Wonder Woman


Gal Gadot takes aim at stardom.

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ann J. Wolfe, Ann Ogbomo, Emily Carey, James Cosmo, Wolf Kahler, Alexander Mercury, Martin Bishop, Flora Nicholson. Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

In a world where superheroes are nearly all men, the superhero movie reigns supreme at the moment. Audiences of superhero fans – also mostly male – have been streaming to these films for more than a decade, buoyed by advances in CGI technology which enable the deeds and superpowers to be rendered to live action. It’s a great time to be a fanboy.

But what about the women? While it’s true there are not very many female superheroes at either of the two major comic book houses – DC and Marvel – compared to male ones, there definitely are some and there have been few female-centric superhero movies, the not-well-remembered Elektra being the last one back in 2005. The most iconic distaff super heroine – DC’s Wonder Woman – hasn’t had a movie of her own, until now. Although her TV series starring Lynda Carter in the title role is fondly remembered from back in the 70s, there was a certain element of camp to it that gave it less serious consideration – which in many ways was true of all superhero TV shows until recently. Now it’s different for this is the age of the super heroine.

Diana of Themyscira (Gadot) lives on an island of all female Amazon warriors. Her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) is reluctant for her daughter to be trained in the arts of war, although her aunt Antiope (Wright) trains her in secret, recognizing that Diana is destined for greatness. When Hippolyta finds out, she is furious and Diana becomes frustrated, chafing at the bit to learn how to fight from her aunt who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all Amazon warriors.

The world of Themyscira has been hidden from the world of Men and for good reason but all this comes to an end when a biplane carrying an American spy, Steve Trevor (Pine), splashes into the lagoon of Themyscira. The First World War is raging in Europe and when a German flotilla of ships chasing Trevor manages to find Themyscira, an all-out battle rages on the sands of their beach. They manage to defeat the Germans but at great cost.

Diana finds out more about the conflict and immediately recognizes the hand of Ares, God of War, in the insanity. Bound and determined to go and kill Ares and thus save the world, she gets reluctant but tacit approval from her mother to go. Diana reaches the London of 1919 and it is a confusing place to her. However, Trevor reports to the war council that Germany’s General Ludendorff (Huston) is planning on unleashing a new poison gas perfected by the mad Dr. Maru (Anaya) – who is known among the rank and file as Doctor Poison – that could turn the tide of the war. Sir Patrick (Thewlis), a Parliamentarian who alone seems to take Diana seriously, sends Trevor and Diana deep into Germany to find and destroy the factory manufacturing the poison gas.

Trevor and Diana are accompanied by three of Trevor’s operatives; Chief (Brave Rock), Sameer (Taghmaoui) and Charlie (Bremner). The five of them pass beyond enemy lines to witness the horrors of war and of the world of men firsthand. Diana’s sensibilities are thrown into disarray but she must put that all aside if she is going to save millions of lives. In order to do that however she is going to have to confront a god.

There has been much critical praise here with some critics stumbling all over themselves to label this a feminist superhero movie. I don’t really know how to react to that; part of me doesn’t think that the term “feminist” has a very strict definition to be honest. There are all sorts of feminists believing in all sorts of ideals. I imagine you could shoehorn Wonder Woman into a category that believes that women can be superheroes and just as badass as men can and I would be okay with defining this as a feminist film from that standpoint.

One thing positive I think the movie will do is dispel the Hollywood myth that women directors can’t do big budget action CGI films, James Cameron’s criticisms notwithstanding. Clearly Jenkins proves here that she can handle the many facets that go into a production of this magnitude and in some ways comes out with a product better than that produced by a number of Hollywood heavyweights. No longer can women directors be ghettoized into smaller more intimate films about love, feelings and empowerment which seemed to be all Hollywood – and indie producers as well – were letting women direct. Who wouldn’t want to see a woman handling a Star Wars film or a war epic after seeing this?

Gal Gadot is one reason the movie succeeds. She has always had screen presence in her supporting roles; here she proves that she has more than enough to tackle a lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. She handles the fight scenes convincingly (not true for all A-list Hollywood men) but then again she actually served in the Israeli army, an organization that knows a thing or two about kicking butt. She also does well with the comic overtones during her fish out of water scenes in London. In fact, I wish there would have been more of this element to the film – Gadot is that good.

There is a lot to be said about the set design here. Everything is terrific, from the imaginative Themyscira sets (shot on the Amalfi coast in Italy) to the note-perfect London of the Great War era. The world we see may be fantastic but it is always believable and there is much to be said for that. The action sequences are also imaginatively staged with one exception and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The movie falls down on two fronts; first, that irritating theme music first introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. We hear it again and again in this film and quite frankly it makes me want to stick a power drill in my ear. Secondly, the climactic battle is a nighttime set everything but the kitchen sink battle royal between Diana, Ares, the German army and Team Trevor. There is a lot of flying debris and dimly lit action sequences. It’s overwhelming considering the CGI overkill and I thought it almost came from a different movie, although there is a distinctly femme point of view to how the scene is resolved and that, I must admit, was much appreciated.

There was much buzz surrounding this film, which was heralded as a different take on superheroes. Wonder Woman, one of the most iconic characters in the DC Comics pantheon was finally getting her own live action big screen extravaganza and the film was to be directed by – *gasp* – a woman. Never mind that eight out of the ten producers are men as well as all five credited screenwriters; the glass ceiling has been shattered at last.

As any woman will tell you – well, not really. Certainly strides are made here and there is hope for the future as Marvel has a female superhero film (directed by a woman) in the pipeline and given its impressive box office receipts there is definitely going to be a sequel to this film and Jenkins is in line to direct it, although if she passes it will likely give another female director a chance to shine. This is to my mind the best DC comic book film not directed by Richard Donner, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan and certainly a huge step for the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) to establish itself as a contender to Marvel.

This isn’t the greatest comic book superhero film ever. It isn’t even the best one being released this summer. However, it’s plenty good enough to be a worthy addition to one’s home movie library whether you are a feminist or a fanboy – or both. There’s no reason the two have to be mutually exclusive.

REASONS TO GO: Gadot is absolutely sensational in the title role. There’s enough action to make the film palatable to superhero fans but the different point of view will be attractive to those tired of the same old thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The climactic battle is a bit of sensory overload.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some superhero and war-related violence, some sexually suggestive content and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first female-directed film to have a budget over $100 million, the first female-directed film to have a $100 million plus opening weekend and currently holds the title as the female-directed film to earn the most box office revenue ever.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: The First Avenger
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Baywatch

 

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The Water Diviner


Love can be illuminating.

Love can be illuminating.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Dylan Georgiades, Steve Bastoni, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jack Douglas Patterson, Ben Norris, Aidan Liam Smith, Damon Herriman, Sophia Forrest. Directed by Russell Crowe

The bond between father and son can be complicated. There’s always an element of competition between them; the old lion wants to have the loudest roar even as the younger lions are coming into their own. Still when push comes to shove, there isn’t a father who wouldn’t move heaven and earth for their children…sometimes even when hope is lost.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) has a farm in Australia. It’s not an easy life; water isn’t easy to come by in the arid landscape. However, with the use of a pair of sticks and his unerring instincts he is able to find places to dig wells that he desperately needs. It’s a hard life but it’s a good one – or would be. You see, Joshua sent his three sons Arthur (Corr), Edward (Fraser) and Henry (O’Toole) to war, in this case World War I. With many troops from their part of the world, they went to invade Gallipoli in Turkey and many thousands of young men in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) died in the attempt which ultimately failed. All three of Joshua’s sons were among the dead.

The grief of the loss of all her sons had led Joshua’s wife (McKenzie) to take her own life. Now with nobody and nearly four years gone, Joshua feels obligated to go to Gallipoli and bring the remains of his sons back home. However, there’s a problem there – basically so many soldiers died in the battle, one of the bloodiest of the First World War – that proper burials are only now just happening, led by an English Colonel (Courtney) who is being assisted by the Turkish officer Major Hasan (Erdogan) who led the Turkish forces at the battle. Civilians are not welcome – not that there are any clamoring to go. The battle site is still full of booby traps and other dangers that make it a dangerous place even in peacetime.

