Babette’s Feast

babette1I have several favorite movies: one is The Big Lebowski, which never fails to make me laugh until I snort, and the other is Babette’s Feast, which usually makes me laugh and cry. Babette’s Feast (1987) was unavailable as a DVD for a long time, but was just re-released, packaged with documentary footage and interviews. Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves this movie. I’ve probably watched it ten times, and have often reflected on just what makes it so wonderful.

babette4Well, first, there’s the story. It’s based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, who was a master storyteller. In Babette’s Feast, she tells of a master chef who must escape Paris during a revolution. Her husband and son have been killed, and on the recommendation of a friend, she seeks refuge with a pair of spinsters living on a remote coast of Denmark. The sisters are the daughters of a charismatic Lutheran minister who founded his own Christian sect. Babette begs them to take her on as a cook and housekeeper, and soon they are enjoying her good food. They have no idea that she had been the chef of the renowned Cafe Anglais, in Paris.

The years roll by and  Babette wins a lottery. She asks the sisters if she might cook a special dinner for the villagers, who are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the father’s birth. Little do the sisters suspect that Babette plans to cook the most fabulous meal ever.

babette3So villagers used to eating dried fish and rye bread crust gruel find themselves partaking of Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); La Salad (featuring Belgian endive and walnuts in a vinaigrette); and Les Fromages (blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple), with the grand finale dessert Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines and Champagnes complete the menu. The dinner scene gets funnier every time I watch it, because the straight-laced diners have taken a vow not to notice the food, no matter how delicious.

babette2Under the influence of the wonderful meal, the diners, who had been quarreling with one another, are reconciled. In a transcendent moment, recognizing the shortness of life and their love for one another, they dance together under the stars. The sisters are flabbergasted to learn that Babette had spent all of her lottery winnings on the meal. Sister Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life,” to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.”

Dinesen’s ability to show the deep sadness of life along with its joy and comedy make this a unique movie to me. Babette’s Feast,  which is in Danish, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

As a side note, Pope Francis has identified Babette’s Feast as his favorite movie. (New Yorker, April 26, 2013). I am not at all surprised.

An Oldie, but a Goodie

poldark3Long ago and far away, before there were computer-aided graphics and other digital camera technologies, BBC made an entertaining TV series called “Poldark,” (available as Season One and Season Two),and I’m mentioning it in case you would just like to sit down, relax,  and enjoy a good swashbuckling romance that will carry you away. It was based on a series of novels by English author Winston Graham.

Set in late 18th century Cornwall, the story is long and convoluted, but the appeal stems from the romance of darkly handsome Ross Poldark (played by Robin Ellis–Oh, my beating heart be still!) with Demelza (played by Angharad Reese), the guttersnipe servant. Complications arise because Ross thinks he is really in love with the well-bred beauty Elizabeth (Jill Townshend). Ross had been a British Army officer fighting in the American Revolutionary War, and had been taken prisoner. Thinking Ross was dead, Elizabeth had married his cousin, Francis Poldark. Of course, viewers knows that Ross really loves Demelza, but this series would go nowhere if he knew this, too. So there are plenty of ingredients to keep the pot boiling.

The above plot might seem to indicate Poldark is a “chick flick,” but what with shipwrecks, smuggling, and Ross’s efforts to revive his family’s tin mine, there is plenty here of interest to guys, as well. The time period of the saga, 1783 to 1799, was one of social turmoil, as England recovered from losing its American colonies, entered the Industrial Revolution, and waged war with France.

There were 29 episodes broadcast over two seasons, from October 1975 through December 1977. Poldark is one of the most successful British television adaptations of all time. At one point, during its original broadcasts, church services in Britain were postponed so that everyone could watch it.

First Edition of "Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall."

First Edition of “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall.”

Winston Graham wrote twelve Poldark novels, including Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, and Demelza: a Novel of Cornwall.  The titles are available in our LINC system and can be placed on hold.

 

 

 

 

 

Tous les Matins du Monde

tous2Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World), made in 1991, is set in seventeenth-century France  (1640-1670) and is the story of a virtuoso musician named Monsieur de St. Columbe and his fraught relationship with Marin Marais, his sometimes pupil. St. Colombe was a master on the viola da gamba, which was a precursor to the cello.

