Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joyeux Noel (2005)

Joyeux Noel is a moving film about a true First World War incident that still surprises nearly a century later.

German, French and Scottish troops agree to a truce on Christmas Eve in 1914. They share rations, drinks and attend mass all in No Man's Land.

On Christmas Day, the ceasefire continues with the dead given proper burials and trenches shared depending on what side is doing the shelling. Soldiers from the three countries play soccer.

There's humour too, with both French and German soldiers claiming ownership of a cat that moves between the opposing trenches. Not everyone shares in the festive spirit. Jonathan (Steven Robertson) is a Scottish solider who seethes hatred towards the Germans for their killing his younger brother. There's a tense scene when he encounters a friendly German. Will he accept his enemy's friendly greeting or will Jonathan act out and end the truce?

Director Christian Carion focuses much of his story on Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), a famous German tenor who is conscripted into the army and serves as a private. His lover, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), joins him for a Christmas Eve performance for high-ranking German officers. She knows Sprink is doomed to die and wants him to desert. Sprink feels obligated to keep serving alongside his comrades. His superior officer Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) is suspicious of Sprink's loyalty to the German army.

Audebert (Guillaume Canet) leads the French troops. His wife is behind enemy lines. She's given birth, but he has no idea about his wife's health or the child's sex. He clashes with his father, who is a superior officer, about the war.

There's a great scene when military censors open soldiers' letters and read about the Christmas truce. Snippets of letters are shared by voiceover. Military brass are aghast at such open fraternization with the enemy. French and German troops are shipped to other parts of the Western front.

There's a real sense of sadness in Joyeux Noel. What should be one of the happiest days of the year is surrounded by dread knowing many of the men who took part in the truce will not survive another four years of fighting in the trenches.

This film has encouraged this movie fan to read more about this topic. Malcolm Brown's Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 and O Holy Night: The Peace of 1914 by Michael Snow and Annie Berzoven, have the strongest reviews on Amazon. I hope to read at least one of these titles and share my thoughts on that work in 2013.

Joyeux Noel earned an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film. It's definitely worth a look. Merry Christmas.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)

Viewers can sit down with this 15-part serial and adopt one of two attitudes.

1. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars boasts atrocious special effects, wooden acting from many of its actors and some of the dumbest soldiers serving a power hungry leader who wants to take over the universe. You'd be right on all counts.


2. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is a step back into the early days of science fiction on film. Special effects were nowhere near what audiences in the 21st century now take for granted. It's a chance to take a look at just how future technology was seen back in the Dirty Thirties. Flash Gordon features an all-time screen villain with Mongo's Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton). Love that name!

Put me in the latter camp.

Kiefer Sutherland and Fox's 24 owes a debt of thanks to Flash Gordon. Flash (Larry 'Buster' Crabbe) featured certain death at the end of each 15 to 20 minute episode. How often did you wonder how Kiefer's Jack Bauer would survive at the end of each hour? But he did. Time and time again. Pit Flash against fires, explosions, crashing spaceships or rays that appear to burn him alive and he still escapes, with little lingering side effects. Flash, you rock!

How about the technology? Well, the folks behind Flash were way off on just how fast a spaceship could travel ("at least 1,200 miles per hour"), but the paralyzer gun cooked up by Professor Zarkov (Frank Shannon) has the same impact as a present-day Taser. There's a subway that, if the sound effects are to be believed, looks like today's high speed rail.

Three Flash Gordon serials were made between 1936 (Space Soldiers) and 1940 (Conquers the Universe). Trip to Mars picks up where Space Soldiers left off. Flash, Zarkov and Dale Arden are headed back to Earth. But their triumphant return, including a ticker tape parade, is short lived.

Ming has teamed up with Queen Azura of Mars. A ray is sucking the nitron out of Earth's atmosphere. This leads to environmental catastrophes. How's that for another present-day circumstance Flash Gordon's makers got right? If anyone knows why nitron is needed to knock out an enemy, let me know.

The trio heads back into outer space, this time bound for Mars. They meet the clay people, who have been banished to live underground by Azura. Old ally Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) returns , guess when, shortly before an execution attempt.

Flash and company have ray guns, but most battles are waged with fists. It's impressive to watch a 50-something Zarkov beat the snot out of soldiers who are 30 years younger than him and apparently in the best physical shape of their lives. How do you do it, Zarkov?

The Flash Gordon serials will always hold a special place in Reel Popcorn Junkie's heart. I watched them on American television growing up. But even I have to draw the line on the addition of reporter Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr) to the cast. He's there for comic relief. I'm not laughing. Flash and Zarkov should have left him with the forest people. He's the equivalent of Scrappy Doo joining his uncle, Scooby Doo. Not. Needed.

But, give credit to Kerr. He appeared in a staggering 478 titles in his career. Most of them are not credited.

It's more fun to watch this serial than Flash's so-so return to the big screen in 1980, complete with soundtrack from Queen (who get it right when they describe Gordon as "king of the impossible").

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Wow. Richard Alexander, who appears as Flash's ally Prince Barin, was Westhus in the original All Quiet on the Western Front.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Black Swan (1942)

Set sail for a witty script, plenty of adventure and gorgeous Technicolor with The Black Swan.

Leon Shamroy's work behind the camera is the real star of this 1942 effort from director Henry King (Twelve O'Clock High, The Song of Bernadette). He even won an Oscar for best cinematography.

In an accompanying commentary, actress Maureen O'Hara notes she did little work in Technicolor before The Black Swan. Afterwards, she wanted to do nothing but.

The story is pretty straightforward. Capt. Harry Morgan (Laird Cregar) is a pirate who is expected to be hanged by the King of England. Instead, he's given a pardon and sent to Jamaica to rid the seas of pirates. Some, like Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), join him. Others, Capt. Billy Leech (George Sanders) vow to keep pillaging.

Waring becomes smitten with Lady Margaret Denby (Maureen O'Hara), the daughter of the colony's former leader. She's less than eager to get to know a former pirate. He keeps up his attempts to woo her, while Morgan faces impeachment over Leech wreaking havoc on British ships laden with gold.

There's a couple of funny scenes where Waring uses given circumstances to get a little closer to the knockout who is Denby.

Power made The Black Swan just two years after The Mark of Zorro. He gets to wield his sword again, especially in a climatic showdown with Leech. It almost looks like the film is speeded up to handle the one-on-one battle.

The Black Swan has a great cast with Thomas Mitchell (It's a Wonderful Life) and Anthony Quinn (Lawrence of Arabia) along for the ride.

Get the popcorn ready and savour this entertaining swash buckler of a tale.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: The Black Swan also received Oscar nominations for best special effects and music (Alfred Newman).

Leon Shamroy also shot South Pacific, Cleopatra and The King and I.