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Review: Toni Erdmann

Dec 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220911:43142:0[/embed] Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren AdeRating: RRelease Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)Country: Germany/Austria I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont's dad. Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She's a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She's always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. "I want to be roughed up," she smiles. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried's got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It's not hard to see why Ines' mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he's a bit of a chaos agent. The man can't take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into "Toni Meerkat". Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann. They're familiar in an obvious way, as if from another movie that's far safer and more conventional. Perhaps Ade sensed this slip into the obvious when sculpting the final edit. A character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. It doesn't prevent Ines' reconnection with the world of the common folk from feeling like an expected destination. Toni isn't just his daughter's Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines' office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. Consequently, other reconciliations in the movie felt inevitable to me. When Toni Erdmann lets go, it's at its best, whether it's a bit of kink involving pastries or a belting out a tune. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she's at the verge of a breakdown. She's a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left. Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter. A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that; so is Toni Erdmann.
NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann photo
Estranged daughter, strange father
There's no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stake...

Review: Nothing Bad Can Happen

Jun 24 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217913:41615:0[/embed] Nothing Bad Can Happen (Tore Tanzt)Director: Katrin GebbeRelease Date: July 27, 2014Country: Germany Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is an epileptic. At times (especially under stress), he collapses and writhes around on the floor. But what others may see as a dangerous, potentially life-threatening problem, he sees as a vital part of his faith. To him, these are religious experiences, times when the Holy Spirit becomes a part of him. And during his seizures, I couldn't help but think back to the videos I have seen of the extremely religious Christian sects, speaking in tongues and shaking. I'm not going to sit back and diagnose entire religious groups with epilepsy, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to see, especially because of how little attention others paid to his plight. Tore is a member of the "Jesus Freaks" (spoken in English) a hard rocking Christian sect that actually matters very little to the film. In fact, after the first third half hour or so, the group disappears entirely. But their establishment is important, because his interactions with that group set up who he is as a person and as a believer. In the opening moments of Nothing Bad Can Happen, Tore is brought to the water and dunked. Knowing only the title (not the German one) and that it was being marketed as a horror movie, I was expecting Tore to die. I thought that it would be some cult thing where true believers were drowned (or something like that) and this blonde kid was not the protagonist but a sacrificial lamb of sorts.  Nope. And that actually gets to a broader point about the odd marketing for the film. Nothing Bad Can Happen's poster features a bizarro version of the symbol for Anarchy (which is the symbol for the Jesus Freaks) covered in blood. On that poster is a quote from Fearnet, "A compelling and shocking thriller... reminiscent of Martyrs." And those two things lead to very specific expectations, ones that the film never quite matches. (The German poster, on the other hand, features Tore and a blue sky, which is both more and less appropriate.) In reality, Nothing Bad Can Happen isn't really horror or even a thriller so much as an extremely unsettling (and upsetting) drama. Sitting through it is an endurance test, because Tore's faith drives him to the depths of hell. Hell, in this case, takes the form of Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), a man who offers Tore a place to live after he leaves the Jesus Freaks. But he's abusive, violent, and completely insane. At first, it's all nice and wonderful (I mean, kind of; Benno is creepy from the outset), but quickly things take a turn and only get worse. Tore's motivations for staying are never really clear, but the only thing that the film really seems to justify it with is Tore's love for Benno's not-daughter, Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof). Sanny is physically and sexually abused by Benno, and while Tore does absolutely nothing to protect her, he clearly has a desire to be by her side. Whether that desire seems like enough to keep him on Benno's property is hard to say, and that lack of motivational clarity is one of the film's biggest issues. As horrific as her situation is, it makes sense that Sanny stays: she is afraid of what might happen to her if she ran away. Plus, her mother (Benno's also-awful wife-or-something) is there, as is her younger brother. Those are legitimate reasons to suffer through a horrible situation. And even if you don't really get it from the dialogue or characterization, it makes sense. Tore, on the other hand, needs to be justified. He's clearly crazy, but there's no attempt to really explore that aspect of his personality. There's barely even an attempt to really explore his religious fervor, which is the other driving force. But it may be that there is a third thing. Nothing Bad Can Happen has three chapters: Faith, Love, and then something else. That something else is even more ironic than the title, so I'll let you find out for yourself... but maybe what seems initially like irony (I laughed when I saw it) is actually a symptom of a deranged mind. He is driven by faith while he is with the Jesus Freaks, by love when he is with Sanny, and then by that third thing when he does whatever it is he does at the end. Then again, maybe I'm trying to give the film credit where it isn't due, because Tore just lacks depth. Giving a subtitle here and there doesn't excuse the film from actually justifying a character's decisions. All that said, I'm being harder on the film than perhaps I should be. I don't want to say I liked it, but it doesn't even seem like a film that wants to be liked. But it wants to be respected and considered and discussed and felt. And I think it deserves all of those things. If nothing else, I definitely felt it. If you have any empathy at all, you'll wince (and possibly even shield your eyes) at some of the more horrific abuses Benno commits. It's powerful stuff, and it will stick with you long after the credits roll. For all of its failings, it undoubtedly succeeds there.
Nothing Bad Can Happen photo
The German title of Nothing Bad Can Happen is "Tore Dances," something I knew from the beginning thanks to the multiple attempts I have made at learning German in my life. It's one of the few things I remember, but ...

Teaser trailer for restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is impressive

Jun 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Caligari Restoration photo
The somnambulist never looked so good.
If you haven't seen the 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you need to fix that immediately. Conveniently, it's out of copyright, so I've embedded it below. But like most films from back then, it doesn't look so good....


Blood Glacier looks gory, has the best title ever

Apr 04
// Liz Rugg
BLOOD GLACIER. Guys. This movie's called Blood Glacier. I can't believe this exists and can't believe it hasn't already existed. In Blood Glacier, a team of glacial researchers (and their trusty and adorable dog) studying in...

SXSW Review: Wetlands

Mar 08 // Matthew Razak
[embed]217403:41312:0[/embed] WetlandsDirector: David WnendtRated: R Country: GermanyRelease Date: August 22, 2013 (Germany)  What is supposed to be so controversial about Wetlands, which is based on a controversial book of the same name, is its lead's predilection with bodily fluids and kinky sexual escapades. Helen is a teenage girl who we learn is obsessed with bodily fluids and sex to the extent that she gets sexual pleasure from her hemorrhoids and is on a lifelong mission to see just how dirty she can make her vagina (we witness her rubbing it on a urine covered toilet seat). However, after a lifetime of not treating her hemorrhoids she causes an anal fissure while shaving and must be rushed to the hospital. There she concocts a plan to get her separated parents back together while she treats her male nurse to more and more vivid sexual fantasies.  The first issue arises that the movie just isn't that terribly shocking to anyone who has ever been on the Internet. Maybe there's a generational gap somewhere so that older audiences are still appalled and shocked by blatant sexuality on screen, but most of what you see can be easily found on the web in even more graphic fashions. The movie, while full of many gross out moments, is more disturbing than it is truly shocking. There are definitely boundaries pushed in one sense, but they've all been broken in another. A bit of shock coupled with an interesting character makes for a great movie, though and the first 15 minutes of the film actually seem to be leading to this. A jaded viewer can't ding a film too much for simply not shocking them. The real problem arises when you realize that shock is all there is. The first 15 minutes of the film establishes an interesting character as we're sucked into Helen's world of sexual deviance, but the moment she is whisked away to the hospital the film seems to entirely forget about the protagonist it was developing, instead focusing in on her boring relationship with her parents. Helen becomes a character you're no longer interested in and because of that the "shocking" fantasies (four men orgasming onto her pizza) the film starts exploring seem like just attempts to shock instead of actual looks into the character.  Wetlands does attempt to play with the unreliable narrator concept a bit as Helen's fantasies and realities start to blur together. We're never quite sure what she's imagining and what she isn't by the end of the film, leaving the overly tidy conclusion to the film to be somewhat suspect in its truth. This approach does add an extra level of interest to the film overall, but it hardly saves Helen as an interesting character and thus hardly saves the movie. Thanks to a lack of well constructed characters and the film's abandonment of its most interesting aspects in the beginning Wetlands becomes shocking simply to shock and that does not make a good movie. You'll probably continue to hear a lot about it because people love talking about mainstream films that push sexual boundaries, but it really isn't worth the conversation since it doesn't do anything with the frontiers it pushes to.
Wetlands Review photo
All the shock, none of the value
Wetlands came out of Sundance with plenty of buzz for being shocking for its disturbing sexual content and brazen display of sexual acts. It was that movie every year that someone got up and walked out of because they we...

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