Thursday, November 28, 2013

Le Million, because I like to celebrate American holidays with French films?

Le Million
Director: Rene Clair
Starring: Rene Lefevre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier

I make it no secret that I love musicals.  They’re comfort films, they pick me up when I’m down, they make me happy.  But I don’t love all musicals indiscriminately; I tend to prefer musicals where the musical numbers are incorporated into the everyday lives of the characters over those that have to use the stage as a “reason” to have song and dance.  I think this coincides with my love of heavily stylized film; having characters spontaneously break into song and dance, while troubling to many of my fellow blogger friends, is something I love, as it reinforces that this movie is taking place in a different world.  The world of the movie musical is usually one full of sunshine and happiness.  I welcome this alternate reality.  When I first encountered Rene Clair’s superb Le Million, it was as if I had unearthed The First Musical Ever.  While Busby Berkeley (rightly) gets a great deal of credit for popularizing the movie musical with his raucous films, I give Rene Clair the credit for introducing, or at least legitimizing, the idea of incorporating music into the everyday action of his films.

The story is very simple: Michel (Lefevre), a broke artist, unexpectedly wins the lottery.  This is great news, as it will allow him to pay off his many debtors and maybe even marry pretty Beatrice (Annabella) who lives in the apartment across the hall from him.  Problem is, he left his winning ticket in his jacket pocket, the same jacket that Beatrice just lent to Grandpa Tulip (Ollivier), a Robin Hood-esque figure who runs a petty crimes syndicate dedicated to stealing from the rich to give to the poor.  Michel must track down his missing jacket and missing ticket in order to claim his winnings.

Le Million is a musical, but not a traditional one.  There are few, if indeed any, “musical numbers” in terms of what we think of today as big showstopping song and dance numbers.  Instead, there is an almost constant use of music and sound throughout the film which, accompanied by an irrepressible sense of whimsy, establishes the mood if not the specific logistics for so many great musicals to come.  There are many small musical touches that aren’t combined into fully realized “songs.”  For example, the scene where all of Michel’s debtors marching up the stairs in unison as they sing (well, more like chant) about how they’re about to get paid isn’t strictly speaking a song, but it’s a great example of how Clair approaches his world in Le Million.  The couple of Michel and Beatrice make up after their required fight (this is a musical, after all, of course the lovers have a fight about something or other) in an incredibly clever setting, stuck on the stage of an opera while the couple in the show sings a love ballad to each other.  Would I call this a musical number?  No, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a very winning use of a love song that isn’t sung by the hero or heroine.  And then there is the unexpected yet ridiculously charming “football game” over the missing suit jacket, where Clair pipes standard crowd noises over the film as the men turn the jacket into a football, complete with tackles and huddles.

The plot of Le Million is simple enough and the comedy broad enough that this could have been a silent film, but it’s the above scenes that make me glad it isn’t.  Yes, silent films had musical scores, but they were simply scores, no sound effects, and it’s really the sound effects that shine brightest here.  It’s odd to think of someone actually inventing the concept of the “sound effect,” but Rene Clair does a fantastic job in Le Million of incorporating sound smartly.  Too many early sound films were nothing but cacophonous excuses to cram as much rhythmic noise (NOT music) into the ears of the audience that they never stopped to think about sound as a storytelling technique.  This does NOT apply Le Million, as it is quiet when it needs to be, and jubilantly loud when it needs to be, and most of all, using all manners of sound – dialogue, music, and effects – to tell its tale.  Sound furthers the story and adds to the overall charm.  If this were not a primitive musical, if this were instead a silent film, it would not be Le Million, but something inferior.  

Le Million is irrepressibly fun.  It exists in a world where it is never cloudy, and although our characters may encounter problems, never fear, for they will find a way out.  People occasionally start walking in time with one another singing a few snatches of song with one another.  A suit jacket becomes a football.  This right here, all of these things, these would become the Great Hollywood Musical in future years as film evolved.  It is all here, in a distilled, primitive form, but there for the taking.  It is so easy to see how a film like Le Million, in just a year or two, would lead to the Fred and Ginger musicals like Top Hat or Swing Time, and then, in a few more years, to the Technicolor extravaganzas like Singin’ in the Rain.  While hardly emotionally or intellectually taxing, Le Million to me is a sure thing.  A sure thing to pick me up, a sure thing to make me smile, a sure thing to usher in a cheery mood. 

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Vasundhara Das, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz

There was a time in my life, for quite a few years, actually, when my cinematic diet consisted entirely of the same fare that is Monsoon Wedding.  In the past ten years or so, I’ve stretched myself, imbibing film after film that is far beyond genres I usually watch, learning to love movies outside my comfort zone.  It’s been a wonderful experience, and one that I wouldn’t change, but every now and then, it feels incredibly comforting to settle down with a frothy little romantic dramedy.  Seeing Monsoon Wedding for the first time took me back, man.

Aditi (Das) is getting married.  Her father (Shah) is stressed, the wedding planner (Raaz) is an incompetent goofball, and her cousin Ria (Shetty) seems to be depressed.  Aditi herself isn’t terribly jazzed about the arranged marriage to an Indian man from Houston, Texas she’s never met, especially as she’s still in love with her married ex-boyfriend.  As the scores of relatives descend upon the family house for the days of wedding ceremonies, romance blossoms in unlikely places just as old family secrets are revealed.  Nothing like a wedding to bring out the best – and worst – in people.

Undoubtedly, the central theme of Monsoon Wedding is the universality of the Crazy Family.  This is a film cut from the same cloth as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with a cast of cacophonous characters doing their best to confuse you with their identities and separate plights.  There are several storylines continually being developed by the rather large cast, but in the end, it doesn’t matter, because it’s really just about this family muddling through.  Wait, there’s one scene where the father mentions money problems but it doesn’t really go anywhere?  No worries.  The story of the younger brother being sent off to boarding school feels markedly unresolved?  Don’t trouble yourself.  Just as in real life, not every tangent can find a conclusion in the time span of a long weekend.  Monsoon Wedding is about family, plain and simple, and how everyone in the family carries their own cross to bear, but ultimately love, be it romantic or familial, finds a way to triumph. 

Multiple plotlines and large casts can feel confusing, and when you add in the fact that Hindi, Punjabi, and English are all spoken in Monsoon Wedding, sometimes even in the same five minute period, the film constantly feels as though it’s teetering on a knife’s edge.  Credit where credit is due, then, to director Mira Nair, who manages to keep all the balls in the air and continually moves the film forward by focusing on Aditi’s wedding ceremony.  I’ll admit I was a bit overwhelmed during the first half hour of the film, but when I realized that this is a classic example of ensemble casting – and when I turned on the English subtitles for the English lines – everything started to fall into place.  I might not have every character’s name down pat, but by the end, I knew who was interested in whom and how the conclusion benefited which person and why.  Everything comes out in the wash.

The romance in Monsoon Wedding was rather lovely.  Although overshadowed by the focus on Aditi’s wedding and her angst about an arranged marriage and her ex, my favorite of the multiple romantic plotlines was easily that of inept wedding planner Dubey and household maid Alice.  Aditi’s family is most definitely upper middle class, if not upper class, and this was the one part of the story that dared delve into class distinctions in India.  Dubey is shown to live in a tiny apartment with a nagging mother, and Alice is the maid.  Watch her face when she first accidentally bumps into Dubey and he says “Forgive me.”  You can read her shock that she wasn’t blamed for the accident, that it wasn’t assumed it was her fault.  Right from that very first moment, I knew how this romance would blossom, but I didn’t care that it was already spelled out.  I wanted to watch these two, whose lives were definitely a bit harder and rougher than Aditi’s family, find their little bit of happiness.  The fact that Aditi’s family includes them in their own wedding ceremony at the end of the movie is heartwarming.

Like every decent romantic dramedy out there, there is more than a whiff of the fairy tale in Monsoon Wedding.  Things wrap up a little too nicely, especially in Aditi’s plot line, to be believable.  At all.  Not every plot line is based on romance, but even in the more serious story line, things seem to resolve a little too nicely.  But you know what?  I’m okay with that.  I wasn’t expecting hard-hitting realism in a story about an Indian upper class wedding.  It’s nice, every now and then, to bid adieu to any semblance of real life and live in a world where everyone gets their happy ending.  Like I said, I used to subsist on a cinematic diet of nothing but films like this.  I welcome the fairy tale, the fantasy, the happy ending.  

And yet what really makes Monsoon Wedding work is that it is a fairy tale masquerading as a real life story.  There is a great blend of the two, and although the story tiptoes near the borders of Bollywood excess, it never pushes over the edge.  Sweet without being sickening and with just enough emotional poignancy to make it feel substantial, Monsoon Wedding achieves its goal.  It’s diverting, escapist, well-made fun. 

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Official Story

The Official Story
Director: Luis Puenzo
Starring: Norma Aleandro, Hector Alterio

Although I cannot be entirely certain on this, I’m fairly sure that The Official Story was my first Argentinean film.  That’s one of the things I’ve truly appreciated about 1001 Movies, getting a chance to see films I normally wouldn’t have known existed that have brought me to new countries and new stories.  At its core a political story about the atrocities committed against civilians by the military rule in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, The Official Story comes wrapped in a big fat bow of Lifetime melodrama in an effort to make the story easier to digest.

Alicia (Aleandro) is a high school history teacher at an all-boys school with a wealthy businessman husband Roberto (Alterio) and an adopted five year old daughter Gaby.  Theirs is definitely a life of upper class ease.  During a night of fun with an old high school friend, Alicia learns how her friend was detained and tortured by the government.  While that’s certainly horrifying enough, her friend also tells her of pregnant women who were detained at the same time and whose babies were taken from them and sold to families who didn’t ask questions.  Alicia starts to wonder exactly how her husband came to adopt Gaby, and her curiosity draws her into the unstable social fabric of the country.

Definitely the biggest strength of The Official Story is how it manages to educate about a challenging and destructive time in recent Argentine history without getting overly political or preachy.  By giving the audience a story that, at its core, is really just about a mother and her daughter, it fits in the political message around the edges.  Better than a documentary in that regard, we see Argentinean history in terms of how it impacts Alicia’s life; by personalizing the tale it brings something that might have been too vast for us to understand to a smaller, more palatable scale.

Aleandro is quite good as Alicia, and she completely carries the film.  She is believable as a conservative woman who starts to open her eyes to the political atrocities she has been ignoring because the reality comes to her through a particularly sensitive conduit, her daughter.  Although I do not for the life of me understand why such a well-off, conservative woman would teach high school at what can only be described as an inner city school and NOT be involved in political protests or even aware of the world around her, I suppose I turn a blind eye to that particular plot hole.  Aleandro slowly and carefully opens Alicia up, and we watch as she finds the strength to ask questions she’s not sure she wants answered.  The movie never really answers them either, but I think that’s fitting.  What do you do, as a mother, when you think your child is not your own?  Aleandro is, frankly, masterful as showing us the conflict this question causes.

Having said all of that, though, I also think that the biggest flaw in The Official Story is how damn long it takes to get started, and even then, how long it takes to focus on the central story.  I appreciate taking time to establish characters, I truly do, but we don’t even get a whiff of the concept of these stolen babies until a quarter of the way through the film, and Alicia doesn’t really start to dive in full throttle into her investigation until about the halfway point.  It’s desperately slow getting off the mark.  The second half is solidly focused on how the mangled politics threaten to tear apart our small family, but it takes awhile getting there.

Furthermore, there’s more than a few side stories that distract rather than enhance the central story.  I understand this is an Argentine film made for the Argentine people, but I felt up against a steep learning curve in terms of understanding the politics the film alludes to.  When you throw in a rather complicated side story involving Roberto’s business dealings and, for all I could tell, a possible affair with Alicia’s old school friend, I was, well, confused.  An extended argument between Roberto and his family had me flummoxed.  I could barely tell when the argument had started, let alone why it had started.  Frankly, this left me feeling frustrated with about a third of the film, the parts which did not deal directly with Alicia’s awakening.  And I cannot stand feeling frustrated with a film.  

The ending, which I alluded to earlier as ending on an ambiguous note as we are uncertain about Alicia and Gaby’s future, nevertheless manages to devolve from the strong drama that had been created thus far by delving into rather predictable domestic dispute areas.  Alicia’s struggle is a good one to follow, but it feels a bit cheapened at the end by the thoroughly out-of-nowhere violent fight with her husband.  I stared in what can only be described as disappointed horror as I watched the scene play out.  Is this the big dramatic finale, when you’ve been building a story built on ambiguous politics and horribly tricky family issues?  This is how you resolve them, by having the husband slap the wife and beat her up a bit?  Quite frankly, it’s a letdown.  The story deserved a better climax between Alicia and Roberto. 

As 1001 Movies rightly notes, The Official Story undoubtedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for its portrayal of the recent political landscape of its country rather than the cinematic techniques on display (which are fairly standard, but hey, nothing wrong with standard).  That is most certainly the strongest part of the film, and for most of the movie, it manages to maintain a nice balance between politics and melodrama.  But it’s a bit slow to start, a bit too unfocused at times, and parts of the ending made me stare at the screen in disbelief.  I liked the story, but that’s about it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.  Anyone else think that Gaby is a rather frightening lookalike to the kid from Close Encounters of the Third Kind?  Because I sure do.