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Film Reviews

Friday Film Review: The Triplets of Belleville

Friday Film Review: The Triplets of Belleville

The Triplets of Belleville -Les triplettes de Belleville (2003)

Genre: Animation dramedy

Grade: B

If you haven’t seen this film or any stills from it, prepare yourself for a surrealistic animation style radically different from Disney or Pixar. Not better, not worse but very different. Things are heightened, elongated, exaggerated and unforgettable. My personal feeling is that this isn’t a film for children due to the dark tone and early 20th century references. It also has very little dialog and what is there is hard to understand or in French. But once the animation and story sucked me in, I didn’t want it to end.

The story opens with famous performers of the 20s and 30s doing their thing. Josephine Baker dances in her banana skirt, Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes almost get away with him and the Triplets of Belleville sing and dance before packed houses of adoring fans in Paris. Time flies and we move forward to the house of a young orphaned boy living with his grandmother, Madame Souza. The two are watching a TV show of the now decades old Triplets during their heyday. Grand-mere tries to find something to entertain and interest her grandson. Music? Non. A puppy? Better but still not quite there. Finally from things in her grandson’s scrapbook, grand-mere hits on cycling. Win! Starting from a tricycle to the Tour de France, we see the two training over the years even as the outskirts of Paris spread to overtake their idyllic country house. Grand-mere is as devoted to training her grandson – does she ever take that whistle out of her mouth? – as Bruno, the now overweight and aging dog, is to barking at passing trains. Grand-mere’s methods of muscle de-cramping and massage might be unorthodox but they work. I have to say the training table fare looks like glop but everyone seems happy.

Then the race begins. During the strenuous mountain section, unknown square shoulder villains appear and a sinister plan is set in motion. But, what is it? Three cyclists, including the grandson, appear to be kidnapped but for what purpose? We don’t know, however grand-mere and Bruno are hot on their trail. Taken on a boat, the kidnappees and their kidnappers set sail and end up in Belleville. Does having to cross an ocean stop grand-mere and Bruno? Of course not. But once they arrive, the trail goes cold and they find themselves, friendless and penniless, sitting in the city dump. A chance encounter with the now aging Triplets gives grand-mere and Bruno a place to stay and something to eat when the Triplets invite them to their decrepit apartment. Going along with the Triplets to their job at a swanky restaurant, grand-mere and Bruno get their first clue as to the fate of the grandson. Following up, they make their plans and set the rescue in motion. But can three elderly sisters, a club footed grand-mere and an overweight dog hope to thwart the dastardly plans of the mafia?

I think “Les triplettes de Belleville” benefits from multiple viewings. This is actually quite a dark little tale. The first time through, I sat in semi-stunned wonder at it. What the heck is going on here? And look at the size of the thighs on those cyclists. How is the grandmother going to manage to follow the ocean going boat – which is exaggerated to the point where it shouldn’t possibly stay upright – and why have the three cyclists been taken anyway? It all – sort of – becomes clear as the film goes along and in the end I found that simply sitting back and taking it all in is the way to go. The color palette varies depending on the era and mood of the scenes. The song sung by the Triplets will turn into an ear worm. The grandeur of the ocean waves will be heightened by the excerpt from Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Belleville is a beautifully rendered mix of Paris, New York City and Montreal. There are also French cultural references that I’m sure I missed – though the trivia section of IMDB cleared a few things up for me. As I said, there is little dialog but the meaning of scenes is understandable without any knowledge of French at all.

The obviously strong bond, the unconditional love, between Madame Souza and her grandson is at the heart of the film. This is one dedicated grandmother who is willing to travel to the ends of the earth to get him back. But there are other characters who are fun to watch as well including my favorites – the elastic and obsequious Maitre D’ of the swanky restaurant, the (literally) square shouldered mafia villains, the mouse-like mechanic, and the grenade stunned frogs the Triplets catch to eat. In the end the escape makes as much sense as the betting scheme being run by the mafia but it’s more fun to just watch the film while enjoying the look and feel of it. I certainly couldn’t get the image of the frogsicles out of my mind for a while. It’s a simple story but told in a complex way allowing us to know exactly what these characters are thinking and feeling. Love, exhaustion, determination, joy – it’s all here waiting for you. B

~Jayne

Friday Film Review: Emma (A&E 1996)

Friday Film Review: Emma (A&E 1996)

Emma (1996 A&E TV)

Genre: Novel adaptation/Romance/Regency Period

Grade: B

I was reluctant to watch this adaptation mainly due to the fact that I’m not a great Kate Beckinsale fan. Something about her struck me as distant, controlling and snobby. But my curiosity overcame me and I finally took the plunge and realized that she’s actually a very good choice to play this character. I had always then meant to review it but misplaced my notes until recently. Of course right after I queued it up to rent a second time, I found them. Now having seen it again, I find I enjoyed it even more than the first time.

Young, unmarried Emma Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale) fancies herself a matchmaker after her former governess marries and becomes Mrs. Weston (Samantha Bond) though her father deplores anything that upsets his daily routine. Their neighbor Mr. George Knightley (Mark Strong) isn’t so sure of Emma’s talents and doesn’t hesitate to tell her so. But Emma is determined to match off another happy couple and decides on the vicar, Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan) as her next subject. Totally misreading his interests, she tries to fix an attachment between Elton and her new friend Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton), after having romantically detached Harriet from a young farmer tenant of Mr. Knightley’s named Robert Martin. Mr. Elton scorns illegitimate Harriet and chooses a bride (Lucy Robinson) more snobbish than he.

Meanwhile Mr Weston’s (James Hazeldine) son from his first marriage Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard) finally visits his father and new stepmother just as the Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) the niece of the come-down-in-the-world Miss Bates (Prunella Scales) arrives in town. Much ado is made of who might be interested in whom with many feeling that an attachment is forming between Frank and Emma, though other characters sense something else in the wind. Will Emma be able to pull off another marriage match or will she finally realize too late where her heart lies?

Here Emma is not quite so silly and immature as in other adaptations. She is young, and frankly probably bored and merely looking for something to occupy her time, yet also comes across to me as truly having Harriet’s interests at heart despite obviously not wanting to lose her as a friend. She is also devoted to her father yet not so slavishly as in other productions. I can also see how much she cares for Mr. Knightley even before she’s realized it herself when his condemnation of her actions at Box Hill cut her so deeply. It does take Harriet’s infatuation to finally jolt Emma’s awareness of her true feelings but Beckinsale and Strong have simmering chemistry from the very start. Mark Strong’s Knightley is more bluntly outspoken here – ready, willing and able to express to Emma his distress at her actions – though his distress is also plainly due to his feelings for her and wishes for her to be a better person than she sometimes shows herself to be. He might be more brusque than the polished Frank Churchill but clearly is the better and more mature gentleman.

This Mr. Woodhouse is suitably fussy and obsessed with nitpicky details that affect him – just listen to him go on about soft boiled eggs – and it’s a clever move on Emma’s part to win him over to her marriage by promising that with Knightley living there, the chickens will be safer. Prunella Scales is fantastic as the annoyingly babbling Miss Bates. I find I like Samantha Morton’s portrayal of Harriet as young and impressionable rather than being a silly twit while handsome Coulthard is smooth as the charmer Churchill who always lands on his feet – much to the annoyance of Knightley. Still it’s always clear that he’s not the calibre of man he should be given his advantages in life. Rowan is nicely snooty as Elton while Lucy Robinson is his match in scorn for inferiors and obsequiousness to social superiors. Olivia Williams does the best she can with the role of Jane and I find myself, as does Knightley, feeling she deserves better than she’ll get with faux Frank.

Andrew Davies did the screenplay and though the plot is truncated for time, it is far clearer and easier to follow than the movie from the same year. Diarmuid Lawrence – who directed some older favorites of mine including “By the Sword Divided,” a TV version of “Vanity Fair” and one episode of the period mystery series “Heat of the Sun” also does an excellent job. Since it’s a made for TV production, I would imagine that it didn’t have a huge budget but it never looked that way. The costumes are fairly standard Regency and the sets are elegant or, as in the case of the Bates, slightly shabby, enclosed and befitting their lowered financial status. I particularly like the lighting done with candles in several scenes. Yes, it’s dark but then this world, at night, was dark. Servants are also very visible here as their betters could never pick strawberries in rustic simplicity nor enjoy a picnic outing without them to provide the muscle and move the kneeling mats. One affectation I didn’t care for were the dream sequences used to convey Emma’s changing views. This version also seems a bit more serious than I recall the others being.

With such a good cast, and with the parts so well cast, along with a clear screenplay that makes it easy to follow the action, this is an easy hour and 45 minute viewing experience. I can feel how closed this small society must have been, how interested to the point of intrusiveness they would be in newcomers and how eagerly looking for novelty could lead to poking your nose into your neighbor’s business. This version seems to show the sharp social divides more than I remember the others doing as well as conveying the expected manners of the period. I find I like it better than the more recent 2009 one though I need to rewatch the 1996 movie before deciding how to compare it to that. B

~Jayne