Mechanic: Resurrection


Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

(2016) Action (Summit) Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Hazeldine, Michelle Yeoh, John Cenatiempo, Toby Eddington, Femi Elufowoju Jr., Anteo Quintavalle, Rhatha Phongam, Bonnie Zellerbach, Francis Tonkala Tamouya, Tais Rodrigues Dias, Allan Poppleton, Soji Ikai, Vithaya Pansringam, Lynnette Emond. Directed by Dennis Gansel

 

Jason Statham is my favorite action hero at the moment. He’s smart, he’s tough and he’s talented. He has his own unique voice and has the chops to hang with the legendary action stars of the 80s and 90s; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, van Damme…Statham if nothing else can proudly put his name in that pantheon, even if most of the films he makes in the genre are more of the B variety.

So he’s back, now in his 50s, in a sequel to his 2011 hit. Arthur Bishop (Statham) is a world class assassin who specializes in making his hits look like accidents but after faking his own death has been living under the radar in Brazil. However, in this day and age nobody can slip notice for long and he is found by Crain (Hazeldine), an old “friend” of his who needs his special talents. In order to obtain them, Crain needs to have some leverage on his old buddy and what better way than to set him up to fall in love with the altruistic and somewhat naïve Gina (Alba) who happens to fall into his radar.

He takes refuge at the Thai resort run by his friend Mei (Yeoh) but Crain finds him there and kidnaps Gina. Now Bishop must perform three nearly impossible assassinations of three very dangerous, evil gentlemen in a short amount of time or Gina is going to get dead, which Bishop is anxious to prevent. He knows that Crain will likely kill them both anyway so he needs to have a plan. Here’s your word of wisdom for the day; never force a world class assassin to work for you unless you intend to die yourself.

The film this is a sequel to was itself a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson flick which was darker in tone than this. There is more of a 90s action vibe, a cross between the Mission: Impossible series and the action films of Schwarzenegger. One of my issues of the 2011 film was that Bishop was almost too good; there was never a sense that he was in any jeopardy. They’ve rectified that here, but there are other issues unfortunately.

The main one is that it doesn’t really add anything to the franchise. Bishop was, as Statham put it, a “thinking man’s killer” who has the ability to plan three or four steps ahead and improvising on the fly when he needs to. It’s mostly the latter here and we lose some of the more thoughtful aspects of Bishop which is what made him unique. Worse though, this is pretty much action film making 101; it is interchangeable with all sorts of recent action films (many of which were made for the Lionsgate/Summit banner) and we can pretty much predict what happens next – and it does.

Statham is the main reason to see this. He has settled into being one of the premiere action heroes of the 21st century and while he could use a shave pretty much throughout the movie, he continues to be one of the most impressive hand-to-hand fighters in action films ever. He’s capable of being over-the-top in the Crank films or more subtle as he is here. The man can actually act, as he showed in his Guy Ritchie films as well as The Bank Job, still to date his best performance.

The movie is at its best when the dialogue stops i.e. the action and stunt sequences. The trailer hinted at a stunt in which Statham climbs up the side of a glass building and sets a charge in the glass bottom of a pool hanging over the side, waving goodbye to the victim as the glass shatters and he plummets to his doom below. It is as good a sequence as you’ll find in any action movie this year and fortunately, the trailer omits some of the best parts of the sequence. There are others that are also in the elite class as far as stunt and fight sequences in 2016 are concerned.

But the movie’s main sin is that it simply isn’t interesting. The stunt sequences are great but the romance between Gina and Bishop is not and Yeoh, one of the greatest action heroines ever is held to a largely lifeless cameo. If you’re going to go to the trouble of casting someone the caliber of Michelle Yeoh, the least you can do is give her something to do. It’s a shame that she never got Hollywood’s interest in her prime; she’s not only an extraordinary action star but an extraordinary actress as well, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved and its sequel reiterated earlier this year.

Jones fares better as a jocular arms dealer but he really is the only one who looks like he’s having a good time here. Unfortunately, the audience for the most part will side with the rest of the cast and not have much of a good time either. This is a blah entry into what could have been an interesting action franchise.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really nifty action sequences and stunts. Statham has become a dependable lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is predictable and dull. They took an interesting character and converted him into just another action figure.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the American film debut of Gansel, who has directed a number of films in his native Germany.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Wick
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Kubo and the Two Strings

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?


In their own way, they're both sticking to their guns.

In their own way, they’re both sticking to their guns.

(2016) Comedy (Area23s) Andrea Anders, Matt Passmore, Cloris Leachman, Katherine McNamara, John Michael Higgins, Garren Stitt, Horatio Sanz, Lauren Bowles, John Heard, Christine Estabrook, Kevin Conway, David Denman, Fernanda Romero, Max Lloyd-Jones, Marshall Bell, Terrence Beasor, Ray Auxias, Julie Brister, Gina Gallego, Eileen Grubba, Victoria Moroles. Directed by Matt Cooper

 

In Texas, there is power and then there is power. For the men, the power resides behind the barrel of a gun. For the women, the power can be found between their legs. At least, that is what this comedy would have you believe.

In the oh-so-very Texas town of Rockford, the town motto is “Live free, shoot straight.” The men work at the fruit packing plant all week long, the one owned by the reclusive billionaire Cyrus Rockford who hasn’t been seen in decades (the prevailing rumor is that he’s been dead for years) and on weekends, go out hunting. The womenfolk take care of the kids, the house and occasionally get together in their book clubs. Things are going the way they’ve always gone there for generations.

Glenn Keely (Passmore) is one of the plant’s managers and, rumor has it, a prime candidate for a vice-president’s position. His life is pretty dang sweet; his wife Jenna (Anders) is smart, gorgeous and sexy; his daughter Sandy (McNamara) is the same. His son Lance (Stitt) is growing up to be a fine young man, even if he’s a bit impatient to get satellite TV.

Glenn is a bit of a gun nut; he collects the handguns, some of which are pretty sweet. When Lance decides to show off his dad’s latest purchase to his friends at school, it leads to an accidental discharge of the weapon that results in nothing more wounded than the crossing guard’s pride (and tush) but the thought of what could have happened is enough to give Jenna night terrors. What makes it worse is that none of the men seem to think much of the incident; the school gave his son a slap on the wrist, the sheriff (Heard) looks the other way and Glenn seems more concerned that Lance took the gun without permission than the fact that it went off in a crowded courtyard.

After airing her frustrations to her book club pals, she hits upon a plan; the men in town must give up their guns. Until they do, the women of town will withhold sex from the men. At first the ladies are reticent; will this even work? Getting the other women in town to come on board will be an uphill battle. Nevertheless they do it, the prime ringleaders being the foul-mouthed grandma (Leachman), the sexy Latina next door trying to have a baby (Romero) and the sheriff’s matronly wife (Estabrook).

To Glenn’s chagrin, Jenna’s leadership and determination galvanizes the ladies into an organized group to be reckoned with. At first the men dismiss the women’s stand, figuring it would blow over as soon as they began to miss their husbands embrace but as time goes by, it soon becomes apparent that the ladies aren’t going to give up the fight anytime soon. The spineless mayor (Higgins, channeling Fred Willard) is unable to rally the troops to get control of their women so it falls to an NRA-like organization called the National Gun Organization led by a dour Charlton Heston-worshipper (Bell) to send in the cavalry to rescue the men and their God-given rights to have as many guns as they want. The ladies are in all sorts of trouble until help comes from an unlikely source.

This is the second movie in a year to be based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes about a group of women who refused to make love until their men ceased making war. Quite frankly, associating that ancient play with the modern issue of gun rights vs. gun control is a stroke of genius. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really hold up to the concept; there is a TV movie of the week quality to the film that is quite disappointing.

Anders is a very attractive lead and with the right material could become a solid big screen leading lady. This isn’t the right material; it is riddled with cliches and stereotypes and nearly entirely white faces in the cast. Yes, even Texas has some diversity and more than a token Hispanic couple lapsing into Spanish whenever they get angry. Sorry Hollywood; those of us who are second generation or later view English as a first language and we don’t express our frustrations in Spanish. Just sayin’.

I also find it disconcerting that the filmmakers will throw some sobering facts out there in one breath (such as the number of mass school shootings after Newtown or that the Second Amendment only referred to arming state militias until the Supreme Court decreed that it referred to individual gun ownership in 2008) and then deliver a boner joke with the next. It does a disservice to the material and honestly if I were the parent of a child slain in a school shooting I would find it highly offensive.

This is an equal opportunity offender. Lefties will object to the cultural stereotypes, while conservatives will grouse about the Hollywood liberal gun control bent that the movie obviously has. Others will find the humor crude and vulgar. What it boils down to however is that anyone who loves a good movie will be greatly offended that this movie is far from even being mediocre; this is pure and simple a poorly made, poorly executed film that could have been so much better with sharper satire and fewer trouser tent gags.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, mostly involving erections.
REASONS TO STAY: A film riddled with cliches and stereotypes. The tone is flat and dull. The filmmakers dumb down an important and controversial subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references and sensuality, some brief violence, crude humor and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is at least the fifth movie version of Lysistrata to be filmed, none using the original name or material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 6/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Mechanic: Resurrection

Max Rose


September of his years.

September of his years.

(2015) Drama (Paladin) Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Claire Bloom, Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Dean Stockwell, Illeana Douglas, Fred Willard, Stephanie Katherine Grant, Mort Sahl, Valerie Hurt, Jodie Mann, Joe Frank, Oliver Max, Jonathan Downs, Sarah Waisman. Directed by Daniel Noah

 

From the moment we are born, we begin our (hopefully) long journey down the road to old age and mortality. For those who are closer to the end of that road, the perspective can change and often with it comes bitterness, regret and remorse.

Max Rose (Lewis) is in mourning. His wife of 65 years, Eva (Bloom) has passed away, leaving him lost and empty. However, there is also a rage in him; shortly before her death, Max glanced inside her compact only to find a romantic inscription to his wife, written on November 5, 1959 when the former jazz pianist was in New York recording his one and only record while she remained in Los Angeles. It was a bitter revelation for Max, who now wonders if the only thing in his life he can be proud of – his marriage – was a complete failure like so much else in his life.

His bitterness seems mainly directed at his son Chris (Pollak) whom Max considers to have wasted his life, having gone through one divorce and is beginning a second. The only person Max seems to have any regard for is his granddaughter Annie (Bishé) and who has a relationship with her grandfather that is almost fatherly. Annie’s boyfriend Scott is in Chicago playing with the Philharmonic but Annie is reluctant to join him and Max counsels her to go. Annie for her part finds excuses not to – her job, her father’s health and so on.

After Max has a heart issue, Chris and Annie realize that they need to put him somewhere he can get the medical care he needs and the house is put up on the market much to Max’s contempt. It proves the excuse for Max and Chris to have one confrontation, but there are no fireworks; just surrender. Even Annie thinks Max is being harsh.

But the thing sticking in Max’s craw is the identity of the man who may have been having an affair with his wife. Was it a one-time occurrence or a long-term relationship? Was Max the love of Eva’s life, or the ball and chain that kept her from her one true love? And how was Max going to carry on without the love of his life?

I was looking forward to this film to see Lewis in a rare dramatic role, and the nonagenarian delivers with a frail but forceful performance that shows that the man who has been in show biz for 70 years has the ability to show his teeth once in awhile. There are times that Lewis literally looks lost in the role, which isn’t a bad thing. There are also times where he just seems lost, which is a bad thing. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a capable cast that performs admirably here.

Sadly, the script isn’t worthy of its cast. The dialogue sounds written rather than spoken and overly dramatic more often than not. There is a kind of flat tone to the film that gives me the sense that the filmmakers thought they would attract a much older demographic and is talking down to them like they all have ear horns sticking out of their skulls and have not a square inch of unwrinkled skin. It is painful to see a film so obviously aimed at a specific demographic that is so contemptuous of it.

What the film does get right is the dynamics between Chris, Max and Annie. This feels like real relationship issues and not just a bunch of people reading from a script. The filmmakers understand very well that the dynamics of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within. They don’t explain what the source of the conflict is between Max and his son, and they don’t even try to; the important thing is that the dynamic of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within it.

The ending features a confrontation between Max and his wife’s potential lover (Stockwell) but what should have been an emotionally charged scene comes off bland and proceeds directly into an ending that will leave you shaking your head if not your fist. I will admit that seeing Lewis onscreen was worth it for me specifically, and that Bishé and Pollak both deliver strong performances, as does Bloom in flashbacks where she injects some needed life into the film. Too bad she couldn’t resurrect as a zombie; even a zombie would have more life than most of this disappointing film.

REASONS TO GO: The family dynamics feel authentic. Some fine acting from the leads in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A schmaltzy ending that sabotages any good will the movie had to begin with. Noah tries too hard to make the movie feel heartwarming.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (oh, those French sure love Jerry Lewis) but it wasn’t until this year at the New York Museum of Modern Art’s celebration of Lewis on the occasion of his 90th birthday that the movie was first seen in the United States.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

One More Time with Feeling


Nick Cave in his element.

Nick Cave in his element.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Picturehouse) Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Susie Bick, Thomas Wydler, Earl Cave, Else Torp, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, George Vjestica. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Nick Cave is one of those artists who people either never heard of or fall in love with. His sonorous voice isn’t the kind you associate with pop music and while his songs are beautiful and haunting, they generally have a darkness to them that some find uncomfortable. It isn’t an accident that one of his best albums is entitled Murder Ballads.

Cave had begun the recording of his sixteenth album with his band the Bad Seeds when tragedy struck; his 15-year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff near his Brighton home and died of the injuries he sustained. Cave and his wife Susie Bick were devastated as you can imagine and work on the album stopped for a time.

Now the songs of the album are infused with the presence of the son who is gone. The lyrics are dark and bitter, like a coffee infused with burnt chicory. The tragedy becomes the elephant in the room and in order to keep from answering endless questions about it, Cave enlisted Dominik, whose film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was scored by Cave and his usual partner-in-crime Warren Ellis.

Most of the film is in black and white (there are a couple of color sequences, one involving Cave’s surviving son Earl and a sequence in which Danish soprano Else Torp lends her voice to one of the songs on the album) and that seems perfect for the somber situation, and for Cave’s catalog in general. That’s not to say that this is all ashes and sackcloth however; there is some teasing that goes on, particularly from Ellis who claims that Cave’s hair “never looked better.”

The music is at the center of the film and quite frankly, I was motivated to buy Skeleton Tree almost immediately after arriving home (thank you, eMusic) and I haven’t regretted it since. The music is haunting and beautiful and sad – sad can be intensely beautiful – and will stick with you for a long while. I’m still listening to the tracks from the album in almost constant rotation.

Speaking of constant rotation, one of the annoying things about the movie is that for nearly every song Dominik has his camera circling on a dolly around the piano Cave is playing or the microphone Cave is singing into. There are some lighting effects that go with some of the songs but Dominik could have changed things up a little more from song to song. Frankly I ended up closing my eyes and just letting Cave’s voice wash over me for most of it and maybe that’s the intent. Cave’s voice is raw and real; reading the lyrics on the page are fine and they reveal his anguish and grief, but to really get the truth of his pain one must hear his voice. There are few singers who are as emotionally communicative as Cave is.

Another issue I have with the film is the interviews with Cave, particularly early on in the movie. Often Dominik (I assume it is Dominik doing the interviewing; it could be someone else) interrupts Cave and finishes his sentences. Sometimes Cave says “Yeah, right” but other times he says “No, not really…” as Dominik tries to express what Cave is feeling. A cardinal rule of interviewing on-camera is to let the subject do as much of the talking as possible; you never interrupt them nor put words in their mouth. Your function is to ask a few questions and the occasional follow-up but to keep your mouth shut as much as possible, particularly when you have someone like Cave who is intelligent and thoughtful. I would have preferred to hear more of Cave and less of Dominik.

Dominik is, however, a gifted visual director and some of the images here are amazing and poignant, particularly as the film goes on. Dominik chooses not to say anything specific about the tragedy that clearly haunts Cave so if you were initially unaware of his son’s passing you may end up getting snippets of some sort of unexpressed trauma but it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie that Cave and his wife speak openly about the death of their son and they never tell you specifically what happened. The film’s final image – of the cliff where Arthur Cave spent his final moments – is a haunting one and will stay with you nearly as much as the music that precedes it.

This does make a fine companion piece to the album although I don’t know how much it is going to enhance the listening experience of sitting down in a nice quiet place, turning on the headphones and letting the music of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s expressive voice wash over you. If Dominick’s direction had been less intrusive this easily could have been a contender for best movie of the year. As it is it will certainly merit a certain amount of contention for my top ten list, although likely the second half. Skeleton Tree is more likely to vie for my favorite album of 2016 however, and you might feel the same after seeing this and more importantly, hearing the album.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely amazing. Cave is a thoughtful interview subject. A fascinating look at the creative process for what will be a landmark album. At times, the film is emotionally wrenching.
REASONS TO STAY: Dominik is too intrusive a director. The interviews are poorly conducted.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Other than a screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film debuted on September 8, the day before Skeleton Tree – the band’s sixteenth album – was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listening to Skeleton Tree in a nice quiet place.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Max Rose

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years


The Fab Four in their glory years.

The Fab Four in their glory years.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lester, George Martin, Elvis Costello, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Curtis, Brian Epstein, Kitty Oliver, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Debbie Gendler. Directed by Ron Howard

 

It is safe to say that the Beatles are one of the pop culture touchstones of the 20th century. Their influence on music and the world in general is incalculable. It has been half a century since the Fab Four played a live show and generations have been born since, some not even knowing who they are but regardless feeling the effects of their contribution on popular music.

Beatlemania is something we’re not likely to see again; the emotional effect that the Beatles had on their female fans was something that the world hadn’t seen prior to that (except maybe for Elvis) and not really since; girls would scream nearly non-stop in their presence and faint from the emotional outpouring. It was a phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed and even just having seen it as I did on this documentary it still doesn’t carry the impact it must have to be in that presence.

Their popularity can’t be underestimated either. They are the only band to hold the top five position on the Billboard singles chart in the same week and given how the music industry is today that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. They ushered in the British invasion and paved the way for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others.

The Beatles had a very limited shelf life; essentially they were only making a global impact for seven years before going their separate ways. They only toured for four of those years, and after giving up touring only played together publicly just once – on the rooftop of their Apple Records office in London, which the film appropriately closes with.

Still their touring years were some of their most productive and it was a grueling schedule. They made two movies during those years on top of the grueling tour schedules that would take them to 25 cities in 30 days. It was certainly a different era; their concerts generally lasted about 30 minutes long, including encores. They were the first band to play in stadium-sized venues and often their amplifiers went through the stadium sound system. The screaming of their female fans would be so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves play; drummer Ringo Starr kept the beat by watching his bandmates sway at the microphone so that he’d know where they were in the song.

Director Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in his own right, has compiled archival interviews as well as contemporary ones with the surviving Beatles (Starr and McCartney) and with celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom were at the historic 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York City – Goldberg recalls not thinking of the band in terms of black or white but just as “guys” who gave her a feeling of empowerment that helped her determine her course in life. New Wave legend Elvis Costello remembers not liking the Rubber Soul album because it didn’t sound anything like their previous music, only appreciating what it represented years after the fact. Some of the best insights though come from Larry Kane, a Miami-based reporter who accompanied the band on two of their tours and filed regular reports from the front lines of Beatlemania. His take on the phenomenon is fascinating to say the least.

There is also home movies that the Beatles themselves took, backstage and rehearsal studio audio that shows us how some of their classic songs evolved. And of course plenty of concert footage; we never get a sense at how accomplished musicians they were (and Starr and Harrison were both much underrated in that regard) but we get more of a sense of the power they had over their audience. That power was considerable, too; the band was literally under siege from the press, their fans and their record label for that entire period. Starr remembers not getting a moment to relax for three years and the toll it took, but nearly everyone who was there comments on how unified the band was and how they looked after each other like brothers. That was a far cry from how they ended up, acrimonious and sniping at one another through the press.

I will admit that this is a bit of a puff piece. There isn’t a lot here that is negative and maybe it wasn’t Howard’s intention to look at the band objectively. We do get a sense of their impish sense of humor as well as their resolve; when they found out that the venue in Jacksonville they were going to play at was segregated, they refused to play unless it was full integrated. Manager Brian Epstein had that written into all of their performing contracts from that point forward. They were one of the first performers in history to make that a standard clause in their contract.

Their last concert other than the one-off Apple rooftop concert was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The band was tired and frustrated; Harrison had been expressing dissatisfaction with the live shows and now all of them were picking up on it. They were taken out of their last concert in an armored car with no seats in the back. As the car drove recklessly out of the park the band were jostled about in the back and that was the final straw; they chose as a group to stop touring, even though that was their primary source of income. Canny Brian Epstein, their manager, formed a corporation with him and his four charges as co-chairs; it was the first of its kind and would set the stage for other artist-owned production companies in the performing arts. They would get more control over their career than any entertainer before them.

I will admit to having been a fan of the Beatles since childhood; my parents listened to their music and they were my favorite group from day one. This is a film tailor-made for fans like me and if you love the Beatles, this is pretty much required viewing. It gives you a bit of an insight as to the pressures they were under, their lives on the road and how it drew them closer together. It’s no coincidence that the band began to fracture only after they stopped touring. Still, this is a reminder of a much simpler era, when something like this could happen. We will never see the like of the Beatles again.

REASONS TO GO: Definitely will send you on a trip down memory lane. Amazing footage and amazing music throughout the film. There are some insights into Beatlemania that you may not have had otherwise.
REASONS TO STAY: It is something of a puff piece.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital remastering of the songs for the soundtrack was engineered by Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin who produced the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Meat

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)


In the back alleys of postwar West Germany, things could get pretty dicey.

In the back alleys of postwar West Germany, things could get pretty dicey.

(2015) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Burghart Klauẞner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Michael Schenk, Sebastian Blomberg, Jörg Schüttauf, Stefan Gebelhoff, Pierre Shrady, Gȏtz Schubert, Laura Tonke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Daniel Krauss, Rüdiger Klink, Carolin Stähler, Daniel Krauss, Nikolai Will, Stephan Grossmann, Lavinia Kiessler. Directed by Lars Kraume

 

Few nations have committed atrocities on as large a scale as Nazi Germany did. Following the war and the fall of Hitler, it is understandable that the divided Germany would want to put their deeds behind them, but in fact it was taken to extremes with the Germans often refusing to acknowledge that such atrocities took place – or that those who committed them still roamed free.

