Amnesia


Sitting out in the warm sun can be a kind of amnesia.

(2015) Drama (Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemell, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermi Reixach, Marie Leuenberger, Félix Pons, Florentin Groll, Eva Barceló, Lluis Altés, Rick Zingale, Kate Ashcroft, Joel Rice, Alfie Davies Man, Fabian Krüger, Joel Basman. Directed by Barbet Schroeder

 

It is said that the sea has no memory; if that is true, an island is the perfect place to forget.

Marthe (Keller) lives a kind of idyllic life in Ibiza. It is 1990 and the Berlin Wall has just fallen. Her house is absolutely charming with a breathtaking view. There is no electricity but she is absolutely fine with that. She grows many of her own vegetables and goes fishing when she is hungry. That which she can’t get from the sea or grow herself she picks up at the local market. One of her cousins is visiting and urging her to return to Germany to dispose of a property for which her presence is required. She politely declines.

Shortly thereafter, a new neighbor moves in to the house just above hers on the hillside. He is Jo (Riemell), a German musician/composer who has been drawn by Ibiza’s burgeoning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene. His stage name is DJ Gello and he is angling for a gig at Amnesia, the 800 pound gorilla of EDM clubs on Ibiza (and yes, this is a real club which is still open today). Jo is a pleasant sort who shows up at her door requesting first aid after badly burning his hand accidentally. She gives him an herbal cream rather than a bag of ice and the two strike up a friendship.

Marthe is in her 70s and Jo in his 20s but the two hit it off. They become fast friends, Marthe introducing Jo to the laid-back Ibiza life, Jo introducing Marthe to the hypnotic sway of EDM which Marthe actually finds compelling. There are a lot of things Marthe isn’t talking about; the cello that she never plays, the reason she won’t drink German wine or ride in Jo’s Volkswagen. He also is upset when he discovers that Marthe, who claimed to be unable to speak German, turns out to be fluent in that language.

In fact, it turns out that Marthe is in fact German. She left Germany shortly before World War II broke out and fled to Switzerland with her love, a Jewish cellist. Disgusted by what her country did and became, she has renounced all things German, affecting a sort of amnesia by choice of her native country, her native language and everything relating to it.

When Jo’s parents visit, his doctor mother (Leuenberger) and his beloved grandfather (Ganz) are trying very hard to convince Jo to return and take part in the historic reunification between East and West Germany. As the two enjoy a paella on Marthe’s patio on a sunlit afternoon, the grandfather’s harmless stories – which had evolved over the years – under Marthe’s persistent questioning begins to crumble until a stark truth remains. Grandpa Bruno’s own stories had formed a kind of amnesia for events too terrible to contemplate.

Schroeder has made some wonderful films in his storied career (his first effort in the director’s chair came back in 1969) as well as a few turkeys but this one tends towards the former more than the latter. A lot of his films feature people dealing with an unsavory past and this one does so indirectly (and directly in the case of Grandpa Bruno). Marthe, as Jo’s mom points out near the end of the film, is dealing with her issues with her homeland by running away from her feelings. It’s hard not to blame her; in an era when Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the direction that their country is taking. While we don’t have evil on the scale of the Nazis running the United States, there are certainly a lot of reasons not to like the way our country is shaping up. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to move to Ibiza and never speak English again – well, maybe I’m ready to move to Ibiza.

The cinematography here might just make you want to move to Ibiza. There are some beautiful vistas of gorgeous sunsets, stunning views and charming marketplaces. While this is mainly the Ibiza of 20 years ago (other than two framing scenes at the beginning and end), my understanding is that it hasn’t changed all that much.

The writing here is very simple in terms of storyline and although the plot takes awhile to get moving it does eventually do so. Yes, some of the dialogue is a little clunky (as when Jo explains to Marthe what looping is) but by and large this feels a lot like real people conversing with one another albeit people conversing in a language not native to them.

Marthe Keller was a big European star in the 70s along the lines of Charlotte Rampling who has had a bit of a late career renaissance. A performance like this could get Keller a resurgence of her own; the septuagenarian is charming and natural, never rushing her delivery. She’s not so much grandmotherly as she is a bit of a recluse; her origins are kept secret early on giving her an air of mystery but gradually as her story is unveiled we get to understand her better. The relationship between Marthe and Jo is platonic although Jo hints that his feelings run deeper, and the chemistry between the two is at the heart of the film. Both of these people are somewhat wounded and need each other and in the end we see that they are good for each other in ways movies don’t often explore.

This isn’t slated to get a very wide release although if it does well in the cities it is playing in we might see it get more screens, so it behooves you to make plans to see it if it does show up in your neck of the woods. It’s also already on Google Play and should be out on other streaming services before too long. In any case, this is a worthwhile effort from a director who has helped shape the course of film over the past 50 years – that in itself should be incentive enough.

REASONS TO GO: The vistas of Ibiza are enchanting. The story is simple but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The story takes a little bit of time to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Marthe lives in here was also used by Schroeder in More (1969) and is owned by the Schroeder family (his mother bought it in 1951).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Born in China

The Cyclotron (Le Cyclotron)


Class dismissed.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Mark Antony Krupa, Lucille Fluet, Paul Ahmarani, Olivier Barrette, Manuel Sinor, Benoit Mauffette. Directed by Olivier Asselin

 

Although it may be hard to believe now, the Allies came within a hairs’ breadth of losing the Second World War. The Nazis were well on their way to developing their own atomic weapon; the Allies were able to defeat them before they could complete their work but what if we hadn’t?

A train hurtles into the night, headed for Switzerland from Germany. Emil Scherer (Krupa), a top German physicist is aboard it. He is AWOL from his work at the German version of the Manhattan Project and a fellow scientist named Helmut König (Ahmarani) has been dispatched to fetch him, find out whether he has taken any atomic secrets with him and whether he intends to defect.

Also on his trail is Simone Ziegler (Fluet), a French-German scientist who once worked alongside Scherer and was also romantically involved with him. She works now with the resistance and has been sent to find Scherer and if necessary, eliminate him. Since she finds him first, she talks to him and discovers that he has already discovered a way to make a bomb – one that fits in a wristwatch. Worse still, he has already constructed one and is wearing it. He hopes to hand it over to the Allies but with the German sniffing at their heels and the train still far from the Swiss border, getting out alive may not be an option. It will take an act of desperation which will lead to the war’s outcome balancing on the tip of the tail of a cat belonging to a fellow named Schrödinger.

Sometimes I have a problem with Hollywood films with bloated budgets that are too dazzling; this is the reverse. This is a movie that I wish could be remade with a much more ambitious budget. This is as well-written a script as you’re likely to see onscreen this year. Asselin, who co-wrote the script with Fluet, gives the main characters plenty of depth and keeps the tension high throughout. The game of cat and mouse between spies and Nazis is delicately played unlike the usual sledgehammers we get when less skillful hands try to do a movie in the film noir style.

There is plenty of atmosphere in the film and plenty of different styles to enrich it including some German Expressionism which I found delightful. It really helps establish the era as well as the mood. Fluet and Asselin don’t clutter up the film too much with technical jargon, although there are some explorations of quantum mechanics as well as Schrödinger’s Cat which is a theory which, to put in an extremely simplistic manner, posits that a cat is put in a box without air holes and left there for a certain period of time. There’s no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead until one opens the box; until that is done the cat is both alive and dead within the box. It’s fairly heady stuff but it makes more sense when you see it used within the film and I have to admit, I’ve never seen it used as well cinematically.

The black and white also helps the tone of the film, but that may not necessarily be why the filmmakers used it – there are several scenes that are shot in color in what seems like random bursts although that’s probably not the case. No, I suspect black and white was used to hide the fact that since the bulk of the action takes place aboard a train and they didn’t have access to one, they inserted shots of digital trains hurtling down a variety of train tracks. The CGI is absolutely shoddy and unacceptable; every time you see the train onscreen you’re taken out of the spell of the film that the director and cast has worked so hard to build. The score is also somewhat overbearing and sounds like it was cobbled together from a bunch of better noir films.

