Lazar


A tearful embrace.

(2015) Crime Drama (108 Media) Vedran Zivolic, Natasha Petrovic, Dejan Lilic, Goran Navojec, Violeta Sapkovska, Krassimira Kuzmanova, Vlado Jovanovski, Alexander Sano, Ivo Zhelev, Toni Mihajlovski, Ivica Mojsovski, Kiril Anastasov, Igor Angelov, Goran Trifunovski, Bereda Reshit, Vladimir Tuliev, Aleksandra Balmazovic, Mitko Apostolovski, Zorica Stojanovska. Directed by Svetozar Ristovski

 

As the world’s filmmakers are beginning to turn out some truly respectable films, sometimes you find some gems from unexpected places. I know nothing about the Macedonian film industry but after having seen this crime drama from that country, perhaps a little more investigation might be in order.

Lazar (Zivolic) is a young man who works for a gruff criminal named Miki (Navojec). Miki makes a lucrative living smuggling illegal aliens from the Middle East into the European Union. Lazar is pretty much his right hand man in this operation, distracting local policemen by speeding past their patrol cars and then putting on a drunken show while the caravan carrying the illegal immigrants moves undisturbed past the place just vacated by the cop.

Lazar makes enough to support his family, but for his brother-in-law Toni (Lilic) there’s also a pride issue involved; he needs to support his own family. Somewhat reluctantly, Lazar gets him a job as a driver for Miki. Lazar, however, isn’t really paying much attention to this; he’s met a vivacious young student named Katerina (Petrovic) and the dead-eyed young criminal is slowly being brought back to life. The two move in together and Lazar decides that the life he’s been leading needs to stop. He wants a normal life with Katerina.

Miki is skeptical when Lazar tells him he wants to go to school and leave the organization but he convinces Lazar to fulfill his obligations until a replacement can be found; maybe Kona (Sano), who seems to be smart and tough enough to handle it. Lazar is getting increasingly unreliable which is making Miki somewhat upset, particularly when it appears that Lazar’s absence could end up costing Miki a very lucrative alliance with a Greek counterpart. Lazar comes up with what seems to be a satisfactory solution, but it leads to a major screw-up that leaves Lazar and Toni in an impossible situation.

I’ve gotta say that Zivolic has the dead-eye look down pat. His character starts off surly and sullen and somewhat unpleasant but as his relationship with Katerina deepens, we begin to see cracks in the tough guy facade. There is an awful lot of posturing to the point of occasional distraction by all the criminal element in the movie but the essence of the story is sound.

The movie has the same kind of vibe as some classic crime dramas from the 80s and 90s, which is a very good thing indeed. I was reminded of gritty thrillers like To Live and Die in L.A. among others, just in tone mind you. The plots are not at all similar.

Ristovski does a lot with a little which is encouraging. The movie isn’t super original in terms of plot but it is nonetheless effective in telling the story and creating a mood. The actors, particularly Zivolic and Petrovic, do some strong work and the romance between Katerina and Lazar is believable, the chemistry genuine.

This is a nice little gem which overcomes an ending that was pretty disappointing but until it gets to that point gives us a surprisingly good time. This might be a little difficult to find; it’s supposed to be on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu but I could find it on none of those services when I went looking for it. Keep an eye out for it however; it should be on a streaming service soon and once it is should be sought out by any crime movie lover with a flair for the global.

REASONS TO GO: The film packs the vibe of an 80s thriller – a very good thing. A pretty decent sense of suspense is developed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few mob/crime movie clichés here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some drug use, a bit of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ristovski also directed Dear Mr. Gacy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Phoenix Forgotten

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

Tomboy


What determines sexual identity?

What determines sexual identity?

(2009) Drama (Rocket/Dada) Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Bouberki, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Lainé, Christel Baras, Valérie Roucher. Directed by Céline Sciamma

Sexuality is a complicated thing, particularly now. Our gender identification itself isn’t always what we’re born with; what really determines who we are sexually is what we feel inside.

Laure (Héran) is the older daughter in a young family that moves into an idyllic French suburb one summer. Her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana) adores her; her father (Demy) is kind and loving, her mother (Cattani) expecting a baby in the fall. It’s a wonderful family environment, the kind we all wish we had and all admire.

Laure wears her hair cropped short and could be taken for a boy. In fact, when one of the neighborhood girls, Lisa (Disson) sees Laure, she does just that. Laure plays along, introducing herself as Mikael (or Mickäel as it is spelled in the credits, although not in the subtitles). At first, it’s mainly so she can play with the boys who seem to be having the most fun.

As the summer wears on, Laure’s deception grows deeper and Lisa and her begin to get closer. Lisa kisses her one afternoon and that just seems to intrigue Laure. She takes great pains to conceal her secret, creating a fake penis to put into her swimsuit to make it appear like she has one. When Jeanne discovers what Laure is up to, she kind of likes the idea of having a big brother to protect her. However, school is approaching and Laure won’t be able to keep her secret forever. But is the truth that Laure is not playing a boy but is one inside?

This is a deceptively simple film that Sciamma wisely leaves very open to interpretation. Some critics and viewers immediately describe Laure as transgender or lesbian, but she just as easily could be experimenting. The thing is, we don’t know for sure because Sciamma deliberately keeps Laure’s thoughts to herself. The point is, it is for Laure to determine her sexual identity, certainly not for us as critics and even not for the viewers, although you will simply because that is our nature to assign roles to people.

Héran is an amazing find as an actress. She’s not so much androgynous as she is a blank canvas and everyone who sees her projects their own interpretation onto that canvas. When she wears a dress, she looks very feminine. When she’s in a wife beater and shorts, she looks very masculine. And for a young actress, she shows an amazing willingness to take chances. She’s the center of the movie and everyone reacts to her; she provides a fine means of delivering emotions and thoughts.

The loving family atmosphere might seem a little bit unrealistic to some; there seems to be absolutely no disharmony early on in the film. We do get an intimate look at the family, not just in a sexual sense (although it is never overtly said, it is clear that husband and wife are very affectionate with each other physically) but just in private moments with one another. We see the family dynamic at work and working well and there’s some comfort in that.

The pacing is slow, like an ideal childhood summer day. Some might find it too slow but that’s part of the movie’s charm; it takes its time to arrive at where it’s going and when it gets there, you get to decide where you are. That’s the genius of European filmmakers is that they don’t feel obliged to spell everything out to their audience; they take it for granted in fact that they’re intelligent enough to fill in their own blanks.

This movie doesn’t take any easy shortcuts; it merely presents the events and lets the audience make the decision as to what they are seeing. Is Laure a transgender? Could be. Is she a lesbian? Could be, too. Is she simply trying to fit into a new neighborhood and got caught in a lie? Also could be. What the movie does is force us to examine our ideas of sexual identity and essentially, our rights to form our own conclusions about who we are sexually. That in itself is a powerful message that is all too rarely delivered in our judgmental society.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performance by Héran. A compelling slice of life that examines sexual identity in a positive way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The very slow pace may put off American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and language as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project came together extraordinarily fast; the script was completed in April 2010, Héran cast less than a month later, and the film was shot in 20 days in August.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.3M on a $1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go, Hulu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Danish Girl
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mustang

Dark Skies


Things that go bump in the night.

Things that go bump in the night.

(2013) Sci-Fi Horror (Dimension) Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L.J. Benet, Rich Hutchman, Myndy Crist, Anne Thurman, Jake Washburn, Ron Ostrow, Tom Costello, Marion Kerr, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Josh Stamberg, Tiffany Jeneen, Brian Stepanek, Judith Moreland, Adam Schneider, Jessica Borden Directed by Scott Stewart

6 Days of Darkness 2015

In one’s home, one feels secure, safe as if locked doors and a deadbolt can keep the outside world at bay. The terrors of the outside world however are insidious and some of them can’t be deterred by a closed door or a security alarm.

Daniel Barrett (Hamilton) is an unemployed architect unable to find a job in a recession-era environment. His wife Lacy (Russell) is a real estate agent in a market when NOBODY is buying houses. They are surviving on her meager income and the bills are rapidly becoming an issue that is affecting their relationship.

