The week in film: ‘Labyrinth of Lies,’ ‘Mississippi Grind’ and others 

September 23, 2015

labyrinth-of-lies

Depending on which source you believe, there are between one and two dozen — yes, you read that right, dozen — films opening this Friday in New York. Here is a brief look at a half-dozen of them:

‘Labyrinth of Lies’: This German film tells an uncomfortable story about Cold War-era Germany in the 1950s, when Johann (Alexander Fehling), a young prosecutor, hears a story about a former Auschwitz guard, who is now a schoolteacher. When he decides to try to prosecute the man, he runs into stiff resistance. He’s never learned about Auschwitz and is outraged that his countrymen — who perpetrated these crimes — have gone unpunished and faded back into daily life as teachers, bakers, bankers and the like.

This film, by Giulio Ricciarelli, dramatizes a moment of necessary cleansing: an owning-up by Germans to their recent shame and acknowledgment of societal complicity. But Johann runs into walls when he tries to hunt down the war criminals among everyday society. While government and military officials were punished after the Nuremberg trials, many of the soldiers who staffed the death camps simply melted back into society in the post-war chaos.

“Labyrinth of Lies” is worthy of Costa-Gavras: a headlong legal thriller in pursuit of a truth that is being fervently covered up. It’s a serious film that is never solemn, bristling with energy while reminding us that there is no statute of limitations on one’s conscience.

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‘Mississippi Grind’:  I admire the talent and the daring that Ryan Reynolds brings to an array of independent films. He does exceptional work in this two-hander about gamblers on the road and up the river, even as they go down the river.

In this alternately comic and tense film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Reynolds is teamed with the always-surprising Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn is Gerry, a gambling addict in Dubuque, Iowa — as desperate a situation as you could imagine. One night at the tables, he meets a sympathetic spirit: Curtis (Reynolds), who has come to this town for the action (speaking of desperation).

Gerry decides that Curtis is his lucky charm and the two of them decide to tour the casinos and card games between Iowa and Louisiana, in order to raise the $25,000 buy-in for a high-stakes game they’re sure they can beat in New Orleans. Those plans take several detours because, while Gerry may be a terrific poker player, he rarely catches a break and, in fact, has run from Iowa owing someone a lot of money. Mendelsohn gives Gerry more soul than simply a degenerate gambler. He’s someone who honestly believes that his luck is bound to change for the better. Reynolds imbues Curtis with an empathy that grounds his easy-quipping persona. His buoyancy lifts Mendelsohn by the end of the film.

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‘National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’: When asked where I get my sense of humor, I cite among the influences both Mad magazine and National Lampoon. Doug Tirola’s documentary about the Lampoon is hilarious enough to evoke the classic Lampoon era — and smart enough to put this publication in historical context as the nexus for what spun into a vast comedic empire that extended to “Saturday Night Live,” “Caddyshack” and John Hughes’ entire film-making career.

Tirola corrals a number of the most important voices from the magazine’s heyday in print (Henry Beard, P.J. O’Rourke), onstage off-Broadway and on albums and radio (Chevy Chase, Tony Hendra). They all find instructive ways to explain just how influential the magazine was in the early 1970s — and how chaotic the lifestyle was of its co-founder, Douglas Kenney. Kenney’s brilliance is celebrated in the film’s title, but his life was also a tragedy of insecurity and drug abuse.

The film’s visuals are wonderfully kaleidoscopic, pulling the eye to something outrageously funny before it moves on to something else just as shocking and witty. “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” is flat out the funniest documentary since “The Aristocrats.”

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‘99 Homes’: Though it rippled through American society like a tsunami, leaving broken lives in its wake, the financial crisis of 2008 has not been the source of much serious drama — and even the best of what there’s been (“Margin Call,” “The Company Men”) have only found an arthouse audience, at most. Ramin Bahrani’s drama takes a look at the mortgage-foreclosure crisis from the standpoint of one man, who loses his home and makes a deal with the devil to put a roof over his family.

His name is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garland) and he’s a construction worker who is willing to do any kind of job for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a realtor who conducts foreclosures for the banks — though Carver is the one who kicked him out of his house, along with his mother (Laura Dern) and son. Carver is a nastily charismatic invention, a slippery commanding creation by Shannon that almost blows Garfield off the screen. It’s a bravura performance by Shannon, who can use calm as a weapon in the same way he uses volume. You keep watching this film because of Shannon’s Carver, who is trapped (in his own way) as thoroughly as Garfield’s character.

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‘Ashby’: This little curiosity is both amiable and violent, filled with cliches yet played lightly enough to keep it interesting. Nat Wolff plays Ed, a high school student and new kid in town, trying to figure out how to fit in. He winds up befriending his next-door neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke), who turns out to be a retired CIA hitman with a terminal illness. Ashby has discovered his purpose: Before he dies, he is going to eliminate the men he worked for — whose final assignment was killing an inconvenient lawyer who was stopping their lucrative business deal.

The ordinary person teamed with a cool, professional killer — it’s been fodder for comedies as disparate as “The Matador” and “Knight and Day.” Blending it with a coming-of-age tale about a brainy would-be jock is semi-inspired. The bubbly Wolff and laconic Rourke have a nice comic give-and-take, though it remains distracting to actually stare at Rourke’s face which, in the right light, looks like a bad pottery experiment. This is the kind of movie that you’ll happen upon someday on TV and stick with.

The Keeping Room Movie (1)

‘The Keeping Room’: Thrillers, even slow-to-boil thrillers like Daniel Barber’s “The Keeping Room,” are like math equations: There are only so many correct solutions to the puzzle. Which means that, for the final half-hour of this Civil War-era tale, you are doing the math, figuring out that if X shoots Y, that still leaves Z to shoot X.

The equation here is women versus men: Brit Marling is the mistress of the house of a small farm in the deserted Southern countryside. She’s there with her petulant younger sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and their servant (Muna Otaru); the men are off fighting the war, which is nearing its end. Which means that marauding Union soldiers (and just plain marauders dressed as soldiers) are on the way.

You barely need to be film-literate to see the “Straw Dogs” finale from a mile away as it approaches. Barber keeps the atmospherics at full pitch, which tends to draw out the action but undermine the tension. The violence can be brutal at times, but it’s seldom dramatic. Sam Worthington makes the most of an uncomfortably shallow and contradictory character, but Marling seems overmatched.

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