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30X30: With six films down, only 24 more to go

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published June 22, 2018 at 1:58 a.m.

the-inimitable-gene-kelly-splashes-around-the-mgm-back-lot-in-the-iconic-title-number-from-singin-in-the-rain

The inimitable Gene Kelly splashes around the MGM back lot in the iconic title number from Singin’ in the Rain.

Roger Ebert once wrote “you cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti … in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joa...

Our story so far: Last week critic Piers Marchant wrote about his recent heart transplant and his plan to fill in some gaps in his cinematic education during his monthlong convalescence by watching "important" films he'd somehow missed. This week he files his first report on those movies.

As promised, here are the capsules from the first week of this nutty experiment. Just to keep things relative, I am awarding a score on a 10.0 scale, along with what I'm calling a Relevancy score out of five stars. For that score, even if I wasn't wild about the picture, this score suggests the significance of the film in the overall appreciation of cinematic history. Expect a lot of fives in that category.

1 Singin' in the Rain (1952): This came so close to winning me over. The film, co-directed by Stanley Donen and star Gene Kelly, offers just enough for nonmusical fans to sink their teeth into: neurotic actors, frustrated directors, (hugely stereotyped) bubble-headed blondes with gratingly sing-song voices; all while pointing out Hollywood fakery and sending up the musical genre, even as it lovingly embraces it.

Point of fact, Kelly, and Donald O'Connor, who plays Kelly's best friend, are so staggeringly charismatic and talented, they had me... right up until the film's closing grand number, a trumped-up "Broadway Melody" that trips over each and every musical conceit and cliche with its soaring camera angles, massive dancing crowds, and dehumanizing group calisthenics, that seems to go on endlessly. It's clearly meant to be a triumphant ode to all the real fans of the big-ticket, glitzy musical lovers -- an impulse impressively held in check throughout the rest of the film which until that point utilizes two-or-three-person affairs, divvied up between the riveting Kelly, O'Connor, and female lead Debbie Reynolds, whom I found nothing but delightful.

I must say, it charmed me up until that moment, including the infamous titular scene, with Kelly getting happily drenched, dancing with wild abandon alone down a city block at night, but to end such a film with such a manufactured burnt offering such as that Broadway bit did sour me. What can I say? I may have a new heart beating in my chest, but I remain devoutly heartless when it comes to big dance numbers.

Score: 7.7/10

Relevancy: 5/5

2 High Sierra (1941): Peak Bogart: The man turns bitterness into an art form. The look on his face when his gangster character, Roy Earl, fresh out of prison, joyfully confesses his loving intentions to Velma (Joan Leslie), the young, innocent beauty he meets by chance on the road to California with her sweet grandparents, only for her to turn him down in favor of her boyfriend back home, is equal parts acrid and despondent. His chance to have a life free of crime and criminals and guns and capers up in smoke, he turns back to this hotel heist his boss has sent him on -- and botches it up like a rank amateur.

Seriously, a notorious bank robber already so well-known that he's often recognized in the street, brazenly waltzes into a posh California resort, a couple of inexperienced goons at his side, and seems not to have accounted for a) stray guests walking in; b) the security guard, who hears them hammering on the jewel safe to crack it open; and c) the possibility that any of the witnesses he leaves behind could easily identify him.

I guess we can say after getting shot down romantically by Velma, he doesn't much mind getting lit up with real lead, but for a guy who claims to be such a pro, he sure isn't at his best on this caper. Bogart, however -- chain-smoking, ill tempered, and yet emotionally attached to both a former exotic dancer (Ida Lupino), and a lovably devoted mutt named "Pard"-- is at his granite-jaw-glass-heart best.

Score: 7.4/10

Relevancy: 3.5/5

3 The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film, utilizing the actual minutes recorded during the 1430 trial of Joan (Maria Falconetti, utterly unforgettable) lead by the Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugene Silvain), is considered an absolute masterpiece, and rightly so. Through a series of staggeringly beautiful close-ups, with detail so sharp you see the pores in the skin of the actors, Dreyer portrays the full gamut of emotion that the besieged Joan endures, from the joy of the thought of attending holy Mass, to the crushing misery of facing the tortures with which the bishop and his consort intend to extract a renouncement of her claims of being the Holy Daughter of God.

Compositionally, the film is a master-class of subtle but deeply effective evocation -- the position of the camera, be it slightly below the subject and looking up, or slightly above as if peering down -- the use of texture and light is all of such a superior level you can't imagine capturing it any more effectively now, given 90 years and countless improvements to camera technology.

