himself once said:

"I decided to make a study of French gesture as reflected in my father's paintings."

Art imitating life, imitating art again. And so it goes...

essential reading: Jean Renoir by André Bazin (edited by François Truffaut) with a foreword by Jean Renoir, 1973 Simon & Schuster

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Toys

Writer/director Francis Veber's Le Jouet (1976) was remade by Richard Donner as The Toy (1982) starring Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason. Several of Veber's original French screenplays have been turned into American remakes: Three Fugitives (1989); Pure Luck (1991); My Father the Hero (1994); The Birdcage (1996); Father's Day (1997); Dinner for Schmucks (2010). In a recent post I gave Zack Snyder a bit of a ribbing for borrowing heavily from Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978) during the opening Krypton sequences of Man of Steel (2013), but it would seem Donner is just as guilty of lifting from his sources too. Unlike Snyder, at least Donner never made the comment: "respect the canon but don’t be a slave to the [previous] movies." I doubt The Toy was meant to be anything more than an obvious remake. However, it's just further proof that Hollywood (the dream factory) should be more aptly dubbed: the Xerox factory.

Veber's Le Jouet (1976) on the left and Donner's The Toy (1982) on the right

The Women in Red

Un éléphant ça trompe énormément (1976) (English: An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive) aka Pardon Mon Affaire was remade by actor/director Gene Wilder as The Woman in Red (1984). The original French screenplay was co-written by Yves Robert whose spy spoof The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (1972) was also turned into The Man With One Red Shoe (1985) starring Tom Hanks. I've always had a soft spot for Wilder's The Woman in Red (featuring Gilda Radner's best screen performance), but the similarities below are quite conspicuous.

Pardon Mon Affaire (1976) on the left and The Woman in Red (1984) on the right

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Five Favorite Films

In case you didn't know, Rotten Tomatoes has a wonderful column on their website where they ask movie people to list five of their personal favorite movies, with or without explanation. It was interesting to learn that filmmaker Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers, 2012) chose the Robert Altman obscurity Brewster McCloud (1970) along with Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose (1978); and that Mr. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe is a huge fan of one of my favorite Powell and Pressburger films, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Unfortunately, it's not a feature they update regularly enough, but there are several pages of entries to keep you amused for hours. In gazing at my film library, I thought I would pull out five go-to movies and do a list of my own.

Breaking Away (1979) directed by Peter Yates

Jackie Earle Haley and Amy Wright
The essential coming of age in small town America film, and one of the best sports movies ever. It prefigures the work of John Hughes as well as some other favorite films of mine that deal with young people trying to find their place in the world, specifically Diner (1982) and Fandango (1985). In a way, it even anticipates Hoosiers (1986) and future Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire (1981). John Hughes cast Paul Dooley (the father in Breaking Away) as Molly Ringwald's father in Sixteen Candles (1984). Dennis Christopher (one of the breakout stars of Breaking Away) had a small cameo in Chariots of Fire. Coincidence?

Funny Bones (1995) written & directed by Peter Chelsom

Lee Evans, Freddie Davies and George Carl
It's true, the man who directed Hannah Montana: The Movie also made one of my all-time favorite films. Jerry Lewis probably gave the best performance of his career (alongside Scorsese's The King of Comedy, 1982) as the beloved showbiz Dad of a chronically unfunny comic played by Oliver Platt. It's a story about families, dark secrets and coming to terms with who we really are. It's also fairly riotous thanks to comedian Lee Evans who gives a knockout performance that stretches the boundaries between funny and disturbing. Leslie Caron, Richard Griffiths, Ian McNeice and Oliver Reed are also along for the ride. However, the film really belongs to a pair of gifted performers played by George Carl and Freddie Davies. Their occupation as a critical component to a funhouse ride is a scream.

The Hairdresser's Husband (1990) written & directed by Patrice Leconte

Youssef Hamid and Jean Rochefort
Jean Rochefort is one of those great actors (like the late, great Peter O'Toole) who is able to draw you into his character's internal life with a single look. Whether he is playing a crooked clergyman in a period piece like Tavernier's Let Joy Reign Supreme (1974), or an aspiring adulterous husband in a breezy farce like Pardon Mon Affaire (1976) (which was later remade almost shot-for-shot by Gene Wilder as The Woman in Red, 1984) Rochefort's eyes never fail to hypnotize you. The plot of Patrice Leconte's film is so benign it wouldn't make much sense to describe. It's about a man who always dreamed he'd marry a hairdresser (title starting to make sense now?). Like most of Leconte's gentle yet quasi-mystical films (The Girl on the Bridge; The Man on the Train also with Rochefort) this one packs an unexpected wallop at the end. Rochefort's dancing is unforgettable too.

Song of Summer (1968) written & directed by Ken Russell
(part of the essential Ken Russell at the BBC DVD set)

Max Adrian, Christopher Gable and Maureen Pryor
I didn't know much about English composer Frederick Delius until I watched this brief (72-minute) but spellbinding film that was originally produced for the BBC's Omnibus television series. What makes it spellbinding, besides the subject matter, are the performances of Max Adrian, Christopher Gable and Maureen Pryor. Adrian plays Delius, completely blind and near-death. Gable plays Eric Fenby, his young amanuensis who is tasked with setting down in writing the final symphony in Delius' head. Pryor plays Jelka Rosen, Delius' devoted and long-suffering wife. It's remarkable how Russell is able to capture the routines and the mundane details of these people's lives without an ounce of tedium. The music plays a major character too. Thank God Fenby came along when he did.

A Tale of Time Lost (1964) directed by Aleksandr Ptushko

Sergey Martinson
Ukrainian-born Ptushko is considered one of the pioneers of stop-motion animation as well as a master visual stylist. Virtually unknown outside of Russia, Ptushko's epic fantasy films are rooted in Slavic mythology yet seem just as relevant to a western audience today as they did fifty years ago in his native country. This particular Ptushko fantasy is pure fairy tale (with nods to Chaplin and Keaton), complete with battling wizards, an enchanted forest and body swapping. What's not to love? It's also one of Ptushko's few (if not perhaps only) films that isn't set in a far off land. It's interesting to see an urban 1960s Russian metropolis (yes they had cars, street vendors and even traffic cops) culturally preserved like this. Still, it's the magic in a Ptushko film we remember most.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Player: Part Two

Movie posters in Robert Altman's The Player (1992).

Effectively a seamless melding of murder/mystery, neo-noir and biting satire of the movie biz, Altman's late-masterpiece is really an affectionate homage to the works of: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Josef von Sternberg, Michael Curtiz, Henry Hathaway, William Castle, Joseph Losey and Stanley Kubrick (among others) whose posters adorn the walls in nearly every scene. Who can forget the opening long take sequence invoking Orson Welles' legendary tracking shot from Touch of Evil (1958)...that Fred Ward's character repeatedly reminds us of?

Hollywood Story (1951); Laura (1944); The Blue Angel/L'Ange bleu (1930); Prison Shadows (1936); Prison Break (1938); Murder in the Big House (1942); King Kong (1933); M (1951); Casablanca (1942); Red-Headed Woman (1932); Niagara (1953); Lolita (1962)

The Player: Part One

Movie posters in Robert Altman's The Player (1992).

Altman's film is a flawless blend of satire, black comedy, thriller and neo-noir centered around the dirty politics of a modern Hollywood movie studio. The framed movie posters that line the walls and fill the screen at times almost become characters themselves.

Highly Dangerous (1950); Danger Zone (1951); Monsieur Fabre (1951); The Mysterians/Prisonnières des Martiens (1957); Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980); Gone with the Wind/Autant en emporte le vent (1939); Notorious (1946); Rear Window (1954); Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Monday, January 06, 2014

Life is...

"...but a dream."
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
"...a cabaret, old chum."
Cabaret (1972)

"...a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you're gonna get."
Forrest Gump (1994)
" good as an Abba song."
Muriel's Wedding (1994)

"...short, life is dull, life is full of pain and this is a chance for something special."
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
"...pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."
The Princess Bride (1987)

" fucking beauty contest after another."
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
"...a storm, my young friend."
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

"...not the amount of breaths you take, it's the moments that take your breath away."
Hitch (2005)

"...a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."
Auntie Mame (1958)
"...a state of mind."
Being There (1979)
" a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending."
The Muppet Movie (1979)