Kings of Pastry (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sixteen pastry chefs were invited to compete in a three-day competition called “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (translated “Best Craftsmen in France”) in Lyon, France. The winner, or winners, of the contest would be rewarded instant recognition. When they entered a room, they would get noticed and treated as a master chef because their collars were the colors of the French flag. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, “Kings of Pastry” was very involving because it gave us an exclusive look inside a competition that occurred only once every four years. We followed three contenders: Philippe Rigollot, Jacquy Pfeiffer, and Regis Lazard. The competing chefs were obsessive, to say the least, in getting every detail just right so the judges would be impressed with their craft. I’m not a very talented cook (nor do I have the patience to cook) so I admired the determination and the amount of time the three put into preparing for the competition. Each of them had dreamt of becoming the best in their specialized trade. They were family men and I’m sure they wanted win for reasons other than reaching a lifelong dream. Half of the picture was dedicated to the three chef’s backgrounds. Rigollot was a chef in Maison Pic. He shared with us a cute story, involving a lollipop and his kids, about how he learned that being a pastry chef was something he would like to build a career from. Pfeiffer was a part of the French Pastry School in Chicago. His students respected him and held him in high regard. As for Lazard, this was his second time in the competition. It didn’t work out the first time because his sugar sculpture, an extremely fragile work of art, fell apart. The second half of the film focused on the intense competition. They were graded in three fronts: their work habits, the way the final product looked, and how it tasted. The chefs had to prepare a buffet of confections. I found being in that kitchen to be stressful. The manner in which the camera fixated on certain shots, I had the feeling that something would go wrong. And they did. When a sugar sculpture came crashing down like glass, my jaw dropped and my heart stopped. I think I stopped breathing for about three seconds. I wanted to look away from the disaster. It was so painful to watch a chef’s confidence go out the window when inevitable accidents happened. It was nobody’s fault. Sometimes, as we learned, the humidity had a negative effect in the way the sugars held together. The silence was deafening among whispers of consolations. It was literally watching someone’s dreams get crushed. However, we root for the chef to keep going, to make the best of the parts that weren’t ruined, because having no sculpture to present meant certain loss. Imagine submitting a three-part project and only sending two–an inch away from failure. As the picture went on, “Kings of Pastry” became packed with emotional moments because the standard was so high. Personally, the difference between “winners” and “losers” almost became negligible.
Long dimanche de fiançailles, Un (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
Égarés, Les (2003)
★★ / ★★★★
“Les égarés” was set in World War II as Germans began to occupy France in 1940. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clémence Meyer) were caravanning across the provinces when they were targeted by German planes. Pressing forward would most likely lead to death so, along with a seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), the four darted into the forest and found refuge in an abandoned home. “Strayed” was a simple film driven by questions. Should we trust Yvan despite the fact that he was a compulsive liar? Since he was so good at lying, how much did he really care about the family of three? Was it possible that Odile suspected that there was something not quite right about him to the point where she found the need to grab the first opportunity to hide the stranger’s gun and grenades? Was she scared of him losing control more than the Germans finding them? There were a plethora of questions and most of them were answered by the end. But the main problem with the film was if the viewers failed to look beyond the obvious and ask questions, they would feel as though the movie was pointless. The majority of the running time followed the characters catching animals for food, having lunch or dinner, discussing what they should do the next day, and reflecting about the lives they left behind. There was sexual friction between Odile and Yvan. The latter wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. After all why would he when he was a teenager filled with raging hormones? There was no doubt that Odile, highly attractive for her age, was interested in Yvan but she felt like being with him was wrong because he was essentially still a child. Even Yvan admitted that he was more about taking action than taking the time to think things through. His transitory age was a template for his childish and child-like tendencies to collide, reflective of the Freudian id–“If it feels good, do it.” Another interesting part was Odile’s children. There was a strange scene when Cathy, still around seven or eight years old, decided to climb onto Yvan’s bed, who was naked under the covers, and claimed that she wanted to get pregnant. How did she know of such a concept? Less obvious implications consisted of Philippe constantly wanting to gain Yvan’s acceptance. Did Philippe see him as a brother, a father, or something else? Perhaps Odile’s overprotective parenting was successful at keeping the children alive, but the more important question was will they be able to function after the war was over? Again, it was up to us to ask the questions and, in some ways, answer them as well. Based on a novel by Gilles Perrault and directed by André Téchiné, “Les égarés” had a rather simple premise but it was challenging in the most unexpected ways. That challenge could appeal to some while others could be repelled.
Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
Diaboliques, Les (1955)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where food was very scarce and selflessness was rare, a former clown named Louison (Dominique Pinon) moved into an apartment complex where the residents depended on a butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to give them food given that the circumstances were right. That is, every once in a while, an unsuspecting person, like Louison, would move into an empty apartment and later be murdered, chopped up, and served to the residents. Things turned complicated when Louison fell for the butcher’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and vice-versa. The daughter knowing the happenings in the apartment complex tried to seek help from people who lived underground that did not eat other humans. I loved the look of this film. In every frame, there was a beautiful yellow tinge that highlighted the desolate existence of the characters. I also noticed the picture’s great attention to sound, not just in terms of soundtrack in the foreground and background but the characters actually creating music to serve as a distraction from their increasingly desperate living conditions. I thought it was creative because it able to take very different sounds and arrange it in such a way that they all complemented each other. As for the story, it was consistently fascinating but it could have been trimmed. While the involvement of the sewer dwellers was necessary, there were far too many scenes that painted them as too goofy, almost infantile. The slapstick did not work because I got the impression that they were supposed to be the moral center (people who did not eat human flesh), thus the savior of Louison and the butcher’s daughter. It would not have hurt the script if the underground people were actually intelligent and strong. Just because they lived underground for, as the film suggested, quite some time, they need not have been cavemen-like. In this case, playing against the obvious would have been far more interesting. Despite its shortcomings, the film was strong. I highly enjoyed its quirks, wit, and irony because the images on screen had double meanings so it kept me on my toes. For example, when the residents tried to break into Louison’s apartment, I thought about George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” with a modern twist: The good guys were inside struggling for survival, while the bad guys (who were not undead) were outside craving for flesh. They, too, were struggling for survival. Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Delicatessen” was a treat in which the jokes were served in just the right amount of proportions. It always had new jokes peeking at each corner so specific types of comedies did not overstay their welcome. Film lovers who have a penchant for the macabre, satire, cannibalism, and post-apocalypse worlds will most likely find this movie as a delectable gem.
Prophète, Un (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
19-year-old Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) was sentenced up to six years in prison. Taken under César Luciani’s wing (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican, Malik slowly gained power in prison as he learned the politics and economics among each group of inmates. I liked that the plot was relatively simple. We had a chance to observe a vulnerable man evolve into someone who was cunning and capable of deceit yet the story was able to hang onto the core of the lead character’s being. That is, despite the difficult decisions he had to make, he was still capable of being sympathetic to those that helped turn him into a kind of person he had become. Those individuals did not always deserve his sympathy but he hung onto them anyway perhaps because he respected them in some way. His relationships with the other prisoners was always at the forefront and the “favors” he had to do were secondary but both are just as gripping. Jacques Audiard, the director, could have easily turned this film into a typical prison movie about a man hardened by hatred over the years but it chose the more insightful and elegant path. It begged the question how far a person was willing to go in order to survive and eventually flourish in a very dangerous environment, it challenged the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, and it questioned whether a person, when given a chance, could leave behind his criminal life. Rahim was fantastic in portraying lead character. At times the movie would jump forward in time and I found myself unable to recognize Malik at first glance. Surely there were some physical changes but the way he carried himself such as his posture and the manner in which he conversed with another were more interesting to watch. Despite the film not showing us certain periods of time, we still got the sense that the hardships that Malik had to face did not stop. I did, however, have a problem with its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours. I saw no reason for it to last that long. In fact, I thought the last twenty minutes, except for the final scene, were weak and more typical compared the rest of the picture. It became redundant instead of ending it in a place where it left us wondering whether or not he would choose to risk losing everything he worked for over the years. Nevertheless, I believe “A Prophet” is worth seeing because it did not lose its heart despite the violence and drugs. It really made me question what I would have done (assuming I survived in the first place) if I was in Malik’s position. I certainly could not imagine hiding razor blades in my mouth.
Battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, De (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Jacques Audiard posed a classic nature versus nurture question about a man in his late twenties (Romain Duris) who wanted to remove himself from a life of crime and to recapture his talent in playing the piano. His time was torn on two fronts: his father (Niels Arestrup) who made dishonest real-estate deals and his piano lessons with a recent immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) who taught him discipline and how to relax. This film had an exceptional use of tone. The push-and-pull forces that the character experienced were often reflected by the music that we heard (electro versus classical) and the images we saw (indoors versus outdoors, night versus day, order versus chaos). Since the film spent equal time between each forces, I understood the character’s anger because nobody believed in him. When he would tell someone of his extracurricular activities, the person would imply that he was too old and he was no longer a talented pianist that he once was. Naturally, his anger was fueled and so did his need to prove that he was good enough. I immediately related with the things he went through so I knew that his biggest enemy was ultimately himself. Since he never received approval from his distant father who only contacted him for favors, he tried to look for approval from other people which involved him sleeping with other women (Mélanie Laurent, Aure Atika) and moving on just as quickly. The reviews I encountered made a point about the movie not really going anywhere and the ideas were much larger than the final product. I disagree because Tom’s journey wasn’t about but life-changing revelations provided by those who surrounded him. Although he tried to look for answers by looking at others, the ultimate lesson was looking inwards and realizing that he had to love himself whether he still had the talent or otherwise. I thought the film was thoughtful about its arguments without spoon-feeding its audiences critical information and had a quiet power that moved me the more I thought about it afterwards. “De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté” or “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” could have easily been an obvious story of a man wanting redemption. Instead, it chose the more intelligent and sensitive path by allowing us to feel for, although not necessarily pity, the tortured protagonist. The film was also successful at asking us about our own lost potential.
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Catholic boarding school hid three Jewish students, one of which was Jean (Raphael Fejtö), from the terrorizing Nazis in the middle of World War II. We viewed the events from Julien’s (Gaspard Manesse) perspective, a home sick boy who, like most kids, did not really understand what was really happening yet he had no problem throwing words around like “Jew” or “yid” and the bigotry that came with those words. Julien and Jean started off as enemies but the two eventually became friends. However, their friendship was challenged my the Nazis who came to their school to hunt down the three students and send them to their deaths. What I admired most about Louis Malle’s film was the fact that he was able to take the events that happened in his own life and ponder over the decisions he made. Right from the beginning, it felt very personal. The opening scene was a mother and her son saying goodbye at a train station. It was a simple scene but we immediately got to know the protagonist: he was sensitive when he needed to, he felt neglected by his parents, and he hid his real emotions through transference. The other scenes that stood out to me were also simple scenes. One of them was when Julien got lost in the woods in the attempt to find a hidden treasure. On top of the giant rocks, he looked around. What did he think about? Did he know which direction to go? Was he afraid to go down the rocky terrain? Was he worried about the sun setting? In one specific glance around his surroundings, I had so many questions and felt so many emotions. I felt like that scene was a test for him and for us. Even though he was somewhat of a bully, I found that I cared about what would happen to him. Another highlight was when the kids and the teachers watched a Chaplin picture. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I love the movies, but I felt so much joy while watching them laughing collectively at the screen. In one scene, even though the kids made fun of each other and didn’t always get along, they found a common ground. The Chaplin film brought them together and I couldn’t help but feel moved. Malle’s strength was definitely taking simple portraits from his youth and letting us feel why those were important to him. Even though his experiences happened more than fifty years ago, the feelings cut through time and we find ourselves able to relate and sympathize. The closing scene was simply masterful. Slowly, the camera inched toward Julien’s eyes as he realized that sometimes his actions can be powerful. There was no going back. It was a loss of innocence at its finest. He became a man because he finally learned to take responsibility. “Au revoir les enfants” is an astute picture, a rewarding experience, and utterly unforgettable.
Hasard fait bien les choses, Le (2002)
★ / ★★★★
“Le hasard fait bien les choses” or “As Luck Would Have It,” directed by Lorenzo Gabriele was about a closeted professor (Jean-Claude Brialy) who had the unlucky circumstance to be assigned by the law as a guardian for a troublesome teenager (Julien Bravo). Since he didn’t want the responsibility, he decided to appeal the case but in order to be deemed as an unfit guardian, a social worker had to assess his personal life. The professor had to then hide certain truths such as him being still legally married to a woman (Sabine Haudepin) and dating a much younger man (Antonio Interlandi) in order to preserve his reputation as a respected professor. My main problem with this movie was the fact that everything had to be exaggerated. The acting was painfully obvious, the story was weak and the way everything came together was very predictable. I wished that there was a character I could root for in order to make the experience more bearable but everyone only thought of themselves. I thought the wife was really annoying because she failed to recognize the seriousness of the orphan being passed around from one household to another. Instead, she was too hung up on the guy she used to date and was too busy trying to make him jealous. Out of anyone, she should have been the one that could have identified with the boy right away because she felt like no one wanted her. Her character’s lonelinesss could have been the unifyng theme of the picture but I suppose the writers and director failed to highlight that emotion. By the end of the movie, I thought she was just desperate and a classic attention-seeker. As for the professor, I understood his fears of coming out of the closet but he created his own distractions. He constantly complained about how his life became that much more complicated ever since the orphan came into his life but he neglected the fact that things in life always come up and if we don’t do anything about them, ignoring such problems won’t make them go away. For a supposedly smart character, he didn’t make the best decisions. The script lacked punch because it didn’t try to offer anything new to the table. The direction lacked sophistication. I felt like the movie was never going to end because nothing much happened on screen aside from the complaining and obvious attempts at laughter. “Le hasard fait bien les choses” desperately needed subtlety and intelligence. Even if the story was nothing new, I would have been more accepting if the characters were able to look outside of themselves and realize that their situations were not as bad as it seemed.