Bel Canto

The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz


Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
The Dawn Wall

My Afternoons with Margueritte (La tête en friche)

A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c'est magnifique!

A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c’est magnifique!

(2010) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Gerard Depardieu, Gisele Casadesus, Maurane, Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Claire Maurier, Sophie Guillermin, Melanie Bernier, Matthieu Dahan, Jerome Deschamps, Gilles Detroit, Regis Laspales, Anne Le Guernec, Jean-Luc Porraz, Bruno Ricci, Lyes Salem, Sylvia Allegre. Directed by Jean Becker


You can never tell who will come into your life and change it forever. Sometimes it’s someone you’d expect – a teacher, a preacher, a parent, a lover – but sometimes it is quite someone else entirely.

Germain (Depardieu) is a middle-aged mostly illiterate handyman living in a small, bucolic French village. He lives in a trailer next to his mother (Maurier) who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and isn’t well. When she was a young woman (Le Guernec) she was an absolute terror. Germain had been the result of an accidental pregnancy and Mommy dearest made sure that Germain knew at every possible turn that she never wanted him. In fact, she never refers to Germain by name or even as a he – to his mom, Germain is an “it.”

You would think that would make Germain a bitter, mean man but he has proven to be stronger. His is a gentle soul, and most people like him personally – although plenty make fun of him behind his back. He has a beautiful young girlfriend, Annette (Guillermin) who drives the local bus and he sells vegetables from his garden. Between that and his handyman work he squeaks by but in a village like this, life – even just squeaking by – is good.

One afternoon as he sits on a park bench to eat his lunch, he meets by chance Margueritte (Casadesus). She is everything he is not; worldly, well-read, intelligent and tiny. At 95 years old, she is still full of life and joy. They pass a pleasant conversation and Margueritte begins reading The Plague by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Germain finds himself falling for the power of the words and Margueritte lends him a dictionary to help him learn to read.

That goes very poorly as Germain quickly realizes that he is slogging through mud and feeling humiliated, gives up quickly. However, as it turns out, Margueritte has macular degeneration and won’t be able to read much longer. To be separated from books – now that is a living hell as far as Margueritte is concerned. Germain determines to finally learn how to read once and for all – not for himself but for his new friend.

Becker, a second-generation filmmaker, is extraordinary in his brevity. There are no wasted scenes, no unnecessary shots. Vis a vis the story, he simply gets on with it, displaying the salient points and when the story is over, so is the film. There are plenty of filmmakers who can learn from his technique including some who have won Oscars.

Much has been made of Depardieu’s weight in the movie and the “unlikelihood” of a beautiful young woman like Annette falling in love with him and maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with him. Critics who have written such things need to be given a year off from their jobs so they can actually live in the real world – people fall for people regardless of how they look or weigh. It is only shallow people to whom looks are important and those are generally the people who complain they can’t find anyone to stick around.

This isn’t a movie that bowls you over. Rather, it is one you fall in love with slowly, gradually, until by the end credits you realize that you feel genuine affection for the film. Depardieu has a lot to do with that. One of the world’s best actors in his heyday and still as engaging as he ever was, he imbues the soul of Germain with a kind of sweetness so genuine it is hard not to like the oaf. His chemistry with Casadesus is also genuine which is a relief because the movie revolves around it; in fact, must have that chemistry in order to succeed. Not to worry; you don’t for a second doubt that they have become deep, close friends.

Some people may find the comedy too subtle and low-key and I can understand that. This is going to appeal more to people who have more of a European sensibility and perspective than American; you will either like this or not depending on your tolerance for subtlety. It may not be loud enough for you, but those who prefer movies that don’t have to shout will be drawn to this like moths to a warm, comforting flame.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus is delightful. Very charming and sweet.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Occasional foul language, a few sexual references and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although uncredited as such on the final print, Depardieu served as executive producer for the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.3M on an unreported production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Offshoring 2014 concludes!

The Reader

Kate Winslet ponders on just what Leonardo di Caprio is doing at that moment.

Kate Winslet ponders on just what Leonardo di Caprio is doing at that moment.

(Weinstein) Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Vijessna Ferkic, Moritz Grove, Volker Bruch, Karoline Herfurth, Max Mauff, Burghart Klaubner, Jeanette Hain. Directed by Stephen Daldry.

“Pride goes before the fall” as the saying goes and it’s one of those truisms that is actually true. We will endure many humiliations and trials before we will allow our pride to get damaged, and sometimes that pride will get in the way of even the most basic survival instincts.

