Donen and Kelly, Frankenheimer, Salina, Skolimowski, Téchiné

Flow: For Love of Water (Irena Salina, 2008). Because there are few things we enjoy in our house than watching documentaries that offer an assessment, in painful detail, of how humanity is engaged in self-inflicted extinction through carelessly destructive exploitation of one of the most necessary substances for human existence. It make for a fun night of movie-watching. Real popcorn fare. Irene Salina’s film is compelling and suitably frightening, although it occasionally tangles itself up because there’s simply so much ground to cover. As admirably as it presents the scope of the problem, there are definitely times when it seems preferable to have a film that instead concentrates on one particularly telling story, such as Nestle’s incredibly nasty machinations in Michigan. Still, Salina’s efforts are sturdy and admirable, making Flow a solid example of cinematic journalism.

Moonlighting (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982). A key early film for Jeremy Irons, Moonlighting casts the future Oscar winner as the head of Polish work crew that has been sent by their boss to illicitly remodel his London flat. While there, the first Solidarity protests break out in their homeland, effectively cutting them off from their families, a fact that Irons’s characters keeps from the workers, in part to make sure they stick to the job in front of them. As modern independent film increasingly threatens to drown in its own thick quirkiness, there’s a irresistible nostalgia to a film like this. There was a time when art-house fare was far more likely to be built on quietly insightful observation and nuanced performance. Writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski crafts a film that’s almost shocking in its elegant simplicity.

The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964). A stiff-lipped World War II drama centered on a French railway inspector who uses all manner of deception and feigned complications to thwart a Nazi officer’s attempts to commandeer a vast stockpile of art masterpieces for the Third Reich. Since the French railway inspector is played by Burt Lancaster, he doesn’t have an ounce of European refinement to him (the actor doesn’t make even the slightest attempt at an appropriate accent), but he also seems like he could snap the whole German army right in two if it came down to it. He also radiates the sort of self-confidence it would take to pull of the massive scheming required. John Frankenheimer’s directing is rigorous, intelligent and just a touch too stolid to really give the film the spark it needs. There’s a strong sense that it would benefit from being a bit more fun, a little more raucous, embracing the backwards heist aspect as readily as it luxuriates in the transplanted nobility of its docudrama plot.

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanely Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952). It’s remarkable that this film was largely considered a slight affair when it was made, almost a throwaway, certainly in comparison to An American in Paris, the Oscar-feted effort that Gene Kelly made with director Vincente Minnelli the year before. It was primarily a vehicle for recycling some of the lesser-known entries in the MGM catalog of songs written by the studio’s Arthur Freed, with nearly every number pilfered from a prior musical. That included the title song, which first appeared in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Those modest aspirations yielded a film that can make a hard-to-dispute claim to be the finest musical ever created in Hollywood. An enormous amount of the credit for that is undoubtedly due to Kelly, whose conceptions of the musical numbers demonstrated an unerring sense of how to best take advantage of the strengths of his fellow performers, or even disguise their weaknesses. He could see that the fluid charm and boundless energy of Debbie Reynolds was going to help carry her through a lot, but he also knew that he’d better find a way to bring in Cyd Charisse when he had something more demanding in mind. I maintain that Kelly’s rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” is the single greatest scene in film history, but I must admit that this time around I got the greatest pleasure from Kelly’s fantastically joyous duet with Donald O’Connor on “Moses Supposes.”

The Girl on the Train (André Téchiné, 2009). André Téchiné’s drama about a young Parisian woman (Emilie Dequenne) who has a somewhat directionless life is fascinating less because of what it says about society’s reactions to sensationalism and the transgressive need of some to earn that affection than the unique nature of its narrative structure. Dequenne’s character leads a somewhat directionless life, in part because she can’t quite hone down her awkward idiosyncrasies effectively enough to get herself into the conventional workforce. When her boyfriend endures an especially brutal fate due to some illicit activities he undertook, rupturing their relationship, she makes an especially troubling, even inexplicable choice. In a more conventional version of the story, the film’s third act would essentially be the entirety of the film, but Téchiné instead opts to treat the crux of the narrative as almost an afterthought, which serves to heighten the callous flippancy of his protagonist’s choice. It’s a soft, ruminative approach that he employed to lesser effect in his next film, but it works nicely here. It’s a movie about the corrosive allure of melodrama, after all. Playing it as lean and straight as possible makes the stark folly of the film’s central choice all the more tragic.

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