As the movie opens, St. Colombe is returning from playing for a friend who was dying, only to find that in his absence, his beautiful young wife has died suddenly. He is shattered, and retreats from the world to lose himself in his music. A young musician named Marin Marais (played by Guillaume  Depardieu, the son of Gerard Depardieu) comes to him to ask for lessons, but St. Colombe brusquely rejects him, saying that while Marais can play well, his soul is not in his music. Marais is able to learn from St. Colombe’s daughter, who also plays, and who falls in love with him.

The composer Lully.

Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Marais goes to the court of King Louis XIV, where he rises to fame among the court musicians, and where the famed composer Lully is preeminent. (Note: The adult Marais is played by Gerard Depardieu.) I have to say, it’s worth watching the movie just to see Gerard Depardieu, dressed in full court regalia, including an amazing wig, and painted with rouge, powder and lipstick, leading the court orchestra, as they play March pour la Ceremone des Turcs, by Lully. Meanwhile, as St. Colombe continues to practice and compose, the ghost of his wife appears to him, and he finds consolation.

Gerard Depardieu as Marin Marais

Gerard Depardieu as Marin Marais

The movie is told as a flashback, as the older Marin Marais, himself melancholy to find that fame and fortune are hollow, talks to his young students about music. Through the vicissitudes of life, he finally understands what St. Colombe was trying to teach him. As he plays the haunting “Dreaming Girl,” (La Reveuse) the ghost of St. Colombe appears, and finally gives his blessing.

Bass viola da gamba. Image from www.orpheon.org

Bass viola da gamba. Image from www.orpheon.org

This is a gorgeous movie, set in the French countryside, and in an ancient French manor house, and in Versailles itself. The music caught me by surprise, being hauntingly beautiful, melodic and accessible. I am not the only one to love the soundtrack–it has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The viola da gamba is played by virtuoso Jordi Savall, the modern master of the instrument. The viola da gamba and related strings, which were suited to being played in small venues, were eventually replaced by the  violins, whose piercing tones which were better suited to large concert halls.

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“Still Life with Wafers,” by Lubin Baugin, a friend of Sainte Colombe.

The movie’s title comes from a French proverb: “Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour,” means literally “All the mornings of the world [leave] without [ever] returning.”

This movie is in French, with English subtitles.

 

 

 

Sherlock Holmes

holmes

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

I’ve been hunkered down in a cozy armchair for days now, up to my chin in a wooly afghan, and have been watching Sherlock Holmes DVDs. Maybe it was the frequent bone-chilling temperatures of the past weeks, but some impulse prodded me to watch something cozy, and there’s nothing cozier than the world of Sherlock Holmes, what with the snug study at 221B Baker Street, the clip-clop of horses hooves on cobblestone streets, and Mrs. Hudson serving tea and scones.

holmes5I’ve been watching the version starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. In my opinion, he’s the best Holmes of all time, though I’m aware those might be fighting words. An amazing number of actors have taken a stab at Holmes, but I think only Brett captures the nervous sensibility of the character, with his mercurial moods, both those of the black depression when there is no intellectual stimulation at hand, and the elation when a new case,worthy of his intellect, appears.

holmes3 As I watch, I ponder why Sherlock Holmes remains so incredibly popular—there are many theories. My own is as follows: The modern world is prone to hysteria, but Holmes is singularly free of it—no flights of fancy, no wild conjectures. How reassuring that in the Holmesian universe, reason reigns, and that his formidable intellect is on the side of good, not evil.

holmes4The series, produced by Granada Television (a British company), ran for 41 episodes as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984–1985), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986–1988), The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1991–1993) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1994); 36 ran for 50 minutes, and five were feature-length specials.

holmes6The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (available at Batavia)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Five full-length Sherlock Holmes movies with Jeremy Brett can be accessed through Hoopla as e-Videos. They include: The Sign of Four; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Master Blackmailer; The Last Vampyre; and The Eligible Bachelor.

“So, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

Renoir

renoir5May I suggest a film antidote to these rather cold, dreary days of mid-winter? The movie is the biopic Renoir (2012), the story of the 74-year-old painter as he meets his last muse, the radiantly beautiful Andree, in 1915. She was recommended to him by Henri Matisse. Andree is vibrantly alive, and was to inspire Renoir to continue painting. He noted that “Her skin drinks in the light.”

 

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Blonde à la rose, Andrée, 1915-1917 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Meanwhile, Renoir’s son, Jean, has come back home to convalesce after being injured in battle in the war. He, too, falls under the spell of Andree, and they were later married. Jean went on to become a great filmmaker, filming La Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.

As one critic has said, “Renoir doesn’t get much beneath the surface–but, good God, what a surface.”  The mellow golden sun of the Cote d’Azur in late summer, the sparkling olive and citrus groves, the cerulean blue of the nearby Mediterranean, the soft hillside grasses: Renoir lived in a Mediterranean Eden.

renoir3

Renoir lived in this house near the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, from 1907-1919.

Critics who have complained that Renoir is static seem to not notice the dynamo humming at the center of the film: Renoir himself. Yes, he is wheelchair bound, and is so arthritic that a brush must be strapped to his hand every morning, but he still thirsts for life and to create beauty. His body is withering away, but his spirit is vibrantly alive.

renoir4

Be aware that there is nudity in the film, as Andree poses for Renoir—though such is the light and ambiance that she could be a bowl of peaches, so I wouldn’t say the nudity is gratuitous or offensive.

renoir7To learn more about Renoir and his son, consider reading Renoir, my Father, by Jean Renoir. Art historian John Golding said it “remains the best account of Renoir, and, furthermore, among the most beautiful and moving biographies we have.”

Renoir has been chosen as France’s entry into the 2014 Oscar race. It is in French, with English subtitles.

Brazil

brazilIt’s a bit hard to know where to begin in describing Brazil, the 1985 Terry Gilliam satire of a world in which bureaucracy has run amok. You could say it’s a feverish, surrealistic, colorful, funny, horrible version of 1984, by George Orwell, though there’s no Big Brother, just a smothering mediocrity and mindless technology that infests every aspect of life. In fact, the original title of Brazil was 1984-½.

brazil2

Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level government technocrat who dreams of a life where he can fly away and spend eternity with the woman of his dreams. One day he is assigned the task of trying to rectify an error caused by a fly getting jammed in a printer, resulting in the death during interrogation of Mr. Archibald Buttle instead of the suspected “terrorist,” Archibald “Harry” Tuttle. Sam comes in contact with the real Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a renegade air conditioning specialist. Tuttle helps Sam deal with two Central Services workers who later return to demolish Sam’s ducts and seize his apartment under the guise of fixing the air conditioning. And so on.

Harry Tuttle Robert DeNiro Brazil

Robert De Niro as Archibald “Harry” Tuttle

What’s striking and dismaying about Brazil is how spot-on current it is. The terrorists, the swat teams, the obsession with youth, the technology that is both hi-tech and half-a#%@, continue to resonate.

Brazil is the second in Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination.” The first was Time Bandits (1981), and the third was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three films are about escapes from ordered society.

The theme song of Brazil is “Aquarela do Brasil” (Watercolor of Brazil), known in the English-speaking world simply as “Brazil.” What does it have to do with this movie? Nothing, actually, but just as a dream can make perfect sense when you are dreaming it, the song is part-and-parcel of the feverish hallucination that is Brazil.

 

Peter O’Toole

peter2The passing of actor Peter O’Toole has been a great loss to the acting world, because as clichéd as it may sound, they really don’t make stars like him anymore. O’Toole burst like a supernova on the movie scene in 1962, starring as T. E. Lawrence, in Lawrence of Arabia. His blazing blue eyes and command of the screen made him an instant international star. He seemed to cast a spell on his audience.

I had just re-watched and enjoyed Lawrence of Arabia a few weeks ago, remembering that when it first came out, it was a big event. The movie had an overture and an intermission and a sweeping score. They don’t make movies like that anymore, either!

O’Toole went on to play King Henry II in film twice, first in Becket, with Richard Burton, and then in The Lion in Winter, with Katherine Hepburn. These were blazing spectacles, a bit “stage-y” to our eyes and ears, but thrilling to see the power of great actors.

I mentioned that he could cast a spell, and some of his powers lay in his superbly trained, mesmerizing voice. Hear him read Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day.”

