Toni Erdmann

February 19, 2017 at 10:04 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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I have to admit that the idea of an almost 3-hour long, German comedy does not sound like much of sell to me. And I would not have bothered to see this one, except that it has shown up on several critics’ “Best of the Year” list and it has been repeatedly sold out at my local theater. I honestly cannot remember the last time I wanted to see a film and it was sold out, yet this happened to me twice with this film– once on a Saturday night and again, a week later, at a Sunday matinee. In fact, it was sold out again last night but we had gotten our tickets in advance this time. So, as you can imagine, expectations were high. Too high, as it turned out. It’s hard not to wonder how much of the humor of this film was lost in translation but I just found it more dull/weird/awkward than funny. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a corporate consultant trying desperately to make her mark by securing the business of an important client in Bucharest, where she is currently living. Her father (Peter Simonischek) pays her a surprise visit from Germany and is concerned about how serious and uptight she has become. So, he adopts the alter-ego of Toni Erdmann to try and bring some levity back into her life and (of course) ends up creating chaos. Well, that all sounds like exactly the stuff of a zany comedy and you can all imagine exactly how it would play out… but that isn’t what happens. Instead, we get endless scenes of the father acting inexplicably bizarrely, making his daughter and others around her (and me) quite uncomfortable. Ines reacts to all of this in equally inexplicable ways that may be symbolizing that she is becoming more relaxed? Or, perhaps, just coming undone? Who knows. And then, after an almost interminable amount of time, the film ends on an ambiguous and melancholy note. Director, Maren Ade, is clearly trying to say some complex things about how we currently live our lives but that message felt very garbled to me. All the humor that I caught was of the slapstick variety (and there was plenty of that), but I can’t help but wonder if there was wordplay, cultural references or other more subtle humor that I was missing. The final moments of that final scene felt like they were trying to be sadly ironic to me: the father tells his daughter how important it is to live in each moment. Then, when she gets suddenly playful, he runs off to get his camera and misses the rest of that moment. That sort of melancholy seems to lace this whole film. It makes for a strange tone in what otherwise feels like a slapstick comedy. I can appreciate that this film was doing something deeper, I just didn’t get it.

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Victoria

October 20, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This small German film has been called a mashup of “Run Lola Run” and “Birdman” by more than one reviewer I have read. However, it does not really succeed at being either. You can see the influence of both films, especially “Lola” (which director, Sebastian Schipper, actually acted in) but film is it’s own thing, for good and bad. Its chief conceit is that it was filmed all in one long, uninterrupted take. Unlike “Birdman,” which uses camera tricks to replicate a single take, this film is the real thing. That, by itself, is quite an artistic accomplishment and speaks to the discipline of director, crew and actors, all of whom had to think quickly and roll with whatever came up. This is most true of lead actress, Laia Costa, who is the center of the film from first take to last. There are reasons why a director would make this choice (beyond simple pretense). Iñárritu used it in “Birdman” to further the sense of magical realism; Hitchcock used it in “Rope” to create a sort of claustrophobia. Here, Schipper uses it as a means of increasing tension and this is where the “Run Lola Run” comparison comes in. That film was an unrelenting run (literally) from first scene to last. This one cannot begin to match it’s intensity, though, for brief moments, it comes close. The big problem here is in the haphazard pacing. The film starts with Victoria finishing a night of dancing and meeting a young man as she prepares to go home. They start talking and she joins him and his friends at their apartment. The film has a nice conceit in that Victoria is from Spain and speaks no German, so the two of them (and several of his friends) are forced to speak in English. They talk, laugh, and start to follow for each other. It’s a lovely and utterly realistic sequence. The actors excel within Schipper’s naturalistic directing style: their dialogue, body language, facial expressions all seem completely genuine; one could almost believe we are watching a real first date. The problem is that, sweet as that may be, first dates are not exactly exciting for anyone but those on them and we are subjected to just over 50 minutes of this first date in real time. While it definitely created investment in these two people and helped to explain what Victoria chooses to do next, I could feel my audience tuning out around me. When that critical film changes phone call finally arrives, the pace and tone shift very rapidly but many audience members have already been lost. After the call, things go badly and the action takes off and is mostly unrelenting for the remainder of the film (with a very weird dance scene halfway through the action that last maybe 10 minutes and did nothing so much as kill momentum). At 2 hours, 20 minutes, this is not a short film and could have used some tighter editing but, the truth is, I’m not sure which film I preferred. The action film was exciting and engaging but there was nothing revelatory there. I have seen all of that before and I could see exactly how it was going to end up well before it got there. It was fine and exciting but nothing new. The romance, on the other hand, was sweet and beautiful and so utterly real. I cannot remember the last time I saw a relationship that looked so natural on film. That felt like the revelation but it also felt the prologue before the real film and that knowledge kept the audience at bay a bit. The love story was slow: very, very slow. And the action film was very, very fast. Whichever film you would prefer to see, you probably aren’t interested in them as a double feature and that’s the real problem here.

Goodnight Mommy

September 27, 2015 at 7:45 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I noticed recently that I give a lot of 3 1/2 lozenge ratings; it appears to be my fall back for a movie that is more than just “I’m glad I saw it” but less than “I loved this film.”  I’m going to try and get off the fence over the course of this review and decide if this film is a 3 or a 4. This German thriller (“Ich Seh Ich Seh” was the original title) follows the relationship between twin brothers, Lukas and Elias (who look to be 9 or 10) and their mother, who has just returned home after major surgery. But, is she really their mother? Her head is entirely wrapped in bandages, except for her piercing eyes. She seems different, acts different. Where is the mole she used to have? Why is she so punitive and suspicious? What happened to the cat, anyway? The boys’ fears grow deeper as they become convinced this woman is an impostor and they hatch a plan to try and find out where their true mother is. This has all the right elements of a great thriller: an engaging mystery, people trapped in close quarters together, some child endangerment. Yet, it takes forever to get going. The first 45 minutes of the film moves mostly languidly and with long stretches of silence. There was so little tension, I was at risk of nodding off. Not a good thing for a thriller. However, things suddenly switch dramatically half way through and the remaining 45 minutes are a wild ride of increased tension and horror. While the first half is vaguely creepy/unnerving, the second half is full-on creepy/cringe-worthy. I understand why this had to be the case. The film is built on a massive (and clever) conceit and, if the twist is going to come as a surprise, the emptiness of the first half is a necessary evil. The twisting this film does, and there is definitely more than one, makes its final scenes great thriller fun. In addition, young brothers, Lukas and Elias Schwarz, are terrific in their roles and the audience gets totally drawn into their world. The end itself is quite a shocker and there were gasps in my audience. All great stuff for a thriller. And, yet, it’s a long slow set up for that pay off. Was it worth it? Was it… yeah, I think it was.

Phoenix

September 6, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It has been a number of years since I have seen a film about World War II; they often just feel like they are telling some version of the same story over and over again. This one, however, was different. It could have easily taken place at any time in any number of places. WWII Germany was simply the backdrop for the story to play out on. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is returning home after having been imprisoned in Auschwitz. She was shot in the face and the plastic surgery has changed how she looks just enough that her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), does not recognize her. Or, rather, he is struck by how much this woman almost looks like his dead wife. Thus, the layers of subterfuge begin. He wants her to impersonate his wife so that she can claim the estate. So, Nelly pretends to be Esther pretending to be Nelly so that she can reconnect with her husband, in part to determine if he is the one who turned her over to the Nazis to begin with. The story can wind a bit slowly at times and often lacks the tension it could have easily had. But there is real humanity here. Nelly almost taunts Johnny to see who she really is but he has long accepted his wife’s death and cannot see past his defenses. The film is at times tender, with Hoss doing a fantastic job of playing a deeply traumatized person; the way she carried her body and every look on her face conveyed how haunted and diminished she was, which made the moment when she finally found her voice (quite literally), so thrilling. The film ends abruptly and without any resolution. I know this annoys some viewers but I loved it. It left the audience uneasy and unresolved, just like Nelly and Johnny were.

The Silence

April 2, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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I have something of an ongoing debate with a friend about what is/is not Film Noir.  He would argue that it is defined by the look of the film: black and white, dark sets, dingy cities, night scenes, rain and long shadows.  I have argued that it is more defined by the tone of the film: a crime story with a cynical take on human nature.  Which is more Noir: “Bound” or “The Man Who Wasn’t There?”  Well, you can argue that amongst yourselves.  What I can tell you about “The Silence” is that this German film, by director/writer Baran bo Odar, kept reminding me of the Danish t.v. series, “The Killing.”  Their tones and how they unfold feel remarkably similar.  It starts with the murder of a young girl and then, twenty-three years later, the disappearance of another one in much the same way.  Like any good cop tale, you have the requisite off-kilter but brilliant detective with his own issues, the retired detective who is haunted by the last case, and the lazy by-the-numbers boss.  You also have mountains of tension, sometimes built by a heavy-handed (but effective) score but often built by the slow unraveling of a tense story.  Bo Odar paces the film very well, kicking up the momentum again just as it is starting to flag but never being guilty of rushing to action the way many mainstream films can.  He shows the same cleverness (and slight heavy-handedness) with his color palate; the film is very monochromatic (virtually everything is in various shades of beige, brown, tope, gold or occasional blue-greys) with the exception of everything associated with the crimes.  Those items are all bright red (a car, bike, dress, even the police file on the case); the first victim’s mother wears burgundy and crimson; the father of the missing girl wears light pink.  This was a bit of a conceit that some might find distracting but I enjoyed it as the intrusion of color tended to shock the surrounding environment.  The acting was strong enough, especially on the part of the mother of the first missing girl, who seemed to embody sadness on a bone-deep level.  The story had twists and turns that kept me interested but none of them seemed contrived.  It is as its best in its final scenes and ends leaving the audience unsettled.  Is it Noir?  I think so.

Barbara

March 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This spare German film might be a tough sell for people (the guy I went with hated it).  It appears to take place in the late 70s or early 80s in the DDR (East Germany).  Barbara is a doctor who has pissed off the government because she wants permission to leave the country, taking her free state-provided education with her, to be with her lover.  They respond by sending her to a rural outpost hospital to join another doctor being punished for the types of crimes that audiences can sympathize with.  In fact, little in this film makes any attempt to explore any moral ambiguities, though it pretends to.  The acting is strong enough and the scenes of the German woods and villages are often beautiful.  Barbara is frequently dressed in dark blue, thus standing out against the greens and browns around her.  I was struck several times by the simple beauty of this cinematography.  I also found much of the story of Barbara’s plans to escape to be interesting, though the plot and dialogue follow the typical European pacing that often baffles and frustrates American film goers.  There is real strength, compassion and beauty in some small moments.  Unfortunately, there are too few of them.  In the end, I was frustrated that Barbara was more of a good guy than a real person.  Her final decisions had been telegraphed throughout the last half of the movie but were never really explained.  It was a disappointing end to an otherwise decent movie.

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