4/24/2015

Blu-ray Review: That Man From Rio (1964); Up to His Ears (1965)

   
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As the son of a production designer and grandson of a painter, Philippe de Broca possessed an innate understanding of frame composition long before he ever began studying photography and cinematography in Parisian film school.

Putting his education and aesthetic intuition to use in the real world, de Broca first got his start helming military documentary shorts in Germany and Algeria before he served as an assistant director on two of the earliest French New Wave productions in the form of Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows respectively.

A cinematic jack-of-all-trades with a diverse background and resume, de Broca was so affected by what he'd seen during wartime that when it came time for him to launch his own filmmaking career, he vowed to make positive pictures that were sure to uplift as opposed to otherwise trendy melancholic arthouse fare.

Thus he transformed his belief that "laughter is the best defense against upsets in life" into a filmic mission statement and went to work ensuring that this theme would propel the plotline of his most ambitious feature to date.

To achieve this goal, de Broca looked to the past, finding the perfect balance of laughter and pathos in the fast paced screwball comedies that stole the hearts of filmgoers during the Great Depression, which inspired him and his co-writers to take a likeminded approach on That Man From Rio.


An ingenious and zany off-the-wall adventure as well as a great celebration of the Capraesque spirit –de Broca's enormously successful Rio can be best appreciated as a '60s version of a '30s screwball comedy.

Deriving inspiration from another '30s source via Herge's beloved Tintin book series, after his previous work directing three New Wave style features, de Broca spun off to play with genre and tone, much like his colleague Jacques Demy did when he made the jump from Bay of Angels to his own unique spin on a Hollywood musical in the early ‘60s.

An ambitious globetrotting romp of James Bond worthy proportions, in de Broca's Rio, the filmmaker combines the romantic banter and feather-light feel of It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby with the madcap energy of an It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World style live action comic strip. Yet despite all of the homage, impressively, Rio still manages to hark back to his original Tintin inspiration.


One of the biggest box office smashes of the year as well as de Broca's career, That Man From Rio is as much of a freewheeling spoof of Hitchcockian capers and James Bond style espionage as the Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers series The Pink Panther, which launched a year earlier.

A major influence on Spielberg's Indiana Jones franchise, That Man leap-frogs way past physical slapstick and verbal gymnastics.

Venturing into "look, ma, no hands" stunt territory, the film boasts many jaw-dropping moments that threaten not only plausibility but also life and limb of its incredibly brave lead Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had so much fun doing a majority of his own stunts in this French-Italian co-production that he partnered up with de Broca five more times.

Turning each and every new location into an elaborate playground where anything goes – the epic chase movie finds Belmondo's soldier Adrien released on a week-long military leave.

Arriving home just in the nick of time, Adrien is stunned to see his lovely fiancé (Françoise Dorleac) abducted right before his eyes following the museum heist of an Amazonian statue, which left one man dead and another taken along with Dorleac.


Following in hot pursuit and willing to do whatever it takes to get his girl back in time to avoid being picked up for (involuntarily) army desertion, Adrien chases after the villains, impulsively ditching his dead vehicle and hoofing it all the way to the airport in an amusing suspension of disbelief early on in the movie.

When the journey takes Belmondo from Paris to Rio and then Brazil, the adventure continues by land, air, and sea in a series of increasingly dangerous action scenes that still impress today in this gorgeous high definition, rainbow bright and razor sharp Blu-ray restoration.


Featuring a plethora of bonus material, That Man arrives on disc as the first part of a double feature, hot off the heels of its 50th anniversary theatrical run last summer which introduced de Broca's thrilling romantic comedy to a contemporary audience reared on the movies it inspired including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Given a first rate release by Cohen Film Collection, Rio also makes a great international companion piece to another adventurous romcom from the era via Stanley Donen’s Charade as well as the '30s road movies that helped give it its rhythmic banter.

