Reviews by Ken Burke
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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A Coffee in Berlin
A young German man is having an awful time with his life, not helped any by bad decisions on his part and random circumstances from the universe, yet it’s still funny.
OK, the (somewhat) shorter review approach seemed to work well with my postings last week (Edge of Tomorrow [Doug Liman], June 11, 2014; The Fault in Our Stars [Josh Boone], June 12, 2014) so I’ll continue with the inspiration for that premise this week but extend it to several offerings, each done a bit more concisely than I seem to be famous for (within a very exclusive group of fabulously-important-readers—you know who you are!). I do need to emphasize, though, the Spoiler Alert noted above ☝ is in extra-emphasis this week regarding our first film to be explored as it’s just now opening in my San Francisco area so it may be new to your market as well (very likely, given that it played in just 1 American house last weekend for its debut); please keep that in mind if you’d like to see this German semi-comedy (a work by Jan Ole Gerster, originally called Oh Boy, made in 2012 but just now getting to the U.S. after winning 6 German Film Academy Awards including Outstanding Feature Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay—despite getting mediocre reviews so far from Rotten Tomatoes [76% positive, based on 29 reviews, 22 of which liked it] and Metacritic [63 average, based on 15 reviews], but you might want to check those sources later when more commentary has been accounted for; regardless of their opinions, though, I still highly favor it) before reading any further about A Coffee in Berlin. If not, then here we go headlong into the review which would be how our protagonist, Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), aspires to exist (an admitted “autobiographically-inspired-fiction” from the director/screenwriter) if he could just find the courage or fortitude to do so, trying to push back against the ever-present-obstacles that prevent him from finding stability, acceptance, a satisfying love life, and—seemingly most important—a decent cup of coffee. We begin this day-long-descent into Niko's far-less-than-ideal-life with him breaking up with his girlfriend, Elli (Katharina Schüttler), for no particular reason that we can discern (she’s trying to give him the option of keeping an opening available but it’s clear that he’s drifting away), then moving on to a series of less-than-satisfying-encounters with others in his life that call to mind (mine at least) the aimless post-baccalaureate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967; for me a clear example of what a rare 5-star-film can be)—a character-inspiration that Gerster admits to—and the sad description of a person with no sustained purpose, The Beatles “Nowhere Man” (from the 1965 Rubber Soul album; not my official Musical Metaphor to accompany this film but you might want to listen to it anyway at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=yRv34Cat3Vw, a live 1966 performance in Munich [in keeping with our German theme here; not the greatest mix of the vocals but I’ll take one of their live clips any day just to see John and George in action again]). While any of Niko’s problematical situations would be dispiriting to any one of us as well (a pompous psychologist refuses to reinstate his driver’s license, taken away for DUI convictions; an ATM machine eats his debit card; he’s hassled by subway security for not having a ticket even though another machine wouldn’t issue him one after taking his money; his wealthy father, Walter [Ulrich Noethan], confronts him about dropping out of law school 2 years ago yet continuing to accept his monthly 1,000-Euro-allowance for supposed academic expenses; his lonely neighbor intrudes upon him for solace because the man no longer has sex with his post-operative-breast-cancer-scarred-wife [now she cooks all the time so the husband offers Niko a bowl of her meatballs only to have them later flushed down the toilet), what bothers him most is that he’s desperate for that coffee but none is available (he doesn’t have enough cash for an upscale brew; a commercial machine is broken; he goes to a movie set but finds the craft-table pot empty [only to be replaced by a full one as soon as he walks away]; the machine in a bar has just been cleaned so no bean-caffeine to help him navigate the late-night hours). It’s all symbolic of the unfulfilled desires of Niko but sad nevertheless that this lonely guy living in a barren new apartment where he’s not even unpacked his boxes yet can’t even find one simple form of relief in his never-ending-spiral of misfortune.
