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


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.