Movie Reviews - 2015 postsThursday June 09, 2016
Movie Review: The Brand New Testament (2015)
It’s a little like “Amelie”: A young girl (10 instead of 20-something) fixes the situations of the small, sad people in her city (Brussels rather than Paris), and we get a happy ending with a bit of magic. The difference is the girl is the literal daughter of God so the magic is often real. But the movie itself is much less magical.
Nice premise, so-so execution. God (Benoît Poelvoorde, “Man Bites Dog”) is a dick and lives in Brussels with his wife, the Goddess (Yolande Moreau, “Seraphine”), a put-upon Edith Bunker-type, and daughter, Ea (Pili Groune), a little spitfire who hates the old man and relies upon the counsel of her older brother, J.C., who hides in her room as a statuette.
God, or Dieu, spends his days in his office down the hall, a massive room with files expanding into the heavens, and, in the center, a small table with a single computer on it. There, cackling to himself, he creates laws for all of the petty annoyances of the world, such as:
- the phone always rings when you’re in the bathtub
- a jelly sandwich always falls jelly-side up
- the other line always moves faster
Except: 1) it doesn’t (and this seems like a pre-cellphone joke anyway); 2) it doesn't; 3) logically impossible since the law applies to all of humanity, including the people in the faster-moving line.
No mention of things beyond petty annoyances. Like Hitler. This is a comedy.
So one day, after the Old Man beats Ea (offscreen, this is a comedy), she decides to stick it to him. She sneaks into his office, releases everybody’s death dates, and freezes his computer (the source of his power); then she escapes through a laundry chute to Brussels, where she plans to put together the new testament of the title while gathering six apostles. Angry, Dieu follows but never gets close.
The death dates provide some good bits, particularly an “extreme” kid who is supposed to live another 70 years, and who keeps testing it by jumping out of higher and higher windows. (someone breaks his fall; he lands in a truck carrying sand, etc.). I also like the interaction between Dieu and a priest, who becomes so angry he winds up choking God.
But the apostle thing falls flat. She’s not gathering converts to spread the Word, she’s just fixing lives:
- One man follows birds to the Arctic Circle, where he meets an impossibly pretty Eskimo girl.
- A self-described sex maniac, who became that way when he saw a beautiful German girl at the age of 9, is reunited with her in middle age.
- A lonely older woman (Catherine Deneuve) leaves her businessman husband for a gorilla. A real gorilla.
- A guy who wants to kill people falls in love with the first apostle, a pretty girl with a fake arm, and they become a couple and he stops wanting to kill people.
Love love love. There is no problem in the world so difficult that an ordinary/ugly man uniting with a beautiful girl won't solve it.
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bad things keep happening to Dieu, who ends up working a factory job in Uzbekistan. Good things happen to everyone else. When the Goddess is cleaning in the office, she reboots the computer that resets everyone’s death dates. She also gets on the computer and begins to change the world for the better, starting with the sky.
Me: Not the sky!!
Yep. She makes it all flowery. She takes away gravity. She projects her bad taste onto the world.
It's supposed to be a happy ending but it felt a little frying pan/fire to me.
Movie Review: Disorder (2015)
Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” (original, better title: “Maryland”) is my kind of thriller: drenched in atmosphere and ambiguity. We don’t who the woman is, or how she feels about the hero, or if the hero is even the hero. He could be the villain. We keep guessing. Our minds are engaged.
For most of the movie, we don’t even know what war Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts, excellent) has returned from (Afghanistan, it turns out), or what’s the matter with him (some form of PTSD), or if he will return to battle (he wants to). When he gets a security gig from fellow soldier Denis (Paul Hamy), we, and he, don’t know who they’re guarding.
Bodyguard or liability?
Imad (Percy Kemp) is rich and powerful, and high-ranking men keep drifting away from the party to talk in private. But none of the tropes of thrillers are engaged. Vincent doesn’t form a special bond with Imad, or his wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger), whom he, and we, notice at the party, wearing a backless dress. It’s Diane Kruger after all. It’s wow. Does her beauty distract him from doing his job? Does his PTSD? His ears keep ringing; he keeps putting cold water on the back of his neck. For most of the movie, Schoenaerts feels like a mass of coiled, helpless anger. He’s the guard who needs guarding.
