Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Silence and Admission

               The Squeaky Wheels of Justice Sometimes Grind to a Halt

                                    Reviews by Ken Burke

This week’s posting is another one of those situations where there’s no reasonable connection between the two cinematic experiences being reviewed so I’ll proceed in singular fashion, beginning with the more compelling one, then shifting to the less-impactful offering.

       
                                                                              The Silence
              
        
This German film about a perverted killer of adolescent girls and the attempts by the police to identify him is harrowing to watch but worth the emotional investment.
           
First off, for any true cinephiles among you this first film reminds us of the reality that you can’t copyright a title so just because this film is made in northern Europe (shot in Germany, with German dialogue, directed and screenplay-written by Swiss-born Baran bo Odar) and leaves you a dark, empty feeling inside, those descriptive coincidences should not lead you to confuse this relatively current offering (made and released in Germany in 2010 but just now getting to us—with accompanying confusion from those who are trying to review it:  a local San Francisco critic wrote that the director is Swedish, so I guess he got caught up in my soon-to-be-noted references to Ingmar Bergman, while comments from the notable Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times carries a photo with the wrong actor identified, so that even talking about this film is providing to be a challenge) with the well-respected Bergman film of the same name presented to us back in 1963*.  The stories of these two same-named films have nothing to do with each other, although you could ruin a perfectly good mood—ironically, by seeing a perfectly good film—after watching either one of them.  In this contemporary rendering of a story named The Silence we have all of the normal trappings of a murder mystery, except there’s no mystery because we see the crime committed in the early minutes of the presentation and know precisely who the perpetrators are (one, Peer Sommer [Ulrich Thomsen, on the left in this photo], because he commits the rape and murder of 11 year-old Pia [Helene Luise Doppler], although with the horrible deeds shown as discretely as could be done under such circumstances, because this film is about inner turmoil more so than graphic crimes, and the other, Timo Friedrich [Wotan Wilke Möhring], because he just stood there and watched the whole assault but was helpless to do anything to prevent it; in fact at some level it may have excited him).  It takes some flashbacks later in the presentation to flesh out (so to speak) the relationship between these two guys, because all we see at the beginning of the film is a slow zoom toward Peer’s apartment door, a closeup of a film reel running out (well, that could get us back to Bergman again, with one of the last haunting images of his 1966 masterpiece, Persona), our two guys (unknown to us in motivation at this point) getting into a car, followed by a great overhead traveling shot as they drive through a wooded area.  It all comes into focus (again, so to speak—sorry about the puns, but this is a very serious story told in an uncompromising manner so there’s little attempt or reason to lighten the mood as you’re experiencing the film or contemplating it in retrospect; therefore, I need an occasional break just to keep from getting too morbid in trying to explore this powerful, unnerving film) when we see another shot of an adolescent girl riding her bike down this same highway but then turning off on a country road, where she travels on with tall wheat on both sides of her pathway.

Just as soon as Peer and Timo’s car suddenly backs into the frame of the shot of the girl’s country lane we know what to expect, which is sadly delivered to us in subdued but still obvious detail—Odar also somewhat softens the entire gut-wrenching experience of this film with a constant flow of well-composed, meditative visuals, both to partially minimize the overt and implied atrocities that dominate this story and to remind us that horror and beauty exist side-by-side in our world, so that even the image of a brutalized human body can have an aspect of aesthetic interest, as long as we can distance ourselves from the involved events (which we as viewers of this film may be able to do, while the parents of the children who view those same bodies in the story will never see anything but the brutality of the act that led to the grotesque results).  We learn later that Peer and Timo are kindred perverted spirits, that they were watching a porno film of a guy in a wolf mask having sex with a nude teenage girl (again, we don’t see much, just the opening setup of the two of them sitting on the side of a bed), and that they may be desperately trying to control their unholy urges but the desire for a random conquest is apparently too much for Peer, the alpha of the pair.  He’s obviously a confused mess of a man as he simultaneously apologizes to Pia for the rape but turns brutal as she tries to escape his clutches, then shows regret again after he kills her in desperation.  This crazed man is obviously wrestling with his inner demons, but this realization grants him no sympathy in our eyes and obviously disturbs Timo as well, who quickly leaves the city the next day, to later change his name, marry a woman who has no idea of his former involvement in this media-circus crime, and fathers his own children who have no sense of their parent’s hidden sins.

