UNDINE (2021)

June 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. German filmmaker Christian Petzold has a track record of creating thought-provoking, intelligent, and ambitious films such as BARBARA (2012) and TRANSIT (2018). This time out he re-teams his TRANSIT co-stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in a film that’s more fable or fairy tale than conventional storytelling. If forced to label, we might go with Fantasy-Romance-Drama-Mystery, which really means the film doesn’t easily fit into a known genre.

The film opens with a very uncomfortable break-up scene between Johannes (Jacob Matschentz) and Undine (Ms. Beer). When he says they are done, she responds, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” While researching the name Undine, I stumbled upon the 1811 German fairy tale of a water nymph Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet, which clearly inspired Petzold. The story has some similarities to “The Little Mermaid”, itself a Danish fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson. It helps to know all of this upfront to prevent some of the frustration that goes with deciphering what is real and what is imagined.

As one would imagine, water is a recurring element throughout – beginning with Undine’s chance and unusual café meet-cute with Christoph (Mr. Rogowski). The two find themselves attracted and connected after being drenched. Christoph is an industrial diver, so water is a part of his life … as is ‘Big Guenther’, the legendary giant catfish he spots while on a job. Undine is a historian who holds sessions for tourists during which she recounts the architectural evolution and urban sprawl of Berlin over the past centuries, by utilizing scale models of the different eras. We also learn that “Berlin” means marsh, or a dry place in the marsh … yet another water-related aspect.

Ms. Beer, who was so good in FRANTZ (2016) and NEVER LOOK AWAY (2018) continues her fine work, and reuniting with her TRANSIT co-star, Mr. Rogowski (VICTORIA, 2015) works out beautifully, as they have a nice rapport. Mr. Petzold’s film has a supernatural element and is dreamlike at times, and though I’ve used the “fairy tale” description, it’s clearly a very high concept film for grown-ups … and there is enough humor (“Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees) to offset the doomed relationships and Undine’s return to her natural element. It’s quite a trip for those who are up for it.

In theaters and On Demand June 4, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


NEVER LOOK AWAY (2019, Germany)

February 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As much as we pride ourselves on ‘artistic freedom’, the reality is that politics has long played a vital role – either as inadvertent inspiration for the work, or as organized suppressor or moderator. Rarely in history has the latter been more in effect than during the Nazi regime. This film begins at an art gallery in 1937 Dresden as a loving aunt takes her young nephew to an installation of “degenerate artists”. Nazi propaganda presented modern art by such artists as Picasso and Kandinsky as a blight on German culture, and proceeded to educate (or brainwash) the populace accordingly.

Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was behind the extraordinary Best Foreign Language Oscar winner THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), as well as the all-but unwatchable THE TOURIST (2010). Fortunately, this latest is much closer to the level of the first one, and it has been rewarded by also being Oscar nominated. Miss May, the loving and free-spirited aunt of the opening sequence is played by the luminescent Saskia Rosendahl. As a student, a simple gesture of handing Hitler a bouquet of flowers destroys her psyche, which leads to even more dramatic ramifications. This was an era when being a free-spirit was treated harshly, which could mean mass sterilization or even being “relieved of a meaningless existence.”  Miss May crosses paths with Nazi gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), in a gut-wrenching scene that hovers over the entire film, and especially that beloved young nephew.

Tom Schilling (and his turquoise eyes) plays Kurt Barnert (the nephew at older age), one who possesses exceptional artistic talent. As Kurt begins making a name for himself (painting as directed), he meets and falls for design student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer, FRANTZ). Yes, she is the daughter of the Professor who determined the fate of Kurt’s aunt, although Kurt is unaware. As the war escalates, Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany, while the past haunts all involved.

Once accepted into the new art school, Kurt falls under the guidance of Professor van Verten (Oliver Masucci). It’s this Professor’s personal horror story that becomes a turning point for Kurt, and enables him to discover his own voice as an artist. During this time, Professor Carl Seeband has smoothly switched allegiances and become a communist to save his arrogant hide, though he is burdened with the knowledge that his war crimes past could catch up at any moment. This man is both family member and villain to Kurt and Ellie, tormenting and belittling at every opportunity. It’s fascinating to see how the couple perseveres through his psychological games and even medical malpractice – as if the war, Nazism and Communism weren’t enough of a daily challenge.

The film is loosely based on German artist Gerhard Richter, though mostly in the form of his earliest artwork. Mr. Richter is still alive today and still creating. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey) has produced a beautifully shot film, and the result is his 6th Oscar nomination. Brace yourself for a 3-plus hour run time, and the frustrations of how an artist can discover their voice despite an organized singular ideology that one is pressured to accept.

watch the trailer


FRANTZ (2017)

April 20, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Francois Ozon won me over as a fan for life with his 2003 writing-mystery Swimming Pool. His latest stands in stark contrast to that gem, as there are no mind games for the viewer, other than those the characters play on each other. Actually, this is quite a straightforward story of romance, loss and hope; and it’s an example of expert filmmaking from a director in full control of story, setting, character and camera.

It’s 1919 in historic and ancient Quedlinburg, Germany. WWI has recently ended and the loss of her soldier fiancé is still so fresh for Anna (an excellent Paula Beer) that she makes daily treks to lay flowers on the grave of Frantz. She spots an unknown foreigner paying respects to Frantz, and since it’s a small town, the two are soon enough sitting together in the parlor of Frantz’ parents’ house where Anna lives. It’s an awkward encounter between a grief-stricken German family and a Frenchman paying respects to the family of a fallen “friend”.

That these folks are so quick to accept and encourage these recollections of Adrien (Pierre Niney) speaks loud and clear to human nature in times of grief – we desperately cling to any connection, positive memory, or new strand of information. Then again, Adrien’s perspective is every bit as interesting as that of the parents and Anna. He seeks forgiveness and inclusion, yet is unable to come clean on his motives and past.

More human nature is on display as we initially see how the Germans treat the (outsider) Frenchman, and then later as Anna travels to France, we see how the French treat this (and presumably all) German. Anger, mistrust and deceit are ever-present amongst this group of people who seemingly only want a touch of happiness, and it’s fun to note the parallels between the initial story in Germany and the later time in France.

Director Ozon flips between black & white and the periodic use of color when hope and new direction exists. It provides a personal and dramatic look to the film, along with visual clues as to what’s really occurring on screen, and is nicely complemented by the flowing score from Phillipe Rombi (Swimming Pool, Joyeux Noel). Ozon also selects one of Manet’s lesser known paintings, Le Suicide, as a link between the past and the terrific ending that reinforces the movie’s message, “life goes on”.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIFF 2017: Day Ten

April 11, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival ran March 31 through April 9 (it will return for its 12th year in 2018)

 This is the end. The final day of DIFF 2017. Despite periodically feeling more like a marathon than entertainment, it’s always a bit sad when the closing credits roll on the festival’s final movie. My tally for this year’s festival is 30 films watched, 14 of which were documentaries. Just like every year, the DIFF programming provided a diverse schedule of films from around the globe, and a deep lineup of documentaries that range from biographical to social interest. For a list of the winners, please visit www.dallasfilm.org Below is a recap of the three films I watched on Sunday April 9, 2017:

FRANTZ

Director Francois Ozon won me over as a fan for life with his 2003 writing-mystery Swimming Pool. His latest stands in stark contrast to that gem, as there are no mind games for the viewer, other than those the characters play on each other. Actually, this is quite a straightforward story of romance, loss and hope; and it’s an example of expert filmmaking from a director in full control of story, setting, character and camera.

It’s 1919 in historic and ancient Quedlinburg, Germany. WWI has recently ended and the loss of her soldier fiancé is still so fresh for Anna (an excellent Paula Beer) that she makes daily treks to lay flowers on the grave of Frantz. She spots an unknown foreigner paying respects to Frantz, and since it’s a small town, the two are soon enough sitting together in the parlor of Frantz’ parents’ house where Anna lives. It’s an awkward encounter between a grief-stricken German family and a Frenchman paying respects to the family of a fallen “friend”.

That these folks are so quick to accept and encourage these recollections of Adrien (Pierre Niney) speaks loud and clear to human nature in times of grief – we desperately cling to any connection, positive memory, or new strand of information. Then again, Adrien’s perspective is every bit as interesting as that of the parents and Anna. He seeks forgiveness and inclusion, yet is unable to come clean on his motives and past.

More human nature is on display as we initially see how the Germans treat the (outsider) Frenchman, and then later as Anna travels to France, we see how the French treat this (and presumably all) German. Anger, mistrust and deceit are ever-present amongst this group of people who seemingly only want a touch of happiness, and it’s fun to note the parallels between the initial story in Germany and the later time in France.

Director Ozon flips between black & white and the periodic use of color when hope and new direction exists. It provides a personal and dramatic look to the film, along with visual clues as to what’s really occurring on screen, and is nicely complemented by the flowing score from Phillipe Rombi (Swimming Pool, Joyeux Noel). Ozon also selects one of Manet’s lesser known paintings, Le Suicide, as a link between the past and the terrific ending that reinforces the movie’s message, “life goes on”.

 

STEP (documentary)

Director Amanda Lipitz proves that a documentary can be both inspiring and sad. She takes us inside the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and introduces us to the senior girls on the Step dance squad known as the “Lethal Ladies”. The school was founded in 2009 with the goal of sending every student to college, in spite of the challenges and barriers faced in this inner city community. This is the school’s first senior class, and everyone – students, teachers, parents, administration – is on edge.

Emotions overflow throughout the film. The normal roller coaster ride that accompanies high school girls is somehow magnified when the pressures of becoming the first one in the family to attend college collide with such harsh realities of poor grades, no food in the fridge, no power in the home, and inconsistent support from parental units. There is also the goal of winning the year-end Step competition against schools that have a more successful track record, and who likely don’t face the extremes of Baltimore street violence and poverty that is normal for these girls each day.

Ms. Lipitz’ film, a Sundance award winner, never backs away from the emotion of the moment and yet still manages to maintain the long-game perspective of trying to get each of these students graduated and accepted into college. She dives into the home lives of a few of these girls and though all of the parents want the best for the kids, it’s quite obvious that the type of home support and structure varies widely even amongst these few we follow.

The real beauty of this environment is that the school provides structure, guidance and support all along the way. The Step coach pushes them hard daily towards being the best they can be going into the competition. The girls push themselves and each other, and overcome some personality conflicts, all for the sake of a stronger team. The school principal has one-on-one meetings to light a fire when necessary, and you’ve likely never seen a more dedicated high school college counselor who doles out hugs and motivation in whatever dosage is necessary.

The key message here is that it takes a combination of inner-strength and drive, and a support system of family, teachers, coaches, administrators and friends for kids to have a chance at finding a way to succeed at life … whether that’s at Johns Hopkins or a local community college program. This is a special film with a real-world case study of students looking for a way up, and of those looking to provide the necessary boost.

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (documentary)

We are all sick and tired of the phrase “too big to fail”. The 2008 financial crisis very nearly crippled the United States economy, and regardless of how you feel about the bailout funded by taxpayers, there is no question that some of the participants got off with nary a scratch … and some even received giant bonuses in spite of their fraudulent activities. All of that has been written about and reported on ad nauseam. Highly acclaimed documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interruptors) turns his camera not on “too big to fail”, but rather “small enough to jail”.

The only financial institution to be criminally indicted in the wake of the 2008 crisis was a small community bank in New York’s Chinatown. Thomas Sung founded Abacus Federal Savings Bank and his daughter’s have been running it for years. We learn that Mr. Sung was partly inspired to give up his law profession in order to serve the Chinese community by watching George Bailey (James Stewart) do the same thing in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

Once we see how the 5 year legal process and more than 2 month long trial wrap up, it’s pretty tempting to call this a witch hunt for the purpose of publicity by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. So much of what occurred seems to have been done for the TV cameras and the newspaper headlines … especially the humiliating and public chain gang walk in shackles that, as one journalist pointed out, has never been done before and could not have been done with another minority group. Mr. Vance clearly needed a conviction as a political stepping stone. His biggest mistake was in choosing the wrong target. Of course he couldn’t attack the numerous giant financial institutions based in NYC, but he was unprepared for the fight and backlash that he received due to the Abacus pride and principles, and beliefs in one’s people.

Director James doesn’t focus so much on the incompetence of the DA office as he does the far more interesting bank owners and family members. Their determination and conviction to having run their business in the right way goes beyond inspiration and dips into reverence. It’s not David vs Goliath but it is a clash of contradictory values. It would have been interesting to hear even more from the journalists who covered the process and trial, but we get enough to understand their surprise at how the case was handled by the government.

We depend on our government to do the right thing, and when it doesn’t, we deserve to get angry. This film is one of those that will generate some fiery post-movie discussions … discussions that need to be had.