Movie Review ~ A Hidden Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II

Stars: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz, Alexander Fehling

Director: Terrence Malick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 173 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like director Terrence Malick was going to be gone forever.  After directing the well-liked Badlands in 1973 and oft-revered Days of Heaven in 1978, he went into a self-imposed exile for twenty years before returning with The Thin Red Line.  Meticulous with his details and often giving more weight to the visuals of his work than the overall narrative, Malick’s films are instantly recognizable and can sometimes be heavy handed explorations of introspection, nature, the universe, etc. Reaching a kind of zenith with the polarizing The Tree of Life, his recent films have been less structured and more free-form experiments…and they haven’t achieved the same kind of critical or box office success as his previous efforts.

Malick has returned to his narrative storytelling in A Hidden Life and it shows why, with only a handful of films to his credit over the past forty years, he’s still one of the greatest directors we have.  Jettisoning the loosey-goosey triviality of his last films, this represents a more determined focus on finding strong characters and putting them up against seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome.  The Malick we know is on display in the breathtaking cinematography and attention to small interpersonal moments but there are also new discoveries aplenty showing the filmmaker embracing this difficult tale of hardship and sacrifice as more than just a sorrowful chapter in history.

It’s early in 1939 and nestled in the Austrian mountainside is St. Radegund, a small hamlet that has provided shelter and quietly solid living far from the pains of the distant developing cities for generations.  The supportive community shares a special bond of respect and it’s where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, Allied) has always called home.  Married to his sweetheart Fani (Valerie Pachner, The Ground Beneath My Feet) they work their land and have carved out a good life for themselves, which is all they have ever wanted or asked for.  The outside world has other plans for them, though, and when war comes to Germany, Franz performs his civic duty and signs up for service.  While Franz is in basic training, Fani keeps the farm going with the assistance of her neighbors and relatives.

During that brief moment in time when it seemed the war was coming to an end, Franz returns to his wife and three young daughters but their time together in their bit of heaven is all too brief.  He’s called back to his responsibilities in the army but now is asked to swear an allegiance to Hitler, an oath he cannot give.  Franz can see where his country is heading and objects to the path he’s being asked to tread, by rejecting this statement he is in effect rejecting Germany.  Before returning he asks the advice of Bishop Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist, John Wick) only to find the religious figure has already made questionable allowances for his own survival.  Deciding to lead with his heart, Franz refuses to comply with the promise and is swiftly jailed for being a conscientious objector, a crime punishable by death.

As Franz awaits trial, Fani tries push through new hardships at home but is increasingly ostracized by the villagers who have heard about her husband.  Friendships turn cold, professional relationships sour, loved ones become bitter enemies; yet the love between Fani and Franz endures, even during the darkest times.  Numerous people meet with Franz during his time in jail in order to sway him to change his mind.  His lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Mustang), growing impatient, wants nothing more than to get him to simply sign a statement and free himself of a certain fate.  A Nazi judge, portrayed with almost a Pontius Pilate edge by the late Bruno Ganz (who, like Nyqvist, passed away before this movie was released), gives Franz an opportunity to make him understand his reasoning…but would it really make a difference?

There’s a haunting feeling hanging over A Hidden Life from the start.  Even though Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) fill the screen wall to wall with some of the most gorgeous images you’ll see all year, there’s a semblance of sadness to it all.  The first hour before the war truly intervenes in the happy life of Franz and Fani, the camera lingers over the daily mundane work and bold promise of a rich harvest.  Then, when Franz is called away and life takes a turn the views stay on an epic scale, but you feel the empty space far more than you did before.  The final hour is when Malick slips a bit with a few scenes/characters that feel extraneous and slightly too inward facing but it’s shored up sharply in anticipation of its poignant finale.  Without spoiling anything, there’s a solemnity to the final act that’s handled with respect but a certain frankness of reality that Malick has never shied away from.

What Malick winds up with is one of the most moving and stunningly beautiful movies I’ve seen.  Along with a gossamer score from James Newton Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), this is the kind of film you’re so grateful to get the chance to see on a big screen in all its glory.  I can’t even imagine seeing this for the first time on a small screen because the way it’s constructed it’s essentially meant to be experienced on this grand, almost overwhelming scale.  It helps that Diehl and especially Pachner are excellent in their roles because with all this scenic beauty it would be easy to forget there is a story about real life humans happening in front of it all.  Diehl’s soft-spoken sensitive soul could have been a bit milquetoast, but he makes it work by demonstrating a balance between internal struggle with dedicated resolve.  I loved Pachner’s performance, probably more than some of the Best Actress nominees that have been gaining a lot of attention these past few weeks.  Most of her dialogue is in voiceover so it’s her face that we rely on to inform where her emotions are taking her.  When she’s shunned by the town and ignored by those she trusted, her dignity in soldiering on is as strong an act as anything her husband is going through.

Don’t let the running length scare you.  I am the king of seat squirming and watch checking and I was so enraptured by this that the first time I glanced at my watch was around two and a half hours in.  Though it debuted strongly in Cannes earlier in 2019, A Hidden Life is arriving in theaters with little fanfare and that’s a real pity.  I know it’s a crowded season with a host of well-reviewed and, let’s face it, happier and shorter films to catch but to miss this one (and especially to miss it in a theater) would be a big mistake for any fan of movies, Malick, or plain old good storytelling.

Movie Review ~ Bombshell

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Female employees at Fox News take on a toxic male culture, leading to the downfall of media mogul Roger Ailes.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Duplass, Alice Eve, Alanna Ubach

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  I’m sure it’s because I’m a lifelong MN but I still recall that night in 1989 when Gretchen Carlson from Anoka won the Miss America pageant after impressing the judges with her talent (violin), poise, and that aquamarine gown.  I always felt that MNs should stick together and since I rooted for her so vehemently to win I obviously thought we were best friends so I was dismayed when Carlson turned up on the Fox news network in a morning show that routinely spoke out against issues that I felt strongly about.  Now I didn’t follow Carlson’s career closely, mind you, but the station was always in the media for something and she seemed to be at the center of attention – so when she was fired it wasn’t just big national news, it was buzzed about in the local press as well.

Carlson is one of a handful of familiar Fox faces that are featured in Bombshell, a true-ish account of the lawsuit Carlson initiated against her former boss and how it turned into a media frenzy that topped a once-solid empire.  Yet from the outset it’s hard to view Bombshell and not address the elephant in the room: Fox News was and is a hugely problematic news outlet with anchors known for stirring the pot, making uninformed statements, introducing unsubstantiated facts, and orchestrating countless take downs of anyone that doesn’t share the agenda they’re pushing.  An already uneasy world has been made more dangerous by the untruths they perpetrate – and now we’re supposed to sit in a theater for two hours and watch beautiful female employees at Fox sob about internal misconduct without also examining the fuel they added to their company bonfire?  It’s a hard place to get to for some, but I found my way into this world thanks to stellar performances, a sharp script, and assured direction.

As the primary elections are ramping up in 2015, anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde) prepares for the Republican Party presidential debate and doesn’t shy away from asking then-candidate Donald Trump about his poor history with women, welcoming a firestorm of criticism but drawing huge ratings for her network.   This pleases her boss Roger Ailes (a sublimely slimy John Lithgow, Pet Sematary) but makes life with her children and husband (Mark Duplass, Tammy) fraught with anxiety.  In the same period, on-air reporter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, The Goldfinch) struggles with her own show, thought of to her as a demotion from her prime spot as the third member of Fox and Friends.  Seeing the writing on the wall, she engages with lawyers to discuss her options on suing Ailes for harassment should he fire her, willing to bring up his sordid history of propositioning female employees for sexual favors.

It seems Ailes has a long reputation of harassment that is popular knowledge among the staff, save for fresh face Kayla (Margot Robie, I, Tonya) who falls into his trap fairly quickly, with her co-worker Jess (Kate McKinnon, Yesterday) unable to warn her in time.  When Carlson is ousted and brings her lawsuit into the public, will the other women at the network stand with her or stay loyal to the powerful man that holds their jobs in his hands?  Played out over a span of a year and a few months, the case develops into something bigger when respected people like Kelly stay silent instead of picking a side – leading some to ask if Kelly wasn’t another victim of Ailes, benefited from their relationship…or both.

Working from a script by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (The Big Short), director Jay Roach (Trumbo) uses some clever ways to introduce us to the behind the scenes happenings at the network.  A guided tour of the building by Megyn is a good way to give us a lay of the land, separating the executives from the anchors and the anchors from the assistants, etc. etc.  Roach and Randolph aren’t above having actors stop and address the camera directly, though they wisely use that oft-employed tactic sparingly so when it happens it has a greater impact.  Key people are identified by name throughout and the movie takes considered steps to let us know these are actors playing real people…there is a message before the studio logo, before the cast list in the closing credits, and again at the end of the movie — so they mean business.

It’s the casting where Roach really hit gold.  As Kelly, Theron has again gone through a transformation right before our eyes into a completely different person.  It’s admittedly harder to see at the beginning when Kelly’s hair was longer but when the short style arrives, watch out, because Theron is on the money with Kelly’s voice, mannerisms, and, with the assistance of Kazu Hiro’s (and Oscar winner for Darkest Hour in 2018) expert prosthetics, an uncanny ringer for the real person.  Though she never met Kelly before making the movie, Theron seems to understand her and what motivated her forward, giving her complexities that maybe are a bit generous at times.  Kelly was always a slight enigma, that’s partly why she struggled when she moved to NBC news, and failed to connect with a broader audience…Theron perhaps warms us up to her too much.  Kidman doesn’t look much like Carlson but with her big hair and pursed lips she has the determined look of a woman smart enough to get her ducks lined up in a row and so resourceful no one even knew the ducks were there to begin with.

Robie’s character is a composite of several different producers at Fox News so she has a bit more leeway to create the role from the top down.  After scoring high marks with a fantastic dialogue-free scene earlier this summer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she tops that one with a hard to watch passage with Lithgow as Ailes.  Watching her face go through a range of emotions is gut-wrenching but Robie doesn’t overplay it, it’s devastating enough as it is.  Her best scenes, though, are with McKinnon who finally shows up in a movie ready to take things seriously.  By far her best work to date, McKinnon leaves her goofy shtick at the Saturday Night Live studios and works hard to be a part of the success of the film rather than being the source of the problem.

Roach has filled the rest of the cast with a truckload of amazing character actors playing a number of familiar faces from the network and the world of entertainment.  I won’t spoil them all but special mention just has to be made for Allana Ubach’s (Gloria Bell) incredible work as Judge Jeanine Pirro – it’s so close to the real thing your skin starts to crawl until you realize it’s just Ubach under all that makeup.

I still struggled with the whole Fox News of it all, though, and it took me until my second viewing and a lengthy discussion with my partner afterward to lock into what the film was missing that would have helped it along a bit more.  There’s no character present that stands in opposition to Fox News or its anchors before all of this happens, only people that turn against the women after they come forward.  So we never know if they are shunning the women themselves or the women because they work at Fox News.  Having some semblance of accountability for actions before all of the harassment business came to light would, I think, ease some of the discomfort people are feeling after seeing the movie.

Hard to deny, though, that Bombshell isn’t a slick piece of entertainment with an important, but not uncommon story to tell.  Closing with a dynamite new song from Regina Spektor, “One Little Soldier”, that sadly didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, my hope is that audiences (even the MN ones!) can put aside their differences of opinion and take the movie for what it’s trying to say.  It’s not about politics, it’s not men vs. women, it’s about saying something.  Or, as Carlson says, ‘Someone has to speak up.  Someone has to get mad.’