Donnerstag, 25. Dezember 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 25, 2014)

Ridley Scott's retelling of the Hebrew enslavement under and liberation from the Egyptian tyranny is visually striking but narratively lacking work that's miraculous only on a rather superficial level.

The screenwriters' (there are as many as four of them, which is almost never a good sign) pursuit of a more humanistic, reality-based take on the legend is legitimate but the result – a protracted mid-section about the new-found domestic life of Moses – proves oddly out-of-place and encumbering for the film's momentum. When the focus returns to the main business of killing people, the spectacles are brought back via the hellish extravaganza of the 10 plagues. But the stimulation remains optical as the lavishly staged mass slaughter never quite attains the moral or intellectual imperative that makes a story compelling.

That said, this is an unquestionably handsome production top to bottom. The art direction is particular and tasteful, bringing scale and design together to recreate the imposing, symmetrical grandeur of a lost empire. The costumes are gorgeously rendered, matching the overall golden look of the film with a tone of earthy luxury. And although larger-than-life CG-ed imagery dominates many of the combat sequences, a sense of liveliness is often injected into the picture by the able, swift cinematography. Showcasing Scott's mastery at orchestrating action scenes on gigantic canvas, all these elements align for the climatic parting – or closure – of the Red Sea, to evoke that trembly feeling of anticipation that's not unlike a holy experience.    

Biblical tales are supposed to be more about faith than plot, so it seems almost blasphemous to hold the movie's incoherence and illogic against it. In this regard, the film's biggest failing might be its unwillingness to give itself completely over to unreasoned spirituality, allowing unsuccessful attempts at dramatic tension to hold it in a somewhat awkward, neither-here-nor-there place.

Sonntag, 21. Dezember 2014

Short takes


"Blue Ruin" is unapologetic, well executed genre fare that should satisfy the bloodlust of fanboys and -girls. The straightforward setup of revenge and counter-revenge, however, might prove too elementary for a higher level of viewer engagement. American writer/director Jeremy Saulnier certainly shows artistic ambitions in the long stretches of time where we're just treated to a quiet protagonist on a mission, wordlessly but fervently. With great sound design and a discerning eye for effective camera angles, he manages to build tension and communicate foreboding even in the absence of a full-fledged plot or much dialogue. The shot of the hero emerging from around the corner with a rifle trained on his targets near the end, for example, is hugely exciting for its sheer boldness in construction and idea. The lack of a more developed, nuanced backstory does disappoint though, affording all that violence graphically portrayed a whiff of pointlessness and juvenile inevitability.  
        
"Exhibition" is one of those Art Films with a capital A that are so tremendously empty they tend to alienate everyone in the audience before breaking any ground. Set around a middle-aged artist couple living in an immaculate townhouse, there's no noteworthy story to speak of. Hints of intimacy issues and personal safety incidents are dropped but overall British writer/director Joanna Hogg is far less concerned with narrative than the conveyance of a highly abstract, idiosyncratic sense of space. The focus of her camera is on the architecture itself, with its every aspect prominently featured and almost fetishistically considered. While such militant experimentalism shouldn't be punished, in this case the endless takes of shutters, staircases, skylights along with all the other shapes and surfaces of the compound just don't evoke much beyond a flatly aesthetic appreciation. Neurotic and self-centered, this is only suitable for those who can endure prolonged nonsensical contemplations in film.        

"Men, Women & Children" turns out to be a perfectly tolerable affair thanks to drastically lowered expectations from all the stinky press. The preachy, melodramatic non-ending is very damaging for sure, but what came before is a colorful if extreme exposé on sexuality in the age of instant messaging, a piece of horny Americana presented with linguistic and cinematic finesse. American writer/director Jason Reitman again brings a decidedly, alluringly modern sensibility to his storytelling, injecting a brisk blood flow and a healthy dose of cynicism to the proceedings and characters, making them seem dangerously present. The cast is solid, Rosemarie DeWitt and Judy Greer are their dependable selves, even Adam Sandler's performance as the frustrated, hormonal father is nowhere near bad. Though the whole thing gradually collapses in the third act, the calm enunciation of Emma Thompson as the foul-mouthed narrator and the coolly indie-flavored soundtrack spiked with warmly lurid desires remain a blast.

"Paddington" brings the beloved bear gloriously to life in a holiday film that actually deserves the attention of everyone in the family. The themes of displacement, cultural acclimation and finding a new home are dealt with genuinely, without condescension and made funny by the dry, self-deprecating London humor. British writer/director Paul King moves things along at a lively pace, playing with animation and live action with a splash of magical surrealism to seamless effect. The human cast is superb, with the divine Sally Hawkins bringing a ton of heart and the delicious Nicole Kidman whipping up some cartoonish evil. Best in show is probably Ben Whishaw as the voice of the 3' 6''-tall hero though. Brimming with sincerity, naïveté, wonderment and vulnerability, it's a captivating vocal performance that matches the achievement of the character design in brilliance. Textured both in looks and tone, it's a truly 3-dimensional creation that delights no end.            

