Sunday, December 6, 2009

Film Reviews: Jerichow & Three Monkeys

"Jerichow" *** (out of ****)

As 2009 comes to an end I find myself in a usual predicament. I can't come up with a "top ten" list. I haven't seen 10 films this year which I felt were four stars. So I play catch-up and rent DVDs of titles I missed in theatres and often, rent movies which I never had any intention of seeing, just in case I missed something good. These two films however were ones I eagerly awaited.

"Jerichow" (2009) tells the story of a good looking woman, a drifter and a bad husband. I know, I know, you've seen this movie 48,000 times, so have I. James M. Cain wrote two novels about it; "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice", which of course were adapted into some terrific movies. "The Postman" in 1946 with Lana Turner and James Garfield and a less than stellar remake in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Of course "Indemnity" was given the royal treatment thanks to Billy Wilder in 1944. It is one of his best films and one of the all-time great noir stories. This is nothing to say of all the films these two stories influence. The material was the basis for the first Italian neo-realist film "Ossessione" (1943) directed by the great Visconti and Claude Chabrol made "Innocents with Dirty Hands" (1975). And now to that list we can add "Jerichow".

The unfortunate thing for "Jerichow" is that I've seen all those other movies. And by comparison "Jerichow" comes in second place to all of them. But, what if you haven't seen all those movies? Ah, now we are getting somewhere. You might enjoy it because you might not be as familiar with the formula as I am.

This is not to suggest "Jerichow" is a bad movie. It has some nice performances and compared to "Three Monkeys" (2009) is an absolute breeze to sit through. But the film lacks an intensity I felt was desperately needed. There is no sexual energy here, which is unusual for a film about an affair and murder. Forget the beef, where's the heat? I didn't buy into the lured affair of the two main characters. The movie doesn't gradually hint at their desire for each other. It seems to come out of left field.

The characters in question are Thomas (Benno Furmann) an ex-soldier, who was dishonorably discharged. His mother has died and he finds himself broke searching for employment. Through a series of events he meets Ali Ozkan (Hilmi Sozer) a Turk living in East Germany (Jerichow is the name is the town). He owns a string of snack shops which are doing very well for him. He is also married to the beautiful Laura (Nina Hoss). She was a dancer in serious debt but Ali has taken responsibility for those debts making Laura feel she had been "bought".

Ali has a bit of a drinking problem and crashes his car when Thomas meets him. After the police come investigating, Ali tells them it was Thomas who was driving, since there is no alcohol on his breath. Ali has a proposal for Thomas. Why not come work for him as a driver and learn the ropes of the business. Thomas agrees.

I shouldn't really have to say too much more since I've practically given everything away merely by mentioning "The Postman Always Rings Twice". Thomas and Laura begin an affair and attempt to murder Ali.

The director is Christian Petzold, he also wrote the film. He is a new director to me. I remember when his previous film was released in the U.S., "Yella" (2008) which also starred Nina Hoss as a woman in a bad marriage. Poor lady can't find a good man. I never saw that film and as far as I'm aware has not been put on DVD yet. Petzold is talented and I suspect with a different story I might be singing his praises a bit more. The film is deliberately slow. It is meditative. Similar to another German movie released this year "Revanche" (2009). "Jerichow" though is a bit more conventional, though I don't say that as a flaw.

Of all the main actors Hoss is the only one I am familiar with. She also appeared in another film released this year, "A Woman in Berlin" (2009). She won the "Best Actress" award at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance in "Yella". She has a sympathetic face and has a way of bringing in audience in. I didn't feel the film examined her situation enough but at moments she comes across as a real person put in a dilemma in which we can see is very complex.

The film was nominated at the Venice Film Festival for the "Golden Lion". And while that may be impressive to some readers I still don't think it is a masterpiece. It is a decent film which strangely could have used more sex.

"Three Monkeys" *** (out of ****)

There were about 65 different ways "Three Monkeys" could have been filmed. The story could have lend itself to a variety of different genres and taken on different paces. I'm not sure it settles on the most satisfying one. But then again this film was directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director who gave us "Climates" (2007). Plot, I suspect, is an annoyance for him. It gets in the way. Ceylan likes to make films about mood and atmosphere. In "Climates" it worked. I was greatly impressed. With "Three Monkeys" I was nearly put to sleep.

Between "Jerichow" and this, "Three Monkeys" is clearly the more visually impressive film. And I would argue is more morally complex. But if I had to pick which one of these films I would sooner watch again, "Jerichow" wins hands down. I wouldn't even have to think about.

"Three Monkeys" though is not a bad movie if you can get under the film's spell. I think Ceylan is going to be a director who will be around for a long time. And within the span of his career I think "Three Monkeys" will be seen as a lesser attempt when compared to "Climates". It took me awhile to fully appreciate "Climates". I had to watch it twice. And the same may happen with "Three Monkeys", but I wouldn't want to dip into that water again so soon. Give me a year or two, or at least a shot of vodka.

The film has a very light plot, we meet Servet (Ercan Kesal, who co-wrote the screenplay) a politician up for an election. He was in a car accident and killed someone. Because he is a wealthy politician, naturally, he seeks a way out and doesn't want to be responsible for his actions. His plan, blame the incident on someone else. He calls his driver, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap. Servet will continue to pay his salary to his family and as a bonus will be given a large sum when released. He also guarantees the prison sentence will be short. No more than six months but less than a year.

Eyup leaves behind his wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and a son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar). Ismail is a floundering student who can't pass his exams and just a politician seeks an easy way out. He turns to violence with a group of his friends. His mother of course doesn't want to kind of life of him. She wants to ask Servet for an advance so Ismail can be put on the right path and find a job. But Hacer and Servet begin an affair.

There sounds like a lot going on here but the way Ceylan tells a story you have about 15 - 20 minutes of material. I said before there were other ways this story could have been told. Another movie might have included some of the police investiagtion, Servet fearful of a double-cross, perhaps some scene of Eyup in prison counting down the days. But we get none of that. Ceylan won't bother us with such details. Do we need them? Not in Ceylan's story because that would involve too much plot.

Ceylan has been compared to filmmakers like Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos and Bela Tarr for his long unbroken camera shots. Those filmmakers however are a bit out of Ceylan's league, he has to play catch-up. Ceylan is talented and could one day be considered among the best directors in the world but he is still learning his craft.

I sometimes can't understand why he frames scenes a particular way though he is a stylist. Two scenes really stick out in my head. Ismail learns of his mother's affair. He is heartbroken and disgusted. He goes to visit his father. At that moment he doesn't know what to do. He feels trapped. Should he tell his father or not? Ceylan only shows us the conversation from Ismail's side. We never see the father. All we see is Ismail behind the bars speaking to his father. But from this angle it looks like he is the one in jail. Trapped. It is clever.

I also like a scene with Servet and Hacer. Eyup has been released from jail and Servet says their affair must end. Hacer has grown attached to him however. Meanwhile a storm is brewing (the movie has terrific thunderstorm scenes). In a while expressing the violence between the characters.

"Three Monkeys" will please some viewers. Those that like their movies outside the mainstream. Those that don't mind slow, ponderous films with little plot. I do most of the time. But I still think 10 years from now "Climates" will be around with us, "Three Monkeys" will be an after thought.