The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

Get Hard


The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley Dickerson, Ariana Neal, Erick Chavarria, T.I., Paul Ben-Victor, John Mayer, Jon Eyez, Nito Larioza, Dan Bakkerdahl, Greg Germann, Ron Funches, Joshua Joseph Gillum, Chris Marroy, Katia Gomez, Elliott Grey, Raeden Greer, Melanie Hebert. Directed by Etan Cohen

For most of us, the thought of going to prison and doing hard time is not even something that’s on our radar. After all, we keep our indiscretions minor; speeding a little down the freeway, or entering an intersection just as the light turns red; maybe we fudge our taxes a little bit. Most of us aren’t ever going to be in a situation that might lead us to the hoosegow.

Certainly James King (Ferrell) didn’t think so. A wealthy fund manager on his way to marrying the boss’s daughter (Brie), he has essential the ultimate 1% life – a Harvard education, a high-profile position – a partnership in fact, something of a wedding gift from soon-to-be dad Martin (Nelson) – at a major financial corporation, a beautiful home and high end possessions, and expensive cars. He even has John Mayer (himself) playing his engagement party. He has it all, right?

Not for long. He’s arrested at his engagement party for embezzling funds, something he vehemently denies doing. However, the evidence is damning as the paper trail leads directly to James. A populist judge (Grey) instead of sentencing James to a country club minimum security facility instead sends him to San Quentin for ten years. James is given 30 days to get his affairs in order.

James knows that he has absolutely no chance to survive in prison. He needs to be prepared for what he’s going to encounter there, learn to defend himself. There aren’t many who can adequately get him ready for the big house, but maybe there is someone…why, the guy who washes his car at work, Darnell (Hart) – why, he’s a black man. Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance Darnell has been incarcerated.

In fact, Darnell has not – he’s a family man with a small business trying to make things better for his family by putting a down payment for a house in a better neighborhood with better schools for his daughter Makayla (Neal). He needs the money, so he agrees to get James ready, much to the bemusement of his wife Rita (Dickerson) who is fully aware that Darnell has a better chance of dunking on Dwight Howard than he does of being a true thug.

But Darnell has a plan and that’s to turn James’ home into a simulation of prison life, which suits James’ domestic staff just fine. James is confident that the investigators that Martin has put on the case will soon exonerate him but as the days tick closer to the day James has to report to San Quentin, Darnell begins to realize that not only is James as innocent as he says he is but that nothing that Darnell can do will EVER help James survive in prison – nothing can. The only chance James has to survive is to prove his innocence, but that seems next to impossible.

Hart and Ferrell are two of the biggest comic actors in Hollywood, with Hart dominating over the past few years and Ferrell making some of the most iconic comedy classics of the past decade. Their styles are completely different; Ferrell is a lot more over-the-top and often plays clueless boobs (as he does here) while Hart is more of a street-smart hustler sort who writes checks with his mouth that he can’t cash with his body or his skills. You wouldn’t think that the two would mesh all that well but there is in fact some chemistry between them – a lot more than I expected in fact. Cohen, the writer of Tropic Thunder making his debut as a director, wisely does a kind of back and forth type of presentation allowing both comics to shine individually and together as well. Considering that most people paying to see this are looking to see two of the best comedians working today together, I think it’s a wise course of action.

Also wise was getting Key and Peele writers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel to do the script, but somewhat surprisingly the two didn’t come through as well. Much of the plot is ultimately predictable and cliche, which considering the edgy material they’ve done for the popular Comedy Central show, is an unexpected bummer.

The movie means to examine through the lens of comedy racial discord and attitudes, homophobia and stereotypes. There are quite a few critics who have accused the movie of being racist and homophobic, but honestly, only the most politically correct nimrods are going to find it that way. There’s a vast difference between laughing at racial stereotypes and holding them up to ridicule and being racist. Part of the comedy comes from James’ abysmal ignorance of African-Americans and their culture; as a sheltered 1% sort he’s only hung around other 1% sorts which have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored his perceptions. In white society, people often say “But I have black friends” when called out for racial insensitivity and that’s exactly how James undoubtedly would react.

There’s probably more of a case for homophobia when James is told to learn how to perform oral sex on other men as a means of survival but is unable to do it. However, there is a gay character who befriends Darnell who comes off as pretty normal and reasonable rather than a stereotype which I found refreshing. There was precious little mincing by the gay characters in the movie.

After having heard almost nothing but negative reviews for the movie I was pleasantly surprised to find it a lot funnier than I expected with an unexpected strong comedic timing throughout. The jokes flow nicely and the plot, while predictable, at least keeps moving along. The material is fairly crude – although if the movie were bigger at the box office “keistering” might become a thing – but I’ve seen cruder.

