REVIEW: “Alone in Berlin” (2017)

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For me the strengths of Vincent Perez’s “Alone in Berlin” are fairly obvious – a unique and heart-wrenching true story and two superb acting talents as its leads. That was more than enough the keep me attached to this slow-boiling World War 2 drama.

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson play Otto and Anna, a German husband and wife living in 1940 Berlin. The two are devastated upon receiving the news that their only son Hans is killed during battle. His death puts stress on their already dry marriage and each mourn in their own lonely way. But their loss also gives them a new perspective on the growing war unfolding around them.

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As the Nazi influence begins to reflect across Berlin the couple witness things that intensify their repulsion and disillusionment. Otto begins writing anti-Nazi messages on postcards and secretly leaving them all around the city. At first it’s a therapeutic emotional release to help him cope, but soon it also becomes about duty. And when Anna joins him, their dangerous quest expands while also bringing them closer together as husband and wife. It gets even riskier when the Nazi’s hire a principled German police detective (Daniel Brühl) to track down those responsible.

First the performances, it should surprise no one that both Gleeson and Thompson are wonderful. Gleeson conveys the emotionally worn Otto through his tired, somber eyes and dispirited mannerisms. Thompson portrays Anna as a determined woman but one who clearly feels the weight of her sorrow. Their performances are so rich and grounded that you never doubt either character or any of their motivations. Brühl is also good in a role that he has played before.

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For the most part the story steers clear of depicting the war’s atrocities. They are mostly handled from a distance. But in the handful of scenes where they do hit the screen, the impact is effective. Some who yearn for a harsher visual representation of the horrors may find Perez’s film too sanitary. It’s a response I’ve seen towards other films that sought to tell a more confined, individual story. I don’t agree. Perez keeps his focus on his two central characters and the film is better for it.

One gripe is that the film moves a bit slow at times and it often relies to heavily on its two leads. But that doesn’t make it any less inspirational and heartbreaking. “Alone in Berlin” tells a poignant story that is unique and authentic. As a fan of films set in this period, I was plenty satisfied with what Perez and company deliver and hopefully more people will give it a look.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

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REVIEW: “A Ghost Story”

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When looking at the last three feature films from writer/director David Lowery you’re immediately struck by how dramatically different one movie is from another – 2013’s romantic crime thriller “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, last year’s Disney fantasy adventure “Pete’s Dragon”, and now his latest film, a meditative supernatural drama “A Ghost Story”.

Lowery’s dabbling in new areas of cinema makes sense. Throughout his time in filmmaking he has worn many hats – writer, director, editor, cinematographer, producer, and even actor among other things. So it’s no surprise seeing him try something new. But “A Ghost Story” (which he writes, directs, and edits) is so  unique and, quite frankly, unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.

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As is always the case, the less you know about the film the better, but it rings especially true here. Still it should be said that “A Ghost Story” flips any genre norm on its head. There is nothing conventional or routine about it. Some are certain to check out before it’s done. Lowery is okay with that. In an interview with Yahoo! Movies, he stated that he hopes audiences will stick with it, but knows some will not. Thankfully it didn’t influence his creative choices otherwise “A Ghost Story” wouldn’t be the daring, profound experience it is.

The film reunites Lowery with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”). We never know the names of their characters, only that they are a husband and wife living in a modest suburban home. Their lives are shattered when Affleck’s character is killed in a car wreck. We wakes up as an invisible white-sheeted ghost and returns to his home. There he observes Mara’s character navigate through her various stages of grief.

Mara’s work here is quiet but astounding. It’s light on dialogue, soulful and evocative. Lowery often puts his camera in the observer’s role, leaving it on her through long extended takes. Many times the ghost stands silently in the background watching her every move and emotion. Throughout these scenes the film’s mood steadily grows heavier. Yet it’s not without humor. The absurdity of the ghost costume (a long white sheet with two cut-out eyeholes) is an intentional move. Lowery has described humor as a great “gateway emotion”. The costume is a wacky but welcomed entry point.

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This is also where Lowery begins to play around with time, something that becomes more pronounced as the story progresses. We see it through the unfolding narrative but also in the incredibly clever construction of individual scenes. It’s even relayed through some aesthetic choices. For example the entire film is presented like a vintage snapshot – squared borders with rounded edges. The framing is reminiscent of something pulled out of time.

Around the midway point the film makes a notable but fluid shift that challenges the audience on an entirely different level. The mournful, tragic mood doesn’t go away, but Lowery expands his interest beyond a simple exploration of love and loss. We are never spoon fed the meaning to everything we see. Instead we’re prodded to react to and interpret the movie for ourselves. As we do, the haunting, meditative atmosphere remains with the exception of one scene, a half-drunken nihilistic party lecture. It is the single longest sequence of dialogue in the entire film. Unfortunately it pulled me out of the movie’s carefully maintained tone. But only briefly.

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And then you have Daniel Hart’s fabulous score. It’s easily my favorite of the year so far. There are many moments where Lowery leans heavily on the music and often puts it in the place of dialogue. It’s a brilliant composition of emotions that ranges from eerie and haunting to tranquil and calming. Hart has worked with Lowery on his previous two films and their incredible chemistry is beyond question.

“A Ghost Story” isn’t for everyone and I’ll be interested to see how people react. I was under its spell from the start and found it to be both beautiful and tragic. Its story is patient and personal; its presentation audacious and impressionistic. And I was captivated by David Lowery’s unwillingness to embrace our expectations. This is the story he wanted to tell and it turns out to be one of the year’s biggest surprises and delights.

VERDICT 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Alien: Covenant”

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2012’s “Prometheus” provoked an interesting range of responses. The “Alien” prequel riled up a segment of the franchise faithfuls who were anxious for Ridley Scott’s return to the terrifying acid-for-blood xenomorphs he created. Many lukewarm fans found themselves drawn to Scott’s slow-moving meditative philosophizing. Others were caught in the middle, unable to come down on either side.

For the sequel it’s clear the producers were hungry for the Ridley Scott from 1979 who gave us the smothering, frightening sci-fi/horror original. New writers Josh Logan and Dante Harper make sure we get that. But Scott doesn’t hand over the entire vision. He’s still interested in thematic exploration and mythologizing. “Alien: Covenant” ends up being a peculiar and semi-fascinating hybrid of both.

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As mentioned “Covenant” is the second film in the prequel series. It begins with a short prologue featuring Guy Pearce’s business mogul with a god complex Peter Weyland and a newly activated android who takes the name David (Michael Fassbender reprising his role). It’s a gorgeous flashback sequence that introduces creation, an idea that plays prominently into the rest of the film.

Roughly ten years after the events of “Prometheus” we hop aboard the Covenant, a ship on a colonization mission to a distant earth-like planet on the far side of the galaxy. It’s precious cargo – 1,000 human embryos and 2,000 colonists all in stasis. The ship is hit by a (science junkies help me out here) neutrino burst which forces the the android Walter (Fassbender in a dual role) to wake the crew early. The vessel takes damage and there are several casualties including the ship’s captain.

While making repairs the crew picks up a mysteriously familiar radio signal tracked to a nearby uncharted but seemingly habitable planet. Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), the insecure acting leader, decides to investigate against the objections of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the original captain’s widow and Oram’s second in command. To this point you could call “Covenant” a methodical slow-burn which I loved. After a beautifully shot dropship landing, the expedition team of scientists and military make their way to the planet’s surface. This sets up the film’s shift from patient and ponderous to an all-out “Alien” movie.

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To no one’s surprise the team encounters the xenomorphs and even a new form of terror called neomorphs. They are a spore-born and more feral version of their counterparts. And of course that leads to a series of gory and obligatory facehugs, chest bursts, tail slashes – the usual alien carnage. I’ll happily admit I found parts of it intense and exciting. Problem is none of the victims are fleshed out enough for us to care. I think back to Scott’s original “Alien” and even James Cameron’s “Aliens”. I can tell you the names of most of those characters and even put a face to them. Aside from Walter, Daniels, Oram, and Danny McBride’s Tennessee (he’s the one with the cowboy hat) none of the crew offer anything other than potential alien fodder. Such a missed opportunity.

From there the movie doesn’t completely settle for a traditional final act. There is one story thread that runs throughout the crew culling that feeds Scott’s hunger for mythology and origin. It’s a great angle that introduces the story’s true antagonist. It also gives Fassbender the room to shrewdly expand his characters. Waterston is good but Fassbender steals the show. It’s a tricky duel performance that brings subtle, unique nuances to both David and the updated model Walter.

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Other story angles offer promise but are completely dropped. Take the ship full of husbands and wives and the 1,000 human embryos in cold storage. A lot of fun ideas there begging to be explored. And then there are these out-of-the-blue mentions of Oram’s faith. Again they tease an interesting deeper story but there isn’t much to take away from what little we get. “I saw the devil once as a child.” – the most random of Oram’s quotes that we never get back to.

“Covenant” maneuvers through its ups and downs to land an ending that leaves me genuinely excited for the next chapter. And despite missing some opportunities there is still plenty that Scott and company get right. Perhaps “Prometheus” was too big of a departure for some die-hard fans. “Covenant” tries to lure them back with good action and effects while still giving time to Scott’s philosophical ruminations and mythology building. A lot of that works. It’s the in-between stuff that misses the mark.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Accountant”

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A title like “The Accountant” doesn’t exactly scream action and thrills. Instead it triggers thoughts of financial statements and tax analysis. Not exactly riveting cinema, right? But who says you can’t have a movie with just as many ledgers and spreadsheets as guns and bullets? Okay perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but you get what I mean. The idea is pretty outlandish.

Despite sounding preposterous “The Accountant” is a solid bit of entertainment. It’s a heavily plotted thriller featuring mobsters, hitmen, corporate CEOs, Treasury agents, and of course number crunchers. As it peels back layer upon layer of its story (much of it through flashbacks), it makes a strong effort to cover every base in order to maintain even the smallest level of plausibility. At the same time it’s pretty honest about what it wants to be. It just wants to be a little too much.

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Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a forensic accountant working out of a strip-mall in Plainfield, Illinois. Christian has high-functioning autism which is detailed through a series of childhood flashbacks. It inhibits his social skills and causes him distress if he is unable to carry out a task to its end. But it also contributes to his accelerated comprehension of mathematics and deduction. The film has a surprisingly warm and respectful touch in its handling of autism and its effects.

Here’s where things take a twist. As an accountant Christian does more than just help farm families with their tax returns. He also traces insider financial fraud for some of the world’s biggest criminal organizations. This attracts the attention of Ray King (J.K. Simmons) of the Treasury Department who blackmails a young Treasury agent (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping locate and identify the man known only as “The Accountant”.

Christian is given his assignments by a mysterious Siri-like voice over the phone. He’s sent to audit Living Robotics after the company’s accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) discovers discrepancies with their financial numbers. Christian must maneuver through the relationships of the company’s CEO (John Lithgow), his sister and associate (Jean Smart), and his best friend and company CFO (Andy Umberger). Christian’s discoveries thrusts him and Dana into a web of corporate corruption with violent reverberations. And with his life in jeopardy, Christian reveals yet another layer to his character – a much more lethal layer.

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Director Gavin O’Conner’s previous two films couldn’t be more different – the surprisingly great MMA family drama “Warrior” and the not so good Natalie Portman western “Jane Got A Gun”. With “The Accountant” he has a lot to juggle, more than in his previous two films combined. For the most part he keeps the many moving parts and duel storylines in sync. At the same time we get a few too many conveniences that we are supposed to buy into. It also relies too heavily on the flashbacks, most likely a result of simply having too much story to tell.

By the film’s end you almost get the sense that they are teasing a franchise. Several pieces are put in place that invite a sequel. “The Accountant” does plenty right – a good cast with good performances; bursts of intense well-shot action (occasionally laced with bits of dry humor); a dense but thoughtful story. Give me more of that and I will come back for another movie. But here’s a thought, maybe not so thickly plotted next time. More isn’t always better.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “After Hitler”

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Countless high quality documentaries have been made about World War 2, Adolph Hitler, the Holocaust, etc. Their importance can’t be understated especially as we grow further away from that period of time. Over the years documentarians have challenged viewers with their insightful explorations from an assortment of angles. Jonathan Martin’s “World War II in Color” is a superbly exhaustive series. Claude Lazmann’s “Shoah” and Marcel Ophüls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” are seminal works on the Jewish Holocaust. I could go on.

“After Hitler” puts its unique focus on a scarred post-war Europe delving into the war’s emotional, economic, societal, and political after-effects. Co-writer and director David Korn Brzoza covers a lot of ground starting in late 1945 and moving to the end of the decade. An incredible collection of colorized video footage from across the continent paints the picture of a weary, ravaged but optimistic people.

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But their optimism is quickly squashed as many countries face painful and often violent new realities. Brzoza and narrator Vincent Lindon present an array of truths concerning the new landscape of Europe – dark and disturbing pictures that have often gone forgotten. And exploration isn’t reserved for the countries Hitler’s Naziism terrorized. A big chunk of the documentary highlights Germany and the disaster left there by Hitler’s reign.

“After Hitler” hits its audiences with some brutal facts: the astonishing number of war orphans, a death toll of nearly 40 million European men, women, and children, disturbing ethnic post-war retaliations. This just scratches the surface of what Brzoza reveals. Deeper revelations from the Nuremberg trials, mass displacement, starvation – the scars of World War 2 are visualized in bone-shaking reality.

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There is also the political side which the film pays close attention to particularly in the second half. Starting with Churchill’s prediction and early warnings of Stalin’s rise. From there we see the rise of Communism, the birth of the single-party state, and eventually the solidification of the Iron Curtain. Brzoza shows that not only did Hitler’s devastating aggression dramatically change the landscape of Europe, but it opened the door for a new threat that would define the landscape for years to come.

There is one sobering quote from the film regarding post-war Europe that has stuck with me – “It’s as if before the page can be turned it must be stained with violence.” Brzoza does a superb job of realizing that. “After Hitler” does indeed cover a lot of ground and for the most part does so sufficiently. There were subjects that I wish the film sat down and explored more thoroughly, but for such a comprehensive undertaking it does a fine job. The ending is a bit abrupt, but it puts all the pieces together and smartly connects one violent decade to the ominous next one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The African Doctor” (2016)

doctor-posterKamini Zantoko (known simply as Kamini) is a French rapper of Congolese decent who became an internet sensation with his music videos depicting life in rural France. His first single was 2006’s “Marly-Gomont”, a song about growing up in a small Picard village of the same name. The humor-filled rap was actually based on Kamini’s life experience. As a young boy his father moved him and his family to Marly-Gomont to become the town’s doctor.

The influence of Kamini’s experience extends beyond rap tunes and music videos. It also drove him to co-write the script for the 2016 comedy-drama “The African Doctor”. It tells the story of Kamini’s father Seyolo Zantoko (portrayed by Marc Zingo) who is the only African graduate from his French medical school. Seyolo turns down a lucrative job in his home country and accepts one in the small all-white village of Marly-Gomont. But Seyolo and the desperate town mayor who hired him underestimate the backlash from the townsfolk who can’t shake their own ingrained prejudices.

Director  Julien Rambaldi (who also co-wrote the script with Kamini) examines this social quagmire through two intriguing narrative threads. The first is the most obvious – the plight of a black family trying to integrate into a narrow-minded, all-white community. Seyolo’s plan is to simply endure the initial discomforts and win over the villagers. But the fears and prejudices he and his family face are significant and at times overwhelming.

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The other thread centers around Seyolo’s bull-headed vision for his family. In his mind his desire for French nationality and better education for his kids can only be accomplished through the Marly-Gomont job. It’s an interesting position that subtly speaks to the lack of opportunity available at that time. But it also creates a wall between this genuinely loving father and his family. His insensitivity towards the pressures and persecution they are enduring threatens to tear them apart.

Seyolo’s wife Anne (wonderfully played by Aïssa Maïga) is smothering in loneliness and dreams of moving to Paris or Brussels. With her family in Africa and no friends in the village, her patience is paper-thin. His daughter Sivi (Médina Diarra) is a soccer prodigy but prohibited from playing on her school’s team first because she’s a girl and second because her father feels soccer is a waste of time. Young Kamini (Bayron Lebli) is a smart well-behaved boy who is forced to face racism for the first time at his new school. Yet Seyolo is impervious to their struggles.

 

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Considering all of that it’s hard to envision this as anything other than a heavy, troubling social drama. Actually it’s a very funny film that often puts a humorous spin on the absurdity of the ignorance on display. The village has its assortment of oddballs that add some good laughs while feeding the central conflict. Some may find this to be too lighthearted of an approach considering the topic, but I never lost sight of the seriousness amid the comedy. And I trust Kamini’s first-hand experiences enough not to view this as a sugar-coating.

“The African Doctor” is a quirky movie with a good sense of humor, a better message and a lot of heart. The balance of comedy and biting social drama is well-managed though it may not impress those looking for a more serious, aggressive take to the subject matter. But I would argue there is a lot of meaning packed into this film and the approach it chooses to take suits it just fine.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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