PONETTE (1997) – Heartbreaking children’s perspective on death

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The French import Ponette is one of the most devastatingly emotional movies I’ve ever seen.

It opens with a charming image: the 4-year-old title character sucking the open thumb of a broken arm encased in a cast. Sadly, that’s the last lighthearted image the movie conjures up for quite a while. It turns out that the cast is a result of a car accident that has killed Ponette’s mother.

Ponette’s father is of little help, having left Ponette with her unsympathetic cousins while he comes to terms with his grief. It is up to Ponette to deal with the blow as best as she can. She asks her cousins and their friends about death, and they try to help her with tortured theology pieced together from what they’ve been told by apathetic adults. And so Ponette tries this trick and that, hoping that eventually she’ll hit upon the right formula to bring her mother back.

Movies rarely seem to catch the way little children really talk and behave. This movie has it down pat, and it’s all the more heartbreaking for it. Without making it as explicit as a Hollywood production would, it’s obvious that these kids are having even more trouble than their parents in making sense of a senseless world.

And at the center of this story is Ponette, played by Victoire Thivisol in a performance that won her a film-festival award and universal raves. Her performance has nothing to do with the studied mannerisms and milkings of most child actors. Thivisol’s work here inspires many tears, but they are all earned.

The movie’s sole sore spot with reviewers has been its conclusion, which some people have tagged as compromisingly happy in a film that otherwise offers no easy answers. I prefer to think of the ending as hopeful. Yes, Ponette gets her mother back, but only for a short while, after which she must again cope with her grief. Ponette is smiling a little more by movie’s end, it’s true, but I was still crying as much as I was at the start.

MADELINE (1998) – Utterly charming children’s film

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Occasionally, Hollywood remembers that a good family movie can actually be enjoyed by the entire family, rather than endured for the children’s sake. 1998’s miracle was Madeline, easily the best family film since Babe.

It’s based on Ludwig Bemelmans’s delightful series of books about a feisty young girl who lives in a Parisian boarding house. The fact that the books delight so many readers (including me) immediately gave me a sense of dread. Surely Hollywood would feel compelled to “dumb down” the material and fill the movie with so-called jokes about bodily functions.

But other than a brief reference to a nasty-smelling cheese, the movie version is happily free of such stupidity. From the very first scene, in which the book’s drawings come to life as a narrator intones the familiar introduction (“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines…”), a silly grin planted itself on my face and never left.

The movie’s stylization is a wonder. The books’ color palette has been faithfully adapted, with eye-popping primary colors (Madeline’s yellow hat is as much of a character in the movie as Madeline is). This is the most delightful kids’ movie to just plain look at since Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.

The plot is easy enough to follow, especially for anyone who has read the books. (The main story threads are the boarding house’s being sold by its sullen owner Lord Covington, and Madeline’s eventual friendship with Pepito, the mischievous boy next door.) Yet as simplistic as the plot is, it makes sense on its own terms. The movie’s villains, while not overly menacing, are quite believable and not the Three Stooges kind of bad guys constantly tripping over themselves for cheap laughs.

The movie’s nicest surprise is in its resolution. (SPOILER ALERT paragraph!) All through the movie, we’re told that Lord Covington is a mean old businessman with no concern for the girls’ welfare. So we’re prepped for this subplot to be capped off with some stupid chase scene, or for Madeline to blackmail the old goat into keeping the school open. Instead, this plot thread is resolved with the most emotionally satisfying movie scene of the year — one that combines plausibility, intelligence, and genuine feeling. And that was the last thing I expected from any kiddie film.

The casting is perfect. Fargo Oscar winner Frances McDormand finds just the right note as the girls’ caretaker, Miss Clavel — a bit perplexed, but never ditzy, and as strong-willed as a caretaker of twelve girls would need to be. Nigel Hawthorne at first seems a bit too reserved as Lord Covington, but when the above-mentioned scene arrives, we suddenly realize how nicely the character has been developed.

And as for Madeline — where in the world did they get Hatty Jones? I’ve not heard of this girl anywhere else, and I would have guessed that, as with the ill-fated update of Leave It to Beaver, casting an unknown in the lead role would amount to little more than a publicity stunt. But Jones brings a storybook character to life and makes her totally engaging instead of a typical wisecracking brat. I can only imagine little moviegoers everywhere cheering on Madeline’s resourcefulness.

Finally, one must acknowledge the movie’s director, Daisy von Scherler Mayer. It would be easy to say that such a story requires a feminine touch, except that plenty of female directors have shown themselves to be as heavy-handed as any male. But Mayer retains the books’ charm and their gift for not talking down to their audience, which is a key element of any good children’s book — or any excellent movie, for that matter.

Charlie Chaplin’s Welsh Rarebit (in 10 easy photos)

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The following is my entry in The Classic Movie Cookalong (and Book Giveaway!), a contest being hosted by Fritzi at the blog Movies Silently through Apr. 27, 2017. Click on the image above to learn more about the contest and how to enter!

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My main memory of Welsh rarebit is an episode of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” where Gomer fell asleep after eating the dish and turned into a sleepwalking maniac. I’d also heard of the silent film Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. So for decades, I had the idea that Welsh rarebit was some exotic food. Imagine my surprise when Movies Silently‘s Fritzi announced this contest, and the main ingredients of the dish turned out to be shredded cheese and beer!

Nevertheless, the contest sounded fun and easy. All you have to do for it is use one of the two recipes (Charlie Chaplin’s or Maurice Chevalier’s) provided by Fritzi, and take photos or a video of yourself preparing and eating the dish. Fritzi is offering some very nice prizes to the contest’s winner. But frankly, the prizes don’t interest me — I entered the contest just to ham it up and to try a food I’d never eaten before. So I hereby declare that I do not want to be considered for the prizes — I just want to post my silly photos of me cooking this crazy dish!

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A Buster Keaton rerun

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I have never before done a “repeat” on this blog, but today I have Buster Keaton on the brain. Tonight, Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre is celebrating its 90th (!) anniversary with a screening of Keaton’s feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., complete with live orchestral accompaniment from local silent-film music expert Tony Steve.

(If you are in the Jacksonville area and can make it to the movie tonight, it starts at 7 p.m., and admission is free. Click here for more information.)

So I thought that today, I’d repeat a blog that I wrote two months ago as part of The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon that was hosted by the delightful blog Silent-ology (which I highly encourage you to visit for some enjoyable and well-researched writing about silent movies). My blogathon entry sums up my love of Buster’s work and my feelings towards modern movies in general.

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Film blogger Jim Emerson once wrote that he could see “the end of cinema” – that is, a time down the road when he was entirely sick of going to the movies, having seen it all already. Emerson asked his readers, “Has there been a movie, or a development in movies, that made you feel like saying ‘That’s it! I’m done!’? Where would you draw the line?”

On at least some days, I would draw the line at May 20, 1928. That was the release date of Steamboat Bill, Jr., the final independently produced film of Buster Keaton.

Cinema has continued to thrive since that particular date, of course. But the essence of much of the reason I ever wanted to go to the movies stops right there.

I used to follow movie comedy religiously. But frankly, for the past couple of decades, the coming-attractions trailers have been enough to turn me off. Modern comedies seem interchangeable – the same geeky guys getting into over-their-head situations, either eager to get laid (American Pie) or wishing they hadn’t (Knocked Up), or dealing with situations that any double-digitted IQ would have avoided from the start (What Happens in Vegas, The Hangover).

And finally, there are the guys who seem to aspire to the old school, bringing a reliable persona to film after film. Except that the personas consist mostly of mugging it up (Jim Carrey) or dealing heavily in bodily functions (Adam Sandler).

When I look at all these guys, I just want to shake my head and tell them, “Buster Keaton. You lose.”

What is there to see in modern film comedy that I haven’t seen in Keaton’s best work?

Jim Carrey expects kudos for a bungee jump in Yes Man? Big deal. Try having a real-life two-ton wall fall down all around you, as Keaton did in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers doing multiple roles? Buster Keaton did nine perfectly timed versions of himself on-screen all at once, along with several other roles, in The Playhouse.

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Computer-generated special effects? Feh. Watch Keaton literally throw himself into a movie-within-a-movie in Sherlock Jr. (Woody Allen swears this movie wasn’t the inspiration for his own The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a screen character leaves his movie and enters “real life.” Yeah, right.)

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Superhero Movie-type parody? In The Frozen North, Keaton laid waste to 1920’s Western star William S. Hart, making his entrance to the titular snowy territory via a subway kiosk.

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Emerson mentions that the late, great movie-bio author William K. Everson (“Who’s that?”, I hear the teenagers saying) had little interest in movies made past the early 1950’s, preferring to stick to the movie world he knew. Like a 21st-century Everson, I find little reason these days to venture beyond my PC, where I can toss in a DVD of Our Hospitality and watch a put-upon but stoic, almost epic comedian nearly kill himself, literally, for his laughs.

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THE APRIL SHOWERS BLOGATHON – Final Recap

Every shower must come to an end. It is with great regret, then, that we present

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If you missed Day 1 and/or Day 2, click on those days (highlighted in this sentence) to review those days’ blogathon entries. For today’s finale, click on each respective blog’s name to read his or her ‘thon contribution.

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The silent-film blog Movies Silently takes a fascinating look at an “actuality film” of The Seine Flood, a natural catastrophe that occurred in 1910 Paris.

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Musings of a Classic Film Addict tells how rain helps a nun (Claudette Colbert) uncover a secret from the past of a criminal (Ann Blyth) in Thunder on the Hill.

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Before any rain comes to end a Kansas drought, lightning definitely strikes Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn in The Rainmaker, as recounted by Moon in Gemini.

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More rain-soaked sparks fly between a young boy and Two English Girls, as Francois Truffaut’s film is blogged about by Cinematic Scribblings.

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And last but hardly least, Whimsically Classic critiques what is surely the sunniest rainy movie ever: Gene Kelly’s glorious-feeling musical Singin’ in the Rain.

This blog thanks all of the blogathon’s enthusiastic entrants and interested readers. We hope that we’ve helped to keep your head in the clouds for the past three days!

THE APRIL SHOWERS BLOGATHON – Day 2 Recap

Four more bloggers have contributed terrific blogs about movies with rainy weather — so it’s time to shout about

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If you missed the terrific entries from Day 1, click here to read them. For Day 2’s entries, click on the name of each individual blog to read their blogathon entry.

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Sister Celluloid notes how Celia Johnson is drenched with despair in Brief Encounter.

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Far happier are precipitation-covered Josh Lucas and Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, as documented by ThoughtsAllSorts.

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lifesdailylessonsblog finds inspiration in a rain-soaked adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

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And finally, Leonardo DiCaprio is unnerved by more than just rain in the thriller Shutter Island, as examined by Reelweegiemidget Reviews.

Looking for more wetness? We’ve got you covered. There’s still one more day left in our soggy blogathon, so keep us bookmarked for more entries to come!