By William Wolf

DUNKIRK  Send This Review to a Friend

In the early days of television there was a show called “You Are There,” which presented famous events in history as if they were unfolding before your eyes. Now it is as if you are there for the historic rescue at Dunkirk during World War II as envisioned in gigantic action drama written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

I have criticized Nolan’s work in the past for his muddled and shallow screenplays, such as in “Memento,” “Inception” and “Interstellar.” (See Search.) “Dunkirk” is straightforward, eschewing the leadership of Winston Churchill and what the war was about. We barely see Nazi swastikas on German planes engaged by British Spitfires. Nolan concentrates on showing on a massive scale both the war’s horrors and the heroism that has made the evacuation of troops at Dunkirk legendary.

With remarkable depiction of the scene via cinematography, staged action and special effects, Nolan and his entourage have done a superb job of focusing on war’s toll in both an overview and close-ups of individuals playing a role as victims or rescuers.

However, the effort at portraying reality is severely undercut by the incessant, pounding, annoying score by Hans Zimmer. Soldiers at Dunkirk didn’t hear music accompanying their plight. The score is the kind that delivers a message that we are watching what resembles a typical Hollywood action saga. This is a film that cries out for only the sounds of gunfire, waves, cries of the wounded and whatever natural sounds can be evoked without being drowned out by a score.

On the other hand, Nolan wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum. Where there is intimate drama depicted verbally, the film its weakest. The best moments come from the reflection on faces, as when Kenneth Branagh as a navy officer registers amazement and delight upon seeing the fleet of small rescue boats arriving from England. His look evokes the recognition of the patriotic and deeply human heroism for which the Dunkirk rescue is known.

Among the most effective situation is the sight of men floundering in the water after the ship they were on has been bombed, and the utter horror of men swimming and burning in oily water set afire by bombs.

A stoic performance by Mark Rylance as a man who takes a small boat to the rescue is symbolic of the other heroes and boats joined in the task. There a few other everyman-type performances on which the film centers, but mostly the dominant force of the film is the massive amount of action with emphasis on death and destruction and the effects on victims.

Given the expertise that has gone into “Dunkirk,” I wish that it had more of a documentary flavor than the aura of a Hollywood epic with its annoying score that suggests fiction rather than fact. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed July 21, 2017.

THE MIDWIFE (SAGE FEMME)  Send This Review to a Friend

Put stars Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve in a film together and the combination alone is a special attraction. They don’t disappoint in the French import “The Midwife” (“Sage Femme”), the extremely well-acted and engrossing story of an unusual relationship written and directed by Martin Provost.

Frot plays Claire, a sensitive, accomplished midwife working at a clinic. She is personally withdrawn, burying herself in her demanding schedule and handling emergencies with skill. She also has a student son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), who leads a life pretty much on his own, has a girlfriend and shocks Claire at one point with news that he and his gal are expecting a baby.

A long-upsetting back story emerges when Claire gets a call from Béatrice, the mistress of Claire’s late father, who abandoned him with a dire result. Shocked, Claire dutifully meets Béatrice but doesn’t want any relationship, as she is still furious over what happened in the past.

Béatrice is the opposite of Claire—flamboyant and overtly carefree, with a zest for food and wine. But beneath it all is the anxiety of learning that she has brain cancer with little chance of survival. She is both financially and emotionally needy and attaches herself to reluctant Claire. But Claire has a good heart, and the film traces the ups and downs of the relationship that develops in Béatrice’s time of crisis. It also is important for Claire, as it helps her to deal with the past.

Meanwhile, Claire, who hasn’t had a relationship with a man In ages, meets Paul, most sympathetically played by Olivier Gourmet, who tends a garden next to her garden at the country sites they maintain. Paul, an international truck driver, is earthy and appealing, and the question is to what extent Claire can let herself go and become romantically involved. Meanwhile, Claire has a work problem, as with the clinic closing she has the opportunity to go to an upscale, ultra modern facility, which is anathema to her, but she must make a decision.

It is a joy to watch these two great actresses delineate their respective characters. Frot is superb in communicating the nuances of Claire’s personality and the change that takes place gradually. Deneuve is also superb in depicting Béatrice’s desperation and the prospect of the unfulfilled life she wants to hold onto and expand, as well as her need to be close to someone.

