The Happy Prince (2018)


Oscar Wilde, looking decidedly like a rock star.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony ClassicsRupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Tom Wilkinson, Béatrice Dalie, Ronald Pickup, Julian Wadham, Joshua McGuire, John Standing, Daniel Weyman, Edwin Thomas, Tom Colley, Benjamin Voisin, Ciro Petrone, André Penvern, Alexis Juliemont, Ricardo Ciccerelli, Alister Cameron, Caterina D’Andrea. Directed by Rupert Everett

 

Oscar Wilde was one of the greatest wits of his time, perhaps of all time. When he was convicted on a charge of deviant behavior, he was sentenced to prison for two years of hard labor. His health broken and fed up with England, he moved to the continent where he would live out the remaining days of his life, which were not many.

This is a passion project for director, writer and star Rupert Everett, who passed on plum roles on the off chance this film would be greenlit; it took ten years before he was able to get the film off the ground. I don’t know that Everett would agree but it was worth the wait.

The movie largely revolves around the Irish poet-playwright’s final days in France and Italy. Once the toast of London, Wilde has been deserted by all but a few diehard friends. Some, like Reggie Turner (Firth) and Robbie Ross (Thomas) generally cared for him and looked after him as best they could, which considering Wilde’s penchant for hedonism was no easy task. There was also Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Morgan), the young man whose affair with Wilde ended up being what got Wilde jailed. He is portrayed here as a selfish, childish and arrogant prick who treats Wilde like garbage, but whom Wilde still loved passionately. That, sadly, is not an unusual story; I think we’ve all known somebody who was flinded by their love for someone who was completely toxic.

The cinematography here is lush and nicely captures the gilded glory of an age in which austerity wasn’t a factor, not to mention the lovely countryside scenes in Europe. An elegiac score contributes to the overall melancholy tone. This is not a movie you’ll want to see when you need to be cheered up.

Yet, there is much to recommend it, starting first and foremost with Everett. His passion for the project is palpable throughout and his performance here is likely to be what he is remembered for. Clearly Wilde is someone who means something special to Everett and the care he puts into his every gesture and sad-eyed regret will haunt even the most jaded of filmgoers.

My one issue with the film is that it is told in a non-linear fashion and there are regular flashbacks. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tell if you’re seeing a flashback or not at times and it ends up being unnecessarily confusing. Some critics have complained that Everett doesn’t really educate the viewer in Wilde’s body of work, but I think he does something better; he inspires the viewer to want to research it on their own.

What happened to Oscar Wilde was a massive miscarriage of justice. Although he was pardoned posthumously along with tens of thousands of other men convicted of the crime of being “indecent with men,” he deserved to be lauded in his twilight years, not despised and spat upon. It is perhaps poetic justice that today he is remembered for being one of the greatest names in English literary history and an icon to the gay community, while those who tormented him are largely forgotten.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Everett. Beautifully shot.
REASONS TO AVOID: Difficult to tell what was a flashback and what isn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains plenty of adult thematic content, sexual situations including graphic nudity, profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Oscar Wilde gets his hair cut at the beginning of his prison sentence, that’s Everett actually getting his hair cut. As this was one of the first scenes shot, leaving Everett nearly bald, he would wear a wig throughout most of the rest of the movie.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
THe Leisure Seeker

Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)

Chichinette: The Accidental Spy


The spy who came in from the cold.

(2018) Documentary (Kino-LorberMarthe Kohl, Major Kohl. Directed by Nicola Alice Hens

 

Not every hero during the Second World War was a big strapping man with bulging biceps, three-day stubble and a cigar in the corner of his mouth. This documentary is about a French Jew from Metz in the Lorraine region, which until the First World War had been annexed by Germany; German was spoken in the house more than French. Marthe Kohl (at the time, Marthe Hofnung) relates that her parents didn’t speak any French even though they were ostensibly French citizens.

As the war clouds gathered, the French government recommended that their citizenry near the German border relocate to somewhere safer. Marthe and her older sister Stephanie helped hundreds do just that, even after the Germans occupied that part of France. Stephanie would later be caught and deported to Auschwitz. Marthe never knew exactly how she died; her leg had been broken during an escape attempt and she either died on the train to the concentration camp, or she would have been gassed immediately upon arrival since she was unable to work.

Marthe also had a sweetheart, Jacques, who hoped to become a doctor in Indochina with Marthe, training to be a nurse, at his side. He was madly in love with her and was willing to convert to Judaism, despite the inherent dangers in that at the time. However, when France was occupied, he joined the resistance, was captured, and executed. Marthe learned about his fate through a newspaper article.

Despondent over her losses, she tried to join the resistance but her small stature (she’s barely five feet tall) and her youthful looks prevented that. Finally, she joined the Free French Army as a nurse once Paris was liberated, but when the Colonel of her brigade discovered she spoke German fluently, combined with her blonde hair, he realized that she would be a huge asset in the intelligence division. Following an extensive training course, she was smuggled into Germany and there managed to discover some crucial information that would save thousands of lives.

Hens allows Marthe to tell her story at her own pace, leaving much of the revelations behind what she did in the war for the final act. Mostly we see Marthe traveling with her husband Major, an American medical researcher whom she assisted after the war, from their suburban Los Angeles home to various places important to Marthe. Marthe, who wrote a book on her exploits after retiring as a nurse, never spoke about her experiences before she wrote the book, which came as a shock to her husband although he was aware of the medals she had earned during the war.

Hens is a clever cinematographer with some wonderful camera angles, although to be honest as a director she spends far too much time on the mundane aspects of Marthe’s travels, from packing and unpacking suitcases, dealing with wi-fi passwords and doing laundry in a French laundromat. It’s kind of a shame; Marthe is an engaging storyteller and a compelling subject. She was 96 years old when the film was shot three years before this writing (she is still alive as this is written) and spry as someone half her age.

Her message – do not take orders that violate your conscience – is meant for a younger generation, and one can’t help but wonder if she had an idea that the country she spent half a century in would change as radically as it did. Certainly, that advice rings more true now than it did in 2016. However, Marthe Kohl is heroic by any standard of any age. She’s someone that any young person could look up to as a role model proudly.

The film is screening tonight at Temple Beth Shalom in Miami. It will be available on HBO and streaming on KinoNow.com as of April 14th. There may be other one-off screenings before then so keep your eyes peeled, particularly at your local Jewish Community Center – or ask them to see about booking the film for your neighborhood.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is clever and blending the watercolor animations with the actual locations the events took place in is magic. Marthe is an extremely compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: It takes a while to get to what earned Marthe the medals that are displayed throughout the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chichinette, roughly translated, means “Little pain in the neck.” Marthe received this nickname because during her intelligence training she questioned just about everything.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Peppermint

The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)

Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest


Your own personal Jesus.

(2019) Music Documentary (Trafalgar/1091) Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher, Cristian Flueraru, Dicken Schrader, Milah Schrader, Korben Schrader, Daniel Cassus, Indra Amarjargal, Elizabeth Dwyer, Carine Puzenat, Christian Eigner, Peter Gordeno. Directed by Anton Corbjin

 

Being a diehard fan of a band requires the kind of loyalty that most of us don’t ever give even our significant other. We stay with them through thick and thin, through albums that suck and even through band breakups. It’s a kind of unconditional love that is more than reciprocated; their music helps define us, sees us through our darkest moments, defines our identities. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

Depeche Mode has come a long way in their nearly 40-year existence, from a New Wave cult band of upbeat synthesizer-based songs to a stadium band of portentous and deep, bleak pop hits. As a band, they’ve been through drug addiction, near-death experiences, fame and fortune (and everything that comes with it) and the complete makeover of the industry that they’re a part of. Through it all, they’ve had a connection with their fans that has bordered on religious zeal.

We meet six of them who are attending the final concert in their 2017-18 World Spirits tour in Berlin; Indra Amarjargal is a tour guide in Ulan Bator, Mongolia who lives with her grandmother in a “typical Communist apartment” where she has lived her entire life. Her stepfather introduced her to the music of Depeche Mode, watching concert footage on the Internet. The music connected to Indra initially before the lyrics since she spoke no English at the time; she is fluent in it now and the lyrics have only cemented her love for the band.

Elizabeth Dwyer is a half-African American, half-Irish-American who didn’t get the memo that people of color were supposed to be into hip-hop. She took a lot of grief growing up because of her love for New Wave music but when undergoing chemotherapy for a particularly deadly sort of breast cancer, the music got her through. Cristian Flueraru, who grew up in Romania during the dark days of Ceauşescu learned English by translating the band’s lyrics for friends who were also into their music.

Dicken Schrader became an Internet sensation when the Bogota-based dad made videos of he and his son Korben and his daughter Milah playing Depeche Mode songs with toy instruments. The band keeps the three united, even though the children now live with their mother in Miami. Daniel Cassus, growing up gay in Brazil, took solace in the band’s music, eventually moving to Berlin where he got the courage to come out to his parents. Carine Puzenat suffered permanent amnesia at age 25; the only memory she could retain was the music of Depeche Mode. That music got her through seven years of deep depression.

Much of the interview footage is intercut with concert footage. Strictly speaking, this is a neither/nor: not a concert film per se so while there is footage from the show, it might prove frustrating to fans looking to see a complete show. It’s not a band documentary; we never hear or see the band except onstage and don’t get any of their insight at all. This is a fan’s documentary, but then again so was 101 in many ways – a previous documentary made by Corbjin about the band.

This is very much a movie for fans of the band. Casual fans probably won’t find this as interesting. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the diversity of the types of fans the band has but that is true of any band of sufficient popularity. Yes, the stories are compelling but you could find six fans of just about any band of sufficient popularity that are just as compelling. So basically, what we are left with is a movie that is very dependent on your opinion of the band. Those who love the band will likely love the movie. Those who don’t likely won’t. This will neither make new fans nor alienate old ones. My recommendation to you depends on how into the band you are. Judge for yourself if the film is something that is essential viewing for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes at the concert from a fan’s perspective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not a lot of insight into the band themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fans profiled here were selected via a contest on the band’s Facebook page.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 101
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Christopher Robin

Andre the Giant


Andre the Giant in action against Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Vince McMahon, Rob Reiner, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, Shane McMahon, Gene Okerlund, Dave Meltzer, Antoine Roussimoff, Noel Matteos, Dr. Terry Todd, Gino Brito, David Shoemaker, Dr. Harris Yett, Jackie McAuley, Hortense Roussimoff. Directed by Jason Hehir

 

In the 1980s professional wrestling took off from essentially a group of regional promotions into a massive worldwide phenomena thanks largely to the aegis of the WWE (known as the World Wrestling Federation at the time until the World Wildlife Fund objected to the use of their initials) and some of the wrestlers in it. I have to say that I was a wrestling fan back then and watched regularly Monday Night Raw and the other wrestling programs that the WWE and to a lesser extent the NWA ran to keep the ravenous fans sated.

Remembering the big stars of that era – Hulk Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, Demolition, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Iron Sheikh, Nikolai Volkoff, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ravishing Rick Ruud, Ric Flair, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Sting, Arn Anderson, Ted DiBiase, Jesse Ventura – I remember them all and more.

While Hogan was the biggest superstar of his time in terms of popularity, the most unforgettable wrestler of that era had to be Andre the Giant. Born Andre René Roussimoff in the small village of Molien in France, he began experiencing unusual growth spurts due to gigantism; by the time he was 12 he was larger than most adults.

Most of our portraits of Andre as a young man come from family photos and recollections of his siblings. The family, who worked (and still work) a farm in Molien were close-knit; in one poignant moment near the end of the film his brother shows off the chair that his mother built for her growing son. It is empty now but the care that went in to making her son comfortable in a world which largely wasn’t geared towards making people of a certain size comfortable is touching.

The footage of Andre’s early career is absolutely astounding. Most of us have only seen him in the latter stages of his career when the pain from his acromegaly (which developed from his gigantism) and of course the constant toll on the body that professional wrestling takes made any sort of movement excruciatingly painful.

There is a lot of interview footage here, but as far as Andre himself is concerned it is almost all given in his in-ring persona. He was a private man outside the ring and other than one 60 Minutes interview he rarely allowed people in. A lot of insight comes from his wrestling colleagues, although much of the subject regards his extraordinary appetites for food, women and booze. Andre loved to party after a wrestling match and was known to drink as many as 106 beers in a single night; drinking a case of wine wasn’t unusual for him either.

The more poignant material talks about Andre having difficulties getting into cars, hotel beds, and planes. He was simply unable to use an airplane bathroom and considering how much flying he had to do as part of his brutal wrestling travel schedule he often ended up having to hold it, sometimes for hours. He loved the adulation of the fans but there was no escaping it – when you’re his size you can’t escape anything.

Many people know Andre from his role as Fezzig in The Princess Bride and while two of his co-stars and the director talk about his time on the show (by which time his physical deterioration was making it nearly impossible for him to do his own stunts) the beloved movie only takes up about five minutes of screen time in Andre’s story.

Andre died in a Paris Hotel room on January 27, 1993 of a heart attack brought on by his gigantism. He was just 46 years old but had made an indelible mark on the world – and not just the world of wrestling. Always a gentle giant and recalled fondly by friends and family, he was the sort to go out of his way to make his fellow wrestlers look good. His epic battle with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III – one of the last matches he would wrestle as it turned out – is still thought by many to be the best professional wrestling match ever.

The movie will be a godsend for pro wrestling fans but even those who aren’t particularly fond of the squared circle will find something to enjoy in this well-made documentary that looks back at the life of a gentle giant. Great footage, engaging interviews and a marvelous subject are sometimes all it takes to make a good documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, the movie documents the difficulties in day-to-day living Andre had to experience. Some of the footage is phenomenal.
REASONS TO STAY: We get a lot of Andre’s on-screen persona but not a whole lot about who he was off-camera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action and violence as well as some bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original nom de wrestling for Andre Roussimoff was Jean Ferré, a kind of French Paul Bunyan which was later changed to Géant Ferré. American promoters were unwilling to market him under that name because it sounded too much like “Giant Fairy” so Andre the Giant was born.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
The Cloverfield Paradox

The Millionaires’ Unit


Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King

 

Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Downstairs

Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

Where to Invade Next


These chiefs could use a joint.

These chiefs could use a joint.

(2016) Documentary (Alamo Drafthouse) Michael Moore, Tim Walker, Krista Kiuru. Directed by Michael Moore

Michael Moore is one of those polarizing documentarians who has an agenda that occasionally plays fast and loose with facts and often takes things out of context. He infuriates the conservative electorate, many of whom characterize him as public enemy number one. For liberals while he is not necessarily a beloved figure, he is at least respected to a certain degree. With Moore’s films, you get pretty much what you expect.

His latest takes a look not so much at America but how improvements could be made, all of which are doable. Predictably, conservative film reviewers have ripped the movie a new one while those critics who already lean towards the left have sung the praises of the movie. Being of the latter persuasion, I find it hard not to add my voice to the liberal choir but I’m trying to be as objective as I can be.

Moore makes a valid point that we as Americans tend to accept without question that we live in the greatest nation on Earth, the best place to be. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave and we are the where the American Dream makes its residence – the philosophy, not the wrestler. In any case, we sometimes look at other countries ideas of doing things with a healthy dose of disdain.

That’s not always a wise thing. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas here, although many expressed in the film originated here in the States and have since been abandoned or ignored from the get-go. The conceit of the film is that we have fought a string of wars with almost nothing to show for it other than debt, dead soldiers and obscene profits for military suppliers.

So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sent American gadfly Moore out to invade other countries, steal their best ideas, and bring them here to the United States to implement. The ideas vary from five weeks mandatory paid vacation in Italy (with an additional two weeks of government holidays) and five months of paid maternity leave, also mandatory (the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries on the planet that don’t have mandatory paid maternity leaves, although most companies offer roughly six weeks of paid maternity leave to their employees here). France has a one hour lunch for schoolchildren and serves lunches that are nutritionist-approved from fresh ingredients – on plates and in glasses – to students who learn to serve each other and conduct themselves with proper table manners. They also do it for less than American schools pay for their slop.

And the ideas keep on coming, from reduced school hours, virtually no homework and no standardized tests that have taken Finland from educational standing right about where the United States is to the top ranking of national education systems to Slovenia offering free college to any student who wants to attend there – including non-Slovenians (so many American students have flocked over there that some universities are offering as many as 150 different courses in English). Norway has a prison system in which violent offenders stay in compounds in which they are treated with dignity and given more or less free access anywhere inside the compound – although not out of it. The campus is beautiful and gives them amenities that you’d find at home – just not freedom. The recidivism rate is about 20% there, opposite our own 80%.

Portugal has eliminated drug use prison sentences and treats drug use as a health care issue rather than as a criminal law issue, lowering their drug use rate. Germany has begun teaching their children about the Holocaust and taking ownership rather than ignoring it and hiding it. Tunisia shows how women took to the streets following their 2011 revolution and told the Islamist government that they refused to allow their rights to be unprotected by their new constitution. The uprising was so massive that the government voluntarily stepped down.

Finally in Iceland, the only financial company that escaped the country’s massive 2007 financial meltdown was one founded and run by women. The financial recovery was largely spearheaded by the addition of women to corporate boards throughout the country. And unlike the United States, their equivalent of the Department of Justice investigated, prosecuted and convicted a number of financial executives for wrongdoing and fraud, basing their investigations largely on American policies during the savings and loan crisis.

I will admit that Moore has a tendency to present facts as he sees him and not necessarily as they are. Employee benefits in Italy, for example, are tremendous but unemployment is twice the rate it is here. However, unlike the conservative reviewer who blames unemployment on those benefits somewhat speciously at best (she seems to think that the high taxes in Italy pay for those benefits which they do not – the companies do), I can see that Moore makes several points that are worth considering. We should be concerned not just with profits but for the quality of life of all people. We have become a society so narrowly focused on the bottom line we’ve lost sight of what is even more important – living. And in a country where our own government has taken a scorched earth policy against the middle class, we should not be pooh-poohing new ideas and refusing to consider them because we think they won’t work here. Why wouldn’t having more women in the board room work in this country? Why wouldn’t giving our kids better nutrition at lunch work here? Why wouldn’t shorter class hours and no standardized tests work here?

Moore’s point is that we are mired in this box of thinking that everything we do is the only way to do things and if it doesn’t work, it can’t be fixed. This is a film that attempts to prove that this isn’t the case at all and I think largely Moore succeeds in making his point. While I think that two hours is a bit long for this kind of film, at least he keeps it interesting with his sense of humor and his ability to tell a story in an entertaining way.

I don’t doubt that those who consider Moore to be an irresponsible socialist lefty with an axe to grind are going to hate this and reject the message out of hand simply because it’s Michael Moore delivering it. There are also those who are going to accept everything out of hand in this documentary simply because it’s Michael Moore saying it. It behooves us to do our own research and reach our own conclusions which most of us refuse to do because it’s too much trouble. And if you wonder why the world is so messed up, there’s your reason right there.

Nevertheless, Moore raises some valid points, poses some crucial questions and makes a film that is perhaps more optimistic than any he’s ever made, and one made out of – get this – patriotism. I’m not sure who said this, but whoever it was in my book was a very wise person – a true patriot is one who loves his country enough to want to change it for the better. You can read into that whatever you like.

REASONS TO GO: Much food for thought. Moore is a wonderful raconteur. Plenty of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some graphic nudity, disturbing photos and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore with the cooperation of the distributors are screening the film for free from February 19 for two weeks in his hometown of Flint, Michigan owing to the water crisis there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sicko
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies