7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Freedom fighters or terrorists? Which label gets applied is often dependent upon one’s point of view. In 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens was hijacked. Director Jose Padilha (“Narcos”, ROBOCOP, 2014) brings us the big screen version of Gregory Burke’s (’71) screenplay.

The 7 day ordeal bounces between the captors and hostages at the abandoned terminal in Uganda and the political maneuverings of the Israeli government officials as they deliberate whether to break with policy and negotiate with terrorists. There are also flashbacks to the planning stages with the hijackers, in an attempt to help us understand their perspective.

Daniel Bruhl plays Wilifried Bose and Rosamund Pike plays Brigitte Kuhlmann. These are the two main hijackers who get most of our attention. Mr. Bruhl seems destined to always play the ultra-serious character, and Ms. Pike is once again miscast … something that happens whenever she is cast. Although she seems to throw down her best Patty Hearst look, we never really buy these two as committed to the cause, which prevents the necessary build-up of suspense.

The film’s biggest flaw is not capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by Nonso Anozie’s Idi Amin Dada, and even more disappointing is the abbreviated scenes between Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Yizhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, FOXTROT). The two actors excel in their head-to-head confrontations, but we feel cheated every time it cuts away.

Once a strategy is formed, we are introduced to the Special Ops team (IDF). They only have a day or two to train and rehearse, and one of the key players is Ben Schnetzer (THE BOOK THIEF, 2013). He and his girlfriend quarrel over his duty, which keeps him away from her dancing performance with Batsheva Dance Company.  As Operation Thunderbolt proceeds, the crosscuts between Special Ops training and the dance rehearsals are setting the stage for the film’s climax.

So the hijackers never really generate the feeling of danger, the government deliberations are cut short, and the filmmaker takes a huge creative risk by synchronizing the final rescue mission with the opening night dance performance. The film is negatively impacted by poor pacing, an overall lack of tension for such a terrifying historical event, and questionable, albeit creative, story-telling structure. It does serve the purpose of educating those unfamiliar with the story, and it’s a reminder that even 4 decades later, the Israeli – Palestinian hostilities continue. As a special note of interest, the only Special Ops member killed in the raid was Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Prime Minister of Israel.

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017)

March 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Director Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) introduces us to the story of zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina. The couple is a stunning example of heroism and bravery and compassion – both in cuddling with tiger cubs and in assisting approximately 300 Jews escape to freedom during the Nazi invasion of Warsaw in 1939. You might think of this as Schindler’s Zoo.

We first see Antonina (Jessica Chastain) as an angelic figure pedaling her bike through the zoo during morning rounds with a trotting young camel alongside, and soon thereafter helping rescue a newborn elephant from peril. It’s an idealistic image that appears shattered as soon as the German bombs begin dropping on Warsaw and the zoo. But the true story of what actually happened is more heartwarming and inspiring than a dozen fuzzy bunnies or peach-eating hippos.

Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book was based on the diaries of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, and is adapted for the screen by Angela Workman. Yes, that’s right … a woman director and woman writer collaborating on a film version of a book written by a woman about another woman! Some may say the film is too glossy and skips over the brutality of the Nazi’s, but this is the story of a brave, compassionate woman and how she and her husband risked their lives to save others. There is no shortage of films that depict the horrific tragedies that occurred in concentration camps, so it seems we should certainly celebrate the kind and courageous who did all they could in rescue efforts, as they used the Warsaw Zoo as a way to hide Jews in plain sight.

In addition to Ms. Chastain, who sports an unusual Russian accent throughout, Johan Heldenberg plays her husband, and Daniel Bruhl plays Lutz Heck – Hitler’s Chief Zoologist at the Berlin Zoo. The scenes between Heck and Antonina are excruciating as he first charms her with his love of animals, and then later frightens her with his unwanted advances and desire to cross-breed animals in hopes of creating superbeasts (sound familiar?).

One of the key messages seems to come from an early monologue delivered by Antonina where she compares the purity of animals (their eyes tell you everything) with the propensity to deceive and commonplace of ulterior motives in humans. While she prefers one approach over the other, it’s obvious that Antonina values all life and will pay whatever price necessary to save others. She has her chance to run, but chooses to stay and fight evil in the only way she knows how. Here’s hoping the film doesn’t begin a fad of pet skunks, but its message of compassion and courage is never out of place. The story runs from 1939 through 1946 and reminds us that heroes are amongst us always, and their journey can be both stressful and inspiring.

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ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

January 22, 2017

alone-in-berlin Greetings again from the darkness. When war hits close to home, the grieving of surviving family members never ends. At the end of World War II, author Hans Fallada was given access to the Gestapo file of Otto and Elise Hampel. Fallada wrote a 1947 novel based on their story, and in 2009 it was translated to English for his bestseller “Every Man Dies Alone”. Director Vincent Perez collaborated with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries to adapt the novel for the big screen.

Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Elise (Emma Thompson) play a mostly quiet, working class couple who pay the ultimate price for a cause in which they don’t believe. Their protest takes the form of a clandestine 2 person operation. They systematically distribute postcards with anti-Hitler messages … nearly 300 of the cards between 1940 and 1942. It’s a drip campaign that takes the form of non-violent political resistance, and certainly rankles those of the Third Reich.

Daniel Bruhl plays Escherich, the Nazi officer put in charge of the investigation (labeled Operation: Hobgoblin). He is charged with finding the source of the cards and punishing those responsible. As the hunt drags on, Escherich is presented as a Nazi with a conscience, and bears the brunt of his superior’s frustration, while living in as much fear as those he is chasing.

The film has a somber tone, and somehow never generates the tension or dread that this couple must have been dealing with on a daily basis for so long. In fact, Alexandre Desplat’s score seems to fit a movie much more intense than what we are watching on screen. Mr. Gleeson delivers his usual grounded and believable performance despite a script that could have used a bit more potency. The film does deliver the always powerful message of having no regrets when you are standing up for what’s right.

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WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)

March 31, 2015

woman in gold Greetings again from the darkness. The responsibility of the filmmaker when the project is “based on a true story” is elevated when the story has significant historical relevance and blends such elements as art, identity, justice and international law. Add to those the quest of a remarkable woman whose family was ripped apart by Nazi insurgents, and more than a history lesson, it becomes a poignant personal story.

Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, the woman who emigrated to the United States by fleeing her Austrian homeland during World War II, and leaving behind her beloved family and all possessions. After the death of her sister, Ms. Altmann becomes aware of the family artwork stolen by the Nazi’s during the invasion. This is not just any artwork, but multiple pieces from famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt … including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. See, Adele was Maria’s aunt, and the stunning piece (with gold leaf accents) has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”, while hanging for decades in the state gallery.

The story revolves around Maria’s partnering with family friend and upstart attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to take on the nation of Austria and reclaim the (extremely valuable) artwork that was seized illegally so many years ago. They are aided in their mission by an Austrian journalist (played by Daniel Bruhl) who is fighting his own demons. The seven-plus year legal saga is condensed for the big screen and we follow Maria and Randol as they meet with the Austrian art reclamation committee, a federal judge (played by the director’s wife Elizabeth McGovern), the U.S. Supreme Court (Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice), and finally a mediation committee back in Austria. But this is not really a courtroom drama … it’s a personal quest for justice and search for identity. What role does family roots and history play in determining who we are today? It’s the age old question of past vs. present, only this is seen through the eyes of a woman who has survived what most of us can only imagine.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) uses startling flashbacks (with Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria) to provide glimpses of Maria’s childhood through her marriage and subsequent escape. We get to know her family, including some scenes featuring Aunt Adele (Antje Traue), and Maria’s father and uncle (Henry Goodman, Allan Corduner). We understand this family’s place in society and just how dramatically they were impacted by the Nazi takeover.

Helen Mirren delivers yet another exceptional performance and manages to pull off the snappy lines without an ounce of schmaltz, while also capturing the emotional turmoil Ms. Altmann endures. Director Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell round off some of the rough edges and inject enough humor to prevent this from being the gut-wrenching process it probably was in real life. This approach makes the film, the story and the characters more relatable for most movie goers … and it’s quite an enjoyable look at a fascinating woman and a pretty remarkable underdog story.

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A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

July 26, 2014

a most wanted man Greetings again from the darkness. If you aren’t an avid reader of John le Carre’ spy novels, perhaps you’ve seen movie versions such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener, or The Russia House. If not, how about director Anton Corbijn’s previous film The Amercian (2010 with George Clooney)? The more you’ve read and seen these, the more you are prepared for this latest.

Mr. le Carre’ was actually part of MI5 and MI6 (British Intelligence) and uses his experiencefrom so many years ago to provide the type of post 9/11 anti-terrorism spy thriller that doesn’t focus on explosions and gun play, but rather the subtleties of communication when very smart people go up against other very smart people who may or may not share their goals. Secrets and misdirection abound. Traps are set, and sly maneuverings are pre-planned.

As if all that weren’t enough, how about yet another mesmerizing performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman? He is a master at the top of his craft here. Sure, maybe the German accent is a bit distracting at first, but it was necessary because movie audiences needed a constant reminder that he is not playing an American! I cannot explain how this chain-smoking, mumbling schlub can so dominate a scene and disappear into a character, but Hoffman most certainly does both.

In addition to a very cool script, excellent support work comes from Grigor Dobrygin as Issa, the central figure in Hoffman’s character’s work, Willem Dafoe as a somewhat shady banker, as well as Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi, and Rainer Bock. The only miscast is Rachel McAdams as rich girl turned terrorist sympathizer.

Parts of the score were excellent – the droning, ominous piano notes set the right mood. The composer was Herbert Gronemeyer, a German rock star (you’d never know from the score). This is a delicious, challenging look at international spies and how one never knows where they fall on the food chain … minnow, barracuda, shark.

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman was such an impressive talent, and after this, there are only a couple of projects remaining where you can see his final work: God’s Project (from Sundance Film Festival) and the last of “The Hunger Games” series.  At some point, I will do a retrospective of his career, but not until his final works have been released.

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RUSH (2013)

September 28, 2013

rush1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan are back in their wheelhouse with a film based on real people. Their previous collaboration was Frost/Nixon, and they also had separate “true stories”: Howard with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, and Morgan with The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Here they tackle personality opposites and fierce Formula One competitors James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The two lead actors are perfectly cast. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) slips seamlessly into the swashbuckling, rebellious playboy that was Great Britain’s James Hunt. Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, Goodbye Lenin!) becomes the focused, determined, meticulous Spanish-German Niki Lauda (and could get mentioned come Oscar nomination time). You might think of Hunt as an X-Games type who thrives on publicity and fun, while Lauda is more scientist or engineer driven by the quest for perfection. Both were World Champions and their rivalry brought out the best rush2in each.

Do not think for a second that you need be a Formula One expert or even know the backstory of Hunt and Lauda to enjoy this movie. It is extremely entertaining and exciting. Morgan’s script might hover a bit more on the oh-so-photogenic Hunt/Hemsworth character, but it also does a nice job of preventing the not-so-likable Lauda from being a bad guy. In fact, it demonstrates that champions are not all alike.

The look of the film is exemplary. Beautifully photographed by DP Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire), the colors and grainy texture make this look like it was filmed in the 1970’s, not just based then. While the racing scenes are stunning, it is actually an intimate look at this world and the men of this era. Without dwelling on it, we get a realistic feel for the fiery crash that caused Lauda’s horrific injuries and his extraordinary fight to recovery while in the hospital.

rush jh nl We also get a peek at the very different marriages of these two men. Hunt’s short lived bond with model Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde) ended when her affair with Richard Burton caused the final split between Burton and Liz Taylor. Lauda’s relationship with his wife (Alexandria Maria Lara) occurred without the whirlwind, but in a very real and organic manner. Both are an additional touch of realism to a quite real story.  The photo to the left shows the real Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

There have been no shortage of racing movies over the years. Some good: Le Mans (Steve McQueen) and Grand Prix (James Garner). Some not so good: Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise) and Driven (Sylvester Stallone). Ron Howard’s latest clearly finishes near the top at the finish line.

**NOTE: James Hunt died from a heart attack at age 45 in 1993.  Niki Lauda is 64 years old and has owned and run small airlines and remained involved with racing through management and commentary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining and exciting movie based on two real life adversaries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for serious insight into the Formula One world

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmLvpSOh1QA