At the gate, for example, filling in for Denis, he stops a guest trying to enter: someone not on the list, who, after impatiently getting clearance, calls Vincent a moron and flips him off. When Denis returns, Vincent immediately searches for this guy, and finds him in the middle of an argument in an upstairs room with Imad. When the guest rises, threateningly, Vincent enters the room asking if he’s needed. He isn’t, but Imad wants him close by. Is this our bonding moment? No. Imad simply wants to know how much Vincent has heard. Nothing, he says, but we don’t know whether to believe him. More, we don’t know if Vincent pursued the man because he was suspicious of him or just pissed off. Was he looking to protect or to fight?
There’s been a lot of buzz over the last few years, particularly in the U.S., about the need for women directors and writers: women-created stories. Is this a good example of that? A perspective of men that women in particular are good at portraying? Our unknowability, our silences; the strength that might protect or hurt.
The next morning Denis asks Vincent if he’d like to stick around to guard the wife for a few days. Why Vincent? The Hollywood trope would be because he’s “the best,” or because Imad (or, better, Jessie) asked for him specifically, seeing something specialin him. Here it’s because Denis knows he needs the gig—he might not be returning to the war. So it’s out of a kind of pity. Or maybe Vincent is being set up? Why does Jessie and her son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant), need guarding anyway?
On the way to the beach, in a traffic jam, Vincent guns the engine and veers into oncoming traffic to avoid, he says, someone following them. Is this the bodyguard or the PTSD talking? At the beach, she’s still angry with him, and he drifts, and then wanders. What is he seeing? Something real? At this point, he feels like a liability.
Until the attack in the parking lot—and even then it’s not handled with Jason Bourne-style efficiency. It’s messy, as it should be, and afterwards the police are more interested in who they are rather than who their attackers were.
Imad, it turns out, is an arms dealer, he's been arrested at the Swiss border, and his empire crumbles swiftly. The estate, called Maryland, which was the setting of a glamorous party just a few days earlier, quickly becomes abandoned: by servants, friends, cops. Vincent stays. Does Jessie have somewhere she can go? Not really. A friend in Canada, she says. Are people still trying to attack her? Why? Denis is called in as backup. Can he be trusted?
That’s what I loved about this movie—the constant questioning against a genuinely thrilling backdrop. It’s a star movie—Schoenaerts and Kruger shine. There’s an early scene, where Vincent is riding a bus, lost in thought, then wakes up and realizes where he is—past his stop. Just that, but Schoenaerts does it so well. He’s the real deal. If we didn’t already know that from “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop.”
Lady or tiger?
The ending is ambiguous, too: a kind of lady-or-the-tiger ending.
In the final assault—and we never find out who’s assaulting the home, or why—Vincent lives up to the job description: He saves Jessie, Ali, even Denis. But he can’t stop. He slams an attacker's head against an unbreakable glass table until it’s basically mush. Jessie sees this, and he sees she sees. He had planned on going with them all the way to Canada (to protect, to be husband and father?) but here seems to realize it wouldn't work. He’s gruff with the boy, charmless with Jessie. He’s only needed when things go wrong. He asks Denis to take them to the airport.
But then Jessie returns, puts her arms around him, says his name. Screen goes dark. Directed by.
It’s the tiger. To me, the embrace is in his mind. More, it’s his raison d’etre, the reason he’s done all of this. For her. As if we didn’t know that already. I mean, just look at her.
Movie Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)
“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a solid-enough historical drama, with a meaty, central performance by Burghart Klaussner. It sheds some light on: the capture of Adolf Eichmann; the prevalence of Nazis in prominent roles in postwar West Germany; the politics of the Cold War. It makes Mossad seem slightly ineffectual. We learn—or I learned anyway—about the title character, the Jewish district attorney of Hessen in Frankfurt during the 1950s and ’60s, who was instrumental in bringing about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65.
But it’s too neat. It feels like writer-director Lars Kraume bends history to fit a cleaner, less-interesting narrative.
