REVIEW: “Free Guy” (2021)

It’s not out of the ordinary so see comedians develop and then stick to their own routine. In many ways they are creatures of habit and if they’re able to tap into something that works it makes sense they would stay with it. I think it’s safe to say that Ryan Reynolds has found his shtick. The 44-year-old Canadian-born actor has dipped his toes into several other genres. But he seems to have found his home playing dim but endearing goofballs.

Reynolds takes his shtick and cranks it up to 10 in his impossible-to-categorize new film “Free Guy”. On the surface the Shawn Levy directed action-comedy looks like a kid-friendly romp and even plays like it at times. But a fairly steady stream of innuendo, profanity, half-baked virginity jokes, and an assortment of other crudities testify otherwise.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Instead, the firmly PG-13 rated “Free Guy” is a gaming inspired frolic that borrows from countless other movies including “The Lego Movie”, “The Matrix”, “Ready Player One”, “The Truman Show”. There are even dashes of “Back to the Future II”, “Groundhog Day” and “Star Wars”. It also yanks from numerous video games such as “Grand Theft Auto”, “Fortnite”, “Portal”, “SimCity” and “Tomb Raider”. All of those nods (and trust me, there are many more) make watching the movie feel of a pop-culture scavenger hunt which should thrill the Easter Egg hunters out there. It also helps mask some of the film’s nagging issues.

Reynolds plays the movie’s protagonist Guy, an NPC within a vast open-world video game. Now for those not well-versed in the gaming lexicon, “NPC” stands for non-player character. They’re essentially background sims who fill out a game’s world and are often fodder for the trigger-happy players. As the name suggests, they aren’t controlled by players but are programmed to exist a certain way.

Guy lives in Free City, an uber-violent “Grand Theft Auto” styled video game where real-life players roam around wrecking havoc while the oblivious NPCs carry out their programmed routines. The overly jovial Guy is no different. His routine goes something like this: wake up happy and full of energy, put on the same powder blue shirt and khakis, stroll down to the coffee shop for his morning java (cream and two sugars) and then off to the bank where he works as a teller. At the end of the day or the end of life (whichever comes first), everything resets and Guy does it all over again.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

In the real world, “Free City” is an enormously popular online video game developed and maintained by Soonami Games. The studio CEO Antwan (a ridiculously over-the-top Taika Waititi) sees dollar signs in a sequel that would ostensibly end Guy and the virtual world he calls home. Meanwhile a programmer named Millie (an eye-opening Jodie Comer) spends her time inside the virtual world of “Free City” in search of evidence that would prove that Antwan stole the code she created with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things”) who now works for Antwan. Their game was going to be a pacifistic utopia where NPCs and players live in harmony – a far cry from what Antwan created.

The two worlds collide when the wide-eyed and ever-content Guy crosses paths with Molotov Girl, Millie’s in-game avatar. Suddenly the smitten NPC steps out of his programming, joining Millie in her effort to expose Antwan. Guy’s exploits grab the gaming community’s attention and his sudden real-world fanbase watches for what he’s going to do next. And everyone (including an irate Antwan) begin wondering who the player is behind this Blue Shirt Guy, completely unaware that he’s actually an NPC turned groundbreaking artificial intelligence.

Levy along with co-writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn infuse “Free Guy” with a playful chaos and they zip through their story at a breakneck pace with practically no down time. But if you aren’t able to stay on the film’s manic and quirky wavelength, there’s a good chance of it wearing you down. And no matter how much it stuffs into its nearly two hour frame, if you aren’t 100% onboard you may start checking your watch at the 90-minute mark like I did.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Gamers will have a lot of fun finding all of the references aimed specifically at them. Terms like backwards compatibility, leveling up, teabagging, multiplayer lobbies, and so on. They even paid some well-known video game streamers to appear as themselves. Their scenes happen to be some of the falsest moments in the film, but they’re aimed at gamers nonetheless.

“Free Guy” is jam-packed with gags – some that land, many that don’t. Interestingly it’s the more subtle jokes that work best. For example I love how ‘Guy’ has such a perfectly generic name. And his best friend (a wonderfully warm Lil Rel Howery) is fittingly named ‘Buddy’. But there are just as many dated out-of-touch yawners that land with a thud. And I have to get back to Waititi as the film’s incredibly hammy villain. His act is alright for a few scenes, but it’s so outrageous that it’s impossible to take him seriously even when the story needs us to.

Despite its frustrations, “Free Guy” also has several strengths. Burrowed deep down in all of the silliness is a really good message about individuality and wanting more out of life. Even better, the movie features what should be a breakout performance from Jodie Comer. And there’s one particularly incredible cameo that I won’t dare spoil (you’ll know it when you see it). Unfortunately the good doesn’t fully outweigh the bad. It just evens things out a bit. And while it has an undeniably bright and cheery exterior, underneath is little more than a fairly standard and borderline exhausting blockbuster. “Free Guy” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Fear Street Part Three: 1666” (2021)

And we’re finally here, the conclusion of the “Fear Street” trilogy which began in 1994, backtracked to 1978, and ends up in 1666 (well, kinda). Cool in theory and certainly ambitious, this Netflix trilogy set itself up as a gory nostalgia-soaked horror adventure. Despite their numerous flaws and frustrations, the first two movies did feel like throwbacks in some regards. But both milked too much from their inspirations and came across as knockoffs rather than inspired. Yet they still did a passable job of keeping the audience interested enough to stick around for the finish.

“Fear Street Part Three: 1666” was supposed to be the big payoff but sadly it wasn’t worth the wait. This is a mess of movie plagued by baffling creative choices, haphazard storytelling, and scattershot pacing. It always felt like “1666” would be the most challenging for the filmmakers to pull off due to the vastly different time period and the need for the movie to wrap everything up in a cohesive and satisfying way. That’s a tall order and they certainly had a lot to tackle. But what’s crazy is that the film covers all this ground yet it feels remarkably lightweight.

Returning director Leigh Janiak, who co-wrote the script with Phil Graziadei and Kate Trefry, set their story (obviously) in 1666. It revolves around a small village called Union which has staked out a patch of land that will one day be known as (you guessed it) Shadyside. Throughout the first two movies we hear a lot about the legend of Sarah Fier, a witch whose curse is believed to be responsible for Shadyside’s long and gruesome history of death. “1666” sets out to finally tell the real story of Sarah Fier, a teenage girl who’s part of the Union settlement.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

One of the strangest and most ineffective choices for “1666” was the decision to use the same actors from the previous films to play the “pilgrim ancestors” of their earlier characters. Maybe it was for budget reasons or maybe it just sounded better on paper. But onscreen it comes across as cheap and gimmicky. Outside of a character or two, most of the appearances offer nothing more than familiar faces and play out like needless cameos. For example Sadie Sink pops up for a scene then vanishes. Emily Rudd is only allowed to wear a bonnet and walk around in various states of confusion and distress. Julia Rehwald gets a throwaway line or two while Benjamin Flores Jr. is there and quickly forgotten.

Kiana Madeira, who plays the lead character Deena in the first film, plays Sarah Fier here. Although in keeping with the weird decision-making, she’s not the REAL Sarah Fier according to the credits. Elizabeth Scopel plays the REAL Sarah Fier but we only see her in these arbitrary flashes of her face that pop up from time to time. Anyway, Madeira’s Sarah has a thing for the local pastor’s daughter Hannah (Olivia Scott Welch, aka Sam from “1994”). One night the village teens are partying around a campfire and getting high on berries stolen from a creepy widow’s house (you know, as they were prone to do in 1666). Sarah and Hannah sneak off for some ill-advised necking but are spotted by Mad Thomas (McCabe Slye) who promptly spreads their secret throughout the settlement.

