IN THE FADE: a moral choice in a revenge thriller

Diane Kruger in IN THE FADE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Diane Kruger gives a brilliant performance in the searing and emotionally devastating German thriller In the Fade.  Kruger plays a German woman whose husband and child are murdered.  Her life essentially disintegrates, as a whodunit carries on mostly beyond her.  Katja is not exactly the German Betty Crocker.   She’s tatted up and has married a Turkish Kurdish man who is a reformed drug dealer.  But her grief is universal, and so is her impulse for revenge.  Her husband’s attorney Danilo (Denis Moschitto) leads her on a quest for justice.  But she must decide whether to take justice into her own hands.  And how. And at what cost.  The final scene in In the Fade is unforgettable.

German writer-director Fatih Akin, like Katja’s husband, is the son of Turkish immigrants.  In In the Fade’s taut one hour, 46 minutes, he has crafted a pulsating page-turner.  It can’t be easy to keep the pace of a movie from grinding down when the protagonist is plunging into a puddle of grief, but Akin pulls it off.  The horror of the murder is not shown on-screen, but Akin funds a way to make it even more horrible than if we had watched it happen.  Akin has made a successful thriller here, not a “message movie”, but he also effectively addresses the topical issues of immigration, racism and terrorism.

Diane Kruger in IN THE FADE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Diane Kruger won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes film festival for this performance.  She creates a fundamentally vibrant Katja, who must react to a horrific loss, and then to a series of indignities capped by brutal gut-punch from her mother-in-law.  This is a profoundly authentic depiction of grief.  When any chance for resolution is jerked away from Katja by a shocking injustice, Kruger takes Katja into steely resolve.

Kruger is an impressively versatile actress.  She’s equally good as an American detective with Asberger’s in the absorbing American miniseries The Bridge and as a whim-driven queen in the French costume drama Farewell, My Queen.

Denis Moschitto and Diane Kruger in IN THE FADE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In the Fade is filled with excellent performances. Besides Moschitto, I’ll point out

  • Johannes Krisch as cinema’s most despicable defense attorney, loathsome down to the prefunctory danke with which he ends each argument.
  • Hening Peker as the earnest-to-a-fault police investigator, doing everything rationally and by the book, but not in a way comfortable for our sympathetic victim, Katja.
  • Ulrich Tukur as a character who has found serenity in doing the right thing, difficult as it may have been.

In the Fade won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign language Picture last Sunday and
opens this weekend in San Francisco.

DVD/Stream of the Week: DEADFALL – dysfunctional families converge just in time for Thanksgiving

Charlie Hunnam and Olivia Wilde in DEADFALL
Charlie Hunnam and Olivia Wilde in DEADFALL

Deadfall is a solid recent thriller that has flown flew under the radar. Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde are brother and sister running for the Canadian border after a casino heist. They wreck their car and split up. The brother sets off overland, leaving a trail of murderous carnage. The local cops are on the alert, including the sheriff’s deputy daughter (Kate Mara). Meanwhile, a bad luck boxer (Charlie Hannum of Sons of Anarchy and The Lost City of Z) is released from prison, impulsively commits another crime and is headed for his parents’ (Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson) remote northern cabin. The sister hitches a ride with the boxer. Everybody converges at the boxer’s parents’ place for an extremely stressful Thanksgiving dinner.

An essential element of this thriller is that all of the families are dysfunctional. The siblings have survived a hellish upbringing, from which the older brother has rescued his little sister; unfortunately, he has emerged as a psychopath himself and has infantilized the sister. The relationship between the boxer and his father has been poisoned by a long-festering dispute. The sheriff resents and belittles his bright and highly professional daughter while doting on her idiot brothers.

The core of the movie is the evolving relationship between Wilde’s sister and Hunnam’s boxer. Neither knows that the other is on the lam. She cynically seduces him because he is useful. But then she starts to fall for him, and, by Thanksgiving dinner, her loyalties are uncertain.

Sissy Spacek is brilliant as the boxer’s mom, who must steer over the wreckage of the relationship between her son and her husband, and who must then serve a Thanksgiving dinner to a volatile killer who is holding a shotgun on the other guests. She is a great actor, and she’s as good here as in any of her signature performances.

The cinematography, characters, acting and the directorial choices by Stefan Ruzowitzky are excellent. What keeps Deadfall from being one of the year’s best is some trite, TV movie level dialogue along the way. Still, it’s a good watch. Deadfall is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Note: This is NOT the 1993 Deadfall, with Nicholas Cage even more over-the-top than usual.

DVD/Stream of the Week: ELLE – subversive and absorbing, with Huppert’s stunning performance

Isabelle Huppert in ELLE
Isabelle Huppert in ELLE

The extraordinary performance of French actress Isabelle Huppert makes the already subversive Elle into a Must See. Huppert plays the middle-aged businesswoman Michèle, who is raped in her home in the first seconds of this movie. Elle is likely to be controversial; Michèle’s reaction to the rape will not meet anyone’s expectations. At first, Elle seems like it will be a looks like a whodunit (who is the attacker?), then it shifts into a revenge fantasy, all the while remaining, at its core, an amazing study of Michèle, a character that we haven’t seen before. This is a woman who refuses to accept – and may not be capable of – victimhood.

The screenplay, which turns upside down any expectations we may have, is written by David Birke from a Philippe Djian novel. The hunted becomes the hunter, we never know what to expect from Michèle and shockers abound. Who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) to direct? Especially since the willful Michèle has a lusty sexual appetite, with adventuresome tastes.

Michèle needs to be in control, and she’s generally tough enough to stay in charge. The way to understand her actions is that she will do anything to regain that control and to avenge any moment that someone else has wrested it from her. One would expect the rape to be shattering enough, but Michèle starts getting messages from her attacker that would send ANYONE into a puddle of paralyzing terror; instead she’s only momentarily unnerved.

With the exception of two monsters, all the men in Elle are weak (despite any internal sense of bravado), and she handles them all easily. (Those two monsters better watch out, too.)

One way of watching Elle is to keep score, as in: Michèle 6, Men 0. But Elle is not a man-bashing film – Michèle’s ridiculously self-centered mom and her son’s abusive nightmare of a girlfriend are just as unsympathetic as all but two of the men.

There’s plenty of dark humor in Elle. For example, immediately after the opening rape scene, we watch Michèle at work as the founding CEO of a video game company. She’s watching a clip from her company’s newest video game in development. The clip is so hyper-violent and misogynistic that it would trigger massive PTSD for any rape victim, but Michèle’s complaint is that it’s NOT VIOLENT ENOUGH.

Isabelle Huppert may be the best screen actress working today, she’s certainly the most fearless. She’s so fearless, you gotta wonder if there any scripts that she rejects for being TOO weird, challenging or transgressive. She is comfortable with roles that range from the kinky (The Piano Teacher) to the most twisted (Ma Mere).

Huppert is especially gifted at playing impenetrable. She is at her best when she simply REGARDS other characters, assessing and judging them. With almost no lines,and very little screen time, her sphinx-like character dominated the recent Louder Than Bombs.

I also have to note that her character in Elle is in her early 50s – a sexy early 50s – while Huppert herself is 63. She seems to have somehow stopped the aging process about 15 years ago.

Elle ends in a moment of friendship, with the final line an homage to my favorite movie of all time. There’s a difference between perverse and perverted, and Elle keeps just inside that fine line. The shockers, the very dark humor and Huppert’s singular and compelling performance make Elle one of the year’s most absorbing films. Two weeks after screening it, I’m still thinking about it. Elle is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: GONE GIRL – 2014’s best Hollywood movie

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL
Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

In the marvelously entertaining Gone Girl, Ben Affleck plays Nick, a good-looking lug who can turn a phrase. At a party one night, he’s on his A game, and he snags the beautiful Amy (Rosamund Pike). She’s smarter, a good rung on the ladder more attractive than he is, has parents with some money and is a second-hand celebrity to boot. Not particularly gifted and certainly not a striver, he knows he’s the Lucky One. He has married above himself, but he doesn’t have a clue HOW MUCH above until she suddenly disappears.

Based on the enormously popular novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), Gone Girl is the mystery of what has happened to Amy and what is Nick’s role in the disappearance. Plot twists abound, but you won’t get any spoilers from The Movie Gourmet.

This is Rosamund Pike’s movie. Her appearance is so elegant – she looks like a crystal champagne flute with blonde hair – that pulling her out of Victorian period romances into this thriller is inspired. And Pike responds with the performance of her career. She’s just brilliant as she makes us realize that there’s something behind her eyes that we hadn’t anticipated, and then keeps us watching what she is thinking throughout the story.

Gone Girl is directed by the contemporary master David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Here, Fincher has successfully chosen to rely on Flynn’s page turner of a story and the compelling characters, so Gone Girl is the least flashy of his films, but one of the most accessible. I’ll say this for Fincher – I can’t remember a more perfectly cast movie.

Kim Dickens (Treme, Deadwood) is superb as the investigating detective – this time almost unrecognizable as a brunette. Tyler Perry is wonderfully fun as a crafty celebrity attorney. The unheralded Carrie Coon is excellent as Nick’s twin sister (I want to see more of her in the movies). Missi Pyle does such a good job as a despicable cable TV personality that I thought I was actually watching a despicable cable TV personality. And David Clennon and (especially) Lisa Banes positively gleam as Amy’s parents. (Carefully observe every behavior by the parents in this movie.)

Just like the thug in The Guard who forget whether he had been diagnosed in prison as a sociopath or a psychopath, I had the ask The Wife, who turned me on to this passage from Psychology Today. It’s useful to read this because, although you don’t realize it for forty-five minutes or so, Gone Girl is also a study of psychopathy.

Psychopaths … are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail in advance and often have contingency plans in place. Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, psychopathic criminals are cool, calm, and meticulous. Their crimes, whether violent or non-violent, will be highly organized and generally offer few clues for authorities to pursue. Intelligent psychopaths make excellent white-collar criminals and “con artists” due to their calm and charismatic natures.

Gillian Flynn changed the story’s ending for the movie. The Wife, who is a big fan of the novel, didn’t mind. Gone Girl is recommended for both those who have and have not read the book. I understand that there’s more humor in the movie, as we occasionally laugh at the extremity of the behavior of one of the characters.

It all adds up into a remarkably fun movie and one that I was still mulling it over days later. Gone Girl was the best big Hollywood studio movie of 2014 (not counting releases from the prestige distribution arms of the major studios). It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

DVD/Stream of the Week: LOCKE – a thriller about responsibility

lockeThe thriller Locke is about an extremely responsible guy (Tom Hardy) who has made one mistake – and he’s trying to make it right. But trying to do the responsible thing in one part of your life can have uncomfortable consequences in the others. The title character drives all night trying to keep aspects of his life from crashing and burning.

In fact, he never leaves the car and, for the entire duration of the movie, we only see his upper body, his eyes in the rearview mirror, the dashboard and the roadway lit by his headlights. All the other characters are voiced – he talks to them on the Bluetooth device in his BMW. Sure, that’s a gimmick – but it works because it complements the core story about the consequences of responsibility.

Locke is written and directed by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises). The story is actually a domestic drama – there are no explosions to dodge, no one in peril to rescue and no bad guys to dispatch. But it’s definitely a thriller because we care about whether Locke meets the two deadlines he will face early the next morning.

It’s a masterful job of film editing by Justine Wright (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland). After all, her cuts help keep us on the edge of our seats, despite her working with a very finite variety of shots (Locke’s eyes, the dashboard, etc.).

Hardy, who’s known as an action star, is excellent at portraying this guy who must try to keep his family, biggest career project and self-respect from unraveling at the same time, only armed with his ability to persuade others. It’s a fine film. Locke is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube abd Google Play.

FREE FIRE: a witty and fun shoot ’em up

Brie larson in FREE FIRE
Brie Larson in FREE FIRE

The clever and fun action thriller Free Fire begins when Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson introduces both sides of an illegal gun transaction.    It’s 1978, and the hoods, played by Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and a bunch of less recognizable faces, meetup in a long-abandoned factory.  The deal, of course, goes bad, and they start shooting at each other.  They are all pinned down, and all the action occurs in a confined space.  Pretty quickly, everyone is wounded, and has to crawl, hobble, limp and hop around trying to take out the others.

The factory is a dark and gritty setting, and it’s not going to turn out well, but it’s too light-hearted to call this a neo-noir.  These are boys (and a girl) playing with guns, and everybody is having a lot of fun.  Indeed, Free Fall has the all-in-good-fun tone of The Dirty Dozen and reminds us of a Quentin Tarantino film with much crisper dialogue and less gore.  Two of characters come to especially gruesome ends, but this is not a splatter-a-thon.  And here’s a cinematic First – a tickle attack in the midst of a gunfight.

In another Taratinoesque touch, classic rock, especially Creedence Clearwater Revival, is put to great use on the soundtrack.  But the insertion of a John Denver album into a cassette tape player is a hilarious high point.

Larson leads a set of appealing performances.  Armie Hammer is especially memorable as a particularly suave and smug gun merchant (and wears the same stylish beard sported by The Movie Gourmet in 1978).

Written by director Ben Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump, Free Fire is pure Wheatley.  Jump adapted his successful 2016 sci-fi High-Rise from  the J.G. Ballard novel

Leaving the theater, The Wife asked me “Why did I enjoy that movie so much?”, and I replied “Because it didn’t try to be more than it was.”  It tries to be a very witty shoot ’em up, and, as such, it’s very entertaining.

Armie Hammer in FREE FIRE
Armie Hammer in FREE FIRE

THE ASSIGNMENT: hit man becomes hit woman

Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT
Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT

In the gloriously pulpy revenge thriller The Assignment, a vengeful plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) captures a hit man (Michelle Rodriguez) and performs sexual reassignment surgery on him, releasing a new hit woman (also Michelle Rodriguez) into the world – and lethal mayhem ensues.

The Assignment comes from the master of the genre thriller, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs.). Hill is a story-teller who enjoys a brisk pace, and The Assignment flies along its 95 minutes.

Michelle Rodriguez, the toughest of the Tough Chicks, nails the hit man/hit woman roles. She plays the male character very naturally (with a little CGI help in a glimpse of his naked frontside). When the protagonist becomes a woman, Rodriguez keeps her eyes very male – and very pissed off. Her performance at the moment of gender reveal is perfect.

Sigourney Weaver had the audience roaring at her character’s narcissism. Weaver and Tony Shaloub successfully pull of the highly stylized genre dialogue. Anthony LaPaglia is excellent as a mid-level gangster.

Don’t expect Brokeback Mountain for the trans set. This is, after all, an involuntary gender reassignment. The main character is a man who is turned biologically into a woman, while still identifying internally as a man. The gender reassignment is a plot device, and it is a hostile act, not a means of self-fulfillment.

75-year-old Walter Hill was present at the Cinequest screening. Costing only $2.8 million, The Assignment was shot in Vancouver over only 25 days. Hill said that he was “wanted to do a neo-noir comic booky kind of thing” (which well-describes The Assignment). The film was adapted from Hill’s graphic novel, which has been out in France since last year; it will be released in the US before the end of March. Hill expects a sequel to the graphic novel.

The Cinequest audience – by no means the usual action thriller crowd – reacted very favorably to The Assignment. Shown at Cinequest with the title (re)Assignment, this film is being released with the title The Assignment. It’s available now on Ultra VOD and YouTube. It will opens nationally tomorrow, but only on 30 screens. I’ll let you know when it becomes more widely available – because I enjoyed it!

Cinequest: (re)ASSIGNMENT (now THE ASSIGNMENT)

Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT
Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT

In the gloriously pulpy revenge thriller The Assignment, a vengeful plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) captures a hit man (Michelle Rodriguez) and performs sexual reassignment surgery on him, releasing a new hit woman (also Michelle Rodriguez) into the world – and lethal mayhem ensues.

The Assignment comes from the master of the genre thriller, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs.). Hill is a story-teller who enjoys a brisk pace, and The Assignment flies along its 95 minutes.

Michelle Rodriguez, the toughest of the Tough Chicks, nails the hit man/hit woman roles. She plays the male character very naturally (with a little CGI help in a glimpse of his naked frontside). When the protagonist becomes a woman, Rodriguez keeps her eyes very male – and very pissed off. Her performance at the moment of gender reveal is perfect.

Sigourney Weaver had the audience roaring at her character’s narcissism. Weaver and Tony Shaloub successfully pull of the highly stylized genre dialogue. Anthony LaPaglia is excellent as a mid-level gangster.

Don’t expect Brokeback Mountain for the trans set. This is, after all, an involuntary gender reassignment. The main character is a man who is turned biologically into a woman, while still identifying internally as a man. The gender reassignment is a plot device, and it is a hostile act, not a means of self-fulfillment.

75-year-old Walter Hill was present at the Cinequest screening. Costing only $2.8 million, The Assignment was shot in Vancouver over only 25 days. Hill said that he was “wanted to do a neo-noir comic booky kind of thing” (which well-describes The Assignment). The film was adapted from Hill’s graphic novel, which has been out in France since last year; it will be released in the US before the end of March. Hill expects a sequel to the graphic novel.

The Cinequest audience – by no means the usual action thriller crowd – reacted very favorably to The Assignment. Shown at Cinequest with the title (re)Assignment, his film is being released with the title The Assignment. It’s available now on Ultra VOD and YouTube. It will open nationally on April 7, but only on 30 screens. I’ll let you know when it becomes more widely available – because I enjoyed it!

Cinequest: UNA

UNA
UNA

The psychological suspense movie Una revolves around two twisted people, one of whom has been damaged by trauma.  Here’s what the audience can be confident really happened: at age 14, Una (Rooney Mara) was seduced by a much older man, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn); she became infatuated with Ray and they carried on a sexual relationship for three months until he was caught and imprisoned for four years.  Upon leaving prison, he changed his name and started a new life.  It’s now fifteen years after the original crime and Una has tracked him down.

We can tell that Una is obsessed with Ray.  What we don’t know is whether Una is seeking vengeance or whether she is in love with him – or both.  She’s so messed up that even she may not know.

Lolita was a novel with a famously unreliable narrator.  Una presents us with TWO unreliable narrators.  Almost every statement made by Ray COULD be true, but probably isn’t.  He was in love with her, he came back for her, she was his only underage lover, he’s not “one of them”, he’s told his wife about his past – we just can’t know for sure.  Ben Mendelsohn delivers a performance that tries to conceal whatever Ray is thinking and feeling but allows his desperation to leak out.

The excellent actor Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, The Reluctant Terrorist) is very good as Ray’s work buddy, who must deal with one totally unforeseeable surprise after another.

Una really relies on Rooney Mara to portray a wholly unpredictable character in every scene, and she succeeds in carrying the movie.  Mara’s face is particularly well-suited when she plays a haunting and/or haunted character, and it serves her well here.

I watched Una at Cinequest, where it was a Spotlight Film.  Its theatrical release is expected later this year.

 

Cinequest: REVENGE

REVENGE
Siren Jørgensen in REVENGE

In the Norwegian suspense thriller Revenge, the slightly creepy Rebekka (Siren Jørgensen) appears at a hotel on a remote fjord under the false pretense that she is a travel writer.  The hotel is otherwise empty because it is off-season (think The Shining).  She ingratiates herself with the hotel’s owner Morten, the most economically and socially significant person in town, and his wife (Maria Bock).  It turns out that twenty years before, Morten date-raped Rebekka’s little sister, leading to her suicide.  Now Rebekka wants to exact vengeance.

Revenge becomes a tick-tock suspenser as Rebekka deliberately lays her trap.  We’re able to see some, but not all, of the web that she spins, which will put in jeopardy Morten’s reputation, marriage, business and his very health and survival.  Can she pull it off?  And how lethal will her revenge be?

It’s the first feature for Kjersti Steinsbø, who adapted the screenplay and directed.  She has created a real page-turner here.  In one very effective touch, it turns out that one of the characters knows FAR more than we initially suspect.

REVENGE
Anders Baasmo Christian in REVENGE

Revenge is uniformly well-acted, but Anders Baasmo Christian, as Bimbo the bartender, is exceptionally good.  Just keep your focus on Bimbo.  There’s more there than initially meets the eye.  And Bimbo’s relationships with both Rebekka and Morten are very conflicted and complicated.

The ending is satisfying, and Morten’s ultimate fate is unexpected.  Revenge is one of the world cinema high points at Cinequest.