A Different Set of Cards


Sometimes the game can get nasty.

(2016) Crime (108 Media) Adrian Linke, Jutta Dolle, Tim-Olrik Stoneberg, Guido Grollmann. Directed by Falko Jakobs

 

In the scheme of things the outcome of our lives often depends on circumstance. People who are born into poverty, for example, may not have the opportunities of those born into wealth and privilege. Turn over an unfriendly card and you’re a drug dealer; turn over a different card and you’re a police officer. So much of life falls on random chance.

In this low-budget German crime thriller, four people gather to play a game of poker. The narrator, Ben (Linke), watches the other three players like a hawk, trying to get a sense of their technique. One, a bearded badass (Stoneberg), is a trash talker who may slap you as soon as look at you. Another, a nervous bald man (Grollmann), is fearful and nervous; his game shows he can be easily rattled. Finally, a femme fatale (Dolle) is the wild card; Ben can’t really read her style at all.

These four players are actually playing a metaphorical card game; they are players in a drug dealer gone wrong. The badass is the buyer, who is strangely called The Salesman; the femme fatale is the seller, enigmatically called The Unknown. Ben himself is the buyer’s partner, only getting involved if things go south; he is The Accomplice. Finally, the nervous baldy is The Cop who is messing up the deal.

But Ben muses that this scenario could be a whole lot different if the players shifted roles. Ben becomes The Cop, the badass becomes The Unknown, the nervous bald guy becomes The Salesman and the femme fatale is The Accomplice. The outcome changes accordingly. And so it goes, as it turns out.

The concept is an interesting one and the same four actors keep the characters relatively intact even as their circumstances change. Jakobs, who co-wrote, edited, lensed and scored the film – I told you this was a low-budget affair – shows a remarkable confidence both as a writer and a director and manages to pull off what could have been a complete mess in less capable hands.

There is a distinctly film noir tone here – in fact the film was selected for a Los Angeles film noir festival earlier this year but with also a European flair. The use of light and shadow marks this very much as German as for whatever reason German filmmakers seem to be the most savvy filmmakers in the world generally in this aspect of filmmaking. The poker game segments are in black and white, adding to the noir feel.

Jakobs the writer wisely keeps the action to mainly two locations; a darkened room where the poker game takes place and a deserted warehouse where the drug deal segments happen. He also has only four actors in his cast; a lot of young filmmakers could learn a thing or two about putting together a great story in an affordable environment from Jakobs. What budget the film had seems to have been used wisely; the action sequences are well-staged and the gore is also done professionally without being too over-the-top.

Where the filmmaker falls a bit short is in the poker metaphor; it becomes a bit intrusive and feels forced the longer the movie goes on. I would have preferred more of the drug deal segments and less of the players sitting around the card table. However, there is a nice twist at the end which while not super original was at least unexpected and gave the movie what a lot of movies these days lack; a fitting ending.

I was only able to find one other review online for this so it hasn’t gotten a ton of press although it played the American film festival circuit somewhat extensively since its debut last year in Europe. It is widely available on VOD and while the jump cuts that Jakobs uses to distraction may mark this as a green filmmaker trying to establish a style, the things that work here work really well. Jakobs and his cast all have promising futures and I hope to see them all again sometime.

REASONS TO GO: The shifting roles is an interesting conceit. The film has a distinctly Germanic noir feel.
REASONS TO STAY: The poker metaphor gets old after awhile. There is a surfeit of jump cuts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English language version of the film was dubbed by the German actors, accents and all.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memento
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
D-Love

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RoboCop (2014)


RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

(2014) Science Fiction (MGM/Columbia) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson. Directed by Jose Padilha

Military drones have become over the past 12 months something of a cause célèbre, although drones have been in use for years. In the near future, those drones will be even more sophisticated – human control may well be entirely unnecessary. However most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of life and death being doled out by machines.

Pat Novak (Jackson) begs to differ. The host of the right-wing news magazine show The Novak Element thinks that having robots in law enforcement would be a very good thing. However, existing laws in the United States prevent drones and robots being used in a military or law enforcement fashion on U.S. soil. Novak is campaigning to change all that.

Raymond Sellars (Keaton) would like to see him succeed. As the CEO of OmniCorp, the multinational corporation that supplies robotic devices to the military and to international law enforcement, he’s chomping at the bit to get at the virgin U.S. market but is frustrated that public opinion is against him. However, he knows that given the right stimulation, public opinion can change. What the machine needs is a human element.

Cue Alex Murphy (Kinnaman). An honest cop on the Detroit Police Department, he is chasing a  criminal gang leader named Vallon (Garrow) whose investigation by other cops on the force has stalled. An inadvertent miscue by a lowlife gun dealer gives him and his partner Jack Lewis (Williams) an opportunity to connect Vallon to actual crimes and put him away. Unfortunately, someone tips off Vallon and Lewis gets shot for their troubles.

Realizing that Murphy is not going to give up until he gets an arrest, Vallon arranges for Murphy’s car to be wired with an explosive device. It goes off, critically injuring the cop in full view of his wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (Ruttan).

This gives Sellars the perfect opportunity. Brilliant cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Oldman) can rebuild Alex; he has the technology. He can give Murphy all the advantages of being a robot while still retaining his human control. However, there are glitches. A machine doesn’t hesitate or consider human consequences; it just acts. Murphy is held back by having a conscience and emotions. Norton reluctantly must delete these items from the programming.

In his RoboCop role, Murphy scarcely even responds to his family who quickly realize that something is wrong. Norton isn’t happy about the situation either – the whole point was to retain both the human and machine and what he has created is essentially an automaton with some organic material. Nonetheless RoboCop is a huge success and Sellars is getting exactly what he wants – a repeal of the laws that keep his company from profiting in America. However, when Murphy’s human side begins to reassert itself, RoboCop becomes expendable in a hurry.

The 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed feature was more of an over-the-top satire of consumerism as well as social commentary on urban decay and the ultimate soullessness of our society. It was most definitely a product of its time. Brazilian director Padilha (making his English language debut) is far more subtle but no less satirical, but with a little bit more thought beneath the satire – what constitutes humanity and at what point do we cease being human? He also asks a question that is very much one that should be getting asked more often – is trading freedom for security a wise idea?

I appreciate undertones of that nature, and give the movie points for it. However, movies of an action/sci-fi bent also need to be entertaining and for the most part, this one is. Kinnaman has a facial resemblance to Peter Weller (who originated the role) but in the Alex Murphy scenes shows a little more warmth than Weller radiated. He does surprisingly well as RoboCop and gets the right movement that you’d expect from a robot.

Michael Keaton is one of those actors that you don’t realize you miss until he shows up for an infrequent role. He is perfect for Sellars, making him almost likable despite his black heart. Only near the end of the movie do we see Sellars’ true colors but by then Keaton’s sucked us in. Oldman also manages to bring the conflicted nature of Norton to the fore and show both sides of the coin equally. Cornish is, I think, supposed to act as the conscience for the movie but doesn’t quite jell there. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome as OmniCorp’s prejudiced chief of security.

While the CGI is good (especially a squirm-inducing scene in which we see Murphy without the RoboCop armor) and the action decent, the story has a fractured element to it and seems to be travelling in all sorts of directions. Reportedly, the studio was extremely involved in the film and frustrated Padilha’s creative control to the extent that he made some unwise comments which he later recanted. However, the movie does show all the earmarks of studio interference which is never a good thing. Too many RoboCooks spoil the RoboBroth.

Despite the critical bashing it’s received, the movie is decent enough entertainment. If you go in expecting the same humor as the original, you’re not going to like this much. In fact, this version could have used a little more humor which it mostly gets from the Novak show segments that open the movie and are shown intermittently throughout. I would have been interested to see what Padilha’s vision for the film would have turned out to be although I understand that the movie’s budget became an issue in that regard. I suspect that he could have turned this into a better film than it turned out to be – although what he did produce is pretty good in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent entertainment value. Kinnaman does a fine job as does Oldman and Keaton.

REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and unfocused, a sure sign of studio interference.  

FAMILY VALUES:  While not as violent as the 1987 original, there are plenty of bullets flying and some mayhem. There’s also a few choice bad words here and there as well as a disturbing image of the remains of Alex Murphy after the bomb blast.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman have both been involved in the Batman franchise; Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s two films, Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Norton’s trilogy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Total Recall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hysteria

Café


Jennifer Love Hewitt wonders why “Ghost Whisperer” got canceled.

(2011) Drama (Maya Entertainment) Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega, Madeline Carroll, Daniel Eric Gold, Michaela McManus, Khan Baykal, Gavin Bellour, Derek Cecil, Adam Shapiro, Richard Short, Olivia Hoff, Katie Lowes, Hubbel Palmer, Clayton Prince. Directed by Marc Erlbaum

 

A coffee house, a neighborhood place to sit, hang out, surf the web and just talk over a cup of coffee with a friend. Every neighborhood worth its salt has one, whether it be a Starbucks or a local joint, unique to its environment. Some however are much more unique than others.

This particular café has a pair of baristas – Claire (Hewitt) and Todd (Gold). Todd has a thing for Claire, but she’s in a relationship with a brutal, abusive jerk (Bellour) and he’s what you might call a little bit on the mousy side. Just a little bit.

It also has a cast of regulars – a writer (Short) who has a secret connection to Todd. A drug dealer (Kennedy) who is beginning to get the idea that he needs a career change. A married man (Cecil) who attends the movies with a woman (McManus) whom he is desperately attracted to. A cop (Prince) who is looking for his cousin who is a junkie and also a regular at the café.

All of which is witnessed by a man (Palmer) on a laptop who gets a video message from a young girl named Kelly (Lowes) who claims that the café is a computer generated environment she created. The man is at first skeptical but when the programmer makes some things happen, he realizes it’s the truth. He realizes he is face to face with his world’s God.

This is a bit of an allegory, but it’s far from being preachy although there are certainly some Christian overtones. At least you aren’t hit over the head with it, as some faith-based films are prone to doing. No, this can be taken just as easily as a treatise on the nature of reality. Whether the creator is a computer programmer, an all-powerful entity or a series of random events, our existence is shaped by the knowledge – or ignorance – of that which created us.

I have to admit I didn’t expect much from this film, not hearing much of a buzz about it but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie has a great deal of heart and I found myself feeling very comfortable in the café, like one I was familiar with and hung out at all the time which I suspect was the goal of the filmmakers in the first place.

Hewitt is one of those actresses who sometimes doesn’t get the credit that she deserves because of her face and figure which are both spectacular. She’s also a gifted actress who sometimes doesn’t get parts that suit her but here she plays a little bit out of her comfort zone as a battered girlfriend and she does a stellar job.

In fact the entire cast does a pretty solid job. Some of the storylines work better than others (while I like the two characters from the movie infidelity storyline, was it really necessary to the plot?) as is usually the case in movies like this. However, the focus is Gold and Hewitt to a large degree (which is a bit strange given the whole Avatar-Programmer storyline which is the crux of the plot) and they carry it off nicely.

This is probably going to be a little hard to find but worth the effort. It’s a charming film that asks some pretty big questions, doesn’t lead you towards any set of answers and doesn’t seem to conform to any specific philosophy. I like pictures that have both brains and heart – we humans are possessed of both and films that cater to both of them are both rare and appreciated.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble piece. Had more heart than I anticipated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all the storylines work as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some bad language, some drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in a working café in West Philadelphia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diner

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Molly