Review: Babylon Berlin

The most expensive German TV series ever produced, Babylon Berlin, is Weimar noir, a detective drama turned conspiracy thriller set against the backdrop of decadence, poverty, and corruption in 1929 Berlin just before the Nazi party rode the swell of nationalism to power. Think Cabaret meets L.A. Confidential as produced by UFA, recreating a cultural moment that is about to implode.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a Cologne cop working with the Berlin vice squad, is a World War I vet who conceals his shellshock tremors with black market morphine. He’s a tarnished hero on a covert mission to track down a pornography ring blackmailing a politician back home, but then pretty much everyone has shadows over them.

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New reviews: ‘The International’ and ‘Under the Sea 3D’

The International (dir: Tom Tykwer)

Not as silly as the previews make it look, this altogether self-serious thriller is a sleek globe-trotting thriller, handsome but efficiently anonymous, which is disappointing considering it’s from Tom Tykwer, whose previous films have been loaded with style, grace and/or audacity. His best films tell stories with a metaphysical dimension. This one is firmly materialist and should be timely as it explores the intertwining interests of multinational finance and international crime.

The International Belgian Bank of Commerce is ostensibly the bank of choice for various criminal enterprises – the mob, totalitarian dictators, rogue nations – and it’s services go way beyond money. They are wading into arms dealing and running it like a car dealership – they not only sell you the arms, they finance the terms. In return, they control the debt, and that is where the power and the money lays. That’s the political dimension of the film and the exposition is laid out in the first half as Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) try to make a case with an investigation that keeps getting cut off at the knees, either from witnesses that keep dying or officials that want to quash it. The latter part is easier when the IBBC put members of every major European government and police force on their payroll.

Clive Owen as an Interpol agent who thinks he's James Bond
Clive Owen as an Interpol agent who thinks he's James Bond

Salinger is something of a loose cannon in the otherwise disciplined international agency. Interpol lets Owen play the indignant maverick and gives the film license for all sorts of dramatic action, including a high-caliber shoot-out in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. An entire platoon of killers sneaks its automatic weapons into the museum for that particular piece of performance art, a strikingly designed scene executed with impressive but impersonal precision.

It plays like Tykwer’s audition for a Hollywood high-stakes action film contract, a smartly done adult thriller. I suppose he passes the audition, but he sure doesn’t seem engaged in the exercise.

Read my review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Under the Sea 3D (dir: Howard Hall)

The IMAX brand of documentary is defined by state-of-the-art photography and old-school filmmaking. It’s a lot like Disney’s old nature documentaries, but with photography so clear and deep and vivid that you can almost touch it. And if 3D is the future of moviegoing spectacle, then IMAX 3D is the gold standard. The effect in Under The Sea is amazing. It was all I could do not to reach out to one aquatic creature floating what seemed to be inches from my face, suspended in the space between the screen and my glasses. But more than such optical thrills for the eyes and mind, it gives the undersea habitat a depth and space unseen in traditional photography and brings us into the experience. Given such visual spectacle, one wishes it had a directorial vision and filmmaking sophistication to match.

It’s the best seat in the aquarium of our dreams, less a documentary than an underwater pageant of nature studies. The filmmaking is rudimentary at best.

Jim Carrey’s best storybook voice offers a cuddly commentary between cautionary warnings of dying reefs and marine extinctions due to climate change and warming oceans. An insistent soundtrack of splashy sound effects punctuate every movement, belying the almost hypnotic hush of the real underwater experience.

Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.