REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘paris’

THE LIFE OF ÉMILE ZOLA (1937)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Crime, Drama, Epic, History, L, Motion Pictures on July 7, 2010 at 1:31 am

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CAST -Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp

DIRECTOR – William Dieterle

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

One of the darkest incidents in military history took place between 1894 and 1906. For over a decade, a man wrongfully convicted of treason languished on Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, while the French Army knowingly and willfully covered up their mistake by deliberately acquitting the real guilty party at a subsequent court-martial and allowing him to continue to serve his country. For years, a nation was divided, and its most famous author, who had exposed the scandal, was convicted of libel, labeled a pariah, and forced into exile. This incident has since been known as The Dreyfus Affair, and the man who brought it into the open was Émile Zola.

In The Life of Émile Zola, Paul Muni stars as the controversial writer from his early adulthood in 1869, until his death in 1902. In the beginning, we see Zola living in a drafty attic flat with non other than Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) as his roommate. Here, both Zola and Cézanne are depicted as literally “starving artists”. After being dismissed from a job as a literary clerk (for writing “bad” books), Zola and Cézanne chanced upon, and befriended, a prostitute (Erin O’Brien-Moore) who would become the inspiration to Zola’s breakout novel, “Nana”. With “Nana”, Zola became an instant success, spawning many more books exposing the harsh reality that is life in the underbelly of Paris.

Émile Zola (Paul Muni) reads from "J'Accuse..." prior to its publication

Fast-forward to 1894, when a hand-written communiqué intended for the military attaché at the German embassy is intercepted by French military intelligence. Senior officers gather to determine who could be responsible for this treasonous act. At first, the name of Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), known to be of Hungarian descent and with access to sensitive information, comes up; but the preceding name, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Best Supporting Actor Joseph Schildkraut), a Jewish officer from the Franco-Prussian border region, is selected instead. The next day, he is arrested for treason and, a few months later, publicly stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. From the moment of his arrest, Dreyfus repeatedly protests his innocence, but his words fall on deaf ears. For the next three years, his wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) does everything she can to absolve her husband’s name. Desperate, she calls on the one remaining man she feels can help her: Émile Zola. At first, he resists, but ultimately takes the challenge head-on by publishing J’Accuse… (“I Accuse…”), an open letter to the President of the French Republic, on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore.

The Life of Émile Zola packs a lot of story within its just-under-two-hours run time, making it one of those movies that requires attention, or you may miss something. The script, though a little choppy in spots, provided a (mostly) accurate portrayal of Zola and the people in his life. Paul Muni’s performance gave Zola a certain degree of humanity (including a humorous gag involving umbrellas) and courage. Joseph Schildkraut’s performance is one of the better examples from the 1930s. Though I was initially put off by Dreyfus screaming “I’m innocent!” over and over, Schildkraut also demonstrated powerful restraint and dignity during key scenes, such as the last time Dreyfus saw his wife before transferring to Devil’s Island. And, speaking of Mme. Dreyfus, Gale Sondergaard’s performance as Lucie Dreyfus is easily the best in the movie.

At every turn, Zola seemed to spend most of his life hitting barrier after barrier in order to get his works published. With the Dreyfus Affair, Zola became an enemy of a people who had been blinded by the very corrupt military he had been trying to expose. In the movie, there was one subtle element which actually bore a stronger punch in the historical record: anti-Semitism. One of the main reasons (if not the sole reason) Dreyfus was railroaded was because he was Jewish. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the French Army at the time, so any opportunity to kick one to the curb was, in the mindset of the time, a “good thing” to do. This aspect was downplayed in the movie, partly because of the Hays Code, and partly because of fear. Remember, this movie came out in 1937, not long after a certain Chancellor of Nazi Germany came to power. At the time, the Unites States was a neutral nation, unconcerned with the affairs of Europe, which would be thrust into war two years later. But that is another story for another time…

