Berlin, I Love You


How very Berlin of you.

(2019) Romance (Saban) Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Luke Wilson, Jim Sturgess, Mickey Rourke, Jenna Dewan, Emily Beecham, Dianna Agron, Veronica Ferres, Diego Luna, Iwan Rheon, Charlotte Le Bon, Sibel Kekilli, Nolan Gerard Funk, Julia Dietze, Sylvester Groth, Toni Garn, Yvonne Maria Schafer, Pheline Roggan, Robert Stadlober, Rafaëlle Cohen, Alexander Black, Hannelore Elsner. Directed by Dianna Agron, Peter Chelsom, Claus Clausen, Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Daniel Lwowski, Stephanie Martin, Josef Rusnak, Til Schweiger, Massy Tadjedin and Gabriela Tscherniak

 

Veteran travelers tend to not want to make Berlin a destination. As major cities go, it has little to distinguish itself from any other large city – Cleveland, for example – and while there is more of a history in Berlin than Cleveland, the connotations of some unpleasantness 70 years ago lingers on. Berlin is where you go when Munich is fully booked.

The fifth in the Cities in Love series – of which only four have made it to America (a 2014 anthology set in Tbilisi has yet to receive American distribution) which began with Paris Je t’aime back in 2006 features a handful of directors (there are ten here) creating short vignettes set in that particular city and all featuring something to do with love. An “opposites attract” romance between a living statue (Stadlober) and an Israeli singer/activist (Cohen) who take up competing spaces in a par serve as a linking device as they continue to run into each other all over the city.

The vignettes take place in between the linking sequences and include  British aid worker (Knightley) stationed in Berlin bringing home a young refugee kid in “just for a night” while her cantankerous mom (Mirren) is visiting; a jaded, aging lothario (Rourke) hooking up in a hotel bar with a beautiful young woman (Garn) who hides a devastating secret, a stressed-out big budget film director (Wilson) falling in love with the city and Dewan, one of the citizens therein, and so on and so forth.

As a travelogue, the movie works, filming taking place near familiar tourist landmarks but not really exhibiting much thought toward Berlin’s recent checkered past other than through the animated credits sequence. We also get a glimpse of Berlin’s notorious nightclub scene with pulsating beats, a deplorable excess of neon and beautiful people getting happily hammered.

Despite having a fine cast, most of the sequences are curiously flat, as if the directors, knowing they had a limited amount of screen time rather than setting the pace on fire rather left it smoldering, rather than sizzling, giving the overall experience a kind of flatness that is off-putting. These sorts of anthologies depend heavily on the cast and the writing to tell a good story in about ten minutes of screen time, but that happens less often rather than more. To be fair, Wim Wenders’ Angels of Desire (which is referenced here) aside, Berlin is not known for romance and neither will this movie be.

REASONS TO SEE: The cast is excellent.
REASONS TO AVOID: As with most anthologies, some of the segments work, some don’t
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Future installments in the series are said to include Shanghai and Jerusalem, with New Orleans, Delhi and Tokyo to follow.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews: Metacritic: 34100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New York, I Love You
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Hidden Orchard Mysteries: Case of the Air B N B Robbery

Suspiria (2018)


Even the graceful may be made to look grotesque.

(2018) Horror (AmazonChloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Alek Wek, Jessica Harper, Renée Soutendijk, Malgosia Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Fabrizia Sacchi, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Vincenza Modica, Halla Thordardottir. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Those expecting to see a remake of the legendary Dario Argento 1977 horror classic of the same name will be very disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of elements in common with that film here.  But, as Guadagnino himself has said, this is more of an homage than a remake.

Susie (Johnson) is an American dancer, come to Berlin in 1977 to try out for a prestigious modern dance academy. The air in Berlin at the time is vibrant and terrifying; it is the era of the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of the still-fresh scars of the Nazi regime, of the still-in-place Wall dividing the city and where David Bowie prowls around getting ready to record some of the most compelling work of his career.

The academy is cut off from all of that. Presided over by the icy Madame Blanc (Swinton), an acclaimed choreographer of modern dance who is preparing to present one of her most important postwar works, Volk and with her lead dancer, Patricia (Moretz) having had apparently a mental breakdown and disappeared, apparently into one of the radical groups floating around Berlin, Susie falls into that role. However, Patricia’s psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also played by Swinton, nearly unrecognizable under layers of latex and make-up) suspects that her delusions of magic and witchcraft are hiding something else just as sinister and goes about investigating her disappearance like an aging Ellery Queen.

Occasionally horror films come along with many layers designed to make you think and this is one of those films. It has polarized audiences and critics alike; there were several perfect scores given to the film on Metacritic and at least one zero. There is a definitely feminine viewpoint here; there are almost no male roles and the main one is played by a woman (Dr. Klemperer). The academy is a microcosm of divided Berlin, with two distinct camps – one led by Madame Blanc, the other by the equally mysterious Madame Markos (Swinton, again) with divergent points of view of how things ought to be run. The movie may be perceived to be feminist by some, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the feminism is less overt than you might think. Female bodies are not ogled over here and the movie is virtually sexless other than a few odd comments here and there. However, there is no mistaking the stance the film takes on the violence (both physical and otherwise) forced upon women by society, and the objectification of them in general.

There is violence here and some of it is intense. There is a scene in which Susie is rehearsing a scene from the piece while in another room, her movements are visited upon a dancer who has fallen out of favor (Fokina) in nauseating extremes; bones crack, tendons rip, organs are perforated. The sequence goes on for awhile and may be found to be excessive or even unendurable for those who are sensitive to such things.

There are some real nice touches here. Thom Yorke’s score is absolutely superb, one of the best I’ve heard in quite a while. The production design is also quite impressive, diametrically opposed to the original film, eschewing the vibrant color palate of the 1977 film for a more muted, almost drab and cold look. It works nicely given the tone of the film. There is also a cameo by Jessica Harper, star of the 1977 film, as the psychiatrist’s wife near the end of the film that adds a touch of grace.

However, the 2018 version is almost exactly an hour longer than the original and I really can’t find a justification for it. It also begins to go off the rails a bit in the third act although I suspect that many who would be offended by the arthouse aspect of it might have switched off long before then. That would be a shame though; this is a movie that looks at the experience of being a woman in an unflinching and sometimes brutal manner; it’s the kind of movie I would expect that someone like Rose McGowan would make. And maybe, should.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous set design. Thom Yorke’s autumnal score is incredible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit artsy-fartsy towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and ritualistic violence including one death scene that is nauseatingly graphic, as well as some profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yorke becomes the third member of Radiohead to segue into film scoring, following Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Uninvited
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Toxic Beauty

Afterward


Ice, ice baby

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama/1091) Ofra Bloch, Rassam Ajamin, Raneen Jeries, Basel Alyazoum, Samah Jabr, Mohamed Dajari, Johanna Rodenstab, Horst Hoheisal, Alaa Shebada, Anja Behm, Ingo Hasselbach, Thomas Casagrande, Alexander von Plato, Hussain Mbarkhi, David Bloch, Zoe Sloan, Audrey Jacobson. Directed by Ofra Bloch

 

Can a victim become an oppressor? Is there a difference between the Jewish holocaust and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe)? Is it possible to forgive systematic oppression?

Psychoanalyst turned filmmaker Ofra Bloch was born in Jerusalem and lives currently in New York City with her husband, a Holocaust survivor. She had been raised to hate the Germans for inflicting the Holocaust on her people; she had also been raised to hate the Palestinians who, it was drilled into her, would bring about the next Holocaust.

She began to become aware that the Israelis had moved at some point from the oppressed to oppressors. Fascinated by this turn, she decided to talk to Germans, Israelis and Palestinians to get their opinions on the Holocaust and the nakba, the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes that they’d lived in for generations.

