Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (AKA: The Young Girls of Rochefort) (1967)

Les Demoiselles De Rochefort

Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (AKA: The Young Girls of Rochefort) – 1967

Director – Jacques Demy

Starring – Catherine Deneuve, George Chikiris, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly

The goal of any movie poster is to filter down all the important elements of the film, the who, what, where, and even sometimes why, and give potential viewers the urge to seek it out later on.  There are films that are so enamored with the who, that the poster is nothing but a series of giant heads of famous actors looking vaguely off into the distance (any romantic comedy out in the last 30 years or so).  Still other films are so excited to let you know that there is a twist, one that they all but give it away (the instance that springs to mind is the remake of the wonderful Charade, into the terrible The Truth About Charlie.  Do yourself a favor and don’t seek out this poster, or the movie till you’ve seen Charade, and maybe not even then.)  But this film does a dynamite job of illustrating just what the viewer can expect from this film, best of all their was no condensing necessary either!

Really the poster tells you everything, except for the fact that their isn’t anything else.  No captivating story, no dynamic twist, no edge of your seat confrontation, or heartfelt resolution.  The story isn’t really what I am going to review here, if the truth be told, it wouldn’t really be fair to judge it solely on its story. It is really more the equivalent of a 1960’s concert film, than it is a movie.  So the Young Girls of Rochefort is, how shall we say, a little light on plot, but it more than makes up for it in exuberance, color, and having a few honest to god Gene Kelly numbers in the picture.

The story is thin, but plausible enough to hold a series of dance numbers together, however non-important enough to drop at the end without resolving some of them.  The key here seems to be instant gratification.  Once you see it, you can forget it in order to watch the next thing.  With so much effort put into the set pieces, the color, and the dancing, does a fan of musicals need any other reason to watch?  Probably not, but as someone who isn’t all that enamored with musicals, I certainly would have liked more.

The aforementioned Gene Kelly appearance was quite a welcome sight.  I really really really really enjoyed Singing In the Rain, and really appreciated An American in Paris to the point where I thought “If all musicals are this good, how have I been so wrong about them my whole life?”  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t found all musicals to be worthy of either of those two just yet, although I’m still looking.)  No matter how much I like Catherine Deneuve as an actress, she wasn’t given all that much to do in this film.  I’m not sure whether she actually sang or if she was lip syncing, but either way, she seemed like just a name and a face tacked onto this film to sell tickets, so Kelly’s appearance midway through the film really got me interested in watching again.

Needless to say, this film was unable to live up to the magic that was “Singing in the Rain”, like a lot of other musicals I fear, was relegated quite quickly in my head as an “also-ran”.  No amount of enthusiasm or color usage was going to bring it back up to that level for me.

My wife on the other hand,is someone who enjoys most musicals simply for the fact that they’re musicals.  She found quite a lot to like and this film was a joy for her to watch.  Despite the limitations I attempted to place on it, it won her over with its energy and determination to be.  If for only that one reaction, it was worth it.  It was more than worthy of my time, and it also brings to mind other films that I like purely on an aesthetic level.  I don’t really need a reason to love “The Man With the Movie Camera”, or appreciate “Un Chien Andalou”, or relentlessly watch all the rather brainless 80’s and 90’s action films that I love so well.  None of them have stories (well that’s debatable I suppose, but each of these films is focused on something other than the story), but each has an equally unmatched exuberance,and verve for itself.  Each has a determined will to be, despite what others try to pigeonhole them as.

So it is true with “Les Demoiselles De Rochefort”.  Though it wasn’t my cup of tea, it was most definitely made for a specific audience, one that loves it just for what it is.  But the question remains, “Does it deserve to be on this list?”  Ultimately, no.  I would say there are other musical and dance films that go further, with more interesting music, more dynamic dance numbers, more story integration to transcend and become more than just a musical.  So it may not the best, but in a pinch it’ll cure what ails you.

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The Producers (1968)

The Producers – 1968

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and Kenneth Mars

Everything is accelerating.  Things today move faster than they did before, and those things move incrementally faster than they did before that.  Information is always evolving, the delivery speed is increasing, it’s digested faster, and more than ever, what was once an original idea has been re-made, re-packaged, or re-told, so many times that the original now no longer seems all that original or groundbreaking.  Never is this more true than with film, and never more so than with comedy.  Unfortunately, for a film that is more than 40 years old, has been remade into both a movie as well as a stage play, this is most-definitely true for the Producers.

The Producers tells the story of a hack theater director, Max Bialystock (Mostel), and his sheepish accountant, Leo Bloom (Wilder), who attempt to raise lots of money to make a purposefully bad play, so that it bombs on opening night and they can write off (keep) the invested cash.  The pair work hard to shock, annoy, and anger their audience, but much to their, and everyone’s, surprise their play about a young and carefree Hitler and Eva Braun, is a rollicking success when it’s seen as comedic rather than serious.  So their grand scheme plan backfires, and they accidentally have one of the most successful opening nights ever.

The Producers just didn’t wow me.  I didn’t grow up with it like I did Spaceballs.  It wasn’t that rare diamond in the rough that I came to find later in life, such as Young Frankenstein, and it doesn’t have the reputation of comedy mainstay that Blazing Saddles has.  The shock value of trivializing Hitler and the Nazi’s is something that, today, is pretty commonplace, (when ever you need a good bad guy in a movie or a good punchline to a joke, Nazi’s are always a good fall back) so it didn’t seem all that outrageous, shocking, or hilarious to watch it in this film.

Now rationally, I realize that The Producers was, at least in part, responsible for this evolution of humor and it’s more than a little ironic that this influence is making me enjoy the film less, but it’s still hard to get through a movie where you’ve heard the jokes, or at the very least a variation on the jokes, time and time again.  There were a few instances where I was smiling, some where I snickered a little bit, but I don’t think I ever really laughed out loud, or even inwardly to myself.

The film’s real selling point was the outrageously brash humor.  What are these guys willing to say to get their play made.  What sort of illicit sexual favors are they going to promise to widows in order to bilk them out of money so they can finance this ruse.  Since I grew up with things like Eddie Murphey’s Delirious, Airplane!, This is Spinal Tap, and shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy, it’s pretty hard for a film to slap my face and rub my nose in shocking material, especially one from the 60’s.  That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but the battle is most definitely uphill for the film.

In terms of acting, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder are actually really good together.  Mostel plays as the boisterous and gregarious Bialystock and is a good counterpoint to Wilder’s very neurotic, Woody Allen-ish,  Bloom.  The undeniable chemistry of the pair builds from the first scene and each works so well off of the others performance.  This chemistry is actually the film’s saving grace in many instances,  where the film’s jokes fell flat, these two managed to hold my attention and keep engaging me.  One weak point in the film, was the annoyingly unaware of his surroundings character played by Kenneth Mars.  Mars plays a German expatriate  playwright, who writes the sappy romantic story of Adolph and Eva in complete seriousness.  His performance plays like a bigot with downs syndrome.  More than a bit heavy-handed, and annoying, and every time he was on screen I couldn’t wait for him to be off screen again.

When all is said and done, I realize its importance historically on this list, but I would have given it’s spot to a funnier movie (The Big Lebowski, Bad Santa or Hot Shots! anyone?), or even if you want to give the prize to Mel Brooks (and I realize this is my particular bias), why not History of the World Part 1, or the ever glorious Spaceballs?  The Producers had potential, but it was potential with a limited shelf life, and unfortunately it’s past it’s freshness date.  I realize my stance might not be popular, but really I’m just saying…It’s not terrible, it’s just not great either.

An American In Paris (1951)

An American In Paris – 1951

Director – Vincente Minnelli

Starring – Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant

So I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with all things French.  Paris, specifically, is one of my favorite places ever.  So much so, that occasionally, I have been known to pull up the Google map of the city and street-view surf around to various places that I either want to go, or remember fondly.  Imagine my delight, when I found out that Gene Kelly, the man who was primarily responsible for the best musical ever (Singing in the Rain), was in a movie set in the romantic, free-spirited, and gorgeous streets, and hearts of Paris!  Motherfucking, Paris, son!  So did it stand up to all that hype and ballyhoo?  Almost.

Firstly, lets just get this out of the way.  I don’t think any musical is going to quite equal Singing in the Rain.  The color, the musical numbers, the athleticism, and the practical use of singing and dancing numbers to naturally advance the plot, is not only remarkable, it’s also just not fair measure upon which to hold the competition.  It’s like comparing Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger version, for gods sake) to another Sci-Fi movie.  No comparison, everything else loses.

Okay, so discounting the unfair competition, how was An American in Paris?  Very good.  When preparing for this review, I had a set number of routines in my head that I wanted to talk about, but as I tried to isolate what made each stand out from the others, I’d remember just what elements of the other routines I liked as well.  For instance, possibly my favorite dance number was the description/introduction of the many faces of the film’s love interest, Lise (Leslie Caron).  In said dance number, an admirer explains to his friend just what this siren is like using different styles of dance to illustrate different facets of her personality.  But as I was typing up how that set of mini-routines was so fantastic, I remembered Gene Kelly’s Buster Keaton-esque morning routine putting away his bed, and preparing breakfast.  Awesome, and totally worthy of its own mention.  Each routine, and each song had something like this that made it worth watching, and as such, the ranking system I originally devised doesn’t work out so well when writing about them.

The dancing and choreography were certainly fun to watch, but there were a few times where I would have liked a bit more storytelling instead of dancing just for dancing’s sake.  A prime example would be in the films final dance routine (which, by the way, lasts a full 18 minutes without any dialog of any kind).  Though I liked the tour through the famous french paintings, the stretch was a pretty long one where I found my attention wandering a bit.  By and large though, I found myself engaged (mostly) throughout.  I’m sure I’m not making any real revelation here when I say that Gene Kelly was a pretty competent dancer, so watching him wasn’t really that hard.

When it came to the secondary characters, however, the magic slipped away a little bit faster.  Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guetary simply were never quite given enough to do, with the exception of accompanying Gene Kelly.  Similarly the plot for those characters seemed a little thin as well…but speaking of plot…

The story goes like this, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a painter.  A rather mediocre one, even by his own admission.  He and his starving artist friends live hand to mouth in a beautiful building on the left bank of the Seine, each struggling and working hard to sell their art, be it painting, piano, or dance.  While out selling his paintings, or trying to, he meets a rather well to do socialite who does all she can to seduce him, and lure him in.  While out on the town with her one evening, Mulligan doesn’t recognize their first date for what it is and finds himself captivated by the beauty at another table.

The trouble comes in when we the audience realize that this girl, the object of his affection, is in a relationship with one of his good friends and is about to be swept off to the wedding chapel with him.  So now Jerry has to pick, between a woman who is the unavailable ideal, or the woman who is the pines after, but is his  clear second choice.  Unfortunately this plot weakens toward the end and seems more like  a formula conducive to the inclusion of dance numbers than it does a reasonable plot that happens to have dance numbers in it.  We never really get a satisfactory resolution for around fifty percent of the stories, they are just left open-ended.

As with the unattainable ideal that is Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris is so vibrant, it nearly causes your brain to explode with colorful seizures.  The set pieces are all fun, especially when they rather faithfully re-create some recognizable Parisian landmarks as with the fountain at Place de la Concorde, or the nest of little book-stalls that exist along the both sides of the Seine.

So, An American in Paris is definitely my second favorite musical that I’ve watched for this list, which isn’t very descriptive considering it exists somewhere between Singing in the Rain (which, we’ve established is fantastic), and West Side Story (which is fucking awful).  That’s like saying something is between noon and midnight, or someone is between a humanitarian and a murderer.  Rest assured that I really enjoyed An American in Paris.  I’ll count myself as super lucky if all of the other musicals on the list are this good!

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein – 1974

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Madeline Kahn

I grew up on Spaceballs.  Not only that, I co-grew up on History of the World, Part 1.  It would seem to be a no-brainer that anything Mel Brooks would do should appeal to my basest movie watching self, right?  Then, along came Blazing Saddles.  Everyone that I ever talked to about Blazing Saddles loved it.  It was the summit of comedy for a 10-year-old kid (not to mention a lot of 30 year olds that I know now), so why did I think it to be so, blah?  Was I wrong about Mel Brooks?  Are his other movies even funny?  Long story short, my so-so opinion of Blazing Saddles had managed to color my opinion of Brooks’ other films, such as Young Frankenstein, long before I ever even saw them.  It’s really too bad, because Young Frankenstein was a great piece of fond nostalgia.

The story is simple, it is essentially a campy, comedic, re-telling of the story of Frankenstein.  Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the famous Victor von Frankenstein, Frederick.  Embarrassed by the legacy his disgraced grandfather left behind, Frederick goes so far as to alter the pronunciation of his telltale last name to “Fronkunschteen”.  But after receiving the diary of his grandfather, he makes his way to the castle in which the original monster was created to put some of his theories to the test.

Along the way he picks up a sidekick, Igor (pronounced Eye-gor for obvious reasons) played by British comedian Marty Feldman, and a sexy lab assistant played by Teri Garr.  It is by this point the spoofs, and loving jabs begin to fly. Young Frankestein’s success is not so much because of how it points out the ridiculous nature of the original, but because of how lovingly it treats its source material.  In fact, most of the props and set pieces in the castle are actually props from the original 1931 Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder is perfect as the pseudo-serious mad scientist with Garr and Feldman both playing well comedically against his strait act.  Peter Boyle as the monster is able to combine the original humanity of the character, pioneered by Boris Karloff, and twist it just slightly to the bizarre side of things in order to make it funny.  His bit with the “lonely blind man” played by a young Gene Hackman is a particularly stand out moment. And finally, what Mel Brooks movie would be complete without the fantastic Madeline Kahn, as Frederick’s fiancée swept off her feet by the appropriately endowed monster.

Based on the films that I have seen thus far in my life, did Young Frankenstein cross any lines, or break down any borders for me?  No.  It did however, make me remember why it was that I enjoyed movies like that in my youth…they are fun.  I’m looking forward to giving Blazing Saddles another try.  Big thanks to my buddy Mike for recommending and lending this to me, good lookin’ out!

“Madeline Khan, the funniest ever!” – Ashley

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – 1947

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders

I may be run out-of-town on a rail for saying this, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a pretty stupid movie.  Posturing and posing as a lighthearted romantic comedy about a young woman contending with the spirit of a salty old sea-captain, instead, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is the story of a lonely woman wasting her life and the lives of those around her (her daughter and maid) because she had a etherial fling with a crotchety old ghost for less than a year.  Not only is it implausible (even within the mythology of the world that is set up in the film), but it also annoyed me to the point of anger.

Firstly, the story.  Gene Tierney plays Lucy Muir, who at the beginning of the film is a freshly widowed woman.  Her first order of business is taking her daughter, their maid, and parting ways with her prying, manipulative in-laws.  Their anger at her leaving them, and forsaking the memory of her late husband is brushed casually aside.  She gives as her reasoning the fact that there was little, if any, real love in the marriage, and without another word, they’re off.

The sort of wacky, lighthearted comedy kicks in for a little while, as she goes through the trial and error of buying a home, discovering that it’s haunted, and acclimating herself to her etherial housemate.   It is from this point that the romance part of the romantic comedy kicks back in, as Rex Harrison’s Captain Gregg and Lucy begin to like, and eventually grow very fond of one another.  When the money that her dead husband left her dries up, Captain Gregg has her write out the story of his life, and sell it as her own.  It’s during the selling of this book, that Mrs. Muir meets a charming, living, man who sweeps her off of her feet.  Captain Gregg reacts at first by acting out, and eventually by giving up (telling her while she is sleeping that it was all a dream, and that she’ll think of it as a dream upon waking), and fading away.

***SPOILERS*** (Although the whole movie is a bit of a spoiler)

Well as it turns out, the suave, dashing man turns out to be an absolute cad, go figure, and Lucy soon finds out that he is married with children.  Not only that, but his wife doesn’t seem at all surprised by her showing up, and says that it has happened before.  After that, Lucy spends the rest of her life alone, growing old along with her trusty (read: stupid) maid, until she dies and is greeted as a ghost by the spirit of Captain Gregg.

***END SPOILERS***

As far as movies of this era go, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so mired in the antiquated notion that women are these weak willed pets that need constant tending to, and taking care of.  The idea that this woman would spend her entire life doing nothing for herself, be it for income, chores, for income, or in her interpersonal relationships is ludicrous.  When the money that her husband left her runs out, does she get a job?  Does she sell the big expensive, fucking house that she bought willy-nilly?  No, she claims that she’ll “find a way”, until a fucking ghost helps her.  The only friendships she has are the ghost that is trapped in her house, the maid that does everything for her, and the man who trips over himself to court her.  It is as insulting and demeaning to women as it possibly could be.  Now I understand that in the 40’s women generally stayed at home, and took care of the children.  They, very often, didn’t go to school, and never had to work (unless they were poor or of another color), but as a guy raised by a strong female role model, who herself was raised by a smart, capable, female role model as well as  a respectful, intelligent man, I hated this movie.

It doesn’t even really matter about the other qualities of the film, although it was competently shot, the sound and music were okay, and I don’t recall any of the actors accidentally messing up a line.  Based solely on the merit of what this film has to say, not only to women, both young and old, but to me, I definitely does NOT deserve to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

One final point, just to illustrate how poor this movie is, I would rather watch Katherine Hepburn, and Diane Keaton reading the phone book, to me personally, in my house, while I was tied to a chair, with bamboo slivers under my fingernails (well, maybe not the bamboo).  Watch one of these instead…”Lost In Translation”, “Singin’ In The Rain”, or “Garden State”

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“There’s a dead sea captain in it” – Ashley

Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

SinginInTheRain

Singin’ in the Rain – 1952

Director – Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Starring – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds

Coming into this movie, I was skeptical.  To be more to the point, coming into this endeavor of watching all of these movies, I was skeptical about every one of the musicals.  For some reason, I just don’t really consider a musical a viable genre of film.  It doesn’t have any of the high drama, action, or space monsters that would make me say, “Cool!”  Instead there’s dancing…and worse, there’s singing too.  Not sure why this particular combination of things turns me off of musicals, but it is both of those two ingredients  that are vital to the musical.  And here I am hating on them before I’d even seen the first one on the list.

Lucky for me, Laura just went ahead and brought home both Singin’ In The Rain and West Side Story without me knowing.  I say lucky, because I really had a very good time watching Singin’ In The Rain.  It was extra fun because she loves it so much, I caught her out of the corner of my eye bobbing her head, or singing under her breath.  I got twice the show, for half the price!

To start with, the first thing that struck me was the color.  The poster isn’t kidding when it says Technicolor.  It was like having electric, neon candy explode inside my brain!  There was so much to look at, and all of it was so rich and vibrant, full of life.  Gene Kelly was everything I’ve heard he was, charming, debonair, suave, and light on his feet.  I had never heard of Donald O’Connor, or Debbie Reynolds, but both of them also impressed me with their skills.

The story, a couple of  young men who come up through vaudeville, and into movies during the switch over from silents to talkies, perfectly suits the inclusion of the rich color palette, thematic set pieces, and the film’s dependence on song.  This is just what the fifties has taught us about Hollywood.  It’s bright, it’s beautiful, it’s filled with happy endings, and just desserts.  It’s one big dream, fully rendered and realized on screen.

Technically speaking, the set pieces incorporated genius use of practical light sources as well as light motivated by the emotions and exuberence of the characters.  The camera work was smooth and quick, never hanging for too long on one element of the dance.  The camera holds back enough so that we feel like we see the entire routine, but moves in for close-ups enough so that we don’t miss the finer details or the acting.  The songs, with the exception of a couple of slower ones, were fast paced, energetic, and exciting.  Each one got your blood moving without overstaying it’s welcome, or getting stale.

The only critique I have of this film is a pretty minor one.  Of the songs, two of them were a little slow and didn’t really engage me.  These performances stood out so much to me because of the sheer energy of the other routines.  They didn’t necessarily move the plot forward, and they certainly sapped the momentum out of the story.  I guess there are people out there who not only like slower, romantic songs, but are drawn to musicals because of them.  That is actually one of the elements that has been keeping me away for so many years.

I’ve learned my lesson.  While I am still a might skeptical about musicals, I am 50 percent won over.  If West Side Story is half as good as Singin’ in the Rain was, then there will officially be some hope for the getting through the rest of the musicals in the bunch.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

“I loves it!” – Ashley

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie&Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde – 1967

Director – Arthur Penn

Starring – Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard

Bonnie and Clyde, a movie about the home-brewed gangsters of the 1930s, was one of a few films that typified the resurgence of creativity and control enjoyed by writers and directors during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s.  Originally it was supposed to have been directed by the arthouse renowned Francois Truffaut.  Having cut his teeth as a film critic turned auteur director, his influence on the film can still be felt despite the fact that he opted to drop out in order to film Fahrenheit 451.

It’s roots in the French New Wave movement of the 1960’s are given room to grow in the wide open borders of the United States.  It manages to defy it’s temporal setting (the 30’s) and spoke about the state of affairs in our country during the late 1960s.  The impact of Vietnam and the violence being aired on the television every night could be felt in the bloody, ruthless, and sometimes relentless chase scenes between the two lovers and the police.  The counter-culture movement was represented by the two criminals themselves, while the police and the system of law represented everything from government, parents, the status quo right down to police and the system of law.

As the director and the producer, Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty made sure their rowdy, humorous, and somewhat nihilistic representation of change stayed true to it’s message.  Beatty and Faye Dunaway play the titular characters, and both are luminous and full of life and vitality.  Dunaway in particular really shines.  The film starts out with her rolling languidly around her bed, posing, and waiting for something anything to come along and be a catalyst.  It just so happens that when she looks out her bedroom window, that catalyst is preparing to steal her mother’s car.  The couple instantly take to each other, but for different reasons.  Bonnie see’s Clyde as a strong, exciting, virile change in her limited boring life.  She is sick of watching doors close, and takes it upon herself to jump out the nearest window.  It is the thrill that excites Bonnie, where as it is the attention that draws Clyde.  He seems to crave notoriety, first with Bonnie, then with the rest of the city, state, and eventually the country.  Not only does he seem to thrive on this type of danger and celebrity, he can’t seem to function properly without it.  He is unable to perform to any degree in bed without the adulation and danger that comes from committing crimes and being noticed.  This serves as a bit of hindrance to the relationship at first, but each of them become bound to the other simultaneously keeping the other afloat while dragging the other under.

Bonnie and Clyde serves as a number of firsts.  From the first appearance of classic actors such as Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, to the first ever occurance of a gun being fired and hitting the victim on screen at the same time.  The film is filled with equal parts optimism and pessimism.  Made for a relatively small budget, and not expected to do very well, the studio was suprised by the enormous popularity the film opened to.  It was due in part to this success, that helped the artistic and un-hindered creative expression of the film industry for the next whole decade to come.  Bonnie and Clyde is the quintisential American story, from the characters it portrayed to the real life  story of it’s inception and it’s success.

“Obsessed with the 60’s as the 30’s.” – Ashley