Like its heroine, the film retains a quality of honesty and conviction that is absolutely undeniable, and Falconetti is so perfectly cast -- after her already-cropped hair is further cut into shreds before her execution, she becomes even more beautifully unassailable -- the film loses absolutely none of its considerable power to modern audiences. Criterion has recently released a splendid new restoration of the film (among other delights, allowing you to choose between two frame rates, and three separate possible soundtracks), which I can't recommend highly enough.

Score: 10/10

Relevancy: 5/5

4 Fitzcarraldo (1982): Essentially, it's the story of the madness of invention, and the audacity of those who attempt it. Werner Herzog's film follows the wild-eyed, flowing tributaries of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), a would-be rubber baron living in southern Peru during the gold-rush days at the turn of the 20th century, when vast fortunes were made by foreign businessmen, descending to the Amazon basin like blight, scooping up land, pushing out natives, and creating vast wealth for themselves.

Fitzgerald, by contrast, has more in mind than just becoming rich: He is obsessed with opera, specifically by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, and has a dream to build a grand opera house in the small city of Iquitos, where he lives with his partner, the brothel owner Molly (Claudia Cardinale). Having already failed at one massive enterprise, attempting to build a trans-Andean railway, he isn't taken terribly seriously by the other barons until he buys a piece of land and a ship with which to procure his own fortune.

The trick is, his land, and the rubber he could obtain there, is virtually impossible to get to, that is, until he devises a mad plan to literally raise his boat out of the water and over a small mountain to cross rivers in order to access it. He is consumed and inspired, but also, as we see with a small but significant section in which we meet some of the ruined true believers he left behind in the wake of his last failure, more than a little callous. Still, Herzog's portrait -- and one can't help but see some of the famously irascible director in his protagonist -- is riveting stuff, and Kinski, half-driven, half-insane, is the perfect foil to the filmmaker's vision.

Score: 7.8/10

Relevancy: 4/5

5 Don't Look Now (1973): Accepting that some of what would have been considered cutting-edge filmmaking in 1973 -- overt contextual symbolism, image repetition, a plethora of '70s-era zoom-ins -- comes across as more than a little heavy-handed in the modern era, Nicholas Roeg's thriller still holds a lot of sway on the strength of its two leads (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), and the mysterious menace evoked by shooting the film in Venice, a city of endlessly creepy alleyways, intricate, looping streets, looming shadows, and echoing footsteps on ancient cobblestone.

Sutherland and Christie play a married couple, John and Laura, still grieving over the loss of their young daughter due to an accidental drowning on their country estate in England. John is in Italy to restore an old church to new glory, and Laura joins him in an attempt to push on with her life, but it is only when she meets a pair of sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania), one of whom is blind and psychic and claims to have seen her deceased daughter sitting between them, that she begins to emotionally heal.

John refuses to believe in such "mumbo-jumbo," even as he keeps having visions of his daughter running along the streets of Venice. As much as the film pours it on in the beginning, by the end, it feels as if Roeg has better settled into his element, and the film's spooky climax still offers a sizable kick.

Score: 6.5/10

Relevancy: 2.5/5

6 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974): A strikingly progressive and proto-feminist film from Martin Scorsese, brought on board by lead actress and (noncredited) producer Ellen Burstyn, who an Oscar for the role. We follow the halting trajectory of Alice (Burstyn), and her 11-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III).

Newly widowed, Alice is at last free to pursue her dream of becoming a singer, but wants to get back to her hometown of Monterrey, Calif., in order to fulfill it. With her son in tow, she embarks on a long journey through Arizona -- first in Phoenix, where she meets the spookily manic Ben (Harvey Keitel); then, down to Tucson, where she becomes a diner waitress, along with the mouthy Flo (Diane Ladd), and meets David (Kris Kristofferson), a rancher with whom she falls messily in love.

Scorsese, making his first big-studio picture, keeps his camera in almost jittery constant motion, capturing the scattershot emotional timbre of his protagonist. Half of the film plays like a swooning comedy, with the central relationship between a woman trying to find her way and a son, who seemingly lives without fear; the other half, with its creepy, violent machismo-addled men, losing their tempers and throwing people around, plays like a Scorsese film.

It somehow works pretty well -- including the splashy opening scene, a mannered riff on The Wizard of Oz -- largely on the strength of the performances, and the natural feeling of their relationship to one another. Considering its era, a film focusing so much on a single woman's journey to self-actualization remains pretty remarkable.

Score: 6/10

Relevancy: 3/5

MovieStyle on 06/22/2018

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