Loving Vincent


But is it art?

(2017) Animated Feature (Good Deed) Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, James Green, Bill Thomas, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Josh Burdett, John Sessions, Joe Stuckey, Piotr Pamula, Kamila Dyoubari . Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

 

As a painter, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the world’s most influential, creating works that remain iconic to this day – most of us have seen at least pictures of some of his work. As a person, Vincent Van Gogh was an enigma; beset by mental and emotional issues throughout his life (there are some experts who believe he was bipolar) that led to him shooting himself fatally at age 30 in 1890. He remains a mystery to many, producing over 800 paintings in the last 10 years of his life and then abruptly choosing suicide.

Armand Roulin (Booth) is a roustabout, a ne’er do well who is the son of Joseph Roulin (O’Dowd), the postmaster of Arles where Van Gogh lived and a friend to the Dutch painter. Joseph has come into possession of a letter that Vincent (Gulaczyk) wrote to his beloved brother Theo (Pamula) near the end of his life. It is 1891 and Van Gogh has been dead for a year. Joseph has tasked his son with the job of delivering the letter from the late master to his brother in Paris, only when Armand gets there he is unable to locate Theo. He goes to Vincent’s art supply dealer Pere Tanguy (Sessions) who informs him that Theo has followed Vincent into the hereafter. Armand then decides that in lieu of delivering the letter to Theo he will deliver it instead to Theo’s wife Johanna. Tanguy doesn’t know where she is living but suggests contacting Dr. Gachet (Flynn) in Auvers who treated Vincent in the last months of his life and was with him when he died.

Roulin travels to Auvers only to find that the good Doctor is out of town. He decides to stay at the same inn and pub where Vincent stayed; the kindly innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux (Tomlinson) who remembered the painter quite fondly puts him up in the very room where Vincent lived and died. Armand sets out while he waits for the doctor to return with talking with various townspeople about the painter, from the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Ronan), his housekeeper (McCrory), a boatman (Flynn) and the local policeman (Herdman). The more Armand interviews the people who knew Van Gogh the more murky his death becomes. Was it really suicide, as the painter himself confessed to on his deathbed? Or was it something else?

First off, this movie is a remarkable achievement in animation. The filmmakers started by filming the actors against green screen, then utilized more than 100 artists to create each frame as an oil painting in the style of Van Gogh (inserting actual paintings of the master in various places more than 40 of them – see if you can spot them all) which came out to about approximately 65,000 paintings all told. In a way, we’re getting a view inside Van Gogh’s head and coming about as close as we will ever get to seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes.

The voice acting can be stiff and stuffy at times, but unlike a lot of reviewers I found the story compelling. There is a bit of a mystery to the death of Van Gogh, particularly in light of a 2011 biography that questions the official account of his death and hints that he may have been the victim of an accidental shooting and that he insisted it was suicide to protect the person who shot him. There are certainly some compelling reasons to think it, mainly based on the angle of the shot that mortally wounded the painter. Most suicides put the gun to their head; most don’t kill themselves by shooting themselves in the stomach which is an exceedingly painful way to go. The angle of the wound also suggests a trajectory that would have made it physically unlikely that Van Gogh shot himself although it was possible.

That said, most scholars today agree that this new theory is less likely than suicide and while the filmmakers here seem to lean in the direction of homicide, it at least gives us a bit of a gateway into examining the painter’s works, particularly in the last months of his life. While the movie seems preoccupied with Van Gogh’s death more than his life – something in which Adeline Ravoux actually scolds Armand about during the film – there is no doubt that the filmmakers hold his work in great reverence.

And that’s really the beauty of the film. It brings the world of Van Gogh to life, gives it depth and meaning in ways that most of us could never do on our own. It will hopefully give some folks the impetus to take a closer look at his work and his life; it did me for sure. Spending so much time trying to make sense of his death may give the movie a bit of a morbid tinge but that doesn’t detract at all from the overall beauty that Van Gogh created – and the filmmakers re-created with such obvious love. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on the shortlist for the Best Animated Feature Oscar for next year.

REASONS TO GO: The technique is startling and brilliant. The use of Van Gogh’s paintings is clever. The story is compelling. The end credits are extremely well done. The film will likely motivate you to explore Van Gogh, his life and his work.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems more concerned with Van Gogh’s death than with his life. Some of the voice acting is a little stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly mature; there’s also some violence, a bit of sexuality and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each one of the film’s more than 65,000 frames were hand-painted using similar techniques to what Van Gogh actually used. It took a team of more than 125 artists more than seven years to complete the massive task.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Painting (Le tableau)
FINAL RATING: 8..5/10
NEXT:
Clarity

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Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait

The Sense of an Ending


Jim Broadbent may be stalking YOU.

(2017) Romance (CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter White, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Andrew Buckley, Karina Hernandez, Nick Mohammed, Charles Furness, Guy Paul, Alexa Davies, Dorothy Duffy, Kelly Price. Directed by Ritesh Batra

 

Our memories are in many ways what shape us; they are the filter of our experiences and our means of recalling the important things in our lives both positive and negative. As any police detective will tell you however memory is notoriously unreliable; we have a tendency to bury the unpleasant ones and often change facts to suit our world view. Confronted with the things that actually happened to us, our memories can turn out to be a fragile, ephemeral thing.

Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired and spends his days running a used camera shop in London, one of those delightful niche shops that give London character. He is a bit of a curmudgeon who compared to most shopkeepers doesn’t really want to be bothered by actual customers; they tend to throw a monkey wrench into his carefully organized existence which he protects like a mama bear with her cubs. He has an existence largely removed from the world and that’s very much by choice.

He is essentially a jovial sort on the surface but a bit of a dodderer, enough to be the source of rolling eyes for his barrister ex-wife Margaret (Walter) and his pregnant lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery) who is preparing to embark on single motherhood. Both feel genuine affection for the man (Margaret keeping his last name even though they’re long divorced) but he can be exasperating at times.

Then he gets a letter from a solicitor announcing that the mother (Mortimer) of an ex-girlfriend has passed away, bequeathing to him a small sum of money and more important to Tony, the diary of his ex-friend Adrian (Alwyn). He is reminded of his college days when he (Howle) and Veronica (Mavor) were a thing and Adrian was his closest friend and a person he looked up to with almost a sense of hero-worship. However when Veronica ends up dumping Tony in favor of Adrian, the young Tony writes a poisoned pen letter to the both of them that ends up with tragic consequences.

Now the aged Veronica (Rampling) isn’t willing to part with the diary and Tony isn’t willing to let it lie on general principles (“She willed it to me. It belongs to me” he whines) and  so he pursues legal recourse but possession is nine tenths of the law and in any case no constable is going to force a grieving daughter to give up a diary that she doesn’t want to. Without other recourse, Tony decides to take matters into his own hands and starts stalking Veronica and discovers that what happened in his past isn’t exactly what he thought happened and his own role in events was not what he remembered.

Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, this is directed at a somewhat stately pace by Batra who has also helmed the excellent The Lunchbox. In some ways this has a Merchant-Ivory vibe to it, not necessarily because some of it is set in the past but more the literary feel to the film as well as content that appeals to a more mature, thinking person’s audience.

The smartest thing Batra did was casting Jim Broadbent. One of the most reliable actors of our time, Broadbent – who has an Oscar nomination on his resumé – is given a complex character to work with and to his credit gives that character further dimension. Tony has a heavy streak of self-deception in his nature and Broadbent humanizes that aspect of the part. When confronted with his behavior, I do believe Tony doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong and he is surprised when others think so. He simply doesn’t understand why Veronica behaves towards him as she does. He may not even realize that he opened a second-hand camera shop due to her influence (she was a photographer when he met her and her love for Leica cameras stayed with him to this very day) although I suspect he does.

Rampling is fresh off an Oscar nomination of her own and while this is a much different role for her, she reminds us what a capable actress she always has been and continues to impress with roles that in lesser hands might have ended up being one-dimensional or at least possessed of less depth. Veronica has been visited by tragedy that Tony simply doesn’t understand and it has haunted her the remainder of her days.

The movie won’t appeal much to those looking for escape or for those who may lack the seasoning to appreciate the movies nuance. In my own taste I don’t think there is such a thing but I have to say that it may be too nuanced for some. While I generally recommend reading a book to watching a movie in most cases, this has a very literary feel that I find refreshing in a day and age when movies tend to rely more on CGI and star power.

The film is a bit flawed in the sense that its twist is heavily telegraphed although to be fair the book this is based on is told chronologically so in a sense that follows the book as well although the movie relies on flashbacks more so than the book. What makes the movie worth seeing is the character study particularly of Tony; Broadbent gives us plenty of meat to chew on from that standpoint.

Definitely if you are in the mood for a mindless blockbuster this isn’t where you want to go but if you are in the mood to have something appeal to your intellect, if you want a slice of English life or if you just want to watch some fine acting this is a pretty good selection in that category. It’s definitely flawed but Broadbent and Rampling are both so wonderful that they make even a flawed movie seem like great art.