But Joshua has nothing to lose. With the help of Ayshe (Kurylenko), the owner of the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul and Orhan (Georgiades) her adorable moppet of a son he manages to make it past the British bureaucracy which is dead set on preventing his passage to Gallipoli. Once he makes it there though he acquires the friendship of Hasan, even though he commanded the forces that led to the deaths of his sons – and discovers that even amidst the carnage, hope exists. He also discovers that love might exist as well with the hotel owner whose husband disappeared in the same battle and is presumed dead, although she holds out hope that he may yet return.

Normally the presence of Crowe in front of the camera would insure a wide American release for a film, but the story is a bit of a hard sell to American audiences. Gallipoli doesn’t mean as much to us as it does to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, where the battle is part of the national identity. Released on the 100th anniversary of the battle, the story isn’t so much about the fight as it is of a father’s devotion to his children, even after they’re dead. It is about  his grief and his healing.

Crowe remains a compelling presence, giving one of his best performances in years. Joshua is a quiet and powerful presence, never demonstrative although once he begins interacting with the irresistible Orhan does he begin to start coming out of his shell. There is a bit of an aura of the supernatural here – Joshua has visions of his sons in the battle and is able to infer things that he shouldn’t have been able to know. The more practical-minded among the audience will find that whole concept to be poppycock, although the connection a parent has with their children and the way parents can sometimes know things they shouldn’t about their kids can’t be discounted.

This would be the last movie lensed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who also shot most of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and he makes a stark contrast between Australia with it’s blade blue skies and dusty earth, and with Istanbul with its Blue Mosque and beautiful interiors. Then there’s Gallipoli itself with a lovely beach but once over the first hill becomes a scorched hell. Crowe made a smart choice in that department and it will remain part of Lesnie’s lasting legacy as one of the great cinematographers of his – and our – day.

Most of the battle is seen through flashbacks, particularly those that concern the brothers but those scenes can be pretty brutal with limbs getting blown off and young bodies being shredded by machine guns and artillery fire. Crowe doesn’t shy away from these scenes that depict the horrors of war, those who are upset by such things should be forewarned.

I generally don’t respond to specific criticisms of a film brought up by a different film critic but Andrew O’Hehir’s excoriation of Crowe and Warner Brothers, calling this a “disgraceful” film for not mentioning the Armenian genocide which occurred roughly at the same time the battle of Gallipoli was fought, is absolutely mind-boggling. Yes, there are sympathetic Turkish characters here but not all Turks participated in the Genocide which occurred hundreds of miles away and essentially before the main action of the film begins – the battle itself is pretty much only seen in flashbacks other than the opening scene which depicts the withdrawal of troops from Gallipoli. But what is disgraceful is a critic suggesting that a filmmaker not mentioning something that has absolutely nothing to do with his film or the events in it is somehow morally wrong and insensitive. Talk about Liberal Guilt.

For a debut effort in the director’s chair Crowe has come up with a pretty impressive film. Of course, when you have Russell Crowe to star in your first film you’ve got an advantage over most right there. I don’t know what Crowe the director did to inspire Crowe the actor but whatever it was, it resulted in a compelling performance that confirms Crowe’s star power. There is an epic sweep here that reminds me of movies from a bygone era.

The movie hasn’t gotten any sort of push from Warners and has been essentially released as an independent film in select cities. It isn’t easy to find but it is well worth seeking out; this is a surprisingly powerful film that I believe will appeal to more than just Australian audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Crowe who remains a compelling presence. Gripping storyline. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies on Joshua’s visions and instincts a bit too much. The battle scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The horse that Crowe rides in the Australia scenes is actually his own horse, Honey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Legends of the Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Age of Adaline

Winter’s Tale


Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

(2014) Romance (Warner Brothers) Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Will Smith, Mckayla Twiggs, Eva Marie Saint, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Ripley Sobo, Graham Greene, Harriett D. Foy, Matt Bomer, Lucy Griffiths, Michael Patrick Crane, Brian Hutchison, Alan Doyle, Maurice Jones, Maggie Geha. Directed by Akiva Goldsman

It goes without saying that we don’t really understand how the universe REALLY works and we likely never will. Whether or not there’s an afterlife when we die or whether we just dissolve into oblivion is something we won’t find out until it’s our time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Peter Lake (Farrell) is a thief and a good one indeed. He works for the Small Tails band, headed up by Pearly Soames (Crowe), a rough and tumble sort of fellow and they hold Manhattan in their thrall, circle 1912. However, Peter and Pearly have had a falling out, as it were and both being fine Irish gentlemen they mean to settle it the old fashioned way – by killing one another.

Peter knows that his opponent has the upper hand and it is only a matter of time before he is captured and killed. He needs to get out of New York but he needs to score enough cash to be able to survive. He doesn’t have much but he has a beautiful white horse that he found while being chased by Pearly and his thugs and that horse is absolutely special. In fact, it’s at the horse’s urging that Peter rob one final house, the house of New York Sun publisher Isaac Penn (Hurt).

The house appears to be deserted but it isn’t. Beverly Penn (Findlay), who suffers from terminal consumption, is home waiting to be well enough to head up to their lakeside country estate. Her fever is killing her and only cold weather can save her but soon even that won’t be enough. She interrupts Peter in his stealing and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Peter leaves, thinking that this house is a dead end for him literally but he can’t get the girl out of his head.

Neither can Pearly who has had a vision of a beautiful red headed woman. In fact, Pearly is a demon, one to keep souls from ascending to the heavens and becoming stars which is what happens when souls complete their work on Earth. Pearly means to shatter Peter by using the young Penn girl to do it and even if it breaks the rules as adjudicated by the Judge (Smith) he will get his vengeance. Peter will find a way to his destiny even if it takes a century.

This is based on the complex and what many considered to be unfilmable novel by Mark Halprin. I don’t know how closely this sticks to the book having not read it yet but judging from what I see here if the movie is any indication I can see where it got its reputation. The backstory is so complex and layered that the overall effect is that the movie becomes convoluted. While I kept up with the movie, I got the sense that there was a lot of things in the backstory that by necessity had to be glossed over and I was losing a good deal of the novel’s richness.

That isn’t the fault of the performers who are universally stellar. Farrell and Findlay make a fine on-screen couple while Crowe glowers with the best of them. Greene, Hurt, Smith and Saint all make what are essentially extended cameos and make the best of their abbreviated screen times. Connelly, as a modern reporter looking into what would be to anyone an astonishing story, is given little to do besides look concerned and bewildered.

Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel beautifully captures New York City both old and new beneath a stark winter sky. This is a truly gorgeous looking film, and the story itself if you can follow it without getting completely lost is actually really affecting. Now some critics have been giving this a thrashing because they found it to be, as veteran Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers eloquently put it, to be preposterous twaddle. Now, I personally think this is unduly harsh. If you call the film preposterous twaddle, so too is the book on which it is based on and the Shakespeare play that inspired the book and while we’re at it, other literature and movies of a like nature, including Ladyhawke and The Princess Bride which are of a similar vein. From my point of view, we can all use a bit of preposterous twaddle every now and again. Keeps the soul honest.

This isn’t going to be making any ten-best lists at the year’s conclusion nor is it apparently going to be setting any box office records. This isn’t a good enough movie to get the kind of word-of-mouth that a movie needs to thrive these days, and let’s face it – romantic fantasies have a bit of an uphill climb because the audience that once craved them is now overserved with such tidbits as The Twilight Saga. However, I for one was enchanted by Winter’s Tale, flaws and all.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful story. Nice performances by most of the leads. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat preposterous in places. A bit muddled.

FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find some violence and some sensuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rhythm and Hues, one of Hollywood’s top effects companies, went bankrupt while in post-production for this film; Framestore was hired to complete the work that Rhythm and Hues had begun.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Xanadu

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.  Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship

 

Renoir


Renoir's model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

Renoir’s model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Michel Bouquet, Vincent Rottiers, Christa Theret, Thomas Doret, Michele Gleizer, Romane Bohringer, Carlo Brandt, Helene Babu, Stuart Seide, Paul Spera, Solene Rigot, Cecile Rittweger. Directed by Gilles Bourdos   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Great art transcends it’s medium. Whether a painting, a sculpture or a film, the greatest art inspires, excites, arouses and/or induces regardless of how it was created. One might say it is the art and not the artist – something that many artists forget.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bouquet), arguably the greatest of the Impressionist painters, knows that all too well. It is 1915 and the Great War rages not far from his estate, Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur on the Mediterranean coast in southeastern France. His wife Aline has recently passed away and he himself is in profound pain due to rheumatoid arthritis (he would pass away himself four years later) which is why he has relocated to this bucolic town far from Paris.

Two of his three sons have been wounded in the war – the third, Coco (Doret) is too young to enlist and dwells on the farm, angry at the world. The great painter is surrounded by female servants, most of whom are former models of his. It is a saucy environment indeed, one which most men his age would have envied entirely.

Into this mix comes Andree Heuschling (Theret), a voluptuously beautiful model recommended to the great master by Henri Matisse. Brash, forthright and a bit self-centered, Andree (who is better known as the actress Catherine Hessling later in life but here is called Dedee) creates quite a stir. Renoir enters a fresh period of creativity and ends up quite taken with her.

So is another Renoir – son Jean (Rottiers) who has come to the family farm to recuperate from his wounds. Jean is a bit of a lost soul whose relationship with his father has a bit of distance to it – after all, it is hard to be the son of a living legend. While his father paints some compelling paintings of Dedee (both clothed and nude), Jean begins to fall for the lively girl. In him she awakens a love of a new art form – cinema. But as Jean’s wounds heal, the call to arms is still strong. Will the call of love be stronger yet?

Much of this was filmed on Renoir’s farm Les Collettes and it is easy to see through the beautiful images of Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee just how idyllic the property is and how much Philippe-Auguste Renoir must have loved it. The wind blows through the old trees, creating a soundtrack all its own. The elder Renoir loved beauty, particularly in the female form (“Flesh!” he exclaims at one point, “That’s all that matters!”). He was fascinated by the textures of the skin of young women and few artists captured it as well as he.

The venerable Bouquet does a marvelous job of capturing the spirit and the look of Renoir, from the long raggedy beard to the gnarled hands and painful movement of the old man. When he looks at Dedee and murmurs “Too soon! Too late” with genuine melancholy, one realizes in four words how much he is attracted to her – and how realistic he is about a relationship actually developing.

I like the Renoirs was quite taken with Dedee and we have Christa Theret to thank for that. Only a teen when she made the film (admittedly the real Dedee was five years younger than Theret), she conveys both the force of nature of the model’s personality as well as her uninhibited nature as she spends much of the film naked. I doubt many American actresses would have been able to pull that latter quality off.

The pace here is as languid as a summer day and that may put off some American audiences. One gets lulled by the ambience of the film and the passion of the performances. I have rarely been transported to a time and place as effectively as I was for Renoir. While this isn’t strictly speaking not 100% biographical (for example, he’s depicted having his brush tied to his hands by his assistants; in reality they merely placed the brush in his hand for him), it is nonetheless a welcome insight into the mind and life of one of the most influential painters of his time – one who continues to be a touchstone in the world of art.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously photographed. Interesting insights into the life of one of the greatest artists in history.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be sleep-inducing in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Although there is quite a bit of nudity, it is all done in an artistic manner and while there is some bad language, there is only a few brief instances.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourdos used convicted art forger Guy Ribes to re-create the Renoir paintings onscreen during the painting sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100; pretty decent reviews for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pollack

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: AKA Doc Pomus

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)


Adeste fideles.

Adeste fideles.

(2006) War Drama (Sony Classics) Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon, Daniel Bruhl, Alex Ferns, Steven Robertson, Bernard Le Coq, Lucas Belvaux, Natalie Dessay, Rolando Villazon, Ian Richardson, Thomas Schmauser, Robin Laing, Suzanne Flon. Directed by Christian Carion

 The Holly and the Quill

We live in an imperfect world, one in which man’s inhumanity to man can be staggering. Yet sometimes when it’s least expected in conditions that would seem to be non-conducive to it, our higher selves show through.

In December 1914, World War I rages in Europe. Trench warfare is at its height which to modern audiences means nothing but picture this; seven to eight foot-deep trenches filled with soldiers and machine gun nests separated by literally the length of a football field under consistent bombardment by artillery shells. Men would be ordered periodically to charge out of one trench to attempt to take another; those that rose out of the trenches would be slaughtered horrifically, often caught by barbed wire where they’d be picked off by snipers or machine gunners. The casualty rates were staggering.

