Beauty and the Beast

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From the library, I received a Fall Movie Challenge recommendation of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). It’s a terrific movie that portrays a dream world better than any film I’ve ever seen. This live-action film offers an atmosphere that surpasses most animated films, which are easier to make other-worldly.

Cocteau follows the original fairytale’s plot more closely than the Disney version. He shows a father with financial troubles, two complaining, selfish daughters, one filial, hardworking daughter and a lazy, wastrel of a son. The dynamics of the siblings was key to the drama, I think. From the start we see the brother’s ne’er’do-well pal wooing Belle, with no luck.

After some financial ups and downs, the father on a journey through the forest and stay at a bizarre castle where the statues seem alive as do the arms holding the candles along the wall, mistakenly picks a rose for Belle unleashing the Beast’s anger. Soon Belle agrees to return with the Beast to his castle in lieu of his taking her father’s life.

The castle is one of the best parts of the film. The plants that grow wildly throughout the home and the living statues and lights are freaky and enchanting.

This film is intriguing because in large part to how wild the environment and Beast seem.. Thus while the story is a fairytale, it will appeal to adults with imagination. It would scare young children, but they can enjoy the Disney film. Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is a wild, imaginative trip for classic film buffs.

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The Last Metro

Starring the elegant, beautiful Catherine Deneuve, François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) takes us back to WWII where Marion Steiner struggles to aid her Jewish husband who’s hiding under their theater, to put on a new play despite the government censors. The news is that Lucas Steiner has fled France, but that’s a cover. He’s hiding out in the theater’s basement, where his wife Marion visits every night. She lined up a guide to get him out, but the plan fell through as the situation has grown too dangerous.

Though he’s going stir crazy, Lucas listens through the pipes and gives notes to the performers via Marion, who must keep a cool façade while being pulled in all directions fearing that a German-sympathizing critic will censor the play, which could lead to the discovery and imprisonment of her husband.

Gérald Depardieu plays a young amorous actor, who’s also in the Resistance.

As the film is based on Truffaut’s childhood memories of the era, The Last Metro offers several light hearted moments, such as Depardieu’s failed attempt to woo one of the theater staff.

The film is well acted and paced covering a significant era, but for me it wasn’t quite as good as The 400 Blows or Zazie dan let Metro. 

Women’s Balcony

Women’s Balcony took me into a new world, to an old neighborhood in Jerusalem where during a bar mitzvah the balcony where the women worship crashes to the ground. The temple is closed leaving the community lost spiritually. The old rabbi is so upset about his wife who’s fallen and in the hospital. Since he can’t lead them, the community is in flux.

After finding their temple chained up and unsafe for use, the men are at a loss about where to pray each day. They doubt they’ll find the 10 men required to hold their daily prayers. Fate sends a young rabbi who soon brings plenty of men to pray. He’s soon seen as their rescuer.

However, when this rabbi shares his very traditional ideas about women’s deportment and takes over the plans for reconstruction, he drives a wedge between the men and women. Furthermore, he divides the women as some take his chastising to heart and start to observe by covering their hair and dressing more modestly. The more liberal women feel betrayed.

The rabbi’s reconstructed temple is completely unacceptable to the women, who feel they’ve been given a second class space.

The story was compelling and took me into new territory. I loved how the characters were portrayed. There were no one dimensional stereotypes. All were shown with understanding and everyone was acting from strongly held beliefs so they had my sympathy. I also loved how sweetly relationships like marriages and neighbors were shown. Woman’s Balcony is an absorbing film that has universal appeal.

The film is on DVD, but I saw it on Kanopy, a new streaming service that my library offers. The one problem was Kanopy had some buffering issues, so if you can, get the DVD.

Fanny’s Journey

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s true story, Fanny’s Journey shows a thirteen year old girl who must lead her sister and friends out of WWII France into Switzerland. This powerful film captures childhood very naturally. The direction and acting are authentic and captivating.

Fanny and her sisters have been sent away from their parents to live in a boarding house that secretly protects Jewish children. When a priest informs on the boarding house, Madame Forman, one of the adults who run the place, manages to arrange for the children to go somewhere safer. She gets them all fake passports and schools them on what to say to anyone asking them questions en route. Each child is given a new name and Madame Forman tests them on them day and night.

From the start it’s touch and go. Germans are everywhere and Vichy French police are an equal threat. At first an older boy, Eli is in charge of the children, but after he’s arrested, Fanny’s thrust into the lead. She must figure out where to go and what to do next once their train is redirected and they lose touch with Madame Forman. As the going gets tougher and tougher the children feel like giving up and have plenty of complaints. Some are so young they have no idea why Jews must flee or what was happening to Jews throughout Europe. Their ignorance showed their wisdom.

The tension is maintained throughout the film and you’re heart will go out to these children. Fanny’s Journey is destined to be a classic.

In the final credits, you’ll see the real Fanny, who is still alive and has lived in Israel since the end of the war.

The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

Gilda

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What a great introduction to a character! Rita Hayworth who plays the title character in Gilda wows with her hair when she first appears. Her hair is just terrific and is probably one of the best things about the noir film. Her hair is used to great effect at least twice in the film so I’m in no way putting down the film.

Gilda is a classic film that’s mainly plot and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has so much style, that it’s easy to forgive. Set in Argentina, the story begins with Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) wins big in a dice game, but is cornered by some sore losers. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger, Ballin Mundson arrives with his trusty cane with a hidden blade. He intimidates the thugs and saves Farrell. Later he again crosses paths and hires Johnny Farrell.

Johnny’s life becomes far better as he goes from gambling in dives to managing Mundson’s high end casino. His life is humming along till Mundson returns with his new wife: Gilda. Wouldn’t you know it, Gilda and Johnny were once a couple. Add to that Mundson is a controlling husband. He charges Johnny with keeping tabs on Gilda, who’ll take up with any handsome, young man from the hundreds who’re smitten with her. (So I suppose Mundson has some reason to appoint someone as her keeper.)

On top of the love triangle, Mundson’s trailed by mysterious Germans who’re chasing him and want to seize control of Mundson’s cartel so his work keeps him too busy to spend much quality time with his wife.

We never learn why Gilda and Johnny broke up but it’s clear their love-hate relationship will live on. Mundson fakes his death and so Johnny marries Gilda. At first we think they’ll finally work through their past and find love, but Johnny actually just married Gilda to get punish her for cheating on Mundson.

Another part of the story that nagged me was the unlikelihood that Mundson would meet and also marry Gilda, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. Really? She was stunning, but not the only fish in the sea. The odds of being in the same room, let alone her agreeing to marry him were astronomical. But the film had style and moved along so I forgive the filmmakers.

Another coincidence that nagged me was the unlikelihood of Mundson meeting and marrying Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. The film needed a line like Bogart’s “Of all the gin joints . . . ” from Casablanca.

Some view Gilda as her husbands’ pawn, but while Johnny does trick her and hurt her, she was able to quite a degree to defy both of them. It’s a complicated film and none of the characters are meant to resemble real people so it’s easy to enjoy the film despite its plot failings.

Hayworth is a compelling actress, not just for her hair, but for her stage presence and voice.

If you’re interested in film noir, you should see Gilda.

Beijing Bicycle

Based on the classic Bicycle Thieves, (1948)  Beijing Bicycle (2001) has some funny moments, some touching moments and shows the local color of the hutong neighborhood of Dongcheng, but I just couldn’t watch the whole thing.

I got the DVD from the library and had no idea that it was a Chinese version of Vittorio De Sica’s earlier film. At first this story of a poor boy who comes to the big city and gets a job as a messenger pulled me in. His boss hires several new messengers and they get nifty uniforms and new bikes which they can buy once they work a certain amount. His one friend in the city, tells him this is a really good job. Yet it’s not easy to keep it. There’s plenty of trouble getting across this labyrinth of a city and dealing with hard to find customers.

As in the original, just as the boy’s about to own the bike, he comes out of an office and it’s gone. He looks high and low and it’s been stolen. It’s catastrophic.

I sympathized with the hero when his bike was stolen. I was impressed by his perseverance in tracking down the bike (though in a city as vast and populous as modern Beijing, I didn’t entirely buy that). But after watching scene after scene when the boy’s beaten by the thuggish friends of a kid whom he found with the bike. This other boy’s dad had promised him a bike, but then tells him he couldn’t buy the bike because his younger sister has tested into a good school so the father decides to use the money for her tuition. This second boy, who attends a private school, where his pals are all wealthier. They all have bikes. So this kid steals from his father and buys the bike at a second hand bike shop. There’s a lot of conflict over the bike and the hero is beaten and harassed by the second boy’s thuggish friends.

Eventually, I reached a point where I couldn’t take any more of the film. I couldn’t imagine a way for the film to end and satisfy me. It was a portrait of a society or sub-culture of people with no morals. Everyone learns that the second boy stole money to buy this bike, yet his pals still beat the other kids and hold him hostage for hours. I reached a point where if felt like punishment.

Am I wrong? Does the film redeem itself?