Cummings, Hartley, Lord and Miller, Preminger, Truffaut

The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980). One of Truffaut’s last films, The Last Metro is set in a struggling theatre during World War II. The Germans occupy France, causing the acclaimed owner and director of the theatre to hide out in the basement relaying covert suggestions as the troupe upstairs mounts a production that needs to be a success to keep the business afloat. Catherine Deneuve plays his wife and muse, the person trying to keep both him and the theatre safe. Gerard Depardieu plays an actor cast in the latest production, though its his life away from the stage that most intrigues. Truffaut has an eminently gentle touch as a director, lending every scene, especially the most mundane, a simple grace. There’s plenty of plot to play with in The Last Metro, but Truffaut is mostly preoccupied with the fragile nature of human relationships, particularly their eternal capacity to shift and surprise.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009). I have, I will admit, a bad habit of dismissing any computer animated feature produced outside of the incubator of brilliance that is Pixar. The mad rush to capitalize on audience interest in such material led to enough poorly-thought-out junk that it was all too easy for me to bypass anything produced with that software sheen. So it’s my own fault when I miss out on genuinely inventive, brightly entertaining films like Cloud with a Chance of Meatballs. Based on widely treasured kids book that I’m surprised wasn’t on my shelf given its original publication date, the film follows a young aspiring inventor who assembles an unlikely machine that transforms water into an endless variety of foodstuffs. It gets accidentally launched into the stratosphere, causing regular rainstorms comprised of savory delights. Lord and Miller concoct so many clever derivations on their culinary theme that I occasionally wanted to applaud the most ingenious details. The script is smartly constructed and the directing is energetic without becoming frenetic. For me, it’s a reminder that winning work can come from a variety of sources.

Double Dynamite (Irving Cummings, 1951). While I’ll concede that the following statement seems thoroughly improbable, Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx make a dandy comedic team. This film follows a struggling bank teller who inadvertently strikes it rich by betting on horse races, giving him the opportunity to finally propose to the buxom looker he’s had on the line for a touch longer than suits her patience. Unfortunately for him, his good fortune coincides with the discovery of a shortage at the bank, making him the prime suspect as accusations of embezzlement fly. Ol’ Blue Eyes plays the bank teller, and Groucho is his waiter pal who helps him sidestep the investigation while trying to prove his innocence. The script is hardly a work of genius, but the two have a nice rapport together and Groucho gets just enough nicely Grouchoesque lines to make this a respectable outing away from his brothers (there are certainly far worse). Jane Russell, on the other hand, is awkward, occasionally almost amateurish, as the banker’s beloved. Of course, this was when Howard Hughes was picking her for roles, and her acting ability wasn’t at all what captured his interest.

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (Mark Hartley, 2008). A documentary about the B-movie bonanza that burst forth in Australia in the nineteen-seventies when the government simultaneously started offering ample funds for filmmakers with few strings attached and loosened up the strictures regarding content. Hartley’s thoroughness is admirable, pulling together a slew of clips and talking head interviews with many of the central figures behind the freaky features. There’s also a few detractors and admirers sprinkled in the midst, most notably Quentin Tarantino. His encyclopedic knowledge of the films is borderline scary, and his enthusiasm for them is genuinely fun to watch. The film is a little scattershot, piling on clips with only glancing context. It’s interesting to note that an inordinate number of these films include appearances by nightmare punks roaming the highway on motorcycles and in trucks, but no one pauses to wonder why, if it somehow says something about the particular character of the country. It winds up playing as a wild greatest hits collection, which is, admittedly, pretty fun in its own right. Certainly, watching this grab bag seems a better way to experience the films than actually sitting through any of them. Well, maybe there’s one or two worth tracking down.

Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958). Adapted from contemporary French novel, Preminger’s film is a little slip of a thing. It follows a father and his teenaged daughter who are living a carefree life across France. The dynamic shifts when the father, played by David Niven, proposes marriage to a longtime family friend. The new fiancee tries to impose some structure, discipline and civility into their lives, an endeavor made more imposing given the role is played with the trademark stern elegance of Deborah Kerr. There’s some interesting psychology at play, especially as the daughter indulges in increasingly awful behavior to try and restore her preferred hedonistic life, but Preminger’s cinematic sensibilities are a little too formal to allow the darkest, trickiest elements to come to forefront. It doesn’t help that the youthful role is filled by Jean Seberg in only her second onscreen performance (and second straight for Preminger). She’s sadly wooden in the precise moments when insight and nuance is most needed.

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