Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

Séraphine


Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water...

Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water…

(2008) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviéve Mnich, Adélaide Leroux, Nico Rogner, Franҫoise Lebrun, Héléne Hardouin, Serge Lariviére, Léna Bréban, Sandrine Bodenes, Muriel Riou, Dominique Pozzetto, Josette Ménard, Xavier Pottier, Jean-Pascal Abribat, Anne Benoit. Directed by Martin Provost

 

This is a film about the French artist Séraphine Louis (Moreau), a doughty housekeeper by day who painted miraculous works of art by night. She believed herself to be instructed by angels to paint and she was indeed self-taught. Her work caught the eye of German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur) who had also discovered Rousseau; he helped bring her work into the public eye and sold some of her paintings but her delusions eventually caught up with her and she would pass away in a French asylum in 1942. The movie is mainly about the years in which most of her painting was done, and depicts little of her early years, showing instead her abject poverty and her connection to the trees and flowers.

Moreau is brilliant here; she is one of the greatest actresses to ever come out of Belgium and this is one of her best performances; the film is worth seeking out for that alone. It is also beautiful to look at as cinematographer Laurent Brunet uses Louis’ own work for inspiration, as well as capturing the bucolic village life of Senlis (where Louis lived most of her life) near Chantilly.

WHY RENT THIS: Moreau’s performance is breathtaking. The cinematography is beautiful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is a bit slow-moving..
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won seven Césars at the 2008 César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) including Best Film and Best Actress for Moreau.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a photo gallery of the real Séraphine Louis’ paintings.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.2M on a $3.6M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Begging Naked
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour

Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

The Water Diviner


Love can be illuminating.

Love can be illuminating.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Dylan Georgiades, Steve Bastoni, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jack Douglas Patterson, Ben Norris, Aidan Liam Smith, Damon Herriman, Sophia Forrest. Directed by Russell Crowe

The bond between father and son can be complicated. There’s always an element of competition between them; the old lion wants to have the loudest roar even as the younger lions are coming into their own. Still when push comes to shove, there isn’t a father who wouldn’t move heaven and earth for their children…sometimes even when hope is lost.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) has a farm in Australia. It’s not an easy life; water isn’t easy to come by in the arid landscape. However, with the use of a pair of sticks and his unerring instincts he is able to find places to dig wells that he desperately needs. It’s a hard life but it’s a good one – or would be. You see, Joshua sent his three sons Arthur (Corr), Edward (Fraser) and Henry (O’Toole) to war, in this case World War I. With many troops from their part of the world, they went to invade Gallipoli in Turkey and many thousands of young men in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) died in the attempt which ultimately failed. All three of Joshua’s sons were among the dead.

The grief of the loss of all her sons had led Joshua’s wife (McKenzie) to take her own life. Now with nobody and nearly four years gone, Joshua feels obligated to go to Gallipoli and bring the remains of his sons back home. However, there’s a problem there – basically so many soldiers died in the battle, one of the bloodiest of the First World War – that proper burials are only now just happening, led by an English Colonel (Courtney) who is being assisted by the Turkish officer Major Hasan (Erdogan) who led the Turkish forces at the battle. Civilians are not welcome – not that there are any clamoring to go. The battle site is still full of booby traps and other dangers that make it a dangerous place even in peacetime.

But Joshua has nothing to lose. With the help of Ayshe (Kurylenko), the owner of the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul and Orhan (Georgiades) her adorable moppet of a son he manages to make it past the British bureaucracy which is dead set on preventing his passage to Gallipoli. Once he makes it there though he acquires the friendship of Hasan, even though he commanded the forces that led to the deaths of his sons – and discovers that even amidst the carnage, hope exists. He also discovers that love might exist as well with the hotel owner whose husband disappeared in the same battle and is presumed dead, although she holds out hope that he may yet return.

Normally the presence of Crowe in front of the camera would insure a wide American release for a film, but the story is a bit of a hard sell to American audiences. Gallipoli doesn’t mean as much to us as it does to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, where the battle is part of the national identity. Released on the 100th anniversary of the battle, the story isn’t so much about the fight as it is of a father’s devotion to his children, even after they’re dead. It is about  his grief and his healing.

Crowe remains a compelling presence, giving one of his best performances in years. Joshua is a quiet and powerful presence, never demonstrative although once he begins interacting with the irresistible Orhan does he begin to start coming out of his shell. There is a bit of an aura of the supernatural here – Joshua has visions of his sons in the battle and is able to infer things that he shouldn’t have been able to know. The more practical-minded among the audience will find that whole concept to be poppycock, although the connection a parent has with their children and the way parents can sometimes know things they shouldn’t about their kids can’t be discounted.

