Movie Review ~ A Hidden Life


The Facts
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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 ~ John Wick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him.

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Bridget Moynahan, Ian McShane, John Leguizmo, Willem Dafoe

Director: Chad Stahelski & David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: For a while, it seemed like the age of Keanu had passed…not that anyone really noticed.  Lampooned endlessly for his surfer dude line readings and tendency to make even Shakespearean dialogue sound like he was ordering at Burger King, if you look over his credits over at IMBD you’ll see an impressive list of work that spans various genres and A-List directors.  As of late, Reeves has been doing some more work behind the camera only coming out occasionally for films like the troubled 47 Ronin in 2013.

So it was with mild trepidation that I ventured into an early look at the latest Reeves opus to hit the big screen, a dark revenge action flick that pulls no punches and lands nearly everyone it throws.  While it’s not the revisionist career-defining moment for Reeves (that most surely came with The Matrix) it’s a wake-up call to those who thought his career was on life-support.

These revenge dramas are all the rage as of late, buoyed by the endless Taken films that even by the first sequel had already felt played out.  I was nervous that John Wick would fit into that category of trashy style over substance trifles but what we have here is a film with grit, muscle, blood, and bone…and a sophisticated one at that.

I’m usually not a fan of movies that open with the ending and then flashback but John Wick starts off with such an unexpected bang that it’s a forgivable sin.  Recently widowed Wick hasn’t even had time to clear out his wife’s side of the bathroom counter before two important things enter his life.  The first is an adorable pup intended as his companion and the other is a Russian mobster’s son that takes a liking to Wick’s classic car.  When Wick loses more than his prized car, he retaliates by using the skills he employed in his younger days as a killer for hire.

Part of the fun of John Wick is Derek Kolstad’s script which lets us peek behind the curtain at a society of professional killers (like Adrianne Palicki’s wicked Ms. Perkins) that may be deadly assassins but who also live by a code of honorable ethics.  If one of their own breaks this code, there’s hell to pay — just one of the many pleasures the film offers up to action hungry viewers.  As John goes after the son of former employer now city kingpin (Michael Nyqvist, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) the bullets fly and limbs break in several gloriously staged sequences of ultra violence.

Co-directed by Reeves’s sometime stunt double Chad Stahelski (along with fellow first time director David Leitch) , the film has an appealing slate of bad guys/gals that all take their turn putting out John’s, um, wick.  Playing out against some well-designed set-pieces lit by a neon glow, the film feels more alive the as the bodies pile up.  Unafraid to spatter blood all over the walls and our lead actor, the filmmakers wisely resist the urge to let the film drift into camp territory.  There’s no extraneous dialogue or character development happening here — it’s an efficient film at every turn.

A clear audience-pleaser if the screening crowd I saw this with is any indication, John Wick is a nice fall surprise for those naysayers that wrote off Reeves a decade ago, serving as a nice reminder that the actor can still pick a winner.

The Silver Bullet ~ John Wick

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Synopsis: A former hit man is pursued by an old friend who was contracted to kill him.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: I must admit to being impressed at the staying power of Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) over the years. Though the actor has taken his fair share of blows for his tuned out line readings and good fortune to be in at least two franchises that became cult classics, he’s persevered to continue to churn out work without straying into Nicolas Cage whacked out territory. After licking some wounds inflicted upon 2013’s long-delayed and quickly forgotten 47 Ronin, Reeves is back with John Wick…a film that becomes less interesting the longer the trailer goes on. There’s so much neon on display I half expected to see the film credited to director Michael Man…but aside from promises of double crosses there’s not much else to suggest the film would reach the pedigree of a Mann vehicle. I’m not sure if Reeves will ever truly earn a place in Hollywood’s A-List but credit is due for sticking it out so long.

Movie Review ~ Europa Report

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An international crew of astronauts undertakes a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter’s fourth largest moon.

Stars: Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca

Director: Sebastian Cordero

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For all the big budget sturm und drang blockbusters coming out of Hollywood nowadays, it’s nice to be reminded that good films can still be made on smaller budgets.  Now, we all know that an indie comedy or drama could be produced for next to nothing but what about a science fiction film taking place in a galaxy far from earth?

That’s the first question I had when I saw the preview for Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero’s thoughtfully meditative sci-fi morsel, back in early 2013.  I’d recently come off of a run of impressive space set features (like the exquisitely designed and audience dividing Alien prequel Prometheus) so even though my interest was piqued my eyebrow was raised in a most questioning manner.

Ten minutes into the film and I knew Cordero had a winner on his hands, a film with the dramatic thrust of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the hidden unknown of The Abyss, and the threat of danger of the aforementioned Prometheus.  Though small in scope the film is an impressive achievement considering the budget was less than 10 million dollars, didn’t boast any big name stars, and was released during the busy summer months when films like Iron Man 3 and Fast & Furious 6 were ruling the charts.

The set-up is mostly hum-drum with a crew of six traveling to a moon of Jupiter to investigate any signs of life.  As these missions often go, the crew encounters as many troubles getting there as they do when they arrive including damaged equipment, sensory deprivation, in-fighting, and arguing over who drank the last serving of Tang (OK, that last one doesn’t happen but I can’t imagine after a year in space something similar wouldn’t occur).

What makes the film come to life is how Cordero works with his resources to make his movie not just another C-grade space set adventure.  There’s a consideration for savvy moviegoers who don’t necessarily want their sci-fi with lasers and slimy slimeballs but would appreciate an esoteric space journey that has mysteries of its own.  Revealing more would damage the impact so let’s just say not everyone onboard gets a chance to marvel at Jupiter’s vistas with their colleagues.

A gathering of international actors like Sharlto Copley (Open Grave, Elysium), Michael Nyqvist (Disconnect, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), Embeth Davidtz (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Amazing Spider-Man), and others gives the film a believably United Nations feel with each actor making the most out of their finely drawn characterizations.

When it starts to deal less with the unknown and more of the known the film loses a bit of its built up steam but the majority of its trim 90 minutes keeps you invested in the mission and the fates of the crew.  The production design is rich, whether the audience is watching the actors on earth, in their shuttle, or venturing out into the black darkness and it’s compounded nicely by just right special effects from several VFX studios (Phosphene, Method Studios, Look Effects, Perception, Quadratic Digital).

This is a film with a brain and one that may turn off those looking for a more action-packed outer space adventure (for that, make sure to see Gravity in 3D) instead of a smaller, slower-paced film that takes its time arriving at the final destination.

After a small release in theaters and OnDemand, Europa Report is available on most streaming services.  It’s one you’ll want to add to your queue if you like your sci-fi without a bunch of spiny aliens gnashing their gooey teeth at Sigourney Weaver (which, incidentally, I’m always a fan of).

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!

The Silver Bullet ~ Europa Report

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Synopsis: A crew of international astronauts are sent on a private mission to Jupiter’s fourth moon.

Release Date:  August 2, 2013

Thoughts: OK…it’s long been established that I have a weak spot for futuristic sci-fi films that explore some distance realms of space.  So far this year we’ve had Oblivion, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and by the end of the year we’ll see how Gravity and Elysium stack up.  I’m cautiously interested in this indie flick with an impressive trailer that feels like it might be better than the final product (I’m looking at you Apollo 11).  I’m such a sucker that I know I’ll seek this one out when it’s released OnDemand in June and in limited release in August.

Movie Review ~ Disconnect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thieriot, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Haley Ramm

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewDisconnect is that rarest of films…the kind that works like gangbusters while you’re soaking it in at the theater but one that gradually erodes away with each day that passes.  It would be easy (and fair) to call this Crash 2.0 or Crash Online as the film is an ensemble drama with intertwining plots that circle around a single topic.  Where Crash took a hard look at race relations, Disconnect takes a timely look at how the internet has worked its way into our lives with troublesome results.

As is the case with many of these films with large casts and multiple story arcs, some of them work well and some of them fall flat.  For me, the most effective of these involves a news reporter (UKer Riseborough, sporting a flawless American accent) doing some investigative journalism into underage teens using the internet to provide sexual favors/shows in return for gifts/money.  Lured into this life, these teens are exploited and put into dangerous situations and it isn’t long before the FBI gets interested in the reporter and her relationship with an older teen (Thieriot) that agrees to go on camera to tell his story.

Riseborough is a fascinating actress to watch and though she does equally good work in the sci-fi actioner Oblivion, it’s in Disconnect where we enjoy her more because the character has some interesting moral dilemmas to go through.  Thieriot is impressive too as he graduates from Disney-fied teen films to a raw and revealing look into some dark material.

There’s also a Catfish-y story about two young high schoolers (Ford and Avian Bernstein) that use Facebook to pose as a girl interested in an outcast (Bobo).  Not just cyber-bullying but using the boy’s desire to connect against him, the two take their joke too far and soon find lives and futures are put into question when their target goes to drastic measures to free himself from their humiliation.  Grillo (building quite the impressive resume recently with films like The Grey, End of Watch, and Zero Dark Thirty) and Bateman (Hit and Run, Identity Thief) are fathers that are directly affected by the actions of their sons and both do solid dramatic work.

The least effective section involves Patton and Skarsgard as a couple with a marriage in trouble further put to the test when they are the subject of identity theft.  Was it Skarsgard’s online gambling habit or Patton’s online support group friend that opened them up to having their bank accounts drained?  That’s the back and forth issue they bicker about a lot…leading them to a confrontation with a man (Nyqvist) that may have the answers to their questions.  Patton and Skarsgard don’t have the right chemistry to sell this and I found myself squirming anytime the movie shifted focus.

How these different stories connect are mostly interesting and maybe sometimes too convenient but I won’t spoil how these overlap lest it ruin some of the discoveries the movie reveals as it goes on. Director Rubin (of the great documentary Murderball) and writer Andrew Stern clearly used Crash as an inspiration for the resolution (everything comes to a head in one high-tension series of slow-mo throat grabbers) and for the most part the film works. 

It was on my way home and in the days since that I saw how manipulative the film was.  Though there’s a connection that most audiences will make with the movie, if you sit down and consider the film you’ll see some of the plot holes and disconnecting contrivances that don’t seem to be a big issue when the fast paced movie is being taken in.  Perhaps because I enjoyed the film so much at the time and thanks to several strong performances, I’m giving it a higher rating than it deserves.

The Silver Bullet ~ Disconnect

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Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Release Date: April 12, 2013

Thoughts: As our reliance on technology grows, so our connectivity with living and breathing beings seems to be waning.  The upcoming ensemble drama Disconnect seeks to explore the emergence of how much of our lives are spent on the internet and how intertwined we’ve become with the online world.  From cyber bullying to identify theft to “catfish”ing someone, the internet has become a place for people to lose themselves.  These types of films are always very interesting…especially when they are centered around a central theme as timely as this one.