Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews

In the Fade

One of the more prominent current faces of European film is Fatih Akin, a
Hamburg-born son of Turkish immigrants. His films as writer-director have typically treated the intersection of German and Turkish life in striking ways (see “The Edge of Heaven,” “The Cut”), but his newest film, “In the Fade,” takes a more domestic tack by concentrating fully on one German character (though with a cross-national partner) and embracing a wholly German cultural and political environment. This effort has resulted in a picture that many German authorities have indicated is their best this year: the film is the country’s official entry in the Academy Award sweepstakes.

“In the Fade” (titled in German “Aus dem Nichts”) is mostly a taut thriller set in contemporary Hamburg. Its story turns on Katja (Diane Kruger) a tough-minded and headstrong woman who is committed both to her ex-con Kurdish-German husband Nuri (Nurman Acar), and their sweet violin-playing son Rocco. However, early on in the film she witnesses their murder in a Neo-Nazi terrorist bombing of her husband’s tax office. She finds herself bereft, facing both her own grief and some menacing probing from legal authorities about her own and her husband’s backgrounds (his previous criminal background had been as a drug dealer).

Katja must undergo a grueling investigation of the case—where suspicion falls on Nuri himself—followed by the fraught trial of the suspected bombers, a smarmy young couple of radical bent (Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsdorf). Under some duress, she is also called upon to testify. Though her case is capably represented by her family friend and lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto), the prospective terrorists are exonerated through the resolute machinations of the pair’s persistent (and threatening) defense council (Johannes Krisch). Katja is crushed and, at her wit’s end, begins to think about enacting her own personal revenge, first tracking the malefactors and then pondering how to confront them to finally assuage her angst.

After an effective buildup, the film’s last chapters are its weakness: practical
Katja being transformed into an obsessed and intrepid stalker lacks credibility, and the finale seems facile and unbelievable given the film’s overall earnest tome. Subtleties are lost.

German-born Diane Kruger is known as both a glamorous and versatile actress on both sides of the Atlantic. She has been a pretty face in epics (“Troy”) and in American fluff (the two “National Treasure” films), played tough on US cable TV (in “The Bridge”) and provided a sultry presence in international films like “ Joyeux Noel,” and “Inglourious Basterds.” “In the Fade” offers her a chance to perform in her native German for once and to stretch her acting range, both as a flawed character and as a reluctant seeker of vengeance, and she mostly pulls it off (she won a Cannes Festival
award for this role). For director Akin, he shows he can pull off an effective crime procedural—but only up to a point.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 106 mins.)

(February 2018)

Photo Credit: Diane Kruger (right) and Denis Moschitto in the trial scene from "In the Fade," a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


They used to be standard fare in movie houses: “classic” Westerns, typically featuring laconic heroes, stoic sidekicks, cavalry units, Indian attacks, ladies in distress, exquisite photography of handsome scenery, moody, plaintive sound tracks, etc.... They don’t make ‘em like that anymore—except they just did in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles,” and, in displaying all of the above elements, the film can stand proudly among its many forebears.

The time is 1892 at Fort Berringer in New Mexico territory. Tough-as-leather
Army Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), near retirement, grudgingly takes on the assignment of escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to die in his tribal land in Montana. Yellow Hawk has been imprisoned at the fort for several years with his family, including son Black Hawk (Adam Beach). Blocker, a fierce Indian fighter, resents protecting a figure he regards as a vicious enemy, but he’s forced to undertake the task, which is immediately complicated when his small band runs across a traumatized widow Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) who has lost her husband and children in a vicious Comanche raid on their homestead.

The dogged journey (captured in vivid landscapes by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi) is initially punctuated by personal and philosophic exchanges between the stern Blocker and his team, including veteran comrades like Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors), but it is interrupted by an encounter with the aforementioned Comanches, resulting in a bloody skirmish. Further on, the group faces an enemy just as vicious, a gang of bandits who take Mrs. Quaid and the chief’s daughter (Q’orianka Kilcher) hostage and must be dealt with. After a visit to another fort, Blocker and Co. take on another charge, an AWOL sergeant (Ben Foster) scheduled for judgment at another outpost. Even with the job finally accomplished—the return of the chief to his happy hunting ground, one last stand off comes when the captain’s band is challenged by a roughneck rancher out to protect his land from Indian claims. It’s one dang thing after another...

Yet the telling of this Western saga is done with such panache and understated elegance by Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) and his cast that it carries you along on this trek and makes you believe its sturdy storytelling. The trail rhythms and incidents are strongly etched and, indeed, classic. The violent elements—there are plenty, fully earning its “R” rating—are brutal, but quick, not lingered on or romanticized and fully believable in context. The hint of romantic sparks between Blocker and Quaid are just that, hinted at and not overplayed. Reticence and respect rules this relationship. The resentful Blocker gradually softens and comes to appreciate his Cheyenne charges (who also hate Comanches) but gradually, plausibly, as part of a unit that has withstood trials together.

Christian Bale, an actor for all seasons and a Brit who has spent half a career playing Yanks, pulls off another adroit and convincing characterization as the taciturn captain, a man who bears—with bristly beard and drooping ‘stache--a 19th century face, one that does a lot of his acting silently, just listening to the people around him. Not to be outdone is Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”), also English, who morphs convincingly from a bloodied mother in shock to a proper, well-spoken lady of the best moral stature—who can use a rifle!

John Ford himself might have approved of “Hostiles.”

(The film is rated “R” and runs 134 mins.)

(January 2018)

Photo Credit: Rosamund Pike (left) and Christian Bale star in the new Western, "Hostiles."  a STX Entertainment release.
Photo by Lorey Sebastian; courtesy of Yellow Hawk, Inc.

Molly's Game

The first directorial effort by screenwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin could hardly be anything but a word-fest. Sorkin is singular in his screenplays and teleplays for displaying a torrent of dialogue, often delivered by his protagonists on-the-run (nicknamed the “walk and talk” style). More, he has the uncanny ability to produce logorrhea on arcane subjects such as baseball stats ratings, social media details, TV journalism jargon, or legislative conundrums. In his latest film, “Molly’s Game” his subject is high stakes poker—as practiced among celebrities, multi-millionaires, and members of the Russian mob—and he, as usual, can sweep you along even if you don’t understand that much of what is being talked about. Sorkin’s only recent rival for this kind of esoteric dialogue is Adam McKay in “The Big Short.”)

What Sorkin has up his sleeve or in the hole (I can’t resist the card clichés) is Jessica Chastain as his Molly. She is Molly Bloom, a real-life poker organizer who, in a memoir, wrote about her running high-stakes games for a decade in Los Angeles and New York. The film opens with Molly being rudely arrested by the FBI in the middle of the night. Her supposed mob “connections” are the trigger for the arrest, and she promptly hires criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who hears Molly’s back story as played out in flashbacks.

Unlike other Sorkin scripts, this one depends greatly on a narrator, Molly, who tells, in measured tones, the story of her gambling life. That story emphasizes that Molly was both faultless in staging her games and always punctiliously legal, never pocketing table winnings ( an no-no) but only receiving tips from players and duly reporting all her earnings to the IRS! Where the walk and talk principally comes from in “Molly’s Game” is in the fencing back and forth between Jaffey and Bloom, where the exchange is in
legal jargon, and the dialogues with her poker colleagues, where the language is often that of seven-card stud. Just let the words pour over you and enjoy the actors’ handling of them.

Chastain handles that dialogue and the character with cool self-possession,
presenting a woman ever under pressure but who still radiates confidence. Hollywood smoothies, like Player X (Michael Cera), or lovable moon dogs, like Douglas (Chris O’Dowd), try to manipulate her, but she is too clever to be waylaid. Her assured demeanor here echoes much of her role in last year’s “Miss Sloane” but substituting poker for lobbying.

Chastain has already earned two Oscar nominations during this decade (for “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty”). Don’t be surprised if she nabs another this month.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 140 mins.)

(December 2017)

Photo Credit: Jessica Chastain (standing left) in "Molly's Game," a STX Entertainment release.