Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

If I Were King (1938)

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There’s a moment in the film that can’t help but draw us back to Genesis where Joseph (of technicolor dream coat fame) has risen in the ranks of Egypt and finds himself with the lives of his brothers in the palm of his hands. He’s able to toy with them while also blessing them immensely. It’s easy to see the hand of Providence at work. Nothing so meaningful happens in If I Were King but there is, nevertheless, a similar moment.

Ronald Colman plays the charming, most agreeable of vagabonds and that’s hardly a complaint. We might call into question the validity of his portrayal of such a mythic figure as Francois Villon but we can never doubt his pure charisma.

Francois Villon as witnessed in this film, directed by Frank Lloyd (Mutiny on the Bounty) is a glorified scoundrel who might be a far cry from the man who actually bore the name Francois Villon but, once more, do we care? Hardly.

Preston Sturges’ quill is in playfully fine form mixing eloquent verse with a lightness of being that’s able to upend typical medieval drama with its warring nations, kings, and battles. All of the aforementioned are present but they’re made rather more enjoyable. The tongue in cheek nature of it all enlivens any dips into needless melodrama.

Instead of stringing this man up for his obstination, insubordination, and theft the giggling king (Basil Rathbone) proceeds to make the same man commander of his armies for not only killing the most loathed traitor in the king’s ranks but also boasting he could do a far better job running the kingdom. The origins of a new medieval gameshow are afoot: King for a week.

Basil Rathbone shines in a particularly enjoyable performance for its various quirks including a cackling delivery that feels completely at odds with the persona he cultivated with the majority of his villainous roles. In other words, it’s a real corker.

Meanwhile, in his newfound place of power, the remade Grand Constable finds he has considerable influence. First, to free his friends from the caverns of the dungeon and being by the king’s side to advise him in his moment of crisis. You see, his generals don’t want to fight the militant Burgundians who are about to lay siege to his kingdom.

Villon receives a stroke of genius from the lovely lady in waiting (an exquisite Frances Dee clothed in royal opulence), unload all the kingdom’s food supplies to the poor so the feckless military leaders will get off their duffs and be stirred to action with their larders all but depleted. It’s a drastic and terribly outrageous solution but it does produce some results.

The earlier raucous swordfight within a tavern against the king’s constable is only surpassed and subsequently quashed by the sheer magnitude of the final conflict between the Burgundian marauders and the city’s protectorate — a sequence that was declared to use some 900 extras. It’s certainly no hoax watching the mad chaos of clattering steel.

It was some time into watching this medieval period piece that I realized if Hollywood were to remake such a film as this or one of a similar nature it seems like there would be an unspoken impetus to somber it up and make it into high drama.

All but gone are the days when period dramas could be fun with a touch of whimsy to go with the usual action, adventure, and romance. Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman, those charming heroes of old, are a forgotten breed of leading men and the last time I remember a film channeling this same enjoyment in such things was The Princess Bride now over 30 years ago.

In truth, I suppose the space for medieval heroes and swashbucklers has been edged out by newer and bigger blockbuster beasts. Namely, sci-fi and superhero mammoths that have taken over the main stage. And I have nothing particularly against said tent poles mind you, but I do long for more pictures like this one. Period pieces that don’t have to be so serious. They can have fun too (even if historical accuracy goes a bit to the wayside). That’s a pardonable offense when there’s no pretense for accuracy.

Because If I Were King is blessed by its rich and constantly comedic overtones. That is no doubt the gift of Preston Sturges. This picture can wear the strains poetry and still keep the mood a sprightly one. Films like this are something special.

4/5 Stars

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw_Ridge_poster.pngHacksaw Ridge is not for the squeamish, its greatest irony being that for a film about a man who took on the mantle of a conscientious objector and would not brandish firearms, it is a very violent film, even aggressively so. But Mel Gibson, after all, is the man who brought us Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) while starring in The Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises.

Like its predecessors, this picture does not shy away from any depiction of violence but you can make the case that it is not violence for violence sake. There is a broader and some would say even a spiritual message behind it. Still, the chaos, the images of war, the killing, and the suffering are all there on the screen. No doubt about it.

Thus, Mel Gibson’s war biopic on Desmond Doss will not be a film for everyone. Perhaps it was not even a film that I truly needed to see (as I briefly skipped over some of the gorier sequences). Because the truth is I have some idea of what war can do to a man’s body. It was not something I needed to be reminded of.

However, this story is nevertheless an uplifting one and if nothing else it was a story I needed to unearth. Because as is usually customary, something as volatile and pernicious as war always seems to bring out not only the very worst in people but in others, the very best and those individuals take on the banner of heroes.

In the case of the unassuming Desmond Doss, it meant giving life instead of taking it away. And without a doubt, it’s a noble ideal and as a Seventh Day Adventist, he held ardently to that belief. Still, a major component of war is taking the life of your enemy. Some would say even that there is a time of killing especially going up against certain foes.

But Doss would not budge on the tenets of his beliefs and I think any person can laud him for that. There’s no hint of hypocrisy or contempt in him only an unswerving adherence to what he deemed to be right.

For these very reasons, it’s quite easy to draw parallels between Doss and Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981) who was another man of faith who would not compromise his belief in keeping the Sabbath either. What further connects these stories is how these men took those circumstances and made a name for themselves beyond them. For Liddell, it was winning gold during the Olympics and for Doss it meant saving countless men on the battlefield.

However, Hacksaw Ridge’s closest and most obvious predecessor might be Sergeant York (1941) which while being about a similar figure who held to his convictions, was nevertheless a great deal tamer and felt more focused on its hero in light of American’s imminent involvement in WWII. It was a patriotic propaganda picture starring one of the era’s icons in Gary Cooper and one of its up and coming girls-next-door Joan Leslie.

In fact, Hacksaw Ridge is carried by a romance of its own and while not a substantial portion of the narrative, the romance between Doss and a local nurse is one that does tug at the heartstrings for the very fact that we know a version of this meet-cute probably existed in real life.

There’s also something deeply moving when the camera dies and we first see Mr. Doss himself looking back on his earlier exploits. His humility stands front and center. Dare I say, he seems an ordinary fellow but sometimes it’s those very fellows who prove just what extraordinary things men can be capable of in the midst of tremendous duress. The numbers speak for themselves. He saved 75 soldiers in one day’s work. There are few words applicable except Awesome.

Andrew Garfield once again proves his seriousness as an “actor” and his joint performances in Hacksaw Ridge as well as Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) make for an extraordinary one-two showing on the year. Meanwhile, both Vince Vaughan and Hugo Weaving inhabit roles that you would not initially peg them for. But all and all, if you can tolerate Hacksaw Ridge’s gore, there is a great deal that can be gleaned from this story of unassuming heroism.

3.5/5 Stars

Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden_Figures,_2016In some respects, this feels very much like a paint by numbers biopic that takes us through the many paces of such a narrative. The rise, fall, conflict, and self-actualization of our heroes that navigates us to the film’s conclusion.

But this is also unequivocally a story that necessitated a telling for the very fact that stories like these have been hidden for decades — swept under the rug if you will. Because first and foremost Caucasians were usually the ones at the center of the master narrative of history and namely white males at that.

In one of my courses in university, the term of intersectionality would have undoubtedly cropped up in conversation right about now to denote a doubly marginalized group (African-American women). Feel free to consider the term if you are so inclined because there are others who can probably bring a lot more to the table on issues of gender and race and oftentimes those are very necessary conversations to entertain.

However, I am more interested in the actual story in question and so I will jump right to that topic. At its core, there are three women who you have probably never heard but that’s only a part of it. It’s that and the fact that they were integral cogs in something truly extraordinary.

Our first person of note Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who is promoted to the Space Task Group, given the pressure following the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik and Johnson’s unreputed skill in analytical geometry. She moves from her own segregated division to an environment full of passive-aggressive bigotry and whites-only bathrooms. In her home life, she raises three daughters while falling in love with a handsome National Guardsman (Mahershala Ali).

The firecracker among her friends is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who has aspirations to finish her schooling so that she can become a full-fledged engineer. Lastly, is the sagely one, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who has seen a great deal of the world and continually shows tremendous qualities of leadership over her segregated branch which she leads with a self-possessed wisdom. One would gather these skills would apply well to any arena and so they do eventually.

For our parents’ generations events such as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the Challenger, Explosion left an indelible mark on society and it was all for the sake of exploring the great unknown of outer space. Those later triumphs and, yes, even the tragedies would not have come into being if it wasn’t for some of the unsung individuals who got John Glenn off the ground in 1962 as we desperately tried to counter Russia’s Sputnik successes.

There’s also a slightly refreshing reversal of the age-old supporting character archetypes where this film dares to put its white characters in secondary roles while still giving them a decent amount of importance in the overall trajectory of this narrative.

Kevin Costner is the most rewarding supporting character as the head of NASA who is looking for results more than anything and that causes him to push past the accepted walls of racial hierarchy not necessarily because he’s trying to make a social statement but because he wants to get the job done. Skin color has no bearing on whether or not someone is savvy and can get John Glenn into the wild blue yonder.

Jim Parsons part does not stretch the boundaries of his Sheldon Cooper image but it is underlined by a bit of prejudicial malice as is Kirsten Dunst’s turn which no doubt adds a touch of realism representative of the defacto bigotry of the era. Meanwhile, Pharrell Williams score of sorts while somehow anachronistic undoubtedly imbues these three women with a spark of energy following every step of progress they make with NASA.

The film’s decidedly punny title aside, Hidden figures is still full of joy even if it’s only a minor pleasure as a film. Because in some instances it doesn’t seem to take its material all that seriously and sometimes that is more refreshing than a dour and self-important exploration. Still, it takes itself out of the running among the greatest biopics for that very reason. It’s a bit too formulaic and probably too tongue-in-cheek with historical events. That cannot take away the full impact of this history or the enjoyment value of the film. We should do well do appreciate them both. The talent as well for that matter.

3.5/5 Stars

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

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It’s no surprise that this adaptation begins with that oft-repeated bit of poetic parallelism. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” etc. Of course, in its abridged format the opening suggests the universal quality of those iconic words. It was a period very much like the present.

The scene is set. What follows are images that prove to be deliciously atmospheric with a loving mixture of British colloquialism and Hollywood storytelling all stirred together in an agreeable period drama.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this film, directed by Jack Conway, is that it manages to capture some of the essence of Dickens’ novel even if it does not wholly enrapture me as the source material did those many years ago in my freshman honors English class.

The beauty of literature is that it allows you to create pictures in your head — to let your imagination run rampant — the magic of film is how it allows for such spectacles to be brought to us visually though they might come out imperfectly. Owing to length and practicality, it cannot completely transcribe every last detail onto the screen resorting to jumps in time and abridging of the text.

In fact, a slight criticism is that the film resorts to title cards too much. Still, there are some inspiring moments including the climactic storming of the Bastille sequences courtesy of that inspired combination of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It’s simultaneously harrowing and marvelously condenses the sweeping forces of the mob rule’s swift rise during the French Revolution into a matter of brief images that overwhelm with their sheer scope and ferocity.

Also, whether this film succumbs to pure histrionics or is instead an impassioned interpretation of Charles Dickens’ material is up for debate but there is no denying that there is a pleasing texturing to many of the most prominent characterizations.

Though a minor part, Basil Rathbone that legendary villain turns in one of his myriad performances as a heartless French nobleman. Whereas Miss Pross is played with endearing yet resolute defiance by Edna May Oliver. Both Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay exude a certain geniality that we’ve come to attribute to the roles. They are less interesting but necessary for the story to have any magnitude.

The most telling difference in depictions for me was in the character of Mr. Lorry (Charles Gillingwater) likened to a crotchety old coot though Dickens paints a picture of him that feels much more reserved and similarly steadfast. I would know because out of all the many figures, I always resonated with him a man who remained a supporting player but nevertheless reflected fine qualities of loyalty and quiet integrity.

But of course, we must inevitably come to Sydney Carton. In the book, he transforms into our hero coming to the fore among a wide array of other characters but with Ronald Colman undoubtedly the biggest star in our film we are conveniently tipped off to his crucial importance and he is vital to the story.

It could have been all too probable that like The Prisoner of Zenda, Ronald Colman could have taken a double role because (SPOILER ALERT) Dickens’ original novel hinges on the likeness of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. But in this case, it’s almost a stroke of good fortune that Colman was only given one part.

In it, Ronald Colman plays the brilliant young solicitor who nevertheless spends most of his evenings with his snout in a bottle wasting so much of his talent toward purposeless diversions. He’s a charming fellow but he seems hardly a person of note. But that’s not the final word.

Colman is aptly able to focus all his energies on the man and he’s further allowed to embody one of the great redemption tales in all of English literature. It seems he knew it too, willingly relinquishing his iconic and beloved mustache in deference to the role which no doubt was one of the defining moments of his career.

There’s also no denying the transcendent themes that course through this narrative and reveal themselves much as we would expect. Because this is a story of ultimate sacrifice and a very overt evocation of the Christ story.

Thus, it seems no small coincidence that as Carton takes part in a selfless act that will define his life the trills of “Come All Ye Faithful” quietly play in the background. The inference is plain. Though, it’s a political fable as well a spiritual one, Carton’s words are what entrench themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some might vehemently disagree but this is a Christmas film if ever there was one. Because it points to hope even in the darkest times. That’s how those paradoxical lines can stand true. It was the worst of times but also the very best.

4/5 Stars

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost_famous_poster1Almost Famous is almost so many things. There are truly wonderful moments that channel certain aspects of our culture’s infatuation with rock n roll.

It’s easy to become entranced with the opening moments, not necessarily because we are introduced to William, his protective mother (Frances McDormand), or even his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) who looks to leave the nest behind to go off and find herself. To steal a line from Simon & Garfunkel, she goes off, “To look for America” and we can ride the wistful waves of Paul Simon’s lyrics to understand exactly what she means.  But she also leaves behind a gift for her little brother under his bed. It’s easy to surmise that it’s drugs, something to “expand his horizons” but instead it’s so much more. It’s what this entire film hinges on: Music.

And when he opens the treasure trove of records his sister bequeathed him this is an initial kairos moment that also manages to be one of the most magical in the film–one that leaves goosebumps from sheer recognition. He flips through the albums. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on. Enough said. Each of these bands means so much to so many people as do some of these albums.

Almost Famous is at its best when it’s channeling those very things. Its soundtrack has the propitious fortune to include some authorized tracks from Led Zeppelin as well as Neil Young, David Bowie, and of course Elton John, his “Tiny Dancer” filling up the band’s bus with a chorus of voices in one of the most remembered sequences.

The film’s story is intriguing for the very fact that it has the potential to feel so personal in nature. It functions as a fictionalized autobiography of Cameron Crowe’s foray into rock journalism as a bit of a teenage prodigy from sunny San Diego who first wrote for Creem and then in the big leagues for Rolling Stone Magazine circa 1973.

That’s a narrative ripe with possibilities and anecdotes sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves music and there are certainly some of those moments. People jumping off rooftops into swimming pools their heads spinning on acid, tour buses crashing through gates to make a quick getaway from a horrible gig, and plane flights on the edge of death that elicit a long line of last-minute confessions.

But we are also reminded that life on the road is a grind, it can be dangerous too but more often than not it’s surprisingly dull. What happens to William (Patrick Fugit) is that he gets subjected to this life and far from changing, it simply changes how he sees these people. Ultimately, there’s a bit of disillusionment and alienation with getting that close to people you idolize. In many respects, he looks ridiculously out of place in this lifestyle of groupies, tour buses, backstage antics, sleazy hotel rooms, and sex, drugs, and rock n roll.  He’s too clean cut. Too much of a straight arrow. And that’s part of what’s interesting.

But while it’s easy to latch onto the trajectory of our character and care about his growth and maturity, the themes of Almost Famous feel muddled and not in a way that’s  enigmatic and mysterious. It just drops off at a certain point.

It’s almost transcendent, almost a masterstroke, almost captures our heart but it’s not quite there. Despite its best efforts it somehow still feels slightly removed from the moment it comes out of–a moment that now is easy to eulogize about as both electric and exciting in a way that the band Stillwater never is. Maybe that’s the point.

We can reiterate again and again that the music is phenomenal and while the situations had potential to be gripping they never quite reached that apex. Everything is quite satisfactory, it’s enjoyable watching this wide-eyed lad follow around this rock band, but there are moments when the film drags. Take the rock and roll out of these people and they aren’t altogether compelling. That might be an unfortunately cruel thing to say too.

But Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the famed rock critic repeatedly notes that rock is on the way out and this film seems to surmise as much. At times it doesn’t feel completely caught up in the throes of its time, it’s not caught up in the moment as if there’s this subconscious feeling that it will all come to an end.

On the reverse side, William lives life alongside some of these figures who are never truly all that magnetic or memorable whether Russell (Billy Crudup) or even the iconically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The name dropping and connections to others make them the most intriguing. Dinner with Dylan here, something from David Crosby there. Led Zeppelin fanboys, David Bowie’s manager, and so on and so forth. Those connections have cultural clout still but once again the fictional Stillwater were only almost famous. Their name whether in fiction or reality has been lost to time and there’s no aura to them. Because we have nothing to sink our teeth into.

Maybe it’s the very fact that the film does this so well that it feels unremarkable. It takes time on those who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of rock ‘n roll when the critics and pundits got together to write the narrative that would be accepted for a historical fact from that point forward.

However, Almost Famous also takes a particular care to show what it was and still is to be a rock star in this kind of volatile lifestyle always on the road. The fame and applause are amplified but so in many ways are the heartbreaks and ultimately the scrutiny that can either make or break you.  There’s no privacy in the general sense. But that’s the point, as a rock star you give much of that up. The question is, what happens when you’re in the middle ground? You’re not quite there but the journalists are still looking for their story, digging through your music, life, and affairs. No one has ever desired to be Almost Famous because, in some cases, you get the worst of both worlds.

4/5 Stars

 

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)

sophieschollSophie Scholl: The Final Days is a film that people need to see or at the very least people need to know the story being told. For those who don’t know, Sophie Scholl was a twenty-something college student. That’s not altogether extraordinary. But her circumstances and what she did in the midst of them were remarkable.

It’s easy to assume that life under Nazi authority wouldn’t be so bad for Aryans, nationals, or the general public. But it just takes looking at a story like Sophie Scholl’s and her older brother Hans and that assumption quickly falls apart. Because their lives reflect an alternative to the master narrative, the kind of counter example that is often visible if you look hard enough.

You see, these two young people in solidarity with numerous others took a stand against the oppressive Nazi regime calling for passive resistance, the cessation of violence, and championing the ultimate worth of all people–even Jews and the disabled.

That was a radical departure and utter blasphemy in the face of the stringent rhetoric of the Nazi party. But so were the heady words that The White Rose movement was circulating in those incredibly perilous, heavily policed and censored days and they knew full well the risks that they were taking. Yet they did it anyway, typing up hundreds of anti-Nazi pamphlets to be mailed and further distributed across their university campus.

The film takes a very direct approach to its narrative spending little to no time in building up its character’s backstory instead, throwing us headlong into their business with the printing and dissemination of their message. The film is immediately filled with a palpable tension but it does make you question where the film can go from here as it manages to reach such an unnerving state early on.

In truth, The Final Days spends most of its time in interrogation rooms and prison cells. It’s a stripped down storyline that nevertheless rings with truth and exudes an unassailable depth that says something of the characters at its core. They are remarkable human beings. Bold, brave, resilient, all those things, and yet they were only a group of young college students. Here is a woman younger than me who under tremendous duress and pressure of an astronomical nature, nevertheless showed tremendous poise, resolve, and true strength of character.

Julia Jentsch gives a phenomenal performance as the eponymous heroine in both its composure and restrained strength, never faltering and very rarely succumbing to any amount of emotion until the final moments. And even then she maintains a resolute spirit that seems content even unto death.  Some people are born older and so it seems with Sophie Scholl. Thus, let no one look down on you because you are young because if Sophie’s life is any indication at all you can do so much with this life even in youth.

But the film also becomes a bit of an ideological battle as Sophie spends hour after hour being grilled, belittled, and berated by Gestapo Investigator Robert Mohr. Initially, it all starts with an attempt of catching Scholl in her lie and yet she’s so self-assured in her answers, it’s very difficult to trip her up. And even when they get beyond the beginning hurdles of interrogation they duel on deeper topics altogether from law to freedom of speech, to spirituality.

In her prison cell, when she’s not conversing with her fellow prisoner, Sophie prays to God as she puts it, “stammering to him” but she also holds unswervingly to her faith, maintaining an undeniable reverence for her God and a firm belief that every individual is made in the image of God. That she too is made in his image. Therefore no one has any right to pass divine judgment or dictate whether someone lives or dies. Certainly, the Nazis are no different.

In one striking discourse, Mohr grills Sophie with the following question, “Why do you risk so much for false ideas?” She answers matter of factly. It’s because of her conscious and going further still it’s because every life is precious. A 21-year-old girl was able to grasp what the Nazis were too poisoned, narrow-minded, and proud to see. The inherent worth found in every human being.

That’s why the court scene in Sophie Scholl will incense most viewers and it should. The man who presides over the show trial is a vindictive man seething with indignation against these insignificant, worthless traitors as he sees them. But he’s so utterly blinded. He has no legitimate right to pass any sort of judgment on them. They are so much more honorable than he could ever be. And yet he holds the ultimate authority in this regime and they do not.

To the very end, The Final Days proved to be one of the most taxing films I have watched in some time but even in its endings, it finds hope and stories worth telling. That in itself makes it a wonderful film to discover.

4/5 Stars

Note: This post was originally written on February 28th and scheduled to be released next month but it seemed like a story necessary for this particular point in time.

 

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The_Mortal_Storm-_1940-_Poster.pngOur introduction to The Mortal Storm feels rather flat. Bright and bland in more ways than one as we become accustomed to our main storyline.  Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is held in high regard all throughout the community as a prominent lecturer at the local university and beloved by his colleagues and family. The year is 1933 and the Bavarian Alps are still a merry and gay place to live. That’s our understanding early on as the Professor celebrates his 60th birthday with much fanfare and receives a commemorative memento from his class.

In some ways, Frank Borzage’s picture shares a striking resemblance to All Quiet on the Western Front another film that makes its German roots blatantly obvious and yet it wears its incongruities like the ubiquitous use of the English language with ease. And as all the characters accept it, we do too as we begin to sink into the story. But crucial to this story is that they are not as accepting of other things. It feels a little like paradise. Life is good and people are happy. But we expect that at some point the time bomb will go off and it does. Adolf Hitler is elected Chancellor and just like that people begin to change. It’s a collective revolution — a youth movement of sorts.

Pastor, pacifist, and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer tore apart the Fuhrer concept straight away in a talk he gave in 1933, long before many of the later horrors during the Nazi reign of terror. But much as this film portrays, such an ideology only leads to destruction — a necessity to harm your brother. Bonhoeffer stated the following which feels surprisingly pertinent to this narrative:

“This Leader, deriving from the concentrated will of the people, now appears as longingly awaited by the people, the one who is to fulfill their capabilities and their potentialities. Thus the originally matter-of-fact idea of political authority has become the political, messianic concept of the Leader as we know it today. Into it there also streams all the religious thought of its adherents. Where the spirit of the people is a divine, metaphysical factor, the Leader who embodies this spirit has religious functions, and is the proper sense the messiah. With his appearance the fulfillment of the last hope has dawned. With the kingdom which he must bring with him the eternal kingdom has already drawn near…

 “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself…”

And so it happens in this film. We see it around the professor’s dinner table first. Formally, a forum for high-minded debate, it’s quickly become a battleground of ideology. Roth’s step-sons and most notably his daughter’s fiancee Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) have all been caught up in the rhetoric and promises of Herr Hitler. All other forms of thought and free thinking have been discarded, these new ideals burrowing into their minds, dictating their actions, and ultimately poisoning their lives and the lives of all those around them. I never thought it was possible to despise Robert Young but when his mind is polluted by an ideology as rancorous as Nazism it’s far from difficult.

We don’t see Jimmy Stewart until quite a ways into the film and he disappears from sight for some time following an escape to Austria from the Nazi clutches, but he’s still our hero imbued with that same iconic everymanness. He is the man to continue the open-minded, compassionate forms of thinking that Professor Roth exemplifies and subsequently get torn asunder.

Margaret Sullivan and Stewart yet again make a compelling pair following Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner. She is the good little German girl Freya who actually proves to have a backbone and he is the humble farm boy who stands by his ideals like Stewart always did. They are caught up in a love story amidst a world that seemingly lacks any shred of romantic passion.

Undoubtedly the Production Codes forbade from mentioning Jews in the story — the non-Aryans like Professor Roth, but that makes this film even more haunting, the fact that the people without a voice are not even acknowledged. They are silenced and remain silent.

With its overt portrayal of the Nazis as menacing thugs and brainwashed ideology machines, The Mortal Storm is startling. For years and years most all of us have read, heard, and seen a great deal on the Nazis that we have unknowingly compiled but this film brings many of those common factors to the fore. It’s obvious that people saw them then. They knew them then. They weren’t blind. Thus, it makes us beg the question what were other Europeans and Americans actually thinking? Because although The Mortal Storm might be the exception rather than the norm, there had to be a general consciousness about the Nazis.

Because the film hardly sugarcoats anything nor does it mince words. It’s surprisingly blunt and utterly bleak in its portrayal even with a bit of a bittersweet Hollywood ending. What’s left is a lingering impact that’s terribly affecting. Only at that point do we realize the total transformation the film world has gone through. Those opening moments of The Mortal Storm are so vital as it is only in the waning interludes where we truly comprehend how far things have fallen into hell.

It’s a stunning piece of work and this is not simply the ethereal love story I was expecting. It is a thoroughly gripping indictment of the Nazi menace and far more candid than I would have ever imagined. The Mortal Storm suggests perhaps most audaciously that there were people who waded against the pervasive current of the time. They let their lives be dictated by good will, decency, and personal relationships rather than any churning force of a single political ideology.

The final quotation pulled from the moving work of Minnie Louise Haskins “God Knows” ends like so:

“I said to a man who stood at the gate, give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

4.5/5 Stars

20th Century Women (2016)

20th_Century_Women.pngIn his noted Crisis of Confidence Speech, incumbent president Jimmy Carter urged America that they were at a turning point in history: The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.

This also serves as a viable entry point into Mike Mills’ intimate, pensive eulogy, 20th Century Women. This is a film on the verge of so many things. It frames its story in the context of the time and the people that existed in one particular moment. Mills floods his canvas with natural light but also paints it with bold colors and plants us in this world that’s somehow tangible and present while still only being a memory to look back on.

It’s 1979. Nixon is slowly fading. Reagan is coming with his conservative boon. You have the Talking Heads. You have hardcore punk. Feminist novels and the woman’s movement. Skateboarding down the empty Santa Barbara roadways. It feels less like a time of change and more of a moment on the brink of something new.

But this very self-awareness in the era is provided by the characters who live within that context because this is their life, these are their memories, and they connect them together delving into the past and soaring forward to all that is yet to come. They recount the world they know through matter-of-fact voice-over to match the images that undoubtedly play in their own heads. This is for them. Namely a son and his mom, Dorthea and Jamie. There’s is a generational difference but not so much a divide.

Dorthea (Annette Bening) is an eccentric, dynamic, empathetic woman who cares deeply about life and others. She believes in each individual person’s rights and volition–you might even say she’s progressive in some ways. But she’s also a mom and a woman bred in a different age. Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) makes a point of the fact that she’s from the Depression.

Giveaways include her chain smoking habit, a penchant for Bogart, and a predilection for show tunes. She was an aviator and draftswoman in a male-dominated world. But She came out of a time where the community was expected to look after everyone and she searches out the same framework for her son because he’s of a certain age.

If you were pressed to pick out the story’s inciting incident it might be the moment where Dorothea gathers the instrumental women in Jamie’s life around her kitchen table to enlist their help. Because the men around him either don’t resonate (Billy Crudup as William) or they only make their presence known on birthdays (namely Jamie’s father).

She takes a near death experience to mean he’s going through his adolescent phase and she doesn’t believe she can be all things for him anymore. As she notes later, they are better suited for the role because they get to see him in the world as a person. She will never get that. Oh, the heartaches of parenthood–being so invested–while simultaneously trying to be hands-off.

And so in some sense, her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and their teenage neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) make a concerted effort to press into his life. Julie is the one who sneaks up through his window sometimes, not to sleep with him, though they often share the same bed, for mere companionship, someone to feel safe around and to talk to. Because he’s someone she knows can be trusted amid the fray of highschoolers.

In one particular sequence, Elle sits on the bed her eyes looking sullenly at Jamie as she tries to talk through their relationship. She concludes, “I think I’m too close to you to have sex with you.” In one sense, it’s touching because it shows that their connection goes beyond this physical act that all the kids are doing, she holds too much respect for him, but it also points to the sorry state of affairs when something like sex is seen as dirty and degraded. That’s part of what she is wrestling with. That and the fact that her therapist mother tries to conveniently label her every action.

Elle Fanning leaves a startling impression casting herself in this film in a light that in one sense is the prototypical edgy, angsty teenager but there is also an undeniable vulnerability and genuine caring quality there that steeps her in unknown depth. That top layer is nothing new but that latter aspect is a testament to Mills’ characters.

Meanwhile, Gerwig provides her exorbitant supply of charismatic energy and panache that allows her to hold some of the most memorable scenes in the film in comedic terms and yet she also proves that there still is a certain tenderness in the red-haired, photography-loving, punk listening, new age modern woman, Abbie.

At the behest of Dorthea she tries to invest some of her artistic spirit into Jamie’s life, showing off the punk scene, introducing him to seminal feminist texts, and helping him to be comfortable around women but, of course, he’s more comfortable than most which is a sign of a certain amount of maturity. In fact, he impacts these women as much as they speak to him and that’s a testament to everyone involved, all flaws aside.

Even if Jamie is, in truth, our main character, perhaps a stand- in for Mills or for us, this film succeeds in crafting stalwart female characters with actual contours that are worth dissecting and with inherent worth denoted by their actions and what they care about.

I don’t know a great deal about Mike Mills but watching a film like 20th Century Women I feel like I know him better–not all of him certainly–but there are pieces here that are no doubt personal and give us a slight view into his experiences.

It’s intimate and there’s an unquestionable amount of vulnerability in his story that must be admired for its sheer honesty. It comes off as purely genuine and real. Because the bottom line is the fact that it never runs on agenda. It never tries to overtly get us to think something or feel something else. If it comes to any overarching conclusions at all it’s that life can be hard and confusing and the same goes for people.

Each one of us can come off as a complex enigma. Even the ones we know and love. It’s possible that we will never know and love them as much as we wish we could. It’s possible we cannot help them or guide them as much as we would like. Still, that’s okay.

For some, this will be a maddening, rudderless picture but to each his own. However, if I may be so bold, 20th Century Women is the kind of film I would want to make–a film wrapped up in its cultural moment in a way that feels so authentic–where the events playing out even if they’ve been made cinematic have real resonance for me as a human being.

Yes, it’s the kind of effort that won’t be received by everyone but a film so very personal rarely is. A film like this you don’t necessarily make for other people anyway. You make it for yourself and the ones you love and leave it at that. This is a love letter.

3.5/5 Stars

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

chimes of midnight 1“There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.”

It seems Orson Welles never did anything on a cursory level. There’s always a gravitas — the unique personality of the man displayed in his work whether it is behind the camera or in front of it. But in the same breath, he never takes himself too seriously. And it’s no different in his orchestration and portrayal of the character Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. It’s easy to argue that Charles Foster Kane was more memorable, Harry Lime was more beloved, and Hank Quinlan more remembered, but truly Shakespeare’s Falstaff just might be Orson Welles greatest role. At the very least his most underappreciated role for the very fact that far too few people have seen it.

He’s blustering and rotund, filling up the frame not only with his girth but with his witticisms and tall tales.But as much as this is a comic tale of farcical proportions, it’s also a storyline of tragedy and betrayal.

Being woefully under-read when it comes to Shakespeare, it was hard to come into this story because I had very meager reference points. However, Welles fuses together fragments of four narratives into an epic tale of his own creation, so prior knowledge perhaps was not admissible. The works he picked from include Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Still, when I do get in such a state of disarray, I have learned not to fret and to simply sit back and partake of what is offered me. With Welles, this is not a difficult task at all because of what he gives the viewer. It’s always spectacular, grandiose and richly wrought in some way, shape, or form. And for Welles the impresario, the Bard is a source of inspiration that is truly worthy of him, or you could say it the other way around even. He is worthy of the Bard.

chimes of midnight 2The triangle with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) vying for the affection of his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud), while simultaneously holding onto his relationship with Falstaff is an integral element of what this film is digging around at. But there’s so much more there for eager eyes.

Once more, rather like The Trial, it’s easy to marvel at the restrictions that Welles faced and what he still accomplished within that forced economy. He took the Spanish countryside, a budget of less than $1 million and crafted a work that is often considered the best Shakespearian adaptation ever and some say even the best of Welles. If the man himself was any indication, then maybe so, because he was fond of this work in particular.

From an audience’s point of view, he does some truly spectacular things. Despite the poor sound quality really throughout the entire film, the interiors of the castle are expressive in the same way The Trial’s cavernous alcoves were. Equally telling are Welles’ trademark low angles.  But Chimes at Midnight also spends more time outdoors, the most spectacular scene being the battle sequence portraying the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Welles uses every imaginable trick in the book to make 18o extras and the Spanish countryside work for him to the nth degree. It develops one of the most dynamic, perturbingly chaotic war zones ever through cross-editing, trick shots, speed changes and an elaborate patchwork of images that turns war into something unfathomably ugly. His smoke and mirror techniques matched with the chaotic clashing of metal, weaponry, bodies and jarring visuals is a superb showcase of a truly inspired filmmaker. Because the images are so evocative, adding to something far greater than their individual parts.

chimes of midnight 3And it’s only one high point. Aside from Welles towering performance, Jeanne Moreau stands out in her integral role as Doll Tearsheet, the aged knight’s bipolar lover who clings to him faithfully. The cast is rounded out by other notable individuals like John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey.

Honestly, few others can hold a candle to Falstaff. A great deal of that lies in the similarities between the character and the man playing him. He’s portly,  speaks in rich tones with tremendous wit but the bottom line is that he is met with tremendous disappointment, despite the towering heights of his reputation. He’s constantly short on funds trying to get what he needs from the relationships he’s cultivated with the people around him. However,  in the end, he wasn’t so lucky and the same could be said of Welles. Although Falstaff was exiled from the King’s presence, whereas Welles put himself through a self-made exile of his own. Still, he managed to come out with a work as stunning as Chimes at Midnight. That in itself is a tail worth noting about a man who was larger than life in his own respect. This is a miracle of a film not because it is perfect. It’s far from it, but it has so many remarkable moments in spite of its circumstances. It deserves to be seen by more people.

4.5/5 Stars