Need to Kill Some Time? These Films Won’t Waste It
By HOWARD BARBANEL
It’s the end of summer and in many parts of the country it’s as hot as blazes outside. Because of an abundance of caution (or an overabundance, depending on your perspective) there still isn’t a whole lot to do at night. You can get something to eat outdoors (see some of our excellent restaurant reviews on page 28) or have a barbeque or maybe take in a swim, but after a couple of hours we invariably have to head home. And home is where the big screen is.
There have been some advances in entertainment offerings on TV, most notably the return of professional sports but forgive me for saying this – sports without a “live studio audience” just lacks the intensity it used to, it feels like I’m watching a high school practice with just the coaches and a couple of parents. Not a lot of drama. The canned background “white noise” during the games can actually be annoying.
That leaves streaming movies and series to soak up the time. Here are some film recommendations to get you through the next few weeks:
Adam Sandler inhabits the body and soul of a heavily messed-up New York Jewish diamond merchant and compulsive sports gambler named Howard Ratner. There’s no part of his life that isn’t a rolling train wreck. He owes a fortune to his brother-in-law who happens to also be a loan shark. His marriage is cratering while he carries on an affair with one of his employees. He smuggles a giant gemstone from an Ethiopian mine into the US which he hopes will be the big ticket (once sold) that will solve all of his financial problems. He’s essentially playing roulette and putting all his chips on one number.
The pace is frantic, antic and manic all at the same time. Sandler is so believable and impressive in this role that he carries the film single-handedly, Sandler won Best Actor at the National Board of Review and the film won Best Screenplay and rated one of the Ten Best of 2019 from the National Board, also Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle, all in January 2020. It didn’t rate with the Golden Globes or Academy Awards though. Be prepared for a whirlwind ride, you won’t want to pause this film because there is no natural stopping point from beginning to end. “Uncut Gems” also features Julia Fox, Indina Menzel, Eric Bagosian, Judd Hirsch and even basketball great Kevin Garnett playing himself.
Other great seedy gambling flicks include Casino («««««, 1995) starring Robert DiNiro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone and the late Don Rickles, directed by the incomparable Martin Scorsese, this is one of the 10 must-see films of the last 40 years. The Hustler («««««, 1961) stars Paul Newman as a pool shark and George C. Scott as his sometime sponsor, manager and enabler along with Jackie Gleason in an outstanding performance as Minnesota Fats.
Dark, macabre and disturbing is the only way to describe this dramatization of the last two months of Berlin before it fell to the Russians in World War II. The action mainly takes place in the stiflingly claustrophobic Führerbunker, beneath the Reichs Chancellery. The movie is in German with English subtitles and its very total German-ness gives it serious verisimilitude. Shot on location in Berlin, Munich and St. Petersburg the cinematographers manage to realistically recreate a world gone mad and a city reduced to rubble.
Most of the story is seen through the eyes of Hitler’s secretary, the young and pretty Traudl Junge (her book “Until The Final Hour” is one of the bases of the screenplay). Junge embodies the banality of evil (the real Junge, as an old woman, apologizes in the film) as we see Germans enraptured, even at the end, by the diabolical madman who caused the deaths of probably 30 to 50 million people. Hitler is played chillingly by Bruno Ganz and Junge by Alexandra Maria Lara.
The contrast between the roles of Hitler’s young secretary and that of Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James in 2017’s Darkest Hour, «««««) is about as black and white as you can get. Both movies are set in bunkers in desperate times but we see that in Nazi Germany no one questioned the madness and no one opposed it and no one revolted against it, there being a complete absence of conscience beneath Berlin. The whole gang of Nazis are on hand, Goebbels, Speer, Himmler and Eva Braun played with magisterial nihilism by Juliane Köhler. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 2015 for Best Foreign Film. Granz won the London Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Another great claustrophobic film in German about the German experience in World War II is the original Das Boot (“The Boat” «««««, 1981), Wolfgang Petersen’s riveting drama about the crew of a U-Boat patrolling in the North Atlantic towards the end of the war. Petersen was nominated for Best Director in 1983’s Academy Awards.
John Wick 3
The perennially and preternaturally young Keanu Reeves returns for the third installment in his “John Wick” action thriller series. In case you’ve missed this one and the prior two iterations (“John Wick,” ««««, 2014 and “John Wick, Chapter 2,” ««««, 2017) this is the story of a man who only wants to be left alone. Wick wants to retire from being the world’s foremost hitman but despite his protestations gets continually dragged back into the fray – principally to defend himself, his dog and his car from the depredations of nefarious bad guys populating an international syndicate of death for hire, a modern-day Murder Incorporated if you will, but one with much more sophistication, panache, designer clothes and its own code of honor. That Reeves is the good guy (even though he was an assassin himself) amidst all the psychotic evil is what gives the films something of a moral backbone.
If you’ve not seen Wick and Wick 2 it’s not a tragedy but to truly appreciate the thrust of Wick 3, you might want to catch Wick 2 beforehand because Wick 3 picks up minutes after the end of Wick 2. In a nutshell, there is a $14 million contract out on Reeves because in his quest for vengeance in Wick 2 he violated one of the cardinal rules of the death syndicate. This sets-up a worldwide competition among the very crème de la crème of murderers and assassins to collect this hefty bounty. The thing about John Wick is that he may get battered, he may get bruised, but he can’t be killed, probably because the franchise to far too lucrative.
In his quest for survival, Wick engages in some of the best choreographed cinematic martial arts violence ever filmed. He makes Bruce Lee seem like an amateur. It’s impossible to keep track of the body count but somehow the violence is integral, not gratuitous. Joining the cast of Wick 3 are Halle Berry, who proves she is still red hot at 54 and Laurence Fishburne who always lends gravitas to the improbable. Fishbourne is reunited with Reeves here. They worked together on The Matrix trilogy («««««, 1999, 2003) and you won’t be disappointed by this reunion. Rounding out the cast are the luminescent Anjelica Huston as a Russian Mafia matriarch and Ian McShane as the ever-so-dapper head of the New York branch the “High Table,” which runs international iniquity. Great sets, locations and cinematography as befits a big-budget action thriller. No awards here other than the raves demonstrated by the $326 million garnered at the box office.
If after John Wick you’ve not had enough of vengeance and martial arts, you may want to take a female turn on the genre. Jennifer Garner (who also played the Marvel superhero Electra ««««, 2005) is now 48 and clearly drinks from the same fountain of youth as Halle Berry. In “Peppermint,” Garner plays Riley North who awakens from a coma after witnessing the horrific murder of her husband and young daughter in a Los Angles gangland drive-by shooting. The justice system is owned by the Cartel so the killers go free. Garner goes underground for a few years and transforms herself from a housewife into a ruthless crusader for revenge, cutting a swath of blood through legions of miscreants along with the men who murdered her family. Wrongful corruption in the police and courts is rectified at Garner’s hands. This is a modern-day Death Wish (««««, 1974) from the female perspective. Garner is much better looking than the late Charles Bronson and possesses martial arts skills that Bronson could only dream of, but the theme is the same, murder avenged, apathetic or corrupt cops circumvented and justice done.
Garner carries this movie entirely. If you’re looking for standout performances from costars, you won’t find it here, but worth the quick 102 minutes. Premiered in 2018.