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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August 25, 2016

In order of disappearance Greetings again from the darkness. “The Count” versus “Papa” should not be mistaken for a new cartoon featuring Sesame Street battling The Smurfs. This Norwegian film from director Hans Petter Moland and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson is oddly entertaining, often funny and plenty violent.

Stellan Skarsgard stars as Nils Dickman, a quiet, keep-to-himself snow plow operator who is being recognized as his town’s Citizen of the Year. We see Nils clearing what appears to be the same roads over and over with a snow blower that looks like some type of NASA moon vehicle … the mundane life having a rhythm that seems to deliver a kind of peace. Nils’ untroubled world is rocked when his son is murdered under suspicious circumstances. It kicks off his mission for revenge … and in the process, this snow plow operator accidently initiates a mob war between the Norwegians and the Serbs. This might have you wondering where the humor comes in. It could be compared to a Charles Bronson movie – if Bronson was an otherwise meek fellow who was laser-focused on revenge for his son’s murder (actually, that sounds like the synopsis of quite a few Bronson movies).

The film is divided into chapters named after the dead bodies … and it’s a rapidly changing scoreboard. I counted 14 chapters and 24 victims, but I’ll admit it’s quite possible I missed one or two. The always interesting Bruno Ganz plays Papa, the cold-blooded leader of the Serbian mob who rarely needs to speak. Pal Sverre Hagen plays “The Count” … the first vegan movie gangster I can recall, and certainly a memorable character who at times seems like a poser, while at other times proves he is ruthless.

The three main characters all have sons who play a major role in both the story and their motivation, and there is a certain symmetry in the ending as two ride off into the proverbial sunset (though the sun evidently rarely shines in this town). And even if you didn’t enjoy the subtle humor (both situational and dialogue-driven), you are likely to find a least a chuckle in one of the main character’s final words for his ex-wife.

Coen Brothers influence permeates the frosty air – maybe I didn’t mention that it’s snowy and beyond cold in every scene. The snow is a character here and the real characters fall into one extreme or the other … subdued on the surface or eccentric and desperate for attention. These conflicts bring humor to situations that would otherwise offer nothing but gloom. It’s an unconventional and stylish film and one that will probably find a loyal and appreciative audience.

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March 31, 2016

remember Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, 81 year old Maggie Smith impressed with her lead role in The Lady in the Van. And now, just a few weeks later, comes 86 year old Christopher Plummer in a gut-wrenching performance as Zev Guttman, a 90 year old German grieving widower suffering from dementia. Don’t let that description fool you … Zev goes on a cross-continent road trip with a mission of seeking justice against the Auschwitz guard who killed his family more than 70 years ago.

Zev lives in a nursing home and often can’t remember to wear shoes, much less that his beloved wife Ruth has passed away. It turns out another resident/patient at the home shares a history at Auschwitz with him. Wheelchair-bound Max (Martin Landau) says the two men are the last surviving members of their cell block, and must work together to find the guard – now living under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander – and find justice for their families. So we find ourselves with a coalition of sympathetic senior citizen Nazi hunters.

Given the war atrocities, it makes sense that over the years, many movies have placed Nazi hunting as a core theme. Among the most well known are: The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Inglourious Bastards (2009), and The Debt (2010). But leave it to director Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Where the Truth Lies) to find a different spin and a twist on a familiar theme. At times, Zev’s dementia distracts us from his vengeful mission, while at various other times, the innocence of children acts as a dual reminder – the fragility of old age vs. the eye-for-eye brutality.

It’s Landau’s Max who acts as a type of narrative structure for the story. His sharp and focused plan is written out in letter form so that Zev can constantly refer and be reminded of his purpose. The letter also provides us viewers with the necessary back-story to fully comprehend the what’s and why’s. Each time Zev re-reads the letter, he re-experiences the loss of his wife – yet another of the film’s reminders of the effects of dementia.

Zev’s search takes him from Ohio to Canada to Idaho to Lake Tahoe. He goes through four Rudy Kurlanders – with Bruno Ganz (Downfall, 2004) and Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot (1981) representing two. There is also a very uncomfortable sequence involving Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) which reminds that hatred is often passed down through generations.

The nursing home “getaway” and the purchase of a gun have us thinking Zev is some type of senior citizen Jason Bourne – sharing the lack of memory, but none of the skills. The title of “Remember” has many meanings and interpretations here, not the least of which is as a display of loss, guilt, revenge, family and old age. Even the most poignant moment of the film occurs when Zev says “I remember”.

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WINGS OF DESIRE (1987, Germany, Der Himmel uber Berlin)

January 26, 2014

wings of desire Greetings again from the darkness. Angels have been frequently cast as characters in movies such as Heaven Can Wait, It’s a Wonderful Life, Angels in the Outfield and the American remake of this one … City of Angels with Nic Cage. Director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas 1984) has always taken a poetic approach with filmmaking, even with his documentaries such as Pina (2011). His slow, thought-provoking style is not to everyone’s liking, but he has real talent for inspiring us to question ourselves, question others, and question life.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two long-term angels who drift through the streets and libraries of WWII Berlin observing and listening to the internal thoughts and mental meandering of citizens … the wishes, the hopes, the happiness, the tragic, the loneliness … all emotions experienced in a typical day. The angels try to ease pain by offering a soothing hand on the shoulder, but they can have no direct impact and aren’t always successful. Damiel finds himself drawn to a Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a circus trapeze artist whose line “Most of the time I’m too aware to be sad” could easily have been the words of the angels.

There is an over-lapping subplot with Peter Falk playing himself as an actor in a German film. His character provides an instant infusion of interest and mystique, which the story later resolves. As Damiel gets closer to making the no-going-back decision to become human and bond with Marion, we see more of the fleeting moments that make up our lives. The angels see all, but can do very little. It’s this existence that makes Damiel’s decision understandable.

Famed cinematographer Henri Alekam’s floating camera, mixed lighting and dramatic contrast of black & white (angels view) and color (human view), add to the meditative effects of the film. There is a healthy dose of philosophy, metaphysics and spiritual questioning that goes on, including the three specifics asked by the film: Why am I me and not you? Why and I here and not there? When did time begin and where does space end? If such thoughtfulness is inspiring to you, then this Wim Wenders (Cannes’ Best Director winner) and Peter Handke (German playwright) script should keep you drifting with your thoughts for quite some time.

***NOTE: if you are unfamiliar with Bruno Ganz, not only is this film recommended, but so is his chilling turn as Adolph Hitler in Downfall from 2004.

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October 27, 2013

counselor Greetings again from the darkness. The best dramatic writers thrive on creating a story filled with intricacies, multi-faceted characters, mis-direction, and a complex interweaving of sub-plots. Cormac McCarthy has proved he is one of the best such writers through his highly successful novels … some of which have made the transition to the screen: All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and of course, No Country for Old Men. This, however, is his first attempt at an original screenplay. Describing it as a disappointment is a severe understatement.

The cool parts of this movie: Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer in Amsterdam and the two live cheetahs.

counselor2 The parts of the film that could have been interesting: the wardrobes of all main characters, Javier Bardem’s Brian Grazer-inspired hairdo, the line-up of luxury vehicles (Bentley, Ferrari, etc), and the “bolito”.

The parts of this movie that were never going to work: the opening scene with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz frolicking under the sheets, dialogue that is too poetic for the characters, Brad Pitt as his grown up scammer from Thelma and Louise, Fassbender’s Texas accent, and Cameron Diaz (gold tooth, silver fingernails, cheetah tats).

counselor4 The part of this movie that is an outright disgrace: Cameron Diaz doing the splits while having intimate relations with the windshield of Bardem’s Ferrari … maybe this idea came from Joe Eszterhas after being rejected as too outlandish for Showgirls.

Chances are viewers will fall into two camps: thinking this is a wild and crazy ride inside the Mexican drug cartel, OR believing this is one of 2013’s sloppiest, messiest, most pointless and confusing wastes of time in a movie theater. I am solidly in group two and can’t even recommend you see this to determine where you fall.

The cast is filled with A-listers: Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz. The writer is a renowned novelist. The director is three time Oscar nominee Ridley Scott. How could it miss? Even the best actors can counselor3sometimes be miscast. Even the best writers have work best left unpublished. Even the best directors lose control of a project. It’s a movie tragedy when all those things happen in a single film.

I guess the best running joke throughout the movie is that Fassbender’s titular character is constantly receiving counseling, rather than offering it. At its core, the story is just another drug deal gone bad (do any movie drug deals ever go “right”?). With it’s unusual visuals, unrealistic conversations, and convoluted sub-plots, this one would have played better as a slideshow. Instead, I am left with this: I’ll never look at a smudge on my windshield the same again.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your cable system doesn’t offer the National Geographic channel and you want to see two cool cheetahs

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: just the thought of Cameron Diaz humping a windshield stimulates only nightmares for you

watch the trailer: