Monthly Archives: July 2013

Paris in July wrap-up (with three film reviews)

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View from Notre Dame Cathedral, on my visit to Paris in 2003

Well, the end of July is here, and thus the end of the Paris in July blogging event, hosted by Karen of Bookbath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea (thanks both of you!). It’s been fun participating in an event with other bloggers and reading their Paris in July posts. I’d do it again next year. As for my own Paris in July participation, I’ll admit it wasn’t as robust as I’d initially hoped. Besides rewatching Paris Je T’aime, I also watched the 1953 Max Ophuls film The Earrings of Madame de . . . [Trying to end a sentence where the film title ends in ellipsis is awkward]. The acting by Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux as the husband and wife at the center of the story was great, and the cinematography was artful: what you didn’t see in a shot was as significant as what was in the shot.

Since I didn’t end up watching or rewatching quite as many films as I’d planned, I thought I’d ‘cheat’ a bit and include shortened versions of three reviews that I wrote years ago about some recommended French films.

L’Atalante
(1934, Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Dir. Jean Vigo)

L’Atalante is a great example of how it’s not the story, but how you tell it, that’s the most important aspect of a film. The director, Jean Vigo, was assigned what seems like a ho-hum plot – two newlyweds, Juliette and Jean, start out their married life on a barge – and makes visual poetry out of it.

With its sparse dialogue and its strong reliance on music and evocative images, L’Atalante often feels like a silent film. Vigo manages to make the barge seem by turns cozy and claustrophobic, changing with Juliette’s mood as she tries to adjust to life on her husband’s barge.

Dita Parlo does a fantastic performance as Juliette. She’s sometimes like a little girl in her curiosity and delight in small things, but also displays a slightly unconscious sensuality.

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Interestingly, I feel like the film refrains from lingering too much on the husband’s face through the first part of the story. He didn’t seem like an individual, just a character, until after the couple are separated. Suddenly his grief and regret from one jealous, rash decision brings him into focus.

It’s sad to know that I was probably not watching the version Jean Vigo intended. The film was apparently butchered when it was distributed for release and this sad fact is made sadder knowing that Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis at age 29 soon after the film came out. Still, I’m glad that some of the original vision was restored and that decades later, I’m able to enjoy L’Atalante’s terrific mix of warmth and melancholy.

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Cleo from 5 to 7
(1962, Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dir. Agnes Varda)

Cleo (Corinne Marchand) is a self-centered rather vain singer, referred to by her maid as a ‘drama queen.’ As such, she normally would not attract my empathy as a character. However, as the film progresses, I warmed up to her – whether because fear revealed the vulnerable person underneath or that she just has some likeable qualities as well – a sense of humor, a genuine charm.

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Throughout the film, I sensed that Cleo was searching for some understanding about the fear she is experiencing. However, she doesn’t seem to find it among the people who know her. It isn’t that they don’t care, but one suspects they cannot tell the difference between Cleo’s dramas: which of them are rooted in real fear and which are just manufactured crises. Also, I believe that people have a limited sense of empathy. It’s the first day of summer, and most people in the film are feeling expansive and content with the beautiful day, unable to understand Cleo’s feelings without much effort.

Near the end of the film, Cleo does find someone who has the capacity to understand because he too faces an unknown future – a soldier about to fight in Algeria. This film’s ending is poignant and rather perfect.

Queen Margot / La Reine Margot
(1994, Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Dir. Patrice Chereau)

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Queen Margot is a riveting and bloody historical epic set in 1572 Paris, when Protestant and Catholic enmity divided France. The film starts with the politically arranged marriage of the Catholic Margot (played by Adjani), sister of King Charles, to Henri de Bourbon (Auteuil), a Protestant King from Navarre. Margot has no intention of sharing her bed with Henri, but she does agree to preserve Henri’s life as much as it is her power. For Henri senses, rightly, that the ‘peace’ forged by their marriage is a false one. Indeed, soon after their marriage, thousands of Protestants who have come for the wedding are massacred. This sets off a series of alliances and betrayals within the court, not to mention affairs and murders.

