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Films I Neglected To Review: Pieces
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Captain," "Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings," "Puzzle," "The Row" and "Teen Titans GO! To The Movies."

As ''The Captain'' opens, it is the final weeks of WW II and German soldier Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) is on the run after deserting his post. After eluding his pursuers, he comes across an abandoned military vehicle that contains a Luftwaffe captain's full uniform in the back seat, which he puts on for warmth. Just then, another German soldier happens along, assumes that Herold is a genuine captain and quickly falls into line. Liking the first taste of power he has presumably ever felt in his life, Herold goes along with the charade and soon ends up commanding a number of soldiers for a top secret mission that he claims was assigned to him by no less a figure than Hitler himself. Sure, some of those that he comes across along the way suspect that there is something fishy about him and his alleged mission but, presumably fearing what might happen to them if they are wrong, few are willing to confront him about Herold's inconsistencies to his face and even when they do, he feeds them just enough nonsense to satisfy them. The ruse continues to grow and expand until Herold and his men arrive at Camp II, a prison camp for German deserters that is overflowing with inmates and whose command is divided between those who simply want to execute everyone and be done with it and those who want to at least go through the motions of something resembling military justice first. Having been a deserter himself, one might assume that Herold would have some underlying sympathy for the plight of those prisoners but he has so thoroughly taken to his new identity that he no longer sees himself as one of them and this shift leads to horrifying results.

This is a crazy story, to be sure, and it therefore should not come as a surprise to discover that it is based on a true incident and that there really was a Willi Herold, who would eventually go down in the annals of the war as ''the Executioner of Emsland.'' However, in bringing it to the screen, writer/director Robert Schwentke (returning to his native Germany after spending years in Hollywood making forgettable claptrap like ''Flightplan'' (2005), ''R.I.P.D.'' (2013) and ''Allegiant'' (2016)) doesn’t quite seem to have a firm grasp on what he wants to say with the material. It starts off strongly enough, thanks to the combination of the screenplay’s dark humor, the crisp black-and-white photography and the compelling central performance by Hubacher. After a while, though, it starts to get a little monotonous, especially when it becomes clear that the film prefers to leave Herold as a cipher rather than to try to get to know and understand him on anything beyond a superficial surface level. Things do begin to perk up again towards the end as the truth begins to close in on Herold and his horrifying misdeeds but even there, other than a couple of obvious nods to certain current-day situations, it doesn't really add up to much of anything in the end. ''The Captain'' is not a bad movie per se--it is handsomely mounted, sometimes very funny (albeit in the darkest manner imaginable) and Hubacher's performance is undeniably strong. However, when it is all said and done, it is the kind of film that one can easily shrug off when it is over, something that one might think would be impossible given the source material.

Even the most devoted fans of prolific Asian filmmaking legend Tsui Hark (who produced the key Hong Kong films of John Woo and directed such favorites as ''Once Upon a Time in China,'' ''Peking Opera Blues'' and the incredible ''Time and Tide'') who have to admit that his output has been somewhat uneven in recent years. Happily, his latest effort, the wild historical fantasy ''Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings'', is, if not a total return to form, a perfectly satisfying, if not always lucid, epic. In this third adventure featuring the dedicated court investigator for the Tang Dynasty, Detective Di (Mark Chao) has been charged by the Emperor with protecting the fabled Dragon Taming Mace--a weapon roughly as powerful as Excalibur and with a slightly cooler name. Alas, the scheming Empress Wu (Carina Lau) wants that power for herself and recruits Imperial guard (and friend of Di) Yuchi (William Feng Shaofeng) to steal it, knowing that the penalty for losing the mace is death. Di is no fool, of course, and foils that theft attempt but things get more complicated when an unknown third party swoops in and attempts to steal it for themselves. It all concludes, as such things tend to do, with an orgy of battle sequences in which even dragons and giant albino apes get to come into play.

Like most of Tsui's films, especially the more overtly fantastical ones, ''Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings'' is not the most coherent narrative imaginable--I have only just finished watching it a few minutes before sitting down to write this and I could not explain all the twists and turns of the screenplay if you put a gun to my head. That said, this is not really the type of movie that one attends primarily to see a story unfold in a classical manner--this is a film that is pretty much entirely about the spectacle and nothing else. At over two overstuffed hours, it may prove to be too much for some viewers but there is so much nifty and bizarre stuff going on--this is the type of film where a giant ape can suddenly be pelted with hundreds of huge disembodied eyeballs and it doesn't seem that outrageous in conjunction with what has come before it--that those with a taste for the odd stuff can simply sit back and let it wash over them like an exceptionally vivid dream. If you need more than just a lot of wild visuals in your moviegoing, the film also contains performances by Chao, Lau and Sandra Ma Sichun (as an assassin working for the Empress who changes sides after unexpectedly falling in love with Di’s goofball sidekick) that manage to provide a sense of grounding amidst the chaos. I don't know if I could possibly muster the strength to sit through ''Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings'' again anytime soon, it is undeniably fun and you are unlikely to confuse it with anything else playing at the multiplex right now.

In the opening scenes of ''Puzzle,'' Connecticut housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is single-handedly handling every aspect of a birthday party at her home--making and serving the food, keeping people entertained, cleaning up when something gets broken--and the punchline comes when she brings out the cake and we discover that it is actually her birthday party. To be sure, Agnes is not being abused or anything--it is just that people like her husband (David Denman) and two sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams ) kind of take her for granted and she has pretty much been conditioned since childhood to push all of her own wants and desires to the side in order to serve others in her life. That all changes when she cracks open one of her gifts, a jigsaw puzzle, and discovers that she has a freakish knack for putting them together quickly. Her desire to do more puzzles leads her to New York (apparently they don’t sell such things in a backwater like Connecticut) and puts her in the orbit of Robert (Irrfan Khan), a competitive puzzler who is in search of a partner for an upcoming competition where a win means a place in the world finals. Agnes begins secretly meeting with Robert twice a week to practice strategies and she begins to break out of her shell and do things for herself for the first time in her life, much to the consternation of her clueless husband.

Based on the Argentinian film ''Rompecabezas,'' ''Puzzle'' starts off awkwardly (the fact that a grown woman seems baffled by the existence of jigsaw puzzles and needs to cross state lines to buy one and jump-start the plot beggars belief) and many of the developments in the screenplay by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman, such as Agnes's older son suddenly deciding to follow his dreams and become a cook and the romance that eventually develops between her and Robert, feel more like contrivances rather than authentic displays of human behavior. Marc Turtletaub's direction is a little too low-key for its own good--even though it isn't especially long, it drags unforgivably at times. However, the film does have a couple of aspects that make it reasonably entertaining, if not quite worth going out of one's way to catch it. The first is the screenplay decision to not make the husband the standard-issue brute for most of its running time--he loves and cares for her but is just kind of clueless to the fact that she might have things that she wants to do that do not revolve around making sure that dinner is served the moment he comes home from work. (Towards the finale, he does become more of a cliche meanie and you can practically feel the film grind to a stop during these moments.) The other is the lovely performance by Kelly Macdonald as Agnes--this is by far the best showcase for her talents that she has had in a while and she makes great use of it in the way that she keeps her character from getting bogged down in a morass of cliches. ''Puzzle'' isn't great--there are long stretches where it is about as exciting as watching someone else do a jigsaw puzzle--but to the degree that it does succeed, it is almost entirely due to her considerable efforts.

Take away such contemporary touches as cell phones and an EDM-heavy soundtrack and ''The Row'' could easily pass for a newly unearthed 80s-era slasher movie, though most viewers will probably be eager to bury it again long before it stumbles to the finish line. After being dropped off by her overprotective cop father (UFC star Randy Couture) at college, freshman Riley (Lala Kent) is encouraged by her best pal (Mia Rose Frampton) to pledge Phi Lambda, the hottest sorority on campus. (You can tell because they are shown walking across the quad in slow motion while in formation.) Riley isn’t so sure but discovers a heretofore unknown personal connection to the sorority, regarding her late mother, and decides to join. While she is undergoing all the ritual hazing, someone out there is picking off the Phi Lambdas one by one and dressing their mutilated corpses to look like dolls. Alas, everyone at this school seems to be majoring in Red Herrings so everyone seems to be a suspect as Riley tries to get to the bottom of things before she becomes the next victim.

While it may sound like the kind of meat-and-potatoes horror film perfectly designed to pass the time one night with a few fellow genre buffs, this film is far too tedious to achieve even that minor goal. The screenplay by Sarah Scougal is the usual heap of cliches spiked with the occasional sub-''Heathers'' quippery and resolutely uninteresting characters and is so nonsensical that when the mad killer is finally revealed, the explanation only makes sense if there was some kind of ''Donnie Darko''-style rift in the time-space continuum (and even then, it would still be stretching things). The direction by Matty Beckerman is equally clumsy--the film has the look and feel of moderately budgeted porn and is about as tension-filled as watching someone watering their plants. Even those who just want some T&A and gore are going to be disappointed--there is no real nudity to speak of and the bloodshed has also strangely been kept to a minimum as well. To be fair, ''The Row'' does have a reasonably enticing poster and believe me, staring at it for 85 minutes is going to be far more entertaining that trying to make it through the actual film.

I have never seen a single episode of the animated TV series ''Teen Titans Go!''--after suffering from perpetual superhero overload in my day job, I am not exact keen to expose myself to more of the same in my off-time--but if the surprisingly witty ''Teen Titans Go! To The Movies'' is any indication, I may indeed have to go back and check it out after all. In this wild, gag-a-second DC production, the erstwhile Robin (Scott Menville) is convinced that no one--especially better-known superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, will ever take himself or his cohorts, Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Raven (Tara Strong), Starfire (Hynden Walch) and Cyborg (Khary Payton), seriously is if Hollywood finally makes a movie about them in the same way that they have done with virtually every other superhero or note. From this premise comes a rapid-fire array of silliness, satire and in-jokes (ranging from a cameo from Stan Lee, despite the fact that it is not a Marvel film, to the meta-casting of Nicolas Cage as the voice of Superman, a role that he was once famously slated to play for Tim Burton before the project was cancelled) presented with the kind of breathless glee not seen since the glorious ''Powerpuff Girls'' movie. The film hits the sweet spot of being broad and goofy enough for the kids to enjoy (there are a couple of poop/fart-related jokes but to its credit, they happen to be reasonably inspired examples of such low humor) while containing enough moments of sly with to keep older viewers (especially those who are suffering from a bit of superhero burnout themselves) amused as well. As animated superhero adventures go, ''Teen Titans Go! To The Movies'' probably won’t make anyone forget either of the “Incredibles” films but those looking for 90 minutes of nutty fun could do a lot worse than this.

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originally posted: 08/04/18 00:06:11
last updated: 08/04/18 00:42:48
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