A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 599 – Persepolis

Persepolis – October 20th, 2011

This is one of those movies I’m sure I would have been somewhat curious about but never curious enough about to actually watch had we not been doing this project. The subject matter combined with the format led to it getting a lot of attention and it looked interesting, but I often shy away from heavier movies and every description I read of this one made me think it would definitely be on the heavy end of things. And it was. It was also well worth watching and I will, at some point, have to get the book(s) and read them. It’s also a great example for when I encounter people who stubbornly insist that animation is, by default, for children. Yes, they are still out there.

Much like there are people who insist that animation is for kids, there are people who refuse to recognize the graphic novel as a potentially deep medium. I find it hard to wrap my own head around at times, considering that memoir like Maus has been around since at least the 1980s and fiction like Sandman has been around since at least the early 1990s. And even before then, the medium was hardly brand spanking new. Perhaps it comes from people who still see anything in the format as a “comic book” and I don’t want to get all pretentious here, but that’s why I use the term “graphic novel” for some things. Even just the “comic” part of “comic book” implies humor, even if people don’t think that through every time they hear it. So this isn’t a comic book movie. It’s an animated movie using the same artwork as the graphics in the graphic novel. And while it has its comedic moments, it isn’t really comical.

I haven’t really done any research into this movie beyond the basics, but I did see some mentions of it being somewhat controversial in terms of how it portrays the country of Iran and its history and culture. The thing is, this is a memoir. It is the story of a personal and familial experience. Not being a part of the culture she’s writing and speaking about, I can’t really make any judgement on that. But I will take it as a given that what she’s presenting is authentic for her. And so long as she’s not fabricating events entirely, that’s really all that matters to me.

Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran during a time of revolution and war and changing regimes with changing ideals and rules. The movie follows her through her young childhood and into her teenage years and then out of Iran and into Switzerland where she went to University, then back to Iran to see her family before deciding to leave for good. There’s narration over the entire movie, from Marjane’s point of view, looking back on her own actions and opinions. Marjane’s family is portrayed as involved in the revolution from the outset. Relatives end up in jail or worse. Marjane herself seems to shift loyalties based on what she hears and from whom, changing her mind as she learns and grows. I think this is really a key point for memoir – an unflinching look at one’s own past.

It’s a brutal story, with friends and relatives hurt, people confused and upset. Marjane visits her uncle, Anoosh, in prison just before he’s executed. Relatives of her friends report being tortured while imprisoned. Marjane herself rebels against the restrictions the government places on the people, listening to bootleg heavy metal cassettes and speaking out against what seem to her to be ridiculous rules about what women can and can’t wear and can and can’t do. And eventually she leaves for Europe, where things seem better but where she is ashamed to be Iranian and denies it when she meets new people. Some of her friends romanticize her background, seeing her as something of a poster child for revolution, but others see her as being from a backwards society. And this is key for me when trying to understand this movie. Marjane doesn’t hate Iran or being Iranian. She doesn’t hate the culture she was raised in. But the movie makes it very clear that she doesn’t equate what she grew up in with what she left. That isn’t a criticism of the culture. That’s a criticism of the government.

I can’t make any claims to expertise in drawing style or artistic technique, but I do think that the art of this movie, both in the style of the original illustrations from the graphic novels and the animation, is excellent. It’s deceptively simple, what with the vast majority of it being black and white with little to no shading or color, but there’s a lot of detail and care put into the visuals. It suits the story and I’m incredibly glad that it was made animated instead of live action. The only way I think this movie could have worked with live action would have been if it had gone a very Sin City type of direction, with the live action mimicking the artistic style. But even that wouldn’t have done the story the sort of justice it deserves. There’s a reason why Satrapi used the format and medium she used for the original story and to take it too far from that would have turned it into something entirely other.

Despite how good this is, I know I won’t be putting this back in unless I’m showing it to someone else who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s not a casual movie and it’s not one I could pause on while flipping channels. But it is an excellent movie and a fascinating story. I’m glad I’ve seen it once, even if I never see it again.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 586 – The Rules of the Game (1939)

The Rules of the Game – October 7th, 2011

Going into this tonight I admit, I was a little nervous. I’d last seen it in high school for a class and I vividly recall being incredibly taken with it. The problem was I couldn’t for the life of me remember just what about it had interested me. I had vague memories of some of the scenes and I knew most of it took place in a huge hunting lodge in the French countryside. I knew there was a theme of infidelity and that someone died. I knew it was in black and white. I had a mental image of a particular shot of one of the characters. And that was it. That’s all I could remember. So I was nervous that I would watch it for a second time, fifteen years later, and be appalled at my own taste.

Fortunately for me, that wasn’t the case. I’m still not entirely sure what specifically caught that much of my interest, but while I wasn’t as swept away by it this time as I was before, I did enjoy it. And watching it with a more critical eye was kind of fun. I don’t always enjoy watching things critically like this. Sometimes I just want to sit back and let the movie play. But this movie all but invites some critical viewing. It wasn’t made to be an escapist fantasy or an action movie or anything like that. It was made as social commentary. The pity of it is that it’s social commentary on a society and time period I’m not terribly familiar with. So I can make some general comments, but the particulars of the mood of the country at the time aren’t my thing. Some of the finer points of the movie are just sailing right over my head and the best I can say is that I’m aware of it.

For anyone completely unfamiliar with this movie, it’s a French film from the late 1930s, pre-World War II. The story revolves around a number of relationships between various people. There are married couples and affairs and there’s flirting and arguing. Christine and Robert are a married couple living a life of luxury in Paris. Robert has a mistress (Genevieve) but whether or not Christine is seeing someone else is rather a mystery at first. A famous aviator, Andre, opens the movie by very publicly declaring that the woman he loves has disappointed him and as Christine has been rather close with him, well. Assumptions are made. Andre and Christine’s mutual friend, Octave, shows up and eventually everyone (yes, everyone, including Christine’s niece, who falls for Andre) is headed off to the countryside to Christine and Robert’s chateau.

I remember thinking at the time that I first watched this that there was something very Shakespearean about it all. The big house in the country and the huge group of people of various social roles and strata and the interplay between them all just seemed like it belonged on stage. Of course, at the time that I first saw this I’d been taking a course in Shakespeare for most of the school year, so I was primed to see everything in relation to it. Regardless, it did strike me again watching it now. I’m sure this sort of thing is older than Shakespeare and he wasn’t the only one doing it, but still. The setting feels like a cross between Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night but not played so much for obvious laughs. Then too, while I was told by a college professor that the theory of simultaneous plots for upper and lower class audiences in Shakespearean plays is total bullshit (he was less coarse than that, but his meaning was quite clear), I still maintain that regardless of the intended audiences, plays like Twelfth Night did indeed often have multiple groups of characters playing out their own stories at the same time. And that happens here too. While Christine and Robert and Genevieve and Andre Christine’s niece, Jackie and Octave all dance around each other, Christine’s maid is at the peak of an entirely separate triangle.

Lisette, the maid, is married to the game warden at the chateau. It suits her just fine to live in the city with Christine and Robert where she can carry on her own affairs without worrying about her husband’s reaction. She’s very clear about that when Christine asks her about it. Meanwhile, Genevieve tells Robert that he should just tell Christine about the two of them. When Robert declines, saying Christine wouldn’t understand, Genevieve complains that if Robert had married Parisian woman it would be different. Expected. Christine, on the other hand, is Viennese, and it is assumed that she has entirely different standards. The same could be said of Lisette and her husband. She is a Parisian woman married to a man who’s not from Paris and who therefore has different expectations. And when they’re all put back together in a confined space and forced to be a little more honest about their actions than they were prepared to be, well. That’s where the conflict in the movie comes from.

One of the things I find so interesting about this movie is that gender isn’t really as much of a consideration as one might expect from a movie made in the 1930s. Yes, the men do talk about their rights towards women and how they really should just be allowed to have all the women they want. But on the other side of it, the women are just as interested in having as many men as they want. Neither group comes out looking any more virtuous than the other and neither really comes out looking any worse. The only people who aren’t sleeping around as of the beginning are Christine and Schumacher (the game warden) and Schumacher’s the only one who doesn’t want to sleep around and he ends up shooting up the place. It’s an equal opportunity tangle.

It’s a beautifully made movie with an excellent cast and I did enjoy watching it for a second time. I’m so relieved that it didn’t disappoint me somehow. I do idly wish that I knew more about the time period and society on display because it’s clear that the movie is making points about it all and I’m missing them. But even without the specifics of the social commentary going on, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable movie.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Immortal (2004)

June 30, 2011

Immortal

Last night Amanda asked me “What’s Immortal?” I had to think a bit to remember the movie she was referring to then I replied, “Oh, yeah, it’s that utterly bizarre French sci-fi film with all the digital people.” Really, how do you even describe this film? You could say that it’s an odd visit to the Uncanny Valley. You could talk about the great art design and outlandish look of the film. Or you could address the somewhat disjointed plot and its disturbing undertones. No matter how you look at it this is one of the strangest movies in our collection (and we do have a lot of strange movies.)

We’re told in the opening monologue of the movie that the Egyptian god Horus has been sentenced to death (though we’re never told what his crime is) and that he has only seven days left before he will be stripped of his immortality. Do you know what? Good. I wanted Horus to die in this movie because he’s a total dick. I think probably that’s the reaction the film maker was going for – Horus doesn’t really see any of the people he interacts with as worth anything except as tools for his own ends. He doesn’t comprehend or care about life or human emotion. He’s just in town to do something to preserve himself.

The town he’s in is New York City in the year 2095. It’s a sort of blend of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Brazil. In this future New York there are aliens living in a kind of ghetto called Level 3. There is also a strange inter-dimensional Intrusion in the place where Central Park used to be. Practically the entire human population have been modified and enhanced by a company called Eugenics. For no reason that is ever adequately explained this corporation is in the habit of rounding up aliens and mutated humans for experimentation.