Miramax’s marketing of the film emphasized the romantic relationship between Margot and the Protestant La Mole (Vincent Perez), who she saves during the massacre. I can tell you right now that this is the least interesting part of the film and fortunately does not eat up too much of the film’s two and a half hour screentime.

The real appeal of Queen Margot is the perilous way to survival of Henri, aided as promised by Margot. Forced to convert to Catholicism to save his life after the massacre, he is nevertheless threatened at every turn. In a cast full of strong performers, Daniel Auteuil still has a stand-out performance as Henri.

Adjani’s beautiful face reflects the desperation of Margot, the subject of twisted familial relationships and political machinations, and who is challenged continually to keep safe those she loves and those she has sworn to protect.

The film is gritty and unflinching in its portrayal of 16th century violence. The costumes are striking and often blood-soaked.

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Three mini-reviews: City of Bones, Divergent, Just One of the Guys

City of Bones  DivergentHiggans One of the Guys

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

2007. Simon Pulse. Paperback. 485 pages.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

2011. Katherine Tegen Books. 487 pages.

I once read more YA than I do now, back when I read the Hunger Games trilogy, and the Uglies trilogy, and Shannon Hale’s Books of Bayern. When I’ve read a young adult novel lately, it’s been at the encouragement of my co-worker, Kim: we’ve been picking YA novels that have upcoming film adaptations. Neither of us have high expectations for the novels we read, but it’s fun to compare notes on what we thought worked and what we thought was ridiculous.

City of Bones was . . . mostly ridiculous. I thought the writing was flat-out bad, especially the dialogue. The banter and jokes between the teens felt clunky and forced, and every now and then, one character would pull out some ten-dollar word, and the other character would (sincerely) be like, “whoa, I had no idea you were so smart.” I will say that Clare has some interesting ideas for the world she has built in City of Bones, and one of the adults, a werewolf, had some real promise as a character. Also, kudos for taking the love triangle in an unexpected place (I sort of saw it coming, but didn’t know if she’d actually commit to it.) But I will not be reading other books by Clare. The screenwriter for the film looks to be a newbie, at least in her IMDB profile, and the director’s past films don’t impress me either, so I’m not holding out hope for the film to suss out the good bits of the plot and overlay some decent dialogue.

I heard about Divergent last year or the year before when my cousin swore that it was better than Hunger Games, a claim I greeted with skepticism. I have very good memories of reading the Hunger Games. I thought that Divergent‘s cover looked like a pretty blatant reference to Collins’ books and I marked it as a wannabe. And the plot – where society is organized by people’s predominant virtue (honesty, intelligence, bravery, selflessness, peacefulness) – seemed  outlandish. I mean, it’s intriguing but not at all believable as far as human nature is concerned. The protagonist is ‘special’ because she tests out as being capable in several of these virtues. That’s kind of insulting to humanity in general. Anyway, suspension of disbelief, yada yada. I finally did read it in March of this year. As my co-worker promised, the book is fast-paced. And I really liked that it was set in a dystopian Chicago, as I am fond of that city. That was my favorite part. The romantic storyline was fine. The body count was higher than I expected, but the carnage was not really given a lot of weight, which kind of put me off in the end. I won’t be reading the other books, but it was a more enjoyable reading experience than, say, City of Bones.

Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins

2007. Harlequin. Mass Market Paperback. 384 pages.

This one was lent to me by a different co-worker, who reads a lot of romance novels, and I was in the mood for trying Kristan Higgins, whose books I’d seen around. First I tried Higgins’ book All I Ever Wanted, but the main character was being insufferable, so I abandoned it. Just One of the Guys was much better. The main character was a heroine I could get behind. Chastity O’Neill is a Lord of the Rings nerd and a newspaper editor, and is the sister to a bunch of firefighter brothers and daughter to the fire chief of their upstate NY town. I loved that O’Neill had a good career and that her singleness was in no way connected to this fact. The book acknowledges the challenges of print journalism, which was a nice dose of realism. The romance is between her and a guy who has been a longtime friend of the family, and they had good chemistry, but they also had lives apart from each other. Chastity’s interactions with other characters are just as interesting as those with the guy she loves. She makes new friends, works to get certified as an EMT, and sorts through various family catastrophes. I had such a nice warm feeling when I was done reading this book. I was game to try another Higgins – this time Too Good to be True, but it employed a trope that I hate, which is the character making up a fake boyfriend, so I dumped that one. But I’m glad I gave Just One of the Guys a shot, because it was truly a fun light read.

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Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear

2013. Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover. 432 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny of Reading the End

Backstory:

I heard an NPR interview of Lawrence Wright about Going Clear at the beginning of this year. I know as much as the next person about Scientology and never had a strong interest in it, so the subject itself was not enough to pique my interest in the book. But the interview brought up the fact that the church of Scientology is known for suing its detractors, and the fact that the church tries to intimidate its naysayers did make me want to read the book. And, as I told a friend, I decided to read it for the ‘crazy.’ And there is definitely some crazy. Using interviews from former Scientology members, public record, and publications from the church of Scientology, Wright takes us through the history of Scientology, which includes a biography of its founder L. Ron Hubbard. The book is bookended by the story of film director / writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) who was a member of Scientology for decades before his recent departure from the church.

Review:

For a fairly thick nonfiction book, I found Going Clear to be a fast read for me. I read it in a week.  I think the book was most engaging during the chapters about L. Ron Hubbard. (I had to return the book to the library, so the following comes mostly from my memory, with an assist from Wikipedia). A lot hinges on his World War II service. According to Hubbard, he suffered war wounds which he then healed through the practice of Dianetics. According to public record, Hubbard never was wounded in combat and indeed seemed to do what he could to stay out of real danger in the war. All the craziness that accompanied his second marriage was especially fascinating and disturbing: according to the second wife Sara Northrup, Hubbard kidnapped their daughter for a time when Sara tried to leave the church. He accused Sara publicly of being a communist (in 1951) and urged the FBI to round her up. Eventually they divorced and he would later tell his adult daughter by that marriage that she wasn’t his daughter. He remarried and had more children, and when governments proved to be unfriendly to his new church, he started Sea Org, a fleet of ships manned by Scientology converts. He had a horde of preteen girls that served as his messengers to the other church members. People were thrown overboard for perceived infractions. At some point, a few Scientologists got mixed up with a coup in Morocco. When Hubbard returned to the United States, paranoia was his main operating worldview. In the end, he was hiding out in a fitted-out motor home with only a couple of trusted people acting as conduits between him and the now-burgeoning church that he founded.

Eventually Hubbard died (spoiler), and rising Scientology leader David Miscavige took over. Although Wright keeps up the level of detail that he did for L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘reign’, I started to weary of the Scientology story by then. As with Hubbard, Miscavige continues the practice of punishing people weirdly and cruelly for real or imagined infractions. It was the same cycle over and over again, just with different people. I’m not saying any of it should have been glossed over, but I think I would have appreciated a break from Wright’s focus on the particulars during the Miscavige / Tom Cruise section. In the last chapter – it might have been an epilogue – Wright does expound upon some larger themes, but this conclusion struck me as underdone. I hardly remember what Wright did say in his conclusion and it was only ten days ago.

While reading the book, and after reading the book, I mostly reflected on the dangers of churches/religions/groups obsessed with their own hierarchy. Going Clear is a chronicle of constant “who’s in and who’s out” games, with such decisions usually made by one mercurial person. The basic precepts of Scientology may have had the goal of making a person’s life better, but the church itself seems more interested in amassing power and money and (wealthy, powerful) members. To be fair, most religions have had this problem at some point, somewhere. But look, that’s probably as nice as I will be about Scientology. Reading Wright’s book certainly doesn’t make me an expert on the subject, but as far as I can tell, the church of Scientology’s use and abuse of people seems to be a fixture, and that is just sad.

In the end, my interest in the subject declined while reading Going Clear, but it was a worthwhile read, especially the parts about L. Ron Hubbard.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Killin’ Time Reading – “What Wright does (unlike Reitman) is present as neutral as possible an account, giving people credit where it’s due while still highlighting the discrepancies between the official Church record and other’s memories/experiences.”

Reading the End – “I thought Going Clear was an admirably well-sourced, engagingly-written history of scientology”

Views from the Page and the Oven – “For as much information as is packed into these pages, the book reads extremely well, probably partially because the topic is so crazy and at times unbelievable.”

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The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

Shadowy_Horses 1997. Sourcebooks. Paperback. 420 pages.

Recommendation from: Eva (A Striped Armchair)

In a nutshell:

Archaeologist Verity Grey is asked to interview for a position at a dig near the town of Eyemouth, Scotland. She is charmed by the eccentric, legendary archaeologist who sponsors the dig, Peter Quinnell. He manages to convince her to sign on despite there being no real evidence that the dig will yield the discovery he hopes to find: the final resting place of the lost Ninth Roman Legion. As the summer progresses, Verity and the rest of the archeology team witness a series of small supernatural incidents and sense that they are being warned about a present danger.

Review:

The Shadowy Horses is by and large an atmospheric ghost story. There is a layer of mystery, punctuated by some delightful eerie moments, such as the retelling of the Eyemouth disaster (taken from actual local history). I really loved the ghost element, which struck me as old-fashioned without being cliched. (Speaking of old-fashioned, the descriptions of the technology in the book definitely had me flipping back to the cover page to find out the original publishing date was in the late 1990’s.)

Kearsley’s depiction of archeology field work seemed believable, starting from the fact that Verity landed the interview because an old colleague/flame was already working on the dig. When it comes to ‘prestige’ professions like archaeology, the “who you know” element would seem to be crucial. I see too many characters in fiction snag their enviable jobs in unbelievable ways; it’s refreshing to see acknowledgment of how the real world works. And the descriptions that follow of everyone’s job and the work required seemed realistic even though there was also this fundamental supernatural aspect.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give The Shadowy Horses is this: if all the mystery, and even the ghost element, had been dropped, I would have still loved reading about these characters conducting their dig. Whether they are working, or eating, or taking a walk together, there is a warmth to most of their interactions that makes them pleasant to be around, as a reader.

So although the climactic scene was slightly underwhelming in one sense, it was also really touching and that covered over any incidental disappointment. Suffice to say, I will be sure to pick up more of Kearsley’s books in the future. And I definitely recommend Shadowy Horses as a summer read.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The Good, the Bad and the Unread – “While I enjoyed many elements of the book, the middle drags a bit and I feel a little cheated in the end”
Melissa’s Bookshelf – “I found myself completely lost in the pages of this book and thanks to Kearsley’s beautiful, descriptive writing style, I felt like I was right there, witnessing everything happen.”

Musings of a Bookish Kitty – “I liked how simple the love story was, how naturally it came together over the course of the novel”

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Paris Je T’aime (Paris in July cinematic post)

Paris title card

Released in 2006, Paris Je T’aime is a collection of 18 short films that are all set in Paris and are all directed by a different director or directorial pair. Each short film is named after the neighborhood of Paris where the story takes place and each is a story of love – in fact, the film’s subtitle is “petites romances de quartiers”.

As with most short story collections, there are some clear stand-outs and some duds. One was a dud on delivery, the strange inaccessible “Porte de Choisy”. A few others just don’t survive well on the rewatch because their main appeal is a twist at the end and once you know it, there’s little else to commend them. This is the fourth or fifth time that I’ve watched Paris Je T’aime and my favorites are pretty well cemented.

The gems of the collection are “Bastille” (dir. by Isabel Coixet) and “14e Arrondissement” (dir. by Alexander Payne). In “Bastille”, a man about to leave his wife instead plays the good husband when she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The story is told like a fable, with an attention for small details that is reminiscent of Amelie. There is a slight levity in it that helps buoy what is overall a bittersweet little heartbreaker.

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Sergio Castellitto and Miranda Richardson as the husband and wife in “Bastille”.

“14 Arrondissement” is one of several tourist tales in this collection. The Coen brothers subject Steve Buscemi’s hapless tourist to some indignities in “Tuileries”. In Vincenzo Natali’s funny-icky little romance, Elijah Wood’s backpacker tourist runs into a deadly but strangely compelling vampiric creature (played by Olga Kurylenko).

