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

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To Be Takei


It's always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

It’s always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

(2014) Documentary (Starz Digital Media) George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Lea Salonga, Dan Savage, Howard Stern, Jay Kuo, Tom Ammiano, Eddie Paskey, Lorenzo Thorne, Telly Leung, Jimi Yamaichi. Directed by Jennifer R. Kroot

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that it must be great to be George Takei. Beloved Star Trek actor, Facebook sensation, activist and advocate for Japanese-Americans and the gay community, he has been described as America’s gay uncle and that might not be far from the truth.

But when you consider the things he’s been through – being imprisoned in two different internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the no less damaging prison that came from being a closeted actor throughout most of his career (he didn’t come out until 2005 and then in response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the gay marriage bill.

He has overcome some difficult, dark days but he has emerged on the other end with a disingenuous smile and a live and let live attitude that might lead some to underestimate how forceful and passionate he is for the causes he believes in. Even his feud with William Shatner doesn’t seem to be something he takes all that seriously; I get the sense he doesn’t feel any ill will towards the actor. Shatner, interviewed for the film, comes off as somewhat befuddled about the fuss and a bit standoffish – “I really don’t know the man,” he protests on several occasions.

Still, I don’t know if I could be as cheerful as Takei given his circumstances. What keeps him sane, I think, is his relationship with his husband Brad. Brad is kind of the sensible, detail-oriented one in the relationship. He takes George’s crazy schedule and makes it work. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nag, other times he can be a bit startled at George’s occasional penchant for oversharing, sometimes he can be a bit of a nit-picker. Still, the love that is there is obvious and deep.

In fact, watching the interaction between George and Brad made me think “That’s me and my wife!” There is really no difference in their relationship than my relationship with my wife other than that my relationship is with a woman and George Takei’s is with a man. They both drive each other crazy upon occasion but they both lean on and rely on each other – and there’s no doubt either man would take a bullet for the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how most good marriages work. People who are fuzzy about whether gay people should be married should watch these two gay people together. They are indeed, the prototypical gay married couple.

I did find that aspect of the documentary inspiring; I also found that the scenes of George’s activism with both Japanese-American causes as well as gay causes to be among the most interesting in the film which is something since I’m a proud Trekker and love the little insights that come in from the surviving members of the crew of the Enterprise. As a Trekker I might have wanted more on his era in Star Trek but the film critic in me acknowledges that would only appeal to a certain segment, myself included.

However, the film critic in me frowns on the way that Kroot bounces around in subject matter, from the internment to George’s early Hollywood years to his discovering he was gay in high school to his Facebook stardom to his relationship with his parents. I would have preferred something a little more linear in terms of telling Takei’s story, although something tells me that George himself isn’t the most linear of men.

A project close to Takei’s heart these days is Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps that Takei starred in (along with Salonga). The show is largely informed by Takei’s own experiences and shows a depth in his acting that he rarely gets a chance to display. The musical set records at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and is expected to debut on Broadway during the upcoming season.

Takei himself makes a fascinating subject for a documentary and it’s high time that there was one made about him. There are some great archival photographs and such but I think the focus here is rightly on the relationship between George and Brad – which is clearly the central focus in George’s life – and on his activism. It is impressive that in his 70s George Takei has become much more of a cultural phenomenon than he was as a younger man, and continues to work an impressive schedule not only as an actor but with personal appearances as well as speaking engagements for his various causes. Takei is a national treasure and we should appreciate him as such.

REASONS TO GO: Takei is as interesting a person as you think he is and probably more so. Does a lot to further the cause of gay marriage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps around from subject to subject in kind of a willy-nilly fashion. May not have enough Star Trek material for some Trekkers.
FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Takei was born with the first name of Hosato, but was called George by his father, an Anglophile (as his son later became) after the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skeleton Twins

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!