A Cat In Paris (2010)

A Cat in Paris (2010)

*currently streaming on Sundance Now


Although many of us bemoan the death of the video store, one of the (unintentional) consequences of the rise of streaming services is the broadening market for indies and foreign-language films. Movies that otherwise would have been found buried in the stacks at Blockbuster are widely available. I know for certain my childhood Blockbuster wouldn’t have carried A Cat in Paris, an animated film from Folimage that was nominated for an Academy Award back in 2010.

A Cat in Paris tells of the exciting adventures of Dino, a black cat with red stripes who lives with Zoe and her mother Jeanne by day, and by night accompanies dashing cat burglar Nico on his nefarious rounds. Dino is a source of solace and companionship for Zoe, who has become increasingly distant from her mother since her father’s murder by crime boss Victor Costa. In her grief and anger, Zoe has retreated into herself, refusing to speak and largely relating to her cat. While Jeanne investigates her husband’s murder, she leaves her daughter in the care of Dino and their housekeeper Claudine. Dino’s wanderings soon result in the intersection of Jeanne and Nico’s lives, when he accidentally leads Zoe out of the house and into danger.

A Cat in Paris has both its plot and its animation style going for it, developing the characters as much through their fluid movements and physical types as through their roles in the actual narrative. Nico’s movements are fluid, his arms and legs bending and elongating as he traverses the rooftops of Paris with catlike (!) ease. He’s of a piece with Dino, perhaps the most perfectly inscrutable and adorable representation of a cat in animation. Dino is completely at home sliding across fences, annoying dogs, and following in the footsteps of his criminal friend, then returning home to cuddle Zoe and reassure her that she’s loved, as only a pet can do.

As the film develops from Dino’s nighttime wanderings to a screwball-ish caper somewhere between latter-day Hitchcock and Stanley Donen’s Charade, the animation doesn’t lose its sense of magic. Paris is rendered in all its beauty, the essence of the city captured in  stuttering, elegant lines and popping colors. The film doesn’t shy away from creating a sense of danger, though the effect is more emotional and psychological than representative of real physical violence. One sequence in which the lights go out during rescue attempt is drawn so brilliantly style that one realizes this is a film that must be animated, that cannot exist outside the realm of hand-drawn art.

My sole complaint about A Cat in Paris is that I was unable to watch it in the original French via streaming, and so had to make do with the English language version. However, this also means that I got to hear Anjelica Huston doing voice work as Claudine, so it all came out right in the end.

Coming in at a brisk 65 minutes, A Cat in Paris is a welcome respite from CGI, as well as an adventure worthy of a 1960s caper film. It also reminded me that of all the cities in the world, Paris is still the most magical.

A Cat in Paris is available to stream on Sundance Now.

*Like my writing? Please consider supporting my Patreon!

Off The Rails (2016)

Off The Rails (2016)

*Streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.


This year has seen a preponderance of excellent documentaries, as no doubt the Oscar race will attest. Many have been all-too-topical, as increasing police violence, hate crimes, and the divide between the rich and poor ever widens. Adam Irving’s Off the Rails joins Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Andrew Cohn’s Night School in an examination of the intersection of poverty, race, and perceived criminality, this time through the singular life and more singular crimes of Darius McCollum.

McCollum’s story is an odd one: born and raised in Queens, he became increasingly fascinated by the New York transit systems, especially the subway, as an escape into the calming world of schedules and time tables that contrasted with the uncertainty of his life above-ground. Transit workers favored him with tours and lessons on the intricate workings of the system, increasing his fascination and plunging him deeper in an obsession. When he was fifteen, McCollum wound up accidentally commandeering a subway train when a transit worker left him in charge. He safely made all the stops along the route until he was caught and arrested. Thus began a so-called “life of crime,” which resulted in his being jailed 32 times for impersonating transit officials and stealing trains and buses. McCollum became what he refers to as a “volunteer” in the MTA, attending trade union meetings, working for workers’ rights, and even successfully impersonating a superintendent. He’s spent twenty-three years in a maximum security facility, despite never injuring anyone.

If ever there was a criminal who shouldn’t be in prison, it’s Darius McCollum. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, though this made little difference to the municipal authorities or the DA’s office. His crimes, while potentially dangerous, are victimless: despite commandeering hundreds of subway trains and buses, McCollum has never injured anyone, and, according to the film, has even been responsible for helping people in crisis. His passion for the MTA is real; his love for it unique among workers. Yet he’s never been employed by the MTA, who views him as a danger and an embarrassment. The news media refers to him as “joy-riding” on trains, labelling him “notorious,” a “transit bandit,” as though his crimes are entirely self-serving and constitute public endangerment.

The film spends most of its runtime in examining McCollum’s character and obsession, conducting long interviews with him, his mother, attorneys, social workers, and psychiatrists. A picture emerges of a bright, capable boy who took to the transit system as a world in which things made sense: trains run on a schedule, there are rules and regulations, structure. Because of his very public arrests, McCollum was barred from working for the MTA (he applied to them twice and was rejected both times). As his crimes mounted up, the MTA continued to decline to employ him. His lack of comfort and direction in life only made him retreat more to the place where things made the most sense, stealing more trains and resulting in a cycle that landed him in increasingly secure facilities until he was imprisoned at Rikers Island, awaiting trial.

But although the film takes McCollum as a very special case, his experience exposes the severe failings of a criminal justice system that is incapable of dealing with a man like him: someone whose crimes are strange, non-violent, and largely non-threatening. Judges refuse to take his Asperger’s into account; he’s left in prison for years awaiting trial; he’s given little social or economic support once he does emerge from prison. Now in his fifties, he’s never held a regular job, never paid rent, never supported himself. Despite a small support network of attorneys, social workers, his mother, and an Imam who worked in his prison, McCollum continues to return to the same behavioral pattern, unable to break the cycle by himself and evidently without the extensive support and therapy that he needs. The system has rejected him, preferring to spend millions of dollars prosecuting and imprisoning him rather than trying to help and understand his problems and find a solution. It is a spectacular failure of the justice system that a non-violent criminal, a man who has never harmed anyone, has spent so much time behind bars.

Off the Rails has a few weaknesses. As McCollum falls in and out of jail, the story itself takes on a cyclical structure, which does become a bit wearing nearing the end. There are also gaps in the narrative: interviews with psychiatrists and Asperger’s advocates are featured, but it’s never explained how long or how often they’ve worked with McCollum, or if they’re simply there as authorities on Asperger’s. The film doesn’t really address the spectacular failure of a transit system with such lax security that someone without licensing or official training can operate a transit vehicle – a brief scene at the MTA bus depot shows that McCollum, or anyone, would easily be able to just drive off with a bus. Brief sequences of animation, as McCollum compares himself to Superman, fall flat and have an edge of unintentional mockery.

But any failings that Off the Rails has falls flat in light of the sorrowful and slightly hopeless story. The film sheds a clear light on the failings of the justice system in the United States, the way in which people are labeled criminals, and the needs for mental health support and therapy. By focusing on a unique story, the film manages to open up a narrative of injustice that spreads far wider than Darius McCollum. If the system has failed him, it has failed thousands of others like him.  We see a justice system that doesn’t seem to want to rehabilitate or help prisoners, but to lock them up, throwing away their lives because they do not fit into prescribed social order. Darius McCollum has been wronged, and the justice system doesn’t seem to care.

Off the Rails is streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.