Sunday, December 8, 2013


With Christmas on the horizon, I thought I’d offer up a film that makes the season bright. While not a holiday movie per say, it’s easy on the eyes, and a joy to watch.

I was just a small child when I first saw Lili, a warm and cozy film starring a very young and lovely French ballerina named Leslie Caron. With a dancer’s body and pixie-like look, she had many of the same physical qualities American audiences had grown to love in Audrey Hepburn.

Caron had made An American in Paris, and would go on to make several more films in the next few years, the most notable of which was M-G-M's GiGi.

 Adopted for the screen by Helen Deutsch (National Velvet, I’ll Cry Tomorrow) from a short story by Paul Gallico, and filmed in glorious Technicolora major selling point in 1953, Lili was and still is a beautiful statement in simplicity: with a modest pastel pallet, simplistic Golden Book-like sets and costumes, and a plot to match.

It’s the story of a French teenager whose father has passed away, leaving her with no living relatives. What she does have, is the name and address of his old and trusted friend: a baker who had assured him that he would take Lili in, should the need arise.

But when her father dies, Lili’s letters to his friend go unanswered. Not knowing what else to do, she packs a small suitcase and sets out to find him, only to discover that he too has passed away.

Alone in a strange town, and with no money to keep her going, Lili enters a dry goods store, where the shopkeeper offers her a job as a salesgirl in exchange for bed and board. Alas, his intentions quickly prove to be more than a bit dishonorable, and when Lili rebukes his advances, he sends her on her way.

It is here that opportunity knocks, or at least walks in the door in the form of a dashing magician named Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont), or as he refers to himself, "Marcus the Magnificent”. Part of a traveling carnival, Marc has come for a bit of wine and a few handkerchiefs, but seeing Lili’s plight, intervenes long enough for her to retrieve her belongings and make her get-away.

Rejoining circus pals Jacquot (Kurt Kasznar) and his partner Paul (Mel Ferrer) outside the shop, Marc heads back to the midway, only to find that Lili has been following them through the streets of town and onto the carnival's midway like a puppy dog.

In a world of over-produced sets and scenarios, the glitz, crowds and noise of a real carnival would take away from the sweet simplicity of the story. But in this 1953 production, there is no attempt at realism. The colors are soft and inviting, the sets are devoid of clutter, and the characters and plot are clearly drawn.

And so, with nothing to get in the way of the story, we quickly learn that Marc has a roving eye, and more than a working relationship with his assistant, Rosalie (a young and curvaceous Zsa Zsa Gabor, seen here at the peak of her beauty). But he also has a conscience, and understands that Lili is a very young and innocent sixteen, dangerously under-age, and more than a bit vulnerable. Displaying unusual valor and restraint, he trades a kiss on the cheek for a promise to help her secure some type of employment within the confines of the circus.

The result: a job as a waitress in the midway's cabaret, where Marc and Rosalie perform on stage to a packed crowd of winers and diners. Inept at her job and mesmerized by Marc's slight of hand, she forgets to wait tables, however poorly, and is once again relieved of her job, and sent on her way.

Later that evening, long after the carnival has shut down for the night, a despondent Lili is alone with her thoughts. Setting aside her suitcase, purse and her father’s treasured time piece, she begins to climb a nearby high wire ladder towards what we must assume will be a swift and irreversible solution to her problems.

Not far away, Fererr’s puppeteer takes it all in, and in an uncharacteristically compassionate gesture, calls upon his puppets to lure her down from the ladder and over to their small stage.

Lili is immediately drawn to the puppets. Naive for her yearseven by 1953 standards, she talks to them as if they were living breathing confidants, effortlessly conversing with the foxy Renaldo, an egocentric ballerina named Marguerite, Golo the shy giant, and a red-headed boy named Carrot Top.

It is a sweet, child-like exchange, where Lili is drawn into the conversation, finding a life-line in the most unexpected of places. In no time at all, they are talking, confiding and singing the film’s theme song (also written by Deutsch) as a growing crowd of circus folk looks on. Those of you who are old enough to remember this film, will no doubt recall the lyrics to this cheerful ditty, and find yourself singing along with Lili and her friends…

“The song of love is a sad song,

Hi -Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-low…”

Behind the curtain, the embittered World War II vet speaks for the puppets, his fingers enabling them to bow, dance and play patty-cake with the young girl. But make no mistake; the puppeteer is nothing like the puppets he manipulates, a war wound having ended his once lauded career as a dancer. The Paul we meet beyond the puppet stage is, in his own words, “self-absorbed and disenchanted”, with little time or tolerance for anyone, including Jacquot and the new arrival. His only interest in her is (at least at first) purely professional. Lili is good for business.

