Cover Girl (1944)

I learned about Cover Girl from 4 Star Film Fan, here you can always discover wonderful film classics. Starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly an, Eve Arden and Phil Silver, Cover Girl shows Hayworth as Rusty Parker, a captivating beauty and talented dancer who performs in her boyfriend, Danny McGuire’s Brooklyn club. Silver is a comic and the pair’s buddy. Rusty is down to earth but when she hears about a magazine contest she becomes curious about the big time.

Mix ups and show tunes ensue. Danny hopes Rusty will stay in Brooklyn. Briefly he stands in her way, but soon figures Rusty doesn’t really love him if she’s so impressed by the Manhattan set. Of course, Rusty wins the contest. It turns out that the sponsoring magazine is run by a man who fell in love with Rusty’s grandma, who turned him down, married an ordinary piano player and led a happy life.

The emotions were convincing. You hope that Danny will declare his love and that Rusty doesn’t settle for the high life rather than try love. I enjoyed the joking and friendly traditions Hayworth, Silver and Kelly’s characters share. Some numbers ran a little long, but the dancing was solid. I particularly enjoyed Kelly in a scene with his conscience who tries to advise him. You just don’t see such scenes carried off well nowadays.

Cover Girl’s a fun film well worth your time.

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Rusty Knife

57760-the-rusty-knife-0-230-0-345-cropPart of a collection of Japanese noir films, Rusty Knife (1958) packs a punch. A relentless D.A. won’t give up on getting justice for a murder that was wrongly categorized as a suicide. He hunts down two reformed gangsters, who witnessed the murder as other yakuza (Japanese mobsters) killed a city official. One of the witnesses now owns a bar and has turned over a new leaf. However, the guilty and anger towards these gangsters who brutally raped and murdered his true love. As the D.A. urges him, the reformed gangster pursues the yakuza and seeks revenge.

The emotions run high and the plot has some great fight scenes. The plot offers plenty of surprises. I recommend this film and would certainly watch more of director Toshio Masuda’s films.

Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

Auntie Mame

I can’t think of a more vibrant, exuberant character than Auntie Mame played by Rosalind Russell.

“Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

When young Patrick’s father dies, he’s sent to live with his vivacious Auntie Mame. Before you know it, he’s stirring the perfect martini and at a progressive school where clothing is optional. His trustee Mr. Babcock is appalled and Patrick is shipped off to a boarding school but gets to spend every holiday with his only living relative Auntie Mame, a free-spirit and free-thinker.

Sally Cato: [before a fox-hunt] Well? Shall we to the hounds?
Mame Dennis: [muttering] Yeah, I’d love to meet your family.

When the market crashes, Mame loses her fortune and takes on a variety of jobs which she botches with aplomb. All looks bleak till Game meets an oil tycoon from Texas who soon marries her after she defies his family’s efforts to ridicule her.

The film delights from start to finish. Same does face her share of slings and arrows and always faces them with courage, charm and wit. I haven’t seen this film in years and found it one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in years. I’d say this is a perfect film. I must find more of Rosalind Russell’s films, though I fear few films can match or exceed this comedic masterpiece.

Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.

The Greatest Showman

Not one to rush out to the theaters to spend $10 to see a new film, I just watched The Greatest Showman on DVD. In short, it’s a fairly entertaining film, that I’m glad I saw for free.

The story of famed showman/huckster, P.T. Barnum, this musical is a fictionalized biography. The film’s got pizzazz and color. I enjoyed the dancing and songs, though the day after viewing, I can’t remember any lyrics. Thus as a musical something’s missing. With a great musical, you can remember several songs. Think West Side Story, Oklahoma, Les Mis. I can sort of hum one of the songs. But I’m not sure I could hum much.

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) grew up poor and was friends with a little rich girl, whom he eventually married in spite of her father’s protests. The mother’s never seen for some reason. The story segues to Barnum toiling in your typical, dark, dreary 19th century office. His spirit is wilting. Then the company folds and Barnum decides to enter show biz. Before you know it he realizes there’s money to be made by producing freak shows that allow the public to see a bearded lady, a giant, Tom Thumb, a little person, a man with a skin condition, etc. After some creative marketing, people are flocking to Barnum’s show and the cash is flowing in.

The film portrays Barnum’s efforts as inclusive. He did hire these people and before working for him they were outcasts. The film does show that Barnum yearned to be accepted by the elites and once he succeeds by using a concert he produces with famed singers Jenny Lind, he shuts the door on his cast, who don’t look polished and elegant. According to History vs. Hollywood, Barnum’s attitude towards diversity and the disabled wasn’t so cut and dried. Clearly, the film paints Barnum as a flawed champion of outcasts. He did hire these people and gave them a means to support themselves and to form community and friendships. I’m not sure how well they were paid. Yet in the film, these characters weren’t well developed. We see no scenes that show Barnum as cultivated a friendship or deep understanding of any of his performers. This aspect and the lack of memorable songs, are the film’s weakness for me. The story’s quite cliched, though it’s well paced and colorful. I wished for more.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.