Holiday Movies–Off the Beaten Track

So you’ve already watched It’s a Wonderful Life this season, and while you love Miracle on 34th Street, you’ve watched it countless times, and you’re getting restless for something new. So I’ve baked up a list, as full of goodies as a fruitcake, of holiday movies. Some are serious, some are silly, but they are all off the beaten track.

For starters, here is one of the first Christmas movies ever. Made in 1898, it’s a silent movie classic. If you enjoyed it, here are some more!

joyeuxJoyeux Noel relates events that took place in France during World War I (1914) when French, German and Scottish soldiers came together on Christmas Eve and agreed on a cease fire to observe Christmas. It was nominated for the 2005 Best Foreign Film Academy Award.

connecticutChristmas in Connecticut is a romantic comedy in which a food writer (Barbara Stanwyck) who has lied about being the perfect housewife must try to cover her deception when her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) and a returning war hero (Dennis Morgan) invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. It’s funny, a bit frenetic, and like all Barbara Stanwyck movies, has a touch of class.

badsantaBad Santa. Not for everyone, as it’s full of profanity and Billy Bob Thornton, but it’s a holiday black comedy that pops up on a lot of favorite Christmas movie lists. I am one of its defenders, having laughed from start to finish.

thinThe Thin Man (1934) features the classic line from Myrna Loy: “The next person that says ‘Merry Christmas’ to me, I’ll kill ‘em.” In it, Nick (William Powell) and Loy’s Myrna try to solve a murder while hosting a Christmas party at their hotel. The scene in which members of the police department go undercover as waiters at the Christmas dinner is a classic.

 

bishopThe Bishop’s Wife is a bit bland and actually quite odd, when you think of Cary Grant playing a voyeuristic Christmas angel who could pop up anytime in your life, possibly at the most awkward moments. But if you turn off your inner critic, this is a nice Christmas film, with Loretta Young playing the bishop’s wife. If you enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, I think you will like it.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, is part of a DVD package called Holiday Family Classics: 39 Features and Shorts. This low-budget 60s flick has been called one of the worst films ever made, which is saying something. The plot involves men in green face paint, aka Martians, who kidnap Santa Claus in order to cheer up their depressed Martian children. It can’t possibly go anywhere but down with a plot like that, but after drinking a glass or two of eggnog, it could be fun.

santa

 

A Child’s Christmas in Wales. To go from the ridiculous to the sublime, this is based on Dylan Thomas’ 1955 poem of the same name. The story, the acting, the settings–all simply wonderful. As one reviewer has noted, “The spirit is entirely one of nostalgia, love and reflection–surely those are the best emotions of all.”

Childs_Christmas

Shawshank Redemption

shawshankIf you are simply looking for a good movie—one with good performances and with a compelling story–consider watching The Shawshank Redemption. Based on a short story by Stephen King, called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the film, which was made in 1994, has stood the test of time and appears on many “Best Movie” lists. It was initially a failure at the box office, but has gone on to become a cult classic.

Ohio State Reformatory, where Shawshank Redemption was filmed.

Ohio State Reformatory, where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed.

The story is straightforward: In 1946, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover, even though he stubbornly proclaims his innocence. He’s sentenced to a life term at the Shawshank State Prison in Maine. (Side note: There is no actual Shawshank State Prison in Maine, though Stephen King refers to it in a number of his novels. The movie was actually shot at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. An old Gothic pile of a building, its brooding presence is almost another character in the movie).

The ugly realities of prison life are quickly revealed to Andy: a corrupt warden (Bob Gunton), sadistic guards led by Capt. Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), and brutalized inmates. But Andy is made of tougher stuff than we initially suspect, and he does not crack. He survives abuse, and uses his banking skills to win favor with the warden and the guards. In exchange, he is able to improve the prison library and bring some dignity and respect back to many of the inmates. And he befriends another inmate, the memorable “Red,” played by Morgan Freeman.

The trajectory of the movie is initially down, down, down, leaving the viewer to wonder when Andy will hit bottom. Meanwhile, director Frank Darabon toys with our perceptions. Your gut feeling is that Andy is innocent. But as we see him descend further and further down into hell, a fate usually reserved for villains in movies, we start to wonder: maybe he is the murderer.

