Berlin, Los Alamos, London. Films reviewed: Berlin Alexanderplatz, Adventures of a Mathematician, No Time to Die

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Action, Espionage, Germany, Organized Crime, Poland, Refugees, Romance, Science, Sex Trade, Thriller, Uncategorized, US, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week, I’m looking at three new movies, all from Europe. There’s a Polish mathematician in WWII New Mexico, a refugee turned gangster in present-day Berlin, and a retired secret agent returning to his office in London.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Co-Wri/ Dir: Burhan Qurbani

Francis (Welket Bungué) is a young refugee from Guinea-Bissau who washes ashore on a beach near Berlin (leaving his lover drowned at the bottom of the sea). He’s young, intelligent, strong and ambitious, a handsome man with striking features. He wants to get ahead and live a good life as a good man. Easier said than done. He lives in a temporary housing bloc for refugees and carries no papers. He doesn’t exist in Germany., and is horribly exploited and demeaned at his job. So he leaves honest Labour and is seduced into a life of crime through a twisted friendship with Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) a psychotic gangster who traffics in women and drugs. Francis — renamed Franz by Reinhold —  learns German, and works his way up the ladder under  kingpin gangster Pums. But he is betrayed by his so-called friend Reinhold who attempts to kill him. He is nursed back to help by Mieze (Jella Haase) a beautiful, no-nonsense sex worker, leaving his life of organized crime behind. Eventually they fall in love, and plan to have a family… but can they stay together? Can he resist the allure of treacherous Renihold’s world? And torn apart in two directions — between love and morality on one side and success, wealth and power on the other — which path will he choose?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fantastic contemporary reboot of the classic 1929 German book by Alfred Döblin, sometimes described as one of the first modernist novels. And like any great novel it has a huge cast with tons of side characters and a nicely twisting plot. But also loads of ambiguity — Francis who is persecuted and abused always rises again from the ashes, declaring himself Deutschland – he is  Germany.   The story is told in five chapters, a cautionary tale narrated by Mieze, even though she doesn’t appear until halfway through. It’s a long movie — almost three hours — but it holds you captive till the end. It’s amazingly photographed by Yoshi Heimrath with images that will remain long after seeing them.

If you want a taste of contemporary German cinema, you should not miss this one.

Adventures of a Mathematician

Wri/Dir: Thor Klein

It’s the late 1930s in America. Stan Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski) is a mathematician who lives with his younger brother Adam at an ivy league university. Their family is well off, and still living in Lvov Poland, despite the troubling rise of totalitarian regimes all around them.  He likes gambling, debating and telling jokes with his best friend, the physicist  Johnnie Von Neumann (Fabien Kociecku). It’s all about the odds, Stan says, and house always wins. His life is comfortable but precarious. Then he meets an outspoken young writer named  Francoise (Esther Garrel), another refugee from Europe, and sparks fly. But before he has taken  their relationship any further, Johnnie invites him to join a highly secretive government enterprise in the rocky plateaus of Los Alamos New Mexico. Siblings are not allowed, just spouses and kids. Giving a tearful goodby to his needy brother, proposed marriage to Francoise, so they could stay together. It’s the Manhattan Project, and he’s there to on a team including Edward Teller (Joel Basman) to build the hydrogen bomb. But shocking news leads to a cerebral swelling treated with a drill into his skull. Will he ever recover?

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on  Ulam’s biography of the same name, is not an action thriller or a passionate romance. It’s a straightforward telling of  the highs and lows of a lesser-known genius’s life. He was instrumental in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, something he did not want to make.  But he was also responsible for crucial mathematic advances,  including his “Monte Carlo Method” (named after the famed casino) still essential in computer and statistical projects.  He also came up with amazing theories of space exploration not yet tested. Though mainly in English, this is a Polish movie, which perhaps explains the odd accents of some of the characters (For example Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist speaks with a heavy French accent). And story is told at a very slow pace. Still, I found Ulam’s story (someone I’d never heard of before) and the ideas behind his tale, intriguing. 

No Time to Die

Co-Wri/Dir:Cary Joji Fukunaga

His name is Bond…James Bond (Daniel Craig) and he’s retired as a British spy. Now he enjoys sitting around fishing in a lakeside cabin. Five years earlier he said farewell to his one true love, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), after — he believes — she betrayed him. What he doesn’t know is she’s the daughter of an infamous hitman who once killed a supervillain’s family. But his peace and quiet is interrupted by an urgent call from the CIA. Sceptre, the evil international criminal organization is having a meeting, and if he’s not there, maybe the world will end. Something known as The Heracles Project — the creation of a DNA-linked poison — is in danger of being released. But it’s not as simple as that.  It seems both the CIA and MI6 including M (Ralph Fiennes) himself, might be involved in a conspiracy. Should he return to his old job? Who can he trust? And will he ever see Madeleine again?

I’ve been watching James Bond movies since I was a kid, and to tell the truth, they bore me silly with their formulaic storylines, tedious characters and repetitious conventions. So I was very surprised to find how good No Time to Die really is. This is the best 007 I’ve seen in decades. It feels like a real movie, not just a franchise. No spoilers but I can say this one has a black, female 007 (Lashana Lynch) a Q (Ben Whishaw) coming out as gay (more or less) and a marvelous trio of supervillains, played by Rami Malek, Christoph Waltz, and Dali Benssalah. Also great are the hero (Daniel Craig), and his erstwhile lover, the mysterious Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). It has the usual cars, gadgets, fights, beautiful women and exotic scenery, but it also has characters you actually care about. If you’re willing to go back to a movie theatre, and you want something fun, I think you should see No Time to Die.

Adventures of a Mathematician is available on VOD and digital platforms this weekend, No Time to Die opens in theatres next week — check your local listings. And Berlin Alexanderplatz is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Canadian Premier, one screening only, on October 7th, 6.30PM as part of the Goethe Films series History Now: Past as Prologue.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

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