The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

Young Mr. Lincoln

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I really enjoyed Henry Fonda in director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. The film is fictionalized but based on an actual murder trial Abraham Lincoln worked on. Honest Abe leaves Indiana for Springfield, Illinois. Once there he does a poor country family a good turn and they pay him by giving him a barrel full of law books, which prompts him to learn law.

Later one summer he meets the lovely, Mary Todd, but he’s shy and awkward. At a summer festival two brothers from the country get into a fight with a town jerk and the jerk winds up dead. The locals are ready to lynch the outsiders but Abe steps in and turns them around with his wit.

It looks like the brothers have no chance for justice, but Abe takes the case.

Fonda does look like a young Abe. The cadence of his voice sounds small town. The film was enjoyable and would make good family viewing.

The Founder

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In The Founder, Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, who propelled McDonald’s to worldwide expansion. The film shows how a mediocre milk shake machine salesman discovered the McDonald brothers in California and coaxed them into teaming up with him after he saw their unique hamburger shop.

In the days of drive-ins, you’d have to wait and wait to to get your order. But the scientific McDonald brothers figured out how to choreograph flipping burgers so that you could get yours in minutes.

When Ray Kroc received an incredibly big order for his milkshake machines from the McDonald’s, he had to drive out to see what they were doing. Impressed, he cajoles them to let him sell franchises.

As he goes from one his first franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, to selling billions of burgers, Kroc seems insecure propelled by canned optimism he’s memorized from Dale Carnegie’s books. From the start of the partnership, Kroc follows his own ideas even if it means going behind the McDonald’s backs. His prior failures made him pathetic but his disrespect for the McDonald’s brothers’ views made him unlikeable.

Since McDonald’s is synonymous with America, it’s a film worth seeing.

Neruda

Until I saw Neruda, I had no idea what a selfish jerk poet cum senator Pablo Neruda was. I just thought he wrote beautiful romantic poetry. He was also a senator for the Communist party and gave a controversial speech against the Chilean president. In response, the president orders Neruda’s arrest and the libertine churl goes underground.

The film isn’t exactly a biopic as it’s told completely from the point of view of  Oscar Peluchonneau, a police officer played by Gael García Bernal, who’s the Ahab to Neruda’s white whale. This police officer imagined that his real father was a legendary police officer and he wants to prove himself by capturing Neruda. Throughout the film the officer narrates and comments on Neruda and waxes eloquently on the pursuit’s significance.

I had no interest in Neruda who had no concern for his friends who were risking their lives to keep him safe. If he felt like a walk to the local brothel, he’d go no matter how that might expose both him and his friends.

I found the central character obnoxious and the voice overs were soon annoying. I so disliked Neruda, who was full of hot air in his political career, with little real concern for the poor people he grew up with that I’m not sure anything could make me like the film. However, it did win the 2017 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film so some writers did like it.

The Last Princess

The Last Princess (2016) captivated me with its dramatic history. It’s a film about a Korean Princess named Deok Hye, who lived from 1912 to 1989. Her father was Emperor when Japan was invading most of Asia. The Japanese wanted to control him, but couldn’t so they poisoned him. A few years later when Deok Hye was 13 she was sent to Japan to be educated. Though she didn’t want to go, she did to protect her mother.

As she grew, she realized she would never be allowed to return to Korea. The Japanese feared that this young, determined woman would stir up rebellion. When she was young, her father had hoped she’d marry Jang-Han Kim comes to Japan hoping to find a way to save her. He’s an officer in the Japanese army, but works with a group of underground rebels, who’re plotting to get the princess and her uncle back to Korea and to attack the core leaders of the Japanese army.

Throughout the film, the main villain isn’t a Japanese officer, but rather a Korean turncoat, Han Taek-soo, who was behind the emperor’s poisoning and will stop at nothing to please the Japanese by manipulating and spying on the Korean royals.

It’s decades before Deok Hye has a real chance to return to her home country. Along the way she bravely faces hardship, sorrow and betrayal.

Moulin Rouge

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I didn’t know John Huston directed Moulin Rouge in 1952. A friend, who also likes old movies,  shared a couple DVDs with me and this is one of them. I never saw the 2001 Moulin Rouge (and probably won’t because it sounds like a very different story).

Huston’s Moulin Rouge is a biopic, the story of the famous painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec, played convincingly by José Ferrer, frequents this cabaret where all the colorful characters of 19th century Paris convene to dance, drink and often fight (not only the men, but he ladies). Lautrec was born into a noble family. At and early age he is injured falling down the stairs and the doctors fail to repair his bones as they should. Thus Lautrec’s growth is stunted making him a social misfit.

Yes, he’s witty, smart and talented, but when his first love rejects him running from the room when he declares his love, Lautrec decides he’ll never fit in the country, in his father’s world so he heads to Paris and paints the dancers and clowns at the Moulin Rouge and shares drinks and barbs with the best artists of his day: Cezanne, Monet, etc.

Twice in his life he meets a pivotal woman. The first is a low class manipulator and I pitied Henri as he pined for this deceptive sponge. Later he meets a woman worthy of love, but he’s too jaded to expect that a woman would really love him.

I didn’t expect much of this film, mainly because I’d never heard of it. I found it an absorbing biography of a witty, fascinating artist.

Steve Jobs Movie

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I knew Steve Jobs of Apple Computer fame wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but the film Steve Jobs refined my image of him. If Aaron Sorkin’s script got it right, Steve was one cold, driven man. With a superb cast including Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet at his “work wife,” Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Jeff Daniels as John Scully, Steve Jobs shows it’s main character minutes before three big product launches as all his personal chickens inevitably come to roost.

The first part of the film shows Steve barking at an engineer who can’t guarantee that the new Mac will be able to say “Hello” on cue, fighting over money with the mother of his first child, whose paternity he questions despite a judge ruling to the contrary, arguing with Wozniak, his friend from way back when, by refusing to acknowledge the Apple II team, whom Woz feels needs some credit, and listening to Scully impart fatherly wisdom. In Sorkin’s hands the bickering and arguing are dramatic rather than annoying. The film does convey a group of talented people coping with an egotistical talented man, who may be a genius, while asking the whether a “great” man can’t also be a good one? With Wozniak, I think the audience hopes the answer’s yes.

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The next launches we see are for the NeXT computer, which wasn’t even designed to really be sold but more as a tactic for getting back at the helm of Apple, and for iMac.

While all the performances were strong, I found both Steve Jobs’ and his illegitimate daughter Lisa, the most compelling characters. Sorkin’s story focuses on Jobs’ own feelings of rejection as an adopted child and his rejection of his first daughter as a means of explaining his personality and life. We never see his wife or other children, who apparently weren’t as interested in his launches as Lisa and her money-grubbing mother. (A bit hard to believe, but okay, it’s fictionalized, I get that.) The film ends with Steve and Lisa negotiating some stormy waters in their relationship, leaving me with the question of what role did this girl have with his other children.

All in all, it’s a compelling film, that left me with some questions. I don’t doubt that Steve Jobs was a misanthrope, but realize that this film is fictionalized to so the hero change, in a way that the real man may or may not have. It also brought home the point that Jobs wasn’t a designer, an engineer or programmer. He was a conductor, who can’t play an instrument.