Review: Nicky’s Family

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically.

Specifically to this post, upon hearing of Sir Nicholas Winton’s death today at the age of 106 I confirmed that I had not given this film its own post yet. May he rest in peace. 

Nicky’s Family (2011)

In this documentary, which also includes dramatizations that are thankfully usually silent, the tale of a British businessman, Sir Nicholas Winton, who took it upon himself to organize the Kindertransport program, which evacuated hundreds of children out of Czechoslovakia prior to World War II and the transport of Czechoslovakian Jews, Slavs and Gypsies to concentration camps, is told. However, as the title suggests how Winton came to be inspired to do so, what he had to do and how is only a part of the tale. The film also tells of how the story became more widely known and some of what the survivors went through both as Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland, what occurred during and after their relocation and lastly how the legacy of Nicholas’ actions are still felt to this day both with survivors and those inspired by his tale.

Within a seemingly simple story at the outset this is a hefty and ambitious task when all the component parts are taken into account. Having said that it does so quite well. Though I occasionally wondered about, or lost track of a thread, there is a narrative language established wherein transitions between hosted intros, stills, interview pieces, stock footage, re-enactments and b-roll occurs. It’s only a minor pacing hiccup in the end.

Much of the footage implemented, along with the personal accounts as well as some unique and well-placed scoring and original music really elevate this film.

In a great piece by Christopher Campbell from last year he discussed the importance of judging the film in question when dealing with a documentary and as a sidebar you can talk about the topic as he discusses in issue films, which this is. So here’s my sidebar: while there are myriad stories of heroics that occurred during the holocaust that saved further lives from being lost what separates this one is what a small, almost individual effort it was, how unassuming the hero is and how he’s inspired others to take action to this very day in almost a real-life Pay It Forward manner.

Nicky’s Family is a fairly good documentary that should find a wider audience both for the cinematic qualities it possesses and the tale it tells, one that may not be so widely known. For more information on the film you can visit Menemsha’s site or go here to request a screening near you.

8/10

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Review: For a Woman

This is a family drama told in hindsight. Anne (Sylvie Testud) tells the story of her parents Léna (Mélanie Thierry) and Michel (Benoît Magimel) as Russian emigres in post-war Paris especially after Michel’s estranged brother, Jean (Nicholas Duvauchelle) returns.

What’s most intriguing about this film is not just the fact that a daughter is wondering about the origins of her family, specifically what her parents’ life was like before she was born, but the facts that it commingles familial dramas and postwar political intrigue. All too often films that deal with Wold War II in some way see the liberation of Europe as the endgame. Some of the most fascinating European films are postwar, set either during reconstruction or in involved in the politics of a new Europe. This one goes there and furthermore examines some of what happens when you’ve moved past survival and are living with compromises made to move on.

Jean arrives enshrouded in mystery. His return to Michel’s life is sudden and almost unceremonious. There’s always some doubt about his nature or identity, but the conflict ends up being one in family rather than the fact that he’s still a Soviet and comrade, and his brother is a communist expat.

These narrative elements may seem like they’re too different to connect but when family is involved everything connects. With everything connecting there could be a tendency to lose the characters behind the ideas they represent and to muddle through to a conclusion. What this film does is end its commentaries on family and politics in separate scenes. One in a discussion and one in a voice over to close a tale. Each is astutely stated and a perfectly presented synthesis of hypotheses.

The most interesting thing again is that it wanders into gray areas, and fights to explain that gray against characters and a world that insist on black-and-white both in political and familial arenas. When not wanting to lose your characters to your ideas the performances by the actors are crucial.

Thierry compassionately portrays a woman torn between her emotions and duties; Magimel plays a cockeyed-optimistic struggling to hold on to ideals in the face of staggering new realities, and Devauchelle a passionate yet embittered cynic seeking unattainable levels of revenge. Each conveys characters as they are and makes you wonder both about where they came from and where they end up. While this film is an origin story of sorts for its narrator, it resists the flashier sacrificial, survivalist beginnings of the characters maturely realizing that life does goes on, and the future is constantly striven for.

The film keeps apace on both its fronts working with a smooth ease that allows you to settle in and ruminate on this situation without losing your interest or pushing it too quickly. The balance that For a Woman strikes may be imperfect but it’s not an easy one to strike and it holds on well enough to entertain and provoke thought in equal measure.

7/10

Thankful for World Cinema – The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

After seeing The Notebook, I went and reread my post on The Witman Boys in part because it was the other Janos Szas I had seen to date. I started on that task merely to remind myself of it a bit more (as writing can help fill in the blanks that memory decides to leave). However, what I found as I looked it over was a film more similar to The Notebook than I’d remembered.