If I were to guess why the The Shawshank Redemption has remained so popular, it could be the way it speaks to the human condition. As I watched it, I started to wonder how I would hold up under extreme adversity myself. Also, while the movie portrays the terrible things that can happen to a person in prison, or in life itself, for that matter, it also shows the unexpectedly wonderful things that happen, as well. So it’s like being on a roller coaster ride with unexpected dips and climbs, and it occurs to us that life in prison or out of prison has similarities. Are we looking at hell or heaven? It’s the power of the movie that it leaves us wondering.

Stream Up Some Scares: Halloween Horror Movies

Grainy photo of skulls, candles, evil book

Just in time for All Hallows’ Eve, here are our picks for the scariest movies streaming on Hoopla, the library’s free movie streaming service. It’s totally free, just sign in with your St. Charles card, create an account, and you’re ready to watch!

Night of the Living Dead

Movie Poster for the Night of the Living Dead

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” The granddaddy of all modern zombie lore. The dead rise and hunger for flesh. A small farmhouse becomes the last stand for a group trapped inside. B & W. Not Rated.

Frankenstein

Cover to the movie Frankenstein

Arguably the best of the Universal monster movies, this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic is mandatory Halloween watching. A mad scientist seeks to create life from deceased matter, but things go horribly wrong when he actually succeeds! Not Rated.

In The Mouth of Madness

Poster for the movie In the Mouth of Madness

Horror master John Carpenter (Halloween) brings a Lovecraft inspired tale of madness to life. Sutter Cane’s novels are so terrifying that they cause uneasiness and nightmares, but can they drive someone insane? John Trent (Sam Neill) might find out when he goes to investigate an insurance claim by Sutter’s publisher. Worth watching just for the creepy man on a bicycle scene. Rated: R

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death

Cover for the movie Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death consistently tops the scariest films lists. After a stay in a mental institution, Jessica wants nothing more than to relax in the countryside. However, things are far from relaxing, as terrifying events assault her at every turn and make her question her own sanity. Rated: PG13

A Tale of Two Sisters

Cover for the movie A Tale of Two Sisters

This slow-burn Korean tale is far superior than the American remake. Two sisters return home after a stay in a psychiatric hospital. However, unnerving events haunt the sisters and their stepmother. Is the horror psychological or supernatural? This has one of creepiest scenes on celluloid. Korean w/ English subtitles. Not Rated.

Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight

Cover for the movie Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight

The Crypt Keeper makes the jump to the big screen in the first Tales from the Crypt movie that manages to keep the humor and the horror of the tv show intact. An old hotel is the setting of a showdown between a mysterious stranger that holds the key to humanity’s survival, and a demon-in-human-flesh. The fate in the world hangs in the balance as the hotel’s denizens take up arms against a horde of demons. Rated: R

The Omega Man

Cover for the movie The Omega Man

Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) might be the last man alive, but that doesn’t mean he is the last creature alive! Humanity has been turned into vampire/zombie hybrids by biological weapons. And they all want Neville. This is one of many adaptations based on Richard Matheson’s classic book I Am Legend. Campy good fun. Rated: PG

The Witches

Cover for the film The Witches

Anjelica Huston was born to bring the part of the Grand High Witch to life in this adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic! Luke lives with his Grandmother in England following the death of his parents. When a doctor recommends an ocean getaway to help with Grandma’s failing health, no one could know that their very hotel is also the spot chosen for annual convention of witches. Spooky fun for the whole family. Rated: PG

Thirst

Cover to the film Thirst

What happens when a priest becomes a vampire? Will his desire for blood outweigh his vows? This stylized and totally unique Korean take on the vampire film is twisted and unsettling. Korean w/ English Subtitles. Rated: R

The Call of Cthulhu

Cover for the film The Call of Cthulhu

The second Lovecraft tale to appear on our list, this one sticks closer to the source materials. A statue, a cult and the ship’s log of a doomed ocean voyage might hold the key to unleashing an ancient, unspeakable evil. This 2005 film was shot to look like a silent film and perfectly captures the mood and style of pre-talkie movies. B & W, Silent. Not Rated.