Tag Archives: C-

THE EXCEPTION

Producer: Judy Tossel and Lou Pitt
Director: David Leveaux
Writer: Simon Burke
Stars: Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer, Jane McTeer, Eddie Marsan, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter and Kris Coppens
Studio: A24 Films

C-

The Third Reich clashes with the Second in David Leveaux’s World War II-set drama, in which the single best moment is a dinner scene in which the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) faces off against SS Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), where the ebullient gentility of the erstwhile emperor and the soft-spoken malignity of the Reichsfuehrer are skillfully, and understatedly, contrasted. Unhappily, most of “The Exception” focuses on an insipid romance between Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), the newly-appointed head of Wilhelm’s German security detail, and Mieke de Jong (Lily James), a maid in the Kaiser’s household who, as it turns out, is not only Jewish but a British spy. In concentrating on them, the movie aspires to achieve the feel of a modern-day “Casablanca.” Instead it comes across like a younger cousin of “Allied.”

The premise of the script adapted by Simon Burke from Alan Judd’s novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” is that in 1940, just after the Blitzkrieg has succeeded in seizing control of Holland and Belgium, Hitler decides to open a channel of communication with Wilhelm, the deposed German emperor who has been living on an estate outside the town of Doorn in the Netherlands with his second wife Hermine (Janet McTeer), whom he had married in 1922. The couple and Wilhelm’s loyal adjutant Sigurd von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels) are hopeful that the Nazi regime, obsessed with the idea of identifying with the greatness of Germany’s past, might be interested in returning Wilhelm to the throne as a symbol of German unity.

The little suspense that the picture generates from the political perspective derives from whether Mieke’s assignment is to assassinate Wilhelm—after all, she does keep a gun hidden in her room—despite the affection she obviously develops for the old duffer, whose main occupations—apart from looking over maps and making cracks about Hitler’s clumsy strategy—appear to be chopping wood with his one good arm and feeding the ducks in his estate’s little lake. There’s also some tension intended in whether the occupiers will be able to trace the source of the radio transmissions between Doorn and England that keep Mieke in contact with her handlers. But through the village priest is eventually caught and tortured, the suspense is undermined by the characterization of the local SS commandant, Dietrich (Mark Dexter), as such a clueless buffoon that he might have been recruited from the set of “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Dietrich, of course, is designed as a complete contrast to Brandt, the exception of the title—the “good German” who defies Nazi brutality. It’s a cliché films have seized on ever since “The Desert Fox” and “The Young Lions,” and it has grown mustier and mustier over time. The film isn’t helped by Courtney’s blandly strutting performance as the conflicted captain. James is no more impressive, especially since she begins their romance by simply complying when the German, at their very first meeting, tells her to take off her clothes. We’re meant to believe that their relationship is a love for the ages, but it never seems authentic, just a movie convention.

There is compensation, however, in some of the other acting. McTeer is superb as Wilhelm’s wife, quickly intervening to explain away her husband’s sometimes embarrassing slips while seeking to ensure that the financial support they’ve come to depend on isn’t reduced, and Marsan delivers a chillingly restrained portrait of pure evil in his few scenes as Himmler. Daniels is fine as a man of absolute loyalty, too.

But the film’s true saving grace is Plummer, who, if you’ll pardon the pun, recognizes a plum role when he sees it and savors every bite, bringing a degree of energy to the proceedings that Leveaux’s pedestrian direction otherwise dampens. The script doesn’t ignore the exiled ruler’s darker traits—his clear anti-Semitism, for example—but it underplays them in portraying him not only as essentially a charmingly old world figure who deplores the Nazis’ crudeness, but as an avuncular fellow who understands—and assists—the young people’s romance when push comes to shove. If the record is anything to judge by, this amount to as radical act of historical revisionism as one finds in the recent “Churchill”—the real-life Wilhelm was an extremely strange, perhaps psychologically damaged man. But whatever the facts might be, Plummer seizes on the screenplay’s view of him as essentially a genial old coot and milks it for all it’s worth.

Burke’s script shows a propensity to sink to lower levels when it seems to assume audience ignorance in off-the-cuff ways. Not once but twice characters feel compel to tell us who Himmler was when his name is mentioned. When Brandt is informed by Dietrich that “the head of the S.S.” is coming to dinner at Wilhelm’s, for example, the surprised captain blurts out, “Himmler?” to which Dietrich replies, “You catch on quick.” Indeed. The same device is employed a second time between two other characters, adding to the conclusion that the filmmakers don’t consider potential viewers to be very bright.

They have, however, done expert work from the technical perspective. Hubert Pouille’s production design and Daniela Ciancio’s costumes capture the period, and cinematographer Roman Osin uses the Flemish locations nicely. In short, “The Exception” is historically convincing in the visual details but completely bogus in terms of narrative, in particular the pallid central romance. Even Plummer’s canny old man routine isn’t enough to make up for that.

ROUGH NIGHT

Producer: Matt Tolmach, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Dave Becky
Director: Lucia Aniello
Writer: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Dax Shepard
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz, Paul W. Downs, Demi Moore, Ty Burrell, Colton Haynes, Ryan Cooper, Enrique Murciano and Dean Winters
Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

C-

It doesn’t take much insider knowledge to imagine what the pitch session for “Rough Night” must have sounded like: “It’s ‘The Hangover’ with girls instead of guys.” Add Scarlett Johansson to the mix, and the green light must have been quicker than lightning.

The result is just the latest example of a most discouraging trend in recent American comedy—the extension of the slob comedy, which originally was pretty much an exclusive male preserve, to women. The Judd Apatow factory, of course, led the way with “Bridesmaids,” but that movie now seems positively benign compared with something like “Bad Moms,” which became a surprise smash, or now Lucia Aniello’s movie, which is, depressingly, likely to be a hit too. That it was co-written and directed by a woman, though laudable in the general sense of showcasing more female filmmakers, is really beside the point when it comes to assessing quality.

The premise is a thoroughly uninspired one (though, in fact, it was obviously prompted by several other movies desperately smashed together): Jess (Johansson), who’s about to be married, gathers with girlfriends Blair (Zoe Kravitz), Alice (Jillian Bell) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) for a bachelorette bash that gets out of hand. Sorority sisters meeting in Miami ten years after their graduation to celebrate Jess’ imminent marriage to Peter (Paul W. Downs), they’re joined by her Australian chum Pippa (Kate McKinnon)—whom she bonded with during a college year Down Under—for a night of clubbing, guzzling ample amounts of booze and snorting plenty of cocaine before winding up with the corpse of a guy they assume to be a deceased male stripper on their hands. His death was accidental, of course—a result of chunky Alice’s overzealousness—but that doesn’t mean it won’t threaten the campaign that uptight Jess is conducting for a state senate seat, or the futures of the others as well.

Each of them, except for the wild and crazy Pippa, has something to lose, courtesy of their sketchy back-stories. Blair is a well-to-do real estate broker, but trapped in a custody battle with her ex; Frankie is a professional activist with two strikes on her record already and a three-strike law looming over her; and Alice is a teacher who could, theoretically, lose her job (though given how Bell plays her—not much differently from the way she did the guidance counselor in the recent “Fist Fight”—it’s a miracle she hasn’t been fired long before). So they try to get rid of the body, taking the movie into “Weekend at Bernie’s”-“Very Bad Things” territory until the introduction of an unexpected character—a supposed cop played by Colton Haynes—shifts the picture into a comic-action mode that ends things happily, if ludicrously. Of course, the script takes time for the inevitable sequence in which the women’s real feelings toward one another pour out to allow them to wallow in sappiness and estrangement before events lead them to embrace again.

Juxtaposed with the quintet’s adventures—which include some creepy interaction with a swinging couple next door (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell)—are the bumbling efforts of Peter, who’s convinced that Jess has called off the wedding, to drive from South Carolina to Miami nonstop to persuade her to change her mind. This section of the picture is even weirder than the main plot, portraying the prospective groom and his friends as the very antithesis of macho, having a bachelor party (a wine-tasting) that’s as sedate as Jess’s is raucous. It also involves Peter adopting what’s called the “sad astronaut” technique to get to Florida as quickly as possible, which in turn leads to a strange encounter with a cop and an even stranger one with a couple of guys at a truck stop. In theory there’s some justification to this gender-reverse tactic, which should make men as queasy as women are when they see how they’re treated in male-centered raunch-fests. In practice, though, watching a man whoring himself is no less squirm-inducing than watching a woman do so.

Johansson is more animated here than she’s been in a while onscreen, but your ability to enjoy “Rough Night” will mostly depend on your tolerance for the shtick of McKinnon and Bell. The former is actually funny in spurts, because she’s crafted a new character whose over-the-top Australian zaniness is something we’ve not seen from her before. Bell, on the other hand, is pretty much doing what she has in the past, and since Alice is a stock figure—the chubby, needy friend with a possessive streak and a pushy persona—there’s no sense of inventiveness to latch onto, nor much inclination to respond when the moment inevitably comes when we’re asked to understand her loneliness and sympathize with her empty life. (Alice even has a mother afflicted with Alzheimer’s to care for, we’re told off-the-cuff.) Glazer and Kravitz, meanwhile, are shunted into secondary roles, with the former one-note and the latter saddled with a plot thread involving Moore and Burrell that’s more unpleasant than amusing. Downs flings himself heedlessly into the part of Jess’ nebbishy boyfriend, and his natural innocence makes some of the tasteless material he has to deal with more palatable than you might expect, but that’s all relative. The craft contributions are adequate but little more, with Dominic Lewis’ score notable for trying to add punch to the slower moments.

The titular adjective is appropriate, because in the end the movie is a patchy assemblage of familiar “girls gone wild” shtick, weighed down by a dark twist that ultimately proves inconsequential and glib observations about female friendship.