The parallels do go beyond merely a shot of two brothers with their face in close proximity to one another. And this is also not to be implied as a slight on either film; quite the contrary, it makes for a very fascinating look at the auterism behind both and also the refinement and the increased power that the newer film has.

The films both have inciting incidents wherein the boys are changed by something beyond their control. In The Witman Boys its the loss of their father. In The Notebook the second World War is raging on and the boys’ parents worry for them and want them protected. The Witman Boys has similar brothers each with a designated name whereas The Notebook is about twins whom are never referred to by name and are credited as “One” and “The Other.” This is an important fact because the idea is to make the twins inextricable from one another and also to make them symbolic.

For as One and The Other move away from a metropolitan area (presumably Budapest) to the Hungarian countryside, they come closer to the horrors of the war and have to learn to cope with life during wartime in their own unique way.

This is where the tonality of the film comes into play. Children coping with the ravages of war is not a new topic. It’s how the topic is dealt with that dictates the tonality of the film, and in certain regards the success of it. Much liked Szas’ prior film this is not going to be an uplifting tale.

Prior to the boys being taken to live with their estranged grandmother their father gives them a notebook to write down “everything” in. Twins have a tendency to stick close together regardless, but when placed in such isolation the tendency to stick by one another, at least to start, is redoubled; and gives them even more incentive to live a microcosmic existence wherein they seek to define morality, strength and learn how they can best cope in the tumult about them with no outside assistance.

That then lays the groundwork for the film which is told through entries the notebook. Voice-over allows episodes of the story to be tied together . While the wondrous visuals created by Christian Berger, this time exploiting color in a parable. The images are usually gorgeous regardless, but stark when they have to be and edited together precisely to render the progression (or degeneration if you prefer) of the boys from wide-eyed innocents to hardened survivors, who frighteningly at times still have a childlike understanding of things, and at others have a cold and calculated, all-too adult outlook.

Not that those things ever seem wrong for they work in a proper progressive order and lead to a gutting finale whose impact is hammered home when you fully realize how and why things occur the way they do.

One of the fascinating things about this film is not only does it find a way, for the most part, to remove the narrative from the frontline but it still keeps the war close by. It tells a dark, haunting tale in one of the 20th Centuries worst moments that goes above and beyond simplistic moralizing about a specific conflict but makes a more sweeping point. A point uttered through visuals and actions and not directly through dialogue, such that you’re still engaged in watching a story, a disturbing one, but a story nonetheless.

Tying this back into the auteurist aspect, so as not to leave it abandoned as an introductory ploy: many directors have told tales that parallel one another. Hitchcock himself said that “self-plagiarism is style.” With regards to World War II, Steven Spielberg has been there quite a few times in very different ways (1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). It’s not the fact that a director returns to a common ground that matters, but rather what he does when he gets there. What Janos Szas does here is amplify and refine the sensibilities employed in The Witman Boys to this adaptation, sharpening the impact of the story and making it one that can resonate universally. Whereas the prior film was one that could bring one to Hungarian cinema, here he pushes Hungarian cinema out to the world.

9/10

Thankful For World Cinema: Simon and the Oaks

The Foreign Award Struggle

I touched upon this a while back when writing about Spud, and that is the marketing of films from around the world hits a pothole when trying to cite foreign film awards that American viewers as a whole are not familiar with. Invariably a national film award, whether it be from South Africa, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, or almost anywhere else (Those are just the nations I recall seeing with this distinction), will have their award name cited and then in parenthesis it will say “The Swedish Oscar,” or whatever the country it would happen to be.

I’ve been in theaters where this connotation has gotten a chuckle and I find that to be a very narrow-minded thing to do. I will grant that some national cinemas are just more prolific than others so some of these national awards may have more clout than others, but the fact remains that when I see films that have virtual sweeps in terms of nominations, and then you pair that with the fact that it wasn’t even the film submitted to the Oscars from a given country, that will make me take notice.

Which brings me to Simon and the Oaks. When I was last in New York, I was about to see Robot & Frank at the Paris Theater and I saw a synopsis. It seemed quite intriguing. The Paris being an independent theater usually only screens trailers for what they’ll soon be showing, and, sure enough, a trailer for Simon and the Oaks came on. The trailer made the film seem even more interesting than the synopsis did and what really stuck with me was that it was nominated for 13 Guldbagge Awards, the Swedish national film award (let’s avoid the O-word for propriety’s sake).

As I alluded to earlier, that’s nothing to sneeze at especially coming out of Sweden. Now, I won’t completely play the naive neophyte, I’m sure if you were to talk to connoisseurs of specific national cinemas they’d tell you that their awards have their tendencies and trends just like ours, but as I said I had already been sold on the film the awards were an additional curiosity. Then add the fact that it had been passed over as Sweden’s Official selection in favor of Lasse Hallström’s latest and I was further intrigued. Adding to the equation was the fact that it was picked up by the Film Arcade. I always am supportive of new players entering the distribution game, and their other acquisition thus far is The Other Dream Team, a doc about the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball Team, which also seems interesting.

Simon and the Oaks

So, external factors aside, how is Simon and the Oaks? It is very good and engaging indeed. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is the changes to the expected path it gives you. It sets itself up as an outsider’s, observer’s tale that as its child protagonist grows becomes more the focus and more central to the thematic conflicts than we were led to believe at the beginning of the film.

It further surprises by setting up well-crafted, well-written situations about World War II that while not all that unique are captivating. Then about midway through there’s a crucial revelation that really sends the structure of the film for a loop in a good way and subjugates the external struggles and factors, and makes the tale a far more internal one than was ever expected. The performances are strong through the whole cast.

Not only that but there are very interesting mirrored family dynamics that intertwine. The only real uneasy patch is right after the temporal shift, but things still sort themselves out. The film moves well enough such that it could’ve taken a bit more time to transition, but this is truly a minor quibble.

I’m a big stickler for the moment in which a film decides to end its narrative, and this film selects the perfect moment and does so with perfect symmetry and poetry. It’s a film that does well to underscore the fact that there are many films out in the global market that can find an audience in the states, and I’m glad to have gotten to see this one.

Comparative Analysis: The Dictator (2012) and The Great Dictator (1940)

I have often said that I do not enjoy indulging in comparative analysis when writing a standard review. Sometimes it does come up by I try not to focus on that aspect. However, there will be the rare occasion where the comparative analysis angle is far more intriguing than a standard review, so I have taken it here. I hope you enjoy it and welcome comments.

After having seen The Dictator a thought occurred to me that would invariably shift the tone and direction of the piece I wrote regarding it and it would thus not be a traditional review. The thought was as follows: The Dictator is like Sacha Baron Cohen’s own take on The Great Dictator. Now before proceeding with this line of reasoning allow me to state unequivocally that I am not for a second equating Cohen to Chaplin. What I am saying is that the parallels that this film shares with the one made 72 years ago are rather hard to ignore.

Frankly, I could also write a little more on this topic and explaining why this film does work to the extent that it does and find that this is a much more interesting dialogue than “How funny is this?” as that’s quite the subjective question, and “How does this rank in Cohen’s canon thus far?,” ibid.

Now, this might seem a rather facile allusion at first but what most intrigued me about this thought was the absolutely refractory nature that this tale has and that it makes The Dictator not only true to its time but as true to the artistic force driving it as The Great Dictator was.

The first confluence that the two films share is that there is a rather overt political message being delivered in the film. Each fits the tone of the actor and the film perfectly aside from being a necessary oration for the political climate in which it was spoken. Chaplin, the silent star, who resisted the advent of sound with fervor eventually, slowly gave in. The Great Dictator was his grudging embrace of the new form. That’s not to say Chaplin didn’t make it a visual venture, as this film features the iconic playing with the globe scene but it does also have the memorable speech, one of the most brilliant pieces of acting ever committed to celluloid. The silent star has a stump speech wherein he not only wears his heart on his sleeve but belies the fact that he is a double for the dictator.

The Dictator does have its own double aspect, however, as the title indicates, it focuses on the dictator rather than the double, and the speech here is given by the dictator not the double. The speech, as opposed to being heartfelt, goes from being tongue-in-cheek to sarcastic to the near equivalent of a bit from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, the 21st Century replacement of the political cartoon. Chaplin’s speech was made during the darkest moments of the 20th century and was a message of hope, whereas Cohen is speaking in a world that alternates between great apathy and great fervency, where there is much conviction with little to no information despite the ready availability thereof. In the end, his is a rather even slam of both sides showing the warts totalitarianism and capitalism have.

While Cohen’s tale creates a fictitious nation meant to capture the foibles of as many leaders of Aladeen’s ilk as possible, Chaplin’s is clearly a caricature of Adolf Hitler, and has the additional layer of being a personal statement by Chaplin on his own behalf, who had for years been a presumed Communist by Hoover’s FBI.

