Classic Movie Review: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)


Title: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (originally Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot)
Release Date: February 25, 1953
Director: Jacques Tati
Production Company: Discina Film | Cady Films | Specta Films
Summary/Review:

This delightful comedy gently satirizes the boom in middle class summer seaside vacations in the post-WWII era.  Many of the archetypical characters one would run into into at resort to this day appear in the film.  The movie begins with crowds of people attempting to catch trains and buses, with the title character M. Hulot arriving in an old, backfiring car.

Hulot is portrayed by the director Jacques Tati as a friendly and well-meaning character who inadvertently cause trouble for people around him.  Dialogue in this movie is incidental but music and sound effects are key for the not-quite-pantomime performances.  There are a lot of gags around men getting distracted by the attractive young woman Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), but it never devolves into the full on leering that was common in this era.  In fact, it’s a positive that Martine gets a name and some agency unlike many of the other characters.

The movie is charming and hilarious and probably worth a rewatch for to catch some of the simultaneous gags onscreen.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946)


Title: La Belle et la Bêt)
Release Date: October 29, 1946
Director: Jean Cocteau
Production Company: DisCina
Summary/Review:

In post-war France, escapist fantasy was the goal in this adaptation of the 1757 story Beauty and the Beast. Belle (Josette Day) works hard to support her widower father (Marcel André) as he falls into debt. She receives only insult from her vain sisters (Mila Parély, Nane Germon) and no support from her ne’er-do-well brother (Michel Auclair).  Her brother’s friend Avenant (Jean Marais) proposes marriage, but Belle is devoted to staying with her father.

While traveling in hopes of settling his debts, Belle’s father stumbles upon a mysterious castle and when he plucks a rose for Belle, he is condemned to death by The Beast (also Jean Marais).  Belle takes her father’s place as a prisoner in Beast’s castle and slowly begins to appreciate him. The castle is super eerie with human arms holding the candelabras and the eyes of the statuary moving. Belle and the Beast appear to move as if choreographed in a dance, and in once scene Belle glides down a corridor past blowing curtains (a scene that must’ve inspired 1000 music videos).  The design of the Beast’s castle and costume were very obviously inspirational to the animators of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The tone of this adaptation is very eerie, party psychological horror, part avant-guard art piece. And the clear sexual undertones of the movie are very unsettling.  It’s worth a watch for a well-directed and artistic take on a familiar tale.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Camille Claudel (1988)


Title: Camille Claudel
Release Date: December 7, 1988
Director: Bruno Nuytten
Production Company:  Gaumont
Summary/Review:

This French biopic tells the story of Camille Claudel, an innovative sculptor active from the 1880s to early 1900s.  In her lifetime, her art was overshadowed by her romance with Auguste Rodin. The film stars the stunning Isabelle Adjani as Claudel, a young woman with a passion for art that infuriates her mother.  Yet, her father dotes on her, and her brother Paul (Laurent Grévill), who would gain fame as a poet and diplomat, also offers her support.

Gérard Depardieu, at the peak of imperial period as France’s most celebrated actor, plays Rodin. Appropriately, Depardieu plays Rodin as the celebrity, overseeing large-scale commissions like “The Gates of Hell” with teams of apprentices working in factory-like settings.  It’s implied that Rodin has a creative block that prevents him from making his own work and finds inspiration in Claudel. Although their romance is depicted as a consensual romance, the film strongly indicates that women artists were expected to make themselves available for sex if they wished to get ahead.

Eventually, Claudel sours on Rodin, because she feels she’s not getting enough credit for her contributions, and because he refuses to break off his long-time relationship with Rose Beuret for a a monogamous relationship with her.  Claudel attempts to make her own way as an artist, but struggles against discrimination against women and abandonment by patrons and family.  Eventually she ends up living in a derelict workshop inhabited by multiple cats, paranoid that Rodin is orchestrating her demise.  The film concludes as she’s determined to be mentally ill and Paul has her committed to a psychiatric hospital where she will live out her life.

I don’t know enough about Camille Claudel’s life to judge the historical accuracy of this movie, but I sense that it is a melodramatic interpretation of a more complex story.  Nevertheless, the acting of Adjani and Depardieu and others makes it an excellent character study.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Loving Vincent


Title: Loving Vincent
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Director: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Production Company: BreakThru Productions | Trademark Films
Summary/Review:

A team of Polish and British filmmakers explore the legacy that Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh left behind in France after his death through experimental animation.  Each frame in the film is hand-painted in oils in the style of Van Gogh, bringing to life the people and places he painted. This approach was previously used in a segment of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990),  but it doesn’t make it any less wondrous to watch, especially for a Van Gogh admirer.

The story takes place a year after Van Gogh’s death when Armand Roulin (Douglass Booth) is tasked with delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo.  Traveling to Auvers-sur-Oise, Roulin learns that Theo has also died, but feels compelled to continue searching for a recipient for the letter.  The movie plays out like a mystery as Roulin interviews people who knew Van Gogh, and the his actions and moods on his last day are teased out.  The story does drag a bit, but the film is kept alive by its outstanding visuals as well as the  voice cast featuring stars like Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, and Chris O’Dowd.

Just an aside, many years ago when I saw an exhibit of Van Gogh’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts, I decided it would be funny of someone made a sitcom about The Roulin Family.  Seeing Armand as well as his father, the postman Joseph Roulin, as characters in Loving Vincent is a big step toward seeing my vision come to life.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: A Cat in Paris (2010)


Title: A Cat in Paris
Release Date: December 15, 2010
Director: Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol
Production Company: Digit Anima | Folimage | France 3 Cinéma | Emage Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Une vie de Chat (translation, A Cat’s Life) is movie set in Paris, about Paris, and Paris could even be said to be a character, so it seems unnecessary to have Paris in the American title of the film.  Through vivid animation, the movie follows a two-timing cat, Dino, as he spends his days with a small girl named Zoé, and his nights accompanying the cat burglar Nico on his heists. Their stories come together when the mobster who killed Zoé’s police officer father (and is under investigation by her police officer mother, Jeanne) kidnaps her and Nico is drawn in by Dino to help her.  This is a wonderfully visual spectacular with scenes of foot chases across the rooftops of Paris more than making up for a thin plot.  Plus, it’s about a cat in Paris, which after watching April and the Extraordinary World, and then this film, is apparently my jam!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Rules of the Game (1939)


Title: The Rules of the Game
Release Date: July 7, 1939
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Nouvelle Édition Française
Summary/Review:

Released just months before the outbreak of World War II, The Rules of the Game is a scathing satire of the decadence of France’s wealthy elite.  Director Jean Renoir (son of the artist Pierre-Auguste) uses innovative techniques such as deep-focus cinematography to depict the ensemble cast playing out overlapping conversations and plots at the same time. Before I even looked it up, I could tell this movie influenced the work of Robert Altman.  In fact, Gosford Park is pretty close to a remake.

The film begins with aviator André  (Roland Toutain) completing a transatlantic flight and declaring his love for Christine (Nora Gregor) in a radio interview. The whingy man-baby then has a temper tantrum that she has not come to greet him at the airport.  Christine, it turns out, is married to Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), a French aristocrat (as an aside, I could’ve sworn the French nobility was eliminated well before 1939, but maybe someone more knowledgeable in French history could clarify this for me).  Robert, in turn, has a mistress, Geneviève (Mila Parély).

All of these characters, as well as Octave (played by the director, Jean Renoir), a mutual friend of André and Christine travel to Robert’s estate in Sologne for a weekend of parties.  Christine is accompanied by her maid (Paulette Dubost)  , who is married to the gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), but more devoted to Christine.  Schumacher catches a poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), but Robert is impressed by his skill at killing rabbits and hires him on the spot as a domestic servant.  Octave and Marceau are similar in that they’re both comical figures, outsiders, but in ways more morally-centered than everyone else around them.

At the estate, there are masked balls, performances, and a very grim rabbit hunt around which various romantic liaisons take place.  There are declarations of love, heartbreak, arguments, fist fights, and ultimately the threat of using firearms (sometimes these things are happening at the same time with deep-focus tricks).  Not surprisingly there is also a murder, albeit one due to mistaken identity.  The way the elite carry on, not allowing the tragedy to affect their emotional display and continuing to play “the game” shows their moral callousness.  This is a brilliant film about awful people.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)


Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
Summary/Review:

This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe.  The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870.  Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.

A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood.  This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts.  Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.

Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story.  April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum.  Disgraced inspector  Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him.  Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni.  They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.

This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable.  It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time.  It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story.  The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Castle of Whispers by Carole Martinez


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for France
Author: Carole Martinez
TitleThe Castle of Whispers
Translator: Howard Curtis
Publication Info: Europa Editions, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60945-182-0
Summary/Review:

In 12th-century France, a 15-year-old  girl from a noble family named Esclarmonde escapes an arranged marriage by offering herself to God.  The form she takes is an anchoress, imprisoned in the walls of a chapel where she is to pray for the people of her town and the many pilgrims who are soon drawn too her.  Shortly before being walled-up, Esclarmonde is raped and impregnated.  The birth of her son is seen as a miracle by the local religious leaders who prefer not to ask the questions that would get to the truth of the matter.

The novel takes a lot of liberty with historical accuracy and plausibility, but I find it works.  It’s an interesting exploration of the manner in which a woman could gain power in 12th-century Europe, as Esclarmonde is seen advising the local bishop (and the pope by proxy) as well as sending men off to fight in the Crusades.  It also is a study of motherhood as Esclaramonde raises her son in her cell for three years until he grows to big to fit between the bars and is sent off to an adoptive family.  Finally, it investigates the idea of faith with the suggestion that God may not exist, but the belief and rituals still have a positive function in their society.

Recommended booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland  and Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
Rating: ***1/2

World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions


After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.