REVIEW: “Tell Me Who I Am” (2019)

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The extraordinary new film “Tell Me Who I Am” is further proof that the most potent documentaries aren’t always the one’s focused on prominent people or major events. Sometimes it’s the docs which tell the more intimate and deeply personal experiences that are the most compelling.

‘Intimate’ and ‘deeply personal’ certainly describes “Tell Me Who I Am”. Through the entire film we only hear two voices, those of identical twin brothers Alex and Marcus Lewis. Director Ed Perkins puts us face-to-face with the twins as they tell their remarkable story through their own emotionally crippling points-of-view. And Perkins’ approach to their story is (wisely) more therapeutic than probing.

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In 1982 when the British brothers were 18-years-old Alex was left in a coma following a serious motorcycle accident. He woke up with long-term amnesia, unable to remember anyone or anything with one exception. From his hospital bed he looked over and immediately recognized his brother Marcus. But regarding everything else Alex states “My head was just blank.”

After being released from the hospital the family returns home and Alex begins the daunting journey to rediscover his identity. He leans heavily on his brother whom he trusts implicitly. Like a jigsaw puzzle Marcus begins putting pieces together for Alex and painting a portrait of a happy childhood with two loving parents. But years later the discovery of one single photo changes everything and brings into question all that Alex has been led to believe about his past.

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I don’t want to give away much more but suffice it to say there is more to their childhood than Alex knows and it was intentionally kept from him by the one he trusted most in the world. Now 54, the brothers are still wrestling with their situations. Alex struggles with the vast hole in his memory and the broken bond of trust with his brother. Marcus is burdened by his actions and the moral dilemma of telling Alex the truth or keeping something from him that could cause tremendous pain.

Perkins slowly builds the tension by structuring each of the first two acts around the individual brothers. That sets up a heart-shattering third act that brings every raw feeling and deeply rooted emotion to the surface. It also brings the entirety of the film together in a truly affecting way. It’s absolutely devastating even though it feels like we are only scratching the surface of their story. At the same time I didn’t want to go further. I already felt as if I was invading their painful pasts. Thankfully Perkins shows restraint and allows the brothers to dictate what is revealed and what is kept private. Any other way and the film would be unbearable.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Transit” (2019)

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Christian Petzold’s stunning 2014 drama “Phoenix” featured a piercing story of lost identity, deep longing and heart-shattering betrayal all to the backdrop of post-World War II Germany. After a few quick glances at his latest film “Transit” you might be tempted to believe he was covering the same ground. In some ways the similarities are striking.

While the two films unquestionably have some of the same things on their minds, “Transit” carves out its own unique path and sets itself apart in a variety of ways. Much like “Phoenix”, the influence of history is all over his new film, but we quickly learn Petzold isn’t bound to it. It too features an enigmatic story, but “Transit” plays out with a complete disregard for expectation.

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Petzold (who serves as both writer and director) bases his film on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers about Nazi occupation during World War II. But finding your footing on Petzold’s timeline is easier said than done. At first glance you could easily think you were watching the story of a Jewish man on the run from the Gestapo. But then you see a modern car or the police’s advanced tactical gear and your sense of time is blurred.

The melding of historical and contemporary goes beyond appearances and often hints at more provocative ideas. For example the cities have the buzz of modernity but there is a noticeable lack of technology. We get plenty of worried talk about transit papers and exit visas. And the looming fascist forces are presented as current day yet they sharply resemble Hitler’s Nazism. Interestingly you could argue that the fascist threat is (at least in part) a MacGuffin and the movie’s interests are far more intimate and profoundly human. Like many truly great films, “Transit” allows room for various interpretations.

The film stars German actor Franz Rogowski who works with a quiet but ferocious intensity much in the vein of Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Georg who we first meet sitting in a Paris bar as police sirens wail in the background. The city has been occupied by an unnamed fascist regime and a “Cleansing” is underway (reminiscent of the horrific 1942 mass roundup of Jews).

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Georg is anxious to flee the city but first he agrees to help a friend deliver two envelopes to a writer named Weidel who is in hiding at a nearby hotel. One of the envelopes contains a letter to the writer’s estranged wife. The other an exit visa to Mexico. Events quickly unfold and we see Georg escaping Paris for Marseilles with both envelopes and genuinely honorable intentions. But things can change in a blink of an eye.

In Marseilles a brief moment of indecision leads to Georg assuming the identity of Weidel and being granted passage out of the country. But first he must wait three weeks until his ship sets sail. During that time he connects with several people trying to escape the coming oppression. Among them is the widow (Maryam Zaree) and young son (Lilien Batman), a dispirited doctor (Godehard Giese), and a mysterious woman with a knack for vanishing as quickly as she appears. She’s played by Paula Beer.

Then there are the familiar faces of people who Georg repeatedly bumps into – fellow refugees who we never know intimately yet we hear them sharing their stories. As a narrator explains “Ports are places where stories are told” and telling their stories helps them deal with their troubles. These may seem like small touches but actually they’re among the many vibrant strokes of humanity on Petzold’s stunningly authentic canvas.

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“Transit” is a film of many layers and much of the enjoyment comes from peeling them back and discovering the wealth of meaning underneath. It offers itself to many different readings – identity, fate, and the ever-present danger of repeating history just to name a few. And you can see it drawing from a variety of interesting influences – Alfred Hitchcock, Franz Kafka, even Curtiz’s “Casablanca”.

The world Petzold defines is girded by fear, paranoia and uncertainty yet his direction and the performances show a confident restraint. His intoxicating story moves to measured, melancholic beats while demanding every ounce of our attention and patience. This is one masterfully crafted movie if you’re willing to put in the effort. And it comes from a filmmaker so brilliantly in tune with his vision that it’s hard not to be dazzled.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “300: Rise of an Empire”

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I still remember the buzz surrounding Zack Snyder’s “300” when it hit theaters in 2007. The hyper-stylized comic book adaptation gained an enthusiastic following to the tune of almost $500 million at the box office. Seven years later a sequel came along but minus Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, and director Zack Snyder. Snyder did stay around to co-write the screenplay, but this time the directing reins were given to Noam Murro.

“300: Rise of an Empire” takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film. This time the main character is a Greek General named Themistocles. He’s played by Sullivan Stapleton, an actor who I really enjoyed in David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”. Themistocles kills King Darius of Persia as the king’s son Xerxes looks on. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) follows his father’s dying wish and journeys through the desert to a mystical cave. There he submerges himself in a pool of mysterious waters and eventually emerges as the god-king we see in the first film.

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Xerxes returns and declares war on Greece. He takes his army and faces Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (as seen in the first movie). At the same time Xerxes’ naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) takes a fleet and goes up against Themistocles in the Battle of Artemisium. From there the paper-thin plot navigates a series of dull fight scenes, a small bit of political wrangling, and plenty of forgettable exposition. It clearly aspires to be as stylistically hypnotic as its predecessor, but it never comes close.

Under Zack Snyder’s direction “300” had a captivating look. There was something harmonious and almost poetic about his bladed, blood-soaked ballet. Snyder’s camera placements, his use of slow motion, his fight scene choreography – all of it looked amazing despite their being little plot behind it. In “Rise of an Empire” the camera isn’t nearly as inventive. The slow motion is there but sometimes it is used in bewildering ways. The choreography occasionally shines, but it is just as often flat and unimaginative. All of this equals trouble for a movie whose bread and butter is the action.

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As you can expect from a “300” movie the plot is fairly plain although I was impressed with how they set up the sequel. There just isn’t much there after the table is set. Also most of the characters lack any charisma. The film really misses Butler, Fassbender, and company. But there is one cast member who actually saves this movie from completely sinking. Eva Green brings such voracity and spectacle to her character and she has a blast doing it. While Stapleton is quite dull as Themistocles, Green steals every scene with her mad, over-the-top performance. She single-handedly keeps this film above water.

Aside from Green “300: Rise of an Empire” doesn’t have a lot to offer. For those looking for blood and brawn, you’ll get it here at least in some degree. The first film wasn’t great but it handled its simple story well, its brutal visual style was impressive, and the characters had charisma. This time the story is dull, the action is dull, and the characters are dull with the one lone exception. In the end, Green can’t make this a good film, but she does make it watchable.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Thoroughbreds”

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Two teenaged friends reunite in Cory Finley’s intriguing debut feature “Thoroughbreds”. As many of us can attest to, even the closest childhood friendships are like a vapor with no guarantees to last. But sometimes, even unexpectedly, old friendships can be rekindled. Such is the case for the film’s two upper-class Connecticut teens Amanda and Lily.

Serving as both writer and director, Finley originally penned “Thoroughbreds” as a stageplay. You can see elements of those roots throughout the film – the emphasis on language, the framing of certain shots, holding them a few seconds longer that normal. It works well within the framework of this unusual thriller/black comedy which has drawn comparisons to “American Psycho” and the even the iciest Hitchcock.

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Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, “Ready Player One”) plays the eccentric and seemingly emotionless Amanda. She’s been through the rounds with psychiatrists after an animal cruelty charge and now her mother feels she needs more interaction with her peers. Mom secretly hires Amanda’s one-time childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch” and “Split”) to hang out and be her tutor. Lily is perceived to be the “normal one” of the two – smart and popular with the ‘in’ crowd at school.

Normally a social flower and a pariah aren’t the most compatible pair, but as Amanda and Lily spend more time together their psychological bond becomes more evident. A key turning point in their friendship centers around Lily’s cold, abrasive stepfather (Paul Sparks). Lily detests him, Amanda flippantly recommends killing him, Lily scoffs at the idea. But is Amanda really serious? What happens when Lily has second thoughts? From there the story moves forward in full blue-blooded psychological thriller mode

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While both Cooke and Taylor-Joy are interesting and expressive young actresses who truly nail down their characters, Anton Yelchin shines the brightest. It’s a small role but possibly the most genuine and sympathetic. He also gives us a breather from the film’s effective yet steadily acidic tone. Yelchin plays Tim, a low-level drug pusher with big aspirations. He’s as naive as he is pathetic which makes him the perfect stooge for the girl’s on again/off again master plan.

Despite dancing close the line of genre predictability, “Thoroughbreds” never crosses it and it has enough originality to feel uncomfortably fresh. The sound design, the visual style, its obvious noir roots – it all plays together nicely. The result is a half-batty movie that takes the problems of the young privileged and gives them a violent shake. Where do all the pieces land? You’ll have to watch to find out.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Triple Frontier”

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There has been no shortage of heist films over the past few years and they have pretty much covered all the bases. We’ve seen widows, hillbillies, magicians, even the elderly all set out to for that one big score. The new Netflix Original “Triple Frontier” gives us a different type of heist movie yet one that doesn’t stray too far from its genre roots.

“Triple Frontier” had me at its cast. Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, and Garrett Hedlund are all actors I throughly enjoy. I wasn’t as familiar with Pedro Pascal but he’s a good addition to this group. The five play old special ops buddies who reunite to pull off a seemingly quick and easy heist. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the job was easy.

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J.C. Chandor directs and co-writes the script along with Mark Boal. They offer up characters who aren’t just out for a quick buck. They are real-world people struggling to make a living after their military service. Tom (Affleck) is a realtor who can’t afford to send his daughter to college. William (Hunnam) does low paying motivational speeches for troubled vets. Ben (Hedlund) makes what money he can in warehouse mixed martial arts fights. Francisco (Pascal) faces an upcoming court date for transporting drugs.

Santiago (Isaac) is only one still semi-working in the field. He’s a private military consultant assisting the Colombian government in their war against the drug gangs. He learns through an informant that a local kingpin is holed up in a remote safe house with millions of dollars in drug money. Santiago travels back to America to recruit his old squadmates to help him take out the kingpin and grab the money for themselves.

At first the band is reluctant to get back together, especially Tom. But Santiago knows the situations of his cash-strapped pals and his sales pitch is good. He convinces the team to get back together for the proverbial ‘one last mission’ but this one isn’t for their government or their country. This one of for them and their future. Or so it seems.

For me these characters are a real strength of the film and the motivations that drive them are compelling. I do wish Chandor and Boal would have spent a little more time on their individual stories, but once the five are together their chemistry is undeniable. So many big names have been attached to the movie – Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Tom Hardy, Mahershala Ali, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, among others. That’s a lot of talent but I still wouldn’t change a thing. The cast is spot-on top to bottom (keep an eye on Hunnam. I like him more with each performance).

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Another strength is Roman Vasyanov’s cinematography. Hawaii and Columbia provide the beautiful and rugged vistas for him to capture and he shows a keen eye for shooting action sequences. They are tense and thrilling but also shot in a way that reflects conscience. What does that mean? This isn’t a full-throttle 80’s style action picture. There’s no thrill or enjoyment in the gunplay. But there is real conflict and consequence. In fact the violence is never gratuitous and Chandor’s camera often focuses on the shooter’s face instead of the bloody results.

It should be said that “Triple Frontier” doesn’t paint its characters out to be heroes. They’re flawed, damaged, and conflicted men wrestling with their own moral justifications for what they are doing. Some of their actions clearly originate from a deeper personal anguish, something I wish the film delved deeper into. Still, their chemistry is authentic and palpable, the story is full of tension, and just when you think you have it figured out it throws an unexpected but welcomed curveball.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The 12th Man” (2018)

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Some brief opening text lays out the setting for director Harald Zwart’s astounding “The 12th Man”. Nazi Germany occupied Norway on April 9, 1940. Three years later in Scotland British forces trained Norwegian soldiers to carry out sabotage missions in their homeland. On March 24, 1943 twelve Norwegian resistance fighters were sent to target German airfields in Operation Martin Red. Only one would come back alive.

This Norwegian historical thriller is based on the extraordinary true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of that doomed operation. The film is based on a biography by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott. It’s not the first movie based on a book of Baalsrud’s life. The 1957 drama “Nine Lives” received an Oscar nomination and remains a highly regarded picture.

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The grueling role of Baalsrud is played by Thomas Gullestad. Zwart starts quickly with Baalsrud and his team crawling out of the icy arctic waters onto the northern shores of Norway amid a hail of bullets. We learn that a costly mistake blew their cover and a German vessel attacks as they approach the mainland. Forced to scuttle their shot-up fishing boat, the twelve struggle ashore where German troops await them. Eleven are captured, Baalsrud escapes.

One of the first things I noticed was Zwart and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen’s striking perspectives. Their camera placements and the fluidity of its movements offer one penetrating visual after another. Then you have the shots of the stunning Norwegian landscapes which in context are both beautiful and ominous. These images add a menacing dimension as the wounded and battered Baalsrud trudges through the frigid snow and ice.

“The 12th Man” spotlights Jan Baalsrud’s resilience as he makes his way towards neutral Sweden’s border, fighting treacherous terrain, excruciating cold and the doggedly determined Gestapo. But as he slowly succumbs to snowblindness, hypothermia, and gangrene the true crux of the story comes into focus. The film is just as much about the people he meets throughout his harrowing journey. Jan’s strength and heroism is matched, often exceeded, only by the Norwegian patriots helping him at every step – civilians routinely risking their lives to save his. In many ways they form the emotional core of the movie.

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Equally fascinating is when the movie shifts focus to that of a Gestapo officer named Kurt Stage (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers). No one has ever escaped Stage’s pursuit and he takes Baalsrud’s flight personally. He persistently hunts Jan rejecting the skepticism and needling of an ambitious fellow officer (Martin Kiefer). Myers offers a charismatic antagonist pushed more by ego and obsession than duty.

Some may say the film’s biggest surprise is in Harald Zwart’s direction. Perhaps known more for his misfires (“Agent Cody Banks”, “The Pink Panther 2”, “The Karate Kid” remake), but don’t let that dissuade you for a second. His portrayal of this unbelievable true story is riveting both visually and narratively. Whether he is capturing Jan Baalsrud’s intense and sometimes brutal attempts at survival or creating genuine moments of levity with the men and women risking everything to aid him. It makes for truly inspirational cinema.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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