The Exception is an unexceptional title for an exceptionally fine film.
Filmed as The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, the far more interesting title of Alex Judd’s 2003 novel, the debut film of Tony-nominated stage director David Leveaux focuses on the love story between a good German soldier, “the exception” to the rule, and the Kaiser’s new Jewish maid, a young Dutch widow who is also a British spy.
The Kaiser is, of course, Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia from the age of 19 in 1888 to the abolition of the monarchy at the end of World War I in 1918. A grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria and cousin of George V, he was banished to Holland after the war and pretty much forgotten until the Nazis took control of Holland in 1940. Vowing never to return to Germany until the monarchy is restored, a Nazi plot to force him to return on the false promise of restoring his position gives him hope that he will die on the throne, but that hope is short-lived. Instead, he aids in the escape of the British spy who gives him his last kiss a year before his death in exile at the age of 82.
What makes the film memorable are the performances of Jai Courtney and Lily James as the lovers, Janet McTeer as the Kaiser’s conniving second wife, Ben Daniels as his trusted aide, and above all, Christopher Plummer in another late career triumph as the Kaiser. If he didn’t already have an Oscar, he would surely be on the short list for his brilliant performance here despite the film’s dismal box-office which can be blamed on the asinine last-minute title change and lack of promotion from Lionsgate.
The Exception is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The Circle is a cautionary tale set in the near-future in which social media has advanced to the next step. People are no longer content with just expressing their every thought on Twitter and Facebook and instantly sharing their pictures and videos with friends and family on their cell phones, they want to connect with everyone at every moment.
Emma Watson plays a young woman who goes to work for a company in which the CEO (Tom Hanks) is a charismatic leader whose company meetings are feel-good pep rallies in the tradition of Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs at Apple. She advances very quickly from customer service rep to guinea pig for the company’s new transparency in which her every move is followed via a device she wears on her wrist. At first, this seems non-invasive, then lifesaving when the company’s drones assist in saving her from a near drowning in a lake in the middle of the night. This leads to her agreeing to be seen on the internet around the clock except when she goes to the bathroom or when she turns off the cameras to sleep.
Critics and audiences alike, used to action-filled dystopian tales set against bleak landscapes that end in hopelessness and despair, gave the slow-moving film low ratings, but they were only seeing what was on the surface. The film, from a best-selling novel by Dave Ellers, with a screenplay by Ellers and director James Ponsoldt, needed the message to be deliberate if simple to get through to everyone for whom it is intended, which is all of us.
The Promise is an historical epic about the extermination of 2.5 million people in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 that deserves better than the 57,000 one-star ratings it received on IMDb.thanks to genocide deniers, bringing its overall rating to just 5.9.
The title refers in part to a promise of marriage a young Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac) makes to a girl from his village (Angela Sarafyan) in exchange for the dowry that allows him to attend medical school in Constantinople in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. In Constantinople, he falls in love with another Armenian girl (Charlotte Le Bon), one who was educated in Paris. She has returned home with an American correspondent (Christian Bale), the new relationship forming an uneasy triangle.
The title also refers to the promise of the surviving Armenian people to never forget.
The dual love story is set against the background of the breakout of World War I in which the Ottoman Empire is on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Fearing that the Armenians secretly side with Russians and their allies, the Muslim Turks systematically round up the Christian Armenian men and either force them to join the Army or go on long marches with women and children, shooting the weak ones, resettling the survivors in holding centers from which they will eventually be executed as are any Turks who help them. Whole towns of Armenian people are also executed despite well-intentioned but empty promises from Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (James Cromwell) that help will come. It was this process that Hitler used to promulgate his “final solution,” asking in 1939, “who remembers the Armenians?”
Grantchester Season 3 continues the first-rate British mystery series about Anglican priest Sidney Chambers (James Norton) in the mid-1950s who aids his police inspector friend Geordie Keating (Robson Green) in solving local murders. In addition to Geordie, the series features his close relationships with his married soon-to-be-divorced girlfriend Amanda Hopkins (Morven Christie), his blunt-spoken housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), and his closeted gay assistant cleric Leonard Finch (Al Weaver).
The first episode on the home video Blu-ray and DVD release of the third season is a Christmas special that aired on Christmas Eve, 2016 in the U.K., but in the midsummer in the U.S. where the series is still running on PBS.
The episode is a critical one in that it establishes the groundwork of the six-episode season that follows. In addition to solving a murder, Sidney and Leonard must direct the annual children’s Christmas play and the pregnant Amanda must give birth to her husband’s child, which Sidney has vowed to raise. The season itself will test the Sidney-Amanda relationship as Sidney goes through a crisis of faith in which he must choose between remaining a priest or marrying a divorced woman. Anglican priest can marry, but marriage to a divorcée was still frowned upon at the time.
The Lost City of Z, pronounced “zed”, is based on the life of British explorer Percy Fawcett.
In 1905, British Army Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is asked by the Royal Geographical Society to act as a referee between Bolivia and Brazil and map out the border between the two countries. Fawcett agrees to the arduous journey because success would mean his vindication as the son of a disgraced ex-military man. He is joined by his appointed aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) on his dangerous mission to Amazonia, where apart from the starvation, infernal heat, hostile indigenous Indian tribes, and wild animals, they find evidence of advanced, non-white civilizations. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations as “savages,” the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller) and Costin, returns time and again to his beloved jungle in his attempt to prove his case. His last trip is in 1925 with his now grown son (Tom Holland) acting as his aide de camp. He and his son disappear. Did they die or did they discover the lost city from which they do not want to leave?
The most ambitious film to date from director James Gray (The Immigrant), the film is a rather old-fashioned adventure of the sort that was popular in the 1930s (Stanley and Livingstone, Suez), albeit with the grander look of Werner Herzog’s 1970s epics (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcaraldo). You would have to go back to Bob Rafelson’s 1990 film, Mountains of the Moon about Capt. Francis Burton and Lt. John Hanning Speke’s 19th Century expedition to find the source of the Nile, to find a film of similar ambition and scope.
The Zookeeper’s Wife from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) is the latest in a long line of films about the holocaust. Although not as compelling as either Schindler’s List or The Pianist, two other films about the Nazi invasion of Poland and the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, it is nevertheless worth seeing.
Jessica Chastain, eerily emulating Meryl Streep’s accent in Sophie’s Choice, plays the title character, a young veterinarian who along with her zoologist husband (Johan Heldenbergh), has built the city’s zoo into a world-renown showplace. After the Nazis invade, Hitler sends his own zoologist (Daniel Bruhl) to move the most valuable animals to Germany with the empty promise that they will be returned to Warsaw after the war. The remaining animals are shot and used to feed the Nazi troops.
Heldenbergh comes up with a plan that is approved by Bruhl, in which the now empty zoo will be used to raise pigs for the German soldiers’ consumption. Food for the pigs will come from the scraps in the Jewish ghetto. Heldenbergh uses the scrap gathering to hide Jewish refugees in his truck, who are then hidden by Chastain in the zoo’s basement until it is safe for them to leave. In all, they will save 300 Jews from extinction during the Nazi occupation.
The film is excellently acted, especially by Chastain, Heldenbergh, Bruhl, and the two young actors playing Chastain and Heldenbergh’s impressionable son, Timothy Radford and Val Maloku.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog wasn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, but the 1927 silent classic was the one that established his style. It was also the first in which he made a cameo appearance. In fact, he made two, and his wife, Alma, had one as well.
This was the first film version of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel The Lodger, that would be filmed again in the U.K. in 1932, by Hollywood in 1944, 1953 (as Man in the Attic), and 2009. Hitchcock even directed a radio version of it in 1940. Inspired by the 1888 killings of Jack the Ripper, the film is about a mysterious young man who rents a room from a nervous landlady and her husband. Is he the notorious strangler of young women or is he an innocent? In Hitchcock’s version, he is an innocent, the first of the director’s wrongly accused men that would eventually include the likes of Robert Donat in The 39 Steps, Robert Cummings in Saboteur, Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, and Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
Hitchcock’s protagonist is played by Ivor Novello, the most popular actor in British films of the day. A former boy singer, Novello was also an accomplished composer and stage actor. His “Keep the Home Fires Burning” was one of the most popular songs of World War I. He’s played by Jeremy Northam in Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park.
Unlike most of Hitchcock’s innocents, the audience isn’t sure of Novello’s innocence until he’s set upon by an angry mob that almost kills him when he’s saved in the nick of time by the arrest of the actual killer. The rest of the cast is not well known. Heroine June Tripp had a brief career in films before becoming a London, and eventually a New York, socialite. Landlady Marie Ault and her husband, Arthur Chesney, had bit parts in talkies. Only Malcolm Keen as the detective who is also in love with the girl, had a long career in films. Even Novello didn’t last long in the medium. He made his last one in 1934, preferring to concentrate on his music.
The Marseille Trilogy, the title under which Criterion has released Marcel Pagnol’s immortal Fanny trilogy, was, whether you call it The Marseille Trilogy, Pagnol’s trilogy or the Fanny trilogy, the screen’s first trilogy.