(*If you like, you can watch Bergman’s The Silence, with its mysteriously disturbing story of two women and a young boy in transit [as is usual with Bergman, a psychological challenge to your attempted tranquility, rather than the overt physical attacks on innocent victims as in this new film, also called The Silence], in its entirety at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEKQCC8OQTc, with the only problem for English-only speakers such as me being that the Swedish dialogue is subtitled in a language I can only speculate is Arabic, with apologies if I have misinterpreted the script of these words; the good thing about this situation if you can’t read the subtitles is that this isn’t a dialogue-heavy film so that you could likely get a lot of the impact simply by watching it for the visual interactions which essentially play out for most of the flow like a very sophisticated silent film, if you want to invest an hour and a half trying that out.  I explored several other sites that offered Bergman’s The Silence for free, seemingly with English subtitles, but all of them required me to download some version of a video player for Windows, which does me no good on my Mac.  If you’d like to give this a try, then just Google search “The Silence movie 1963” and have at it because you’ll find about half a dozen sites that all seem legitimate and may work very well for you.  Or maybe you’d prefer just reading about this earlier film also called The Silence, which you can do with this exploration-in-depth by Bergman master-analyst Roger Ebert, which can be found at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081210/REVIEWS08/812109985/1023]; sadly enough, I also have to note an R.I.P. for Ebert, as news of his death came in even as I was writing this review.  Goodbye, Roger; you belong in the film critics’ pantheon along with Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, where you can debate Citizen Kane vs. Vertigo as truly the best film ever made while we mortals are left with avoiding as best we can the latest version of such "triumphs" as Evil Dead [Fede Alvarez], opening this weekend.)

For the rest of Odar’s The Silence we focus on anger, fear, and frustration, in some cases stemming from the unresolved situation of Pia’s murder (her body is found in a lake, where it was thrown by Peer) for the characters of her mother, Elena Lange (Katrin Saß), who has not yet been able to accept the horrid death of her daughter, and the retiring police detective, Krischan Mittich (Burghart Klaußner), who feels that his career is left unresolved by his inability to find even a reasonable clue as to who could have committed the awful deed against Pia, while in others the hostile feelings flow from the fresh grief of a younger detective, David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg), who has recently lost his wife to cancer (and at one point has a surreal dream about the unknown killer of the girls, which he awakes from so that we see him in one of his wife’s dresses, another small aspect of a film that keeps coming at you with unimpeded aspects of trauma that aren’t focused on or explained, we just understand that all of these characters are in misery in some manner, just as we all are), the torment of a couple whose rebellious 13 year-old daughter has disappeared on that same country path on the same day (July 8) as Pia’s murder (only 23 years later, as we jump forward from the opening scenes in 1986), and the all-consuming guilt for Timo when this new tragedy occurs because it forces him to confront the horrible reality that Peer likely is on the prowl again.  In the photo above, we see David (on the left) at a point when he’s briefly not fuming over the loss of his spouse along with new boss Matthias Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski), who’s in charge of the disappearance of young teen Sinikka (Anna Lena Kienke) but equally furious that retired Krischan is still probing into the case, trying to prove a connection between the two crimes (especially after the realization that a similar situation occurred in 1982).  To top it all off, we also have the parents of disappeared Sinikka in a state of panic, with the wife eventually turning on her husband for letting their daughter wander away with friends that night on her bike rather than resolving the family spat that led to her storming off to get some distance from her parents.  As if we didn’t have enough clusters of characters competing for our attention (unstable David and his fellow officers, who are finally beginning to get some clues as to who might have murdered Pia all those years ago; unrelenting retired detective Krischan, who falls into a brief affair with Pia’s mother, Elena; the increasingly-estranged parents of Sinikka; the clearly disturbed Timo attempting to hide from his family the concern he has that Peer has surfaced again, bringing back all of his repressed guilt for hiding what he’s known for all those intervening years), we also get a reunion of sorts when Timo tracks down Peer, to find him still in the same apartment and still proud of his pedophile proclivity, as he easily denies any involvement with Sinikka’s disappearance just as he clearly hopes to rekindle the interest in child porno with a kindred soul in Timo, even giving him a DVD copy of the film they were watching years ago that inspired the attack on Pia (sadly, Timo finds himself watching it later, even as he rejects Peer’s hopes of renewing their friendship, yet he can’t find the strength to confess to the police what he knows and suspects of the terrible murders of the girls).

Ultimately, then, the film’s focus is on Timo, as he struggles to distance himself from the grotesque past that he has been a part of (and is so close to falling into once again unless he can maintain his decades-old resolve), fully live the life of the loving family man that his wife and children have understood him to be, yet resolve the guilt that haunts him about Peer’s crimes by setting things right with the law, even though he’s not ready to compromise his own life by telling the awful things that he knows.  In an ironic twist, Timo becomes linked to Pia’s murder by his miniscule residue on her headphones which he was handling when Peer told him to throw them into the tall wheat so all evidence now points to him as the murderer of both girls, even though he was just a horrified witness in 1986 and the cruel murder of Sinikka was just a ruse by Peer to get Timo to contact him again so that she was nothing but collateral damage in a sick scheme to reconnect an old perverted friendship (we just have to assume that Peer counted on finding a young teenager biking along this countryside path on this particular day, a somewhat dubious plot premise, just as we have to wonder why there was no linkage of either Peer or Timo to Pia back in 1986 as both her bicycle and headphones were handled by them, but I suppose we just have to either assume that they were not in any police data base at that point—but why are Timo's prints identifiable many years later?—or that we must ignore this inconvenient plot point).  As an exercise in nagging guilt, Odar’s film gives us a taste of the prolonged inner torment felt by murderer Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famed novel, Crime and Punishment (published in 1866) put into a different context.  Ultimately, the guilt overcomes Timo, who drives his car into a lake, committing suicide even as the police dragnet is closing in on him, which seems to leave the case solved, especially in stubborn Chief Detective Grimmer‘s opinion as he looks for closure for this sordid mess, even as subordinate detective David becomes frantically convinced that the killer was actually someone else.  For us as the audience, we’re all too aware of the terrible reality that justice has not been served very well at all here, that 3 young women are dead for no better reasons than the blind passions of an unstable killer who may well strike again (even as the assumed suspect lies dead as the result of his own inability to live with his silence), while our auxiliary characters find little solace as well with the brief affair between Elena and Krischan suddenly stopped at her insistence, David tormented that the crimes are not solved because his adamant bureaucratic boss has no intention of reopening these cases, and Sinikka’s parents in a state of reconciliation but with the likelihood of a lifetime of regret about their daughter's brutal demise as we’ve seen with Pia’s mother.

All in all, The Silence is a sad film to watch but one that mixes social horror (as we witness the ease with which these girls are dispatched), sadness toward the inability of a legal system to find resolution to difficult situations which defy desired conclusion, and a sense of despondency that unexplained actions that cannot be overcome by logic and hope can lead to heinous criminals remaining free to walk the streets while circumstantial evidence condemns others who may have their own penalties to pay but are being punished at a level not appropriate to their own actions.  Neither this presentation of a concept of what can legitimately be called The Silence nor a completely different but equally haunting (if not more so) one directed 50 years ago by Ingmar Bergman will cheer you up in any manner, but if your will is strong enough to confront life’s subtly overwhelming miseries, then either film by this title will be a worthwhile experience for you (but in my opinionated ratings system, Bergman’s Silence gets 5 stars so I’d say make an effort to track it down in video or download for sure but don’t let this more current narrative using the same title elude you either:  they’re both winners as cinematic presentations, even in the very disturbing sense of what that word represents in this troubled context).  Lately, I’ve been working song links into these reviews, sometimes for their relevant implications, sometimes just for the fun of it; there’s no fun to be had with this sadly gripping film, but just for the connection of serious, thoughtful content I will offer one reasonably-related tune with this version of Simon and Garfunkel singing their foundational hit, “The Sound of Silence” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7-UbrNFeKo (live at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1966).  Or maybe instead of any musical break we should just take a moment of silence to remember all of the Pias and Sinikkas whose lives have been undone by sex-crazed men (even if brought on by mental illness—toward the end of The Silence we see Peer again, saddened by the news of Timo’s death, just as he ultimately was by Pia’s, but just because he’s not heartless doesn’t make him any less dangerous) such as Peer and their enablers as embodied by Timo.  May anyone victimized by sexual assault rest in peace in some manner, with hopes that a more effective form of justice, slow squeaky wheels and all, will eventually roll over the assailants, allowing such atrocious crimes to somehow, someday be brought under control in some better world than what we currently inhabit.

        
                                                                                 Admission
       
      
Princeton admissions officer Tina Fey confronts a quandary when a boy she thinks is her long-lost son applies, even though his academic record is weak, as is this movie.

I doubt that director Paul Weitz had anything to do with the situation when I saw his movie, Admission, of there being a trailer for the new Pixar prequel, Monsters University, screening just before this new Tina Fey-Paul Rudd romantic comedy, but it sure made a nice pairing, with the trailer being a marvelous parody of a college recruitment video (which I ‘ve seen plenty of and even contributed a bit to in my real career within institutions of higher learning).  Unfortunately, I came away from the total experience a lot more interested in seeing animated Mike and Scully again in their younger days than I did with what I got from this convoluted story about admission to Princeton, wayward parenthood, and familial vs. professional obligations.  Given how easy it is for audiences to flock to anything that Tina Fey is involved in (with good reason:  she’s a terrific comedy writer, a very effective actress, and owns a great on-screen presence that’s a pleasure to watch), I’m sure you’re already aware of this latest venture of hers now that her comedy series on NBC, 30 Rock, has wrapped up Fey’s parody of her own experiences on Saturday Night Live.  So, we find her in another media vehicle, just before our memory of her might be getting stale, paired with the lovable Paul Rudd as her potential movie mate in a story that brings in other familiar faces (Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Rueben) and a pleasant enough premise about a college admissions officer whose busy but relatively stable life is thrown askew when her jerk English professor boyfriend dumps her (for a cold-hearted gremlin—actually, a Virginia Woolf scholar from Cambridge, but that may be the same thing anyway in the insular fortresses of academia—which just makes him look even worse, but the situation still contributes to the trauma of our put-upon heroine, who is functioning for much of the movie at the level that this secondary-character title implies, even though she’s really intended as the lead protagonist) just as she discovers that the latent-genius teenage applicant from the alternative New Quest School in the New Hampshire woods (where Rudd’s John Pressman seems to be the only teacher of any significance) may be the son that she gave up for adoption years before, thereby creating a dilemma because his academic record hardly justifies a top-notch university such as Princeton, yet he does show amazing aptitude in his Advanced Placement tests (for which he never bothered to take the supporting courses because he just absorbs so much of what he reads on his own initiative) and his high APT scores.  The implication is that, despite his intellectual gifts, he’ll never make it past the rigorous gatekeeping of this superior university (no exaggeration there; Princeton is a lofty institution with commendably high standards, taking in only about 1,000 of its 26,000 applicants each year, a fact that I’m sure was verified with the school as they gave their permission to be so directly presented in this silly movie) so it will fall to his possible-mom to use her insider influence to secure one of the coveted entry spots for freethinking maybe-son Jeremiah (Nat Wolff).

Admission is not a collection of major entertainment flaws (its premise about the cutthroat realities of prestigious, selective-enrollment schools has been verified by actual admissions officers, although they find that Fey’s Portia Nathan ultimately crosses ethical lines that they find very objectionable, as you can read about more if you wish at http://www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/campus_inq/ Bryn-Mawr-College-admissions-officers-weigh-in-on-Tina-Fey-movie.html, where admissions workers at Bryn Mawr College, a prestigious place in its own right, offer their comments and critiques on this cinematic story), and there’s a quiet chemistry between Fey and Rudd’s characters, but the whole thing comes across as very contrived, the laughs are mild (and readily available in the trailer inclusions so that you can watch that [see below for the first Admission YouTube link] and get most of what matters in this story without paying for it, even if the events are a bit rearranged in the short preview clips), and the conflicts involved may seem a bit too 1%-ish for the average moviegoer who would have little hope of acceptance to a place like Princeton where the competition reaches ridiculous heights as children of the privileged few and over-eager over-achievers from all walks of life try to sway the entry guardians with their high-impact resumes that imply these future societal captains haven’t had a minute of pleasurable downtime since they were 2 years old.  Still, this is **Tina Fey**fer gawdsakes—so we want her to get what she wants, which is a ticket to social success for the oddball kid that she’s suddenly developed a maternal interest for.  Along the way we learn that things weren’t so great with Portia's own upbringing, because her Über-Earth-Mother Susannah (who forces her pet dogs to forage for their food because it’s more natural than providing them with a bowlful of kibble and bits) got pregnant during a public-transportation whim and cared not about contact with the father again, nor with her job where ambitious coworker Corinne (Reuben) wants to leap over Portia to snag the Dean of Admissions’ position when current honcho Clarence (Shawn) retires.  Thus, Portia works herself to near-death trying to keep up appearances, even as she’s exploring strategies to enhance Jeremiah’s application and trying to fend off not-so-subtle advances from John, who’s the one responsible for the background research that seems to link Portia to Jeremiah.

            You may not care for my revelations here (nor BlogSpot's sudden decision to change the spacing format in these last two paragraphs, no matter what I do to try to correct it; rock on, Master Google!), so take this Spoiler Alert for what it’s worth—although I’m trying to save you the trouble of seeking Admission unless you just want to spend some screen time with its well-known stars—and look away for the rest of this paragraph.  (It’s hideous!  No, wait … wrong warning.  Sorry.  Carry on.)  However, if you don’t mind getting the big revelations taken care of—which would have been tipped off if you read that Bryn Mawr story anyway—Portia is unsuccessful in convincing the rest of the Admissions Committee to take a chance on Jeremiah so she resorts to the unethical ploy of switching acceptance labels on his folder with one from another applicant (whom she learns has decided against coming to Princeton anyway).  Her switch is discovered, which leads to her termination, but not before the acceptance announcements have been made so that angry director Clarence has no choice but to go along with the stealth maneuver in order to prevent a scandal if the truth were revealed.  Another truth comes shortly after when Jeremiah reveals to Portia that he’s already located his actual birth mother, so that John’s detective work proves ineffective, Jeremiah is steamed because he thinks the only reason Portia championed him was based on their assumed blood relation, and she seems to be left with nothing but a disastrous mess.  Of course, because this is a romantic comedy all finally ends well, with forgiveness from Jeremiah to Portia, forgiveness from Portia to John, a new but much more low-key job opportunity for Portia so that she can stay in John’s neck of the woods (literally, in this case) in order to settle down with him and his young adopted African son, a decision he accepts as well rather than continuing his globe-trotting but unsettled ways, which had been taking a toll on little Nelson (Travaris Spears).  There are pleasant moments in Admission and some nice jabs at the preening among the privileged to gain entrance to the proper channels of future national command (which have included Yale for former President George W. Bush and Columbia, then Harvard Law School, for current President Barack Obama, so this is no paid promotion for Ivy League universities; they do loom large in the future careers of the powerful in this society—and it is tough to get in these places [if your father’s not someone like George H.W. Bush] so the depicted competition is sadly based on fact), but overall Admission is too dependent on a contrived situation (that could have been sorted out long before it was, although that problem is a constant one for a wealth of fictional narratives, where necessary complication is what drives the story), disturbingly supportive of a highly unethical decision on Portia’s part, and a very obvious romantic comedy in structure but not so obvious—nor successful in coupling chemistry—in the combination of the leading cast members to ultimately be so attracted to each other.

            At least one little bit of semi-reality pokes through at the end when Portia and John do manage to locate her true son but he’s not ready to meet with her—at least not yet; I can attest to the real disappointment that comes in such a situation because I’m adopted and finally, years ago, made second-hand contact with my birth mother but she wasn’t ready to make the connection either, although it was a permanent “No” in my case which has led to a less “OK” response by me than the generally easy acceptance by Portia, one which I understand was needed to keep the overall happy ending on an upbeat note for this essentially cuddly movie but one that I don’t find very convincing, nevertheless.  You could do a lot worse for a 2-hour investment of your time in a movie theatre than Admission, but you could do a lot better as well, even if you’re not looking for something as somber as The Silence; if that’s your situation I’d say see The Call (Brad Anderson; review in this blog in the March 22, 2013 posting) for an effective dramatic thriller or, if you haven’t gotten to it yet, Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell; yes, it’s still out there, #13 at the domestic box-office last weekend even after 20 weeks of release, with a review here in our unintentionally-time-shifted Dec. 28, 2012 posting) for a different take on romantic comedy with a lot more substance than what I found in Admission, although the ultimate choice, as always, is yours.  And, of course, Admission does have TINA FEY!!! so how could you resist?  Just don’t expect her to help you when you suddenly decide to apply to Princeton (and if you don’t get in there you might try Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas [in the great wilderness of the Big Bend country and the Rio Grande river] where my Dad went for about a week almost a century ago; I’m sure the Lobos would be appreciative to have you out there in the football stadium cheering them on—especially if they can ever arrange a game with the Princeton Tigers.  Or as we used to chant at Ball High in Galveston:  “Fight, fight, fight, with Herculean might!”).  So long for now, buckaroos, see you next week.  (Oh, you want one more song?  Well, I couldn’t think of anything that syncs up with the Admission scenario, but how about something about New Jersey to acknowledge [in a less-than-overwhelmed way] high-and-mighty Princeton?  Given all of the “Let’s re-build after Hurricane Sandy” hopes, rather than go to the more obvious catalogue of Springsteen or Bon Jovi I’ll drop way back to 1962 when Chris Christie’s battered state was rockin’ with Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon’s “Palisades Park” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtAvTZhPthc.  Hang on tight when you stop at the top of the Ferris wheel!)


            If you’d like to explore The Silence further here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Seeg9YZSu0c (this contains another one of those offers to watch the full film—this time at MOVIEMANIA.tv, if that tells you anything—should you care to explore that option; if it works it would be well worth your time)




            If you want to know more about whether you have the qualifications for Admission, here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUCXebc-kMU (interview with actor Tina Fey, who admits the to irony that she applied to Princeton years ago but was turned down)





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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.



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