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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The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)


The Girl On The Train

Emilie Duquenne & Catherine Deneuve react to the news that Herman Cain is making set visit.

(2009) Drama (Strand) Emilie Dequenne, Michel Blanc, Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Demy, Ronit Elkabetz, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Jeremy Quaegebeur, Djibril Pavade, Alain Cauchi, Amer Alwan, Melaine Leconte, Raphaeline Goupilleau. Directed by Andre Techine

 

What motivates people to lie? To deliberately mislead people, to say that something is so that isn’t? Often, we don’t know ourselves why we do it – generally it is to attract some kind of attention, the kind that makes us feel better about ourselves. But what happens when it gets out of hand?

Jeanne (Duquenne) is the sort of girl who floats through life like a leaf in a stream. She rollerblades through Paris with her headphones on, her music shutting out everything and everyone. She lives at home with her mother Louise (Deneuve). Louise runs a day care center, and gently urges her daughter to get a job, which Jeanne is less enthusiastic about. Louise contacts an old lover, Samuel Bleistein (Blanc) who is now a high-powered lawyer in Paris to set up an interview for Jeanne but that goes disastrously. Jeanne’s resume is rather thin and her diffident responses reveal that she doesn’t have a whole lot of enthusiasm either.

What she is enthusiastic about is Franck (Duvauchelle) who is training for the French Olympic Wrestling team. Franck is a bit of a bad boy which appeals to Jeanne, and when a shopkeeper-friend of Franck’s ask him to move into his apartment above the shop so that he can watch over his stuff while he is away on an extended trip, Jeanne moves in there with him.

However, things go horribly wrong there, causing Jeanne to move back home and her frustration and anger boils over. When she shows up at home with a swastika carved in her stomach, some of her hair cut off and her clothes in tatters, she tells her shocked mum that a group of North Africans had accosted her on the train and believing her a Jew because she was carrying the lawyer’s card, beaten her up.

The incident becomes a cause célèbre in France with the media making Jeanne the center of attention of a nation. The attention makes Jeanne uncomfortable and Louise thinks she knows why – she believes that the attack never happened and that her daughter made it up out of whole cloth. Why, she does not know but she does know that the truth will come out eventually, as it usually does.

Director Techine is a veteran of French cinema who has some marvelous films to his credit, My Favorite Season among them. This, his most recent film to date, is based on an actual incident that occurred in France. However, it isn’t the anti-Semitism that really is the focus of this story but of the girl, the one who was the center of the controversy. Why she did what she did (and there are no real answers given, at least none that make any  sense) and how it affected two families – her own and the Bleisteins, whose grandson Nathan (Quaegebeur) is about to have his bar mitzvah and is dealing with problems between his estranged parents Alex (Demy) and Judith (Elkabetz). Throughout the movie the emphasis is on the family dynamics, which is to Techine’s mind (and mine to be honest) the more interesting subject.

Duquenne is an able actress and despite being 30ish manages to play much younger very effectively. She gives Jeanne a waif-like quality as well as that diffidence I mentioned earlier. Jeanne is crowned by charming curly hair, but it is an empty crown – she seems happiest when she is tuned out from everything and tuned in to herself.

Deneuve is the grand dame of French actresses. Her compassionate heart is Louise’s most striking feature; Louise is a loving parent but somehow seems to love her daycare charges a little more than her own daughter who baffles her in many ways. That is often the way when it comes to mothers and daughters. Louise doesn’t know how to reach Jeanne which is also something parents wrestle with. It’s not Deneuve’s most striking performance but it is a realistic one.

The Girl on the Train is one of those movies that seems a bit unremarkable when first you see it but the more you think about it, the better it gets. Like good French wine, it ages not only in the barrel but in memory as well and we all know how much age benefits good wine, no matter the vintage.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and a bit of bad language, as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $305,140 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Underworld Awakening