Thursday, June 27, 2019

On "Transit"

As stated on this blog before, almost all of filmmaker Christian Petzold's films are about people and places in literal flux. I don't think he's ever broached the subject quite as literally (in title or theme) as he so assuredly does in his latest feature, "Transit". Not only is his lead character Georg (Franz Rogowski) stuck in an amalgam of time that fuses the pervasive fear of German Nationalism encroaching across Europe in the 1940's with today's climate of fear mongering intolerance about immigration, but the people embodying this terrifying space of inquietude are locked in limbo as well, unable to advance one way or the other. Even with the papers of a dead man emboldening his trek across Europe in the hopes of gaining passage to somewhere safer, Georg is a haunting figure in a long hall of mirrors where everyone is seen over and over with the same hopes of salvation. It's a daring and formal enterprise, made all the more searing by Petzold's usual clean aesthetic that refuses to advance the narrative into anything resembling a happy ending.

In it's brisk but packed 100 minute running time, "Transit" gets right to the punch early, unspooling so much information in its first third that it feels like Petzold's most complicated film yet. The aforementioned Georg meets a friend in a bar who asks him to deliver a message to a quasi famous writer stashed away in a local hotel. Dropping us into a Europe where forces of police-attired military units are sweeping across the landscape and rounding up anyone without the proper ID papers, George accepts for the little money offered. Realizing the writer is dead upon arrival, Georg swipes his manuscript and ID and submerges himself to Marseille in hopes of contacting the writer's wife Marie (Paula Beer) and securing transport papers in a town where the oppressive government haven't quite reached yet. Through an unidentified narrator (at least until the final few minutes) and Georg's own improvised persona, "Transit" becomes both a mystery and a political thriller in how it dispenses (and withholds) crucial information until its ready to burst.

Finding the elusive Marie, however, soon becomes a secondary concern to simple survival for Georg. Actually, Marie finds him, running into him on the street several times as she mistakes him from behind thinking he's someone else. This motif of confused identity and amnesiac scope becomes one of the many telling hints of bureaucratic malaise and mask-wearing Petzold chooses to wash across the film.

Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, "Transit" is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from its original intentions of Seghers World War II experiences into the sleek and metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale are today juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear- although some would argue the occupying forces are stronger and more insidious than ever. And, like Petzold's previous film "Phoenix", he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving the inhabitants to pick up the personal pieces in its wake. And like "Phoenix", Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity, it only further solidifies the fact that he's one of the two or three best filmmakers in the world today.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.4


About two-thirds of the way through- and once the film's teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend- "Booksmart" finds its footing and attains something quite terrific. The film's patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood. Just a great film all around.


While the idea of an alternate history story of a young Superman-type kid falling to Earth and being raised by Midwestern farming parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) sounds novel, David Yarovesky's "Brightburn" falters in execution. Relying on one too many horror tropes and scare beats, this is a film that telescopes pretty much every plot twist and drains the life out of (already) cardboard characters. 


Although I wasn't quite prepared for the straight musical narrative Dexter Fletcher unspools in telling the meteoric rise and drug-addled plateau of rock 'n' roll icon Elton John, the fluid camera work and choreography are the best things about the effort. It's when people begin having conversations that the film's weakness becomes glaring. Taron Egerton portrays John with swagger and verve, but its a performance that still comes off as pantomime rather than true character excavation.