There is some real promise here. The actors do solid jobs and Fluet and Krupa even manage to generate some romantic heat between their characters. The movie fails more on the technical end rather than on the creative one. I would like to see this remade with actual trains rather than digital ones and a little bit more of an effects budget, particularly for the movie’s end. In any case while the execution was a victim of its ambition and lack of cash, this is nonetheless worth checking out if you’re willing to overlook the flaws here.

REASONS TO GO: Asselin does a marvelous job of keeping the tension high. Schrödinger’s Cat may be used to better advantage here than by any other movie in history.
REASONS TO STAY: The computer graphics are amateurish and distracting. The score is overwrought and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene with some gore early on, some sensuality and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at the 2016 Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia where it won Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Train
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Elian

Woman in Gold


The principals of the tale.

The principals of the tale.

(2015) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Antje Traue, Nene Gachev, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, Tom Schilling, Moritz Bleibtreu, Anthony Howell, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Asli Bayram, Jasmine Golden. Directed by Simon Curtis

When the Nazis swept through Europe, they would quickly evict wealthy Jews from their homes, taking their possessions before sending the residents to concentration camps for the eventual Final Solution. After the war was over, many works of art and personal possessions were not returned to their original owners or their descendants.

One such work was Gustav Klimt’s (Bleibtreu) masterwork Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I which was eventually retitled Woman in Gold. The portrait hung proudly in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum and was considered “Austria’s Mona Lisa” for its station as the pre-eminent artwork in Austria. But at one time, it hung in the apartment of the Bloch-Bauer family.

For Maria Altmann (Mirren) however, the portrait meant something different; it was not merely an important work of art, it was a memory of her aunt (Traue) who passed away too young of meningitis in 1925, a refined and beautiful woman who was an important influence on her life. Some 15 years later, the Nazis took control of Austria and seized their home and nearly all of their things including a priceless Stradivarius (which at one time resided in Hitler’s Alpine retreat) and five Klimt paintings including the one of her aunt. While her Uncle Ferdinand (Goodman), Adele’s husband, had presence enough to relocate to Switzerland before the Nazis arrived, young Maria (Maslany), her husband Fritz (Irons) and Maria’s parents were trapped. A harrowing escape got Fritz and Maria out of Vienna but her parents were left behind where they would die.

Years later, when her sister had passed away, Maria found some letters among her effects in reference to the painting. With Austria undertaking a highly-publicized restoration of Nazi plunder back to their original owner, she was curious about what could be done to restore that which had been stolen from her family and returned to her, so she calls on Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), son of an old friend (Fisher) of Maria’s and grandson of the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg. At first, having just taken a job at a large firm and inexperienced in this kind of law, he is reluctant to take the case but when he discovered that the painting was valued at over $100 million, his interest was piqued.

However, getting the painting back would entail going to Vienna, something Maria swore she would never do, but it was necessary to find Adele’s will which the Austrian government claimed had given the painting to them. There, aided by a sympathetic journalist (Bruhl) Randy discovers that Adele never owned the painting to begin with – her husband Ferdinand did and HE had bequeathed the works of art to Maria.

The Austrian government was reluctant to part with the painting and through every roadblock possible in Maria’s way, but Randy – who was greatly affected by a visit to the Holocaust memorial in Vienna which reminded him that members of his family were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and taken to places where they would die horribly – was resolved to see justice done. With Maria’s resolve flagging, could he convince the frail old woman to see the fight through to the end, though it take them to the American Supreme Court?

Mirren is one of the most delightful and versatile actresses, able to do a regal Queen, a working class dress shop owner or a droll assassin with equal aplomb. Her performance here as Maria is scintillating and certainly the focal point of the movie, but more of a surprise is Reynolds, who is generally charming beefcake but has rarely performed to this level in a dramatic role; it’s in fact his best acting performance yet in my opinion. Maslany, who has been so good in Orphan Black, also is superior as a young Adele who leaves her country and manages to get to America with nearly nothing to her name but the love of her husband to sustain her.

There are some powerful scenes here; when Adele says goodbye to her parents, I could only imagine how many similar conversations were taking place at that time in that situation where children would say goodbye to parents who knew that they would never see their offspring again.

I have to admit that when the actual case took place midway through the last decade I initially sided with the Austrian government; I thought that a work of art isn’t truly owned by an individual but by humanity. My mind has been changed on that accord.

You see, art is not just an ephemeral theoretical thing; it is real, tangible, powerful and personal. A painting of your favorite aunt isn’t just a picture; it is a representation of the soul of someone you love. That’s a powerful thing; when that representation is ripped from the family who it belongs to rightfully, it is doubly powerful. Maria Altmann and Randy Schoenberg weren’t just fighting for Maria’s rights; they were fighting for all those who had been left behind to die, a reality the film makes very clear in yet another powerful scene near the end of the movie.

While some critics have characterized the movie as boring, I didn’t find it so. Even though I knew how the case turned out I was mesmerized, mainly because the acting here is so top of the line. Yeah, this isn’t for everyone; some people point out that this is yet another Holocaust movie and there are those who are tired of hearing about the Holocaust. Has there been oversaturation of the Holocaust in movies?

No. Not even close. Some people may be uncomfortable with the discussion of the subject; perhaps then you should talk with someone who lost someone in the Holocaust. Even though generations have come and gone, there are those who can only view it through the prism of family members murdered and lives destroyed. Judging from the way we treat gay people, how religious zealots murder at will and how we continue to hate blindly because people are different than us, it is clear that we haven’t learned a goddamned thing. So I say to Hollywood, please do continue to make movies about the Holocaust. Please continue to remind us what the devastating consequences are when we say nothing when the rights and lives of others are jeopardized. We clearly need to be reminded of what silence buys us.

REASONS TO GO: Mirren is terrific as always and Reynolds delivers his best performance ever. Some very moving moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a few scattered bad words and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran actress McGovern is married in real life to the director, Simon Curtis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adele’s Wish
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Florida Film Festival coverage begins with Wildlike

Fury


Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

(2014) War (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Minca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman, Daniel Betts, Adam Ganne, Eric Kofi-Abreva, John Macmillan, Saul Barrett, Marek Oravec, Orion Lee, Stella Stocker. Directed by David Ayer

If war is hell, the hell of war are metal tubes and tanks. During the Second World War, America lost tanks and their crew at a terrifying rate. It took (and continues to take) a special kind of warrior to lock themselves in those iron coffins and duel other warriors in an effort to pan-fry or blow off the face of your enemies before they do the same to you.

In the waning days of that war, the tank crew for the tank nicknamed “Fury” is led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), a hard, rough fellow who has only one goal – to get his men back home alive. He’d started killing Nazis in North Africa; now he’s killing them in Germany. However, there isn’t much left of the once-mighty German army. They’re mostly children and old men drafted from villages to protect the Fatherland. Those that refused were hung in the name of the defense of the Wehrmacht.

Inside his tank is his lead driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena), an even-tempered man with a quirky sense of humor; gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), a devout Christian who believes that killing the evil Germans is God’s work (and he’s not far wrong). The mechanic is Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), a wizard with mechanical things but an absolute horror with people. Surly and prejudiced against…well, EVERYONE, he’s meaner than a hound dog with a butt itch.

There’s also a second driver whose face and eyeball and a good deal of his skull as well as assorted bits of brain and blood have painted the inside of the tank.

They receive a new second gunner, young Norman Ellison (Lerman) who has not fired a shot in anger at anyone and was originally conscripted to be a clerk-typist for the army who has been forced to start replacing the staggering losses from wherever they can. He has a hard time with this change in duties and when the time comes to fire his weapon at a living human being, he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction costs another tank crew their lives.

However, even as the Allies are pushing through to Berlin, word comes that a column of battle-hardened SS soldiers are coming down the road to pierce into the heart of the forward command. If they’re successful, they may set the Allies back a bit and add more time and casualties to a war that already has plenty of both. It will be up to the valiant crew of the Fury to stand fast. Will they be up for the challenge?

This was originally thought to be a major Oscar contender but the studio ended up pushing it back from a Holiday release to an October one. I can’t say as I blame them. This doesn’t quite have the feel of a movie that’s going to have a great deal of attention from Academy voters, although there’s a good chance Pitt might get at least some nominating votes.

Ayer was a stickler for authenticity throughout from the uniforms that the soldiers wear, the fashions of the French women that Wardaddy and Norman take a brief break with, and the machines themselves, American Shermans and a fearsome German Tiger. The actors learned to drive the antique vehicle as well as fire the guns it carried. Oddly, they don’t spend a lot of time displaying the claustrophobia of fighting in those tanks, although we get a sense of the limited visibility of the vehicles.

There is a good deal of gore as bodies are burned, blown to pieces and riddled with bullets. While it doesn’t have the visceral you are there feel of Saving Private Ryan, it’s still from my admittedly inexpert viewpoint a pretty accurate representation of tank warfare as it existed in the last days of the war.

The plot is not unlike other movies you’ve seen before, given the characters are pretty cliche including the wise but gruff commanding officer, the nervous rookie having to suddenly re-evaluate his moral code in the heat of battle, the ignorant drunk from the deep South and so on. Pena and Bernthal make the most of their roles and at least offer some personality. Unfortunately LaBeouf doesn’t seem to embrace the role in the same way and quoting the Biblical passages sounds as foreign coming out of his mouth as they would were he saying them in Mandarin Chinese. His Really Awful Mustache doesn’t help matters.

While the authenticity is there, the creativity kind of isn’t. This doesn’t really add anything to the short list of films about tank warfare. Yeah, there’s plenty of camaraderie and some battle thrills. That’s been done. The more interesting elements of the story – how the war affected the men who served in the tank, desensitizing them to what we would consider their humanity, falls by the wayside during the last third of the movie when it becomes a standard “last stand” story. It’s a shame because the movie has a ton of promising elements; it just doesn’t become greater than the sum of its parts but rather, equal to them. Good enough may well be good enough but I was hoping for more.

REASONS TO GO: Drips authenticity. Fine performances by Pena, Bernthal and Pitt. Some intense battle sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t add much to the tank warfare movies. A little bit too long. LaBeouf is a distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, some fairly grisly images, plenty of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the uniforms, weapons and tanks used in the movie were authentic and loaned from various museums around the world including the only currently functioning Tiger tank on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Judge

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)


What could be more depressing about the state of humanity than a child with a gun?

What could be more depressing about the state of humanity than a child with a gun?

(2008) War Drama (Sony Classics) Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry, Melody Klaver, Anneke Blok, Mees Piejnenburg, Jesse van Driel, Dan van Husen, Ad van Kempen, Tygo Gernandt, Ben Ramakers, Tibo Vandenborre, Jens Roth, Peter Eberst, Peter Post, Emile Jansen, Alja Hoeksema. Directed by Martin Koolhoven

That war is hell is a given. For youngsters however war is a special kind of hell, the kind that can render childhood terminated and sometimes life itself terminated as well.

Michiel (Lakemeier) lives in a small Dutch village in 1945 as the war is drawing to a close. His father Johan (Thiry), the mayor, is hoping that they can all ride out the German withdrawal from their village as safely as is possible. While they remain he does his best to keep the Germans happy as possible – not as a collaborator mind you but more of an appeaser.

His brother and Michiel’s uncle Ben (van Wageningen) is different. He’s a resistance fighter, combating the Nazis at every opportunity. To Michiel, his uncle Ben is a hero and his father, he increasingly suspects, is a coward.

This deteriorating situation within the family is thrown into chaos when a British RAF pilot named Jack (Bower) crashes near the village. His leg badly mangled, he is hidden by the resistance after killing a German soldier who had discovered the crash. When the resistance fighters protecting him are wiped out, it falls upon Michiel to protect the pilot. He brings in his sister Erika (Klaver) to help with Jack’s wounded leg – Erika’s a nurse. It doesn’t take long for Erika to fall in love with the dashing young pilot. Still, it is a cat and mouse game between the Nazis and Michiel whose family will be tested by Michiel’s actions. Not all of those closest to him will pass that test.

Based on a novel by Dutch writer/politician/scientist Jan Terlouw who in turn based the novel on his own experiences during the Second World War, Winter in Wartime is a bit rote when it comes to war movies. Films like Defiance, The Boy with the Striped Pajamas and Aftermath all explore the various aspects of the war explored here, from living in an occupied town to how children dealt with the experiences. The Dutch have turned to the war as a subject (or at least a backdrop) regularly in films like Soldier of Orange to Black Book.

Lakemeier does a very credible job as the 13-year-old Michiel. He is a child growing much more rapidly into a man than he should have to. By film’s end Michiel is certainly no longer a child and young Lakemeier makes that transformation believable. Van Wageningen does heroic quite well while Thiry keeps you guessing as to his character’s loyalties.

I can’t help but think that this could have used a bit less Hollywood and a bit more Amsterdam. This feels like a kind of rote studio film in many places and while the cinematography captures the beauty of snow-swept vistas and towns layered in the white powder, it still feels a bit predictable. It must also be said that Koolhoven does a fine job at maintaining the level of suspense, particularly in the latter half of the film.

This is basically a well-made movie and I can recommend it pretty much to everyone although with the caveat that you will have seen this before in many ways. Lakemeier’s performance however is something you haven’t seen and for that alone you can put this on your list of movies to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performance by Lakemeier. Suspenseful when it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language and a bit of wartime violence as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in Lithuania due to the absence of snow in the Netherlands during filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lore

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ’em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale

In Darkness


It's a fiddler in the sewers.

It’s a fiddler in the sewers.

(2011) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Wiekiewicz, Benno Furmann, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Agnieszka Grochowska, Marcin Bosak, Julia Kijowska, Jerzy Walczak, Oliwer Stanczak, Milla Bankowicz, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Kinga Preis, Olek Mincer, Piotr Glowacki, Maria Semotiuk, Michal Zurawski, Zofia Pieczynska, Etl Szyc, Weronika Rosati. Directed by Agnieszka Holland

There are those who society tends to write off as incorrigible. These are the dregs, those who cannot be redeemed. They were always destined to be criminal and so they will always remain.

In Nazi occupied Poland, a group of Jews have fled the ghetto of Lvov and made their way into the sewers. Sewer inspector Leopold Socha (Wiekiewicz) has discovered them in there. Socha and his compatriot Szczepek Wróblewski (Skonieczny) have supplemented their incomes with petty crimes and they see the Nazis as no particular change from the situation they’ve been in all their lives. However rather than turn the Jews in, Leopold seizes the opportunity to extort the Jews from their money in exchange for protecting and supplying them.

As time goes by the heat grows more intense to turn in wayward Jews and the penalties more severe for sheltering them. The Jews’ money begins to dwindle and the expense of buying food for the small group has become exorbitant. They wonder how long their opportunistic savior will continue to keep them safe.

In addition the toll of living underground amidst the smell and the grime is taking their toll on the refugees who have begun to squabble among themselves. Nazi patrols are actively scouring the sewers but the deft Socha, the only man in Lvov who knows the sewers well, steers them away most of the time. Still, Socha is at heart a criminal – who knows how long it will remain true.

This is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall which chronicles the real-life Jews who fled to the sewers and the real-life Leopold Socha. Holland, one of Poland’s most acclaimed directors, manages to capture the dim lighting and claustrophobia that the refugees surely must have experienced.

One of the main misconceptions about this movie is that it’s about the Holocaust. I beg to disagree. While the Holocaust is the setting, this isn’t the story of the refugees but it is Socha’s story. It is his change of heart that is the crux of the story, his movement from petty criminal to heroic protector which seems nearly impossible on the surface.

Holland wisely doesn’t turn the Jews in the tale into stoic survivors who endure each atrocity and degradation with clear eyes and full heart. They aren’t always heroic nor are they always nice. They are in a terrible situation with the prospect of being caught and killed hanging over their heads at every moment. We cannot imagine that kind of pressure; it seems pretty understandable to me that they would not always deal with it well.

Most of the actors are largely unknown over here (although Furmann was in the Wachowski’s Speed Racer) and do pretty solid jobs. Sometimes reading subtitles on the screen can distract from really enjoying an actor’s performance and I think that’s definitely the case here. It’s hard to catch subtleties when you’re just trying to read the translation.

