Years ago, when Paris had two or more video stores like Hastings, Blockbuster, etc., I used to occasionally write an extra long video column, divided into three categories somewhere along the lines of “Great,” “Good” and “Real Dogs.” This column, I discovered, was popular with my readers, many of whom said they would cut it out and put it under a magnet on the refrigerator. (Which was a whole lot better than those who would call and say, “I’m at the video store and need a recommendation — do you have a quick one?”)
Cable and streaming options (like Hulu, Netflix, etc.) have reduced the need and profitability of such stores, so they are few and far between. But I had a hankering a week ago, prompted by the dearth of good films that were released in late summer and the local cinema’s habit of keeping some for weeks on end, to see something I had missed. So, I went looking for something worth writing about. There are always good options that didn‘t come to Paris. And there are always films that get made but have limited release, and it’s decided to release them “to video” because they don’t have broad appeal.
One such film is “Aftermath,” released in the in March to underwhelming reviews, starring Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard (who’s almost as beautiful as Knightley) and Jason Clarke. The film is a bit of a downer, but so is its subject. It takes place in Hamburg, Germany, in 1946, a city the British Army was assigned to help organize and rebuild, following the pounding it took from Allied bombing during the war.
The film begins with the arrival of British Col. Lewis Morgan’s wife, Rachael, by train to join him on this assignment after a long separation. We know something has happened to their marriage by their tentative greeting and Rachael’s increasingly brittle behavior. The army has appropriated for the couple a grand home in the country that belongs to a well-known architect, widower Herr Lubert, who lives there with his teenage daughter. Rachael is immediately uncomfortable with the knowledge that Lewis has invited the two to live there with them. After all, he says, the home is large, has a comfortable attic where they can stay. And Hamburg is in shambles and the winter is cold. This turns out to be both awkward and lively.
Another film that was well-publicized, but lacked a large audience, is “All Is True,” released in December 2018 in time for Oscar nominations. It’s a Kenneth Branagh film, meaning he both directed and starred, about the latter days of William Shakespeare (played, of course, by Branagh).
In 1613, when the Globe Theater in London burned down during a performance of his “Henry VIII,” Shakespeare decided it was time for him to return home. Home was Stratford-on-Avon, the small village in which he was born and married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children, two daughters and a son. And whom he has neglected all these years.
Dame Judi Dench plays Anne as an embittered old woman, bereft of William’s company and his love, and still mourning with him their young son who died. Shakespeare doesn’t know these women, and has idealized the son, named Hamnet, who died at the age of 11. There is an economy of words to the screenplay that makes you long for more, until you realize that he doesn’t have more than a meditation on his life.
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“Hotel Mumbai” is possibly one of the most tense films I have ever seen. And that’s saying something. A 2018 biographical thriller directed by Anthony Maras, co-written by Maras and John Collee, it is based on the 2009 documentary about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India — the most savage of which was that at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
The film has a terrific cast including Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi and Jason Isaacs, among scores of others. The terrorist group was later identified as a radical Islamic group out of Pakistan, whose leader, named “Bull” remains unknown to this day. But he was ruthless in his commands to the group of young men who slipped into Mumbai in a boat. They were to kill anyone and everyone and destroy the hotel. However, the Taj is so large that it was almost impossible for them to destroy it completely, though they set numerous fires and used many grenades.
The siege at the Taj went on for what seemed like forever. I remember watching live news coverage of the event. But the Mumbai police force had no SWAT team, no training for such an event, much less the fire power and personnel to swarm a hotel that looked to the world like an army of terrorists were holding it. Only a few of the local police, with handguns and a pitifully limited number of bullets, attempted to go in. They waited almost the whole night for special forces from New Delhi. So if you’re in the mood for some contemporary violence, this is for you.
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The fourth film we watched was an American-French project, “The Sisters Brothers,” a western crime drama set in 1851, from a novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt and directed by Jacques Audiard. It was premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival and took home their Silver Lion Award for Best Direction. It stars John C. Reilly (who co-produced) and Joaquin Phoenix as the notorious brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who worked as assassins for someone named the Commodore.
Their current assignment is a fellow named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has invented a method to recognize and separate gold in the mining camps of the time. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Morris, a private detective the Commodore has sent out to make sure the Sisters boys do what they’re supposed to do.
This film has an incredibly good screenplay, co-authored by the director and Thomas Bidegain, that is at once poetic and violent, and observant in its visual acknowledgment of Charlie’s waning mental health, and his brother’s patience and affection for him. (Certainly a part that fits Phoenix.)
There’s bound to be something in this short list that looks interesting. I was more than pleased to make the discoveries.
See you at the movies.
Toni Clem is a Paris resident and has been writing Deja View for more than 30 years.