Justine (Garance Marilliier, looking like a Gallic Rooney Mara) comes from a family of vegetarians and veterinarians. She’s entering a famed veterinary college as a legacy and her big sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already established among the school hierarchy. The incoming students are mercilessly hazed and Justine is forced to eat meat against her will. This moment unlocks a secret craving within her that consumes her. She starts looking at her fellow students less as dinner dates and more as dinner.
For the first half of Raw I thought I was watching a French nouveau version of Carrie. The first half of the movie is dominated by the pressures, and in particular, the cruel hazing from the upperclassmen at the college. The hazing is extreme, rampant, and omnipresent, with every older classmate throwing around his or her sense of privilege and bullying the freshmen candidates. It’s the kind of harassment and abuse we’ve seen in other stories relating to fraternities and sororities where institutions of power abuse others because they were abused and so on and so on, normalizing the cruelty. However, those are organizations that are elective and enclaves among a larger campus. With Raw, it appears that every upperclassman is part of this system of hazing, meaning there is no escape if the young candidates want to continue their education. The professors seem complicit in their negligence, and Justine even has one professor who hilariously criticizes her for doing too well in class. He says her good scores are depressing the other students, possibly making them become worse doctors. The overall impression of this scholarly environment is one of sickness and exploitation. There’s even a culminating “class picture” where they are bathed in buckets of (pig?) blood. With this sort of build-up, I was anticipating that when Justine got her crazy cravings that the movie was going to set up some tasty just desserts for these sadistic upperclassmen. I was looking forward to these mean people getting killed and eaten to service Justine. Perhaps that’s the American version of what this movie would become, or my own preferred version with the established first half, but that’s not the movie Raw ends up becoming.
Stuck somewhere between body horror and weird compulsion, Raw falters trying to stake its own territory. It’s definitely structured like a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story except said awakening is connected with cannibalism. That’s an excellent starting point for some cringe horror but Raw gets too lost in its dreamlike atmospherics. We explore rave-like revelries, hedonistic escapades, and the allure of the unknown. The best part of the film is the deterioration of Justine’s inhibitions as she gives in to her inner carnivore. There’s an obvious carnality metaphor here (college is a time for experimentation) and there’s a clear entertainment factor in watching a meek character assert herself. Her character gets lost in the oblique mystery that leaves a lot of unanswered questions and unclear motivations. One minute our heroine is rejecting the pressure of her peers and the next she’s nibbling on a severed finger. Her downward spiral doesn’t feel adequately developed as she’s immediately caught in the swirl of campus hazing. The progression feels phony. Outrageous things happen without a tonal grounding, and so it feels more like David Lynch dream logic. I could better accept this drifting quality if the movie had more plot to offer. At the halfway mark, once big sis makes her major personal reveal, the movie generally stalls. The plot doesn’t advance, the characters don’t really deepen, and we’re getting variations on the same things from before. The body horror elements don’t fully feel integrated as well. Justine has breakouts of hives and rashes, presumably from eating meat, though this comes and goes. She doesn’t ever seem too fraught over what she may be becoming, but maybe that’s just being French.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau certainly has talent and a natural way of handling her actors, but her film debut is just trying too hard. The constant crimson color scheme is heavy-handed to convey the protagonist’s frayed state of mind. The symbolism is also just as obvious. The suppression of darker, more animalistic desires is an intriguing concept, except several of the jumps in character development, or debasement, happen while Justine is unconscious. This provides a “what did we do last night?” air of mystery but it also hinders the character growth on screen. It’s like the movie is trying to have Justine sleep through her character development. It’s too bad because there are fascinating pieces and ideas that emerge like flotsam in the wake of Ducournau’s tale. The second half has the potential to become a bizarre sisterly bonding story. How far is each sister willing to go to help the other and to cover up for her actions? Will there be a rivalry when they target the same man? These kinds of questions could have further explored their relationship, but alas it was not to be. You’ll never know how the sisters are supposed to feel for one another throughout the movie. The characters are pretty thin to begin with and then Ducournau introduces a new element to provide added dimension and then lets it slip away. Back to shock value and obvious metaphors.
Here’s an example how Raw gets too caught up in the sensations of the moment, the allure of its images, which admittedly are a key part to horror. There’s a scene where Justine is dancing in front of a mirror. She’s wearing her sister’s clubbing dress, an article of clothing she had earlier been disdainful over. Now she sways to the beats of a rap song and applies lipstick to her pert lips. She then gazes lustfully at her reflection and leans into the mirror, kissing it and herself. And then she does this for another minute, going in for like four more kisses, as if one wasn’t sufficient. We get the idea pretty early, about Justine’s emerging new self, her carnal cravings, and yet Ducournau keeps going, convinced that redundancy is required to satisfactorily convey obsession.
Raw is also somewhat notorious on the festival circuit for its shock value. Reportedly people were fainting or leaving in droves from the content of the movie. I think this hyperbolic response is overblown. There is a fair bit of gore in the movie but it’s almost all animal related. If you’re an animal lover, watching corpse after corpse might be too much. I certainly averted my eyes more than once during a dog carcass autopsy. The human gore is surprisingly minimal though bloody. By far the most squirm-inducing part of Raw didn’t involve cannibalism at all but a homemade Brazilian wax that gets a little too close for comfort for all involved. At least I now know what my tolerance level will be like for the eventual European coming-of-age horror film set at a waxing station.
While watching Raw with my friend Ben Bailey, we would occasionally turn to each other after a shocking or gratuitously exploitative scene and say, “It is a French movie.” When characters strip for casual nudity, or start chowing down on human remains, or frolic in blood-soaked clothing, we’d say, “It is a French movie.” This turned into a game, ultimately with us imagining a climax involving a cannibalistic ménage à trios. “That,” we remarked, “would be the ultimate French movie.” Raw is a seductive and intriguing movie that has enough surface-level pleasures for devoted horror hounds. Unfortunately, it feels like the least interesting version of this story and premise. There are interesting pieces here to be certain. I just wish someone else had assembled them.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Great Wall is the most expensive film in Chinese history and the first major co-production between an American film studio and a Chinese-owned studio. While Matt Damon is the name above the title, it’s filled with recognizable Chinese stars, like Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and pop star Lu Han. China’s most renowned action filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, serves as the director. It has the look and feel of a Hollywood special effects epic but it’s very much a Chinese film in ownership and execution, perhaps marking a new synergy of East meets West blockbusters. With a whopping budget of $150 million, the same as the last Star Trek movie, it looks like a typical Hollywood big-budget epic with visual spectacle and sweeping vistas. It’s up to the viewer whether a majority-Chinese production successfully imitating Hollywood middlebrow action spectacle is a brave step forward or just another source for mediocrity.
In the 11th centruy, traveling European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) are looking for black powder, an explosive substance that’s worth serious money back home. A mysterious feral creature attacks them and William cuts off the beast’s hand, taking it as a trophy. The Nameless Order, Chinese military officials stationed at the titular great wall, capture them and want to know exactly how these foreigners were able to defeat this beast. Legend states that long ago a meteor crashed to Earth, and with it came a horde of green monsters with big teeth lead by a queen that psychically controls her thousands of attack drones. Every 60 years the creatures emerge searching for food for their ravenous appetites. The Imperial City must be protected at all costs and that is why the wall was constructed. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is thrown into command when her male superiors are killed, and she relies upon her unexpected Western allies to throw back the evolving horde of monsters.
As the first major big-budget collaboration between studios in China and the United States, The Great Wall feels like something that would have escaped from the 1990s era of tentpole filmmaking, and it’s clearly a paycheck film for all involved. Now that doesn’t condemn in either regard. There’s a certain charm to the relatively dumb sci-fi action movies that started being prepped with steady regularity in the 1990s when advancing special effects made it possible for hordes of CGI monsters to thwart. There’s an obvious point of engagement that crosses all translations: man versus monsters. The film even somewhat admirably knows its own ridiculousness and embraces it. I was reminded of the go-for-broke silliness of Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies like National Treasure’s positing that maybe, just maybe, there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This feels like the biggest budget Asylum movie you can imagine, and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. However, because of the mechanical nature of so much of its storytelling and the safe territory it resolutely occupies, The Great Wall is a mediocre monster movie that aims right down the middle for cross-continental mass appeal and nothing more. I’m almost certain that Damon had to have been paid $20 million dollars to justify his participation. The actors and the director go about their business in a professional manner but you feel the lack of passion. It’s a film looking to appeal to the most people and losing any sense of distinction.
Credit director Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) for keeping the film on life support, providing just enough action variety and pleasing visuals to stir an audience awake. The monsters are introduced very early into the film, around the twenty-minute mark, and their CGI horde definitely presents a worthy challenge. In fact they feel too overwhelming in their numbers. Early on we see that the ferocious creatures, which closely resemble the Ghostbusters demon dog painted green, are hard to kill outside of a straight shot to their shoulder-eyes (they have eyes on their shoulders… because…). The first creature that successfully scales the wall takes out a slew of Chinese warriors. If one of these things is that hard to kill, how in the world can a limited number of people, even with high ground, defend against a sea of a hundred thousand? The mismatched numbers deflate the stakes and lessen the tension, which isn’t helped from subpar characterization. The world building is certainly hazy (Why do they come out once every 60 years? Why do magnets affect them? Why all the effort for small food supplies?) and some of the elements feel inserted just for their “cool” factor. A group of female warriors bungee jump off platforms to spear the monsters, but why is this necessary when we’ve already seen that China has fiery projectiles that are far more effective? It is cool though.
Thankfully a movie with little going for it other than spectacle at least knows to vary up its action sequences. Each encounter with one of the monsters is structured differently. The best sequence may be William and Tovar navigating through a blinding fog and relying upon the sounds of whizzing arrows to alert them to approaching hungry monsters. It provides some fun tension and pop-out moments. There’s a beautiful sequence commemorating a fallen friend with the launching of hundreds of floating lanterns. The concluding sequence involves our remaining characters climbing to the top of a pagoda lined with stained glass. As the characters rush up flights of stairs, the screen is lovingly diluted with colored shafts of light, which also add extra visual flourishes when the monsters begin to leap through the glass level by level. Yimou’s use of color has always been a hallmark of his career and it translates even into the color-coded amour of the different divisions of the Nameless Order. They look like ancient Power Rangers. While lacking a great deal of overall tension due to its predictable nature and dull characters, there are fleeting moments of suspense drawn out in individual action set-pieces. The overall movie is generally unremarkable CGI carnage reminiscent of a too-late Lord of the Rings rip-off, and yet there’s at least a general professionalism to its unremarkable CGI carnage.
Early on the movie was hit with accusations of whitewashing, and given Hollywood’s recent track record with the likes of Exodus, Aloha, and Gods of Egypt, it would be entirely conceivable that producers felt Damon needed to be a white savior role. That’s not the case at all and in fact the Chinese forces are shown to be flawless specimens. Damon’s character is the out-of-place European (complete with hard to place accent) who represents selfish and arrogant Western attitudes. He’s routinely awed by the ability and precision of the Chinese warriors, who dutifully sacrifice for the greater good and safety of others they will never know. They are symbols of power, teamwork, courage, strength, and dignity. The lessons can be rather blunt (a woman… in charge?!). The portrayal of the Chinese forces is so honorable and so empowered that they come across as boring moral paragons without an ounce of traceably human nuance. They don’t come across like characters so much as interchangeable warriors, and so when they start dying one-by-one their sacrifices ultimately leave little impact. It turns out that the non-Chinese actors, Damon and Pascal, supply the most interesting characters because their roles are allowed personality, basic moral ambiguity, and inner conflict beyond a sense of duty and the requirements of achieving that duty. The Great Wall drafts off Damon’s worldwide star power to teach him a lesson about Eastern values. It certainly presents China and Chinese characters in a very positive perspective, but being so broad sanitizes their humanity and transforms people into boring paragons.
