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


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


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".