At the start of the film they have rounded up a mysterious pale skinned woman named Jill who has tinfoil for a scalp and cries blue tears. A doctor with connections in Eugenics notices Jill when she is being processed and for some reason decides to take her under her wing so to speak. Doctor Turner soon discovers that Jill is not human, and indeed has a physiology unlike any known species. Her cellular structure suggests that she is only three weeks old, her organs are all wrong, and she has no memory (perhaps because she is being heavily medicated with unknown drugs.) So Turner offers Jill legal papers and puts her up in a hotel room if Jill will in exchange perform experiments on herself to help Turner study her.

Meanwhile there is a serial killer in town, or so the local hard-boiled investigator believes. Turns out that all these guys exploded from the inside are just folks that Horus has attempted to merge himself with so that he can have a mortal vessel. He seems to be incompatible with all the humans in town because of their extensive genetic meddling, but he gets a lucky break when a pod breaks off of a passing prison zeppelin releasing a convicted criminal from thirty years of cryogenic stasis. Nikipol, the criminal, is a perfect fit for Horus, who moves right in. By odd coincidence Nikopol is a renowned rebel who once battled the founders of Eugenics. Local digital graffiti is all signed with “spirit of Nikopol” in his memory. So a corrupt senator and Eugenics board member spends most of the movie sending various nasty hit-men out to find and kill Nikopol before he can discredit the company.

Jill, meanwhile, has as little idea what’s happening to her as the audience does. Her only friend in the world, besides Dr. Turner, is a faceless man in black called John who came from the strange Intrusion in Central Park. He’s the one who has been providing her with mysterious narcotics. He has some kind of plans for her it seems. So does Horus (now possessing Nikopol.) This is when Horus turns from just an out-of-touch and uncaring god to an actively evil being as he has Nikopol repeatedly rape Jill. Yeah – the movie goes in some really unpleasant directions about halfway through. Jill, it seems, is almost unique in the universe in that she can pro-create with a god, so Horus is desperate to get her pregnant. The movie takes this really disturbing turn, and it just never comes back. Really – it is nasty and ugly and things don’t ever really have a satisfactory ending.

I think maybe that this is the point. This isn’t a “love conquers all” kind of feel good movie. It’s a movie about the capricious and uncaring nature of the universe and how powerless we mere humans are. It’s about how little real control we have over our lives. It’s about futility and ugliness and it seems to suggest that perhaps we should accept the little victories life offers us in consolation. It’s pretty bleak, I have to say.

I stress, however, that this is only my own interpretation of the movie. It doesn’t really try to hard to provide answers. Indeed it doesn’t much concern itself with being lucid or coherent. Much of the plot summary I just wrote is just my interpretation of events displayed on the screen, because by and large the movie doesn’t make many attempts to connect the various disparate things that keep happening.

I think this movie is more about creating a mood and showing a bunch of pretty pictures than about telling a story. It has a very strange aesthetic to it, with a largely computer generated cast and only a very few human actors. There’s Charlotte Rampling as Dr. Turner, Thomas Kretschmann as Nikopol and Linda Hardy as Jill, but aside from a few extras virtually every other character is all digital. In some cases the digital aliens and people look fairly real (and in a couple cases I’m still not sure if they were actors in extensive make-up or computer generated) but in most cases there is a cartoonish look to the people that makes them seem odd in comparison to the high-fidelity world around them. All the futuristic flying cars and VTOL hovering machines in the movie are digital of course, as are most of the sets and locations. It’s all very pretty and intricately designed.

In the end though a lot of pretty pictures strung together don’t necessarily make a movie. This film comes off as more of an experimental tech demo than a feature film. Its general incoherence, combined with the very disturbing plot about the non-consensual impregnation of an innocent and drug addled alien, make it kind of hard to watch. Which is too bad, because it’s so very strange and cool looking. I like the look of it – I just wish it was a different sort of movie.

June 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 440 – Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf – May 14th, 2011

This is a movie I’ve been hearing little things about for some time. I’ve meant to watch it for ages, but it’s so long! And it’s subtitled! And it seemed pretty dark. All together that’s a pretty hefty movie viewing experience, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off. Until tonight when we had the time and Andy suggested it and a long dark French period piece sounded like a good idea. I don’t know why it appealed to me tonight and not some other night before now, but it did and so we put it in utterly ignorant of what we were actually going to end up watching.

I’m not entirely sure how to even begin to describe this movie. It isn’t any one single type of story. It isn’t even two types. It’s a whole laundry list of genres combined into something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve seen period action, which is part of what this is. I’ve seen political drama, which it also is. I’ve seen political action and period political. I’ve seen mysteries and martial arts and supernatural themes woven in through intrigue and I’ve seen many combinations. But not all of them in one place. Oh, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen them. But now I have seen this and it is a wonderful thing to know that it exists.

The story is apparently at least superficially based on actual historical events involving a beast or beasts that killed a large number of people in south central France between 1765 and 1767. The exact nature of the beasts responsible for the historical killings is still debated, though there were two large wolves killed at the time which seemed to stop the attacks (if you’re curious, try poking around the links in the wikipedia article on the beast). In the movie the beast attacks are merely the hook to draw the viewer into a story of political intrigue, religious fervor and a small and somewhat isolated town terrorized into submission. It appears to be a supernatural thriller but really, Sherlock Holmes might as well be in play here, for all the actual supernatural events that happen.

