Saturday, March 11, 2017

Movie Reviews: Black Book, Holy Rollers

Black Book
directed by Paul Verhoeven
There are a number of thoughts which I had after re-watching this 2007 Dutch drama film set in the waning days of World War 2. The first is that the lead actress Carice Van Houten, just like her character Melisandre in HBO's Game of Thrones, seemingly hasn't aged at all over the past decade. Maybe it's just good genes and clean living. She wasn't wearing a ruby necklace in this film. Actually often she wasn't wearing anything in this film. 

The second thought is that if real life were a story, after the unpleasant experience of being invaded, defeated, occupied and subjugated you would think that the Western European democracies would have realized that violence, racism and colonialism were wrong. But real life is not a fairy tale. Freed from Nazi threat or rule, the post war European democracies almost immediately all fought vicious, bloody and ultimately pointless wars attempting to maintain white control over non-white nations in Africa and Asia. Some of the very same people depicted here leading the Dutch underground against the Germans wound up in Indonesia doing the same thing or worse to Indonesians that the Germans did to the Dutch. Life is strange. Everyone's a hypocrite.

And the last major issue which crossed my mind after viewing this film is that both loneliness and love make for some very strange bedfellows sometimes. Even the worst of us usually still need human contact. 

Today we have people opposed to the current U.S. President who style themselves the Resistance. Their opposition primarily consists of snarky tweets, strongly worded opinion pieces, hats shaped like female genitalia, sucker punching Trump voters and an occasional march or two. What would the Resistance look like once people started getting shot?  Death has a tendency to reveal just who is real and just who is faking the funk by calling themselves the Resistance. There's no shame in recognizing that in facing real oppression, most people will go along to get along. Most of us would prefer not to be shot.

Where is the line between doing what you had to do to survive and becoming an active collaborator? This film might make you question that. Here, as also depicted in the film Malena, many women who willingly slept with German soldiers had to pay an awful price once their own countrymen were back in charge. But is being shamed by being publicly stripped and/or having your hair shaved off worse than being summarily executed? Hmm. 

Additionally and more controversially the film argues that there are levels of evil, even among such people as Nazis, slave owners and colonialists. Some are worse than others. Some are just doing the bare necessity to get by. They may lack personal animus. They may be willing to negotiate or recognize their victim's humanity. Black Book delves into that last thought with some uncomfortable relish. Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) is a Dutch-Jewish singer who is hiding out from the Nazis. She lives with a Dutch-Christian family. She has to tolerate their occasional snide comments about Jews and routine conversion attempts but it's a price she's willing to pay for safety. 

The war, as anyone can see, is almost over. It's 1944 and parts of the Netherlands have been freed. And her benefactors, bigoted or not, have been risking their lives by protecting her. So from the very beginning we see how the film shows people as a mix of good and evil. Rachel must flee the area though after an American bomber accidentally destroys the home and responding Nazi firefighters and police become aware that there were more people living in the farmhouse than officially reported. Rachel visits a lawyer named Smaal (Dolf DeVries) who has been keeping some of her family's money. Smaal arranges for Rachel to reunite with her family, in hiding elsewhere, and leave occupied Holland with most of their wealth.

Unfortunately for Rachel someone betrays them. The brutal piggish SS Lieutenant Franken (Waldemar Kobus) is waiting for all the fugitive Jews, including Rachel and her family. He knew exactly where they would be. He and his men murder everyone except Rachel. Rachel has concealed herself and can only watch silently in horror as the SS men efficiently kill survivors and despoil her parents' and brother's bodies.

Rachel joins a cell of the Dutch Resistance led by the cautious Kuibers (Derek De Lint) and the dashing doctor Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). Akkermans is close to Rachel's age. Akkermans is very interested in getting to know Rachel in the Biblical way. Rachel's not opposed to that but events intrude. Some bad luck during a smuggling operation on a train causes Rachel (now calling herself Ellis De Vries) to have to sit next to the German SS Captain Muntze (Sebastian Koch). The cultured and well read Muntze is more handsome than Akkermans. Muntze is lonely. He has only his stamps and books to keep him company. He's a widower. He takes an interest in Rachel. A very direct masculine interest. Akkermans doesn't like this development but the pragmatic Kuibers is willing to use whatever tool he can to get information from the Germans.

Rachel spends more time with Muntze, not just doing the obvious, but also working for him as a secretary. Rachel learns that the odious Franken works for Muntze, and that the two men most definitely do not like each other. The stakes are raised when Kuibers' son is captured by the Nazis. Rachel finds that if it weren't for this whole SS thing, she might want Muntze to father her children. But that aside Rachel has work to do. She and the Resistance must find the traitor who betrayed the escaping Jews to Franken. Being a secret agent is dangerous work. Muntze may be head over heels in love but he's no dummy. Muntze has his own secrets. And the interests of the larger Dutch Resistance don't always line up with Rachel's interests or those of the Jewish community. As we saw in the opening scenes of the film just because someone is not genocidal doesn't mean that they like Jews. The Resistance includes a lot of people with conflicting agendas.

Van Houten stands out but everyone is well cast. There are a number of betrayals, unspoken understandings between enemies, and revenge scenes, some richly deserved and long anticipated, others remarkably ugly and pathetically pointless. You will question what is good and what is evil. There's a fair amount of nudity, both male and female. Not all of this is erotic by any means. A few scenes are deliberately horrific. 

The film balances the dramatic and the violent. If you like mysteries you will probably enjoy figuring out all of the different double crosses, twists and secrets. Some are hinted at ahead of time but many others come out of left field. Information and truth are valuable currencies in wartime, as Rachel and others learn. My version of the film was subtitled which means that unless you happen to speak German or Dutch you will have to keep your eyes on the screen at all times to understand what is taking place. This is not a problem though because the story is compelling, as is Van Houten, who did her own singing. This was a good film. You should watch it.

Holy Rollers
directed by Kevin Asch
After watching this I think my expectations were far too high. So as a result I found this movie disappointing. It was, like Black Book, inspired by real events. But this film was a case where the writer and/or director could and should have done something to add a bit more drama and conflict. There are large swaths of the film where I could have gone to sleep and not missed all that much. I don't mind quiet films but this was the cinematic equivalent of an ambien-xanax cocktail. And this older independent film is also an example of how film rating standards have declined over the years or perhaps are too dependent on the financial push of a large studio. 

This film was rated R, which probably further limited its appeal. But compared to your current average PG-13 comic book movie this film was almost G rated. It can basically be summed up as nice Jewish boy learns the hard way that the illegal drug business is not for him. The end. Okay that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it's really not that much of one. Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is a twenty something Hasidic Jew who lives in Brooklyn with his family. Sam is studying to be a rabbi while working with his father. Sam's future is not really that bright though. His family is not well off. His father runs a fabric store, poorly. The elder Gold is not that skilled of a businessman. He seems to want to disprove anti-Semitic stereotypes by virtually giving away his goods. 

Sam wants something more than his father's business or being a rabbi. Sam is supposed to get married soon in an arranged wedding but he has the suspicion that the girl's family is getting cold feet because of his low financial statuts. So when Sam's best friend's neer-do-well brother Yosef (Justin Bartha) and his Israeli boss Jackie (Danny Abeckasser) say they have a well paying job for Sam, Sam is not inclined to ask too many questions. Supposedly this job is to bring back unlicensed medicine from Amsterdam. Later Sam learns that this medicine is really ecstasy pills. But by then he couldn't care less. He has money in his pocket and the interest of Jackie's girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). Over time Sam starts to make his own moves and decisions, some of which conflict with Yosef's or Jackie's wishes.

But Sam's not related to morons. His family and circle of friends soon figure out what he's up to. They don't like it, to put it mildly. There's a lot of time spent on Sam's conflict with his father and sense of loss and shame from being shunned by many of his co-religionists. But because we never really get to see why these people and religious values are important to Sam it's hard to care about his sadness over losing them. Other possible areas of conflict in the business (rivalries with other groups, skimming and possible informants) are ignored or raised only to be dropped without resolution. This is an old story but one that has been much better done in other movies. Everything is shot in a very dark way but that didn't make me think the story was realistic. It just made my interest drop. Of course YMMV.
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