Documentary Movie Review: Visages, Villages (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “V” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “V” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Vernon, Florida and Virunga.

Title: Visages, Villages
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Director: Agnès Varda and JR
Production Company: Cine Tamaris | JRSA | Rouge International | Arte France Cinema | Arches Films

This movie is made by Agnès Varda, a movie director of the French New Wave of films such as Cleo, from 5 to 7 (1962), and a street artist named JR. Together they travel through France in a van which includes a photo booth that can print out large-scale photographs.  They meet with local people, take their photographs, and then paste them on the walls of various buildings.  Sites include mostly-abandoned miners’ houses (where they past up images of miners and the last remaining occupant), an organic goat farm, a chemical factory (where the workers from different shifts get to be featured side by side), a shipping port (where the wives of three dockworkers are depicted on a stack of shipping containers) and the ruins of a German bunker in Normandy (where they put up a photo Varda took in the 1960s of a colleague who is now deceased).

The movie has a populist feel as they meet ordinary French people, learn about their lives, and celebrate them.  It is also a sweet depiction of their friendship, especially when they meet JR’s grandmother and when JR comforts Varda after they attempt to meet her old friend Jean-Luc Godard, but Godard plays a trick on them and doesn’t show.  A recurring theme is the eyes, as Varda complains about how JR always hides his eyes behind sunglasses, while Varda is losing her vision.

This movie is quirky and sweet and sprawling, and its hard to describe what it’s really “about,” but I really enjoyed watching it.

Rating: ****

Documentary Review: Night and Fog (1956) #AtoZChallenge

This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Nanook of the North, New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston, No-No: A Dockumentary, and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

Title: Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard)
Release Date: 1956
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films

This is a movie I wanted to watch and felt important to watch, but nevertheless didn’t want to see.  Made a decade after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, this is one of the first films to document the horrors of the Holocaust.  The structure of the film mirrors the experience of the people imprisoned in the camps.  It begins with their arrest and transport by train.  Arriving at the camps, the people are stripped of clothing and shaved of hair and humiliated in thousands of ways.  Daily camp life involves forced labor, frequent humiliation, and hunger due to meager rations. Then there is mass murder which this movie is unflinching in depicting.

The filmmakers intercut contemporary film of the abandoned concentration camps in color with black and white film and photographs taken during their time of use.  Jean Cayrol, a poet who survived the concentration camps, wrote the narration which is delivered by actor Michel Bouquet. The movie asks us to remember the full horror of the Holocaust and recognize that it can happen again.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Into Great Silence (2005) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “I” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “I” documentaries I’ve reviewed are I Am Big BirdI Am Not Your Negro, and Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice.

Title: Into Great Silence
Release Date: 2005
Director: Philip Gröning
Production Company: Zeitgeist Films

A German film crew documents the quotidian lives of  the Carthusian monks at  the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps.  If you plan to watch this documentary, buckle up, because it is nearly three hours with limited dialogue, and most of that is chant song (I confess that I watched in pieces over three days).  Despite the title, sound is not absent from this movie, but ambient sound is accentuated.  Footsteps, creaking boards, raindrops, crackling fire, and movement of a shovel or a brush as the monks go about their daily prayers and chores make a minor cacophony.  I found myself cranking up the volume to allow these sounds to roll around me.

The visuals of the movie are also spectacular especially the views of the Alps across the seasons and the architecture of the old monastery.  The stillness of the camera during most shots is reminiscent of the films of Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds).  There is also a lot of repetition in this film, from the biblical verses shown on screen from time to time, as well as in shots (views of the valley, a door ajar, long corridors, a cloth blowing in the wind).  All this reflects the rhythms of the monk’s daily routine.

Near the end of the film there’s a scene where the monks go snowshoeing and for once have the opportunity to chat, laugh, and slide downhill in the snow. I expect this movie is not for everyone, but I found it very beautifully done and perfect for Holy Week.  And while these monks spend a lot of time in isolation, I also found myself wondering how the monks (and really people in any type of intentional community) are handling the COVID-19 pandemic right now.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Conformist (1970)

Title: The Conformist 
Release Date: October 22, 1970
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Production Company: Mars Film Produzione | Marianne Productions | Maran Film

This movie set in the 1930s focuses on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an agent of the Italian Facist secret police, sent to France to assassinate a former teacher,  Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). The story begins with Clerici pursuing Quadri in a car driven by his handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and returns to the car in-between flashbacks.  The flashbacks include moments further back in time such as his childhood when he believes he killed a family chauffeur who attempted to sexually assault him and more recently his engagement to his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli).

The bulk of the movie, though, is flashbacks to events that happened in Paris immediately before the car chase when Clerici and Giulia went to Paris on their honeymoon and paid social calls to Quadri and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  Obviously, Clerici used this as a cover for the assassination assignment but I don’t think Giulia was in on it.  In fact she seems to be having a delightful time socializing.  In a weird subplot, Anna ends up making sexual advances on both Clerici and Giulia, which seems mostly an excuse for gratuitous nudity.

The movie ends with a coda set in 1943 with the fall of Mussolini and Clerici ratting out his blind Fascist friend to the monarchists. I’m not sure what this adds to the movie as Clerici is already established as untrustworthy and lacking values so it’s just doubling down on it.

The sets of this film very large spaces with Art Deco design that are reminiscent of Metropolis (apparently not a coincidence).  There is also some great camera work with light and shadow. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have much going for it. The psychological study of a Fascist just seems to be making excuses for someone who is clearly just a nasty Fascist.  I never feel any tension that Clerici is going to do anything other than what he’s set out to do, although the movie feints at him being conflicted. In sum, the movie is pretty to look at, but it feels hollow to me.  Who needs a pretty movie about a Fascist?

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Playtime (1967)

Title: Playtime
Release Date: December 16, 1967
Director: Jacques Tati
Production Company: Specta Films | Jolly Film

I’ve never seen a movie like Jacques Tati’s Playtime and I’m not sure another movie like it exists.  There’s no story to the movie so to speak, just more or less various characters moving through a modernist landscape over the period of 24 hours.  It is a color film, and yet most everything on screen is gray, silver, powder blue, or black so as to appear to be a black & white film.  It’s a “talkie” but the dialogue seems incidental and secondary to the sound effects of footsteps, neon lights, and the constant flow of motor vehicles through the city.  The world is a series of boxes, characters framed by windows, mirrors, cubicles, and cars.  It’s a satire, and yet the most gentle of satires as Tati also feels focused on celebrating the patterns of everyday life.

There are two characters who can be said to have the main storylines.  One is Monsieur Hulot (Tati’s recurring “everyman” character) who bumbles through the story seeking a job interview and repeatedly meeting men he used to know from the army.  The other is the American tourist Barbara (Barbara Dennek), part of a larger tour group of mostly older American women, who wishes to find the historic Paris among the modern towers, but only sees the city’s famed landmarks reflected in glass.

Tati films everything in a long takes and from wide angles (never using a close-up) and there’s a lot going on with characters moving about in the background and foreground. The film takes place in six different settings. First, is the airport when Barbara’s tour group arrives.  Next, is an office building where Hulot gets lost in the maze of cubicles.  Hulot and the American tourists both end up at a trade show where there are several gags about the modern gadgets being displayed.  Hulot is invited for drinks at a friend’s place at a modern apartment building, and everything is shown from outside, with the occupants of the building framed by wide, plate-glass windows.  Hulot’s company and their neighbors appear to be watching one another but they are each, in fact, just watching tv.

The longest and funniest segment is set a restaurant called the Royal Garden, where Hulot, Barbara, and many other characters we’ve seen throughout the movie end up for dinner.  Workers are putting the final touches on the restaurant before it opens to diners for the first time, and pretty much everything in the restaurant falls apart over the course of the evening. Contrary to expectations, the diners actually enjoy themselves more as the rigid structure of French dining falls apart. A businessman, initially portrayed as an Ugly American, forms a club of people who have had their clothing damaged by the modern furniture and people begin talking, dancing, and even playing instruments!

The conclusion of the film brings together Hulot and Barbara as he wishes to get he a gift to remember her trip to Paris. Her bus returns to the airport in the constant stream of traffic which is now cheerful and colorful, like a parade or a carnival ride, as cars, trucks, and buses circle a rotary.

As I was watching this movie, I assumed Tati filmed on location in one of the post-war modern developments encircling Paris, such as La Défense.  In reality, Tati build a massive and costly set for filming making Playtime the most expensive movie in French history to that point, and resulting in the film failing to make up the costs at the box office.  While I know this movie isn’t for everyone, I was impressed and touched by it. I think it would be worthwhile to watch again to catch the many things I’m certain I missed, especially if I have the opportunity to see on the big screen.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Jules et Jim (1962)

Title: Jules et Jim
Release Date: 23 January 1962
Director: François Truffaut
Production Company: Les Films du Carrosse/ SEDIF

The film begins before the First World War in Paris with the friendship of an outgoing Frenchman, Jim (Henri Serre), and a shy Austrian, Jules (Oskar Werner) who share an interest in the arts and the bohemian lifestyle.  They date several women before meeting Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a free-spirited woman who reminds them of the ideal beauty of an ancient sculpture. Jules and Catherine begin a relationship and the trio become close through various unconventional adventures, including a time when Catherine dresses up as a man and they go about town together.

The Great War separates the friends as Jules and Jim are each conscripted to fight for their home countries.  After the War, Jim visits the now-married Jules and Catherine at their country home on the Rhine where they live with their young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin). The family puts up a happy front, but both Jules and Catherine reveal that she is not satisfied with Jules and has left him several times and carried on affairs with other men including another of their friends, Albert (Serge Rezvani).

Catherine and Jim begin to explore their feelings for one another.  Jules welcomes their romance as it would keep Catherine in his life.  The trio live together in the country home for a time in a strange love triangle, which eventually sours and Jim returns to Paris.

I enjoyed the pre-War portion of the film and thought it worked as both an historical drama and parallel to the emerging counter-culture of the 1960s. The post-War segment is less interesting to me as it comes across trite and melodramatic.  Truffaut is not the first man to make the mistake that by putting women on a pedestal, he’s actually carrying out an act of misogyny, and Catherine’s character suffers for it.  The last two segments of the film where Jim reunites with Jules and Catherine twice after long periods of separation are especially bad in this sense as Catherine comes across stereotypically hysterical.

Stylistically, this movie ties together the experimental techniques of the French New Wave with homages to the silent films of the era when it takes place.  In fact, Truffaut expertly edits in archival documentary footage from the time.  The musical score by Georges Delerue is also excellent, often implying that the tragic story is in fact a carnivalesque farce.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cleo, From 5 to 7 (1962)

Title: Cleo, From 5 to 7
Release Date: April 11, 1962
Director: Agnès Varda
Production Company: Ciné Tamaris | Rome Paris Films

Watching lots of New Wave, New Hollywood, and other 60s art films, I’m seeing a pattern of movies that glorify the renegade man. Over and over these men defy convention, yes, but are also obnoxious, abusive, and sexually aggressive – in short, dudebros.  So it’s refreshing to see a New Wave-style film by a woman director that focus on a woman lead character who spends much of the film interacting with other women.

Cleo (Corinne Marchand) is a rising pop singer who is waiting for the results of a medical test which will tell her if she has cancer or not.  Over a two-hour period (close to the film’s 90-minute run time), Cleo visits a tarot card reader, goes shopping with her maid, has a brief visit from her lover, rehearses with her composer and lyricist, meets her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), and finally goes to a park where she encounters a soldier on leave from the Algerian conflict, Antonie (Antoine Bourseiller).  Antoine agrees to accompany her to the doctor if she will see him off at the railway station.

Cleo is depicted as being somewhat vain, but a recurring theme is “beauty is life,” reflecting how people are conditioned to value a woman for her beauty. Cleo’s meanderings through the film are given poignancy by the fact that she is facing her mortality.  The movie is also a great time capsule of Paris in the early 1960s.  I was particularly impressed by an extended scene in a taxi cab that simply showed the view of the city’s winding streets at a radio news report speaks about Algeria and other current events.  The whole movie is beautifully composed as a film and features top-notch acting all around.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Breathless (1960)

Title: Breathless
Release Date: March 16, 1960
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Les Films Impéria | Les Productions Georges de Beauregard  | Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

There was a big deal about a remake of “Breathless” with Richard Gere, that I remember seeing scenes from as a kid.  There’s also the song by Jerry Lee Lewis. But I honestly had no idea to expect from this alleged French New Wave masterpiece. Alas, it’s another movie from the Sixties which tries to glamorize the life of an obnoxious, sexually aggressive, and criminal dudebro (dude-frère?).  In this case, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car in Marseilles, kills a police officer who chases him, and uses his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg), to shield him from the police.  It’s very self-indulgent and frankly kind of boring.  The movie is recognized for its innovation in cinematography and broad influence, but I just don’t care enough to muster up any thoughts on what this movie does right, because it was so dull and awful.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

Title: The 400 Blows
Release Date: 4 May 1959
Director: François Truffaut
Production Company: Les Films du Carrosse

The title of The 400 Blows comes from a French idiom that most close in meaning “to raise hell” in English.  It is one of earliest movies in the French New Wave movement, when young filmmakers discarded the conventions of classical film-making for experimental filming and editing techniques, documentary-style realism, and subject matter of a more personal nature.

The 400 Blows is the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young teenage Parisian boy based somewhat on director  François Truffaut own childhood.  Antoine is presented as a troublemaker, but his offenses – passing around a pin-up photo in class, scribbling a poem on a wall, and skipping school for a day out with a friend – seem mild compared with the draconian response from authority figures.  He has a love for the author Balzac (and makes a shrine to him that he comically sets fire to by mistake) but when he writes an essay inspired by Balzac he’s accused of plagiarism rather than homage by his teacher (Guy Decomble).

Antoine’s mother (Claire Maurier) is strict and short-tempered with him much of the time. His father is a bit more easygoing, but doesn’t connect well with Antoine.  Neither are around much, leaving Antoine and his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay) to their own devices.  If anything, this movie depicts Antoine as a resourceful and resilient teenager, but with no adult willing or able to recognize his talents. He ultimately drops out of school, runs away, and takes up petty thievery.  When he fails to pawn a typewriter stolen from his father’s office, he is caught while trying to return it, and sent to juvenile detention center.

The plot of this movie could have been used for an After School Special, but without melodrama and moralism, it is a gritty depiction of real-life situations. Truffaut does a great job depicting the working class reality of post-War Paris, from the worn-out school room to Antoine’s cramped apartment (so small that when Antoine lays out his bed for the night, it blocks the entry door).  All the characters are flawed, none above judgement, but they also all can by sympathized with.

The movie feels bleak, but it’s not without hope.  Antoine’s joy in going to the movies is a particular detail that shows the autobiographical detail of how Truffaut found his way out of his troubled youth.  The last scene of the movie offers a moment of joy and release, while the fear of what comes next still ominously present.  I guess if you want to find out, Truffaut and Léaud made 4 more films over 20 years, continuing Antoine’s story, although I also think this movie can stand on its own with an ambiguous ending.

Rating: ***1/2

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

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: ****