REVIEW: “After Hitler”

AFTER poster

Countless high quality documentaries have been made about World War 2, Adolph Hitler, the Holocaust, etc. Their importance can’t be understated especially as we grow further away from that period of time. Over the years documentarians have challenged viewers with their insightful explorations from an assortment of angles. Jonathan Martin’s “World War II in Color” is a superbly exhaustive series. Claude Lazmann’s “Shoah” and Marcel Ophüls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” are seminal works on the Jewish Holocaust. I could go on.

“After Hitler” puts its unique focus on a scarred post-war Europe delving into the war’s emotional, economic, societal, and political after-effects. Co-writer and director David Korn Brzoza covers a lot of ground starting in late 1945 and moving to the end of the decade. An incredible collection of colorized video footage from across the continent paints the picture of a weary, ravaged but optimistic people.

AFTER1

But their optimism is quickly squashed as many countries face painful and often violent new realities. Brzoza and narrator Vincent Lindon present an array of truths concerning the new landscape of Europe – dark and disturbing pictures that have often gone forgotten. And exploration isn’t reserved for the countries Hitler’s Naziism terrorized. A big chunk of the documentary highlights Germany and the disaster left there by Hitler’s reign.

“After Hitler” hits its audiences with some brutal facts: the astonishing number of war orphans, a death toll of nearly 40 million European men, women, and children, disturbing ethnic post-war retaliations. This just scratches the surface of what Brzoza reveals. Deeper revelations from the Nuremberg trials, mass displacement, starvation – the scars of World War 2 are visualized in bone-shaking reality.

AFTER2

There is also the political side which the film pays close attention to particularly in the second half. Starting with Churchill’s prediction and early warnings of Stalin’s rise. From there we see the rise of Communism, the birth of the single-party state, and eventually the solidification of the Iron Curtain. Brzoza shows that not only did Hitler’s devastating aggression dramatically change the landscape of Europe, but it opened the door for a new threat that would define the landscape for years to come.

There is one sobering quote from the film regarding post-war Europe that has stuck with me – “It’s as if before the page can be turned it must be stained with violence.” Brzoza does a superb job of realizing that. “After Hitler” does indeed cover a lot of ground and for the most part does so sufficiently. There were subjects that I wish the film sat down and explored more thoroughly, but for such a comprehensive undertaking it does a fine job. The ending is a bit abrupt, but it puts all the pieces together and smartly connects one violent decade to the ominous next one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Sing Street”

sing-poster

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” wasn’t the only delightful, endearing musical of 2016. John Carney’s “Sing Street” also celebrates the wonder of music but not in the star-studded dreamland of Los Angeles. Instead Carney plants us in inner-city Dublin circa 1985. There isn’t an ounce of glitz or pageantry in “Sing Street” yet its music, just like in “La La Land”, is packed with spirit and meaning.

Following the blueprint of his 2007 film “Once”, Carney cast musicians ahead of actors for “Sing Street”. The premise is as simple as they come – a boy forms a rock band to impress a girl. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that. But the film comes alive as Carney fills in the gaps around that simple premise. His characters brim with personality. And of course there is the music.

sing1

Leading Carney’s group of acting unknowns is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who plays Conor, the youngest of three siblings. His family’s financial woes lead his parents (nicely played by Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) to make the decision to remove Conor from his expensive private school to a free but significantly rowdier state school. As the new kid, Connor quickly finds himself the outsider among the school’s many ruffians. Constant run-ins with the class bully and the abusive principal only make things worse.

At home things aren’t much better. His parents’ marriage is falling apart and their disconnect effects the entire family. Conor’s sister Ann (Kelly Thorton) is an aspiring architect drowning in melancholy. Jack Reynor is a scene-stealer playing Conor’s older brother Brendan, a disillusioned college dropout who spends the bulk of his time listening to his records and waxing eloquently on the virtues of rock-and-roll. You could say he is Conor’s music and life professor.

Life brightens up a bit when Conor meets and instantly falls for Raphina (Lucy Boynton with a surprisingly layered performance). She’s an aspiring model who Conor convinces to star in his band’s  music video. But there’s one problem – he doesn’t have a band. So he puts together a misfit group of musicians and calls their band Sing Street. As they begin to create music it not only draws him closer to Raphina but it offers him a form of expression and an escape from the cruddy life surrounding him.

sing222

“Sing Street” is Carney’s semi-autobiographical reflection on his teen years in Dublin. He pulls a lot from personal experience which is a key reason the story and the characters feel so authentic. I would also challenge anyone who grew up on 80s music to watch this and not be giddy with excitement. There is so much eye-lined, hair-sprayed, acid-washed nostalgia. Duran Duran, A-Ha, Hall and Oates, Joe Jackson – just some of the artists we get to hear. And wait till you see Conor’s fashion choices which change with each new band he discovers.

I’m still wrestling with its ending, but for the most part “Sing Street” hits all the right notes (horrible music pun absolutely intended). Carney juggles well timed humor with deep-seated realism and surrounds both with a head-bobbing collection of classic tunes and original songs. There are good performances throughout, particularly from Boynton and Reynor, but the real surprises may be Carney’s collection of acting unknowns who make up the band. Their camaraderie is infectious and watching them create music and find fulfillment gets to the true heart of “Sing Street”. And what a big heart it is.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Jane Got A Gun”

jane-poster

Aside from its patently awkward title, Gavin O’Connor’s “Jane Got a Gun” still had a draw, namely its two stars Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton and its tight-knit story in a Western setting. Unfortunately it became better known for the carousel of people joining and then leaving the film as well as the distribution turmoil. The Weinstein Company eventually dropped the film into the January wasteland of releases. Predictably it bombed.

It’s amazing that the film was ever completed. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, and Bradley Cooper were all cast in important roles but left the project. Director Lynn Ramsay left and was replaced by O’Connor. Cinematographer Darius Khondji left and was replaced by Mandy Walker. Brian Duffield’s script received substantial rewrites by Joel Edgerton and Anthony Tambakis. That the film manages the cohesion it does is impressive.

jane-1

But I think all of those production woes put up some insurmountable hurdles. While there is a simple but interesting premise, “Jane Got a Gun”struggles to sustain any level of energy. It putters along towards its obvious conclusion giving us a few good character moments but not enough to save the film from its mediocrity.

Portman plays Jane Hammond who has settled down on a patch of land with her daughter and husband Bill (Noah Emmerich). But Bill can’t shed his outlaw ways. After wrangling with a gang called the Bishop Boys and their leader John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), he returns home full of bullets and with the gang hot on his heels. What a great guy.

With Bill incapacitated Jane asks her ex-fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to help her protect her husband and house. The two must navigate several emotional mine fields include their past relationship and Dan’s glaringly obvious (and reasonable) disdain for Bill. The movie plants itself here for a bit exploring the history of these two through a number of pointed conversations and flashbacks. It doesn’t add much to the film and only pushes back the inevitable conclusion.

jane2

I certainly can’t fault the performances although there are moments where Portman struggles mightily with her Old West accent. Edgerton is good even though his character isn’t nearly as layered as he could have been. Ewan McGregor is fun in a cheesy, evil, mustache-twirling way. The problem is I’m not convinced the movie is intentionally playing him that way.

In the end “Jane Got a Gun” is the definition of bland. Its faults aren’t egregious or due to creative incompetence. It simply lacks that pivotal spark in the relationships, in the dialogue, and even in the action. The frustration comes in knowing it isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a flavorless western that can’t seem to capitalize on its decent ideas.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: “The African Doctor” (2016)

doctor-posterKamini Zantoko (known simply as Kamini) is a French rapper of Congolese decent who became an internet sensation with his music videos depicting life in rural France. His first single was 2006’s “Marly-Gomont”, a song about growing up in a small Picard village of the same name. The humor-filled rap was actually based on Kamini’s life experience. As a young boy his father moved him and his family to Marly-Gomont to become the town’s doctor.