Given the pedigree of those involved, it’s completely expected to be underwhelmed by the end results of such an expensive East meets West collaboration. The Great Wall is ultimately too safe and stately to satisfy beyond generic genre thrills; lowering one’s expectations is highly advised in order to properly appreciate the goofy action spectacle. The Great Wall of China being constructed to protect from a horde of ravenous, possibly extraterrestrial monsters is certainly a silly premise, but the movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything than what it is, a large-scale monster movie with a sense of fun. It’s not soaked in deconstructive irony or meta commentary. Instead, The Great Wall is a straight-laced action spectacle that treats its absurdity with conviction. It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch – Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven’s since 2000’s Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He’s famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it’s his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It’s an uncomfortable viewing and that’s much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life’s orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There’s also the matter of vengeance.
Elle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It’s harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She’s a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There’s a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can’t help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It’s just her nature. It’s a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.
About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that’s when it’s revealed she’s the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she “assisted” her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There’s a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn’t go to the police because she didn’t want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele’s relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son’s penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa’s DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.
The problem Verhoeven’s movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele’s world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There’s the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There’s the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There’s her friend’s husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There’s her neighbor’s husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele’s feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That’s because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent’s one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele’s mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story’s sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It’s a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it’s abandoned its sense of direction. You’re waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It’s a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.
There’s a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle’s caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There’s an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It’s a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they’ve come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.
Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She’s 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She’s constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There’s a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she’s having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele’s armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn’t care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.
Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don’t know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it’s a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser’s power or reconfirm it? I can’t say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974’s The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there’s enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can’t stand.
I can’t quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I’m discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film’s extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven’s Hollywood career. But that’s too easy, and there’s no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele’s treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director’s chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It’s not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m glad there’s still a filmmaker at the talent level of director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) dedicated to making genuine Gothic romance with style and reverence. The Handmaiden is a ravishing, enrapturing, and momentously engaging movie with dark delights, startling depths, palpable romance, simmering tension, and high-wire twists and turns that keep redefining the story. The absurdly talented filmmaker takes a novel set in Victorian England and adapts the setting to 1930s Korea during the time of Japanese occupation, a fascinating and little-known time period for a Western audience. A poor orphan Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is pressured into a scheme to trick the wealthy Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) into being admitted to an insane asylum, her family riches sold. From the opening minutes, The Handmaiden produces immersive drama that pushes the central characters into consistent conflict to achieve their varying goals. They’re constantly at odds with one another and themselves. There’s even tension between those who hold onto their Korean culture and those who adopt the culture of their oppressors, namely Lady Hideko’s perverse and treacherous uncle. Sook-Hee grows an unexpected affection for her mistress, and this includes a burgeoning attraction that the movie communicates with serious sensuality. The passionate lesbian sex scenes are, if anything, a tad restrained from what I was expecting from Chan-wook, and they’re definitely far more restrained and absent the male gaze than the still excellent Blue is the Warmest Color. I felt the same carnal desire the characters were discovering, a feat worth celebrating for still staying true tonally without veering into tawdry exploitation. More than the sex or the top-notch technical aspects, it was the characters that hooked me and refuse to relinquish. The deepening relationships and the subtle shifts of loyalty, perception, and desire make what is essentially a twisty and twisted chamber-play into world-class drama. You think it’s one kind of movie, and then it flips the script, and then it does it again, each time opening wider this mysterious, dangerous, and invigorating world. My one quibble is that the final twenty minutes feels unnecessary and self-indulgent, Chan-wook finally scratching a few violent tendencies he had been keeping as veiled up to that point. The Handmaiden is a ridiculously entertaining movie that is handsomely mounted, wonderfully acted by its leading ladies, and a romance worth losing your self over. Plus, there’s also the sex.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Shin Godzilla is unlike just about any monster movie you’ve ever seen, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. The newest rebirth of the famous giant monster takes a new approach to large-scale destruction: bureaucratic minutia. This feels like a state department underling’s doctoral thesis that was adapted into a feature film. We get a team of different intelligent operatives talking Aaron Sorkin-level fast and trying to work through the red tape of government to address the pressing needs of a giant fire-breathing lizard. It’s like 80% government bureaucratic milieu and 20% monster movie. We get treated to just about every meeting room in Japan as the majority of scenes last a whopping 10-15 seconds. The pacing is so clipped, the satire is so understated, and the characters so numerous, that I was easily lost in the weeds and that was before Godzilla made its less than auspicious debut on screen. It’s nothing short of what one of my friends described as a “turkey snake,” and the googly eyes aren’t helping. I’ll make the same demand that I made with the 2014 American Godzilla movie: I need more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, please. For fans of the series, they’ll likely connect more with the social conscience platform and political critiques, but I couldn’t engage at all. I was eagerly waiting for this movie to just be over so I could shake it from my head. It felt like being talked at in the corner of a party by someone who just read a book on a topic that you couldn’t care less about. I’ll grant the filmmakers credit for finding a different approach and one seeped in the realistic details of government disaster response coordination, but if you’re like me, by the fifteenth conference room your eyes will glaze over. I don’t think this was the best approach for a film narrative and it completely drains the fun from giant monsters.
Nate’s Grade: C
I have seen Snowpiercer twice and it’s still a hard movie to describe. It’s the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Joon-hoo Bong, notable for The Host (the good one) and Mother. It’s based upon a French graphic novel only printed in France and South Korea. It’s an international production, filmed in the Czech Republic, and populated with recognizable actors like Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie that demands to be seen on the big screen when able.
To combat global warming, world leaders disperse a chemical to lower temperatures, and oh boy does it work, inadvertently causing a new Ice Age that kills almost all life on the planet. Almost, because a few hundred got aboard the train owned and operated by Wilford (Harris), a rich and secretive industrialist. He built a train that can circle the globe, running on a perpetual motion motor. The last of humanity is housed on Wilfrod’s train. After seventeen years aboard, the class system has become rather rigid. The important and wealthy are at the front of the train, and the poor are crammed in the back, given gelatinous protein blocks to eat, and kept in line by armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is plotting a revolt, biding his time, consulting with the wise Gilliam (Hurt), an aging leader missing several limbs. Together, they storm ahead, capturing effete Wilford spokesman Mason (Swinton) as a hostage, rescuing an engineer (Kang-ho Song) with a drug addiction who will help them open the train cars, fighting car by car to take control of the train. Naturally, those in power fight back in force to maintain the uneven status quo.
Short of the adrenaline-soaked Raid 2, there hasn’t been a better action movie this year than Snowpiercer. It starts slow, drawing the audience in, setting up its initial burst as a prison break of sorts where the tail section passengers have to figure out a way past the guards and several security doors open for only a few seconds. When the break does happen, in a clever fashion, you feel the full rush of the new opportunity thanks to the movie properly setting up the stakes and obstacles. Each new car presents a new world and a new obstacle. There’s one car where Curtis and his revolutionaries are met with fifty ski-mask wearing grunts with axes. This is the standout action sequence because of how it keeps changing. At first its brawn versus brawn, complete with swinging axes. Then the fighting stops briefly and all the grunts put on night vision goggles. The train enters a long tunnel, condemning Curtis and company to the dark. The grunts then go to town, spearing and slashing the hapless passengers blindly swinging in the dark. I won’t spoil the solution to this scenario but it too is properly set up and leads to some extremely satisfying action imagery, the kind of stuff that pops in a trailer. There’s an entirely different sequence later that also stands out. As the train goes into a long curve in the track, certain train cars are visible from others. Our chief heavy, listed as Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), sees Curtis in the car ahead and starts firing. Eventually Curtis and Franco blast small holes in the protective glass and wait, wait for their moment, for their shot. It’s a tense neo-Western standoff moment, and another delightful addition. The accumulative action has a surprising degree of variety and development.
Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Reportedly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the 126-minute film, but I’m puzzled as to where those edits would come. Every scene in this movie drives the film forward or imparts crucial pieces of information or metaphor that will play out later. Even something as comical as stopping for sushi in the aquarium car (balancing the ecosystem) has greater meaning and subtext when you look back at the film as a whole. Joon-hoo Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have given serious consideration to how this world operates and what life would be like when all of humanity is confined to one long train. The past is revealed incrementally, gingerly allowing the audience to become consumed with this odd dystopian landscape, our fascination brewing with each new puzzle piece being added. I was enthralled with the rich details, the cruel methods of keeping those in the tail section in line, the regular head counts, the protein block bars and what they truly are made of, the annual celebration of passing a certain bridge marking their own New Year, and especially the deification of Wilford. The characters worship the engine, and why not since it is the source of life for them, or as the chirpy schoolteacher (Alison Pill) sings: “What happens if the engine fails? We all freeze and die!” The later reveals are the best, giving full explanation why tail section children are important and, particularly, why Curtis is so ashamed at having two good arms. That monologue by Evans, looking back on the earliest and most cruelly chaotic days on the train, is a whopper. I truly hope that aspiring actors will use it during future auditions. It will make an impression.
Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. The political commentary isn’t exactly subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s exceedingly better executed and integrated into its plot than, say, last year’s Elysium. The class-consciousness provides a greater depth to the proceedings, providing a new spin on the have/have nots that’s just as relevant today. It’s not just tacked on, either. The political commentary is intertwined with the mechanics of the plot, as we’re witnessing class warfare against inequality, how barbarous acts can be co-opted for personal gain. When Curtis and his small company finally reach Wilford and the engine, it’s a moment akin to visiting the Wizard in Oz, the man behind the curtain they’ve heard so much about. There’s a great degree of incredulous humor from Wilford’s vaulted perspective, but the longer you listen, the more you start to follow his twisted logic and why exactly the status quo must be upheld despite the bloody consequences. Then there’s the macabre humor, which can be bracing at points, none more so than the school car sequence with Alison Pill (TV’s The Newsroom). Also doing plenty of comedic heavy lifting is Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, We Need to Talk About Kevin) with such an odd authority figure character. With a mouthful of fake teeth, some owlish glasses, and a peculiar speech pattern, it feels like she stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and we’re all the better for it. Often she’s the only source of humor in what is otherwise a dreary story about the strong preying upon the weak.
Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.
Nate’s Grade: A
Rare is the movie that I feel I don’t even need to go into great detail rather than just scream, in a fashion suiting madness, “See this! See it!” Such is the case for The Raid 2, the sequel to the 2012 Indonesian action film that melted faces with its inventive and brutal action. The original movie had a confined location, a gang-run tenement building, and a simple premise of reaching the top and nabbing the bad guy. When people weren’t punching or shooting each other, the original Raid lagged, but director/writer Gareth Evans has solved the problem with his action-packed sequel. The world expands greatly, establishing the uneasy peace kept by powerful and warring criminal organizations. The plot ends up becoming something akin to The Departed meets A Prophet, following our hero cop from the first movie now placed undercover to gain the trust of the criminal overlords and work his way up the food chain. When the action isn’t cooking, you’re still engaged with the story and the suspense simmers in clever ways. But getting back to the film’s calling card, the action sequences are impeccably choreographed and edited, have a wide variety of locations for fun, and are bloody intoxicating. This is a movie soaked in adrenaline, and the action sequences will be hard to beat for the rest of the year. Evans finds ways to provide flair for his supporting characters, including a family duo that involves a deaf woman whose weapon of choice is hammers and a guy who prefers a baseball and a bat. The Raid 2 fires on all cylinders so well, so brilliantly filmed, that it puts just about every American action thriller to shame. It doesn’t need to be as long as it is (pushing two and a half hours), and it takes a little while to set up the players, but this is even more of an entertaining rush than the original, because now we get a sense of what Evans and his team can do with fewer restrictions. When Evans gets to Hollywood, and he will, just make sure you give him all the money to do whatever he wants.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In the Eternal City, a.k.a. Rome, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has served as its unofficial emcee for years. The literary magazine writer has been coasting for years, living off the prestige and fame from an international hit novel he wrote in his twenties. Now at the age of 65, Jep has come to the conclusion that his life has been lacking the beauty he has sought. All the parties, the late nights, and the fast living have caught up with him. Jep explores the city and its peculiar inhabitants to examine his own life.
It’s impossible to watch The Great Beauty without conjuring images of the great director Fellini. It certainly brings to mind a modern La Dolce Vita. There’s a heightened sense of reality mingling with the surreal, the lives of the rich socialites stepping into the reaches of irony-free satire. At a small party, one rich lady compliments the jazz playing, and another lady says, “The only jazz scene worth listening to today is Ethiopian jazz.” I burst out laughing harder than I have all year. These are people living privileged lives that have lost their tenuous grasp on reality, unaware that they have become caricatures. Their silly ennui has consumed their perspectives. Like Fellini, the movie explores a cloistered world of the Roman elite and their tragicomic absurdities with a touch of the surreal and meditative. I can’t so much pinpoint a clear plot or structure that guides the film, but there are numerous moments, images, scenes that standout in my memory. A private Botox party is played as a zany spiritual gathering where applicants take waiting numbers and a doctor whisper about the great journey they are on together, and then injects botulism into your face. Nuns are everywhere, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but the sight of nuns just randomly populating scenes lends to the surreal nature. Then there’s the 104-year-old nun positioned to be a saint. She looks like a mummy, prefers to sleep on a floor of cardboard, and her mind is still capable of great insight. The ancient nun manages to thematically sum up the film’s interests in beauty, culture, religion, remembrance, and death.
The relaxed nature of the film and the abstract plot, with little sense of linear trajectory, will certainly test the patience of several moviegoers. At my theater, after twenty minutes several middle-aged couples walked out, muttering, “This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know what these people were expecting when they walked into a 140-minute Italian film, but there declaration is flat-out wrong. I mean, these people probably haven’t even seen InAPPropriate Comedy (cheap shot, achieved). The opening involves the death of a Japanese tourist, and then it switches over to a raucous rooftop party that rivals what we saw in last summer’s Great Gatsby. This is a slow movie but it is slow with purpose, if that makes sense. Jep’s life for so long has been about the party scene, the dulling of the senses, the rush of adrenaline and alcohol. After his sixty-fifth birthday, he’s decided he has no more time to chase after momentary thrills. The journey that follows is mostly a collection of anecdotes and ideas, but many of them have strong staying power. The most notable story is a budding romance he forms with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a 40-year-old stripper with no illusions about who she is. Their relationship is sweet and it ends abruptly, far too soon than a viewer would wish. I know if Hollywood ever remade an English version of this film, they’d structure the whole movie around this relationship. I suppose another benefit of a free-floating, stream of consciousness style plot is that few storylines overstay their welcome.
Jep has come to a turning point, a stark realization that his life is empty. A nice reminder of this notion, as well as a haunting “what could have been” review, is when the husband to an old girlfriend seeks him out. She has recently died and inside her diary, she writes passionately about Jep from their romance way back when they were teenagers. She only has a passing remark for her husband of 30-some years, and it rips the poor man apart. She was always hung up on Jep, always thinking about what might have been, the path not taken, and this defined her intimately. For the first time since he was young, Jep is looking at the world with different eyes and a hunger that exceeds Earthly pleasures. His friends all suffer from the doubt that they’ve wasted their time, that they were never good enough, and they accept their defeat and leave Rome one by one. One man, so humbled, doesn’t even want to bring any furniture with him, so he leaves it all behind. The only thing he’s taking with him is the years of regret, apparently. There’s a nice moment when he’s reiterating the story of his first kiss to Ramona, which also involves this now deceased woman. He can’t remember what she said to draw him, and the look of disappointment at his failing memory, at being unable to relive a moment that meant so much to him so long ago, it crushes him. Who knows how long Jep had held onto that memory as a source of respite. Jep is examining his life’s disappointments and misanthropy but it may already be too late.
There are plenty of messages and points of contemplation throughout the film, but the major theme seems to be as simple as, “Stop and smell the roses,” And yet, that doesn’t make the film less engaging and responsive. Jep is asked why he never wrote another book after his great success. There look to be a number of reasons, but he confesses he was waiting to be inspired again by the titular Great Beauty. Naturally, by this point, we and Jep have come to realize that waiting for beauty is foolish when it is all around us at any moment (especially in Rome). Most of Jep’s adult life has been consumed with social frivolities and passing pleasures, but only now does he seem to stop and fully appreciate his surroundings and his company, naturally, when his friends are departing. It’s a universal theme and one that hasn’t gotten old and the film’s handling is anything but sop-headed sentimentalism. It even ties back to the opening, where the Japanese tourist keels over dead. The man is so busy trying to document his vacation rather than experience it, and in the end, it’s all for what?
