Movie Review: Woman In Gold

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: An interesting true story of one woman’s fight to get back a painting that was taken from her family.  It’s got Helen Mirren, so yea, good acting.  Even Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly good.

The recent 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide is a stark reminder of how difficult it is to get a government to admit past wrongdoings, let alone make amends for the worngdoings that would otherwise be easily fixable.  Nationalism has a lot to do with that.  It allows you to turn a blind eye to both.  Thus was Austria in the 1990’s.  Germany was forced to reconcile its wrongdoings after World War II, but Austria was able to claim it was a conquered nation, which is technically true except for the fact that the Nazis were welcomed with open arms by a good portion of the population.  This allowed Austria to blithely keep tons of treasures stolen from Jewish families that were exiled, escaped, or were murdered and claim ignorance of the fact.  “Woman in Gold” is the true story of one woman’s fight to force Austria to confront its demons and make right what it got so very wrong.

At the center of the story is a Gustav Klimt painting called “Portrait of Adele”, or for a short time because of the subject’s Jewishness “Woman in Gold”.  Yep, that’s right.  The Nazis changed the name of a painting because it portrayed a Jewish woman.  Sick fucks.  Maria Altman (Helen Mirren) is the daughter and rightful heir of both “Portrait of Adele” (who also happened to be Maria’s aunt) and other Klimt paintings and despite the obviousness of this fact, Austria continued to maintain ownership.  The movie is about her fight to get her possessions back.

The movie is very well acted (because Helen Mirren) and strikes a very good balance between uplifting and depressing.  Even Ryan Reynolds turns in a good performance as Maria’s unlikely lawyer, Randol Schoenberg.  It’s not quite the role you’d expect Reynolds to play so kudos to him for successfully branching out.  It was very interesting how they took what is really an incredibly boring and technical real life courtroom drama and just used the necessary bits and pieces of that drama to tell a wide-ranging and emotional true story.

I am a sucker for well told true history movies so obviously I would recommend this movie to just about anyone.  It tell a story that would normally fall through the cracks of history and tells it well.  States need to confront their past and make amends for their future.  If only we were capable of such.

Book Review: Winter Of The World by Ken Follett

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Winter of the World” is book two of the “Century Trilogy” by Ken Follett.  Book two follows historical events from the rise of Nazism in 1933, through World War II, and ends in 1949 with the Soviet nuclear test and partitioning of East and West Germany.  Most of the cast of characters in book two will be familiar to readers of book one as they are almost exclusively the offspring of the characters from the first book.

Much of what I said about “Fall of Giants” applies equally to “Winter of the World”.  The historical fiction parts are quite interesting and offer rare glimpses of historical facts that were not covered in your history classes, albeit often with the ahistorical characters in the novel involved.  Follett also still has problems with writing romantic relationships, but they are much more tolerable in this book than they were in the first or I am just so used to his style that I don’t much recognize how bad it is anymore.

What makes this book so readable has much to do with the characters themselves.  Almost all are relatable.  They have recognizable flaws and believable character progressions.  Characters like Eric von Ulrich who falls so completely for Nazism only to be disillusioned by it after experiencing its brutality first hand during the war only to get completely swept up in Soviet Communism which followed much of the Nazi atrocity playbook in East Germany.

There is a disjointedness to this novel that wasn’t apparent in the first.  I think this has much to do with Follett having so much more historical material to work with as we get closer to present day and its better record keeping.  How do you choose what you want to cover and what you want to exclude?  For instance, I assume Follett covered Pearl Harbor for the sole reason that Americans wouldn’t read his book if he didn’t.  It and the cursory glances into the Pacific Theater seem so out of place with the rest of the book.  Other major events are excluded completely or only hinted at.

There is also a bit too much of the East Bad, West Good thing going on.  By no means are the U.S. and U.K. portrayed as angels, but German and Russian atrocities certainly take center stage.  How do you not even mention Japanese internment or the bombing of Dresden?  How do you mention the mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers while actively pointing out that the characters had never heard of American or British troops committing the same heinous acts even though it is fairly well documented that they did?  And how do you not mention the Holocaust even once?

Once again, we have a good book with flaws but is worth reading on balance.  Good characters, decent enough story, vibrant historical background.  The book has much to offer.  At 940 pages, it is a lot of book to get through, though.  If you don’t find that daunting and you’re willing to pick up the trilogy, I still think you will find your time not wasted.

Movie Review: Furious 7

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A silly but fun movie.  A little too long for an action movie.  Yes, you will roll your eyes at times, but that’s to be expected.

Believe it or not, this is the first of the “Fast and Furious” movies that I have seen.  I took the extremely easy gamble that there was very little backstory worth knowing for the cast of returning characters and lo and behold I was right.