The influence of Kamini’s experience extends beyond rap tunes and music videos. It also drove him to co-write the script for the 2016 comedy-drama “The African Doctor”. It tells the story of Kamini’s father Seyolo Zantoko (portrayed by Marc Zingo) who is the only African graduate from his French medical school. Seyolo turns down a lucrative job in his home country and accepts one in the small all-white village of Marly-Gomont. But Seyolo and the desperate town mayor who hired him underestimate the backlash from the townsfolk who can’t shake their own ingrained prejudices.

Director  Julien Rambaldi (who also co-wrote the script with Kamini) examines this social quagmire through two intriguing narrative threads. The first is the most obvious – the plight of a black family trying to integrate into a narrow-minded, all-white community. Seyolo’s plan is to simply endure the initial discomforts and win over the villagers. But the fears and prejudices he and his family face are significant and at times overwhelming.

doctor1

The other thread centers around Seyolo’s bull-headed vision for his family. In his mind his desire for French nationality and better education for his kids can only be accomplished through the Marly-Gomont job. It’s an interesting position that subtly speaks to the lack of opportunity available at that time. But it also creates a wall between this genuinely loving father and his family. His insensitivity towards the pressures and persecution they are enduring threatens to tear them apart.

Seyolo’s wife Anne (wonderfully played by Aïssa Maïga) is smothering in loneliness and dreams of moving to Paris or Brussels. With her family in Africa and no friends in the village, her patience is paper-thin. His daughter Sivi (Médina Diarra) is a soccer prodigy but prohibited from playing on her school’s team first because she’s a girl and second because her father feels soccer is a waste of time. Young Kamini (Bayron Lebli) is a smart well-behaved boy who is forced to face racism for the first time at his new school. Yet Seyolo is impervious to their struggles.

 

doctor2

Considering all of that it’s hard to envision this as anything other than a heavy, troubling social drama. Actually it’s a very funny film that often puts a humorous spin on the absurdity of the ignorance on display. The village has its assortment of oddballs that add some good laughs while feeding the central conflict. Some may find this to be too lighthearted of an approach considering the topic, but I never lost sight of the seriousness amid the comedy. And I trust Kamini’s first-hand experiences enough not to view this as a sugar-coating.

“The African Doctor” is a quirky movie with a good sense of humor, a better message and a lot of heart. The balance of comedy and biting social drama is well-managed though it may not impress those looking for a more serious, aggressive take to the subject matter. But I would argue there is a lot of meaning packed into this film and the approach it chooses to take suits it just fine.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Lobster”

lobster-poster

Occasionally you stumble across a movie that is nearly impossible to describe. In many of these cases it’s tough enough wrapping your own mind around what your seeing much less putting it into words. That is certainly the case with “The Lobster”, the latest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.

Much like his Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” before it, “The Lobster” is a wacky surrealist concoction originating in the idiosyncratic mind of Lanthimos. I guess you could call the film a romantic dystopian sci-fi black comedy, but even that doesn’t cover all the bases. “The Lobster” once again finds Lanthimos toying with cultural standards and wickedly satirizing society’s view on love and relationships. For my money it’s funnier, stealthily more romantic, and a bit more digestible than “Dogtooth”. Yet it still requires a willingness to embrace the bizarre nature of its story.

lobster1

That last sentence is a biggie. “The Lobster” demands that we just go with it. It’s imperative. Spend too much time thinking on the absurdity and you’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot. Lanthimos starts off by setting the rules. In this ‘not too distant future’ being single is against the law. Those not married are taken to a hotel where they are given 45 days to find a new mate. If they do they are given the opportunity to earn their release back into the city. If they don’t they are transformed into the animal of their choosing and released into the wild.

See what I mean, bizarre beyond description yet within the boundaries set by the filmmaker it works. The main character is David (Colin Farrell). After his wife leaves him for another man, David is taken to the hotel where he begins his 45 days. Once registered David is placed within the hotel’s strict program featuring all sorts of weird companionship training and preparation. He makes friends with fellow residents John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, but finding a future wife before his time runs out proves to be a challenge.

It’s best to be vague and let you sort through the nuttiness on your own, but I will say “The Lobster” has a sense of humor all its own. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud hysterical (although it can be). Instead the bulk of the humor is found in a variety of unexpected places. It’s all conveyed through an incessant deadpan style from straight-faced characters who live in a constant state of melancholy. There is also a smattering of brief bursts of violence to make things feel even more off-kilter.

There is a fairly dramatic shift at the midway mark and the second half sets off in a much different direction. The tone remains the same and the humor is still wacky and offbeat. But Lanthimos pulls back the reins and changes his focus as Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux are introduced into the story. Both actresses are really good, especially Weisz who gives us a reminder of why she’s an Oscar-winner. But the slower pace of the second half becomes an issue and it starts to wander as it makes its way to the finish line.

lobster2

And that brings me to the ending (without getting into spoilers). So many critics love ambiguous endings and “The Lobster” feeds those hearty affections. I too enjoy them as long as they leave me with something to chew on. This film’s abrupt, open-ended finish is more of an eye-roller than a thought-provoker. It doesn’t offer near enough in its ambiguity to contemplate other than the base narrative questions.

Despite its slow third act and frustrating end, “The Lobster” is uncompromising, provocative, and highly original at every turn. You literally never know where it’s going next. In this his first English-language film, Yorgos Lanthimos showcases his darkly funny form of absurdism through his own moody, muted lens. With “The Lobster” he works with a sharp satirical edge destroying our notions of companionship while also declaring our genuine need for it. The movie may lose some steam near the end, but it consistently engages us with this compelling idea.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Deepwater Horizon”

deepwater-poster

I well remember the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the resulting 210 million gallons of oil that blanketed the Gulf of Mexico. My family and I had a Caribbean cruise set for a couple of months after the explosion. We stayed glued to the news coverage as efforts were made to keep the oil slick’s damage to a minimum. We wondered if our cruise would be canceled, but far more important than our measly vacation plans were the eleven lives lost and the ecological damage caused by what was the worst oil disaster in the nation’s history.

The film “Deepwater Horizon” is based on these terrible events of April 20, 2010. Mark Wahlberg plays Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams who leaves his family for a three week rotation onboard Deepwater Horizon which sits 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. He arrives with navigation officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) to discover certain safety tests were skipped by the previous shift.

Film Review Deepwater Horizon

With the rig’s stability in question Jimmy confronts the BP representatives who are onboard to find out why the operation is over 40 days behind schedule. A delightfully sleazy John Malkovich plays Donald Vidrine, a BP manager willing to skirt around safety protocols for the sake of the company’s bottom line. There is some great headbutting between the profit-driven Malkovich and the salty realist Russell.

Writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand break their story into two halves. The first is focused on developing the tension between the Horizon’s crew and the corporate reps. One of the best early scenes has Wahlberg challenging and exposing Malkovich by saying “hope is not a tactic”. Through these clashes we are fed more and more insight into the calamity we know is on the way.

deep1

The second half becomes a story of survival as the film shifts to the explosion and the people trapped on the rig. It’s a much different turn but it’s just as gripping. The film wisely keeps its characters grounded and at no point do they come across as superheroes. It’s also helped by tremendous special effects (which earned an Oscar nomination) and top-notch editing that covers all of the story’s angles at a fast and fluid pace.

“Deepwater Horizon” is the second of three straight collaborations between director Peter Berg and the every-man Mark Wahlberg. Their story of unflinching heroism in the face of undaunted corporate greed is both revealing and inspiring. I’m an admitted disaster movie junkie, and many of them depend on some level of sensationalism. “Deepwater Horizon” keeps its focus on the 126 crew members aboard the rig on that horrible day. Some barely survived while others lost their lives. The movie is always conscious of that truth and as a result we are too.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars