The Lives of Others (2006)

This is a moral tale that could only be told in the context of the GDR. A loyal member of the Stasi is given the task of bugging the home of an influential playwright and he spends countless hours listening in on The Lives of Others. In what would have been a very uncommon occurrence this loyal comrade sees another side of the nation he lives in. It is a place full of corrupt officials, double crossing girlfriends, repression, little free speech, and above all suicides.

In an act that proves detrimental to his own career and even his way of life, Wiesler caves to his emotions to do what is ultimately good and right. After the wall crumbles he and others like him seemingly fade into oblivion. However, the one man who was unknowingly saved finally learns of his savior and resolves to write his next great work. The Sonata for a Good Man. 

I think there is certainly a universal quality to this film because although it is German language and focuses on a subject that is distinctly German, the quality of the characters translates into any language because they are human. The struggle of Wiesler is the same for many of us and we can empathize with his evolution and ultimate resolve. We can only hope that people are not put in these same positions in the future and we must also constantly question our own government so they are never reach this degree.

4.5/5 Stars

The Imitation Game (2014)

09cf1-the_imitation_game_posterWhen you think of decisive moments in WWII the conversation leads often to D-Day, The Battle of Midway, The Russian Front and The Battle for the Atlantic. If Britain had been cut off from U.S. supplies the case could be made that The Allies would have undoubtedly lost the war. That’s where the Enigma cipher comes into play and along with it Alan Turing.

Alan Turing is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and in many ways the father of modern computers. He’s a big deal and it’s hard to make that point enough. That’s what makes it exciting that he finally got the biopic treatment and with a portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch no less. It does not get much better than that!

As far as biopics go The Imitation Game is a polished period piece set in War-torn Britain spanning the years of WWII into the early 1950s. Visually beautiful, scored nicely, and generally uplifting, it feels as wonderfully English as a cup of tea and the English countryside. Although the film at times may trod the typical path of other troubled-genius type films,  it often rises above the usual based-on-a-true-story fray. A primary reason for this is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Turing not with dramatic outbursts, bravado, and bluster, but quite the opposite.
In the year 1939 Turing, a professor at the time, attempted to join the top secret project at Bletchley Park to crack the German’s Enigma code. He seems like an odd candidate for the job since he has only an affinity for puzzles and no knowledge of the German language, but that proves to be unimportant.
He has the right amount of vision paired with the obsession to come at the problem like no one before him. He does not just want to crack one of the tedious strings, he wishes to crack them all using a machine. It was absolutely unheard of and his colleagues discount him, understandably, because he is not much of a team player and far from a social butterfly. However, he discovers a worthy ally in Susan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who proves to be indispensable in his work as well as repairing his rapport with the team.
With the prospect of all his work with the machine being wasted and terminated, his colleagues back him up in front of his superiors. Turing has one last chance to succeed and someway, somehow he does. But success does not come without great responsibility. Once they have the weapon to counter the Germans they must use it cautiously only taking the most necessary steps. It becomes clear that there is a fine line between playing God with human lives and winning a war.
The war is won in the end, however, and the top secret endeavor is disbanded. Alan Turing is far from a war hero because few know what he did. His only label is indecency and he is given the option of imprisonment or hormones in response to his charges of same-sex attraction. A year later he committed suicide at the age of 41.
Cumberbatch is seemingly the perfect Turing with all the quirks you would expect. Except there are also traces of sensitivity and he so adeptly shows subtle emotions on his face. He was an oft-tortured man inside and out, spanning from his boarding school years to his post-war existence. Keira Knightley on her part is enjoyable as a counterpoint, remaining true to Turing no matter the circumstances.
Obviously you can always call into question the accuracy of these types of films and no doubt artistic liberties were taken, but all in all The Imitation Game did a commendable job of painting a picture of a man’s life in a very different age. Alan Turing finally got the credit he was due, and it was done with a great deal of sensitivity, heart, and even humor which mostly overshadowed any saccharine moments.
4/5 Stars

Amadeus (1984)

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A common film would content itself with developing a biopic on one of the greatest composers of all time reaching the heights of the musical field in the musical capital of the world in Vienna. A typical film might paint on a canvas paying homage to a legend who revolutionized music with his genius.

This story opens as the long-forgotten composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) attempts to kill himself. He gets laid up in a Psych ward where a man of the cloth visits him wishing to hear his story and so the old man obliges. It’s a story that makes light and lacks reverence thanks to its title character.

Salieri was a court composer of prestige and great admiration, but even he knew Mozart was the true master and the first day they met was forever ingrained in his mind. For being such a genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a jerk, to put it bluntly. Spoiled, conceited, dirty-minded and armed with a cackling laugh, he is hardly the image of a musical mastermind. How could God bless this man with such talent? How could God taunt Salieri using such a man? He makes a mockery of art and yet he is the best there ever was. Salieri must have some kind of justice.

But all that lies under the surface. Mozart is brought on by his Majesty to develop a German libretto. Salieri’s tolerance for God is lost and he turns his back, beginning his passive attack. He shames Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Beridge) and sends her off as he is looking to undermine his rival as discreetly as possible.

Mozart himself has little desire to take on pupils he deems a waste of time and instead busies himself with his most ambitious piece yet. His father comes to town and is not amused with his son’s conduct or his antics at a masquerade ball. He has none of the sensibilities of a man like Salieri, but what he does have are the talent and brilliance.

Always one to push the boundaries, Mozart’s latest piece is based on the Marriage of Figaro which was expressly forbidden by His Majesty. But due to his skill, Mozart is able to get by with bending the rules. Salieri acknowledges his genius. He knows brilliance when he sees it, but he becomes even more resolved to bring about the death of his nemesis.

After the death of his father, Mozart slowly spirals down into drunkenness and poverty. Salieri manipulates the situation even further to play on the man’s emotions and the desperate Mozart becomes mad composing a funeral requiem requested by a specter of a man. The mysterious figure is, of course, a moonlighting Salieri who no longer sees his actions as justice against Mozart but against God himself and he wants to win.

In a horrible condition, the bedridden Mozart constructs his last great piece with the help of an incredulous Salieri. But Constanze will have none of it and the manuscript remains unfinished because she distrusts Salieri. Just like that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suddenly passes away. He’s dead and Salieri can have no satisfaction, no piece of Mozart’s brilliance. God would not give him the satisfaction, resigning him to be the so-called patron saint of mediocrity. God supposedly got the last laugh.

This is a film that makes me want to revise the noted statement to “only the great die young” as the mediocre slowly fade into oblivion. Salieri faced a cruel demise of his own as Mozart instantly became solidified as a legend. That is the irony of life that is made clear no matter how accurate the facts are. Because in Amadeus, the facts are not the most important. Milos Forman gives us a spectacle that is as grand as Mozart’s greatest masterpieces. But this is perhaps, more importantly, a film about human nature. Salieri is a man so ingrained with internal desires.

He wants to play God. He wants all things to play out as he sees fit. His malevolence is focused on others. It is even focused on God. But, in reality, it reflects the pain of his own heart. Humanity has a desire for excellence to be fully actualized. That is a lofty goal and an impossible target. Because ultimately there will always be a hole left within us. It was so with Salieri

Mozart was one of the greatest and most well-known composers of a generation if not ever. He was not a good man (few are), and he met with death early. Salieri seemed moral and yet he himself was undermined by deep-seated avarice and covetousness. Despite still having life, the world was essentially dead to him. He thought God was laughing at him. Neither man won.

4.5/5 Stars

Love and Death (1975)

3e061-loveanddeath2Most every Tom, Dick and Harry has heard of the great Russian epic War and Peace. Love and Death is Woody Allen’s companion piece. It has nods to Tolstoy, Dostoevysky and channels a bit of the Marx Brothers. As one would expect, Boris aka Woody Allen comes from your typical Russian family where he is atypical in his stereotypical, bookish and misanthropic way. He was not made for 19th century Russia trading in valor and facial hair for his glasses and nihilistic philosophy. But he winds up going to war anyway watching his beloved second cousin (Diane Keaton) marry herself off to a run of the mill fishmonger.

Eventually, Boris is able to get his true love back and they are wed. It’s a union full of philosophical debates as only Woody Allen could have. But the invasion of Napoleon puts all this on hold as Sonja resolves to go and assassinate the Little Corporal. Boris hesitantly agrees to accompany her. In an ending fit for a Woody Allen film  parodying Bergman, Sonja goes through a life altering conversation while the recently executed Boris skips off with The Grim Reaper. It’s hard to beat Annie Hall but this still fairly early Allen piece has its quintessentially Woody Allen moments that are quirky and fun poke at Russian culture.

3.5/5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The farthest Eastern boundary of the European continent makes the perfect landscape for a new addition to the quirky Wes Anderson canon. But more on that later. First our story.

It gains inspiration from the writings of forgotten Viennese author of the 30s and 40s Stefan Zweig. In fact, the author’s own plot device is used in this story of friendship, love, and murder. An inquisitive writer (Jude Law) from the 1960s becomes intrigued by the aging proprietor of the Grand Budapest Hotel Zero Moustaffa (F. Murray Abraham).

The rather mysterious figure is glad to tell his story and how he came to acquire the iconic hotel. And that’s where our real story begins, back in 1932, with concierge and small time celebrity M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He is a dying breed of a man, full of culture, a bit effeminate, and known to wine and dine older patrons. He also has an immense affinity for poetry.

It was under his leadership that the young, stoic bellboy Zero got his start. What an exciting beginning it was.  One of Gustave’s most faithful patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and he is bequeathed the priceless painting Boy with Apple.

The family of the deceased is in an uproar led by belligerent son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Soon Gustave has become the strangest of fugitives as he is wanted for the murder of the old lady.

During that time, young love springs up and Zero meets the love of his life Agatha (Saoirse Roman), a spunky baker who returns his affection.

Now the imprisoned Gustave takes part in an escape attempt a la Le Trou except this rendition is successful to a degree. Faithful Zero meets up with his mentor, and Gustave turns to the only ones he can. The concierges from all the surrounding area. They oblige, getting the two fugitives away, but soon Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is on their tails at a local monastery.

War is imminent and back at the Grand Budapest things do not look promising.  The ever fearless Agatha agrees to go fetch Boy with Apple, but she is soon spotted and pursued by the ever brutish Dmitri who tries to use his gun. That’s not a smart thing when all the rooms are full of quartered soldiers and a chaotic gunfight ensues.

In the aftermath, a second will is uncovered that makes M. Gustave the sole owner of the Grand Budapest and many other possessions that Madame D owned. In a Deja Vu moment, Gustave and Zero ride the train once again before getting boarded and questioned. Always the gentlemen, Gustave defends Zero who is targeted for his immigration status. It was in that way the story ends and returns to the young author and elderly Zero Moustaffa.

He never could bear to give up the Grand Budapest despite the toll of Communism. It’s not because of Gustave, but his dear Agatha who died only two years after. It’s his only link to the happiest times of his life.

What The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being is an odd mix of black comedy and romantic sentiment all wrapped up in an Anderson world.

His shots are often framed symmetrically and muted pastels abound as well as scaled miniatures, creating his always distinctive mise-en-scene. He is also a fan of a smooth moving camera often involving zooms.

Anderson is obviously a student of cinema and his film at times are reminiscent to 30s fair such as Grand Hotel and The Rules of the Game. He also channels another famed Viennese Ernst Lubitsch who was a master of highbrow romantic comedies.

Hotel also boast a superb cast comprising most of Anderson’s stock company. If there’s anyone who has been in more than one of his movies, they are probably in this one, even for just an instant.

So given the normal Wes Anderson flair or eccentricities, this film is visually pleasing and quite entertaining. It is a worthy follow up to Moonrise Kingdom, darling.

4/5 stars

The Heiress (1949)

fa57e-heiress_wylerStarring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift with director William Wyler, the film takes place in New York in the 1840s. Catherine is a shy and awkward young woman who lives with her domineering father who is a prominent widowed doctor. At a party a young man introduces himself and begins seeing Catherine frequently. Quickly their plans turn to marriage but her father will not approve. Since her lover is not rich, he sees him as a fortune hunter. Catherine decides to elope with her love, but he never returns leaving her feeling rejected and forlorn. soon the doctor gets ill and dies, but the relationship does not end will since Catherine blames her father. And in the process she has grown cold. Clift’s character finally returns and after some reluctance Catherine seems to agree to get married. he leaves to gather some belongings only to return to a bolted door. Catherine gives him some rejection of his own after what she endured. This films becomes interesting because you do not know who was truly in the right. First Clift seems to be the heel and then de Havilland evolves so much the audience turns on her.

4/5 Stars