This is one of those movies that should be the poster child for not letting critics make up your mind for you. I found it to be positively entertaining and while it doesn’t break new ground, it does at least what it’s meant to do – keep the audience laughing and showcasing two superior talents in Hart and Ferrell who hopefully will team up again after this. Maybe in a movie where their roles are reversed, where Hart is the privileged snob and Ferrell is the street-wise hustler. That’s something I’d pay to see.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Hart and Ferrell. Some outrageously funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-sensitive and too politically correct sorts may find this racist/homophobic. Plot is fairly predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity, some violence, plenty of foul language and sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will Ferrell is 11 inches taller than Kevin Hart which led to some fairly interesting camera angles in order to make the differential less severe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let’s Go to Jail
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Furious 7

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Sophie Scholl's trial was stacked slightly against her.

(2005) Historical Drama (Zeitgeist) Julia Jentsch, Gerald Alexander Held, Fabian Hinrichs, Johanna Gastdorf, Andre Hennicke, Florian Stetter, Johannes Suhm, Maximillian Bruckner, Jorg Hube, Petra Kelling, Franz Staber, Lilli Jung. Directed by Marc Rothemund

When confronted by absolute evil, people of good conscience are required to act. In reality, we know that’s seldom the case and when it does happen it rarely ends well for the person who acted.

It is Nazi Germany, February 1943. In Munich, a young woman named Sophie Scholl (Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Hinrichs) are distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University there. They are members of an underground group called The White Rose who stood against the government and were hoping to urge the students to rise up against the Nazis.

The two are just finishing up their task when Sophie accidentally knocks a pile of the leaflets off a balcony where a janitor sees her. He turns them in to the authorities – not so much because he’s a Nazi toady but because he was irritated at having to clean up the mess.

The two are brought to the police station, where Sophie is interrogated by Robert Mohr (Held), a police inspector who while a member of the Nazi party is also a somewhat compassionate man who views Sophie as more of a misguided youth rather than as a dangerous dissenter. Most of the interrogation is a foregone conclusion; the police know that Sophie and Hans did it.

Justice, or what passes for it, works swiftly in Nazi Germany and their trial takes place within a few days. There an outspoken and shrill judge (Hennicke) tries the two Scholls as well as Christoph Probst (Stetter).Sophie is repeatedly offered chances at clemency if she gives names to the tribunal; she refuses, protecting the other members of The White Rose. The trial soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and Sophie, her brother and Probst would pay the ultimate price for their dissention.

Sophie Scholl is a national heroine in Germany, particularly in Bavaria where she lived and died. The filmmakers used actual transcripts of her interrogation and trial, recently unearthed from the former East Germany, to supply the dialogue. Survivors of the period, including members of The White Rose (few as they are; most of the organization was wiped out by the Nazis) who knew Scholl well, contributed to creating the character of Scholl for the movie.

There is an authenticity to the movie that rings true. Sophie’s interrogation contains few grand gestures, few political statements; for the most part, it’s all police procedural – where were you, why were you carrying a suitcase, are you a member of a subversive organization and so on. The very mundane nature of the interrogation makes it all the more sinister and tragic. Mohr, by all accounts a decent man who was horrified by what happened to Scholl and her co-conspirators, is persistent and certain in the justness of his cause. He can’t understand why Scholl, whom he considers privileged and spoiled, would speak out against a system that was responsible for getting him to a position he might never have obtained otherwise. Held gives a note perfect performance of the role.

Jentsch is astonishing and makes Scholl very human. She is no martyr, no Joan of Arc looking heavenward with soulful eyes (although Scholl, a devout Catholic, prayed regularly) but certain of her beliefs. She is terrified of what is to come but refuses to endanger others no matter what the cost. There is a scene near the end where she is allowed to meet with her parents one final time that is absolutely sparkling. The parents are heartbroken that their children are about to die, but justifiably proud at the same time.

Hinrichs didn’t get the acclaim that Jentsch and Held got but in his own right does a terrific job. Hans Scholl has taken a backseat in the hearts of Germans in many ways but he was as brave and suffered the same fate as his sister. He doesn’t get the kind of screen time that Jentsch gets (we see none of his interrogation) but he makes the most of his.

In an era when young people in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin are rising up to say “no” to tyranny, the movie is particularly poignant. While perhaps the protesters in Madison face mere jail time for their demonstration, the students elsewhere are confronted by the very real possibility that they may get shot and killed.

This isn’t a movie that’s flashy or histrionic. We do not see Scholl’s execution; we only hear it against a black screen. The movie proceeds at a slow, inexorable pace that some may find off-putting but the effect is powerful nonetheless. The movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Oscars and while it didn’t win, it certainly was good enough to. The movie hasn’t received a good deal of attention over here but if you’re looking for a compelling drama and you’re willing to look outside the box a little, this is a perfect choice for your DVD viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known element of the war (for Americans). Outstanding performances by Jentsch, Held and Hinrichs. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie proceeds at a somewhat slow pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in chronological order to help the actors feel what Sophie and Hans Scholl felt in their ordeal.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature that contains interviews with people who knew Sophie Scholl and members of the White Rose and captures their commentary on how accurate the movie was in depicting her. It offers some amazing insights.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.2M on an unreported production budget; the film almost certainly was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Adjustment Bureau