Writer-director Provost makes the details most convincing as he touches many narrative and emotional bases. I’m not keen on the ultimate outcome even though I would be hard-pressed to suggest a more satisfying one. But more importantly, the main pleasure in watching “The Midwife” lies in savoring Frot and Deneuve in such top acting form. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed July 12, 2017.

ESCAPES  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s documentary “Escapes” turns into one massive ego trip for Hampton Fancher, best known for his producing and writing credits for “Blade Runner,” but who also has had an acting career dating back to the 1950s and the 1960s.

Much of the film consists of Fancher, now 79, talking about his professional and private exploits. The director peppers the film with clips from Fancher’s various films and television stints, some amusing evidence of his sprawling Hollywood life.

Given the many notables with whom he interacts along the way, there are entertaining bits. Most interesting is his relationship with actress Barbara Hershey. Other romantic episodes are noted, including his short marriage to “Lolita” actress Sue Lyon.

Fancher is a good talker and the director makes the most of Fancher’s ability to spin yarns and dispense observations. But apart from the “Blade Runner” achievement (no small thing), Fancher’s career has been minor. The film gives him an opportunity to embellish his importance, and after a while the documentary grows repetitious and inflated.

However, Fancher has had a multitude of experiences, including his early adventure as a flamenco dancer in Spain, and he appears to have extracted plenty of fun from it all. His ability to colorfully communicate that often makes the close-up of his life entertaining. A Grasshopper Film release. Reviewed July 26, 2017.

THE FENCER  Send This Review to a Friend

Endel (Mart Avandi), a skillful fencer, is a man who has to flee Leningrad because of something he had to do during the war. Now, in the early 1950s, he finds refuge in Soviet-occupied Estonia. But you can’t keep a good fencer down.

In this Finnish import, Endel finds employment in a school, where he begins to teach fencing to students despite the opposition by the head of the school, who believes that fencing is an elite sport at odds with Soviet orthodoxy of the day.

The film, ably directed by Klaus Haro, takes a human turn when Marta (Liisa Koppel), a student, is inspired by seeing him practicing his art. Soon other students get involved, and Endel, official opposition notwithstanding, prepares to lead his charges into a tournament.

While the film takes on the aura of typical sports sagas, there is the underlying threat to Endel, and we can expect it to climax at a crucial competitive moment. The film has already set Endel up as a quetly principled, very determined guy, and the performance by Avandi emphasizes this quality and his ability to follow his instincts despite the grave personal danger he faces if exposed.

As predictable as the film becomes, it still recalls the turbulent times of the period depicted, as well as symbolizes eternal battles of man against the system. And there is all of the fencing to too, especially interesting when we see female students skillfully taking to the sport. Reviewed July 21, 2017.

LADY MACBETH  Send This Review to a Friend

Macbeth’s wife in Shakespeare’s play was a heavenly angel compared to the Lady Macbeth in this nasty drama directed by William Oldroyd from a screenplay by Alice Birch adapted from the 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov. The setting for the film is now rural England in 1865.

At first one can be most sympathetic to Katherine, played by intriguing Florence Pugh. She is married at the age of 17 to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a brute of a husband, much older, lacking in love for her and treating her like a slave. Nor does he want sex. His thrills come from ordering her to undress, after which he ogles her and masturbates.

To make matters worse, she has a horrible father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a rich mine owner, who demeans her and also looks upon her as a piece of property. What is this poor woman to do? She resides on a large estate, but in total frustration, hungering for human warmth as well as for the sex that marriage is supposed to bring.

Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a nervy, crude worker on the property, makes a pass at her, and while her husband is away, a full-fledged hot affair ensues between him and Katherine, and he begins to assume the role of lord of the mansion. Upon her husband’s return Katherine defiantly flaunts the relationship, which the husband has learned about via local gossip. Hell breaks loose, and the plot grows increasingly intricate, involving scheming and murder.

To complicate matters, Katherine is pregnant with her lover’s child. A fresh crisis erupts when a woman arrives with a young boy supposedly fathered by Alexander, and proceeds to take charge as if the child were the real heir. Katherine has by this time already turned into a horrible bitch who is willing to do wicked deeds to protect her status. Just how wicked you’ll have to see if you care. But her actions are so chilling and revolting that the sympathy one carried for her earlier in the film is wiped away.

