Reviews

'Chocolat' Is Sweet, Charming, Old-Fashioned Entertainment

This sweet treat might prove sinfully delightful to some, but might induce a sugar rush in the more cynical viewers.


Chocolat

Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, Alfred Molina
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release date: 2011-07-19

The years have been quite kind to Chocolat which, during the previous decade, had earned an unfair reputation for getting that “What were they thinking?” slot at the Oscars. When the film was released in the winter of 2000, it received favorable reviews even though everyone agreed that there was nothing outstandingly remarkable about the movie. As it was, it looked like yet another of the confections Miramax, under the Weinstein brothers, had become so good at delivering: Hollywood pieces with a taste of European glamour.

Then the film got a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars and that became the parameter by which it was later judged. That year the film got into the prestigious category over more acclaimed pictures like Almost Famous, Billy Elliot, Requiem for a Dream and Dancer in the Dark, but let’s not kid ourselves, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has never been a beacon of progressive thinking when it comes to the cinema as an art form. Most of the movies just mentioned probably never even stood a chance at being nominated and as it was, Chocolat was an effective perpetuation of the elements that have always bewitched the Academy.

Chocolat is essentially a fable about not judging books by their covers. The film takes place during the year 1959 and stars Juliette Binoches as Vianne, a mysterious woman who arrives at a small French village with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) as the period of Lent begins. The village, we are told, is a conservative little place where nothing is valued more than “tranquilité”, or the art of maintaining things as they are. The town’s moral center is its mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) who rules with a stern hand looking to rescue the value of morality in adverse times. Therefore, the whole town is turned upside down when Vianne opens a chocolaterie!

Such is the film’s thematic simplicity; chocolate becomes synonymous with every possible temptation you’d want to avoid during Lent. It’s not as if the woman opened a sex shop but it’s with something so innocent as chocolate, that the entire town opens its sharp teethed jaws and tries to swallow this sinning woman to expiate their own sins. Movies have often showed us the efficiency of food as metaphor for countless subjects, think Like Water for Chocolate, Ratatouille and even The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover, to name but a few.

Of course, Vianne is also the kind of person whom strangers want to be near to (with Binoche’s luminosity, who can blame them?) and soon several villagers begin coming to her for advice, laughs and chocolate. The sweet elixir helps an old man romance the woman he’s loved for decades, jump starts a married couple’s tedious love life and saves a woman from domestic violence. These characters are played by the likes of Leslie Caron, Lena Olin and Judi Dench, who plays Vianne’s landlady, a bitter old woman who conceals a heart of gold, in other words, every character Dench played during the '90s.

At first glance the story plays out merely like a well done tale and if you ignore its successful run with movie awards, the truth is that it remains just that: a sweet little treat that keeps you entertained for two hours. This must be what made audiences and critics so tough on the little film. How can a movie with Binoche, Dench and Johnny Depp (who plays a version of himself as the seductive gypsy who steals Vianne’s heart) feel so shallow? Shouldn’t it be a gargantuan philosophical study of something? Remember this was back in the days where Depp was still considered an arthouse performer.

The truth is that expecting more out of the film doesn’t mean it’s bad at all. It just is what it is and as that it succeeds in an old Hollywood kind of way, everything about it is so well thought out and manipulated that it’s easy to imagine any stock director grabbing the screenplay and delivering the same film. It’s no coincidence that its director, Lasse Hallstrom was snubbed when Oscar time came...

However despite its factory feel, the movie still is able to amaze us in unexpected ways. Binoche, for instance, turns in a beauty of a performance. She could’ve played Vianne like a sophisticated Julia Roberts’ character, but instead infuses her with a little something extra. In her facial expressions we are able to detect a woman who has a complicated backstory, one perhaps too dark to tell in this sweet tale. She gives the movie a timeless quality that fools us into believing it could be a forgotten treat from an obscure European country.

Of course, the film is also beautiful to behold and in this stunning HD transfer every piece of chocolate makes us want a taste. Roger Pratt’s lush cinematography shines throughout (the bonus features which were imported from the DVD version are presented in standard quality).

Chocolat is a sweet, charming flick that deserves a second chance. It might not make your life more meaningful and it might even send you off on some serious binge eating, but for all its worth, it’s old fashioned entertainment that could very well inspire you to seek classic movies -- and that has never been a bad thing.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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