The main character in the movie is Grégoire de Fronsac, a royal taxidermist and naturalist who studies animals and has done quite a lot of traveling. He is indisputably the hero of our story, arriving in the area to study the beast’s attacks and to preserve it once it’s caught and/or killed. And Fronsac quickly determines that the beast is far from supernatural, but is also far from the wolf most people believe it to be. It’s something else entirely and he aims to figure it out. Staying at his side is the mysterious Mani, a Mohawk shaman whom he met when in America. Mani may not be the hero of the movie, but he is certainly awesome, kicking a fair amount of ass as well as giving some great little quips and sly looks at just the right moments. Fronsac is all well and good and I certainly liked him as the hero, but Mani’s more fun to watch, and not just because he’s played by Mark Dascascos (who is also the Chairman on Iron Chef America). Of course, since Fronsac and Mani are so determined to get to the bottom of the whole situation there will have to be something standing in their way.

I don’t think I can really go any further with the plot synopsis without spoiling things even more than I already have so I’ll gloss a little. There’s a lot more at work here than a beast attacking shepherds. The title alone implies that there’s a group involved and that group has a motive and a goal and they certainly don’t want Fronsac ruining it all. And all of that would be complex enough, but then there are the two female leads. On one hand you have Marianne, a young noblewoman whom Fronsac becomes enamoured of right from the start. She’s sheltered and young but also clever and compassionate and unwilling to be swayed by tricks and wit. She holds her own quite well for the vast majority of the movie, even in the fairly constrained position she’s grown up in. On the other hand is Sylvia, an Italian courtesan who works in a local brothel. Sylvia is, without a doubt, my favorite character in the entire movie. Mani’s a close second, but Sylvia wins, hands down.

Sylvia is ruthless and calculating and cold and brilliant and very well versed in manipulation and observation. And Sylvia has her own agenda and motives and follows her own path through the events taking place around her. She sleeps with Fronsac several times and seems to know far more of what’s going on than anyone else does. But being a woman of ill repute, she’s gone unnoticed by those who might otherwise try to silence her. Sylvia kicks ass. Sylvia is precisely the sort of character who always makes me giddy and she is played beautifully by Monica Bellucci. I loved every second she got on screen and she certainly made the entire plot more interesting and complicated and I love that.

And even after all of that I have yet to really touch on the fight scenes, which were a fantastic combination of styles and weaponry and camera work. I hadn’t been expecting the sorts of fight scenes this movie has, with beautifully choreographed stunts and enough martial arts to keep it from being just brawling and European swordfighting. Not that I’d have been disappointed with swordfighting! But that would have been expected and really, nothing about this movie is what I expected. Not the action, not the plot, not the intrigue, not the characters and not the epic quality to it.

The movie exists in several acts. There’s the first act, where Fronsac arrives and studies the situation and meets Marianne and her brother, Jean-François and the marquis, Thomas d’Apcher and all the rest of their friends, relatives and associates. The second act involves Fronsac and Mani returning from Paris to resume the hunt. And the third act is when it all comes to a head, with Fronsac exposing the whole conspiracy and exacting revenge for every wrong done against him, his friends and the people of the area. That, plus the gorgeous scenery both inside the buildings and out in the countryside make this movie feel larger and more expansive. It’s both folklore and political history wrapped into one package, a politically minded tall tale with the ultimate femme fatale and some truly awesome fight scenes and yes, it’s a little long, but it’s worth every minute.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brotherhood of the Wolf

May 14, 2011

Brotherhood of the Wolf

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for ages. The very concept of it so intrigued me. A French wire-fu action movie about werewolves? How on Earth did such a thing come to be, and how could I possibly have gone so long without seeing it? What I was not expecting, and what nobody had told me to look forward to was a lush and beautifully produced period drama.

The movie takes as its jumping off point the true mystery of the Beast of Gevaudan, a creature that killed around one hundred villagers and peasants between 1764 and 1767. It features a large collection of actual historical figures and a meticulously designed and executed replication of the world of pre-revolution France. It looks realistic to my untrained eye, at least it looks like most other costume dramas I’ve seen before – only more lavish and higher budget. That’s the end of the realism though. This is decidedly an action/drama/romance/horror/fantasy/mystery. So not so much with the historical accuracy.

Instead what we get is a film that almost defies description, which makes it kind of hard to review. For one thing it has a wealth of characters and some political intrigue which, when combined with reading subtitles to follow what was going on began to stress my plot-following capacity around the first time a whole room full of French aristocracy got together to gossip about the beast and the various efforts made to stop its brutal murders. There’s our hero Gregoir de Fronsac and his Indian companion “Indian Companion.” I mean Mani. Gregoir is a naturalist, taxidermist and scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Mani is a kickboxing Mohawk, last of his tribe, mystic and spirit walker. The two of them have come to the Gevaudan region of central France to investigate the creature and assist in hunting it down.

As I said there are whole awful lot of characters here, like the local priest Sardis and the elderly healer and his epileptic daughter and such, but there’s only a few you really need to know. There are Gregoir’s two main love interests: the sheltered but independent young Marianne and the worldly and mysterious courtesan Sylvia. There’s the snide one-armed Jean-Francois who delights in hunting and causing trouble. It took me about half the movie before I figured out that he was Marianne’s brother.

The first half of the movie illustrates just how uncatchable this mysterious creature is. We are introduced to it in what appears to be a direct reference to Jaws when it grabs a fleeing young woman and throws her around like a rag doll without ever appearing on screen. Gregoire is unconvinced that it is any simple wolf, and tries to scientifically understand what it is. he measures bite marks (enormous) and examines wounds (revealing the surprising discovery that the beast seems to have metal fangs when one breaks off in a victim.) He cannot make any sense of the data though – this beast defies all common sense.

Then before Gregoire can complete his research the King dispatches a well regarded toadie to eliminate the threat. This agent of the King has Gregoire mock up a fake beast corpse that can be paraded about Paris to prove that the beast is dead and that nothing can escape justice in France. Of course the real beast remains at large, and now it is not just a fearsome and mysterious predator but a threat to the national security since the King cannot afford to be embarrassed by having his ruse exposed.

Gregoire returns to Gevaudan against the express orders of the king’s agents and soon finds himself embroiled in a battle between conspiracies. There’s politics, betrayal, murder and secrets revealed. Things go particularly badly for Gregoire and everybody who is closest to him. Ultimately his quest goes from one of scientific curiosity to bloody vengeance.

This movie is such a unique and beautiful creation. It has intense martial arts fight sequences. It has long quiet scenes that can only be described as melancholy. It has mysticism and magic blended with science and rational thought. It has a mystery at its heart and a horror theme of the unstoppable beast and political intrigue and romance… it’s like about ten movies all blended together into a single film and what is most amazing of all is that it works. Damned if I can figure out how, but it works as a whole. It’s beautiful and haunting and thrilling and touching.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 351 – Chocolat

Chocolat – February 14th, 2011

This morning when I work up, after Andy had left for work, there was a box of chocolates sitting next to me. While Valentine’s Day has never been a huge deal to me, it is a nice excuse to have some chocolate and so this movie seemed like it would be a nice match to the holiday. It had chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate, plus a little romance and a little sensuality and a little sweetness. It all seemed like a good plan and I’m glad we went with it.

There seems to be a certain subset of movies that involve a stranger waltzing into town to shake up the status quo and fix all ills with whimsy and a force of will. Andy mentioned to me that he felt this movie had a lot in common with To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and he’s right. I suspect we could make a nice little niche film about a group of drag queens who open a chocolate store and dispense snappy advice and bon bons. I’ll get right on that. But really, he’s right. In this movie the daring and idiosyncratic Vianne and her daughter, Anouk, arrive a small and somewhat insular town in France. They come bearing chocolate and a well-traveled backstory involving ancient cocoa-based remedies for all, but the town is ruled over by the stuffy Comte de Reynaud and it is Lent.

Undeterred by both religion and social stigma, Vianne sets up shop and begins to entice the townspeople inside, promising them their favorites and delivering with pinpoint accuracy. Couples rediscover each other, spirits are lifted and lives are changed, all through not just the power of chocolate, but through the kind words and compassion of someone seeing the village from the outside. Vianne isn’t looking at things as they always have been and how they must be. She’s new to the town. She’s relatively unfettered and more than willing to share that with the people she befriends. And of course, to those in power (the Comte, in particular), that’s a challenge. How dare she! Of course they’re going to butt heads and of course it’s going to come to a rather dangerous head eventually.

On the surface, it’s a movie about chocolate and people becoming happier through candy. But marring that surface is a deeper story involving one particular couple, the Muscats. Serge is a mean and bitter man who beats his wife, Josephine. In turn, Josephine has become a bit of a social pariah in the village and has developed a nasty kleptomania habit in reaction. This is where the more serious heart of the movie rests. Because in helping Josephine and uncovering the truth of Serge’s cruelty, Vianne exposes the Comte to a truth he doesn’t want to see. He truly wants his village to be a good one, full of good people, and here is someone doing something horribly wrong and he didn’t bother to find out it was going on. He was blind to it. The struggle between the Comte and Vianne through Serge and Josephine is truly important to the whole movie and its message. Through unthinking and hate-filled words, the Comte encourages Serge to do something horrible. Something in him ignored the possibility that spurring a vengeful and hateful man to action could possibly have grave consequences. It’s a lesson I wish more people could learn before something dire comes of it.

