Six Damn Fine Degrees #79: Mountain movies that peak my interest

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

There is apparently no shortage of movies set on or around mountains, mountain climbers and peak-seeking adventures in recent years according to my initial IMDb search. Yet when Julie asked me to follow up on her lovely piece surrounding Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air from last week, I felt hard-pressed to find such movies that I had truly enjoyed (or let alone had seen). Wouldn’t the glorious scenery of mountain peaks, the thrill of the climb, the horror of the fall and the brave men and women surviving all of that lend themselves ideally to dozens of great screenplays?

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #74: San Francesco was a hippie!

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

The spiritual motorcycle journey to San Francisco described in last week‘s post reminded me of another spiritual journey by the man who had lent his name to the City by the Bay: Saint Francis of Assisi. And I was especially struck again by the one film that made an indelible connection between the medieval saint‘s life and the hippie lifestyle that originated in San Francisco: Brother Sun and Sister Moon (1972).

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who had not made a film by this point since his stunning success of the gorgeous Romeo and Juliet in 1968, the film stars Graham Faulkner as Francesco. Traumatised by war, he first spends days suffering nightmares in his native Assisi. After several inspirations of faith and nature, Francesco famously gives all possessions including his name to his rich parents and walks away from Assisi naked to find his spiritual destiny, rebuilding a church, founding a community of believers and being received and surprisingly honoured by Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness’ early practice for the Obi Wan Kenobi role a few years later).

Photographed in Zeffirelli’s signature style (Director of Photography Ennio Guarnieri also lensed several Fellini movies), every image looks taken out of a glossy magazine, with an array of memorable faces in combination with Umbria’s natural beauty. Beside Faulkner and Guinness, the film stars Judi Bowker (Clash of the Titans), Leigh Lawson (Tess), Valentina Cortese (Day for Night) and Kenneth Cranham (Layer Cake).

Despite its medieval background, this makes it look much less like a faithful biopic or historical drama than a thinly veiled allegory on the supposed first hippie. Refusing worldly possessions, peacefully demonstrating against the authorities, starting a new life in a countryside commune and building a new spiritual basis had more than a handful of echos within the world the film was produced and released. In Zeffirelli’s view, Saint Francis was shown as the spiritual father of the flower power movement, so to speak, with hippie singer/songwriter Donovan providing the tunes underneath the magical transformation.

Reviews were not particularly kind at the time of the film’s release (Roger Ebert called it “an excess of sweetness and light”), but as often happens, the film has garnered appreciation and a cult status over the years, and many see it as a perfect companion piece to Romeo and Juliet (possibly even a trilogy with Taming of the Shrew) before the director’s journeys into more historical fiction (TV’s Jesus of Nazareth, Tea with Mussolini), Shakespeare (Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, Otello at the opera) and odd ventures into Hollywood mediocrity (The Champ, Endless Love). Later in his life, Zeffirelli became famous for his countless opera productions before infamously ending his illustrious career for a senate seat in Berlusconi’s right-wing populist party and never publicly coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Long gone by then were the pure if at times simplistic convictions he portrayed about San Francesco’s early modern hippie life that makes the innocent beauty of Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna.

* On a strange side note, the highly popular Donovan songs were never released at the time and the Italian soundtrack album only featured composer Riz Ortolani’s instrumental score and the Italian title song. It was in 2004, finally, that Donovan re-recorded all his original songs for an iTunes release, much to the delight of the film’s fan following.

Six Damn Fine Degrees #69: You’re not on Tatooine anymore!

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Coffeebreak for Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in the Tunisian desert? They are certainly not on Tatooine anymore!

I must admit I get the trouble with sci-fi Mege so pointedly discussed in last week’s post: I was also never quite an ardent fan of the genre as such, finding some of the choices made for supposedly far away worlds oddly quaint and cheap and some of the rubbery prosthetic creatures designed so unbelievably comical that I was not at all convinced any future or outer world would ever look like that. Of course there were great exceptions along the way: the creatures in Alien are suitably scary and beautiful and its realist spaceship and crew utterly believable, Star Wars is identifiably a fairy tale in space rather than science-fiction, and Star Trek’s universally humanist message sugarcoated all the tech talk I didn’t quite understand.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #64: Madeline Kahn’s moments to shine

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Just like Alan (so charmingly revisited in last week’s post), one of my favourite comedies of all time is Peter Bogdanovic’s screwball delight What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Besides the great rapport between Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, the perfect sense for timing and the riotous chase up and down the streets of San Francisco, I was most in love with one supporting actress in particular, the lovely Madeline Kahn. Her role as O’Neal’s annoying fiancée Eunice could easily have been a thankless one as the target of our spite and schadenfreude. Kahn, however, infused it with so much comedic energy, her ear-piercing voice chasing after her soon-to-be lost fiancé “Howard!”, to the audience’s great enjoyment. She was not too fond of her role, however, caught in ugly frocks and atrocious wigs and constantly making a fool of herself, but she certainly left an impression on one man in particular: upcoming comedy director Mel Brooks.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #59: Watching Star Wars with my 10 year-old niece

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Do you remember when you first saw the original Star Wars trilogy? Did you possibly even see it when it first came out or, if not, at least upon the movies’ return to the cinema in their ‘improved’ version in the late 1990s? I was among the many who had gotten used to bad video tape quality since the late ’80s and was stunned when eventually seeing them on the big screen, just before the disappointment of Episode I (The Phantom Mess) hit. Even trying to think really hard, however, I can’t remember my first reaction to the big plot twists: did I suspect Darth Vader was Luke’s father? Or Leia his twin sister? Did I believe Vader would redeem himself at the end? And did I mind (as Matt so poignantly asked in last week’s post)?

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #54: Why adoring Angela Lansbury is easy as pie

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

There is hardly any other living actress of her generation that has been as universally adored as Angela Lansbury (96). That might sound like a pretty bold statement at first, considering that she was never really considered an ‘A list’ actress in the world of cinema, and her roles, although charming, were often supporting in the best sense of the word. However, reading about the Stephen Sondheim musical adpatation of the tale of Sweeney Todd in Julie’s comprehensive piece from last week, in which Lansbury so memorably played murderous pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, only increased my adoration for this truly universally talented actress in the many fields of her craft.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #49 – Three generations of songs in A Star is Born

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

To me, Julie’s fascinating comparison of the earlier variations of what came to be A Star is Born triggered many a musical memory and it made me wonder how besides plot, characters and settings the musical flavours of this often-remade screenplay had changed over time. Specifically, what would the three Oscar-recognised songs from the Judy Garland version (“The Man that Got Away”, 1955), the Streisand remake (“Evergreen”, 1976) and the recent Lady Gaga iteration (“In the Shallows”, 2018) tell us about each moment this star-making (or -breaking) story hit the big screen?

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #44: Whatever happened to Richard Lester?

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Reading about the subdued but enormously suspenseful bomb-on-a-boat thriller Juggernaut in last week’s post, I couldn’t have agreed more with Matt’s analysis that even though we might expect a classic disaster movie, we are given something much more riveting and truthful in the hands of director Richard Lester.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #41: Pandemic and Disaster in The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

The grim reality of an ongoing global pandemic and the eerie parallels to other historical viruses like the Spanish flu of 1918 (so poignantly discussed in last week’s post) have not exactly whet our appetites for pandemics in movies. The likes of Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995) might be too real for comfort and post-virus zombie tales of World War Z (2013) or 28 Days Later (2002) too horrific for escapist entertainment.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #35: Michel Legrand’s Thomas Crown Affair

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Gangster portraits in recent movies have tended towards more and more nasty realism, as Julie so admirably analysed in last week’s post on iconic  French gangster Jacques Mesrine. Long gone seem the late golden days of Hollywood gangster glamour, in which style prevailed over morality and sexiness seemed to make up for all crimes committed. 

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