Thursday, February 28, 2013

Good Bye Lenin!

Good Bye Lenin!
Director: Wolfgang Becker
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Sass

Of all things, finding a touching, sentimental film about family relationships using the context of East German fascism to get across the point, I was not expecting.  Good Bye Lenin! is exactly that.  It’s a film that could only be made in Germany, as no other country could explain with both such bitterness and such touchingly fond nostalgia what life behind the east side of the Berlin wall was like, all while presenting one of the best filmic examples of mother-son relationships I’ve ever seen.  To put it more bluntly, Good Bye Lenin! caught me by surprise.

Alex Kerner (Brühl) loves his mother (Sass) very much.  Not in a gross, Psycho sort of way, but in a regular little boy sort of way.  After all, his father abandoned them and his sister.  His mother, for her part, takes her husband’s abandonment as motivation to throw herself fully into East German citizenship, becoming a community leader.  When, years later, she sees Alex taking part in a protest against the socialist state, she faints from the shock, has a heart attack, and is plunged into a coma.  Alex is guilt-ridden.  He loves his mother, but he also believes in democracy for Germany.  While his mother is in a coma, the Berlin Wall is torn down and their entire world changes; months later, Mama wakes up, but the doctor warns that the slightest shock could kill her.  Alex decides to recreate a pre-Berlin Wall East Germany for his mother to keep alive her belief in the government that she poured her heart and soul into.

All of this, frankly, makes Alex sound a little crazy.  I won’t deny it; he definitely has a bit of obsession going on.  He plunges headlong into his quest to recreate fascist East Berlin for his mother, rooting around in dumpsters for old food jars, transferring the new, Holland pickles into the old state-produced pickle jar.  He hires young boys to come sing nationalist songs to his bedridden mother.  When his mother starts to discover the capitalist world around her, he makes up extravagant stories about Western refugees, even going so far as to hire his filmmaker friend to stage some news reports so her mother can “verify” his story while watching TV.  Yeah, Alex certainly has a screw loose.  At the same time, what is so refreshing about Alex is that he continues to live his life.  He loves his mother, but he doesn’t tend to her 24-7.  He falls in love with a cute Soviet nurse Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) who is tending to his mother, and, in a rather funny scene, unplugs his mother’s IV because he is ogling Lara’s legs.  He goes to parties and drinks and gets high with his friends.  He gets a job selling satellite systems.  He even went behind his mother’s back to “march for the right to go for walks without the Berlin Wall getting in [the] way.” (one of my favorite quotes from the smart script)  Alex is a very normal young man, with one rather unusual obsession.

I like that Alex is normal.  It makes him very approachable as a character.  He is a good boy, a mother’s boy, but he wants to live his life.  He is tremendously likeable, and that is the key to so much of Good Bye Lenin!’s success for me.  If a doctor told me that one of my parents would die if they received an extreme shock, I’d probably do what I could to keep that from happening.  In that manner, I identify with Alex.  I’m not sure if I’d invent an entire world, but that’s what makes Alex quirky, and what makes the film a gently black comedy.  In essence, it’s very refreshing to see a normal, flawed character have a very strong, very loving relationship with his mother.

And yes, let’s talk about his mother.  Too often in films, mothers are idealized to the point of sainthood.  My mother is a wonderful woman, yes, but not a saint.  Blessedly, neither is Sass’ portrayal of Christiane Kerner.  Christiane Kerner is a very good woman, but for crying out loud, she views her life through the lens of East German fascism.  She is a good mother, a strong mother, but one with incredibly narrow vision.  Sass turns in a wonderful performance as a woman who believes in The State, but believes in her family more, and very much loves her son.  What Brühl and Sass turn in is, in my opinion, one of the best filmic examples of a loving mother-son relationship I’ve ever seen.  It is refreshingly flawed, but tremendously honest.

The style of the film feels underdeveloped.  There are some interesting choices made through the film – brief moments of fast forward or slow motion, several references to Stanley Kubrick, surrealistic film sets – but there are, oddly enough, too few of them.  I’m all for a stylized film; I really enjoy a surreal film experience, a world that clearly could not exist in real life, but this film goes halfway there and then gives up.  There’s a lack of commitment with the stylization.  I wish the director had either shot the entire film in a realistic manner or sprinkled a few more strange moments throughout; as it stands, I find the stylized moments jarring and unexpected.  

Culturally speaking, Good Bye Lenin! is an interesting look at a moment in German history that rarely gets covered.  When Hollywood thinks “Germany,” they go to Nazis and pretty much stop there.  The fall of the Berlin Wall was also important, yet it doesn’t make as clean and tidy a moral study as does the rise and fall of Hitler.  Good Bye Lenin! manages to convey both the enormity of the upheaval of the fall of the Wall, but also the day-to-day banality of life both before and after the change.  Life is still life, regardless of the presence of the East German state.  It’s fascinating watching the characters change and adapt, and yet stay so very much the same. 

Although it veers frighteningly close to sappy melodramatics, I enjoyed the sentimental nature of the mother-son relationship in Good Bye Lenin!.  And that’s saying quite a bit, because I normally despise sentimental melodrama in all its forms.  However, there is a sense of realism and an honesty to the characters in this film that manages to ground the emotional arc.  Plus, there’s a witticism and subtle comedy to the treatment of the fall of the Berlin Wall that is unexpected. 

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Lavender Hill Mob

The Lavender Hill Mob
Director: Charles Crichton
Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway

A great deal of comedy deals with ordinary people getting whisked up in extraordinarily ridiculous situations.  I do believe that nearly all countries with film industries have, at one point or another, made a comedy like this.  That being said, however, I particularly enjoy watching the Brits deal with ludicrous situations.  After all, the basis for essentially every P.G. Wodehouse story EVER is some sort of outrageous situation that must be resolved by the end of the novel, and P.G. Wodehouse is my favorite author of all time.  The Lavender Hill Mob is cut from similar cloth.

Henry “Dutch” Holland (Guinness) opens the film by recounting his story in a restaurant in South America where he is clearly known as a big spender.  He tells his table-mate about how he came to be in such a position, telling a tale of his former life as a staid gold bullion transport overseer at a bank.  Don’t let his formal exterior fool you, though, because Holland is plotting a heist.  All he needs is an accomplice, and when he meets artist and die-caster Pendlebury (Holloway), he sees the means he needs to smuggle the gold out of the country.    The pair recruit two more thugs into their mob and start to put everything in place to execute their plan.  Naturally, complications arise, most comically when a group of schoolgirls inadvertently make off with some of the stolen gold.

The Lavender Hill Mob is most definitely a story from an older era.  With the evolution of technology and the slew of investigative crime shows that focus on the efficacy of forensics, one has to suspend a bit of disbelief when a crime as rudimentary as this one is presented.  I’m sure at the time it was considered rather sophisticated, but I can’t help but watching it with a feeling of “yeah right.”  Having said all of that, though, if you *can* suspend disbelief, The Lavender Hill Mob will take you for a very fun ride.

The major theme of the film is not so much the heist itself, but the idea of breaking free from one’s daily humdrum life and going adventuring.  As Holland becomes more and more embroiled in his thieving plans, and even as things go more and more astray, he seems happier and happier.  Even when dealing with the aforementioned schoolgirl debacle, Holland and Pendlebury have the biggest smiles on their faces.  A bad day thieving is still better than the best day in the bank, is what Holland seems to be thinking.  But it’s not simply Holland and Pendlebury who espouse this idea.  The boarding house where Holland and Pendlebury live and meet holds several ordinary humdrum people who likewise dream of more outrageous ideas.  The little old lady who knits while Holland reads to her likes to listen to outlandish spy novels.  A fellow boarder constantly jokes, jovially, about stealing gold.  I am never really concerned in this film about Holland getting away with his grand schemes, because that’s not the big point.  It doesn’t matter if he gets away with it; it matters that he tried.  He threw off the shackles of his regular life and lived big, if only for a time.  The film is joyful because of it; I feel happy watching our somewhat hapless criminals deal, even inexpertly, with their heist.

This is also a very British film; I chuckled so many times at watching our stiff upper lip protagonist flounder in his crazy antics.  Holland attempts to trap a safecracker whilst recruiting for the gang, but is so damnably polite about it, it’s ridiculously comical.  Our heroes might be trying to pull off a major bank heist, but this doesn’t mean they’ll forget their manners or the societal niceties.  Heaven forbid they jump a turnstile or bypass customs with their stolen gold; oh no, the rules must be obeyed!  Not as over the top as the superior Kind Heart and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob certainly does play with archetypal British mannerisms.  Pendlebury angrily yells at a fellow conniver about his art skills that “You must have some sense of proportion!”  Good stuff.  Gentlemen thieves indeed!

Before I had begun watching films from 1001 Movies, the only films I knew Alec Guinness from were, of course, the Star Wars trilogy.  He was Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that was it.  Then I hit the forties and fifties and the comedies he has in 1001 Movies.  Oh, how foolish I was; Guinness was such an amazing actor, and revelatory to me in his genius comedic roles.  While he certainly gets more word of mouth about his eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, I think he does an even better job here.  His Holland is a complex character.  He could have been a simple caricature, but Guinness is careful to show us his evolution.  Even as a sad sack bank employee, we are aware of Holland’s imagination, subdued though it might be.  In my opinion, Guinness is the main reason why The Lavender Hill Mob graces the ranks of 1001 Movies.  He is superb.

Plus he discovered Audrey Hepburn, so that's a definite win.

Hardly hefty or significant, The Lavender Hill Mob is an enjoyable little caper romp that has an unexpected sense of joie de vivre throughout.  It’s funny and clever (watch the police car incapable of making a three point turn and not laugh, I dare you).  Will it change your life?  No.  Is it old fashioned?  Yes.  But it’s diverting and charming and thoroughly likeable.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem

Cabaret is all about Sally Bowles and her divine bohemian goings-on.  The decadence, to the point of grotesquerie, and the sexual infatuations of her group of cohorts is on full display.  To me, though, the major draw of Cabaret is the intermittent musical numbers in the divine Fosse style that serve as a Greek Chorus to the plot and atmosphere of the film. 

Sally (Minnelli in an Oscar-winning performance) is a performer at the Kit Kat Club in Weimar era 1930s Berlin where the emcee (Grey) oversees all.  Buttoned-down Brian (York) arrives and takes a room in the boarding house where Sally lives.  She’s flighty and ebullient; he’s intrigued.  We meet a few friends of theirs through the boarding house, but the focus is squarely on the odd friendship that develops between the two.  However, when rich and handsome Maximilian (Griem) enters the picture, the friendship is tested as jealousies arise.

The central story about Sally and Brian’s friendship is fairly conventional.  Girl meets boy, girl is crazy and theatrical, boy becomes infatuated with girl, a friendship forms, and things become a little complicated.  When you boil Cabaret down to its essence, that’s what the film is, a tried and true tale of an unexpected friendship between two slightly lost souls – but, for me, that’s the least interesting part of the movie.  I don’t particularly want to boil Cabaret down to its essence, because then, I’d be missing the best parts.  

Before I go off on those other parts that I like better than the backbone of the tale, I do want to talk a bit about Brian and Sally.  From a superficial vantage point, it looks as though Sally, with her crazy green nail polish, her excessive flirtations, and her rather sad attempts at seductions, is the one who grabs button-down Brian and awakens him, opening him up to the possibilities of the world at large.  But as the movie progresses, I become less convinced this is the case.  I don’t think Brian was ever button-down at all.  As we slowly learn more about him, he is not nearly as staid and innocent as he appears, and I hold that their friendship is less about Sally “teaching” Brian of the world than Sally realizing she was wrong about her initial impression of him and appreciating him for who he is.  Brian really is a bit of a wild-child underneath all that plaid and all those suits.  Sally didn’t set him free; he was free already.  She just thinks she’s setting him free, but once again, she’s made a mistake about a man.

I really appreciate how Fosse treated the rise of Nazi power in Cabaret.  Despite my love for musicals, I had passed on watching Cabaret until about four or five years ago when it was playing on the big screen at the Dryden.  I always thought to myself that I wasn’t particularly interested in watching a musical about Nazis terrorizing Liza Minnelli.  But that’s not what Cabaret is about.  Fosse keeps the Nazis wisely in the background until the bitter end of the film.  He takes advantage of the fact that every single person who sees Cabaret knows what happened in World War II, and as such, he merely hints, ever so slightly at things to come.  He doesn’t need to tell us; we already know.  A great sequence has Brian and Maximilian driving through a street where there has been a murder.  They look on and comment, but everyone else who is at the scene is stock still.  Fosse lingers on the faces and the snapshots of the crime scene just long enough to remind us there are greater things happening in Berlin than Sally and Brian.  A subplot of Cabaret involves a love affair between two people whom we learn are Jewish.  When their story reaches its conclusion, there is no coda to it – which is perfect.  Fosse never tells us what became of them.  Did they escape Berlin?  Did they stay and probably die?  It’s up to the viewer to wonder, and I like that.  

I can’t go much further without letting everyone know that Cabaret contains one of my favorite film sequences of all time, one I’ve seen time and time again thanks to the magic of youtube.  The one song not performed at the Kit Kat Club, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” is one of the most frightening sequences committed to film.  At a quaint restaurant in the idyllic German countryside, Brian and Maximilian stop for lunch.  An adolescent boy starts singing the song with its lovely little lyrics of rolling hills and pastoral beauty, but then we see he’s wearing a swastika.  As the song continues, it becomes clear that this is Nazi propaganda at work, convincing the German people that their future is better and brighter when they entrust it in the hands of the Nazis.  Watching nearly every normal, regular German citizen at that café stand and passionately sing as the song becomes a powerful call to order sends chills down my spine.  In this one scene, this one frightening yet unassuming little scene, Fosse manages to delineate precisely how Germany, lost and broken after World War I, could have thrown itself behind the Nazi party.  The children are singing, the adults are singing, and then that one old man who refuses to stand – he breaks my heart every time.  This is the filmic counterpoint to the equally powerfully Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.  I love both scenes with a passion, but in Casablanca the singing is for good.  In Cabaret, the singing is in the service of evil.  I’ve only seen Cabaret all the way through twice.  I’ve seen “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” more times than I can count.  I find it hauntingly and frighteningly beautiful.

 You have to watch it.  It's just so good... and so scary...

Of course, this is Fosse, so of course, the musical sequences are just amazing.  I already spoke of how fascinated I am with Fosse’s choreography – all that pelvis, all those ankles, all those pigeon-toed stances – and “Mein Herr” is probably the best example of that here.  It’s utterly beguiling.  I dare you not to get the “Money” song stuck in your head.  I watched this last night, and woke up this morning with “Money makes the world go around / the world go around / the world go around” running rampant through my brain.  Joel Grey, Broadway legend, is great as the emcee.  His “Two Ladies” number is great and fun and the reason why Cabaret is most likely not performed by high schools.  There is a dirty sexualizing of nearly all the musical numbers that is so fascinating and so Fosse.  

I’ve never seen Cabaret on Broadway, but if there was one Broadway production I wish I had caught, it was the late 1990s Cabaret revival starring Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming as the emcee.  I’ve seen enough clips on youtube to make it clear that as sexualized as Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret is, Alan Cumming takes the vulgarity and dials it up to 11.  I’m intrigued to see the entire show – it looks as though the emcee is even more menacing than Grey is here.

As a whole, I find Cabaret a tad uneven.  The central backbone of the film, as I said earlier, is my least favorite part of the film - conventional and only moderately engaging for me, but the movie is also filled with terrific musical numbers in that Fosse style that I utterly adore, and Fosse treats the rise of Nazi power in an interesting way.  It’s odd, but I’d like to pick and choose what I keep from this film.  I wouldn’t trade “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” for anything, but you can keep Brian and Sally shacking up - and most of the narrative, for that matter.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10.  I’m really torn here.  There are parts I would give an outright perfect score to, and parts that are just OK.  I guess this is a good compromise?  Who knows.  Who cares, too – this is just an online movie review.  Stop taking it so seriously, Siobhan.  ;)