Vianne’s presence in the village brings about a new life for its people. She brings people closer together, like her landlady, Armande and Armande’s grandson, Luc. She welcomes the boat-dwelling travelers who dock at the village and are spurned by the Comte and his fellows. She builds a life there without realizing it and when it comes time to leave – or so she thinks – the people she’s touched in turn touch her. Predictable, sure, but not in a bad way. In fact, even though I could tell every direction this movie would turn, I wasn’t once disappointed by it. I loved Vianne, with her chocolate and her passion and her care and her steadfast belief in herself. She doesn’t know the father of her daughter. She doesn’t go to church. She doesn’t wear black shoes or plain dresses. And even at the end of the movie, when she ostensibly settles down, she is still herself, red shoes and atheism firmly in place. Juliette Binoche became my hero for the length of this movie for her unwavering performance of such a strong character.

There are some wonderful performances here aside from Binoche. Judi Dench plays the wonderfully feisty Armande and oh, I will be her when I am seventy, I promise. Lena Olin has a wonderful character arc as Josephine, growing into an independent woman who doesn’t have to take crap from anyone. And Alfred Molina is bizarrely sympathetic as the Comte. Of course, there’s also Johnny Depp, appearing like an Irish Jack Sparrow in the middle of Vianne’s Chocolate Factory, but, well. He’s really just playing Johnny Depp: Romantic rogue. Not that I have any complaints! He’s just not transformed in the role.

It was a beautiful movie, full of lovely moments and sweet and heartfelt messages of compassion and community and believing in yourself. We made rich and spicy hot chocolate after the movie was over and really, I dare anyone to watch this movie and not end it hungering for something made from cocoa. And it was a movie that gave me the sort of female character I dream of. For that, even more than the chocolate, I loved it.

February 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 336 – Amelie

Amelie – January 30th, 2011

It’s so very strange not to be watching a Star Trek movie right now. It feels bizarre, to be honest. After two weeks of them, I feel slightly bereft without them. But I suppose I have the entirety of TNG to pop in if I want. Maybe later. For now it’s time for a movie, and we decided that sine we’ve spent the past two weeks watching American science fiction we’re incredibly familiar with, tonight we should watch something different. Something subtitled and foreign. Something one or both of us hadn’t seen before. Well, Andy’s seen this one, but I hadn’t, so it fits the bill. It’s certainly been an overhype victim for me. And I will admit now, having seen it, I was a fool to leave it so long.

Having seen ads and trailers and heard glowing review after glowing review, I expected something overly twee that might end up making me roll my eyes a bit. What can I say? I’m a cynic much of the time. I expected whimsical and sweet and quirky. And oh, yes, I got all of that. Sentimental too. I expected sentimental. And really, the movie is all of these things. And being all of these things, it might have been rather difficult to make it also something that entertained me. I have a low tolerance for twee. Yet somehow this movie manages to be entirely made of whimsy and sentiment and not feel like it’s sagging under the weight of too much frill and frippery.

The movie is ostensibly the story of a young woman named Amelie. She was raised in a somewhat solitary setting, taught at home by her mother until her mother’s death. She lives her life much inside her own mind, filling the world around herself with fantasies. Until one day she finds a tin hidden in her apartment and sets out to find the man who hid it decades ago when he was a boy. In doing so she opens up a whole new path for herself, finding little ways to help those around her. She sets up a coworker with a regular customer. She forges a letter to console a neighbor about her long deceased husband. She goes about a number of little quests to make other lives happier. Which is why I say the movie is only ostensibly about Amelie.

Yes, the movie is, from beginning to end, her story. It’s about this young woman and her life and how she goes from solitary to connected without losing what makes her special. That one first quest leads her to meeting her neighbors, making friends with them, finding out about their lives and little dramas. She pays more attention to her coworkers and reaches out to them. She’s always found joy in little things, but now those little things involve people, not just objects. She even finds a way to help her father without ever letting him know it’s her. In fact, most of the things she does she manages to keep anonymous. Only one person really figures out what she’s up to and then he helps her when she finds a young man and pursues him only to realize that she can’t bring herself to stop being anonymous. But in and among all of her stories are the stories of everyone else. The movie takes a step out here, a moment there, showing us and telling us the backgrounds of everyone involved. So it’s the story not just of a young woman, but of the entire intangible social network that builds around her.

To be honest, I’m still processing the movie even a couple of hours after it finished. I’m not entirely sure how it pulled itself off. While there’s mischief, and some decidedly negative attitudes in some of the characters, the focus of the movie itself is so relentlessly positive one would think it would be too much on one side for me. And it wasn’t at all. It somehow maintains this pleasant and curious tone for two hours. All the little asides and stories, all of Amelie’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, they all come together to make this movie bizarrely delightful in a way I can’t argue with. I can’t find much fault with it aside from some quibbles with tonal changes between the storytelling in the beginning and the storyshowing near the end (I like both, but they don’t quite segue as smoothly as I’d like). It is simply a lovely movie, light and sweet but not cloying, which means it defied my expectations in all the right ways.

January 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Amelie

January 30, 2011

Amelie

I bought this movie because it had the name Jean-Pierre Jeunet attached to it. Because City of Lost Children is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Something bizarre and quirky and very French I suppose, which is just what I got.

There is much that is familiar about the style of this movie. There’s the storybook opening that introduces us to our cast of characters (providing us quick views of their likes and dislikes) and lets us know what kind of world we are in. There’s the subtle use of computer effects and animation to show us the characters’ imaginations or state of mind. There’s a lot of slick camera work and manipulation of the film speed to help tell the story.

The story is that of Amelie, a dreadfully introverted and private young woman with more imaginary friends than real ones. She’s a dreamer who decides one day that she wants to do good deeds and make the lives of those she meets better, but is still too shy to actually meet people, so she starts a campaign of doing good without being detected. It’s almost like a series of related short vignettes as Amelie helps all the various quirky people in her life. Still, she is lonely, and as the movie goes on she slowly begins to open up, meeting her extremely private shut-in neighbour and learning that she can make friends. She discovers a kindred spirit – another eccentric introvert – and woos him in the same introverted way that she has been trying to help others.

The world the movie takes place in is a sort of fantastic simpler version of our world. The town house where Amelie and her quirky collection of acquaintances live is a quaint, anachronistic place with door locks that use skeleton keys and a sort of Victorian feel. But people use micro tape recorders, video cameras and cordless phones with programed phone numbers. It’s a cleaner, brighter place than our hectic modern world of cell phones and PDAs, but is clearly meant to be a sort of modern day analogue.

The entire movie relies heavily on the elfin-faced Audrey Tautou, who plays the title character. Although there is an awful lot of expository monologue over the start of the film it is Audrey’s wide-eyed wonder and terror that sells the movie. She perfectly captures and emotes that dread that a true introvert feels when dealing with people. Her isolation and her desire to still interact with people is the central theme of the movie, and without Mademoiselle Tautou I can’t imagine this movie working.

And it does work. It’s a deceptively simple story about how we can touch other lives and make the world a better place. It says something about the power of dreams and aspirations. It’s a light-hearted love story about a pair of missfits looking for comfort and not really knowing what it is they want. It’s a playful fantasy – a modern fairy tale. As an introvert myself I can’t help but sympathise with Amelie and her complex schemes.

This movie is beautiful and enchanting and strange and fun. It’s a quirky and fun way to spend an afternoon, and it was delightful to watch it again tonight. It re-enforces for me how much I love the direction of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and it was fun to once again see him working with Dominique Pinon, and it’s a great introduction to Audrey Tautou. (I think whomever was responsible for ordering foreign films for Blockbuster must have fallen in love with Audrey as well, because of the twenty or so French films we had in the Hingham store about seven starred her.) Jeunet lives in a world of vivid dreams and imagination, and it’s a treat once in a while to be able to visit that world.

January 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 277 – La Cage Aux Folles

La Cage Aux Folles – December 2nd, 2010

While I’ve seen the American remake of this movie several times I had never seen the original before today. Silly, really, but the American version is on television fairly regularly and I honestly couldn’t say when I last saw the original’s title pop up in my channel guide. I’d always heard good things about it but never got around to seeing it. But when we went to buy The Birdcage to watch for National Coming Out Day we found that it came in a two disc set with the original, so we bought that and then we watched the remake and stuck the box back on our shelf and didn’t put in the original right away. Until tonight.

I’ve got to say, overall? I’m really rather impressed with the remake having now seen the original. It’s not just that the plot is kept very close, it’s everything. The plot here really is quite similar. Renato Baldi is the owner of a drag club in St. Tropez. The star act is his companion of 20 years, Albin. And Renato’s son, Laurent, has gotten engaged to a very nice young woman named Andrea whose parents happen to be ultra conservative and involved in politics. When a political scandal rocks the conservative party, Andrea’s parents decide a nice wedding would be the perfect distraction, so off they go to meet Laurent’s parents. The bulk of the movie revolves around Renato and Laurent trying to figure out how to pass the family off as acceptable to Andrea’s parents. Albin, being super flamboyant by nature, can’t be there, but how do you tell him that without hurting him? If you’ve seen the American version, it’s the same basic concept. And being a farce, there is obviously a totally ridiculous and over-the-top solution: Albin dresses in drag and passes himself off as Laurent’s mother.

I’m serious when I say that they stuck close to the plot and script in the remake. Yes, the location was changed and there are definitely differences, but there are more similarities, down to the pink socks Albin wears when he puts on a suit in hopes of claiming to be Laurent’s uncle. The conversation about cemeteries? There. The giant crucifix in the living room? There. The butler not wearing shoes because they make him fall down? Yup. Though Jacob, the butler in this one? His hotpants are considerably more sparkly. But really, it’s all so very closely adhered to, it was great to see how the original did everything. Having seen the American version first, I don’t think I can really speak to one being better than the other. I’m biased. I just think it’s really fantastic that so much of what I loved about the remake is right out of the original.

Now, this movie does suffer a little when it comes to period. It’s dated. The clothes, the music, the hair, it all screams 1970s. But it ends up not mattering. The story is still about a family trying to put on this impossible act so that their son can be happy. It’s still got outrageous physical humor and all the comedy that comes from Albin trying to charm the Charriers. It’s got some great touching scenes between Albin and Renato and that made me very happy. The story itself plays out well regardless of the decade it’s set in and the performances from the entire main cast are all fantastic to watch.