The movie opens with Dekard Shaw (Jason Statham) in a hospital room talking to his injured and presumed comatose brother and vowing revenge upon those who put him in the hospital.  Then Dekard Shaw leaves the hospital.  I mention this scene because, as you will see if you watch “Furious 7″, it sets the stage beautifully for the kind of film you are in for.  All flash and style and very little substance.  Knowing this from the beginning can be the key to enjoying this type of movie.

The movie has lots of cars, lots of action, lots of hardbodies (both male and female), and lots of ridiculousness.  The latter is ok because everyone is in on the joke.  And speaking of jokes, there are none in this film.  Check that.  Roman (Tyrese Gibson) is supposed to be the comic relief but everything he does falls flat.  In fact, the only way you will know that Roman is supposed to be the comic relief is everybody’s repeated insistence that Roman is the comic relief.  On some level, the writers must have known this and used the other characters as a sort of “Applause” sign to tell the audience when to laugh.

There is a little bit too much setup and, at 137 minutes, “Furious 7″ tries the patience somewhat for an action movie with little story to tell.  Somewhat disappointingly, most of the cool scenes can be viewed in the trailers for the movie and you are just treated to longer versions of the trailer.  All of this is ok because you know what you’re getting into when you sit down to see a movie like “Furious 7″.  It is light, fluffy, forgettable, and fun to watch once.  Once.

Movie Review: The Chambermaid

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom line: Some interesting glimpses at obsession and compulsion. Otherwise, a story that falls flat and refused to hold my interest.

Lynn is a chambermaid in a hotel.  As the movie begins, she is just getting her job back after a mysterious absence.  It is soon revealed that she was self-institutionalized for some reason and as the movie progresses, that reason becomes clear.  Lynn has compulsions.  Luckily (?) for her, cleaning is one of them.  The other has to do with her hiding under guests beds and getting a voyeuristic look into various guests’ habits.  During one of her under bed adventures, a guest has a dominatrix over and the session so piques Lynn’s interest that she steals the dominatrix’s contact information and starts sessions of her own.  Lynn’s compulsions gradually get worse as the film progresses and then the film kind of just ends on a very strange note.

There is a lot of film student stuff going on in this movie that I can recognize, but just not appreciate without a compelling story to go with it.  A vast majority of Lynn’s time under the various beds are shot solely from Lynn’s under bed perspective.  The use of camera angles and lighting and strategic mirrors is very well done.  The musical score is also noticeably appropriate.

Whenever I don’t get a film as much as I didn’t get “The Chambermaid”, I always attempt to see what actual critics think and the consensus seems to be general praise.  Strangely, many picked up on a blurb from somewhere that called “The Chambermaid” the “Fifty Shades of Grey” of Germany.  They seemed to be saying that as a compliment, but I can only imagine that they know nothing about “Fifty Shades” or were using it as a backhanded compliment while still rightfully praising the cinematographic accomplishments of the film.

I really can’t recommend “The Chambermaid” unless you’re all into that fancy technical directorial stuff.  I’m pretty sure at this point I should just give up on seeing German films.  Of the three German films I saw for the film festival, only one was any good and that one was only nominally German.

Movie Review: Open Up To Me

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A wonderful, positive, realistic look at what it’s like living as a transwoman in Finland.  Starts with an unusual premise and roll with it into a beautiful character study of all the people the main character interacts with.

I am way behind on my EU Film Festival movie reviews.  “Open Up To Me” is the last of the films, but it’s fresh in my memory and was so delightful and such a great way to end the festival that I wanted to get it down first.

Maarit (Leea Klemola) is a transwoman trying to get by in Helsinki.  Despite formerly being a school counselor, she faces discrimination after her transformation and must work as a cleaning lady to make ends meet.  When going to clean the office of a therapist, she discovers that the therapist must go out of town for a couple of weeks to deal with an emergency.  Using this newfound guaranteed privacy, she decides to try on some of the therapists clothes.  (As an aside, this marks the second movie of the festival that features a cleaning lady trying on other people’s clothes.  Strange that.)  While in the therapist’s clothes, a new client, Sami (Peter Franzen) shows up asking for marital advice and Maarit poses as a real therapist and helps him.  They develop a relationship through this and the movie blossoms into a character study of a handful of the individuals in Maarit’s life.

I obviously have no experience being a transwoman, but this movie feels perfectly organic the way it portrays trans issues.  There’s the daunting dating scene.  There’s the discriminating job market. There’s the angry and confused ex-wife.  There’s the teenage daughter who barely understands the new dynamic thrust upon her.  All of it is handled wonderfully and it is the key to what makes this movie work.  There is humor and love and heartache and betrayal and confusion all rolled together to form the life of Maarit.

My one complaint about the movie is a brief fifteen minute or so bit of disjointedness.  The movie kind of loses its way at this point, but it picks it up quickly where it left off and ends on one of the better feel good movie ending lines I’ve witnessed.  If you have a chance to see this foreign film gem, I highly recommend it.

Movie Review: The Gunman

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

Bottom Line: A convoluted mess of a movie.  Some good action interspersed between confusing plot points.  Sean Penn did this movie to show off his awesomely sculpted 55 year old body and his deep concern for Africa.

See Sean Penn.  See Sean Penn assassinate a Democratic Republic of Congo high-level minister.  See eight years elapse.  See Sean Penn care about Africa.  Care, Sean Penn, care!  See people attempt to kill Sean Penn.  See Sean Penn run.  Run, Sean Penn, run!

Thus sums up “The Gunman”.  Sure, there’s more to it.  There’s a highly accomplished female doctor turned wallowy damsel-in-distress.  There’s a weird sub-plot involving Sean Penn’s character’s brain damage.  There’s a mystery appearance by Idris Elba which I’m still trying to figure out.  There’s also a lot of boring.

The biggest problem is nobody’s motivation is ever quite clear.  People are going through a whole lot of trouble and manpower to kill Sean Penn, but none of it ever seems worth it given the stakes.  As the movie comes to its final confrontation, it’s as if the director recognized this and threw in the most ridiculous final chase scene in movie history.  It involves a crowded bull ring and the main villain being gored by a bull.  I am not really spoiling anything by saying that as they foreshadow it happening for a good ten minutes before it occurs.

Leave this one alone.  It’s not even worth your time to watch in the comfort of your own home. Unless, I suppose, you’re absolutely desperate for some sculpted Sean Penn torso, I guess.  Sure, the action scenes are kind of well done, but the lead up to them is not worth your effort.

Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

Bottom Line: Interesting premise, but a very slow setup with absolutely no payout.  Completely lacking in atmosphere and emotion.  Never establishes what kind of movie it wants to be.

Nostalgia is starting to lead me into making poor life decisions.  I went to see “The Lazarus Effect” because of its similarity to the 1990 movie “Flatliners” which I remember really liking.  The setup for the two movies is almost exactly the same.  In both, a group of medical students are experimenting with the boundaries of life and death and experience unintended consequences.  “The Lazarus Effect” takes that interesting premise and runs a million different directions with it and never arrives anywhere.

The movie has a very slow build that makes it feel like we’re placing the blocks for a satisfying denouement, but instead it decides to kick the blocks over like a petulant child.  There is just so much wasted potential here.  For example, earlier on, they resurrect a dog from the dead and it immediately acts really weird, not eating and just sitting around.  So, of course, the two scientists take the dog home with them because that’s totally safe.  But whatever.  The dog begins having more and more aggressive episodes and you think, “Ok, maybe they’re going to go the Cujo route”, but that’s all they end up doing with it.  It breaks out of the same cage a few time and looks threatening and that’s it.  Then they basically just drop it from the movie completely in a totally pointless scene.

There is also a completely useless sub-plot in which a pharmaceutical corporation ends up buying all the research.  I don’t know why it was included in the movie.  It did not advance any part of the main plot at all and everything could have turned out exactly as it did if they saved us all that 15 minutes of the movie.

All of these failings could be forgiven if the movie were to establish any sort of atmosphere or evoke even an inkling of emotion, but it does neither.  The characters are all hollow and lifeless and all attempts to evoke an emotional response are amateurish at best.  For instance, the movie  sets itself up as a horror film early on by making an excuse for why cell phone coverage doesn’t work (they’re in the basement) but then throws at us an entity that can manipulate electricity at will and doesn’t even bother to give us the ubiquitous “Oh, that’s right, cell phones don’t work here!” scene at any tense point in the movie.

I have listed only a few of the failings of this movie.  There may be a good drinking game involved in watching this film and pointing out all the inconsistencies, but if you’re not going to do that, you should stay far away from “The Lazarus Effect”.

Movie Review: Farewell, Herr Schwartz

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: An engaging look into a Jewish family split apart by the events of World War II and one woman’s attempt to find out how the split happened and if the two sides can ever reconcile.

“Farewell, Herr Schwartz” is a documentary about choices and trying to find out the reasons for those choices three generations after the fact.  The first fifteen minutes or so are a bit dull and dry and the movie is subtitled so I missed a bit of information, but a young Israeli woman finds out that her grandmother’s brother, who everyone had thought was killed in a fire actually lived a full life, married, had children, and died all within a stone’s throw of the concentration camp the Nazis sent him to during the war.  The movie follows the woman’s (Yael Reuviny) discovery of the man (Peter/Feiv’ke)  and his family and friends and documents her family’s reaction to the news that a member of their family would decide to live in a country that did his family so much harm.

The movie is split up into three generations of discovery.  The first looks into the mystery of Peter, the long presumed dead Schwartz and Yael interviews neighbors that knew him.  The second looks at Peter’s children and focuses on his son who would like to discover more about Peter’s life with Yael.  The third looks at one of the grandsons of Peter who, despite not really knowing much about his grandfather’s Jewish past, feels drawn to the faith and yearns to maybe move to Israel one day.

What would possess a man to do what Peter did?  It is hard for me to comprehend so I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the side of the family that left for Israel thinking he were dead.  There’s sadness and betrayal, loss and longing, needing to know and not wanting to hear.  Ghosts and phantom pains raising once again to the surface.  But can there be forgiveness?  Maybe.  Hopefully.

Despite the aforementioned slow beginning and another bit of a dry spot near the end of the film, “Farewell, Herr Schwartz” is an engrossing documentary.  How many other families have similar stories as the Schwartz’s/Reuviny’s do?  Countless, I fear.  All of them trying to put together pieces of a puzzle that has been so tampered with by evil forces that pieces that once fit together no longer seem to belong and pieces that don’t go together are forced into place because the alternative is to not have a picture.  It’s heartbreaking.

Movie Review: Run All Night

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: An excellent first hour setup followed by a sub-par, formulaic run-fight-escape chase movie.

I really need to stop being a sucker for Liam Neeson beat-em-up films.  He’s running under 50% success rating with these vehicles.  That said, the beginning of “Run All Night” was a pretty good movie and almost makes it worth the time investment to watch it.  Yeah, we’ve seen many gangster underworld movies where the hot-headed son of a powerful mob boss screws things up and his attempts to fix his screw up only makes things worse.  This one starts in that vein, but it does a really good job of fleshing out all of the main characters so you have some level of sympathy for them even though there’s really only one main good guy.  There is a realness to all the characters that is often difficult to capture.  It’s about as engrossing as is possible for the type of movie that this is.

The movie moves along really nicely until Common enters the picture.  Common plays Andrew Price, another hit man who is hired to take out Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) and his son Mike (Joel Kinnaman).  Before this point, we had a gripping, somewhat reality based chase/revenge movie going, but Common’s introduction throws the movie off the rails.  It isn’t that Common does a bad job because he’s suitably bad-ass.  It’s just that his character is completely outside the realm that all of the other characters inhabit.  While all the characters are somewhat grounded in reality, his is super-human.  He goes on this insane killing spree just trying to get to the Conlons.  It doesn’t fit the pattern of the movie at all.  It might have been made acceptable if they at least gave Common’s character some background, but he’s just suddenly there with a “Oh, I’ll kill him for free” attitude.  There’s a story there, tell it instead of showing the rampage.

What we have here are two movies that don’t belong together.  On balance, I think it’s worth the time because the first half is pretty engrossing.  Really, if you watch it from the comfort of your own home, just fast-forward through the Common portions and it’d be quite enjoyable.  Or maybe just suspend reality for the Common portions of the film.

Movie Review: Amour Fou

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: A colorful and bleak look at life in an 1810 Berlin home. Wow, life in 1810 Berlin was boring as hell.  At times interesting, at times overwrought.

“Amour Fou” means “insane love”.  The movie is appropriately titled.  Set mostly in the upper-class household of Fredrich and Henriette Vogel, it explores the lack of intimacy and awkward relations between what I am assuming is everyone in 1810 Berlin.  This lack of intimacy leads to many strange (and yes, insane) views on love.  One such view is held by the poet (of course, it’s a poet) Heinrich.  Heinrich believes that the truest expression of love is to find a woman who will commit suicide with you.  He sets his sights on Henriette when his advances are spurned by a woman who I believe was his cousin.

Either 1810 Berlin was hopelessly bleak and lifeless and loveless or everyone in the film was just a horrible actor.  I’m not sure which.  I’m going with the former interpretation because it does fit with the overall themes of the movie.  What is funny is that the backgrounds are always so colorful.  Almost distractingly so.  It contrasts so much with the wooden and lifeless people going about their daily lives.  This was most noticeable in the Vogel family’s serving woman.  She was a tall, gangly, somewhat homely young woman dressed in this red and black outfit that reminded me of Olive Oyl from Popeye.  Every scene she is in, despite being mostly mute throughout, she steals because she is the most colorful and towers over the others.

Oh, and let me tell you about the singing.  It exists in the movie.  A lot.  The same song.  Over and over again.  Live.  With piano accompaniment.  By people with only moderate talent.  In the movie’s defense, it is a thematic song, but I wanted to shoot myself half way through the second rendering and there were more to come.

Yeah, so art films, whatcha gonna do?  There is stuff here that’s interesting, but it’s really hard to get past how unemotional everyone is.  I mean, if you’re getting distracted by the tall, homely servant, there’s something wrong, right?  Ok, so not a good start to the European Union Film Festival.  There are five more films to go, though, so there’s lots of time to make up for the first dud.