Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas)

 A good friend of mine recommended that I watch Joyeux Noël, a movie that was released in 2005, directed by Christian Carion, and starring Guillaume Canet, Diane Kruger, DanyBoon and Daniel Brühl (who you may have seen in Inglorious Basterds). On a day I was feeling a bit down, I decided to try, ready to stop as soon as it became depressing.

But no, it is not depressing, it is beautiful. The film is set in 1914, at the beginning of World War I. A few images at the beginning are a bit difficult to watch, but then we get into the story. On Christmas Eve, sections of the Western Front call a truce and celebrate Christmas together. Germans, Scotts and French soldiers fraternize and share stories and liquor. They build friendships, knowing of course their superiors would not tolerate this behavior.
Horstmayer: [Speaking to Lieutenant Audebert and his troops] Our artillery will shell you in 10 minutes, so I suggest you come shelter in my trench. 
The film is broadly based on true events, although here it is very romanticized. The part with the opera singers is a bit too much, and the role of Diana Kruger was unnecessary, although it added a bit of coulour and glamour. The film shows the insanity of war, with all sides clearly forced to be there, and as shocking example the sermon by the English bishop.

Joyeux Noël shows the futility of warfare and shows it is impossible to kill another human being after a true connection has been made. It uses humour, violence, compassion to show who these characters are and one ends up caring about them and what will happen to them, whether French, Scottish or German.

Palmer: Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren't devout came to warm themselves.

Horstmayer: I heard last night about your wife. If you like, I can get a letter through to her.
Lieutenant Audebert: Why would you do that? If you got caught...
Horstmayer: [scoffs] One letter won't stop us winning the war. And anyhow, when we'll have taken Paris and it's over, you can invite us for a drink in Rue Vavin.
Lieutenant Audebert: You don't have to invade Paris to drop round for a drink

No professional techniques here, not historically accurate, some inconsistencies, but this is just touching and sending a positive message. I think it could be a Christmas classic. I saw some critics on the unlikelihood of the story, on the many historical mistakes made. I do not care. When I saw this, I was touched and inspired. That's enough for me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


As a new fan of SteveMcQueen since The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, it was only time to watch Bullitt (1968), directed by Peter Yates, and also starring Robert Vaughn (also in Magnificent Seven), Robert Duvall (The Godfather Parts I & II) and Jacqueline Bisset with a very secondary role as eye candy for the male viewers, and incidentally Bullitt's girlfriend.
 Lieutenant Bullitt (McQueen) is a cop who is commissioned by ambitious politician Chalmers (Vaughn) to protect Johnny Ross from the mob, as he is supposed to testify. Basically, the mission is assigned on a Friday, and Ross supposed to be kept alive until Monday. As things go wrong, Bullitt has to get to the bad guys before they get to him, all the while handling / dodging the politics of the situation.
The plot is basic but we get enough twists to keep the viewers interested. The characters are all very realistic, if a bit under developed, and the film overall is very well paced.
The film is mostly famous for the car chase in the streets of San Francisco, between a Dodge Charger 440 Magnum (the mob’s car) and the green Ford Mustang 390 GT (Bullitt’s car) – apparently McQueen got to keep the car after the filming of the movie. Some real speed action, with smoking tired, exhaust tones, etc….. that survived the passing of time very well. One funny thing was, the guys Bullitt is chasing remain so calm : the driver is wearing a tie, his passenger does not move in spite of driving very fast, and the two of them never say a word to each other !
Short extract here, for a longer version, you can click here

The way Steve McQueen plays is classic. He makes no apologies, does not get into politics, and just does his job. Every time I see him, he keeps giving the word « COOL » a new meaning, and Bullitt is no exception. Steve McQueen cannot be matched. Robert Vaughn is also extremely unlikeable as the ambitious politician trying to make Bullitt his scapegoat. Some great dialogues out of these two :
Chalmers: Come on, now. Don't be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public

Bullitt: Look, Chalmers, let's understand each other... I don't like you.

Chalmers: Lieutenant, don't try to evade the responsibility. In your... parlance, you blew it.

Chalmers: Frank, we must all compromise.
Bullitt: Bullshit.

A definite must see, it may seem a bit dated but will still put you on edge every time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cat on a hot tin roof

So, back in February I had man managed to go through A Streetcar named desire, based on a play by Tennessee Williams. With all the buzz after Liz Taylor’s death, I decided recently to watch Cat on a hot tin roof, based on a play by TW and released in 1958. The cast was good enough to tempt me: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy, Cool Hand Luke), Burt Ives. Director is Richard Brooks but never heard of him before (I might have missed something).

The film is set in Mississipi – Maggie (Taylor) and Brick (Newman) are a troubled couple who come and visit Big Daddy (Ives) for his birthday. Big Daddy is dying of cancer but doesn’t know it, and Brick’s brother and his wife are trying to manipulate him for his inheritance. Meanwhile, Brick drinks his troubles away and refuses to have sex with his wife. When the news is announced to Big Daddy, we begin to understand the troubles that set the family members apart.