The results are fascinating. It’s not a question anyone wants to tackle; suggesting that the Israelis are being oppressive is often met with accusations of antisemitism. Palestinian activist Samah Jabr puts it like this; “Whenever Palestinians have the conversation with Israelis about the conditions in Palestine, the Holocaust is inevitably brought up.” She also refers to the kind of professional victimhood that she and other Palestinians believe that Israel has adopted.

 

But it’s hard to feel that way when faced with footage of the horrors of the Holocaust. One Palestinian professor, Mohammed Dajari, was fired for setting up a trip to Auschwitz for his students. An inability to see the other side’s viewpoint isn’t just endemic to American politics.

Bloch comes off sort of like Michael Moore if the gadfly had been born a Jewish yenta. Her questions are intelligent and the discussions are compelling and these are the kinds of conversations that we need to have – but never do. Yes, the movie has a somewhat languid pace and there is a bit of meandering between the interviews – a tighter structure would have been appreciated. Nonetheless, this is one of the most powerful films of the new year and one well worth seeking out, particularly for those who want a different viewpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a question nobody wants to discuss. The interviews are very powerful, very revealing. Really looks at both Jewish and Palestinian viewpoints. Some of the footage is ghastly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a very measured pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images of violence and torture, as well as archival footage from the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at DOC NYC 2018. It is only just now receiving a brief theatrical release from Abramorama, followed up by a home video/VOD release by 1091 Studios.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Quezon’s Game

Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest


Your own personal Jesus.

(2019) Music Documentary (Trafalgar/1091) Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher, Cristian Flueraru, Dicken Schrader, Milah Schrader, Korben Schrader, Daniel Cassus, Indra Amarjargal, Elizabeth Dwyer, Carine Puzenat, Christian Eigner, Peter Gordeno. Directed by Anton Corbjin

 

Being a diehard fan of a band requires the kind of loyalty that most of us don’t ever give even our significant other. We stay with them through thick and thin, through albums that suck and even through band breakups. It’s a kind of unconditional love that is more than reciprocated; their music helps define us, sees us through our darkest moments, defines our identities. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

Depeche Mode has come a long way in their nearly 40-year existence, from a New Wave cult band of upbeat synthesizer-based songs to a stadium band of portentous and deep, bleak pop hits. As a band, they’ve been through drug addiction, near-death experiences, fame and fortune (and everything that comes with it) and the complete makeover of the industry that they’re a part of. Through it all, they’ve had a connection with their fans that has bordered on religious zeal.

We meet six of them who are attending the final concert in their 2017-18 World Spirits tour in Berlin; Indra Amarjargal is a tour guide in Ulan Bator, Mongolia who lives with her grandmother in a “typical Communist apartment” where she has lived her entire life. Her stepfather introduced her to the music of Depeche Mode, watching concert footage on the Internet. The music connected to Indra initially before the lyrics since she spoke no English at the time; she is fluent in it now and the lyrics have only cemented her love for the band.

Elizabeth Dwyer is a half-African American, half-Irish-American who didn’t get the memo that people of color were supposed to be into hip-hop. She took a lot of grief growing up because of her love for New Wave music but when undergoing chemotherapy for a particularly deadly sort of breast cancer, the music got her through. Cristian Flueraru, who grew up in Romania during the dark days of Ceauşescu learned English by translating the band’s lyrics for friends who were also into their music.

Dicken Schrader became an Internet sensation when the Bogota-based dad made videos of he and his son Korben and his daughter Milah playing Depeche Mode songs with toy instruments. The band keeps the three united, even though the children now live with their mother in Miami. Daniel Cassus, growing up gay in Brazil, took solace in the band’s music, eventually moving to Berlin where he got the courage to come out to his parents. Carine Puzenat suffered permanent amnesia at age 25; the only memory she could retain was the music of Depeche Mode. That music got her through seven years of deep depression.

Much of the interview footage is intercut with concert footage. Strictly speaking, this is a neither/nor: not a concert film per se so while there is footage from the show, it might prove frustrating to fans looking to see a complete show. It’s not a band documentary; we never hear or see the band except onstage and don’t get any of their insight at all. This is a fan’s documentary, but then again so was 101 in many ways – a previous documentary made by Corbjin about the band.

This is very much a movie for fans of the band. Casual fans probably won’t find this as interesting. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the diversity of the types of fans the band has but that is true of any band of sufficient popularity. Yes, the stories are compelling but you could find six fans of just about any band of sufficient popularity that are just as compelling. So basically, what we are left with is a movie that is very dependent on your opinion of the band. Those who love the band will likely love the movie. Those who don’t likely won’t. This will neither make new fans nor alienate old ones. My recommendation to you depends on how into the band you are. Judge for yourself if the film is something that is essential viewing for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes at the concert from a fan’s perspective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not a lot of insight into the band themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fans profiled here were selected via a contest on the band’s Facebook page.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 101
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Christopher Robin

Cold War (Zimna wojna)


Love and war are often indistinguishable.

(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

 

We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.

In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.

One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.

As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.

But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.

The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.

The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.

Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.

Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Golem

Snowflake (Schneeflöckchen)


Even angels can’t get the blood stains out of their white robes.

(2017) Comedy Thriller (Artsploitation) Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar, Xenia Assenza, David Masterson, Gideon Burkhard, Alexander Schubert, David Gant, Adrian Topol, Antonio Wannek, Sven Martinek, Anjela Hobrig, Mathis Landwehr, Martin Goeres, Selam Tadese, Eskindir Tesfay, Alexander Wolf, Bruno Eyron, Stephen M. Gilbert, Judith Hoersch, Katja Wagner. Directed by Adolfo Kormerer

 

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord according to the Bible. In the movies, vengeance belongs to any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane willing to go far enough to achieve it. There is a reason, however, why God reserves vengeance for Himself.

This madly Meta German film begins with two Turkish men eating dolme kebabs in a Berlin shop. One likes the dolme, the other doesn’t. As they leave, we realize that a massacre has occurred in the shop. The two men – Tan (Acar) and Javid (Brojerdi) – calmly steal a car and discover in the back seat a screenplay. Curiously, the screenplay seems to predict everything the two say and do. Unnerved, they set out to find the man who wrote it.

The man turns out to be a somewhat rumpled dentist (Schubert) who has no idea what is going on. The two have other issues in that a mysterious woman named Eliana (Assenza) wants to see them dead for murdering her parents. She and her bodyguard Carson (Masterson) set out to meet Carson’s dad (Gant) who believes he is God and just might be. Talk about having Daddy issues! Anyway, the Almighty puts them in touch with a rogue’s gallery of assassins, including cannibals Bolek (Topol) and Dariusz (Wannek) who wear animal masks with Dariusz communicating only by squealing like the pig mask he wears. There’s also maniacal assassin Victor (Martinek) and a pair named Fumo (Tesfay) who is blind and Rashid (Tadese) who is not. The two targets have the benefit of beautiful guardian angel Snowflake (Hoersch) but also the wild card of superhero Hyper Electro Man (Landwehr) and would-be dictator Winter (Burkhard).

If that sounds like a handful, it is. This is a genre-bending, boundary-pushing mash-up that is as unique and totally original a movie you’ll see this year and maybe this decade. The movie boasts an extremely complicated but beautifully connected plot that on paper seems to be utterly senseless but once the final credits start rolling make absolute sense. This is the kind of movie that Quentin Tarantino would love.

The performances are solid throughout. Most of the actors are better known in Europe if they’re known anywhere, but despite the film’s microscopic budget they managed to cast some extremely talented actors – and got them to work for nothing.

The film is set in a post-economic collapse Berlin which is overrun by crime but people nonetheless go along with living their lives as normally as possible knowing that a trip to the grocery store – or to a dolme shop – could be fatal. That sounds a lot like the present day United States to me.

