From A Dark Theater On A Sunny Spring Day…

This season has been pretty dicey – movies have come and gone week after week with nothing really catching on to reel in the crowds. 2 new films open today at my local downtown theater are hoping to buck the trend. Let’s see if either has a fighting chance:

(Dir. Stefan Ruzowitsky, 2007)

It’s frustrating making Oscar picks every year in the category of Best Foreign Film because of no access to the nominees. The films don’t show in my area until months afterward (if they come to theaters here at all) or their DVD releases are way after the fact. The buzz was strong on this one – it won the Academy Award as predicted and it is thankfully making the rounds arriving here today. It is so welcome because THE COUNTERFEITERS is an excellent stirring World War II era drama about what has been called “the largest counterfeiting operation in history”. It begins in the late 40’s with an infamous forger named Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who while gambling in Monte Carlo with large sums of money flashes back to 1936 Berlin. In that turbalent time his success in the illegal trade is interupted when he is arrested by the police led by Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) and thrown into a concentration camp. He impresses his Nazi captors with his skills in art drawing romantised portraits of his guards which helps him avoid harsher treatment. He is transferred and brought up before the snooty Herzog again who places him in a select group of other talented print-minded prisoners is forced to forge in a special secret unit of Sachsenhausen called Operation Bernhard.

The accomendations, including actual beds and showers, are extremely appealing in this new deal but the concept of helping the Nazis flood the market with fake currency destroying Britain and America’s economy is more than a bit troubling. A fellow forger with a reactionary agenda – Adolf Burger * (August Diehl) constantly sabotages the efforts to counterfeit the U.S. dollar as the Nazis turn the heat up creating a level of gripping tension that never lags. Markovics carries the movie with a stern furrow-browed brood intensely persuading us to Sorowitsch’s cunning sense of survival. While not pretty this Austrian film is filled with what I can only describe as a lush grittiness – Benedict Neuenfels’ cinematography, even with a limited pallette of greys and darkness, is as absorbing as the story. THE COUNTERFEITERS is a near perfect depiction of a true story, albeit with amalgams and slight embellishments, and a film that I really hope folks will seek out.

* The film is based on the book by Adolf Burger who is “the only prisoner character in the film that has an authentic historical name and is not synthesized from several real-life prisoners involved in Operation Bernhard.” Thanks again Wikipedia!

SMART PEOPLE (Dir. Noam Murro, 2008) Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold – a haggard looking washed up widower professor at Carnegie Mellon University with a ne’er-do-well adopted brother (Thomas Haden Smith), a wisecracking Republican daughter (Ellen Page), and what he is told is an unpublishable manuscript. It is illustrated right off the bat that Wetherhold is a schlub. He doesn’t take time to get to know his students – let alone learn their names and he double parks his car which gets it towed and him injured, getting knocked out cold jumping the fence trying to recoup his briefcase. Coming to in a hospital room he is greeted by Sarah Jessica Parker as his attending doctor. There is something of a spark between them so Quaid and Parker attempt to have what he calls a face to face meeting despite disaproval from his daughter and his being extremely embarrassingly ‘out of practice’ as he apologizes after their first disastrous dinner date.

The underlining question is – will Whetherhold get his groove back? The jaded faded writer/professor role has shades of Quaid’s role in D.O.A. (he who crucially stated publish or perish) – another character who had to regroup to reclaim his passion and Thomas Haden Church seems to be macking on his former glory in SIDEWAYS – a fact the poster calls attention to with it’s lime green and from the producers of plug. Then there’s Ellen Page whose character is conservative with a 8X10 of Reagan on her bedroom wall and citing career steps from Dick Cheney but this character trait is just a disposable detail – it never comes up in any conflict or specified way. Her lines just come off like recycled JUNO: I Appreciate the tip, Dr. Phil and suddenly I’m in an Afterschool Special. It’s her schtick and Haden Church’s dubious deliveries in the first half that has SMART PEOPLE play like quirk by the numbers. The second half is more of a sober drama with introspection and pondering close-ups but the whole affair never rises above WONDER BOYS-light. Quaid does befuddled wonderfully and it’s nice to see Parker as someone less neurotically obsessed with romance as her Carrie Bradshaw character on Sex And The City but this, as earnest as it is in some scenes, never really amounts to anything special. SMART PEOPLE was no doubt made by smart people but I wish they were smarter about making them interesting people. Then maybe I would give a damn about them.

More later…