The Ogre – The Dangers Of Magical Thinking

Country: Germany
Genre: Drama
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Year: 1996

Rating: ★★★½☆


Abel, (John Malkovich) due to a traumatic childhood, has an arrested emotional development and an attachment to magical thinking. Through a series of convoluted circumstances, Abel ends up as a recruiter for child Nazi soldiers. He thinks he is caring for these children, but in reality he’s feeding them into the maw of a suicidal war machine.

Director Volker Schlöndorff presents Abel as a sympathetic character. Schlöndorff shows how magical thinking can create an opening for fascism to take hold. Greed and self-indulgence can be perceived as joie de vivre; pomp as glamor; rigidity as discipline; dogmatism as righteousness; and so on.

As usual for a Schlöndorff film, the physical production is quite beautiful, and the direction forceful and elegant.

The biggest flaw I could find was Schlöndorff knuckling under the realities of the film business and making his film in English. Schlöndorff’s films are usually a mixture of fairy tale atmosphere, urgent moral dilemmas and an enthusiastic earthiness. This mixture is ideally suited to the German language. English is a little too literal. Also, since English is Schlöndorff’s second language, his direction of the actors isn’t quite as assured as usual. Of course, weak Schlöndorff is better than most directors, but The Ogre still suffers.

Should you see The Ogre? If you are a fan of the director, absolutely. Just don’t expect anything as powerful and elemental as The Tin Drum.

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Closed Circuit – A Would Be Thinking Man’s Thriller

Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Drama/ Suspense/ Action
Director: John Crowley
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★½☆☆


Let’s stipulate something right off the bat. Closed Circuit was not made by stupid people. The general plot outline is relevant and interesting. All the acting is good. The film is professionally shot and edited. And yet, by the time the credits roll, the end results are curiously enervating. How can that be?

The first thing that comes as something of a shock is that the two barristers defending a supposed terrorist bomber uncover a conspiracy with less effort than it takes to host a dinner party. Are the filmmakers saying that the lawless and anti-democratic tenor of Western governments is obvious to the casual observer? That the truth doesn’t really matter because government force is so entrenched and omnipresent that injustice is a foregone conclusion?

Maybe that’s all true but it doesn’t make for very good cinema. The filmmakers shortchange the mystery elements of their story in favor of run and gun. Maybe the filmmakers thought that a modern audience wouldn’t sit still for a slow burn, more intellectual treatment of their subject. That’s what I would guess.

I was also mildly surprised by the willingness, indeed eagerness of the government in this story to use violence. Certainly intelligence organizations have resorted to murder as a tool of state policy, but I would guess not so much in this kneejerk fashion.

Another thing: the government operatives are portrayed as true believers. The filmmakers want us to think that they really believe that they are protecting the people of the country through their murderous methods. I think that’s naive. I think operatives often realize that what they are really protecting are the owners, i.e. the rich and powerful. It’s doubly disappointing because if the mystery at the center of the story were revealed, it would challenge the legitimacy of the government, which would not be a threat to the people, but only to the rulers.

What I’m trying to get at is that Closed Circuit is about a legitimate, vitally important problem: the fact that Western governments have completely abandoned the rule of law, and exist only to protect the owners of their respective countries. And yet, over and over, the makers of Closed Circuit simplify and falsify the specifics. Did they think that their audience wasn’t capable of appreciating a more nuanced and truthful version of the story? Were they fudging for dramatic purposes?

Whatever the reasons, Closed Circuit is a failure. It doesn’t please me to say this. Movies like this desperately need to be made. I would dearly love to see truthful movies made on this subject. Closed Circuit just isn’t one of them.

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Lovelace – Exploited All Over Again


Country: United States
Genre: Drama
Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


When the credits rolled on Lovelace, I was shocked to find that it was directed by none other than Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, both respected documentary filmmakers. You would expect such folks to have a stronger respect for the life of a real person. What do I mean by that?

Well, to start with, the first half an hour of Lovelace plays like a cut rate Boogie Nights. We have the imitation of the punchy pacing. There’s the nonstop soundtrack, most of which isn’t period appropriate. Deep Throat came out in 1972, which was a very specific period in American music. What we get is KC and the Sunshine Band and Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around and Fell In Love, which came out in the disco era. For shame! In the context of Linda Lovelace’s life, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the intent of the filmmakers, but Lovelace seems like the rankest of exploitation.

To be fair, there’s a method here. The shallow, Boogie Nights treatment is deliberate. The directors and writer Andy Bellin are trying to show us what the public perception of Deep Throat and Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) was. Then they double back and try to show the reality.

But it’s a failing strategy. By the time they double back, the filmmakers have already lost the audience. Plus, they downplay the sordidness of the mileau in the second half of the film. Probably that was deliberate too. The filmmakers thought they needed to softpedal the reality of the story or they would have a film that couldn’t be distributed. Maybe they were correct.

Regardless of the intent, Lovelace belittles and trivializes its subject.

So, is Lovelace a total loss? Not really. There is some good work on display here. The production design is everything the soundtrack is not. The clothes, hairstyles, cars, and furniture are spot on. The filmmakers got a great cast. It’s hardly the fault of actors like Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, and Chris Noth that their characters are misconceived.

To be fair, the filmmakers take one liberty with the story that pays off big time. The real Chuck Traynor, the man who tormented Linda Lovelace and drove her into the porn business, was a thug. Writer Andy Bellin and actor Peter Sarsgaard have reimagined Chuck Traynor as a charming sociopath with delusions of grandeur. Whenever Sarsgaard is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s absolutely riveting.

Is that enough reason for most people to watch Lovelace? Not by a long shot.

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The Place Beyond The Pines – King Lear Light

The Place Beyond The Pines

Country: United States
Genre: Drama
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Year: 2012

Rating: ★★½☆☆


After Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny whose specialty is motorcycle stunt driving, finds out he’s the father of a year old baby, he quits the traveling carnival he’s with to try his hand at being a dad.

You see, Luke was abandoned by his father, and he can’t bear to be the same kind man as his dad. Unfortunately, Luke’s skill set has limited marketability in the straight world, leading to criminal behavior.

But that’s just the beginning of the story. The Place Beyond The Pines takes place over a period of 15 years, and involves the intertwining destinies of two families.

Now, clearly director Derek Cianfrance (who also co-wrote the story) was going for an ambitious Sundance meets King Lear kind of vibe, but he doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. His plotting, while admittedly sustaining interest, is clumsy and inorganic.

Put it this way: when God wants to fuck over people, He’s more elegant about it. He makes tragedies appear to a product of poor life choices, not wild coincidences, the way it does in The Place Beyond The Pines. When God leaves the scene of a crime, he leaves no fingerprints behind. The same cannot be said of the writer/director of The Place Beyond The Pines.

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