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

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12 Years a Slave


Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

(2013) Historical Biography (Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupito Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Isiah Jackson, Dwight Henry, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhane Wallis, Devyn A. Tyler, Willo Jean-Baptiste, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Ashley Dyke. Directed by Steve McQueen

The question we sometimes have to ask about a movie depicting a horrible epoch in human history is why. Why should it be made? After all, it’s not exactly a secret that slavery was a terrible, shameful practice. But do we need to be reminded of that?

I believe that we do. In the same way movies like Schindler’s List reminds us of the holocaust, or Hotel Rwanda reminds us of the horrors of genocide, we need to remind ourselves periodically of the depths of inhumanity that man practices upon other men. We need to be reminded as Nicol Williamson once accurately (albeit bombastically) said in Excalibur that it is the doom of men that they forget.

Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in Saratoga, New York in 1841. While he is a black man, he is nonetheless freed and is well-known as a magnificent violinist but also a hard-working carpenter. His wife Anne (Scott) is highly respected as a great cook. They have beautiful children and as African-Americans in the mid-19th century go, a pretty wonderful life.

Then, he is approached by a couple of men calling themselves Hamilton (Killam) and Brown (McNairy) who represent themselves as entertainers in need of an accompanying musician. They are going as far south as Washington, DC. The money is good and the company congenial so Northup agrees to lend his services.

He awakens in chains in a slave market. Gone are his clothes, his papers identifying him as a free man and even his name – he is to be called Platt now. He is sold by the dealer (Giamatti) to Ford (Cumberbatch) who runs a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans. There he goes with the disconsolate Eliza (Oduye) who has been separated from her children. However, Northup gets into a fight with the cruel and barbarous carpenter Tibeats (Dano) who for some reason has it out for Solomon (possibly because Northup was a better carpenter) and for the safety of his slave and of his plantation, the kindly Ford is forced to sell Platt to the cruel Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who runs a cotton plantation.

Epps expects 200 pounds of cotton to be picked by each one; those who fail are lashed cruelly. The best cotton picker is Patsy (Nyong’o) who does three times what the burly men of the plantation can do. Epps has taken an unhealthy sexual interest in her which infuriates his wife (Paulson) who visits cruelties and mutilations upon Patsy. Solomon for his part is keeping his head down low, making sure nobody knows that he can read and write. When Solomon meets an itinerant Canadian carpenter (Pitt), he knows his last chance to get word to those in the North of his whereabouts may be staring him in the face.

Based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Northup, I’m told the film follows the book pretty closely – McQueen insisted on it. While I can’t personally vouch for that, I can say that this is an incredible story told with as much authenticity as the filmmakers can muster. That this is a British production is somewhat ironic that it takes a foreign eye to shed light on an American disgrace.

There is a good deal of brutality. When slaves get whipped, pieces of flesh fly from their back and the resulting cuts are hideous to behold. It’s not easy to watch but this was the reality of what happened. Too often Hollywood portrays a whipping as a grunting actor, jaw heroically clenched against the pain as lines of red appear on his back. In reality, whippings were horrid affairs with a good deal of screaming and bloodshed. To his credit, McQueen doesn’t turn the eyes of the camera away and we see the brutality in unflinching detail.

Ejiofor has long been one of those actors who has been patiently waiting the right role. He’s finally found his. One of the best actors you’ve never heard of out there, he plays Solomon with dignity, with fear and with humanity. Solomon is a smart guy and occasionally able to manipulate Epps but his own inner fire gets him into trouble sometimes. He is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January and is an early favorite to win it.

Fassbender has been busy of late and might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his layered and nuanced performance as Epps. Certainly Epps is a cruel and vicious master, but he is also henpecked by his wife to a certain degree and a slave to his own lust for Patsy. Epps could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of a plantation owner; yes, there is evil here but it isn’t cartoon evil but the evil that slavery creates in the slaveowners.

Nyong’o is a newcomer but her performance as Patsy may bring her the kind of notice new actresses dream of. Patsy is the face of despair in the film and Nyong’o handles it with a certain dignity that at once is moving and disturbing. When the despair overwhelms her and she begs Platt to end her misery, one wonders how many slaves took that road off the plantations. Probably many more than we realize – when hope is dead, the will to live generally dies with it.

This is a movie that is certain to be considered for Oscar gold this year and is going to make a lot of year-end top ten lists. While it may be considered an education about slavery, I see it more as a metaphor for the continued inhumanity that we enforce on others. The message here isn’t that slavery is  bad; I’m pretty sure we all get that. It’s how we treat each other today and how our ability to enslave others has informed that treatment that makes this movie so important. While I would hesitate to bring small children to see this, I think parents should bring their teens. Opening the eyes of a younger generation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Impeccably acted by Ejiofor and Fassbender. A living breathing testament to the horrors of slavery.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and brutality can be overwhelming at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and scenes of torture and cruelty. There is also some nudity and sexuality, as well as a few graphic images that may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henry and Wallis both co-starred previously in Beasts of the Southern Wild, also distributed by Fox Searchlight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 97/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amistad

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Italian for Beginners

Thin Ice


Thin Ice

Greg Kinnear and Billy Crudup wonder why they couldn't find a movie that is set in Aruba.

(2011) Thriller (ATO) Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Jennifer M. Edwards, Peter Thoemke, Bob Balaban, James Detmar, Michelle Hutchison, Peter Moore, Michael Paul Levin, Michelle Arthur, Alan Johnson, Chris Carlson. Directed by Jill Sprecher

 

There is nothing warmer than the human heart. There is also nothing colder – even the Wisconsin winter pales in comparison. Greed and desperation can make of even the kindest of hearts one made stone and frozen, allowing nothing in and nothing to leave.

Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and sells insurance. On the surface an amiable, trustworthy fellow, he is a predator in reality, preying on the fears of people to sell them policies that for the most part they don’t need and can’t afford. However, business is bad these days; Mickey needs the appearance of success and so drives an expensive car and wears nice suits. However, his bills are piling up and he is deep in debt. His wife (Thompson) has thrown him out – which he frankly deserves – and his secretary (Edwards) is getting fed up as well.

Mickey meets even more amiable Bob Egan (Harbour) at an insurance conference and in order to keep the earnest young man from his biggest competitor hires him on as an agent, even though he hasn’t been licensed by the state of Wisconsin just yet. That’s okay – the policies can be turned in under Mickey’s name and Mickey will pay him once the company pays Mickey his share. Right.

Bob brings Gorvy Hauer (Arkin) to Mickey’s attention and Mickey is at first not interested – the old man is in the beginning states of dementia and doesn’t have much money to his name. What he does have is a rare violin, one worth $25,000 according to the appraiser (Balaban) but Gorvy thinks it is a toy for him to play with his dog.

Mickey can’t resist – he needs the money desperately and the old man won’t miss the money. However, there is a fly in the ointment – Randy (Crudup), who is installing the alarm system that Bob is advising Gorvy to put in, gets wind of what Mickey’s up to. When meddling neighbor Frank (Thoemke) discovers something fishy going on, Randy panics and suddenly Mickey is in the middle of a real mess.

This is the kind of suspense movie worthy of the Coen Brothers; just a little bit offbeat, lots of twists and turns but always with a nice gotcha at the end. However, this is also not quite in that league and it’s really hard to pin it on the director. As I mention below in the Trivial Pursuits section, distributors ATO got together with some of the producers and ordered that the film be re-cut which Sprecher refused to do. The movie was then re-cut using outtakes, the voice-over narration was removed and various subplots and characters were cut from the film. Sprecher has sent letters to prominent film critics (including Roger Ebert) to let them know the situation and to divorce herself from the movie. She is unable to comment further for legal reasons; however it must be said that she doesn’t consider Thin Ice to be her own work.

That makes it kind of difficult to assign credit and blame as the case may be. My gumption is to credit Sprecher for most of the things that work and blame the producers for those that didn’t. Strictly speaking that may not be fair but it is human nature to take the side of the person who did the work and had the vision against those whose only goal was to make money rather than necessarily make the best movie possible. How do I know that the producers weren’t trying to make a better movie?

Simple. The film was screened in its original director cut version at Sundance and received raves. Since its limited release in this edited version, the reviews have been lukewarm. However, I must say that if that’s the case, the original cut must have been special indeed because I really like this movie a lot.

Kinnear excels at these sorts of roles, the ordinary Joe with a bit of an edge to him. Mickey is a congenital liar who’s always looking for the angle that benefits him most. Ostensibly he is in love with his wife but for the most part treats her like a possession or a status symbol – you never get the sense he needs to be with her so much as wants to.

Crudup plays the volatile Randy nicely, giving him the right edge of kicked puppy to go with the volcanic temper. Randy puts Mickey off-balance and the audience as well. Arkin has some tender moments having to do with his dog that are heart-rending. No matter how good or bad the material, Arkin always finds a way to elevate it.

It’s no surprise given the history of the movie that the pacing is irregular. Sometimes the movie goes at a snail’s pace and other times it races along willy-nilly. This has a jarring effect on the audience; I would have liked to see something a bit smoother.

There are plenty of Hitchcockian twists here and the final one is of the sort that makes you want to see the movie a second time knowing what you know about what really happened. Some of the twists aren’t too hard to figure out but others do take you unawares. That’s always a lovely surprise in movies of this sort.

I have to wonder what might have happened had we been allowed to see this the way the original director intended us to. Would it have been a better film? Did the producers make the right call? I doubt we’ll ever know – when it makes it to home video it is unlikely the original directors cut will ever see the light of day, given the contentious relationship with the filmmakers and the distributor. I find it somewhat ironic that the initials of the distribution company, ATO, stands for “Artists Take Over.” Certainly that’s not what happened in this case.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty twists and turns. Kinnear knows this role as well as anybody. Arkin and Crudup also do stellar work.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems choppy and rushed in places.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of bad language, a bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After rave reviews at its 2011 Sundance appearance, the distributor demanded massive re-cuts and a title change (from The Convincer); the director has since disassociated herself from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo

ICE FISHING LOVERS: There’s a sequence early on in which Randy discusses the sport with Mickey, ending up with Randy attempting to drill a hole in the ice – unsuccessfully.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Mirror, Mirror

The Karate Kid (2010)


The Karate Kid (2010)

Jackie Chan explains to Jaden Smith why his forearm isn't as long as the Great Wall of China.

(Columbia) Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Rongguang Yu, Zhenwei Wang, Han Wenwen, Shijia Lu, Luke Carberry. Directed by Harold Zwart

Relocating to a different place, particularly one with a vastly different culture, carries with it inherent feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings can be exacerbated if you’re the victim of bullying.

Dre Parker (Smith) has seen his world turned upside down. First, his father dies. Now, his mom (Henson) is being transferred by the auto manufacturer she works for in Detroit to their new plant in Beijing, China. All Dre knows is that he has been ripped away from everything he knows and cares about to live in a strange new place where nobody speaks English, the food is weird and funny, terrible smells waft about at any given moment.

Initially he finds some solace in the violin prodigy Meiying (Wenwen) who actually does speak English, and the lone Western friend Harry (Carberry) that he finds in his apartment complex. However, his relationship with Meiying attracts the attention of Cheng (Wang), the school bully who happens to be the best Kung Fu student in the class of Master Li (Yu), a brutal sort who believes that Kung Fu is meant to be the means not only to victory but complete annihilation.

The beatings that Dre gets from Cheng and his gang become progressively worse until what appears to be the beatdown to end all beatdowns is interrupted by the taciturn handyman Mr. Han (Chan) who as it turns out is a Kung Fu master. At first, Han is reluctant to train Dre but when Han is backed into a corner by Master Li, he agrees to train Dre for the open Kung Fu tournament that is coming up soon.

Dre’s attitude is not the easiest to get along with and both his mom and Mr. Han are frustrated with him but as Dre learns to let go of his preconceptions and find his inner stillness, Dre undergoes a metamorphosis from a scared little boy into a strong, courageous young man.

The movie is based on the 1984 film of the same name, with Chan taking on the Oscar-nominated role that Pat Morita made into an icon, and Smith assuming the mantle left by Ralph Macchio. In many ways, the movie is almost a reverent remake of the first film; while not note-for-note, it certainly captures most of the main highlights of the movie and references them sometimes obliquely but usually in a pretty straightforward manner.

Chan has made a career of being a bit of a clown; while nobody can doubt his martial arts skills, he has always played characters on the light side, with a healthy dose of self-kidding. This is far from those kinds of characters, as Mr. Han has a dark secret that haunts him which gets released with some prodding from Dre. There is a scene in a car midway through the movie which is as impressive as any work that Chan has ever done.

Director Zwart also makes good use of the Chinese landscape, with beautiful vistas of mountains, lakes, as well as magnificent shots of iconic locations like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. China is a gorgeous country (having seen it firsthand only a month ago), and it is certainly one of the selling points for the film. Da Queen was particularly nostalgic about a scene set in a Beijing hutong, a specific type of alleyway where there are groups of traditional courtyard houses and is one of the most charming aspects of Beijing life.

Jaden Smith, so good in The Pursuit of Happyness is somewhat inconsistent here.  He has some moments that resonate emotionally in a realistic way, and then others that don’t ring as true. Da Queen thought more highly of him than I did; she seems to think he has a very bright future ahead of him and honestly, I don’t see why not either.

Kids seem to like this movie a great deal, and there’s good reason for that. Jaden is pretty appealing in most of the movie and the Kung Fu is pretty spectacular for those who haven’t seen some of the better examples of Chinese martial arts movies. The ending, while predictable, has a nice little twist in a nod to the original film and you’ll definitely leave the theater with a good feeling inside. One can’t fault a movie for accomplishing that alone; those expecting more may wind up disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming in its own way with a particularly strong performance from Chan. Beautiful cinematography of Chinese locations and monuments.

REASONS TO STAY: Smith’s performance is a bit uneven and those who saw the first film are going to feel a sense of déjà vu.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty intense scenes of bullying and violence and a couple of bad words, but all in all most audiences should be okay with it, and it certainly would make a good jumping off point for conversations with the kids about bullying.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene of the woman mesmerizing the cobra on the dragon statue while in the crane position is a tribute to the original film, in which Ralph Macchio defeats the Cobra Kai with a move from the crane position.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas of China are amazing and should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Blind Date (2009)