Jojo Rabbit

Release: Friday, November 8, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taika Waititi

Directed by: Taika Waititi

New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has always been the magic elixir to make things better.

Viago the vampire was one of my favorite characters in the frightfully funny comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2015). In 2017 he gave the MCU a whack of feisty, vibrant energy with Thor: Ragnarok. His goofy humor had the kind of impact that gets directors invited to do another one. He’ll release Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021. It’s also the mainstream breakthrough he needed to make his “anti-hate satire” possible, with Jojo Rabbit collecting dust on a shelf since 2011. If Ragnarok had not received the response that it did, all bets are off the ones cutting the checks would have confidence in the director pulling off a Nazi-bashing black comedy.

Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is an undeniably heartfelt movie about how love, compassion and optimism can be the tools in fighting against hatred and prejudice. Similarly, Waititi’s infectious spirit and cutting wit are his most powerful weapons in combatting the cliches of his story. The fact and manner in which he plays Adolf Hitler — as the childish, imaginary friend of our embattled pretend-Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) — is the defining characteristic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s certainly what gives the movie an edginess. He’s portrayed as a doofus with the maturity level to match the kid who thinks of the Führer as more mate than maniacal monster.

The native New Zealander is neither the first filmmaker to pair comedy with Nazism nor the first to receive flak for doing so. He is, however, the first filmmaker who identifies as a Polynesian Jew to not only don the ugly garb and horrendous hairstyle of the German dictator but to attempt to undermine his authority by playing him as a complete bozo. There are nuances to his performance that have been overlooked amidst the scathing criticism he’s faced by appearing to downplay the threat of Hitler. Au contraire, Waititi isn’t afraid of unleashing his character’s vitriol. As the story progresses his performance intensifies, becomes more bullying and scary.

Whether in front of the camera or behind it Waititi is conscious to balance the silly with the somber. There is persecution in Jojo Rabbit; however, this is not a movie about the Holocaust. Its scope is limited to what’s happening inside the head and the heart — the fundamentally warped psychology that enabled Hitler’s lapdogs to create systemic oppression that eventually culminated in one of the worst events in human history. If that’s not dark enough of a backdrop Waititi reminds us that children were not immune to Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. Yet he also gives us hope by suggesting that a child, unlike a world-weary adult whose beliefs are more ingrained, is not entirely beyond saving.

When the impressionable Jojo is confronted with a unique circumstance he’s forced to reconcile what he has been indoctrinated to believe with objective, observable reality. His mother Rosie — wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansson — is part of a quiet anti-Nazi uprising and has hidden a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. When he realizes he can’t spill the beans out of fear of being turned over to the SS — represented primarily by Stephen Merchant in a surprisingly scary capacity — he decides instead to use the intel he’s being fed by Elsa to create a pamphlet on how to identify “The Enemy.” After being dismissed from the Hitler Youth camp after a mishap with a grenade that left him slightly deformed, he will use this to impress his old pal Captain Klenzendorf — a weird role inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who plays the one-eyed Nazi as more bloke than baddie — as well as make himself feel as if he’s still involved in “the German cause.”

Naivety plays a big role in the movie. It’s the wrinkle that gives Jojo Rabbit‘s good-vs-evil trajectory more sophistication. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, because you also look at Yorkie (Archie Yates), and wonder if his becoming a child soldier (albeit one who really has no business handling a rocket launcher) was really his fate. There are a lot of great performances in this time-worn tale of love ultimately triumphing over disproportionate evil. The real battleground in Waititi’s screenplay is not the inevitable blitz on the small town courtesy of the Allied Forces but rather the conversation between two youngsters on starkly opposite sides of a literal and metaphorical divide. The young actors are impressive with the way they trade barbs. It’s just unfortunate those heart-to-hearts come at the expense of McKenzie, who isn’t afforded anything approaching character growth and instead operates as a narrative device to make the could-be killer see the error of his ways.

Truth be told, Waititi loses a few battles along the way but ultimately wins the war. There are so many ways Jojo Rabbit could have gone wrong and probably would have gone wrong in the hands of a less capable and bold filmmaker. The big question surrounding his passion project (is this a passion project?) was whether he would be able to balance the disparate tones of drama and comedy in a story about Nazi Germany. I think he does that admirably.

“I think it’s best we Nazi each other right now . . .”

Recommendation: If you ask the chuckleheads sitting next to me in the theater who, on top of entering the movie ten minutes late, laughed at everything Taika Waititi said so loudly no one else in the room needed to, he’s absolutely the reason the movie is kind of a must-see, even if the story it tells is less interesting than the performances. Waititi = lovable. Hitler = not so much. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Now this is my kind of little boy’s bedroom . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: Twitter; IMDb 

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Release: Friday, February 8, 2019 (limited)

→ Redbox

Written by: Robert D. Krzykowski

Directed by: Robert D. Krzykowski

With a title as extravagant as The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot it’s hard not to build up some extravagant expectations. Maybe you’d assume this is an adaptation of an obscure graphic novel you’ve never heard of, something akin to V for Vendetta, or a righteously vicious midnight movie where the last one left standing is the audience in ovation.

Well, hate to say it but if you’re in bloodlust right now this movie just won’t do. Robert Krzykowski’s directorial début is more of a melancholic character piece than a slicked in dudesweat thrill ride to the edge of sanity. The good news is that it’s well worth seeking out, you just may need to be in the mood for something more quirky than straight-up crazy. This is a movie that unabashedly marches to the beat of its own idiosyncratic drum, and in so doing it largely and surprisingly steers clear of the expected, i.e. bloody machismo.

The story tells of the eventful life of a mysterious man named Calvin Barr and focuses on him in two different eras. The flashback-heavy first half gives us a glimpse of who he was, a young American spy/assassin sent on a highly classified and dangerous mission into the heart of Nazi Germany to take out the Führer. He’s played here by Aidan Turner who offers a convincing younger visage. By way of a small supporting turn from Caitlin Fitzgerald it also teases the life he might have led had he never shipped out.

All of this is filtered through the memories of Sam Elliott‘s world-weary, retired veteran in the present day. It is this version of the character we first meet, nursing a whisky at a bar. As he stares the drink down like it owes him money he disappears into his thoughts, taking us with him. After the war Calvin returned with some pretty big secrets and so retreated to a small town somewhere near the Canadian border where he’s spent most of his time minding his own business, contending with the occasional carjacking punk and the pebble that just won’t get out of his boot. His golden retriever has remained his most trusted confidante. If self-exile looks lonely, the feeling is certainly no reward for someone who ostensibly saved western civilization (and who will end up doing it twice).

At least it’s peaceful. But then all that gets trampled on by the Feds (Ron Livingston and Rizwan Manji) suddenly appearing on his doorstep. They’re seeking the legendary Nazi-slayer for his help in bringing down the one they call Bigfoot, whose (yes, actual) existence would be nothing more than a pretty cool photo op for any passerby were it not for the deadly virus the creature is lumbering around with. Calvin, finding himself once more exploited by Uncle Sam, must confront his painful past and the unsavory prospect of doing things he swore he’d never do again. What more of himself is he willing to sacrifice to someone, something that never says thanks?

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot is preoccupied with grand concepts of heroism, legends and myths and how a lot of mountains are made out of mole hills when it comes to the way we preserve and pass down stories through the generations. Krzykowski doesn’t wax too philosophical on any of those ideas but they’re perceptible enough. What I found much more intriguing (and more pronounced) is the story’s attitude towards violence, what it does to the perpetrator, morally and emotionally. The journey is almost a shying away from violence rather than an enthusiastic march toward it. Yet an air of inevitability seeps into every scene. The Great Mustachioed One may not dominate the screen in movie minutes but he’s clearly the one in charge here, his down-home style of acting the ideal fit for the tone Krzykowski is uh, gunning for. Elliott has more gravitas than the rest of the cast combined — and yes that does include The Abominable Snowman, whose sickly appearance is both grotesque and just the teensiest bit sad.

Oh. Deer.

Recommendation: A far more mellow movie in action than its title suggests, The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot works best as a meditation on aging, regret and the ravages of time. Features a very sturdy, introspective Sam Elliott performance at its core, which goes a long way in helping us stay connected. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.cinema.pfpca.org

Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Dunkirk

Release: Friday, July 21, 2017

→IMAX

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

In memory of my late grandfather, John Little.

In his first historical drama, one that gives the acclaimed writer-director an opportunity to fly that British flag high, Christopher Nolan is deeply committed to creating a singular, sensory experience that goes beyond a mere reenactment. Relying on an intimate relationship between its technical elements as well as time as a constant factor, the acutely distressing thrills of the mighty Dunkirk you will feel in your marrow.

As always, Nolan doesn’t just go for style points. Firmly entrenched within the chaos and destruction of this senses-shattering summer blockbuster lies “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” a story of survival and stoicism nearly lost to the sea of newspaper headlines declaring an embarrassing defeat for the good guys. In fairness, much was lost. This was desperation. Even the British Bulldog acknowledged, sprinkling a pinch of salt upon his heaps of praise for his boys: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

June 1940. The Nazi campaign was steamrolling Europe and had pinned a significant number of Allied forces against the grimy waters of the northern French harbor of Dunkirk. An increasingly desperate Luftwaffe, to whom the task of preventing any sort of escape had ultimately fallen (after a significant delay), had been engaging the opposition on the water as well as in the air. Devastation was catastrophic on both sides, though the Germans suffered greater aerial losses — some 240 aircraft over a nine-day span. In that time 200 marine vessels were sacrificed, including a hospital and the famed Medway Queen, a beautiful British paddle steamer. Out of a total Allied strength approximate 400,000, some 30,000 were either killed in action or presumed dead or captured in this violent and pivotal clash.

Because the Brit has built a career around an intellectual yet highly entertaining brand of filmmaking, the bluntly observational Dunkirk feels somewhat like a departure, if for no other reason than it feels gauche to call this entertainment. The material demands a certain intonation, and as a result Nolan has created his most harrowing, his most sobering movie to date. Even more to his credit, his approach consistently shies away from excessive bloodshed, making this, in some ways, the anti-Saving Private Ryan. The anti-Hacksaw Ridge. The anti-any war film that subscribes to the notion that gore and blood are necessary evils if a viewer is to be properly immersed in the action.

In realizing a significantly world-shaping event, Nolan finds himself as a director adapting to the circumstances. Instead of philosophizing and extrapolating, he takes a more back-door approach to accumulating profound emotion. Empathy for the masses doesn’t require an intimate relationship with any one character. The point is to highlight the commonality found within the calamity. To that end, two things tend to strike you about the film: its narrative style, which follows key role players on each of the three fronts, and the sound design, chiefly realized through Oscar-winning composer and six-time collaborator Hans Zimmer (who clearly took the memo to heart when Nolan told him to make a show of force).

The scenery has changed, yet the element of time remains Nolan’s favorite ball of yarn. Once again he demands it be a malleable object, able to be manipulated in order to heighten the sense of all-encompassing, inescapable danger that crashed upon the stranded repeatedly like waves against the beach. His nonlinear triptych spreads the workload of presenting each unique aspect of the Good Fight across an incredibly efficient 107 minutes, resulting in frequently intense and dynamically intersecting perspectives that show all parts working together. It’s the epitome of cinematic, as opposed to the simple trick-fuckery some critics have dismissed the technique as.

Presented first is “The Mole,” so named after the long breakwater pier upon which thousands stood awaiting rescue, and it describes everything that happens on land. This is where we meet a trio of young soldiers, privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) and a low-ranking soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). We follow them through an obstacle course from hell. Nolan brings aboard a few recognizable faces to give weight to the proceedings, like dry-as-a-box-of-saltines Kenneth Branagh, who doesn’t do much as a British commander, but then the role requires that his hands be tied. James D’Arcy is alongside him as an army colonel.

“The Sea” is the second thread introduced and it develops over the course of a single day. It’s characterized by a death-defying crossing of the English Channel. Mark Rylance gets the distinction of representing this stalwart civilian effort, playing a regular old Joe who felt a great sense of duty to answer Churchill’s call. He’s joined by son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local boy (Barry Keoghan). The purity in this gesture, in their desire to help, is what the movie is all about. Because sometimes actions really do speak louder than words, Nolan keeps dialogue to a minimum in Dunkirk, allowing the actions taken both by the individual and of the collective to drown out even the bombast of Zimmer’s incredible score.

Last but certainly not least is “The Air,” which features all the acrobatics aloft. This segment takes place over the course of just one hour. In it we experience the way Nolan has interpreted the ‘dogfighting’ phenomenon associated with World War II. Needless to say, it’s breathtaking and deeply involving. Bullets ricochet cacophonously. The tin sound is abrasive. Radio comm between the RAF and Farrier screams ’40s simplicity. Some of the most stunning and graceful sequences of combat you will ever see in a war film result from Nolan’s decision to place IMAX cameras on the bodies of actual Spitfires, and returning DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s ability to create unique, disorienting angles. Don’t blame Nolan for any confusion. If anything, lay it all on Hoytema, who turns cameras sideways as we sink into the water to give the impression ‘the walls are closing in.’

As time ticked away and spirits and ammunition ran out, the thousands — mostly British and French, but among them a smattering of Belgians and Canadians — stared longingly across the Channel, wondering if they’d ever make it back to the familiar shores of their hometowns. Others looked skyward, hoping for a miracle in the form of the Royal Air Force, only to be disheartened by the sight of a Messerschmitt dive-bombing right for them. And the lucky left wondering if they’d ever see (and hear) the end of this unrelenting period of undulating, unbearable stress.

Nolan’s latest test piece is about so much more than an historic military debacle. The pearl that lies inside, the drama that lies underneath the drama as it were, is that Churchill got ten times the number of men that he had hoped would bolster the effort in the inevitable Battle of Britain. The moral victory that resulted from Operation Dynamo’s success, the widespread cooperation, epitomizes why Nolan makes movies. As do the incredibly high stakes. The cumulative effect gives modern audiences a better idea of how close we had actually come to living in a world in which the Nazis had conquered more than Europe.

Recommendation: Relentlessly intense and loud, Dunkirk poses unique problems. As an event film that embraces a wide audience, I saw a number of people exiting the theater with their hands over their ears. Perhaps its ambitions as a senses-throttling experience do have drawbacks. But there is no denying the approach makes this a unique war film, and the epitome of a Christopher Nolan production. It doesn’t get much more profound than this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’m on him.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

January Blindspot: Defiance (2009)

defiance-movie-posterrr

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

[Netflix]

Written by: Edward Zwick; Clayton Frohman

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Defiance at the very least satisfies a certain curiosity I had about a film that featured Daniel Craig not in a suit and tie, and as of this posting — admittedly a time-sensitive and quite frankly rushed one — I feel more inclined to recommend it more on that basis rather than for its dramatic credentials. I mean, Defiance isn’t a bad film but it’s just not a great one and that’s kind of a shame.

Really, the most damning thing I can say about it is that in hindsight I would replace this film with something else for my January Blindspot — but, well, that wouldn’t make this a very blind Blindspot list, now, would it? Defiance is well-made but pretty forgettable, and while its lead man seems outwardly appropriate for the part of Tuvia Bielsky, a Polish Jew who helped thousands of refugees escape the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe, Craig once again makes it obvious he works best in roles that don’t require him to adopt an accent. Yeesh.

When Edward Zwick’s film premiered in 2009 it apparently caused quite the kerfuffle. Polish columnists in particular brutalized Defiance, accusing it of the sorts of things directors like Peter Berg and Michael Bay are regularly found guilty of today: xenophobic tonality; the glorification of violence; the oversimplification of extraordinarily complex circumstances. I didn’t find Defiance damaging or incompetent as others have, but its issues are obvious. Despite the fertile historical ground in which his material is rooted, Zwick bogs down an urgent tale with direction that largely feels uninspired and repetitive.

As his film notes during the end credits, the Bielski partisans — four brothers who amassed a secret community of some 1,200 homeless Jews in the depths of the sprawling Naliboki Forest, a near impenetrable mass of evergreen and marshland encompassing northwestern Belarus — never sought recognition for their heroic actions during some of the darkest days in human history. Zwick felt it was high time they received a little.

The narrative primarily focuses on the rift that develops between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber) who, when brutal, violent oppression finally hits home differ in opinion over how they should respond. Tuvia, despite an early scene of bloody retaliation, insists on avoiding confrontation and becomes the de facto leader of the camp. Zus on the other hand feels strongly about seeking vengeance and joins a local Communist troupe, vowing to take the fight right to the Nazis.

The events depicted in Defiance occur over the course of a year. We watch as conditions within Tuvia’s faction deteriorate as winter sets in and as impending Nazi forces constantly force them to move around within the forest. They battle against starvation, exposure and the inevitable in-fighting as the need to stay hidden intensifies with each passing day. We cut back and forth between this sad scene and Zus’ predicament as he finds himself surrounded by “comrades” who don’t necessarily share the same sympathies toward the Jewish refugees. They do, however, eventually agree to provide much-needed medicine to Tuvia in exchange for help in knocking out a radio transmitter that is interfering with the Russian’s communications.

The film rides a fairly strong wave of emotion on the back of solid performances most notably from Craig, Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the latter finding a way to come into his own as he finds himself mounting a last-ditch defensive stand when German tanks appear in their neck of the woods. (Sorry.) Mia Wasikowska also leaves an impression as a love interest for Bell’s courageous Asael. Their blossoming romance quickly yields a wedding ceremony in one of the film’s defining moments, a tender act of love nestled at the heart of a narrative shrouded in darkness.

I’d feel better closing this piece on a note of positivity rather than with more complaints about how the film perpetually shirks its responsibility of authenticating events as detailed in the 1993 novel by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, upon which Zwick’s movie is based. Of galvanizing survivors with a story that does history proper justice. Defiance isn’t that film. It’s something more closely associated with typical action fare, with the kinds of movies you expect Daniel Craig to star in. As Tuvia he is more James Bond than Moses.

No, allow me instead to wax poetic about the film’s visuals for an easy out. Even several days after, that wedding ceremony remains burned into my memory. The snow coming down, in all its cheesiness. The intimate gathering. The golden sunlight. Eduardo Serra’s camerawork simply stuns; he seizes the opportunity to capture the forest in all its eerie beauty, offering Defiance this compelling but disturbing dichotomy between the enchanting allure of nature and the ugliness of humanity. Who would have thought we would have ever heard the words ‘Mazel tov’ uttered in this place, in this time?

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

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3-0Recommendation: I can’t help but feel disappointed by Defiance but this is far from a bad movie. It just isn’t a very ambitious one. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are the clear stand-outs (even if the former’s accent is horrendous at the best of times). But as a visual display, the film earns a fairly strong recommendation from yours truly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.uk.pinterest.com 

Allied

allied-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

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Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Denial

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: David Hare

Directed by: Mick Jackson

There’s no denying the spectrum of emotions Deborah E. Lipstadt experienced during her days in the Royal Court of Justice, recounted in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (upon which this film is based), deserves the silver screen treatment. Hers is a story that’s at once infuriating and inspiring, one that addresses the unfathomable but of course very real possibility of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Or, at the very least, that the aftermath was ever as devastating as it has been reported.

Denial represents director Mick Jackson (Volcano; L.A. Story)’s first theatrical release in almost 15 years. He has returned to craft a dignified if at times clunky dramatization that takes audiences through the harrowing Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. court case, a trial that lasted for over a month as it painstakingly poured over details like the existence of Zyklon-B insertion points and the significance of Prussian blue — all things that confirm gas chambers were used to kill. You know, the sort of stuff that can’t possibly be denied but is anyway because it is a fundamental human liberty to express opinions in a free society.

Rachel Weisz digs deep and creates a brash but deeply sympathetic character as the embattled Deborah Lipstadt. The plaintiff in this case is notable historian David Irving (bravely portrayed by Timothy Spall). An English author who had written extensively on the military and political history of World War II with a particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, Irving began marginalizing himself in 1988 with his perpetuation of the notion that the Holocaust was a propagandistic tool designed and used by the Jews to gain financial benefits and public notoriety. In 1996 he sued Lipstadt for remarks she made in her recent publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory — remarks he believed to be damaging to both his personal and professional reputation.

As a defendant in the English legal system, where it’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Lipstadt carries the burden of proof; that is to say, yes, her legal team (chiefly comprised of litigator Anthony Julius and libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, here portrayed by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson respectively) has to prove that Irving’s rhetoric is reliant upon omission of facts and details, and that such omission of facts and details was deliberate. One cannot hope for victory over their opponent simply because he or she happens to be a Nazi sympathizer. Adding to her difficulties, Lipstadt is expressly told not to speak during court, that she cannot appear on the witness stand. Nor can any London-dwelling survivor of those camps. Including their testimonies would only aid the enemy. It would invite the possibility of public humiliation and unwanted complications.

Naturally, cameras linger close to Weisz as her composure informs the tone and attitude of the film. Her face becomes tight and twisted in disgust and frustration as the implications of her challenging Irving rather than choosing to settle out of court begin to overwhelm. Evidence of an emotionally hefty if not ultimately rewarding shoot is written all over the actor’s face especially as she goes out on her nightly runs — Weisz of course being born of Jewish immigrants. Denial is riddled with tension and fraught with emotional crevasses down which we journey. The film is at its most sobering when we visit Auschwitz. Her attorneys must gather evidence that gas chambers were used for mass murder rather than protection from incoming bombs. For some time her character isn’t even trusting of her own defense, who must frequently remind their client that becoming emotional in court will not help anything.

Despite some hiccups the case itself is intelligently and thoughtfully presented, and though a lot of legalese is included even in the few scenes that do not take place in court it’s not alienating. Rather than condescend, the meticulous attention to detail creates the cold and clinical air of detachment lawyers are meant to exude, no matter what cause they are rallying behind. Though in this case, a quiet righteous anger in Scott and Wilkinson simmers just below the surface.

It’s a competently shot and well-acted courtroom procedural even if the story that develops outside the walls of this hallowed institution stumbles over itself, a little too excited to arrive at its logical conclusion; to rightfully bathe in the glory of a just resolution to an ugly legal battle. Ultimately Denial is a straightforward presentation of a complex and seminal case in English law, one that is supposed to have revolved around libel and libel alone but which ends up delving into matters of historical accuracy, a directorial decision that will no doubt become a major point of contention for historians and viewers who fancy themselves history buffs. In a sense we should be thankful these creative liberties ultimately pave the way to predictability. To think that this saga would end any other way would be, in a word, unbearable.

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Recommendation: Performances allow the film to rise above its narrative flaws. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Rachel Weisz these days. She is an intense performer and her Deborah Lipstadt is a great example of her skill set. What a resilient individual this person was (and is). This is a film to watch for great contributions from the supporting cast as well, namely Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. A heavy film, but surprisingly not as confronting as you might expect.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Green Room

'Green Room' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Jeremy Saulnier continues to polish the edges on his unique brand of filmmaking in 2016. Green Room is electrifying. It’s intense. It’s bloody. It’s raw. It’s wrong. But man, is it watchable. And I’m liking the theme here: last time it was Blue Ruin . . . now it’s Green Room. What’s next, Red Rum? No, but seriously. So far all of his movies have involved or in some way been built around murders, and murders that go horribly awry.

His sophomore effort, the mysterious crime drama Blue Ruin, afforded the young up-and-comer a much larger and more intrigued audience following his 2007 crash landing with Murder Party. So it wasn’t really any secret to those whose allegiances had already been established that his next offering would be bloody as well. All the same, his third feature is still likely to catch everyone off-guard as it offers a wicked(ly original) premise, and a performance from Patrick Stewart so cold Saulnier’s begging to be trashed by every filmgoer expecting Professor X’s world-weary wisdom to offer our mortally endangered musicians some hope.

Then again, Saulnier’s just as likely to be venerated by anyone looking for the next great genre film, as Green Room seduces with one gut-wrenching twist after another, offering a thrill ride that’s difficult not to watch, even despite the cruelty and the gore. Down-on-their-luck punk band The Ain’t Rights are on the last leg of a failing tour that very well could spell the end of the band after the latest stint at a decrepit restaurant half-heartedly thanks them with a measly sum of chump change. It’s gotten to the point where they’re having to siphon gas from random cars they find just so they can make it from venue to venue, and they’ve been subsisting on a steady diet of rice and beans. Rice and beans and fucking attitude, man.

In a small Portland suburb, a mohawk-wearing rocker named Tad (David W. Thompson) hooks them up with a gig at a third-rate club in the backwoods of god-knows-where Oregon, a snake pit filled with neo-Nazis, leather-clad hooligans and possible future victims of dominatrixes, all expecting the next sonic boom of bad music to throw them right back into their nightly frenzy. Even though they tout themselves as an angry clash of misfits, this lion’s den ain’t right for The Ain’t Rights, but they do need the money. So they play a set and while they almost get booed off the stage they make it through without actually being mobbed, so that’s a good thing.

An already uncomfortable situation turns nightmarish when they — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) — are preparing to leave only to stumble upon the aftermath of a murder backstage. What ensues is a series of increasingly dire cover-ups, all orchestrated by the ruthless skinhead Darcy (Stewart), the proprietor of this hateful little establishment. He has one goal: to pin the death of a random groupie named Emily on the visiting band so he and his fellow Nazi sympathizers can carry on as they were. So he traps them in the back with Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) and Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of Emily. If they have any hope of surviving, it lies in the band’s ability to outwit the horde of haters.

Green Room, complete with an inspired cast, a script provocatively grounded in reality, and a deeply cerebral soundtrack that evokes mood á la Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive, functions best as a slash-’em-up horror. Many of the deaths are played up for shock value — getting eaten alive by dogs works wonders in that regard. But this is every bit as compelling as a psychological mystery thriller given the perpetual shift in perspective as cameras rove in and out of the darkened facility, keeping track of both parties as one struggles to keep things under wraps and the other desperate to survive. It’s kinda obvious who we should be rooting for, but there’s also something darkly compelling about Darcy’s intelligence.

Saulnier keeps the suspense just this side of bearable as he powers toward a brutal final confrontation that somehow manages to match the intensity of everything that has preceded it. Implementing sparse dialogue, haunting and often claustrophobic shots of the surrounding wilderness, and, absent the trumpets of another bombastic score designed to signal that the movie is almost over, the standoff might be the very reason to see Green Room. But given everything that Patrick Stewart brings to the table, and the story’s grounded, simplistic composition, there are many elements supporting the theory that it won’t be long before Saulnier becomes a household name. He is a gifted filmmaker and the power that Green Room projects is proof of that.

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Recommendation: Bold, bloody, brutal. Jeremy Saulnier steps up the violence in this delightfully trashy backwoods horror-thriller hybrid that makes his previous effort look like a pleasant bedtime story. Fans of Patrick Stewart, be prepared for a wild ride. While others, fans of Saulnier perhaps, buckle in for the ride you’re expecting. He’s done it again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t die here with you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Woman in Gold

woman-in-gold-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, April 1, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell

Directed by: Simon Curtis

For a film trading in the recovery of stolen artwork at the hands of the Nazis Woman in Gold should, without necessarily resorting to graphic depiction, linger in the mind much longer than it’s going to.

Simon Curtis’ suitably respectful tone and ability to extract heartfelt performances from his leads does not make for a product that approaches poor quality, but here is a film that wastes more often than passes time laboring over detail in its over-reliance on flashbacks to set the scene of a contemporary legal battle. The legalities in question revolve around Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (an endearing Helen Mirren) and a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who together bring the Austrian government to court in a bitter dispute over whom some of the nation’s most famed artwork ultimately belong to.

One particular painting by Gustav Klimt, the ‘Woman in Gold’ portrait — so named by the Nazis who took it from her home — of Maria’s aunt Adele is regarded as “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria” and is valued at $135 million (this is the price a New York museum buys it for when all is said and done, anyway). This is the piece with which Maria’s ultimate concerns lie. Will the last remnants of her family history remain property of the famed Belvedere Gallery in Vienna or do they belong stateside with her? A large portion of the film is indeed spent in the present (well, in 1998 Los Angeles) focusing on the practicalities of setting up her case. Reynolds is excellent in another mature performance as Maria’s put-upon legal representation. His new job at a major law firm grants him a week to pursue this most unlikely avenue but his boss (Charles Dance) advises him that he ought not to get too invested.

Which of course he absolutely does. His initial impetus for helping out the elderly (and cranky) woman is of a financial nature, which no one can really blame him for. But things change once he has spent said week in Vienna only to have unsuccessfully built a case for Maria to retrieve the art. An Austrian journalist by the name of Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) inexplicably, though conveniently, takes an interest in the case as well, assuring them that not all hope is lost, although in order to pursue further action it’ll cost the pair a fortune in court costs. Thus far investing in the drama is almost as effortless as Mirren makes it look in portraying a woman so historically connected to, yet simultaneously repulsed by this part of the world, and Reynolds is again far removed from his days as a partying, wise-cracking slacker.

One of Woman in Gold‘s strengths is its ability to etch a portrait of human strength using minimally distracting cinematic tricks. The flashbacks are perhaps as ambitious as this film gets. Quite a few moments spent in the 30s serve to heighten the drama and contextualize our first visit to Vienna, a trip Maria initially claims she’d rather die before undertaking. We should have some background on this character, the significance of the artwork as well as the characters of Maria’s opposition. Of course, the fascists hiding in the shadows of the past we need little introduction to.

Unfortunately Curtis overestimates the technique’s effectiveness. After awhile the repetition and reinforcement of Maria’s haunted past cross over into redundant exercises in sentimentality. There are easily ten to 15 minutes that could be removed from his final cut. For a film that clocks in under the two hour mark time moves rather listlessly, save for a harrowing scene that explains just how narrowly Maria and her husband managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Woman in Gold is certainly not known for its action sequences, nor should it be, and perhaps it is overly critical to call out its deliberate pacing for this is a narrative that effectively absorbs — particularly hitting upon nostalgia with a marvelously crafted opening scene. Impossible to shake though, is the sense that the film sans a few of the trips down memory lane would have struck a deeper nerve.

This is a potent film all the same. It’s terrifically acted and to their credit the flashback cuts possess an ethereal quality that begets an, ironically enough, simpler era. They counter in an often colder palette the warm yellows and reds of the modern portions. Indeed, cinematography resembles that of a labor of artistic love. Maybe not as elegant as a Klimt, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes and heart all the same.

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3-5Recommendation: The true story of Maria Altmann, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 94, makes for compelling cinema. This is a few shades away from being a truly memorable tale though and could have benefitted from editing and a few sharper scenes. Still, it’s getting ever more exciting watching Ryan Reynolds adapt his skill set and any fan of historical events and Helen Mirren ought not to give this a pass.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “I wasn’t going to miss all of the fun! This is like a James Bond film, and you’re Sean Connery.”

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