The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

Advertisements

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)


You just can’t keep Diane Kruger down.

(2017) Drama (Magnolia) Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Tukur, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsdorf, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana, Karin Neuhauser, Uwe Rohde, Siir Eloglu, Asim Demirel, Aysel Iscan, Christa Krings, Hartmut Loth, Adam Bousdoukos, Henning Peker, Laurens Walter, Jessica McIntyre. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

Our lives can be turned upside down in an instant. One moment we are surrounded by a happy, content family. The next – everything is gone. Dealing with that kind of pain is almost inconceivable to most of us but it happens far more regularly than it should.

Katja (Kruger) has that kind of life. She married Nuri Sekerci (Acar) while he was in a German jail for dealing drugs. He has since turned his life around, having become a respected member of the Kurdish community in Hamburg as a tax preparer and translator. Katja and Nuri have an adorable young son Rocco (Santana). While both Katja and Nuri are still a bit rough around the edges, there’s no denying that they are devoted parents.

One rainy afternoon Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office so that she can visit her very pregnant friend Birgit (Chancrin) and share a spa day together. Returning home after relaxing, she is horrified to discover flashing police lights and crowds gathered at the street where she had earlier that afternoon left her family. All that’s left of the office is a charred and obliterated shell. A nail bomb was detonated there and her family was in a microsecond reduced to filleted meat.

At first she is in shock. It can’t be happening and her eyes show her agony. Her mom and her mother’s boyfriend, Birgit and Nuri’s parents have gathered to lend their support and express their own grief. The police seem intent on investigating Nuri’s past indiscretions; Katja believes that neo-Nazis are behind the bombing. Her lawyer Danilo (Moschitto) tends to believe her and in a not-very-smart moment gives her some illegal narcotics to help her cope…and sleep.

Eventually things get sorted and the culprits are caught. Now it’s time for the trial, but the German legal system is much different than our own. For one thing, everybody’s got a lawyer – including the co-plaintiffs, which are normally the families of the victims. Will justice be done? Or will Katja have to seek it out herself?

Kruger, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, has been a Hollywood fixture for years. Incredibly, this is her first German-language film and she capably demonstrates that she could well be one of the finest actresses in the world as well as being an attractive one. This is the kind of performance that should have been rewarded with a Best Actress nomination but inexplicably wasn’t. It was at least as strong a performance of any of the ladies who did get the nomination. Kruger poignantly shows the numbness of grief, the rage, the despair. Much of it is communicated through her eyes.

Katja isn’t a perfect wife, mother or woman. She makes mistakes and she’s a bit on the raw side. With her many tattoos, her own drug use and an explosive temper, she is flawed enough to bring our sympathy to the fore. She’s never so unbelievably pure that we can’t believe her. Rather, we don’t disbelieve her for a moment. Kruger is raw, authentic and powerful here.

The movie is like a raw nerve being scraped through the first two acts but in the third one it falters. I can’t describe why without really going into details that are best left unrevealed until you experience it; suffice to say that it shifts tone into something  that really the film shouldn’t have become. More than that I will not say.

Fortunately, Kruger’s searing performance outweighs the movie’s faults. This is definitely a bit rough to watch in places – anyone who has lost a friend or family member in an untimely violent way will likely be triggered – but it is honest in not only exploring cultural differences but also in finding the balance between the need to inflict pain and the need to expiate it. This is certainly one worth looking out for.

REASONS TO GO: Kruger delivers the best performance of her career. This is an emotionally wrenching film from beginning to end.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails a little bit during the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video segments were all shot on smartphones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killing Jesus
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hunting Season

Call Me By Your Name


The sexual tension between Hammer and Chalamet is palpable.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Under the languid heat of the summer sun in Tuscany, sexuality can be awakened, bestirred or even changed. All things are possible in an idyllic location like that.

Elio (Chalamet) is the 17-year-old prodigal son of an archaeologist/professor dad (Stuhlbarg) living and working in Tuscany with Elio’s German mother (Casar). Into the household comes Oliver (Hammer), a grad student interning with Elio’s dad. At first Elio is a bit testy to the new arrival; after all, Oliver is staying in Elio’s bedroom while Elio is exiled to the adjoining bedroom with a bathroom shared between them.

Elio is a talented pianist and composer with quite a future ahead of him. He is a bit standoffish as talented teens who know they are talented can be. There is a neighboring French girl (Garrel) who would dearly like to be Elio’s girlfriend and Elio isn’t particularly averse to the idea as he is dealing with raging hormones and desires.

As the summer wears on, it becomes clear that Elio is heavily attracted to Oliver – and Oliver is attracted right back. Eventually as the two circle each other warily their orbits eventually intersect and Elio’s sexual urges – gratified first by a ripe peach (don’t ask) and then by Marzia his French girlfriend, find explosive root in this newcomer. The two have a hard time (no pun intended) keeping their hands off each other (as well as other appendages). For Elio, this is truly first love with all the joy and heartache that it entails. Every summer, after all, eventually comes to an end.

A lot of critics have been singing the praises for this film and for some very good reasons but I must caution readers that while there are a lot of things to like about this movie, there are plenty of flaws as well. I like how evocative of time and place the movie is; you can almost feel the heat steaming from the screen on a hot summer’s day in Tuscany. You can feel the 80s vibe in a realistic way – many films set during this era seem to be of the idea that everyone sported Flock of Seagulls hair. Guadagnino got the fashions right without going overboard with the excesses of the era.

>He also did a masterful job of casting. In all the main roles exactly the right actor inhabits them. Chalamet delivers a performance that deservedly got an Oscar nomination and while he didn’t win, had he not been nominated in a year of Gary Oldman’s superlative performance in Darkest Hour I think he might have had a shot at it.

The reason Chalamet’s performance is so praise-worthy is that it is so layered. Elio has the arrogance of youth and the uncertainty of the inexperienced; he can be stand-offish but he deeply desires love. He has a high sex drive but he wants affection, both received and given. If this performance is any indication, he could be the next Daniel Day-Lewis but a note of caution; he has been anointed a once-in-a-generation performer by certain hysterical magazine writers basically off of one or two outstanding performers; let’s see how he does for consistency over the next five years or so before we begin throwing those sorts of superlatives around shall we?

Chalamet has some wonderful actors to play off of. Hammer is of course ruggedly handsome and has that preppy accent which stands him in good stead here. He has the right combination of worldliness and naiveté that makes the character such a perfect foil for Elio. The chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet is blazing hot and the relationship is never anything but genuine for a single moment.

Stuhlbarg who has acted in a number of prestige films this year outdoes himself in the almost too-good-to-be-true father. He has one scene with Chalamet in which he surprisingly gives his son his tacit approval and explains his own regret for not following his own feelings in a similar situation. It’s a terrific scene and if it is more of a fantasy coming out for a lot of gay men whose own experiences are/were somewhat different it can be at least understood.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom turns in a lovely print with colors that pop off the screen and capturing perfectly the season (also in the coda which takes place on a snowy day) and the place. It’s a beautiful film to watch. Iconic screenwriter James Ivory who back in the day was one of the great art film directors of his time, shows that even at 89 he still has a great ear for dialogue.

As I said, though, the film is flawed. It runs almost two and a quarter hours and towards the end of the movie one gets the sense that Guadagnino didn’t quite know how to end th film, although the ending itself is beautiful and bittersweet – it comes after a series of false stops. Also, while I’m not squeamish about sex scenes – even explicit ones – it just seemed that there were too many of them. After awhile it came off as almost gratuitous. We get the sense that there is sexual heat between the two and that Elio is nearly insatiable sexually; it’s just ramming us over the head with it after awhile. A good twenty minutes of film time could have been cut with excessive sex scenes as well as a few extraneous scenes as well.

Some have said that this is this decade’s Brokeback Mountain and there is some truth to that. Certainly a gay romance has rarely been portrayed so beautifully and so naturally onscreen, particularly in a film of this importance. Gay or straight, we’ve all been through first loves (let’s hope) in our lives and there’s no doubt this film evokes the feelings of that bittersweet experience for all of us. I wish the director had been a little bit less lenient at the editing bay but regardless of that this is an important and beautiful movie.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Chalamet, Hammer and Stuhlbarg are all exceptional. The cinematography Is beautiful, evoking lazy summer days in northern Italy. The ending is lovely albeit bittersweet.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie went on way too long. The sex scenes became gratuitous after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content, some nudity and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sufjan Stevens was asked to write one new song for the film but was inspired to write two. He was also asked to re-record “Futile Devices” from his mostly electronic The Age of Adz album with a piano and vocals arrangement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Killing Jesus

Submission


Stanley Tucci clearly has a position of power over Addison Timlin…or does he?

(2017) Drama (Great Point Media) Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, Jessica Hecht, Ritchie Coster, Colby Minifie, Alison Bartlett, David Pittu, Henry Stram, Juan Castano, Matt Ballard, Ashley Trawinski, Stephanie Berry, Devin Norik, Kenneth De Abrew, S.J. Son, Nicole Orth-Palavicini, Malika Samuel, Deaven Brooks, Barbara Spiegel. Directed by Richard Levine

 

In an era which has seen the #MeToo movement grow into a national tidal wave of women standing up to name those who have raped, harassed or committed sexual misconduct against them, movies like this one stand out as a bit of a dinosaur.

Ted Swenson (Tucci) toils at a bucolic college campus in Vermont teaching creative writing courses which mainly consist of students reading their works aloud in class and the other students criticizing them, generally with banal cruelty. Ted is married to Sherrie (Sedgwick) who as a medical doctor is likely responsible for their beautiful split level home, although Ted had a bestselling novel years ago based on his own experiences growing up with a radical father who self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war.

The follow-up however has yet to surface and his agent (Gallagher) has more or less given up on him, so Ted lives in this kind of literary hell in which he listens to badly written purple prose week after week without any let-up. The, one of his students – Angela Argo (Timlin) who has been one of the most vocal and vicious critics – finally after some liberal ego massage gets Ted to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and he realizes at once he is looking at genuine talent.

Her novel is insightful and extremely erotic, a tale of a student who has become sexually obsessed with her teacher. Of course, Ted surmises that the teacher character is based on him and the student on her – Angela makes it perfectly clear that it is the case. However, Ted makes some ill-advised decisions after Angela continues to shamelessly manipulate him and puts everything at risk – his job, his reputation, and his family.

I guess in a way we can see this film as a way the patriarchy thinks about these sexual misconduct cases. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to Ted and yet he puts himself in a position where he can be seduced and doesn’t seem to realize that the whole thing is being orchestrated by Angela as a means of getting Ted to submit her novel to his agent. She seems sweet at first but sweet turns into demanding turns into seduction turns into accusatory. Angela is supposed to be the villain here but quite frankly, cases like this are far more rare than male authority figures using their power to manipulate vulnerable women into situations where they feel forced to have sexual relationships they don’t want.

The movie is based on a novel written back in 2000 by Francine Prose called The Blue Angel which in turn is loosely based on the Marlene Dietrich film of the same name which Angela is watching during the course of this film in a charming meta move. Movies of this sort are not uncommon – anyone remember the Demi Moore/Michael Douglas film Disclosure? – in which women are shown to have the upper hand in sexual politics although clearly that isn’t the case. It is the type of attitude that allowed the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to flourish.

While the subject is accidentally topical, the plot is predictable and cliché. The movie is saved by Tucci who gives his usual strong performance, although his voiceover narration particularly in the beginning of the film is particularly grating. The collegiate setting particularly in the beautiful countryside of New England is somehow comforting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s the college I’d want to have tenure at.

Watchable mainly because of the strong cast, Submission fails on a number of levels. From a political correctness standpoint, it comes off as somewhat of an anachronism in an age when we are beginning to stand up and take notice of the treatment that women have had to endure in relative silence for decades. Moreover, the way the story is told is rife with clichés and worse yet doesn’t particularly add anything to the narrative. I’m not against the idea of a story about an amoral seductress manipulating a naïve professional for her own ambition but this is the wrong time for that kind of story to be told. I’d much rather see movies that illustrate the reality of what women in the workplace have endured and continue to endure even today.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci is always a treat to watch. As it turns out the plot is very topical. The collegiate vistas are oddly comforting.
REASONS TO STAY: Viewers may get the sense that they’ve seen this all before. Cliches abound throughout the film. The narration is a bit grating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual content, nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angela watches the classic Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel which gave the source novel its title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elegy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Chasing Great

The Beguiled (2017)


Melancholia through sepia gauze.

(2017) Thriller (Focus) Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pére, Matt Story, Joel Albin, Eric Ian. Directed by Sofia Coppola

 

It is in some ways a triumph of atmosphere over substance. This remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film – one of two he made with Don Siegel that year (the other was Dirty Harry) which was in turn based on a novel by a fella named Thomas Cullinan comes at the story from a female perspective, something Hollywood sorely needs these days.

During the Civil War, an isolated girl’s school in Virginia (which is unconvincingly played by Louisiana here) tries to maintain gentility and grace in a rapidly deteriorating situation. The slaves have “run off” and so the girls are given chores to do. Food is becoming harder to come by and one of the younger residents, Miss Amy (Laurence) stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Farrell). Although headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) considers turning him in to the Confederate Army, she chooses to hide his presence while he’s recuperating as it is the “Christian thing to do.” The opportunistic McBurney recognizes a sweet deal and sets about exerting control over the girls using his own charm and sexuality to pit them against each other, particularly the lonely schoolmarm Miss Edwina (Dunst) and the sexually charged Miss Alicia (Fanning). As you can guess from the trailers, it doesn’t end well for the male of the species.

Coppola is known for her slow pacing in her films and in this case the pace matches the setting; dripping in Spanish moss, you can feel the heat rising from the ground right through to the dresses of the ladies, all of whom sweat profusely – excuse me, glow. It is clearly a Deep South environment; I wonder why Coppola didn’t just bite the bullet and call it Louisiana as that would have made more sense but I digress.

In some ways the tone works but in others it works against the film. At times the story moves so slowly that one can be forgiven for checking their watch. It’s not that the film is boring precisely but it could have used some energy; Da Queen characterized the movie as “a bit flat” and she’s not wrong. Still, you can’t help but be brought into the organic lull that Coppola creates.

Farrell is one of the best scoundrels in Hollywood and he takes it to a new level here. Kidman is still as ethereal a beauty as has ever appeared onscreen but she is also a much more talented actress than she is often given credit for; she is solid here and her sponge bathing scene with an unconscious Farrell is one of the most erotic scenes you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie this year. Dunst, playing a repressed and lonely spinster elevates her game as well.

The movie was a box office failure although critics praised the movie generally, which is not an unusual thing. I thought the film was a fascinating study of sexual politics and of feminine strength, a near polar-opposite of the 1971 version and, I understand, the novel although I confess I haven’t read it. This is one of Coppola’s best works and it bears looking into especially if you are a fan of thought-provoking films.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does a fine job of creating the feel of the Civil War-era South. The film serves as an interesting examination on sexual politics.
REASONS TO STAY: At points the sedate pace makes the film feel flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farrell and Kidman can also be seen together in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which along with this film won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Keeping Room
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Baby Driver

Lady Macbeth


Here comes the bride.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdjik, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows, Nicholas Lumley, Raymond Finn, Ian Conningham, Finn Burridge, Jack Robertson, Kima Sikazwe, Elliott Sinclair, Andrew Davis, Alan Billingham, Joseph Teague. Directed by William Oldroyd

 

In A Chorus Line, Cassie warbles “Can’t forget, won’t regret what I did for love.” The sentiment strikes a chord in most of us; we mostly will do just about anything for love. If all is fair in love and war as the saying goes, some of us will do unspeakable things for love.

Katherine (Pugh) really doesn’t know what love is and she wants someone to show her. The daughter of hard economic times, her family essentially sold her to wealthy Alexander (Hilton) and more to the point, his cold and demanding father Boris (Fairbank). She is treated pretty much like chattel, ordered to stay indoors – fresh air apparently being anathema to both father and son, although I suspect it is more of a control thing than a health thing.

