Film Reviews

New in Film: A Woman in Berlin, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Jennifer's Body, The Burning Plain, and Flame & Citron

A Woman in Berlin

One of the best of a new breed of indigenous movies prying open the Pandora's box of German suffering in World War II, A Woman in Berlin takes on the mass rape of German women by victorious Russian soldiers entering the country in 1945. Skillfully adapted and directed by Max Färberböck (who also made the terrific 2000 drama Aimee & Jaguar) from the anonymously published diaries of a Berlin rape victim, the film is a properly twisted love story between two enemies, each clinging to a deluded and destructive patriotism. Played by the scorching Nina Hoss, last seen in Christian Petzold's Yella and Jerichow, the unnamed woman is a cultivated and cunning sophisticate determined to seize control over who gets to ravish her; her protector (Yevgeni Sidikhin) is a Russian officer whose innate decency is muddled by his unquestioning loyalty to Stalin. Their impossible bond plays out against a fragile collusion—forever breaking out into naked hatred—between German women and Russian soldiers with nothing in common but the fact that they have all survived the war. Graphic but never exploitative, A Woman in Berlin is a bracing inquiry into the limits of morality in extreme situations that avoids lapses into lazy relativism. Twice in the movie, Hoss' Anonyma is asked if she's a fascist; twice, she refuses to respond. Her answer lies in the haunting question she poses to her lover and foe: How do we go on living? Ella Taylor

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had won me over by the time the brilliant goof of a hero says to the heroine, "Why do you do that — say something supersmart and then bail from it?" The line is followed by a makeover of said heroine that's less about remaking her than freeing her; it rings more true than a slew of Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock movies combined. Written and directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who adapted the script from the popular children's book, Cloudy is smart, insightful on a host of relationship dynamics, and filled with fast-paced action. When failed inventor Flint (fantastically voiced by Bill Hader) accidentally creates a machine that makes food fall from the sky, he revamps his rep as the town laughingstock and catches the eye of fledgling reporter Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris), who masks her intelligence beneath a veneer of ditziness. The duo is tested, of course, when things go horribly awry, and lessons about self-confidence — and the distinction between confidence and assholery — get driven home. The 3-D effects are wonderful, full of witty sight gags that play out center-screen and on the periphery, while immensely appealing secondary characters (a policeman voiced by Mr. T, a loving but tongue-tied dad voiced by James Caan, and a scene-stealing monkey voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) round off a film that plays as well for adults as kids. Ernest Hardy

Jennifer's Body

A premeditated cult classic — they're kind of like "pre-worn" designer jeans — Jennifer's Body seems designed more to be quoted than watched. This is the sophomore production from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, similarly told through ultra-stylized slangy teen dialogue, which is cool, in theory, in the way it respects the verbal resourcefulness of idle kids, but is excruciating to listen to in actual fact. Megan Fox's lithe Jennifer is BFF to goldfish-faced, bespectacled Amanda Seyfried's "Needy" — the nickname underlines the essentially condescending dynamic in their high school relationship, which also digresses into the best close-up girl-girl liplock since Cruel Intentions. Jenny is transformed from a flaunting tease into a literal man-eater, a boy-gobbling succubus, after going off one night in some out-of-town rocker's van (the movie can read as a cautionary tale on the dangers of trolling for hot band dudes instead of sticking with your schlubby boyfriend), setting up a Good Girl vs. Bad Girl knock-down-drag-out. The suburban interior décor is about a generation off, but the satire is roughly contemporary, with routine "risky" digs at 9/11 kitsch (and, generally, the American "tragedy boner") and a re-enactment of the Great White club fire. Lines like "Sandbox love never dies," could be lyrics to the Warped Tour riffs to which Fox slo-mo sashays at the camera. Nick Pinkerton

The Burning Plain

Oregon restaurant manager Charlize Theron, prone to submissive promiscuity and self-inflicted violence, sits naked in bed next to her lover. A decade or so earlier, an abandoned trailer in the middle of the New Mexico desert blazes the title into being. In the fractured, self-impressed screenplays of Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams), events unfold out of time and space, effects before causes. Arriaga engages us not by playing out human complexities but by using rim shots that reveal how each jigsaw piece fits into his puzzle. (Gee, will that little blond girl in the desert grow up to be Charlize? Does she cut her thighs to punish herself for something discovered in the final act? Better keep watching.) The writer's most successful works — The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Amores Perros — were bolstered by directors who brought genuine emotion to the screen, but The Burning Plain marks Arriaga's behind-the-camera debut, and his obviousness is staggering. The present tense rains down in gray-blue melancholy while the past comes sun-kissed in orange, and the sensational pop-psychological damage wrought by two generations onto a third carries all the dramatic heft of a telenovela, albeit one with award-bait cinematography. Aaron Hillis

Flame & Citron

Of all the European nations, Denmark enjoys the nearest thing to a heroic record of resisting the Nazi occupiers — which adds both poignancy and punch to Ole Christian Madsen's fact-based drama about two posthumously honored Danes. Framed without cynicism as a gangster picture (the point being that contract killing turns everyone into a thug, however noble the cause), this slickly produced picture stars the almost unbearably charismatic Thure Lindhardt and the saturnine Mads Mikkelson as co-assassins — one loves killing; the other makes a mess of everything but killing — charged with executing Denmark's Nazi collaborators. Flame & Citron is less about the battle between good and evil than about losing one's way in the fog of war, which makes it hard to tell friend from foe and harder yet to sort through the rules of engagement and complicates the heroic honor codes of movies about the "good war." Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows exerts a palpable influence, but in its own right, Flame & Citron is the film that the horribly overrated Black Book could have been had Paul Verhoeven not indulged in the puerile reversals of sensitive Nazis and treacherous partisans. Ella Taylor

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