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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Chi-Raq


Lysistrata gets real.

Lysistrata gets real.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick, Anya Engel-Adams, Ebony Joy, Erin Allen Kane, Michelle Mitchenor, Felicia Pearson, La La Anthony. Directed by Spike Lee

Violence in the streets has reached epidemic proportions, with homicides in the city of Chicago, one of America’s great cities, now higher than the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of American soldiers. There is a war in the streets of Chicago, mainly being waged by street gangs, and the innocent are being caught in the crossfire as they often are in war. It’s so bad that the residents of the embattled South Side where much of the violence is centered have taken to calling their home town Chi-Raq, a merging of Chicago and Iraq which in their eyes the Windy City has become. They’re not wrong.

Director Spike Lee has turned his gaze towards the problem and has come up with a unique viewpoint. Adapting the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes and setting it in modern-day Chicago, Lee makes the bold move of putting the dialogue into rhyming couplets – just as Aristophanes did. Utilizing a narrator named Dolmedes (Jackson) who acts as kind of a, if you’ll excuse the expression, Greek chorus, he tells the tale of two warring gangs; the Spartans, who wear purple and who are led by the passionate Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper with a rap sheet, and the Trojans, who wear orange and are led by the humorless one-eyed Cyclops (Snipes).

After an attempt on Chi-Raq’s life misfires, leaving a member from each gang badly injured, Chi-Raq and Lysistrata go back to her crib and do what comes naturally. The fire they are making suddenly becomes a bit too hot; Cyclops has set fire to the apartment building in an attempt to flush out Chi-Raq but that, too, fails.

Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen (Bassett) across the street, a woman who preaches non-violence and doesn’t approve of Lysistrata’s lifestyle or choice in men. Lysistrata at first is not real happy about Miss Helen’s criticism, but all that changes when a young girl, the daughter of Irene (Hudson), is caught in the crossfire during a gang shootout and is killed. Local preacher-activist Fr. Mike Corridan (Cusack) thunders from his pulpit and urges his flock to change their ways.

When Lysistrata hears of a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee who convinced the women of that war-torn country to withhold sex from their men until peace was declared – and it was – she realizes that something like that could work in Chicago too, but she’ll have to convince the ladies of the various gang members on both sides which is no easy task since there’s plenty of suspicion to go around on both sides. However, all the women are tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing their children murdered, tired of seeing their men murdered. It’s time to make a difference, and the women decide to do just that. Their sex strike spreads to the prostitutes and phone sex girls, then to other cities. Soon men around the world are suffering blue balls, and the women seem to have the upper hand. However, the men won’t take this lack of lying down…lying down.

This is Spike Lee returning to his roots as it were, creating a movie that’s both ambitious and ballsy. How many directors do you know would adapt an ancient Greek play, set the dialogue in rhyme and infuse it with a rap soundtrack? Not damn many. Okay, just one.

Lee can sometimes have the touch of an elephant when making a point, but few excel at satire better than he. This is overtly a musical, but not in a West Side Story kind of fashion. This is at times a rap video but I do believe that’s part of the satire. He has gone into this territory before, with his casts breaking into song and dance numbers, but there is still a subversive flavor about the way he does it.

Likewise the humor can be big and brawny, but it tends to be more successful when it’s rapier-like or playful. Lee is not above poking fun at African-American icons or at himself for that matter, but occasionally he misfires when going after broader targets, like the National Guard general who comes off as a cornpone Confederate. That sequence doesn’t work and will probably hit Southerners the same way minstrel shows hit African-Americans. I suppose though that there is a bit of justice in those type of reverse stereotypes.

There are plenty of powerful performances here but none better than Parris as Lysistrata. Lee has a history of celebrating the strength and pride of African-American women throughout his films, and Parris may be the best he’s ever had. Not only is she a drop-dead, make a preacher kick a hole in a stained glass window gorgeous, she carries the movie’s sensibilities without being strident. She is super sexy when she needs to be (which is often) but also gentle and nurturing when she is called to be (which isn’t often). It’s a nuanced performance that just reeks of star potential.

Already stars, Jackson and Cusack have some great moments as well. Jackson is jaunty as the narrator, showing up in loud, colorful suits and outrageous hats, looking like a cross between a pimp in a 70s Blaxploitation movie and a tap dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical. Jackson keeps it light, which makes the movie work a lot better than if the tone was darker. Cusack has a powerful moment when he delivers a sermon at the little girl’s funeral, preaching until he goes hoarse, reiterating to me why he’s one of my very favorite actors. Bassett provides gravitas, and Hudson shows that she continues to be one of the best actresses in Hollywood with her brief but emotionally powerful role as the murdered girl’s mother.

Like most of Lee’s movies, the soundtrack is the real deal. But while the soundtrack here is rap, the movie is pure jazz and the same can be said about Lee. Love him or hate him, admire his politics or despise them, he takes chances and does things his own way. Not everything works here – at times I feel like he’s borrowing too much from other sources and the movie can have a “seen that before” quality that you sometimes get from a Tarantino film when that director falls too deeply in love with his references. However, this is clearly Lee’s best work in decades, although not up to his very best films. However, this is a welcome return to form by a director who is an American treasure that is rarely considered as such by the Hollywood establishment.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performance by Parris. Vintage Spike Lee. Nifty soundtrack. Subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly self-conscious. Not subtle at all. Occasionally bombastic. Sinks into cliche from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexual content and sexual references, some nudity, a little bit of violence, drug use and a whole lot of crude language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Wake up” is both the first and last line of dialogue in the film; it is also the first and last line of dialogue in Do the Right Thing which also featured Snipes and Jackson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do the Right Thing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II

Moonrise Kingdom


Moonrise Kingdom

Edward Norton and his band of brown-shirted scouts are out on serious business.

(2012) Comedy (Focus) Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzmann, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, L.J. Foley, Jake Ryan, Charlie Kilgore, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Neal Huff, Lucas Hedges, Gabriel Rush, Tanner Flood. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

There is something about young love in the 1960s. There’s something innocent about it, more so than today where kids have access to so much information, both good and bad. Few 12-year-olds are completely innocent of sex in 2012; in 1965 that was not the case.

Sam (Gilman) is a bit of a misfit. He’s an orphan (although it isn’t on any of his registry forms) living with foster parents. He finds great delight in camping with the Khaki Scouts on nearby Prentice Island, of the coast of New England. The island has no paved roads and is mostly uninhabited, save for a family at Summer’s End living in the old lighthouse – the Bishops, whose daughter Suzy (Hayward) is beautiful beyond her 12 years.

Sam met her at a church play when, bored, he went backstage to talk to the girls whom Sam was just discovering. The two began corresponding and soon realized that there was more than just like going on; it was love. Sam is distinctly unpopular, socially awkward and always saying or doing the wrong thing. He likes to puff on a pipe, not so much to smoke but because he likes the gravitas it gives him.

Suzy is a free spirit, whose lawyer parents Walt (Murray) and Laura (McDormand) communicate by bullhorn and display little warmth. Her fellow siblings listen to Benjamin Britton’s symphony on a tiny battery-operated record player that her brother Murry (Flood) hoards jealously.

They decide to run away together, accomplishing the feat in a manner right out of The Great Escape. They hike to an isolated cove over an Indian trail, Sam lugging all the survival gear they could possibly need while Suzy brings a collection of stolen library books (all of which are about strong heroines in magic or interplanetary kingdoms), a collection of 45s, the record player, her cat and a supply of cat food.

When Scoutmaster Ward (Norton) discovers Sam’s absence. He immediately notifies Captain Sharp (Willis) of the island police force – okay, he is the island police force. A search party is mounted and when Sharp stops by the Bishops, it is discovered that Suzy is missing too. All of this goes on while a monster storm approaches the island.

Anderson has a tendency to polarize audiences. Either you get him or you don’t; either you like him or can’t stand him. His movies have a sense of surrealism; just off-kilter enough to leave you off-balance as you watch it. Some people don’t like their realities being messed with but Anderson seems to get his jollies out of tilting people’s perceptions enough for them to gather some unexpected perspective.

Murray is perhaps his favorite actor – he uses him in almost all of his films. He is more of a sidereal character here; the sideshow, not the main attraction. In fact, most of the name actors are. The movie, instead, belongs to Hayward and Gilman. They are not precious as some juvenile actors are, nor do you get a sense that they are play-acting, as most juvenile actors do. Instead, they fill their roles and are at times called upon to do some fairly adult things – kissing, for example, and cuddling. You get the sense of the mutual attraction and Hayward has the kind of ethereal beauty that if it translates into adulthood is going to make her one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood – or the most beautiful women in whatever field she chooses.

Anderson shot the movie in 16mm and overexposed the film a bit, giving it an almost watercolor look. It has a sense of nostalgia, like a movie made in 1965 and only recently discovered but also a washed out look that is warm and inviting. Anderson is a director known for choosing color carefully and the khakis of the scout uniforms, the mustard yellow of their handkerchiefs blend in perfectly with the fields of grass that are slowly browning as autumn approaches. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even more so in memory.

Critics have been going out of their minds with praise for this one, with several proclaiming it the finest movie of the year thus far. I am not completely convinced of it; there are times that Anderson seems to be quirky for its own sake, plus some of the sets look a little overly much like sets. A more naturalistic environment might have really benefitted as a contrast with the surreal goings-on.

Still, this is a very good movie that is going to be getting a wide opening this weekend. It has already been out in limited release since the end of May and has been doing good business indeed. This might turn out to be the sleeper hit of the summer, much like Midnight in Paris was last year. The Oscars might be remembering it in February much the same as it did the Woody Allen hit as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances, surprisingly so from the juveniles. Laugh out loud funny in places, sweet in others.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too quirky for some – a definitely acquired taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexual content and a good deal of smoking. Also a bit of drinking as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot with 16mm cameras to give it a look like it was made in the 60s.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. The critics are falling all over themselves with praise.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

CAMPING LOVERS: The woodcraft that Sam espouses to Suzy is actually quite valid and is taught by the Boy Scouts today.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rock of Ages