The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher]

(Israel / Germany 2017)

During a post screening Q and A, writer and director Ofir Raul Graizer said he “love[s] question marks in cinema.” Well, that shows: with his first feature film The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher], he excels in raising questions that he lets his audience answer. Many people don’t appreciate this approach. I’m not one of them.

Tomas (Tim Kalkhof) is a thirty-something baker who runs his own one-man pastry shop in Berlin. Oren (Roy Miller), a married Israeli man, comes in one morning — maybe he’s really there for breakfast, or maybe he’s cruising.

Turns out, Oren is in Berlin on business, a lot. They begin an affair. Tomas knows about Oren’s wife and son in Jerusalem. Oren has a habit of bringing Tomas’s cinnamon cookies home to his wife as a kind of souvenir. It’s weird.

WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead!

After an unsettling visit, all communication with Oren stops. Confused and upset, Tomas tries to reach him at his company’s office in Berlin. A perplexed receptionist (Tagel Eliyahu) informs him that Oren died in a car crash.

Tomas does what any sensible red-blooded German gay guy would do: he closes shop and heads to Jerusalem to find out what happened — and maybe spy on Oren’s family to get an idea of what his life there was like.

He starts by tracking down Oren’s wife, Anet (Sarah Adler), who’s struggling to get a kosher café up and running. More by omission that outright lies, Tomas slowly works his way into her life, getting closer and more entangled without ever letting on that he knew her husband. Anet’s brother-in-law (Zohar Strauss) is dismayed, particularly when Anet hires Tomas, a gentile, as a baker. Things get complicated when his pastries attract a steady clientele to her café.

The Cakemaker isn’t exactly a thriller, but it’s suspenseful. A clear dread hovers over the whole story because it’s apparent that it’s not going to end well. It can’t, not with Tomas’s deceptions. Graizer’s pacing, slow and deliberate, steadily builds to an effective climax that might not be surprising itself but is still more intense than I expected. This is a quiet movie with some real nailbiter moments.

Graizer does a fine job enshrouding Oren in mystery — or maybe it’s shadiness. Anet reveals a zinger or two about their relationship. Sandra Sadeh as Oren’s mother, Hanna, steals each scene she’s in, a total of three. She subtly lets on that she’s wise to her dead gay son — and Tomas.

With Tamir Ben Yehuda, Stephanie Stremler, Iyad Msalma, David Koren, Gal Gonen, Eliezer Shimon, Sagi Shemesh

Production: Film Base Berlin, Laila Films

Distribution: Films Boutique

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ofir Raul Graizer

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

http://filmsboutique.com/movies/the-cakemaker/

Center of My World [Die Mitte der Welt]

(Germany 2016)

Center of My World, director/screenwriter Jakob M. Erwa’s adaptation of German author Andreas Steinhöfel’s 1998 novel for young adults, is not a home run. Fortunately, though, Erwa knows how to extract enough charm, particularly from its two main actors, to downplay its shortcomings and proffer a respectable and enjoyable film.

17-year-old Phil (Louis Hofmann) lives with his mercurial, flighty mother, Glass (Sabine Timoteo), and his twin sister, Dianne (Ada Philine Stappenbeck), in a gorgeous house on the outskirts of town. This family isn’t exactly The Brady Bunch: Phil is gay, Dianne supposedly communicates with animals, and Glass can’t commit to a partner for very long. She won’t even tell her kids who their father is.

Phil notices some friction between the women of the house after he returns from summer camp. When school starts, his best friend, Kat (Svenja Jung), encourages him to go after mysterious new guy Nicholas (Jannik Schümann), a dreamy transfer student who looks like a cuter blue-eyed version of Lance Bass with his chiseled cheeks, luscious lips, and perfect hair. Supposedly, he likes boys. Phil finds out for sure in the locker room one afternoon—and it leads to a passionate affair, insecurity, and a weird bout of jealous competition with Kat.

Center of My World is a cute and engaging story. Erwa does a nice job showing how any kid, gay or otherwise, has a lot to deal with when it comes to sexuality. The Chaun Ngo’s cinematography is well done, employing a bright color pallette verging on artificial that plays really well against the small town setting with all its gardens and summer greenery. The acting is generally good. Schümann is really easy to just…gaze upon, I guess, but in a harmless Teen Beat way.

All that said, Center of My World would have been a much gutsier film, say, 15 years ago. It probably would have made a bigger impact then, too. It contains hints and echoes of things I’ve seen before. The characters are a bit hollow; some of them come off as half-baked, rendering their importance to the story tenuous or questionable. These two boys have sex a lot, which is great. However, the sex scenes here need work even with the full frontal we get. More in-your-face than sexy, they come off as gratuitous. I don’t know if Erwa was trying to be shocking, but it didn’t work if he was. It’s like watching two puppies go at it. I hope that’s not the intended result.

With Inka Friedrich, Sascha Alexander Geršak, Thomas Goritzki, Nina Proll, Clemens Rehbein

Production: Neue Schönhauser Filmproduktion, Prisma Film, Universum Film, mojo:pictures, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Bayerischer Rundfunk, ARTE, Österreichischer Rundfunk

Distribution: Constantin-Film, Universum Film

115 minutes
Not rated

(Tower City Cinemas) B-

Cleveland International Film Festival

http://mitte-der-welt-film.de

https://www.facebook.com/diemittederwelt.film

Toni Erdmann

(Germany/Austria 2016)

Toni Erdmann is not a real person; he’s the alterego of retired divorced schoolteacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). When Winfried, a weird old hippy jokester, appears onscreen in a shaggy wig and bad fake teeth, he certainly gives the impression that those around him have to excuse his relatively harmless but tiresome—and often annoying—penchant for silliness. He is caretaker of his elderly mother, and death surrounds him. Perhaps that explains it.

Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a young corporate sellout working on a project in Romania, drops by for a birthday. She’s on her phone most of the time, distracted by work. She’s so serious—and severe. Predictably, she doesn’t stick around long.

When his dog dies, Winfried flies to Bucharest and stalks Ines in the lobby of the office building where she works. She sees him and takes him to a reception, where she networks with Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), an oil company executive she wants to make a deal with. The weekend is bizarre, filled with small talk, blank stares, and uncomfortable silence. Ines doesn’t bother to pretend she’s happy to see her father; in fact, it’s pretty clear she’s relieved to see him leave.

This is where Toni Erdmann gets interesting: Winfried doesn’t actually leave. Instead, he becomes “Toni Erdmann, life coach,” and sets out to reach Ines through her professional contacts. Funny thing: it actually works.

Writer/director Maren Ade has a solid grasp of strained relationships and embarrassing situations, and a sick sense of humor to boot. It’s a winning combination in Toni Erdmann, which has its share of quite a few awesomely cringeworthy moments. Your goofy dad upstaging you at a networking opportunity? Check. Naked birthday party—with coworkers? Check. An Easter party that includes an apoplectic performance of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”? Check. A cum-soaked petit fours? Um, check.

For all its distance, Toni Erdmann turns out to be a surprisingly emotional film. It takes nearly three hours to get to it, but it ends on a whallop. It’s touching in a way I didn’t see coming. The final scene offers all anyone needs to see about this dysfunctional father/daughter relationship. And it’s beautiful.

With Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias

Production: Komplizen Film, coop99 filmproduktion, KNM, Missing Link Films, SWR/WDR/Arte

Distribution: NFP Marketing & Distribution (Germany), Soda Pictures (United Kingdom), Enfilade (Austria), Sony Pictures Classics (USA)

162 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

http://www.komplizen-film.de/e/toni-erdmann.html

http://www.sonyclassics.com/tonierdmann/

Things to Come [L’avenir]

(France/Germany 2016)

“My life isn’t over. Deep down, I was prepared. I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually.”