Pagnol (1895-1974) was born near Marseilles where he was raised, but moved to Paris in 1922 where he taught English until 1927. Having co-written a play produced in 1924, he decided to devote his life to playwriting instead of teaching. His first solo effort was Topaze, produced in 1928 and later filmed three times, by Hollywood in 1933 with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy; and by Pagnol himself in 1935 with Louis Jovet; and in 1951 with Fernandel. It was his next play, Marius, however, about life in his beloved Marseilles, that really established him. Fascinated by the medium of film, Pagnol made a deal with Paramount to produce a film version of that play which was released in France in 1931 and the U.S. in 1933, albeit without subtitles. He had wanted Paramount to produce that play’s sequel, Fanny, but Paramount demurred, declaring that sequels didn’t make money. He produced it himself, releasing it in France in 1932. That may have been the end of the story, but Pagnol’s fans impressed upon him that he couldn’t leave the story with the young lovers, Marius and Fanny, broken up at the end. He returned to the characters once again in 1936 to put the finishing touches on their story with César.
Frantz, the new film from Francois Ozon, the noted French director of Under the Sand, 8 Women, and Swimming Pool, is a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 classic Broken Lullaby, which was the film version of Maurice Rostand’s post-World War I play The Man I Killed.
As with the previous version, Frantz is about a sensitive French soldier who comes to Germany to visit the parents and fiancée of a German soldier killed in the war. In Broken Lullaby we know from the outset why he is there, but in Frantz we are kept guessing until the big reveal halfway through. At that point, Broken Lullaby moved quickly to its happy ending whereas Frantz has another hour to go in which layer upon layer of other secrets and lies are revealed.
For Maurice Rostand, whose father Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, The Man I Killed was his greatest success. For Ernst Lubitsch, his Broken Lullaby was a major flop for the nonpareil director of sophisticated comedies like Trouble in Paradise and musicals like The Smiling Lieutenant. Despite generally rapturous reviews, audiences wouldn’t accept the director’s one attempt at seriousness and brokenhearted Lubitsch vowed never to make another dramatic film. He kept his word, going on to make only such idyllic comedies as Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner. For Ozon, Frantz is a departure as well. It’s his first film not heavily steeped in sex.
Beauty and the Beast was a tale old as time put to song old as rhyme when Disney’s animated classic first appeared 26 years ago. The first fully animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it won for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (the beloved title tune). Now it’s been remade as a live-action feature that is 45 minutes longer than the previous version.
While there has been some carping by audiences regarding the additional time taken to flesh out the story, there isn’t a single wasted minute in my estimation. The extra time is diligently used to provide a back story for both Belle (Beauty) and the Beast and includes three new songs, “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” first sung by Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, reprised by Emma Watson as Belle and by Celine Dion over the end credits; “Days in the Sun” sung by the Beast’s household; and “Evermore” sung by Dan Stevens as the Beast and by Josh Groban over the end credits. Three of the songs from the original – “Belle,” “Gaston,” and “Be Our Guest” – have additional lyrics. The additional lyrics used in “Gaston” were written by Howard Ashman for the 1991 animated version, but not used.
Emma Watson turned down the female lead in La La Land to play Belle, while Ryan Gosling, who was offered the role of the Beast, turned it down to play the male lead in La La Land. It turned out happily for both. Gosling received an Oscar nomination for his performance while Watson got to play her favorite childhood character.
Pelle the Conqueror, the 1988 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, has been given a magnificent 30th anniversary restoration. The new Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement features a superb narration by film historian and scholar Peter Cowie. Cowie’s narration fills in the blanks that puts into perspective for modern audiences the harsh realities of the time and place in which this Danish masterpiece is set.
Taken from the first volume of a four-part novel published between 1906 and 1910, the Dickensian work by Danish writer Martin Anderson Nexo is about a Swedish boy who emigrates to Denmark with his father after the death of his mother. Unable to find work because he is too old, and the boy too young, the father finds work on a remote farm on which both he and his son attend the farm’s dairy cows and he and his son sleep in a room in the cow shed.
Directed by Bille August, the film stars Pelle Hvenegaard as the boy, Pelle, and Oscar-nominated Max von Sydow as his father, Lasse. The novel takes place over a ten-year period in which the boy ages from 8 to 18, but the passage of time is not specified in the film in which 11-year-old Hvenegaard plays the title character throughout. Selected from over 3,000 candidates for the part, Hvenegaard was named by his mother after the character in the beloved novel, which is part of the curriculum in Danish schools. He does the part full justice, as does the entire cast, led by the incomparable von Sydow as the well-intentioned, but weak father.
Get Out and Logan are two of the best reviewed films of the year so far, and with good reason.
I was initially skeptical of Jordan Peele’s Get Out as the trailer seemed to indicate another in the almost weekly releases of generic horror films cluttering the market. The directing debut of the second named half of the charismatic comedy team of Key and Peele, instead, delivers a welcome surprise.
