RESISTANCE (2020)

March 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Learning of the courageous people who found their own way to battle the Nazis during World War II never gets old. Sometimes brain power and courage are more important than gun power. Such is the case in this latest from writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who brings a fascinating story from within the French Resistance to the big screen. This is a group that rescued 10,000 orphaned kids, and this is a story of one special man from within that group.

Jesse Eisenberg (and an iffy French accent) plays Marcel, the son of a multi-generational Jewish butcher in Strasbourg France. Out of familial duty, Marcel works at the butcher shop with his father, but his passion is in performing arts. One evening his dad (Karl Markovics) ‘catches’ him performing a silent Charlie Chaplin act on stage at a local cabaret. A parental lecture follows. Marcel’s penchant for entertaining does come in handy when he helps his brother Alain (Felix Moati) and cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig, SON OF SAUL) rescue 123 orphans.

The opening sequence in the film finds young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, Lorna Luft in JUDY) witnessing her Jewish parents being murdered in the street outside their Munich home by Nazis in 1938. We next see her in the group of 123 orphans noted above. As a kind of framing device, we flash forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, as General George S Patton (Ed Harris) is addressing the troops and telling the story of a remarkable man. That man is Marcel, and the film then takes us through his journey and we “see” the story that General Patton is “telling.”

When Marcel and his brother agree to join the French Jewish Resistance (also known as Organization Juive de Combat, OJC), they face more danger, and maintain their focus on rescuing orphans. Helping in the cause is Emma (Clemence Poesy, IN BRUGES), and a mutual respect and attraction forms between she and Marcel. The brutality of the war is shown through the actions of Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). As the head of the Gestapo in France (and known as The Butcher of Lyon), Barbie works out of the Hotel Terminus, and his sadistic tendencies find their way into the Resistance.

Once the war escalates to a certain point, the Resistance must decide whether it’s best to continue hiding the kids, or risk the perilous journey across the Alps in hopes of freedom. In reality, it’s not much of a decision, as staying put likely means torture, if not death. There are some touching moments between Marcel and the kids, and some acts of pure bravery from all involved.

At times, the film teeters into LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL territory, but never for long. The moments of pure terror are well presented, yet never overly graphic. We feel the stress of the Resistance as they struggle to get the kids to safety, and feel their pain in tragic losses. As the film ends, General Patton finishes his story by introducing his story’s Marcel. The spotlight then lands on Marcel Marceau in full make-up and costume. Marceau, of course, went on to become famous and beloved around the world as the most famous mime. Filmmaker Jakubowicz has delivered yet another fascinating story of heroism and courage … another story that deserves to be remembered.

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1917 (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s now been over 100 years since World War I ended. The Great War garners barely a mention in high school history books these days, and Hollywood has devoted much more time and energy to WWII. Filmmaker Peter Jackson did his part with last year’s stunning documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a video and photographic look at the actual people involved in the First World War. And now, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) delivers another glimpse … and another technical marvel.

Mr. Mendes, working with Oscar winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049) and Oscar winning Film Editor Lee Smith (DUNKIRK), has shot and edited the film to give the look of one continuous take in real time. Although used previously in such films as Hitchcock’s ROPE and Inarritu’s BIRDMAN, the single take approach is certainly no gimmick here. We open on two young British soldiers lounging in a prairie as they are summoned to report to the commander. Their mission is described as critical, as a British battalion is preparing to walk into a deadly trap set by the Germans. More than 1600 lives are at stake and the phone lines are down. It’s up to Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield to work their way across No Man’s Land to the front line and hand-deliver an order stopping the attack. Oh, and one more detail: Blake’s older brother is in the battalion he is tasked with warning.

The real time approach serves the purpose of allowing viewers to take on the urgency of Blake and Schofield. We experience the tension and horrors of war. Barbed wire, booby traps, slushy trenches, snipers, rats, dead bodies, dogfights (the aerial type) and towns under siege all play a part here as the men rush towards their goal of saving fellow soldiers lives, including a beloved family member. Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) plays Blake, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) plays Schofield. We spot the personality differences between them. Blake is super focused and determined to save his brother, while Schofield doesn’t welcome the assignment, but is a dutiful soldier and loyal friend.

It’s really the Schofield character with whom the viewer mostly relates. He’s no super soldier or Jason Bourne-type, but rather a young man trying to stay alive and fulfill his orders. With the relentless pacing of the film, we feel the fear and admire the courage. There is an especially touching scene in a bombed-out town where paths are crossed with a French woman (Claire Duburcq) caring for an orphaned infant. It’s a reminder that humanity still exists, even within the bounds of war.

There is no clock ticking in the corner of the screen, but we know time is of the essence, and quite limited. The camera seems to be always moving forward, rarely allowing for us or the characters to exhale. As you might expect, running is done frequently – sometimes towards something, sometimes from it. Roger Deakins is in prime form here with his camera, and there are too many remarkable moments to mention them all; however, the river rapids and waterfall, and the town under siege at night, are two of the most incredible sequences I’ve seen on screen.

Along the journey, some familiar faces pop up as military men: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Although each appears only briefly, it’s a testament to their acting prowess that each is memorable. The chaos and relentless terror of war is on display, more often than not. But this isn’t a film designed to create deep thoughts or serious debates on the merits of war. Instead, it’s meant to focus on one of the countless personal stories that occur during war. War is fought by people, not faceless countries, and each person has their own story.

Non-linear story telling has been a movie-thing since even before MEMENTO, but director Mendes (and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, “Penny Dreadful”) show us the true presentation of linear … in the moment and by the moment. GALLIPOLI and PATHS OF GLORY are about the closest comparisons I can come up with, and the weight of the film is felt physically and emotionally as we are drawn in. The exceptional score from Thomas Newman (14 time Oscar nominee) serves to accentuate the chaos and relentless terror. It’s a work of art and a unique viewing experience.

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A HIDDEN LIFE (2019)

December 20, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With a title pulled from a line in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick continues his deep probe into humanity and faith … recurring themes in most of his films, and especially the run that began with his excellent THE TREE OF LIFE (2012). This current film is easily his most accessible over that period as it focuses on the (mostly) true story of Austrian WWII conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter.

The film opens with contrasting images: a black screen with sounds of nature fading to a bucolic Austrian Alps village versus dramatic historical clips of Hitler (I believe from Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL). The rural farming village we see is Sankt Radegund, the idyllic community where Franz Jagerstatter (played by August Diehl, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) lives off the land with his wife Franziska “Fani” (played by Valerie Pachner) and their three young daughters. It’s a family bonded by love. The family and fellow villagers go about the rigors of daily life as the war spreads. In 1940, Franz is sent to Enns Military base for training, and is then returned to his village under a farming exemption.

What follows is a first half filled with dread as Franz struggles with his own beliefs in a new world order that has no room for individual thought. He refuses to swear an oath to Hitler, despite the rest of the villagers doing so. He knows what this means, as does his wife. As Franz refuses the “Heil Hitler”, he is described as being something worse than an enemy – a traitor. He holds firmly to his principles … vague to us, yet crystal clear to him. He becomes a pariah in his own village, as even the priest urges him to relent by stating he has “a duty to the fatherland.”

Don’t they know evil when they see it?” Franz asks the question we have all been asking since Hitler came to power. When he is called to duty in 1943, Franz and Fani know the eventual outcome. Franz is asked by many, and in various ways, “What purpose does it serve?” No one can make sense of his stand. As he is imprisoned at Tegel Prison, solicitors played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alexander Fehling both try to convince him to pledge loyalty and save his life. Franz’s response is, “I can’t do what I know is wrong.”

With the first half being filled with dread and anxiety, the second half is all about the suffering. Franz is locked away with very little access to the nature or family he holds so dear, while Fani is a village outcast, trying desperately to raise their daughters and put food in their mouths. They are each in their own prison – isolated from the life they love. From Tegel Prison in 1943, Franz writes many letters to Fani. The letters are philosophy mixed with hope and love, and provide the source of how his story was discovered many years ago.

Anyone familiar with Malick’s films know that each is a visual work of artistry. Instead of his usual cinematographer, 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, this film features the camera work of Jorg Widmer (who assisted Lubezki on THE TREE OF LIFE). The film lives up to our expectations, especially in capturing the vitality and spirit of nature through lush landscapes, mountains, trees, grasses, gardens, streams, rivers, and a waterfall. The family is one with nature, which stands in stark contrast to Franz inside the cold prison walls. Composer James Newton Howard brilliantly uses a lone violin, as well as a mixture of classical music. This was the final film for two extraordinary actors who recently passed away. Michael Nyqvist plays the Bishop who tells Franz that if God gave us free will, then we are responsible for what we do and what we don’t do. Bruno Ganz plays the head judge on the committee that decides Franz’s fate.

We could describe the film as either a tragic love story or an ode to faith and principles. Both fit, and yet both fall short. Terrence Malick is a confounding and brilliant and artistic filmmaker. After his breakthrough film DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), he took a 20 year hiatus before filming THE THIN RED LINE (his other WWII film). Recently he has proven much more productive, yet he remains a meticulous craftsman – taking three years to edit this film. His visual style is quite unique, yet he has the skill to make a messenger’s bicycle bell send chills. He was able to meet Franz’s surviving daughters (now in their 80’s) prior to filming, as they still live near this village. We are quite fortunate that this exquisite filmmaker is allowing us to tag along on his search for the meaning of life and his exploration of faith … just make sure you set aside 3 hours for the lesson.

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MIDWAY (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Japan’s World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn’t like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.

Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism … many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it’s no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides – it’s just displayed differently.

The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein’s performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we’ve come to expect for war movies.

Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It’s also a reminder that the “big” story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people … people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.

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MISSION OF HONOR (2019)

March 14, 2019

aka HURRICANE

 Greetings again from the darkness. The true story of the Polish fighter pilots who helped the Royal Air Force (RAF) win the Battle of Britain in WWII is certainly fascinating and deserves telling. However, the budget constraints are a hindrance to this production, and though the story gets told, it’s missing the visual flair we’ve come to expect. It’s the first screenplay from co-writers Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith, and together with director David Blair, they all seem to understand the historical importance of the story and those involved.

The film begins in 1940 German occupied France, and this is where we first see Zumbach (played by Iwan Rheon), on his way to meet up with his fellow Polish pilots in England. Poland had only been a free standing country for about 20 years at this time, and these men were committed to salvaging their country … even if this meant fighting with the RAF against Germany. Initially the arrogance of British commanders borders on racism, as it’s assumed the Polish fighters don’t compare to the elite Royal Air Force pilots. Once stationed in Northolt under Kentowski (Milo Gibson, Mel’s son), Squadron 303 begins to take shape flying Hurricanes, disproving most of the preconceptions of British brass and pilots; although their success does cause some jealousy in the ranks over the prowess of the Polish pilots.

The less than stellar CGI used for the dogfights is a bit distracting, especially since there is only minimal character development. Polish fighter ace Witold Urbanowicz (played by Dorcin Morocinski) is idolized, but we learn very little about the man outside of flashbacks of his family in war torn Poland. There is a budding romance with Zumbach and Phyllis Lambert (Stephanie Martini), but quite a few assumptions must be made to take us to their final sequence. The character of Ms. Lambert is the standout female role here, and though she’s given a few quality scenes, it’s unfortunate that it’s her shock of blonde hair that seems to stand out most.

The film concludes in 1946 London with the victory parade for King George VI. Despite Polish pilots helping immensely in the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain, no Polish pilots marched with the Allied forces. As a bitter Zumbach states, “we wouldn’t want to offend %&*$ing Stalin.” Squadron 303 was the highest scoring squadron of RAF during the war, and it’s unforgivable how the British viewed Polish casualties as mere numbers, despite the dead being friends and countrymen to the Polish pilots. This is overall a respectful approach to a key historical story … a story in which all Polish people should take pride.

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OUTLAW KING (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much was made of the ‘artistic license’ director Mel Gibson took in creating his own version of historical events and actions of William Wallace for his Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART (1995). Director David Mackenzie (in his follow up to the excellent HELL OR HIGH WATER, 2016) pays a bit more attention to historical details as he picks up the story at the end of Wallace’s rebellion – and the beginning of the uprising led by Robert the Bruce.

Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce, a man forced to pledge loyalty to Kind Edward I and England prior to leading the rebellion. It’s the year 1304 and director Mackenzie’s opening sequence is a several minute long tracking shot that is simply superb. It features our introduction to Robert the Bruce (Pine), King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and Prince Edward (Billy Howle, ON CHESIL BEACH), as well as an early swordfight and an eye-popping fireball shot from an enormous catapult into the protective wall of a distant castle.

Not long after, we learn William Wallace has been killed, the King has provided Robert the Bruce a wife in Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) and Robert  takes the life of fellow Scotsman John Comyn … an act that costs him dearly in the early going. However, it does lead to his being named King of Scots by the Church, and he slowly begins to build his forces. Of course, Scotland’s forces are always dwarfed in numbers by that of the English Empire, but never in spirit.

Pine plays Robert the Bruce as the strong, (mostly) silent leader, while Howle and Aaron Taylor-Johnson cross into camp in their respective portrayals of Prince Edward (yet another wide-eyed son intent on making his father proud) and James Douglas (a manic, crazy-eyed Scotsman bent on revenge). Ms. Pugh brings courage and a headstrong nature to Elizabeth (in far too limited a role), while Mr. Dillane shows us a worn down King Edward I who gets the film’s best line … “I am so sick of Scotland!”

The two words of the title are actually separated by a slash in the opening credits; a device meant to emphasize the dual sides to the man and his actions. In addition to that opening long shot, there is a visually stunning sequence of a nighttime raid on a camp site. Unfortunately after that, we get mostly mud and blood, including the pivotal Battle of Loudon Hill which features the ultimate in home field advantage. There are some terrific costumes and set pieces, but mostly it’s elaborate and detailed moviemaking (with a few downright silly moments) that never fully clicks. Perhaps that’s a factor of having 5 different writers involved. With many familiar faces from “Game of Thrones”, it will be interesting to see how this plays on laptops and TVs via Netflix. Another Robert the Bruce film is scheduled for theatrical release in 2019, and the inevitable comparison will be made at that time.

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A PRIVATE WAR (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Marie Colvin was a (seemingly) fearless war correspondent obsessed with giving a voice to those forgotten during war. Were she alive today, she could not have hand-picked a better filmmaker than Matthew Heineman to tell her story. Director Heineman was Oscar nominated for CARTEL LAND (2014) and, combined with his CITY OF GHOSTS (2017), gives him two of the best ever documentaries that show what the front lines are like in both international wars and the equally dangerous wars being fought over drug territories. Heineman has carried his own camera directly into the center of those storms, while Ms. Colvin took her pen and pad. Simpatico.

Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” (screenplay by Arash Amel), the film benefits from the extraordinary and courageous work of Ms. Colvin, and also a terrific performance from Rosamund Pike (words I’ve not previously written). Ms. Pike captures the extremes of Ms. Colvin’s life – the atrocities of war and the self-prescribed treatment of her PTSD through vodka, and does so in a manner that always seems believable. She lets us in to a world most of us can’t imagine.

As a war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times (since 1986), Ms. Colvin told the stories we’d rather not know. In her words, “I saw it, so you don’t have to.” The film begins with a stunning overhead view of 2012 war-ravaged Homs Syria (destruction courtesy of Assad’s soldiers) – a place that starts the film and later ends the story. We then flash back to 2001 London so we can witness Marie in society and struggling with a personal relationship. She then chooses, against her editor’s (Tom Hollander) guidance to cover Sri Lanka. It’s a decision that cost her an eye, while also providing her recognition as the eye-patch wearing female war reporter.

In 2003, a tip takes her to a previously undiscovered mass grave site in Fallujah. This is her first work alongside photographer Paul Conroy (played by Jamie Dornan). Having “seen more war than most soldiers”, Ms. Colvin’s severe alcoholism can’t kill the nightmares, visions, and PTSD. After time in a clinic, she returns to work. We see her in 2009 Afghanistan and then pulling no punches when interviewing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. During these assignments, we learn much about Ms. Colvin’s personality and approach. She is rarely without a cigarette, admits to wearing Le Perla lingerie (and why), carries Martha Gellhorn’s “The Face of War” as her field manual, and wins two British Foreign Journalist of the Year awards – though seeing her at the banquets is quite surreal.

Hollander’s subtle performance as news editor Sean Ryan is also quite impressive. He fears for her safety (and even questions her sanity) but is in constant conflict with the need to sell newspapers – something Ms. Colvin’s stories certainly did. Stanley Tucci has a role as Tony Shaw, her love interest, but despite her words, we never believe he and his sailboat are ever more than a distraction from her obsession with the front lines. The final sequence in 2012 Homs Syria is stunning, as is her final interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN.

Ms. Pike has altered her voice to mimic the deeper tone of Marie Colvin – her efforts confirmed in the final interview played at the film’s end. It’s quite a career boost for Ms. Pike, who has previously been known for playing ice queens in films like GONE GIRL. She captures the traumatized Marie, but also the obsession of someone whose DNA constantly drove her back to the stories that needed to be told.

Director Heineman’s unique perspective combined with the cinematography of 3 time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (a favorite of Scorcese, Tarantino, and Oliver Stone) delivers a realism of war that we rarely see on screen. Mr. Richardson also shot SALVADOR (1986) and PLATOON (1986) and his work here surpasses both. The film gives us a glimpse at the psychological effects of such reporting, and a feel for the constant stress of being surrounded by tragedy and danger. This is fitting tribute to a courageous and very skilled woman, although I do wish the men weren’t constantly helping her out of trucks and jeeps.

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