THE LAST VERMEER (2020)

November 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Knowing the film is based on Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 book, “The Man Who Made Vermeers” removes some of the mystique from the story; however Dan Friedkin’s (stunt pilot on DUNKIRK) directorial debut is an enticing look at a blending of art history and world history. The screenplay was co-written by John Orloff, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby.

It’s May 29, 1945, three weeks after the fall of Hitler’s Reich, and the Dutch military is on a mission to reclaim valuable art and collectibles confiscated by the Nazis during the war. Some of these were hidden in Austrian salt mines by order of Hermann Goring, actions also depicted in the 2014 film, THE MONUMENTS MEN. After serving in the war, Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, “Dracula” 2020) is tasked with tracking down those who stole the art, and those who sold the art to Germans. It’s a task meant to preserve his country’s culture. One particular piece, “Christ with the Adulteress” held special significance, as it was billed as ‘the last Vermeer’, a long lost painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (“The Girl with the Pearl Earring”), for which Goring had paid a record price.

Investigation on this painting led Piller and his assistant Minna (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD 2017) to Han Van Meegeren (played with panache by Guy Pearce and his stylish eyebrows). Piller is also helped by his friend Esper Vesser (Roland Moller, ATOMIC BLONDE 2017) who supplies a bit of muscle and brawn. Van Meegeren has a fancy manner of speech, and Piller determines he’s the key to the case, and to unlocking what occurred and how. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice (August Diehl, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS 2009) is after Van Meegeren for conspiracy, and the parties end up in court.

Piller and Van Meegeren existed in real life, and though some dramatic license is taken, much of what we see actually happened. Art experts and politics collided. And it’s not surprising that egos ruled the day (not unlike today). The twist may or may not be a shocker to those who know the story, but it’s still fascinating that folks would risk their lives in such a manner during the darkest of times. It seems opportunists exist regardless of the era. Mr. Bang and Mr. Pearce are both excellent here, and it’s quite fun to watch their verbal wranglings. Director Friedkin adds an Epilogue that will surely bring a smile to most viewers.

Opening in theaters November 20, 2020

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THE YOUNG KARL MARX (2018)

February 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When the name Karl Marx comes up, most of us recall that iconic photo of the older gentleman with the large grey beard. As with all older gents, they were once young men, and that’s the focus of this film from writer/director Raoul Peck and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer.

The story kicks off in 1843 when young Marx was the editor of “Rheinische Zeitung” and carries us through the 1848 publication of “The Communist Manifesto”. We progress chronologically through Paris, Brussels and London and witness how Marx’s personal life and ideological mission intertwined, leading ultimately to the birth of Communism.

August Diehl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) plays Karl Marx and Stefan Konarske plays Friedrich Engels. Their mutual admiration brought them together and their commitment, along with the support of their wives Jenny Marx (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD) and Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), carried them through and cemented their legacies.

With the endless string of debates and discussion, and the constant struggle with poverty for Marx and his family, the film at times seems repetitive and tedious. It does, however, succeed in making comprehensible the timeline and constant struggle to continue the fight. The process of societal-changing writing is not simple, and we see the different approaches taken by Marx and the upper-crust rebel Engels. The obvious battle between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat remains at the forefront, but we also witness the painstaking networking and research that goes into the work. The two gentlemen share a drink over this toast: “to minds that truly think”.

Today, many in their 20’s, are focused on which direction to swipe, yet at the same age, Marx and Engels were committed to changing the world. The ideals and issues that so dominated their writings (and led to revolution) are every bit as relevant today. We no longer use the terms Bourgeoisie or Proletariat, but class distinction continues to be debated as a source of many global issues – both social and economic. Director Peck (Oscar nominated for last year’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO) uses Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” over the closing credits montage of revolutions and historic turning points to ensure we understand that rebellions and convictions do still exist.

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PHANTOM THREAD (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a certain feeling that envelops me while experiencing exquisite filmmaking. It’s a singular blend of peacefulness and excitement as an anticipation of greatness builds in those early scenes. That feeling has rarely swept over me as quickly as the opening moments of this new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a six-time Oscar nominee.

We need only watch Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) go through his morning ritual to understand that he is a fastidious individual to the point that could easily be described as obsessive-compulsive. It’s 1955 London, and this is the House of Woodcock. He lives and works in a home that serves as the canvas for his art, as well as a place to lay his head for sleep. His art is dressmaking. It’s also his obsession and purpose for living. This is the story of a man with transformative talent, who, despite his stated lack of need for those outside his solitary realm, is dragged into the humanity of love and caring.

This is an odd film about odd people. It’s about a dressmaker and it features people making beautiful clothes … yet it’s not a fashion movie. No, this is the study of a genius man and his muse – who is also his lover – and their unconventional saga of love. It’s also a consistently funny movie (and surprisingly so). Evidence that that 3 will always be a crowd, Woodcock’s devoted sister and buttoned-up business partner Cyril (a terrific Leslie Manville) runs a tight ship, while simultaneously using her near preternatural ability to read his moods and idiosyncrasies and respond accordingly. He refers to her as “my old so-and-so” in a way that reflects a lifelong bond unlikely to be broken.

The woman who prevents this from simply being a story of a reclusive genius is the aforementioned muse Alma (played by the effervescent Vicky Krieps). Is she his muse, a model, or his lover? Well, yes to all. And yet those labels fall short in describing the subtleties and nuances of their relationship. When does she play which role in order to maintain the balance so key to his work? Alma is often confused about the best approach in any moment, but she reaches him as none before. When she tells Woodcock that a certain client “doesn’t deserve your dress”, it strikes a chord with him that no one else has ever understood. It’s as close to ‘getting him’ as one can attain.

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. He is simply the greatest living actor, and maybe the best ever at his profession. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance. The twist in this “romance” is unlike any other love story from the big screen. While he is haunted by the memories of a cherished mother, Alma presents a more immediate force of reckoning. Is she his tender savior or a menace of danger? It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.

Most know by now that Daniel Day-Lewis has announced this will be his final acting role. We can only compare this to the retirements of Sandy Koufax or Jim Brown. We feel cheated by the void of greatness left by their departures, and if this is truly his final role, the DDL legacy is supremely secure. His meticulous performance shines not only through the quirky OCD moments, but even moreso in the seemingly spontaneous moments of bickering and annoyance … moments that come across ad-libbed instead of scripted – these sound (and feel) like real life arguments!

Supposedly, filmmaker Anderson based the character on Spanish-Basque designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and Day-Lewis research added other elements of authenticity. It’s their first movie together since the fantastic THERE WILL BE BLOOD ten years ago, and theirs seems to be a synchronicity that few actors and directors ever share. Mr. Anderson shot the movie himself, and his use of close-ups – faces, fingers, sewing needles – capture the delicacies as well as the power. The final piece of this glorious puzzle is the orchestral score provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s both prominent and intricate, with stunning piano work that stands on its own. This is a movie about greatness by those who are also great.

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