This would be the last movie lensed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who also shot most of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and he makes a stark contrast between Australia with it’s blade blue skies and dusty earth, and with Istanbul with its Blue Mosque and beautiful interiors. Then there’s Gallipoli itself with a lovely beach but once over the first hill becomes a scorched hell. Crowe made a smart choice in that department and it will remain part of Lesnie’s lasting legacy as one of the great cinematographers of his – and our – day.

Most of the battle is seen through flashbacks, particularly those that concern the brothers but those scenes can be pretty brutal with limbs getting blown off and young bodies being shredded by machine guns and artillery fire. Crowe doesn’t shy away from these scenes that depict the horrors of war, those who are upset by such things should be forewarned.

I generally don’t respond to specific criticisms of a film brought up by a different film critic but Andrew O’Hehir’s excoriation of Crowe and Warner Brothers, calling this a “disgraceful” film for not mentioning the Armenian genocide which occurred roughly at the same time the battle of Gallipoli was fought, is absolutely mind-boggling. Yes, there are sympathetic Turkish characters here but not all Turks participated in the Genocide which occurred hundreds of miles away and essentially before the main action of the film begins – the battle itself is pretty much only seen in flashbacks other than the opening scene which depicts the withdrawal of troops from Gallipoli. But what is disgraceful is a critic suggesting that a filmmaker not mentioning something that has absolutely nothing to do with his film or the events in it is somehow morally wrong and insensitive. Talk about Liberal Guilt.

For a debut effort in the director’s chair Crowe has come up with a pretty impressive film. Of course, when you have Russell Crowe to star in your first film you’ve got an advantage over most right there. I don’t know what Crowe the director did to inspire Crowe the actor but whatever it was, it resulted in a compelling performance that confirms Crowe’s star power. There is an epic sweep here that reminds me of movies from a bygone era.

The movie hasn’t gotten any sort of push from Warners and has been essentially released as an independent film in select cities. It isn’t easy to find but it is well worth seeking out; this is a surprisingly powerful film that I believe will appeal to more than just Australian audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Crowe who remains a compelling presence. Gripping storyline. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies on Joshua’s visions and instincts a bit too much. The battle scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The horse that Crowe rides in the Australia scenes is actually his own horse, Honey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Legends of the Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Age of Adaline

The Red Baron (Der rote Baron)


The bloody Red Baron on the prowl for Snoopy.

The bloody Red Baron on the prowl for Snoopy.

(2008) Biographical Drama (Monterey Media) Matthias Schweighofer, Til Schweiger, Lena Headey, Joseph Fiennes, Maxim Mehmet, Hanno Kofler, Volker Bruch, Richard Krajko, Steffan Schroeder, Lukas Prizkazky, Iveta Jirickova, Vlastina Svatkova, Axel Prahl, Gitta Schweighofer, Brano Holicek, Julie Engelbrecht, Jan Vlasak, Luise Bahr, Irena Machova. Directed by Nikolai Muellerschoen

During the First World War, it wasn’t just a collision of nations. It was the 19th century being pulled forward, violently, into the 20th. The concepts of nobility and civility were turned around by the nose by the realities of brutal, modern warfare.

Baron Manfred von Richtofen (Schweighofer) came from the German nobility, but nonetheless had a fascination with flying. While most of his class would be joining the cavalry – a gentleman’s pursuit – von Richtofen was firm that when World War I started, he would join the Imperial German Air Service, the predecessor of the Luftwaffe. That was where, he felt, he belonged and his success showed him to be correct. With his brother Lothar (Bruch) and friends Werner Voss (Schweiger) and Friedrich Sternberg (Mehmet) at his side, he had formed the Flying Circus, a brigade second to none in shooting down enemy planes during the war.

One such victim was Captain Roy Brown (Fiennes) of Canada. Von Richtofen pulled the wounded flyer from the wreckage of his plane and with the assistance of passing nurse Kate Otersdorf (Headey) helps apply a tourniquet to his leg before leaving the Canadian in the care of the nurse.

Von Richtofen is appalled when his Lothar strafes and kills an enemy pilot who had already been forced down. Later he gets into a dogfight with Brown who had escaped the German POW camp that he’d been taken to after being nursed to health by Kate. Once again von Richtofen shoots down the Canadian and lands to see if he’s all right, damaging his own plane in the process. In No-Man’s land, the two share a friendly drink at which time the Red Baron, as he has come to be called by the Allies, discovers that the nurse who’d tended to Brown was in love with the dashing German air fighter

Upon his return, von Richtofen receives the news that his friend Sternberg has been shot down and killed, which sends the Baron into an emotional tailspin, much to Lothar’s disgust. During an ensuing dogfight, von Richtofen is wounded in the skull and sent to be cared for – but you can guess who now can’t you?

As Kate and Manfred begin to grow closer, Kate is disturbed by von Richtofen’s cavalier attitude towards the war. She takes him on a tour of the hospital and gives him a tongue lashing for treating the war like a game. As his friends and protégés continue to be shot down like flies, the Red Baron discovers that he is being used by the German high command to sell a war they can’t win. When he speaks out to his commanding officers about it, he is sent back to active combat after having been offered a position in the Rear Echelon. So back to the skies he takes for a final date with destiny.

This is a gorgeously shot film that makes the most of its aerial footage. Some of those sequences are really well-shot (the ones with practical aircraft), although the CGI dogfights are unconvincing for the most part. This was one of the most expensive movies made in Germany to this date (and also one of the biggest flops) but it doesn’t appear much of the budget went to computer effects.

The dialogue is also cringe-inducing and florid. For example, at one point a melancholy Manfred tells Kate “You are my greatest triumph” as he prepares to march off to his doom. Cue weepy violins. Of course, it might have been more meaningful had there been an actual romance between the two. All that is really known is that there was a nurse named Kate Otersdorf and von Richtofen knew her. How romantic the relationship was is subject to conjecture; there are no records and no correspondence confirming it. Certainly there could have been but the very class-conscious von Richtofen might not have been amenable to a relationship with someone of a lower social class.

And about the real von Richtofen. Yes, there’s no doubt that he was a gentleman of his time but the chivalry that he espoused was a lot different than what we think of the term today. Not only did he not get angry about strafing enemy pilots, he encouraged it. He often targeted pilots once the gunner had been taken out; that was a way of ensuring that the pilot wouldn’t live to fight another day. While he felt camaraderie with enemy pilots and often saluted them as antagonists, he had a war to win and knew that in order to win it Germany must have control of the skies.

Still, it is pleasant to see combatants portrayed in such a manner and there is no doubt that enemies treated each other with greater respect back then than they do now. In some ways, The Red Baron is a bit of an anachronism in its own way as having Captain Brown exclaim to Manfred “She has the hots for you!” The filmmakers try hard to make an inspiring, thrilling war epic but sadly end up making the movie look like just another bloated, failed war picture that has enough going for it to be worth a look but not enough to look all that hard for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice aerial footage. Heroic portrayal of a bygone age.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stilted dialogue. A few too many historical liberties.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of wartime violence and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie was a German production shot in Eastern Europe, the dialogue was shot in English in hopes of attracting an international audience.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the real Red Baron.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40,239 on a $22.4M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Rent DVD/Rent Blu-Ray/Stream), Amazon (not available), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blue Max
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Interstellar

The Great Gatsby (2013)


It's my party and I'll smirk if I want to.

It’s my party and I’ll smirk if I want to.

(2013) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Adelaide Clemens, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan, Gus Murray, Kate Mulvany, Barry Otto, Daniel Gill, Iota, Eden Falk, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Max Cullen, Gemma Ward, Olga Miller. Directed by Baz Luhrmann   

The Jazz Age of the Roaring ’20s was known for conspicuous wealth and the wealthy who partied capriciously even as a stock market crash loomed ever closer. It was an age of the flapper, of gangsters and bootleggers, of old money sneering at the nouveau riche with all the venom of an aging viper whose territory is being taken over by a younger and deadlier snake.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what is arguably his masterpiece in 1925 to tepid sales and lackluster reviews. When he passed away in 1940, he believed himself to be a failure although ironically his work would receive the acclaim and sales only a few years later. ‘Tis the melancholy truth about artists – most have to die in order for their work to matter.

So what’s so great about Gatsby? Well, a lot of things – it’s depiction of the lavish excesses and the empty morality of the very rich, but also the language. Few understood the American idiom quite as well as Fitzgerald and the words truly flow beautifully off the page. Read it aloud and you might think you’re delivering the words of an American Shakespeare into the ether. That is, perhaps, overpraising the work but many consider it to be the Great American Novel and if not that, at least the Great American Tragedy.

Given the lavish excess of the book, Australian director Baz Luhrmann might well be the perfect choice to make the film version. Three others have preceded it – a 1926 silent version which sadly has been lost to the mists of time as no prints are known to exist, although a trailer for it does and if you look it up on YouTube, you can see it. Another version was filmed in 1949 starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field but has been held up for 60 years over mysterious copyright litigation which someone needs to sort out. The most famous version is the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version which famously flopped and has been disowned by nearly everyone involved (there was also a made for television version in 2000).

However, this one is the only one that I am aware of that is available in grand and glorious 3D. Why is it available in such a format, you might ask? So that the glitter and confetti from the various parties might seem to pop out of the screen at you. Otherwise there really is no particular necessity for it.

The film follows the book pretty faithfully – surprisingly so. Midwesterner Nick Carroway (Maguire) moves into a carriage house in the fictional Long Island community of West Egg on the grounds of the fabulous mansion of Jay Gatsby (di Caprio), a reclusive sort who throws lavish parties for which everyone who is anyone shows up at uninvited and about whom all sorts of rumors are floating about.

Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan) lives across the bay – in fact directly across from Gatsby’s mansion – with her philandering husband Tom (Edgerton), an old money sort who is a racist jerk who makes Daisy’s life miserable. Tom inexplicably bonds with Nick and takes him to visit his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Fisher), a clingy shrewish sort who is married to George (Clarke), an auto mechanic who is somewhat slavishly devoted to Myrtle and treats Tom, whose cars he repairs, as something like a potentate.

But Daisy has a secret of her own; prior to meeting Tom she was courted by Jay Gatsby, then an officer in the Army preparing to be deployed into the Great War. By the time he returned, she was married to Tom. Gatsby then set to amassing a fortune by as it turned out fairly nefarious means, utilizing underworld businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Bachchan)  as a go-between.

Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy over for tea which he does; Nick genuinely likes Gatsby whose optimism appeals to Nick’s sensibilities. Once Daisy and Gatsby are together it’s like a flickering torch reignited. The two realize they are meant for each other. Gatsby urges Daisy to tell Tom that she doesn’t love him. Daisy is extremely reluctant, although it’s true. This will lead to a confrontation in the Plaza Hotel in New York that will have deadly consequences.

Luhrmann is known for visual spectacle and for thinking outside the box. He frames the story with Nick in his later years committed to a sanitarium for alcoholism, writing down the events of his youth as a means of therapy ordered by his doctor (Thompson). Fitzgerald’s words literally flow into the film as 3D graphics. It’s a nice conceit.

Luhrmann is also known for willful anachronisms – filming period films with a modern soundtrack (which includes songs by Lana del Rey, Jay Z – who supervised the soundtrack – and Andre 3000, among others) which as a personal note drives me entirely crazy. Why go to the trouble of meticulously re-creating an era which Luhrmann does and then immediately take his audience right out of it by having a jazz orchestra rapping? Methinks that Luhrmann doesn’t care if his audience is immersed in the film or not as long as they know who directed it.

Gatsby is one of the most enigmatic literary characters of the 20th century and is a notorious part to get down properly. He is a driven soul, passionate in his feelings for Daisy but absolutely amoral when it comes to money. He is a self-made man, largely willing his own image of himself into reality only to  come to understand too late that these things are illusions that are ultimately empty reflections in a mirror that we can’t see. Di Caprio once again reminds us that he is a powerful actor capable of mesmerizing performances at any given time. This is certainly one of his better works, capturing that enigma that is Gatsby and giving it flesh and soul.

Nick is our surrogate, floating in a world of wealth and privilege with eyes wide open. He joins in on the debauchery and recoils in horror as it turns savagely on itself. He watches the events unfold towards their inevitable conclusion and manages to retain his own humanity. He is a decent sort who is thoroughly capable of being corrupted – and to an extent he is – but in the end it’s his own decency that saves him. Maguire is particularly adept at radiating decency and does so here. He’s not particularly memorable – he was never going to be in this kind of role and opposite di Caprio – but he does everything you could ask of him here.

Mulligan, who burst onto the scene not long ago with an amazing performance in An Education has continued to blossom as an actress since then. This is not really a role she’s well-suited for; Daisy is a self-centered and vacuous soul who doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions. Mulligan is far too intelligent an actress to play vacuous and thus she isn’t terribly convincing in the role. Nicole Kidman might have been a better choice and she’s closer to di Caprio’s age range to boot.

There is a lot of spectacle here but sadly it is sabotaged by Luhrmann’s own imagination, which is kind of ironic. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake, as Jay Gatsby would surely have known, is an ultimately empty gesture. There is plenty here to like but one gets too distracted by the fluff. Brevity is the soul of wit and Fitzgerald was fully aware of how to use language economically. So too, simplicity is the soul of film and that is a lesson Luhrmann has yet to learn.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio delivers another bravura performance. Captures the era in many ways. Follows Fitzgerald’s story surprisingly closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too many instances of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing.” Afflicted with the Curse of the Deliberate Anachronism.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some violent images (although none especially shocking), some sensuality, partying and smoking within a historical context and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duesenbergs are the automobile of choice for Jay Gatsby but the real things are far too rare and valuable to be used as movie props. The one you see in the film is one of two replicas, each painted yellow and modified to match each other for filming.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; critics were pretty much split right down the middle on this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Iceman

Renoir


Renoir's model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

Renoir’s model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Michel Bouquet, Vincent Rottiers, Christa Theret, Thomas Doret, Michele Gleizer, Romane Bohringer, Carlo Brandt, Helene Babu, Stuart Seide, Paul Spera, Solene Rigot, Cecile Rittweger. Directed by Gilles Bourdos   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Great art transcends it’s medium. Whether a painting, a sculpture or a film, the greatest art inspires, excites, arouses and/or induces regardless of how it was created. One might say it is the art and not the artist – something that many artists forget.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bouquet), arguably the greatest of the Impressionist painters, knows that all too well. It is 1915 and the Great War rages not far from his estate, Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur on the Mediterranean coast in southeastern France. His wife Aline has recently passed away and he himself is in profound pain due to rheumatoid arthritis (he would pass away himself four years later) which is why he has relocated to this bucolic town far from Paris.

Two of his three sons have been wounded in the war – the third, Coco (Doret) is too young to enlist and dwells on the farm, angry at the world. The great painter is surrounded by female servants, most of whom are former models of his. It is a saucy environment indeed, one which most men his age would have envied entirely.

Into this mix comes Andree Heuschling (Theret), a voluptuously beautiful model recommended to the great master by Henri Matisse. Brash, forthright and a bit self-centered, Andree (who is better known as the actress Catherine Hessling later in life but here is called Dedee) creates quite a stir. Renoir enters a fresh period of creativity and ends up quite taken with her.

So is another Renoir – son Jean (Rottiers) who has come to the family farm to recuperate from his wounds. Jean is a bit of a lost soul whose relationship with his father has a bit of distance to it – after all, it is hard to be the son of a living legend. While his father paints some compelling paintings of Dedee (both clothed and nude), Jean begins to fall for the lively girl. In him she awakens a love of a new art form – cinema. But as Jean’s wounds heal, the call to arms is still strong. Will the call of love be stronger yet?

Much of this was filmed on Renoir’s farm Les Collettes and it is easy to see through the beautiful images of Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee just how idyllic the property is and how much Philippe-Auguste Renoir must have loved it. The wind blows through the old trees, creating a soundtrack all its own. The elder Renoir loved beauty, particularly in the female form (“Flesh!” he exclaims at one point, “That’s all that matters!”). He was fascinated by the textures of the skin of young women and few artists captured it as well as he.

The venerable Bouquet does a marvelous job of capturing the spirit and the look of Renoir, from the long raggedy beard to the gnarled hands and painful movement of the old man. When he looks at Dedee and murmurs “Too soon! Too late” with genuine melancholy, one realizes in four words how much he is attracted to her – and how realistic he is about a relationship actually developing.

I like the Renoirs was quite taken with Dedee and we have Christa Theret to thank for that. Only a teen when she made the film (admittedly the real Dedee was five years younger than Theret), she conveys both the force of nature of the model’s personality as well as her uninhibited nature as she spends much of the film naked. I doubt many American actresses would have been able to pull that latter quality off.

The pace here is as languid as a summer day and that may put off some American audiences. One gets lulled by the ambience of the film and the passion of the performances. I have rarely been transported to a time and place as effectively as I was for Renoir. While this isn’t strictly speaking not 100% biographical (for example, he’s depicted having his brush tied to his hands by his assistants; in reality they merely placed the brush in his hand for him), it is nonetheless a welcome insight into the mind and life of one of the most influential painters of his time – one who continues to be a touchstone in the world of art.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously photographed. Interesting insights into the life of one of the greatest artists in history.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be sleep-inducing in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Although there is quite a bit of nudity, it is all done in an artistic manner and while there is some bad language, there is only a few brief instances.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourdos used convicted art forger Guy Ribes to re-create the Renoir paintings onscreen during the painting sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100; pretty decent reviews for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pollack

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: AKA Doc Pomus

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