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

Advertisements

Jupiter Ascending


Star-crossed lovers...literally.

Star-crossed lovers…literally.

(2015) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Hogg, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D’Arcy, Jeremy Swift, Vanessa Kirby. Directed by the Wachowskis

The vastness of space seems to lend itself to stories that are epic. After all, a character study seems to lose focus when confronted with the vast nature of the cosmos. That doesn’t mean, however, that science fiction doesn’t have room for well-developed characters.

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is living a life that she probably wouldn’t have chosen for herself. A house cleaner with relatives on her mother’s (Kennedy) side, she was born in mid-Atlantic after her mother fled Russia on the occasion of the murder of her husband (D’Arcy) – an astronomer studying in Russia – by Russian criminals.

She wakes up before dawn and spends most of her time wondering if this is all there is. When a particularly enterprising cousin urges her to sell her eggs for the money she needs to buy a telescope, something that would be a precious legacy from her ad, she goes for it. But for some strange reason, the surgical team wants to kill her. And they would have, too, if not for the intervention of Caine Wise (Tatum).

Wise, a genetically spliced humanoid of both human and canine genes, is a bred warrior who wears gravity boots that allow him to soar in an approximation of flight, although he has to move like a demented speed skater in order to use them properly. He takes Jupiter to the home of Stinger (Bean), likewise a spliced warrior sort and there Jupiter learns the truth; her genes are an exact match for the matriarch of an enormously wealthy and powerful family. They own whole planets that have been seeded with humanoids, using the genetic material once harvested to extend the lives of the very wealthy (like themselves). Three of the matriarch’s children – eldest son Balem (Redmayne) who owns the Earth and seems slightly psychotic, middle son Titus (Booth) who is something of a playboy, and youngest daughter Kalique (Middleton) who is ambitious, are all plotting to gain control of Jupiter with Balem wanting to kill her altogether because she, as the genetic duplicate of his mother, would receive the rights to all of the children’s fortunes.

This is all a bit much for Jupiter and if she feels like a pawn in an enormous game, well, that’s just because she is. However, Jupiter isn’t the frightened weakling the Abrasax family seems to think she is and before long, with Caine by her side and the support of the galactic police force, she may yet see this through. However, the Abrasax heirs with the stakes so high won’t play by any particular set of rules.

The Wachowskis who made their reputation on creating a world familiar and yet not in the Matrix trilogy, have attempted to create a detailed and lush environment on a gigantic planet, with a budget said to be in the $165 million range. There is a whole lot of that on the screen, because the special effects here are as good as any you’ll see this year and likely to get a nomination for next year’s Oscars although they’ll have to compete with the new Star Wars episode in that category. Bummer.

The problem here is that the story is so complicated and there is so much back stabbing and about facing going on that it’s hard to follow along. While you’re attempting to follow along you’re also treated to visuals that are so incredible and detailed that it’s really hard to take it in. This is a movie that’s built for repeated viewings.

The performances run the gamut. Tatum, who has matured into a pretty decent actor with a great deal of potential ahead after being somewhat wooden at the beginning of his career, helps make this film enjoyable. Caine is often mystified by the behavior of others and while he is quick with the “your majesty” and deference, he also is quite willing to take a chunk out of an entitled jerkwad if the occasion calls for it. Kunis is also quite the capable actress but here she’s a bit frustrating. She is definitely a damsel in distress here, not projecting much strength or wisdom on her own; she has these incredible genes that apparently the galaxy has been searching for but no genetic gifts. While I understand she was raised in the working class as a housekeeper (and why doesn’t she have a Russian accent like the rest of her family?) there should be something else there, don’t you think? This is where the character development thing comes in handy.

Redmayne, who is in the running for an Oscar this weekend, plays this role like he won the part in a reality show. It’s truly mystifying because we’re all aware what a terrific actor he can be, but he speaks in such a murmur it’s often difficult to make out what he’s saying, before erupting into Pacino-like shouts whenever his character gets frustrated. If it’s meant to convey that Belem is psychotic, well, yeah but psychotic in an “I eat spiders” kind of way rather than as a devious, dangerous villain. More like a petulant child. “The Earth is mine,” he says at one point and I half expected him to stomp his feet and shriek “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

Enormous space craft cruise majestically through space and there is that epic quality to the movie that I think is intentional, but there is also kind of a glacial quality that I think is not. Yes, there are some pretty good action sequences (including a chase sequence near the beginning of the film set in Chicago) but the kinetics of those sequences don’t continue throughout the movie; the momentum that is built up by the action just falls to the floor like a dead fish.

I really wanted to like this film. Heck, I really wanted to love this film – I respect the Wachowskis as film makers and have admired their films from the beginning of their career back in Bound and even including Cloud Atlas which didn’t receive a lot of love from critics and audience alike but I thought was one of the top movies of 2012 although in the interest of full disclosure, I was much more a fan of the sequences directed by Tom Tykwer than I was of those directed by the Wachowskis.

This will not make my list of top films this year, although it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s just an intimidating one, full of sound and fury but I’m not quite sure what was signified here. It’s not nothing, though. That I can tell you for sure.

REASONS TO GO: State-of-the-art eye candy. Tatum manages to perform well in a goofy role.
REASONS TO STAY: Head-scratching performance by Oscar-nominated Redmayne. Convoluted story.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence and space battle action, some sexually suggestive content and some partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally supposed to be released on June 20, 2014 but was delayed eight months so that the special effects could get more time and detail in post production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicles of Riddick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingsman: The Secret Service

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

The Queen


The Queen

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip feel the love.

(2006) Drama  (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas Reith, Robin Soans, Mark Bazeley, Earl Cameron, John McGlyn, Lola Peploe, Pat Laffan. Directed by Stephen Frears

Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of the most public figures of the last half-century, but how little we know her. For most of us, she is this cold, unemotional creature more or a figure than a real person. Few have been allowed inside the inner sanctum of her heart.

One of the most emotional weeks in recent British history was the week following the untimely death of Diana, the former Princess of Wales in 1997. Tony Blair (Sheen) had just been elected Prime Minister and had met, along with his bemused wife Cherie (McCrory),  with Queen Elizabeth (Mirren) just prior for the royal family’s departure to their summer estate at Balmoral in Scotland. It was there that they were given the awful news of the car accident in Paris and anxiously watched the BBC through the night like the rest of us until the final word was received. 

Elizabeth’s first thought was to Diana’s sons, Harry and William, who were understandably devastated. She had been trained to treat the tragedy as a private matter for the family, with dignity and public stoicism befitting the monarch of the realm, a decision supported by her husband Prince Phillip (Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Syms). However, Blair, who was the first to publicly speak about the tragedy, was disturbed to find that there was increasing sentiment that the British people wanted – needed – to hear their monarch speak on the issue, whereas the Royal family were loathe to do so, resisting more the harder he pushed. Prince Charles (Jennings), the ex-husband of Diana, was somewhat weak but still understood what was happening politically. Nonetheless, the family stayed in Balmoral in seclusion until Blair had to demand that the Queen return to London to be with her subjects. There she would at last be forced to address the issue and allow her subjects to publically grieve with her, one of the most extraordinary turn of events in recent British history. 

There are some terrific performances here, particularly Mirren who once again turns in an Oscar-caliber performance as Elizabeth. She’s been nominated twice for a Supporting Actress (in 1995 and again in 2002) but this would be the movie that finally got her the statuette. She portrays Elizabeth as a stoic, highly private person who is slow to realize that the world has changed and her role as monarch needed to change with it. She captures the queen’s mannerisms nicely, and breathes life into a personage that is somewhat two-dimensional, at least here in America. In the end, she adapts to her new role with admirable graciousness which seems to be in character with the woman Mirren was portraying. 

Cromwell does a terrific job as Phillip, playing him as a cantankerous and stuffy aristocrat whose belief in the rightness of his cause blinds him to the damage he is doing to his own position. In many ways his portrayal is exactly the way most Americans see the aristocracy of Europe as somewhat prissy, arrogant and bone-headed, refusing to enter the 21st century even as time has passed their sort by. Whether or not this is accurate is subject to debate; however, many Americans share this view which has been reinforced often in films and television.

Sheen is sympathetic as Blair, who is at first in awe of the Royals, then grows frustrated by them and at last comes to admire them. Blair – who would have his own fall from grace later in his career – was then the fair-haired boy of British politics (the Hugh Grant character in Love Actually was modeled on him somewhat) and his actions during the crisis of Diana’s death cemented him in the hearts of the British people for years. Sheen captures Blair’s political savvy and his somewhat awkward self-consciousness in the presence of the Royals. Much of the movie is seen through his eyes, and quite frankly it’s an effective way of acting as an audience surrogate.

Frears gives us what feels like a real glimpse into the royal household, albeit one that is largely conjecture. For example, there is a sequence involving Elizabeth’s encounter with a magnificent buck in the countryside at Balmoral which follows her most emotional scene of the movie. It is lit in almost a heavenly manner, and one gets the feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if anything of the sort ever happened, and if it did, well, the Queen isn’t talking. Then again, perhaps this movie is talking for her. Mirren’s performance elevates it from what could have been movie-of-the-week territory to something more splendid.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare glimpse into the Royal household, even if much of it is conjecture. An Oscar-winning career-defining performance by Mirren, as well as solid performances by Cromwell and Sheen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit on the slow side, pacing-wise.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of strong language and a disturbing image of a dead buck.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mirren had so inhabited the role of the Queen that by the end of the shoot, slouching crew members would often stand at attention and hold their hands respectfully behind their backs when addressing Mirren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While commentary tracks are standard with nearly every DVD and Blu-Ray these days, there is one here by monarchy expert and British historian Robert Lacey that provides a great deal of illumination not only to the traditions of the royal family but also to what happened during tht week in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $123.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Source Code