Despite Some Unnecessary Hollywood Touches, “Labyrinth of Lies” Is Powerful Truth-Telling [+ a Minor Levinson, “Rock the Kasbah”]

I spent more time than expected typing up my interview with filmmaker Kat Candler about her terrific new short film, The Rusted, made for Canon’s “Project Imagination.” Once it posts to Hammer to Nail, I will add a link to it. As a result of that piece, today’s reviews are very short.

Labyrinth of Lies

Labyrinth of Lies (Giulio Ricciarelli, 2015)

• “The only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing, yourself.” – Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, Jonas Happich on “Homeland“), fictional protagonist of Labyrinth of Lies

By the late 1950s, in Germany, life appeared to have finally returned to normal for a country twice defeated in 20th-century global conflicts. The Nazis were vanquished, the Americans were still on site, and peace and prosperity ruled once again. Except it didn’t, not really, for a nation that refuses to fully expiate the sins of its past is doomed to repeat them (hence the recurring cycle of violence to which all of humanity succumbs). The Nazis hadn’t gone anywhere; they were merely hiding in plain site, in the guise of the ordinary citizens which they had always been. It took a new set of prosecutions, in Frankfurt, almost two decades after the end of World War II (the Nuremberg Trials had taken place in 1945 and 1946), to finally open the closet door on the skeletons of the Holocaust. Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s submission for this coming year’s foreign-language film Oscar, chronicles the difficult and sluggish process – led by real-life Frankfurt prosecutor Fritz Bauer – by which these court cases came to pass. It’s a strong – if imperfect – film, with fine performances, that would be better if it avoided some of the overtly manipulative techniques of the Hollywood docudrama: occasionally overwrought music, slow-motion dropping of objects, conflation of multiple historical figures into one fictional composite. Then again, this is the first feature from Giulio Ricciarelli, a German actor with a few short films to his directing credit before this, so we’ll allow for some overuse of shopworn clichés, and look forward to what he does next time.

Rock the Kasbah

Rock the Kasbah (Barry Levinson, 2015)

Let me start by saying that I love the work of the great Baltimore-born-and-raised Barry Levinson, from his first feature Diner, through Tin Men (my personal favorite), Good Morning, Vietnam, Oscar-winner Rain ManWag the Dog and beyond. He’s not only a superb director, but an active producer, as well, responsible for bringing the wonderful NBC 1990s drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” to our fair city. So I always look forward to seeing his films. Unfortunately, Rock the Kasbah, though well-intentioned and with a strong cast – Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Zooey Deschanel ((500) Days of Summer), Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) and Bruce Willis (Looper), among others – does not compare favorably to his earlier triumphs. It tells the inspirational (here, fictionalized) story of Setara Hussainzada, a young Afghan woman who risked her life to sing on her country’s nationally televised talent show. Given the power of that narrative, I would have preferred that Levinson lend his talents to a documentary about her, rather than to this. Sadly, the script, by Mitch Glazer (Passion Play), never quite rises above the tired tropes in which it traffics – women in burkas played for laughs (funny foreigners) and the “hooker with a heart of gold” being just two of them – and ultimately ends up as an occasionally mildly funny satire on mercenaries (military and otherwise) abroad. Still, though it lacks the sharp bite of Levinson’s best work, it is not a total loss, and has a few moments of genuine cinematic pleasure, courtesy of Murray. He’s definitely one major reason to see the film.

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