Their kids Jesse (Goyo) – the eldest – and Sam (Rockett) – the youngest – are aware that their parents are under some strain but don’t really know why. And then some odd things begin to happen. They find the refrigerator door open and all the vegetables eaten. The canned and packaged food is stacked up in a neat pile on the kitchen table. The chandelier over the table begins projecting strange symbols on the ceiling.

The incidents begin to escalate. Sammy has some kind of seizure during a soccer game. Lacy witnesses hundreds of birds flying into their home and killing themselves. Lacy sees an alien figure standing over Sammy’s bed who disappears when she turns on the light. As the incidents get worse and worse, Lacy does some research and comes up with a single cause – U.F.O.s. She consults an expert (Simmons) who tells them that these cases usually end up in child abduction.

That night, which happens to be the Fourth of July, Daniel and Lacy load up for bear, sealing up their home and awaiting an alien onslaught. But how can you fight an enemy you can’t see – and whose motivations you don’t know?

There have been plenty of alien abduction movies ranging from Communion to The X-Files: Fight the Future. Where does this one stack up on the list? Somewhere in the middle. Director Stewart, whose background is in visual effects, manages to set a great suburban environment where everything is normal – at least normal for this time and place. At first the villains are purely financial – bill collectors and the possibility they might lose their home bring in modern horror we can all relate to.

But as the movie goes on, it slowly begins to come off the rails until it builds to a climax that is to put it mildly disappointing. I can’t stress enough that this is a movie with enormous potential that you watch with a stupefied catatonic expression on your face as it completely blows it.

Keri Russell is a really fine actress and normally she can be relied upon to keep a film centered but here, she – like everyone else in the cast – overacts almost to the point of parody. All the gestures are wild and overbearing; all the dialogue delivered like they’re pronouncements rather than lines. I have never seen a movie in which there was such universal scene chewing as this one, or at least none that I can remember.

The two actors playing the kids – Royo and Rockett – are completely unconvincing and as wooden as a treehouse. I get that having children put in jeopardy is part of the movie’s whole reason to be, but at least make the children believable. I can’t believe they couldn’t find better juvenile actors than these.

The most major failing however is that this sci-fi horror movie isn’t as scary as it could be. For one thing, we never see the aliens clearly. If you’re going to have an alien movie, the least you can do is show us the aliens. And as the ending dives over the cliff of futility, the sense of jeopardy that the director worked so hard to establish disappears entirely. By the end of the movie you’ll be hard-pressed not to check the time.

The first half of the movie is actually pretty terrific and if they’d maintained the momentum they set up, this could have been a horror classic. Instead we get a movie that is a bit of a mess. There are definitely some features worth exploring here but overall this is fairly unsatisfying and despite a decent cast, falters in nearly every important way.

WHY RENT THIS: Establishes a sense of normalcy. Hits close to home.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Abundant overacting. Not scary enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Situations of terror, a fair amount of violence, some sexual material, a little bit of drug use and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dark Skies was also the original title for Sharknado.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.4M on a $3.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Skies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Psychosis


Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

(2010) Horror (EntertainmentOne) Charisma Carpenter, Paul Sculfor, Ricci Harnett, Justin Hawkins, Ty Glaser, Bernard Kay, Richard Raynesford, Sean Chapman, Katrena Rochell, Tom Gaughan, Darren Bransford, Slaine Kelly, Josh Myers, Sarah Briggs, Alexander Ellis, Eileen Pollock, Sybille Gebhardt, Axelle Carolyn, Raven Isis Holt. Directed by Reg Traviss

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Let’s face it: the sooner we admit we don’t understand everything and that the world can’t always be easily explained, the better off we’ll be. There are things we don’t get, and perhaps we never will. The human mind, for example, might just be foremost among them.

Susan Golden (Carpenter) is an author who had a nervous breakdown not long ago but has left the care of her doctor and has been pronounced fit to rejoin society. She’s eager to resume her writing career but has hit a massive case of writer’s block. So what does she do? She and her husband David (Sculfor) find a spooky Victorian mansion in Middleofnowhereshire, England.

Soon she’s hearing noises and seeing a phantom soccer-playing kid on the lawn. The locals think she’s batty and to make things worse, David has become bored with her and is gallivanting around with pretty much any woman in town who’s willing – and there are apparently plenty that are.

She’s also seeing visions of horrific murders happening to people around her that come horrifyingly true. So what’s going on? Is there something sinister going on, maybe even supernatural? After all, there’s an entire prologue in which a group of tree-hugging hippies thousands of miles away get slaughtered by a serial killer in a seemingly random and unrelated incident. Or, has Susan lost it again, only this time with a homicidal edge to her madness? And of course there’s always option number three – Susan is being manipulated by someone with wicked intentions.

I remember Carpenter from the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV shows and she had so much promise. Beautiful and an accomplished actress, the world appeared to be her oyster. Sadly, things haven’t turned out the way I expected. She mostly appears in essentially cameo roles that trade in on her Buffy name value, and occasionally turns up in things like this.

She appears to be just going through the motions here. I’m not sure whether she thinks that “former mental patient” means “emotionally shut off” but I have to tell you – she just doesn’t give the audience much to get behind as plucky heroines go. However, she doesn’t have a terrible amount of support from the rest of the cast either. You wonder if someone sprinkled Valium on all the food from craft services.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some moments with decent scares. The slasher film prologue is actually quite good – I kind of wished they’d followed that road but instead they chose to go the moody psychological horror route and while there is nothing wrong with the latter genre, they just don’t do it as well in this instance.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fairly decent scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prologue looks like it came from an entirely different movie. Wooden acting and stale plot lines.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, some gore and violence and a lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of the horror short Dreamhouse which was released as a feature along with two other shorts and a linking story as Screamtime in 1986.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Innocents

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)


Adeste fideles.

Adeste fideles.

(2006) War Drama (Sony Classics) Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon, Daniel Bruhl, Alex Ferns, Steven Robertson, Bernard Le Coq, Lucas Belvaux, Natalie Dessay, Rolando Villazon, Ian Richardson, Thomas Schmauser, Robin Laing, Suzanne Flon. Directed by Christian Carion

 The Holly and the Quill

We live in an imperfect world, one in which man’s inhumanity to man can be staggering. Yet sometimes when it’s least expected in conditions that would seem to be non-conducive to it, our higher selves show through.

In December 1914, World War I rages in Europe. Trench warfare is at its height which to modern audiences means nothing but picture this; seven to eight foot-deep trenches filled with soldiers and machine gun nests separated by literally the length of a football field under consistent bombardment by artillery shells. Men would be ordered periodically to charge out of one trench to attempt to take another; those that rose out of the trenches would be slaughtered horrifically, often caught by barbed wire where they’d be picked off by snipers or machine gunners. The casualty rates were staggering.

German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Furmann) has volunteered to serve his country in uniform. His wife Anna Sorensen (Kruger), a Danish soprano, has been commissioned to perform for the Crown Prince Wilhelm (Schmauser) and is allowed to bring her husband from the front to perform with her. Sprink, disgusted by the comforts that the generals are enjoying behind the lines, resolves to return to the front to sing for the troops. Anna resolves to go with him which he is less enthusiastic about but eventually gives in.

Brothers William (Laing) and Jonathan (Robertson) enthusiastically enlisted when war broke out because they saw their lives as boring. Father Palmer (Lewis), the parish priest in their small Scottish village, goes with them as a stretcher bearer. During an assault on the German lines, William is mortally wounded and Jonathan must leave him behind to rot in No Man’s Land.

Lt. Audebert (Canet) is the son of a general (Le Coq) who has shown signs of brilliance as a commander in the trenches. He inspires his men who would walk through Hell for him, but he holds inside his own grief at having left his pregnant wife behind, not far from where the men are fighting – but behind German lines. His aide Ponchel (Boon) can almost see the farmhouse where he was raised from the trench he now fights in.

Horstmayer (Bruhl) is in command of the German trench and is Jewish. Following the Allied assault on his trench, he discovers a wallet with the photograph of a lovely woman. It belongs to none of his men and so he deduces that one of the French or Scottish soldiers dropped it during the fighting.

As Christmas Eve deepens, Anna and Nikolaus arrive and begin singing Christmas carols to the German troops. Their lovely harmonious voices carry through the crisp, bitterly cold night air across No Man’s Land to the enemy trenches. Moved by the songs that remind them of the season back home, Scottish pipers accompany the singers. Nikolaus is touched by this and impulsively carries a Christmas tree, one of thousands provided for the German troops by their command, out into No Man’s Land while singing “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful).”

Following his lead, the French, German and Scottish officers also proceed out into No Man’s Land and agree to a one-day cease fire. The men slowly venture out into the cratered field between the lines and exchange chocolate and presents. Horstmayer returns the wallet to Audebert and the two find common ground in their memories of life before the war. Palmer celebrates Mass in Latin on the field which affects the soldiers profoundly.

The next day the soldiers engage in an impromptu soccer match while the officers agree to bury their dead on the day Christ was born. The officers and enlisted men assist each other in creating a field cemetery for their valiant dead. A connection has been made and friendships formed so that when the artillery shelling resumes, the men shelter each other in their trenches.

Of course when word of this remarkable truce filters back to the generals, they are furious and the Germans are mostly sent to the Eastern front. Ponchel, who had snuck back home disguised as a German soldier to visit his family during the cease fire, is shot by Jonathan after being ordered to do so by an officer who was offended by the truce. Before dying, he brings word to Audebert that his wife has given birth to a son.

Nikolaus and Anna, wishing to remain together, ask Audebert to take them prisoner which he does. Father Palmer is ordered back to his parish and the regiment of Scots disbanded in shame. A vitriolic bishop upbraids the troops, ranting about the intrinsic evil of the German people and reminding them that it is their duty to kill them all. Father Palmer, hearing this, removes his rosary in disgust.

The Christmas Eve truce of 1914 actually happened and that it did happen in those circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. While this is a fictionalized account of the cease-fire, many of the incidents depicted here are documented to be true.

The movie’s one mistake is that writer-director Carion takes a story that really needs no embellishment and lays on the sentiment a little too thickly. He is trying to make a point, I believe, about the nature of faith in an atmosphere of cruelty and horror and that point tends to be drilled into the audience ad infinitum until there’s a tendency to say “OK, we get it. Can you please just tell the story now?” Even despite this, France submitted the movie as their entry in the 2007 Academy Awards field for Best Foreign Language Film where it was selected as a finalist although it did not win.

Fortunately, Carion makes a lot of really good decisions. Rather than showing the story from one perspective, he tries to get all three from a microcosmic stretch of trenches. He weaves together the stories of the main participants skillfully not only showing how unique they are but also how similar. This is a more delicate balancing act than you can imagine.

While Kruger is probably the best known actor to American audiences, Canet, Bruhl and Furmann all fare the best in my opinion. They give impassioned performances which I suppose given the background isn’t a hard sell. If they descend into occasional over-sentimentality that is the fault of the script and not so much of the actor.

We often in our zeal to defend our individual nations forget that at the end of the day are all one people who are more alike than un-alike. It is those similarities that bind us together, that give us hope that one day we can stop slaughtering each other and learn to help each other. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream but on this Christmas Day one can’t help but hope that one day it comes to pass. As the events of December 24, 1914 in a war as hellish as any ever experienced in human history proves, we have the capability inside us all to say “enough” and lay down our weapons, even if for only a brief moment.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful story based on actual events. Exceedingly well-acted, particularly by Canet, Bruhl and Furmann.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally schmaltzy and sometimes overly repetitive about its message.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of war violence and a little sexuality with some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The MPAA originally gave the film an “R” rating but when film critic Roger Ebert protested it was eventually reduced to a “PG-13.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with Carion discusses the real 1914 truce, which elements were used for the film and how they were chosen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $22M production budget; the film wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War Horse

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Hyde Park on Hudson

Playing For Keeps (2012)


Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

(2012) Romantic Comedy (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, Noah Lomax, James Tupper, Abella Wyss, Grant Goodman, Grant Collins, Aidan Potter, Marlena Lerner, Iqbal Theba, Emily Somers. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Making a connection with your own child isn’t always easy, particularly when you haven’t been around much. Connecting involves presence, and if you aren’t present, there’s nothing for your kid to connect with.

That’s been the story with George (Butler), once a soccer star in Europe who eventually played in the MLS in its early days but after an ankle injury forced him to retire, George has been struggling to keep it together. He is staying in the Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital – not just because his last team was DC United, but because that’s where his son Lewis (Lomax) lives with his mom Stacie (Biel). George and Stacie were together once but no longer; in fact, we learn early on she’s engaged to marry her new boyfriend Matt (Tupper) who seems to be a much nicer guy than George; certainly he’s more stable.

Thing aren’t going terribly for George in any other facet of his life. He’s broke, would love to be working a sportscasting job but can’t find one to save his life, He lives in the guest house of a wealthy Indian man (Theba) and drives an Alfa Romeo which sounds posh until you realize that it was probably brand new at about the same time Frankie Goes to Hollywood was.

Soccer is really the only connection George has with his son. His son’s coach spends more time on the phone than training his young players (“Kick it with your toes” is about his only advice) and soon George can’t stand it and starts showing the youngsters a few pointers. The kids take to his instruction and soon by parental proclamation George is named the team’s new coach which is just in the nick of time since they haven’t scored a goal all season.

Things start looking up. The soccer moms, cougars all, start throwing themselves at George, among them redheaded Barb (Greer), a recent divorcee who has got a case of the hornies big time, brunette Denise (Zeta-Jones), a single mom who is an ex-sportscaster herself who thinks the way to George’s heart might be through her career connections, and blonde Patti (Thurman), the wife of Carl (Quaid) who is an expansive Texas-style businessman who thinks nothing of loaning George his Ferrari nor using his fame to close a business deal with Brazilian soccer fanatics.

Best of all, Lewis and George are beginning to find some common ground and even Stacie is looking at George in an entirely different light. But this being a Hollywood rom com, that’s just the calm before the storm. George’s sexual escapades begin to catch up with him and just as he’s ready to settle down, ESPN comes a’knockin’. George may have to choose between career and kid.

Muccino made his reputation as the director of the Will Smith hit Pursuit of Happyness and truth be told that was a much better film than this one. This is more or less standard Hollywood romantic comedy fare with few (if any) surprises. What keeps this from pure direct-to-video cheesiness is Butler whose easygoing Scottish charm make the movie. While his character really lacks inertia – things pretty much just happen to him rather than him making them happen – he gets by on a smile and an accent (not to mention a body that made most of the ladies in the auditorium sigh).

His chemistry with Biel is a bit bland to be honest; while I could see his appeal to her, her appeal to him wasn’t as apparent. I would have liked to have seen more fire from Ms. Biel; she’s shown it in plenty of roles so I know she possesses it. It’s just not in evidence here. As a result the romance in the romantic comedy is sorely lacking.

The supporting cast are pretty big name and only Greer really shines among them, although Quaid makes a game try. Quaid has been one of my favorite actors for quite a few years now and this is the sort of role that he excels at. A bit stuffy and a bit unctuous and not necessarily a good guy (although Quaid does good guys pretty well), but a lot of fun to be around.

Unfortunately the movie has more faults than strengths. This is clearly a movie aimed at the female audience but the women in the film are mainly bedroom ornaments for George. If you’re going to appeal to women, you need an appealing woman in the cast. All of the movies in the movie seem to be defined by their relationships with men. That’s not going to make your target audience happy.

Still, Butler is going to make plenty of the target audience happy, particularly in those scenes where his shirt comes off (and there are a few). Ultimately this is pretty disposable but not real offensive, unless predictable plot points offend you. In a holiday movie season where there aren’t a lot of rom com options to choose from, it will fit the bill but it doesn’t really hold up against the better movies of the genre. In short, it ain’t no Sleepless in Seattle.

REASONS TO GO: Gerard Butler is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: No chemistry and no heat. Most of the women in the movie exist to bed Butler. A romantic comedy without romance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit o’ sexiness and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was formerly titled “Playing the Field.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 4% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100. The reviews are pretty pathetic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ugly Truth

SOCCER LOVERS: There’s quite a bit of the Youth game variety but Butler has a few nice moves that he shows off at various times of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

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