Django (2017)


Django Reinhardt doing what he does best.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Under the Milky Way) Reda Kateb, Cécile De France, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mireté, Johnny Montreuil, Vincent Frade, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois, Esther Comar, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, Hugues Jourdain, Hono Winterstein, Etienne Mehrstein, Levis Reinhardt, Nestle Sztyglic, Ulrich Brandhoff, Clémence Boisnard. Directed by Etienne Comar

 

Django Reinhardt was one of the greatest jazz guitarists – jazz musicians of any instrument in fact – of all time. His music has helped define the music of France in the decades since he burst onto the club scene of Paris in much the same way as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry defined American music.

Django (Kateb) is really a pretty laid back guy; before a big concert in Paris in 1943 he is late arriving because he’s too busy fishing in the Seine. Once he gets there, he captivates the crowd with his virtuoso style, fingers dancing over the fretboard in his unusual style (he didn’t have the use of two fingers on his left hand after his hand was burned in an accident as a young man, so he had a peculiar three finger style). We are reminded that this is occupied Paris with all the Nazi uniforms in the audience and a stern admonition of “No Dancing.”

Django is married to Naguine (Palya) who is devoted to him; his mother Negros (Merstein) also lives with him. Django was born in Belgium to Romani (what some would call gypsies although that’s a politically incorrect term these days) and the gypsies, along with the homosexuals and of course the Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis. One of Django’s fans is Louise de Klerk (De France) who as it turns out is part of the French resistance and she warns Django that the Nazis are rounding up the Romani all over the country. She admonishes him about a German tour he’s about to undertake; he responds that he doesn’t care who’s in the audience so long as they respond to his music.

Soon Django’s apolitical stance is put to the test as it becomes clear he needs to get his family out of France and that his protection because of his international stardom wouldn’t remain for much longer. He heads to a Romani encampment near the Swiss border and his perceptions of politics are changed forever.

Kateb took some intensive training to learn how to duplicate Reinhardt’s distinctive style and he looks pretty authentic on-camera. Oddly, a modern jazz group dubs the sound of Reinhardt and his Paris Hot Club Quintet; neither the on-camera musicians nor Reinhardt are heard on the soundtrack which seems a little odd that in a movie about a great musician we never actually hear his work.

Kateb is a fine actor and he does a decent job here but he isn’t given a lot to work with. There’s little character development for anyone else around me, including the fictional De Klerk (who for the purposes of this film was also his mistress) and the very real Naguine. The music is amazing but you’re never given the opportunity to care about the people playing it.

Mostly we get a generic World War II suspense piece that has elements of Casablanca (not a bad thing), music documentary (not a bad thing) and Schindler’s List (still not a bad thing) but never quite pulls together as a movie that grips and excites the viewer. I don’t feel like I know anything more about Reinhardt than I would if I just listened to a couple of his albums.

On the positive side, the filmmaker does call into focus the persecution of the Romani people which other than the Jews suffered the most in terms of the number of dead. There is a chilling but moving photo collage of the missing that is the last image shown in the film and a fitting memorial for those who died. Django no doubt would have approved.

I don’t think he would have approved of this movie which lacks the passion that he consistently displayed in his music. Certainly the musical sequences are dynamite and there are also some really nice camera shots in the film but overall, you would profit better by downloading some of his songs onto your playlist and giving them a listen.

REASONS TO GO: The music is incredible. Some of the cinematography is spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is surprisingly pallid and uninspiring. The soundtrack could have used some actual recordings of Reinhardt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the fictional novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Battle of the Sexes

Phantasm: Ravager


A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Dawn Cody, Daniel Roebuck, Bill Thornbury, Stephen Jutras, Kathy Lester, Daniel Schweiger, John Johannessen, Ken Jones, Cesare Gagliardoni, Tim Devar, Vinton Heuck, Jonathan Sims, Kyle Shire, Jay Oliva, Gloria Lynne Henry, Cean Okada. Directed by David Hartman

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In many ways, the late 70s and early 80s were a golden age of horror that ranked right up there with the 30s when Universal seemed to release a classic horror movie every other week. Starting In 1978, low-budget indies were cranked out at an astonishing rate; most were in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th, both the 400-lb gorillas of the horror genre of the era, but some were a little bit different.

Phantasm was not a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination; it combines demonic horror, multi-dimensional head-trips and a kind of post-hippie weirdness that created a movie that was both spooky and trippy at once. So what if the mausoleum sets were obviously sets? So what if some of the editing was just a little bit awful? So what if the hot chicks just disappear from the movie without explanation? It didn’t get a lot of love at the box office or even on the home video front, but the love it got was forever, man. The people who got into the whole Phantasm franchise got into it heart and soul supporting it through three additional sequels.

This year has been a godsend for fans of the original. Not only is the original film being re-released with a digital restoration (funded partially by superfan J.J. Abrams) but also the first sequel to the franchise to make it into theaters in 18 years. It will almost certainly be the last, sadly; Angus Scrimm, who played the seminal villain The Tall Man passed away this past January 9th of natural causes at the age of 89. Hopefully he didn’t get sent to an alternate dimension as a misshapen dwarf to be a slave.

Like the original movie, this one is a bit of a mindbender. Reggie (Bannister), the ice cream vendor who has become something of a Rambo-esque warrior battling the machinations of The Tall Man, ends up in several different dimensions; one a post-apocalyptic future in which the Tall Man has won and gigantic spheres monitor the planet, indiscriminately killing anyone whom it seems fit to destroy, and the world is overwhelmed by the yellow-blooded slave-dwarves who resemble Jawas from the Star Wars franchise somewhat.

At the same time, he is in a rest home, infected by a disease released into the world by the Tall Man but in the present. After picking up a beautiful young woman named Dawn (Cody) while out in the desert, he observes her murder at the hands of one of the Tall Man’s silver spheres which uses a fork-like appendage to lock into her forehead, and then a drill spirals into her skull and into her brain. Not cool at all, Tall Man.

Now he is reunited with Michael (Baldwin), the kid brother of Jody (Thornbury) who died in the first movie – except that in the apocalyptic dimension Jody is alive and fighting with Michael and Dawn (who’s alive in that dimension too) against the Tall Man. Reggie seems to be the key to chasing him out of all the dimensions – except that Reggie might just be crazy as a bedbug.

Some of you may have read the synopsis and started to type in a different web address in your browser, but just bear with me for a moment. Yeah, I know it sounds insane and confusing but as you’re watching it things just make a weird kind of sense. Of all the sequels in the franchise, this one comes closest to replicating the out-there vibe of the original and ends up being a little bit of an homage as well as a sequel.

Another thing the movie does incredibly well is capture the 70s horror film vibe that is so very much missing from modern horror films (particularly those of the studio variety) which often feel mass-produced and soulless. Say what you want about the production values (and some of the computer effects are genuinely cringe-inducing), this movie has heart and that counts for something.

Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the most genuinely scary movie villains of all time; I used to have nightmares about him standing in front of an inter-dimensional rift, pointing a finger at me and intoning “BOYYYYYYY!!!” If you’ve seen him do it in any of the five Phantasm films, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. While many horror movie villains these days are creepy, few are as genuinely scary as the Tall Man.

Scrimm still is a force of nature here but the rest of the cast is just adequate, acting-wise. Mostly original writer-director Don Coscarelli hired people he knew and they’ve stuck with him (and he with them) through thick and thin and there’s something to be said for that. They aren’t likely to contend for Oscars anytime soon, but they do the job as well as they’re able and seeing all the familiar faces onscreen evokes a pretty strong sense of nostalgia, for which there is something also to be said. However, I would like to tell these gentlemen those ponytails just look kind of douche-y on men. There are more Brony tails here than there should be in a single movie. It’s just not right.

There are a couple of other obstacles to giving this a much higher score. The ending is a disappointment and there is also a scene involving a horse which is likely to give animal lovers serious nightmares – if you are sensitive to violence to animals, you might want to think twice about seeing this or if you do, have someone with you who can tell you when the scene ends. I’m not particularly a lover of horses but I found the scene kind of wrenching.

If this is to be the final film in the series and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, it’s a fitting send-off. I hope Coscarelli and his crew leave on this high note. I don’t think Scrimm can be replaced, and putting a different villain in will simply call attention to the glaring absence of the REAL Tall Man. I suspect that the movie will be much more meaningful to people of my age group who grew up with the series rather than those discovering it for the first time; while Ravager can probably be watched without seeing the first four movies in the series, I think it will be helpful to at least be familiar with them before seeing this one. Fans of the series will likely be satisfied with this one. And for my money, it’s kind of comforting to know that in fact they can make them like they used to.

REASONS TO GO: The film really captures the vibe of 70s horror films. Scrimm remains one of the iconic horror villains. It ends up being a nice tribute to the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit off-putting. The horse scene may be too disturbing for animal lovers. There are too many “Brony tails” for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of frightening images and gore as well as a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only film in the franchise not directed by Don Coscarelli who remained with the project as a producer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

Anthropoid


Nobody likes a bomb.

Nobody likes a bomb.

(2016) Historical Drama (Bleecker Street) Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Sean Mahon, Bill Milner, Jan Hájek, Pavel Reznicek, Alena Mihulová, Harry Lloyd, Detlef Bothe, Roman Zach, Mish Boyko, Sam Keeley, Ondrej Maly, Marcin Corocinski, Karel Hermánek Jr., Václav Neuzil, Jiri Simek, Andrej Polak, Anna Gerislová. Directed by Sean Ellis

 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are some true stories that are not strange at all, but point out the best that humanity can be – and the worst. Not all of those sorts of stories stay with us for long and indeed this one remains only relatively well-known in Eastern Europe, but it is a story worth the telling.

After the Berlin Accords gave what was then known as Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to be used as fuel for the war machine to come, Prague became an occupied city and the entire region was ruled with an iron fist. Holding that fist was Reinhard Heydrich (Bothe), one of the authors of Hitler’s Final Solution and who would become known as The Butcher of Prague.

The Czech government in exile decided to make a statement and sent a team of paratroopers into the countryside outside Prague who had the mission of assassinating Heydrich. Leading the team was Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), two Czech soldiers. Things went bad from the beginning; Kubis injured his foot while landing and the two resistance fighters who were sent to meet them turned out to be Nazi collaborators. The two soldiers barely escaped with their lives.

They finally found legitimate resistance members in Prague, but the situation there was very chaotic. There was little or no information to be hand; the city was under severe restrictions and people were being rounded up and imprisoned with impunity. There were infiltrators everywhere and knowing whom to trust was no easy task. “Uncle” Hajsky (Jones) was trying to make some sort of organization through all this but most of his men had been arrested. He put up the two paratroopers in the Moravec home whose mother (Mihulová) was a resistance member and their son Ata (Milner) loyal to the cause.

To keep suspicions from being aroused over the new arrivals, girlfriends were supplied; Marie (Le Bon) for Josef and Lenka (Gerislová) for Jan. The deception turned out to be a lot more accurate as the two couples began to actually fall for each other. Wartime can be a great accelerator of romance.

In the repressive atmosphere of Prague, however, getting their mission completed would be no easy task and with little contact with their government and almost no intelligence to go on, the two men had their work cut out for them. What would happen would become one of the greatest instances of heroism to come out of the War and is a source of national pride to the Czechs even to this day.

It is not an easy thing to write a review or a movie that is about actual history; while one doesn’t want to supply spoilers for those who may not be aware of how the story unfolded, at the same time it is difficult to write about the film without giving at least some plot points away. Suffice to say that Ellis and company have given us a movie whose historical accuracy is better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen; that is a double-edged sword however.

The movie does drag in places, particularly in the first half. Once the assassination is attempted, the movie is turbo charged and Ellis delivers some really fine suspense sequences and one of the best shoot-outs since the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Murphy and Dornan are both fine actors and they’re given some exceptional material to work with. Both men are imperfect, neither are superheroes and both have the kinds of doubts and frailties that real heroes must overcome to do extraordinary things.

Those who are aware of the history behind the celluloid are going to view this a lot differently than those who are unfamiliar with the story; even the latter group however may find the sense of things spiraling towards a final conclusion somewhat overwhelming. We all know that the Titanic is going to sink even before we view the movie; how it gets there and who survives is what makes that movie a classic.

As a movie, Anthropoid makes an excellent history lesson. That doesn’t always translate to entertainment however, unless you are entertained by history and fortunately for me, I am. I found the film fascinating and I was moved enough to research the real Operation Anthropoid which is where I discovered that the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the incident quite closely which is something to be admired, although at times they seem to be willing to sacrifice entertainment for accuracy. I think that both could have coexisted better as the last half of the movie clearly shows; had the first half been able to capture the tension of the second this would have been a clear front runner to be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it is slow in getting underway so this will have to remain a solid, historically accurate war film that is flawed but nevertheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Historically accurate and full of gut-wrenching suspense. The performances are strong throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The sense of impending doom is oppressive at times. Slow-moving in the first half of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence here as well as some fairly disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Ata Moravec is tortured was filmed in the same place where it actually happened.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Operation: Daybreak
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Think Twice

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