Thursday, October 5, 2023

Film Reviews: The Testosterone-Soaked Worlds of the Military (“Eismayer”) and Wall Street (“Fair Play”) Are Compellingly Examined. And, How to Make a Complete Meal Out of the Wes Anderson Shorts on Netflix

Eismayer (c) Dark Star Pictures

Film: Eismayer 
In Cinemas 

Last year, we got three true-story films of varying excellence (all still worth catching) about gay men in the hostile world of the military: the American The Inspection, the Soviet Union Firebird and the South African Moffie.  This year’s batch starts with Eismayer, the titled character, a hardass, takes-no-prisoners drill Sergeant Major (Gerhard Liebmann) in the Austrian Army in the early 2010s. His reputation precedes him and inspires fear in the newest recruits before he makes a theatrical entrance into the barracks as the most toxic male in the room. Even when he’s called in by his superiors to tone down his dictatorship tone, he continues to push his recruits to the brink, including grueling training maneuvers and insidious mind games. One wonders when he is alone pleasuring himself as he smokes in the shower if he’s giving a big screw you to his internal homophobia or his persistent bloody coughing. His own perception of what it means to be gay in the army is tested by one of his recruits: Mario Falak (Luka Dimić), an Austrian of Serbian descent who is openly gay and is both harassed and accepted by his fellow soldiers. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the film, with the intense Eismayer butting heads with the more relaxed Falak before they start to break down each other’s concept of masculinity, including a fascinating scene in which Falak takes an outrageous bet from his mates that involves their commander. The movie is seen from Eismayer’s perspective, so we also get scenes of his family life with his frustrated wife (Julia Koschitz) and son (Lion Tatzber’s Dominik), that, while necessary plot wise, delay the more remarkable relationship of the two men, which is indeed based on a true story. The immensely likable Dimić is the audience’s surrogate, viewing the sergeant as both menacing and sympathetic, especially when played with bold and mesmerizing intensity by Liebmann. Director David Wagner’s debut feature film, which won the Critic’s Week Best Film Prize at The Venice Film Festival last year, is certainly assured and absorbing, but I wish the last 20% of the film’s narrative made up most of the film’s runtime. Still, a fascinating film. 

Fair Play (c) Netflix

Film: Fair Play 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Netflix 

Fair Play is Chloe Domont’s debut directorial feature, and it centers around two financial analysts in the highly competitive world of Wall Street. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are a newly engaged couple who have kept their relationship a secret from the finance firm they both work for, which considers interoffice dalliances, let alone a romance, verboten. One Crest Capital is run by alpha male Campbell (Eddie Marsden), and when anyone gets fired, it’s usually with histrionics and broken office furniture. When an executive position does open up, Emily gets the job, though Luke is under the impression he’s next in line. If it wasn’t for the trailer, I wouldn’t have guessed the title was about employment advancement, since it is usually the men who get the promotion over the women, regardless of talent and skill. But, in this woke world of fair play, men are suddenly the victims, and no matter how much Luke seems to support Emily, the gender issue always comes up, with Luke believing that Emily is using her sex as a career advantage. This toxic environment is over-emphasized by Dumont, who starts the film with the seemingly happy couple unwittingly but (too on-the-nose) symbolically covered in blood. Dumont also ramps up the noise of New York City, which feels even more menacing than usual. There is also an unbelievable subplot involving Emily’s mother that gives the film a climax it needs but doesn’t earn. Also, we see the couple at parties that seem to be populated with friends, but not one is ever seen or talked to during the main action of the film. And so, when these characters make bad decisions or tell outright lies (ones that could easily be fact-checked), I felt manipulated by the unbelievability of the script. Dynevor, mostly known for Bridgerton, is fine as the confident Emily at the beginning, but once her insecurities are exposed after the promotion, she occasionally overplays scenes (sometimes slipping into her native British accent). It’s nice to see Ehrenreich bouncing back after Solo.  He can do comedy (as in Cocaine Bear earlier this year), and here he demonstrates his dramatic skills, but even Ehrenreich can’t keep his final confrontation with Campbell out of the realm of dog-eat-dog ridiculousness. As much as I admired a lot of Fair Play, it ultimately only feels like a fair movie. 

The Swan (c) Netflix

Film: The Wonderful Stories of Roald Dahl 
                                           (as Directed by Wes Anderson) 
Streaming on Netflix 

If you were on film social media at all last week, a lot of the discourse was on the four imaginatively short films by Wes Anderson, adapting stories by the British writer Roald Dahl, most known for Charlie and Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is the only Anderson feature film that was not an original story. Civil but passionate discussion surrounded the ordering of people’s favorite as well as who was the VIP actor (the four films have a rotating cast of actors including Ralph Fiennes (recurring as Dahl, throughout the four, as well as other characters), Richard Ayoade, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rupert Friend, Ben Kingsley, and Dev Patel. My opinion, respectively, is Henry Sugar and Dev Patel. But I would humbly present to you, how I would order the four shorts into a full-length film, which I would call The Wonderful Stories of Roald Dahl (as Directed by Wes Anderson)

Prologue. Start with the first 90 seconds of Henry Sugar as the set-up with Fiennes as Dahl explaining his writing process. Then before he turns his head to the left, I would cut straight to: 

The Rat Catcher (c) Netflix

The Rat Catcher. A rather slight tale with a wonderful turn by Fiennes as an exterminator only referred to as Rat Catcher, who has been hired by the Editor/Reporter (Ayoade) to deal with his infestation. Rat Catcher is a proud and arrogant working-class bloke who keeps getting bested by the rats. Points for the animated rat that makes a cameo. 

The Swan. Dealing with the milieu of children as in many of Dahl’s novels, this short belongs solely to Rupert Friend (best known for playing Mr. Wickham in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice) as the Narrator who tells a rather triggering tale of school bullies harassing young amateur birdwatcher Peter Watson (Asa Jennings). Incorporating a magical realism ending as a sort of coping mechanism gives the film some poignancy. 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. I reviewed the longest of the films here, but I will say, this is the only one with a happy ending, which makes it the most engaging. Benedict Cumberbatch is a marvel in this film, not only as Henry Sugar, who later in life became a master of disguise, thus playing many identities, including an American cowboy and an upper-class woman, but Cumberbatch is surprisingly poignant as Max Engelman, the makeup artist who helps Sugar create these characters. Notice in the scene when Ben Kingsley as Khan is transforming from an old man to a young man in a flashback, there’s Max doing the makeup. Wes Anderson, you’re a genius. 

Poison (c) Netflix

Poison. This self-made anthology closes with the tensest film of the bunch with a powerful social commentary ending. The story in British-ruled India is narrated by Woods (Dev Patel, again VIP) as he comes home to find his friend/employer Henry (Cumberbatch) lying still, saying a Krait snake has crawled into his bed. Ben Kingsley plays the doctor who is sent for with the antidote. How the situation resolves itself is quite amusing, but only in the last minute of the film does the title come to light, for you see, snakes are venomous, not poisonous. 

Watching these four films in this order, should provide a perfect full-length evening of Wes Anderson shenanigans and artistry.

If you want to comment on these reviews, please do so on my 
Instagram account.  All reviews have their own post.  And please follow to know when new reviews are released.