Film reviews round-up: Toni Erdmann, Gold, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Tower

A German comedy, a prospecting adventure, a long-running zombie franchise, and a chilling documentary

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 01 February 2017 12:36
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Sandra Hüller plays a no-nonsense businesswoman in Maren Ade’s new comedy
Sandra Hüller plays a no-nonsense businesswoman in Maren Ade’s new comedy

Toni Erdmann (15)

★★★★☆

Dir: Maren Ade, 162 mins, starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Lucy Russell

Think of German humour and the image that may come most easily to mind is of knee-slapping Bavarians in lederhosen having a roaring time at beer festivals. The country’s film comedies seldom travel well and very few, if any, have been selected for competition in Cannes (as Maren Ade’s new feature Toni Erdmann was last May).

This is a film in a very different register to the typical Teutonic farce. Playful and profound by turns, it spins a complex and multi-layered story from what seems to be a simple premise. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) wants to ingratiate himself with his estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller).

“It’s very complicated,” Winfried tries to explain his relationship with his daughter to someone he has recently met. “I know, family,” the stranger replies, summing the problem up in a nutshell. The bonds between father and the daughter are very strong but they irritate each other in a way no outsider could.

Winfried and Ines are polar opposites. He’s a shambling, freewheeling old hippy type with a sense of humour that verges on the juvenile. She is a management consultant, very precise in everything she does. Her job entails sacking people – doing the dirty work on behalf of her company’s corporate clients who are too timorous to lay off their staff or make the decision to “outsource” themselves.

He’s a part-time music teacher who keeps the problems of the outside world at bay by pretending he is someone else. He loves to wear sunglasses, wigs, and false teeth. His favourite alter ego is Toni Erdmann, a sleazy lounge-lizard type, part Dean Martin, part Tommy Cooper.

Ade’s screenplay is scrupulously even-handed. It makes you understand just why the daughter thinks her father can be such a creep. When she finds him hiding in her closet, that’s bad enough. Worse, he handcuffs himself to her before an important business meeting and then claims that he has lost the keys.

Ade also makes it very clear why he feels so alienated from his daughter. She is one of those business executives who has no compassion for the people she fires and who’s ready to dissemble or grovel if that is what it takes to keep an important contract.

Much of the film unfolds in Bucharest, which is where Ines is posted, advising an oil company that wants to restructure. Winfried visits her there, uninvited. There’s no rapport between them at all. When he tells her business client that he wants a “substitute daughter” who will cut his toe nails, it’s impossible to tell whether he is joking or not. She is hugely relieved when he leaves – or seems to. She’d much rather stay in contact with him by Skype, if at all. That’s when he comes back again into her life in his Toni Erdmann persona.

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This could easily have been an exasperating film to watch. The father’s antics could have seemed very irritating indeed. Instead, Simonischek delivers a thoroughly winning performance, the 70-year-old Austrian actor possessing both the humour and the melancholy quality of an ageing clown. We’re never quite sure whether he is joking or is in deadly earnest when he asks Ines if she is “really a human at all".

Sandra Hüller is just as good as the businesswoman daughter with the affluent but utterly stifling lifestyle. She is the foil, the “straight man” whose earnest, self-serving behaviour makes him seem all the funnier. Neither father nor daughter is remotely happy. He is grief-stricken over the death of his pet dog, Willi. She is increasingly aware that she is caught up in a rat race.

Throughout the film, there are scenes in which the embarrassment the characters feel is palpable. Toni Erdmann both provokes this embarrassment and then helps relieve it. He has a knack of making remarks that startle and amuse his listeners in equal measure.

Ade has an eye for comic detail. In one scene, we see Ines desperately trying to zip up the back of her dress with a fork. Her failure leads into the film’s strangest set piece, a party in which all the guests have to turn up naked. It’s a measure of Ade’s ability to combine comedy with pathos that one of the most affecting scenes here involves a woman hugging someone dressed up as a tree.

Of course, father and daughter are much closer in temperament than they’re letting on. Ines has an anarchic streak of her own and is touched by her father’s ability to connect with anyone, whether the CEO of a company or a worker threatened with losing their job.

At times, this doesn’t feel like a comedy at all. Both of the main protagonists teeter close to despair. However, when Toni Erdmann himself is in full flow, the hilarity follows. Ade never resorts to melodramatic clichés. Her approach is far more subtle than that. This is one of those films in which the punchline is always delayed and the best jokes are often the saddest ones.

Gold (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Stephen Gaghan, 121 mins, starring: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Toby Kebbell

Is it an anti-capitalist parable or a shaggy dog story? It is never clear what intentions lie behind Stephen Gaghan’s new film, which only glitters very intermittently. At times, Gold plays like a variation on The Wolf Of Wall Street, with precious minerals being traded by the spivs in suits instead of worthless stocks. The jungles here aren’t just metaphorical, though. Like characters from a latter day Joseph Conrad adventure, the protagonists really do venture down river in search of their fortunes.

Matthew McConaughey gives a bravura performance as the film’s hapless, Reno-based hero, Kenny Wells; a quixotic, lank-haired, balding dreamer, seldom seen without either a drink or a cigarette in his hand. In his fidgety, manic restlessness, Kenny is the kind of character James Woods might have played a generation ago.

He talks big, has an air of sleaziness about him but also (as his long-suffering girlfriend Bryce Dallas Howard attests) a good heart underneath it all. He seems jaded and cynical one moment and oddly naive the next. Gaghan uses music to propel the action, throwing in lots of 80s British indie pop (including, incongruously, snatches of Joy Division and Orange Juice).

By the time of the economic downturn of the late 1980s, Kenny has all but run the family business into the ground. He’s a whisker away from bankruptcy when, half on a whim and because he has had a dream, he ventures to Indonesia to meet the legendary prospector Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez).

Gold - Trailer

In spite of Kenny’s bedraggled appearance and obvious desperation, Acosta agrees to become his business partner. They head deep into the jungle. Here, after the ritual soakings in rainstorms, the bouts of malaria, and the feuding with the local workers, they seem to strike it rich.

One point the film makes several times is that Kenny, for all his excesses, is no more unhinged and certainly far less ruthless than the business magnates running global firms. At least, he wears his craziness on his sleeve. He is like a con artist taken in by his own spiel. Others are carried away by his sales technique too.

The screenplay also makes it very clear that he has a very ambivalent attitude toward wealth. The striving for it is far more important than the getting of it. His family name means more to him than $300m. What he really wants is a “ride”, preferably as wild a one as possible.

McConaughey’s performance is fascinating but it doesn’t make the film’s overall intentions any easier to work out. At times, the tone is comic. At times, especially in the jungle scenes, this seems to be developing into a Werner Herzog-style study in madness and despair. The film is also a buddy movie, chronicling the ever closer friendship between McConaughey and Ramirez.

It is a study in deception but also one in self deception. Even the most sophisticated and ruthless business tycoons, we are told more than once, can be blinded by their own greed. There are political references thrown into the story too, allusions to corrupt Indonesian and US presidents, although these aren’t pursued. The voiceover from McConaughey has the air of a confessional, with Toby Kebbell’s FBI investigator as the father confessor.

Bryce Dallas Howard deserves better than her token role as the loyal (to an extent) and big-hearted girlfriend Kay, whom Kenny spends much of the movie ignoring. She is almost as badly neglected by the director.

Gold follows in a long line of movies about prospectors, including everything from The Treasure of The Sierra Madre to Nic Roeg’s Eureka. The main recommendation is McConaughey himself, who digs into every last quirk of his character, giving an immensely lively performance in the process. The film itself, though, doesn’t gleam at all in the way that might have been hoped.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Paul WS Anderson, 106 mins, starring: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Ruby Rose, Iain Glen

In this latest sci-fi action sequel, there’s a “T” virus threatening the world – and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. As in the recent Underworld movie, copious voiceover is used early on to bring newcomers up to speed as to what exactly is happening. The world is in ruins. Armies of the undead are on the march.

Evil scientist Dr Isaacs (Iain Glen) is busy killing off what remains of humanity so the earth can be “rebooted”. Alice (Milla Jovovich) has to get to the “hive”, where she can find an antivirus that will save the world. In truth, the plot here is secondary. As Alice herself explains it, her life consists of “running and killing”. That’s pretty much all she does throughout the movie.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter - Teaser Trailer

Jovovich throws herself into her role with admirable gusto. She’s the kind of action heroine who will chop off an antagonist’s hand so she can use the thumbprint to unlock a device. Writer-director Paul WS Anderson, also her husband, puts her through the wringer. She is attacked by pterodactyl-like monsters, forced to ride motorbikes through rings of fire, trussed up, periodically knocked out, shot at, stabbed and almost eaten alive but she always comes bouncing back.

Her indestructibility explains why there is so little dramatic tension. It doesn’t help, either, that so many of the other characters here are either clones, zombies, or computer-programmed holograms or that the storytelling is so inane. The action, though, is relentless and fast moving. Anderson, after all these years of practice, knows just how to choreograph the fights and chases. Jovovich’s tussles with Glen are the main highlights here. In spite of the final chapter label, Anderson has left himself plenty of scope to revive the franchise if the box office justifies it.

Tower

★★★★☆

Dir: Keith Maitland, 82 mins, voiced by: Violett Beane, Louie Arnette, Blair Jackson

Keith Maitland’s documentary uses animation in a highly inventive fashion to dramatise the grim events of 1 August 1966, when a sniper perched in a tower at the University of Texas in Austin took potshots at everyone he could see below. It was a baking-hot summer’s day. The killer, Charles Whitman, was responsible for the deaths of 16 people. This was one of the first mass shootings at a school or university – and it was covered “live” on national media.

Maitland’s technique allows an immediacy that a conventional documentary about events that took place 50 years ago could not have achieved. He uses testimony from survivors, which is recounted talking-head style in animated sequences and sometimes direct to camera by the survivors themselves. This is intercut with animated dramatisations and with archive footage.

The documentary emphasises the terror and helplessness of those caught up in the shootings. They recount how they heard what they thought were firecrackers left over from 4 July. “It felt like an invasion from outer space,” one victim says of events which were as perplexing as they were terrifying. Others compare the sound of the shooting to “rolling thunder”.

We hear from students, teachers, cops and even a boy on a paper round. Some talk about the dilemma they faced. They could see wounded victims lying on the ground in front of them but knew that if they intervened to help them, they faced being shot. Some were very brave. Some admit to their own cowardice. One voice featured prominently is that of Claire Wilson, a pregnant student who was wounded at the start of the shootings and stranded on the ground below the tower throughout the 90 minutes the shooting went on, pretending she was dead and desperately trying to stay awake.

This is a morbid but very original film which manages both to be reflective and dramatic. It works as a thriller and as oral history but also stands as a memorial to those who died. At the time, the tower shootings seemed like a freak occurrence. The sadness is that such events are now so commonplace.

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