The Millionaires’ Unit


Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King

 

Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Downstairs

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

Where to Invade Next


These chiefs could use a joint.

These chiefs could use a joint.

(2016) Documentary (Alamo Drafthouse) Michael Moore, Tim Walker, Krista Kiuru. Directed by Michael Moore

Michael Moore is one of those polarizing documentarians who has an agenda that occasionally plays fast and loose with facts and often takes things out of context. He infuriates the conservative electorate, many of whom characterize him as public enemy number one. For liberals while he is not necessarily a beloved figure, he is at least respected to a certain degree. With Moore’s films, you get pretty much what you expect.

His latest takes a look not so much at America but how improvements could be made, all of which are doable. Predictably, conservative film reviewers have ripped the movie a new one while those critics who already lean towards the left have sung the praises of the movie. Being of the latter persuasion, I find it hard not to add my voice to the liberal choir but I’m trying to be as objective as I can be.

Moore makes a valid point that we as Americans tend to accept without question that we live in the greatest nation on Earth, the best place to be. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave and we are the where the American Dream makes its residence – the philosophy, not the wrestler. In any case, we sometimes look at other countries ideas of doing things with a healthy dose of disdain.

That’s not always a wise thing. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas here, although many expressed in the film originated here in the States and have since been abandoned or ignored from the get-go. The conceit of the film is that we have fought a string of wars with almost nothing to show for it other than debt, dead soldiers and obscene profits for military suppliers.

So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sent American gadfly Moore out to invade other countries, steal their best ideas, and bring them here to the United States to implement. The ideas vary from five weeks mandatory paid vacation in Italy (with an additional two weeks of government holidays) and five months of paid maternity leave, also mandatory (the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries on the planet that don’t have mandatory paid maternity leaves, although most companies offer roughly six weeks of paid maternity leave to their employees here). France has a one hour lunch for schoolchildren and serves lunches that are nutritionist-approved from fresh ingredients – on plates and in glasses – to students who learn to serve each other and conduct themselves with proper table manners. They also do it for less than American schools pay for their slop.

And the ideas keep on coming, from reduced school hours, virtually no homework and no standardized tests that have taken Finland from educational standing right about where the United States is to the top ranking of national education systems to Slovenia offering free college to any student who wants to attend there – including non-Slovenians (so many American students have flocked over there that some universities are offering as many as 150 different courses in English). Norway has a prison system in which violent offenders stay in compounds in which they are treated with dignity and given more or less free access anywhere inside the compound – although not out of it. The campus is beautiful and gives them amenities that you’d find at home – just not freedom. The recidivism rate is about 20% there, opposite our own 80%.

Portugal has eliminated drug use prison sentences and treats drug use as a health care issue rather than as a criminal law issue, lowering their drug use rate. Germany has begun teaching their children about the Holocaust and taking ownership rather than ignoring it and hiding it. Tunisia shows how women took to the streets following their 2011 revolution and told the Islamist government that they refused to allow their rights to be unprotected by their new constitution. The uprising was so massive that the government voluntarily stepped down.

Finally in Iceland, the only financial company that escaped the country’s massive 2007 financial meltdown was one founded and run by women. The financial recovery was largely spearheaded by the addition of women to corporate boards throughout the country. And unlike the United States, their equivalent of the Department of Justice investigated, prosecuted and convicted a number of financial executives for wrongdoing and fraud, basing their investigations largely on American policies during the savings and loan crisis.

I will admit that Moore has a tendency to present facts as he sees him and not necessarily as they are. Employee benefits in Italy, for example, are tremendous but unemployment is twice the rate it is here. However, unlike the conservative reviewer who blames unemployment on those benefits somewhat speciously at best (she seems to think that the high taxes in Italy pay for those benefits which they do not – the companies do), I can see that Moore makes several points that are worth considering. We should be concerned not just with profits but for the quality of life of all people. We have become a society so narrowly focused on the bottom line we’ve lost sight of what is even more important – living. And in a country where our own government has taken a scorched earth policy against the middle class, we should not be pooh-poohing new ideas and refusing to consider them because we think they won’t work here. Why wouldn’t having more women in the board room work in this country? Why wouldn’t giving our kids better nutrition at lunch work here? Why wouldn’t shorter class hours and no standardized tests work here?

Moore’s point is that we are mired in this box of thinking that everything we do is the only way to do things and if it doesn’t work, it can’t be fixed. This is a film that attempts to prove that this isn’t the case at all and I think largely Moore succeeds in making his point. While I think that two hours is a bit long for this kind of film, at least he keeps it interesting with his sense of humor and his ability to tell a story in an entertaining way.

I don’t doubt that those who consider Moore to be an irresponsible socialist lefty with an axe to grind are going to hate this and reject the message out of hand simply because it’s Michael Moore delivering it. There are also those who are going to accept everything out of hand in this documentary simply because it’s Michael Moore saying it. It behooves us to do our own research and reach our own conclusions which most of us refuse to do because it’s too much trouble. And if you wonder why the world is so messed up, there’s your reason right there.

Nevertheless, Moore raises some valid points, poses some crucial questions and makes a film that is perhaps more optimistic than any he’s ever made, and one made out of – get this – patriotism. I’m not sure who said this, but whoever it was in my book was a very wise person – a true patriot is one who loves his country enough to want to change it for the better. You can read into that whatever you like.

REASONS TO GO: Much food for thought. Moore is a wonderful raconteur. Plenty of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some graphic nudity, disturbing photos and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore with the cooperation of the distributors are screening the film for free from February 19 for two weeks in his hometown of Flint, Michigan owing to the water crisis there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sicko
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Gemma Bovery


A portrait of wistfulness.

A portrait of wistfulness.

(2014) Romance (Music Box) Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Kacey Mottet Klein, Edith Scob, Philippe Uchan, Pascale Arbillot, Marie-Benedicte Roy, Christian Sinniger, Pierre Alloggia, Patrice Le Mehaute, Gaspard Beuacarne, Marianne Viville, Jean-Yves Freyburger. Directed by Anne Fontaine

Florida Film Festival 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a masterwork of French literature, although not too many Americans have read it (then again, not too many Americans have read anything). The story concerns a doctor’s wife in a provincial French town who embarked on several adulterous affairs to relieve the boredom of life in the slow lane as well as an empty marriage. It was racy for its time and many of the themes of the book have echoed down through the ages, as has its realistic story telling style.

An English couple, Charlie (Flemyng) and Gemma (Arterton) Bovery have moved into a small French town where Flaubert wrote his masterpiece. Martin Joubert (Luchini), who runs a boulingerie with his acerbic, practical wife Valerie (Candelier), is taken by the couple’s similar name to the tragic heroine and with Gemma herself, a spirited and beautiful young woman. He is a big fan of classic literature and Madame Bovary is one of his favorites.

Gemma at first seems thrilled with all things French, taking deep, sensual breaths of the freshly baked bread, taking long walks through the countryside with her dog. Martin often walks with her, delighted by his new friend. However, he is prone to looking for similarities between Gemma and Emma (the given name of Flaubert’s heroine) and soon finds a big one when Gemma initiates a torrid affair with Hervé de Bressigny, the callow womanizing scion to a titled family that lives nearby who is home on a break from school. Certain that she is hurtling to a terrible end =takes steps to save Gemma from the same fate as Flaubert’s protagonist no matter what the cost.

Based on a French graphic novel which is in turn something of a satiric take on Flaubert’s novel, the movie moves at a pace that befits its setting in the lovely rural countryside of France although some American viewers, used to a more brisk rhythm to their film may become impatient. but American viewers willing to stick with the movie will be rewarded with one of the better endings to a movie as I’ve seen in recent years, although admittedly it takes a long time in getting there.

Luchini is one of France’s most dependable actors although he’s not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. He plays Martin as a man living a pretty ordinary life, with a teenage son (Klein) who’s a bit of an asshole, and a wife who is somewhat bemused by his penchant to see things through the lens of his beloved books. She supported him when he moved the family from Paris although she wasn’t particularly thrilled by the idea but has essentially accepted and even embraced their new life which they have been in for several years when the movie begins. Luchini tends to be subtle with his performance, never really allowing the character to sink into cartoonish excess (which would be easy to do) but still leaves that little twinkle of the eternal boy which his character truly is.

Arterton is one of those actresses who always delivers attention-grabbing performances but doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She really is one of the finest actresses out there right now and should be getting the kind of films that are being offered to Emma Watson, Keira Knightley and Felicity Jones but for some reason she’s still either by choice or circumstance laboring in smaller films on the fringes of big stardom. This is another terrific performance that leaves me scratching my head as to why this woman isn’t a big, big star.

Luchini is the mournful face of hopeless love here. The feeling of impending tragedy colors everything like dappled sunlight on a summer day that is offset by a chill wind. The village setting is charming but like the decaying cottages that Martin and Gemma live in, the charm is offset by the reality that it isn’t all wildflowers and croissants. The movie has a lot of comedic elements – are men of a certain age group who fall obsessively in love with a much younger woman really that pathetic? – although I suspect that the humor appeals to a more European sensibility than American, although some of the situations are more or less universal. Overall this is a marvelously French film that is at once sexy, wistful, tragic and ridiculous. I guess that our lives pretty much hit those same notes as well. Maybe not as sexy as French lives do though.

REASONS TO GO: Lovely rustic French setting. Great ending.
REASONS TO STAY: Sense of humor may be too European for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, some nudity and also a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontaine is best known as a director in the U.S. for Coco Before Chanel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Madame Bovary
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Welcome to Me

Offshoring 2015


Offshoring

Every year at about this time, shortly after the Florida Film Festival has ended, we like to present a collection of reviews for films that come to us from beyond America. We call it Offshoring and it’s one of our favorite mini-festivals of the year.

The variety and quality of films that come from around the world is improving rapidly with the cost of good quality equipment also coming down in price, becoming more affordable. These days you can see films that are absolutely riveting from every continent on Earth save Antarctica.

This year we have one of the movies that played this year’s Florida Film Festival among the five that we’re presenting. The movies that we’re reviewing come from Israel, Spain, France, Australia and Japan. The diversity of viewpoints that these films give us enriches us and helps us see things with a different perspective. Things including ourselves.

A lot of people dislike foreign movies because of subtitles and, in the case of English language films from foreign countries, accents that can be hard for Americans to decipher. That being the case, you should really rethink your prejudices because you’re cheating yourself out of some of the best movies you’re likely to see in your life. One of the films we’re reviewing this time out is one of the best animated features ever made and quite frankly one of the best movies ever made period.

So if you’re in an adventurous mood, you might give these movies a try. Not all of them are instant classics; some of them may have to grow on you a little. But I think that each of these movies gives you a glimpse not only of different ways of thinking, but at all the things that unite us as well. So hope to see you right here tomorrow when our mini-festival begins.

The Hundred-Foot Journey


Helen Mirren serves up a treat.

Helen Mirren serves up a treat.

(2014) Dramedy (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clement Sibony, Vincent Elbaz, Juhi Chawla, Alban Aumard, Shuna Lemoine, Antoine Blanquefort, Malcolm Granath, Abhijit Buddhisagar, Rohan Chand, Masood Akhtar, Arthur Mazet, Laetitia de Fombelle. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Some directors have an abiding patience for place and story. They allow the tale to unfold onscreen naturally, never or at least rarely forcing the action and allowing things to happen organically, giving the film a richness that comes from life’s own richness. Few directors possess such patience and trust. Lasse Halstrom is such a director.

In a small French village (mainly Castelnau-de-Levis but also Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, both in the Tarn region) there is a restaurant with a single Michelin star presided over by the iron-willed widow Madame Mallory (Mirren). Across the street is an abandoned and dilapidated former competitor which now stands empty. However, when an Indian family of restaurateurs, led by redoubtable patriarch Papa Kaddam (Puri) has their sketchy rented van break down in the village, she is distressed to discover that Papa has taken an interest in the vacant property and means to put in a new Indian restaurant.

At first she isn’t too impressed; after all, presidents have dined in her classical French establishment and the village may not be ready for the exotic spices, smells and sounds of the new Mumbai Maison. However, she didn’t reckon on Papa’s son Hassan (Dayal) being a tremendously talented but untrained chef. She also didn’t reckon on her sous chef Marguerite (Le Bon) falling for Hassan and lending him some books on French technique and recipes.

When the house is vandalized by French nationalists, one of whom working in her own kitchen, her attitude begins to soften a little bit. Eventually she recognizes that in Hassan she has found an amazing talent, the sort that could win her restaurant a second Michelin star. However, if she woos him away from his family and if he is as successful with her as she suspects he will be, undoubtedly world class Parisian restaurants will come calling and will Hassan be able to survive everything that goes with being a rock star chef in Paris?

Halstrom has crafted a movie in many ways not unlike his 2000 similarly-set film Chocolat in that it is about culinary talents in a bucolic French village with a romance taking place between two young people from completely different worlds. On the surface it may seem that this movie is about the preparation of food – it actually isn’t and to underscore this, about a third of the way through the movie Hassan discusses with Marguerite the mastery of five basic French sauces including Hollandaise which he asserts is made with olive oil. The sauce is actually made with egg yolks, butter, a bit of lemon juice and white pepper. Although this is a detail only a foodie or food industry professional might know, it’s the kind of detail that a movie obsessed with the preparation of food would get right.

Instead, the movie – based on a novel by Richard C. Morais – uses food as a metaphor. Meals are memories, asserts Hassan, reminding us of places and times in our lives. Good food can take us back to childhood, to magical moments of our youth, to family meals long after the family has scattered to the four winds. He’s not wrong on that score.

But whereas the mercurial and rigid Madame Malory is stuck on the same cuisine and in doing so, stuck on that single Michelin star (she dreams of being awarded a second), it isn’t until the passionate Hassan enters the picture melding French techniques and recipes with Indian spices and techniques that the restaurant flowers and approaches that lofty mark.

And in Hassan’s case, his love for French technique and cuisine is symbolized by his love for the French sous chef, as his passion for his heritage cuisine is symbolized by his love for his father and family. Close to both of his inspirations – Marguerite and Papa – his imagination and creativity are inspired. Taken away from both, his passion is drained from him. His success becomes empty because his food has become hollow.

 

Mirren is one of the finest actresses in the world and any chance to see her should be taken without hesitation. However, American audiences may be less familiar with Puri who is as revered in his home country as Mirren is here, and he is one of those actors who fills every role he plays with humanity and gentle humor. He is truly a treasure.

Unlike the first two movies in our Films for Foodies series, you won’t necessarily be hungry for French or Indian food when you leave the theater, although I have to admit a nice samosa wouldn’t be a bad thing at all right about now. However, this is a movie with a great deal of heart and a story told with a gentle touch. This is a village you’ll want to live in and restaurants you’ll want to dine in and more importantly, people you’ll want to spend time with. As slices of life go, this is a particularly delectable morsel.

REASONS TO GO: Gently paced. Lots of heart. A place you’ll want to stay in and people you’ll want to hang out with. Mirren and Puri are treasures.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit less about food than the logline would lead you to believe. A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of violence, a distressing scene involving a personal tragedy, mild language and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dayal is of Indian descent, he was actually born in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Le Chef

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Into the Storm