French Highlights: La Cérémonie

La Cérémonie - poster

I lived in LA for three years, from 1995 through 1997, and caught what seems now an inordinate proportion of terrific films, among them a string of great French and Italian productions.  One of them was a compact little bulldog called La Cérémonie (1995), a later offering by French New Wave director Claude Chabrol.

In 2012, Roger Ebert rendered his highest rating, hailing it as a “Great Film”:

The French have a name for the events leading up to a death by guillotine. They call it “the ceremony.” Although Claude Chabrol’s “La Ceremonie” (1995) contains no guillotines, there is a relentless feeling to it, as if the characters are engaged in a performance that can have only one outcome. It comes as a surprise to all of them, and to us. But given these people in this situation, can we really say in hindsight that we’re surprised? …

The film implacably moves toward a horrifying conclusion.

Watch this one if you can find it.  Availability is limited to DVD rental from Netflix or purchase from Amazon, or VOD from British iTunes (purchase only £4.99!), but you’ll need an account for that store — which I am thinking of doing just for La Cérémonie — it’s worth it.

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Cinematic Greats: Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves - poster

Breaking the Waves (1996) is one of the greatest films ever made, and the magnum opus of Lars von Trier.  Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert each hailed it as one of the 10 Best films of its decade, with Ebert writing:

“Breaking the Waves” is emotionally and spiritually challenging, hammering at conventional morality with the belief that God not only sees all, but understands a great deal more than we give Him credit for.

…  Not many movies like this get made, because not many filmmakers are so bold, angry and defiant. Like many truly spiritual films, it will offend the Pharisees. Here we have a story that forces us to take sides, to ask what really is right and wrong in a universe that seems harsh and indifferent. Is religious belief only a consolation for our inescapable destination in the grave? Or can faith give the power to triumph over death and evil? Bess knows.

Breaking the Waves - Index Card

I wrote in 2008:

I’ll leave you for today to just mention one last movie, standing in great contrast to the movies I’ve written about above.  I won’t say too much about it, but that Breaking the Waves (1996, Emily Watson) I saw in the movie theater and became physically drained from the experience.  Not so much an entertainment as an exercise, but like a good work out, this one pays off.  It is for the most part a quite bleak film, with these very colorful mini-intermissions – about six – spread Breaking the Waves - text blockthrough as sort of chapter markers.  The film is a unique vision of the making of a saint, and through the bleakness emerges finally at the end great joy.  It is, as I now think about it, and I’ve thought about it many times – one will never forget this one – an alternate (and I’ll say a very alternate, without elaborating how at this time) telling of the story of Christ.  No more about this now, except perhaps to understand the mood of it a little, the theme music (only in the end credits) is Bach, Siciliano from Sonata for Flute & Harpsichord in E flat major, BWV 1031 – a melancholy rendering of that performance, that is, as compared to a more flamboyant or whimsical version as some I just sampled on iTunes.  [2016 Note: for trumpet and organ, not available on iTunes] If you ever do watch it, to get the full experience try to do it in one sitting with no more than one pause or so, which should be done at a mini-intermission.  As I said, an exercise to watch it, 159 minutes.

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10/10

Availability: iTunes rental & purchase

To the Wonder of Roger Ebert

To The Wonder - poster

Sometimes I believe in fate.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball on To the Wonder being the last review of Roger Ebert, published two days after his death.

That it was this film, and not something more banal — say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles VI, or The Avengers Chapter XVI: Cataclysm of the Abominable Silver Snow-Surfer — that it was this film must be seen as more than coincidence.  Yes, fate.

And it happens I agree entirely with Ebert, who bestowed 3 1/2 of 4 stars on To the Wonder.  So I will defer to him.  But first my two bits: To the Wonder is quite unique.  I was trying to peg it as something like an Iñárritu-made cross between The Loneliest Planet and Blue Valentine, but that doesn’t quite work.  The narrative style — as Ebert wrote:

Although it uses dialogue, it’s dreamy and half-heard, and essentially this could be a silent film — silent, except for its mostly melancholy music.

— this style I’ve never quite seen before — never used throughout an entire film.  It’s a style that turned a lot of audiences and critics away.  Storytelling many found too oblique.  I mused on this, and feel that more conventional dialogue-driven To the Wonder - text blockaction could have told the story in a stronger way — but that would be an entirely different film, and not necessarily for the better.

That’s because To the Wonder is full of lyrical beauty, with a strong yet ambiguous story at its heart.  It’s open to interpretation, and that’s not a bad thing in movies.  Ebert’s final review so aptly — for this movie and his life — concludes:

Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.

7/10

Availability: Netflix

Roger Ebert - Walk of Fame

Cinematic Greats: Hannah and Her Sisters

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Woody Allen at his best means movies at their best.  It’s been since the 80’s that I’ve seen Hannah and Her Sisters, but I remember generally liking it, and every time it pops up on the tele I love watching a few moments.  I realize that’s not a ringing endorsement, but I wouldn’t laud it as a Cinematic Great if I weren’t strongly recommending it.  Roger Ebert gave the movie 4 of 4 stars, calling it “the best movie [Woody Allen] has ever made.”  He goes on to say:

The movie is not a comedy, but it contains big laughs, and it is not a tragedy, although it could be if we thought about it long enough.

and:

Allen’s writing and directing style is so strong and assured in this film that the actual filmmaking itself becomes a narrative voice, just as we sense Henry James behind all of his novels, or William Faulkner or Iris Murdoch behind theirs.

Ebert’s partner Siskel:

“Hannah and Her Sisters” is a joy to behold, a complex film that never loses either its sense of purpose or sense of humor.

Siskel & Ebert loved this movie, and so will you.  It may well be the ultimate Woody Allen picture.  For now, unfortunately, not available via VOD, so try to find a DVD, or catch on TCM or another movie channel.  It’s sad that such great classics get shoved to oblivion purely because they were released in the pre-digital age.

Life Itself – A Perfect 10 on CNN

Life Itself - posterI had thought to promote on this blog CNN’s airing last Sunday night of the year’s 2nd-best film Life Itself, but I assumed it would be riddled with commercials.  I should have checked that, because as far as I can tell they presented it commercial free.  With a running time of 121 min., my only concern is that it was shown uncut within its 2-hour time slot — hopefully nothing more than end credits were shaved off.

CNN will rebroadcast the film this Friday at 6 & 9 PM Pacific Time.  Try to watch or DVR this special movie; view a Times article on CNN’s presentation here.

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Sunday night I wasted a good portion of the evening with the abysmal revamping of Celebrity Apprentice, and missed all but the last minute or two of Life Itself on CNN.  And I was reminded of what a special movie it is.  It’s special because of the extraordinary life of Roger Ebert, and because it does a great job documenting that life.  I think it’s a deeply profound and emotional film, and an important one, and a timeless one.

Life Itself - CNN - text block

Therefore I am upgrading Life Itself to 10/10.  It’s a documentary, but so what.  It’s better than any other film — save one — that was released in 2014.  Or 2013 or 2012, for that matter.  So watching for free courtesy of CNN is a pretty sweet deal.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and So Might You

Jiro Dreams of Sushi - poster large

Half an hour of massage was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.

Roger Ebert

[The filmmaker] Gelb might flit around a bit too much, but his appealing documentary always comes back to its subject’s determination (sometimes overbearing) to leave the most meaningful possible legacy to his family and his craft.

— Benjamin Mercer, The Village Voice

a case study in the phenomenon of mastery

Tom Keogh, The Seattle Times

I really wish Tokyo were closer.

— Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

A lovely and shining film, entertaining for foodies and non-foodies alike.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi, 2011, available on Netflix, a high 8/10