Category Archives: cinema

As a portrayal of violent rejection of immigrants, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) is way too relevant now

Hold Fast Your Crown drove me to watch the nearly 26-minute Criterion Collection “Haven’s Gate.” I remain convinced that it is a bad movie. I can see why some think it is “great cinema. I don’t, though I think that Vilmos Zsigimond provided great (if very smoky!) cinematography. I’ll still take Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” with more great Zsigmond cinematography eight days a week. or that matter, I prefer “Hell on Wheels” to “Heaven’s Gate.”


Kris Kristofferson played a Harvard-graduate federal marshal, who was a very natty dresser: he’s frequently seen buttoning up the vest to three-piece suits and trimming below his beard (with a straight razor, while Isabelle Huppert is hanging on his back). Not a lot of affect. Indeed, Christopher Walken and Sam Waterston are also low on affect. I can’t think of any other time I’ve seen Waterston play a villain, btw. I don’t know why the casting of Huppert was criticized in the general condemnation of the release when it arrived with a critical and commercial thud in 1980. I thought she was just fine, though I saw no joy in her relationships with Walken and, with Kristofferson, only when he gave her a buggy. Nor did I understand why John Hurt was out doing battle on the side of the cattlemen’s association. (Jeff Bridges was even more wasted by Cimino.)


Many scenes, especially in the multiple set pieces, run on and on. It’s impossible to figure out what is going on in the climactic battle, with the tactics on both side opaque (and not just from the obstacles of movie’s ubiquitous dust and smoke). In a Criterion monolog running half an hour 2012 Cimino says that watching “Heaven’s Gate” the viewer does not realize how long the battle runs onscreen. This viewer certainly did. And, whereas many bonus features increase my regard for the film, this one, which is not without interest, does not. Cimino provides not the slightest acknowledgment of the sever criticism leveled against “Heaven’s Gate” or any indication that anyone found the prolog (running 20 minutes at an 1870 Harvard graduation) or epilog (a briefer 1903 picture of Krstofferson returned east, on a huge yacht that looks armored) unnecessary (or the prolog way too long).

The mostly Montana backdrops (including a town built within Glacier National Park) are spectacular. Surprisingly, Roger Ebert wrote: “This is one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.” Soft focus, yes, but are the colors completely washed out? Not the mountains and lakes!

There is a lot of graphic violence and extended full-frontal nudity of the young and beautiful Isabelle Huppert.

The bonus features reveal that it took 65 takes to get the scene in which Kristofferson i awakened an cracks a bullwhip (that was behind his head), one of many scenes in which there was real danger for the actors.

A movie about hatred and attempted extirpation of immigrants is certainly timely. The unwelcome in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 were mostly Slavic, but also German (like, say, Drumpfes?).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray



A mature 1967 look at love being ground down by marriage

Producer-director Stanley Donen’s 1967 “Two for the Road” made me glad not to have children, The movie is less shocking a revelation of marriage killing romance than it was at the time, but in a rare instance of the elfin but often emotionally tough Hepburn being paired with younger man, Audrey Hepburn was beautiful and funny as Joanna. As Mark, Albert Finney was already something of a bully (officially 5’9”, perhaps compensating for his lack of height?) but there is chemistry between him and Hepburn. When she says, “I’ll never let you down,” he realistically responds, “I will” —and does, though they are still together (if bickering) at the end of the movie.


The American couple (Eleanor Bron and William Daniels) with a very spoiled daughter (Ruthie) is horrifying, yet Hepburn accepts Finney’s marriage proposal when it comes, and soon they are estranged with a difficult (if not as monstrous) a daughter. He has casual infidelities, she one (with Georges Descrières) that is open and definitely pains her husband.


Screenwriter Frederic Raphael (1931-) was no romantic, having already won an Oscar for the screenplay of “Darling” and later to adapt Schnitzler for Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (he also adapted Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with a sometimes pragmatic, sometimes passionate Julie Christie and Henry James’s Daisy Miller for Bogdanovich, a film I think much underrated). His screenplay for “Two for the Road” was Oscar-nominated.

I don’t remember films jumping back and forth in time without any date titles back in that day. Hepburn had many, many changes of clothes. I noticed a long list of coutures in the opening credits. There are also multiple cars driving through the south of France on annual summer trips over the course of 10 or 12 years of the relationship.

I don’t like Henry Mancinni’s soundtrack. The movie did not earn back its production costs, btw, even with that pop Midas touch.

Both Finney and Donen died earlier this year. I think that “Two for the Road” has aged better than Donen’s other 1967 movie, which I once liked, “Bedazzled.” (Then he made the really terrible “Staircase”, the mediocre “The Little Prince,” and “Lucky Lady,” which I may be the only person to like, having been at the Mexican location where some of it was filmed).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray




Good Christian Men (and one woman and one Jew) Rejoice!

or Stop the War, I Want to Get Off…

“Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas, 2005) is an especially apt “Christmas in July” movie, ’cause it looks like it might have been shot in July. Certainly not in December! The snow is not wet and breath is not visible. Moreover, no one seems to be cold—well, except for the corpses. And the ground is not frozen and is amenable to shovels. And the grave-digging does not have any effect on the snow around them.


Also, how credible is it for all the Scotsmen and German to be Roman Catholic? (The statistic from the 2001 census was 16% of the Scottish population was Catholic; I doubt that the 1911 one was higher than a quarter).

Since I seem to be frontloading my review with what I had difficulty with, I don’t think that it was a good idea to start the movie with three vignettes in empty classrooms in Scotland, Germany, and France with a schoolboy in each orating invective about the enemy. The extent of hatred and wild propaganda is historically attested, but emphasizing the pervasive hostility drilled into the young makes the fraternization across the trenches on Christmas Eve (and Day) 1914 harder to credit.

Literally unimaginable to the commanders of each of the armies comfortably in the rear, Christmas Eve ceasefires occurred and most everything, including what seems to most preposterous detail in the movie, is based on attested events that happened in 1914-16. The bonus feature interview with writer/director Christian Carion is entirely taken up with these “Did ____ really happen?” to which the answer is “Oui.”

Carion relates that the incidents of Christmas Eve fraternization invariably began with Germans singing “Stille nächt” (Silent Night) and always including co-operation of burying the dead frozen in No Man’s Land.

In the movie, set is Alsace, it is an opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, (Benno Furmann lip-synching Rolando Villazón none too well ) who sings the archetypal German carol. From across the way, a priest turned medic who also plays bagpipe, Palmer (Gary Lewis), takes up the melody and is joined by three other bagpipers. He then takes the initiative with “Adestes Fidelis” (O Come All Ye Faithful). Soon the champagne is flowing. Sprink’s wife, a Danish soprano (Gary Lewis) sings after the Latin mass.


The only explicitly identified non-Catholic is the front-line German commander (Daniel Bruhl, who reminds me of Omar Sharif ca. “Dr. Zhivago”; the Catalán actor played the Polish violinist in “Ladies in Lavender” looking less robust, and the scrambling dutiful East Berlin son in “Goodbye Lenin”), Lt. Horstmayer, is Jewish. The Scottish lieutenant (Dany Boob) precedes the French one, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Caret), to the conference that establishes the cease-fire. He is the one with the most backstory, not least that his father is a general.

I expected to resist the message of peace and good will in the midst of war and hatred and the slow start and not especially miserable trench life bolstered my resistance, but the peculiarity of what happened and the development of the combatant officers melted my resistance away. The war continued for another 47 months, but hostilities were suspended briefly by those on the lines: a Christmas miracle of sorts. The movie shows the soldiers who have been in the trenches realize that those a hundred meters or so across the way have more in common with them than civilians or the generals safely in the rear do.

BTW, Carion says that in including a speech that was given by an English bishop (played in the movie by Ian Richardson) he toned it down and relates what he cut from the “God is on our side” sermon.

There is some symmetry in invective-spewing by those who had never been in the trenches at the start and finish of the movie, but I still think the opening triptych is unnecessary and slows the movie down. The bishop’s sermon at the end to fresh troops fits better, because the experience of a priest subordinate to him is central to the movie.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray


A Christmas gathering of a family bursting with unresolved issues

“Un conte de Noël” (A Christmas Tale, 2008) fits solidly into the genre of movies about families with unresolved issues returning home for Yuletide. Running152 minutes, the first 15-20 minutes are devoted to providing background. The parents, Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who owns a dye factory, housewife Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and oldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) are haunted by the death of the first son of leukemia at the age of six, following an unsuccessful search for a compatible bone-marrow donor. Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was in utreo at the time, and seems to have spent his lifetime acting out from the lack of love he received as a child.


Henri says that he tormented his older sister from when he was 5 until he was 17, though I’d make that 43. Five years before the Christmas in question, Elizabeth paid off a fraud of Henri’s on condition that she never have to see him again, so he was banished from family events.

The regal Junon now needs a bone-marrow donor, and, you guessed it, Henri is a match. The only other one is Elizabeth’s 15-year-old son Paul a lonely boy who has just been institutionalized for a psychotic break. Elizabeth sends Paul (to Christie’s) to invite Henri to the Christmas gathering

The baby of the family, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud, with his usual stubble and one of the ugliest sweaters I’ve ever seen) reaches out to Paul, recalling a breakdown of his own when he was 15. Ivan and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, real-life daughter of Deneuve by Marcello Mastroianni and in real life has long been a close friend of Poupaud) have sons, Baile and Baptiste, I’d guess to be 6 and 4.

Henri arrives a day (well, late night) earlier than announced with a woman whose derrière is twice compared to Angela Bassett’s. Junon tells Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) that she likes her for taking the child she doesn’t like (while resenting Sylvia for taking he favorite).

Also along for the ride (first the train, then the week in Roubaix (60 km. north of Paris, close to the Belgian border), is Junon’s nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a painter. For the Christmas Eve fireworks (literal fireworks) and feast, Abel’s mother’s lover, Rosaimée (Françoise Bertin) is on hand… and the source of information that stuns Sylvia.

Henri and Simon have drinking problems. Henri is aggressive with or without alcohol; Simon gets into fights when he drinks. Elizabeth’s loathing for Henri has not abated, and if it had, he does everything he can to reignite it.

Junon has not decided to have the bone marrow transplant, which has a 35% chance of killing her (in contrast to a 95% chance that she will begin having symptoms of degenerative disease within a few months). Henri’s matricidal fantasies increase her reluctance. Elizabeth wants Paul to provide the bone marrow, demonstrating courage he could be proud of and making her line the one to save Junon.

Various characters learn various things about themselves and the family past, the youngsters put on a play they have written (Elizabeth has had five plays produced), three of the assembled host go to midnight mass, an infidelity is taken in stride. I guess there are low-key epiphanies, but the kind of life-changing transformations one gets in Hollywood Christmas movies do not occur.

The movie is long and complicated enough without any siblings of Abel or Junon and their offspring involved (except for Simon). Laurence Briaud (who also edited the 2.5-hour 2004 “Rois et reine” with Deneuveand Roussillon for Desplechin) uses far too many jump cuts IMO. That musical styles shift radically with each jump makes sure no one misses the radical jumps.

Deneuve and Amalric have the showiest parts and make the most of them. Roussillon and Poupaud are very sympathetic good fathers, not getting upset by the shenanigans of the other characters. And Emile Berling (L’heure d’été) is very good as Paul, with no one close in age to him, but with uncles reaching out to him.

A second disc of the Criterion edition includes the original French theatrical trailer, a 35-minutes making-of featurette and an hour-long documentary, “L’aimée” about the sale of the house (in Roubaix) in which Arnaud Desplechin grew up and his relations with his parents.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray

Notes on three Olivier Assayas films

I’m not sure what is the point of Olivier Assayas’s “Après Mai” (After May, 2012) which was released in English as “Something in the Air.” Starting in 1971, it seems quite a while after May 1968 and the failed revolution, and there were many things in the air, including romanticizing of Mao’s “cultural revolution,” police violence, protest, acid rock (of a rather folkish manner herein), very tentative feminism, female subordination within radical movements, free love, abortion, impatience with craft and careerism (and the director’s father’s Maigret adaptations). I don’t know why a girl vies with the Assayes figure, Gilles (long-haired, long-nosed, long-faced Clement Metayer), a copy of Gregory Corso’s 1958 Gasoline, but it does set up the visual joke of ripping out a page of Corso’s poems to use as fuel.


I didn’t understand the point of “Irma Vep” either. Assayas had just shot “Carlos” (2010), set in the same time and focused on a fame-seeking poseur without any particular convictions. Gilles wants to be an artist and has vague political beliefs that he is willing to undertake violence to promote.

Eric Gautier’s very fluid (stedicam) cinematography was superb and the music odd but not unpleasant. Assayes was born in 1955, so would have been 13 in 1968, 16 in 1971. Gilles reads Simon Leys and Assayas, who claimed “I was defined by the politics of May ’68” and also says his main political influence was George Orwell. His major cinematic influence, he said, was Robert Bresson. (He also shot an admiring documentary about Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and married Maggie Cheung, star of “Irma Vep”).


I was impressed by the multilingual fluency and the weight gains for the part of Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez as “Carlos” (né Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) but don’t know why the narcissistic terrorist (high-living mercenary) rated a three-part miniseries jumping from place to place (and language to language). I thought Ahmad Kaabour as his Palestinian handler Haddad and Christoph Bach as the associate “Angie” who did not want to be a killer were more interesting. “Carlos” won a Golden Globe as best mini-series and Ramírez was nominated as best actor in a mini-series (he and the miniseries were also nominated for Emmies) and he for a SAG award. Having spent 5.5+hours on it does not encourage watching other Olivier Assayas projects, thoughI  at least somehwat liked his 2008 “Summer Hours.” and The Clouds of Sils Maria,” both starring Juliette Binoche.

The first half of “Carlos,” (through the OPEC kidnapping) is more interesting (more consequential?) than the slow descent into hedonism and alienating those who had used him or associated with him. Insofar as Ramírez is a “chick magnet,” it must be because there are so many masochists.