Even when some brightness seems to penetrate his constant clouds—Julika Hoffman (Friederkie Kempter, whose character is no relation to Dustin [just in case you thought I’d found brilliantly-hidden-connections here]), a young woman who had a crush on Niko when they were in school together but was nothing but “Roly Poly Julie” to him and his likewise-taunting-chums, comes across him in a café with his blustering friend, Matze (Marc Hosemann), states forgiveness for the years-ago-ridicule when she was obese, and seems to still be interested in Niko, enough so to invite them to a performance art piece put on by a troupe of avant-gardists she works with—things go weird and hostile as Julika proves to be an outspoken aggressor to some smart-mouthed-guys that she and Niko encounter on the city’s streets after her show, then she offers her affection to Niko when he clumsily stands up for her to the drunken guys, later encouraging him toward sex but suddenly rudely rejects him when he’s uncomfortable with her demand that they copulate while he’s saying “I want to fuck the fat little girl!” (Of course it didn’t help much that the after-show-party had already become a debacle when the troupe director laid into Matze and Niko, first for being considerably late to the show—Matze needed to first see a dealer friend of his, leading to an interestingly-warm-but-odd scene as Niko forms a quick bond with this young guy’s grandmother—then for Matze laughing at part of their modern dance, a situation in which the angered director saw no humor despite attempted-genial-protests from big-mouthed Matze). It’s at this point, when Niko essentially has nowhere else to go and little to sustain his unfocused life (where a trip to a supermarket yields only vodka and chewing gum—but then his income is just the few Euros left from the small amount given by his father as a “Don’t-come-asking-for-any-further-help”-farewell-gift), that he wanders into a bar where a drunken old man, Friedrich (Michael Gwisdek), rambles on about the horrors of growing up under Hitler and his self-disgust at being upset with his father and other men for smashing store windows only because he could no longer ride his bike on that street, not because of the atrocities committed upon fellow Germans (Jews, of course, although that additional information is implied rather than stated) at that time. The man’s sililoquy is quite impactful, followed by his collapse upon attempting to leave the bar, then an ambulance ride to a hospital with Niko in tow. Later the next morning, the old man dies leaving Niko maybe a bit more enlightened but even further alone, even as he finally gets that long-sought-after cup of coffee, just before the end credits roll and we're left to ponder the next moves in Niko's out-of-balance-life.
This somber tale, lightened by the silly but sad things that keep happening to Niko, is presented in such a manner that we can all relate to those days (years?) when “nothing, nothing is going right” (you might think that I’d break away to a clip of Carole King or James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend” here, but would violate the spirit of A Coffee in Berlin, because Niko’s only friend seems to be Matze, a self-absorbed, antagonistic actor—the sort who was really good in drama school, then wasted his potential career by waiting too long for the "perfect role" to appear—a guy who really can’t be counted on to “come running to see [Niko] again” to “brighten up even [his] darkest night,” so Niko is likely stuck with “that old north wind [whenever it] begins to blow,” not someone who’ll “soon [be] knocking at [his] door”); we can see our own misery in Niko’s constant problems but are encouraged to laugh at it (maybe embarrassingly so but with empathy as well) in order to not wallow in what it can remind us of in our own related miseries. Accordingly, I’ll finally offer my official Musical Metaphor to accompany my arbitarily-chosen-featured-film this time, an obscure Johnny Cash song, “A Cup of Coffee” (from the 1966 album Everybody Loves a Nut, a song written by Woody Guthrie-Bob Dylan-buddy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, here featured doing some yodeling along with Cash’s increasingly-stumbling-singing as the tale-teller falls victim to the shared bounty of spirits in the cupboard, a kindness that Niko rarely experienced), at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=PzB55qarT5w. However, I’ll admit that this film’s humor is a patina to help hide the ongoing daily failures of its forlorn protagonist so in keeping with the more somber message underneath I’ll also offer an actual short film with no music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ1KHlzKA14, Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?, based on a supposed quote from Albert Camus, even though Niko in our feature film never shows this level of desperation. Now, whether I can convince you to seek out this German-language (with subtitles), black-and-white-grainy-image-study in contemporary existentialism (with echoes of early 1960s French New Wave as well as Woody Allen films that have been inspired by such, including the use of an upbeat-jazzy-soundtrack and some great shots of the city toward the very end that give ... Berlin a strong sense of Manhattan [Allen, 1979]—which allows this film to work a bit better than Fading Gigolo [John Turturro; review in our May 8, 2014 posting] because it evokes rather than reproduces and doesn't have the presence of Allen as a character, reminding us that he's not fully in charge of the way that his friend's homage works out) or not may well depend on how much sympathy you have for Niko based on whatever you’re having to confront/overcome in your own life. But if you’re open to considering this character study of a young man constantly facing dead ends, yet understand it as somewhat amusing and inspirational, I heartily encourage you to look around for A Coffee in Berlin as I think you’ll find it a well-"ground"ed-investment (sorry; I just couldn't resist).
Cold in July
A solid example of the disturbing approach of film noir (although not as cohesive as it might be) where no one is really innocent even as the violent action increases.
While I’m going to stick to my health-and-sanity-saving-intentions of making these overall postings shorter than some of my past Moby-Dick-like-efforts I do at times also want to bring in some comments on more than just 1 featured film of the week so I’ll probably include 1 or 2 other short reviews each time as well, beginning here with a marvelous contemporary version of the film noir attitude that so fascinated French critics in the post-WW II-later-1940s and continues to be revived from time to time today. Cold in July (Jim Mickle) is as noir as they come, although in this case with a notable shift in plot and attitude-emphasis between the first and second segments, seemingly dropping some narrative logic along the way even as the story and acting remain compelling, if not fully coherent. One reason for putting it in as a limited-length-review this time is that with the marginal distribution Cold in July has received (only 42 theaters still playing it last week—and falling fast—after being out for a month, compared to over 3,000 still showing X-Men: Days of Future Past [Bryan Singer; review in our June 6, 2014 posting] after the same amount of time in release, with corresponding $365,000 vs. $206.3 million ticket sales) you’ll likely have a hard time finding it anyway but you might want to make a note of it for later video retrieval. Cold in July could be used (by those of us who accept it as such) as a consideration against being prepared to always use violent force in response to home invasion because when our main man, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), does just this at the beginning of the story (1989, somewhere in east Texas with their damned $1.89-a-gallon-gas) he nervously pulls the trigger on the intruder in his darkened living room one night which then leads to the threat of retaliation against his family by the dead guy’s truly-scary-ex-con-father, Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), discovery that whoever the burglar was he wasn’t Ben’s son which sets up a severe lack of trust in a wide range of law-enforcement-agencies, all of which leads to an assault on the real son’s crime-compound by the oddly-aligned Richard and Ben with an escalating body count and the son's building burning up in the flaming finale. Now see, if that initial hair-trigger-shot (which splattered blood all over the wall, ruined the Danes’ couch, and gave their son, Jordan [Brogan Hall], good reason to wear sound-cancelling-headphones for the rest of his life when he sleeps) had just stayed in Richard’s rifle chamber none of this would have happened, leaving everyone to continue leading their dutifully-dull-lives just as Richard’s starchy wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), would have preferred so as not to disrupt her well-kept-attempts at maintaining the status quo (of course, if she really wanted that, she might not have awakened Richard when she heard the burglar, just letting him go about his low-impact-thievery, but then we wouldn’t have the pleasures of the tensions, plot reversals, gang warfare, and debatable “fear of life” defense [quickly clearing Richard of any wrongdoing] that Cold in July offers). If those filmic elements don’t actually sound like pleasures then you might not want to go hunting for this film after all because in addition to being tense and oddly-motivated at times Cold in July does get cruelly-violent toward the end; however, if all that tweaks your interests you’ll likely feel rewarded for finding this strange, disjointed, but ultimately engrossing tale that tastes a bit like a stew mixed from elements of Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962; remake by Martin Scorsese, 1991), Blood Simple (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1984), and Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986).
But if you’re not intrigued already, I haven’t mentioned yet the best part of this disturbing, unnerving film, Don Johnson’s character, Jim Bob Luke—private detective and pig farmer—who rolls up in a red convertible with steer horns on the front grill and RED BTCH on the license plate, adding a shot of narrative adrenalin that really moves the story along. After Richard secretly observes the local cops—led by sanctimonious-officer Ray Price (Nick Damici, also co-screenwriter along with Mickle, working from a 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale)—attempting to kill Ben by drugging and leaving him on a railroad track with a train approaching until Richard pulls him to safety, he starts trying to understand what’s going on in this crazy situation where the law won’t accept his testimony that the guy he shot doesn’t look at all like the Wanted poster for Freddy Russel (played, in a bit of irony, by actor Wyatt Russell, son of more-famous-screen-presences Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn; you’ll also find Wyatt as college quarterback Zook in 22 Jump Street, reviewed below). After accepting an uneasy truce with Ben, Richard finds out through Jim Bob that Freddy was set to testify for the Feds against the vicious Dixie Mafia so our trusty public servants welcomed the chance to fake the guy’s death through false attribution in order to protect their witness, but then in an attempt by our newly-formed-brotherhood to find Freddy they discover he’s involved in a vicious porno-snuff-film-racket killing prostitutes, so “noble” Dad Ben takes it as his mission to terminate his son, along with ending this grotesque business, bringing along Richard and Jim Bob as additional artillery. However, father and son both expire in the process leaving Richard to return home with 1 ear partially blown off and us to only attempt to imagine how he plans to explain that to uptight Ann. Certainly the film shifts tone and purpose (while retaining its menacing camera angles and low-key lighting) when we get into full-blown-assassination-mode in the latter sequences, disconcertingly so (especially if we’re to accept that the protective-government is simply unaware of or uninterested in Freddy’s homicidal videos which he peddles under the cover of a VHS rental store), just as it’s a traditionally noirish unstabilizing comment on the supposed sanctity of American domestic life that Richard may just be bored enough with his picture-framing-business and picturesque-happy-family to want to actively involve himself in these dangerous escapades that he’s not inherently any part of, once he’s off the hook with Ben for the supposed death of Freddy. There are lots of appropriate Lone Star State details here (Ben just out of Huntsville prison, the boys always drinking Lone Star beer, the constant attitude of macho imperative—although it was all shot in upper New York state, not Texas), a consistent sense of danger and debauchery (on both sides of the law), enhanced by a nice sense of the unexpected, but I’ve got to say that the 2 halves of the plot are just too disjointed for me not to take notice of, hence the restrained 3 ½ stars that put me far behind my highly-supportive-critical-brethren at Rotten Tomatoes but right on par with the Metacritics (details from both in the suggested links far below), so you’ll have to decide for yourself whenever you can find this intriguing-but-obscure-film which way you sway on its merits or faults.
22 Jump Street
Two clumsy cops go undercover again, this time trying to stop a massive drug breakout on college campuses even as their fake-identity lives begin to set their priorities.
This one gets what was intended to be merely a mini-review treatment (but, as is so often the case with me, took on a longer life of its own) because: (A) Unlike Cold in July and (unfortunately) what I anticipate for A Coffee in Berlin concerning low-end-box-office-success, I’m sure that this Jonah Hill-Channing Tatum-vehicle—#1 right out of the gate last weekend with a huge $57 million opening in domestic receipts—is something that you’ve likely already seen and moved on from if you were interested in it, and (B) Even if you haven’t seen it yet, in a way you already have given its conscious-meta-narrative-approach of essentially remaking 21 Jump Street (Chris Miller, Phil Lord, 2012; review in our March 30, 2012 posting) so that it could laugh at itself as an example of an unnecessary-exploitative-sequel yet also make a bundle in the process both because of built-in-audience-appeal of the concept and playing to the younger-demographic-“in-the-know”-cynicism of such meta-ness where people are willing to pay for something just to show how hip they are in being aware of its premises. 22 Jump Street (Lord, Miller) intentionally give us nothing to think carefully about nor strain to remember plot-wise, especially because the plot is so familiar: Drug-busting cops Schmidt (Hill)—the less-athletic-but-smarter-and-more-sensitive-one—and Jenko (Tatum)—the-bulkier-muscled-but-also-somewhat-dense-in-the-cranium-one—screw up a regular drug bust (Schmidt tangles with an octopus on his face, among other problems) so they’re sent back undercover but this time from an address just across Jump Street (because the Koreans bought back their abandoned church at #21 so now the police operate from a former Vietnamese Catholic church, formerly called the Resurrection of the Holy Spectacle); this time they go to college rather than high school (with the possibility that their obviously-older-appearance might be the result of justifiably coming in a bit later in life than usual, although that excuse was never offered so as to not interfere with the admitted absurdity that they look notably older than their supposed ages) with the twist that Jenko is the popular one this time because he easily shines as a football star (while getting off great double-entendre-lines such as “I have no prior convictions” in a mash-up of academic and arrest references or just dumb stuff, mixing up “Cate Blanchett” with “carte blanche”), but Schmidt surprises everyone (including himself) by being welcomed into a sexual affair with art-student Maya (Amber Stevens), who in another surprise is the daughter of Schmidt-and-Jenko-hating-but-still-unit-commander Captain Dickson (Ice Cube); all sorts of chaos ensues before the actual drug distributor is identified, this time as Maya’s roommate, Mercedes (Jillian Bell), daughter of kingpin Ghost (Peter Stormare), the guy that our clumsy protagonists failed to capture in the opening scene, a direct rip-off of another movie for a change, Detective Axel Foley’s (Eddie Murphy) bust-gone-wrong-as-a-truck-smashes-through-the-neighborhood at the head of the first Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984—there’s also a clumsier-repeat-of-a-previous-clumsy-scene-with-lobsters straight out of Annie Hall [Woody Allen, 1977], but I digress—as do they, all of us intentionally).
Then we get to witness a collage (now, is that a college-collage?) of physical mayhem (including a clumsy-punch-out-battle between Schmidt and trash-talking Mercedes before Maya finally takes her down) and a race-to-the-finish-concluding-sequence where both of our never-give-up-cops are dangling from Ghost’s helicopter before Jenko retrieves a hand grenade from Schmidt’s shorts—after the expected “wrong-item-grab”-gag has been milked (so to speak) a few times—which blows up the escaping bad guys just as our heroes drop into the ocean at a Mexican Spring Break resort where the WHYPHY (cute, huh?) drug was intended to be loaded up and moved to the States for massive distribution. You couldn’t ask for the whole experience to be any dumber, but that’s all it sets out to be, constantly assaulting its viewers with inane jokes and situations (including occasional silly scenes with Asian-American-identical-twins, the Lucas brothers [Kenny and Keith Yang]) intended to both evoke the original and make wry comments about the absurdity of duplicitous-duplication in the ever-popular-but-merely-financially-motivated-movie-sequel, which 22 Jump Street successfully strives to be, even while constantly laughing at itself.
Upon reflection (a stretch of an action, given the caliber of this craziness), I give this silly sequel a half-star-higher rating than the original because while the plot is intentionally as absurd as possible (including a reprise of the now-penis-less-villain of 21 Jump Street, former high-school-teacher Mr. Walters [Rob Riggle] who gives our guys tips on solving their case while reveling in his new status as the self-proclaimed-bitch of his cell block—although there are also unintended ironies here that might not play so humorously with the references to Tracy Morgan, recently hospitalized because of a horrible traffic accident, and Maya Angelou, recently deceased, but nothing in the script takes issue with either one of them so the mentions largely pass as coincidental but not distracting), the action (motivated or otherwise) is so gloriously wacky in its non-stop-attack on your sensibilities, many of the scenes (likely improvised) are just so delightfully dumb that you can’t help laughing heartily at them, and the fake looks at upcoming sequels run during the final credits (where we get up to at least 43 Jump Street [I may have lost count], involving everything from undercover medical school to beauty school to mariachi school for our inept-but-ultimately-triumphant heroes—along with the merchandising into an animated TV series, a video game, action figures, etc.) provide a belly-laugh-every-10-seconds-experience that outshines almost every other attempt at this type of last-minute-mayhem, short of what those grotesque candid photos reveal in the original version of The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009). I thought that the first goof-fest of 21 Jump Street was pleasantly silly but a little tiresome; this one, though, comes at you like an affection-deprived-yet-clumsy-dog that just won’t quit until you succumb to its goofy charms, no matter how much you try to resist. However, given how the original structure has now been squeezed dry for all it’s worth here (and even though I appreciate the sustained-quality-ensemble of Hill and Tatum, along with the comically-gruff-to-a-marvelous-level of Ice Cube) I can only hope that some enterprising production team finds a new vehicle for these stars to inhabit rather than turn that credits parody into a sad reality (as was the case with The Hangover: Part II and … III [Phillips, 2011 and 2013]) by attempting to jump back to Jump Street again. Just leave well enough alone and go get a new idea please, as long as you remember that Jonah Hill can be charming as well as exasperated (a 21st century-upgrade of George Costanza from TV’s 1990's classic Seinfeld, which really got going about the time that the 21 Jump Street TV series was finishing up) and Channing can be funny as well as hulkily-domineering (a sort of current-day Fabio who consciously constructs an effective parody of himself rather than unintentionally becoming that). Keep the stars; just change constellations.
That’s all for now, but I’ll soon be back with more, including Third Person, a great drama written and directed by Paul Haggis (the first person to write back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners, Million Dollar Baby [Clint Eastwood, 2004] and Crash [2005; Haggis was also director and co-producer, taking the Oscar that year as well for Best Original Screenplay]) and the Four Seasons biography based on the hit play, Jersey Boys (also directed by Eastwood).
If you’d like to know more about A Coffee in Berlin here are some suggested links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppc71BuLp5w (1:47 clip from the film, the scene where Niko reconnects with Julika after years of separation)
If you’d like to know more about Cold in July here are some suggested links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CefujcVPTwk (3:12, director Jim Mickle explains a tense scene from the film where the Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard characters first meet)
If you’d like to know more about 22 Jump Street here are some suggested links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP755JkDxyM (trailer with the same R-rated language used in the movie—and lots of it; if you’d prefer one with more family-friendly-dialogue—lenient families that is—here’s one at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9S_dYuq0vE)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poZ3LABnQRs (6:47 Moviefone Unscripted chatter where Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill answer random questions from fans)
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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.