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Month: May 2010

Picnic on the Grass (1959)

Picnic on the Grass (1959)

“Thanks to science, what was once a mystery can now be controlled and analyzed.”

Synopsis:
A politically ambitious scientist (Paul Meurisse) promoting the societal benefits of artificial insemination finds himself falling for a voluptuous country girl (Catherine Rouvel) who wants a baby.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • French Films
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Scientists
  • Sexuality

Review:
The central premise of this fantasy-laced sex comedy by Jean Renoir — that one must give in to bodily passions rather than attempting to rationalize all aspects of life — ultimately fails to provide enough narrative juice to bolster its rather innocuous storyline and forgettable protagonists.

While Renoir’s point remains just as viable and important as ever, it’s been explored elsewhere — and to greater effect — by many other filmmakers (c.f. Woody Allen’s Sleeper, for example). Shot at his father’s country home in the South of France, Picnic on the Grass is always pleasing to look at, but never really all that engaging.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful nature imagery

Must See?
No; this one is strictly must-see for Renoir fans. Listed as a film with Historical importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Shoot the Moon (1982)

Shoot the Moon (1982)

“You always remember the wrong things.”

Synopsis:
A husband (Albert Finney) and wife (Diane Keaton) with four daughters (Dana Hill, Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, and Tina Yothers) undergo a bitter separation after fifteen years of marriage.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Parker Films
  • Albert Finney Films
  • Diane Keaton Films
  • Marital Problems

Review:
Alan Parker’s no-holds-barred portrait of a marriage unraveling (note the single non-actor genre listed above) doesn’t make for easy viewing: from the opening scene, in which we watch Albert Finney sinking into deep despair as he overhears the excited voices of his wife and four daughters in a nearby bedroom, it’s clear that things have gone terribly wrong in what appears to be an idyllic situation.

After all, George (Finney), father of four healthy daughters and husband to a beautiful wife, is about to win a prestigious writing award, and lives in virtual paradise in a converted farmhouse among the rolling hills of Marin County, California.

Yet despite all this, George’s marriage to Faith (Keaton) is clearly no longer viable: he has a not-so-secret lover (Karen Allen), and Faith has his bag packed, ready for him to leave as soon as the awards ceremony is over.

The remainder of this bleak but compelling film is essentially concerned with portraying the ways in which George, Faith, and their kids handle the separation. Faith sinks into depression, eventually taking on a lover (Peter Weller), a silent-but-handsome construction worker who has fortuitously arrived to build a tennis court on her property.

George continues his affair with Sandy (Allen), yet maintains a ferocious sense of ownership over his house and family. Sherry (Dana Hill), their oldest daughter, reacts with understandable dismay and confusion at seeing her parents struggling to make sense of their situation.

The younger three girls (whose personalities are unfortunately not given much of a chance to emerge) remain staunchly devoted to both parents, even when their volatile father acts with shocking levels of violence.

Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing attempt by each of the characters to determine what exactly “went wrong” in this marriage — a question not easily answered.

Most of the film works well: the lead actors (Finney, Keaton, Hill, Allen) all give nuanced performances; Bo Goldman’s script is often incisive (“You’re kind to strangers.” “Yeah, strangers are easy.”); and beautiful Marin County locales are used to remarkable effect (helped in no small part by Michael Seresin’s stunning cinematography). However, the film isn’t entirely satisfying. One scene in particular — the critically panned “restaurant scene” between Finney and Keaton, occurring late in the film — is horribly misdirected by Parker as screwball farce, rather than being allowed to serve its more serious explanatory purposes:

And the final, deeply disturbing scene — while clearly designed NOT to provide any type of closure to this stickiest of narratives — doesn’t quite ring true. Nonetheless, most film fanatics will want to check out this undeniably powerful film at least once, for its many strengths.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Diane Keaton as Faith (nominated as Best Actress of the year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Albert Finney as George (nominated as Best Actor of the year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Dana Hill as Sherry
  • Michael Seresin’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worthy viewing at least once.

Links:

Tattered Dress, The (1957)

Tattered Dress, The (1957)

“Get this through your head: it’s not that New York lawyer you have to be afraid of, it’s me.”

