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.

watch the trailer:


THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Missing: Tchaikovsky and Ballet. OK, not missing entirely, and it seems all we do is beg for creativity and new approaches in movies, so let’s give this one fair treatment. It’s not the traditional “Nutcracker” holiday fare you’ve come to expect on stage, on TV, in the mall, at schools, and just about everywhere. Instead, it’s a version wrung from both the 1816 original short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and the 1892 ballet by Marius Petipa with music from Tchaikovsky, yet also something quite different. Still, different doesn’t always mean better … sometimes it just means different.

We are treated to a beautiful extended opening shot as an owl swoops through old London. This acts as preparation for the abundance of stunning visuals headed our way throughout. Budding star Mackenzie Foy (INTERSTELLAR, 2014) plays Clara Stahlbaum, a young girl distraught that it’s her first Christmas without her beloved mother Marie, who recently passed away. Clara’s quietly grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen) delivers the presents Marie left for each of the three kids. Mechanically inclined Clara’s gift is an ornate egg that requires a specialty key to unlock the hidden message Clara believes her mother has left.

A lavish Christmas party at her Godfather’s (Oscar winner Morgan Freeman) mansion leads Clara to a parallel universe where her mother Marie was Queen of the four realms. This is a fantastical land that reminds (maybe a bit too much) of Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. Clara buddies up with a live Nutcracker soldier Phillip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), who quickly becomes her trusted bodyguard. Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, Land of Sweets, and the blighted Fourth Realm run by a cast-out Mother Ginger (Oscar winner Helen Mirren) make up this world. Keira Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and her devilishly fun performance is responsible for most of the energy, humor and entertainment outside of the visual effects. The two time Oscar nominee seems to relish the voice, the costumes and the chance to play a quirky character.

Disney touches like the animal sidekicks are noted: Phillip’s loyal steed, and the pesky little mouse that flashes more personality than anyone in the film outside of Sugar Plum. Most of the comedic secondary characters (including Richard E Grant and Eugenio Derbez) fall flat with very little do in a screenplay from Ashleigh Powell that gives the impression of multiple hands in the pie. Adding to the disjointed feel and lack of cohesion in the story flow is the fact that two very different directors worked on the project. Lasse Hallstrom (CHOCOLAT) handled principal photography and then Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) spent a month on re-shoots with attention to visual effects. The contrasts between these two directors is quite clear in the finished project despite the cinematographer of Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND).

The mishmash of styles and tone prevents us from ever really connecting with characters or being drawn in by the story, but beyond that, there are some really terrific visuals and special effects. I especially liked the look of the enhanced tin soldiers and the work of two time Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan. Of course, this is a familiar story and many viewers bring certain expectations into the theatre with them. The iconic Tchaikovsky music is played early and throughout the film, though mostly in teases and in blends with new music from James Newton Howard. We do get a glimpse of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducting the orchestra, and for those expecting ballet, the fabulous Misty Copeland performs a couple of times, though it’s likely not enough for those hoping for more of a ballet production. The end result is an impressive visual experience that will likely still disappoint those looking for another holiday watching tradition.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

April 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read the Young Adult novels of Suzanne Collins, my comments will be limited to the movie only and not a comparison to the books. The screenplay was a joint affair courtesy Ms. Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). Whether or not you read the books, you surely know that this has been an anticipated film version in the vein of Twilight and Harry Potter. My analysis is that it falls short of Harry and is superior to the vamps.

What this film definitely is … proof that Jennifer Lawrence is for real. She burst onto the scene in her Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone and once again, her squirrel recipes come in handy. Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough as nails and very resourceful resident of the dirt poor District 12. She provides for her little sis and their emotionally vacant mother, and does so by honing her bow and arrow skills hunting in the vast woodlands.

 Without going into too much detail, the dystopian world of Panem is divided into 12 districts and a Capitol. As a combination entertainment and price for previous rebellion, an annual lottery is held to select a boy and girl from each district … “tributes” to their community. Those drawing the proverbial short straw are entered into a brutal fight to the death, where 23 are to be killed and one left standing. In the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister. So she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids are All Right) are whisked away to the Capitol to meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a one time winner who now celebrates daily by downing as much booze as possible.

 In stark contrast to the hopeless community from which they arrive, the Capitol is a gleaming, bright-colored land of enchantment filled with wildly costumed residents seemingly bored by the atrocity of the annual event. Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) is the man in charge of staging and manipulating the event for the highest possible ratings and entertainment value. He carries out his duties while sporting a very unique satanic beard, unlike you have seen before.

After prepping from a futuristic Tom Ford named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the tributes appear in front of a futuristic Ryan Seacrest played by the flamboyant Stanley Tucci. His Caesar Flickerman is charged with interviewing so as to help the audience make a connection. Nothing like humanizing the prey.

 It takes a full hour, but the actual Hunger Games finally begin. Quickly the faceless characters disappear and the game of brutality and brains begins. Lawrence is truly a standout here since she has tremendous ability as an actress, and sells her athletic ability quite well. I can’t say I was as taken by Mr. Hutcherson, who spends most of the film looking like a wounded puppy.

While the PG-13 rating keeps it from becoming a gore fest, I found the action sequences to be quite entertaining. More interesting to me was how the story and characters are posed so that a viewer might interpret meaning in just about any manner one cares to twist. There are political views and human nature traits and commentary on the Reality TV world that are primed for claiming … regardless of one’s opinion. To me, that’s a weakness. I would rather the story take a stand and make a statement. But then I remind myself that this is the first in a trilogy of Young Adult stories. It’s not designed for deep thought. The movie succeeds in reaching the goal of producing a strong young female character in a world run amok.

The movie and story seems a mash-up of The Running Man (1987) and Japan’s Battle Royale (2000), but do deliver some other interesting characters, notably Donald Sutherland as the viscious President, Elizabeth Banks as the colorful PR expert Effie Trinket.  T Bone Burnett teams with James Newton Howard for the music, and the Tracker Jackers will definitely cross your mind the next time you have a wasp nest to deal with.  The missed opportunities with political commentary and a more in-depth love story do not harm the entertainment value here, and the box office success guarantees we will see “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” to finish out the trilogy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the books (haha … like you haven’t already seen the movie at least twice) OR you want to follow the career of Jennifer Lawrence (super star in the making)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting an incredibly intense, socio-political commentary OR a satanic looking beard could cause nightmares

watch the trailer: