As other critics have noted, there´s exactly half a great film in Nora Ephron´s Julie and Julia: the Julia half, based on Julia Child´s (and Alex Prud’homme´s) My Life in France, which focuses on, well, Julia Child´s life in France before she became a famous chef. The Julie half, from the book Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, takes a look at Powell´s blog quest, in which she attempted to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Child´s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the course of the year. IMDb tells me this is the first feature film to be based on a blog.
There´s nothing really wrong with the Julie scenes – they´re just hopelessly adequate, on the level of a television production. They feel insignificant next to the period detail, late 40´s Paris atmosphere, and wonderful Meryl Streep performance that the film forces us to compare them with. Still, they´re not enough to ruin the film; because of the good half, Julie & Julia is well worth seeing.
In 1948, Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) works for the US State Department in France, living with his wife Julia (Streep) in Paris. Julia´s something of a bored housewife; she attempts to find a hobby, but doesn´t get far with sewing, or bridge, or learning French. “What do you like?” Paul asks her. “Well, I like eating.” She especially likes the French cuisine.
So she decides to become a chef, and enrolls in the famous French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. Eventually, she becomes a teacher along with friends Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), and conspires with them on a massive project: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a tome-like cookbook that will bring French recipes to American homes.
Admittedly, there may not be enough material there to justify a feature; even as an isolated storyline, it may have proven long. So intercut with the Julia Child scenes are the Julie Powell scenes: in 2002 New York City, Powell (Amy Adams) works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation fielding calls from grieving families of 9/11 victims. She needs a hobby, too, and she finds one in Child´s cookbook. She starts a blog and updates it daily with details of her quest to plow through 524 recipes in a year.
Part of the reason the Julie scenes don´t work so well is the lack of dramatic weight. She´s arbitrarily given herself a task and a deadline; there are some fights with husband Eric (Chris Messina), but I just didn´t find much rooting interest here. Towards the end of the film – which feels unresolved, as Powell and Child never met before Child´s death in 2004 – someone passes along some info to Julie that Julia Child wasn´t a fan of her blog; that she thought the use of her cookbook in a marathon was inappropriate. I might tend to agree – in this film, at least, she doesn´t seem to have the respect for food and cooking that Child did, and we never really see how successful she was at the actual cooking. The attempt to try all these recipes in a year is given more weight than the mastery of them.
But the Julia scenes really work. As Julia, Streep hits all the right notes with what you might an imitation, and you wouldn´t be far off. But she also injects a warmth and heart into the role and turns what would have been a caricature in other hands into a character we care about. Tucci is also great as her loving husband, who often seems too good to be true.
You wouldn´t know it from Julie & Julia, but before the Paris years Julia Child worked for the OSS during WWII; rumors have circulated about involvement in spy activity, Wikipedia tells me she assisted in the development of a shark repellent. And of course, afterwards, she went on to become an instantly-recognizable television personality on her cooking shows. There´s a great story to be derived from her life and no one better to play her than Meryl Streep; I can´t blame Julie & Julia for choosing to tell a different story, but it´s a real shame that we may not get the definitive version.
An intense and incredibly controlled film, Hunger represents a remarkable directorial debut for Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor). It´s a visual and highly stylized account of the protests employed by IRA and INLA prisoners during The Troubles, culminating with the 1981 hunger strike that led to the death of IRA martyr Bobby Sands and nine other prisoners.
But you may not get all that just from watching the film; apart from some opening and closing scrawl identifying the events and a couple overheard Margaret Thatcher broadcasts, Hunger is as minimalist as it gets, showing us a series of events but never telling us a thing – no background on the situation, no background on the characters, little else besides what unfolds inside those prison walls. General audiences will simply lack the necessary information to engage with the film.
But more adventurous moviegoers will be richly rewarded. McQueen´s film can be broken down into a series of nearly self-contained segments. To open the film, he introduces us to a prison guard (Stuart Graham), who, I gather, is less than satisfied with his job. Next we meet a pair of prisoners (Liam McMahon and Brian Milligan) who are participating in the blanket and dirty protests: along with other prisoners in their cell block, they refuse to wear prison uniforms, cover their cell walls with feces, and empty their chamber pots into the hallway (a magnificent extended shot showcases a guard splashing bleach and sweeping the hall.)
It´s not until about thirty minutes into the film that we´re introduced to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, recently seen in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), and you might initially confuse him with one of the earlier prisoners. He´s beaten by guards while they cut his hair and scrub him down, he broods in his cell while smoking a cigarette, meets with his mom and dad covered in bruises and tells them he´s “grand”.
In an incredible scene that includes a 16-minute static shot, he meets with a priest (Liam Cunningham) and tells him of his plans for a hunger strike. The rest of the film is mostly free of dialogue, but Cunningham and Fassbender get a chance to shine and they deliver, providing the film with its heart. Both actors are excellent here; their words, I have to say, carry more weight than the jarring visuals of the rest of the movie.
Hunger is an unqualified artistic success, but this also has a downside; it sacrifices story for style, and loses some of the specific dramatic weight it might have had. During the climactic hunger strike scenes, as the camera lingers obsessively on Sands´ skeletal frame, I couldn´t help but become less aware of the plight of Bobby Sands, and more aware of the incredible physical transformation undergone by Michael Fassbender. Many actors have lost (or gained) an incredible amount of weight for a film; few have ever looked as close to death as Fassbender does here.
The style of the film also surprised me. Instead of gritty realism, McQueen favors a kind of Kubrick-esque eye for detail and beauty; walls covered in human excrement have never been filmed so lovingly. I´m not so sure of the intent here, or how successful it was; I felt distanced by it. I had the same kind of problem (to a larger degree) with Nicolas Winding Refn´s not-dissimilar Bronson.