Get Out ‘s Rotten Tomatoes score of 99% seems to indicate that it might be one of the greatest films of all time, but that’s putting too much pressure on what is essentially a light entertainment. What drives the high score is the unexpected pleasure of finding a horror film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time getting everything right, and not leaving the audience with the feeling that they’ve just wasted 104 minutes of their time that will never get back.
The plot of Get Out is a novel one. Young black men are disappearing and our protagonist (Daniel Kaluuya) is on track to be the next victim, but why? What is there about his seemingly perfect white girlfriend (Allison Williams), her welcoming parents (Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford), and slightly off-center brother (Caleb Landry Jones) that screams “run?”
The film opens with a scene that features one character and then forgets about him as it turns to the main story, signaling the audience that this could be a Scream rip-off. Far from it. If anything, the winking narrative goes back to the comedy-horror glory days of the likes of James Whale’s The Old Dark House and Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, films that were produced by Universal, the studio responsible for releasing Get Out.
Universal Classic Monsters Collection, released in September 2015, was supposed to be the be-all and end-all of Universal’s classic monsters on Blu-ray. Well, not exactly. Although collectors were happy to have the eight greatest monster films from Universal’s vaults all in one Blu-ray collection, many were disappointed that Universal didn’t also upgrade the subsequent films in their Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon franchises.
The eight films in the initial Blu-ray collection were 1931’s Frankenstein and Dracula, 1933’s The Invisible Man and The Mummy, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, 1941’s The Wolf Man, 1943’s The Phantom of the Opera, and 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In September 2016, Universal released Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection and The Wolf Man: Complete Legacy Collection. Newly released are Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection and The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection. Blu-ray releases of The Invisible Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon complete legacies will presumably see forthcoming releases. 1943’s The Phantom of the Opera did not become an ongoing franchise, but it’s possible that we may see a combined Blu-ray release of the 1943 and 1962 versions of the classic tale combined in a future release, as both are owned by Universal.
Things to Come, the new to home video film from Mia Hansen-Love, is not a remake of William Cameron Menzies’ film of the same name from H.G. Wells’ classic novel that captivated audiences eighty years ago. Rather, it is a wistful French film about an aging philosophy professor coping with the changes in her life.
Isabelle Huppert, an Oscar nominee for last year’s Elle, might just as easily have been nominated for this performance. As in that film, Huppert defies the ravages of age as she plays a forthright woman who must cope with her now grown children being out on their own, her difficult mother giving up on life and her husband having found someone else. She is just as strong a teacher as she’s always been, but the times have changed and her methods may not be what those in charge want these days. Nevertheless, her former students still revere her. Can that be enough as she loses nearly everything in life that has been dear to her? Perhaps it can.
Huppert is extraordinary in the role, and receives strong support from André Marcon as her husband, Roman Kolinka as her favorite former student, and Edith Scob as her mother
Things to Come is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Although it was shown at numerous U.S. film festivals in 2016, Iran’s The Salesman did not have an official run in the U.S. until January 2017, making it ineligible for most 2016 year-end awards. Perhaps that’s why its Oscar nomination and win came as a surprise to many who thought that Germany’s multi-honored, Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann would be an easy Best Foreign Language Film winner, especially since France’s submitted Elle and Spain’s submitted Julieta failed to make the list of nominees. South Korea’s acclaimed The Handmaiden, which also took many U.S. year-end awards, was not submitted by for consideration by its country of origin.
The Salesman became only the second Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film after 2011’s A Separation. Both films were directed by Asghar Farhadi whose works shed a spotlight on Iran’s average working people who are generally ignored by the country’s state run media. This one is about an actor/teacher whose life takes a dark turn while he is performing in a local version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
In the middle of the night, he and his actress wife are awakened by an order to evacuate their apartment building as it is starting to collapse. While badly damaged, the building does not collapse, but is nevertheless uninhabitable. A fellow actor in the play offers to sublet one of his apartments to them. They accept and move in, but are uneasy because the previous tenant has left most of her belongings there while hunting for a new apartment of her own. One night, while waiting for the actor to return, the wife is about to enter the shower when the buzzer sounds. Assuming it’s her husband, she buzzes the door to the building open, unlocks and opens her apartment door, and goes to her shower. As anyone who has ever seen a movie would know, it wasn’t her husband buzzing, but someone looking for the previous tenant. The wife is severely beaten, setting up a moral dilemma as the film becomes a tale of revenge and retribution. Parallels to the play being performed are many. Both Shahab Hosseini as the actor and Taraneh Alidoosti are outstanding as is the supporting cast including the numerous young men who play the actor’s students.