I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are five mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.
Update. The first one hundred Movies for Movie Buffs reviews are now available in paperback form: details here.
101. Mass, Drama, Director Fran Kranz, 2021 USA, 95%/7.7
Carnage, Black Comedy, Director Roman Polanski, 2011 Franco-German, 70%/7.2
Mass and Carnage is a double feature with each story based on four people having a discussion around a table; the first a conversation about the aftermath of a high-school massacre; the second an analysis of a fight in a park between their two 11-year-old sons. The two movies are as different as vindaloo and ice cream but both are very tasty. First Mass.
Between 1999 and the date of this posting, six school massacres resulting in the deaths of ten or more students and others occurred in the USA. They are: 20 April 1999, Columbine High School, CO, 15 dead; 21 March 2005, Red Lake Senior High School, MN, 10 dead; 16 April 2007, Virginia Tech, VA, 33 dead; 14 December 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School, CT, 28 dead; 1 October 2015, Umpqua Community College, OR, 10 dead; 18 May 2018, Santa Fe High School, TX, 10 dead. How many do you remember? Have you ever thought about the long-term effects on the parents of a child who died, or the parents of the shooter? Mass, the first film to be written and directed by stage and film actor, Fran Kranz, explores this topic in a claustrophobic harrowing way.
At the core of the film is two sets of parents, four people, sitting in a room around a table, talking. Six years prior to the meeting, 15-year-old Hayden, the son of one set of parents, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney, Ann Dowd), went amok at his middle school and killed ten classmates with guns and a homemade bomb before killing himself. The other set of parents, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton), are the parents of Evan, one of the boys who was shot and died. I can’t remember when last I watched a movie as intense as this movie with the emotions in the room moving through anger in the form of revulsion, bitterness and torment; fear in the form of apprehension, nervousness and tenseness; love in the form of compassion and as in the love a parent feels towards his or her child; and sadness in the form of depression, grief, guilt, remorse and regret. The acting is superb, the dialogue incredible, and … well, I’m lost for words to give true justice to this film. All I can say is that the drama had a very powerful effect on me and the film should come with an emotional health warning. It’s available on various streaming services including Prime video but if you decide to watch it do so knowing that it will affect you very deeply. There’s no sex, no violence, no swearing (other than one F-word), no action, no humour, … nothing to distract you from the raw emotions of the four people present; just four people talking about an event that tore their lives apart and will leave you exhausted at the end, if you make it to the end.
Carnage, billed as a black comedy, stars two Academy Best Actresses, one Academy Best Supporting Actor, and one Academy Best Supporting Actor nominee—Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C Reilly respectively. Nancy (Winslet) and Alan (Waltz) are the parents of 6th-grader Zachary who, in an altercation in the park, struck fellow 6th-grader Ethan with a stick causing damage to his lip and removing two incisors. Ethan’s parents, Penny (Foster) and Michael (Reilly), decide to invite Zachary’s parents around for an adult and meaningful discussion about the fight and just, you know, get to know each other and agree it was simply a spat between two young schoolboys and with no lasting harm done.
Like Mass, the movie Carnage is driven by dialogue and again, like Mass, only works because of the superb acting of its protagonists. Penny, an author of books on art and history, starts out a little combatively but is willing to compromise to show she is a responsible adult, wise in the ways of children. Nancy, an investment broker, portrays an air of efficiency, wears a business-like outfit, and just wants to say her piece so that she can return to her office. Alan, a corporate big-pharma lawyer, interjects occasionally but spends a lot of time talking loudly and bossily on his cell phone dealing with a negative disclosure about one of his company’s medications. And Michael, a household fittings salesman, is not really convinced the meeting should take place and tries to keep the atmosphere light and jovial—“Coffee or tea, and is there any cobbler left?” On their own, they are each likable people (except maybe Alan and his obtrusive cell phone) but put them together, take away the veneer of respectability after they’ve drunk coffee and sampled the cobbler, and all hell breaks loose—carnage replaces civilised behaviour. What follows is funny, perceptive, and well worth 80 minutes of your time. Look out for a brief appearance of director Roman Polanski at 00:43:33 and beware revealing lovey-dovey nicknames, owning up to the fate of a cuddly hamster, offering apple-and-pear cobbler, serving 18-year-old Bruidladdich single malt whisky, and servicing an incessantly ringing cell phone. And if anyone offers you an anti-hypertension medication called Antril, say no thanks.