REASONS TO GO: Broadbent and Rampling deliver strong performances as you might expect.
REASONS TO STAY: This is probably not for younger audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as an image of violence, a bit of sexuality and mature thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer and Goode were previously featured together in Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Six Rounds

Frantz


Pierre Niney enjoys the scent of a woman.

(2016) Romantic Drama (Music Box) Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair, Alice de Lencquesaing, Axel Wandtke, Rainer Egger, Rainer Silberschneider, Merlin Rose, Ralf Dittrich, Michael Witte, Lutz Blochberger, Jeanne Ferron, Torsten Michaelis, Étienne Ménard, Claire Martin, Camille Grandville. Directed by François Ozon

 

One of the facts of war is that it causes young people to die. While politicians, war profiteers and hawks tend to accept this as acceptable damage, those families whose loved ones are slain are left devastated, picking up the pieces.

Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Stötzner) is grieving the loss of his son Frantz (von Lucke) in the Great War, which has been over for a year now. He continues to practice medicine as the sole physician in a small German town, but his heart has been ripped out of his body. So too for his wife Magda (Gruber) who has buried her child that should have outlived her.

Perhaps it is worst for Anna (Beer), the fiancée of Frantz. With no family of her own, she has been unofficially adopted by Frantz’s parents, taking care of them and assuaging their grief. She also makes daily walks to the graveyard where Frantz’s headstone is; his actual body was buried in France where he fell.

One day she notices fresh flowers on the grave that she didn’t place there. She learns that it was a foreigner that put them there. A few days later, she sees the young man at the grave. She talks to him and learns his name is Adrien (Niney) and he was a friend of Frantz before the war when Frantz studied music in Paris.

Dr. Hoffmeister is initially cold to the visitor who is French; it was a French soldier that killed Frantz and the good Doctor essentially blames all of France for his son’s death. However, Adrien’s obvious grief and his quiet regard for his friend win the family over, culminating in Adrien playing the violin for the family, although it proves to be too much for him.

An attraction and later affection begins to develop between Anna and Adrien, much to the chagrin of Kreutz (von Bülow) who is interested in taking Anna as his own wife. Adrien’s appearance however has stirred up some anti-French sentiment in the village which is somewhat understandable as it was to their minds the French who decimated the young men from the town. Dr. Hoffmeister chides some of those feeling that way, speaking to his own guilt at urging his son to enlist in a patriotic fervor. The fathers, he opined, were guilty of putting the bayonets in the hands of children and were responsible when they weren’t enough to protect them from the mortars and machine guns that tore the German soldiers to shreds in the trenches.

But Adrien does carry a secret of his own and when at last he feels that he must confess it to Anna, he retreats home leaving her and her foster parents devastated. At length she decides to pursue Adrien to Paris but what she finds there isn’t exactly what she expected.

Ozon is one of France’s premiere directors but his latest film has sharply divided critics. Some believe this is among his very best efforts; others see it as one of his worst and still a few think it’s somewhere in between. For my own part, I think that the movie hearkens back to movies of the silent era; the black and white images take on an almost sinister aura but Ozon adds color for certain sequences, mostly flashbacks but also moments when (particularly) Anna is feeling some hope for the future, as when she watches Adrien go swimming in a local river in an idyllic setting. It’s not quite Technicolor however but more of a pastel tone that you might get from colorization or from early color cinematography in the 20s and early 30s. This does a tremendous job of establishing the era. I found it reminiscent of the work of Fritz Lang and other directors from Weimar Germany.

Beer is lustrous here and does a terrific job in taking Anna from grief-stricken and numb to hopeful and ready to move on with her life. There’s a lot of depth in her performance and I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of her in the future. Likewise, Niney adds an underpinning of melancholy to Adrien which we at first attribute to his grief at the death of his friend but eventually realize is something else entirely.

The source material was virulently anti-war and so is this but in a more subtle manner. The movie looks at the prejudices that drive us to war and also at the consequences and devastation that war brings, both in a physical sense as well as emotional. During a train trip, we see entire towns that have been obliterated by the war. Even the small town in which Anna lives is not untouched; the few young men who can be seen are terribly maimed and disfigured.

While the color makes an impression, it also has the effect of distracting the viewer and taking them out of the movie a little bit. The movie drags a little bit and could have been a bit shorter, I wouldn’t call this one of the director’s masterworks but it is a strong film nonetheless and worth seeing. I wouldn’t be surprised if you too were transported to a bygone era just as I was.

REASONS TO GO: Ozon resurrects a sort of Fritz Lang vibe. Strong performances by Beer and Niney help make the movie believable.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of color in the mainly black and white film is occasionally jarring and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence essentially in one scene as well as some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ozon based the movie on the Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullabye.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Years of Our Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Tommy’s Honour

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw