The Exception


Christopher Plummer is resplendent as Kaiser Wilhelm II

(2016) Historical Drama (A24) Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Aubeline Barbieux, Lois van Wijk, Stephanie Auberghen, Martin Swabey, Lucas Tavernier, Kurt Standaert, Martin Savage, Karen Leclercq, Frederik Lebeer, Stephanie Van Vyve, Daisy Bouliton, Verona Verbakel. Directed by David Leveaux

As the First World War drew to a close, it became painfully obvious to the German people and to those in power that their Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed them as a wartime ruler and he was quietly forced to abdicate and fled the country for a life in rural Holland in a place called Huize Doorn. There he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, surrounded by a few loyal former military men, Dutch servants and his devoted second wife Hermine.

It is 1940 and the Second World War is in full swing. Germany is ruled now by the Nazi party and their military victories have been startling in their speed and ferocity. The former Kaiser (Plummer) keeps abreast of these with keen interest, expressing admiration for Hitler although not for the party. The Nazis get wind that there is a British spy operating in the area so they dispatch Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to take command of the Kaiser’s personal guard.

He is assisted by Dietrich (Dexter), an SS officer who informs Brandt that transmissions had been intercepted by the SS and that all they needed to pin down the location of the transmissions was a truck able to triangulate the signal and pin down its location. He assures Brandt that one is on the way.

Brandt – who was wounded in the invasion of Poland – is something of a ladies’ man and his eye falls on the comely made Mieke (James). The two begin a torrid affair which is forbidden; discovery could get Lily fired and Brandt sent back to combat duty. Both of them are what you’d call damaged goods with horrors in their past; not exactly an easy place to build a relationship from.

When the announcement that Nazi bigwig Heinrich Himmler (Marsan) will be visiting, the entire household is in a tizzy. Hermine is certain that this means her husband will be summoned back to Berlin to take his rightful place in a restored monarchy (delusion can be beautiful in its own way). The Kaiser believes it too – but Himmler has other plans.

As the search for the spy begins to close the noose, Brandt begins to suspect that Mieke might be involved. He will have to choose between his love for her and his duty to his country. Given what his country has become that might not be a very hard choice at all.

This is a fictionalized account of the Kaiser in his final year of life and pretty much the history that it gets right is that there was a man named Wilhelm who was once Kaiser of Germany. Most of the rest is fiction so if you’re going to this movie thinking you’re going to get a history lesson, think again. The saving grace here is that Plummer inhabits the role so well, capturing Wilhelm’s ego and Prussian love for pomp but also the decent fellow that lay just beneath although most accounts of the Kaiser don’t reveal a whole lot of regard for anyone other than himself. Plummer however is just so magnetic that you can’t help but enjoy the performance even knowing it’s a bit of a sham.

Courtney has much of the burden for the film as he’s really the centerpiece (the title refers to him rather than the Kaiser) and that’s maybe not such a good thing. There are some things that Courtney does really well – he was one of the bright spots of Suicide Squad I thought – but this really isn’t the type of role that’s in his comfort zone and you can tell because his performance is far from assured. Part of the issue is that Courtney doesn’t really excel at expressing emotion non-verbally and we don’t get a sense of the struggle going on within the character; we just see him get into a situation where he’s having sex with a beautiful woman and we just assume it blossoms into love but the process is never apparent so when it comes time for him to choose between love and country we never get a sense that it is a struggle for him.

It also must be said that Courtney is far too buff for his role. We see him naked quite a bit and unfortunately Courtney had just finished filming Suicide Squad when he started up with this and he still had an action hero’s body which really doesn’t jive with a German officer’s body during World War II. There wasn’t a lot of pumping iron going on at that time.

There are some other things as well. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and even some of these seasoned performers deliver it like “this isn’t how people talk; how the hell am I supposed to say this?” is bouncing around their brain pan. The movie looks a bit stage-y in places which isn’t surprising since Leveaux has a Broadway background. Be assured though that the pluses outnumber the minuses by a comfortable margin. Plummer alone should be reason enough to make a point of seeing this. And quite frankly, the ending has a kind of grace to it that is all too rare in motion pictures. I won’t give you much detail on that score other than to say the ending does elevate the film.

 

So this is a strong recommend. It’s still playing in a few cities here and there (Orlando is one of them as of this writing) but if it isn’t anywhere near you or it’s been and gone, do check it out on VOD (Amazon Prime subscribers can see it for free). This isn’t going to be one of the best movies of the year but it’s better than the majority have been and will be – even if it is as fake as a three-dollar bill.

REASONS TO GO: Christopher Plummer is on a hot streak. The final scene is a nice touch.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some nudity and plenty of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming took place at the Kaiser’s actual home at Huize Doorn.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anthropoid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Commune

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man

Defiance


Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

(Paramount Vantage) Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, George MacKay, Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Sam Spruell, Mia Wasikowski. Directed by Edward Zwick.

More than 60 years after the events of World War II, the events of that conflict still resonate with all of us. It was a time when ordinary people were forced to confront true evil, rise up and make a stand for their very survival, as well as everything they hold most dear. Some of those stories, particularly those that took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are only now coming to light in the West.

It is 1941 in Belarus, and the Germans are systematically capturing, murdering and imprisoning Jews in ghettos. In a small Belarusian town, smuggler Zus Bielski (Schreiber) and his young brother Asael (Bell) hide out in the woods as the Germans decimate their town. They return to the family farm to find their parents murdered and their younger brother Aron (MacKay) traumatized by what he has seen.

Knowing that the Germans are not yet done with their pogrom, and that the local police are co-operating with the Nazis, they flee to the nearby forest where they are joined by their older brother Tuvia (Craig). Experienced at hiding from the police in the woods, they are confident they can hide from the Germans indefinitely. However, Aron soon discovers several other refugees who have fled to the safety of the forest. They are joined by still others from surrounding towns and villages. The number soon swells beyond the ability of the brothers to feed and shelter. There are many elderly and sick, some children and most truly unable to fend for themselves. The brothers give them unity and protection. The brothers give them hope.

After Tuvia confronts the police captain responsible for the murder of his parents and executes him, he forswears from further violence and reprisals, which creates a rift with his brother Zus, who wants nothing more than to get justice, or more to the point, revenge against those oppressing his people. After a food raid leads to the death of some of their number, and leniency with a collaborator brings armed police to their camp, the rift is broadened to the point where Zus leaves to join a Russian partisan group made up of Red Army.

In the meantime, winter comes, food is scarce and they are hunted by a determined and better-armed German army. Tuvia’s determination to adhere to non-violent standards begins to erode in the face of starvation, disease and fear. With the overwhelming odds against them, it would take a miracle for this starving group of refugees to survive.

Zwick, whose resume includes such big-budget fare as Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, crafts a movie that has a big-budget look but an intimate feel. Gorgeous vistas of forest, bog and meadow are accentuated within the context of the nuances of the relationships between the brothers. Craig and Schreiber bring a quiet power to their roles as sibling rivals. These are men, proud and wounded, frustrated and helpless in the face of events they cannot control.

The supporting cast, for the most part made up of character actors and Eastern Europeans, does a solid job of portraying starving refugees, terrified townies, arrogant communists and/or occasional Germans, who for the most part remain an enemy without a face, other than the opening sequence, and one later on in the movie in which a terrified soldier is captured and brought before the camp to face a mob of angry Jews.

As for historical accuracy, well, the movie is probably about as accurate as any Hollywood film is (for example, a battle with a Nazi tank near the film’s climax never occurred). There has been some grousing that the film portrays much of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe as being passive in the face of mounting evidence of their own extermination, but I disagree. Certainly, there are scenes like the one where Tuvia pleads with the council of a ghetto to flee to the forest while the elders point out that the Germans kill 20 for every one that flees. However, the fact is that there are instances in which Jews were passive about what was happening to them, whether out of a desire to appease the Germans, or out of an unwillingness to believe the rumors of death camps or that the Germans would annihilate their own slave labor workforce, something that had never happened in the history of the world to that point.

This movie hasn’t received a lot of critical love. Some have called it heavy-handed, which I admit it is in places. Some have called it emotionally manipulative, but then again it is a story which incites strong emotions. Some have compared it unfavorably to Schindler’s List but honestly, that’s like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone With the Wind. Schindler’s List is a classic and most films about the Holocaust are going to come off unfavorably next to it.

I’ll cop to being a bit of a history buff, and I especially enjoy movies that inspire me to find out more about the era or episode that inspired them, and I certainly was hitting the Internet after I got home from the multiplex. The war in Eastern Europe is certainly a bit of a mystery to us in the West; while we are aware that there was a particular ferocity and savagery that took place there, we are for the most part unacquainted with the particulars. I, for one, am always grateful for the opportunity to learn more.

However, at the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. It is their strength that sets them apart and their pride that splits them apart, but ultimately it is their love and fierce loyalty that unites them. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the movie worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: Lovely Lithuanian vistas. Oscar-nominated musical score. A compelling, believable fraternal relationship.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional heavy-handed storytelling. Some unnecessary historical inaccuracies to make the movie more “salable.”

FAMILY VALUES: Some intense battle scenes and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Much of the movie was filmed within 100 miles of where the actual Bielski camp was located.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A criminally brief interview segment with descendents of the Bielski brothers, and a photo gallery of camp survivors in 2008 give faces to the real participants in the drama.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Secret Life of Bees