The humor here is biting and sometimes jarring and even whimsical and the action is well-staged. Most of the characters in the movie are pretty reprehensible in one way or another; seeking vengeance has a way of corrupting the soul and nearly everyone in the film is after revenge for one reason or another.

This was a most unexpected and welcome surprise; I hadn’t heard much about the film and even the distributor gave it merely a gentle push. I suppose this isn’t for everyone – some might find it a bit scattershot – but it certainly resonated with me. This is easily one of the best films of the year and one I would recommend to any film lover anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: A unique and original movie. The performances are solid all around. The story is engaging and the humor black as coal. It’s a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Monty Python.
REASONS TO STAY: The film’s a bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity along with violence and gore, as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chainsaw that Javid carries around in the movie is actually an electric one; the power cord was taped to the side so that it gave the illusion that it was gas-powered.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Fire
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Favourite

Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

Red Sparrow


Misogyny? Wellllll….

(2018) Espionage Thriller (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Sergei Polunin, Sasha Frolova, Sebastian  Hulk, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicole O’Neill, Kristof Konrad, Hugh Quarshie, Kinscö Pethö. Directed by Francis Lawrence

While this is set in recent years, Red Sparrow could very easily be mistaken for a Cold War-era spy thriller by John Le Carré or those of his ilk. At the center is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who has had to move on to other career choices when her ballet career is cut brutally short. She is sent by a well-meaning but corrupt relative slash government official to a school for spies, which she disdainfully calls “whore school.” There she’s taught to use her sexuality as a weapon and the rest of her body as well. Her assignment is to make contact with American agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) but whether or not she is following orders remains to be seen.

This doesn’t particularly add anything to the espionage thriller genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, enough so that the studio sent an e-mail pleading with critics to reveal as little about the plot as possible which in this case is justified – the less you know about what actually happens, the better your enjoyment will be of the film.

The surprising thing about the movie is star Jennifer Lawrence. She has been for several years now one of the most reliable and talented actresses in Hollywood, but this one she falls quite a bit short. Her Russian accent is unbelievable and it slips throughout the movie. Lawrence is a lot of things but she is not a ballet dancer; she doesn’t move like one and any woman who has been through the kind of training that lands you a spot on the Bolshoi is going to have a certain elegance and grace in her every movement.

This is pretty much standard spy stuff, although granted with a surfeit of graphic mayhem, torture and yes, rape. I think some women, particularly those who are sensitive to how women are portrayed as sex objects, are going to have some serious problems with this. It’s not quite misogynistic but it’s close. This is one well worth skipping which is a first in J-Law’s otherwise glittering career. I guess she’s just due for a misstep.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of Cold War-era espionage thrillers will love this. Rampling and Irons deliver swell performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s too much rape and torture – there’s too much of everything (it’s too long). J-Law’s Russian accent keeps slipping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is severe violence, torture, rape, sexual content, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tomb Raider

Atomic Blonde


This is what a femme fatale looks like.

(2017) Action (Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Attila Arpa, Martin Angerbauer, Lili Gessler, Declan Hannigan, Daniel Bernhardt, Sara Natasa Szonda. Directed by David Leitch

 

Hitchcock famously had a thing about icy blondes; along comes a film that may have the best one yet. For one thing, Charlize Theron isn’t just a master manipulator – she can kick quantum ass. Here, set to a pulsing and throbbing soundtrack and a cornucopia of mayhem she becomes the coolest and sexiest assassin of them all – drinking, smoking and seducing her way to Bond’s title.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent in Berlin days before the Wall fell in November 1989 to retrieve a list of double agents that, should the Soviets get their hands on it, would mean the end of a goodly number of high-value assets, to use spy film terminology. Broughton, who also has an agenda of her own, is assisted by the none-too-trustworthy station chief who in the dry words of her MI-6 handler (Jones) “has gone native.” Basically she goes looking for the list and every step of the way she gets attacked by goons and beats the snot out of them while getting her share of lumps as well.

There are some amazing action sequences here, particularly one set in an abandoned apartment building that is as brutal and as realistic a fight as you’re ever going to see. Lorraine dishes out the pain but gets her own share of it as well and even though this is set up in many ways as a distaff Bond film, this feels more in tune with the real world. The soundtrack of mainly Euro-New Wave (heavy on the Depeche Mode, Nena and Siouxsie and the Banshees) will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was young during that era i.e. people my age.

The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City gets more convoluted as the film wears on but the pace is always frenetic and you’re never more than two or three minutes away from another breathtaking action scene. 2017 has been the year of the renaissance of action movies (and of horror movies as well but that’s for another review) and this one is right up there among the best of a year that brought us Baby Driver, Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard among others. That’s some fine company to be included in.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are stunning. The 80s soundtrack is perfectly matched to the action. Theron takes an unforgettable character and runs with it. As spy films go, this one is much more realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets a bit convoluted and the ending is not unexpected.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and violence as well as some graphic sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Charlize Theron cracked two teeth during the course of filming the action sequences for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Verizon, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knight and Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Shape of Water

The Fate of the Furious


Why so angry>

(2017) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju,, Patrick St. Esprit, Janmarco Santiago, Luke Hawx, Corey Maher, Olek Krupa, Alexander  Babara, Eden Estrella. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

There was a big question mark hanging over the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise; with co-star Paul Walker gone, could the series continue to reach the heights it achieved with Furious 7? Well, in terms of box office and spectacle, the answer turned out to be yes. But does it hold up with the best of the films in the franchise?

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is on his honeymoon with his girl Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, doing what most new husbands do on their honeymoon; get involved in a street race. He is also approached by Cypher (Theron), a world class hacker who has something on Dom but we’re not sure what. His wolfish smile, which looks for all the world like he’s displaying his fangs, turns into a world class scowl – see picture above.

During the next mission with his crew, Dom betrays them leaving Hobbs (Johnson) holding the bag, Cypher holding some Russian nuclear codes and the team unable to believe that Dom would turn on them. The world thinks Dom has gone Rogue but Mr. Nobody (Russell) thinks differently, even after Dom and Cypher attack their headquarters in New York City. Dom flees and Cypher uses her special skills to take control over every computer-enabled car in Manhattan, raining down cars on the team like a really bad hailstorm.

Cypher is after a Russian nuclear sub and with her launch codes could hold the world hostage for a tidy amount of cash but Letty, Mr. Nobody and the until-recently-incarcerated Hobbs have other plans, and they’re going to get some reinforcements of the most unexpected kind. Friend and foe will unite to take on this deadly femme fatale.

Now, I’m not going to beat around the bush; the action sequences are absolutely outstanding. The New York sequence is right there as is the climactic scene in which Dom’s crew chase down the submarine over ice – don’t even ask for sense here. Nothing here makes any. What we have is just cars going fast, things going boom and attractive guys and gals at the wheels of cars we couldn’t possibly afford. What better fantasy is there for a red-blooded American?

I think that the instructions here were to go big and Gray as well as screenwriter Chris Morgan may have taken it too much to heart. This is more in the James Bond territory now than what was once a simple underground street racing movie featuring a bunch of LA guys in wife beaters driving some cool midlife crisis compensators. There are gadgets, CGI and not a whole lot of character development which may be because there are way too many characters here. Too many to keep track of, anyway.

I wasn’t a fan of this franchise initially but starting with the fourth installment I began to get into it. Unfortunately, this is a giant step backwards and while it’s billion dollar worldwide box office guarantees an ninth episode (there will also be a tenth which has already been dated by Universal), I’m not looking forward to it with quite the anticipation of the previous few installments.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are great. You can’t go wrong with a heavyweight cast like this one.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest entry in the franchise since Tokyo Drift. There are too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of violence and action, some sensuality and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were rumors that Diesel and Johnson were having some personal difficulties with one another; after Johnson posted his frustrations online, the two met privately and resolved their differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Cyclotron