Django (2017)


Django Reinhardt doing what he does best.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Under the Milky Way) Reda Kateb, Cécile De France, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mireté, Johnny Montreuil, Vincent Frade, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois, Esther Comar, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, Hugues Jourdain, Hono Winterstein, Etienne Mehrstein, Levis Reinhardt, Nestle Sztyglic, Ulrich Brandhoff, Clémence Boisnard. Directed by Etienne Comar

 

Django Reinhardt was one of the greatest jazz guitarists – jazz musicians of any instrument in fact – of all time. His music has helped define the music of France in the decades since he burst onto the club scene of Paris in much the same way as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry defined American music.

Django (Kateb) is really a pretty laid back guy; before a big concert in Paris in 1943 he is late arriving because he’s too busy fishing in the Seine. Once he gets there, he captivates the crowd with his virtuoso style, fingers dancing over the fretboard in his unusual style (he didn’t have the use of two fingers on his left hand after his hand was burned in an accident as a young man, so he had a peculiar three finger style). We are reminded that this is occupied Paris with all the Nazi uniforms in the audience and a stern admonition of “No Dancing.”

Django is married to Naguine (Palya) who is devoted to him; his mother Negros (Merstein) also lives with him. Django was born in Belgium to Romani (what some would call gypsies although that’s a politically incorrect term these days) and the gypsies, along with the homosexuals and of course the Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis. One of Django’s fans is Louise de Klerk (De France) who as it turns out is part of the French resistance and she warns Django that the Nazis are rounding up the Romani all over the country. She admonishes him about a German tour he’s about to undertake; he responds that he doesn’t care who’s in the audience so long as they respond to his music.

Soon Django’s apolitical stance is put to the test as it becomes clear he needs to get his family out of France and that his protection because of his international stardom wouldn’t remain for much longer. He heads to a Romani encampment near the Swiss border and his perceptions of politics are changed forever.

Kateb took some intensive training to learn how to duplicate Reinhardt’s distinctive style and he looks pretty authentic on-camera. Oddly, a modern jazz group dubs the sound of Reinhardt and his Paris Hot Club Quintet; neither the on-camera musicians nor Reinhardt are heard on the soundtrack which seems a little odd that in a movie about a great musician we never actually hear his work.

Kateb is a fine actor and he does a decent job here but he isn’t given a lot to work with. There’s little character development for anyone else around me, including the fictional De Klerk (who for the purposes of this film was also his mistress) and the very real Naguine. The music is amazing but you’re never given the opportunity to care about the people playing it.

Mostly we get a generic World War II suspense piece that has elements of Casablanca (not a bad thing), music documentary (not a bad thing) and Schindler’s List (still not a bad thing) but never quite pulls together as a movie that grips and excites the viewer. I don’t feel like I know anything more about Reinhardt than I would if I just listened to a couple of his albums.

On the positive side, the filmmaker does call into focus the persecution of the Romani people which other than the Jews suffered the most in terms of the number of dead. There is a chilling but moving photo collage of the missing that is the last image shown in the film and a fitting memorial for those who died. Django no doubt would have approved.

I don’t think he would have approved of this movie which lacks the passion that he consistently displayed in his music. Certainly the musical sequences are dynamite and there are also some really nice camera shots in the film but overall, you would profit better by downloading some of his songs onto your playlist and giving them a listen.

REASONS TO GO: The music is incredible. Some of the cinematography is spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is surprisingly pallid and uninspiring. The soundtrack could have used some actual recordings of Reinhardt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the fictional novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Battle of the Sexes

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Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus

Allied


The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

(2016) War Drama (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode, Marion Bailey, Ian Batchelor, Ėric Thëobald, Josh Dylan, Camille Cottin, August Diehl, Anton Blake, Fleur Poad, Vincent Latorre, Daniel Betts, Sally Messham, Charlotte Hope, Celeste Dodwell, Maggie O’Brien, Anton Lesser, Angelique Joan. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Espionage is a lonely affair. After all, how can you trust anyone who it is a given that they are at the very least manipulating the truth if not outright lying? Relationships do not survive without trust, after all.

Max Vatan (Pitt) is a Canadian airman/spy who parachutes into North Africa during World War II. His assignment is to make it to Casablanca and there attend a party where he will assassinate the German ambassador (Blake). Assisting him will be Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a member of the French resistance who will pose as his wife and get him into the party.

At first, both of them are consummate professionals, maintaining the illusion of a loving marriage while retaining their objectivity but that objectivity begins to crumble. Imminent danger turns feigned affection to the real McCoy. On the eve of the party, they go out to the desert to clear their heads but a sandstorm traps them in their car where they finally smash through their pretensions and give in to what they’ve both been feeling.

After completing their mission, they return to London and marry; shortly thereafter Marianne gives birth to a daughter in the midst of an air raid. They find a quaint cottage in Hampstead while Max is a desk jockey in the British war department. One afternoon on what is supposed to be a weekend off, he is summoned to headquarters and his superior (Harris) and a officious military intelligence officer (McBurney) drop a bombshell of their own; Marianne is in fact a German spy. She’d assumed the identity of the real Marianne Beauséjour after murdering her. They’ve intercepted transmissions of classified material that they have traced to her. Max is given false information to make sure that Marianne can discover. If that information turns up in a new transmission, then all doubt will be removed and Max is ordered to execute her by his own hand in that case. Failure to do so will result in his own execution.

Max, of course, doesn’t believe that the love of his life and the mother of his child could betray him like that. Despite orders to the contrary, he does some sleuthing of his own trying to discover the truth about his wife. Is she, as he believes, falsely accused or has she lied to him all this time and is actually using him?

To Zemeckis’ credit, he doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other. The audience is completely in the dark of Marianne’s innocence or guilt until the very end of the film. Also to his credit we care about both characters enough that we are genuinely rooting for the accusations to be false. It is also a credit to both actors that their relationship is completely believable.

What isn’t believable is the whole trope of that the accused spy, if she is a spy, must die by the hand of her husband. I suppose that the logic there is that it proves the continued loyalty of the Max character and that he isn’t an accomplice to Marianne’s alleged chicanery but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense. It would seem more logical that if Marianne is guilty that anybody but Max execute her. Certainly war can change morality but it doesn’t seem to me that forcing a man to kill his wife would do anything but turn him against the agency making such an order. There are also plenty of ways to get Marianne to receive false information without involving her husband. It would be in fact more efficient to leave him ignorant. Of course that would also remove the tension of the movie’s third act.

Pitt and Cotillard are both legitimate movie stars and with all that implies; Zemeckis is a master at utilizing the abilities of the stars he works with. Pitt and Cotillard have never been as radiant and charismatic as they are here. They both captivate equally and their relationship as lovers makes absolute sense and is believable without question. The movie is essentially a primer for the advantages of star power.

What I liked most about the film was that it is very a movie that puts to lie “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” This is absolutely the way they used to make ‘em like. It is no accident that the first act is set in Casablanca; the iconic Casablanca is not only name-checked but several elements from it are slyly referenced. The costuming is absolutely superb. I don’t often notice the costumes but they are superb here; it wouldn’t surprise me if the film gets an Oscar nomination in that department. Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, certainly deserves one here.

What I didn’t like about the movie is that it runs a little bit too long particularly during the second act. Da Queen, in the interest of full disclosure, actually liked this part of the movie much more than I did; she felt that Max acted the way she thought any good husband would.  In all honesty I can’t dispute that, but again that’s why any intelligence agency would not inform the husband of an accused spy that she’s under investigation, if for no other reason that they would better be able to determine his own complicity if any in that manner.

I have to admit that I liked the movie a few days after seeing it than I did when I left the theater and it’s entirely possible that when I view this a second time (as I certainly will since Da Queen really liked the movie much more than I did) I will find myself liking it even more. That said, it did leave me a bit flat despite everything it had going for it; that could be chalked up to me not feeling well when I saw it. There are definitely some flaws here but for those who love movies the way they used to be you’re bound to find this right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt and Cotillard are legitimate movie stars who use their star appeal to full potential here. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood movie in the best sense of the term.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long and drags a whole lot in the middle third. Some of the plot points lack credibility.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some wartime espionage violence, some sexuality, a brief scene of drug use and a slight amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In one scene, a photo of King George VI can be seen behind Jared Harris. He played the monarch in the Netflix series The Crown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Jones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Almost Christmas

Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

Cafe Society


On the Boardwalk.

On the Boardwalk.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Lionsgate) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Sari Lennick, Sheryl Lee, Paul Schackman, Richard Portnoy, Stephen Kunken, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Kat Edmonson, Tony Sirico, Paul Schneider, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’Lyn, Taylor Carr. Directed by Woody Allen

 

Finding love and a life you can live with are never easy propositions, even in Hollywood during the Golden Age. There are all sorts of detours and obstacles, not to mention the comfortable ruts we find ourselves in from time to time. There is also a question of timing – being in the right place at the right time. No, finding a place where you fit in and a person you fit in with is no easy task, no matter what the era.

Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) is a good Jewish boy from the Bronx. It is shortly after the war and America is in its ascendancy and Hollywood defines America. His uncle Phil (Carell) is a high-powered agent with such clients as Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou and studio chiefs kiss his butt to curry favor. Bobby heads out for Southern California to see if he can make a career out there; Phil isn’t enthusiastic about the idea but after some dithering finally gives his nephews a job.

He also enlists his personal assistant Vonnie (Stewart) to show him around town. The two hit it off but when Bobby is eager to take things further, Vonnie gently rebuffs him. However, his sweet charm wears her down and eventually she gives in and the two become something of an item. However, Vonnie has a secret that she’s been keeping from everybody and when it surfaces, it effectively ends their romance. Disheartened, Bobby returns to New York.

There he is given a job by his brother Ben (Stoll), a gangster, to run his tres chi chi nightclub known as Les Tropique. It becomes the place to be seen in Manhattan, with politicians, Broadway stars, sports heroes and gangsters all rubbing elbows. Bobby also meets Veronica (Lively) who charms him and eventually the two get married and have a child. Everything is going exactly the way Bobby envisioned it – until one night Vonnie walks into his joint…

Woody Allen is in many ways the embodiment of a niche filmmaker. His area of interests is fairly narrow compared to some, and he tends to stick with those subjects pretty much without exception. When he is at his best, there are few better. However in the last couple of decades, it has become evident that his best work is likely behind him and some of his worst much closer to 2016 than his best stuff, much of which was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He has had flashes of brilliance since then but perhaps his torrid pace – he generally churns out a new film every year – might well have hurt him quality-wise.

Still, Woody Allen’s worst is far better than most people’s best and this is far from his worst. While I found one of the romances a bit disingenuous, there is also one relationship that you almost root for. The problem I have with the movie is that I really ended up not caring about either Bobby or Vonnie. Bobby’s sweetness could get cloying and after awhile he reminded me of a slingshot that had been pulled back just a hair too far back and I was just waiting for him to snap. On the other hand, Vonnie is crazy shallow and despite all of her apparent aspirations towards depth, at the end of the day she chooses the easy path every time. Bobby and Vonnie are a couple far better together than they are individually so this is really a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Allen has always known how to make his movies look their best and that starts with hiring the best cinematographers in the business, from Gordon Willis to Darius Khondji to now Vittorio Storaro here. Storaro is one of the most gifted cinematographers in the business and he makes the Golden Age look golden, both in Los Angeles and New York. Like all Woody Allen movies, it is beautiful to look at in ways you wouldn’t think of for a film that is mostly set in a big city of one coast or another.

Mostly you’ll want to see this for the supporting cast, who are wonderful, from the luminescent Lively to Carell in one of his meatier roles, to Stoll as the good-natured gangster but especially Stott and Berlin as Bobby and Ben’s long-suffering parents. They are quite the hoot and supply a lot of the best comedic moments here.

The movie ends up being a little bit bittersweet and doesn’t really end the way you’d expect it to, but then again Woody Allen has never been in making the movies people expect him to make. He’s always been a bit of a maverick and done things the way he wanted to rather than the way the studios wanted him to do it. He doesn’t make blockbusters and I don’t think he’s ever really been interested in breaking the bank from that perspective, but he makes movies that as a body of work will be long-remembered when some of the box office hits of the last fifty years are long forgotten.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Woody Allen and you don’t miss an opportunity to see a master. Beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic leads are two people you end up not caring about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexually suggestive content, a little bit of violence and a drug reference or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Allen has shot digitally. It’s also the first time in 29 years that Allen has narrated a film without appearing onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hail, Caesar!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ghost Team

Son of Saul (Saul fia)


Oscar-winning intensity.

Oscar-winning intensity.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas, Sándor Zsórér, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Orbán, Kamil Dobrowolski, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Attila Fritz, Mihály Kormos, Márton Ȧgh, Amitai Kedar, István Pion, Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes

When we think of the Holocaust, it is truly hard to wrap our minds around it. The absolute ghastly nature of it; essentially Nazi Germany created death factories in which living people were brutally and efficiently processed into corpses, then those corpses disposed of. The horror of it fails to penetrate our skulls because we simply can’t conceive of it, even when we see pictures and newsreel footage. Our minds won’t let us.

But it did happen and perhaps one of the more astonishing things is that the Nazis had help in the orderly disposal of the Jews – from the Jews themselves. The sonderkommandos were tasked with cleaning the physical mess left behind by the dying, scrubbing the gas chambers to remove the bloodstains made from bloodied fists beating against the iron doors in vain trying to escape, as well as the excrete of a human body in extremis. They are the ones that process the clothes and take them for sorting, act as cowboys herding the masses of those getting off the train at Auschwitz into the waiting chambers. They are the ones who drag the corpses – now called pieces by the German guards – to the ovens, or out to mass graves. They dispose of the ashes when the ovens get full. And their service buys them only a few months before they are herded into chambers of their own.

Saul Auslander (Röhrig) is just such a man. He walks with a purpose, his visage grim and unsmiling, revealing nothing of what is occurring inside while he does his grim and grisly work. He cares for no-one and nothing; he aids the resistance somewhat, reluctantly agreeing to fight although he says very little about it. His life is a perpetual tunnel vision of task and survival, even if it is only for a few short weeks. Perhaps the war will end before the Nazis get a chance to kill him.

Then he sees a young boy who survives the chamber – barely. German doctors are called in to see the boy, still breathing, lying on a slab. Then they suffocate him. Something inside Saul snaps. He determines to see that this boy, who fought so valiantly to survive, gets a proper Jewish burial with the rites of kadish read by a rabbi. He even claims him as his son, which he may or may not be.

However, there aren’t many rabbis left and those that are aren’t likely to advertise their rabbinical status. Finding one in the hordes of the doomed coming in is highly unlikely. Hiding the body of the boy amid the chaos and paranoia of Nazis and prisoners alike, improbable. Getting both the body and the rabbi outside of the camp for the burial is nigh-on impossible.

The opening shot, shown from Saul’s point of view as chaos comes in and out of focus as he herds new arrivals towards the waiting gas chambers, shows that this is going to be a different and excellent film. Everything outside of what is immediate to Saul is blurred, as if seen through tunnel vision. The style reminds one strongly of the Dardennes brothers who employ a similar technique.

The entire film in fact is shot this way, which is a double edged sword. It allows us to see Saul’s perspective which is very much on immediate survival, and excludes anything beyond that narrow focus. Saul’s world is by necessity a small one, limited to the task at hand of the moment and of avoiding the indiscriminate wrath of Nazi soldiers who aren’t above executing him for a minor infraction.

However, as someone who is prone to vertigo, the whirling camera rapidly goes from being an innovation to an annoyance to being downright disruptive. I found myself unable to look at the screen because I was getting way too dizzy. That kind of defeats the purpose of a movie; how are we to make sense of the images when we can’t see them?

That’s not a minor quibble, but it really is the only one. Everything else about the movie is simply awe-inspiring, from the strong, internalized performance by Röhrig that reveals little about what’s inside of Saul as it in fact tells us everything we need to do. Who is this boy to Saul? Is it his son, as he claims? A representation of the son he lost? Or is he a symbol standing for all the Jews who the Holocaust has taken?

These questions are at the center of the film and they are not easily answered. Saul himself is an enigmatic character who defies us to get to know him even as he gives us nothing to hold onto. For Nemes, he orchestrates this narrative masterfully, telling us a grim and dark story from a brand new perspective, one which we as a cinematic audience have never experienced before. For that alone, the movie richly deserves the Oscar it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.

This is, simply put, a must-see film. Some audience members, particularly Jewish ones who have family members who were victims of the Holocaust, are going to find this hard to watch. I did, although mainly because my vertigo made me look away more than the stark and often gruesome images. Still, it is worth us to remind us that the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man is nearly boundless, a lesson we still haven’t learned more than 70 years later.

REASONS TO GO: Searing and emotionally powerful material. Röhrig delivers an amazing performance. Innovative camera style.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky cam caused legitimate dizziness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and cruelty as well as a lot of graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is supposed to be from Saul’s perspective only; we never see anything that isn’t within his field of view or hear anything that isn’t within his range of hearing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gods of Egypt