THE SONG OF NAMES (2019)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The title refers to a sacred Jewish ritual where the names of the Holocaust victims are recited in a musical style. It’s a process that (sadly) covers a few days. In this film, it takes on a personal, as well as historical, significance. British cultural affairs expert Norman Lebrecht wrote the 2001 novel on which writer-director Francois Girard (THE RED VIOLIN, 1998, plus plays, operas and 2 Cirque de Soleil shows) and co-writer Jeffrey Caine based the film.

We open in 1951 London just minutes before the scheduled performance of young violin virtuoso Dovidl “David” Rapoport. He is to play Bruch and Bach in a concert sponsored by his “adoptive” father figure Gilbert Simmonds, who has sunk his entire life savings into producing the concert. Despite the assurances of Simmonds’ son Martin, who has become like a brother to David, the featured performer is a no-show … leading Martin to search for him over the next 35 years.

The film covers the story from the time Dovidl’s Polish-Jewish father (played by Jakub Kotynski) agrees to his leave 9 year old, a violin prodigy, with the non-Jewish Simmonds in an attempt to protect the boy from the German invasion of Poland in the late 1930’s. As Dovidl and Martin grow together, their bond become stronger. Martin is present when Dovidl renounces Judaism, even as becomes more proficient with his instrument and more saddened by the Holocaust that he avoided in his home country.

Both boys are played at three different ages by three different actors. Dovidl is played by Luke Doyle at ages 9-13, Jonah Hauer-King at ages 17-23, and by Clive Owen in middle age. Martin is played by Misha Handley at ages 9-13, Gerran Howell at ages 17-23, and by Tim Roth in later life. The actors do a good job of capturing Martin’s early irritation at Dovidl’s arrogance, the shock of the no-show betrayal, and the later in life man who changed everything when he found out about his family, as well as the music teacher so desperate to find his long lost friend/brother.

The film bounces between the three timelines so that we have a full picture of the impact they have had on each other’s lives, and how Dovidl’s disappearing act was quite devastating. Much of the film centers on Martin tracking down leads and talking to folks for some idea of the path taken by Dovidl. Mr. Roth is especially effective (and surprisingly understated) in his performance as a man haunted by the unexplained actions of a loved one. His wife, played by Catherine McCormack, is simultaneously understanding, patient, and emotionally affected.

Stanley Townsend plays Martin’s father. He cares for Dovidl as if her were a son, and provides what’s necessary for the prodigy to develop and be groomed for performance. Three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a score that follows the good times and bad, not an easy task for a family drama within the shadow of the Holocaust. One specific sequence stands out, and it is filmed on the hallowed grounds of Treblinka – now a memorial, where the extermination camp once stood.

There are many facets to the story, and most involve heavy emotions. We see children bearing more than they should. Parents protecting their children in times of crisis. The difference between religion and ethnicity is discussed. Broken trust proves especially damaging. Dovidl’s disappearing act could be compared to that of JD Salinger, in that he seemingly vanished for years. And maybe most of all, the idea of survivor’s guilt is a theme, as Dovidl explains, “You don’t have to be guilty to feel guilty.” The film may have some pacing issues, but it affords such a wealth of conversation topics, that any flaws are easily forgiven.

watch the trailer:

 


GEMINI MAN (2019)

October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Usually after watching a movie, I spend some time thinking about the story, the performances, the visual effects, the music, the sets, the costumes, and any other piece of the puzzle that makes up that particular movie going experience. However, Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI) new film creates a challenge. In addition to those previously mentioned factors, the ground-breaking new technology must also be addressed – both separately and in conjunction with how it works in the movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or even the poster, you know that there is an “old” Will Smith and a “young” Will Smith. The basic story is that Henry Brogan (old Will Smith) is a retiring DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) assassin who is being hunted by his own government. The one doing the hunting is Junior, a “young” clone of Henry Brogan. What you may not know is that this is not accomplished through the typical de-aging process that has become so popular in Hollywood. Nope, this Junior is actually digital animation from Weta Digital in New Zealand. It’s not even really Will Smith – it’s a digital creation that looks almost identical to the Will Smith from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96), minus the wide grin and funky clothes. It’s very impressive technology, but not yet to the point where it can replace living, breathing, emoting actors. However, it’s pretty obvious that day is coming.

What’s also obvious is that this script is a mess, and despite the new generation of technology, this film seems dated … well at least the story seems that way. Darren Lemke (SHAZAM!) first published the screenplay in the mid-1990’s and it has “almost” made it to production on a few occasions. Writers David Benioff (THE KITE RUNNER) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) are credited on this final, mostly disappointing version. The dialogue is lame and character development is non-existent. We are never provided a reason to give a hoot about old Henry. Junior is never more than a video game creation. And DIA Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to be an afterthought when someone realized the film needed a female presence. Clive Owen plays Clay Verris, the mastermind/mad scientist with little more than a scowl, though Benedict Wong brings a jolt of life to his Baron role as a pilot friend of Henry.

We do get to see some of the world. The initial sequence takes us on Henry’s final mission. It’s his 72nd kill, and it occurs from a grassy knoll in Belgium through a window on a bullet train going 228 mph. Henry heads back to his isolated lake cabin in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia where his peaceful retirement lasts about 3 scenes. Soon, we are headed to Columbia for a crazy motorcycle chase, and then on to the catacombs in Budapest – an idea that provides a welcome dose of inspiration.

High-speed parkour, blurry close-up fight scenes, rooftop shootouts, and a hyper motorcycle chase through town all have an air of familiarity, which is something this type of film should strive to avoid. Rian Johnson’s LOOPER toyed with us using a young and old version of the same character, and though that was time travel and not cloning, the ideas are too similar for this one to come across as unique. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) delivers the shots – down to the crystal clear logos on beer and soda – but we never really experience the thrill that new technology should deliver. It should also be noted that no theatre in America is equipped to show this in the way Ang Lee filmed it: 4K 3D 120fps HFR format … leaving us wondering, what’s the point?

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2019 Day 4

April 15, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival – Day 4

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Scheduling conflicts meant I only had two films on the agenda for Sunday. With one of the films being an epic Danish film that pushed 3 hours in run time, I still managed to sit for more of the day than anyone should. The other film was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, so chuckles were expected to be few and far between.

 

 

Here is my recap of the two films watched on Day 4:

 

A FORTUNATE MAN (Lykke-Per)

 Turning the classic novel from Henrik Pontoppidan into a film project likely seemed nearly insurmountable; however director Bille August (PELLE THE CONQUEROR, 1987) was the perfect choice to handle the adapted screenplay written by his son Aders Frithiof August. Pontoppidan won the 1917 Nobel Prize for literature, and this novel offers a fascinating lead character and much commentary on class division and religious differences.

Esben Smed stars as Peter Andreas Sidenius, a young man from Jutland who, when we first meet him, as just received his acceptance letter to The College of Advanced Technology in Copenhagen to study engineering. Peter was raised in a pious Christian community by a respected clergyman father. Peter’s rebellion is viewed as a move against God by his father. As Peter begins his studies, we can think of him as a less compliant George Bailey from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. He’s a forward thinker who dreams of converting wind and water to energy to transform Denmark into an international power.

Once he crosses paths with the wealthy Jewish Salomon family, Per (as he now calls himself) at first appears as a smart fish-out-of-water, and slowly learns the nuances of high society. There is a great line about his ‘changing lanes’ as his attraction shifts from bubbly daughter Nanny (Julie Christiansen) to the more thoughtful and socially-conscious older daughter Jakobe (a terrific Katrine Greis-Rosenthal). His affiliation with the family leads to a realistic opportunity to see his energy dreams become a reality.

This is a period drama taking place sometime around 1900, and we quickly learn that Daddy issues and pride can affect one from any era. Though he has physically escaped the abusive, repressive father he had, Per is so convinced of his own genius that he simply can’t lower himself to traditional structure – whether it be social, familial or economic.

As with contemporary times, when arrogance meets arrogance, power prevails. Returning to his home roots humbles Per for a moment, and he is constantly haunted by a reappearing pocket watch tied to the previously mentioned Daddy issues. We see his childhood scars never heal and we hear ‘fortune favors fools’, and watch as pride brings the downfall of a man who continues to search for his true self rather than finding joy in life. It’s a beautifully shot film with terrific costumes and sets, and a wonderful lead performance (even if the film runs a bit long).

 

OPHELIA

 Well here we are more than 400 years later, and artists are still finding new ways in which to explore and adapt the writings of William Shakespeare. Some of these attempts are quite serious, others offer a bit more whimsy, and still others are quite creative. Director Claire McCarthy is working from Emmy winning writer Semi Chellas’ (“Mad Men”) adaptation of Lisa Klein’s 2006 Young Adult novel. The general structure is “Hamlet”, but the perspective is through the eyes of Ophelia (with some dramatic effect of course).

“You may think you know my story”. Those are the first words we hear … and we think to ourselves, “yes, we do.” But we don’t really know this story. Daisy Ridley stars as Ophelia, whose spunk as a young girl leads her to being chosen for Queen Gertrude’s court of ladies-in-waiting. Not being of noble blood, Ophelia is on outcast, but her reading skills put her in the Queen’s favor … especially for those bedtime stories that aren’t exactly scripture. Two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts plays Gertrude, as well as a second role that carries much weight in this reimagining.

Clive Owen plays Claudius – bad guy, bad wig, bad personality. Tom Felton plays Ophelia’s brother Laertes, Devon Terrell is Horatio, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016) portrays Hamlet. This Prince of Denmark is missing the familiar self-doubts he was cloaked in by the Bard, and is quite a romantic who doesn’t quite share the close bond his mother feels towards him. There is a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sighting, but of course, most of the focus remains on Ophelia – who is a strong and independent thinker, yet dutiful in her responsibilities to the Queen. Her “crazy” scene is actually quite strategic.

Screened at Sundance last year, the film now has distribution through IFC, and the Americanized dialogue should make it accessible to younger viewers … though some of the most familiar lines will be good for a chuckle from those in the know. Elsinore Castle looks terrific and the costumes are first rate … both crucial to period pieces. Unfortunately, outside of Ms. Ridley and Ms. Watts, the cast just doesn’t bring enough to pull off a new version. I found it difficult to avoid comparison to Franco Zefferelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET (1968), and we are reminded that it’s a foolish man (Prince or not) who chooses vengeance over love. Those familiar with “Hamlet” will see this differently than those who aren’t, but it’s certainly watchable for both sides of the castle.


LAST KNIGHTS (2015)

March 31, 2015

last knights Greetings again from the darkness. Medieval action films seem to be hit and miss. The best have complex sub-plots and power struggles punctuated with large scale sword-fight sequences, while the lesser films typically offer little more than clanking sound effects and faux castle settings. (Of course this is discounting the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail)  Falling somewhere in-between is this latest from director Kazuaki Kiriya (Goeman, 2009). For whatever reason, the massive sets and timely costumes don’t make up for the slow pace and scarce action sequences.

The cast is very strong and includes Clive Owen, Cliff Curtis, Morgan Freeman, Axsel Hennie, Shohreh Aghdashlo, Peyman Moaddi, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Sung-Kee Ahn, Noah Silver and Ayelet Zurer. Mr. Freeman narrates a slightly confusing opening that sets the stage for a multi-racial time period that is generically referred to after the “great wars”. We soon enough learn that Freeman’s Lord Bartok is one of the good guys under the Emperor’s (Moaadi) reign of extortion being carried out by the weasely Minister Gezza Mott (Hennie). Refusing to kowtow to Gezza’s game, Bartok is disgraced and, umm … relieved of his duties – in a manner befitting the period. Bartok’s loyal Commander Raiden (Owen) and the other followers are cast out of their homes.

Watching Owen fall into a drunken slumber oblivious to society goes against all instincts we have for the noble warrior who is so dedicated to “The Code”, but it is the most fun offered by the film outside of the two main fight sequences. Mr. Owen and his constantly furrowed brow seem a bit too high class for this film, only because everything else should be stamped with the “Acme” logo made so popular by Wile E Coyote. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the story lacks real emotion and the spectacularly elaborate plan for revenge is not given the attention it deserves … although I so was hoping someone would scream “Have fun storming the castle, boys!”

The opening fight scene is well staged and leaves us wanting more, but the wait is well over an hour … screen time filled with bleak, gray scenes of not much happening. Gezza Mott’s lead henchman (Ihara) does get a very spirited duel with Raiden, but the final showdown between Raiden and Mott is a significant letdown and a minor payoff for remaining hopeful through two hours.

Reclaiming the honor of one’s mentor may be a worthy cause, but the guts of the story are skimmed over and the quick cut explanations remind of the strategy used in Ocean’s Eleven since the filmmakers believe movie watchers could never keep up with the actual details of strategy. So follow the code if you must, just know that a generic story and setting cannot be salvaged by stellar swordplay from Clive Owen.

watch the trailer: