Sunday, July 31, 2011

Worth Watching: Le Dîner de Cons (1998)

Title: Le Dîner de Cons
Director: Francis Veber
Language: French
Rating: PG-13

Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) participates in a weekly dinner where he and his friends bring along the biggest idiots they can find; they do this for amusement and as a competition to see who can invite the crowning idiot of the evening. On the fateful day in which the film is set, Pierre believes he's found a fine specimen of idiocy: François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a tax-man from the Ministry who in his spare time builds models of architectural wonders out of matchsticks. Pierre, a wealthy publisher, injures his back during golf and is forced to miss out on that evening's 'idiot dinner', but he invites François to his apartment to get to know him better before the next get-together. Thinking that Pierre is interested in publishing a book about his matchstick models, François arrives eager to help him in any way, and so, in a single evening, Pierre's life cheerfully goes to pieces.

François Pignon is the most likeable character here, not only because he's honest and genuinely willing to help, but because the actor who plays him, Jacques Villeret, has the endearing eyes of a hush puppy and an adorably pudgy face. It's difficult to take your eyes off of Villeret, who gives a brilliant performance as a well-meaning guy who can't think quickly on his feet and keep track of multiple details, though he appreciates mischief and cleverness. I thought his matchstick models were pretty impressive, and François makes an excellent omelet too so he's not without his talents.

For most of the evening François tries to help Pierre track down and win back his wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), who said that she's leaving him; Pierre, hampered by his bad back, is often limited to looking on in awe and horror as François attempts to set things right. This is Pierre's comeuppance. In some ways you feel bad for him (to have so much go so wrong in so little amount of time) but he brought these disasters on himself through his dishonesty and arrogance. Thierry Lhermitte, in addition to having lovely blue eyes, is a fine actor, the straight man to Villeret's loveable buffoon, and watching them together is a treat.

Two more minor characters are also worth noting. Lucien Cheval (Daniel Prévost) is a zealous tax inspector and diehard soccer fan who gets sucked into, and contributes to, the unfolding miseries in Pierre's apartment. Juste LeBlanc (Francis Huster) is Pierre's estranged friend; François inadvertently reconciles them during the film, and so Juste is at hand for a part of the evening, though even together he and Pierre can't undo what François has wrought. Juste has an infectious wheezy laugh; the situation gets to be too funny for him to handle, and I understand completely - I can't remember the last time I was laughing so hard during a movie that I had to pause it several times.

Pierre and François don't become best buddies or anything like that. The movie ends on just the right note.

Memorable sights and sounds
The facial expressions - confusion, naïveté, and innocent glee from François, stunned disbelief from Pierre, and shrewd calculation from the tax inspector, Cheval, who with few important exceptions misses very little.

Stand-out scenes
Any time François Pignon uses a telephone is funny, whether he dials the wrong number, forgets the primary purpose of the call, gets carried away with emotion, chats about irrelevant details, and even when he does finally get it right, screws things up immediately after.

The entire scene with the tax inspector is also brilliant, with different kinds of humor from verbal wit to sight gags, multiple revelations, some plot points memorably resolved and new ones introduced.

Further thoughts
I can't think of another movie where a character says, in all seriousness, "I'm in a bind; I don't have an idiot. I've looked all over... got one on hand?" Pierre is the one who says this; and he doesn't have to look far. Pretty much everyone is an idiot in one way or another.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Week in Seven Words #77

Each car streams the heat from its exhaust pipe across my shins.

Time crumbles away in sweat, sleeplessness, and apathy.

The air presses down like an iron, smoothing my clothes flat onto my skin.

She makes her day sound exciting, each detail a delight, and something new to learn at every ordinary place she visits.

The leaves look like pieces of green stained glass. It's reassuring to see that even when the heat is brutal and they're scorched, they can still endure beautifully.

He argues into his cell phone, loudly and unselfconsciously, about the precise number of tissues he used the night before to blow his nose.

There's a little cell inside me, accessed by a hatch, and sometimes I disappear into it, curling up like a pillbug.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Week in Seven Words #76

Watching The King's Speech outdoors by the Delaware River, I'm huddled knees to chest on a flight of stone steps among friends. The screen ripples slightly in the wind, and the waters beyond are a hypnotic royal blue.

He flops onto the ground and refuses to go further, but with the promise of cookies at the top of the hill he's back on his feet, grudgingly.

To stave off his fit of fussiness and tears I change his position every so often. I stand him up on the kitchen table, so he has a prime view of the backyard and of his older brother's elaborate monologue on war tactics. Then he sits on the table, his fist clutching my index finger. Next he finds himself on a soft chair, standing again on my lap and bouncing slightly to the rhythm of the William Tell Overture. I wonder what he makes of all these shifts in perspective.

On our walk back some blocks are silent and brightly lit. Others rumble with noise and people packed around tables outdoors. The parks are shadowed and secretive. We watch the lights fade out in a church.

We find spiders, red and orange mushrooms, a bed of ferns splashed with sunshine, and trees that have tipped into the embrace of other trees. There are also slabs of rock over a trickling stream and stones set in a shaky stairwell on the hillside.

At the bookstore they fan out, searching for chapter books, picture books, bargain books on military history. Their voices drift from different pockets, across shelves, announcing discoveries and asking others to come look at curious finds.

I'm on the verge of something - I don't know what – but in spite of my fear I'd like to find out.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers (P.D. James)

Title: Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers
Author: P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James)

Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (edited by Patricia Craig)

Canon Hubert Boxdale has inherited a large sum of money from his step-grandmother, Allegra (known to the family as "Great Aunt Allie"). He's reluctant to accept the money, because he was never sure about Allie's innocence in regards to the death of his grandfather; though she wasn't convicted in court, people always suspected that she had murdered her husband to obtain his fortune. Hubert asks his godson, Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, to reopen the decades-old murder case and see if he can settle the question of Allie's innocence with certainty.

Some reasons to read it

  • The characterization of Hubert, who is a good unselfish man. Thinking him naive, people often take advantage of him, but he knows what they're up to even as he keeps trying to help them. A key insight is that "his goodness had in some sense protected him." Dalgliesh will have to protect Hubert too, but not necessarily from finding out anything painful about Allie, who may very well have been innocent. Dalgliesh has great respect for his godfather, and wonders sometimes how a man like that can live "in a carnivorous world in which gentleness, humility, and unworldliness are hardly conducive to survival let alone success."
    Dalgliesh told himself that he should have remembered what, as a small boy, he had discovered about Uncle Hubert's conscience; that it operated as a warning bell and that, unlike most people, he never pretended that it hadn't sounded or that he hadn't heard it or that, having heard it, something must be wrong with the mechanism.

  • Another person Dalgliesh comes to like during the course of the investigation is Allie herself. I won't reveal much more about her. In the timeframe of the story she has passed away, and never appears outside of other people's recollections and records, but her presence lingers throughout. The question of her innocence is answered conclusively by the end; and at the end, after we find out exactly what happened to Hubert's grandfather, we're left to reflect on the nature of innocence.

  • James is an engaging story-teller. Her characterizations are sharp, her writing skillful and precise; the story is rich with wry humor and keen observations of human nature. All throughout there are questions - if it wasn't Allie, then who was it? Dalgliesh tracks down witnesses and other potential suspects who are still alive; he pores over trial records. There's always the danger that the truth will be lost to time; or it might be a painful truth that's best left only partially revealed.


Other recommended tales from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories are Death on the Air (by Ngaio Marsh) and these stories here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Week in Seven Words #75

We find a rose garden and a magnolia garden facing each other across a quiet street. Both are past their season. Both are mostly empty. A breeze shimmers through them.

Fireworks rumbling at the day's end.

I share as much of the truth as I can bring myself to without distressing them unduly.

It's a happy lazy day, when the sun pounds through my head; I play Scrabble, fight off sleepiness, and read out loud from a chapter book about a pig in search of hot buttered toast.

They take me on a tour through their slowly growing Lego town. In the pizza parlor a Lego lady is firing up some pies.

Chocolates wrapped in slick foil of different colors: orange, ocean blue, silver, gold, and fir green.

We glimpse The Thinker through a sprawl of planks and chain-link fencing. He's hemmed in.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Week in Seven Words #74

To solve the game I sketch out maps on lined paper with squiggly tunnels and shaky rooms, roads that leap too far right or left. I love it when I haven't yet explored everything, and there are blank spaces, terra incognita.

For the exact same task, twenty minutes isn't nearly enough time on one day but a decent amount of time on another.

The quality of a mediocre film improves when you watch it in good company.

When talking to different friends it can feel as if I'm bouncing around from one planet to another - some are brilliant and turbulent, others are spare and rocky, a few aren't planets at all but friendly moons with valleys, caves, and silver mountains. But they're all inviting, one way or another.

I like his free associative style of speaking. He says what comes to mind, but it's never anything malicious - at worst it's irrelevant, but mostly in an amusing way.

Pizza dough slowly swelling in a bowl.

At half past midnight, while walking past the brightly lit windows of a bank, I see a janitor inside mopping the floor. Several feet away his young daughter twirls around with a broom.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Death on the Air (Ngaio Marsh)

Title: Death on the Air
Author: Ngaio Marsh (Edith Ngaio Marsh)

Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (edited by Patricia Craig)

On the 25th of December at 7:30 a.m. Mr. Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set.

Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates the death of a man who was apparently electrocuted by his own radio. As it becomes clear that this wasn't an accident, Alleyn needs to sort through a houseful of suspects including the wife and children, servants and employees, and friends of the family. Septimus Tonks was a cruel tyrannical man with no shortage of people who feared and despised him. Alleyn's investigation uncovers secret relationships, dysfunctions, and the wreckage of an unhappy home.

Some reasons to read it

  • Marsh attends to the technical details of the crime and to the delicate dance of timing and opportunity that makes it so difficult to pinpoint the murderer. What's most compelling about her story though are the characters and the household dynamics.

  • The precision of the crime contrasts with the messiness of the people. Marsh reveals to us these wounded people, and the man who liked to grind them under his thumb. Sometimes the story only suggests things that are all the more disturbing for not being entirely exposed. You wouldn't find this family sitting around the tree opening presents together.
    The radio hummed, gathered volume, and found itself.
    'No-oel, No-o-el,' it roared.

    At the same time, they can be decent to each other in small subdued ways, Mr. Tonks excluded. Unhappy or damaged as they are, the different family members and employees understand each other. Love can grow in unforgiving soil, like a weed that's difficult to uproot.

  • The story is absorbing, both for the mystery and for the character portraits. I wonder at what stage Alleyn solved the crime and knew who did it; he's a man who seems to keep his cards close to his chest. Certain conversations gain significance at the end, after everything is revealed.
    "I'm the least suspicious man alive. I'm merely being tidy."


Other recommended tales from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories are Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers (by P.D. James) and these stories here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

L'equip petit

A documentary about little kids on an underdog soccer team (what would be a little league team here in the U.S.). They haven't scored a goal yet. They speak with seriousness and passion about the game; failure isn't fazing them. They're also having fun, as are the people who coach them.

l'equip petit from el cangrejo on Vimeo.