Cheese, Champagne & A Fabulous French Film
Francophiles stand and be counted ... Let’s celebrate Bastille Day with a few classic French films that you can enjoy without pulling out the passport to take an expensive trip abroad. I love French cinema and embrace any excuse to be whisked away to the city of lights, if only in my dreams or via le television.
For a great heist movie look no further than Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1955). This was set to be the perfectly executed crime, technically speaking, but the element of human emotions gets in the way. Although the whole movie is fun and intriguing, this has one particular scene that stands out and it has to be experienced to be believed. In it, while the bank heist is underway and everyone is playing their part, the at least seven minute scene takes place sans music or dialogue. That’s right, we’re talking seven minutes of silence, heavy breathing and close up shots of criminals under a time crunch. Sound boring? It’s anything but. You’re holding your breath and on the edge of your seat the whole time.
Anything from the French New Wave era - a cinematic movement of the 50s and 60s, headed up by the legendary Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Goddard, that forever changed how films were made and watched:
If a dramatic family saga is more your style, then “Jean de Florette” (1986) and its follow-up companion movie, “Manon of the Spring” will enthrall. This is an intriguing family drama sprawling over a couple of generations pertaining to land, class, love and vindication as a greedy landowner and his “slow” nephew block the only water supply to a neighbor. The cast is stellar headed up by the late great Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil in his debut. Jean de Florette’s follow-up, “Mannon of the Spring” (1986) features a debut performance by a captivating Emmanuelle Beart. This is where they juicy revenge comes in.
For a more contemporary selection, Michael Haneke’s “Cache” (2005) is a gripping thriller mystery showcasing dirctor Haneke at his best. Set in the household of a respected literary power couple, played by two of France’s most extraordinary actors, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, they start receiving video tapes with odd and disturbing messaging in their mail. The husband takes matters into his own hands to solve the source of the scare tactics unfolding a thread to his childhood that challenges perception and memory while threatening his mindset, marriage and life as he knows it. There is nothing straight forward or easy about this. In fact, plan to watch this at least 2-3 times in order to absorb everything, which is a nice way of saying you'll never get it in one viewing.
On a light note, the 2011 dramady, The “Intouchables” is a story of an unlikely friendship without the cliches or sappiness of most other such films. Based on a true story of an affluent quadriplegic who hires an unemployed, gregarious troubled young immigrant as his caregiver, “The Intouchables” is imbued with charm and interlaced with subtle humor. As an added bonus, the use of music by Earth Wind and Fire is fantastic. I wouldn’t qualify this as great filmmaking or complex storytelling, it is solidly well-written, undeniably enjoyable and absolutely uplifting as personalities collide but an endearing friendship persists, changing both their lives forever. No doubt, in the hands of most American directors, this would have been a recipe for cheesiness and predictability, but thanks to writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano and their European sensibility, it’s anything but. Let’s see if I’m proven wrong on this last count when the American/English version starring Robert De Niro and Kevin Hart comes out soon.
So, open up a little Champagne accompanied by a bit of Brie on a baguette while watching any of my humble, yet delicious movie selections from above and ... bon appetite!
A Lackluster Not-So-Feminist Ending for a "Groundbreaking" Series
After six seasons of what many considered the fresh, groundbreaking series with a feminist edge, Lena Dunham’s Girls ends on a disappointing note. Over the years I have popped in and out of this HBO series, as in, not a regular viewer or big fan. That said, on some level I always understood the show’s appeal to the masses, and could appreciate the level of writing, producing and directing that it mostly delivered, especially at the hands of such a young talent. Although for me that was never enough to make me wait with baited breath for each episode or jump on the gushing bandwagon. This mostly because for all the good it had going for it, it always seemed to be outweighed by the fact that all the characters were whiny, self-absorbed and annoying. Also, let’s face it, at my age I can only take so much of the 20 something angst.
To be sure though I think women of all ages could appreciate (at least at first) that the main character, Hannah, is not your typical leading lady, and that was always ok. Not only is she, what some would say, a bit curvy or chuncky, that never seemed to matter to her or anyone else on the show. From day 1 she was comfortable in her skin and happy to flaunt it. Of course, it did hit some point where the in-your-face with my big body, love it or leave it attitude, seemed to go overboard. “All right, all right, we get it. You love your body. You’re happy to be naked.” But I digress.
For the series finale (spoiler alert), is a few months in to her decision to move from Brooklyn to Upstate New York and take on a teaching position with a local not named college. She has also delivered her baby, who is Black for some unsaid reason, and rooming with her self proclaimed best friend, Marnie who is hell bent on helping Hannah raise her son. At the point of the episode, the school year has not commenced and Hannah is having a rough time with the early stages of having a baby. Most of the latter revolves around the fact that the baby is not breast feeding despite Hannah’s best efforts. Unfortunately, this becomes the focus of the show. That and Hannah whining, bitching and moaning over the breast feeding issue and taking it as a personal assault on her character, determine to scar the kid and her for life. Needless to say, Marnie and Hannah’s mother (she flies in at Marnie’s request to help) are casualties of Hannah’s internal war. She is steadfast in throwing blame and responsibility for the baby’s care; yelling at her support system, and throwing in the towel. By show’s end, she takes a long walk and a deep breath, returning to the house willing to give the feeding a try again, with success. Fade to black. Ugh!
Really, you end the series with not much of time progression or character development? And only two other members of the original cast? For this, they should have just ended with the episode the week before (the girlfriends arguing in a bathroom at an engagement party for Shoshana, but later making up, sort of, and dancing the night away). Or they could have had the gang all together for Hannah’s baby shower, toasting to the past and to her new future (kind of sappy, but effective). Truth be told, I think it would have been better ended further in the future, showing Hannah professionally successful and embracing her life’s choices to move, having a steady job/career, and happy as a single mom. Wouldn’t that have been more interesting and satisfying? Not least of all, it would have sent a better message to the young female audience?
Reading: A Secret to Success or Sanity ... or Both?
A few months ago, I posted something about President Obama’s impressive, yet highly suspect summer reading list. In my piece I implied that it was hard to believe that someone so important and obviously busy would have time for leisurely reading. Whether he actually did the reading and created a recommendation list, or pawned it off to a staffer, I reasoned that the act of promoting reading in itself, was important and only added to his cool nerd factor. Since then and very recently, he has released yet another reading list and granted a sit-down interview with the New York Times regarding the invaluable role books have played during his presidency. Because of this, I have checked my skepticism at the door and embrace and applaud the fact that some people can be President of the United States and keep up with reading more than Homeland Security briefings.
Between dealing with Congress on one hand, terrorism on the other and mounds of meetings and appearances in between, clearly the presidency is a highly demanding and stressful position. In the midst of the daily grind and throughout his tenure, Obama explains in the article that books have been a source of inspiration and comfort. A few of his favorites are writings from Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. For obvious reasons, these are leaders he idolizes and whose challenges he can sympathize with, but judging from his latest list, it’s not just the oldies but goodies that get him through. He is seemingly an avid reader of contemporary books, both fiction and non-fiction. And although he admits that reading may not necessarily make him a better person, it does give him the ability to “slow down and get perspective on things.” Maybe that’s something we all can ponder, myself included, as we maybe procrastinate on reading or choose yet another streaming binge over a good book. Whether it's a secret to success or sanity or both, consider reading.
Check out the NY Times article at
What do Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss have in common? Nothing you say short of being shot on black and white? I beg to differ. They are part of a unique list that until now has never been published. I unabashedly love lists! As such I’m digging in my archives for one of my favorites constructed with film friends and colleagues from a part time job of the past. Back in my early days in New York, I spent some time at Evergreen Video, an iconic institution in the West Village known for having the largest and best collection in the city. It also had a great reputation for having the most knowledgeable staff of film geeks that didn’t believe knowledge and snobbery went hand in hand.
On the rare occasion that an evening at work was quiet, with little business to speak of, staffers would device creative ways to entertain themselves beyond the usual movie viewing. For those nights it would be a challenge of film titles and themes based on certain criteria. One of my personal favorites was “The Top 10 Best Openings of a Movie.” We’d each collect our selections (dvd or vhs - remember those formats?), take turns in screening, and then dub the best list of the lists. This not only made for a challenge, but a unique way to look at a short bit of film over several titles. In no particular order, here’s a sample of the best of the best (my personal selection). And by the way, I would recommend watching any of these movies in their entirety, but pay careful attention to the brilliance of the opening.
Who knew kidnapping could be so much fun?! If you get a chance to to hear Jeffrey Toobin speak about his latest book, American Heiress, definitely do so! His oratory skills are as exceptional as his writings, but for very different reasons. He’s blunt and funny as well as intelligent and articulate. Toobin, lawyer/journalist known for being a commentator on CNN as well as penning such high profile books as The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Nine, is touting his latest book about the Patricia Hearst kidnapping. Lucky me got to hear him recently at Book Passage in California. After recently reading American Heiress, I can attest to the fact that like his other books, this is a captivating read. It serves as a bit of history lesson on two levels - the kidnapping and the subsequent trial, and what it was like in the Bay Area in the 70s.
At the heart of this thoroughly investigative journalistic story is the uncovering of a pathological liar that is Patricia Hearst. She epitomizes the rich, white and privileged beating the system. Instead of being clothed at some point in guilt and remorse, she only ever claimed to be a victim and felt a sense of entitlement, worthy of complete clemency (of which Presidents Carter and Clinton granted). Towards the conclusion of the book, Toobin aptly sums up Hearst's unfair legal fortune.
"Patricia Hearst was woman who, through no fault of her own, fell in with bad people but then did bad things; she committed crimes, lots of them, including one of three bank robberies in which a woman was killed. Following her arrest in 1975 (and prior to her kidnapping), she was unlikely to commit these kinds of crimes. If the U.S. were a country that forgave the trespasses of such people, there would be little remarkable about the mercy she received following her conviction. But the U.S. is not such a country; the prisons teem with convicts who were also let astray and who committed lesser crimes than Patricia. These unfortunate souls have no chance at even a single act of clemency, much less an unprecedented two."
Needing a good book for any upcoming travels, gifts, or just your regular down time reading? Well, here's a wonderful source as The Commander-in-Chief recently released his reading list and recommendations. Now whether he actually had time to read these books, or he delegated the task off to a staffer, is another story. He does usually have some “down time” in the summer where he’s know to hang out on Martha’s Vineyard. We all know there’s nothing better than chillin’ on the beach with a margarita and a good book. Well, we’ll never know for sure if it’s coming directly from him, but for now it’s pretty cool that the prez has a few suggestions of the literary sort.
I’ve only read one from the list (The Girl on the Train- an intriguing thriller, but a bit of a popular, obvious choice- ha). I am very much looking forward to reading and reviewing Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
The 2016 Presidential Summer Reading List
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life - William Finnegan
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
Seveneves - Neal Stephenson