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Could've been good
9 September 2018
France, early 18th century. The legendary Sun-king is no more. His great-grandson and heir Louis XV is still a minor. Philippe d'Orleans, nephew of the deceased ruler, acts as regent. Eager to cement a reliable peace with Philippe d'Anjou, king of Spain, the regent proposes two marriages between the royal families.

Naturally, that initiative must be understood according to the political peculiarities of the time. Philippe d'Anjou ascended to the throne of Spain championed by his grandfather Louis XIV. After a long and bloody war against the Austrian claimant, Philippe managed to secure the Spanish crown, but had to renounce his rights to French succession.

The regent feared that d'Anjou would now take advantage of the monarch transition in France and disregard the renouncement. In this sense, marriage came off as a quite convenient diplomacy tool.

Louis XV was married to Anna Maria Victoria, Philippe d'Anjou's infant daughter. The regent's daughter, Louise Élisabeth, coupled with Louis of Spain, Philippe's eldest son. The regent's choice for Louis XV was not unopposed, though. The perfidious Prince de Condé, another grandson of the Sun king, wanted an older match for the boy, so that an heir could be produced quickly. For reasons I won't spoil here, the unions don't flow as smooth as idealized.

So, given that introduction, let's move to the movie itself:

-"L'échange des princesses" is monotonous. It has too much of a contemplative nature and very little motion -I couldn't identify the climax at all. Were this movie supposed to be a philosophical or experimental work, that wouldn't be an issue. But it's as formulaic as most historical dramas.

-The sequence of events is cartoonish and superficial. We viewers are limited to the uninteresting daily life of royal people and their repetitive, silly feelings. It seems like the director just didn't care about building a solid grid of events. He decided the synopsis should be more than a prelude to the movie; it should be the movie itself! A few additions were made, but nothing relevant enough to keep the viewer awakened. We know the end from the middle and the director puts no effort in surprising us. Of course, movies based on history are always prone to that; but here the issue is just blatant.

-I didn't spot a single miserable soul on screen. No beggars, no smallpox victims lying on roads, no hunger-ridden peasants, no despicable living places -you know, all stuff you expect to see in a minimally critic movie on pre-revolutionary France. One might argue: "Well, this movie is supposed to be about the royal world; you can't blame the creators for not going political". But they went political. With varying degrees of subtlety, the director sought to expose the subjugation of women and LGBT individuals, for which I don't criticize him -au contraire. He made a very good job in that sense. Women being treated solely as children-machines, for example, is a chauvinist issue quite evident in "L'échange des princesses". But I find it rather strange that the inequality of classes, so terrific in the framed period, was just forgotten by the creators.

-Costumes were great: varied and immersive.

Overall, this is movie is watchable. It's a nice pick to watch with family. But it's not good, unfortunately.
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The Last King (2016)
Nice effects, misplaced plot, little space for actors
20 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
This film failed miserably. It couldn't capture the viewer's attention at all. I won't say I'm disappointed, as I have already watched a more hyped Norwegian piece ("The King's Choice") and didn't like it either. But "Birkebeinerne" is certainly a misadventure.

Unlike European films in general, it is very formulaic and predictable, expect for a couple of moments. The background real story itself isn't attracting. The Norwegian civil war was pretty much limited to skirmishes, so any film on this topic betting on "axes and blood" would fail, because there isn't really much raw material.

So, one'd think the director concentrated his efforts on the palace intrigue, the dynastic feuds. On the contrary. The plot's greatest potentiality was miserably neglected, as the director dedicated 90% of the running time to the baby's journey and the 10-20 men "battles". The major villains only starred briefly, and their dialogues were always flat and cheesy.

Princess Christina, the chancellor, the imprisoned brother Inge, the "Norwegian Colonel Tavington", Egil and his sister -all these characters were nothing more than woodsticks designed to fill big plot holes the director didn't care to assess. Even the two loyal fellows who were on screen the whole time weren't convincing enough.

It was particularly sad when they presented the young king at the viking-styled party; those bucholic men were persuaded to take part in a highly dangerous task just like they'd be persuaded to go to a summer camp. They weren't offered any incentive or reward or anything. I expected a powerful speech, at least.

The final part was severely unrealistic. Mr. Tavington could've killed little Haakon as soon he approached him, but he chose to calmly check it. And then he was grabbed into a fight by our good hero, who seems to be rather invencible (hit by an arrow in the shoulder just some minutes before, Skjervald managed to resist the better equipped Bagler).

In general, this film has some cool effects, but that's pretty much all its merit.
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De Zaak Menten (2016– )
Don't do the crime if you can't do the time
29 January 2017
Warning: Spoilers
In the mid-1970s, the renowned newspaper "De Telegraaf" publishes a seemingly casual article: the millionaire Pieter Menten is going to auction some artworks from his vast collection. The article reaches Israel quickly and calls the attention of Chaviv Kaanan. Kaanan, a senior journalist from the Haaretz, reads the news perplexed. The man responsible for the massacre of his family during WW2 lives well-off and at large in a 40-room mansion, famous worldwide as a art collector and philanthropist.

The journalist contacts a Haaretz correspondent in the Netherlands, the murderer's home country. Henrietta Boas, the correspondent, knows someone able to bring the story to light. Hans Knoop, editor-in- chief of The Accent, a relatively small weekly, is Boas' friend and may help exposing the case.

Pieter Menten was a very successful businessman in the interbellum period. He was Dutch, but made his wealth in Poland. Menten kept good relations with the Polish elite, trading expensive artworks and exploiting the forest. As wartime approached, however, he acquired a strong aversion to the Jews and Slavs as a whole. He engaged in disputes with Isaac Pistiner, a Jewish landowner, and suffered a heavy blow when the Bolshevicks seized his country house and a large portion of his collection.

Menten barely escaped alive when the Bolshevicks came. He moved to Krakow, a German-held city, and there befriended with SS- Brigadeführer Eberhard Schöngarth. Menten became a precious Nazi collaborator, serving as interpreter and administering Jewish properties. By 1941, when he conducted a mass killing in Galicia, he was already a SS officer. Through flashbacks, the mini-series recreates the horror: Menten dressed impeccably, sat in a comfortable chair, coordinating the shots of the machine gun, which launches into the mass grave a few at a time. Menten took this as a revenge against his old rivals, Jews and Bolshevicks alike, catching the opportunity to grab some valuable paintings.

Hans Knoop, a Jew himself, agrees to investigate the matter and speaks with Menten personally. When Menten offers some hush money, Knoop understands the severity of the question. Despite threats from Menten and opposition inside "De Telegraaf", Knoop proceeds with investigations. A bit apprehensive, he travels to the Soviet Union and collects testimonies from survivors. Shocking photographs of the bodies and skulls attract national interest in The Netherlands. All front pages feature Menten and political outcry arises in favor of tough measures. Menten tries to flee, but he is arrested and brought to trial. Gradually, powerful witnesses appear on both sides and the case takes several twists. New trials are scheduled and unexpected elements surprise both Menten and Knoop.

I won't spoiler the end, given there are few reviews here in IMDb. Although I gave this show 7, I must admit I was impressed with it. It is very well paced, charmingly shot, and masterfully acted. The soundtrack is rather immersive, featuring classics from the 70s (Sammy Davis as opening theme couldn't be more appropriate). The artificial footages supposed to look like seventish work quite well. The observance of the historical order of events gives the show a captivating realistic tone; the go and forth of the trials, the battles of Knoop with the editorial board, the marital problems, Knoop's resignation, everything seems pretty accurate.

Strangely, this bothered me at the same time. The strict observance of the real life story damaged the imaginative potential of the show. It lacked emotion, haste, thrill. The trial scenes were too conventional and could have been much more appealing. Menten's threats never left the drawing board; at most, he bribed some people and contributed to Knoop's workplace issues. Knoop's family, the obvious target of any retaliation, wasn't really harmed. To be honest, Menten's life became much more infernal than Knoop's.

In the end, I was also left wondering why exactly the Menten affair ruined Knoop's career.
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The Priest (2009)
Great story ruined by lamentable filming
9 January 2017
"The Priest" deals with a fascinating piece of history from World War II. The Orthodox Church sends missionaries to the Russian countryside in order to enable a spiritual awakening among the common people, whose faith cooled under the skeptic Soviet regime. As the German invasion progress and the villages fall under enemy control, however, these missionaries reach a stalemate. Should they collaborate with the Germans, who promise freedom to preach and collect countless triumphs in the battlefield? Or should they resist the foreign invasion, therefore siding with the communists, who not long ago nearly destroyed the Orthodox cult?

Numerous plot possibilities arise from this dangerous puzzle. The director Vladimir Khotinenko chose a good one. He present us the kind Father Alexander, assigned to a mission in the Zakaty village, close to Pskov. The village is under German administration and Father Alexander holds his rituals regularly. His rights are guaranteed by Ivan Fyodorovich, a Russian-born Wehrmacht officer. The German brutality, however, increasingly bothers Father Alexander. POWs are mistreated, ruthless public executions take place right in front of Alexander's church, the local fascist militia carries out degenerate actions.

Eventually, Stalin manages to turn the tide of the war. Ivan Fyodorovich's prophetic words from the early scenes assume dreadful shape: "If it weren't for this war, every single church would be torn down by the Soviets... together with you." Father Alexander is now stuck in a no-win situation, threatened by communist retaliations and abandoned by his peers, for the Orthodox Church officially endorsed the Soviet cause in 1943. Indeed, we have a good plot. It amazes me in every way.

"The Priest", however, somehow loses all its grace. I felt tired while watching it. I found it dull and amateur. It looked like a poor quality flick from the 90s, to be fair. Obsolete camera techniques and editing tools ruined the experience. Who told Khotinenko random slow motion frames would look cool? I generally don't pay much attention to image details, but the issues here are glaring.

Moreover, the soundtrack is manipulative, repetitive and unoriginal. The scenes supposed to be transcendental and sacred, supposed to inspire religious fervor, look ridiculous thanks to the score and the filming. Lastly, the supporting actors are not really talented. They were unconvincing and unnatural in most situations. On the other side, the actors playing Father Alexander, his wife Aletvina and the Wehrmacht officer have done a wonderful job. But in no way they could save this film, not at all.

"The Priest" is a clear waste of potential. Such captivating background story deserves a serious approach from a competent director. I hope something good comes out soon.
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War realism at its best
10 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
This movie really surprised me. I discovered I was unfair when I underestimated the creative capacity of the soviet cinematographic industry -very well represented here by Sergei Bondarchuk. "A soviet movie released 30 years after WW2? Total bias and cheap nationalism", I thought when I crossed this piece. What I watched, on the other side, is a verisimilar and vanguardist view of the Eastern Front; a work more tied to denounce than to exaltation.

The resistance of a maimed and disoriented small unit is the perfect background for Sergei; it's a soft earth garden ready to receive the seeds of war. This is the first time I see such good exploration of soldiers' emotions. The scenes reveal the human inside the uniform, the virtues and vices. The one who fears, hesitates and finds refuge in laugh is the protagonist of "They fought for their motherland". Vasiliy Shukshin (the soldier "Lopakhin") doesn't give life to its character; he borrows the life of real people, of thousands of displaced russians who fought under severe conditions and created a whole new living style in the front. The other actors were also convincing. The siberian soldier misses his wife, Lopakhin's partner sees death in everything, Nikolay can't be distracted from his pessimistic convictions, Lopakhin himself feels extremely bad before the death of a youngster... All those marginalized emotions are well illustrated through a touching realism.

Furthermore, Sergei manages to create meaningful symbolisms. The running engine of the upside down tank predicts the empty fate of Wehrmacht, whose ruthless advance isn't translated into a real move, i.e. goes nowhere. The insistence of the young nurse is the best expression of the faith deposited in each soldier. The hard words of the old woman aren't supposed to rise the "mother-loses-sons" cliché, but to reinforce the necessity of fighting the enemy at all costs, of shedding blood. The blood that flows from Nikolay's ear in the last scene marks the legacy of the war, the experiences and sorrows that won't be forgotten. The soviet flag is not unfurled until the final, which could mean the glory of the motherland isn't complete until every single soldier bow down to duty.

I could pass the whole day talking about this movie, but I fear I don't have much space here. This way, I'll be quickly with the other details: the scenery is very immersive; the music is somewhat exaggerated sometimes, though correctly placed; and panzers' strength isn't well described, since a single AT rifle shot (15mm, maybe?) would not destroy a tank. Actually, this two last points are my only criticism and will not influence significantly my final rate. Summarizing, Bondarchuk used all his geniality and resources to create this masterpiece of war cine. All the adversities the conventional heroes would not face are presented to the spectator. The excellence of war and all honour issues are undone; I could be one of those guys and you also. War realism at its best. I would be unfair again if I gave this less than 9.
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Oorlogswinter (2008)
Respectable film wounded by incautious screenplay
7 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Initially, we should consider that any serious psychological approach on WW2 is fated to slow and deep scenes. Those who watched this film expecting hollywoodian action certainly got frustrated. This, however, doesn't free the film from critics of people used to melodrama. Some reviewers have pointed the film's realism, while others have found some inaccuracies that essentially ruin this Dutch piece. I won't try to sound clever than anyone else by establishing a midterm; I'll just explore the opinions from my perspective, helping later spectators to identify what failed and what succeeded in "Oorlogswinter".

1. Actors: the cast is fairly the film's stronghold. No one can put in doubt Martijn and Yorick's competence. Their performance is outstanding and mostly suitable. Their expressions dismiss dialogues, reveal situations in which the viewer can dive in and securely assume a position. Actually, we can live Michiel's reality, we can comprehend his actions, his fears, his words and thoughts. Let me exemplify (big spoiler ahead): you surely understood what was going through the protagonist's mind when he pointed, for the second time, a gun at his uncle. He was stuck between childish bonds and wartime manhood. And you also noticed Ben's confidence on his nephew's hesitation; you knew he would denounce Jack if Michiel spared him. The razor's scene is very symbolic too. Some criticize the British pilot, his age and actions; but we should remember he was perturbed as well. He was experiencing something new and uncertain, he probably had passed his last months doing missions in the sky or training in quarters. This helps to understand his affection for Erica, since she was the very first lady he talked to after a long time. The minor characters are decent, though not perfect. Michiel's mother showed a genuine reaction to her husband's arrest, but her anguish apparently disappeared when she stepped home. Theo's actions didn't seem natural, but I mainly blame his embarrassing "rotating toy" (that thing even managed to make Martijn look stupid in the last scene).

2. Plot: "Oorlogswinter" has a good story; it may seem cliché at a first glance, but it explores a new perspective on late western front. The resistance cause, the betrayals and the crashed airplane create an interesting background to the Netherlandish daily life in mid 40's. However, the screenwriters were too careless to make that plot worthy of the actors. I noticed they got the protagonists in problems not knowing how to free them exactly. The actions scenes seemed nice initially, but the outcome was always implausible, incoherent. I remember very well the bikes scene, in which Jack and Michiel were cycling through a road when they faced German soldiers on sidecar motorcycles. The two stopped and ran to the trees; Michiel came back alone, took his bike again and calmly passed near the soldiers -who had just noticed him running! What to say about the carriage and the ferry scene then? Well, they don't deserve an elaborated comment. Jack's rodeo ability (and don't forget he was wounded), the unlikely chasers' collision with trees, the lengthy yet succeeded escape, Jack's incredible instinct, German's bad aiming, the unexplainable end of every chase scene, and the absence of any consequence after the encounter with the ferry controller (who saw Michiel and Jack's faces and, under pressure, probably denounced them, enabling a big search for the two young men) are just enough... And, of course, there is the bridge scene that unrealistically challenges the pilot's wound, and the unsuspected back and forth of a boy in a lonely forest. After all, we should admit one or other point that escaped from the screenwriters' insanity. The film managed to avoid the flat characterization of Nazis, as we noticed from two scenes in which Germans helped our protagonist. The Dutch rural movement and famine are well described.

What can we conclude? This film has a realistic background and provides a convincing immersion. But crucial scenes are bad elaborated and reveal poor effort from producers. You may be missing details on space and costumes, but I don't have enough knowledge about these issues to touch them; while watching, I was just indifferent to the anachronistic houses some mentioned. This way, I give my final judgment: 6/10. And, after writing this review, I'm glad to realize I didn't lost my time watching this.
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