The DVD features three shorts from the period. Two of them, “The Littlest Diplomat”, starring a Shirley Temple-like girl named Sybil Jason as the granddaughter of a British garrison commander in India, and “Romance Road”, featuring Walter Cassel as an RCMP officer trying to keep the peace between fur trappers and a railroad gang, are live-action musical pieces in Technicolor. And both of them are a bit on the cheesy side. The third short, a cartoon called “Ain’t We Got Fun”, is a treat for animation fans, because it’s an example of the legendary Tex Avery’s work from his Warner Bros. days. Of course, it doesn’t feature the classic gags for which he is known (Warner Bros. kept him on a short leash), but you can still make out bits and pieces of his trademark animation style, for which he would become famous once he landed at MGM. And, for all you old-time radio fans, there is a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast from 1939, in which Paul Muni reprises his role as Zola.

There were two Best Picture winners in the 1930s which were biographical motion pictures, and The Life of Émile Zola is the better of the two, in terms of brevity and substance. Unlike The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which is a classic in its own right, The Life of Émile Zola did not need to pad its story with unneeded material. The bare-bones approach suits this movie just fine, and in the end, provides us with a look into the life of a man who, in today’s world, may otherwise be forgotten.

4 (out of 5)

JULIE & JULIA (2009)

In Biography, Comedy, Drama, J, Motion Pictures on March 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

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STUDIO — Columbia

CAST — Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina

DIRECTOR —  Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

When this movie came out in 2009, I was skeptical about it. I had heard about the “Julie/Julia” project, but to make a motion picture about two separate lives about two different women who lived in two different time periods seemed far-fetched to me. And I must be up-front about this: Julie & Julia is not the kind of movie which (on the surface, at least) I would just pop in the DVD player and watch. But, since Meryl Streep received her 40th Academy Award nomination, I gave it a shot.

(Okay, I kid about Meryl Streep. But, as of this writing, she has received 15 Oscar nods – with two wins – since 1979. Nothing against Ms. Streep; she is an exceptionally talented actress. But it’s almost as if to say she’s the Academy’s “go-to” girl if they need a fifth name to fill out the Best Actress category, especially if she alters her voice in any way. But I digress…)

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) recalls her mother making Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon

About 25 minutes into this movie, I actually exclaimed out loud “I get it!” I actually began to see this as one portrait of two women who led parallel lives. And the parallels are almost uncanny! In case you are not aware, the late Julia Child was one of the most popular TV personalities of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published. And her cooking shows, beginning with “The French Chef”, ran off-and-on from 1963 to 2000, and she is one of the reasons The Food Network exists today.

So, what are the parallels? For starters, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) was a former OSS file clerk in post-war Paris who became the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an occupant of a cubicle in a government office in post-9/11 New York City, decided to take on the ambitious project of re-creating all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s book. In one year. And write a blog about it. Both women overcame obstacles on their way to achieve their goals. For Julia, it was writing and re-writing her book for years, only to be rejected by numerous publishers untill one finally said “yes”; for Julie, it was the ridiculous idea of actually starting this blog of hers (at her husband’s suggestion), wondering if anyone would ever read it anyway.

Now, starting a blog is something I can personally relate to. I have just started this blog myself, and I can relate to Julie’s frustrations in the early days of her blog, whose only reader at the time seemed to be her mother. As of this writing, only my brother and a couple of friends have read these reviews. With that cloud of uncertainty hanging over me, I sometimes wonder if my efforts will ever bear fruit. Watching this movie reminded me that all I have to do is keep pressing forward; some day, this little blog of mine will have a life of its own. But, I digress again…

This movie was fun to watch. Seeing Meryl Streep as Julia Child, I began to ask myself in some scenes, “Where’s Meryl?” That is usually a good indicator of a good performance. And the food! Oh, my God! I could almost smell some of those dishes! Here I am, writing a review about a movie featuring gourmet cooking, and I’m eating a toasted bagel. It’s almost as if I’m saying that I’m practically insulting the film!

Writer/director Nora Ephron is a food lover, or “foodie”. That’s a little snippet of information I picked up while watching the “making of” featurette on the DVD. But her love of food comes through in spades here. There’s an old adage in the culinary arts that “presentation is everything”. If it doesn’t look appealing, you may not want to try it. Here, the presentation was delicious, tender, and rich, with butter! Lots of butter (a Julia Child trademark)! Julie & Julia is a great date movie, sure to bring out the passion in all of us.

Bon apétit!

4 out of 5

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

In Action, I, Motion Pictures, War on February 15, 2010 at 3:03 am

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 STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger

DIRECTOR —  Quentin Tarantino

MPAA Rating: R

O Quentin, where art thou?

When I think of Quentin Tarantino, I think of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill saga. These are movies I could sink my teeth into (and I have). But Inglourious Basterds is a very different movie, with a very different feel to it. In fact, the only things Tarantino-esque about it are the “chapter” slates, a few select “call-back” edits, and that Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel lent their (uncredited) voices to the film. This movie features dialogue in not one, but four different languages (French, German, English, and Italian). Of all the World War II movies ever made, only a relative few don’t fall under the conventional “everybody speaks English” wisdom. While I found this delightful, I must confess I had a little difficulty keeping up with the subtitles.   

Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) chats with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), while "Enzo Corlomi" (Brad Pitt) looks on

Cinematically, this is a stunning movie. Tarantino’s directing style makes for a visual masterpiece nearly every time out of the gate, in both filming and editing technique. But as I said before, this doesn’t really “feel” like a typical Tarantino movie. Yes, there is plenty of blood spatter, but it doesn’t feel as over-the-top as, say, Michael Madsen gleefully disfiguring a cop while dancing to “Stuck In the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.

Most of the cast did well in this movie. Kudos to Christoph Waltz as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. In the opinion of this writer, Waltz single-handedly saved this movie from being a complete mess. In an interview, Quentin Tarantino said that without Waltz, this movie would not have been made. Frankly, I completely agree with this statement. As Landa, Waltz is both predator and slippery eel, dashing and cruel, friendly and suspicious. It is a masterful performance, with well-deserved accolades, including an Academy Award™ nomination. 

But what about the “Basterds” themselves? In the movie, they were a band of eight Jewish soldiers on a singular mission: kill the Nazis. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they spent a significant portion of the movie succeeding in just that. But as it turns out, the movie is not centered around them; it is primarily about a young Jewish woman who had escaped death three years earlier, only to plot revenge by killing hundreds of Nazis, including Adolph Hitler himself (!), at her movie theatre. The “Basterds” just happened to catch wind of the event and planned their own Nazi-killing party there, too.  

As is typical of any Quentin Tarantino movie, you have to suspend your disbelief. But come on! Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) was more accurate than this movie! By the time the climax started, as visually striking as it was, I ended up throwing my hands up and calling BS. I’m sorry, Quentin, but I think you went too far with this one.  

EDITED 2/25 TO ADD THE FOLLOWING:  

It is rare when I revisit a review to add to it, but I have taken some time to digest this movie a little further. As a result, I am amending my review of Inglourious Basterds.  One of the things I have overlooked is the fact that Quentin Tarantino is unlike almost any other director out there. There are so few directors working today with the passion and drive to make movies the way he does. On top of that, he carries a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history within that oddly-shaped head of his. Both of these qualities come to the forefront in every movie he makes, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception. For example, most of the movie posters (“Nation’s Pride” and the Bridget von Hammersmark films excepted) are from real movies made in the 1920s and 1930s, and that they provide a subtext to this movie which illustrates the oppression felt by the French and the Jews under Nazi Germany, and the desire to break free from it. Also, in “Nation’s Pride”, the film-within-a-film, a John Wayne-like actor playing an American colonel gives an impassioned speech about preserving the tower where the Nazi sniper (and star of the film) is holed up. That actor is Bo Svenson, who starred in a 1978 movie entitled The Inglorious Bastards (no relation), directed by Enzo Castellari (who also has a cameo, as a Nazi dignitary at the cinema).  

It is little “Easter eggs” like this which makes watching a Tarantino movie fun to watch. It’s amazing, the things you learn from watching the Special Features disc. While I still maintain it is not one of his best films, Inglourious Basterds is still a fun-to-watch romp done only the way Quentin can do it.  

3-1/2 out of 5