The annual Academy Awards celebrations are arguably the dullest shows on tv, given the insipid thank-you speeches that name that the audience knows or cares to know. That means there’s only one reason that people watch, and that’s to look at the clothing that the stars are wearing. Since men don only the traditional tux and bow tie, only the women are worth admiring for their taste in threads. And that’s where Christian Dior comes in.
Next time you go ballistic when the bartender waters down your drink or feel murderous when the tailor cuts your pants legs too short, think of how much better off you are than Louis Zamperini. Fighting in the Japanese theater in World War II, he has the misfortune to suffer a double engine loss on his aircraft, leaving him and two buddies on a rubber lifeboat in the middle of the ocean for forty-five days. Forget about the sharks that encircle the boat. Falling prey to one of them might be a blessing, considering the lack of food and water or living space, nor do the men have much hope of being rescued. Rescued by the good guys that is. When they are picked up by the Japanese navy, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that they’re on dry land. The bad news is that they are taken to one, and then another, prison camp, subjected to torments by guards who must think the Geneva Convention is a meeting of dental lab technicians in a Swiss hotel.
Most of the civilized world loved America in 1945. The U.S. was a prime force in liberating Europe from the Hun. Our soldiers gave out chewing gum to the kids on the Continent, soft toilet paper to the adults, and dished out money to bail the good guys out via the Marshall Plan. Given the rules of engagement in our current century, it’s unlikely that we can ever be the heroes abroad that we were then, evoking an unconditional surrender of our enemies in a war that lasted just six years (four years for our own guys), and not the murky condition of our battles in the Middle East since Shock and Awe, as the Taliban in Afghanistan retake some of the territory ceded to the moderates in a fragile victory.
There’s a reason that the aphorism “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is called the golden rule, and that is because the statement is the gold standard, representing the most basic rule of civilized conduct among people. If you put yourself into another person’s shoes, and thereby really get to know what makes the other human being tick, this should give you pause before doing something that you would never want done to you. Probably no filmmaker believes that more than Belgians Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. They started their careers by making videos of the rough lives of blue collar people in the Wallonie, a mostly French speaking region of southern Belgium, parlaying into ROSETTA, about a blue collar working with an alcoholic mother who tries to better himself in a small town.
When you think of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, its humor does not come necessarily to mind. German humor? An oxymoron. Now forward to the 21st Century and you will discover German movies that are funny to the locals and whose humor travels well across the Atlantic. The New Wave style A COFFEE IN BERLIN, formerly called OH BOY, is a wry picture, done in black-and-white with a terrific jazz score reminiscent of a Woody Allen production, its dry comedy absorbed easily by those Americans with enough brains to watch indies. In fact so unusual—yet eminently accessible—is A COFFEE IN BERLIN that in a ceremony in April 2013, despite competition from the one hundred million dollar, one hundred seventy-two minutes’ CLOUD ATLAS with all the name actors brought to the set by Tom Tykwer and Lana Wachowski, A COFFEE IN BERLIN took six top prizes including those for Best Film, Actor, Screenplay and Score.
THE DECENT ONE took first prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival for Best Documentary, deservedly so. If any organization offered a gold medal for the film with the most ironic title of the year, this one would win hands down. “Der Anstandige,” as it’s called in German, is about Heinrich Himmler, a man who should inspire loathing in the minds and hearts of all who know anything about history. One of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Himmler nonetheless went to his suicidal death thinking that he was doing God’s work, and that “decency,” to him, would be the year’s understatement.
Fionnula Flanagan is cinema’s gift from Ireland, that country’s most engaging actress of a certain age, perhaps the equivalent here in the U.S. of Blythe Danner. But her presence in LIFE’S A BREEZE, presumably an ironic title, cannot save the movie from being little more than a sitcom that you might find on commercial tv or, to be magnanimous, on a cable station like HBO. LIFE’S A BREEZE, taken from a sign on the wall of the Dublin-area house presided over by Nan (Fionnula Flanagan), is the location of an extended family of the unemployed, the slackers, and of high-spirited citizens who despite their financial hardships find warmth, comfort, and a lot of laughs in their togetherness.
If you were fortunate enough to have seen the director’s 2011 movie YOU’RE NEXT, you’ll say THE GUEST is right up Adam Wingard’s alley. YOU’RE NEXT features a group of toughs, ax murderers in fact, who invade a family reunion, and whose victims are ready to say their prayers when one of their number proves equally adept at killing. The title guest of Wingard’s latest—scripted by Simon Barrett who was on Wingard’s team for YOU’RE NEXT and took a hand at writing V/H/S—is as charming as Ted Bundy and just as psychopathic. He oozes his way into an upscale family’s beautifully decorated house in the fictional town of Moriarty, New Mexico, getting their sympathies by identifying himself as the best friend of one Caleb, who died in Iraq. He is so polite, throwing out “Sir” and “Ma’am” and “I-don’t-want-to-impose” that of course he is asked to stay for a few days. Calling himself David (Dan Stevens—from “Downtown Abbey”), the guest wins the trust of Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley), her husband Spencer (Leland Orser), 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and especially high-school student Luke Peterson (Brendan Meyer). In the last case, David makes mincemeat of four bullies who had regularly taunted the dorky Luke by provoking them in a bar and taking revenge. How can we in the audience not sympathize with a fellow who wants only to protect the clan?
It probably happens more often than we think, and not just in the movies. A wedding reception is paid for, the couple walk down the aisle, then one of them gets cold feet and bolts. In at least one case I know, a bride and groom are at the airport getting ready for their honeymoon in Hawaii. The bride goes to the women’s room and disappears, never to be seen again by her husband—no foul play, just cold feet again. Leigh Janiak’s HONEYMOON similarly asks by implication: are all honeymoons happy occasions that you think about for years to come? Even better: do you really know the person you married, and do you learn as early as the honeymoon that the beautiful wife and handsome husband are not the persons you thought them to be?
Director Pawel Pawlikowski is known to cineastes largely for his passionate MY SUMMER OF LOVE, which charts a meeting between women with opposite predilections; one a tomboy looking for an alternative to the emptiness of life, the other cynical, spoiled and well educated. You can see that IDA is right up the director’s alley as now he posits two women as opposite as they can be; one a naive 18-year-old committed to taking vows in a convent, the other a hardened Communist member who, as a judge in the Poland of the 1960s sent people to their deaths. IDA has twists that are usually associated with the works of John Le Carre except that in this case the changes that occur to the title character pull her in opposite directions at the age of 18 when, for the first time in her life, she encounters emotions and epiphanies wholly unknown to a young, sheltered woman.