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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Bruhl’

There was a time, nearly fifteen years ago, when I basically just got burned out as far as going to the cinema was concerned: catching every significant new release started to feel like a burden, I was acutely aware of the demands I was making on the people close to me in terms of constantly asking for lifts to and from the multiplex, and there were some other changes to the cinemas themselves which made it all seem rather less appealing. So I cut back drastically for the best part of a year, only seeing things I was really interested in. As a result there are some films which I recall seeing the trailers for multiple times, and remembering thinking ‘hmmm, that looks like it has potential’ about, which I never ended up going to see.

Another cutback looms, though for slightly different reasons: I am off to where the films are all dubbed into a foreign language for a couple of months, and long experience has taught me this is never the best way to meet a new movie. Needless to say I will be taking with me (ahem) a large trunk filled with DVDs to while away the quiet moments, and when I asked for suggestions as to what to put in the trunk, one of the suggestions was Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! (even though, given my destination, a film entitled Hello Again Putin! might be slightly more appropriate) – this was one of the films that just missed the cut back in 2004, mainly due to it only getting a very limited release in my area (subtitled films always had a hard time in Lancashire – at one point, if you rang up to book tickets for one, the person on the other end would ask you if you were sure you knew what you were doing).

(Lest you be wondering, yes, it apparently is definitely called Good Bye Lenin!, rather than the Goodbye Lenin! or even Good-bye Lenin! you might expect. Just another sign of a film made by non-native speakers of English, I suppose, along with the fact that the subtitles on the DVD had rather more spelling mistakes than you might expect. What can I say, I’m never off-duty.)

So, anyway, I decided to watch this particular film before my actual foreign trip got started (eight days and counting). Mostly set in 1989 and 1990, it concerns a young man named Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and his family, who as the film opens are resident in East Berlin. Alex’s father apparently abandoned them and fled to the west some years earlier, and as a reaction to this his mother (Katrin Sass) has become a zealous true believer in the communist system. His sister (Maria Simon) is more pragmatic.

Alex himself is no fan of communism and opts to take part in a public protest one night, with two very significant consequences: firstly, he meets a rather nice young Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova) with whom he goes on to have a relationship, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) the sight of him being arrested by the police and bundled into the back of a truck is enough to give his mother a severe heart attack. Poor medical attention results in her being in a coma for eight months, during which time the Wall comes down and the communist government collapses. Alex is warned by the doctors that his mother’s health is fragile and she should be spared any shocks or excitement – which will be tricky, in the circumstances.

So Alex embarks on a systematic programme of benevolent deception, getting rid of all the post-communist things that are cluttering their apartment and doing everything he can to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed in East Germany. Initially this just takes the form of transferring new food into old packaging, but it inevitably becomes more and more elaborate as time goes on. Can Alex keep his mother in the dark, even as the reunification of Germany approaches? And is he really acting for the best in deceiving her like this?

For a long time I was aware of Good Bye Lenin! and eventually came to think of it as ‘the Daniel Bruhl movie’, this being the film that really brought the actor to international attention: he has gone on to make contributions of various sizes to films as diverse as The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush, Captain America: Civil War and Alone in Berlin, to name only a handful. I’ve always found him to be an extremely watchable actor, and that’s the case here, too – he carries the movie with great aplomb, without ever doing anything too flashy or otherwise being caught acting.

That said, Good Bye Lenin! is a very accomplished film in many ways. The advertising for the film perhaps over-emphasises the comic elements of the plot, stressing the absurdist comedy of Alex trying to maintain the illusion of communism’s survival. There are indeed some very funny moments arising from this – at one point, Alex makes a cheery speech to his mother about time going by, but nothing really changing, totally oblivious to the Coca-Cola advert slowly unfurling in the window behind him – and there’s something quite fascinating about the alternate history he is forced to develop to explain all the changes happening in the city (Coca-Cola is finally acknowledged as an invention of socialism, while an economic crisis in the west has flooded the eastern bloc countries with refugees seeking a better life). Much of the humour is very understated and ironic, particularly Alex’s dry voice-over (at one point he explains how he embarked on his first mission to explore western culture, which plays over a scene of him visiting a sex shop in the west).

However, the film is never very far from a more serious moment, as perhaps befits this kind of subject matter. The film is really about the partition of Germany, and the consequences of its reunification, with the division of Alex’s own family and the heartbreak arising from this a metaphor for the divided country. And it’s very hard to escape the impression that the film is, on some level, motivated by nostalgia for some aspects of life in the old East Germany – it seems rather disdainful of the garish consumerism that filled the void left by the collapse of communism, especially famous brands like Coke and Burger King. Towards the end one of Alex’s faked TV broadcasts speaks of the westerners fleeing their materialistic lives, coming to eastern Europe in hope of something better, and you can almost imagine something like that happening.

I suppose you could argue that the film’s not-unsympathetic depiction of life under communism is part and parcel of the story, which hinges upon Alex’s mother and her love for the old system – the film views it with the same rose-tinted spectacles that she does. In the end the film stays ambivalent about the morality of the deception Alex perpetrates, as it does seem to keep his mother happy. Maybe the communist system was based on another deception, but it was not without its own kind of optimism.

In the end this is a thoughtful film, with moments of seriousness as well as humour, clearly made by people who know their cinema (there are a couple of cheerfully brazen raids on Kubrick, for instance). I wonder if perhaps you have to be German to really appreciate the emotional core of the picture, for it certainly feels like a film made in a country still trying to deal with its own recent history, but for everyone else this is still a well-made, entertaining, moving film.

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Does this count as a genuine coincidence or not? About six months ago I was visiting relatives when my cousin (NB to family: I am aware this is a bit of a simplification, stand down), a man of great energy and rigorous thoughtfulness, descended on me and raved about the book he was reading at the time, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. I’d never heard of the novel or the writer, but obviously this was not a recommendation to take lightly. Now here we are with a movie adaptation of the same (until relatively recently) slightly obscure novel enjoying what I will politely describe as a limited release.

The movie is directed by Vincent Perez, and is also called Alone in Berlin – the book has previously been adapted for German audiences under the title Everyone Dies Alone, and if that gives you the sense that there may not be a lot of laughs in this one, you are entirely with the programme.

We are currently in the midst of one of those occasional outbreaks of movies about the Second World War, with new ones appearing on a very nearly weekly basis (or so it feels, anyway). Alone in Berlin opens towards the end of the initial Nazi conquest of France, with the death in battle of a young German soldier. In most movies this would not be cause for concern, but this is not your typical film taking place in this particular setting. German soldiers have parents, too, and the next thing we see is the dead boy’s parents receiving the telegram notifying them of his death.

They are Anna and Otto Quangel (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson); she is a housewife, he a factory foreman, and they live together in a slightly pokey flat in the centre of Berlin. Previously it seems they have been apolitical when it comes to their government, but the death of their son ignites something, first in Otto, then in Anna, and they decide to do something, anything, to resist what they see as the lies of the ruling regime.

This takes the form of writing seditious postcards criticising Hitler and his ideology, which they then leave in public places for others to find and (hopefully) pass on. You might think this sounds pretty small beans when it comes to insurrectionism, and I might be inclined to agree with you, but even this small act of defiance cannot be tolerated by the ruling Nazis, and a police detective is assigned to hunt down the writer of the treasonous missives. The cop on the job is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), who nicknames his quarry ‘the Hobgoblin’ – but while not an educated man, Quangel is no fool, and the cat and mouse game between him and the authorities stretches on for years, with tensions rising on both sides…

In case you are wondering, Fallada’s novel was based on a true story, and was initially published quite shortly after the end of the war. It has been called ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. This is not, in my admittedly very limited experience, an especially large field, but it is certainly a memorable book, although I remember it more for its tone and atmosphere than for any details of plot or writing.

Certainly this is a somewhat free adaptation of the book. Quite apart from the facts that Gleeson is far from the bird-like figure of the novel’s Quangel, and Bruhl is considerably younger than the book’s Escherich, many of the book’s profusion of subplots, dealing with a wide range of characters and situations, have either been heavily cut down or completely excised – the younger Quangel’s fiancee and her involvement with another, more active resistance cell is completely gone, for instance. This may allow the film more focus and make it easier to follow, but it means the film depicts much less of a cross-section of German society and how different people made their accommodations with living under the Nazi regime.

Instead, it is much more about the Quangels. Obviously they are well-played (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, for crying out loud), and the script goes to the trouble of introducing new material in order to give Thompson a bit more to work with. The moral righteousness of Otto Quangel is perfect for an actor of Gleeson’s power and gravitas, of course, and he does produce some memorable moments – but the problem is that the Quangels, apart from at the very beginning of the story, are so wholly, stoically good, that they’re not especially interesting characters. The really interesting character in this version of the story is Escherich, who begins by treating the postcards as just another case, only to realise – rather too late – that the Nazi authorities don’t respect niceties like the rule of law or the independence of the police. The inspector’s own moral journey from somewhat wry, apolitical observer, to a conflicted, guilt-ridden man is where the real dramatic meat of the film lies (and Bruhl is good in the role).

The book obviously has an axe to grind, given the context in which it was written, and I have to say I found it to be somewhat unsubtle and – in its closing stages – awkwardly sentimental. The film avoids this to some extent, but there are no particular insights here, and it skips over, to some extent, the fact that the Quangels’ quarrel with Hitler is not motivated by any particular moral concern but simply because they feel him responsible for getting their son killed. At the heart of the story there is always one very basic question – is there any real value in an act of resistance as, to be blunt, petty and ineffectual as the one carried out by the Quangels? I suppose there is something to be said for standing up to be counted, which qualifies as a moral victory of a sort, but even so. Naturally, Fallada, and also to some extent the film, is in no doubt that the Quangels (and the couple they were based on) are heroes, but I found myself wondering. They are clearly good, decent people, but their goodness takes a curiously muted form. Bereft of the epilogue of the novel, which implies their actions may have had other, wholly unintended positive consequences, you are left to wonder if the whole affair has achieved anything of real merit at all – has it just been an exercise in self-sacrificial futility?

The movie has been impressively assembled and is well-acted and competently directed, but it’s still a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t expose moral truths, it just raises questions which it never quite answers, and it comes perilously close to presenting the fact that the Nazi regime was bad as if this is some kind of important new revelation. Alone in Berlin s a watchable movie, but quite heavy-going, and less profound and moving than it seems to think it is.

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Spring 2016 may well go down in history as the point at which the superhero movie phenomenon became so all-pervading that the heroes themselves ran out of villains to fight and started beating each other up instead. We have already seen DC entering the fray with their Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, while right now Marvel are striking back with the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (there may well end up being a colon shortage as well as a supervillain drought).

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Civil War comes out at an odd time for the Marvel Studios juggernaut: their franchise-of-franchises seems to be as popular as ever, with a huge slate of movies planned over the next few years and even a goofy and obscure character like Ant-Man capable of scoring a significant box-office success – but, having said that, their last lynchpin movie, Age of Ultron, received only a lukewarm response from critics and did rather less well than the first Avengers movie. So the new movie has something to prove, even if it’s only Marvel’s ability to consistently make this kind of huge spectacle genuinely entertaining rather than simply an exercise in storyline management.

Things get underway with Captain America (Chris Evans – the other one) leading the Avengers into action in Lagos, taking down the high-tech mercenary Crossbones. However, in the process there is significant collateral damage and a number of civilian deaths. This only chimes with the somewhat gloomy mood of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who is still struggling to deal with being responsible for the near-extinction of the human race in the last movie he appeared in.

It turns out the UN agrees and proposals are drawn up to place the Avengers under close governmental supervision, unable to go into action without official sanction. Obviously, this sits better with some members of the team than others, and the situation is only exacerbated when the meeting to ratify the new arrangement is bombed, seemingly by the Captain’s childhood friend-turned-cyborg hitman Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Needless to say, Cap can’t stand by and let his old pal be hunted down like a dog, which puts him and his latterday partner Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on collision course not just with Iron Man and his officially-sanctioned team, but the vengeful African superhero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)…

You may already be thinking ‘Wow, for what’s supposedly a Captain America movie, there are a lot of other super-people in this film’. Well, you’re not wrong there: in addition to all of those guys, the rest of the current Avengers line-up – Black Widow, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and War Machine – also make significant contributions, while Hawkeye comes out of retirement too. Paul Rudd steals practically every scene he’s in as Cap recruits Ant-Man for his squad, while the film’s most heavily-trailed innovation is the introduction of Tom Holland as yet another new version of Spider-Man, on Iron Man’s team.

This is, to be fair, somewhat indulgently done, with Marvel clearly doing a lot of the prep work for their first Spidey film, due out next year. Spider-Man’s youth and chattiness are really dialled up to the point where it’s almost slightly ridiculous, but by this point the film is on such a bombastic roll that you either go with it, and most likely have a good time, or don’t.

The Russos pull off the neat trick of making a film which, in its initial stages at least, looks and feels rather like their previous film, 2014’s Winter Soldier, before escalating rather considerably to become something much on the scale of one of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies. If you were one of the people moved to sheer ecstasy by those sequences where the Hulk fought Thor (neither of whom appear here, by the way), or the big green guy took on Iron Man’s Hulkbuster suit, then this movie will be right up your street as it features full-scale superhero action on an unprecedented scale: Hawkeye vs Vision! Ant-Man vs Black Widow! Spider-Man vs Winter Soldier! It all kicks off and then some, and the colossal battle which concludes the second act of the film will take some topping.

It’s not entirely surprising that the actual villain of the piece, Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl), rather vanishes into the background, but then the whole point of the story is that this is a guy who knows he has no chance of taking on the Avengers in a fight. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely convinced that this story actually hangs together all that well – Zemo’s plan seems to be one of those entirely dependent on random events going in his favour, and characters behaving in very particular ways. Isn’t it all just a bit too convoluted and machiavellian to be plausible?

Hey ho. I must confess that while I was watching it, none of this really occurred to me, although even then I found myself wondering just how wide an appeal Civil War is going to have: for the many people who’ve been following the Marvel movies over the last eight years, and are heavily invested in these characters and their relationships, this will likely be an enthralling and impressive movie – but for everyone else, I wonder if it isn’t in the end just a bit too introspective and downbeat for its own good. How are they going to include the kind of massive collateral damage that characterises their movies from now, given that Civil War establishes that innocent people caught in the crossfire do get killed?

Nevertheless, this movie does everything you want from a Marvel release, and very little you don’t want. It works on its own terms as a spectacular action movie, with a serious core but plenty of crowd-pleasing action and humour (Anthony Mackie gets most of the best jokes), and also teases and sets up a couple of future movies in the series – it seems virtually certain that Spider-Man: Homecoming will be a massive money-spinner, and if Black Panther looks like less of a sure-fire hit, I’m intrigued so see what they do with the character. Some people are murmuring to the effect that we are reaching saturation point when it comes to superhero movies, and that people will soon start to lose interest: however, as long as Marvel keep hitting this standard of quality, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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Nearly fourteen years ago, an early episode of The West Wing predicted that one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century would be over the control of information and the right to privacy. It’s hard to argue with the idea that they were on the money, with so many news stories these days concerning clashes between individuals and powerful groups over just this issue. One sometimes gets the impression that the trend in recent decades has been of a rise in the level of personal access to information, matched with an equal decline in actual control over the wider world.

With the topic being so all-pervasive and important to society today, it’s not surprising that people are starting to make films about it. One of these is The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon. I must confess to vaguely recognising Condon’s name but not being able to place it; this is because he perpetrated Breaking Dawn Part 2 last year. Had I actually remembered that, I might have skipped the movie, but this would have been a bit unfair.

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The Fifth Estate is based on true events and is basically a critical biography of Julian Assange, the Australian mathematician-turned-computer hacker and founder of controversial website WikiLeaks. I say critical not because it’s a hatchet job on the man – although Assange himself has dismissed it as ‘a massive propaganda attack’ – but because it seems to me to do a reasonable job of presenting a balanced view.

Assange himself is played by Cumbersome Bandersnatch, in a white wig which makes him look rather like he’s auditioning to play Elric of Melnibone (now there’s a movie I’d pay to see). Having already impressed as a somewhat improbable Mexican Sikh in one of the summer’s blockbusters, doing a slightly peculiar Australian is no great stretch for the actor and his performance is highly impressive.

That said, Assange is such a divisive, complex figure that it’d be hard to make a movie in which he was the central figure. In The Fifth Estate that role is played by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl, who’s having a good year), whose book the movie is in any case based on. We see Assange through Berg’s eyes, as they initially meet and Berg becomes a convert to Assange’s personal crusade to liberate information and destroy corruption and conspiracies.

Their initial success in taking down a major bank gets people’s attention and the film follows their rise to prominence and the increasing hostility they attract from the US government in particular. It culminates with the publication of vast numbers of sensitive US documents detailing the Afghan war, amongst other things, leaked to them by Bradley Manning (I expect there will be a Manning-centric movie along in a year or so).

The dramatic structure all this is stapled to is a fairly well-tested one – that of the main character coming of age and friendship turning to disillusionment. Berg grows increasingly wary of Assange’s manipulativeness, paranoia, fanaticism and refusal to compromise. The film raises the question of whether what started off as a campaign for truth eventually turned into a self-serving cult of personality.

As I say, I’m not an expert on this but the film seemed to me to be broadly sympathetic to Assange as a damaged human being, while still questioning the morality of many of his actions – the story concludes in 2010, so Assange’s later legal problems aren’t really touched upon, nor is his current residency in a remote corner of Ecuador (so remote it’s actually in London). There’s a nicely self-reflexive touch at the end where Bandersnatch-as-Assange appears in a faux interview and roundly condemns the film as being wildly inaccurate.

With a distinctly awkward central character and a plot about a noted website, there’s definitely a touch of The Social Network about The Fifth Estate, but this film is not quite up to that standard. It seems to be channelling the Bourne movies, too, with the action shifting across numerous international locations – not to mention an appearance as a character of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (played here by himself-to-be Peter Capaldi).

And on the whole it does a pretty good job of turning the story of a bunch of computer experts and journalists putting things up on the internet into a fairly gripping tale. As I’ve said, the beats of the Assange-Berg relationship are familiar, but both lead actors are very good. Bruhl, rather as in Rush, is playing the less flamboyantly expressive of the two, and is possibly all the more impressive as a result. There is a strong supporting cast, too: as well as Capaldi (who isn’t really in it that much), David Thewliss, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney all appear.

There is inevitably the problem of how you make people texting each other and typing on laptops into something visually interesting, and Condon opts for the use of funky graphics and metaphorical imagery. This works well enough but I couldn’t quite shake the sense of having seen this sort of thing done more interestingly in other films in the past.

However, in the end this film is about characters and ideas more than technology. It’s not an outstandingly great production, but the lead performances are impressive and it has no major flaws. And I think the questions at the heart of the film are important ones we all do well to consider from time to time. Very watchable, although just a tiny bit worthy.

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In the past I’ve always been a bit wary of sports movies, partly because I’m largely indifferent to sport in general, but also because the nature of the movie industry means that any such film getting a decent UK release is either going to be something parochial and probably done on the cheap, or made with at least one eye on an American audience and therefore about baseball or American football or something else I don’t have the slightest familiarity with.

One of the very few sports I have occasionally followed is Formula One, which – rather to my surprise – is now the subject of a major movie, Rush, directed by Ron Howard. Quite how much the success of Senna a couple of years ago is responsible for Rush being produced I don’t know, but I’d be a little surprised if there wasn’t some connection.

RUSH UK Quad final

Anyway, Rush is the story of the epic rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, leading up to and during the 1976 Formula One world championship. Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth (the 70s setting allows him to keep his Thor hairstyle), and depicted – quite accurately by all accounts – as a womanising hellraiser and general debauch, massively charismatic and ferocious behind the wheel of a car (his combative driving style leading to the nickname ‘Hunt the Shunt’). Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), on the other hand, is not blessed with great personal charm, but possesses phenomenal mechanical aptitude and the willingness to approach every aspect of racing with meticulous thoroughness.

On their first meeting in 1970, Hunt is victorious, and the film follows their careers and personal lives in parallel until 1976, when Lauda (driving for Ferrari) is defending his world title and Hunt (for Maclaren) is mounting a serious challenge. Central to the film is the race at the Nurburgring in August 1976, in which Lauda crashed and was horrifically burned – only to return to racing six weeks later and take on Hunt in the decisive final race of the season…

Despite all appearances to the contrary, F1 these days is relatively safe (to the extent that going round in circles at 200mph in something not especially structurally robust can be), and it’s startling to be reminded that in the 1970s, the annual casualty rate amongst drivers was running at somewhere between five and ten percent. The film doesn’t directly address the question of why on earth anyone would choose to participate in what was essentially a blood sport, but instead considers the characters of two men who did.

I’m not sure to what extent Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s family have been involved in the making of this film – Bruhl-as-Lauda provides a narration, but whether this consists of Lauda’s own words is unclear – but it is admirably honest in its presentation of the two men warts-and-all. Hunt is presented as a man who lives hard, a drinker and a rapacious womaniser: a driven man as well as a driver. Lauda’s own coldness and ruthlessness are also plainly depicted. And the film doesn’t attempt to evade the fact that this was a rivalry between two men who – to begin with at least – genuinely hated each other.

In the end, of course, what they realise is that their rivalry served to push them both to become someone better than they would otherwise have been, and an element of mutual respect and understanding enters their relationship. That Lauda’s rapid return to racing was largely motivated by his determination not to lose his title to Hunt is also made clear.

Lauda’s crash and its consequences are central to the final section of the film. There isn’t a correspondingly big story in Hunt’s racing career and so in order to balance the film, earlier on there’s a subplot about Hunt’s brief marriage to a model (played by Olivia Wilde). This serves okay to illuminate Hunt’s character, but I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this was just here to insert a well-known actress into the film and try to make the whole thing feel less relentlessly masculine.

This doesn’t really work. Rush is a film about men obsessed with doing manly things – but that doesn’t make it dumb and it doesn’t make it bad. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Rush is one of the more impressive films I’ve seen this year. The performances by the two leads are great (Hemsworth has never been better), the racing sequences are genuinely exciting, the look of the thing manages to subtly evoke the 70s without being too obvious, and the script is intelligent and accessible without overdoing the sports movie cliches. Quite how much all of this will translate into mainstream success, I’m not sure – obviously Rush should do well in the UK, and probably in other F1-friendly territories too – but I think it deserves to be seriously successful, both commercially and critically.

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