Montag, 15. Dezember 2014

Класс коррекции (Corrections Class)


Russian writer/director Ivan I. Tverdovsky's "Класс коррекции (Corrections Class)" can't quite decide if it wants to be a portrait of the tricky, vicious peer dynamics in middle school, an indictment of the failing special needs education in modern Russia, or just a coming-of-age story with some tender puppy love, and ends up narratively diffuse. Starting off hopefully and closing on a shockingly ugly note, the movie takes numerous tonal detours in between, underlining the absence of a consistent, purposeful plan.

Contextual indiscipline aside, the filmmaker does hit all the different tones with impressive accuracy. Whether the merriment of the myopathic heroine on finding other physically impaired friends as she joins the so-called "corrections class" or the bashful first experience of attraction by two young persons coming into their own, sentiments and atmosphere are captured by curt but sure cinematic strokes. A couple of scenes involving a grumpy cleaning lady are of little significance in the scheme of things but, with the support of some brazen writing and an acute sense of situation comedy, prove wonderfully funny in their own right.

Technical aspects are accomplished, especially the agile cinematography and the tight editing. The camera swooshes and swirls with a compelling, airy lightness while presenting the focus of its attention in well-lit, sharp detail. The cuts are made with decisiveness and a strong attitude, so that even when the final result turns out not as profoundly meaningful as one'd like, the transitions themselves afford many surprises.

The film deals its most savage cards near the end when, somewhat inexplicably, everyone gangs up on the innocent protagonist. That the brutality of the attacks doesn't leave as devastating an effect or that the inconclusiveness of the last shot feels more lazy than inspired confirm the weakness of the storytelling that came before. But the confidence of the director's hand shows promise, as does his interest in tackling a distinctly little-explored subject matter.

Sonntag, 7. Dezember 2014

Stockholm


Spanish writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen's feature debut "Stockholm" is basically a "Before Sunrise"-redux until... well, it isn't. And it's exactly the deviant third act that, while still not quite saving the picture, makes it suddenly, undeniably interesting.

The movie begins at a private party. We don't need to wait long before guy (Javier Pereira) catches sight of girl (Aura Garrido) and swiftly makes his move. Instead of a self-introduction, he immediately professes his love for her. At this point, the receiver of that blunt declaration and the audience probably both take it as a cute, if not particularly tactful pick-up line. But then the very persistent hero follows up on his word as he chases after the apparently reluctant, home-bound object of his affection with borderline stalker-ish tenacity. Displaying inexhaustible enthusiasm and good cheer, he makes jokes, pokes fun at himself, talks in flowery circles while never forgetting to remind her of his his love. And certainly enough, cracks in the girl's stalwart wall of denial start to show. Soon things get playful, they end up at his place, "deeper" questions about life get asked, there's even a scene on the rooftop terrace at dawn, with dreamy indie pop lacing a shot of two beautiful skulls from behind.

By now you think: Oh, so it's "that" kind of film. Love at first sight, unsolicited, inexplicable connection, finding unlikely soul mate in the middle of the night etc. And you'd also be forgiven to think: Well, as a straight-up, unapologetic romance this isn't very good, is it? The dialogue, while mostly authentic-sounding, neither covers the width nor possesses the depth to make a case for the instant fireworks and send hearts on and off-screen aflutter. The acting is unremarkable. One might argue Pereira manages to keep the intentions of his atypically chivalrous character unknowable, but, judged on its own merits, the performance is endearingly if smarmily one-note. The direction also underwhelms. Drawn-out, chatty strolls have been done to much more engaging effect, and some of his bolder choices, like the comically slo-mo-ed, orchestrally accompanied elevator scene ending the night-long pursuit in a swoop of theatrical affluence, just don't work.

But then the third act begins.

It's the morning after. As the girl goes through the room she just slept in with post-coital tenderness, we the audience also realize for the first time how little we truly know about the guy. And if the subtle changes in the dynamics between the two don't inform you of upcoming surprises yet, a subsequent scene in the compulsively white bathroom will surely jolt you awake. After that slap of a moment, previously hidden, unappetizing sides of these attractive, seemingly unassailable people enjoying the prime of their youth bubble to the surface, and the story switches in an unexpectedly, distinctly unpleasant direction.

As hinted above, this last half hour or so ultimately isn't enough to redeem the whole thing from its general feel of unrefinement. While it successfully engineers a sharp twist and sustains formidable dramatic tension over some impressive minutes, that all-decisive stroke of genius tying everything together in a deadly knot is still missing. What it does, though, is turning the tables on what could be perceived as a lack of character building and actually using that as ammo in its questioning of the validity of love in the digital age. Can you get to know someone at all when individuals are rendered so anonymous and needs are so easily met? From total strangers to intimate partners, after hours of courting and probing, we can't even be sure of the protagonists' names. The girl's is never mentioned and the guy's, provided once with great reluctance, is in hindsight probably a fabrication. We don't know what condition the girl is suffering from and if that's the cause of her hostile stance later on. We don't know the relationship status of the guy and whether or not that's the reason for his change of attitude, as the girl surmises. Here the filmmaker, aided by two actors who flip their portrayals of blandly likable personas with conviction, sneakily weaponizes all that we don't know to make a chilling point: Essentially, what it boils down to in the superficial, no-strings-attached ritual of metropolitan dating is a risky game of truth and lies.

Such finer points of the film end up, in the absence of thoroughly studied plotting and expressive directing, more implied than delivered. And whether that ending is legitimately shocking or just plain lazy, would most likely be divisive much like the one in Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski's "Ida" was. Add to that the less than glowing technical aspects, including the distractingly poor voice-dubbing, a particular blow to such a dialogue-heavy film, and it's safe to say the micro-budgeted drama is probably only for the consumption of open-minded viewers especially susceptible to good ideas and ready to work for them after the curtain falls.

Donnerstag, 4. Dezember 2014

Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales)


Argentinian writer/director Damián Szifrón's "Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales)" is composed of six separate short stories, including one wicked pre-credits intro. Although their limited scope denies them the broader, more lingering impact a continuous, full-fledged narrative probably would have, the individual tales of revenge, greed, irrationality and outbreaks are all entertaining in a delightfully macabre fashion.

At its least effective, the plotting can be a bit too simplistic to stir up true excitement, as in the case of the nice engineer being pushed over the edge by the relentless car-towing of Buenos Aires. But even then, among the cartoonishly reduced twists of events that just keep stacking up against the luckless hero, a very human core can be found which sees the tiny injustices in life that could make anyone tick. This strength in the recognition of weaknesses in all of us is applied brilliantly, say, in the episode involving road rage. Just two characters on a deserted strip of land where a fateful encounter that begins with harmless taunts ends in a deadly embrace. Written with great insight into the often infantile ways of the mind and a sense of humor so sinister it would make Tarantino proud, the escalation of the situation to unstoppably murderous heights is described in one breathtaking swoop that's both intense and tremendously funny. Also perversely comical is the concluding chapter about a wedding reception that goes horribly wrong. Furiously directed and beautifully acted, it depicts with frightening relatability how there's no turning back once something snaps in you and judgment, civility, self-control are just gone like that, The director plays with contradicting tones throughout but here he really pulls off that rare feat where, amid the blood stains, glass splinters, cake remnants, between all the gasps, sobs, stunned silence, a scene so absurd and unpredictable unfolds you see nothing but humanity in it.

Technical aspects are solid. Art direction stands out in the deli section with every surface doused in ghastly, angrily primal colors. Cinematography is likewise impressive, most notably in the last story, where an emotionally complex dance and an intervening rooftop conversation are filmed with eye-catching flourish. Ultimately it's the idea of uncovering our animalistic instincts beneath the wrappings of cultivation that's the most interesting about this movie though. With some theatricality and a lot of perceptiveness, it shows you how, both sadly and amusingly, we're all nothing but mammals.        

Montag, 1. Dezember 2014

Foxcatcher


American director Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" dramatizes the peculiar real-life events surrounding reclusive industrialist John du Pont and Olympic gold-medalists in wrestling, the Schultz brothers, to thoroughly riveting effect. What actually went through these people's minds as, against all likelihood, their paths crossed and spiraled toward tragedy, shall forever remain unknowable to us, no matter how suggestively the screenplay throws elements of homoeroticism and mommy issues into the mix. If the writing errs on the obvious and slightly manipulative side, however, the mastery of Miller's direction can't be denied. Committing once again to a coldly understated, nonjudgmentally observant narrative style that made "Capote" such a success, this movie is all about building tension through atmospherically blank shots and unsparing scrutiny of characters growing increasingly unhinged. Often very quiet in more sense than one, it creates a pressurized vacuum in which to ponder the twisted personalities at work. A scene where du Pont gathers his private wrestling team and, in all earnestness, begins to give laughably rudimentary instructions not even his frail old mother can bear to watch, is so demonstrably strange it invites you to re-question everything you thought you knew about each one of its participants.