102. Peppermint Soda (Diabolo Menthe), Comedy/Drama, Director Diane Kurys, 1977 France, 90%/6.9
Set in the Lycée Jules-Ferry, a girls’ high school in Paris, in the year 1963, the autobiographical movie, Peppermint Soda, is about the most charming movie you will ever find about the coming-of-age and almost-coming-of age of two French sisters, 15-year-old Frédérique (Odile Michel) and her 13-year-old sister, Anne (Eléonore Klarwein). Anne, the younger girl, is becoming concerned that she has not yet had her first period whereas her friends at school have—watch out for the first-blood celebration when she does begin menstruating—and Frédérique is not sure if she is experiencing the pangs of first love with a 16-year-old boy called Marc, and is wrestling with a growing awareness of political topics despite the opposition of such things by both her mother and some of her teachers. In a scene involving one of Frédérique’s friends, Perrine (Coralie Clément), Perrine’s mother responds with an angry “Politics are forbidden in schools,” when Perrine says that her history teacher is a communist and is actively involved in politics. Frédérique’s mother makes a similar statement to Frédérique later in the movie and later still, she is punished by a teacher when she is discovered distributing ‘Ban the Bomb’ badges to other girls in the school. (Remember, this film is set in the ’60s when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was at full throttle.)
Despite all this, the movie depicts life in the school and at home for the two girls and reveals an innocence that no longer exists with today’s teenagers. There are similarities, such as lecherous men who watch the girls in their sports gear practicing on the sports field, a teacher who is unable to control a class of boisterous teenagers, parents who admonish their daughters for coming home later than commanded having forgotten that they too were once teenagers, and group playground discussions about boys including one scene where a 13-year-old confesses she took off her clothes and slept with a boy. And that is what she did—slept. The same girl, by the way, describes the nature of a boy’s erection observed at the beach, and states that ‘it’ can result in an extension of 2 metres! She refers to ‘it’ as … leur maillot de bain fait comme une bosse translated as a ‘kind of a bump in their swimming trunks’.
The movie is unlike some of the more notorious movies of today’s teenagers where the emphasis is on sex, sex, and more sex accompanied by an inordinate amount of four-letter-word swearing, obsession with social media and fashion, and substance abuse including drugs and alcohol. I’m thinking of movies such as Kids (1995), Ken Park (2003), and the Dutch movie We (Wij) (2018). In Peppermint Soda, apart from one short scene in which one of the schoolgirls rebels against the authority of the school and repeatedly shouts merde (translated by the subtitler as ‘screw you’), there is no swearing. There is also no sex, no petting, no nudity of a sexual nature, no underage drinking, no substance abuse, and nothing else that would raise the rating above its current level of PG-13. Peppermint Soda is just a film about French teenagers in the ’60s learning about life and love in a world that nowadays is lost forever. If I was prone to awarding points between 1 and 10, I would award 10 out of 10 to this movie.
PS. In this Movies for Movie Buffs series, I normally do not review movies unless I enjoy and hence can recommend them to others but I was attracted to the 2021 release, Licorice Pizza, partly because it too starts off in a high school, this time in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California in 1973; partly because it has been highly rated by the critics; and partly because I thought it would make a terrific double bill with Peppermint Soda. Licorice Pizza and Peppermint Soda has a nice double-billing ring to it, don’t you think? Unfortunately, Licorice Pizza, directed by renowned director Paul Thomas Anderson, didn’t do it for me. It’s a reasonable film but, for me, mediocre at best.
103. I Served the King of England, Comedy, Director Jiří Menzel, 2006 Czech Republic, 80%/7.4
I Served the King of England, 2006, directed by the great Czech director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains and other Academy-worthy movies) is a light-hearted quirky, sometimes ribald comedy with sets to make Wes Anderson jealous. You will sit there with a smile on your face throughout the film. The characters are great; well-dressed elderly rich men in restaurants and bordellos being pampered by sometimes scantily-clad lovely young ladies ready to see to their every need. There’s a fair bit of nudity but it’s all done very tastefully and unlikely to cause offense and the main protagonist, Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev), is superb as a young man starting out selling frankfurters at a railway station with an ambition to amass a profit of a million Czech crowns. (The story is told in flashback. Czech comedian Oldřich Kaiser plays Jan Dítě as the older version reflecting on his libertine life.) The movie is mostly set in Prague after WW1 and up to and beyond WW2. The cinematography is excellent and the background music appropriate to accompany the humorous antics on the screen. On the poster above, Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal, is quoted as saying, “A comic, erotic and perfectly wonderful film.” My sentiments entirely.
104. The Miser (L’Avare), Comedy, Directors Louis de Funès, Jean Girault, 1980 France, -/6.6
At the request of one of my granddaughters, Emilie, I watched a screen version of L’Avare (The Miser), one of French playwright Molière’s many plays written in the 17th century. Molière (1622–1673) wrote his 5-act play L’Avare in 1668. It’s a tale centred on a greedy moneylender, Harpagon, a widower in his sixties, whose obsession with acquiring and keeping money far outweighs any regard he might have for the well-being of his adult offspring; Cléante, his son, and Élise, his daughter. Unbeknown to Harpagon, Cléante has fallen in love with Marianne, a young woman of beauty who happens also to be the woman Harpagon intends to marry simply because he believes she will make a thrifty and subservient wife. Élise also has a suitor; a young man, Valère, with whom she fell in love after he had saved her from drowning and who is now masquerading as a servant in the house in order to be close to her. But neither Cléante nor Élise has yet plucked up the courage to reveal their respective lovers to their father or to request his approval for marriage for fear he will say no because of the cost involved. Accompanied by a variety of other members of the household staff and by Frosine, a very manipulative lady matchmaker, the stage is set for a comedy of errors, misunderstandings, conspiracies, and sparkling dialogue.
The play is set in high society in 17th century Paris and it is interesting to compare Molière’s depictions of his characters in the comedy with modern-day behaviours and social customs. The love between young adults is shown as an innocent display of affection with flowery pronouncements of undying admiration and no hint of the physical side of love. Similarly, the relationship between brother and sister, Cléante and Élise, is pure friendship embroidered by an intense desire to help each other achieve their ambitions to marry the person they each love rather than the person their father dictates – someone with lots of money. Molière also makes use of the spoken aside, a dramatic way of having an actor address the audience directly while the other actors close by are seemingly unaware of what is being said. Harpagon does this frequently throughout the film as a way of showing his concern about losing his hidden casket of money and, especially, during his “I am undone” soliloquy in Act 4 when he discovers its loss.
As in most comedies, the classic case of misunderstanding takes place. In the final magistrate scene in Act 5, Harpagon accuses his son, Cléante, of stealing that which he loves best, his casket of money. Cléante believes they are talking about the joint object of their affection, Marianne. The dialogue continues for several minutes, full of protestations of love and accusations of theft before, finally, the two contestants realise that they are, in fact, talking about two different objects of love: Harpagon’s love of money and Cléante’s love of Marianne. We, the audience, know this and it’s a tribute to Molière’s skill with words as we listen to father and son duck and weave through the heated conversation.
The renowned French comedian and character actor, Louis de Funès, dubbed “the man with forty faces per minute,” plays the part of Harpagon and absolutely nails it. His asides to us, the viewers, are delivered emphatically through a variety of facial expressions. For those unfamiliar with the works of Molière (as I was), the film is an excellent introduction to one of his many plays, L’Avare, and an assortment of subtitles, including English, is available.
Thank you, Emilie.
105. Elle, Crime/Drama/Thriller, Director Paul Verhoeven, 2016 France, 91%/7.1
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and more) has extracted a superb performance from Isabelle Huppert in this not-quite-what-it-seems drama about a French businesswoman’s private life. Michèle Leblanc (Huppert’s character) is part-owner and CEO of a video gaming company. Divorced but still friendly with her ex-husband, she spends her private time flirting with a neighbour’s husband while, at the same time, carrying on an affair with a colleague’s husband; trying to remove her feckless son from the avaricious grip of his heavily-pregnant girlfriend; avoiding her cosmetically-enhanced mother and her muscular toyboy; trying to forget the monstrous crimes committed by her now-incarcerated father; and aware that she is being stalked by a masked man who, in the opening scene, is shown brutally raping her in her own home.
Elle is not a movie for the faint-hearted but it is a movie for those who appreciate the complexities of conflicting adult emotions and Isabelle Huppert’s superlative acting skills. I place her in the same category as Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, and Frances McDormand. Her performance in this film is that of a virtuoso and has been widely praised by critics. Elle is an outstanding movie from a seasoned director and with an award-winning performance from its star actress.