German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Furmann) has volunteered to serve his country in uniform. His wife Anna Sorensen (Kruger), a Danish soprano, has been commissioned to perform for the Crown Prince Wilhelm (Schmauser) and is allowed to bring her husband from the front to perform with her. Sprink, disgusted by the comforts that the generals are enjoying behind the lines, resolves to return to the front to sing for the troops. Anna resolves to go with him which he is less enthusiastic about but eventually gives in.

Brothers William (Laing) and Jonathan (Robertson) enthusiastically enlisted when war broke out because they saw their lives as boring. Father Palmer (Lewis), the parish priest in their small Scottish village, goes with them as a stretcher bearer. During an assault on the German lines, William is mortally wounded and Jonathan must leave him behind to rot in No Man’s Land.

Lt. Audebert (Canet) is the son of a general (Le Coq) who has shown signs of brilliance as a commander in the trenches. He inspires his men who would walk through Hell for him, but he holds inside his own grief at having left his pregnant wife behind, not far from where the men are fighting – but behind German lines. His aide Ponchel (Boon) can almost see the farmhouse where he was raised from the trench he now fights in.

Horstmayer (Bruhl) is in command of the German trench and is Jewish. Following the Allied assault on his trench, he discovers a wallet with the photograph of a lovely woman. It belongs to none of his men and so he deduces that one of the French or Scottish soldiers dropped it during the fighting.

As Christmas Eve deepens, Anna and Nikolaus arrive and begin singing Christmas carols to the German troops. Their lovely harmonious voices carry through the crisp, bitterly cold night air across No Man’s Land to the enemy trenches. Moved by the songs that remind them of the season back home, Scottish pipers accompany the singers. Nikolaus is touched by this and impulsively carries a Christmas tree, one of thousands provided for the German troops by their command, out into No Man’s Land while singing “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful).”

Following his lead, the French, German and Scottish officers also proceed out into No Man’s Land and agree to a one-day cease fire. The men slowly venture out into the cratered field between the lines and exchange chocolate and presents. Horstmayer returns the wallet to Audebert and the two find common ground in their memories of life before the war. Palmer celebrates Mass in Latin on the field which affects the soldiers profoundly.

The next day the soldiers engage in an impromptu soccer match while the officers agree to bury their dead on the day Christ was born. The officers and enlisted men assist each other in creating a field cemetery for their valiant dead. A connection has been made and friendships formed so that when the artillery shelling resumes, the men shelter each other in their trenches.

Of course when word of this remarkable truce filters back to the generals, they are furious and the Germans are mostly sent to the Eastern front. Ponchel, who had snuck back home disguised as a German soldier to visit his family during the cease fire, is shot by Jonathan after being ordered to do so by an officer who was offended by the truce. Before dying, he brings word to Audebert that his wife has given birth to a son.

Nikolaus and Anna, wishing to remain together, ask Audebert to take them prisoner which he does. Father Palmer is ordered back to his parish and the regiment of Scots disbanded in shame. A vitriolic bishop upbraids the troops, ranting about the intrinsic evil of the German people and reminding them that it is their duty to kill them all. Father Palmer, hearing this, removes his rosary in disgust.

The Christmas Eve truce of 1914 actually happened and that it did happen in those circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. While this is a fictionalized account of the cease-fire, many of the incidents depicted here are documented to be true.

The movie’s one mistake is that writer-director Carion takes a story that really needs no embellishment and lays on the sentiment a little too thickly. He is trying to make a point, I believe, about the nature of faith in an atmosphere of cruelty and horror and that point tends to be drilled into the audience ad infinitum until there’s a tendency to say “OK, we get it. Can you please just tell the story now?” Even despite this, France submitted the movie as their entry in the 2007 Academy Awards field for Best Foreign Language Film where it was selected as a finalist although it did not win.

Fortunately, Carion makes a lot of really good decisions. Rather than showing the story from one perspective, he tries to get all three from a microcosmic stretch of trenches. He weaves together the stories of the main participants skillfully not only showing how unique they are but also how similar. This is a more delicate balancing act than you can imagine.

While Kruger is probably the best known actor to American audiences, Canet, Bruhl and Furmann all fare the best in my opinion. They give impassioned performances which I suppose given the background isn’t a hard sell. If they descend into occasional over-sentimentality that is the fault of the script and not so much of the actor.

We often in our zeal to defend our individual nations forget that at the end of the day are all one people who are more alike than un-alike. It is those similarities that bind us together, that give us hope that one day we can stop slaughtering each other and learn to help each other. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream but on this Christmas Day one can’t help but hope that one day it comes to pass. As the events of December 24, 1914 in a war as hellish as any ever experienced in human history proves, we have the capability inside us all to say “enough” and lay down our weapons, even if for only a brief moment.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful story based on actual events. Exceedingly well-acted, particularly by Canet, Bruhl and Furmann.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally schmaltzy and sometimes overly repetitive about its message.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of war violence and a little sexuality with some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The MPAA originally gave the film an “R” rating but when film critic Roger Ebert protested it was eventually reduced to a “PG-13.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with Carion discusses the real 1914 truce, which elements were used for the film and how they were chosen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $22M production budget; the film wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War Horse

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Hyde Park on Hudson

The Lightkeepers


The Lightkeepers

RIchard Dreyfuss has some shark stories he’d like to share.

(2009) Period Romantic Comedy (New Films International) Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Tom Wisdom, Mamie Gummer, Bruce Dern, Julie Harris, Jason Alan Smith, Stephen Russell, Ben Dreyfuss, Theodora Greece, Ellen Becker-Gray. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

When romance turns to heartache often enough, men sometimes are known to swear off of women. This is all well and good but mostly is an empty gesture; we need love at least as much as we need food and air. To deny any of the three is to kill the body and the soul.

And yet cantankerous old sea captain Seth Atkins (R. Dreyfuss) has done just that. He has retired from the sea and taken up being the lighthouse keeper near Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is getting on in years however and this being 1912 is in need of an assistant to help him run the lighthouse, which is still very necessary to help ships who are not yet relying on satellite navigation.

His deliverance is literally washed ashore into his lap in the form of John Brown (Wisdom), a young British subject who claims he fell off a tramp steamer. He is not particularly forthcoming about his past but seems eager to get away from the fairer sex; this looks like  perfect match for Seth who is precisely looking for a man who won’t be “sparkin’ on the premises” consarn it! And yes, this is pretty much how the characters (especially Seth) talk.

Their bachelor’s paradise is shattered when two women move into the adjoining cottage for the summer. Ruth (Gummer) is an heiress, chaperoned by Emaline Bascom (Danner), who has more to her than she seems. Of course at first the boy’s club is outright hostile to their new neighbors. But as you can imagine soon they are sneaking behind each other’s backs, Seth to see Emaline, John to see Ruth. And when the two boys find out that their roommates have been cheating on their agreement, sparks are going to fly.

Adams does a good job of creating the turn of the last century Cape Cod environment. He also does a good job of creating a story that’s not going to be offensive to anybody. The trouble is that there isn’t enough friction to really hold your interest. The story – which is kind of predictable to begin with – moves along at a majestic pace and I don’t mean royal. It’s slow. It’s ponderous. And while that’s not always a bad thing, it doesn’t give you the payoff here that makes it worth waiting for; the ending simply can be seen coming a good nautical mile away.

Dreyfuss has been one of my favorite actors since Jaws. I’ve always appreciated his work, even when he was in a turkey. This isn’t the worst movie he’s ever appeared in but it is far from the best; nevertheless he elevates it with his leonine performance. Danner, who has always been able to convey grace and class, ups that exponentially here. Her Emaline is a bit of a firecracker but never loses her inner elegance.

There are times when the scenes look a bit awkwardly staged, as if setting up for an avant garde stage play rather than a period family-oriented film. Despite the lush settings and the beautiful period costumes, the actors often look uncomfortable or directionless. On top of that the pacing is so slow and the story so predictable that left to its own devices the film would be a complete yawner. The presence of Dreyfuss and Danner alone give it a marginal reason to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Inoffensive and wholesome. Dreyfuss and Danner are welcome additions to any cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks inertia. Ending doesn’t resonate. Often seems stagey.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and some of the themes might be a bit much for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Dreyfuss is Richard’s son by his first wife Jeramie Rain; Gummer is the daughter of Meryl Streep.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golden Boys

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Dredd