Category Archives: Reviews

The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

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The Circle: Style Over Substance

The Circle (2017) stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a dream job at a tech company called The Circle. Skeptical at first, she comes to embrace The Circle’s vision of total openness and transparency, until ultimately uncovering the company’s nefarious agenda. It is based on a novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The Circle is visually impressive, blending current and speculative technology to bring to life a world where the digital and physical overlap. If Apple made a movie, it would look like this. Clean, simple, elegant. Unfortunately, its message is lost in a plot thinner than an iPhone 7.

The Circle was founded by Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and designed by Ty Lafitte (John Boyega). Since growing into a Google-esque tech giant, Ty Lafitte has faded into the background, becoming an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure who quietly opposes its agenda. The Circle integrates everything about your life into one system, seeking to acquire an ever-increasing amount of personal data, including placing cameras all over the world to monitor and analyze all human activity.

The Circle is a progressive and hip company that provides everything for its employees on its massive campus. Parallels to Apple and Steve Jobs are obvious (Eamon Bailey even holds casual talks where he announces products to his employees). Employees are peer pressured into conformity and relying on The Circle for social acceptance, entertainment, and even health. While employees are continually encouraged to “become more transparent,” Stenton and Bailey operate in secrecy, hiding their future plans and true motivations. Their agenda is so secret, not even the film’s audience ever finds out what they’re up to.

Is privacy important? Is transparency always good? Those are the questions I thought this film set out to explore. Don’t expect any clear answers. Mae Holland is converted to The Circle’s philosophy after she steals a kayak and would have drowned in San Francisco Bay if not for the cameras secretly recording her activity. She decides to go “fully transparent,” broadcasting her every experience through cameras. Later, however, she is pressured into using this technology to find her ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who flees the cameras and drives off the San Francisco Bridge. Though depressed, she determines to “fix” the system. “When a plane crashes, you make planes safer, you don’t stop flying,” she tells her parents.

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Quest for Fire

Quest for Fire (1981), or La guerre du feu, is a French film depicting primitive man’s struggle to attain fire in Middle Paleolithic Europe. This movie fascinated me as a kid, but I haven’t seen it for nearly two decades. I recently decided to watch it again, to see if adulthood would ruin the magic. After 35 years, it still holds up as a cinematic achievement. Written by Gérard Brach, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, and based on a Belgian novel of the same name by J.H. Rosny, it stars Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong. This was Ron Perlman’s first film. Jean-Jacques Annaud also directed The Name of the Rose (1986), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Quest for Fire follows four Paleolithic humans as they search for a source of fire, the only thing that provides warmth, light, and security in a hostile world. As the film opens, the Wagabu, a savage tribe of ape-like Neanderthals, attacks a tribe of Homo sapiens, the Ulam, as they lounge in their cave. After a fierce battle, the Ulam scatter and find themselves in a marsh, where their pilot light (for lack of a better term) is extinguished. The tribal elder sends three men, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman), and Gaw (Nicholas Kadi), to find a new source of fire, since they cannot create it themselves.

Along the way, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw rescue Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) from a tribe of red-haired cannibals, the Kzamm. Ika belongs to the Ivaka, an advanced tribe of Homo sapiens. The Ivaka have mastered building shelter, using gourds as cups and bowls, atlatl, and most importantly, the ability to make fire with a hand drill. Together, the four return fire to the Ulam, but not before defeating a rival faction using their newly acquired, advanced weaponry.

After all these years, Quest for Fire holds up so well partially because there were no special effects. Most scenes were shot in a single take, and the dialog consists of grunts, gestures, and a primitive language created by novelist Anthony Burgess. All the animals are played by actual animals, even the mammoths.  The mammoths, I admit, look goofy, but I was surprised to learn the filmmakers used circus elephants to portray them. Like The Revenant (2015), Quest for Fire features a bear attack, but unlike The Revenant, the bear in Quest for Fire is 100 percent real, not CGI. There’s something unnerving about watching actual lions prowl beneath a flimsy tree, waiting for the three helpless cavemen to fall, as opposed to fake, CGI monstrosities.

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New on my Bookshelf 

I picked up these books on my latest road trip. They look interesting! Don’t expect reviews anytime soon though, I have a long backlog!

Ghosts: A Natural History

Originally published in Great Britain in 2012, Ghosts: A Natural History (2015) by Roger Clarke is an exploration of the subject framed by a taxonomy of eight varieties of ghosts. Each chapter is a micro history of one or two prominent ghosts and trends in ghost hunting, from the seventeenth century Tedworth House and eighteenth century Hinton House, to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall and the Borley Rectory in the twentieth.

Through these locations and events, Clarke traces a history of not just ghosts but the people fascinated by them. With the exception of the haunted German U-boat, U65, all of the discussed locations are in Great Britain. Clarke describes the British Isles as being particularly overrun with spooks and specters.

Ghosts: A Natural History is a wonderful book, rich with fascinating places and characters. Clarke brings to life the people involved in these events, some of whom may surprise you. For instance, I knew Royal Society member Joseph Glanville was convinced of the reality of witchcraft, but I didn’t know he felt the same about ghosts. Likewise, I was amused to read that his contemporary, Robert Boyle, father of modern experimental science, joined Glanville in investigating poltergeist activity at the Tedworth House and what became known as the “Devil of Mâcon.”

Religion is another interesting aspect of this book. According to Clarke, much of England’s ghost belief springs from latent Catholicism or former Catholic sites. When Catholicism was suppressed in England and the Church’s property confiscated, many rectories, graveyards, and monasteries were left to decay–attracting a reputation for being haunted. With one notable exception, Protestant ministers tried to stamp out ghost belief, since ghosts were supposedly souls trapped in purgatory–a thoroughly Catholic notion. However, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, not only believed in ghosts, but poltergeist activity plagued his family home at Epworth as a child.

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Kong: A Monstrous Popcorn Flick

Samuel L Jackson fights CGI monsters in this nostalgia-driven reboot of the 1933 classic King Kong. This is the third remake/reboot of King Kong. Though essential elements of the original remain, Kong: Skull Island (2017) is set in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War. It is replete with counter-culture references and music from the period, with the addition of a marooned WW2 vet to appeal to Baby Boomers and their parents alike. Nostalgia is the only explanation I have for why this film has gotten such good reviews. The dialog, acting, plot, and CGI are all mediocre. Its only redeeming quality is the ending fight scene between Kong and a giant skullcrawler called Ramarak.

The plot is straightforward. Bill Randa (John Goodman), a monster-hunter, attains funding to travel to an uncharted Pacific island under the guise of a geologic  mapping expedition. He enlists the help of former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and “antiwar” photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), alongside various Landsat employees. Once over the island, they encounter Kong, who smashes their helicopters. The survivors find a primitive tribe living on the island, alongside a stranded WW2 fighter pilot, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). From there, they must cross the island to safety while avoiding oversized creatures and carnivorous skullcrawlers.

While the 2005 Peter Jackson remake staring Jack Black wasn’t great either, I preferred that version of Kong. He was essentially just a giant silverback gorilla, with complex emotions and mannerisms copied from real life. In contrast, this Kong was as tall as a skyscraper, walked upright, and had two emotional states: pensive and roaring loudly. He’s also somehow impervious to .30 cal machine gun bullets, fire, and razor-sharp teeth.

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