Israeli writer/director Avi Nesher introduces his absorbing Past Life with a jolt that propels the narrative. Sephi Milch is singing in West Berlin, 1977, with her Jerusalem-based choral group. At the reception following the performance, an elderly Polish woman, whom Sephi does not know, violently grabs Sephi's arm while shouting that she sees the daughter of a murderer.  

Thus begins for Sephi and older sister Nana a tortuous search into their father's past. A Holocaust survivor himself, now a gynecologist, Dr. Baruch Milch has inflicted a painful childhood upon Sephi and Nana. Some subplots offer counterpoints to their quest for truth, others reinforce the psychological and emotional impact of Baruch's wartime actions. For example, despite entrenched sexism and discouragement, Sephi composes uplifting music. By contrast, Nana, editor of a sexually exploitive political magazine, faces an illness, convinced it is divine retribution for her father's actions. In the political backdrop, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat works for peace with Israelis, positing contemporary themes of reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of troubling conflict.

Based on real events, Nesher draws from Baruch Milch's actual memoir, Can Heaven Be Void? and the daughters' experiences. He inserts philosophical observations, including the comment that when "Fathers eat sour grapes, the children's teeth are set on edge."

As Sephi and Nana, actresses Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar present their characters' contrasting personalities beautifully, sparring like real sisters. A fine supporting cast adds texture as does Yishai Steckler's soundtrack. In press notes, he cites his decision to use a Jewish liturgical Hebrew piece from the 17th century in the introductory concert. Later he integrates music colliding with events, resulting in a multilayered mix of ideas and emotion. 

Past Life is the first of a trilogy in which writer/director Avi Nesher probes the legacy of the past for its profound impact on present lives. Based on this first installment, I'm eagerly awaiting the second chapter, Valley of Ghosts, in production. Until then, Past Life screens in Hebrew, German, and Polish with English subtitles and with some English at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

 

 

Told entirely from Philip's point-of-view, My Cousin Rachel begins at a nineteenth century Cornwall estate in England. Philip's cousin Ambrose has rushed into marriage with Rachel and almost as quickly raced to his death. Determined to investigate the unusual circumstances perhaps involving poisoning, Philip will instead become totally infatuated with Rachel, a mysterious woman.

As Philip seeks the elusive truth, his limited, first-person perspective keeps viewers both intrigued and confounded by enigmatic details. A sufficient number of misleading events suggest betrayal, but how can Philip or we know? 

Based on Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel, the film invites associations with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and The Birds, both also du Maurier stories, among other films in which the protagonist questions a lover's integrity. The 1952 version of My Cousin Rachel, starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, received four Oscar nominations, including best supporting actor for Burton (who won the Golden Globe as most promising newcomer). The acting here doesn't rise to that level, even though director Roger Michell, who also wrote the screenplay, has a talent for character driven stories, as demonstrated in his Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) and in Venus (2006). Here Sam Claflin as Philip and Rachel Weisz as Rachel maintain a restrained, but never passionate, chemistry that might have more fully energized Philip's periodic, voiceover narration. 

My Cousin Rachel is an old-fashioned movie requiring viewers to shift to a slower pace to appreciate its anchored narrative. Some leisurely momentum comes from an often-moving camera reframing compositions, panning or tracking. The editing establishes a slightly more contemporary feel, never hurried but with comfortably short shots. Absent are split-second cuts within action-packed sequences. The explosions here are emotional and, while devastating, they're contained with occasionally a voice roused to anger and with one hallucinatory sequence late in the film. The music is unobtrusive but also uninspired in this cat and mouse guessing game unfolds at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema, at the Hi-Pointe Theatre, and at select Wehrenberg Theatres. Check local listings. 

 

Road movies, a popular genre, offer opportunities to encounter varied environments while confronting oneself, a literal and metaphorical journey. Writer/producer/director Eleanor Coppola at 81 presents her fiction film debut, Paris Can Wait, as an entry to that group. It begins in Cannes with Anne Lockwood, suffering from an earache, opting to drive to Paris with Jacques, husband Michael's business partner.

Troubleshooting film productions, Michael flies to Budapest, planning to rendezvous soon with Anne in Paris. She expects a quick trip, Jacques entertains other ideas, stopping frequently for gourmet meals and to philosophize about the French approach to life; in essence, regarding food and love, the French follow natural human passions while Americans feel guilty or need a reason to indulge -- in chocolate, for example. Jacques becomes tiresome and repetitive. 

The strongest scenes are the earliest ones in which Anne and Michael's brief, casual interaction communicates the essence of their twenty-year relationship. While Michael clearly cares for Anne, he's narcissistically absorbed with his problems, treating Anne like a helpmate instead of a partner. He isn't cruel, just indifferent, giving her ear pain nonchalant acknowledgement and letting her drag his suitcases to the hotel lobby. There's a lot submerged here more promising than Jacques' (and the film's) preoccupation with food and wine. (Anyone sharing that passion can find recipes on Sony Classics' website.) But while I appreciate a great meal, watching Anne and Jacques eat and converse doesn't make for a compelling 92-minute film.   

As Anne, Diane Lane sustains an upbeat, appealing persona through the largely superficial conversations with a borderline sleazy Jacques, Arnaud Viard. Jacques lacks Michael's easy charisma, an always interesting Alec Baldwin who, unlike Jacques, suggests complexity. 

Cinematically, a field of lavender, a Roman aqueduct and other locations are beautiful. The food and wine always look appetizing, but Paris Can Wait still leaves me hungry for more -- more substantive conversation about something besides self-indulgence, more exploration of the serious subjects broached, and more than a frivolous consideration of this middle-aged woman reevaluating her choices. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

British director Ken Loach is one of those rare filmmakers who infuses absorbing narratives with a sharp social critique. Never strident, periodically interjecting comic relief, he makes his points while watching characters' lives unfold casually, naturally. This is exactly what he does in I, Daniel Blake as Dan, pursuing governmental eligibility for a support allowance, gets caught in bureaucratic madness.  

Dan has survived a heart attack and, while waiting for his doctor's permission to return to work, which he's eager to do, he attempts to qualify for assistance. As opening credits appear on the screen, in voiceover Dan answers the ludicrous questions of Amanda, who is, as she describes herself twice, "a health care professional." It's both amusing and appalling as Dan tries to maintain his composure, assuring Amanda he can find the top of his head to put a hat on, set an alarm clock, and use a telephone keypad. He does struggle as he gamely tries to learn computer skills which, he says, "drive me mental." 

What gives I, Daniel Blake emotional, even visceral impact is that most of us have faced some measure of such bureaucratic, inhumane absurdity. In another interview scene, when a compassionate clerk steps up to help, her supervisor chastises her. As Dan observes, they "will make it as miserable as possible so you give up," further noting that "when you lose your self respect, you're done for." He buoys his and others' resolve by helping, a resourceful neighbor and later Katie whom he encounters during another office encounter. She and her two children have fewer resources than Dan, and he pitches in. Developments include heartbreaking and tragic moments, though Dan always fights on, with humor and compassion.

As Daniel Blake, Dave Johns gives a performance the equal of the best every man asserting his dignity in the face of disgraceful treatment. As Katie, Hayley Squires complements Daniel's moods and deeply appreciates his help as she despairs. Paul Laverty's screenplay depicts the frustrating confrontations with organizational inflexibility and those at its mercy. Some on-the-street location work adds authenticity with its urban backdrop. I, Daniel Blake dramatically and poignantly makes its case for a kinder, more intelligent approach to and for all. At Landmark's Tivoli Cinema. 

 

What does an old soldier who remembers his infamous failure in an earlier war do when his country and its allies' generals are ready to mount a major attack? That's the question that the excellent film Churchill ponders regarding the Prime Minister of England in the run-up to D-Day.

If you're Winston Churchill, you cannot forget the World War I disaster at Gallipoli in which you were involved and forever castigated. If you're film director Jonathan Teplitzky, who also directed the excellent The Railway Man, you make art from life. You place Churchill within his memory as he stands on a beach, the water turning blood red from dead bodies. You use his hat as a symbol, and you exploit windows in cars and magnificent halls and mirrors to contrast with the windowless bunkers for war planning.

There, Churchill listens in 1944, listening to General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery describe a plan to invade France in World War II overwhelm the enemy. But all Churchill can think of is the sacrifice the boy soldiers will be making. He rails against generals in London sending boys to die on the beaches of Normandy. He does not listen to the men around him or to his wife Clementine. He listens to his heart as he drafts and delivers speeches.

Remarkable British actor Brian Cox blusters and blasts Churchill's words, his perambulations and depression. John Slattery is less successful as Ike, but Richard Durden is highly effective as the Boer Jan Smuts. Most amazing is Miranda Richardson, every bit as beautiful and forceful as Clementine.

Alex van Tunzelmann's script quotes and imagines the principles's conversations and speeches. But it's Treplitzky's camera work that grabs, making Churchill not just history but also a work of art.

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