Fritz Bauer (Klauẞner) wasn’t one of those. A lawyer of Jewish descent, he had spent time in a concentration camp early on before being deported to Denmark. After the war, he returned home to Frankfurt to resume his career, rising to the position of State Attorney General. One of his obsessions was to see Adolph Eichmann (Schenk), one of the architects of the Final Solution, brought to justice.

Bauer was not a charismatic man but he was a dogged one. Assisted by the equally dogged Karl Angermann (Zehrfeld) who was one of the few operatives in his office he could actually trust – the others either were disinterested in is cause or were actively opposed to it, reporting his moves to higher-ups who had ties to the Nazi regime that might be revealed if former Nazis were brought to trial – he discovered that Eichmann was living under an assumed name in Argentina.

Frustrated at every turn by a government that was patronizing or actively opposing his attempts to bring Eichmann to justice, Bauer would do something that would be considered treason: he informed Israeli’s intelligence agency Mossad of Eichmann’s whereabouts and misled people in his own office as to where that was so that they couldn’t warn Eichmann before the Israeli’s could set up an ambush and take Eichmann out of South America. However, even the Israelis would break Bauer’s heart.

This is a stark, gripping movie that reminded me strongly of the Cold War spy thrillers of the 50s through the 70s, with double and triple crosses going on and a pervasive feeling of paranoia which wasn’t entirely unjustified. Klauẞner who is one of Germany’s leading actors, wears a wig that can only be called Bernie Sanders-esque and resembles one of those eccentric professors who stalks the room while he lectures. Klauẞner wisely doesn’t over-emote, retaining Bauer’s professorial demeanor but showing him to have a will of iron.

Zehrfeld, whom some might remember for his performance in Phoenix is equally good. Angermann looks at Bauer as a mentor and a father figure. Both men have skeletons in their closet that are similar in nature and both men are under pressure to drop the Eichmann pursuit or risk having their closet doors opened. Zehrfeld, a family man with a promising career, is caught between bringing justice to a monster who murdered millions or saving himself by denouncing his mentor and allowing the monster to go free. It’s not an easy choice and Zehrfeld makes us feel Angermann’s anguish.

It should be said that Angermann is actually a composite character – he didn’t exist as portrayed here. It should also be said that Kraume who also co-wrote the movie treats some rumors as fact and fudges a bit on the history. Still, much of what is seen here comes from Bauer’s own journals and reports which only recently became public knowledge. It also brought to light the difficulty in overcoming his own government, although it would only be a few years later that the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials would become reality, again due to Bauer’s persistence.

I found the movie gripping, if a bit slow-moving. Those with limited attention spans might squirm some during the interminable backroom deal brokering and strolls through the streets of Frankfurt, smoking thoughtfully. The subject matter is so fascinating and the performance so riveting that this should definitely be under your consideration to see forthwith as one of the best movies released so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Klauẞner and Zehrfeld in particular were intense. Nicely captures the feeling of a Cold War-era thriller. Nicely illustrates the tunnel vision that nations possess.
REASONS TO STAY: Some liberties were taken with historical fact. A little bit drab.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It garnered the most German Film Awards (a.k.a. the Lolas) nominations this year with nine, with six of the nominations earning wins including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Zehrfeld).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Labyrinth of Lies
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle commences!

Hell or High Water


Chris Pine finds that those "Beam Me Up, Scotty" jokes get old fast.

Chris Pine finds that those “Beam Me Up, Scotty” jokes get old fast.

(2016) Crime Drama (CBS) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon, Gil Birmingham, Buck Taylor, Dale Dickey, William Sterchi, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Debrianna Mansini, Kevin Rankin, Paul Howard Smith, Christopher W. Garcia, Heidi Sulzman, Richard Christie, Gregory Cruz, Amber Midthunder, Kristin Berg. Directed by David Mackenzie

 

Sometimes things happen to us. Other times, we make things happen. There are also occasions when things that happen to us force us to make things happen, things that we would never do under ordinary circumstances. When times are tough, that becomes a far more common occurrence.

A small regional bank in Texas is having its branches getting robbed. The two robbers are very clever and seem to know the workings of each bank thoroughly, although they are prone to making mistakes. The frequency of the robberies gets the attention of the Texas Rangers (not the baseball team) and elder statesman Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), just short of retirement, is assigned to the case along with his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham), who is of Mexican and Indian descent which are both causes for un-PC teasing for Marcus.

Marcus is a dogged detective and he follows the thieves through their next few strikes. He correctly deduces that they are only taking small bills (harder to trace) and seem to be working towards a fixed number. He is confident that given the mistakes they have made that he will catch them soon enough.

As for the bank robbers, they are in reality two brothers. Tanner Howard (Foster) was recently released from jail after a stint for armed robbery. He has a wild streak and can behave unpredictably. His brother Toby (Pine) is more restrained; a family man in the midst of a divorce. The boys’ mother recently passed away and her property, a farm which has been in the family for generations, is about to be foreclosed on by the same bank that they are robbing unless they can pay off the remainder of her loan by Friday of that week. The boys are using a local casino to convert the ill-gotten gains from cash to chips and back to cash again – sometimes with a little extra that Tanner won at the tables.

But the law is closing in as is their deadline. To make matters worse, the boys are having a bit of a disagreement on certain aspects of their plan. Still, they are brothers and blood is thicker than water. They are determined to meet their deadline come hell or high water – and a certain Texas Ranger means to catch them before that.

In the dry dusty desert that has been the summer movie season of 2016 this is like a desert rose. The script is smarter than usual, even if there are a number of tropes present here, like the bank robbers who aren’t really bad guys, the bank as main villain, the brothers who have each other’s backs even when they are squabbling. Blood is certainly thicker than water, but only just; the relationship between the Rangers is portrayed as being as close as that of the brothers Howard. There is a moment of shock late in the film when Hamilton is faced with an unspeakable tragedy from his point of view; he literally loses it for a moment. It is one of Bridges’ best moments as an actor ever.

Pine also does some of his best work as the smarter brother. On the surface it seems that Tanner is the more violent one and the one to be feared but as the movie develops, we discover that Toby is the true rattlesnake who is in many ways even more cold and vicious than his brother, who is more of a ball of fire exploding overhead.

Foster, who is proving to be a very versatile and talented actor, has fun with his role. Tanner is occasionally mean and certainly amoral but he’s loyal to a fault, and Foster captures all of the facets of his personality, making the character kind of an anti-hero and showing both sides of him without putting undue emphasis on one side or the other. It’s a bit of a tightrope he walks but he walks it perfectly.

Mackenzie has some well-regarded films on his filmography including Asylum and Tonight You’re Mine. It surprised me that he is an Englishman; he certainly gets the rhythms and the pulse of West Texas really well. He also was smart enough to hire Nick Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis to do the soundtrack. That’s reason for going to see this right there.

The movie takes place in the midst of economic recession and the reputation of banks, never sterling to begin with, is still as low as ever. Most people believe banks are run by money-grubbing scoundrels who care only about getting every last penny they can for themselves and aren’t above screwing over the working people to get it – largely because that seems to be the case. In a sense, this is a bit of revenge porn for most of us who have been screwed over by financial institutions one way or another, either through predatory loans, outrageous fees and onerous interest rates or all the way down to shitty customer service. Most people these days look at banks pretty much the same way they look at drug cartels and if we can see a movie about a person sticking it to a bank, most of us are quite all right with that. If you’re not okay with that, you might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by the three leads, all worth savoring. The cinematography of the desolate West Texas plains is starkly beautiful. The juxtaposition of the relationships between the brothers and the Rangers is thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: The commentary on economic issues may be unwelcome to conservative sorts.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence and bloodshed, profanity throughout and a couple of scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Pine and Foster also co-starred in The Finest Hours earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The People vs. Fritz Bauer