While the cinematic quality of either is never going to be confused, I will reiterate that each reflects their lead perfectly. Chaplin was every bit the dramatist, the sensitive artist as he was a comedian, he’s cinema’s crying clown, only he’s unlikely to frighten small children. Cohen is broad, crude and if he’s left a member of his audience un-offended he feels he’s failed in his mission. His style is a perfect reflect of the excess and vapidity of the global political scene in this day and age. This is not to say that decisions of today’s world leaders do not carry weight, but while the world is always in the balance we’ve rarely come so close to the brink of global devastation as we did in World War II. Therefore, the tone of events allow for greatly contrasting tones in the films.

Cohen’s film taking place in a world that is not completely and totally at war allows there to be more societal commentary here, namely in the person of Zoey (Anna Faris). It’s not subtle and it doesn’t always work perfectly but she is the personification of what I referenced above: much conviction with not enough information.

The insanity of World War II also lead to the creation of the United Nations, what was essentially supposed to be a more effective solution than the prior League of Nations. In some ways it has been, in others not as much, this is also a notion that this film toys with quite a bit. Whereas The Great Dictator tackles the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority foremost, then the major players of the Nazi party and then the party’s constructs. The tertiary commentaries of The Dictator vary from totalitarian mindset, to post-9/11 paranoia, the year of protest and more.

While very different tonally, in terms of comedic and dramatic effect it would be fascinating to see these two films as a double feature and further compare and contrast them, but there are some of the most apparent parallels that I found upon one viewing of the newer film.

For the record, there is a bit of inconsistency in The Dictator for my liking. The laughs stop long enough so you notice some of the sillier plot points so the most I can give it is a 7/10. Having said that, I clearly found method to Cohen’s madness such that I took up this tangential association as the most interesting way I could find to discuss it. No film is perfect but there are few films in this day and age that even have something to say, and no matter how crass the method of delivery or how silly the context that does mean a great deal, and I definitely appreciated that.

Review- The Round Up (La Rafle)

The Round Up (La Rafle) (Gaumont)

Any film that deals with World War II, more specifically the holocaust, fights an uphill battle. The film has to contend with not only the knowledge that we as a viewing public share but also with the inevitable outcome its story-lines share. These factors make any newly told tale, especially ones that may have been shared before, more daunting to tell than they have been in the past, however, what The Round Up (Le Rafle) does so well is tell a multi-faceted tale that most films that illustrate historic events tend to avoid. This film not only tells the tale of a single neighborhood, more specifically the Weismann and Zygler families, but also takes a look at the political sides of the equation (the ivory tower and backroom bargaining where lives were bartered and certain agreements were reached under a false sense of humanitarianism) which many films tend to avoid. Not only does that angle of the story get played but also as those rounded up start their unjustly imposed sojourn you also have the plight of the medical staff, illustrated by a nurse (Mélanie Laurent) and a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) who have to try an keep the imprisoned alive as they are eventually transported to Poland. It is adding these layers to the story which makes this film different than other of the like at least on the surface.

The differentiation does not lie solely on the surface, however, while this film does not ever take place in an unoccupied France until its denouement it does start in a time where knowledge of what’s truly happening is scarce and children remain children as they are wont to do regardless of circumstance. You are shown very good illustrations of the sense that permeates the community of “It Can’t Happen to Us” and it’s tackled head on later as the eldest of the Weismann daughters tries to warn everyone a few times and wants to flee but calm is urged by her parents. Later at the first stop it is poignantly touched upon again. It’s one of the many times wherein the senselessness and unimaginable insanity of what the holocaust was is very well illustrated. Many of the characters in the film are in the dark willfully or honestly and it allows scenes we’ve viewed and facts we know to wash over us with newfound impact.

Some of these points are made with very cleverly written dialogue as well that is uttered by the right characters in the right moments and in the right context. Things being too on the head are a matter of context as much as anything else and the correct personages say the correct things to make points anew in a different way or ones that are often overlooked. The children, the nurse in her naïveté, Hitler amongst his inner circle and French heads of state all say things that were they assigned to other characters may strike you as too much commentary. Part of why auteur theory is not a popular notion in cinema anymore is that voice in a script as opposed to things like composition and genre can border preachiness but this one deals in the political and personal of a difficult subject matter makes its points about the absurdity of the situation in terse pieces of dialogue, visuals wherever possible but never to the detriment of the narrative, which helps it excel.

Conversely, when it speaks more loudly for the film not to say a word, when an honest question is better left unanswered, where a glare from an officer says more than words possibly could the film does so. The film visually puts pieces in place to set up the ending without dialogue, so as precise and purposeful as it is at some points it understands the necessity of silence also. There is also no fear in illustrating complexity in character without going overboard and simplicity in others without creating characters. The complexity is shown mostly with the families we know who start with different levels of understanding of circumstance and gradually though they don’t know exactly what lies ahead the gravity of the situation becomes exceedingly obvious, yet you also see them grasp for humanity whenever possible. The second part of that statement being most important because there isn’t an excessive myopia in this film as exhibited in something like Life is Beautiful. It creates moments where the human spirit can overcome but also illustrates the length to which human beings will go to be cruel and to be free.

As you can see by now this film us most definitely an ensemble work a few actors come to the fore as vital but it relies on many to convey its story as well as it does. In the family the patriarch and matriarch played by Gad Elmaleh and Sylvie Testud; the medical personnel played by the world renowned Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent who many will know and love from Inglourious Basterds and The Beginners; the kids spearheaded by Hugo Leverdez in a most impressive debut, The Di Concerto twins as Nono and Adèle Exarchopoulos and lastly the political contingencies highlighted by Udo Schenk as Adolf Hitler each of these nuclei brings the film vividly to life and fully realizes their characters.

In the early stages the intercutting between these disparate worlds is at its apex but it stays rather persistent through the course of the narrative. There are great cuts aesthetically and with story in mind we never see more of the political discussions than we need to in them we are shown the steps than lead to the decisions ultimately made and clearly how things came about.

Where this film really gets to me is at its conclusion but it is effective throughout and evokes different emotions and remains compelling in spite of the aforementioned stumbling blocks the story has. It is a brilliant work that illustrates through its many facets the precipitous escalation of events in Occupied France and the lives it affected.

10/10

Review- Winter in Wartime

Martijn Lakemeier in Winter in Wartime (Sony Pictures Classics)

If one simply looks at the synopsis for Winter in Wartime then one might not be tremendously struck by the concept but upon seeing the film the one thought that kept occurring to me was “How did this film get passed up when it was submitted for the Oscars?” It just goes to show you that one, there are issues in the selection process and two the films submitted every year are worthy of finding as this film is absolutely outstanding in every facet of its production.

It is a film that tells of a young man Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) who is by chance brought into the resistance in World War II Holland. This does not even begin to convey how fascinating and compelling this tale is and how well it is told. The film starts right away with us seeing a plane crash and very creative confrontation between a British, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), and German soldier. This does not immediately fold itself into the thrust of the tale but does eventually.

What works is that Michiel’s character is established as well is his family life before he starts being drawn in further and further. What’s even better is that events conspire to involve him not just natural childish curiosity. A curiosity that never seems unnatural and leaves you shaking your head. It plays naturally and doesn’t ever seem contrived, which is of paramount importance in this film such that disbelief remains suspended. The matter-of-fact nature by which some others are caught and punished also adds to this.

The story is constantly delivering twists and turns at a naturalistic pace and methodically raises the stakes. It eventually ratchets things up to a become a fantastic tragic tale that never goes over the top and keeps you involved and makes it something you can relate to. As the the plot thickens and becomes more involved so does Lakemeier’s character become further developed and more and more demands are made on him as an actor, which he meets and exceeds. Principally in his cool nervousness at the end and also his frantic fear during a climactic slow-motion sequence. The rare variety of such sequence that actually augments the actor’s performance rather than rendering it comical.

It’s a portrait of the war at home without being in your face and full of histrionics but you still can’t help but feel the impact of watching a child’s world start to crumble about him and for the first time in his life he is compelled to act by a sense of responsibility rather than desire.

The gravitas that the tale carries through a bulk of the tale is beautifully scored by Pino Donaggio. The score combined with the sure-handed direction of Martin Koolhoven help this film leap right off the screen and take you into the tale more effectively than any 3D film could ever hope to.

The film isn’t a one-actor showcase nor is it a one-trick pony. Yorick van Wageningen has a tremendous two-pronged performance as the enigmatic Uncle Ben. Then there’s Melody Klaver whose relationship with Michiel changes as she too gets brought into the plot. Jamie Campbell Bower also is rather impressive as the wounded Brit, typically an English-speaking actor in a foreign language film doesn’t get too much to sink his teeth into but he does and takes advantage of it.

A testament to the wonders of this film is that one of the twists within this tale is rather large, the kind that a lesser film would hang its hat on. Not only does the whole film not hinge on this revelation and how it is handled but it is improved and propelled by it. It leads to a breathtaking climax that is even more artistically rendered than was the previous twist.

Upon walking out of the theatre the only things I was able to say that expressed the impression this film made on me was an internet acronym (OMG) and the very repetitive statement that (“I love, love, love this movie”). The reasons stated above are just some of them. Koolhoven establishes himself as a director to be followed and this film, is the best I’ve seen this year to date.

10/10