Freitag, 27. Dezember 2013

The year in movies (2013) ends in... 4 days.


Short takes



"The Physician" by German director Philipp Stölzl is a historical epic adventure the likes of which we hardly get to see anymore. Sprawling, substantial, linearly and passionately told, classically beautiful and gloriously lavish, it's conventional, old-fashioned cinema in the best sense of the term. Gorgeously textured production design recreating the European dark ages or the opulence of the Persian empire is captured in light and shades so luscious the images threaten to drip. The stunning cinematography is laced additionally with a romanticism that composes visual poetry every chance it gets, whether in throwing a starry spread over the Sahara dunes or casting a longing look across the moon-drenched rooftops. The romance is further kept alive by superb young British actor Tom Payne- in a movie that could be faulted for being simply too much, he not only carries the 150 minutes with great ease and charisma but also gives them a beating heart.

"Fruitvale Station" has the brilliant idea of telling the story of police brutality victim Oscar Grant by reconstructing the last day of his life before he was gunned down unarmed. Like other movies about real-life tragedy and especially about casualties of systematic unjust, it has its moments of glorified sentimentality that could prompt shouts of cheap martyrdom or sainthood, but so strong is the accompanying dose of humanity and compassion that such impulses may well be overcome. The suspicious taste of expoitation is further cleansed by the soulful, grounded performance from a strong ensemble cast. In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan is effortlessly winsome and utterly compelling as a man trying to stay clean and start afresh. Authentic, organic, riding on the rythmic flow of the black culture, writer/director Ryan Coogler's feature film debut pulls you in and forces you to see the extraordinary struggles within every ordinary life.

"Nebraska" is nowhere near as rich, sharp, fully realized as "Election" or "Sideways" but it does pick up a little after director Alexander Payne's creative dud "The Descendants". In following a father-and-son roadtrip to cash in a bogus prize, it paints a not always flattering, but affectionately frank portrait of the American midwest, complete with the empty land, the endless sky, the simple people and their dashed dreams. The script is less driven by plot than by this homebound devotion but does have some wryly funny, brilliantly envisioned scenes involving the chitchat or bickering among groups of senior citizens. Performance-wise, Bruce Dern and Will Forte are both in fine form, complementing each other in their respective pensive sunkenness and inept eagerness. But the highlight is provided by June Squibb as the foul-mouthed wife/mother who storms through the otherwise quiet journey stealing every scene with deadpan charm and tremendous force.

"The Spectacular Now" starts off promisingly enough and ends on a nice note, but what comes between is a somewhat muddled love story with too many angles and messages that, despite coming frustratingly close to hitting that emotional mark at various points, gets sidetracked repeatedly and ultimately fails to deliver on the potential it obviously has. Director James Ponsoldt shoots individual scenes with an appealing honesty and youthful enthusiasm that's infectious and disarming but has trouble keeping up the narrative momentum. The best thing about the movie is lead actor Miles Teller, who wows with a raw, nuanced, highly watchable performance that makes up for a lot of the inconsistency written in his character. The same can't be said for his on-screen partner Shailene Woodley, who looks the part but doesn't quite bring the level of naturalism to it.

Mittwoch, 25. Dezember 2013

Short takes


"Enough Said" has a script that's far from perfectly constructed but has a very human core as its central conceit. It also features several really well-written scenes that not only delight with their sparks of verbal wit but reveal interesting insights into the psychology of marriage and divorce. Julia Louis-Dreyfus nails the adorable tentativeness and vulnerability of a single mom bracing herself for the empty nest by welcoming in a new romance and proves extremely likeable despite the despicableness of her character's behavior. James Gandolfini is also solid, especially after the truth comes out, hearts get broken and time starts the healing. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener can't quite lift the movie above the contained neatness of a TV-production, but as it is, the relationship comedy's enjoyably quippy with a couple of tender moments.

"Les salauds (Bastards)" has pacing and editing problems, taking an unextraordinary revenge tale and telling it in an unreasonably slow, often confusing manner. Sure it wouldn't be a French film if everything is laid out according to common logic and even ends up explained, but this one is probably a little too cool for its own good, throwing out basic plot points so randomly and carelessly it advances no visible cause other than to provoke. How writer/director Claire Denis employs noirish elements in this film is not always successful. The leaden, largely underlit look is suffocating without being thrilling and while the cold, electronic notes of the film score are a nice touch, they are not used nearly enough nor as variedly as one'd like.  

"All Is Lost" is a one-man show (Robert Redford) set on a sinking boat with next to no dialogue. As far as ideas for movies go, it doesn't get much more art-house than this. But despite being handsomely photographed (that final shot!) and vividly scored, it's made with a curious lack of express artistic aspirations. J.C. Chandor's script and direction are instead characterized by a stubborn sense of practicality that renders the character's precarious situation very realistic for sure, but does nothing to alleviate the inherently unappetizing subject matter. So while it's an admirably daring untertaking skillfully realized, for those who are not fans of seafaring or handiwork it might be about as exciting as reading the survival manual.

"Much Ado About Nothing" revives the beloved play by Shakespeare in contemporary America to not quite satisfactory results. While the themes of love, deception and misunderstanding prove to be timelessly, universally relatable and fun, the decision to cling to the archaic, 500-year-old language sticks out like a sore thumb within the modern-day setting and the conspicuously American performance style. Writer/director Joss Whedon may well be chasing the theatrical incongruity caused by the cultural transplant, but in practice it makes everything look like oddly crude playacting and the whole piece comes across as incredibly dated. Visually and sonically the movie is irreproachable, the chilled jazzy soundtrack, also courtesy of Whedon, is particularly inspired.  

Mittwoch, 18. Dezember 2013

Short takes


"Una noche" is somewhat simplistically written and the acting isn't top-notch but boy does this thing look pretty. The emerald of the Caribbean Sea, the sapphire of the Cuban sky and the dusty sparkle of the wide, dilapidated, breathtaking expanse that is Havana are doused here in a kind of sunshine so generous, brilliant, furiously sexy that's just unseen anywhere else in the world. Watching it, you can feel the colors and vibrancy blaze off the screen and it's electrifying. Even though the movie loses quite a bit of steam in the second half, feature film debut writer/director Lucy Mulloy shows great instincts by the portrayal of adolescent angst and all the uncontainable urges of youth. Music-wise, the cello-centric score can be a downer sometimes but whenever anybody opens their mouth to sing, it's like getting your soul massaged by those sticky Spanish syllables. In short, a feat for the eyes and ears, and for all its faults, this movie is so alive like few others in this past year.

"Disconnect" is an embarrassingly transparent "Crash"-wannabe so you know it's not aiming too high to begin with. But then writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin go on to tell their unbearably solemn, moralistic tale with such stupendously broad and coarse strokes, indicting every one of their witless, humorless characters and probably even the audience members for some sketchy offense, that the resulting film makes Paul Haggis' blunt, sappy Oscar-winner look like a masterpiece of tact. Atrociously written without an inkling of the challenges in finding a connection in an age of ceaseless communication, poorly acted and loudly directed, this is not just an all-out cringe-fest, but an assault on the senses and a crime against human intellect- hands down the worst movie of the year (and I say that as someone who has sat through "Grown Ups 2", "血滴子 (The Guillotines)" and "Kokowääh 2").

"O Som ao Redor (Neighboring Sounds)" is an obscurely intriguing, technically refined but ultimately unsatisfying film. Revolving around several households in an affluent Brazilian residential area, it deals with such subjects as the ruthless economic gaps left behind and the collective memories wiped out for the sake of redevelopment, albeit in a stealth, almost cryptic way. Director Kleber Mendonça Filho has a knack for delivering striking images with distinct framing and bold color choices. The aural design of the film is even more accomplished, integrating the lush sea breeze, the vaguely disturbing street noise, the untraceable thudding of a restless city into a carefully constructed urban soundscape that's dramatic in and of itself. The story proves too abstract and shapeless though to back up the many hints and teases, leaving one craving for more substance, more answers to questions the filmmaker doesn't even bother to ask.

"Concussion" rides on the strength of a rounded, nuanced lead performance by Robin Weigert, who plays the middle-aged lesbian mother-turned professional call girl with equal amounts of seduction, self-assurance and sympathy it's hard not to side with her. Compared with the similarly themed "Jeune et jolie", however, and it's clear the very American approach and aesthetic of debut writer/director Stacie Passon can't quite get the mystifying pull, the impenetrable mechanism of sexuality across like the French film does. Which is why when it fails to provide compelling motivations for such drastic changes in life, the movie doesn't entice with the blanks to fill but registers as underwritten, creatively limited. Tech details shine a pristine indie quality that helps create an intimate atmosphere but nothing truly stands out.

Sonntag, 8. Dezember 2013

Short takes


"Mud" is set in the American deep south and centered around something even more mystifying, namely a young man's passage to adulthood. Writer/director Jeff Nichols displays a superior grasp on the outward atmosphere as well as the inward turmoil of the boy as he finds a role model, falls in love and has a taste of heartbreak all for the first time. At no point does the film seem affected or patronizing, instead it's characterized by a lucid perceptivity and genuine tenderness that throws you back to the time of innocence. Matthew McConaughey and Reese Withersppon both shine in memorable supporting roles but the revelation in the excellent ensemble cast is Tye Sheridan, who carries the movie on his slender shoulders with the assurance and emotive prowess of a seasoned pro.

"Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!" chronicles French writer/director/lead actor/actress Guillaume Gallienne's long-winded journey to the discovery of his sexual identity with a candor and a persistent sense of innocence that make the humor work. Unlike cross-dressing roles played by Eddie Murphy or Tyler Perry, the mother figure here is not broadly caricatured just for comedic relief but serves as a central plot element throughout, which is also refreshing. The movie doesn't quite click as a whole though, mostly because it suffers greatly under a feebly episodic structure typical of autobiographical stories and also the somewhat abrupt left turn the ending takes comes off strangly condescending, not to mention anti-climatic.        

"Museum Hours" is not so much a narrative feature as a documentarian portrait. Director Jem Cohen's ambition of mixing up the two art forms, of letting the passion and the message bleed into the still, nonjudgmental images unnoticed, is palpable but only partially effective. In the final frames of the movie, when the familiar voice of the Viennese museum guard directs our attention not to the details of some medieval painting but the overlooked beauty of the everyday, the momentary stupor and the gentle tug on the heart it causes is quite delightful. However, for the majority of its running time, the film is hurt by its overriding compulsion to show faces, artefacts and street views exactly as blank and indifferent as they are. It's true to life, yes, but also bare, pedestrian, soporifically monotonous. 

"Fack ju Göhte" inherits the customized package that helped a slew of German comedies in the past decade become box-office hits- from the glossy commercial look, the frenzied edit down to the pop-radio soundtrack. Like its fellow alumni from the Til Schweiger-School of Filmmaking, the direction (by Bora Dagtekin) is heavy-handed and the physical humor crude, but the high school setting, the focus on the delinquent adolescents and the talented, well-balanced cast gave it a refreshing hipness and sweetness that rendered the prevalent profanities and toilet jokes surprisingly inoffensive. As the winning criminal-turned-teacher, Elyas M'Barek proves he's leading man material and the supremely stupid student Chantal, as played by Jella Haase, is a heavenly creation. 

Casse-tête chinois


Eight years after "Les poupées russes" and eleven years after "L'auberge espagnole", French director Cédric Klapisch and his cast reunite for a not always plausible, but altogether winsome, kinetic, entirely entertaining third round in the New York-set "Casse-tête chinois". Following a superbly cut, nostalgia-fueled opening credits sequence that could well be one of the year's best, it soon becomes apparent that the screenwriters are struggling to pick up where they left off so long ago. In fact, the first 2/3 of the movie feels much like an elaborate excuse just to get everybody together again. That romance takes a back seat here to less exciting concerns like family and children is not in itself the problem- after all, like the stars from the "Before Sunrise" series, these former Erasmus students are now turning 40. But the actual construct of the plot is strenuous on many fronts, leaving things to such thinly established strikes of whim in service of the next gag that it just seems too artificial, convenient.

In the last 30 minutes, though, when all the pieces are in place and poised to stir up a storm, the story finally does assume a life of its own. In a particularly brilliant scene where the chemistry and wit of this group of friends are put to a spontaneous test, the writing/directing/acting conspire to hit that comedic sweet spot with such fluency it's priceless.

The cast, down to the angelic child actors, is splendid. Even when what they do on screen doesn't make much sense, it's never less than a joy to watch them do it. I can personally think of many worse ways to spend two hours than see Romain Duris ponder about life and love, Audrey Tautou recite an ancient Chinese poem in Mandarin or Cécile de France play the horny lesbian mother refusing to get old. The combined star power and goodwill coming from these lovely specimens, maximized by delicious cinematography and a funky soundtrack, is practically an energy source, it warms you up no end.    


Samstag, 7. Dezember 2013

Love Steaks


German comedy "Love Steaks" is a freewheeling ride of sensual explosions and formal experiments. There's no plot in the conventional sense, instead the movie is more or less just a collage of scenes featuring a wildly spirited cook and an introverted masseur at a seaside hotel. Through these seemingly random samples of their lives, the film invites the viewer to an up-close observation of the human emotions and domination game at play. In this regard it's very successful, as the improvisational setting lends every frame an air of reality and unpredictability while the performances by both lead actors, minutely captured by the camera's unwavering attention, emanate a dynamic naturalism that opens up all kinds of access ti their characters' inner worlds.

Visual focus on the flesh, both in the frying pan and on a massage bed, adds to the overall feel of raging carnality. The editing, brash and arbitrary, contributes to the edginess of the film, as does the eclectic, wonderfully aggressive but only sporadically employed music. In the end, though, one can't help but think all this technical achievement only serves to scratch a seductive surface and that the movie still comes up short in the narrative department. Without something meaningful and coherent on a more conscious level, even when director Jakob Lass manages to make us laugh to the array of pranks and faux pas', to take us to some intimate places with these peculiar characters, he still can't quite get us to care.

Freitag, 6. Dezember 2013

Oldboy


Thanks to a suspenseful story with an immediate hook that proves just as irresistible ten years later, Spike Lee's remake of Korean director Park Chan-wook's twisted masterpiece "Oldboy" kicks into gear soon enough and moves along amoothly enough not to bore at any point. Then ew version hardly registers an impact as visceral and harrowing though, mostly because, for all its awesome posters and promising trailers, the movie is not only utterly tone-deaf in terms of score but also looks curiously drab as well, despite the abundance of violence and provocative blood splatters. The spectacularly sleazy look of the original, which instantly gave it an out-of-this-world feeling of manic surrealism and propelled it to such visual extremities to match the perversity of the situation, is watered down to something stylish but mute, drearily average. Only a couple of group fight scenes are choreographed with cartoonish fluidity and psychotic glee to even approach a level of sustained cinematic intensity.

With a story as crazy as this, some form of self-aware loopiness might be necessary, whether in direction or in performance. It seems that only Sharlto Copley has grasped this. His portrayal of the androgynous villain is a riot, if also turning a bit sappy near the end.

Donnerstag, 5. Dezember 2013

Short takes


“Los ilusos” is a strange little thing. The confoundingly loose, fractured, open-ended narrative is made additionally bewildering by its semi-documentary framework. If the goal is to evoke the sweet disorientation when reality and fiction meet or when the movie becomes a movie-in-the-making, it’s not successful because the film is not supported by a firm enough directorial vision and the technical subtlety for playing such mind games is not there. So despite lovely b/w imagery that features soulful gazes and romantic street views, the Madrid-set mini-production by Jonás Trueba proves too whimsical in conception, too amateurish in execution to have anything substantial to say.

“Frozen” by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee has a problematic script that fails to move on a deeper level due to strained plotline and annoys at times with ceaseless banter. But its crystalline, blueish translucent look is absolutely gorgeous and the musical numbers are great- not because the songs themselves are necessarily knock-outs, but the age-old Disney magic formula of utter devotion to and belief in true love manifested in perfectly synchronized singsong, which is probably responsible for the unrealistic romantic expectations of an entire generation, is nothing if not goosebumps-inducingly effective.

“The Counselor” is about a simple drug deal gone wrong but people keep talking in big circles using implausibly loaded language that it gets confusing anyway. Ridley Scott is a master of style and shoots both the sandy terrain of Mexico and the urban cityscape of London with such lustful sleekness the movie’s never bad to look at. Still, the only one from the film team coming out of the unbearably grandiose script by Cormac McCarthy unscathed is probably Cameron Diaz. With deathly focus, gleeful abandon and sexual vibe to spare, her embodiment of femme fatale Malkina is the sole presence on screen forceful and ridiculous enough to chew those crazy words.

“Am Hang” slips into the inner workings of a sort-of-love-triangle from a sneaky standpoint and uses this to its advantage for a large part of its running time. Swiss director Markus Imboden‘s take on the material is intimate, cooly unsentimental in typically European fashion, though not as passive aggressive as its French counterparts might be nor characterized with brutal German dispassion. Instead, the movie swims in a semi-suspenseful space with a tease and a hint of menace, which is mostly enjoyable. All three main actors are well cast and gave solid performances. Too bad, then, that when motives are finally revealed and questions answered, the movie made the least sense. The remarkably bland ending doesn’t help.

Tore tanzt


There are scenes of such extreme violence and indescribable ugliness in German director Katrin Gebbe’s feature film debut “Tore tanzt (Nothing Bad Can Happen)” that frankly crossed any line of appropriateness and arguably that of necessity. You really need a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows plus a big warm hug afterwards just to cleanse that awful taste of profound misery (Oh the Germans and their fetish for tragedy… the BLEAKNESS!). That said, Gebbe, who is also responsible for the script, has, quite exceptionally, found a story that’s hefty and compelling enough to back up the excessive portrayal of abuse. Add to that a clarity and consistency of directorial vision and a cast that digs deep into the seemingly hollow naïvité or arbitrary personality change of their characters, and you’ve got something that’s horrifying in its savageness yet so finely observed at every step you can’t take your eyes off it. Technically, the movie is modest and naturalistic in look and can’t quite shake the air of a TV production, but it’s deftly shot and features atmospheric, unintrusive music choices.

Like Michael Haneke’s “Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon)”, this is a film that’s limited in scope, that at times even feels like it’s set in an alternate, isolated universe. But in its exhaustive exploration of interpersonal dynamics stirred by religious faith and its unflinching look at cruelty and malevolence tucked away in the quiet suburbia, it delivers nevertheless a rousing character study and a frightening discourse on the birth of evil.

Donnerstag, 21. November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Like its predecessor, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is not consistently engrossing in its plot design, entirely thought-provoking in its political message, nor exceptionally photographed or very tastefully visualized. But since it is a little bit of all those things, it's never less than entertaining to watch either. A somewhat bloated first half, an utterly miscast Philip Seymour Hoffman and some inherent, logical problems with the wildly imaginative set-up aside, the movie whisks along without major hiccups and is best when those casually posed life-and-death questions become a brilliant reality or feelings stoked by the need to survive and revolt shine through.

Director Francis Lawrence upped the scale of the sequel significantly but managed to keep the human factor intact. Together with a strong Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, whose wealth of emotions always seems immediate and bubbling just beneath the surface, they delivered a couple of highly memorable scenes including a cool final strike and a game launch that sends your head spinning, eyes dancing, heart racing.

Sonntag, 17. November 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints


The story of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is far from watertight, leaving behind such gaps and blanks both plot-wise and character-wise that it never became a thoroughly satisfactory work of narrative. However, the performances by the principal cast of Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster are so dedicated and imbued with such natural volatility and spirituality you can't help sinking into their ineloquently constructed but nonetheless captivating world. Said world, set in rural Texas with indefinite time frame, is created by director David Lowery with aplomb. Proving his great sense of style and innate understanding of genre sensibilities, the movie not only looks fetching but blends elements of revenge thriller, relationship drama and old-fahioned western to mythical effects, sprinkling something unnameably appealing in the air that's menacing, poignant, charged. Also conducive to the overall feel of a modern-day parable is the terrific score provided by Daniel Hart. With a mixture of prickly percussion, rhythmic soul and sizzling beats, it's smartly timeless work that intrigues, entrances.

Mittwoch, 13. November 2013

The Lunchbox


Indian romantic dramedy "The Lunchbox" is a charming little thing with a nice set-up and lots of heart. So it's a shame that writer/director Ritesh Batra failed to put an original spin on the rather tired, easily exhaustible storyline of fateful love through mixed-up correspondence. Sure there's plenty of romance mired in the notion of two unhappy souls drifting in an ocean of anonymity and loneliness finding the warmth of each other by chance- and the script really makes it a point not to put too much kitsch or gloss on the turn of events to sustain an endearing, human glow throughout- but ideas and goodwill can only get you so far. Inadequacies in writing show when the lunchbox routine starts getting familiar and the bluntly open ending has to be considered a directorial misstep.

In the end this is a commendable effort that has wonderful, character-based comedic moments, is honestly told and offers some rare peeks into the unglamorous emotional underbelly of metropolitan Mumbai. It just never quite rises above its own mild manners and breaks any grounds.

Donnerstag, 7. November 2013

Blue Jasmine


Oh when Woody Allen is good, he's VERY good. "Blue Jasmine" might need some fine-tuning in editing here and there, but overall it's written and acted with clinical sharpness and musical symphony, a splendid character study and an all-around delight to watch. The script is tremendous, observing the flaws of its figures and the perils of their worlds with such minute attention and nonjudgmental enthusiasm you can hardly tell the comedy from the drama anymore. The outstanding cast boasts highly memorable supporting turns from Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale, bringing the rowdy charm and earthly sleaze into a picture that's all about the clash of personalities, fates and choices, yin and yang.

This movie ultimately belongs to Ms. Cate Blanchett though. She obviously knows she's been given a golden role and gladly runs away with it, leaving no bullets in her colossal reservoir of expressions unfired. The hysterics might be kicked up a notch too high occasionally, threatening to go over the top with that crazy energy shooting loose sparks all over the place. But in just the blink of an eye she'll give you a scene where she picks up a long-awaited phone call, settles herself down to zero and, with the survival instincts and killer timing of a criminal, lies straight through her teeth. To watch all that anxiety, doubt, vanity, pride, vulnerability and resentment pour out in an avalanche of emotions only to vanish into thin air again is to see a performer in the fullest command of her faculties, it's a feat of magic and a force of nature. If this performance doesn't win her that second Oscar, something's very wrong.

Sonntag, 3. November 2013

Short takes


"Exit Marrakech" is reluctantly structured like an unwilling two-parter with an abrupt ending and an unannounced beginning. But the fault of the flawed script is abundantly compensated by strong direction from Oscar-winning German director Caroline Link and the easy charisma of young lead actor Samuel Schneider, who combined to infuse this coming-of-age story (at least in its first half) with an infectious buoyancy and a tender burn. Accompanied by lively camera work that observes the breathtaking beauty of the Moroccan landscape in rapt appreciation, a stirring soundtrack tinged with an oriental flair and some great editing that lends the picture a spring in its steps, the movie is even with its 2hr-plus running time a breezy watch.

"The Fifth Estate" doesn't kick into gear until about halfway through. Until then this movie about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a charmless thing that comes with the stylistically-challenged format of biopics but lacks any weight that real-life stories promise. Director Bill Condon woke up a bit for the second half of the film, piecing together several nifty scenes that crank up the gravitas and deliver the tension, but even then it's never quite the dynamite to match what it depicts. Numerous sprawling exotic locations aside, the movie is optically uninteresting and sonically even worse, featuring some poor dubbing work that makes it all the more grating to hear everybody talk in weirdly accented English.

"Filth" by Scottish writer/director Jon Baird is a curious blend. Whether you thought it'd be a raunchy comedy, a savage drama or a bestial horror flick, it'll still defy expectations and manage to surprise you. This uncategorizable quality is at once its greatest strength and weakness, as the constant shift in tone combined with a hardcore, violently splashy visual style always intrigues and even hits some comedic/scary peaks but also exposes the filmmaker's failing when jarring bits and pieces go overboard and block the narrative flow. The British ensemble cast is solid, with James McAvoy displaying formidable range and the delightful Eddie Marsan once again stealing the show.

"L'écume des jours" looks fabulous and sounds almost just as good. Its storybook production design, enhanced by hand-crafted, outlandishly quirky visual effects and accentuated by fuzzy jazz or misty chansons, gives whims, moods, emotions, fantasies a form and wows the mind. However, French director Michel Gondry has such a weak grasp on the narrative element in this movie it doesn't take long for all that frills to lose their meaning and appear desperately cartoonish. The cast looks good enough to eat but its two leads, Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, might have just passed the age to convince as wide-eyed lovebirds.

Donnerstag, 31. Oktober 2013

Captain Phillips


While it's definitely fair to call British filmmaker Paul Greengrass' high-sea hostage thriller "Captain Phillips" raw- the industrial, realistically rendered production details, the rough, borderline panicky photography/editing and the employment of non-professional actors all gave the movie such an unpolished sense of authenticity you could smell the sweat and blood in the salty air- I'm not equally sold on the riveting part.

It's true there are incredibly tense moments throughout the film, but things could get tightened up some more, especially in the bloated second-half, where the strains of limited story development really show. Also, after the initial thrill from the vital, hyperactive camerawork wears off, it's frankly quite nauseating to focus on so much shakiness. Directing-wise, it's nothing we haven't seen Greengrass do, pumping tension into dramatic situations through expertly executed action sequences, but the result is not as sleekly entertaining as his Bourne-movies nor as emotionally involving as "United 93". In the title role, Tom Hanks is very good, but the real eye-catcher in the cast is Barkhad Abdi, who gave a highly impressive acting debut as the Somali pirate leader. His expressions and gestures are not only convincingly menacing, but suggestive of a past, a depth, an entire history demanding to be known.

Dienstag, 22. Oktober 2013

Short takes


"Wadjda" by Haifaa al-Mansour, about a girl's quest to realize her modest wish for a bicycle, showcases largely unspectacular filmmaking and average acting. The casual depiction of a daily life characterized by sexist practice is hidden critique or blatant trivialization of women's plight under an extremely oppressive belief system? Aside from the fact that it's the first movie by a female director in Saudi Arabia and also the country's first-ever submission for Oscar consideration, little to be excited about.

"Post tenebras lux" is a pure vehicle for Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' singular vision and offers a fractured, nightmarish, mystifying look at reality. The superb cinematography packs the fever and poetry of a world seen through the eyes of a young child or a lost soul. There's next to no plot in the traditional sense to be found but the strong and immediate evocation of psychological response to its images is unmistakable and immensely satisfying.

"The World's End" has serious script issues, burying a delicious idea in messy follow-ups and killing off any hard-earned momentum with distracting one-liners, all the while not seeing it's not nearly as smart as it'd like to be. British writer/director Edgar Wright, who had yet to make a less-than-brilliant comedy, takes a stumble with this one, but that manic exuberance from the way he edits, visualizes and scores his films is still on ample display here, which is enough to keep one adequately entertained.

"The Butler" is easily the least stylish film Lee Daniels has ever made. It looks and feels so square and temperate at times comparisons to an extended infomercial could justifiably be made. Forest Whitaker is good as the title character, especially in his later years, but best in show among a gigantic, mostly wasted cast is Oprah Winfrey playing Gloria the glorious mess. To witness the struggle and survival of an entire race through decades of abuse in America is ultimately moving, but the film itself has little to do with that.

Sonntag, 13. Oktober 2013

Heli


There are individual scenes in Mexican director Amat Escalante's Cannes winner "Heli" that are expertly staged and filmed, tracing in long shots the movements of its protagonists on their way to discovering more unspeakable horrors while letting the audience in on their trepidation and sense of utter hopelessness. And there's definitely no shortage of atrocities to be found here. Whether it's murder, torture, public hanging, abduction or burning of genitalia (!), scenes of extreme violence are scripted and acted with a matter-of-course soberness that could probably be interpreted as an indictment of the corrupt regime and the morally bankrupt society. The stern photography is often grainy and underlit, but the impressions of barren stone structures and desolate, wide-open spaces are coldly atmospheric and add to the overall bleakness of the story.

On the whole, though, the movie is not the most accessible with its dialed-down dramaticality nor the most approachable for its aesthetic sparsity, and it ultimately lacks a narrative consistency or formal rigor to truly compel.

Sonntag, 6. Oktober 2013

Filmfest Hamburg: 郊遊 (Stray Dogs)


Movie-watching is always a subjective experience, but in the case of "郊遊 (Stray Dogs)", Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming Liang really took it to another level. Stripping his work of all conventional narrative elements and leaving it entirely to the audience to decide what they're seeing, this is art house cinema radicalized to a point where even to call it a movie sometimes seems like an overstatement, since the whole thing just doesn't move all that much.

Fanatically still, static, stringent, the film makes Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder" look like the Transformers and will undoubtedly alienate everyone but hardcore cineasts (the opening shot of two children sleeping and a woman wordlessly combing her hair for about 5 minutes could probably serve as a good test for whether you should stay for the following 130). I, for one, was dazzled by the result. Having given up early on all attempts to figure out a plot, a structure, anything, I approached the film by simply succumbing to its unique language of pictures and performances. And it's mesmerizing. Through bold, precarious camera angles and stark color choices, each frame of the film is exquisitely composed, rendering even shots of immobile subjects (there are numerous scenes of people sleeping) unreasonably interesting, crying out for interpretation.

The last part of the movie, starting with the 11-min cabbage-eating scene (which I think was not one of its strongest), kind of leaves the realm of magical realism and enters cinematic crazyland. But if anything, it's also the most riveting part. Editing loses much of its meaning and time becomes irrelevant as in the penultimate scene, which is stretched to the limit of endurability and then some, all that's left is the imagery and the context-free, purely instinctive performances. It's insanely self-indulgent but also incredibly liberating to watch and powerful in its uncompromising truthfulness.

Filmfest Hamburg: Short Term 12


Destin Cretton's "Short Term 12" is an endearing, heartfelt, slightly manipulative drama set in a foster care facility. To the cynic in me there's one too many kind, indestructibly good-natured characters with troubled pasts and fixable inner demons in the mix. But with admirable skill, empathy and an extra helping of that typical American earnestness, the writer/director managed to steer mostly clear of cheap sentimentality and give us a feast of genuine emotions. Some of the scenes here, despite featuring lovely people repeatedly saying how much they love one another, are shot with such tenderness and acted with a profound sincerity you feel the love brim over in spite of yourself.

Overall the movie looks dashing, with the camera breathing life and restlessness into the sun-drenched frames and injecting them with a jagged energy of conflict and pain. The music, while being a contributing factor of the manipulativeness, is charming and undeniably effective. For anyone looking for a hug from their movies, you can't go wrong with this one.

Filmfest Hamburg: Only Lovers Left Alive


Jim Jarmusch's vampire comedy "Only Lovers Left Alive" is sadly a misguided, unengaging affair. You can tell there is probably a good idea buried somewhere in the first draft of the story, mixing dark folklores with modern-day sensibilities and the independent music scene. However, the eventual script came off both narratively and totally focusless and tame, dipping in some slapstick humor and morbid jokes without ever being really funny or otherwise affecting. The promising opening shot of the great Tilda Swinton in fabulous ancient garb can only go so far before even she can't make this insubstantial, bloodless (no pun intended) character appealing. Faring even worse is Tom Hiddleston, who's stuck in the thankless role of the straight-faced old soul lacking any evil charm or even some entertaining lines. For most of its running time the movie is just trapped inside a drab atmosphere, apparently clueless as to where it wants to go.

Cinematography is unspectacular with predominantly dimly lit indoors night scenes and the score, combining elements of medieval music and oriental influences, is curious at first but soon loses its novelty and starts to grind.

Freitag, 4. Oktober 2013

A nagy füzet


It's probably a culture thing, but the Hungarian WWII drama "A nagy füzet (The Notebook)", despite featuring the young, the elderly and the persecuted in numerous physically and emotionally extreme situations, feels strangely unrelatable and cold to the touch most of the time. The motives and change of minds of its characters are never directly dealt with but just put out there in a puzzling collage of whims, while plot-wise the movie can't seem to make up its mind on what it's about either. Just when you think it's an indictment of the (inexplicably) abusive child-rearing method of the grandmother and the toll it takes on the poor grandsons, the focus changes to the twin boys' incorrigible dependence on each other, their (inexplicably) random acts of cruelty, or their observations of the mad war. The ambivalent musical cues with recurring drum rolls also doesn't help.

Towards the end of the film, director János Szász did manage to tighten up the narrative and pin down the tone somewhat, signing off with a cryptic, slightly unsettling scent in the air that's unusual/refreshing for the genre. Lensed by Christian Berger, the movie often looks very pretty, with sun-bleached stone walls and fire-lit vapors making up some of its careful compositions. The art direction is also strong, evidenced above all by the meticulous recreation of the title-giving notebook, which tells a story all its own through the pedantic attention to details and that crazed, childish flourish.

Donnerstag, 3. Oktober 2013

Gravity


Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón hit it out of the park with the outer space survival tale "Gravity". The original story about a stranded astronaut's fight back home packs an instant hook and has plenty of thriller elements but remains magnificently human as it weaves into its many outlandishly elaborate action sequences tangible feelings of fear, desperation, hope and redemption. A key scene later in the film that's too delicious to spoil might be a bit crude in its construction but proves to be nonetheless a moving touch of great humanity. Also responsible for that sense of attachment and purpose in a genre otherwise associated with cool technicality is the wonderful cast of two consisting of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, both of whom bring physical proficiency and dramatic finesse to their parts.

Ultimately this movie belongs to Cuarón and his technical team though. Emmanuel Lubezki's stunning cinematography did all but the impossible, capturing the dives, spins, floats, soars of the protagonists in ever-shifting angles and speeds while leaving behind some of the most striking images to grace the big screen in years. Add to that the truly revolutionary visual effects recreating, with terrifying authenticity and jaw-dropping flawlessness, the utterly 3-dimensional experience of space travel and the extraordinary sound design wrapping each frame in thudding fullness or obliterating vacuum, and you've got 90 minutes of nail-biting, toe-curling, heart-stopping suspense that showcases filmmaking of the highest order. A landmark achievement if there ever was one.

Dienstag, 1. Oktober 2013

Filmfest Hamburg: Inside Llewyn Davis


As one would expect from a Coen Brothers' movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis" features plenty of quirky characters delivering, in full deadpan, killer one-liners. These scenes still work like a charm here, if carrying with them a sense of being too calculated and sporadic. The cast is hit-and-miss for me. Carey Mulligan is not consistently convincing as the thinly written, mainly just foul-mouthed sonstress while Justin Timberlake is miscast as her partner. Oscar Isaac, on the orher hand, is winsome and thoroughly watchable as the sympathetic title character desperately in need of a break, pulling the viewer ever closer into the plight of this talented but luckless drifter. Ditto the cat.

Technical aspects of the film are tremendous all around- production and costume design bring out the lovely period details of the 60's folk music scene in New York; the cinematography douses everything in soft, earthy colors and affords them a tender milky sheen; the songs, while not always emotionally resonant, are ably crafted and passionately performed. Overall the movie's easy on the eyes and ears, funny at times and pleasant throughout. It just seems to lack the scope, ingenuity, urgency to be something whole, something great.

Filmfest Hamburg: Jeune & jolie


François Ozon's "Jeune & jolie" wobbles a little in the beginning, failing to pick up momentum with somewhat awkwardly put together short scenes, and goes through another rough patch in the middle, as things first blow up and the immediate fallout rings false. However, if there's one thing the French provocateur does well, it's bringing to life the mystifying mechanics of sexuality and the debilitating power of desire. Here, on the strength of a committed, seductive, surprisingly layered performance by Marine Vacth as the well-to-do teenager who begins a prostitution career, the movie leaves a lot of the why's out of her words and in her wistful glances and hints of a smile, addressing in the process somehow all the more beautifully the impossibility of explaining a young girl's sexual awakening.

The script is not as tidy nor exacting as that of " Dans la maison", but this film takes another route into the obsessive depth of the human mind. The result, more suggestive and often unreadable, is nonetheless fascinating and delivers in my view a more potent portrait of lust, addiction and identity than, say, Steve McQueen's "Shame".

Donnerstag, 26. September 2013

Prisoners


French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" is an almost in every way commendable dramatic thriller: plot-driven, performance-heavy, solid old-fashioned storytelling of which there should only be more. But...but... it's just so maddeningly, distractingly imperfect on so many levels! The script is plagued by plausibility issues as people keep looking the wrong places and asking the bad questions. Jake Gyllenhaal's detective character is especially messily written, sabotaging the emotional involvement of the audience and the necessary balance in a narrative about choices. In retrospect the film is also faultily structured. Clocking in at 158 min, way too much time is spent on red herrings and blunt morality tests. There are weak links in the overall impressive cast (hello, Terrence Howard), but Hugh Jackman brings great volatility and vulnerability to the central figure and Viola Davis, in her sadly limited role, is divine.

This movie is not nearly as strong as Villeneuve's last feature "Incendies" (my Top 10 of 2011), but when it works, it's quite the adrenaline ride. The last hour, with its goosebumps-worthy big reveal, is intense as hell.

Sonntag, 8. September 2013

Short takes


Much like good movies, bad movies also cross national boundaries and transcend cultural differences, as I was so forcefully reminded by recent viewing experiences.

The American indie "Adore" by French director Anne Fontaine, about two life-long girlfriends who fall for each other's sons, is so clunkily written and ineptly directed it elicits bonafide cringes and unintentional laughs at virtually every turn of events. Despite its source material by esteemed author Doris Lessing and a Sundance premiere earlier this year, a sordid and thoroughly absurd affair.

Premiering in competition (!) at Cannes last year, writer/director Sang-soo Im's erotic thriller "돈의 맛 (The Taste of Money)", supposedly about the moral decadence, familial and political powerplay of the über-rich in South Korea, crashes very soon on its own sleek, polished production design thanks to a half-baked, wildly unfocused plot, the equally erratic, borderline schizophrenic tone and some truly awful acting.

Without a bow at any film festival and displaying no aspiration for critical appreciation whatsoever, German director/writer/actor Til Schweiger's comedy "Kokowääh 2" reaches nonetheless a new low in the star's ever stinkier filmography. Incoherent, tasteless, deadly unfunny in just about every respect, this movie is so soul-crushingly bad the only thing more embarrassing/depressing than watching the tired Til Schweiger-shtick is knowing the German audience was taken hostage yet again, making it the local box-office champ of the year so far.

Dienstag, 3. September 2013

L'inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake)


With just "L'inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake)" and "La vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)", this year's French cinema has covered graphic, unsimulated sex scenes featuring all gender combinations- something for everybody!

Other than the shared easy carnality, though, Alain Guiraudie's lakeside thriller pales in comparison to the Palme d'Or winner as its underwritten script, lackluster pacing and mostly wooden performances fail to provide it with any sustained tension or noteworthy thrill. There's a nice twist in the final act I didn't see coming and the last shot of the movie, dark, blank, pregnant with a sense of deplorable desperation, is super smart, but pour moi it's too little too late.

Mittwoch, 21. August 2013

The Congress


Tackling subjects as profound and diverse as the future of cinema, the value of personality, the merit of choice, the essence of existence and employing about as many expressive means to tell its tale, Israeli director Ari Folman's sci-fi extravaganza "The Congress" is too ambitious for its own good. The result is an in every way uneven film that's glacial and confounding at times and stupendously inspired at others.
While definitely not for everybody, this is a movie that, in its best moments, truly takes creative flight and soars. Personal highlights include the scenes where the live-action part of the movie slides into animation (at about the 45th-min mark, a bit late by all accounts) and where the process is reversed towards the end. Delightfully crude, hand-drawn cartoons lend the first a feeling of absolute liberation while the full weight of reality and disillusionment packs the second.

Singular, meditative, narratively and artistically challenging, whether you enjoy the film or not, it's likely to be your trippiest experience at the cinemas in a long time.

Dienstag, 20. August 2013

Feuchtgebiete


German sex comedy "Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands)", based on the scandalous bestseller by Charlotte Roche, is a raging, vile, no-holds-barred trip down a young girl's dirty fantasy and nasty experiments à la Amélie Poulain on crack.

Despite its fixation on orifices, bodily fluids and unsavory food-anatomy comparisons, the movie looks fetching as director David Wnendt pulls out all the stops to visually recreate the restless state of a damaged mind. Photographed with light in all intensities and colors of every shade, blood, pus and excrement explode onto the screen in a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic ugliness that disgusts yet entrances. Lead actress Carla Juri uses her disarming ease and naïveté to great advantage but is limited in a role that often feels petulant and one-note. The same could be said about the movie as a whole, which never quite shakes an episodic slightness to its narrative and suffers from a final act that has its touching moments of clarity but is altogether forced and clumsy. For all its ostentatious provocativeness, this movie seldom hits the right spot.

Dienstag, 6. August 2013

The Bling Ring


There are rare moments in Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" where we kind of get a peek inside the anemic, barren minds of the famed teen burglars who robbed Hollywood celebrities, but by and large the movie is unexpectedly flat. While it's not as downright lethargic as "Somewhere", it also lacks the sparkly energy of "Marie Antoinette" or the hypnotic intimacy of "Lost in Translation" and "The Virgin Suicides". Of course the story is supposed to be about the ignorance and superficiality of kids raised under the paparazzi culture, but that doesn't change the fact that the script just screams emptiness and banality most of the time. Driven by not much more than a voyeuristic kick that also loses steam due to repetitiveness, the movie offers otherwise no noteworthy performance and is visually and sonically unremarkable.

Second dud in a row. Win me back, Sofia!

Sonntag, 28. Juli 2013

La grande belezza


It does move quite slowly and its protagonist's philosophical, wise-sounding musings on life, journeys, endings lose much of their impact to a rather fragmented, less-than-coherent narrative, but Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's "La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty)" delivered what its title promises, giving us impressions of Rome so stunning they pin you to your seat with their grandeur and lyricism. Palaces, gardens, artworks drenched in candlelight, canals bathing in the morning sun, the camera touches ancient ruins and modern-day debauchery depicted here with equal loving care and dazzles again and again (there are trees in this movie that look like they belong in a museum).

Among a solid cast, Toni Servillo owns the role of Jep down to every weary blink. Too bad the director seems swamped by the task of communicating so many thoughts, observations, late-life reflections through him that it ended up hurting the character's authenticity and persuasiveness.

Sonntag, 14. Juli 2013

Los amantes pasajeros


"Los amantes pasajeros" is 90 minutes of silliness packed in the colorful confines of a commercial airliner and the campy whims of Pedro Almodóvar. The writer/director certainly gets carried away here and there by unnecessary sub-plots, overladen monologues and ineptly-timed scenes, but honestly is there any other filmmaker who can whip the most outrageous and improbable right into a world of seeming reality with such matter-of-course nonchalance that it challenges the boundary between grand drama and shrill comedy? Even when the narrative focus of this film slacks and its tonal clarity is not as pronounced as, say his last genre offering "La piel que habito", there's no mistaking the masterful eye behind all that farce.

And with the help of a stellar cast full of comedic genius, a jazz-flavored, absolutely delicious soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias, not to mention the booze, drugs, sex, lip-synching and dance routines involved, you can tell the master is having a lot of fun.

Samstag, 6. Juli 2013

Filmfest München: Le passé (The Past)


My oh my why do we human beings make our lives so complicated? Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi shows once again with "Le passé (The Past)", the follow-up to his Oscar-winning "A Separation", that human relationships are a source of endless mystery and that family is a battleground of secrets and lies where, through love, hate, envy, fear, guilt or sheer self-preservation we learn to conceal, hurt, shift blame and cover tracks.

The script is immaculately constructed, basing a multifaceted character study and bonafide thriller on the premise of conventional familial drama, pitching perspectives and motives against one another while peeling away layers and layers of deceit until the placid surface is scratched raw and the very concept of truth becomes hopelessly murky. Rich, engaging, momentous, morally difficult and nail-bitingly suspenseful until the last minute, it's nothing short of a master class in screenwriting. Also on prominent display is Farhadi's directorial prowess. How he frames and times the scenes (that last hospital visit!) is often breathtaking in more ways than one. The way he orchestrates the many fine performances into an intricate symphony with precision and especially compassion, so that no character is left unscathed nor compromised, is a triumph.
Written, directed and acted with skill, wisdom and a profound understanding of human nature, this movie is fantastic, fantastic, I mean fantastic.

Freitag, 5. Juli 2013

Filmfest München: Boa Sorte, Meu Amor (Good Luck, Sweetheart)


Nothing much ever makes sense for an extended period of time in Brazilian director Daniel Aragao's "Boa Sorte, Meu Amor (Good Luck, Sweetheart)". Over the course of 90 minutes, isolated shots of city buildings, dilapidated structures, decrepit town houses are dispersed among truncated narrative lines and long, uninterrupted monologues. In the end I could imagine people being exasperated by the movie, seeing that, despite some recurrent themes (going back to one's roots, the inequality between the classes and urban and rural development), things don't add up in any meaningful way. Still, I really rather enjoyed this lovely curiosity with its high-contrast black and white images, dazzling the eye and often evoking an implied sense of desolation. Sonically the film is even more of a wonderland, featuring an eclectic array of music from jazz oldies, electronic rhapsodies, synthesized noise to discordant modern compositions to further hint, suggest, bewilder and incite. Obviously the movie would have broader appeal if it attains a somewhat accessible structure like "Tabu". But as it is, the arrival of a vital new voice in world cinema is marked.

Filmfest München: Kapringen (A Hijacking)


Danish director Tobias Lindholm's "Kapringen (A Hijacking)" is a problematic addition to the genre of hostage drama. While a faster-paced, action-packed Hollywood revampment complete with drumbeats, cliffhangers and third-act surprises might be a bit tacky, I'm just not convinced the semi-documentary, almost theatrics-free style of this movie is the best way to go about it either. Written and directed in a highly sensible, matter-of-fact fashion with a corresponding look of modest austerity, the movie features negotiators who never seem really interested in compromising or saving the hostages and pirates who seem not too bothered by that. The deadlock drags on and the low emotional stakes stay down. When the point comes where you secretly wish for a Michael Bay intervention, you know the movie is in trouble.

Filmfest München: La vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)


In the best kind of movies you can always lose yourself. Lose yourself to a brief encounter with some universal truth, to the rare access to a unique human condition, to the lavish hope of finding solace or company in a misunderstood existence.

Arriving in a form as foreign as the history of love between a lesbian couple from Lille, France but offering all those things, Abdellatif Kechiche's "La vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)" is a deeply involving experience and a movie you can completely lose yourself in. Between that inconspicuous, composed opening shot and the wordlessly potent last frame, something magical happens. Driven by the director's honest, raw cinematic language that describes the emotional landscape of two young girls with daring intimacy, some wonderfully deft camera and editing work that breathe life and authenticity into the film's visual anatomy, and above all the miraculous chemistry between the two fully committed, furiously charismatic lead actresses, the movie affords you an unrelenting look at how feelings of attraction explode into being with unstoppable force and how nakedly powerless one is when just as suddenly, they are no more.

Joyous, devastating, unapologetically sexual and heartbreakingly real, this movie may have a runtime of three hours, but it's not one minute too long.

Donnerstag, 4. Juli 2013

Filmfest München: Nina


Swirling staircases, towering columns, sprawling facades, cascading steps... all kinds of shapes and curves form in perfect symmetry the architectural backdrop to Italian writer/director Elisa Fuksas' feature film debut "Nina". However, the film's overall aesthetics aren't nearly as peppy and bold as its poster would suggest, suffering from watered-down colors and grainy lensing. Worse still, the plot of this semi-love story about a lonely girl's self-discovery is seriously unfocused, drifting between sighs of unfulfillment and obscure affections via some blunt editing. Quite a test of patience, this one.

Filmfest München: Only God Forgives


Of course Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives" is a prime example of style over substance, of indulgence in fetishistic excess, with its set pieces and props designed, decorated, lit to pornographic detail and characters reduced to either immobile zombies or cartoonish killing machines. And I'll be the last to defend its appalling scenes of torture and execution, which I find repulsive and unjustifiably offensive. But truth be told, I don't think the movie deserves the critical lashing after its Cannes premiere. There's something to be said about the visual conception of the film, so pathologically minute and beautiful that, together with the minimalistic dialogue and characterization as well as Cliff Martinez's galactic, immeasurably cool soundtrack, created a kind of alternate universe that's oddly compelling. In this sense, I don't think the scene near the end, for example, with the heavily symbolized balled fists, the bloody Thai sword and the mystic bamboo forest, illogical and vaguely ridiculous as it is, is any more reproachable than, say, anything in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life".

This is a sick wet dream of a movie for sure, but an impeccably styled and scored one.

Filmfest München: そして父になる (Like Father, Like Son)


The babies-switch subject matter could have been material for tearjerking fireworks, but under the restrained direction of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, the slightly overlong parenthood drama "そして父になる (Like Father, Like Son)" is mostly rather muted, at times avoiding sentimentality nearly to the point of overcompensation (when the motives of the one "villain" in the movie are revealed, one almost wants to cheer for someone finally willing to admit to some emotions). Add to that an overall lack of surprise in the story, and the movie could seem to meander a little in the mid-section. Still, the film is handsomely made and features such good-naturedness and guileless child performances you can't help but feel pleased and touched in the end.

Mittwoch, 3. Juli 2013

Filmfest München: Die Erfindung der Liebe (The Invention of Love)


German comedy "Die Erfindung der Liebe (The Invention of Love)" is a most curious affair. What began as a challenge for writer/director Lola Randl, who was faced with the sudden death of her lead actress halfway through shooting, was turned into a metaphysical, almost existential exercise in breaking the fourth wall when she restructured the script around the unfortunate circumstance and created a Charlie Kaufman-like movie-in-a-movie-in-a-movie. The strains can be felt here and there, when the weight of incomprehensibility and deceit threatens to catch up on authorial cleverness. For the most part the movie's a delight though, not to mention admirable. It's certainly the most original solution to an impossible problem, possibly even surpassing what the movie could have been if everything ran according to plan.

Filmfest München: 天注定 (A Touch of Sin)


Using four minimally connected stories with no happy endings, writer/director 賈樟柯 (Zhangke Jia) paints a relentlessly bleak portrait of modern-day China in "天注定 (A Touch of Sin)". While it's interesting to see a land consumed by its gluttonous pursuit of wealth and the moral collapse it entails dissected from within, the raw visual style coupled with the eventful but rather plain storytelling lent the whole picture an overall feeling of flatness. Not even the numerous acts of extreme violence and cruelty (with the possible exception of the third, female-driven tale), depicted with Tarantino-esque splashiness that at times give them a fable-like quality, really elicited any deep emotional resonance.

Filmfest München: Finsterworld


German director Frauke Finsterwalder's "Finsterworld" is the kind of movie you could tell would be a remarkable read as a novel. It starts out viciously funny, gradually takes on a sinister tone and ends in a melancholic glow of revelation. For my taste the grimness of the fallout could be dialed down a little (oh the Germans and their masochistic need for self-reflection) but the confidence and dexterity with which the director navigates these different narrative tones is inarguable. The cast is heaven-sent. I'd be surprised if the supporting acting races at next year's German Film Awards are not dominated by performances from this movie (there's no obvious lead). The quirkily atmospheric film music and the finely textured costume design also work wonders.

If you're a chronically cynical person but also just a little scared inside, this movie will eat you up.

Dienstag, 2. Juli 2013

Filmfest München: Il futuro (The Future)


There are occasional bursts of visual pizzazz in Chilean director Alicia Scherson's Rome-set "Il futuro (The Future)", whether through blatantly magnifying the mundane or throwing in fantastical elements, that provided the listless movie with some badly-needed jolts of energy. But the look of the film is too inconsistent to be called stylish, mirroring a similar weakness of indecision in its plot, which branches from siblings drama to a perverted tale of love and a gangster story while failing to satisfy in each aspect.

Montag, 24. Juni 2013

Monsters University


Probably the only thing cuter than fluffy, adorable monsters is fluffy, adorable monsters with aspirations to scare.

Writer/director Dan Scanlon nailed the cute-factor in "Monsters University" not just with rich, exuberant creature design but smart plotting and characterization based on Pixar's trademark command of tiny, forgotten emotions and childlike wonderment- as amply evidenced by the brilliant third act, where the fine line between the comical and the frightening is so cleverly staged.

While not as entirely original as 2001's "Monsters, Inc." (a landmark achievement in animation), this is a worthy follow-up in all regards- a sweet, fun, hugely enjoyable ride with lots of heart.

Donnerstag, 16. Mai 2013

The Great Gatsby


The 66th Cannes Film Festival opened tonight with Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby". A flawed film in many ways- faulty editing, uneven acting, repeated use of sweeping, zooming, downward-peeking camera angles for the benefit of 3D effects left a chunk of the movie sagging and tired, while some oddly theatrical staging hurt the dramatic tension in a couple of key scenes- but there's no denying the spectacular set and costume design, the bold and often sizzling music choices and the sheer manic energy that sprang from the creative force behind such crazy aesthetic details.

The ending is nice, appropriately subdued and beautifully tragic, it's just a pity that what came before it feels so inconsistently brilliant and that it took so long to get there at all.