Movies: The Exception and Wonder Woman

It is summer and there is nothing better than spending time in cool, air conditioned movie theaters – especially if you live in Phoenix.  Here are a couple of movies well worth seeing.

The Exception (The Kaiser’s Last Kiss)

I enjoyed this WWII movie starring Christopher Plummer as Kaiser William II who is in exile in the Netherlands as the Germans aggressively begin to move throughout Europe.  Lily James is a young Jewish woman, Mieke, working in his house.  Jai Courtney plays Capt. Stefan Brandt, a Nazi Captain wounded physically and mentally by a battle in Poland who is assigned to the Kaiser as his body guard.  Brandt is “the exception” to the rule that all Nazi’s are murderous villains.  This movie is a little more black and white than some of the recent WWII films that give their characters a great deal more nuance yet it is well done with the requisite tension and suspense.

Mieke is a spy working for Great Britain and she and Brandt develop an immediate sexual relationship upon meeting.  It is unclear whether she initiates the relationship in her role as a spy but it quickly develops into a deep bond with both characters risking their lives for each other.  While their relationship is central to the plot, it is Plummer who shines every moment he is on screen as the irascible monarch whose character is complex and spirited.  He plays along with his wife who works very hard to ingratiate them with the Nazi regime in order to return to Berlin as royalty despite knowing that he will never again be a German monarch.  His wife successfully gets Himmler to dine at their home and we get a brief glimpse into the atrocities that the Nazi’s are planning in a wonderful sequence by the actor Eddie Marsan.

There have been a million WWII movies but there still seems to be an infinite number of stories to mine from the era and this film is no exception.  It just opened this week and is competing against a lot of Indies but if you can catch it, it is worthwhile to watch Christopher Plummer in a fine performance.  It is unlikely that we will see the 87-year-old actor in many more movies so catch him while you can – he is a gem.

Wonder Woman

I loved Wonder Woman.  For someone who spends most of their movie viewing hours watching depressing Indies, it was fun to see a well-done blockbuster.  What is particularly nice is that this is a movie by women, about women.  There aren’t too many of those on the market – especially in this genre.  From start to finish, I enjoyed the journey of Diana (Wonder Woman) from her origins on the idyllic island of Themyscira to modern day Paris.  Her life is shown in flashbacks with the bulk of the story about her relationship with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who she rescues when his plane crashes off her Island during WWI.  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is perfect in this role as is Pine.  The rest of the supporting cast is excellent as well including the great Robin Wright as Diana’s aunt and David Thewlis as the film’s evil villain.  It is particularly enjoyable to see Thewlis who played the loveable Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies play the opposite type of role (as he has also recently done in this season’s Fargo where he is unrecognizable).  I think he has successfully left the Lupin character behind.

The story moves quickly as Trevor and WW go to the front lines of the war – she to find the evil god of war and Trevor to stop the Germans from releasing poisonous gas that will kill millions.  The relationship between them slowly builds in a way that is both sweet and effective.  The action becomes more intense as WW discovers new ways to utilize her powers.  It is all fun, the music supports the action, the CGI and special effects are wonderful (as are the costumes) and it all culminates in an excellent DC comic film which competes with the best of the Marvel movies.

There have been a lot of super hero movies over the last decade, some better than others but it is great to have one with a female lead and director be well reviewed and a box office hit.  If you have skipped movies in this genre, this might be one to check out.  I urge everyone to go see Wonder Woman.

Movies: I Daniel Blake

 

I Daniel Blake 

I, Daniel Blake won the BAFTA for best British film of 2016 as well as well as the 2016 Palm d’Or at Cannes but has just been released in the US.  It is the story of a blue-collar construction worker, played by Dave Johnson, in Newcastle UK who is on government benefits after having suffered a heart attack.  For some inexplicable reason, the government decides to take him off the benefits despite his doctors telling him he can’t go back to work.  Daniel’s travails as he tries to work within the system to reinstate his benefits will resonate with most viewers –  particularly the hours spent on the phone “on hold” waiting for a representative only to get a bureaucratic response that is useless.  In addition, Daniel, like many in a similar situation, is computer illiterate but forced to apply for benefits on-line.  His mostly unsuccessful attempts as he tries his hardest to do what is asked of him are heartbreaking.

While giving it his all to work within the system, Daniel meets another victim, Katie (played hauntingly by Haley Squires), a single mother of two who has been forced to leave her home in London for a government sponsored apartment in Newcastle.  She is unable to find work and struggles to put food on the table for her kids.  He befriends her and helps fix things around the apartment to help her out. Daniel, a widower with no children, is also friends with his neighbor, a young Black man who is in to selling Chinese sneaker knock-offs out of his car but always looking out for his older mate. The unrelated people form somewhat of a “family”, looking out and caring for one another while life continually delivers them hard knocks.  Katie’s attempts to get a job and better her situation culminate in a devastating scene where she is so hungry that she takes the top of a can of beans in a food bank and tries to get the food in her mouth while she is breaking down.

The Director, Ken Loach has effectively depicted a story of how poor working class people who want desperately to be contributing members of society fail because  the “system” destroys them despite their best efforts.  There is a call-out against what seems to be the privatization of part of the British welfare system at the beginning of the film as a faceless American company “health worker” denies Daniel his benefits without any real understanding of his situation. Apparently, Loach’s political views are far left and his movies represent his perspective.  I Daniel Blake is no exception.  You will come out of this movie exhausted and sad,  questioning not only England’s state sponsored programs but what it must be like in the USA for Vets trying to get medical care via a somewhat similar system.  Although I found the film to be excellent, it is a tough, tough movie to watch – there is no happy ending here.  The themes of resilience and perserverance are prevalent throughout the film but despite a few moments of glory, and even a few comedic ones, the good people are all crushed.

Movies: The Lovers, War Machine and the Wedding Plan

 

The Lovers

The Lovers, starring Debra Winger (Mary) and Tracy Letts (Michael) isn’t going to appeal to the same demo as Guardians of the Galaxy but should find an audience of Baby Boomers.   It is a smart, well-paced view into a marriage past its prime.  Winger and Letts play a couple that go about their daily routine by rote, communicating as little as possible.  They are calm, they don’t argue but they also, don’t connect.  Quickly it becomes apparent that to escape this existence, each has taken up a lover and two new characters enter the fray.  There is Michael’s lover, a crazy dance instructor who constantly pressures him through histrionics to leave his wife for her and a much more placid and sensitive man (Aidan Gillen or Littlefinger for many of us!) who is Mary’s erstwhile lover.

It all comes to a head as Mary’s and Michael’s lovers continually try to force their partners to end their respective marriages.   The resultant tension created causes Michael and Mary to start backing away only to find a new sexual attraction between them.   They start cheating on their respective lovers which strained the bounds of credibility based on what had happened up to that point in their relationship but it was fun.  Intertwined through all of this is the arrival of their son and his girlfriend creating a catalyst for these relationships to implode.  Humor is interspersed with pain throughout the film but the honesty and realness of these characters is never challenged.  You will never think that you are watching an unreal slice of life despite an ending that is a bit of a stretch.

It is great to see Debra Winger on screen again as she reminds us what we have been missing.  Have fun with this movie. 

War Machine

This wartime satire starring Brad Pitt premiered on Netflix last week.  Pitt’s performance as the embattled General Glen McMahon (based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal) is completely over the top but does that make it more impactful or reduce its effectiveness?  The critics are mixed on this.  At any rate, it is hard not to have some sympathy for this General who was brought in to command the Afghanistan forces in 2009/2010.  He had his own ideas and personality and perhaps made some progress in trying to work through a very murky strategy.  Of course, it doesn’t help his legacy that his successor, General Patraeus was much more successful.

McChrystal was undone by a Rolling Stone writer, the late Michael Hastings, who was embedded for a while and wrote a scathing article resulting in the President firing the General.  The movie is based on Hasting’s book “The Operators”.  The film explores the General, his relationships with subordinates and his belief in his own ability to win the war even while everything falls apart around him.  The supporting cast is excellent from Ben Kingsley as President Hamid Karzai to Meg Tilly as McMahon’s long suffering wife.  They are all very good.

I did not particularly care for the movie.  It was no Mash.  Pitt’s acting choices in playing the General might be brilliant but the characterization grated on me.  It wasn’t the worst film I have ever seen by a long shot, and it was free on Netflix so I didn’t have to waste money on it, but the subject matter is tough and the writing not particularly compelling.  Nonetheless, war is hell and this film portrays that theme throughout.  There is no reason not to check out the movie but feel free to abandon it along the way.  That is one of the great benefits of Netflix!

The Wedding Plan

I was looking for more from this film which was rated 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.  I could not stay awake during the first hour.  I’m usually pretty good with subtitles but in this case, the lead has most of the dialogue, a melodic voice speaking Hebrew and the subtitles were positioned such that I got tired of reading them.  At any rate, it is the story about a young orthodox Jewish woman, Michal, who is jilted by her fiancé 30 days before their wedding.  She decides that come hell or high water, she will find a man to marry on the original date because life would clearly not be worth living were she to remain single at age 32.

The film is advertised as a romantic comedy/drama and is clearly more heavily weighted toward the drama.  The comedy was not very prevalent. Michal solicits help from a couple of matchmakers to help her quickly find a husband but I must admit, all the candidates looked and acted the same to me.  The only interesting male was a touring musician named Yos played by an Israeli pop star Oz Zehavi.  He had charisma and their relationship had some depth.  Other than that, it was all somewhat bewildering and I don’t think it is because it is hard for me to relate to the character’s need to be married which of course it was.

All and all, I was disappointed by this film.  Feel free to skip this one.

Movies: The Zookeeper’s Wife and Queen of the Desert

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an adaptation of the book by the same name (which, by the way, was excellent).  It stars Jessica Chastain as a Polish woman who with her husband manages a Zoo in Warsaw as Hitler rises to power. The movie doesn’t have the subtlety or complexity of the book but it is fine and Chastain is quite good.  The story is true and worth knowing about as this couple saved as many as 300 Warsaw Jews through their commitment and bravery while constantly risking their lives.

This is a difficult story to bring to screen and the film over simplifies the story.  The “good guys” are heroically perfect and the “bad guys” completely evil with no “grey” to be found.  The atrocities against the Zoo animals are graphically displayed yet the even more horrific atrocities against those in the Warsaw ghetto are glossed over.  Are we to walk away thinking more about the animals?  I think not but that is not clear in the film.   Chastain as Antonina is at times more like Cinderella with the little birds floating around her ( at least while there are still animals in the zoo) than what I suspect was a very hard working couple in real life.  I never got that impression reading the book as this was a difficult profession to be in even before the war.

In the end, the Zookeeper’s wife is a perfectly acceptable film about World War II that lacks the urgency, complexity and magnitude of the impact of the player’s actions.  The story has been told before and better by other filmmakers but I think most viewers will still like it.  It certainly is one of the better big box movies playing now.  I just wish there had been more depth to the story telling.

Queen of the Desert (Limited Release and Streaming)

Queen of the Desert, with a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, went pretty much straight to Streaming.  It is the story of Gertrude Bell, based on a biography of the same name and Directed by Werner Herzog.  Nicole Kidman stars as the lead character who was a British Woman in the early twentieth century who journeyed to the Middle East and became one of the most influential persons of her time.  She was often referred to as the “female Lawrence of Arabia” (played in the film by Robert Pattinson).

There are some positives to the film.  Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell with the authority and gravitas that the character requires.  Arabs were actually cast to play Arabs.  Robert Pattison, James Franco as her first love and Damien Lewis (as her second) are all fine.  The cinematography while not in the same league as Lawrence in Arabia is still compelling and realistic.  Above all, the story of Gertrude Bell and her role in carving up the modern day Middle East is an important one that everyone should be aware of.

There are more negatives. The beginning of the film drags.  The back and forth with James Franco seems endless and I just wanted to skip it and get to the time in Bell’s life where she was being impactful.  Also, the noises that camels make is certainly not understated and becomes distracting. But perhaps the most significant issue with the film is that we leave not having a better understanding of what drove Gertrude Bell to be the pioneer that she was nor the role she played in the 1921 Cairo Conference.  While instrumental in the Conference which divided up the Middle East, her recommendations were largely overridden by the political scheming of Churchill and the French which was not mentioned.  Instead, the end of the film sees Gertrude riding off into the desert on a camel as if she was Lawrence.

Everyone should know more about Gertrude Bell but I’d read her biographies rather than see this movie.

 

 

Movies: Their Finest, After the Storm and Patriots Day

Their Finest

Their Finest is described by one site as a “Comedy, Drama, Romance”.  It is a drama with some romance interspersed with comedic relief by Bill Nighy.  Don’t think for one second that this movie isn’t a drama about World War II and what it was like to make a movie in the forties.   The film focuses on a small group of screenwriters tasked with creating propaganda for the British war effort during the London blitz.  Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired based on some work she did in a newspaper that was viewed as campy enough for the writing a lighthearted film with a female perspective. She is briefly caught up in a three-way romance but it is clear from early on, who she should end up with.

Bill Nighy plays an aging actor with few options other than to agree to act in this “B” film and he is excellent as the vain elitist who over the course of film integrates with the cast.  This culminates in a scene where he sings a beautiful melancholy song that one never could have predicted having listened to his crass Christmas rendition in “Love Actually”.  Nighy does deliver important comedic breaks in an otherwise serious drama with both predictable and unpredictable war deaths.  Arteton is quite good as Catrin and fills the screen admirably.  There is also a wonderful cameo by Jeremy Irons as he gives a dramatic speech about the criticality of using the film to draw America into the war.

In the words of one of my favorite Washington Post critics, “Their Finest” is an old-fashioned movie about old-fashioned movies, where sincerity and optimism can often look like kitsch but in which values are rightfully celebrated, without a trace of condescension”.  I think that sums up the movie perfectly.  It is a very good movie albeit not great that will please those viewers not expecting a war movie with lots of battle scenes or a comedy.  It is emotionally gratifying as you move from laughs to tears and even gain an understanding of the sausage making machine that is the movie industry.

After the Storm (subtitles)

After the Storm is a slow-moving journey into one man’s day to day existence as he struggles to get through life.  To say Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is not a success is an understatement.  He is divorced, unable to pay child support and thus denied frequent access to his son Shingo.  Although he has written one relatively successful novel, he can’t come up with the inspiration required to do another.  He works for a private detective agency where he shakes down deadbeats, gambles away the few dollars he receives and even steals from his mother.  His beautiful ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) has moved on with her life while looking back at the disappointments it has brought her.

When a typhoon strikes, Ryota, his ex-wife and son are stuck in the tiny apartment of his mother and the emotional interplay as they reflect on their lives is the heart of the movie.  At one point, Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo hole up outside in a large pink children’s play apparatus outdoors in the park at the height of the storm while they reminisce on their lives.  The Director is asking the viewer to forgive the generally unappealing Ryota before he can forgive himself.  There is no definitive ending to the movie.  The only hint as to what may happen in the future is that Ryota says to his mother earlier on that he wants to be the man he is capable of being.  As he walks into the crowd at the end, has he turned the corner or has his mother mentions more than once, has this late bloomer started to bloom?

Patriots Day (Now Streaming)

Patriots Day went in and out of the theater so fast this winter that I totally missed it.  The story of the Boston Marathon bombings that occurred just a few blocks away from where I played squash for years is one of horrific tragedy followed by the hope and spirit of the Boston community.  The movie, staring Mark Wahlberg as a Boston cop is at its best when retelling the story of the massive manhunt for bombers.  The first part of the film flashes back and forth between victims and police to set the stage for the main event.  This part of the film is slow, confusing and difficult to follow.  Once the bombing occurs and the FBI and Boston/Watertown police engage, the plot takes on an edginess that keeps the viewer completely engaged until the end.  The way the authorities pinpoint the bombers in the various Commonwealth Ave. establishment’s security videos is fascinating and the hunt through Cambridge and Watertown thrilling.

The film is part documentary, part thriller and part police procedural with plenty of stars (in addition to Wahlberg there are Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and J.K. Simmons as Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese).  Anyone who enjoys documentaries, thrillers, police procedurals or any movie about Boston should be happy with this film.

Movies: The Sense of an Ending, Beauty and the Beast and Personal Shopper

 

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending has many of my favorite British actors.  Jim Broadbent stars as Tony Webster a divorced retiree who lives a quiet existence.  He is on good terms with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) and his daughter played by Michelle Dockery but there are hints that he hasn’t always been a great guy. Tony receives a letter saying that something has been left to him by the mother of a girlfriend from his youth.  We see flashbacks to his former girlfriend Veronica and her brother and mother as we start to see the story of his life being pieced together.

It turns out that the thing that he was left, is a diary of a fellow student who dated Veronica and committed suicide shortly thereafter.  Tony goes in pursuit of what is rightfully his but comes up against a stalwart Veronica, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is not willing to give up the diary to him.  The movie kicks into high gear once Rampling is introduced and the back and forth between the past and present intensifies.

In this low-key psychological thriller, we uncover deep secrets as the dualing themes of the cruelty of youth and how our memories become unpredictable as we age, collide.  Tony has clearly altered some of his memories to blot out his questionable actions. Jim Broadbent is excellent as Tony and captures his complex personality perfectly.  Rampling is Rampling and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Dockery and Walter are also very good.  The Sense of an Ending reminds me somewhat of Atonement having some of the same themes but not quite as dark.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.  While Emma Watson’s singing is fine, she is clearly an Actress who can sing rather than a singer.  The same for Dan Stephans although he only has one song and that one sounds digitally altered.  Luke Evans who plays Gaston, however, has pipes and he nails his performance. Audra McDonald in a brief role delivers a stunning aria.

There are some new songs in this version of the classic but it is the old ones that you will be humming leaving the theate including Belle, Be Our Guest and Gaston.  There are also wonderful cameos by Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen.  This film version with live actors is in capable hands with Watson.  It is a big ask to have her star in such a blockbuster but she succeeds admirably.  You won’t be disappointed if you spend a few bucks and see this film.

Personal Shopper

I have seen most of Kristin Stewart’s performances from Twilight to Personal Shopper and I think this is my favorite performance of hers.  In my opinion,  she is even better in this one than Clouds of Sils Marie for which she won the Cesar – the French equivalent of an Oscar.  Nowhere in this performance did I see those peculiar little facial twerks that seemed to plague her for most of her career.  She is great in this film which is a good thing as the camera never leaves her.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright who lies in Paris and is a personal shopper for Kyra, a celebrity of some sort.  Maureen’s twin brother has recently died of a heart ailment that she too suffers from.  Both he and his sister are mediums and Maureen goes to his house to try and contact her dead brother.  They had made a pact that they would contact each other from the beyond if one died.  There are clearly paranormal creatures at work as Maureen continues to try and contact her brother.  That is the ghost story part of Shopper.

Then there is the murder mystery plotline.  Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown person (or spirit) that get progressively creepier. The texts get her to  go to Kyra’s apartment and try on her clothes in an erotic sequence.  Later, Maureen returns to the apartment to find that Kyra has been murdered.  Stewart is mesmerizing in this very weird (but good weird) film that has been seen by about fifteen people in the USA.  It isn’t playing in very many places but I highly recommend it.

 

Movie: The United Kingdom

 

The United Kingdom

United Kingdom is a good but not a great movie and along the way will give you some interesting history of Botswana that I suspect many people are unaware of.  David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama, a prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) who is studying in England in 1947 when he is called upon to return to his homeland to be King.  Unfortunately, he has met a white woman, Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike and the two quickly fall in love.  Khama proposes to her and the British government gets wind of it and together with his uncle (who seems be the interim ruler) work their hardest to keep the couple from marrying.  Neither believe that a mixed marriage will advance their respective agendas in Bechuanaland.

They are unsuccessful and Khama and Ruth go to Africa as a married couple not supported by either the Brits, who do not come off well in this story, or the tribe.  Khama is subsequently exiled by somewhat nefarious means and Ruth stays behind so she too can’t be exiled.  There isn’t much doubt as to what the outcome will be yet Oyelowo and Pike are quite good and have a quiet chemistry.  Oyelowo gets the great speeches but Pike is fine as the suffering wife.  Together they are believable.  United Kingdom is a film you’ll certainly find enjoyable and historically interesting but it won’t win any Oscars.  The father we get from awards season, the less we seem to have good choices at the theater so this film is perfectly good way to spend an afternoon or evening.