14 February 2009
Of U-Boats, Avian Killers, Singing Convicts, A Randy Czarina, Steve Martin and My Valentine
I sent the staff of Riku Writes off on a well earned Caribbean cruise this week while I attended to other non blog matters. Hence the five day absence of this blog that many of you no doubt found excruciating. These past few days I've been binging on movies -- so what else is new, right? Let's get you caught up on what I've watched with a few impressions.
A Nous a Liberte (1931). If you guess from the title that this film is French you are correct and a master of the obvious. This was my first encounter with Rene Clair's film and it won't be my last. Based on a single viewing I can affirm that it is one of my favorite films of all time. This was released the same year as another Clair classic, Le Million. Has a director ever put out two such masterpieces in the same year? I think not. The film starts with prisoners singing about the joys of liberty. This is not, strictly speaking a musical, although occasionally the cast bursts into jaunty, buoyant songs. As with Le Million, the musical numbers never interrupt the flow of the story but enhance the story telling. One of the cons escapes and before you know it is a very wealthy man indeed. There are scenes of factory workers that call to mind Chaplin's Modern Times (1936); but A Nous a Liberte came first, a point not lost the film's producers who wanted to sue Chaplin. Clair would have none of it. A Nous a Liberte not only brought to mind Modern Times for me but another Chaplin great, City Lights (1931). I believe it was the wonderful meshing of styles, the strong characters, the humor and the pathos.
The Birds (1963). Talk about something completely different. I hadn't watched this straight through for as long as I can remember and I can remember pretty long. Giant crocodiles, flesh eating extra terrestrials, and rampaging dinosaurs can be pretty frightening to film audiences. But for real fear try something that actually exists. Like common ordinary birds. Ones with an attitude. The commonplace gone mad is truly terrifying. One does not encounter crocs, ETs or prehistoric beasts most days. But birds? Boy howdy. Everyday. Just after the first time I watched The Birds I was walking to school. I must have been about ten,eleven years old. A bird swooped down from a tree and flew very near by my head. I ran the rest of the way to the school at a speed I likely never matched, my heart pounding. I never, never, never walked under that tree again. Alfred Hitchcock directed and who else could have made the story quite so damn scary? The gorgeous Tippi Hedren starred along with Rod Taylor.
The Jerk (1979). Notice a pattern in these films? Neither do I. Carl Reiner directed, Steve Martin starred. This is one of the gall darn stupidest movies ever to be funny enough for repeat viewings. It includes one of my favorite all time movie lines: "I was born a poor black child." When the words are uttered by whiter than white Steve Martin and we then segue to his all black Mississippi family...Comic gold. The Jerk works (excuse the rhyme) in large part because Martin's character, Navin Johnson, is supposed to be really, really stupid. The movie makes no other pretenses other than to be a farce played for giggles. The absolute dead serious sincerity of much of the rest of the cast allows Martin's antics to work all the more. Bernadette Peters (same birthday as me, though several years before) is a darling as the love interest.
Das Boot (1981). Now are you detecting a pattern? Course not. Here we go again with the following phrase: "One of the great films of all time." It really is. There are three versions of Wolfgang Peterson's film. The minced, chopped and diced version initially shown in US theaters. Avoid at all costs. The full super epic length version initially shown on German telly. Worth at least one look. And the medium length -- if nearly three hours can be called medium -- director's cut that's the happy compromise and the most widely shown these days. I've meant to dedicate a full post to this film so will keep this short. Like any great film it gets better with each viewing and I find something else to admire about it with each viewing. If you've never seen it you're in for a treat. If you have seen it, watch it again, you're in for a real treat too.
The Scarlet Empress (1934). I think we can lay to rest once and for all any notion that there's a pattern in the most recent films I've seen. Consider that the next movie I watch will likely be The Gay Divorcee (1934) starring Fred and Ginger and you'll believe me when I say that I don't generally go in for theme weekends. Anyway, this was the first of the movies I got out of the house for. The missus and I saw it at the PFA as our Valentine's Day date (I know, pretty romantic, eh?). Another movie I'd never seen. This was one of the last collaborations between director Joseph von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. They made seven movies together and I defy anyone to find a better director/actress combo. As in their other pairings, in The Scarlett Empress, von Sternberg has the camera veritably make love to Dietrich. She's in most shots and the camera is forever holding on her face in light and shadow that highlight and indeed help create one of the greatest visages in film history. However this film is as much about elaborate sets and costumes as about Ms. Dietrich. The Scarlett Empress traces the rise of Catherine the Great from a German princess to the ruler of Russia. The movie slipped in just before the full enforcement of the production code eviscerated movies. Thus we get more than a hint of the sexuality that was central to the real life Catherine's story (the film is surprisingly accurate despite its excesses). The Scarlet Empress is at times silly, overly broad and as both the wife and Roger Ebert said, suggestive of a Marx Brothers film. All told it is rather peculiar film cluttered as it is with so much edifice but still a delight to watch. I'll sort it out after a second viewing. (Bizarre footnote: As we were getting up to leave a woman behind us commented to her spouse that there was quite the turnout. "yeah," he grumbled, "but not a very ethnically diverse one." Hmm, I guess the Pacific Film Archives needs to do a little outreach to people of color. I kept a straight face while I typed that line.
Meanwhile it is Valentine's Day. One of the downsides of being an internationally famous blogger is that women far and wide desire me. That in itself isn't so bad. But what is troubling it that some actually suppose to come between my beloved wife and I. Worse yet many of these young ladies are quite famous. One example is Anne Hathaway (pictured above) who can't seem to leave me alone. While I had to turn down Ms. Hathaway's request to be her Valentine I may feel compelled to accompany her to next week's Oscars, though that would not sit well with Penelope Cruz. Obviously my druthers are to stay home with the better half. Well, I shouldn't bore you with my problems. I'm happy and lucky to have a loving and understanding wife who I think I'll favor now with a kiss.....