Synopsis:
When a high-powered lawyer (Jeff Chandler) successfully defends a wealthy philanderer (Phillip Reed) against murder, the local sheriff (Jack Carson) takes offense and plots to charge Chandler with bribery of a juror (Gail Russell).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Falsely Accused
  • Gail Russell Films
  • Jack Arnold Films
  • Jack Carson Films
  • Jeanne Crain Films
  • Jeff Chandler Films
  • Lawyers
  • Sheriffs

Review:
This minor but reasonably effective courtroom thriller by B-director Jack Arnold isn’t quite as seedy or melodramatic as its title would imply. Rather than focusing on the titular tattered dress — representing a corrupt client’s supposed motivation for a crime of passion — the screenplay concerns itself with the cat-and-mouse dynamics between rags-to-riches Chandler (a once poor, now highly successful big city lawyer with a reputation for successfully defending guilty clients) and Jack Carson’s duplicitous sheriff, who takes offense at what he sees as a serious breach of both justice and authority in “his” town.

Chandler acquits himself well in the central role, and Gail Russell is, as always, a welcome presence:

— but it’s Carson who really stands out here as an inspired casting choice; he roundly flouts his all-American “good boy” persona and taps into Sheriff Hoak’s depraved but honor-bound morality to create a character we can’t help but feel afraid of.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Carson as Sheriff Hoak

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

Links:

Cocktail Molotov (1980)

Cocktail Molotov (1980)

“I’ve fought in Algiers. I’ve been a policeman for 20 years. And I can tell you one thing: we’ve gone mad.”

Synopsis:
A restless teenager (Elise Caron) runs away from her bourgeois Parisian home with her boyfriend (Philippe Lebas) and his buddy (Francois Cluzet), just as the 1968 student uprisings and strikes begin.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Coming of Age
  • French Films
  • Road Trip

Review:
French writer-director Diane Kurys‘ follow-up to her autobiographical debut film Peppermint Soda (1977) appears to continue where this earlier film left off. It begins with a demonstration of passionate adolescent devotion, as Frederic (Philippe Lebas) leaps onto a public stage to declare his undying love for Anne (Elise Caron) in front of her parents. When Anne decides to be with Frederic against her parents’ wishes (we never learn exactly what they have against him, though class difference is implied as the nominal reason), the film’s theme of youthful rebellion begins, as Anne — determined to join a kibbutz — runs away from home with Frederic and his older buddy, Bruno (Francois Cluzet). Kurys’ film is at its best in these early, heady scenes, which perfectly capture the energy and exuberance of late adolescence, when one finally breaks free from the constraints of home and follows one’s heart.

Caron nicely portrays Anne’s determination to live life on her own terms — and it’s a pleasant surprise to see her, fairly early on, deciding to leave her new lover behind when he expresses ambivalence over actually making the journey they’ve fantasized about for so long.

The two quickly reunite, however, and the bulk of the film simply follows them — and “third wheel” Bruno — as they journey south, then back to Paris again, all while hearing news about the strikes and student uprisings that began just as they left town. While it’s somewhat interesting to gain a time capsule perspective on this tumultuous era in French history, the film itself unfortunately loses its sense of direction as the strikes take over the narrative; Kurys’ attempt to show parallels between Anne’s newfound sense of freedom and the struggles of a nation to revolt against an “old morality” come across as a bit heavy-handed, especially as the trio encounter a series of characters (i.e., a truck driver, a policeman) who conveniently represent various “voices” and perspectives on current events. Left sadly unexplored is the muted love triangle between Anne, Frederic, and Bruno; their complex dynamics together — especially given Cluzet’s wistful, sensitive performance as Bruno — could have provided a much more interesting narrative trajectory.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elise Caron as Anne
  • Francois Cluzet as Bruno
  • An effective rendering of adolescent love

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

One, Two, Three (1961)

One, Two, Three (1961)

“Where I come from, everyone’s against the Yankees.”

Synopsis:
A Coca-Cola executive (James Cagney) in Cold War Germany panics when he learns that his ward — the teenage daughter (Pamela Tiffin) of his supervisor (Howard St. John) — has married a Communist (Horst Buchholz).

Genres:

  • Billy Wilder Films
  • Cold War
  • Comedy
  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Jimmy Cagney Films
  • Play Adaptation

Review:
It’s difficult to understand how the director of such cinematic classics as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like it Hot (1959) could be responsible for helming this tediously unfunny Cold War comedy (based on a one-act play by Hungarian author Ferenc Molnar). In his final starring role, Cagney delivers his nonstop dialogue at an impressively rapidfire pace (indeed, Peary actually nominates him as Best Actor of the year in his Alternate Oscars book!):

But the story’s incessant madcap pacing, dated premise, irritating characters, and insipid dialogue (“Do you realize that Otto spelled backwards is Otto?”) conspire to make it a film you’ll likely suffer through rather than enjoy. Then again, it’s received uniformly positive reviews from critics over the years, so perhaps I’m a lone dissenter…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Daniel Fapp’s Oscar-nominated widescreen cinematography

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this one.

Links: