THE UNKNOWN GIRL (2017, La Fille Inconnue, France)

September 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A nice story set-up is always welcome, and this one delivers a creative attention-grabber that draws us in pretty quickly. Brothers and long-time filmmaking collaborators Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne (TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, THE KID WITH A BIKE) edited the film a bit after its Cannes screening, and the result is a quiet little whodunit with an interesting lead actress performance.

A doctor and her intern have a disagreement at closing time, and opt not to answer the clinic door when a young lady rings after hours. The doctor’s guilty conscience leads her to become obsessed with finding out the name of the lady when she turns up murdered the next morning. It’s passionate and amateur sleuthing at its most awkward, unconventional, and dangerous.

Dr Jenny Davin has recently accepted a post at the prestigious Kennedy Hospital, replacing a retiring doctor. The tragedy causes a change of mind on the job so that she may focus on the case and on continuing patient care through her clinic. The filmmakers initially wanted Marion Cotillard for the role (what filmmaker wouldn’t?), but Adele Haenel (LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT) brings her own approach, and though she doesn’t come across as the warmest person, it’s quite apparent that she is a dedicated doctor who cares very much for her patients. Even when she tells her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) that “a good doctor must control his emotions”, she is ever-stoic with her delivery.

The story is missing the usual Dardenne brothers’ twist, and instead, at its core is an ill-advised detective story and a case of morality, guilt, and the drive to do the right thing. The house calls and open communication with doctors will confound some U.S. viewers, but the various vignettes during Dr. Davin’s gumshoe work keep us engaged. The sub-plot with Dr. Davin reigniting intern Julien’s passion for medicine also maintains the minimalist approach and restrained performances … all with a very grounded approach with mostly handheld cameras.

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SCHOOL LIFE (2017, doc)

September 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With all the talk about statues these days, maybe it’s career teachers like John and Amanda Leyden who deserve their bronzed images displayed in public so that we may all pay proper respect. The film follows the married couple during their 46th and final year as educators at Headfort School, the only remaining primary boarding school in Ireland. These two have been inspirational and influential to so many students over the years, and now they find themselves in a quandary about how to leave the only life they’ve known since becoming adults.

Co-writers and co-directors Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane, along with script consultant Etienne Essery, use a loose structure in documenting the daily activities, and the blending of traditions with modernity, within the somewhat imposing walls of Headfort. We find it pleasurable to focus on passionate, dedicated teachers rather than on what’s broken with today’s education system.

John’s hard line stance and frequent use of sarcasm (“That wasn’t entirely bad”) effectively masks his caring nature and desire to help students learn and improve. He teaches Latin, Math and coaches the student band that plays many familiar rock songs. He considers this just as important as any class. Amanda takes a more traditional approach in teaching Literature. She uses a well-refined mixture of encouragement and books to facilitate the lessons and motivate students to read more.

The past and present are always on display here … with both the institution and this couple. School and home are blurred lines for the students as well as for John and Amanda. “If we don’t come here, what’ll we do all day?” This line speaks to the uncertainty and wariness that are weighing on the couple as their career end approaches.

As viewers, we must keep in mind that these are privileged children, all of whom are likely to move on to elite secondary schools. In fact, the arrival of selection letters plays a role near year end. When alone at home, we hear John and Amanda complain about students, not unlike you probably complain about your co-workers. The difference here is that this man and woman are truly dedicated to helping each student become their best self.

The film style allows the day-to-day challenges to appear as they may, and while little is learned about individual students, it’s clear that John and Amanda are lost about leaving the only working life they’ve experienced … a devotion to helping kids develop. In fact, the Headmaster, Dermot Dix, is a former student of the Leyden’s. The film’s original title, In Loco Parentis, translates to “in place of parents” … we wish these pseudo-parents nothing but the best in the biggest transition of their life. They certainly have earned happiness, and maybe even a statue.

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VICEROY’S HOUSE (2017)

August 31, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1947 Partition of India is personally important and influential to director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), though we don’t understand exactly how until the closing credits roll. Until that point, we find ourselves questioning why Ms. Chadha and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges (her husband) and Moira Buffini attempt such an obvious crowd-pleasing structure for this historical saga. Perhaps the strategy was to educate as many as possible on the events from 70 years ago.

An opening quote tells us “History is written by the victors.” Is this true? If so, who are the victors in this story? The British Empire ruled India for three centuries and their last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (great-grandson of Queen Victoria), was charged with structuring a peaceful transition to independence. The near impossibility of this challenge should have been readily apparent given the deep divisions created by religious and cultural differences, plus the immense friction between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. “Giving a nation back to its people” is not so simple when dealing with 20% of the world’s population.

Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson play Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, respectively. Despite managing what history has proven to be a disastrous decision, he is treated quite kindly by the filmmakers. Seemingly with his heart in the right place, Lord Mountbatten is presented as a pawn for the real power broker in England. His wife, on the other hand, is quite progressive and appears sincere in her efforts to better understand the Indian citizenry. In fact, as the most intriguing figure in the film, more focus on Edwina would have been welcome.

Michael Gambon plays General Hastings Ismay, while Tanveer Ghani is Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) and Denzil Smith plays Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Pakistan’s leader). These are the key players in negotiations, while inexplicably, the filmmakers choose to veer from history and offer up the worst kind of cinematic melodrama: star-crossed lovers in the vein of Romeo and Juliet.

As a metaphor for the Partition, the two lovers being torn apart by forces beyond their control is quite simply an unnecessary distraction. Mani Dayal (so good in THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) plays Jeet, a Hindu servant (one of 500) at the Viceroy House, while Huma Qureshi plays Aalia, the beautiful Muslim daughter of Ali (the late great Om Puri). Furtive glances are about as close as the two come to an actual relationship, but the film spends an inordinate amount of time on their wishes to be together.

There are too many cringe-inducing moments for the film to be considered a serious historical epic. Gandhi gets some screen time and is absurdly described as “The British Empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth”. Other moments seem all too relevant today. The promise that “Muslims will not be treated as second class citizens” could easily be heard on a current newscast. The decision to split Pakistan and India seems motivated by Britain’s design on oil and geographic protection from Russia … both contemporary motivations for many decisions these days.

The closing credits highlight the effects of the Partition: 14 million people migrated with approximately one million dead. We also get actual newsreel footage of the key figures from the story, as well as the documented reasoning of why this was so personal for director Chadha … perhaps too personal.

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IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (Japan, 2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is something hypnotic about the hand-drawn animation of writer/director Sunao Katabuchi’s film based on the 2007-09 Japanese manga (comic) by Fumiyo Kouno. With some similarities to Takahata’s 1988 classic Grave of the Fireflies, it’s more than a wartime drama – it’s a story of the human spirit.

It’s 1935 and Suzu is a young girl who lives in Eba, a town in Hiroshima. She is an exceptional artist with a vibrant imagination and an adventurous approach to life. Her innocence and pleasant childhood existence is rocked when, as a teenager, she receives an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal from a stranger. Life with his family in Kure forces Suzu into a daily routine of cleaning, mending and cooking – all while longing for her family in Eba.

The film clicks through the months and years, and provides a history of war time from the perspective of a family and village. While the date of August 6, 1945 hovers on the viewer’s mind, we experience how family dynamics are affected by war time. For Suzu, her daily routines such as food preparation provide a necessary structure and distraction, despite the ever-worsening shortage of food and supplies. These stresses are compounded by air raid warnings over the radio and Suzu suffers through vivid nightmares.

We so easily connect with Suzu as she continually fights through hardships – both physical and emotional – because of her determination to live a good life and overcome all obstacles. This is such expert story telling with a beautiful presentation, that the film periodically reminds us that war is close by. Even in a war torn country, the people must find a way to go about daily life while treasuring the rare moments of joy and understanding the strength of togetherness. It’s rare that an animated movie can deliver such a humanist look at fully formed characters and their feelings … all within a historical setting.

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FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON (Mal de pierres, France, 2017)

August 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Nicole Garcia (The Adversary, 2002) takes the best-selling novel from Milena Agus and harkens back to good old-fashioned movie melodrama – with a French twist. Of course, most any project is elevated with the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard in the lead role. Few can suffer on screen as expertly as Ms. Cotillard, and she conveys that disquiet through most of this story.

What is love? You’d best not look to Gabrielle (Cotillard) for clarification. As a young woman, her search for love and sexual fulfillment follows the fantasies of the novels she reads (Wuthering Heights). Her corresponding inappropriate behavior teeters between delusion and hysteria. It’s the 1950’s in rural France, so her actions and attitude are not much appreciated, and her parents bribe Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), a local bricklayer, to marry Gabrielle. She is then given the choice of (an “arranged”) marriage or a mental institution.

As a romantic dreamer whose blurred reality expects love to mirror those romance novels, Gabrielle’s self-centeredness and failure to grasp reality results in a loveless marriage – and easily one of the most uncomfortable lovemaking scenes in the history of French cinema. Beyond that, severe kidney stones make it impossible for her to bear children. In hopes of “the cure”, she is sent for treatment to a spa in the Alps (it’s the same spa from Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film YOUTH).

While at the spa, she meets handsome Andre (Louis Garrel), a gravely ill soldier from the Indochina War. Gabrielle imagines Andre to be everything she dreamt a lover should be (except for that whole sickness thing). The contrast between the two love-making sessions is startling, and it seems as though Gabrielle has found her bliss.

The years pass after her release from the spa, and Gabrielle makes one mistake after another … blind to what and who is right in front of her … while holding on to the dreamer’s dream. She is certainly not a likeable person, and is downright cruel to her loyal (and extremely quiet) husband Jose. However, Ms. Cotillard is such an accomplished actress that we somehow pull for Gabrielle to “snap out of it”.

The novel was adapted by Jacques Fieschi, Natalie Carter and director Garcia, and you’ll likely either be a fan or not, depending on your taste for old-fashioned melodrama. Despite numerous awkward moments, it’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Christophe Beaucame. Additionally, the music plays a vital role here – both composer Daniel Pemberton’s use of the violin, and the duality of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto that connects Gabrielle’s two worlds. You may say she’s a dreamer, but I hope she’s the only one.

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DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

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FOOTNOTES (Sur qued piel danser, France, 2017)

July 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. On the heels of success experienced by LA LA Land, and “inspired by the films of Jacques Demy and Stanley Donen”, co-writers and co-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut find the right fit with this whimsical musical-comedy that puts coming-of-age and social commentary on equal footing.

Pauline Etienne stars as Julie, an eager, hardworking young lady who flip-flops between odd jobs (McJobs) just trying to make ends meet in a tough French economy. When she secures a job as a stocker in a high-profile shoe (not footwear) factory, Julie is determined to buckle down, not step on toes, win over her stern supervisor (Clementine Yelnik), and finally get her life in order. Unfortunately, there are rumors of an upgrade, which in the world of corporate management double-speak means downsizing, or even closing the factory. Julie then spends most of the movie treading lightly between romance, a gruff boss, and her activist co-workers.

This is not the kind of musical where the singing voices, original songs or dancing will knock your socks off, but it all relates to the story and nothing seems forced. Feeling threatened, the factory ladies step up their game by singing “Let’s Fight Back” with some creative choreography that makes good use of the warehouse space. One of the delivery drivers (Olivier Chantreau) takes a shine to Julie, even though the boss assumes she is behind the workers’ strike and tries to boot her from the job.

Luic Corbery plays the smarmy CEO whose polished misleading statements are laced with charm as he attempts to re-buff the angry protests from the factory workers; all the while scheming to move operations to lower-cost China. With female solidarity and empowerment around her, Julie must decide if she will be the sole outlier, or if this is her chance to find her true self. It’s in these scenes where Ms. Etienne’s real-person screen presence spikes the story with the well-meaning persona that makes us care.

The working class dream of a better life is a constant throughout, though the ending is a bit disappointing given what we have watched Julie trudge through. The choreography is not flashy or polished, but rather low key and meaningful. There is a touch of the classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (including a song/dance featuring multi-colored umbrellas), and although it’s not at that level, it nonetheless is an admirable and enjoyable film. It should be noted that the original title Julie and the Shoe Factory does not quite take advantage of the wordplay offered by the English title.

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