Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Revisiting the French film that got me hooked

April 16, 2008

I wasn’t always a sucker for French movies. And I don’t unconditionally love them all—there are some amazingly bad ones out there, after all. But whether roaming the video store or checking the movie listings, I find myself inordinately ready to give French films a chance. I can trace it all back to wandering into an art theater in St. Louis one evening and seeing the quietly charming The Two of Us.

Set in German-occupied France, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Paris sent by his parents to live in the country with an elderly Catholic couple until the liberation. The old man is “staunchly anti-Semitic,” as one reviewer put it, so the boy must hide his identity.

The intense bond that forms between the two of them is the story. And the brilliant performances of the two leads—Michel Simon as Grampa and nine-year-old, first-time actor Alain Cohen as Claude—make the story come alive.

As does acclaimed director Claude Berri’s deft touch in his feature film debut. He avoids descending into cliché cuteness, showing the characters warts and all. Before being whisked off to the country, young Claude gets caught smoking, fighting and shoplifting, thus calling attention to his family and forcing them to move. And when the old man tries to pass along his anti-Semitic views to Claude, he pretends to go along with his views, but then teases him. At one point, Grampa is trying to teach Claude how to spot a Jew; he tells him they always have big noses and wear their hats to the dinner table. The boy points out Simon’s beret and his impressively bulbous nose, then runs through the house, yelling in mock alarm, “Grampa’s a Jew!”

Equally charming is Berri’s affectionate but unsentimental view of country life in France in the 1940s. The scenes with the schoolchildren at the one-room country school especially capture the rough edges of rural life, and the outdoor Sunday dinner with Grampa’s grown son and his wife, its delights.

For all these reasons, The Two of Us is a film to see. When it was rereleased in 2005, actor Alain Cohen said in an interview in the New York Times that the theme of the film was “the ambivalent difference between real evil and evil lightly performed. It’s impossible to hate the character played by Michel Simon. Yet he does say hateful things. You might think that’s Claude Berri’s way of telling us that anti-Semitism isn’t really all that bad. But I think it suggests just the opposite—that even under the appearance of good, evil can exist, that this nice grandfather, who adores his little rabbits, could be on the dark side of history.”

Perhaps so. But I think the theme could as easily be the folly of prejudice. We are taught certain prejudicial views—by our families and friends, by society, the media, church, government… But when we actually have a chance to explore them, we find they are false.

If you like French films, see The Two of Us. And if you think you don’t like them, see it anyway. It’s a misconception you’ll be happy to let go of.


The history of the world in five minutes

March 19, 2008

I love the Internet. If the Smithsonian is the nation’s attic, the Internet is the planet’s attic, basement, garage and rented storage locker. I used to be amazed by what I could find online; now I’m annoyed when I can’t easily find something. Recently a friend showed me a YouTube video of a school project by bhilmer, remaking the credits of Star Wars mimicking the style of design pioneer Saul Bass [perfectly done, by the way—I’ll include it in this post].

That clip reminded me of an obscure but Academy award-winning short film by Saul Bass that I used to show the first day of class to every one of my art classes when I taught college. More specifically, it reminded me of the opening segment of the film, an animated short that covers the “history of the world man has built on ideas” in a little under five minutes. And it does it brilliantly, with economy, wit and charm. A quick search on Google [again, thank you, Internet] and there it was! Give it a quick watch—it may give you your biggest smile of the day.


The film in question is Why Man Creates, produced in 1970. Amazingly, it is still in print and available from educational film distributor Pyramid Media. Here’s how their site describes it: “A series of explorations, episodes and comments on creativity by Saul Bass, a master of conceptual design, this film is one of the most highly regarded short films ever produced.”

Saul Bass wasn’t just a designer—he invented the field. He described the situation in an interview in 1986. “There was no school as we understand it today that taught the notion of design… In those days, all people who did work that was paid for were called commercial artists—as differentiated from painters, who never got any money for anything.” Bass took only one night class at the Art Students League in New York, a painting class. So essentially, as he put it, he was self taught.

Bass moved to Los Angeles, where the film industry became a huge client. According to Design Museum London, he was “not only one of the great graphic designers of the mid-20th century but the undisputed master of film title design thanks to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese.” If you’ve seen any American films from the 50s, 60s and 70s, you’ve probably seen his design work in the opening credits. West Side Story, Psycho, Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm, Ocean’s Eleven [the original, starring the Rat Pack], Exodus… And the 1959 Preminger classic, Anatomy of a Murder. I show you the opening credits of this film not because they are necessarily the best work Bass did, but because when you see the Star Wars take-off, you’ll understand where it came from.

And now, the take-off that launched this whole diatribe. If nothing else, this post may send some business Netflix’s way.

How the wild things sound

January 30, 2008


Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is one of the great works of children’s literature. Playful, inventive and completely inside kids’ heads, it tracks young Max’s journey from getting into trouble for making mischief in his wolf suit through anger and back to the familiar comfort of home.

The story begins with this deceptively simple, delightfully run-on sentence: The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

As Max stews in his room, it transforms into a jungle, and the illustrations grow from small, contained, wide-bordered images to full-bleed spreads spilling off the pages. As his anger subsides and the comforting smell of dinner reaches him, the fabulous Sendak illustrations shrink back down.


So when I read recently on New York magazine’s website that ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O is writing “pretty much the whole” soundtrack’ to an upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things Are [with a script by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonzes, no less], I thought it was one of those counterintuitive but brilliant choices.

Having seen the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live a couple of times, I know Karen O is capable of genuine wildness, of careening right up to the edge of out of control and dancing on it. She’s also capable of playing wild thing dress-up and throwing herself into it with abandon. Just as important, though, there are also occasional balancing moments of vulnerability and smallness in her performances. The YouTube video below demonstrates her ability to channel Max’s command to the other wild things, “Let the wild rumpus start.” [You’ll have to take my word on the vulnerable side.]

All of which makes me think she can give this live action film the genuinely wild edge it needs. As much as I love Randy Newman’s music [I really have to talk about him in the Kitchen Boombox sometime], this film is not Toy Story. It has the opportunity to go places much darker, much deeper. I think Ms. O may be just the person to get it there.