While it definitely could've benefited from a sharper edit and a stronger character arc for its supporting players (including Dorleac's carefree, flighty beauty in particular), it still holds up well as an iconic French blockbuster.


Daring to paint outside genre lines to appeal to the crowds vs. the critics first and foremost, de Broca's escapist classic is proof that when done correctly, there's room for art in a studio spoof.

The end result not only garnered an Oscar nomination for its script but also took home the 1964 prize for Best Foreign Language Film over more serious global fare from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Watching it today, you realize that That Man is exactly the type of film that Francis Veber tried to catapult back into the mainstream nearly twenty years later with his ‘80s comedies which were released a few years after Steven Spielberg struck Saturday matinee style gold with an inventive science fiction spin he dubbed Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And while de Broca and Belmondo tried to make lightning strike twice with the release's second feature in the form of 1965's Up to His Ears, the follow-up film starts to fall apart within the first act.

 

An overlong and tonally awkward effort, Ears is loosely based on the 1879 Jules Verne novel Tribulations of a Chinaman in China.

And although this film is notable for showcasing another career highlight collaboration for de Broca with Jean Rochefort (which is the subject of a behind-the-scenes featurette on the two men), ultimately Ears seems like a missed opportunity all around to send-up James Bond even further.

Fortunately, Ursula Andress evokes plenty of laughs as a brainy stripper studying seduction and the motivations of men.

But besides a few snappy lines as well as an exploitative white bikini clad, beach frolicking homage to her role as the first (and arguably most famously iconic) "Bond girl" in Dr. No, the moody film has a tough time navigating between scenes both dark and light.


Oddly bearing more in common with Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude than the adventure films it’s purporting to roast, Ears gives us an alarming introduction to Belmondo's joyless playboy as a man literally hanging on the edge for dear life.

Existentially and emotionally unfulfilled – regardless of his millions or upcoming engagement – when we first meet the curiously named bored Arthur, he's driving himself off a cliff in what we soon discover is his ninth suicide attempt in one week alone.

While the beginning of Ears is echoed by a final sequence in Harold and Maude, in both films, love manages to give each man a reason to live, just as it gives Dudley Moore's aimless, rich drunk Arthur Bach a reason to stop killing himself with alcohol in the far more sweet-tempered Arthur.

Thankfully, much like the vastly superior Maude, Ears manages to grow on the viewer due to time as well as its truly inventive (if ultimately meandering) plotline.


Realizing that his friends won't inherit any money if he succeeds in taking his own life, he arranges his own murder via a loyal assistant, only to almost immediately find himself having second thoughts when he crosses paths with – and loses his heart to – the stripper played by Andress.

Unable to identify those targeting him (particularly when the mother of the woman he'd originally agreed to marry hears about his life insurance policy and tries to take matters into her own hands), Arthur goes on the run, leading viewers on another over-the-top adventure.

Increasingly outrageous and downright bizarre at times, Ears is still worth a look for cineastes to better appreciate the then mightily original picture's impact on future films in the following two decades.

Best approached as a B-movie, which is all the more magnified by its inclusion as the B-movie in this double-feature set, Up to His Ears may be disappointing for Belmondo fans but lovers of Andress won't want to miss it.


Gorgeously transferred to Blu-ray as a two-disc collection, the titles serve as a terrific introduction to de Broca, who continued to seek out adventurous laughs with Belmondo and Rochefort throughout his six decade spanning career.

While chaotic excess gets the better of de Broca in the all-over-the-place Ears, personally I'm hoping for a follow-up Cohen Film Collection to deliver further foreign comedic capers including de Broca’s 1973 effort Le Magnifique aka The Man From Acapulco, which sounds like another intriguing hybrid of romance, comedy, adventure, spy spoof and Belmondo.

Until then, we'll remain grateful to the Cohen Collection for continuing to preserve little seen and/or long-out-of-print foreign cinema, which – thanks to this shiny, extra feature filled Blu-ray release – we're able to find without a cross-continent hunt or treasure map.

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