Like Jep, we too will fall in love with Rome as he strolls around it. Gloriously photographed, it’s a treat to experience the major works of art in Rome, so much so that it may stir your passions to see them in person. Even as the plot becomes lugubrious, you don’t mind because of how lovely Rome and its facilities look. Characters doing little and ruminating in Kansas may get boring, but characters doing little and ruminating in Rome, well at least that’s scenery worth watching.
I’ve read many differing interpretations of the film and its messages, the impact of different scenes and which hit hardest, and it reminds me what good art is meant to do; it’s meant to inspire us, entreat us, but also stir us to engage with it, and The Great Beauty does just that. It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere, and asks the audience to ponder as Jep does about regret, lost opportunities, and the contradictions of happiness. The surreal touches can provide plenty of laughs, but it’s the smaller appreciation of side characters, ideas, and the contrasts that provide more intellectual payoffs. The film is far more free-floating and meditative than American audiences are used to, but unlike, say the works of Terrence Malick, I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment. The Great Beauty is a beguiling movie that admittedly could have been chopped down from its 140-minute running time. If you’re a fan of Fellini, or art history, then this is a must-see. For others, I’d advise giving this a try, though don’t be surprised if it takes a while to grow on you with its ponderous nature.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The French drama Blue is the Warmest Color has been bathed in publicity and controversy ever since its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It’s a three-hour lesbian romance about sexual awakening and finding a deep human connection, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the graphic sex. The drama split audiences down the middle, with people like Steven Spielberg praising its unflinching examination on the craving and heartache of young love, and others like New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the director/writer Abdellatif Kechiche “oblivious to real women.” It’s an impressive film, a rapturous love story for the twenty-first century that defies swift categorization. This isn’t just a gay film. This isn’t just a romance. This is a highly relatable, appealing, and heartbreaking movie of the first-order; however, both the defenders and detractors of Blue have substantial merits to their claims.
Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a normal 17-year old girl trying to gather a sense of her self. Her peers are pressuring her to lose her virginity with a popular guy, but it’s another person, a mysterious blue-haired lass, that Adele can’t stop thinking about. This woman, the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux) is an art student and an out lesbian. One night, Adele follows her into a lesbian bar and they strike up a friendship, one that quickly translates into something more romantic. Over the rest of the movie, we cover several years of Adele and Emma’s lives together and learn that each has left an indelible mark on the other, for good and bad.
Let’s tackle the portion that’s gotten the most coverage in the media, the graphic sex sequences that earned the film the rare stateside NC-17 rating. You may have thought 2011’s sex addict drama, Shame, earned its NC-17 rating, but Blue trounces it. Short of unsimulated sex scenes in movies like Shortbus and 9 Songs, I doubt many audience members have experienced sex sequences this explicit and this lengthy (you may start checking your watch at some point). At its Cannes premier, the critical response breathlessly hyped a sexual encounter that went on for 18 minutes. That number may be the total onscreen copulation time; the longest sex scene is seven minutes or so, but you do feel the vigorous extension. Is there a particular reason the steamy sex scenes needed to be this long or this graphic? Kechiche likely wanted to communicate an explosion of immeasurable passion unlike anything Emma or Adele will experience in their lives. But did this need to be communicated with seven minutes of orgasmic fingers, lips, and tongues exploring every crevice of their bodies? Would six minutes of enthusiastic sex prove insufficient? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I found little entertainment in watching Exarchopoulos and Seydoux clinging to one another’s sweaty naked bodies, entwined ever so passionately. I just don’t think the film demanded as much drawn out sex when the drama is this strong.
And that’s the mass appeal blurb when it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color: come for the intensity of the sex, stay for the intensity of the feelings. You will swiftly feel the nervousness and sexual tension that comes from the exploration of attraction. All those high school butterflies come fluttering back. The depth of feeling is easily relatable. The characters are searching for unparalleled human connection but also discovering more about who they are. This is a moving, absorbing, and crushing love story, but it’s just as much about two people falling out of love. That was a major surprise for me. What’s more is that the forces behind their breakup are completely understandable and you can see them coming; at heart, they are two different people that operate in different worlds, and they do change over time. That’s excellent storytelling when one can feel for both sides of a breakup, comprehend how this moment arrived, and looking back, see how inevitable a conflict like this would be. Emma’s sphere of friends is one that Adele does not feel a comfortable place within. Emma worries that Adele needs to find a sense of identity outside their relationship. Adele is still too timid to admit the truth about her relationship with a woman to her colleagues and family. These are major conflicts and they simmer and gestate in ways that feel like real life. Beyond some of the specifics in the bedroom (more on that later), there isn’t a moment that feels unbelievable in the entire three hours. This is a naturalistic love story that unfolds in small waves, allowing us to get to know the characters and their lives.
The two actresses are outstanding and bare much more than their flesh for this film. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux disappear into their characters. These are richly developed characters, and each actress does her best to bring them to startling life. Exachopoulos (who looks like a Parisian Maggie Grace) has so much of the film riding on her 19-year-old shoulders since her character is the film’s major point of view; we often see the world through her perspective. She’s excellent as the curious, anxious, bashful young woman, and her encounters with Emma open her world up, allowing Adele to broaden as a person. She’s still not confidant, given to doubts that Emma seems to lack, but Exarchopoulos convinces you of the difference. Every step along her journey is credible, acted with poise, even the uncontrolled weeping. In a just world, this French newcomer would be up for serious acting award consideration. Seydoux is the more assured character, the one who sizes up her interest, but when hurt, the ferocity of Emma’s fury is staggering. This is not a woman to scorn, and Adele will learn this the hard way. Later in the film, as the history hangs in the air between Emma and Adele, we get a powerful sense of how conflicted both women are, having never turned off their feelings but trapped by circumstance and consequences. You feel each member cycle through the myriad of emotions, fumbling between desire and desperation. The actresses work together beautifully, raising one another’s performance, and giving one another the environment to get truly intimate, emotionally and physically.
Allow me to wade into some awkward territory and address some questions I have with the logistics of the graphic lesbian sex scenes. Now I have never been a lesbian but I am friends with a few, though I have never interrogated them on the subject‘s specifics because, well, that would be weird. With that said, I’m fairly certain that there are several positions and sequences between Adele and Emma that defy reality and, more so, practicality. For the more timid readers, please skip to the next paragraph. Much has been made about the breathy, energetic sexual activity on display, but some of it is just baffling. First off, I’m pretty certain that scissoring is not a terribly drawn out and essential part of lesbian lovemaking. Again, not having the equipment in discussion, I do believe that forcibly mashing one’s gentials, unsheathed, for long periods, against another harder surface is probably asking for some rug burns (I suppose this could work the same way for either gender). Then there are incidents like Emma’s head placement when it comes to performing cunnilingus. Rather than having Adele lie on her back, she instead lies flat on her stomach and Emma shoves her face into Adele’s rear. She doesn’t need to take the scenic route; there is a shortcut that works far better.
There is a larger point in my rehashing of the prurient details in Blue, and that is chiefly that the film is more a representation of a man’s fantasy of lesbian sex. The male gaze, a term referred to often in feminist film criticism, is trenchant in this film. Kechiche’s camera doesn’t just love his two young stars; it fawns over them, lusts over them. The camera is always within inches of Adele’s face, glued to tight shots lingering over Exarchopoulos’s pouty lips. Seriously, the actress has her mouth open the entire movie, her lips forever pillowy, forever pouting. It’s a sensual movie, yes, but does every shot of young Adele need to be so tawny and voyeuristic, her hair always slightly askew in her face, her body positioned just so that her assets are featured? Critics like Dargis are correct about Kechiche’s fawning camera pushing over into the boundary of erotic fetishism. This is where my questioning of sexual positioning comes back; going ass backwards when it comes to cunnilingus (and yes, I will intend that pun) is aesthetically pleasing in a sensuous manner, and that feels like the dictum of Kechiche’s intimate camerawork. It’s heterosexual male pleasure represented on screen, at least in its depiction. Otherwise, with the camera always tethered inches away from Adele’s face, why don’t we remain focused on her face during all this physical pleasure? It can be just as erotic. However, with all that out there, why can’t lesbian sex be given the same ridiculous fantasy depictions of heterosexual sex in the movies? I can almost guarantee that pool tables are not a prime location for indulging one’s urges. And just showcasing lesbian sex onscreen between a committed couple (not just girl-on-girl flings like in Black Swan) and normalizing it, whatever intention, is a virtue.
But it’s not just the sex scenes that could use some judicious snipping; the entire three-hour enterprise could be easily consolidated. The film is replete with loping scenes that sort of drift along, recreating the ordinary rhythms of life rather than the plot beat connect-the-dots we associate with most film narratives. That’s fine, you need time to establish characters and setting, but do we need people interpreting poetry at length and indulging in gender philosophy for minutes on end? Perhaps if I watched Blue is the Warmest Color a second time I’d be more tolerable of the narrative bloat, finding added subtext and metaphor to all those ponderous philosophical discussions over the nature of the self and gender identity. Of course seeing a three-hour movie, again, is going to take a significant time commitment.
Sensual throughout, beautifully developed, richly observed, and brought to life with bristling and audacious acting, Blue is the Warmest Color is a love story that hits hard with emotional force. By nicely realizing the characters, providing them depth and fallibility, we can empathize with them along the different stops of their romantic journey, seeing where each is coming from and understanding the yearning, frustration, and passion. When things are good, there’s a frisson on screen, a palpable sense of desire accentuated by Kechiche’s loving (and occasionally obsessive/fetishized) camerawork. The acting by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is as raw and fevered as their onscreen lovemaking. I doubt it needed to be a full three hours long, and I doubt the notorious NC-17-earning sex scenes needed to be as graphic to communicate delight, but I’m most pleased that Blue is offering a full movegoing experience, watching the formation of two characters over time and how they change. It’s easily watchable even during its more ponderous, dare I say French-y, sidesteps. The ending is a slight misstep, calling out for greater certainty, but the French title for the film was, Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, the implication being there may be future cinematic adventures that await these people. I don’t know if this will ever come to fruition considering the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh is a mere 160 pages, rather shrift considering the medium, but I can hope. Romances this involving, observant, and intense don’t come around too often and deserve to be cherished. Just consider the sex a bonus.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s been too long since I’ve last had the pleasure of viewing a Uwe Boll movie. The man is downright prolific when it comes to spitting out multitudes of projects every year sometimes three or four. And yet there’s no guarantee I’ll have a speedy and easily accessible avenue to watch the man’s finished products. Take for instance his biopic on Max Schmeling, finished almost three years ago, and undergone a title change for American audiences to Fist of the Reich. Americans might not know who Max Schmeling was but by God do we know ourselves some Nazis. I can understand why this one was put on the shelf for as long as it was. There’s the fact that it’s entirely in German, Boll’s first completely foreign-language film since 1997. There’s also the fact that it’s still a pretty dull and uninvolving movie, and given the figure and subject matter, that may be enough to make Fist of the Reich the most disappointing film of Boll’s career.
From 1930-1948, Max Schmeling (Henry Maske) was Germany’s most prolific athlete. He boxed overseas in America quite often, earning the world title in a controversial bout where his opponent was disqualified after a below the belt punch. Schmeling romances a movie star, Anny Ondra (Susanne Wuest), and proposes to her the day their courtship hits the gossip pages. Schmeling also has to fight the growing nationalistic influence of Hitler’s Nazi party, which looks at him as a powerful propaganda opportunity. After a high-profile loss to Joe Louis, in a rematch no less, Schmeling loses value to the Nazi machine and he’s drafted into the oncoming war.
When I say “most disappointing” I know that’s going to strike a chord given Boll’s oeuvre of craptacularcinema, but I really mean it. The biggest failing of the two-plus hours of Fist of the Reich is that it does not provide adequate evidence why Schmeling is a compelling figure of history. It’s a biopic that doesn’t have enough juice to justify why its central hero should even earn a biopic. I don’t think I’ve seen too many movies based upon real people where I left thinking, “Well that person didn’t deserve a movie.” And the ridiculous thing is that Schmeling of course deserves his own movie. The man was an international superstar, the pride of a nation during a tumultuous time, one of only three men to beat Joe Louis in his career, and then became a propaganda pawn for the Nazis. The man was even forced into service in the war and was one of only two survivors during a hellish battle. His manager was Jewish, his wife a Czech movie star, and they had to flee their country home to escape from the advancing Russians. That is some compelling stuff even before you get into the psychological depth at play with a man being pushed as a tool of Nazi propaganda and how that constrictive, humiliating, and infuriating chapter would have taken its toll on Schmeling’s soul. There is a wealth of material there to stage a rousing and engrossing biopic, and the fact that Boll and screenwriter Timo Berndt cannot is just inexcusable.
There’s very little depth given to Schmeling as a character; all the edges are sanded off and we’re left with a rather bland do-gooder that really just wants to box. He’s sort of this nondescript, milquetoast nice guy who trudges from scene to scene, doing bland but nice things. You won’t dislike the lug but you’ll find it hard to explain why he’s interesting. This shallowness just compounds as the movie continues, going further into the war as well as the downturns in Schmeling’s boxing career. His relationship with Anny is also pretty bland. They’re nice together and loving in appearance but also mundane. It’s like the movie is progressing scene-by-scene establishing facts and plot points rather than exploring the relationships of characters. Max gets married. Max gets a big bout. Max wants to give Joe Louis a rematch. The film seems so devoid of passion, bled dry by going through the checklist of what audiences desire in their biopics. The movie even attaches a weak framing device where Schmeling and a war prisoner are walking to a border and Schmeling recounts his life. Except this framing device ends with thirty minutes left to go. Can it be termed a framing device if it doesn’t frame a quarter of the movie? It’s not even necessary except to throw in a bit of war violence at the opening to hook an audience. It feels like nobody knows what to do with Schmeling so they’ll just breeze through his life’s big events, make him seem like a charitable fella, and then pray the audience understands the man’s historical significance.
Another reason for the stilted drama is quite possibly the noticeable acting limitations of our lead, Maske. The man is a former champion boxer in Germany who reportedly underwent eight months of acting training to prepare for this movie. Well, apparently eight was not enough (did I just backend into a pun?). He may be a great boxer but he is a very poor actor. His monotone, caveman-like warble reminds me of the speaking tones of early Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t think the guy has more than two sentences at a time. Again, I’d rather have my actors learn how to do something rather than teach a non-actor how to act. Actors can fake singing or boxing, plus there’s editing. Was it really substantial to have an actual boxer in the role? I know Schmeling himself actually wanted Maske to play him in a would-be movie, so there’s some passing approval, but there’s a reason that Maske hasn’t acted in a movie since this one. Maske’s pained acting, limited emotional range, and overall stiffness, combined with the thin characterization, makes for a void at the center of the movie.
I also assumed given Boll’s own background in boxing (he famously boxed a group of critics several years ago in a publicity stunt) that the onscreen bouts would be thrilling to watch. The excitable German ringside announcer seems to be watching different fights than I am. The fighters just don’t have any fight in them, carefully going through the motions, but when they hit they do so like they’re timid, afraid to put any force behind it. The camerawork and editing also fail to mask this feeling. Boxing is such a ferocious sport and we need to feel the danger and ferocity within the ring, but all too often it just feels like another ho-hum occasion for Schmeling, one where he’s rarely put to the test. Even the boxing matches that go to 15 rounds show us two fighters without any blood on them or bruises or any sign, beyond a glistening coat of faux sweat, that these two men have spent over an hour beating the crap out of each other. This limited sense of realism handicaps the movie as well as drawing out the accomplishments of Schmeling.
Boll’s direction also seems rather remote on this movie, curiously so. He relies almost entirely on bobbling handheld camerawork that can get a bit tiresome when it feels like the camera rarely settles. The movie is almost entirely comprised of a series of medium shots, which further adds to the overall blandness of the movie. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Mathias Neumann is entirely lackluster and downright incompetent. The visual compositions are supremely lacking; I don’t think Boll and Neumann even stumble into one engaging visual shot. And we’re talking about a boxer’s career here. The colors of the movie feel so drab and restrained but not in any sort of elegant artistic manner. It just looks like a drab movie, which suits a drab script with a drab lead actor. I’m also fairly certain that Boll’s longtime musical collaborator Jessica de Rooij borrows liberally, if not outright lifts, the musical themes of John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan. Has anyone else caught this?
It may seem foolish of me to admit, especially after twenty movies reviewed, but I actually had some semblance of hope that Fist of the Reich was going to be Boll’s first actual good movie. As it stands, Tunnel Rats is still the best Boll film, relatively speaking. I really thought that Boll’s background and boxing experience would carry over and we’d get a handsomely made, reverent, and absorbing look into the life of Max Schmeling, but time after time, the movie settles for bland. There’s a lot of meat to this guy but it feels about as in depth as a child’s book report, skimming over the drama to cover the significant signposts of the man’s life. As a result, we get an overview of the guy’s life but lack the evidence why we even took the journey. Saying a guy’s a great boxer, or a great humanitarian is one thing, but we need to see this, we need to feel it, and that’s the saddest failure of Fist of the Reich, that it takes an important historical figure and squeezes out all the lingering resonance.
Nate’s Grade: C