The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)


“Tell me about your dreams…”

(2018) Drama (MenemshaSimon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Christoph Bittenhauer, Gerti Drassi, Rainer Woss, Thomas Mraz, Martin Thaler, David Altman, Tobias Ofenbauer, Erni Mangold, Tom Hanslmaier, Robert Seethaler, Angelika Strahser. Directed by Nikolaus Leytner

 

Figuring out who we are is one of the most difficult tasks that we undertake during our lifetimes. Many of us still haven’t got a clue even into our advanced years – and it’s well-nigh impossible for someone just starting out in life. Life is confusing even for the brightest and most experienced among us.

 

Franz (Morzé) is a bit of a dreamer. He lives in a bucolic Austrian village on the shores of Lake Attersee. It is 1937, and things in Europe are changing rapidly. Franz is 17 years old and lives with his mother (Fritsch). Franz has discovered girls, and spends much of his time swimming in the lake. He particularly likes to see how long he can stay submerged, but one day as he is enjoying the peace and quiet of the bottom of the lake, he sees flashes in the sky and realizes a thunderstorm is approaching. The one place you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm is in a lake, so he quickly emerges from the lake, high-tailing it for home and passing his mother on the way. She’s preoccupied with her lover giving her what-for against a tree; the lover finishes and decides to take a quick dip before the storm arrives. Not a good idea; a chance lightning strike in the lake punches his ticket for the express train to the afterlife.

Mama can no longer afford to feed her growing boy, so she sends him to Vienna to apprentice with another former lover of hers, Otto Trsnjek (Krisch) who lost a leg in the war and currently runs a tobacco store on a side street in the capital. At first, the two guys react to each other warily, but Otto is a kindly sort who is willing to sell his products to anyone – Jews, Communists, everyone – except Nazis, who come in looking for the party newspaper which Otto refuses to sell.

One of his customers is none other than the legendary father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud (Ganz) who comes to the shop to get his cigar fix. Franz is fascinated by what he does and determines to have Freud help him overcome his inability to find somebody to love. Freud, for his part, says ruefully that he is as confused about love as Franz is.

Things are going from bad to worse in the Austrian capital, but for Franz there is a saving grace; the beautiful young Bohemian Annezka (Drogunova) who works as a dancer in a cabaret and who seems to have lots of boyfriends. However, she and Franz hook up although when he gets serious, she backs away, leaving him bitter and confused. That’s the least of his worries, though, as the Nazis tighten their hold on Austria, people whose behaviors are disapproved of are whisked off of the streets, never to be seen again and prudent Austrians are finding someone with a swastika arm band to protect them – or make a hasty exit for less fraught environs.

Freud, as a Jew, is particularly vulnerable but he is not eager to leave his home. It falls upon Franz, who has become friends with the aging doctor, to try and convince him to leave before it’s too late. Franz is being forced to grow up quickly as he takes on more responsibility at the store and continues to pursue Annezka. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get by.

Watching movies about the ascension of Nazi Germany are doubly disturbing in these days of rioting, pandemic and increasingly authoritarian posturing by the current administration. The parallels seem inescapable and it’s likely the filmmakers are fully aware of that. Some may find it extra-disturbing.

This was one of Ganz’ final films (it is the final Ganz film to be released in the United States) and his performance is heart-wrenching. He plays Freud as a gentle man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, not at all the way most of us picture him. Morzé is handsome enough in the lead role, but his performance is pretty bland for most of the film, and by the time the character shows signs of growth the damage is done. Krisch does a good job as the kindly Otto, and Russian actress Drogunova adds a dash of sensuality to the movie.

Freud’s psychological theories are on display throughout the film, as we are treated to Franz’ dreams which are full of symbols; submersion, spiders, isolation, mother bonding, and so on. Some of the dreams have rich imagery, but Leytner relies on them a bit too much. They interrupt the flow of the story and obfuscate what’s going on.

The movie is based on a novel by Richard Seethaler, which was a massive best-seller in Germany. There is a literary quality to the film which is a little more common in European films but which mass American audiences tend to shy away from. We are invited to psychoanalyze Franz, although to be honest as the movie starts he’s basically genitals with legs and with not a whole lot of responsibility or ability to see beyond his own immediate needs. That changes as the movie goes along, but the effect is at least at the beginning akin to the emperor not wearing any clothes.

The movie might have benefitted from less time spent on the dreams, although some of the dreams are actually kind of fascinating. Still, they do tend to get in the way of the best part of the movie – the story of Franz’ maturation process as he discovers that the things that were important to him as a boy matter less to him as a man. It’s a lesson that not all of us actually learn.

The movie is currently playing as a Virtual Theatrical Experience. Among the Florida theaters benefitting from this pandemic-centric VOD delivery are the Tampa Theater, the Tropic Cinema (Key West), All Saints Cinema (Tallahassee), Corazon Café (St. Augustine), Pensacola Cinema Art, and the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Click on the link below to buy your tickets to benefit those theaters or others closer to where you might live.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganz is magnificent as Freud. Some interesting dream imagery.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story meanders quite a bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity, sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book Thief
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happy Death Day 2U

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

Quezon’s Game


Another scene of indifferent dramatic tension.

(2018) Biographical Drama (ABS-CBNRaymond Batagsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, David Bianco, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Tony Ahn, James Paoleli, Jeremy Domingo, Ross Barnaby McLeod. Directed by Matthew E. Rosen

 

It is to the world’s shame that when the unfolding horrors of the Holocaust were taking place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the world – including the United States – largely turned a blind eye. There were, however, some individuals who saw what was coming and took commendable action to save as many as they could.

One such was the President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon (Batagsing). A young, charismatic leader, he would be forever remembered in his home country as the man who negotiated his country’s freedom from being an American protectorate. His role in the Holocaust is a story that isn’t often told, not even in his native land.

He faced an uphill battle. In attempting to grant visas for 10,000 Jews trapped in the ghettos of Austria and Germany, he ran into all kinds of American red tape and resistance. He would be aided in his quest by Jewish-American businessman Alexander Frieder (Gallion), British diplomat Paul McNutt (Paoleli) and future American president Dwight D. Eisenhower (Bianco). He was also supported by his wife Aurora (Alejandro), despite whispers of an extramarital affair with a torch singer (for which there is little historical corroboration). He also did this while negotiating with the Americans for the independence of his nation – and battling the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him six years later.

This Filipino production has a bit of irony to it, considering the anti-immigration stance that has resurfaced in the United States in the lat few years. The current President of the Philippines also suffers in comparison to Quezon, not just in his hagiographic portrayal here but to the historical figure who did so much for his people. That the kind of political forces that Quezon fought have reared their ugly heads 80 years after the fact is not so much terrifying as it is disappointing.

Quezon’s story deserves to be told in a grand way, but the production is hampered by budgetary constraints. While the locations do a good job of presenting 1938 Manila, the script tends to have characters describing events rather than showing them onscreen. I’m not sure if this was a budgetary thing, but the color is often washed out to being nearly black and white, then reverting to full color without any rhyme or reason. It’s annoying and unnecessary.

With the exception of Batagsing who gives a decent performance as the late Filipino President, the acting is often stiff and uneven. It doesn’t help that the subplot of the affair that Aurora suspects her husband is having is shoehorned in and seems at odds with the rest of the film; the more than two hour length could well have been trimmed somewhat.

On the positive side, Dean Rosen’s Philip Glass-inspired score is quite haunting and serves the film well, but there is a bit too much speechifying and posturing to make this truly entertaining. It’s a real shame too, because this is a story that deserves to be told, especially in these times. I hope someday someone tells it a bit better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Tells a story not often told in the West. The score is beautiful and seems to be inspired by Philip Glass. The actors resemble their historic counterparts keenly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven performances throughout. The black and white and color imagery seems to be too arbitrarily done. Overly long and overly sudsy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quezon City, at one time the capitol of the Philippines, was partially designed by Quezon and bears his name.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
After Parkland

Papillon (2017)


A couple of cons on the beach.

(2017) Drama (Bleecker StreetCharlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Yorick van Wageningen, Roland Møller, Andre Flynn, Antonio de la Cruz, Michael Adams, Louisa Pili, Brian Vernel, Mark Phelan, Luke Peros, Joel Basman, Nenad Herakovic, Michael Socha, Lorena Andrea, Poppy Mehendra, Demetri Goritsas, Juan-Leonardo Solari, Veronica Quilligan, Mirjana Novak. Directed by Michael Noer

The purported autobiography of French safecracker Henri Charriére was notable for its gritty adventure tone that made the man, who was nicknamed Papillon after the tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, an almost heroic figure. It was also notable for a laissez-faire attitude towards the facts; much of what Charriére described either didn’t happen to him or didn’t happen at all.

That didn’t stop a classic 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman from garnering acclaim and affection. This remake takes a grittier tone than the original; in many ways, the brutality of the French penal system is sanitized for audiences of that era. Here, we see bloody beatings, prison sexual assaults and people being gutted for the money they swallowed to help them survive prison.

Wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Charriére (Hunnam) is sentenced to life in the French penal colony in Guiana. Once there, he meets wealthy forger Louis Dega (Malek) and takes on the role of his protector, mainly to utilize the cash he brought in to finance his escape attempts to get back to his girlfriend (Hewson) and live the life the two of them dreamed of. Standing in the way is a brutal warden (van Wageningen) and deadly terrain.

It’s not a fair comparison to pit Hunnam and Malek up against McQueen and Hoffman, although Malek does an outstanding job and Hunnam a credible one. The friendship that develops between the two in the original becomes less conspicuous in the remake and the chemistry between Malek and Hunnam is less scintillating than that of McQueen and Hoffman.

As adventure tales go, this isn’t a bad one although I found it to be a bit of a drag near the middle and by the end, I was checking my watch. Definitely, of the two, I would strongly recommend the 1973 version which is a triumph of the human spirit but if you’re unwilling to check that one out, this isn’t a bad version of the story. It’s just not as good as the movie it is based on.

REASONS TO SEE: Very gritty and realistic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence including some bloody images, brief nudity, profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in French Guiana (on the Northeast coast of South America), the entire movie was filmed in Europe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Escape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Simple Favor

The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder

Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Gangster Land


This is how you vogue, gangster-style.

(2017) Gangster (Cinedigm) Sean Faris, Milo Gibson, Jason Patric, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Peter Facinelli, Mark Rolston, Michael Paré Sean Kanan, Al Sapienza, Don Harvey, Jason Brooks, Veronica Parks, Mark Krenik, Ronnie Kerr, Ryan Kiser, Danny Hansen, Joe Coffey, Shane P. Allen, Louis Fasanaro, Devin Reeve, Drake Andrew, James Bartz, Alan Donnes, Jody Barton, Kevin Donovan, Grace Fae. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

We Americans have always had a fascination with criminals. We have tended to idolize them and mythologize them, from Jesse James on down to Charlie Manson. We have a particular fondness for the gangsters of the Depression era; even though they were vicious, brutal men we can only help admire their brazen outlook as they lived life on their own terms – and often died by them.

This film is a fictionalized account of the rise of Al Capone (Gibson) as seen through the eyes of his top lieutenant “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (Faris) who despite his name was actually of Italian descent; he changed it when he went into boxing because he could get more bouts as an Irishman than he could as an Italian. After the murder of his stepfather by a rival Italian gang, he decides to throw his lot in with Capone who had seen McGurn box and was an admirer.

At first McGurn is just hired muscle for the Italian gang under Johnny Torrio (Sapienza) but he rises through the ranks with his friend Al and when Torrio is killed, Capone takes control and begins a ruthless war with the Irish gang of the Northside for control of Chicago. The Northside Irish gang is led by Dion O’Bannon (Rolston) and after O’Bannon is murdered, George “Bugs” Moran (Facinelli). He meets and falls in love with dancer Lulu Rolfe (Sigler) who is unimpressed at first – McGurn doesn’t have much cash and never thought much about dressing stylishly. However he wins her over and she is okay with his lifestyle as a mobster. Now known as “Machine Gun Jack” for his preferred weapon for murder, the war between the two vicious gangs quickly and decisively escalates culminating in an infamous massacre on St. Valentine’s Day that will change Chicago forever.

There is a B-movie gangster vibe here that recalls some of the great movies of that era, of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft only with graphic violence and plenty of foul language. Cinematographer Pablo Diez uses interplay between bright colors and dark shadows to give the film a kind of updated noir aspect that I found interesting. While most noir feels more natural in a black and white atmosphere, Gangster Land gave the color a very noir-ish feel which is quite the accomplishment from where I’m sitting.

There is a bit of an amateurish feel to the movie that negates a lot of the good stuff. The dialogue feels wooden and unnatural and the lines are delivered in a ham-fisted and over-the-top manner that considering the caliber of some of the actors involved is a bit baffling. It’s like they’re channeling a community theater troupe at times and that feeling is a bit disonncerting.

This won’t compare well to the better film of the genre like The Untouchables for example but it’s rip-roaring entertainment in any event. This is, to my way of thinking, more George Raft than Jimmy Cagney. Those of you who love the gangster movies of the 30s and 40s will find this right up your alley particularly if your alley is dark, foggy and filled with shadowy men in fedoras and overcoats furtively carrying Tommy guns.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography makes good use of light, shadow and color. Think of this as a nod to B movies with modern sensibilities.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is well over-the-top and sounds a bit wrong-headed at times. There is a lot of scenery chewing going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, gore, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McGurn eventually became a pro golfer. He was assassinated in a bowling alley in 1936, a day after the seventh anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No reviews yet. Metacritic: No reviews yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Public Enemies
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Shadowman

Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)