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Never Look Away (2018)

This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.

I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.

The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.

The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.

I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.

A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Reader (2008)

Every now and then, the assorted members that make up the Motion Picture Academy make, shall we say, quizzical selections. There are snubs and undeserving winners, but then there’s the crazy nomination where you see the movie and say to yourself, “What the hell were they thinking?” In recent years I’ve usually found at least one Best Picture nominee that left me scratching my head. In 2007 it was Atonement, in 2004 it was Finding Neverland. But I could at least fathom a guess as to why each of those movies appealed to the Academy and garnered a Best Picture nominee. I’m stumped when it comes to 2008 Best Picture nominee, The Reader. Based upon an award-winning novel, I can only surmise that Academy voters saw the words “Kate Winslet” and “Holocaust” and thought the movie had to be far worthier than the likes of WALL-E or The Dark Knight.

In post-World War II Germany, teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) begins a torrid affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). He’s 15 years old; she’s easily twice his age. She instructs her young lover to read to her before they engage in sexual activity, which turns reading into an act of foreplay. The summer affair ends abruptly when Hanna runs off after her employer has given her a promotion. Michael is heartbroken that his lover has flown the coop. Flash forward several years and Michael is attending law school in Berlin. He and his fellow students visit an ongoing trial that features a group of former female concentration camp guards. To Michael’s shock, Hanna is on trial as one of the murderous Nazi guards. The young boy is beset by his feelings of love for a person who has committed despicable deeds. Hanna is keeping a deeper secret and will go to her grave to keep it. Eventually an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, wasted) finds his life returning to an imprisoned, older Hanna, possibly his life’s greatest love.

The Reader contains interesting story elements: sex, guilt, romantic affairs with former Nazi prison guards. But rarely do any of these interesting elements actually transform into an interesting story. The movie just kind of lies there, basking in some phony reflective pause when the movie manages to be so distant and uninvolved. At times the movies seems to have little interest in its own self. This movie feels like it was made to be Oscar-bait because it deals with Big Themes and Important Topics, or at least the film wants to appear like it deals with said items. The Reader is mostly shallow. It pretends to present a moral quandary but director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) doesn’t bother to analyze the contradictions of his characters. The film alternates between characters shouting obvious declarations and just stumbling around in contemplation, bumping into the furniture. It’s simultaneously annoying and boring. The movie wants to put a human face on monstrous deeds, which can be a noble pursuit. The Reader fails to be a “challenging” movie when it can’t be bothered to challenge its characters to do something.

The message of quasi redemption at the center of this specific film is either laughably naïve or downright insulting. Hanna keeps a personal secret shame at all costs, and she would rather go to prison for life as a Nazi murderer than let people know she cannot read. I’m sorry, but that’s dumb. The fact that it seems like The Reader presents the theory that Hanna’s illiteracy mitigates her guilt is offensive. I’m sure the 300 people that were locked in a burning church to die would be sympathetic that their killer couldn’t read See Spot Run. In what world is illiteracy more shameful than genocide? If you’re going to float ridiculous notions at least commit to exploring their very ridiculousness, and therefore acknowledge that there is something amiss. The Reader instead seems to flutter from idea to idea without ever truly delving deeper. If you’re going to craft a character that’s more afraid of a library than a book burning, at least try and explore this enigma. There’s drama in the disconnect. But the movie never feels like this should be an issue. Can’t you see, silly movie goers, that Hanna is but a symbol for the German people who couldn’t read the signs to come and were ignorant to the extent of Hitler’s horrors. She would rather stick to her duty than claim moral responsibility. That’s fine, but there are a great number of movies, and countless more books, that have examined the psychological culpability that can turn a populace into silently willing participants in mass murder. The Reader would rather spend its closing moments exploring the magical healing power of literature. The fact that the film eliminates the novels’ section where Hanna reads news articles and novels about the Holocaust (thus gaining moral clarity) is dumb. Instead of gaining insight into her actions she reads Chekhov. The movie ends up transforming into a weird and wrongheaded episode of Reading Rainbow.

Winslet’s acting is fine. She’s such a gifted actress that I doubt you’ll see her give a bad performance even if the movie doesn’t live up to her talent. She isn’t doing anything showy to make Hanna a sympathetic character, which works out well, but the film’s distant perspective means that Hanna seems more like an aloof cipher. She’s this formless blob of a character that expresses a mixture of human emotions but doesn’t resemble a recognizable human. This is the fault of the director and screenwriter who chose to replace subtext with ponderous silent stares (note to all “deep” filmmakers: THEY ARE NOT THE SAME). Winslet slips into the character with the same ease she has slipping out of her clothes. The Reader is another nudity-filled performance for Winslet, her eighth movie featuring her nude (also her fourth Oscar nomination for a nude performance, there must be some connection). As readers can attest, I am no prude when it comes to the female form, but even I thought things were getting a little gratuitous. In the first 45 minutes, Winslet is naked in almost every scene she shares with Kross. It’s almost as if the nudity is supposed to disarm the audience and make Hanna a more intimate. Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses, which is reason enough that she shouldn’t be handed a Best Actress Oscar for substandard material.

The Reader may not be a traditional Holocaust film and in fact it’s really not so much about the Holocaust. Sure, that colossal event casts a shadow over Germany, but the movie is mostly about a cold and daft woman and the callow boy who loves her. It’s about two characters, but it the movie is too reserved and then some. Everybody just seems numb, which makes for a boring movie after a while. I repeat: a boring movie about underage sexual affairs with freaking’ Nazis! Winslet’s fine performance is not enough to redeem the whole movie. I think much was lost in translation from page to screen. The Reader actually was more effective when it was just a cradle-robbing unorthodox love story. But then, those flicks don’t typically get nominated for Best Picture Oscars.

Nate’s Grade: C

Postal (2008)

I feel very strange at this moment. I may need to consult a physician. I’m undergoing an altogether new and confusing sensation.  You see, I’m hesitant, almost embarrassed to admit this, but I finally found a Uwe Boll movie that I, well, don’t hate. In fact, I was laughing with Postal and not derisively at it. I would never have guessed that a social satire co-written and directed by Boll, which begins with hijackers flying a plane into a large skyscraper, is actually intentionally funny. That’s not to say that the outrageous, violent, and messy film is verifiably good, but for the first time I feel like Boll is genuinely progressing as a filmmaker and may prove that he can craft a competently entertaining movie in the future. And if you know anything about Boll, that statement is akin to going from crawling to flying an F-14 fighter jet blindfolded while constructing a birdhouse out of Popsicle sticks.

The slapdash plot takes place in the small town of Paradise, Arizona. Postal Dude (Zack Ward, TV’s Titus, Bloodrayne II) is a guy who gets pushed around by life. His fat wife is cheating on him constantly, he’s bullied by rednecks that live in the neighborhood trailer park, and he can’t find a job to escape. He’s looking for any way out. His uncle Dave (Dave Foley) has started a doomsday religious cult of disenfranchised hippies. The IRS is currently targeting him and needs a quick money fix. Uncle Dave and Postal Dude scheme to steal the lone shipment of “Krotchy” dolls, a doll that resembles male testicles that is highly in demand (the Chinese shipment capsized and the crew all died, but luckily the dolls were saved). Also looking to snatch the dolls is a terrorist cell that includes Osama bin Laden (played by Jewish actor Larry Thomas, best known as the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld). The plot isn’t important per se, but you will find yourself openly questioning why respected actors like J.K. Simmons and Seymour Cassel are doing in this mess. Michael Pare I understand. He doesn’t seem to get any work unless Boll throws him a beleaguered bone.

I think Boll has finally found a genre best suited for his cinematic interests. Setting Postal in the wacky comedy world has a freeing effect for Boll: he doesn’t have to adhere to any form of logic. His other movies usually suffered through continual lapses in thought and deed. With Postal, Boll can be as silly as he wants and not have to worry about disrupting his narrative. It should be no surprise then that Postal contains the best acting ever seen in a Boll movie. The good German has always had a seemingly inability to control his actors or provide any helpful direction, but finally he has found a genre that will work with actors giving unrestrained performances that are figuratively all over the thespian map. Shockingly, Ward and Foley both give quite good straight-laced comedic performances (nothing can prepare you for Foley’s generous dose of full-frontal nudity).
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Boll stuffs a lot of extreme elements into his movie, including Islamic terrorists, Osama bin Laden frolicking hand-in-hand with President Bush, inbred rednecks with garish teeth, sex scenes with the morbidly obese, crass racial stereotypes, sexual abuse gags, the media’s opportunism in response to tragedy, an ending that takes a page from Dr. Strangelove, a mentally handicapped martyr, and much more. The movie’s aim is to offend and it has many targets. Boll is no insightful political satirist but even he finds humor in the absurd. The movie is blunt and belittles everyone. Postal skewers religious fundamentalism/apocalyptic yearnings on all sides. There is one sequence where Ward is pinned down by rednecks, Islamic terrorists, and crazy cult followers. He tries appealing to their hearts and establishing common ground. “Well,” one of the terrorists says, “We all hate the Jews,” and then everyone nods solemnly. That’s funny. It’s not deep or biting but it is funny in setup and delivery. I give credit where it’s due. Postal takes some seriously demented detours that take advantage of the wacky, anything-goes atmosphere.

The movie’s jokes hit high and low but some of them definitely stick. The concept of our main character caught in a shootout at the welfare office is given a wicked twist when he crawls along the incapacitated victims looking to trade up a better waiting number. There are comedic riffs hat actually work. Postal isn’t clever or scathing, and is hardly subtle or nuanced, but I could honestly see Postal developing a small cult following, one removed from the cult following already built around bashing Boll.

Here is a list of moments that made me actually laugh: using a man in a vegetative state bound in wheelchair as a stepping stone to help climb a chain-link fence, Foley and Ward arguing decimal placements, watching Mini-Me actor Verne Troyer pushing a suitcase bigger than himself across a long shot, the fact that Osama bin Laden casually walks around in broad daylight to underscore the nagging fact that the man is still at large, the concept of using a cat as a silencer for a gun (fear not animal lovers, the cat lives), a “God shelter” in case of rapture, Osama attending a workshop on leadership styles and having his credit card declined, a character’s dying attempt to discover if he’s gay or merely bisexual, and the insane religious prophecy involving Troyer and 1000 horny monkeys. That last one is almost inspired in its sheer lunacy. The best part for many will be when Uwe Boll appears onscreen as himself. He admits he finances his crummy movies via Nazi gold and then, no kidding, the actual creator of the Postal video game appears and shoots Boll in the groin. For many, this is a vicarious moment to be savored.

Postal could have worked even better had Boll had a more consistent tone. Simply put, being offensive and shocking and wallowing in bad taste does not guarantee being funny. Watching a truck run over a baby carriage isn’t funny because it’s shocking. Without greater context or setup, it’s the equivalent of a tired and morose “dead baby” joke: tasteless but lacking any humor. And yet here are more missed comedic opportunities that Boll fails to capitalize upon. The missed comedic opportunities mount (Islamic terrorists eventually descend upon a redneck trailer park and … nothing?). Some jokes teeter but then hit a wrong note and become uncomfortable. Watching a black police officer (Chris Spencer, Bloodrayne II) brutally murder an Asian driver is not funny. Seeing a montage of children being massacred by stray gunfire is not funny and has no hope of being funny. When the movie utilizes realistic violence, it must walk a very delicate tone to spring laughs from darker territory. Realistic violence by itself is not funny because brutality is hard to milk for laughs.

Boll will drift and lose his comedy momentum. The highly publicized opening sequence is actually kind of funny. Two terrorists have hijacked a plane but then have second thoughts after they realize there are discrepancies about the number of post-martyrdom virgins. They begin to then analyze the gaps in theology and decide to turn the plane around and head to the Bahamas instead. With this segment Boll has taken a politically sensitive subject and given it a twist. Where the segment goes wrong is not when the passengers storm the cockpit and cause the plane to crash, this serves as irony. Where the segment goes wrong is when it cuts to a window washer atop a skyscraper and we watch the plane come closer and crash into a fiery blaze. The view doesn’t serve as any comedic punch line and places the viewer in an uncomfortable position of not only reliving 9/11 but also reliving it from a hapless victim’s perspective. It’s one example of a misstep that ruins the joke. By the film’s end it has turned into an incoherent bloodbath.

Not to kill Uwe Boll with praise, but Postal is also his best looking movie to date. The shot compositions are framed well, there is actual camerawork that gives off a slight Coen brothers’ vibe, and the cinematography by Boll staple Mathias Nuemann is crisp and clean. This is a good-looking movie that works within its limited budget and locations.

Postal wasn’t given much of a chance out of the gate. It has been sitting on a shelf for over a year, it was dumped into a small number of theaters opening the same weekend opposite the slightly higher profile Indiana Jones sequel. Boll arranged a free screening of the film and a majority walked out after the opening segment involving the hijackers. Postal is a bizarre and distasteful movie that relies too heavily on shock tactics and the idea that offensive equates humor. There are holes, inconsistencies, shallow satire, and many missed comedic opportunities, and yet, in spite of everything, I laughed at several points. This is Boll’s most intentionally entertaining movie to date. While it may sound like heresy, I would rather watch Postal again than the much more commercial and critically lauded Pineapple Express.

It feels like Boll is actually progressing as a filmmaker, however, I make this statement under the caveat that the confines of the wacky comedy genre forgive lapses in content. But I may not be alone. Boll submitted his flick to the Hoboken International Film Festival and actually won. Boll was named Best Director and the film was awarded Best of the Festival, which is a category based upon audience votes. Perhaps it’s just my lowered expectations with any Boll production, but Postal almost works; not quite but almost. And that’s a tremendous leap forward for a man whose movies have made me retire synonyms for “stupid.”

Nate’s Grade: C

The Counterfeiters (2007)

The Oscar-winner for 2007 foreign film is certainly a fine film and a respectable winner, but let’s be honest, the foreign film category was watered down a tad. France nominated Persepolis over The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because a country is only allowed to nominate a single film (sucks to be you, countries with good movies). This rule has resulted in past incidents like Spain nominating Tuesdays in the Sun over Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, which ended up winning the 2002 Best Original Screenplay Oscar despite Spain’s snub. The hard decision by France was moot because Persepolis didn’t make the Academy 2007 shortlist of nine nominees. The biggest snub from that shortlist was Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a harrowing film about two college-aged women seeking an illegal abortion in 1980s communist Romania. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and also won the Best Picture award by the European Film Awards (Austria’s The Counterfeiters wasn’t even nominated). Then there was Israel’s amusing and touching film, The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band that takes a wrong bus and finds itself in an Israeli town. But the Academy’s foreign films ruled that The Band’s Visit had too much spoken English and therefore could not be ruled as a foreign film. Also left out were Germany’s Edge of Heaven and Spain’s The Orphanage. Nothing against The Counterfeiters but the foreign language field had already snubbed most of the main contenders.

The Counterfeiters is a deeply fascinating true-story about the world’s largest counterfeiting ring. Sal Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, with a face as hard as flint) is a master forger leading a life of luxury in Berlin until the police capture him and send him to a concentration camp with his fellow Jews. As World War II carries on, the Nazis recruit Sal to lead a team to forge the British pound and the American dollar. The Nazis hope to destabilize their enemies’ economies. Sal is given greater freedoms in the camp and the S.S. officers try to become his chums. But he has to ask himself what his cost his actions will have. He could be prolonging the conflict and actually helping Germany win, but if he doesn’t assist the Nazis then he will surely be murdered as will his team.

Write/director Stefan Ruzowitzky creates great tension from scene to scene but it is the moral dilemmas that stick. What are principles worth? Are they worth dying for? Are they worth endangering others’ lives? The movie takes a docu-drama approach with bobbing handheld camerawork; even the film stock looks like it was soaked in grime for authenticity. And yet I wish The Counterfeiters had chosen to be less enigmatic. The main character is a criminal that keeps his emotions close to the vest, but Ruzowitzky cheats the audience by keeping Sal mostly in his head. The story is filled with factual intrigue and the natural tension given the situation, but after it’s over there isn’t much that’s memorable for a genre that expects more of itself. The Holocaust genre (and let’s not kid ourselves, it is a genre at this point) has some pretty high dramatic expectations and produces films that sear into our brains. The Counterfeiters is a very well told tale with great acting and some interesting character relationships but it can’t fully measure up to other Holocaust parables.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Good German (2006)

Steven Soderbergh has always seemed uncomfortable with his success and thus tried to stretch his creative wings with experimental gambles. They’re certainly ambitious but many times Soderbergh seems to be giving himself busy work. Did anyone see Bubble? I didn’t think so. The Good German is a film that wants to be seen as a forgotten relic from the 1940s, and Soderbergh went so far for period accuracy that he filmed with equipment from the same bygone era. That kind of artistic integrity is great, but what does it do to make the movie any better? The Good German aspires to be a cinematic cousin to Casablanca, even aping the iconic ending to that famous film. You’ll also get Chinatown déjà vu, especially when characters say, “Hey Jake, it’s Berlin.” The plot hinges on a murder around the Berlin conference with the Allied powers that will decide the fate of Europe and reshape the map. The story is too muddled and confusing and seems to amount to little to nothing after flirting with intrigue. The actors give hammy performances that may be true to the stagy, well-articulated acting styles of old Hollywood, but it does little in the realm of being enjoyable. Cate Blanchett is intended to be Marlena Dietrich, and George Clooney is intended to be Cary Grant, but neither manages to escape being a second-rate impression of their film noir forbears. There’s an interesting post-war story buried under all this period homage and Method-style artifice, but Soderbergh only seems interested in pleasing himself with these experimental errands, and this is coming from someone that loved Schitzopolis.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Black Book (2006)

If there’s one thing you can say about Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, it’s that his films are never boring. He’s shameless when it comes to the amounts of sex and violence he squeezes into his films, and this isn’t typical bouncy violence but cold, serious violence that manage to have whiffs of dark comedy to it. The sex is sleazy and ridiculous, often outpacing the late-night flesh peddlers on Cinemax. I don’t think Verhoeven knows how to do anything subtle, and frankly I wouldn’t want him to. The man is responsible for brawny sci-fi (Total Recall, Robocop), killer lesbians (Basic Instinct), the most subversive mainstream Hollywood movie of the modern era (Starship Troopers is pro-fascism, people), and the most surreal visual effect I have seen in my life – a breast groping itself (Hollow Man). Verhoeven even shows up in person to accept his Razzie award for Worst Director for 1995’s camp classic, Showgirls. This man doesn’t have an off switch. The man makes enjoyable movies, both intentionally and unintentionally.

It’s been a long six years since Verhoeven’s last film and in that time off he’s settled back into his homeland. Black Book (Zwartboek) is a tale loosely based around true stories involving the Dutch resistance in the Nazi-occupied occupied Netherlands. And if there is anyone that can throw in some sex with our good old-fashioned WWII violence, it is Paul Verhoeven.

Rachel (Carice van Houten) is a Jew hiding out in the Netherlands. She and her family is trying to pass out of the country by river when they are ambushed by the guns of a Nazi boat. Rachel is the lone survivor and watches all of her family members get mowed down. She joins the underground resistance movement to find out who betrayed her family. She dyes her hair blonde, both above and below the waist to be thorough, and cuddles up to a stamp-collecting S.S. leader, Ludwig Muntz (Sebastian Koch). She works her way into his trust and along the way uncovers a twisty conspiracy to trick rich Jews into ambushed escapes.

Black Book is skillfully made and pulpy enough to keep the viewer’s enjoyment level in a good place. From start to finish the movie presents enough trials and setbacks to keep an audience satisfied, and enough sex and violence to meet out the standard Verhoeven quota. Nazi occupation hasn’t been deeply explored from the Dutch point of view, and Verhoeven decides not to make everything so black and white. Muntz is a compassionate S.S. officer that wants to work negotiations with resistance fighters to stop further bloodshed. Rachel deeply falls for him, at the disgust of some of her fellow men at arms. On the other side of the coin, once the Nazis have been toppled there are several Dutch civilians and bureaucrats that can behave just as cruel. Those now with power strike out against those deemed to have sympathized and collaborated with German rule. Verhoeven is making a point that there was good and bad on both sides, which is admirable, though this point has been made better elsewhere. Black Book is filled with various twists and double-crosses, so the audience is involved until the very end. Plus, the sex and violence help too.

There’s terribly little below the surface when it comes to Black Book. It’s a thrilling, unabashedly entertaining movie but nothing beyond a sexed-up, suped-up version of a 1940s behind-enemy-lines potboiler. The characters have little to them beyond basic motivations like greed and lust and revenge, so it all can seem like an empty but high-spirited, fun-filled time at the movies. Verhoeven has never imbued his female roles with much characterization, more often showcasing them as ass-kicking vaginas on legs (whoa, now there’s a mental image for you). Another flaw is how Black Book is structured. We open on a tourist trip to Israel in 1954 and see Rachel teaching a class of schoolchildren. This colossal misstep drains the tension from whenever Rachel is in danger; we already know she has to survive to teach our little ones. [I]Black Book[/I] is a largely fictional take, a collection of various historical pieces and figures, so that means that the outcome for our heroine is not preordained. Rachel very well could die amidst her undercover infiltration, but alas the movie opening in flashback erases this threat.

Van Houten is an enticing screen beauty that brings to mind Hollywood stars of old. She has a very simple, prim, elegant look to her, and a presence that is coy and sensual but far from trashy or vulgar. This helps add traces of believability to a figure that does some incredible acts in the name of God and country. Hollywood would have cast Rachel as a tall, buxom bombshell, but it would all be wrong. If this girl turned heads she would be dead. Van Houten gets thrown through the wringer, and at one point literally shit upon, and she handles it with steely grit. The best moments are when we see how Rachel rebounds from setbacks, when she is forced to break from her resolve and think. Her first encounter with Muntz in a train car is a good example, but even better is how she reacts when Muntz accuses her of dying her hair and being a Jew. She grabs his hands and places them on her hips and finally rests them on her exposed breasts. “Are these Jewish?” she asks. She defuses the situation and lives another day, and it’s perfectly played by a nervous but nervy Van Houten. She makes two plus enjoyable hours even more enjoyable.

Black Book is clearly and fairly rated R, but part of its rating piqued my curiosity. One of the items that help push the film into the restricted rating is “graphic nudity.” Now, what exactly is graphic nudity? I recall last year’s Babel also getting an R-rating for what was deemed “graphic nudity.” One thing the two films have in common is that they both show quick glimpses of exposed female genitalia. I suppose that the MPAA feels that nudity becomes graphic when we see pubic hair. This confounds me. What about pubic hair turns nudity into an extra, more offensive category of nudity? At the end of the day, it’s just hair, people. I did some quick research and [I]Basic Instinct[/I], infamous for Sharon Stone’s career-making leg crossing, is rated R for mere “strong sexuality.” For the record, when Stone flashes her naughty bits they were bare. So let the record show that hair seems to be the qualifier between what is nudity and what is graphic nudity. Maybe I’ll write a dissertation on this some day.

As for another aside, how freaking cool is the name Zwartboek? It sounds like some fun term I’d come across in the pages of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Dutch language is a tad bizarre for my American ears; it’s sounds like a mixture of English and German, and sometimes it seems like a subtitled sentence is actually direct English. I know I can’t stop saying “zwatboek” around my home in place of gasps and curses.

Black Book is Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in over 25 years, and it also feels like he’s enjoying movies again after his bad experiences across the Atlantic. I welcome more entertaining Dutch films from their favorite filmmaking son. He may not be he most subtle man behind a camera, but we already have plenty Terrence Mallicks and Gus van Sants to bring confounding contemplation to movies. We need more people like Vanhoeven who know how to please the sense, kick you in the balls, and make you grateful for the experience.

Nate’s Grade: B

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