You can see this was originally a theater play: scenes are in one location and then move to another, and dialogues occur at one place at a time. The movie covers different themes: greed, death, sexual desire, sexuality, hypocrisy. Tennessee Williams was unhappy with the screenplay, which removed the homosexual themes and revised the end to include a reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. TW hated the film so much that he told people : This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!

I tend to agree with him, but not for the same reasons – I got bored bored bored. Paul Newman is a fantastic actor in general - and drop dead gorgeous! -, but doesn’t bring much to his character : how can anyone drink so much in one evening and not die of poisoning, let alone have a meaningful conversation with anyone ? Liz Taylor is very beautiful indeed, but screams non stop for the entire length of the film (1 hour and 45 minutes) – I actually stopped the movie after a bit more than one hour and forced myself to watch the end. Which made up for part of it. Of course, it is not part of the original play, but that very last scene with Newman and Taylor was just hooooooot. And full of promises. But this is just the last 2 minutes. The motivation for Newman's sexual estrangement from Taylor is not clear in the movie and the story of Skipper is a mess : whether it is homosexual or heterosexual connotation, the « message » was too well hidden and I did not get it.
Burt Ives, who plays Big Daddy, was excellent, and his acting made up for the rest. I did like the secondary role of Madeleine Sherwood, the obnoxious sister-in-law, who portrays perfectly the greedy woman – she is so ugly that she contrasts well with Liz Taylor, who has less obvious expectations about the inheritance, and is more concerned about getting her husband’s love back.
Because the film is also about that : about loving someone whodoes not love you anymore, about learning to say goodbye, about accepting responsibility.
That said, putting into into the context, it is a movie that studies issues that are still valid in today’s wold, and was probably ahead of its time.

I am really trying to be fair here, but this was a hard one to sit through. As you have seen with previous posts, I enjoy old movies, but this was just too much.

A few quotes are memorable so here is a selection below:

Big Daddy: I've got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?

Dixie: Why is Uncle Brick on the floor?
Brick: Because I tried to kill your Aunt Maggie. But I failed. And I fell.

Dr. Baugh: Sometimes I wish I had a pill to make people disappear.

Big Daddy: I'm going to go out and look this place over before I give it up. The place and the people on it.

Brick: A family crisis brings out the best and the worst in every member of the family.

Maggie: You can be young without money, but you can't be old without it.

Maggie: Thank you for keeping still, for backing me up in my lie.
Brick: Maggie, we're through with lies and liars in this house. Lock the door.

I have nothing to add. Apparently it is part of the culture, that is the only reason I am glad I watched it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sophie's Choice

Sophie’s Choice was released in 1982 and is based on the novel of the same name  written by William Styron. It stars Meryl Streep (The Devil wears Prada), Kevin Kline (In and Out, A fish named Wanda) and Peter McNicol (who younger readers might know better as John Cage in the Ally McBeal series) and was directed by Alan J Pakula (The Pelican Brief, Presumed Innocent, All the President’s Men).

Stingo (McNicol) is a young writer who arrives in Brooklyn and meets Polish immigrant Sophie and her lover Nathan in a boarding house. 

Sophie is a survivor of Auschwitz and Nathan a Jewish biologist, and the two have a passionnate and destructive relationship. Nathan is jealous and has violent outbursts of jealousy.

Nathan Landau: You spent the whole fucking afternoon with him, or should I say, you spent the whole afternoon fucking him.

The three become rapid friends, and Stingo, the narrator, gradually discovers Sophie’s past.

SS officer: You believe in Christ the redeemer?
Sophie: Yes.
SS officer: [looks at Sophie's children] Did He not say... "Suffer the children, come unto me?"
[Sophie remains silent]
SS officer: You may keep one of your children.
Sophie: I beg your pardon?
SS officer: You may keep one of your children. The other must go away.
Sophie: You mean, I have to choose?

It is a bit difficult to know what the film is exactly about: victims of the Nazis or a very twisted love story. I believe it can be viewed as both.
Meryl Streep got the Best Actress Oscar for her shining performance, which is also rated number 3 in Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, and that is indeed the best performance I have ever seen. As I understand it, Meryl Streep literally begged Alan Pakula for this role, on her knees. In addition, in 2007 the American Film Institute ranked this as the number 91 Greatest Movie of All Time

Meryl Streep portrays a tormented character who is suffering from her experience in Auschwitz and from the hardest decision she’s ever had to make. Nathan is her reason for living. Despite his tormented personality, Sophie remains with him. Why? Sophie battles her grief and remorse, Nathan lives battling his disorder and hiding it from everyone. The film is about Sophie’s choice, but also about the choices she made after that, including her decision to remain whith Nathan, as damaged as she is. Together they seem perfectly happy, and they are when together, but when separated their worst feelings of misery  and self hating are showing.

Meryl Streep simply magnificent, making her character incredibly authentic, with her mastery of German and Polish, also conveying the image of a damaged, doomed yet benevolent character. The best performance ever.

Sophie's Choice is a rare and powerful movie.