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

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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