And what’s with the casting? The role of a male transvestite is played by a woman: Lilith Stangenberg. So certain segments of the audience don’t get squeamish during love scenes? Aren’t we honoring a homosexual hero here?
The question the movie turns on
Bauer is that hero, and for a time his homosexuality, all but repressed, is seen by his enemies as a way to bring him down; but ultimately it may be his zealousness in pursuit of justice.
Early on, via letter from Argentina, Bauer finds out where Adolf Eichmann is hiding, and he wants to extradite him and put him on trial in Germany. He wants to force Germany to confront its past. The problem: Who does he share this information with? “No one, from Bonn to Washington, wants Eichmann on trial,” Bauer tells Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of “Phoenix”), his one loyal assistant. “My own agency is enemy territory.
So he goes to Israel/Mossad. Two problems: 1) sharing intel with a foreign government is a treasonous offense; and 2) Mossad hears the intel and shrugs. Like Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” they want a second source, and they leave that up to Bauer. (He finds it in an interesting place: the HR department at Mercedes-Benz.)
Both friends and enemies accuse Bauer of being obsessed with Eichmann but it’s a shame the movie isn’t similarly obsessed. Instead, we keep meandering into the Angermann subplot: the slow revelation that he’s gay; testing the waters in the transvestite bar; the beginning of something with Victoria (Stangenberg), then being traduced to the authorities. Bauer’s enemies, Paul Gebhardt and Ulrich Kreidler, both ex-SS, strike a deal with Angermann: Give them proof that Bauer is working with Mossad and Angermann’s crime, his career-ending scandal, will go away.
That’s what the movie turns on: this question. Earlier, Bauer told Angermann his own tale of capitulating to power. In 1920, Bauer, only 17, became the youngest district judge in 1920, and by 1933 he and Kurt Schumacher were leaders of the Social Democratic Party; but a May general strike against the Nazis went nowhere and they were put into a concentration camp, where Schumacher remained for the entirety of the war. Bauer got out in 1933. He wrote something nice about the Nazis in the paper, fled to Denmark, then Sweden. His capitulation spared him the Holocaust but it gnawed at him. In the movie he says it’s the great embarrassment of his life.
Angermann avoids that embarrassment by turning himself in. But we don’t see the consequences of that act of courage, just the act, which makes the courage seem easy. It makes you wonder why more people don’t have such courage, and I would argue that, per Frederick in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” that’s the wrong question. The better question is: The few who have it, how do they have it? A good discussion on this topic can be found in Eyal Press’ 2012 book “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” Essentially Press argues that’s it’s often conservatives who believe in the original system who stand up to power, rather than rebels. It’s people who believe in the myth rather than cynics who know the shitty way the world runs.
Losing by winning
Anyway, Mossad gets Eichmann (as we know), Germany refuses to extradite him so he goes on trial in Israel (as we know), and Bauer, fired up again by Angermann’s loyalty and bravery, becomes more determined to put Germany on trial. We hear about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in an afterword, yet that business seems more interesting than what we’ve just watched—particularly since Bauer wasn’t happy with its outcome. He said the trials supported the “wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility ... and the rest were merely terrorized, violated hangers-on, compelled to do things completely contrary to their true nature.”
This movie, nominated for five German Film Awards, ends with a fierce determination to exact justice; the reality is messier and more interesting. A movie in which Bauer lost by winning might’ve resonated.
Movie Review: Ma Ma (2015)
I’m having trouble articulating the utter absurdity of Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” starring Penelope Cruz: its icky mix of tragedy and wish-fulfillment fantasy; the glory of Woman as life hands her lemons from which she makes a lemon-scented cathedral.
Bear with me. And remember: I’m just the messenger here.
What Magda wants
As the movie opens, Magda (Cruz), whose husband has just left her for one of his philosophy students, is told by her handsome, friendly, singing gynecologist, Julian (Asier Etxeqneia), that she has stage-3 breast cancer in one breast. She will lose it. There will be chemo. She will lose her hair. Deep breath.
Immediately afterwards, at her son’s futbol game, she meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), a bald, bearded, bushy-eyebrowed scout for Real Madrid, who, as he’s praising her son’s futbol skills, receives a phone call that there was a car accident and his daughter is dead and his wife in a coma. He faints. Magda to the rescue! She gets him to the hospital, then visits him daily after her own chemotherapy treatments. He’s forever collapsing, she’s forever strong. Eventually she loses her hair and her breast, he loses his wife, then she and he, with her son, Dani (Teo Planell), travel to the coast for a vacation, where he and she, on the second day, kiss on the beach.
Cut to: the following January. By now she’s married to Arturo and her hair has grown back into a cute pixie cut, though Penelope—sorry, Magda—keeps covering it with an awful wig. Girls. Plus she and Arturo haven’t had sex yet; he has trouble getting it up. Plus, though Dani likes Arturo, he’s acting weird around her, because of the breast thing.
She mentions all of this in passing to Julian at a follow-up appointment, during which he finds, oops, more cancer, stage 4 now and incurable. He gives her six months to live.
So she sues the quack for a million euros.
Kidding. She quietly informs Arturo that she’s going to die, then quietly demands they have sex on the couch. Somehow the added pressure, not to mention tragic circumstances, helps. The deed is done, and shortly thereafter, hey, she’s going to have a baby.
Sadly, the baby dies in utero when she dies of cancer after five months. It’s quite gruesome.
Kidding. The ever-upbeat Magda just wants three things from the rest of her days:
- a girl
- to live long enough to give birth to this girl
- no, to live long enough to hold this girl in her arms
Guess which one of those things doesn’t happen? Right: None of them.
Wait, I didn’t even get into the Natasha thing, did I? Oh god.
OK, so the movie actually opens on a frozen tundra, where, during the credit sequence, a small blonde girl, 5 maybe, slowly makes her impassive, dead-eyed way toward the camera. Later we see a framed photo of this girl on Julian’s desk. His daughter? No. It’s the girl that Julian and his wife are thinking about adopting from Siberia. Magda encourages it because she says yes to life. But Julian eventually says no to his wife and the girl. So the girl stays in Siberia yet remains in the picture because Magda keeps imagining her in everyday situations. Dani is in the backseat talking futbol, and there’s the impassive blonde girl next to him. They’re all frolicking in the ocean, and there’s the dead-eyed blonde girl swimming around them. It’s super creepy but I don’t know if the movie recognizes it as super creepy. I think the movie sees it as somehow beautiful. More of Magda’s great yesness.
Nothing else happens with Natasha, by the way. Magda just keeps imagining her, then names her own daughter “Natasha” in her honor, but for all we know the real Natasha remains parentless and frozen, not to mention dead-eyed, in Siberia. Sorry, kid.
The movie does one thing I like. At different times, it shows us a close-up of Magda’s heart pumping away. Like during the first kiss with Arturo, it thumps harder. And during the first (and only?) sex with Arturo, it thumps really hard. Then at the end, after the baby is delivered via cesarean section, it thumps steady as we hear mother being united with daughter. Then it slows. Then it stops. Then the screen goes dark.
“Well,” I thought. “Nice ending anyway.”
Except the movie doesn’t end there. It gives us an overhead shot of the now-dead Magda staring straight into the camera with the mastectomy scar on her right side and the newborn baby quivering in her left arm.
And that’s not the end of it, either. We get an epilogue, maybe four months later, in which the three men in Magda’s life, Dani, Arturo, and Julian, the handsome, singing, housecall-making gynecologist quack, gather around the baby, feed it a bottle, and sing the song Julian sang to Magda at the beach, something like “Eso es vivir,” which lists off all the things life is about. It’s “Three Men and a Baby.” It’s all the life that the upbeat death of Magda has created. More, because Magda has told Dani that the soul is eternal, and that after she dies she’ll stay near him, he thinks the baby is Magda reincarnated. And he calls the baby “Mama.”
That’s some fucked-up shit right there.
People keep calling this movie “inspiring” but for me it just inspired an urge to run out of the theater. Screaming.
Movie Review: Concussion (2015)
There’s a good story here but this isn’t it.
A man of science discovers something horrible about a powerful American business and tries to push past PR and corporate lawyers to get word out. In the process he’s harassed, belittled, besmirched. He’s an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure, but ultimately, through perseverance, and sacrifice, and the good works of a few others, the word gets out. And the world changes a little for the better.
That’s a good story. It’s “The Insider,” after all. So why doesn’t it work here?
It should actually work better here, since, in “The Insider,” Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) battles Big Tobacco, an institution many rely upon but nobody loves. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is going up against football. He’s a foreigner telling America that their favorite sport is killing their favorite sons—and maybe their own sons. He’s going up against a corporation that “owns a day of the week,” as his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), tells him. He should have half the country against him. He should have every goombah on every street corner getting in his face. He, and we, should feel immense pressure.
Nope. The movie blows it from the beginning.
Seven degrees of Will Smith
We’re introduced to Dr. Omalu when he’s an expert witness in a nondescript trial and he’s asked to state his credentials. First, he mentions a degree from Nigeria. Suspect, right? Like an email from a Nigerian prince. But then he mentions another degree, and another, each more impressive than the last. Many are from America, one is from the UK. He has to keep interrupting the (opposing?) counsel to, in effect, toot his own horn. Then he looks at the jury with a self-satisfied smile.
Wow, is that wrong. Have him be slightly embarrassed at least. Or have someone else mention the degrees. It’s such a tone-deaf scene that our hero, who is supposed to be modest and circumspect, comes off as annoying.
Omalu makes his living as a quirky Pittsburgh coroner who listens to R&B while dissecting the dead; he talks to the dead to find out their secrets. He’s got the respect of the head of the department, Dr. Wecht, but not so much from his immediate superior, Sullivan (Mike O’Malley), who fumes meaninglessly on the sidelines. Is Sullivan racist? Just an asshole? Who knows? He’s a straw man.
Then one of Pittsburgh’s favorite sons, former Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse wearing a Frankenstein forehead), winds up on Omalu’s table after killing himself at the age of 50, and Omalu, through extensive research, including using $20,000 of his own money for tests, discovers a new form of brain trauma. He names it “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE, and his findings are subsequently published in a medical journal. That’s when the harassment from the NFL begins.
How is this harassment dramatized? Well, Omalu gets a few angry phone calls. He’s yelled at by an NFL official. His wife, Prema (the impossibly beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), pregnant with his child, is followed in her car—maybe—and then has a miscarriage. The harassment should be menacing, all-encompassing, but it feels like wisps of nothing.
Mostly, the NFL just doesn’t listen to him. This exchange is indicative:
Wecht: Did you think the NFL would thank you?
Wecht: What for?
Omalu: For knowing.
I like that, but it’s not exactly dramatic. In “The Insider,” Wigand actually suffered. He lost his job, his wife, his home, his self-esteem. The FBI harasses him. His journalistic counterpart, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), wonders over this. He makes accusations in the form of questions—maybe Brown & Williamson has former agents on its payroll, and maybe current agents have been promised cushy jobs, and maybe he should start investigating—and he gets them to back off. Here, the FBI harasses ... Dr. Wecht. They indict him on 84 counts. A title card at the end tells us he was ultimately exonerated but ... did he do it? Is it bullshit? Is Omalu so clean they can’t touch him?
Seriously, if the government is in cahoots with the NFL, as implied, why doesn’t immigration go after him? He’s not even a citizen until 2015. Instead, he and his impossibly beautiful wife simply leave Pittsburgh for So Cal—but not before the well-mannered Omalu takes an axe to a wall at his home in frustration. And in poignant slow-motion.
Are you ready for some football?
Is writer-director Peter Landesman (the underrated “Parkland”) not director enough for this? Is Smith not actor enough? Did Sony’s corporate hand get too involved?
I liked the scene at the University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Steve DeKosky (excellent cameo by Eddie Marsan) realizes the validity of Omalu’s findings—and their repercussions. I liked Brooks throughout. I liked looking at Mbatha-Raw.
But the movie is heavy-handed in all the wrong places, and goes out of its way not to alienate football fans and the NFL. Every other character has to talk about how beautiful football is. Every other scene contains some take on America—mostly how great we are. The story is about a horrifying way that American football and American business is fucked up, and the movie keeps patting these villains on the back.