Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Everett Jones ""

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Everett Jones

Everett is an avid movie watcher and user of Letterboxd like myself - follow him there: - I've gotten many good film recs this way. Everett is also a longtime contributor at RPS!

“Up here, one is starved for Technicolor,” a denizen of a B&W afterlife famously complains in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s WWII-era fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. That’s not a complaint anyone could make after seeing this postwar extravaganza from the great duo. Adapted from Jacques Offenbach’s 1882 opera, itself adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s darkly fantastic stories, the result resembles the most memorable sequence, the dreamlike ballet performance, from P&P’s most famous film, THE RED SHOES, but stretched out to feature length, and without any of the “normal,” non-dancing, unstylized surrounding scenes. The prospect of 100% opera, I’ll admit, put me off for a long time, even from two filmmakers as great as these, but it shouldn’t have--this hyperstylized spectacle, with its impossibly saturated color and endless invention, is the most amazing visual experience a movie has given me in a long while.
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I spent some time late last year and early this year catching up on the various movie versions of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, while also taking advantage of one snow day to read the book itself, practically in one sitting. It’s not hard to understand why so many filmmakers have been drawn to Cain’s 1934 classic, still a sizzling slice of hard-boiled Americana, almost impossible not to imagine as a movie in your head while reading Cain’s laconic descriptions and pungent dialogue. But after completing this mini-marathon, I could also understand better why none of the various versions--from Italy and France as well as the U.S.--have quite captured the original’s power, not even Luchino Visconti with the highly regarded OSSESSIONE. After the sensational sex and violence, and David Mamet-worthy monologues, of the book’s first half, filmmakers are locked into a drawn-out, frankly rather clunky second half. As these things sometimes go, it’s Julien Duviver’s off-brand, not-quite-remake from 1963 that stands as the book’s finest screen version. Adapted from a book by James Hadley Chase, a British-born thriller writer known for his imitations of genuine American product (such as the Faulkner imitation NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, which has its own, famously bizarre screen version), Duvivier’s version dispenses completely with Cain’s grubby, naturalistic, affectless tone. That’s something the straight adaptations, with their big budgets and glamorous stars, have historically struggled to capture, and instead Duvivier plunges right into the pure enjoyment of genre thriller-making, much as the Coens did in BLOOD SIMPLE. His story sees two safecrackers fleeing a heist gone awry, one of them winding up at a gas station in the mountains of the South of France, where he becomes a pawn in a power struggle between the station owner and the owner’s young wife. The versatile and constantly inventive Duvivier, maybe best known for PEPE LE MOKO, has become a new favorite of mine in recent years, and this genre movie conflagration might be the late masterpiece of a career which stretched from the late silents to the late ‘60s.
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I’ve struggled to appreciate Rene Clair in the past, but finally felt I could understand all of the praise directed at this whimsical filmmaker while watching this magically graceful farce from 1932. From the early phase of his career, as a leading light of the Parisian avant-garde, before he headed off to 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood and then returned to post-Occupation France as an elder statesman of “cinema du papa,” the movie is an effortless, perfectly buoyant blending of then-innovative camerawork and sound design and intricate comedy plotting that any American screwball comedy maker would envy. Like a non-venereal version of Max Ophuls’s LA RONDE, the story follows the trajectory of a small but important item through a group of characters--in this case, a winning lottery ticket, passed from artist to criminal to opera singer. Songs regularly interrupt the action, making this a musical, though without the Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly-style dance numbers we associate with the form, demonstrating how un-set-in-stone movie genres were at this point in time. Some of the first sound movies can seem like artifacts from a distant time, but LE MILLION is one of those early talkies to use their sync soundtracks for purposes other than recording dialogue, and even nine decades later, it’s still exciting to see an artist testing and pushing the bounds of a new technology.
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I had seen the first part of Fritz Lang’s two-film “Indian Epic,” THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR, some years before, but it took seeing this second installment to appreciate a very peculiar late-career masterpiece. For modern viewers, a cast largely made up of Germans--and Colorado-born Debra Paget--playing Indians could very well prove a stumbling block, and even during the pair’s original release, in 1959, Lang’s flagrantly artificial production must have seemed oddly, if not flagrantly, old-fashioned. The script, which finds a German engineer invited by a maharajah to his opulent island palace to advise on the modernization of infrastructure throughout the region, originates in a novel by Lang’s ex-wife Thea von Harbou and first written, but not directed, by Lang for the screen in the 1920s. So nobody should be surprised that this version seems a little out of time. It’s not entirely clear whether we’re in the British-administered country of the past or the newly independent one of the present, but is clear that---some impressive location work aside--Lang’s is an India of the mind, one originating in the fascination he and his peers had for its culture back in the ‘20s. The “epic” designation, and comparisons to Indiana Jones, bely a fairly static, and geographically confined, story, concerned with a coup attempt against the maharajah slowly brewing in and around his sprawling, cavernous palace It’s no match for the sweep and genuine scale of another two-film set in Lang’s catalogue, his massive ‘20s adaptation of the Siegfried legend. But, as with many Lang films, there’s something fascinatingly obsessive, if not quite lifelike or convincing, about his vice-like grip on his visuals. Viewed side by side, ESCHNAPUR and TOMB make for one of his most tantalizing patterns, as the incidents, plot turns, and images of the two constantly mirror and echo each other, as Lang’s winding narrative plumbs the depths of the palace, half real place (in fact, the same 18th century palace used for OCTOPUSSY), half assemblage of soundstage sets, as a dreamlike, only-in-the-movies world unto itself.
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Until recently, I didn’t have much awareness of or acquaintance with the veteran, and still working, French director Bertrand Tavernier, beyond his English-language debut, the 1980 sci-fi oddity DEATH WATCH. That changed last year with a viewing of his mammoth documentary MY JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA, a winningly idiosyncratic and endlessly engaging, through all three-and-a-half of its hours, tour through classic- and New Wave-era film. That prompted me to devote a lot of 2018 viewing time to Tavernier’s rich back catalog, starting with this 1974 debut, about a provincial clockmaker’s crisis of conscience, which after a year I’d still call one of my favorites. In that time, I discovered a filmmaker with a visually bold, narratively oblique style, and a dedication to both cinephilia in general and a particular focus on France’s past and present demons, in this case the paramilitary violence and labor unrest of post-1968 Europe. I also discovered the late Philipe Noiret, of CINEMA PARADISO and IL POSTINO and almost certainly Tavernier’s most frequent leading man, is one of my favorite actors, for his everyday looks and manner that nonetheless becomes, on a screen, irresistibly and magnetically watchable. Here, he captures the title character’s growing comprehension of the story’s central crisis, his son’s implication in the politically charged murder of a factory foreman, with ease and none of the histrionics of an actor hunting after awards nominations. Matching Noiret’s restrained power, Tavernier resists the temptation to juice up his largely internal story with external action scenes, avoiding many of the seeming dramatic high points but nonetheless creating a riveting movie that remains one of the best of a 35 film-plus career.
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1 comment:

Michael said...

Team Duvivier (see mine just prior to this one)!