Give credit to the aura that the screenwriter and director create to provide a sense of time and place. But what begins as a film that shows the terrible manner in which women were treated in this era ends in horror that cannot be justified, even if one holds that Katherine has been driven to her actions. A Roadside Attractions release. Reviewed July 14, 2017.

FOOTNOTES  Send This Review to a Friend

Outsourcing of jobs and worker resistance make for a timely musical, “Footnotes,” imported from France. It isn’t a typical musical, as characters break into song in the style previously used way back in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” or later used by Alain Resnais. But however, you regard the film, written and directed by Paul Calori and Kostia Testut, it is solidly on the side of the workers who make fashionable shoes in a rural factory for an owner planning to outsource production to where it can be cheaper.

What is job-needing Julie, an appealing young woman enjoyably played by Pauline Étienne, to do when she gets a trial job but lands in the midst of a labor dispute? If she goes on strike with the rest, she may lose her opportunity for permanent employment.

There is also the temptation of seductive Samy (Olivier Chantreau), a truck driver eager to have an affair with Julie. Predictably, romantic trouble is ahead.

The film thrives largely on its songs and look. The working women are pleasing to observe as characters, and the shoes are worth ogling, especially when the women opt for a style that becomes popular and undermines the villainous boss in Paris, a smooth-talking publicity seeker. The songs at key moments are fetching, and the film is shot attractively. In some respects, although with a different plot, “Footnotes” reminds me of “Kinky Boots.”

The filmmakers, while dealing with a serious subject, have turned out a frothy entertainment that celebrates working class unity and the need to stand up against the callous taking away jobs in the name of profits. A Monument Releasing release. Reviewed July 14, 2017.

BLIND  Send This Review to a Friend

Alec Baldwin gets a chance to show his serious acting chops In “Blind,” directed by Michael Mailer (Norman’s son) from a screenplay by John Buffalo Mailer (also Norman’s son) from a story by Diane Fisher. However, despite Baldwin’s often affecting performance, the plot is very predictable.

Baldwin plays Bill Oakland, an irascible novelist with a writer’s block blinded in an accident. He is also a professor, and he is thoroughly bitter at his new lot in life. He does takes an interest in an aspiring young writer, who seeks him as a possible mentor. But Oakland is consumed by anger and spews insults.

The potential for change arrives when Demi Moore as Suzanne Dutchman shows up to serve court-ordered community service time at the center where Oakland is recuperating. Her nasty, arrogant husband, Mark (Dylan McDermott), has been convicted of fraudulent stock maneuvers, but she is deemed not to have been aware of his crime, yet technically involved.

True to form Oakland is hostile at first, but he gradually warms to her, and she begins to see the good side of him. Moore gives an appealing performance despite the clichés. Love blooms. But problems surface when Suzanne’s husband is free and jealous of what he perceives. In one ugly scene, he beats hell out of his blind victim.

Poor Suzanne. What choice should she make, given that her husband is a louse but they are still attached? Poor Oakland. Will his chance for a brighter life be jeopardized? And what about his writer’s block? You’ll be able to provide your own spoilers. A Vertical Entertainment release. Reviewed July 14, 2017.

FALSE CONFESSIONS  Send This Review to a Friend

Three years ago director Luc Bondy staged Pierre de Marivaux’s 18th century play “The False Confessions” at the Odeon Theater in Paris (Bondy died a year later) and he was fortunate to have the illustrious Isabelle Huppert as his star, along with Louis Garrel as the male star. Deciding to also make a film of the work, he shot it in the same theater in the midst of the play’s run. That tactic, perhaps necessary in terms of commitments, was not a particularly good idea.

This is play comically rooted in romance and intrigue. The basic plot involves Garrel as the money-needing Dorante being manuplated into a job in the household of the wealthy widow Araminte, played by the ever-interesting Huppert. Dorante has a crush on Araminte, and the twisting plot involves various subterfuges and maneuvers. Of course, money is involved.

The play is stylized, but shooting it in the theater makes for a stiffness that could have been avoided had the filming been on a sumptuous location more natural for moviemaking. The atmosphere here is confining and at the end we see the principals leaving the theater, giving a note of intrusive reality and taking us down a peg from what we have just seen unfolding.

One would not think it possible but Huppert, her excellent acting notwithstanding, doesn’t come across well visually. She is shot from angles and distances that sometimes make her look insignificant instead of with the kind of camerawork that generally flatters her.

“False Confessions” projects a measure of charm and satire, and the supporting cast is worthy, but the film as a whole comes across as more forced than smooth. A Big World Pictures release. Reviewed July 14, 2017.

THE REHEARSAL  Send This Review to a Friend

What is life like for teens enrolled in a high-pressure drama program at a school in New Zealand? “The Rehearsal,” directed by Alison Maclean (“Jesus’ Son”) from a novel by Eleanor Catton and co-written by Maclean and Emily Perkins, focuses primarily on two youngsters who meet on a bus and become close as they wend their way through the intricacies of the school training and a scandal that occurs.

Both students are appealing—Stanley, played earnestly by James Rolleston, and the slightly younger Isolde, portrayed by Ella Edward with youthful innocence but sensitive curiosity and the need for an attachment. The scandal that surfaces involves Isolde’s tennis-playing older sister in an intimacy with the school’s tennis instructor.

The toughest taskmaster teaching drama is Hannah, played accordingly by Kerry Fox, whose method is tough love. She spots talent in Stanley, whom she wants to nurture, but her hard manner can deeply affect others who melt under her nasty pressure.

Beneath it all is the customary teenage angst that plays out in a familiar style, whether in New Zealand or anywhere else. Pressures mount and emotional conflicts result in hurtful behavior. To make matters worse, Isolde’s father is hostile to Stanley and orders him to stay away from her.

A tragic situation arises involving a student, and schoolmates have to deal with it. There are also the pressures that mount in the need to present a school play and the subject chosen. Teachers confront their own problems as well.

Although Stanley and Isolde are certainly appealing, one can tire of the plot’s manipulations. Still, “The Rehearsal” does give us a glimpse of the strivings of young people with talent and the obstacles encountered even before entering the larger competitive world of potential professional success and the quest for fulfillment in personal relationships. A Mongrel International release. Reviewed July 7, 2017.

13 MINUTES  Send This Review to a Friend

Instead of leading up to a film climax of trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler, “13 Minutes” stages the 1939 assassination attempt near the beginning, then works backward into the life of the would-be killer, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel). He was a real person whose planted bomb went off 13 minutes after Hitler left his meeting in Munich earlier than he was supposed to leave.

What makes this film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and co-written by Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, different and especially interesting is the way it portrays Elser’s life in the context of the evolvement of Nazi domination in Germany and the effect it was having. It is a portrait of a society as well as of a man and his deed.

We meet Elser when he is young and just starting to become radical. He isn’t a group activist, but his sympathies are with those protesting. We see him becoming gradually appalled at the actions of the Nazis, including persecution of Jews, until he decides he must do something to stop World War II at its beginning. Murdering Hitler is his answer.

We see early on Elser’s concentration on wooing young women, and how he eventually fixes on Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a married woman with whom he has an affair and subsequently leaves to undertake his secret mission that he cannot even tell her about. She is clearly saddened at his departure.

Clues lead to Elser’s capture, and the Nazi officials who interrogate him can’t believe he acted on his own. He is brutally tortured, which we get to see and recoil at, but there are no names to reveal. Finally, after much painful interrogation and Elser demonstrating how his carpenter work and work on clocks gave him the skill to make the explosives and plant the bomb, they believe him.

But that doesn’t satisfy Hitler, and the interrogators are pressed to torture him further so that Communists or other enemies of Nazism can be exposed and blamed.

The film intercuts Elser’s present with the past, so that we get the whole story climaxed not only with his execution on Hitler’s personal order, but with the irony of one of his interrogators, who was convinced Elser was telling the truth, being executed for having subsequently plotted against Hitler. The film has a grim reality, and although some has been fictionalized, it is presented basically as the true story of an an important piece of history.

The acting is excellent, particularly by Friedel as Elser, but also by Schüttler, as well as by those portraying the officials in charge of the torture—Burghard Klaussner as head of the Criminal police Arthur Nebe and Johann von Bülow as head of Gestapo Heinruch Müller. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann achieves a period look, as does costume designer Bettina Marx. A Beta Cinema elease. Reviewed June 30, 2017.


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