Frantz


Pierre Niney enjoys the scent of a woman.

(2016) Romantic Drama (Music Box) Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair, Alice de Lencquesaing, Axel Wandtke, Rainer Egger, Rainer Silberschneider, Merlin Rose, Ralf Dittrich, Michael Witte, Lutz Blochberger, Jeanne Ferron, Torsten Michaelis, Étienne Ménard, Claire Martin, Camille Grandville. Directed by François Ozon

 

One of the facts of war is that it causes young people to die. While politicians, war profiteers and hawks tend to accept this as acceptable damage, those families whose loved ones are slain are left devastated, picking up the pieces.

Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Stötzner) is grieving the loss of his son Frantz (von Lucke) in the Great War, which has been over for a year now. He continues to practice medicine as the sole physician in a small German town, but his heart has been ripped out of his body. So too for his wife Magda (Gruber) who has buried her child that should have outlived her.

Perhaps it is worst for Anna (Beer), the fiancée of Frantz. With no family of her own, she has been unofficially adopted by Frantz’s parents, taking care of them and assuaging their grief. She also makes daily walks to the graveyard where Frantz’s headstone is; his actual body was buried in France where he fell.

One day she notices fresh flowers on the grave that she didn’t place there. She learns that it was a foreigner that put them there. A few days later, she sees the young man at the grave. She talks to him and learns his name is Adrien (Niney) and he was a friend of Frantz before the war when Frantz studied music in Paris.

Dr. Hoffmeister is initially cold to the visitor who is French; it was a French soldier that killed Frantz and the good Doctor essentially blames all of France for his son’s death. However, Adrien’s obvious grief and his quiet regard for his friend win the family over, culminating in Adrien playing the violin for the family, although it proves to be too much for him.

An attraction and later affection begins to develop between Anna and Adrien, much to the chagrin of Kreutz (von Bülow) who is interested in taking Anna as his own wife. Adrien’s appearance however has stirred up some anti-French sentiment in the village which is somewhat understandable as it was to their minds the French who decimated the young men from the town. Dr. Hoffmeister chides some of those feeling that way, speaking to his own guilt at urging his son to enlist in a patriotic fervor. The fathers, he opined, were guilty of putting the bayonets in the hands of children and were responsible when they weren’t enough to protect them from the mortars and machine guns that tore the German soldiers to shreds in the trenches.

But Adrien does carry a secret of his own and when at last he feels that he must confess it to Anna, he retreats home leaving her and her foster parents devastated. At length she decides to pursue Adrien to Paris but what she finds there isn’t exactly what she expected.

Ozon is one of France’s premiere directors but his latest film has sharply divided critics. Some believe this is among his very best efforts; others see it as one of his worst and still a few think it’s somewhere in between. For my own part, I think that the movie hearkens back to movies of the silent era; the black and white images take on an almost sinister aura but Ozon adds color for certain sequences, mostly flashbacks but also moments when (particularly) Anna is feeling some hope for the future, as when she watches Adrien go swimming in a local river in an idyllic setting. It’s not quite Technicolor however but more of a pastel tone that you might get from colorization or from early color cinematography in the 20s and early 30s. This does a tremendous job of establishing the era. I found it reminiscent of the work of Fritz Lang and other directors from Weimar Germany.

Beer is lustrous here and does a terrific job in taking Anna from grief-stricken and numb to hopeful and ready to move on with her life. There’s a lot of depth in her performance and I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of her in the future. Likewise, Niney adds an underpinning of melancholy to Adrien which we at first attribute to his grief at the death of his friend but eventually realize is something else entirely.

The source material was virulently anti-war and so is this but in a more subtle manner. The movie looks at the prejudices that drive us to war and also at the consequences and devastation that war brings, both in a physical sense as well as emotional. During a train trip, we see entire towns that have been obliterated by the war. Even the small town in which Anna lives is not untouched; the few young men who can be seen are terribly maimed and disfigured.

While the color makes an impression, it also has the effect of distracting the viewer and taking them out of the movie a little bit. The movie drags a little bit and could have been a bit shorter, I wouldn’t call this one of the director’s masterworks but it is a strong film nonetheless and worth seeing. I wouldn’t be surprised if you too were transported to a bygone era just as I was.

REASONS TO GO: Ozon resurrects a sort of Fritz Lang vibe. Strong performances by Beer and Niney help make the movie believable.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of color in the mainly black and white film is occasionally jarring and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence essentially in one scene as well as some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ozon based the movie on the Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullabye.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Years of Our Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Tommy’s Honour

Cinderella (2015)


Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

(2015) Fantasy (Disney) Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex Macqueen, Tom Edden, Gareth Mason, Paul Hunter, Eloise Webb, Joshua McGuire, Matthew Steer, Mimi Ndiweni, Laura Elsworthy, Ella Smith. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

We all grow up with fairy tales. We’re familiar with all the ones in which courageous and kind young women overcome poverty and the machinations of villains to triumph over adversity and win the love of handsome young princes who whisk them away to a happy ending of wealth and privilege. Most little girls grow up wondering what type of prince is going to sweep them off their feet.

Like most fairy tale heroines, Ella (Webb) wasn’t really thinking in those terms, at least not right away. She was too busy living an idyllic childhood on a country estate with a loving mother (Atwell) and a doting father (Chaplin) who’s often away on business. She doesn’t have many human friends but she has companions in a trio of mice that she feeds and also the farm’s goose. It’s a lovely, sun-dappled existence.

But all good things must come to an end and Ella’s golden childhood does when her mother takes ill and dies, lingering long enough to make her daughter promise to have courage and be kind in life. She takes comfort in that she still has her father but life isn’t quite as golden, not nearly as idyllic. Thinking that Ella needs a mother around her, her father decides to remarry, bringing into the household Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), the widow of an old friend of his, and her two spoiled, cruel and stupid daughters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger). None of the three are very pleasant but Ella treats them with kindness.

Then on a business trip her father also takes ill and dies, leaving Ella alone with these three monstrous females. Reduced to being essentially a servant in her own home, the newly rechristened Cinderella (James) – so named because of the embers staining her cheeks – tries to cope with being an orphan and being so cruelly used.

After a chance meeting with young Kip (Madden), who claims to be an apprentice in the castle of the King, in a forest during a hunt, Cinderella has hope that things might get better for her. What she doesn’t know is that Kip is actually the Prince who is apprentice to be the next King and with his father (Jacobi) in poor health, the pressure for him to marry is becoming intense. Traditionally, the royal family throws a ball at the castle in which all the eligible princesses from around the world are invited so that the prince of the castle might choose from one a bride to become the future Queen, but he has fallen deeply in love with Cinderella, although he doesn’t know her identity or her station in life. Desperate to see her again, he manages to convince his father to allow all the women of the kingdom to come to the ball as well, while the Grand Duke (Skarsgard) manipulates behind the scenes a match with the lovely Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Perez).

Of course, everyone in the land is all aflutter over the prospects of attending a royal ball and Lady Tremaine knows that to get out of the financial bind she is now in due to her husband’s death that marrying off one of her daughters to the Prince would solve everything. Cinderella in the meantime longs to attend the ball so that she might see Kip again, whom she is quite taken by. She even finds an old dress that was once worn by her mother to wear, but the spiteful stepmother tears the dress and forbids her from attending, fearing the competition to her daughters.

Distraught, Cinderella sobs in the garden, realizing that her life will never change but her breakdown is interrupted by the appearance of an old crone begging for something to eat and drink which the compassionate Cinderella gives her. Turns out the old crone is her Fairy Godmother (Carter) who says “Hell YES you’re going to the ball,” or words to that effect. She conjures up a fabulous coach out of a pumpkin, footmen out of a pair of lizards and a driver from the goose. She also transforms her mother’s now ripped and ragged old dress into a beautiful gown and a pair of glass slippers – which are surprisingly comfortable – for her to wear. All the better to win the heart of a prince, although she has until midnight before the enchantments wear off.

For hordes of little girls, the princess fantasy is one that is central to their lives, the belief that a better life and a handsome princess who will adore them and see to their every happiness is just around the corner. How healthy this fantasy is can be debated as to whether it raises unrealistic expectations – not every handsome man is a prince, after all, and maybe the expectation that their own personal happiness is wrapped up in finding one. But that’s a debate for another time or place.

Branagh has always been a terrific director but as of late he has moved from Shakespeare and art house films to big budget event movies and this one continues in the series of live action reimaginings of classic Disney animated features. Inevitably, Cinderella will be compared to its 1950 predecessor but surprisingly it doesn’t fall as short as you think it might have.

The costumes and set design are lush and detailed, from the gilt on the pumpkin coach to the sumptuous ball gowns to the rustic charms of Cinderella’s home. This really looks like you’ve always imagined the fairy tale to be and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road it got Oscar consideration for costume design and/or production design.

The acting is another matter. James is certainly as beautiful as a fairy tale princess, but her smile seems forced at times and her acting seems a tad stilted. Julia Roberts was a more believable fairy tale princess in Pretty Woman, that most modern of fairy tales, and more relatable. Not that Cinderella has to be a hooker mind you, but there was more genuineness coming from Roberts, although to compare James whose career is fairly nascent with one of the most glittering stars in the Hollywood firmament may be a trifle unfair.

One of the main attractions of the movie is that it is a retro fairy tale, which in this case is a good thing. This isn’t a re-working or a re-imagining; this is Cinderella exactly the way you remember it and the way your little girls envisioned it. This is the kind of movie that puts to the lie the old adage that “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” because clearly they can and occasionally they do.

REASONS TO GO: Lush costumes and sets. Beautifully shot. Retro in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: James’ performance a bit forced. Princess porn.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for most audiences except the very wee and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James and McShera both appear in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey although their roles are reversed; in the show, James plays an aristocrat and McShera a servant.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

Cheri


Cheri

A transcendent moment of idyllic loveliness; Ah, La Belle Epoque!

(2009) Drama (Miramax) Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Iben Hjejle, Stephen Frears (voice). Directed by Stephen Frears

It is not unusual for Hollywood to portray May-December romances. It’s just usually that May is the woman and December the man.

In the waning days of La Belle Epoch (the early 20th century in France), retired courtesan Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) has taken herself a lover. That lover is the son of her close friend (and fellow retired courtesan) Madame Peloux (Bates), christened as Fred but known to all as Cheri (Friend), which is the French word for “darling.”

Cheri is a bit of a project, somewhat indolent, occasionally cruel in the thoughtless way of youth, desperate for a firm, guiding hand. Perfect for the role would be Lea, 25 years his senior and someone whom he has known and adored all his life. With his mother’s tacit approval, they embark on an affair that lasts six years.

After that, Cheri announces that his mother has arranged a marriage for him with the comely but terminally naïve Edmee (Jones). Lea is devastated. The affair had been a languid one of beauty and sunlight, something that she has come to need much more than she thought she might. As for Cheri, it’s just the end of a chapter as far as he’s concerned. Like many young men, he doesn’t recognize what a rare and precious gem is in his possession until it’s already fallen down the drainpipe.

Director Frears has experience with lush period pieces in Dangerous Liaisons (which co-starred Pfeiffer) and Mrs. Henderson Presents but also more recently-set classics like The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette and my personal favorite High Fidelity. This is right in his comfort zone, with a witty script, gorgeous cinematography and a fine cast.

His best move was hiring Pfeiffer for the role. Pfeiffer is playing her age here and while she looks much younger, her eyes tell a different story. She is still regally beautiful, but from time to time you catch a hint of doubt and sadness in those eyes, a knowledge that a beautiful epoch is coming to an end, and her own beauty will soon betray her. It’s marvelous work and re-affirms that Pfeiffer is perhaps the most underrated actress of her era.

The movie is based on a novel by the iconic French author Colette which in turn is loosely based on her own affair with her stepson. The novel extolled the virtues of Lea’s strength and pointed out rather vividly Cheri’s weaknesses. Unfortunately I only managed to plough through the first third of the book – she’s not my literary cup of tea, although I can say that she is a tremendous writer, one who should be better known on these shores except that she flouted the morality of her times and was quite scandalous (she was bisexual in an age when that simply wasn’t tolerated).

My issue with the movie – and the book as well – is that Cheri is so venal, so whiny and unlikable that it is impossible to see Lea falling for him the way she does. Yes, he’s handsome in a boyish way, and has all the youthful vigor that goes with it, but in the end I kept asking myself if someone as obviously cultured, intelligent and self-possessed as Lea de Lonval would find such a strong emotional bond for someone so obviously childish and wantonly cruel? I know a lot of women who have the same qualities as Lea and I can say with great certainty that they are generally not attracted to immaturity regardless of how pretty a package it comes wrapped up in. Then again, I’ve known some very smart, capable and beautiful women to make some incredibly dumb choices when it comes to romance.

Despite its flaws, the movie is still worth seeing if for no other reason for Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance and the lovely expression of an age long gone by. Like a shaft of sunlight on a late autumn afternoon with the threat of dark winter in the wind, it is a golden moment of glorious loveliness that is there so briefly before going the way of all things so fragile.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous period photography and a clever script make this a feast for eyes and ears. Pfeiffer is magnificent as always in her role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheri is just so damned insufferable that you wonder how anyone, particularly as intelligent and cultured as Lea de Lonval, could fall for him.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality and a bit of drug use; not suitable for most young family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Lea de Lonval was originally meant for Jessica Lange when this project first started development back in the 1990s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.3M on a production budget of $23M; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Young Victoria