Thomas Kretschmann

Transsiberian (2008, Brad Anderson)

The train thriller has been a film standard for seventy years, probably longer. I can’t remember the last one, as the genre’s sort of fallen off in the last ten years. The naive American tourist is trouble genre is younger, but not by much. Transsiberian combines the two–a natural combination–but it’s far more of a character study than a thriller, as much of the film hinges on Emily Mortimer’s decision process. Accordingly, the whole thing rests on her and she really isn’t up for it. It’s kind of strange, since she’s a fine physical actress, she’s just never once believable as the recovering substance abuser who’s married an Iowa hardware store owner (Woody Harrelson). Maybe the American accent just put up a wall for her….

Brad Anderson’s approach, both to the storytelling and the direction, is very inventive and not really mainstream, blockbuster Hollywood. So the script itself being as unoriginal in its constant use of standard Hollywood thriller mores is a little strange. It starts with the mysterious, are they or aren’t they bad fellow travelers (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara). Well, actually it starts with the first Woody Harrelson is a rube because he’s from Iowa joke. There are four or five of them and it’s kind of strange to see a film mock its ostensible protagonist. The film does start differently, however, with an uncritical churchgoers opening scene. It’s kind of nice… maybe all the rube jokes were to make up for it.

Harrelson barely resonates in the film (his character is so one-note), with Noriega dominating the first half as the male presence. Noriega isn’t even particularly good, he just isn’t supposed to be mind-numbingly boring… which is exactly what attracts Mortimer to him.

Here’s where Transsiberian is so interesting–Mortimer’s not at all a good person, which makes her an interesting protagonist. Except the script saddles her with all this unbelievable backstory and it’s all very simplistic. Without the backstory, the film would probably run ten minutes shorter and be a lot less expository.

The script splits the film into two halves–the naive tourist thriller and the train thriller (even though the train’s in the whole movie)–and it works toward making the film more interesting as Mortimer has a lot more to do on her own in the second half and she really just doesn’t cut it.

Ben Kingsley’s got a decent part. Kate Mara isn’t bad. Thomas Kretschmann’s good in what should have been an uncredited cameo.

Alfonso Vilallonga’s score is so good it gets its own paragraph.

As Mortimer essayed the big revelation scene (the first big revelation scene, the last one is actually very quiet as the film excuses all of Mortimer’s actions in the end so she can have a Hollywood ending), I wondered if she was bad or the script was bad. Then I imagined Rose Byrne in her role and Transsiberian would have been excellent. Or really good anyway (Byrne would have been great). Anderson’s always been a competent, cute filmmaker and this one is no different. He usually just casts a little better.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Anderson; written by Anderson and Will Conroy; director of photography, Xavier Giménez; edited by Jaume Martí; music by Alfonso Vilallonga; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Julio Fernández; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Roy), Emily Mortimer (Jessie), Kate Mara (Abby), Eduardo Noriega (Carlos), Thomas Kretschmann (Kolzak) and Ben Kingsley (Grinko).


Stalingrad (1993, Joseph Vilsmaier)

I remember when Stalingrad came out on VHS. I was working at a video store and argued for ordering it, based on the ads mention of it having the same producer as Das Boot. Still, I was a little surprised at how much the opening credits try to go for a Das Boot feel. It’s kind of shameless.

Then the movie opens strongly, with the heroes on leave in Italy. Actually, until they get to Stalingrad–so, basically there’s a good train ride and then that’s it–Stalingrad is fine. Once the five soldiers the film follows get there, everything falls apart. Everything except some of the performances. And only some of them. The rest of them are terrible. So, five or six good performances, then a bunch of awful amateurish ones. But the performances fit the script, which is a painfully obvious mess. A lot of the plotting feels like Stalingrad was intended for Das Boot length, but got cut up. There are few transitions and often sequences make no sense.

The director, Joseph Vilsmaier, doesn’t help. Unless Stalingrad was shot on an über-cheap budget, there’s no excuse for Vilsmaier’s composition. His battle scenes are fine, even his soldiers sitting around scenes (which comprise the majority of the film–the script feels like a play adaptation and a bad one), but whenever he’s got to establish a setting, he fails miserably. It often looks like a poorly directed after school special.

The acting from Thomas Kretschmann, Dominique Horwitz and Jochen Nickel is all excellent. Kretschmann’s so good I couldn’t believe it was him. Horwitz is obviously not German, no matter how his hair is cut and I kept wondering if I was supposed to notice. Nickel’s got the easiest role, the sturdy then crumbling sergeant, but he does good things with it. Like I said before, there are a handful of other good performances.

The biggest overall problem with the film is its narrative cheapness. Not only is there the Russian kid the soldiers all like, but there’s also a villain who hunts the soldiers throughout. It’s silly and the silliness is the worst thing about Stalingrad. The filmmakers seem to think its subject alone will make it good and they’re wrong.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Joseph Vilsmaier; written by Johannes Heide, Jürgen Büscher and Vilsmaier; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Norbert Schneider; production designers, Wolfgang Hundhammer and Jindrich Goetz; produced by Hanno Huth, Gunther Rohrbach and Vilsmaier; released by Senator Film.

Starring Dominique Horwitz (Fritz), Thomas Kretschmann (Hans), Jochen Nickel (Rollo) and Sebastian Rudolph (GeGe).


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