German barrister Michael Berg (Fiennes) is a successful man but a distant one who lives alone, divorced from his wife, and while not completely estranged from his college-aged daughter Brigitte (Hain), is not particularly close to her. In fact, he is truly close to nobody.

As a teenager (Kross), he gets ill coming home from school on the tram in postwar Germany. Hannah Schmitz (Winslet), a tram conductor who lives in the building where the sick and confused Berg ends up, cleans him up and makes sure he gets home all right.

After convalescing at home, the young man returns to the apartment of the conductor to express his gratitude, but soon finds himself attracted to the older woman who is at first amused by his obvious infatuation but after awhile is attracted to the awkward but sincere admirations, which soon leads to intimacy.

As the summer deepens, their passion grows exponentially, with Michael rushing to her apartment every day from the resort-like summer school/camp he and his friends are enrolled in. The attentions of a pretty teenaged girl named Sophie (Ferkic) aren’t even enough to swerve his attentions from Hannah, who soon grows fond of having Michael read aloud to her from various classics; Homer’s Odyssey, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Chekov’s The Woman With the Little Dog.

While it is clear that Hannah isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, she also seems haunted by something else, a terrible secret that she is keeping. Her behavior begins to grow erratic after a bicycle tour through the German countryside. Soon afterwards, even though she is being promoted at her place of employment, she flees as if being pursued by demons straight from the pits of Hell. In a way, she is. Nevertheless, Michael is devastated by her sudden departure.

Some years later when he is studying law at university, he is enrolled in a special seminar with but a few students studying under a revered professor (Ganz). They will be attending and observing a trial of Nazi prison guards, which will lead to the revelation of a secret from Hannah’s past that can be the undoing of her life. Only Michael knows the truth of her situation and is given the opportunity to save her, but in doing so he will strip away all her pride and perhaps destroy her completely.

By now it’s no secret that Winslet won an Oscar for her role as Hannah Schmitz, and you can certainly make a compelling case for her. Whether her performance was better than Meryl Streep’s in Doubt or Angelina Jolie’s in Changeling is a matter of opinion; for my money, she richly deserved the statue. Winslet’s performance is nuanced and layered. Her Hannah is a deeply flawed woman who is used to being obeyed, and yet often displays timid characteristics as well. Markedly sensuous, her relationship with the teenager, which would be statutory rape in this country, is displayed here starkly and without needless sentiment.

The larger problem I have with the film is that while this is Kate Winslet’s film, it is not Hannah Schultz’s story. While Fiennes is magnificent as usual, he has begun to develop a reputation of being a fine set-up man for great performances by his partners. Fine as Fiennes is, Kross is onscreen much more of the time and is quite frankly, less interesting. He is not nearly equal to the task of measuring up to Winslet’s performance and she winds up dominating the film to the point that we are drawn to her and therefore away from the main crux of the story.

However, if there are curses for any film to have, that’s not necessarily a bad one. The movie has is otherwise very well-made, recreating postwar Germany nicely. We get to see a country still suffering for the crimes of the Nazi regime; eager to make amends but just as eager to put those days behind it, divided in two by the triumphant superpowers and left to reacquire its own moral compass. At times, I found that more compelling than the inner struggle going on for Michael Berg as well as for Hannah Schmitz.

I have to say I was left curiously flat for a film that was so acclaimed. I can see the reasons The Reader is celebrated, and agree with most of them. However, the flaws were enough that I’m not giving it the kind of rating you’d associate with a film so honored during awards season. Hmmm…maybe pride really does go before the fall.

WHY RENT THIS: Kate Winslet won an Oscar – and deservedly so – for her performance. The depiction of postwar Germany is compelling, presenting a snapshot of a place and time not often glimpsed on film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: David Kross not as strong or compelling a performer as Winslet, drawing attention away from the story where it was meant to be. The emotional detachment of the Michael Berg character makes it harder to identify with him, either as a teen or an adult.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very explicit sex sequences, rough language in places and certainly a great deal of adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella both passed away before the movie was completed. Due to the extraordinary circumstances, the Academy allowed more than three producers names’ to be read as nominees during the broadcast of the 2009 Academy Awards show.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray disc contains several features that look at the difficulties of filming a movie in which the Holocaust is so central a theme in Germany, and how German cast and crew members felt about it.


TOMORROW: The Black Book