“We’re going to change the act and play it for adults.” he tells her. “You’ll go walking by, wearing that dress. Hair just as it is. The puppets will stop you and speak to you. After that you’ll just answer whatever the puppets happen to saythe way you did tonight.”

And so it is that Lili’s life takes a turn for the better, with a real job, a new home, a warm bed, and a passel of not-quite human but very dear friends. In time, she will also find love.

As you might expect, the new act is an instant crowd-pleaser, with Lili talking, singing and sharing confidences with the puppets, just as she did instinctively on that first night. She will grow up quickly here, as she follows her heart, and dusts off another.

Though, at first glance, Lili may appear to be a children’s film, there are some decidedly adult themes coursing through it. While extremely tame compared to today’s R-rated films, it still deals with adult subjects, which you may deem to be inappropriate for younger audiences. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it is age-appropriate for your family.

Aside from the plot, you might also want to take into account the fact that its pace is far slower and less frenetic than the films of today – too slow perhaps, for a generation raised on and accustomed to current crash-and-burn, mile-a-minute editing. Then again, maybe(hopefully) not.

In The Cutting Edge, a documentary about film editing, Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsesetwo of the most lauded directors of our timemourn the loss of the indulgent take, and yet they understand that people who have grown up watching music videos and computer games have the ability to grasp a situation far quicker than their parents and grandparents ever could, or can. Watching a stagnant screen where the actors do all of the work, bores them. Which begs the question: Is Lili old hat or old gold?
To use a well-worn phrase, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

If you are of an old-school frame of mind, or willing to take a trip back in time, I urge you to return to the if-not-thrilling days of yesteryear, than at least the simpler ones, where the music was sweet, the words discernible, the heroines chaste and the plot easy to follow.

Not quite a musical in the 1950s-Oklahoma/South Pacific/Seven Brides for Seven Brothers sense, where the actors break out in song at every turn, Lili is never-the-less musical. Though a brief dream-like dance sequence designed to showcase Ms. Caron’s way with ballet appears a bit dated to say the least, its catchy title tune and ‘noteworthy’score, including a wonderfully whimsical piece laid under Marc’s magic act, more than make up for it.

Warmly received by audiences and critics alike, the film advanced several careers. Bronislau Kaper would take home an Oscar for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, with nominations going out to Caron and Deutsch, director Charles Walters, cinematographer Robert Planck, Art Directors Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groessee, and set decorators Edwin B. Willis and Arthur Krams.

I think it’s safe to say that a film like Lili would never be green-lighted today. So simple is its dialogue, and so slight its plot, it wouldn’t stand a chance against the multi-billion dollar blockbusters and off-beat Indie films that have taken over your local cinemaplex. How lucky for us that it is available on DVD, where its talented cast, clever Walton and O’Rourke’s puppets, Bronislaw Kaper’s Oscar-winning score, and the movie’s picture-perfect costumes and sets continue to delight ladies and gentleman and children of all ages.

A final note: Both Deustsch and Lili would find their way to Broadway in 1961. A full-fledged musical, the newly-dubbed Carnival! starred Anna Maria Alberaghetti as the winsome waif. Though producer David Merrick would eventually replace Deutsch with theater veteran Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie), she still managed to garner two Tony nominations for her part in the resulting libretto.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Philomenathe latest Judi Dench vehicle made its U.S. debut this week. As I understand it, the story revolves around an elderly Irish Catholic woman’s search to find the child she was forced to give up for adoption some fifty years earlier, while being incarcerated in one of a handful of convents that served as asylums for “fallen women”.

Similar prisonsknown as the Magdalene Laundries existed throughout the U.K. over a period of more than fifty years. As they fell under the auspices of the Catholic Church, these institutions were exempt from the country’s court system, and accompanying rules and regulations. With no legal recourse, or chance to refute the charges against them, the condemned girls (by some estimates, as many as 30,000 of them) would spend the better part of their lives in these hell-holes, for ‘crimes’ that ranged from being too pretty to having a child out of wedlock.

I was totally unaware that such places existed until I happened upon Scottish writer/ director Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters. Ironically, I was just about to post this review when news of the Dench piece reached our shores. Timing– as they say – is everything, and so – just in time for Dame Dench’s Philomena, comes my take on two other not-to-be-missed films that center around the ‘laundries’.

Based on real-life documented cases, places and events, Mullan’s movie takes place in Ireland in 1964. Over the course of the next 119 minutes, we will follow four teenage girls, as their lives change literally, inexplicably and horrifically overnight.

As the film opens, we find ourselves at a family wedding reception at a local restaurant or hall in County Dublin, Ireland.It’s a loud and joyous affair, where one has to raise his voice far above the music and chatter to be heard. As the wedding guests partake in the merriment, a young school girl by the name of Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is lured to an upstairs room by a cousin, under the pretext of being told a secret. Once alone, he throws her to the floor and rapes her, while as the music below plays on.

Shortly thereafter, he returns to the party as if nothing has happened, but she is understandably distraught, and confides in a friend, who, with all good intentions, tells her father, who tells her to tell Margaret's father, who, after hearing the news, runs not to Margaret, but to the parish priest. As they talk in hushed tones behind closed doors, Margaret sits alone, frightened and unconsoled.  Moments later, we see the boy hurridly led out of the buidling by his father.

The following morning, shortly before sunrise, Margaret is harshly awakened by her father. Barging into the bedroom she shares with a younger sister, he stands before his daughter with a cold cold heart. "You - get up. Get up!" he commands. "Get dressed. Hurry up. I want you downstairs!"
Not long after this, the parish priest arrives, whisking her away to the Magdalene Laundries, as her younger brother watches despairingly from an upstairs window.

Cut to the girl's dormitory of a Catholic orphanage, where a group of young girls fuss over who gets to brush an older girl's hair. Her name is Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone), and she is a young and pretty thing in her mid-teens, full of life, despite the cards she has been dealt.

The following day, as she stands in the institution's school yard, the nuns observe her innocently flirting with some school boys perched on an upper level behind an iron fence. That night, the younger girls return to their dormatory, only to find Bernadette's bed stripped, aand all traces of her gone. Deemed too pretty and flirty for her own good, she too has been banished to the Magdalene Laundries in order to save her soul.

We meet Rose (Dorothy Duffy) in a maternity ward, just hours after she has given birth (out of wedlock) to a baby boy. Her mother sits stoically beside her bed, refusing to acknowledge either the baby or his mother. Outside her door, and unbeknnownst to Rose, her father is finalizing arrangements that will result in the relinquishing of her child and her freedom. Before nightfall, she will join the other girls as they are herded down the convent’s endless hallways, up the stairs, and ultimately into the office of the Mother Superior.  
As we soon learn, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) runs the asylum (their word, not mine) as if it was a forced labor camp. “Our philosophy is a simple one” she tells them in a flat, but eerily sinister tone, “Through the powers of prayer, the fallen may find their way back to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” She goes on to explain that like Mary Magdalene the convent’s patron saint and “a sinner of the worst kind”, they too will find their way as she did, by “denying herself all pleasure of the flesh, including food and sleep, working beyond endurance…”

This so-called philosophy allows the nuns to subject the girls to whatever manner of abuse they wish, all in the name of redemption. Like hundreds of girls before them, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette will be treated as slaves, their hair, along with any outside communication– cut off, personal possessions confiscated, and free time abolished. Condemned to a life of indefinite servitude, they will live out their days there unless claimed by the very relatives who shunned them.

While there are scenes outside the convent’s walls – most notably in the first moments of the film, it is the institution and its daily routine that serves as a backdrop to the girls’ individual story lines. In an endless string of nameless days, they rise early and work late, hand-washing, scrubbing and ironing the sisters’, priests’ and inmates’ laundry until their hands bleed, and their bodies ache. Far from compassionate, the nuns seem to relish humiliating, harassing and berating their charges, as they strip away any hope or sense of self. Adding to the misery are the decidedly unholy demands of visiting priests, as the sisters turn a blind eye.

Over the course of the movie we are introduced to some of the other inmates, including the long-suffering and emotionally-damaged Crispina (Eileen Walsh). Like Rose, she too gave birth to a child she will never know – a child who is being raised by Crispina’s compassionate sister, Rebecca.  As convent rules forbid any contact with the outside world, Crispina has never had the chance to hold her child – or even see him, save for a few bitter-sweet clandestine moments when Rebecca and the boy stand in the shadows of the laundry’s back gate. Only then, if and when the nuns are preoccupied, can they stand close enough to give Crispina a clear but long-distance view of her son as she hangs the convent’s laundry out to dry.

Walsh’s performance as the tragically- doomed long-time resident, is both heart-wrenching and Oscar-worthy. McEwan as Sister Bridget, turns in an equally powerful performance, but then, all of the actors more than hold their own.

What makes Mullan's film all the more powerful is the fact that the real-life laundries and the abuse they fostered, went on not for days or months, but decades. Even more astounding, the last of these institutions didn’t close its doors until 1996 – less than twenty years ago! It’s hard to believe that at a time when the women’s rights movement was surging ahead in many areas of the world, this kind of inhumane treatment still existed – not in a third world, primitive civilization –but the United Kingdom.   

Rent or buy the DVD, and you’ll find a documentary in the Special Features section called Sex in a Cold Climate. The perfect companion piece; it introduces you to some of the women on whom Mullan’s film is based, along with other well-documented accounts of what went on inside the Magdalene Laundries. Together they paint a picture of one of the darkest hours in Irish- Catholic history.

While both of these films are hard to watch, they are important in the same way that Schindler’s List and other films that deal with people who have been imprisoned and/or mentally and physically abused for all the wrong reasons is important. With Judi Dench’s Philomena eliciting rave reviews from the world’s toughest critics, you might wonder if you really "need" to see these older and smaller films. I suppose that on some level it’s like asking yourself if you need to see more than one movie about the Civil War, or the Great Depression. The fact is, each one of these films has a different tale to tell; presented in a different way, by a different writer, director, cast and crew. 

A final note: While none of these films should be taken as an indictment of the Catholic Church as a whole, or the thousands of nuns and other clergy who have selflessly devoted their lives to doing God’s work,  the laundries are a part of our overall history, and as Edmund Burke, George Santayana, Virgil and others have noted in one form or another, “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” For that reason alone, I urge you to see at least one of them.

Friday, October 4, 2013


The year was 1989. Shooting schedule in place, writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) gathered his actors and production people together, and set out to make what he thought of as a romantic comedy. But when the camera rolled (they still rolled in those days), he realized very quickly, that he had written something far more complex, a film that asks you to suspend reality and immerse yourself in finely layered tale of romance and grief, passion and compassion, tom foolery and self-discovery.

In the first scenes of this 1990 British import, we meet Nina (Juliet Stevenson), a young British woman who, some time in the not-so-recent past, lost the love of her life, when he (Jamie) died during what should have been a routine expoloratory procedure associated with a sore throat. One minute he was a thriving, passionate musician, lover and companion; the next, he was gone. Forever gone.

The absurdity and finality of his death has rendered Nina nearly immobile, though she somehow manages to do what she has to do at the language agency where she works, barely interacting with coworkers and clients, neighbors, family, friends and would-be suitors, who worry that she will never get back on track. Nina, it seems, worries as well, knowing in her heart that it’s time to move on, while lacking the emotional wherewith all to do so.

By her own admission she is mad at the world, jealous of anyone who is loved, in love, or, as she puts it, "wasting love", envious of happy families, and yearning for a child of her own, while remembering and grieving for life as it was, and all that went with it.

She tells her therapist that she still feels Jamie's presence; the sound of his cello accompanying her as she plays the piano, his voice strong and clear, reminding her to lock the back door, wait for a traffic light to turn green or answer the phone. While these things bring her some comfort, they ultimately offer little relief.

And then, one day, while playing a classical piece on the piano in her dimly-lit living room, something magical happens. Kudos to cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (The English Patient, Sliding Doors), as he guides us through the great reveal, slowly panning from Nina’s fingers as they make their across the keys, pulling out just enough to see a shadowed figure playing a shadowed cello just behind her, until we, like Nina, realize that what she is hearing and feeling and seeing is not just wishful thinking or a figment of her imagination, but Jamie, in the flesh, playing the cello that only moments before had been sitting idly in the corner of the room.

While the how or why of his return are  never fully explored, it appears that he was given the chance to return to earth and Nina’s apartment, looking not like a ghost or see-thorugh illusion, but the living breathing cellist he was pre-op. And yet we know that he is what he is, and not what he was.

Their reunion is a wonderfully crafted mixture of awe and passion: a joyful celebration of everything they were, and are and hope to be. They talk and love and dance and sing. They are silly and happy, and, in wonderful exchange of words, truly, madly and deeply in love.

Of course, there is a catch. Jamie is, after all, dead. While family and friends are delighted at the overnight change in Nina’s demeanor, she cannot reveal the reason behind her sudden transformation; lest they believe her to be delusional. He too must avoid being seen, his world confined to her small apartment, and wherever he was before his return. 


At first, it seems but a small price to pay, but as time passes, the realization of the so-called reality of their situation begins to take its toll. Bored, and with limited options to keep himself occupied while Nina is away, Jamie (a young and rakish Alan Rickman) starts rearranging things in the apartmentsmall things at first, but for Nina, even these minor changes are unsettling.

The real trouble – and opportunity for humor comes when, tired of being on his own for hours on end, Jamie invites some friends in from the other side to watch a few videos, share a couple of brews and make themselves comfortable a little too comfortable, for his increasingly exasperated Nina Add to this the unavoidable need to keep the place more than a wee bit warm so that Jamie and his cold-or-no-blooded friends won’t (you’ll excuse the expression) freeze to death.

And there is the more serious question of fertility, and life beyond her two-room apartment. Nina wants, needs, and longs to be a mother. Jamie, in his present state, cannot father a child; though at times he acts like one.

Finally, there is the hint of what could be, if she is willing and able to let go of the past, when she meets Mark (Michael Maloney) a living, breathing all-around good guy who appears on the horizon atdepending on how you look at it, just the rightor wrong time.

How all of this unfolds makes for one hour and forty-five minutes of great cinema, during which Nina learns a lot about herself, including where she is, what she wants, and whether her memories of what was, the reality of what is, is enough to override the possibilities before her. 

HBO is currently running a documentary called First Cousin Once Removed. The film follows poet Edward Honig’s life as he and his family deal with the slowly-escalating ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, even as his memory fails, there are moments of great clarity and wisdom. “The past is not what happened", he tells his young cinematographer cousin, “it’s what you remember happened.”

Nina could relate.

Her memories of Jamie and the way they interacted were skewed by time, loss and longing. And while she appeared to be stuck, the truth of the matter was, a part of her was moving on. Slowly, perhaps, but moving just the same.

Unlike other films I have recommended, Truly Madly Deeply is not available through Netflix, and, as the DVDs are no longer being produced, getting a hold of a copy may take some doing. Hopefully, our search will be short and sweet. Check out your local library’s collection of DVDs, second-hand DVD sites and stores, or, if you feel comfortable doing so, ask to borrow a copy from a friend. Getting a hold of this gem of a film may seem a like a lot of trouble, but I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t believe it to be well worth the effort.

A final note: Minghella passed away in 2008. Over his career he wrote, directed and/or produced many memorable movies, posthumously receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work as co-producer of The Readeranother outstanding film. One his last projects, the pilot for the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, led to a happily inventive, though all too short
run. Based on Andrew McCall Smith’s novels, it, and the episodes that followed, are well worth watching.

If you can’t findTruly, Madly Deeply, or even if you can, I hope you’ll check out these and other Minghella films. They, like the man himself, deserve to be remembered.


Friday, August 2, 2013


The summer drought is over. If you’ve been yearning for a truly original, totally different, indelibly charming film, wait no more. MicMacs is here.

Actually it’s been here since its U. S. release in 2010. The fact that it received so little attention by the press is beyond me.

Filmed in Paris and Morocco, this delightfully French film was conceived and created by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. If Jeunet’s name sounds familiar, it is no doubt because he brought us Amelie, another ice cream scoop of a film.

While the story lines are a world apart, the two movies do have a few things in common. You’ll recognize Jeunet’s signature golden color palate, the unusually-framed shots, and a decidedly minimalist approach to dialogue.

Like Woody Allen, Jeunet tends to draw from a similar troupe of versatile actors and locations. As a result, Amelie fans will recognize several of that film’s cast members – and backdrops in this one.

When his star (a Jeunet regular) opted out just weeks before filming, the writer/director called up Dany Boon, who you may remember from Joueux Noel, a Christmas cordial, and former picsandpans2 ‘pic’. Though Boon’s name goes above the title, this is very much an ensemble piece, with all of the characters participating in the film’s micmacs or shenanigans.

Juenet is playful director—the ‘Where’s Waldo’ of the cinema set, placing posters for MicMacs (the very movie you are watching) throughout the film. They are offered up in the same spirit as the late Al Hirshfeld’s “Nina’s”, giving the viewer one more way to relax and enjoy the show.

Juenet’s career roots are firmly planted in the world of animation, influencing the way he approaches every aspect of the film, from the sets to the actions and reactions of the cast. And while MicMacs is far from what I would call slapstick, there are scenes that will no doubt remind viewers of a certain age of those classic cartoons, where characters were whacked, whirled and twirled like tops, with only a few well-drawn stars circling around their heads to show for it. You’ll also be treated to a few bits and pieces of that old and stylized animation, including one sequence reminiscent of the opening of the much-loved PBS Mystery series.

Ever the jokester, Juenet tosses in two-to-three second bits of merriment for his fans, as when a microphone meant to spy on one man, is dropped down the chimney of another, picking up a conversation pulled directly from the soundtrack of Juenet’s 1991 film, Delicatessen.

Of course, you don’t have to have seen any of Juenet’s prior films to enjoy this one. It is a visual delight; with the camera drawing you right into the action—as seen through a wicker box, metal gates, over-sized keyhole, far-reaching binoculars and any number of windows. You’ll squeeze through gates and pipes, tunnels and funnels, and get a bird’s-eye and bug’s-eye view, as cinematographer Teats Nagata’s camera pans, scans and lands on whatever—wherever, and whenever and you least expect it.

At its heart, MicMacs is the story of right over might, a fairy tale for adults in which a group of unlikely comrades use their uncommon talents to serve justice upon two heartless villains, by turning the men against each other.

It begins on a decidedly unfunny note, when, in April of 1979, a French soldier is killed during a failed attempt to defuse a landmine in the Western Sahara desert. Unable to cope, his grieving widow is carried off to the hospital, leaving his son’s fate in the hands of a hell-hole of an institution, where life appears to be unbearable. Whether he escapes or is spirited away is unclear, and unimportant to the storyline. What is important is that unlike his father, Bazil survives to tell the tale.

We find him some thirty years later, clerking at a small neighborhood video store, where he wiles away the hours watching videos on the store’s ancient TV. One night, while watching The Big Sleep (the title, a witty precursor of what‘s to come) a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting comes crashing through the store’s plate-glass window. Racing out the door and onto the sidewalk to see where it came from, our boy is shot in the head by a second bullet.

Miraculously, he survives—mind intact, though the bullet remains precariously lodged inside his head, conjuring up the occasional fantasy the can dissipate with an “I-should- have-had-a-V8”—like pop to his head.

After a brief recuperation period, the young man leaves the hospital, only to find that his landlord has rented his apartment to someone else, and his boss has hired a young lovely in his place.

Back on the street, he is hailed by the store’s new-hire, who hands him a bullet casing she found in close proximity to where he was shot. Sprawled across the casing is the name of the company that manufactured the life-altering bullet.

Hell-bent on revenge, but clueless as to where the arms dealers are located, our hero sets such thoughts aside, spending the next two months just trying to survive. By night, he sleeps under the stars, a cardboard box his only blanket. By day, he mime's for coins in a town square, more annoying it seems, than entertaining.

And then, one day, a good-hearted street vendor named Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) takes the starving artist aside. “Follow me,” he says, “I know a family who’ll adopt you.” With no place to go and nowhere else to turn, the young man follows the old con home.

“Home” in this case turns out to be a cavern-like boarding house/ workshop, carved out of a pile of rubble alongside the railroad tracks. To the outside world it appears to be nothing more than a Tire Larigot, or tire graveyard, but to the seven people who live and work there, it is a place to hang their hats, rest their heads, and feed both body and soul.

They are a decidedly odd but delightful bunch, who, like Disney’s seven dwarfs, have nick names that reflect their individual persona, skill or talent. There’s Buster (Dominique Pinon), a human cannon ball, whose attempts to break various world records have resulted in his being bumped, bruised and busted-up, a contortionist they call Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), and a pint-sized artist named Tiny Pete (Michel Crémadès).

Also seated at the family dinner table: Calculator (Marie-Julie Baip), a woman with the uncanny ability to measure and add up all manner of things in her head, Remington (Omar Sy), who speaks in clichés and does the note-taking for the group (his nickname referring to either Frederic Remington, whose western art was seen by some as clichéd, or more probably, the Remington typewriter), and our friend ‘Slammer’, whose death sentence was commuted after the guillotine that was to kill him became fortuitously stuck during what was to be his beheading.

Presiding over her adopted family is the ever-chipper Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), head of the household and resident cook. It is Mama Chow who ultimately decides who will be welcomed into the fold, and Bazil is welcomed. “Here we salvage gear, sort it and fix it” she says, adding, “Everyone pitches in.”

They are an ingenious bunch,—particularly Tiny Pete, who fashions Rube Goldberg-like contraptions and animatronic figures out of scrap iron, which, along with the family’s other repaired and reconfigured items are presumably sold or put to good use within the compound.

The following day Bazil joins two of the men as they go about their scavenging. After tossing the last of the day’s bounty in the "family" flatbed, he follows behind them in a make-shift car. When several items fall off the truck, he stops to pick them up, only to find himself standing between the headquarters of the two companies that built and sold the ammunition that killed his dad, and forever changed his own life. A quick check in and around the two buildings, and he has all the information he needs to seek his revenge.

When the others learn of his plot and what prompted it, they want ‘in’, not only for Bazil’s sake, but, as Mama Chow says, for ‘all of the mothers who lost kids because of the mines.”

Their target: the companies’ heartless and decidedly warped CEOs. Their plan is a simple one: rather than inflecting punishment on the men themselves, they will pit one against the other, and, as Remington would say, let the chips fall as they may. This is where things get interesting, as each member of the troupe uses his or her special talents to irk, anger and egg the greedy and boastful warmongers on.

To tell you more would spoil the fun, and what fun it is!

As is true with so many things in life, the music in this film, makes it that much richer. The soundtrack is made up of two decidedly different writing styles: a mix and match of Max Steiner’s iconic orchestrations and first time film composer Raphael Beau’s modestly charming musical cues. Add to that a beautifully conceived script, fanciful sets, ingenious direction, exquisite cinematography, brilliant editing, a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, and sculptor Gilbert Peyre’s incredible moving sculptures, and you have one hour-and–forty four minutes of pure cinematic magic.

That said, if you are put off by subtitles, hated Amelie or Juenet’s other films, or are a stickler for the possible and probable, this Bud is definitely not for you. If, however, you love to be surprised and delighted at every preposterous twist and turn, I believe you will adore this marvelously inventive bit of tomfoolery.

A final note: MicMacs is the kind of film the begs to be watched more than once: first for the story, then for Jeunet’s commentary, and again for the sheer fun of it— catching all of well-placed posters, pranks and hijinks that Jeunet built into every frame. Movie buffs will recognize subtle tributes to Keaton, Chaplin, and silent films in general, along with nods to The Big Sleep, Rear Window, Citizen Kane, and TV’s Mission Impossible. In addition to the film itself, the DVD includes a “Making of” video that gives the viewer some idea of what it took to create this small but complex film.



Sunday, July 21, 2013


Many years ago, I found myself seated next to an elderly woman at a wedding reception.  Our table was in the back of the room, and as the evening wore on our tablemates pulled out their chairs, set down their napkins and went about the business of table-hopping. We were, for all intents and purposes, alone.

Across a sea of white-linen table cloths I could see the newlyweds and their twenty-something friends dancing on the modest dance floor.  The music was loud and intense—so loud that my friend could have confessed to being an ax murderer, and no would have been the wiser.

Looking straight ahead, this widow of some years reflected on her own marriage, which, she said, had been a mismatch of souls: she, the intellect, he, the tradesman. She wondered aloud what her life would have been like had she married someone else: someone who shared her thirst for knowledge and enjoyed talking about literature, the arts and other cultural endeavors. There was something in her voice—in her eyes and words that told me that this was not the first time such thoughts had traversed her mind, nor would it be the last.

I was reminded of her and others I have known with similar regrets, as I watched Phyllis and Harold, a very personal documentary by writer/director and daughter, Cindy Kleine.

A week or so after watching the film I was still toying with the idea of recommending it to you, my main reservation being that it was not a movie that would appeal to everyone.  And yet I was quite sure that just about everyone would find something in it to ponder, if not identify with.

I was still mulling when I read a something written by a woman whose mother, like Kleine’s, had been  totally self-absorbed: a mother who pitted her daughter against her father, had her do her dirty work, and shared things better kept to herself. Her words were could have been Cindy Kleine’s words, so similar was her description of her mother to that of  Phyllis Kleine. It was then that I came to the conclusion that Kleine’s story wasn’t perhaps as unique as I had thought.

At first glance—even second glance, Phyllis and Harold Kleine appeared to be an average middle-class couple. He was a dentist. She was a homemaker. They were native New Yorkers, and Jewish, but not overtly so. They had two children—daughters Cindy and Ricky, and lived in their suburban Long Island ranch-style home for some fifty years. Phyllis, the Pearl Mesta of her generation, appeared to be a happy –if not ecstatically-so housewife. She certainly looked the part. But looks can be deceiving.

After years of wondering why her mismatched parents not only married, but stayed married for close to sixty-five years, Cindy Kleine decided to find out. Camera in hand, and often without a crew she interviewed her parents separately and together over a period of twelve years. With a daughter’s mindset, and writer/director’s sensibility, she mixed and matched confessions, contemplations, observations, conversations and consternations, molding them into a film that is both unsettling and thought-provoking. 

The final product is a compilation of those interviews, punctuated by music of a particular era, some surprisingly beautiful black and white 8 millimeter home movies, and candids culled from her father’s collection of more than 4,000 slides. While most of the footage is of Phyllis and/or Harold, every now and again Cindy and Ricky step in front of the camera to offer their memories, thoughts and observations or move the story along.

That story begins at a college dance in 1939, where, Phyllis recalls, an over-zealous Harold held her so tightly when they danced that she couldn’t breathe. “I think in a sense, that’s the way he’s been ever since-” she says, noting that the tighter he held her, the more she tried to pull away.  

So why did she marry him?

“I think it was time for me to get out of the house,” she says. “It’s like playing Musical Chairs. I don’t know if you’ve ever played that game or not, but you walk around in circles and when the music stops, you sit down on a chair because it’s time.” And I think that’s why I got married.” 

For Harold’s part, it appears that Phyllis basically filled the bill. “She was beautiful, outgoing, and Jewish” he recalls, adding that his parents would have disowned him had he married outside his faith.

But what of love? When the writer/director discovers a packet of letters written during their courtship, she asks her parents to read a few of them out loud before the camera.  

Phyllis, who we later learn was quite the romantic, reads from a letter she wrote to her then fiancé while he was in the army.

“Honestly, getting that letter felt much better than taking off alligator pumps after walking in them all day”, she reads, looking up at the camera, and rolling her eyes. Like Phyllis, Harold can’t believe he they engaged in such folderol. Shaking his head after reading something close to endearing that he had penned, he bewilderingly asks, “Did I really write this shit?”

And so we begin. What follows is a “he said/she said” account of their marriage. So intimate and candid are Phyllis’ recollections that one has to wonder why she would have agreed to have them served up for all to see. And yet, the more we learn about Phyllis, the more we can see how this self-centered woman would have reveled in the thought of being immortalized on film.

Far from June Cleaver or other TV moms of the day, Phyllis Kleine spent the bulk of her girls’ formative years out and about. “Even when she was there, she seemed to be somewhere else” says Ricky, describing a mother who was disinterested and unimpressed with her children. 

“People would say, “Look at that cute baby” she recalls, “and she had this standard line; she’d say, “Cute now, but wait until they start to be five or six or seven. Wait until they get to be teenagers. They don’t stay cute for long.”

That apathy appears to have remained intact for the rest of her life. In a telling moment, Cindy reveals that not once in the twelve years she spent interviewing her parents for the film, did her mother mention her children. Not once. And not because she thought to mention them and changed her mind. At least not in my mind. I believe that she did not mention them, because she didn’t think to mention them. And Harold? Harold, it appears was a necessary inconvenience— the price she had to pay for a well-heeled life.

What is most interesting here is that Harold appears to be oblivious to his wife’s feelings. Whether he failed to see or chose to ignore her discontent, is unclear, although it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t aware – at least on some level, that something was wrong. He does say that as they grew older, she became more vocal, criticizing him for everything from the clothes he wore to the time he spent in his easy chair. But when asked about their first years together, Harold recalls, “It was a wonderful time in my life: the golden years,” while Phyllis reveals that she spent those “golden  years” in total agony—in love with one man, while married to another.  

Over the course of the film we learn more about the back story that dominated her life and that of her daughters, long after the affair was over. “We were like foot soldiers in my mother’s own private war” remembers Cindy. “The weapon: secrets. ‘Don’t tell Daddy. He’ll be mad. He’ll be angry. He’ll punish you. He’ll punish me. He’ll have a heart attack.’”

According to ‘the girls’ the keeping of secrets was easy enough, as ‘daddy’ wasn’t home much, and when he was, he, like Phyllis, wasn’t engaged. He was, they explain, a father who took photographs of his children, rather than with them. Cindy reveals that in searching through that sea of slides, she had trouble finding images of the two girls smiling. Click. Flash. Whurrr.  Four thousand photographs of unhappy children, and a wife who wanted to be somewhere else with someone else.

So is Harold the helpless victim in this story? Not if we are to believe Phyllis. For while the Harold we see on-camera appears to be an even-tempered fellow who spends the bulk of his time dozing in his recliner, his wife wants us to know that for most of their married life  he was a workaholic who drank too much, grouped too many, and went around angry all the time. 

Ozzie and Harriet, not.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Harold interviews paint a picture of a man who loved his wife, was proud of his accomplishments, and unaware of his shortcomings. Cindy tells us that his most revealing interview had to be scraped, because the camera failed to record his voice. She fills us in, revealing that during that elusive interview her father eluded to having a few dalliances of his own. No shock there.  

Phyllis and Harold is a fascinating look inside a marriage and affair over a period of nearly seven decades. An accompanying commentary track offers further insights into their minds and motives, for it is there that Cindy Kleine and her producer husband Andre Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre fame) deliver an interesting narrative, filling in the gaps, and sharing their thoughts on this not-so-average couple.

Cindy Kleine intentionally waited to release Phyllis and Harold until her father had passed away, so that any secrets—and there were many—would remain secret while he was still alive. As a result, we see how the widow Kleine handled his passing, a mixture of distress, reconciliation and self-abortion. When the funeral director asks Mrs. Kleine what her husband wished to have done with his cremains, she responds, “I’d like half of my ashes to be buried at sea, and the rest to be buried in the family plot”, at which point daughter Cindy steps in to remind her mother that the funeral director was asking about her father's cremains.

As it turned out, Phyllis too would pass away before the film was put to bed, bringing their story both behind and in front of the camera to a natural conclusion.

I don’t know if this modest documentary, which could just have easily been called The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent  will answer any questions for anyone whose own life in any way mirrors the Kleine's, but at the very least, it is a fascinating look at one long— if not loving—marriage.