The next morning as word of the indiscretion gets around, the laughably puritanical settlers turn on the two girls. In what seems like a manner of minutes, the food begins to rot, animals start flipping out, blight hits the crops, and various other signs of an evil curse hits the village. For no discernible reason whatsoever the village simpletons determine that one or both of the girls must be witches. The girls’ strongest ally is Solomon (Ashley Goode who played the town sheriff in “1994”), but all he does is look disgusted and retreat to his cabin on the outskirts of Union.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

I won’t spoil how it plays out, but let’s just say it’s shallow, hurried, and unremarkable. Janiak rushes through the 1666 story, cramming it all into the film’s first half. No real character development. No real drama. No meaningful buildup. Thankfully there are enough weird accents and unintentionally bad dialogue to laugh at (and to make it bearable). Lines like “Who among you has welcomed the devil to Union?” spoken in hysterically stoic period-speak. Or Deena..errr Sarah proclaiming like a poor woman’s Éowyn, “I am no lamb.”

From there the movie shifts from its superficial 1666 backstory to 1994 where the first film’s surviving cast members spend the second half putting together a wacky plan the purge the evil from Shadyside. I’d like to say it’s a noticeable upgrade from the first 45 minutes but it’s not. In fact, aside from the seismic tonal shift, nothing about it grabs your attention. There is one scene and one scene alone, where the summoned killers engage in a blood-slinging, limb-flying battle royale, that’s actually fun and feels like something fresh. Otherwise it’s a pretty corny and forgettable way to wrap up the trilogy.

“Fear Street” had a lot of promise but none of the films manage to live up to it. “1666” is by far the weakest, bringing nothing new to the trilogy and even going away from what made the previous films watchable. The ridiculously gory kills along with the overused yet admittedly entertaining retro kick are what kept “1994” and “1978” above water. Those things vanish in “1666”. There is a smattering of gore but hardly anything that you’ll remember and I don’t recall any nostalgic callbacks. And can I just say this may be the most overscored movie in cinema history. The music never stops and is far too often cranked up to 10. It’s just another place where this disappointing YA horror trilogy wears out its welcome. “Fear Street Part Three: 1666” premieres today (July 16th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” (2021)

Part Two of Netflix’s ambitious “Fear Street” horror trilogy is set to premiere on the streaming giant’s platform this weekend, one short week after the release of the first film. This one, reasonably titled “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” fills in a lot of the holes from the first movie and does a better job blending nostalgia with storytelling. At the same time it still runs into some of the same issues that made the first installment feel more like a slasher movie knockoff than something with its own ideas and identity.

The movie begins with a ‘previously on Fear Street’ montage before moving right into direct sequel mode. Picking up where “1994” left off, Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her kid brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr.) bring the tied-up and seemingly possessed Sam (Olivia Welch) to the home of a local hermit named Ziggy Berman played by Gillian Jacobs (If you need a refresher on the first movie check out my review HERE). The kids believe Ziggy has information that can help free Sam from what they think is a witch’s curse that has led to Shadyside’s long and gruesome history of murder.

An reluctant Ziggy sits the kids down, pulls out a tattered old book that looks centuries old, and begins telling Deena and Josh about the Summer of 1978 (because of course they have time for a 90-minute story). That’s when she went to Camp Nightwing, a place that was referenced several times in Part One. It’s essentially a Crystal Lake clone full of serial killer fodder masquerading as campers and counselors. Ziggy begins with a very movie-like disclaimer, “In Shadyside the past is never really past.” She then goes into the bloody events that left her in such a frightened and isolated state.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

From there returning director Leigh Janiak and new screenwriter Zak Olkewicz transport us back to July of 1978 which is where the bulk of the movie plays out. Sadie Sink plays teenaged Ziggy who would rather be anywhere than at Camp Nightwing. She’s basically an outsider with a knack for getting in trouble and whose only friend is the creepy camp nurse (Jordana Spiro). We learn pretty quick that she doesn’t get along with her big sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) who happens to be one of the counselors. Over time the movie unpacks some of their old family baggage revealing the reason for the tension between them. It’s not really relevant to the main story, but it’s there and it adds a little character depth.

Amusingly Cindy is portrayed as a stuffy, straight-laced, stick-in-the-mud when in reality she’s one of the few counselors with sense. That’s clearly evident when she’s put beside the cookie-cutter counselor types such as the obnoxious dopeheads Alice and Arnie (Ryan Simpkins and Sam Brooks), the dumb jock (Michael Provost), the sexpot (Jacqi Vene), and so on. Among the more tolerable camp heads is Cindy’s puppy dog boyfriend (McCabe Slye) fittingly named Tommy (one of several fun nods to “Friday the 13th”). And there’s the young Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland), the future sheriff of Shadyside who’s played by Ashley Zukerman in the first film.

Much like it’s predecessor, “1978” leans into the music of the time to constantly remind us we’re in the 1970s. Neil diamond, Captain and Tennille, The Runaways, Blue Oyster Cult, Kansas, and Foghat are just some of the artists on the film’s soundtrack. But the rock tunes eventually give way to the pounding score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. The duo so accurately recaptures the music of the slasher movie era that it might sound a bit generic to those not in tune with what they’re going for.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The opening 30 minutes or so does a good job of setting up its story and scratching that retro horror itch at the same time. There is a better balance in these scenes and I was onboard pretty early. As before, this movie shows the depths of the Shadyside and Sunnyvale rivalry while finally digging deeper into the origins of the witch Sarah Frier and the curse that hangs over Shadyside. But over time it slowly devolves into something less interesting. It gets bogged down in the second half as certain characters languish in a cave parsing through witch theories. And much like “1994”, when it comes to teen characters the filmmakers work from a bland and unflattering blueprint. Only a few are worth rooting for while others are annoying or completely disposable with no real resonance whatsoever.

One thing is for certain, the original novels might have been aimed towards kids in the PG crowd, but these first two films have made it clear that this series is far from it. “1978” is high on gore – not nearly as impressive or creative with it as “1994” but gory nonetheless. And then you have the host of potty-mouthed characters who are veritable assembly lines of F-bombs. It really dumbs down some of the dialogue and doesn’t help the characters either. The movie leans heavily into its “mature” elements so be warned.

To the trilogy’s credit it packs enough energy and setup into its middle movie to leave you curious for how everything is going to play out. The third and final film comes out next week and is set in “1666”. It could prove to be the most challenging of the three especially after seeing the weird teaser at the end of this film. As for “1978”, it manages to be both nostalgically transporting and needlessly irritating. Over time it begins to resemble “Stranger Things” but set in a slasher movie world with less personality and charm and minus the characters that make that series so great. As it is, “1978” is serviceable – not terrible but not nearly as good as it could’ve been. “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” premieres July 9th on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Forever Purge” (2021)

Since it started in 2013 with Ethan Hawke playing an opportunistic security system salesman, The Purge movies have been a guilty pleasure of mine. But it’s grown harder to use the word “pleasure” as the franchise that has gotten weaker and more heavy-handed with each new installment. The slick yet effective subtleties of the first film have given way to a bludgeoning messaging and a complete lack of nuance. Even worse, the later movies cross a line the first couple manage to straddle – one that sees them relishing the very violence they priggishly condemn.

“The Forever Purge” is the fifth and allegedly final film of the franchise and a direct sequel to 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year”. The story is once again written by series creator James DeMonaco but he hands the directing duties to Everardo Gout. In this newest chapter DeMonaco once again infuses his dystopian world with his own cynical and damning vision of current events; essentially looking at America through the same critical lens as his last films. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t expect “The Forever Purge” to explore any of its themes in a meaningful or insightful way.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“The Purge” movies have always been built on a concept that sounds dumb on the surface but potentially provocative and daring underneath. Unfortunately by constantly getting in its own way the movies never fully realize that potential. If you need a refresher, the Purge is a government sanctioned ‘holiday’ where all crime including murder is permitted for one night. For twelve hours all police and emergency services are suspended. It was created and put into law by the New Founding Fathers in response to America’s rising crime rates and economic collapse. Of course deep down there were far more nefarious motivations at work.

Never above shamelessly exploiting the political hot-topic of the day, the newest chapter latches onto America’s ongoing southern border crisis. We first meet husband and wife Juan (Tenoch Huerta) and Adela (Ana de la Reguera) as the illegally cross from Mexico into the United States. Skip ahead a few months and Adela is working at a meatpacking plant while Juan trains horses for a wealthy white family on their Texas ranch. The ranch owner Caleb Tucker (Will Patton) treats Juan well, even giving him a bonus to help keep his wife safe during the upcoming Purge. That’s not the case with his son Dylan (Josh Lucas) who comes across as a little jealous of his father’s affection for Juan.

Purge night comes and goes leaving the small town soaked in blood and bodies. Having survived their first Purge, a relieved Juan and Adela join others who survived the night and try to get back to their normal routine. But little do they know a countrywide movement of deranged extremists have determined one night of purging isn’t enough. This cartoonishly bigoted “Ever After” group launches its campaign of hate and supremacy all over the country apparently with numbers similar to that of an invading nation’s army (It’s best not to wonder how such a widespread violent rebellion was organized without being detected. Questioning things like that in these movies usually doesn’t pay dividends.)

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As Adela heads back to work she finds herself trapped by bunny-masked crazies. Meanwhile Juan and fellow undocumented ranch hand T.T. (Alejandro Edda) arrive at the Tucker’s ranch to find Dylan, his father, his pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman), and his sister Harper (Leven Rambin) about to be executed by a band of purge-happy cowboys. The Mexican immigrants rescue the privileged white family setting up a pretty predictable “I was wrong about you” reconciliation. But before that can happen they have to find Adela and scurry to Mexico which is accepting American refugees but is about to close its border as violence intensifies across the U.S.

“The Forever Purge” continues the franchise’s slide away from horror and towards gun-heavy action. We do get a few utterly pointless nods to its horror roots mainly through a handful of lazy jump scares. Other than that this is mostly a straight-up action flick. Gout clearly has a way with the camera and he puts together several visually impressive sequences. My favorite is a killer tracking shot that follows our protagonists through the violent and ravaged nighttime streets of El Paso. There is also a propulsive energy to Gout’s direction that keeps his audience locked in moving forward.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

While Gout manages to keep things reasonably entertaining, DeMonaco’s script often finds a way of undermining what the director is doing. At its core this really is just a variation of the same simple survival story that we’ve gotten since the second film. Different characters and a much different location, but it’s still about getting from point A to point B in a certain amount of time and staying alive while doing so. It may sound routine but you can still do some fun and clever things with it despite its simplicity. In fact, in some ways DeMonaco’s use of setting makes this film considerably more engaging than his last two efforts.

It’s when DeMonaco begins pounding his pulpit with the subtlety of a sledgehammer that things unravel. At times his dialogue is laughably blunt and his message so brazenly in-your-face that you can’t help but roll your eyes. And then there are the few times when his unwavering allegiance to his convictions lead to carelessness. Take the ending newsreel that could almost be interpreted as a reckless call to arms and a stamp of approval on a second Civil War. The optimist in me would like to believe he has other intentions such as issuing a warning in hopes of preventing that future. But when so much of his movie’s messaging is frank and on-the-nose, it’s hard to really know for sure. “The Forever Purge” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Fast & Furious 9” (2021)

It feels like I ask this question with every new “Fast & Furious” movie, but who could have imagined that the modestly budgeted first film about a hotshot undercover cop infiltrating the Los Angeles street racing scene would not only become a huge franchise but also a global box office juggernaut? Yet here we are, twenty years after 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious”, with the ninth installment of the immensely popular series. And if you need further proof of its beloved status, the film has already raked in nearly $300 million in its limited international release. Impressive numbers especially during a pandemic.

I’m still not sure of the official title (“Fast & Furious 9”, “F9”, “Fast 9”, “Furious 9” – the names got weird several movies back), but I’ll call it “F9” for the sake of simplicity. “F9” sees the return of director Justin Lin who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Casey. It also sees the departure of screenwriter Chris Morgan who had previously written every film since 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious”. But the central cast all return led by the heart of the film Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Also returning is Charlize Theron’s cyberterrorist antagonist Cipher and joining the franchise for the first time is John Cena.

“F9” continues a trend that started in “Fast Five” when the series was given a pretty substantial makeover. That’s when it fully embraced the crazy over-the-top globetrotting spectacle. Instead of running from cops and ticking off drug lords they began taking out vengeful rogue mercenaries and megalomaniacal terrorists. Plans for global annihilation were thwarted, not by government agents or super-spies but by gearheads with souped-up cars. And each new movie aimed to one-up the previous ones with wilder, nuttier action. “F9” sticks close to that formula meaning audiences know exactly what they’re going to get.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“F9” shines in the action department but struggles when it comes to story. I say that completely aware that people don’t go to “Fast & Furious” movies for their deep immersive narratives. Yet most of these films are threaded together with just enough plot to keep things interesting. “F9” tries some new things, especially in its attempt to flesh out the history between Diesel’s Dom and his estranged kid brother Jakob (Cena) who is also the film’s chief antagonist. There is a ton of old family baggage and the movie spends way too much time unpacking it through frequent and lengthy flashbacks that are more invasive than intriguing. These scenes repeatedly zap the movie of its energy.

Every other thinly detailed storyline just seems to be there to set up the next action beat. Jakob is after a digital doomsday device called Aries which puts a damper on Don’s retirement with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son. Jakob’s motives are muddled at best, but he’s a big enough threat for Dom and his usual cohorts to gas up and go after him. That leads to a number of outrageous and mostly fun action scenes in places like Montecito, Edinburgh and Tokyo, most involving some form of vehicular combat. Lin flat-out knows how to stage, shoot and edit these elaborate sequences and that’s one place where “F9” doesn’t disappoint. The action is stunning and it’s clear where the bulk of the film’s $200 million-plus budget went.

Still it’s hard to shake the clear issues with the writing. To be fair things like logic, reality, even physics simply don’t apply to these movies. You have to turn off a portion of your brain and let some obvious questions and concerns drift off into the ether. But in “F9” some things are hard to look past including the aforementioned bland and momentum-zapping flashbacks. Also, never has the series had a more generic threat to face. It’s not the fault of Cena who starts off as stiff and emotionless as a T-1000 but loosens up over time. There’s just no story for him work with. He’s a bad guy looking for a thing that could essentially destroy the world. The sibling dynamic is supposed to add an extra layer but doesn’t. Instead I spent my time wondering how Jakob has never come up in a franchise so heavily about family.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The main returning characters all do what you expect them to do. Dom speaks in his signature super-serious growls and still has his affinity for white muscle shirts. Letty broods like an overprotective mother but can still hold her own against any of the guys. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) offer up the film’s comic relief. Mia (Jordana Brewster) brings a sweetness to the film while the spirited Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) may be my overall favorite of the bunch. We also get the return of Han (Sung Kang), a welcomed old face who adds some (not a lot) much-needed depth.

Other characters don’t fare as well. Theron gets a thankless role and spends the bulk of her few scenes in a Magneto-like plastic cell. Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody appears in a couple of transmissions and a flashback then vanishes (I’m still not sure what happened to him). It’s always good seeing Michael Rooker and Helen Mirren but here they mainly just make appearances. Instead time is wasted with needless cameos like a cringe-soaked Cardi B scene that’s only there to have Cardi B in the movie.

“F9” is a tricky film to review. In a very real sense it is exactly what true fans of the series want. It makes no apologies for its over-the-top silliness and it never pretends to be anything other than what it is. For that reason fans will watch and probably leave pleased. But those who may be growing the tiniest bit tired of the franchise’s formula may find themselves checking out during the film’s lengthy runtime. I know I was eyeing my watch and hungry for a little something to chew on. But the action remains the real strength and it bales the movie out. Just barely but enough to making sitting through its 145 minutes worthwhile. “F9” opens today in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Final Account” (2021)

Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common man, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” The thrust of that quote forms the backbone of Luke Holland’s engrossing new Holocaust documentary “Final Account”. In it Holland condenses twelve years of work and nearly 300 interviews into a 90 minute study of how passivity can open the door to great evil and how denial of one’s complicity can take many different forms.

There is a tag at the end of “Final Account” that captures Holland’s relationship to this subject – “In the memory of my murdered grandparents and millions of others.” This was a personal journey for Holland who sadly died from cancer shortly after completing the film. He sought to capture the German point-of-view from some of that generation’s few remaining voices. Some were simply witnesses; others were active participants. Either way it’s fascinating (and sometimes shocking) to hear them in their very own words now 75 years since the end of World War II.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

When dealing with the Holocaust, movies of all types tend to examine it through the pained eyes of the countless victims. But Holland’s interview-focused documentary takes a different approach, seeking out those connected in different ways to the Nazi Party and Hitler’s Third Reich. Soldiers from the Waffen-SS, officers, bookkeepers, concentration camp guards, party officials – just some of the people Holland talks to who offer a startling array of responses to that dark time in German history.

The plethora of different opinions and perspectives coming directly from the mouths of people with first-hand knowledge is both fascinating and utterly unnerving. Elderly men and woman in the final stages of their own lives share feelings ranging from remorse and regret to outright denial. Some reminisce with an appalling tinge of nostalgia. One lady chuckles as she talks about hiding her SS boyfriend from American troops. While blindly defending an area concentration camp, a man states “most people benefited from it”. A former Nazi officer proudly shows off his service medals while defiantly defending Hitler’s “honor”.

Other people plead ignorance only to later undermine their claims by recalling distinct details such as the smell of human flesh as Jews were burned alive in a nearby camp. Many defended their passivity by saying they had no choice; that they would have been executed had they spoke or disobeyed. You see some of this when Holland sits down with a group of four women at a nursing home in Austria who offer different accounts of their days growing up close to a nearby work camp. “We knew nothing,” one says. “Everyone knew,” argues another.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Perhaps most enlightening are the scenes where Holland asks the interviewees what drew them to the Nazi Party. Nearly all were brought in when they were young, one as early as 9-years-old. Many were indoctrinated at school where teaching propaganda and anti-Jewish sentiment to children was a prominent part of Hitler’s recruitment. By the age of 14 many had joined Hitler’s Youth. For some “participation was mandatory,” we’re told. A few spoke of that time with a sense of shame, but most talked about it as if reflecting on ‘the good old days’.

Moments like those permeate nearly every frame of “Final Account”. Luke Holland stays away from anything showy and there is a minimal use of archived footage. It can make the film feel a little dry, but it allows him to focus on the people he interviews and their direct testimonies. Much of Holland’s questioning is designed to make them sit in front of his camera and express whether or not they should be considered perpetrators. Some genuinely wrestle with a question and more importantly the answer. But most have found unconvincing ways to exonerate themselves in their own minds, with some going as far as to proudly boast of having “no regrets”. Hearing people from our current day clinging to such venomous ideology is hard to stomach, but that is a big part of what makes Holland’s film so effective and powerful. “Final Account” hits select theaters today (May 21st).

VERDICT – 4 STARS