More opaque, or perhaps having nothing to say, is Oliver Assayas’s 2016 “Personal Shopper,” in which Kristen Stewart has a bigger subservient role than in “The Clouds of Sils Maria” with no Juliet Binoche (she shops for Nora von Waldstatten, who was also in “Sils”). There’s way, way too much looking at her phone, both text exchanges with an unknown contact and watching movies (one of Victor Hugo in Jersey, another a documentary about a woman painter named Klimt whose work strikes me as Marevich’s.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Olivier Assayas’s “The Clouds of Sils Maria”

Juliette Binoche is ano actress whom I adore, preferring her glamorous. In “Clouds of Sils Maria” (written and direted by Olivier Assayas, 2014) that translates to preferring the first half of the movie to the second. Kristen Stewart, playing Val, the personal assistant of the actress, Maria, whom Binoche plays, lasts longer than the first part. Indeed, she lasts long enough in the movie  to win a César as best actress in what strikes me as a supporting role.

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Maria is being cast as the lesbian destroyed by the young personal assistant, a part she played twenty years earlier in the original production of the play. It made her a star and now the focus of tabloid frenzy is in the Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is playing the part in the (London) revival. Val’s disappearance is a mystery to me. The titular clouds eventually appear (see poster below).


I recently realized that, faultless as Sophia Loren’s English is, there are no films in English in which she seems as good as she did in Italian films (directed by Vittorio De Sica). Binoche, in contrast, has been outstanding in English-language parts and I am dubious about many of her parts in French-language parts, including “Alice and Martin,” written but not directed by Assayes. (He also wrote her star-making role in 1985’s “Rendez-vous.”)

The focus on an aging star and a rising one has some resemblance to “All About Eve,” though Maria is not a diva like Margo, and Val is not trying to supplant her, like Eve. And CSM is far less funny than AAE. It really could use an acid wit like George Sanders’s. Binoche is more like Ingrid Bergman than she is like Bette Davis, especially after being shorn to play the older lesbian. And there is something of the other Bergman, especially “Persona,” as well as in the Bergman+Bergman aging diva flick “Autumn Sonata.”


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Melancholy, very French movie about the dispersal of an estate

There are almost as many movies starring French chateaux as ones starring English countryside manor houses. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep),“L’heure d’été” (Summer Hours, 2008) focuses on a house with considerable acreage where Paul Berthier, a Pierre Bonnard-like painter, lived and worked. It passed to his favorite niece, Hélène (Edith Scob) whose three children and brood of grandchildren are celebrating Hélène’s 75th birthday.


Designer daughter Adrienne (a blonde Juliette Binoche) has brought the English version of a book on her great-uncle from New York. One son, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), has come from Shanghai, where he runs a Puma factory. The other, Frédéric (Charles Berling) is a Parisian economist, notorious for a book disclaiming scientific pretensions of economics.

Hélène insists on addressing issues about what will become of the house and her uncle’s art (two Corot paintings, a pair of Redon screens, his own notebooks) and art deco furniture/furnishings. Frédéric does not want to discuss this, certain that the house will remain the same (as when his great-uncle died), that his siblings and their children will continue to return for summers.

Hélène is better aware that the lives of her other two children are elsewhere. She wants Adrienne to have some silver objets d’art, and Frédéric to have the last sketch, but thinks that the furniture and art should go to the Musée d’Orsay. (In fact, they were borrowed from it for the film that was partially sponsored by the museum, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” also starring Binoche.)

Hélène dies before the phone system her children gave her is operationalized, and Frédéric is disappointed to learn that he is the only one who doesn’t want to sell the house. He accedes to his siblings’ wishes; there are no dramatic confrontations (contrast “A Christmas Tale” that shares the soulful young Emile Berling). Something of a skeleton comes out of the closet (disbelieved by Frédéric), and the vases that once held flowers around the house are entombed in the d’Orsay. The children have a final party, and at least one of them expresses regret that the children she will someday have will not have the experience of the house and grounds.


Though the movie is primarily about the dispersal of Hélène art nouveau world, I was sorry that Scob (Eyes without a Face) was not around for more of it.

In addition to Francophiles, the movie should interest those (like me) who remember the death of parents and the dispersion of what they owned, even if not of museum quality. Like other Assayas movies (Boarding Gate, Clean), though more gently, globalization is the subtext: the three children live on three different continents as objects that were domestic are gawked at (or, worse, passed by obliviously) in a museum. (There is a certain biting the hand that fed the project.

The cast (especially Isabelle Sadoyan as the aged housekeeper) is splendid, but the objets and grounds are the stars. Eric Gautier (Clean, Into the Wild, Motorcycle Diaries) shoots it all beautifully. Fortunately, Assayas’s veneration of Hou does not extend to chaining down the camera.


©2010, Stephen O. Murray