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Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back)

Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back): Written and directed by David Wnendt.  Starring: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Katja Riemann, Christoph Maria Herbst, Franziska Wulf.  Running Time: 116 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Timur Vermes. 

Rating: 3/4


            We all know who Adolf Hitler is (or at least we should know, and if any of you reading this don’t, get off my lawn).  We know about World War II, the Holocaust, the genesis of the Cold War, etc. etc.  We have memorials about the war and the victims, museums, and an entire country created expressly because of the targeted genocide of Jews.  And we have movies.  So, so, so, SO many movies, all together summing up a single, statement of purpose; this cannot happen again.  It WILL not happen again.  We know how bad it can get now.  We know how far off-kilter an entire country can go, and we know what all the warning signs look like, Hitler’s dead, and Jews have their own country, so now we’re good.  We know what we know, so all this shit can’t possible come about again. 

            But do we really know?  For all the lip service people (German especially) pay to these past events, all memories dim with time and death, so how can we be sure the mistakes that allowed Hitler to rise can’t possibly come about again?  And….wait, aren’t a lot of them happening again already?  These questions are the backbone of Timur Vermes’ 2011 bestseller, Er Ist Wieder Da, and now, 4 years later, it has come back to us in movie form. 

            It is 2014.  Adolf Hitler suddenly wakes up in the middle of Berlin.  Perfectly healthy and unwounded, but somehow a good 7 decades in the future, long after the end of the war and his presumed death.  The why is not addressed in the book, and it’s not addressed here, so don’t let that question stick in your head too long- he is simply here, and incredibly disoriented and confused.  He wanders the streets, unable to understand why no one can recognize him as their beloved Führer, until he happens across a small coffee stand run by an average Joe.  Thinking Hitler to just be a really extreme method actor, he puts him up for a few nights until one of his frequent customers, a recently-fired employee of the nearby television production company MyTV named Fabian Sawatzki, comes along and meets him as well.  He also thinks Hitler is just a really dedicated method-comedian, doing Hitler totally straight-faced to be “ironic.”  He and the stand manager both find it hilarious, and he hatches a scheme to use this person as his ticket back into the big house. 

            On his end, Hitler figures out very quickly he’s experienced some strange form of time travel and is most definitely not in Aryan Kansas anymore.  He is shocked and disheartened by how far back his goals and plans have been set (and more than offended when he uncovers the many attempts by actors to portray him over the years), but never one to give up, he decides to start from scratch, and decides to follow along with Sawatzki so as to use TV as the medium through which he will rebuild his following, taking each opportunity to rise further as it presents itself. 

            They start small, but things snowball quickly- a few scenes shot around the Germany with him just chatting with regular people are enough to get them a spot on one of MyTV’s premier shows, under the ever-watchful eyes of the company’s head producers (and mutual rivals) Katja Bellini and Christoph Sensenbrink, and aided by a gothic secretary named Krömeier, who may or may not have a crush on Sawatzki.  From there, through sheer dint of personality and his refusal to follow any of the shallow scripts the company writers provide for him, Hitler and his overt, outlandish style become a Youtube sensation, rapidly eclipsing the more established performers alongside him, and setting off one controversy after another with everything he says and does (including barging into the official HQ of a far-right German political party).  As his fanbase and popularity grows, the only question is how far things will go before someone- anyone- realizes the truth about who he is. 

            It’s hard to pin down precisely what kind of story this is.  It’s part satire of our modern, click-obsessed culture, where the more outlandish, graphic, or terrible something is, the better, part fish-out-of-water tale, part pitch-black comedy about how the worst elements in human nature rear their ugly heads again and again.  It’s also part TV-documentary, since large stretches of the film consist of raw-looking, handheld footage of Hitler just driving around Germany and talking to people, whose reactions to a Hitler-lookalike appearing in their midst vary widely (it’s clear some of these were made without the people knowing they were in an actual movie).  Most, like Sawatzki and his colleagues, just laugh it off or dismiss it as a crude publicity stunt, and happily sit down for him to sketch them.  It can’t be anything serious, because after all, they (and we) all know what we know- the REAL Hitler’s dead, and the lessons have been learned, so no harm, right? 

            On the surface, this may strike one as a major weakness with the whole plot- how can no one figure out that it really IS Hitler they are talking with?  Why does no one think to stop him?  Well…..would you?  We have become so skeptical as a society, and so ready to assume there must be a rational, logical reason for something we see or experience that, in a way, this movie works BECAUSE it fully copies our expectations of a wholly rational world where all can be known and explained, and then tosses in a simple fact diametrically opposed to it.  The clash between our 21st century mindset and the very existence of Hitler, back again against all possible explanation, are the meeting of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and it’s the backbone of both most of the comedy and the more serious messages of the tale. 

            Since the movie is entirely driven by Hitler’s own perspective, this is the sort of film that lives or dies by the performance of its lead actor.  Fortunately, Oliver Masucci commits himself entirely to the role (something many people would not be remotely willing to consider), and it’s hypnotic to watch him go to town on hapless comedians, pedestrians, and politicians who literally haven’t the foggiest clue with whom they are speaking.  And like in the book, he’s really the only figure worth taking note of; the other characters above are present, but don’t really play any major role in the story other than to reflect aspects of its broad themes.  That said, there are some notable changes from the book, particularly where Sensenbrink and Sawatzki are concerned.  Sawatzki is a bit more of a pathetic, hapless figure with a much broader story arc (although revealing more than that would be a huge spoiler).  Sensenbrink is inexplicably made into a side villain, doing all sorts of petty things to derail Hitler and Sawatzki’s ascent into primetime, and failing spectacularly.  While it does lead to a direct and fantastically funny reference to Der Untergang (Downfall in English, which featured possibly the best-known film rendition of Hitler to date, excluding Chaplin’s), it also fails to be of any real relevance to the rest of the film, and is dropped entirely by the end. 

            Strangely enough, I found the movie to be at its best during the moments (especially during the mind-bending third act) when it deviated from the book entirely, even directly breaking the fourth wall on a few occasions.  The sections following the other characters and tracking Hitler’s rise as a TV/internet star, which hew very closely to the book, are certainly well-made, but also by the numbers, and they don’t gel well with the nuttier and more direct-messaging stuff in the rest of the running time.  It’s a dissonance that is, in my view, the film’s greatest weakness, but thankfully it’s never a fatal one. 

            Another key difference that will ultimately boil down to taste is how it takes the passive or latent themes and messages in the book and makes them much more obvious and front-and-center.  Even though it’s never stated (since we only ever hear Hitler’s perspective, and no others), the warning it’s trying to send is clear- the whole way we’ve gone about “learning” from events like WWII is all wrong.  We so often try to push the Holocaust and everything associated off onto the shoulders of Hitler and a few cohorts of his, making it out to be something unique to that person and time.  So as long as Hitler himself is around, it won’t happen again.  We know what we know, remember? 

            This is, of course, disingenuous at best and a bald-faced lie at worst.  Hitler was a product of his time, and as he himself reminds characters in the book and movie, he had (at least at first) legitimate popular sovereignty behind him.  His guilt is our guilt.  And yet, as he himself also points out, since he openly declared his plans and the people chose him anyway, “not EVERYTHING could have been so bad.”  How to reconcile this with our immediate moral revulsion to what really happened is the primary question the book and film present us with, and neither provide an answer.  You’ll be left chewing on it for a long time afterwards, with an uncomfortable aftertaste lingering at the back of the mouth.  If this is not the case, then you weren’t really paying attention the whole time, or you’re keeping yourself deliberately ignorant.  While the movie making this more explicit and in-your-face than the book certainly removes some of the novel’s brilliant subtlety, it also lends its powerful ending a more forceful urgency, which I did not find to be inappropriate given many recent world events. 

            But then again, maybe I’m overblowing the seriousness of this.  People suffered then, but it’s time to move on, right?  As Bellini points out herself in a final interview, hasn’t the shadow of the past been hanging over German spirits long enough?  Haven’t they earned the right to move forward?  We’ve recorded and memorialized everything, and we’ve stopped telling Jewish jokes, so time to strike out for the future.  It’s not like things that extreme could ever happen again, at least not here. 

            After all, we know what we know.  You know? 


-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review- Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F'

Dragonball Z: Resurrection “F” (2015): Written by Akira Toriyama, directed by Tadayoshi Yamamuro.  Starring: Masako Nozawa, Ryo Horikawa, Toshio Furukawa, Ryusei Nakao, and Mayumi Tanaka.  Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: This film cannot be rated

           I can honestly say that ever since I started writing film reviews, I never thought this day would come.  Despite the pretty lenient guidelines I give myself in terms of what I can count as a “new” film for my yearly counter, and thus be able to write a full review about, not once did I think that I would have the chance to write one about Dragonball Z, one of the foundational shows of my childhood.  And yet, here we are.  In April of this year, Dragonball Z: Resurrection “F” (from here on out referred to as DBZ:RF) received its theatrical release in Japan, and a mere 4 months later it got a brief and very limited release in the US.  Limited it may have been, but it still falls under my rules regarding theatrical releases, and therefore counts. 

            “Even the complete obliteration of his physical form can't stop the galaxy's most evil overlord. After years in spiritual purgatory, Frieza has been resurrected and plans to take his revenge on the Z-Fighters of Earth. Facing off against Frieza's powerful new form, and his army of 1,000 soldiers, Goku and Vegeta must reach new levels of strength in order to protect Earth from their vengeful nemesis.  This is, literally, the entire title summation of this movie’s plot on Rotten Tomatoes.  And it is all you need to know.  There’s an beauty to be found in its poetic simplicity.  Perverse, almost.  Because this is Dragonball Z, and if you need any more reason or explanation, or any justification for why the walls of Death itself have no meaning, you’re watching the wrong movie.      

            To be fair, almost none of the DBZ movies (although some early ones are exceptions) count as films in any real sense, hence why applying any traditional rating to them is in an exercise in impossible futility.  They are nothing more than extended specials of the show- each assumes you already know the main characters, their backstories, and their relationships to each other, and simply conjures up a baddie otherwise completely unmentioned in the regular episodes for Goku (and it is always, inevitably, Goku, because) to beat the living shit out of before blowing him (and it is always, invariably, a him, because) to Kingdom Come.  Sometimes, there is an army of hapless minions for the others to pick apart.  Sometimes there is not. 

            It is a tired, staid, and sorry excuse for a narrative…and boy, was it one hell of a sweet nostalgia bomb to sink back into.  If I hadn’t seen Spy, Inside Out, and Trainwreck already, I would be proclaiming DBZ:RF  to be the funniest movie of 2015 to date.  The baddy we get to see smacked around this time is, as I’ve mentioned already, Freiza, which should be a joke given how stupidly-overpowered just about everyone is now compared with when he first appeared, but they duck around that in literally 5 seconds flat by revealing he simply never actually trained to increase his strength before, but since he finally knows how strong Saiyans can get, he will now do so.  He does.  The results are phenomenally funny. 

            But wait, you say, Freiza’s dead!  And not only is he dead, he was brought back before, and Gohan punched him and he literally exploded.  Remember when that happened?  Neither does Gohan, apparently, nor anyone else.  But I can’t nitpick that, since none of the movies have ever been treated as canon.  Anyway…

            If you need even a hint as to how Frieza was brought back to life, I recommend you double-check the title of this franchise.  He takes control of the remnants of his once-powerful forces and heads straight to Earth for the sole purpose of extracting revenge on Goku.  Because that worked out so well the last time.  Piccolo, Krillin, Gohan, Tien, and for some reason Master Roshi, plus Jaco the Galactic Policeman, are on hand to basically demolish the army while barely breaking a sweat, until Frieza finally makes him move.  He is stopped just in time when Vegeta and Goku are brought back to Earth by Whis and Beerus, with whom they have apparently been training since the end of the past movie. 

            This all happened in just over the first half of the movie.  So the rest of it is just Goku, Vegeta, and Frieza (but mostly Goku, because fuck Vegeta, amiright?) hashing things out with some staggeringly awful CGI fighting.  There are hints of lessons that both still need to learn as fighters, but to my disappointment, this ends up playing absolutely no role in the conclusion of the battle.  The day is saved, along with the Earth, nothing is learned, and everyone goes about their day.  And no, that is not a spoiler, because like I said, this is a DBZ movie.  They aren’t even going to try to make you guess how things will turn out, so why should I? 

            It was refreshing to see that somewhere between the end of the Majiin Buu Saga, by which time this franchise had officially been banned from the house by my parents, and the present day, the DBZ franchise has attained an almost nirvana-esque level of self-awareness.  The utter incompetence of Yamcha and Chiaotzu in a fight are admitted to right at the start, and the two never even make an appearance (while, again, MASTER ROSHI was considered strong enough to bring into the fray).  Even Frieza gets in on the winking fun- he directly names the toy based on his new form that, I am sure, has already been made, calling it the “Golden Frieza.”  When I was a kid, we would theorize about such forms existing for the various characters, and it’s nice to see the mind-readers in Toei Animation HQ took notice of us humble American brats.   

            In the end, the question of whether or not this film is worth your time if you were not an at least somewhat obsessive fan of the show is a moot one- of course it’s not.  What are you even doing here?  For those of us who could never get enough howling Kamehamehas, the question is- does this latest addition to the DBZ film series hit enough of the needed adrenaline points to be worth an hour and a half of your evening?  I would say it depends on your level of self-awareness.  I had a gay old time of it myself, but the overuse of CGI and reliance on an already-known villain, albeit an iconic one, do keep it from rising above its pulpy, TV-special origins.  That might make it too much for some to sit through.  Then again, for many of you, that might be exactly the point.    


-Noah Franc   

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review: The Martian

The Martian (2015): Written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott.  Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover.  Running time: 141 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. 

Rating: 3.5/4


            It’s always frustrating when a great and beloved artist comes out with something far below their usual (or “accepted”) standard.  It’s especially painful when it seems to happen with everything they do for an extended period, one round of disappointment after another.  At the worst of times it can leave erstwhile fans wondering if all the hype was for naught, if someone they admired has already peaked, and maybe wasn’t that great to begin with.  Ridley Scott has been caught in just such a spiral for some time now, with just about every major release of his over the past 5-10 years plagued by repeated production delays and/or constant script rewrites.  In a few cases, Scott seemed to morph into his own worst enemy, looking like he himself was never entirely sure what sort of movie he wanted to actually make. 

            Well, never fear fellow fans, because the Scott is back.  The Martian is easily the best film he has come out with in years, and right up there with some of the best works of 2015 so far, and will most likely walk away with a decent profit margin and a few bits of Oscar gold before all is said and done. 

            It’s just a tad bit into the future, and NASA has advanced enough to actually be able to send a small team to Mars for a brief mission.  However, the rise of a sudden sandstorm forces them to abort ahead of schedule, and the ensuing darkness created by the storm causes them to lose the team botanist, Mark Whitney, played by Matt Damon.  With no choice but to assume the worst, the team heads back weighted with guilt, while the PR people back home break the news to the public. 

            Whitney, however, is not dead, just injured by a satellite that cut the feed from his suit.  Finding himself as abandoned as a human being could possibly be, he almost immediately begins to work on finding some possible way to ensure his survival as long as possible.  I won’t go into all the many pathways this takes, since that would require me to spoil much of the second act, but the gist of the situation is this; he can’t expect another mission to arrive for at least a few years, he doesn’t have any way to contact NASA directly and ask for help (at least at first), and while the tech he has on hand could theoretically keep him breathing and hydrated indefinitely, the remaining foodstuffs he has would barely get him through a single year in isolation, let alone 3 or 4. 

            So he gets to work.  For the sake of future record-keeping, he films himself trying to mash together Martian sand, leftover feces, potato bits, and chemicals to make water so as to be able to grow his own food supply.  Funnily enough, this provides Matt Damon with a ready-made excuse to literally act right into the camera (and thus directly to us), wisecracking about how he’s besting every other accomplished astronaut to date and lamenting the questionable taste in music of his team captain, whose left-behind laptop is the only source of entertainment he has.  It’s the sort of wise-ass leading-man style we’ve gotten a lot of lately, especially in the world of comicbook blockbusters, but Damon never overdoes it, and he balances it out with a few appropriate moments of real emotional pathos, as the immensity of what he is doing (and where he is) inevitably overwhelms his otherwise extremely professional demeanor.  Damon has rarely been better in his career. 

            In the sense that the story is your basic survival narrative, it’s not unlike Gravity from a few years back, but with the added strength of not asking us to tolerate Matt Damon and no one else for two hours.  As we follow Whitney’s survival gambit, we learn that NASA finds out almost immediately via satellite imagery that he is definitely alive, and they immediately set about bringing in all manner of experts (including some Chinese ones towards the end) in what becomes a truly collective team effort to provide every sort of assistance they can, and eventually both they and the returning crew (simultaneously overjoyed Whitney is safe and horrified that they did indeed leave him there to die) come up with a daring rescue plan, leading to an immensely satisfying final act.  The plot itself never rises above its Castaway origins, but the polyglot cast is so good- the list of incredible talents they brought together for this is breathtaking to behold, and everyone delivers- and there are so many interesting moving parts to follow that I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this one without at least one scene or character they loved.  Nothing wrong with simplicity of substance if the execution is done with skill and grace. 

            The focus on team work, the importance of pooling collective expertise, and the need to never give up and never stop trying, even against overwhelming odds, are a continuation of the same theme of unstoppable optimism and hope for the future that pervaded both last year’s Interstellar and the aforementioned Gravity from the year before that.  If big-budget, visually-thrilling space adventures undergirded by upbeat messages about the future of mankind are a thing now, then count me in.  Given the current state of the world, this is exactly the kind of cinema we need. 

            If I had a nitpick, it would be that I couldn’t escape a sneaking suspicion that isolation that long, even with some limited means of communicating, should take a more obvious and visible toll on someone.  Matt Damon has a few moments where his cool-guy ‘tude fails him, and he nearly breaks, but they are always short and spaced far away from each other.  He doesn’t become mechanical though, and having him pull through psychologically as well as physically fits into the overall thesis of the movie that there really is nothing a person (or people) aren’t able to get through.  And as long as we never stop trying to solve the problems that come our way, we will inevitably come out the stronger for it. 

            Amen to that. 


-Noah Franc