Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Defining a « classic » is a tough exercise. And you will have as many definitions as individuals. What’s a « must-see » ? Frankly, I cannot understand why i waited this long to watch Platoon (1986), directed by Oliver Stone, based on his own experience. I was getting a bit tired of war movies, but decided to persevere. I was not disappoitned. For one thing, the cast is incredible : Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, even a very young Johnny Depp and Mark Moses (infamous Paul Young in Desperate Housewives !!)

Chris Taylor (Sheen) gave up college to volunteer in Vietnam - he is the narrator and main character of the story. As the days go by and the war escalates, he finds his platoon is torn between two camps : good, represented by cooperative and pleasant Sergeant Elias (Dafoe, magnificent) and evil, represented by violent and seemingly indestructible Sergeant Barnes (Berenger) – the fight becomes both external and internal.

Chris: Somebody once wrote: "Hell is the impossibility of reason." That's what this place feels like. Hell.

Barnes: Shut up! Shut up and take the pain! Take the pain!

Junior: Free your mind and the ass will follow.

Chris: Day by day I struggle to maintain not only my strength but also my sanity. It's all a blur. I have no energy to write. I don't know what's right or wrong anymore. The morale of the men is low, a civil war in the platoon. Half the men with Elias, half with Barnes. There's a lot of suspicion and hate. I can't believe we're fighting each other, when we should be fighting them.

O'Neill: Excuses are like assholes, Taylor. Everybody's got one!

To me, Platoon is one of the finest films ever made, war or otherwise. All actors here are amazing. Chris as a young private is captivating, Barnes is almost scary (he made me shiver with his nonchalant attitude towards life and death) and Willem Defoe is strong but caring.

Elias: What happened today was just the beginning. We're gonna lose this war.
Chris: Come on! You really think so? Us?
Elias: We've been kicking other peoples asses for so long I figured it's time we got ours kicked.

Special points for Mark Moses as the completely overwhelmed Lieutenant. Characters are realistic and well defined, and the supporting characters also deliver a solid performance.

Chris's statement : « I felt like a child, born of these two fathers » summarizes the tone of the whole movie : at times the soldiers feel like Barnes, full of rage and hate, at others they follow on Elias’ common sense. The village massacre scene explains it all : the soldiers want revenge, but ultimately regret the violence they have just witnessed and been a part of.

Chris: I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days. As I'm sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called "possession of my soul." There are times since, I've felt like a child, born of those two fathers. But be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.

Scenes and images are violent and depict the horrors of war, it’s not just about America’s role in Vietnam. There is continuous firing, but my understanding was that the film was more against war and the futility of it than for it. 
I don't know about the realism of this film, but one truly shocking part, as Chris discovers at some point is that his fellow soldiers are either uneducated or poor. The rich and the educated do not go to war, they become high ranking officers, as Mark Moses plays – it is not explicitly said, or maybe I missed dit, but it shows.
The fact that the movie is narrated is also excellent : it involves the viewer directly, as he’s being talked to, and also provides some perspective to make sense of what is happening in front of our eyes.
Other than that the battles are very well filmed : explosions, screaming, fire. When there is no battle we see how tough military can be, people break down, there is racism, elitism, people fight each other. At times it is disturbing,that’s one element to keep in mind. Oliver Stone shows what war is like: exhausting mentally and physically, confusing, mad.

Behind the scenes, I gathered a few facts.

  • Toward the end of the film, Francesco Quinn reaches into a dead Vietnamese soldier’s pocket and pulls something out : he is removing heroin, which VietCong soldiers used as painkiller. Apparently, many US soldiers did the same and became addicts.
  • Seems like Tom Berenger was mostly used to playing good guys, while Willem Dafoe always played villains. Oliver Stone inverted this for Platoon, forcing each actor to get out of his comfort zone. Both received Oscar nominations.

Platoon is a classic, plain and simple.

Friday, May 20, 2011

La Vie en Rose (La Môme)

Straight after The Pianist, I watched La Vie en Rose (french title La Môme) – I had heard so much about it, and there has been so much fuss about Marion Cotillard, that I felt it was a must-see.
Released in 2007, it is about the life of Edith Piaf, a famous French singer and is presented in a series of flashbacks, going back and forth in time. Marion Cotillard, who impersonates Edith Piaf, received an Oscar for her performance, the first time such an award was given for a role in french language.
It is an unstructured look into the life of Édith Piaf. Her mother is an alcoholic, her father a circus artist,  and her grandmother a madam. As a child she lives with them, and in her 20s she is singing in the streets, where she is discovered by a club owner who is then murdered. She uis then coached by a musician who brings her to fame. She is always drinking or abusing drugs. Although she had many love affairs, the only one described here is her story with Marcel Cerdan.
I do not know if the impersonation of Edith Piaf is accurate, but the acting of Marion Cotillard is spectacular is taht she is able to play a woman at many different stages of her life. Sure, the makeup does help, too !

We learn a lot about Piaf but do not really know if her suffering and her art are lin,ked or not, this is not shown clearly. It all ends up being very confusing, going back and forth, and in the end all we learned during the very long 150 minutes is that Piaf has a tough life and was a great artist. Nothing more. The character in itself, as played by Marion Cotillard, is barely likeable, and in the end her high voice when she talks, her irreverence, her ability to be passionate and cruel at the same time make it a very hard movie to watch.

American journalist: If you were to give advice to a woman, what would it be?
Edith Piaf: Love.
American journalist: To a young girl?
Edith Piaf: Love.
American journalist: To a child?
Edith Piaf: Love

Edith Piaf: [to Marcel] You are my champion. I want you to be mine for life. Nothing existed before you. It's all gone.

Edith Piaf: I can't? Then what's the point of being Edith Piaf?

Add the suffering to it and the absence of any kind of boundaries, and basically, after The Pianist especially, all you have is a depressing film. I had to force myself to watch it until the end. The only emotionnal moments are through the original songs of Piaf. The last scene at the Olympia is admittedly touching but has nothing to do with the quality of the movie, rather with the music.
From a pure acting perspective it is a masterpiece, but I did not enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Pianist

Many movies have been made about the Nazi era and the holocaust. I do not like war movies so much,but still they relate History, or at least one side of it, but I think it is important to watch too, as, beyond entertainment, it is a testimony. And as difficult as it is to watch a Holocaust movie, The Pianist (2002), directed by Roman Polanski and starring Adrian Brody (who got an Oscar for his role), should not be missed.

The film recounts the story of Polish-Jewish pianist  Wladyslaw Szpilman, as he survived in hiding for two and a half years during the Nazi occupation of Poland. When his family is taken away to  concentration camps to be exterminated (it is not explicitely said but one can suspect), he is saved by a policeman he once knew and sent to the ghetto to work. He escapes and rejoins the Polish side, where he is helped by resistants. When this helps disappears he has to keep running to escape German forces, with tremendous difficulties to find shelter, food and water.

Wladek Szpilman: I'm not going anywhere.
Halina: Good. I'm not going anywhere either.
Mother: Don't be ridiculous, we've got to keep together.
Wladek Szpilman: Look, look... If I'm going to die, I prefer to die in my own home. I'm staying put.

Wladek Szpilman: You've got to give me something to do.
Yehuda: You're an artist, Wladek. You do enough.
Wladek Szpilman: I want to help. I want to do something.
Yehuda: You're too well known, Wladek. And you know what? You musicians don't make good conspirators. You're too... too... musical!

Majorek: Germans never use Jewish toilets. They're too clean for them.

Wladek Szpilman: Food is more important than time.

In my book, a good film is one that makes you have a good time. This one, in spite of its accuracy, the realism of some scenes, is depressing. Still, it remains a must – great acting, great script, great filming - but I have to admit on occasion I actually got bored, as some scenes dragged on for too long. The horrors of daily life in Poland during the war are depicted at length and some images are just shocking : children shot in the streets, an old man in a wheelchair thrown through a window, a boy crawling under a wall, getting half way through, then grabbed from the other side and killed; there is a large number of scenes of random, unjustified cruelty. The viewer has to endure long scenes of soldiers torturing Jews, death marches, random on the spot executions.

The main character in this film survives by luck and not really thanks to special skills, so the viewer keeps hoping that no German will just shoot him randomly – that was too much stress for me to enjoy the movie. There is not a single moment of joy, but this is story of this man who survived in spite of terrible odds remains moving. And of course Adrian Brody is just extraordinary, conveying each emotion. So watch it, but not alone, and not on a bad day….