Still, this was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards and justifiably so, although it didn’t win (it was heavily favored to do so). While comparison to Schindler’s List are pretty easy to make, this isn’t the same thing. The Spielberg film had a larger canvas and a much broader brush. Here, we are kept mainly underground in tight spaces that are dimly lit. If Schindler’s List is a Michelangelo, In Darkness is a Goya – but they are both fine art.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some bad language, sexuality and nudity as well as some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although filmed in Poland with a mostly Polish crew and in Polish, the writer of the film was Canadian and some of the financial backing came from Canadian sources. When it and Monsieur Lazhar were both nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, it marked the first time that two Canadian films were nominated for the award in the same year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Holland interviews one of the actual survivors of the Lvov sewers. There is also an interview with Holland in English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Take Shelter

Lore


Lore's future looks bittersweet.

Lore’s future looks bittersweet.

(2012) Drama (Music Box) Saskia Rosendahl, Nele Trebs, Andre Frid, Mika Seidel, Kai-Peter Malina, Nick Holaschke, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Sven Pippig, Philip Wiegratz, Katrin Pollitt, Hendrik Arnst, Claudia Geisler. Directed by Cate Shortland   

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

The Second World War left millions of refugees at its end, many traversing shattered lands as survivors tried to find some semblance of family, often with roughly the same odd of finding a needle in a haystack.

Lore (Rosendahl) is a beautiful young German girl just entering her mid-teens. Her parents are important people and they live in a beautiful home near Buchenwald. She has a younger sister, younger twin brothers and a baby brother. Life is good.

Except that this isn’t modern Germany but Nazi Germany and the war is grinding to a conclusion. Her father (Wagner) and mother (Lardi) are fleeing their home and headed to a rural cabin to hide, hoping for the best but fearing that if the Americans win the war that they’ll be arrested. In fact, that’s what actually happens. Alone, Lore knows she must take the children to her grandmother’s house 900km away. Without any choice, she hits the road.

Once there they are followed by a mysterious young man in black. Lore frets. At a schoolhouse where many have taken refuge, the American soldiers have posted pictures of the concentration camps. Lore is shocked at the horror depicted. Some disbelieve it completely – “they’re actors,” is the general thought. Lore knows better – one of the “actors” peering down at a pit of dead emaciated bodies is her father.

When Lore and the kids are stopped on the road by American soldiers demanding travel papers, she is terrified but the young man, who calls himself Thomas (Malina) and has the necessary papers (not to mention a Star of David identifying him as a concentration camp survivor) intervenes and gets them  a ride for at least part of the distance.

Lore is drawn into a love-hate relationship with Thomas. There’s no doubt that the kids love him and that he is looking out for them as he would his own family, but he is also everything her parents warned her against and was the object of their scorn and hatred. She doesn’t know what to think about him – nor of her own burgeoning sexuality which is beginning to emerge. It’s a long, long road to Hamburg and they’ll have to get through plenty of obstacles to get there.

This is a movie that looks at the other side and not necessarily with sympathy. Lore’s parents are monsters, and the more we see of them the more we realize that they had full knowledge of what was happening in regards to the Final Solution.

The problem I had is with Lore herself. One moment she’s sympathetic, the next intolerable, the following plucky, and the moment after that sensual. Her emotions are like a pachinko machine, bouncing from here to there without any real rhyme or reason. Part of that is endemic to being a hormonal teenage girl, another part is inconceivable stress. Either way, it makes it very difficult for an audience to identify with Lore.

That’s not necessarily Rosendahl’s fault. She seems to be a very capable young actress with a great deal of promise – she’s just given a character to play who isn’t an easy one to pull together and she does the very best she can. I’m not sure that any actress, even a Meryl Streep, could have pulled off this part any better.

Lore is beautifully photographed as we see pristine German woodlands and bucolic country villages which makes the heinous deeds we see even more wrenching. There are unburied bodies everywhere, some dead by their own hand. A misguided old woman who takes Lore’s family in temporarily wails at a portrait of Der Fuhrer “We let him down. He loved us all so.”  It’s disquieting to say the least.

These aren’t perfect kids and the world they inhabit is chaotic and unpredictable. There are no real rules and surviving is not an easy task – just procuring food isn’t a given. Survival isn’t a given. The baby give them a bit of an advantage and Lore knows it but she also realizes that she is becoming a woman and that can be an advantage with certain kinds of men.

Lore grows from being something of a spoiled brat at the beginning of the movie into a cynical woman who is in bare-bones survival mode. Her last actions in the film are of defiance and transformation as she realizes that what she has been through has changed her forever – nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a powerful message.

And yet I didn’t connect with the film the way I think I should have. Perhaps it’s the pacing which is very slow. Perhaps it is the emotional pinball machine that is Lore. Or perhaps it’s just the wrong day and the wrong time for me to see a movie like this. It certainly requires a good deal of commitment from the viewer. It’s a movie whose skill and technique I admire, and whose story I think is one that should be told. I just didn’t fall under its spell the way I would have liked.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed. Gripping material.

REASONS TO STAY: Lore’s character is all over the map and gives us nothing to hold on to emotionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, a bit of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family photographs in Thomas’ wallet actually belong to Shortland’s husband, who is of German Jewish descent and whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; this is a critical hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 3

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just a couple of hotties.

(1989) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Allison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, Kevork Malikyan, Robert Eddison, Richard Young, Alexei Sayle, Alex Hyde-White, Paul Maxwell, Isla Blair. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In the third film in the series Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Spielberg and producer George Lucas wisely returned to the elements that made the first movie great. The movie opens with a prologue that shows Indy as a teenager (Phoenix) trying to foil grave robbers from stealing Coronado’s Cross. Much of his backstory is explained, including how he got the scar on his chin, where he acquired his fedora and the genesis of his phobia of snakes. We also see some of the dynamics of the relationship between Indy and his father, Dr. Henry Jones (Connery) who is obsessed by the legend of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be a real artifact.

After retrieving the Cross as an adult, Indy (Ford) receives a strange package at his office in the University from his father . He is then summoned by wealthy industrialist Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), Indy learns there is an expedition underway to retrieve the Holy Grail itself. That expedition’s leader has disappeared; and the leader turns out to be Indy’s father. Indy and Brody go to Venice, to meet up with his father’s colleague on the team Dr. Schneider (Doody), who turns out to be a she, and together they find the missing information needed to locate the resting place of the Grail.

First, however, Indy is determined to rescue his father, whom he discovers is being held in a castle in Austria. Indy arrives there only to discover that not everyone he has been trusting should be trusted and that some of them are in league with the Nazis (them again). Once again, with Brody and now Sallah (Rhys-Davies), Indy and his father set out to rescue the Grail in a race against the Nazis.

The chemistry between Connery and Ford is absolutely awesome; the two often communicate with merely a glance or a stern look. Their relationship becomes so well defined because of the natural qualities of their by-play. The two spar with each other verbally, with Ford as the son trying to please his father who may well be unpleasable. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who to that point had done Innerspace and The Lost Boys) gives Ford and Connery a slambang story to work with, and the two run with it. Spielberg provides some stunning visuals, and John Williams provided one of his best scores in any film ever.

Doody is an appealing blonde who may well be the prettiest of Indy’s love interests; she is his intellectual equal and is stronger a character than either Karen Allen’s Marion or Kate Capshaw’s Willie from the first two movies. Rhys-Davis and Elliott turn in strong performances and prove why they were so instrumental to the success of the first movie.

The third installment of the Indiana Jones films is almost as good as the first, and in some ways, better. There are some wonderful action sequences (such as a fight in the canals of Venice, a rescue from an Austrian castle and subsequent motorcycle chase and a daring desert rescue from a tank. At the center of the movie however is the relationship between father and son and Connery and Ford, two of the best in the business, make it believable; touching at times, funny at others but authentic in every moment. It is a little ironic that the measure of success for a big summer blockbuster lay in the details of the relationship between father and son, but it is true here. Hollywood could learn a lesson there in how to make a summer film timeless, as this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Great chemistry between Ford and Connery. Excellent action sequences. A slambang story that has familiarity to the legend. A lighter touch than the last.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The villains are a little less vicious in some ways than the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sensuality as well as a bit of action violence. There are a couple of disturbing images as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Fedora (Young), the character who chases the teenaged Indy through the Utah desert, was originally meant to be Abner Ravenwood, the father of Marion and Indy’s mentor.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $474.2M on a $48M production budget; by any standards the movie was yet another blockbuster in the trilogy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raiders of the Lost Ark

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Strangers

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress