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At the Movies

Six weeks ago, “21 Jump Street” opened and had one week of opportunity before being trampled at the box office by “The Hunger Games.”  This week’s one week success story is likely to be “The Five Year Engagement” – which isn’t the only big opening of the week, but is the best of a crop destined to be ploughed under by “The Avengers” (on May 4th).

It’s a fun enough romantic comedy starring Jason Segal and Emily Blunt as a couple who come fairly close to marrying several times, only to find circumstances repeatedly stacked against them.  He’s an up and coming chef with an established career in San Francisco and she’s searching for jobs teaching psychology in a university.  This causes difficult decisions to be made when she’s offered a post-doctoral research position in Michigan – which would make for an uncomfortably long commute for him.

“The Five Year Engagement” is co-written by Segal and Nicholas Stoller (they were writing partners on the recent “The Muppets”), who also directed.  Stoller previously directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek.”  Segal starred in three of those titles and produced three, and is rapidly becoming a successful mini-mogul in his own right – serving as executive Producer (typically the financier) of the current release.  And it should come as no surprise that another producer is Judd Apatow, who has one of the longest lists of both successful and pleasantly crass comedies.

It’s not a fantastic film but it does deliver some reliable laughs, albeit often pretty cheap ones.  The two leads are probably the film’s best assets, although they’re ably supported by a cast that includes Chris Pratt, Rhys Ifans, and Brian Posehn.

Another film opening this week has a decent cast who provide solid performances, but it’s marred by a fundamentally flawed premise.  “The Raven” stars John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe, who is caught up in a series of murders that mimic scenes from his own stories, shortly before his death.

That he dies is no surprise, as the film starts by telling us so.  In an opening title, we’re told that Poe was found dead on a park bench in Baltimore, with the last few days of his life remaining a mystery.  That’s a pretty interesting premise for a fictional account of what might have transpired during that time period – but it’s destroyed by the way the story is written.

If you start by telling us that nobody knows what occurred during those days, it would make sense to tell us a story about a murder mystery that was shrouded in secrecy – such that whatever transpired would have remained unknown.  We, the audience, would be privy to the events, but the good people of Baltimore would be unaware of the action going on all around them.  You could perhaps have others involved, all of whom might have been sworn to secrecy or died before revealing anything.

Instead, the movie makes the comment about Poe’s last days being a great unknown, and then proceeds to tell us a story about a series of murders that were front page news, and in which Poe’s involvement is also widely known.  As told, pretty much the entire Baltimore police department knows exactly what’s going on and the general citizenry appears pretty well informed too.  Which makes it impossible to reconcile those events with the fact that he died in supposedly unknown circumstances.

Aside from the plot not so much having a hole but rather being a hole, the movie is lightweight fun.  There are a couple of truly gruesome scenes and a lot of dialog that seems out of place for the period, but it’s a pleasant enough romp alongside a detective (Luke Evans) who is strongly attempting to be the lead in “C.S.I: Baltimore, 1849.”

Even more gruesome, primarily because of the veracity of the subject matter, is “In Darkness” – the Oscar-nominated (in the best foreign language category) film about a man who saved a group of Jews during WWII in Lvov, Poland.  Leopold Socha was a sewer worker who was eager for any opportunity to make extra money at the same time that the local Jewish ghetto was the site of indiscriminate degradation and killings.  However, what started out as a fairly mercenary and opportunistic scheme to hide Jews in return for cash payments, slowly became more of a labor of love.

There’s something remarkably unsettling about a film like this that’s set, for the most part, far away from the death camps of the holocaust.  When slaughter, even on a wholesale basis, is removed from the general population, it’s easy to imagine or assert that ordinary folks had little knowledge about what was happening.  But here we see people being treated like freaks, and later being gunned down in large numbers, in front of their former friends and neighbors who are continuing with their lives.

And it’s in this context that Socha hid “his Jews” in a fetid corner of the town’s sewer system – not just avoiding Nazi’s or the local police, but also avoiding notice by the townspeople who were likely to turn all of them in, in return for a reward.

It’s clearly a compelling story but it too has a drawback.  Saving lives, harboring fugitives, and risking one’s own life repeatedly in the process has the potential to be both a worthwhile history lesson and a great film.  But, sadly, a film that primarily takes place in dark sewers is not the most visually stimulating material.  I’ve seen other films that convey similar content (about rescuers and the rescued) and I find them all moving, but I found myself wishing at times that I had read about these circumstances rather than watching this particular film. 

It also comes from a respected director – Agnieszka Holland – who has a long list of prior successes, including “Europa, Europa,” “The Secret Garden,” and “Total Eclipse.”  I’m a fan of her work and she has delved into the war and the holocaust multiple times before.  It’s just that this one wasn’t as successful in my eyes as some of her previous projects.  It’s not bad, it just seems relatively flat at times.

Note: “Safe” was not screened for the press in Sacramento and the planned screening for “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” had a scheduling miscommunication that precluded the press from attending.


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