When both Alexander and Boris are called away from the chilly, drafty home in the north of England on business, Katherine asserts herself as the lady of the manor, going out on long walks on the moor. Her Anglo-African maid Anna (Ackie), who is mostly mute, is witness to her transgressions but seems sympathetic. One afternoon she rescues a nude Anna from the abuse of the stable staff, particularly from Sebastian (Jarvis), an arrogant groomer. He later creeps into her room, presumably to rape her but she ends up seducing him and the two begin a torrid affair. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

When Boris returns home, he is nearly apoplectic and Katherine realizes that while her father-in-law and husband (who hasn’t consummated their marriage yet – to date all he’s done is masturbate while she stands naked facing the wall) live, she can never be with Sebastian. She therefore embarks on a course that is born out of equal parts desperation and terrible resolve.

Oldroyd – whose name sounds like a Jane Austen character – is known mostly for his stage direction, but you’d never know it here. Even though much of the action is limited to the fairly large house, the film never feels stagey although it is occasionally claustrophobic – purposely so, as no doubt Katherine is feeling restrained.

Initially, this feels like an adaptation of an Austen novel – I was surprised to discover that it’s actually an adaptation of a Russian novel – but as the movie wears on the feel changes. During the course of the movie Katherine does increasingly terrible things to the point where it becomes hard to have any sort of rooting interest in her. I began to think of the film as Quentin Tarantino’s Jane Austen – this is very much how I would imagine that Tarantino would direct an Austen-like thriller.

The pacing is pretty stately; at times it seems like the storyline is barely moving at all. There are endless scenes of Katherine sitting in boredom watching the clock on the wall or falling asleep. The point is made, Mr. Oldroyd. There are also elements of the story that are rather bewildering; Katherine, for example, being sexually attracted to a man who is obviously an utter bastard; how quickly she turns upon people who she supposedly cares about. At the end of the day, she ends up being an utter sociopath and because of her social status, society assumes that her claims are true and those of her servants are lies.

This is very much a class-conscious film and given that Sebastian is of mixed ancestry and that Anna is fully of African descent adds the race card in addition to the class card.. The most sympathy is reserved for Anna who really gets the shaft at the end of the film – something that African-American audiences know only too well. We even end up with some sympathy for Sebastian although once you think about what a rotten human being he is at the beginning of the film, that sympathy is somewhat tempered.

The acting here is actually quite swell and this may very well be a breakout role for Pugh. She has to play a role that is both sympathetic and not; at first, she is treated like a possession, little more than a slave to her husband and father-in-law and an ornament who is  meant to shine brightly without making much noise. However as her evil deeds begin to multiply it is difficult to see her as anything but an amoral sociopath. We question if she does all this for love of another, or for her own freedom. You get your answer to that by film’s end.

It should be noted there is a scene in which a horse is shot. The plot point is necessary to the film but the scene is done with particular brutality and is rather graphic. Those sensitive to animal suffering should be forewarned before going to see this. I found it unnerving myself although it is I must admit effectively staged, giving the audience an idea just how cold-blooded Katherine and Sebastian have become to that point.

That end is nothing like what you’ll expect. I don’t know how close it is to the ending of the original Nikolai Leskov story having never read it myself but certainly this didn’t go the way I expected. It’s certainly a lesson on class distinctions (and nobody understood that better than the citizens of Imperial Russia) but it is also a look at the effects of love as a kind of madness. As the Russians are wont to do, it is a bit of a downer but it also is a fascinating character study.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are uniformly solid. The story doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is extremely slow and the plot is occasionally bewildering.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of nudity, sex and sexuality; there’s also a scene of animal abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in England during the Regency era, the movie is actually based on a Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk by Nikolai Leskov.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mansfield Park
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brave New Jersey

The Exception


Christopher Plummer is resplendent as Kaiser Wilhelm II

(2016) Historical Drama (A24) Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Aubeline Barbieux, Lois van Wijk, Stephanie Auberghen, Martin Swabey, Lucas Tavernier, Kurt Standaert, Martin Savage, Karen Leclercq, Frederik Lebeer, Stephanie Van Vyve, Daisy Bouliton, Verona Verbakel. Directed by David Leveaux

As the First World War drew to a close, it became painfully obvious to the German people and to those in power that their Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed them as a wartime ruler and he was quietly forced to abdicate and fled the country for a life in rural Holland in a place called Huize Doorn. There he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, surrounded by a few loyal former military men, Dutch servants and his devoted second wife Hermine.

It is 1940 and the Second World War is in full swing. Germany is ruled now by the Nazi party and their military victories have been startling in their speed and ferocity. The former Kaiser (Plummer) keeps abreast of these with keen interest, expressing admiration for Hitler although not for the party. The Nazis get wind that there is a British spy operating in the area so they dispatch Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to take command of the Kaiser’s personal guard.

He is assisted by Dietrich (Dexter), an SS officer who informs Brandt that transmissions had been intercepted by the SS and that all they needed to pin down the location of the transmissions was a truck able to triangulate the signal and pin down its location. He assures Brandt that one is on the way.

Brandt – who was wounded in the invasion of Poland – is something of a ladies’ man and his eye falls on the comely made Mieke (James). The two begin a torrid affair which is forbidden; discovery could get Lily fired and Brandt sent back to combat duty. Both of them are what you’d call damaged goods with horrors in their past; not exactly an easy place to build a relationship from.

When the announcement that Nazi bigwig Heinrich Himmler (Marsan) will be visiting, the entire household is in a tizzy. Hermine is certain that this means her husband will be summoned back to Berlin to take his rightful place in a restored monarchy (delusion can be beautiful in its own way). The Kaiser believes it too – but Himmler has other plans.

As the search for the spy begins to close the noose, Brandt begins to suspect that Mieke might be involved. He will have to choose between his love for her and his duty to his country. Given what his country has become that might not be a very hard choice at all.

This is a fictionalized account of the Kaiser in his final year of life and pretty much the history that it gets right is that there was a man named Wilhelm who was once Kaiser of Germany. Most of the rest is fiction so if you’re going to this movie thinking you’re going to get a history lesson, think again. The saving grace here is that Plummer inhabits the role so well, capturing Wilhelm’s ego and Prussian love for pomp but also the decent fellow that lay just beneath although most accounts of the Kaiser don’t reveal a whole lot of regard for anyone other than himself. Plummer however is just so magnetic that you can’t help but enjoy the performance even knowing it’s a bit of a sham.

Courtney has much of the burden for the film as he’s really the centerpiece (the title refers to him rather than the Kaiser) and that’s maybe not such a good thing. There are some things that Courtney does really well – he was one of the bright spots of Suicide Squad I thought – but this really isn’t the type of role that’s in his comfort zone and you can tell because his performance is far from assured. Part of the issue is that Courtney doesn’t really excel at expressing emotion non-verbally and we don’t get a sense of the struggle going on within the character; we just see him get into a situation where he’s having sex with a beautiful woman and we just assume it blossoms into love but the process is never apparent so when it comes time for him to choose between love and country we never get a sense that it is a struggle for him.

It also must be said that Courtney is far too buff for his role. We see him naked quite a bit and unfortunately Courtney had just finished filming Suicide Squad when he started up with this and he still had an action hero’s body which really doesn’t jive with a German officer’s body during World War II. There wasn’t a lot of pumping iron going on at that time.

There are some other things as well. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and even some of these seasoned performers deliver it like “this isn’t how people talk; how the hell am I supposed to say this?” is bouncing around their brain pan. The movie looks a bit stage-y in places which isn’t surprising since Leveaux has a Broadway background. Be assured though that the pluses outnumber the minuses by a comfortable margin. Plummer alone should be reason enough to make a point of seeing this. And quite frankly, the ending has a kind of grace to it that is all too rare in motion pictures. I won’t give you much detail on that score other than to say the ending does elevate the film.

 

So this is a strong recommend. It’s still playing in a few cities here and there (Orlando is one of them as of this writing) but if it isn’t anywhere near you or it’s been and gone, do check it out on VOD (Amazon Prime subscribers can see it for free). This isn’t going to be one of the best movies of the year but it’s better than the majority have been and will be – even if it is as fake as a three-dollar bill.

REASONS TO GO: Christopher Plummer is on a hot streak. The final scene is a nice touch.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some nudity and plenty of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming took place at the Kaiser’s actual home at Huize Doorn.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anthropoid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Commune