My one real quibble with the movie is that it’s incredibly negative towards the women in it. Renato repeatedly and casually calls Laurent’s fiancee a whore when Laurent tells him he’s engaged. Perhaps I’m missing some cultural cues, but when the lines about Andrea “stealing” Laurent away are spoken, they feel a little more serious, a little more nasty, as opposed to joking. And then there’s Laurent’s mother. Not only did she abandon Laurent, leading to Albin disliking her intensely to start with, but she actively tries to seduce Renato when they meet. She’s not welcome in the family at all. I’m not sure I like that dynamic so much. It adds a tone of true discord to the plot that I felt took away from the humor inherent in everything else. There’s already so much conflict, from Renato and Albin over whether Albin can stay for the future in-laws’ arrival, to the frantic attempts not to have conflict between Laurent’s family and Andrea’s. Adding in a serious conflict between Albin, Renato and Laurent’s mother? It’s too much for me. There’s no real time to spend on it, so it feels wasted anyhow.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this. I expected that I would, but it’s nice to be proven right in that respect. The similarities were all fantastic. The differences, I’d have to say, were a mixed bag. I loved things like the bowl Renato keeps his keys in, and Jacob’s sequined hotpants, but I disliked the casual misogyny and one unexpected bit of violence. But they weren’t so very egregious that they ruined the movie for me. There’s too much great humor here. Too many fun performances and good scenes.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

La Cage Aux Folles

December 2, 2010

La Cage Aux Folles

I first saw this movie when I was about twelve or thirteen years old while visiting my grandparents. I seem to recall that they actually owned a copy of the movie, probably a gift from my uncles the film makers. This would have been around 1985 or so – more than a decade before the American re-make was made, so at the time it was just some bizarre French film I had found in my grandparent’s collection. I distinctly recall being utterly confused by the entire film. It was so filled with a crazy flamboyance that was utterly alien to me. I think at the time I chalked it up to French people being exceptionally odd, because nothing in my experience at the time would indicate that anything like this existed in America.

As I watch this again tonight with our review of The Birdcage relatively fresh in my mind I am completely blown away by how astonishingly faithful the American re-make is to the original, and by how astonishingly ahead of we Americans the French are. To think that this movie was made almost twenty years before the 1996 Birdcage – it simply boggles the mind. Practically every memorable moment in the American film had its germination here in the French original. The butler with no shoes. The bowls with naked Greek boys. The lesson on how to be more butch with the toast and the John Wayne walk. (Though Robin Williams gets a better punchline for that scene.) Even the bit where the boy’s biological mother comments on his gay father’s hairy chest, a bit that I would have sworn was written for the extremely hairy Robin Williams, is directly out of this movie.

The plots of the two movies are identical. The son of a night club owner comes home to tell his father that he intends to get married. His fiance is the daughter of a conservative politician who becomes embroiled in a scandal when the president of his party dies in the arms of an underaged black prostitute. The night-club owning father and his son makes an attempt to appear like conservative people to make the proposed marriage more palatable to the girl’s parents. Everything goes hilariously wrong.

There are only a few minor tweaks. The butler in the French version is a flamboyant young black man, rather than a flamboyant young Guatemalan man. (Benny Luke, as Jacob, is every bit as wonderful a scene stealer as Hank Azaria as Agador. Both of them are utterly hilarious and impossible to look away from.) There’s a great moment in this French version where all the night-club employees burst in on the somber party upstairs to wish Renato and Albin a happy anniversary, traipse around the apartment singing, smiling and kissing everybody, then leave again. It’s a great culmination to the entire evening and a funny way to have the joyous life of the drag people contrasted with the dour and bleak lives of Andrea’s conservative parents.

I suppose that’s another contrast between the two films. Michel Galabru plays the conservative father Simon as a loud, angry blow-hard. His home is as bleak a place as you could imagine with its faded brown walls and stark puritan furniture. At one point his daughter starts to take pity on him and is about to confess about Laurent’s parents, but then Simon makes a point of humiliating a waiter in the restaurant they’re eating at and she thinks better of it. I think that Gene Hackman’s character Senator Keely is a more sympathetic fellow. Perhaps it’s that we backward folk in America are still unable to completely vilify our conservative politicians. Or maybe it’s that for the end of the movie to work the way it does in the American version you need to have some sympathy for Keely and want him to escape from the nightmare dinner politically unscathed.

I think that my enjoyment of this ribald and colorful tale is actually enhanced by my love of the re-make. It’s fun to see the original take on all these characters. It’s interesting to note what’s been altered and what, after eighteen years and on a whole other continent, was still just exactly as funny if left the same. I still have my youthful memories of being completely baffled by this alien world being portrayed on the screen, although I think I have a very different perspective on it now. (I blame the inescapable charm of RuPaul’s Drag Race – I’ll never be able to look at drag the same way now that I’ve fallen in love with it as a joyous art form. Can I get an Amen?) I admit that I’ve never seen the French sequels to this movie, which were never re-made for American audiences. Perhaps I should.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment