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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Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel’s Wedding – 1994

Director – P.J. Hogan

Starring – Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, and Bill Hunter

When facing down a list as formidable as this one is, I find myself assuming that each film on it means something.  Whether it’s historically important, the swan song of a particular star or director, or maybe it simply broke all the records at the box office.  Apparently that isn’t always the case.  Muriel’s Wedding, while rather fun, and charming enough, manages to be none of these things and still it’s here.

The film tells the story of the wedding obsessed Muriel (a young Toni Collette, in her pre-Hollywood days), and her exodus from the family, friends, and town that seem to be working over time in order to keep her down.  Muriel lives in Porpoise Spit, a diaper-rash of a little town filled with the shallow, ignorant, and self obsessed people who exist (in one form or another) in all small towns.  Leading the charge of the obnoxious brigade is Muriel’s family, including her shiftless, unemployed siblings, the empty and ineffectual mother who barely exists, and the overbearing, loud-mouth of a father who worked so hard to drive and inspire these character flaws in his own family.

The most important thing in Muriel’s life is the bright, shining, future she imagines for herself (specifically the wedding part), never-mind the lack of any real interpersonal connection or the absence of any semblance of self-appreciation she may have for herself.  She simply wants this ideal so badly that she doesn’t care just how she gets there, by hook or by crook.

The story is fun, the acting is pretty good, and I really did want the best for Muriel (not to mention, her loud mouthed friend Rhonda, AKA: Brenda on Six Feet Under, AKA: Rachel Griffiths), but even given all that, it still wasn’t worthy of its placement on this list.  When you have a rather simple romantic comedy with a slight empowering wink at the end, that doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside films with the emotional weight and importance of films like Z, or the historical significance of a film like, Children of Paradise, or even the cleverness, and humor managed by the still rather thin, Meet the Parents

Perhaps it’s just one of those movies that doesn’t speak to me, or the place from which I came, or the time in which that place might have existed.  At the very least, I remember the film coming out in theaters, however I don’t really recall it making all that much of a splash even then.  The Australian revolution of film had a brief rekindling with the advent of the Crocodile Dundee franchise, but I’m afraid by the time Young Einstein came out in 1988, Mel Gibson had moved to the United States full-time, and everyone in the states stopped paying attention to what was happening down under.

There was the occasional gem that came out of Australia from those backwards years also known as the 90’s, but for every Peter Weir, Guy Pierce film, there were two Paul Hogan films (Yes I liked Crocodile Dundee when I was a kid, but give me a break, I was a kid, I thought Battleship was a fun board game too). I realize that 1000 movies is a lot to come up with, but I could rattle off a dozen or so just off the top of my head that didn’t make the cut, but were world’s better. Next thing you know, they’ll be letting a Transformers movie onto this list…Nice try, but better luck next time.  Instead how about trying Les Cage Aux Folles (a film I accidentally watched thinking that it was on this list), what would later be remade into The Birdcage.  Both that film and it’s remake are more deserving of recognition to be sure.

Kes (1969)

Kes – 1969

Director – Ken Loach

Starring – David Bradley, Brian Glover, and Freddie Fletcher

Coal mining town? Check.  Dismal future? Check.  Bleak story and pale washed-out color palette? Check. Yup, we have ourselves a film from straight out of England from the 60’s.  Filled with angry young men doomed to continually revisit the heartbreak and disappointment that is their legacy, films like these made up their own film movement in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s.  Where other movements like the French New Wave, and Italian Neo-Realism seemed to relish the joy and spontaneity that could be present in everyday life, this typically English set of films seemed steeped in the grimy misery that surrounded the working classes of hard scrabble England.  These films primarily deal with young men, raging and rebelling against a system that invariably gets the better of them.  While that may seem an overly grim assessment of the this genre, it’s not meant to take away from the fact that these films often illustrate that in such hard-times also exist small moments of beauty and freedom.

Kes, a film about a troubled young boy, bullied at home and at school, finds solace and acceptance in the act of raising and training a raptor (bird), and manages to illustrate this struggle for freedom and happiness quite effectively.  Juxtaposing the cramped, dirty, and oppressive imagery of the institutions that keep our main character, Billy, tied down, with imagery of him caring for, reading about, and training his falcon offer us a glimpse at the type of freedom Billy aspires to.

Far be it from me to chastise a film for being slow and depressing, but Kes in particular works very hard to crush and beat the anticipation and hope of something better right out of you.  Each character, Billy, Jude (or Jud if you believe IMDB), and their mother, as well as everyone at the school seem stuck in their routines.  Day in and day out, they aspire for nothing greater than to head to the pub for a pint, and beyond that perhaps a good snog to escape their realities.  There is no higher or greater goal for anyone to pursue.  The jobs are closer to punishments than careers, and the best anyone can hope for is maybe winning a marginal amount of money gambling, or a few jokes with friends after work.

Billy is no exception.  He trudges through school, endures teachers and bullies alike (although it can be hard to tell the difference), and often times suffers the same fate at home.  His brother Jude constantly berates him, and his ineffectual mother spends the majority of her time trying to catch a marry-able man.  He is lost, forgotten, and for all intents and purposes, completely alone.  Once Billy finds the falcon, Kes (of the movie’s title), suddenly a whole new world opens up for him.  He devotes his time and energy on something that gives back more reliably than something as short-sighted and temporary as gambling..  For a brief time, this animal brings Billy as close as he’s ever been to flying.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

However, as in all films of this sort, there is inevitably the point at which this new-found happiness is shattered, and we get to watch our main character crash back into the dreary life from which he came.  Often times, it is due to some strife or conflict from a parallel story-line that comes back around from earlier in the film.  In this instance it’s his contentious relationship with his older brother, Jude (it’s unclear whether or not they are actually brothers, but for all intents and purposes he is).  The film starts with them fighting, and hurling insults at the other, and it ends similarly.   Jude is determined, not to help his little brother find a way out, but to ensure that he is as unlikely to escape this life as Jude himself is.

(***End Spoilers***)

Movies out of England all seem to have a bit of melancholy to them, even Harry Potter was a boy forced to live under the stairs and be treated like a second class citizen.  From this time-frame in particular, they seem to be downright oppressive.  Kes is no exception to the rule, rather, it’s more proof of it.  The color scheme of the film is dishwater browns and grays,  and the camera work is mostly fixed position zooming and panning, tracking with our characters through these earthy, sparse environments.  I’m not sure if the lack of color, or stillness of the frame was intentional in this film or based out of necessity, but whether it was or wasn’t, it was exceedingly effective, tempering any expectation that Billy would be successful in his spiritual exodus, with the reality of his eventual conformity.

Definitely, a tear-jerker towards the end, Kes is a prime example of the “Angry Young Men” (dubbed so by the folks at the Filmspotting podcast) movement of English film, and the remarkable depression of an entire class of working people.  While it is not an easy watch, it does resonate with the viewer at an emotional level.  While none of the imagery has stuck with me in particular, the themes and tone of the film have been rattling around in my brain since I saw it.  It’s a tough watch, though, so be prepared.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Goddamn it, Kes!  You made me cry over a bird!” – Ashley

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