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“Tuileries”

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“Quartier de la Madeleine” dir. by Vincenzo Natali

Both of these shorts are very stylized and enjoyable. But they are no competition for “14e Arrondissement” which is wisely chosen as the last short of the collection. An unsophisticated but endearing American tourist, played by Margo Martindale, narrates her solo trip to Paris in rudimentary French. In another film, her far from glamorous character would perhaps be the subject of ridicule and nothing more: she eats fast food and wonders why French fare is not as good as advertised; her knowledge of famous dead French authors in a cemetery is restricted to her guidebook’s brief summations. But despite going about Paris “all wrong” as some might judge, she takes true pleasure and interest in the city sights. There’s nothing really to spoil about the ending, but I’ll simply say that it’s ultimately about the love of Paris and the way a place can capture one’s heart.

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Two other shorts worthy of note are Tom Tykwer’s cinematic collage “Faubourg Saint-Denis” featuring Natalie Portman and “Loin de 6e” which follows Catalina Sandino Moreno on a journey of sacrifice that is unseen and unappreciated.

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“Faubourg Saint-Denis”

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“Loin de 16e”

This post was a contribution toward the Paris in July blogging event. Have you seen Paris Je T’aime? If so, what was your favorite short? If not, where in Paris would you want your little romance?

Paris in July 2013

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Jardin d’hiver (Paris in July musical post)

Paris in July 2013

Here’s a lovely, laid-back French song “Jardin d’hiver” which was written by Keren Ann Zeidel and Benjamin Biolay, and performed by Keren Ann. The song has been performed by others, but I first heard it sung on Keren Ann’s 2000 album “La Biographie de Luka Philipsen.” Keren Ann was born in Israel, but her family moved to Paris when she was 11.

 

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Paris in July 2013 Blogging Event: My kick-off post

Paris in July 2013Paris in July is a new-to-me blogging event co-hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea and Karen of BookBath. To quote from Tamara, Paris in July is “a month purely dedicated to reading, watching, eating, listening to and enjoying all things French.” Karen made the lovely button you see above.

My high school offered three languages: French, Spanish and Latin. I wanted to take Latin but it conflicted with my other courses. My older sister was taking Spanish and I wanted to be different from her, so I took French. I was later able to take a Latin course in college, but by then I also enjoyed French and took a semester of that too.

I studied abroad in England for one semester and during our spring break, my friend and I took off for France and spent two weeks hopping around from place to place: Paris, the Loire valley, Strasbourg, Lyon, Provence. As novice international travelers, we had more than our share of misadventures, and were a little ambitious in our itinerary, but it was still amazing to be there.Someday it would be cool to go back and retrace parts of that trip, and see the difference in myself and those places.

In the decade or so since that trip, I’ve grown rusty in the language, but have kept up with French language ‘things’. I’ve especially been enamored by French film. Spurred on by an online movie discussion forum, I once created a review thread of just French films and watched about 25 of them for that project, from Battle of Algiers to the Double Life of Veronique to La Haine. And I’ve watched a number of other French films besides. (In fact recently, I saw the lovely M. Hulot’s Holiday and highly recommend it for summer film watching: it has almost no plot but its charm rests on its gentle observational humor of people at a summer beach resort.)

So my plans for this Paris in July blogging event will swing heavily toward film, because I know that is what I love. I’ll rewatch four favorites from my own collection: La fille sur le pont / Girl on the Bridge (starring Vanessa Paradis), Paris Je T’aime (collection of short films set in Paris), Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows (classic film starring Jean Gabin) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort / The Young Girls of Rochefort (a thoroughly, ridiculously 1960’s French musical).

And yes, I also own and love Amelie but it’s so well-known, I thought I’d go for these lesser known films instead.

I’ll also watch four new-to-me French films. I have some ideas for those (a Max Ophuls film, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, a Rohmer film), but suggestions are welcome!

As far as reading, I went medieval French and picked up a translation of the Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes from the public library. I may try making or eating some French food and posting about French music, as time allows. I definitely look forward to reading the posts by the other Paris in July participants.

From my favorite scene in Amelie.

From my favorite scene in Amelie.

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