Tuesday, August 15, 2017

1958 Winner, Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle

Director:        Jacques Tati

Distributed by:  Continental Distributing

Released:  May 1958

Country:  France

If your issue with foreign films is having to do all that reading, then your best bet is to watch a foreign film made in the silent era.  I haven’t watched a ton of them, but a couple classics stand out:  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) and Nosferatu (1922), both from Germany and both dark expressionist films from the Wiemar Republic days.  The former is especially a good film, creepy and strange and having an ending that M. Night Shyamalan would be proud of.

Both of those films predated the Best Foreign Film award given by the Academy, and both are very different in tone and content from 1958’s Best Foreign Film, Mon Oncle.  Now to clarify, Mon Oncle is not a silent film—it is a full color “talkie”but it might as well be a silent film.  It's is a comedy, not unlike the films of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, but with sound.  The closest modern day comparison would be the Rowan Atkinson’s "Mr. Bean" shorts and films.  But perhaps more like Chaplin, Mon Oncle has social commentary running through it.

Monsieur Hulot and his nephew, Gérard
The main character is Monsieur Hulot, played by director Jacques Tati, who never really drives the plot but somehow insinuates himself into every situation.  He is sponging off his sister and her middle-management husband, Monsieur Arpel, a short-tempered, but good-intended, modern man.  Also living in the home is Hulot’s nephew Gérard.  Gérard loves his uncle, much to the frustration of Arpel, since Hulot is a major-league screw-up and Arpel wants his son to grow up with the aspirations and drive that he has.

Those may be the main human characters of the film, but perhaps more important as a character is the house in which they live.  The home is a strange-looking place of right-angles and unfortunate modernity.  It is filled with gadgets intended to make cooking and cleaning easier, but which have the unintended consequence of sucking the life out of those who live there.  There is the garage-door opener that traps the Arpels when the dog hits the wrong button; the art deco-inspired stepping stones and shrubbery; and most amusingly, the standing fish in the small pool that spouts out water to be turned on whenever guests arrive.  Mrs. Arpel is most proud of all the “conveniences” of the home, wanting to show off her home to whomever visits.  Yet living in such a home seems like it would bring more work than leisure.
The Arpels at home, complete with standing fish and eye windows

Mon Oncle is filled with sight gags and long dialogue-less scenes that make this seem like a modern-day silent talkie.  One especially funny visual joke:  Hulot is outside the home at night, trying to get back into the gated yard.  As he struggles, the lights come on in the house, two round windows with heads looking out.  As Hulot continues making noise, the heads move in unison, making them look like eyes looking around the neighborhood.  It’s that kind of subtle gag that fills this film (if you aren't watching carefully, you may miss some of them), and Tati perfectly blends this humor with his message.

And there most definitely is a message.  Hulot might be lazy and useless, but he is living life without worry, which is why Gérard loves him so much.  He joins in the young boys’ tricks and doesn’t worry about whether he has a job or not.  Meanwhile, the Arpels are social climbers, and look ridiculous over and over again in being that way.  Monsieur Arpel considers himself important at his job, yet has to take the humiliating meetings with his boss like the rest of us.  Madame Arpel turns on the fish whenever the doorbell rings, then turns it off just after a guest leaves.  It’s all pretty silly.

Rich Uncle Pennybags (The Monopoly Guy)
When the film came out, many were critical of the film’s anti-modern message, but no matter if you like water-spitting fishes or odd-looking furniture, the bottom line is this is a funny movie.  Tati directed a number of films with Hulot, played by himself, as the main character, and this one is considered by some as the best of the series.  And this, I might reiterate, is the perfect film for anyone who has decided they don’t like foreign films because of all the reading.

The Title:  My Uncle.  No, this is not a movie about the eyewear of another uncle, Rich Uncle Pennybags, a.k.a, the Monopoly guy.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last
The culture:  There is a juxtaposition of the charm of Old World France, which seems to be the realm of Hulot, with its crumbling buildings and dogs running through its streets, and that of the modern post-war sterility of the Arpel’s home.  Tati starts with a gag—the actor’s names are shown on the signposts of the streets, with the cutest dogs you ever saw running all over the place.  There doesn’t seem to be room for that sort of creativity and warmth in the confines of the Arpel compound.

Agenda danger:  Those that took offense to the film’s criticisms of modern consumerism must have been real fun at parties.  This is a funny movie, poking fun at all of us who feel we need the latest car or computer gadget.  Nothing would ever get done in a world of Hulots, but it would be a sad and dull place living with the Arpels.

Best Picture that year:  Ben Hur. 

Rating:  The jokes may come off as corny from time to time, like watching Harold Lloyd with his clock in Safety Last (1923) or the slapstick of the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges.  Be that as it may, I like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, and I liked this film a lot.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

1959 Winner, Black Orpheus

Black Orpheus

Director:        Marcel Camus

Distributed by:  Lopert Pictures

Released:  June 1959

Country:  Brazil

Brazil’s only winner of the Best Foreign Film award looks, sounds, and feels like you would think a movie set in Rio would look, sound, and feel.  Not that I know much about Brazil or about movies about Brazil.  If you pressed me, I can think of only two films with Brazil as a setting:  The Boys from Brazil from 1978 and Blame in on Rio from 1984, both which I watched while still in high school.  The Boy from Brazil seemed cool because it was about uncovering a plot to clone a bunch of Hitlers using der Fuehrer’s DNA.  Blame it on Rio, which was one of those films I caught on HBO without my parents knowing it, was even cooler since it featured the bare breasts of actress Michelle Johnson.  Neither movie, in fact, is really very good, but both attracted the sensibilities of the 17-year-old I was at the time.

The Best Foreign Film from 1959 is a very different movie from either of these two films, but it is one that is meant to appeal to a certain sensibility, one that could not be further from that of 17-year-old Me.  Black Orpheus isn’t a musical, per se, in that the characters don’t sing their lines to each other, but music is at the center of it.  Specifically, it’s a film that incorporates the music and emotions of the Brazilian Carnival, that country’s version of Mardi Gras, with the dancing and costumes of the annual festival.

Orfeu wooing Eurydice
The story is simple and based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Don't worry, I had never heard of it either.  Orfeu is a trolley conductor and we are introduced to him when he gives Eurydice, a girl from out of town visiting her cousin, a ride.  Orfeu hits on Eurydice bigtime from the beginning, even though he is engaged to another girl, the somewhat possessive Mira.  We don’t know it at first, but Eurydice has fled her home town to avoid this strange stalker who dresses in a skeleton costume and won’t leave her alone.  Eurydice sees this guy as Death and doesn’t want him to catch up with her; Orfeu starts to see Mira as someone he would like to avoid.  The question the plot poses is whether Orfeu and Eurydice will ever get together.

Jealous Mira
Orfeu has one special talent—he plays the guitar like nobody’s business, and his musical skills are what he intends to use to get the girl.  Through the first two thirds of the film there is singing and dancing, all in the music of the Carnival.  It’s toward the end this film gets a little weird, with less about a potential romance and more about the skeletal Death character breaking it up.  I won’t give the end of the thin plot away, but if you want to Google the Greek legend you’ll see how it all ends.

All but one character are played by non-actors, and it shows.  The guy who plays Orfeu, Breno Mello, was a Brazilian soccer player, and his singing is dubbed.  The other main characters are cartoonish and over-the-top, like one might expect in a musical.  The film was renowned for its cinematography, which I suppose may have dazzled some folks in the time before everyone had a color TV in their homes and which probably showed up better on a 1959 theater screen than from the DVD I watched this from.

In short, this is one of those films that I didn’t quite connect with, but I can say wasn’t without its
Michelle Johnson couldn't act either, but Michael Caine didn't seem to care

charms.  Again, not a true musical, the tone and story reminded me just a little of one of those American musicals from the 50’s that I don’t care all that much for either.  I wasn’t much for it, but had there been some cloning or bare breasts, I might have been a bit more enthusiastic about it.

The Title:  Orfeu Negro.  It’s an adaptation of a story about Orpheus, only this guy’s black.  Get it?  Black Orpheus?

The culture:  The spectacle of the Brazilian Carnival is central to the film.  Like Mardi Gras, there is a large dose of paganism that mingles with the Catholic origins.  Voodoo and superstition dominate the culture in a way that seems almost pejorative to Brazil.

Agenda danger:  Barack Obama discusses his mother’s love for this film in his book Dreams of My Father.  Apparently, her feelings were off-putting and embarrassing for him because he saw this movie as patronizing.  He said, “I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before.”  Watching it with her, he thought he saw in her what attracted her to his father, an affinity to for the exotic and forbidden.  Whatever.

Best Picture that year:  Ben Hur. 

Rating:  An entertaining enough movie, if not my cup of tea.