Sunday, June 12, 2016

Look Who's Back (Er Ist Wieder Da, 2015, German) ****

A couple of years ago, if you had told me that what the world needed was a satirical movie about Adolph Hitler traveling through time to show up in 2014 Germany, I would have said you were nuts. In the light of the present day, I would say this film couldn't be more timely.

Hitler (Oliver Masucci) wakes up in a 2014 Berlin park completely disoriented after an apparently successful time-travel escape from his WWII bunker. People he encounters assume he is an actor, and they laugh and take pictures with him. He finds refuge in a news stand, where he starts to get his wits about him and embark on “the first step...gathering information.” Reading the news, he realizes that the world is perfectly ripe for him to make a comeback, what with economic troubles, unemployment, and immigration issues. A freelance documentarian discovers him and drives him around Germany, filming while Hitler chats up everyday Germans, commiserating with their troubles. He finds deep currents of disaffection with politicians and especially with immigrants. Once he gets on TV, his audience grows exponentially. People assume he is a comedian doing a Hitler act, but his message strikes a nerve nonetheless.

“Er Ist Wieder Da” is based on the best-selling, comedic novel of the same name, but the movie does something the book could not. Borrowing a page from the movie “Borat,” the director films real Germans talking with Hitler, expressing their resentment of immigrants in shockingly candid vignettes. Of course, not everyone is ready to board the Hitler-train. Several of these unwitting movie stars do themselves and their country credit by confronting his ideas. Nonetheless, it's disturbing to see so many Germans openly express support for a man who looks like Hitler, presents himself as Hitler, and promotes Hitler's racist, nationalist ideology. As Hitler says towards the end of the film, “I never presented myself as anything else.”

This is a refreshing, often hilarious cautionary tale, even if it feels a bit long at almost two hours. Star Oliver Masucci absolutely makes the film. He plays Hitler with a riveting intensity and charisma. He demonstrates how any idea, no matter how bad, can be appealing if it is expressed with absolute certainty and confidence. As Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

4 stars out of 5

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ant-Man (2015) ***

The title of this installment in the Marvel universe almost seems like a joke to me, like, “We've got Batman, Spiderman, and every other kind of “Man” there is. What's left? How about 'Ant Man'?” But Ant Man has been around for a while, dating back to 1962. The original Ant-Man was scientist Hank Pym, who invented the suit that allowed him to shrink to the size of an ant and communicate with ants. This 2015 film, part of the Avengers Universe, shows Dr. Pym passing the suit to ex-con cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd.) Pym has kept the Pym Particle, which is the secret to his shrinking ability, under wraps for decades. Now his old protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has cracked the code, developing a shrinking suit that he calls the Yellow Jacket. Cross is marketing the Yellow Jacket as a weapon, and Pym recruits Scott to steal the new suit and destroy the research data behind it. Pym is reluctantly aided by his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily), who feels that she should really be the one wearing the ant suit.

“Ant Man” is, in some ways, one of the better of the Marvel Comics movies, but it also feels the least substantial. Iron-Man Tony Stark is a recovering alcoholic who invents powerful weapons and struggles to make sure they don't wind up being used for evil. Captain America Steve Rogers is a man severed from his own era, trying to dutifully serve his country, but ever on guard against authoritarianism. Ant Man Scott Lang, though, is just an unemployed ex-con who wants to get to see his daughter. The movie doesn't expend much energy convincing us that this sad sack would accept Pym's mission or that Pym would select him in the first place.

If the heroes are a bit under-developed in these movies, you can usually count on the villain to be memorable, but Corey Stoll's Cross is like a cardboard cutout of a villain. Evangeline Lily isn't much better in her black bob and wafer-thin emotional armor.

Fortunately, what a movie lacks in depth, it can make up in humor and charm, and Paul Rudd has both in abundance. It's simply impossible not to like him in a film. He gets an assist from a funny supporting cast, including Bobby Canavale as his ex-wife's new man. Michael Douglas and his iron jaw are also excellent, providing just enough gravitas to hold the film together.

At the end of the day, I'm not really sure what “Ant Man” is supposed to be about, but the movie provides enough laughs and action to make up for its lack of plot. Now that the character is established, I hope Paul Rudd will get to do something more interesting with him in a future movie.

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

It Follows (2014) ****

After a couple of dates, Jay (Maika Monroe) has a back-seat hookup with a new acquaintance. She figures the date is going pretty well, until Hugh tells her the bad news. Their tryst has passed on to her the curse of a demon that will follow her until either she passes it on by having sex with someone else, or it gets its hands on her. The opening sequence of the film shows us what can happen when this thing catches up to someone, and believe me, it means business. The worst part is that you can never really be rid of this thing, because if it kills someone, then it just goes back after the person who passed it to that person, working its way back down the line. Relentless is the word that comes to mind.

I don't really watch many horror movies anymore. It's a generally accepted rule that horror films are made for teenagers, who are fascinated by exploring the possibility of their own mortality, partly because they don't fully believe in their own mortality yet. A grown person has plenty of genuinely scary things to worry about, with no need to stare into the celluloid abyss. “It Follows,” however, is not just a good horror movie, it is a good movie, period. The acting is excellent, and the characters' actions are believable, even if they don't always do the smartest thing at a given time. The writing is good enough that their actions make sense in terms of who they are and the nightmare in which they are trapped. The camera work in this film is beautifully framed as well, with some absolutely stunning shots. The film also creates a sense of timelessness by having the characters dress in vintage clothing and using cars from various eras. Even the seasons seem unstable, creating a nightmarish sense of disorientation. This movie is going to age well, and I suspect it will show up in some film school lectures.

When done properly, horror movies can teach us a lot about ourselves by making us examine what we fear. Is it fear of the “other”, or fear that the people we love aren't who we think they are. Maybe it's the fear that our sins will catch up to us. The demon in “It Follows” represents an unavoidable doom that is always coming for us, basically a stand-in for death. The characters can delay that doom by having sex with someone, but they know that it is still out there, potentially working its way back to them. Besides being a metaphor for mortality, “It” is, of course, a pretty obvious stand-in for sexually-transmitted disease, particularly the AIDS epidemic, which is interesting, because people who are today the age of these characters don't know much about the AIDS epidemic. Those who lived through that epidemic will recognize the sense of fear surrounding sex, and the necessary paranoia about one's sexual partner and their past partners created in this film.

It's a standard horror film trope to equate sex with death, but “It Follows” makes the connection much more explicit. In doing so, writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created a delightfully original tale that belongs in the cannon of great films like John Carpenter's “The Thing.” From the horrifying opening sequence, the movie creates an overpowering sense of dread with its thrumming score and the sense that “it” may appear at any moment, moving slowly but malevolently. “It Follows” is definitely one to check out, as long as you can handle a few nightmares.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Battle Royale (2000, Japanese) **

A group of teenage school kids are put on an island, given weapons, and instructed to kill each other off. Collars around their neck will explode in three days unless only one of them is left alive, so they cannot simply join together and refuse to fight. At certain points in the day, various parts of the island become danger zones that will make the collars explode, so the kids have to constantly move around. Only young love can help them survive. The ensuing bloodshed is promoted as entertainment to the Japanese populace.

If this movie sounds like a Japanese rip-off of “The Hunger Games,” be aware that the first “Hunger Games” novel came out in 2008, while the “Battle Royale”novel was written in 1996, with the movie released in 2000. If anything, the accusations of plagiarism should be going in the other direction, as the stories are remarkably similar. Whoever came up with the idea, the “Hunger Games” movie is a much better film. “Battle Royale” is full of nonsensical plot points and a distinctly Japanese style of acting that involves over-acting alternating with staring blankly. I suppose the movie has a certain culty charm, if you are into that sort of thing.

The paradox of movies like this is that even as we in the audience judge the sick society that creates entertainment out of kids murdering each other, we are also watching the killings, reveling in the action as our chosen players kill off the other characters. The director tricks us into cheering on the very violence that we condemn. While we're talking about exploitation, you can't help but notice that all the young actresses in this film wear short, little schoolgirl skirts.  So it isn't a complete loss.

2 stars out of 5