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What's the Deal with Amsterdam?

The movie everyone's heard of but no one's watching.

I think today's audiences can smell trouble. Amsterdam was advertised as a star-studded event...and that's about it. Hey, there's Taylor Swift! And Chris Rock! But since the marketing department at Disney couldn't be bothered to tell us the movie's style or plot, I believe audiences sensed a problem and watched Halloween Ends instead.

Having said that, Amsterdam is a movie I will not forget.

Ostensibly, this is the story of three friends from the Great War who, years later, are asked to solve a murder (under mysterious circumstances). Sometimes it tries to be a comedy. Sometimes it's dark and serious. There's themes heaped upon themes along with inconsistent cinematography styles, so it's not an easy movie to describe.

Since the advertising told us mostly about the cast, let's start there.

Taylor Swift is one of those celebrities who I assumed would be too distracting to be effective, but the movie does some interesting things with her. For starters, she's clearly taller than her co-stars (it's easy to forget how short Hollywood actors really are) and, combined with her low-key makeup and outfit, her roles is simply not glamorous. This is a good thing. Swift is put in a situation where she must carry the role with her acting ability, which I think is fantastic. I don't know much of anything about Swift, but I'd bet she appreciated the chance to contribute to a movie like a normal actor.

Margot Robbie is surely the most photogenic person who ever lived. The biggest problem here is that she's so stunning I sometimes forget that she's massively talented. You can't take your eyes off of her for a moment.

Naturally, Robert De Niro is a powerhouse. As always. Anya Taylor-Joy is great. She's quite the celebrity, but a role like this is a good reminder that she earned it through her excellent work. And fans of Mike Myers will enjoy seeing him stretch his acting muscles. His role is a welcome reminder that comedic actors are usually very good at drama when given the chance.

My favorite performance came from Rami Malek. He outdid the rest of the cast, which is no small feat in a roster like this.

So the actors were impressive. That's something good. And I can give unlimited praise to the photography and lighting. The old streets of New York look amazing. Every interior set is picture-perfect, with little touches in every corner that helped tell the story. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more well-filmed movie this year.

But watching Amsterdam is mostly like going to Hollywood and spotting famous people from a tour bus. And while the casting is actually very good (hiring that many famous people was not just a gag — it works) the movie itself suffers for technical and creative oddities that convolute the story.

For starters, many of the dialog shots are just the actors staring directly into the camera, like someone waiting for a drivers' license photo. Filming a conversation this way throws off the viewer's sense of axis (we can't tell where anyone is in relation to each other) and since they're facing a film crew, rather than an actor, they're not reacting to one another. It's bizarre, but also it's just plain weird when the actors step out of the scene and take turns staring at you for a long time.

(It reminded me of the time I went to production of Hamlet and during the big "to be or not to be" monologue, the actor playing Hamlet spent half of the time staring directly at me. Just me.)

So the film often lacks immersion during its big moments because the actors are working without energy from one another.

That's a big challenge for the audience. Another, which I already mentioned, is that it's not really clear what kind of a movie this is. It looks like a whodunnit right out of the gate, but it's sometimes a screwball comedy and sometimes a dark conspiracy movie. And once in a while things get abstract and visually off the rails. The odd visual choices don't happen very often, which means they show up just often enough to be distracting.

There's also a theme of businessmen manipulating Nazis and veterans as part of a plan to take over Washington without a fair election. It's a symbol for something, but I can't put my finger on it.

While these different plot threads all sound fascinating in their own right, they never come together to form a whole cloth. As a result, the film can't carry a strong sense of narrative from one scene to the other.

(In case you're wondering about the historical accuracy, no, Nazis didn't try to bribe a U.S. general to take over the country.)

I'm at a loss to describe Amsterdam to you. I'm glad I watched it. Sometimes it was a visual feast, and the actors (when they weren't staring at me) delivered some jaw-dropping performances, but the movie failed to grip me. Judging by the ticket sales, and how quickly this movie was buried, I'm not the only person who felt Amsterdam didn't live up to its potential.

Adam D. Jones is a writer, musician, and medievalist who feels a kinship for vampires because his sensitive eyes that make it difficult to go outside during the day.

3 comments:

  1. Haven't seen it but I want to. I'm a huge Swiftie and a big fan of Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie's faces.

    I'm just learning about this through a podcast but there was a concerted effort by the Nazis to influence American policy. They spread propaganda among anti-war lawmakers who passed it on to their constituents and there were fringe homegrown terrorist groups who carried out bombings in munitions factories to support the "cause." Check out Rachel Maddow presents Ultra. It's fascinating, but dark. That said, so far no one has bribed a U.S. General so I'm guessing the movie takes some liberties.

    Great review but I'm still going to wait for it to hit streaming. Hopefully at a service I already have. Thanks Adam!

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  2. Sure thing! Despite the film's oddities, I think you'll enjoy watching the performances.

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  3. Watched it with a friend with somewhat low expectations. Completely agree with the review - it was gorgeous in a lot of ways, I enjoyed the characters as well, but I kept expecting things to consolidate in a way they didn't. My very favorite part, though, was the surreal art that was created out of shrapnel and her photography too.

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