—Nathalie

A line from Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime” is apt to describe the root of the dramatic tension in Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film: “Well, how did I get here?” Things to Come is a character study of Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy professor at an unnamed Paris university, as she navigates and reinvents her place in the world after her bourgeois examined life suddenly transforms into something else and leaves her floundering in the process.

Nathalie’s passion for her work is clear beyond her career: her husband of 25 years, Heinz (André Marcon), is also a philosophy professor; the textbook she wrote is something of a standard; and her apartment is crammed with books. Even her everyday conversation is peppered with references to philosophers, some I know and other I have never heard of. Her two adult children can follow her when she goes on about, oh, say, Plato, as she sets the table. She seems like someone who has always relied on intellect and reason.

The protesters blocking access to campus early in the film hint to something amiss; Nathalie participated in her share of protests back in the day, but this is different. Selfish, perhaps? One day, Heinz announces that he’s leaving her for another woman. “I thought you would love me forever,” Nathalie responds in a way that reads more like examining a problem than expressing surprise or hurt. Soon, her needy mother (Edith Scob) takes a turn for the worst, leaving Nathalie to figure out what to do with the cat. Meanwhile, her publisher informs her that her textbook’s future is uncertain. Then there’s the matter of her reunion with a former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a cute and promising writer living in an anarchists’ commune.

Things to Come is very much about change, both in circumstances and relationships. Hansen-Løve takes a decidedly distant approach, letting us watch things unfold from afar. She’s not detached; she just seems more interested in showing the small events that shape Nathalie’s journey and letting us figure out the big picture. It works really well. Choosing “Unchained Melody” for the background in the final scene is especially clever; it’s clear about where Nathalie is on an emotional level, yet it’s open to interpretation about whether the future holds good things for her. It’s a happy, hopeful ending if you want it to be.

With Sarah Le Picard, Solal Forte, Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, Rachel Arditi, Yves Heck

Production: Arte France Cinéma, CG Cinéma, Detail Film, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma

Distribution: Les Films du Losange, Palace Films

102 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.thingstocomefilm.com

Amélie [Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain]

(France/Germany 2001)

“I like to look for things no one else catches.”

—Amélie Poulain

The Associate Board of Chicago International Film Festival presented a special screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, a sumptuous, romantic fantasy of a film that looks as good as it feels. I’ve seen it many times. It’s unrealistic, maybe even a bit silly; yet, it always leaves me smiling. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see it again.

Young Amélie Poulain (Flora Guiet) has a lonely childhood: her odd parents are overreactive, overprotective, and emotionally distant, preferring to rearrange the contents of their toolbox and purse than pay much attention to her. It’s so bad that her heart races when her father, Raphaël (Rufus), a physican, touches her during her annual checkup—a narrator (André Dussollier) explains that all she wants is a hug.

Her father misdiagnoses Amélie with a heart condition. As a result, she’s kept inside from the world and homeschooled by her mother, Amandine (Lorella Cravotta), a rather hysterical woman with a nervous tic in her eye. Amélie retreats into her imagination to deal with it all. Her home environment is so stifling, it makes her pet goldfish, Blubber, jump out of its bowl in multiple suicide attempts. A separate suicide at Notre-Dame, this one successful, changes Amélie’s life, leaving her father to raise her alone without any siblings, which her mother apparently wanted for her. C’est la vie.

Fast forward to 1997: grown up Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is a stylish but shy waitress at a café in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris—artsy Montmartre. While home alone (as usual) in her flat one evening—August 31, 1997—a TV news report of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s fatal car accident jolts Amélie, causing a chain reaction that leads her directly to a rusty box of a boy’s trinkets from the 1950s hidden in her bathroom wall. She discerns the identity of the family who lived in her flat back then and devises an elaborate scheme to reunite the boy, now an older man (Maurice Bénichot), with his “treasures” while staying completely anonymous and out of view. It works, bringing happiness to him and in the process to Amélie.

Thrilled with her accomplishment, she decides that her life’s work will be making others happy—in her own amusingly roundabout, always off to the side way. Amélie, you see, prefers to be invisible. She describes what she sees to a blind man (Jean Darie), kidnaps her father’s garden gnome to inspire him to travel, mails a bunch of fake love letters to her landlord (Yolande Moreau) whose husband abandoned her decades ago, and fixes up a hypochondriac coworker (Isabelle Nanty) with a volatile café patron (Dominique Pinon) who just got dumped.

Amélie’s covert approach goes swimmingly for others, but not so much for her own happiness—something she discovers once she encounters Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome and quirky stranger who works at a porn shop and collects discarded photos from a photo booth at Gare de l’Est. Amélie can’t bring herself to show herself to Nino, let alone speak to him through a door. Can her neighbor, “the Glass Man” (Serge Merlin), talk some sense into her?

Everything about Amélie dazzles. Just like earlier films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Amélie is a treat, showcasing Jeunet’s distinct buoyantly surreal visual and narrative style. He’s more sophisticated here, though. He throws in offbeat narrative sidebars that tell about his characters. With wide shots, unexpected angles, a pallet of vividly dark colors, and a mix of elements from different decades, he concocts an idealized version of Paris that highlights all that makes it romantic and dreamy. It works well with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, which has a cool sepiatone air to it. My favorite shot is the one of Amélie literally dissolving into a puddle of water.

Tatou is wonderfully mischievous, emulating both Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Tinkerbell. You can’t help but fall for her as she turns the mundane into magnifique. Kassovitz, who comes off as a weirdo at first, capably metamorphoses Nino into a go-getter who turns out to be a great match for Amélie. Plus, he’s easy on the eyes.

122 minutes
Rated R

(Public Chicago) A

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.miramax.com/movie/amelie/

We Monsters [Wir Monster]

(Germany 2015)

With We Monsters, Sebastian Ko examines who’s worse in a tough situation: the transgressive child who caused it, or the parents protecting her. Don’t be quick to call it, because the answer isn’t clear.

Self-absorbed and buffoonish Paul (Mendi Nebbou), an ageing newly-divorced musician, and his sour teenaged daughter, Sarah (Janina Fautz), are en route to summer camp when she asks him to pick up her schoolmate Charlie (Marie Bendig). Curiously, Charlie is already waiting on the road—in the middle of the forest where they’re driving. After a petty bicker in the backseat—over a boy, of course—Paul pulls over for a pit stop. The girls disappear, and Paul soon finds Sarah standing on the edge of a dam. She coolly tells him she pushed Charlie off.

Thus begins the drama as Paul and his ex-wife, Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre), struggle with handling Sarah’s deed: how do they hide what she did—and how could they? And why is she so indifferent? We Monsters is a morality play oozing psychological dread worthy of a Hitchcock film, especially when Charlie’s volatile alcoholic father (Ronald Kukulies) comes around looking for her. One cover up leads to another, and soon Paul and Christine are in over their parental heads. But is the situation really what it seems?

A few spots are slow, but We Monsters still kept me riveted. The story for the most part is paced well, and the acting is really good. Andreas Köhler’s cinematography is beautifully understated and drab, letting the characters and the drama take center stage. About an hour in, Ko’s tense tone gives way to something decidedly dark, comic, and ironic—and it plays out nicely. Karma’s truly a bitch.

According to Variety, an American remake is in the works (http://variety.com/2016/film/news/we-monsters-remake-veena-sud-broad-green-1201701398/). Let’s hope it’s half as good, but I doubt it will be: We Monsters is not a story I see resonating with a mainstream American audience without some tweaking that changes the story and kills the mood.

95 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B

http://www.plutofilm.de/films/we-monsters/0010

The Dark Valley [Das finstere Tal]

(Germany/Austria 2014)

A German-language revenge Western set in the Alps during the 1800s? Sounds questionable, but The Dark Valley is a little gem that came out of nowhere—at least, I hadn’t heard about it. The film begins with a mystery: a young couple is hiding in a basement when a group of men swarms down on them, beating the man and dragging the woman away, screaming.

Years later, a German-speaking stranger from the States with daguerreotype camera arrives in a gloomy town on a gloomy day just before winter breaks. The town is filled with gloomy, unwelcoming inhabitants under the rule of Old Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his six backass, brawny sons. The stranger, Greider (Sam Riley), convinces the Brenners to let him stay to take photographs of the valley, and they set him up with widow Gaderin (Carmen Gratl) and her daughter, Luzi (Paula Beer), who is engaged to Lukas (Thomas Schubert). Something is amiss, and the Brenners clearly don’t take kindly to strangers. War erupts after two of the Brenner boys die in “accidents.” Who is this Greider, anyway

The Dark Valley combines flavors of Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers. Its heavy and brooding tone is palpably serious, even bordering on comical. It works, though—director Andreas Prochaska manages to avoid crossing over into cheese. Visually, the look is crisp, artful, and beautiful. I could have done without hearing either version of “Sinnerman”—one by Clara Luzia and the other by One Two Three Cheers and a Tiger—but I enjoyed this film for what it is.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

http://www.filmsdistribution.com/Film.aspx?ID=4186

 

Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin]

(Germany 1988)

Wings of Desire is Wim Wenders’s take on being human, immortality, love, passion, and maybe even destiny (or lack thereof). Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander play two ageless and voyeristic angels, Damiel and Cassiel, who watch over Berlin, eavesdropping on ordinary citizens’ most personal thoughts. Sometimes they try to help out the mortals; sometimes they don’t. No one can see them except children, and they don’t have any real interaction with anyone. All is well and good until Damiel falls for trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin)– then things get dicey.

Wings of Desire is a beautiful looking film that closely resembles the midcentury Italian and French neorealist films I’ve seen of late: haunting and gorgeous black and white shots of the city, a cast of mostly everyday characters (except the angels, of course), a hazy plot, and heavy existential themes. Poetic and dreamlike, it’s slow and very German but well worth sticking with to the end. Seeing the Wall, which stood until 1989, as just another part of the landscape adds a cool historical note. Peter Falk as Der Filmstar (a.k.a. himself) and a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert as the setting for one of the last scenes are both nice touches– they provide playfulness in what otherwise would be an overly somber film.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

https://www.criterion.com/films/200-wings-of-desire

Metropolis

(Germany 1927)

I have been aware of Metropolis since the late Eighties—I can’t remember whether Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video or a now defunct industrial dance club by the same name in the equally defunct Cleveland Flats is responsible for bringing it to my attention; if that makes me a rube, so be it. For whatever reason, though, I never bothered to seek it out. I’m glad I finally saw it—Metropolis is a cool film, even as it approaches a century.

It’s a lot more than I thought it would be. The plot is simple enough, as silent era films are: capitalism and technology have run amuck in the future, and the workers live in a drab underground city while the elite live in a bigger and nicer city above ground. The workers, who run the machines that keep the city going, are planning a revolt. Plot aside, Metropolis as a whole is pretty grand. The sets are amazing: big, industrial, and busy, many shots reminded me of the Chicago Loop. The score is textured and soothing—it actually lulled me into a trance at points. The 2010 restoration we saw—it includes 25 minutes of footage assumed lost until uncovered in Argentina in 2008—is gorgeous, giving Metropolis a crisp look that belies its age. Fritz Lang had a lot to say about capitalism, class, technology, science, progress, and even religion—it’s not hard to find scholarly materials online.

What strikes me most about Metropolis is that for as old as it is—everyone in it has been dead for awhile—its vision of the future, while extreme, is really not that far off from reality.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A

http://metropolis1927.com/#about