Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 32: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] The heroine of The Marriage of Maria Braun does some terrible things, but because she knows some of the forces that shaped her, we understand them and can at least admire her resourcefulness.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “[Fassbinder] gave us what he saw as the rise and second fall of West Germany in the three postwar decades –considered in the context of the overwhelming American influence on his country. With the masterful epic The Marriage of Maria Braun, he made his clearest and most cynical statement of the theme, and at the same time gave us a movie dripping with period detail, with the costumes and decor he was famous for, with the elegant decadence his characters will sell their souls for in a late-1940s economy without chic retail goods.” -from his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“Fassbinder’s world was one in which sex, ego and money drove his characters to cruelty, sadism and self-destruction. It is never difficult to discover what they want, or puzzling to see how they go about it. His occasional gentle characters, like the old woman in Ali — Fear Eats the Soul (1974), are eaten alive. The suggestion is that the war years and the postwar years wounded the German psyche so profoundly that the survivors wanted what they wanted, now, on their terms. Fassbinder himself was cruel and distant to those around him, particularly those who loved him, and in Maria Braun, he created an indelible monster who is perversely fascinating because she knows exactly what she is doing and explains it to her victims while it is being done.” -from his 2005 review for his Great Movies series

It’d be easy to be fooled by the opening of The Marriage of Maria Braun into thinking that you’re watching a standard war film. A black & white portrait of Adolf Hitler explodes along with the brick wall supporting it, followed by the rich colors of a darkly humorous physical comedy bit where a solider gets married in the midst of a city siege. The notary lies on their belly in the rubble, stamping the proper documents while bombs & bullets fly. Oddly, this is the last we see of the marriage or the explosions until the film’s final, puzzling minutes. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is obviously interested in the havoc wreaked by World War II, especially among the people left dazed & defeated in his home country in the years immediately following the war. However, the war itself and the marriage of the film’s title are conspicuously missing from long stretches of the story he tells in one of his most widely seen & widely acclaimed films. Instead, Fassbinder follows the emotional life of the soldier’s wife as the war immediately takes her husband away, leaving her lost & drifting through a country she no longer recognizes. The Marriage of Maria Braun is more of a character study than a war film, although both its physical & emotional settings are noticably devastated by the bombs dropped in the conflict.

The most astounding marvel of this Criterion-distributed work is actor Hanna Schygulla’s performance as the titular Maria Braun. Her marriage to a German soldier depicted with cold humor at the film’s opening lasts less than two days before his duty tears him away from her and he’s eventually reported to be dead. In her husband’s absence, Maria engages in two longterm romantic affairs, one with a black American solider & one with a wealthy white German businessman, both of whom wish to possess her. She enjoys their company, but maintains that her heart belongs to the near-stranger she married at the film’s start. As the husband’s absence transitions from missing soldier to imprisoned criminal, Maria remains entirely honest with him about her affairs, planning to earn a sizable living for them both in the mean time, a life that’s to start as soon as he’s released. That goal provides her post-war drift with a sense of purpose, but mostly she just handles her personal life with the emotional distance of a businesswoman making executive decisions, a demeanor many audiences interpret as deliberate cruelty. There’s something striking about Maria’s casual, matter-of-fact reactions to sexual affairs, murders, miscarriages, and changing clothes in the presence of men that makes the film & the performance feel remarkably modern. She answers a flirt’s question, “Should we have another drink?” with a flat “No, I want to sleep with you,” and makes blanket statements like, “It’s not a good time for feelings.” It isn’t until she’s briefly reinvigorated by her role as a wife in the film’s final minutes until you realize what the war & her husband’s absence have done to her, how much joy & brightness they’ve stolen from her youth.

Fassbinder plays Schygulla’s emotionless cynicism for both tragedy & humor. He sets the melodrama of her tragic status as a soldier’s wife torn between two men (twice!) against the rich color, saccharine orchestral score, and high fashion costume design of a Douglas Sirk film. The Marriage of Maria Braun is an outright gorgeous picture. The curls, furs, and jeweled broaches that adorn each of Maria’s looks feel like the ornaments of a retro magazine fashion spread. The intense blue lighting & glistening coats of excessive post-coitus sweat telegraph much of the aesthetic of Ken Russell’s smut-slathered masterpiece Crimes of Passion. The opening minutes (with their bombastic city siege & images of shellshocked soldiers fighting over smokable cigarette butts) may promise a war film, but what Fassbinder ultimately delivers is something much more aggressively feminine. In his time, Douglas Sirk’s melodramas were often critically dismissed as “women’s pictures.” It seems as if Fassbinder were attempting to resurrect their exact perspective, except with more blatant discussions of sex & desire. Both a tragic & a comedic character, Maria’s inner life commands audience attention & empathy as the distinct historical setting & Fassbinder’s intense visual eye only function to serve & highlight her chilly point of view. It’s just as glamorous & devastating as it is over the top & relatable, an impressively rewarding set of self-contradictions.

I’m not sure that The Marriage of Maria Braun’s ambiguous ending has anything of value to say about its titular protagonist. I’m also not sure if a change in temporal setting would entirety alter her inner life or if post-war Germany was essential to her story. What I can say for sure is that Schygulla’s performance as Maria is instantly recognizable as one of the all-time greats. That striking achievement alone is worth the effort the film asks from its audience in its setting & its ambiguity, especially considering that it’s couched within Fassbinder’s distinct visual eye.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Dunkirk (2017)

I sometimes complain about missing an essential Dad Gene that would enable me to care about certain traditional macho movie genres: Westerns, submarine thrillers, James Bond entries, etc. I’m not faced with the pressure to watch any other subcategory of these Dad Movies nearly as often as I am with The War Movie. Films about battleground warfare, especially set during WWII or The Vietnam War, tend to put me to sleep. There’s a grim, heroically macho routine to battlefield dramas & thrillers that typically makes them feel indistinguishable from one another, like a sea of uniformed soldiers solemnly marching in unison. Christopher Nolan’s recent war thriller, Dunkirk, broke that spell and made me question my Dad Movie prejudice. Dunkirk feels much more like a personal obsession with the story of a single historical event than yet another echo of the war movie genre trappings that dull down so many of its peers. I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.

Dunkirk dramatizes a colossal military disaster where 40,000 French & British heroes & cowards awaited rescue on a beach while surrounded by the German enemy in World War II. With a massive cast & sparse dialogue, Nolan does little to provide character detail for any of these thousands of soldiers, but rather tells their story as a massive unit. Even actors like Murphy, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and pop star Harry Styles, who all should individually draw attention through the virtue of their mere presence, are but tiny gears in a larger machine that sounds & functions like clockwork, ticking away until the enemy bombs them out of existence. Nolan fractures this larger narrative through three narrow focus storylines: a two man beachside escape mission that lasts a week, a three man boat ride that lasts a day, and a two man airplane skirmish that lasts an hour. These three narratives barrel towards an inevitable point of convergence: a historical event where private vessels & fishing boats were employed to rescue soldiers from the beach, since all traditional Navy ships were being sunk by the enemy. Although Nolan tells this story through a precise, coldly technical build-up of moment to moment tension, he takes a breath to glorify this triumph of The Dunkirk Spirit in a rare stint of nationalistic pride. When the tiny pleasure yachts roll in to Bring Home the Boys under the German’s noses, Branagh admires their bravery in silence, nearly holding back a single manly tear as if it were Nolan himself watching the waters. It’s possibly the only moment of relief offered in Dunkirk‘s entire runtime, a much needed breather in an otherwise tense, relentless chokehold.

Besides Nolan’s typifying play with the film’s sense of time & a bold decision to never depict the enemy onscreen, Dunkirk also avoids war movie doldrums by echoing the structure of near-plotless obstacle course movies like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road. All that really matters is clearing the next hurdle. Whether searching for drinkable water & smokable cigarette butts in city streets or avoiding drowning inside of a ship that is both sinking & on fire, Nolan’s camera follows his soldiers & their civilian saviors as they conquer one obstacle at a time. This makes for an entirely nerve-racking experience from opening to closing credits, an intensity amplified by Hans Zimmer’s sparse, haunting score of ticking clocks & building strings. This score is only softened when the complex sound design is overwhelmed by sudden, deafening air raids that leave all soldiers ducking & praying for survival at irregular intervals. Nolan mirrors the impossible technical feat of rescuing that large of a number of soldiers on a fleet of tiny civilian vessels by staging his own series of aurally terrifying, temporally ambitious, and brutally logical technical feats of filmmaking & narrative craft. The anticipatory feeling of seeing the film on a 70mm print opening night felt more like an Event or an Experience than a typical trip to the movies. It was something akin to a film fest vibe (although with a notably more bro-populated crowd), but it also reminded me of waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Dunkirk is a quick, dizzying trip through pure adrenaline thrills & for-their-own-sake technical marvels. It gives you little time to attach yourself to any one character or narrative in particular, but the complexities of its basic structure & overall effect are so impressive that it never really matters.

The few isolated beats where I wasn’t fully onboard with Nolan’s vision were when he did attempt to stir emotion instead of building tension. That scene where Branagh admires the civilian volunteers’ makeshift rescue efforts while the ticking clocks score gives way to triumphant orchestral strings reminded me so much of the war movies that typically do nothing for my shriveled, cynical heart. Those moments are few & far between, however. Dunkirk mostly mines tension from an increasingly complex series of moment-to-moment tasks spread out over sea, sky, beach, and several converging timelines. To deny the power of the film’s technical feats because of its lacking emotional impact or detailed character development would be asking it to be something entirely different from the story Nolan set out to tell. As someone who has an impossible time focusing on the particulars of battlefield drama in more traditional war stories, I very much appreciate Nolan’s approach here. It’s likely that he personally found much more emotional resonance in the film than most of his audience possibly could, but the experience of watching him reach for that emotion in his tightly controlled, meticulous recreation of wartime chaos is as immediately impressive as it is likely to be unforgettable.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Third Man (1949) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels. The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca. Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But Casablanca is bathed in the hope of victory, while The Third Man already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

I was hoping to redeem myself after my relatively muted response to Casablanca by falling head over heels for its British mystery thriller descendant The Third Man, which seems equally lauded as One of the Greatest Films of All Time. The Third Man boasts the same fast talking, hard drinking, manly noir efficiency of Casablanca, although its depressive post-war exhaustion is tonally different from the Humphrey Bogart classic’s wartime unease. I found myself technically impressed, but emotionally disengaged by both works, unable to echo their set-in-stone praise as the best of what cinema has to offer. I suppose the film’s dizzying Dutch angles and classic noir attention to lighting are largely what elevate it above most pulpy mysteries that were being produced in its era, but that visual flair only took me so far as a modern audience. The Third Man is undeniably a well-made film in terms of craft, but I’m failing to connect with it as an essential, rewarding cinematic experience.

An American pulp novelist arrives in a post-war Austria looking to meet with a dear old friend, Harry Lime. He discovers that Harry Lime has died in a suspicious car accident, where everyone at the scene knew the man personally in some way. Especially disturbed by the report of an unidentified “third man” present at the scene, the American novelist embarks on a vigilante mission that mirrors the kind of genre fluff he writes for a living. In the process he learns some shocking, damning things about Harry Lime’s post-war racketeering and makes the mistake of falling in love with Lime’s girlfriend, who remains true to him even in death & among accusations of his unscrupulous racketeering (which lead to many more deaths). Harry Lime becomes a sort of mythic legend during this investigation, both in the exposure of his crimes & in the endless repetition of his name. The mystery of how he died is gradually swapped out for the mystery of who he was as a person, a question that only can be answered in the grimmest of terms.

Besides its forward-thinking (and sideways-leaning) cinematography, I suspect The Third Man is a movie remembered mostly as a collection of iconic moments, the same way Casablanca plays like a greatest hits collection of Old Hollywood dialogue. Some of these moments worked especially well for me, including a movie-stealing speech from a maniacal Orson Welles in the third act and a couple chase scenes that lead to unexpected hideouts like a Ferris wheel or a movie theater or an applauding literary audience. Occasionally, though, I’d have to scratch my head over the movie’s reputation, like when the most shrill, annoying child actor in the history of shrill, annoying child actors accuses our American makeshift gumshoe of murder in a piercing whine. I was also confused by the praise of the film’s zither soundtrack, which gives it the comedic shrug of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, completely cutting the tension of watching our protagonist get in major trouble by asking too many questions. Ebert went out of his way to praise the zither’s influence on the film, writing “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man? […] The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” I don’t understand at all where he’s coming from, but I doubt he’s alone in believing that.

There’s a really interesting post-war tone that commands a lot of The Third Man (when it isn’t being disrupted by children & zithers). Piles of rubble and greedy profits made from people’s suffering in a time of crisis lurk in the movie’s fringes, rarely directly playing into the plot the way it does in Casablanca, but often overpowering the impact of the central murder mystery. Major twists in that central mystery never meant more to me than that post-war gloom, but the two narratives do compliment each other nicely. Like with Casablanca, I’m willing to accept that a few rewatches might be necessary to fully appreciate The Third Man as an all-time classic, but the film’s murder mystery reveals will likely only dull in those revisits. It’s the post-war exhaustion that’s going to matter more in the long run (along with the film’s bold visual aesthetic). The doomed romance at the heart of Casablanca sounds a lot more pleasant to experience on loop, though, so for now I’ll just have to continue to damn this film by calling it merely very good.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 28: Casablanca (1942)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Casablanca (1942) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] Casablanca is about people who do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

One of the more challenging aspects of looking back to these titans of cinematic prestige in projects like this is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people watching them when they were first released. That was a very rewarding experience for me when I recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time, which felt like returning to the birth place of modern cinema. Orson Welles’s classic was not immediately appreciated as a game-changer, however. It took years of reappraisal and televised re-runs for that film to earn its rightful place among the all-time greats. The equally lauded Casablanca, often touted to be the greatest film of all time, had a much easier path to success. In the film’s own advertising it was reported to be, “As big and timely a picture as you’ve ever seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! Gripping! Big!” With names like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines among its ranks it’s difficult to dispute that claim. That’s especially true once you consider that Casablanca is about the ineffectiveness of remaining neutral in the face of Nazi fascism and that it was made just a few years after America had been pressured into joining the war in spite of its Isolationist philosophies. Unlike with Citizen Kane, however, time has only faded what initially must have felt special about Casablanca. It might entirely be a question of over-familiarity. The stars of the poster no longer shine as brightly as they did in the 1940s. The film’s iconic dialogue has been echoed, referenced, and parodied to dust. I’ve seen more films about Nazis & World War II than I’ve ever wanted to sit through in my entire life. What’s left, then, is a well-shot, well-acted drama that’s undeniably good, but difficult to contextualize as the best cinema has to offer.

Bogart stars as an American who prides himself in remaining Neutral in all things, especially politics. He’s warned early & often that “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” a truth that becomes increasingly apparent as the nightclub/gambling den he runs in North Africa begins to see a clash of new Nazi faces with his traditionally French clientele. Sometimes this clash is literalized by both sides fervently singing their national anthems over each other’s in proud defiance and drunken bravado. More often, it’s a backroom political game where enemies to the Nazis seek secretive travel to the still-neutral USA while the Nazis attempt to keep them still in Casablanca until it’s their time to be dealt with. Bogart’s leading man finds it impossible to stay out of this conflict once a familiar face from a past Parisian romance, played by Bergman, shows up at his nightclub seeking asylum & safe passage for herself & her political refugee husband. A song that represents their past romantic fling, “As Time Goes By,” repeats endlessly on the soundtrack, both diagetically​ and otherwise, as Bogart stresses over what to do with the only woman who’s ever broken his heart. In the meantime, the dialogue is peppered with repetition of the film’s own greatest hits of line deliveries: “Play it again, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine . . .” etc. The ending of Casablanca, set at an airport, is just as much part of the public consciousness​ as any one of those lines, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself if, like me, you’ve somehow avoided seeing the film until now. I will say, though, that it will not likely have the impact on those uninitiated now the same way it did in 1942, which is actually fairly indicative on how the movie plays in the 2010s as a whole.

I have a strange relationship with Casablanca’s formal aspects, especially its pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate its brevity in keeping its runtime at only 100min, where I feel like most Big! Important! movies from the studio era are about twice that length, complete with overture & intermission. The movie has an absurdly fast-talking, no-nonsense energy to it that makes for a very easy watch in a modern context, but I’m not sure it’s a pace that fits the material well. In a lot of ways Casablanca intentionally traps its characters in a transitive state, a sort of real life Limbo. From the French officer who prides himself on being free from Nazi control in his own North African safe haven to the nightclub owner who foolishly believes he can make it through the war without ever choosing sides, no character is leading a life that can last forever. They’re all effectively stuck in a rut, but the movie’s rapid pace does little to match or accentuate their stasis. In particular, the sweeping, drunken montage of Bergman & Bogart’s Parisian tryst has little time to make any impact for me outside the historical revelation that disco balls have existed since at least the 40s. The performances in the film are top notch and the cinematograpy & attention to lighting match them in pure elegance. Some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen on film in a long while are just the glimmering tears Casablanca captures as they well up in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. I just didn’t feel as much of a personal impact from the film as a complete product despite those images. Some of it might be my boredom with war narratives and my over-familiarity with the film’s greatest hits dialogue. A lot of it has something to do with its breakneck pace that never slows down to allow a moment to truly linger. Casablanca continues to shine as a well-made film, a quality assessment I can easily see in its basic sense of craft. What I’m failing to see as a modern audience is why it remains an important one, which is a huge distinction to make. Maybe my feeble 2010s mind, with its Twitter notifications and Instant Steaming options, was too slow to keep up with its virtues as a cinematic feat, but I was unable to feel the awe for it I might have expected from a film that’s been hyped as The Greatest of All Time for the past seven decades, as unfair as that expectation might be.

Roger Ebert concludes his Great Movies review of Casablanca by saying “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” Maybe I’ll be able to catch up with all of the love that’s been heaped on the film over the decades once I also become overly-familiar with the film on its own terms instead of being overly-familiar with the references it’s inspired elsewhere in pop culture. All I can report for now is that I liked it, but I was far from in love, even though I feel like I already know every piece that makes up its basic structure.  It’ll be a while before I ask Sam to play it again, but I’m not opposed to the idea.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Third Man (1949)

-Brandon Ledet

Phoenix (2015)

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I’ve been putting off watching Phoenix, despite it appearing on many Best of 2015 lists, due to the grim nature of its pedigree as a Holocaust survivor’s tale. Its recent appearance on Netflix’s streaming service made watching the film too convenient to avoid, though, so I finally bit the bullet. It turns out my apprehension was far from unfounded. Phoenix is a rather grim slowburner about an Auschwitz survivor trying to piece her life back together in a post-war Germany. It’s a frustrating film & not a fun watch by any means, but it is most certainly worth the emotional effort. By telling a very specific, limited-scope story about a handful of people trying to recreate a way of life that’s been lost forever, Phoenix captures an aspect of war’s toll that a lot of films often overlook. Instead of portraying the heroes & villains who fight it out on the battlefield, it’s much more concerned with the men & women who are left to sift through the rubble, both literal & metaphorical.

Despite loved ones’ insistence that she move to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state, a Holocaust survivor moves back to Germany to find her husband. Left horrifically scarred by concentration camp atrocities (and initially wearing a bandage that recalls the women of Goodnight Mommy & Eyes Without a Face), she undergoes plastic surgery that normalizes, but forever alters her appearance. She looks similar, but not quite identical, to her pre-war self, just as the state of her homeland has been forever transformed. With her entire family dead or missing, she tries to re-establish her relationship with a husband who treats her like a total stranger due to her change in appearance. Instead of telling him outright who she is, she allows him to slowly get the picture, perhaps in a bid to prove to herself that her pre-war self still exists in some way, that her identity didn’t perish forever in Auschwitz. The problem is that her husband has also been forever altered by the war & the romance she’s trying to recapture is no different from the bombed-out buildings & ripped to shreds Germany that serve as haunting reminders of their past.

Again, Phoenix is far from light entertainment. My own Best of 2015 list doesn’t include anything too comparable to the film in terms of emotional severity (except maybe The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Felt), but that’s more an indication of my personal inclination for over-the-top absurdity than it is of Phoenix’s quality. This is a really tight, surprisingly understated drama with one of the most satisfying final scenes in recent memory. Its use of the song “Speak Low”, which includes the haunting lyrics “Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon,” is especially commendable, as it’s incorporated several times throughout the film with great tonal & narrative consequence. If you’re looking for a solid, grim drama with an emotionally tender gut punch at its conclusion, this film is highly recommendable. It’s not the kind of experience I put myself through often, but I’m glad I put in the effort here.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Bulletproof Monk (2003)

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There’s a delicate balance at work in Bulletproof Monk (which easily could also have been titled Tibetan Punk! or Monks & Punks) that a lot of lesser films fail to achieve. Judging solely by the basic monks & punks premise and the cheesy early 00s imagery, it’s by all means a bad movie. At the same time, however, it resists nearly all negative criticism by being such a delightfully goofy bad movie that’s very much self-aware in its vapid silliness. In a lot of ways the film sells itself as a action-comedy cash-in on the cultural & financial success of martial arts choreography-fests The Matrix & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also has its own charms as a unique intellectual property, which are mostly dependent on the natural charisma of its costars Yun-Fat Chow (as the monk) and Seann William Scott (as the punk, naturally).

The story begins in a Tibetan monastery where an elderly monk plays right into the classic one-day-from-retirement trope and is brutally murdered in a hailstorm of bullets. What kind of a bastard would murder a kind, old monk, you ask? Why, a Nazi bastard, of course. In addition to the film’s already preposterous buddy dynamic of a Tibetan punk and a New York City punk, Bulletproof Monk also makes room for aging, power-hungry Nazis, a shirtless British rapper named Mr. Funktastic, and the red-hot daughter of a Russian crime lord. It’s a quite silly hodgepodge of mismatched characters, but they have more in common than you’d expect. For instance, both aging Nazis & shirtless British rappers enjoy hanging out in underground smokeshow lairs that split the aesthetic difference between steampunk & Hot Topic. Also, New York City pickpockets who inexplicable live in millionaires’ apartments above adorable single screen cinemas and pious Tibetan monks both share a deep passion for Crouching Tiger-type martial arts & Matrix-era bullet time, which the former learned from the movie theater and the latter from his lifetime dedication to protecting an ancient scroll that’s incredibly important for some reason or another.

The critical consensus at the time of Bulletproof Monk’s release was that it was a disappointing comedy saved from being a total wash solely by the virtues of Chow Yun-Fat’s martial arts skills. I’m not sure if its campy charms have just improved with time or if I’m just more able than most to excuse a movie’s faults sheerly for the purity of its goofy attitude, but it’s hard for me to fault a movie that features Chow Yun-Fat performing gymnastics on a mid-flight helicopter’s landing gear or the line “Lucky for you this crumpet’s come begging for some of my funktastic love.” Seann William Scott is also surprisingly convincing as a no-good punk with a heart of gold and there are some genuinely striking images of him learning/practicing kung fu in front of a movie screen. Bulletproof Monk may have been a disappointing development for Chow Yun-Fat’s fans after the heights of his John Woo collaborations & career-defining performance in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, but for a fan of goofy buddy comedies, bizarre cultural relics, and Nazi war criminals getting their due, it’s quite a treat & surprisingly just as impervious to criticism as it is to bullets.

-Brandon Ledet

Mother Night (1996)

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threehalfstar

Mother Night is an outstanding novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., arguably his best work outside the holy trinity of his titles that get the most attention: Slaughter House Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. Mother Night is surprisingly just as great (if not better) than any of those books, but what makes it even more surprising is that was remarkably adaptable for film. In addition to hitting my costume drama sweet spot (a low bar to clear, for sure) 1996’s Mother Night was also the best Vonnegut adaptation I’ve ever seen (another low bar, since I’ve only seen the not-very-good Breakfast of Champions). It obviously doesn’t touch anything near the greatness of Vonnegut’s novel (how could it?), but it was effective as a summary of the film’s best touchstones with some inspired casting choices helping bring his words to life.

Playing a role that would likely be filled by Bruce Dern if it were released in 2015 and not 1996, Nick Nolte is damn good in the film’s central role as Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American playwright turned Nazi propagandist during World War II. In some ways Vonnegut does for the Nazi scumbag what Nabokov did for a pedophile in Lolita: he makes Campbell a complicated, richly human character that is at times sympathetic and at other times beyond contemptible, even to himself. Especially to himself. Campbell is a Nazi propagandist who says gut-wrenchingly evil things about Jews as a people in his radio broadcasts, but he’s also an American spy who transmits sensitive information about the war in those very same broadcasts. Nolte carries the gruff, broken spirit of Campbell well, selling the alternating self-hatred and self-aggrandizing of his inner conflict exactly as I imagined it while reading the novel.

Vonnegut’s plot allows a lot of room for consideration in the ways morality during war is a lot more questionable than the typical good vs. evil narrative that’s usually depicted. For Campbell that means that the coded spy language that’s infused into his hateful Nazi broadcasts makes his sin & his virtue inseparable. As his German father-in-law puts it, it does not matter whether he is a spy or not, because the hate in his propaganda is so effective that there is no way he could have served the enemy (America) as well as he served his adopted country (Germany). Campbell tries to remain impartial to the Nazi/American divide, saying that he only feels allegiance to his marriage (“a nation of two”) but the impossibility of that lie is a lesson he learns too late. It’s a moral he summarizes as “You must be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end you are what you pretend to be.”

Mother Night is not only commendable in its competence at capturing Vonnegut’s tricky sense of humor on film; it’s especially praiseworthy because the task in this particular case is made even trickier by the story’s habit of culling amusement out of the horrors of Nazism. It’s partly successful because of its willingness to let the hateful things Campbell says ruminate, like in a scene where a filmed version of one of his broadcasts is projected onto his horrified face as he truly listens to his own words for the first time. Although Campbell is occasionally sympathetic, the movie rarely lets him (or the audience) forget that he is a monster. Besides Nolte’s excellent turn as the central propagandist, there are plenty of other performances to praise here: Alan Arkin’s role as his best friend; Sheryl “Laura Palmer” Lee as his German wife; a perfectly cast John Goodman as the American agent that recruits him as a spy; and Kirsten Dunst as an adorable, pint-sized Nazi moppet, among others. There are some really dark touches to the film’s humor, like when Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” plays over images of a concentration camp or when Campbell makes sensual love to his wife while one of Hitler’s impassioned speeches blares on the bedside radio. These touches all feel oddly subversive, as the whole film has a decidedly old-fashioned feel to it, like black comedy version of The Rocketeer. As a film, it’s more than just a rushed, abridged version of a great novel; it’s also a handsome, well-acted historical drama that finds a peculiar line of humor in narcissism, self-hatred, and genocide.

-Brandon Ledet