The principal cast is very strong, especially Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Playing the rich, bored tycoon, Carell inherits the demeanor, speech pattern and aura of another man. The extent of his character's sociopathic tendencies reveals itself in chilling details such as the utter calm before, during and after brutally slapping somebody in the face. It's also to his credit that a scene involving in-flight drug consumption comes off so funny and creepy in brilliantly equal measure. Tatum doesn't go through as drastic a physical transformation but looks changed nonetheless. As the impressionable and deeply insecure young wrestler, he shows you with pain etched in his face and ruthlessness injected in his self-destructive behavior just how broken this supposed champion is. Making little more than a cameo appearance, Vanessa Redgrave does that thing that only Vanessa Redgrave can do and turns every carelessly disappointed look or a line as banal as "It's a low sport" magnificent.

The film's superior on a technical level. Though mostly lean in composition, the picture has a beautifully aged, weighted feel to it. The editing is smart and highly precise, letting the sense of foreboding unfold via jarring mid-action or mid-sentence cuts. Pulling all these strings at once, Miller has crafted a taut, unsettling drama that's not entirely persuasive or conclusive in its deconstruction of troubled souls but magnetically gripping all the same.

Samstag, 29. November 2014

Еще один год (Another Year)


Relationship dramas are hard to get right. You're not supposed to overplot them and lose a natural believability but you should somehow chart the up's and down's of the fluttering hearts; sentimentalizations are to be avoided but then every emotional wrinkle along the road must be felt. Russian director Oksana Bychkova's "Еще один год (Another Year)" doesn't quite make the test and gets stuck somewhere between its attempts to be casually authentic and genuinely affecting.

Following the lives of a young couple over the course of one year, the movie is formally linear and unorthodox only in the several temporal leaps it makes. While progressing at a deliverate pace on a day-to-day basis in the beginning, the story jumps ahead by months near the end. It's a conspicuous decision that draws scrutiny upon itself but the payoff is not immediately clear. Even if the purpose is as literal as to show a distorted sense of time between different phases of a relationship, it's not entirely working because the last part is too compressed to register as much more than a hastened wrap-up. The writing is uneven. There are a couple of exchanges that capture the teasing, intimate, adorably dopey tone of voice used by two people who know each other too well. But a far larger number of scenes are plagued with an inexpressive redundancy which doesn't allow us to get inside the heads of the two capricious, easily jealous characters.

Both lead actors are fine if underserved by their roles. A critical scene of argument is performed with enough childish outrage and cruel dispassion to remind you what a sad thing it is to behold the demise of love. Technically the film's unremarkable. The hand-held camera feels particularly nauseating without the aid of meticulous lighting and the sound sometimes comes off muffled. While the pedestrian look and the loose narrative are apparently both aimed at creating a realistic setting for close-range, incisive observation, they end up rendering the film anemic and disorganized.

Dienstag, 25. November 2014

No Good Deed


At one point during British director Sam Miller's Atlanta-set home-invasion thriller "No Good Deed", the protagonist taunts his victim: "With all your brains [...] you'd have figured out the game by now." But that's exactly the problem. Up until the movie's last minutes, we actually don't know what game is being played. And for essentially one extended duel fought at close quarters, not clarifying the motivations of its aggressor and the stakes of the situation all but takes the life out of the whole conflict, leaving something behind that's senselessly violent and mildly ludicrous.

The story begins as a convict escapes police custody, settles a score with his unfaithful lover, then lands, by all appearances, on the doorsteps of a random house. It's not clear what he wishes to achieve and why he's terrorizing the poor woman living there. The female lead- a former prosecutor specializing in crime against women, no less- further comes off as exceptionally unintelligent, not just being unobservant and grossly careless, but, like all other supporting characters, somehow intent on antagonizing an obviously dangerous man. Such is the frustration from watching a tepid cat-and-mouse play with two dull/dim participants.

Idris Elba certainly has no problem holding the camera's gaze, but something about his portrayal of an emotionally unstable sociopath just feels forced. If a successful villainous role can turn the audience both repulsed and sympathetic, this poorly sketched and inconsistently acted mass murderer who gets stabbed and hit in the head so many times during the course of the film it starts to get comical, confuses above all else.

Cheesily thunderous but never truly over-the-top, this failed B-movie doesn't even give you the satisfaction of some legitimate guilty pleasure. Its one good deed might be the fact that it manages to bring things to a close within 84 short, relatively painless minutes.

Donnerstag, 20. November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1


Leaving the arenas behind and snapping straight into revolution mode, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1" is easily the most interesting entry in the franchise to date. The conceit of televised teenage killings, while successfully played out in the first two movies to entertaining, provocative effect, provides ultimately more shock value than a viable premise outside the realm of gruesome fantasism. The themes of oppression, rebellion, heroism and media manipulation come into much clearer focus when grounded in the gritty reality of bunkers and strategy rooms. Insofar as bomber jets getting shot down by a young girl with a penchant for archery can be called adult, this movie strikes an unexpectedly ageless chord with its subversive message and angry tone.

The cast is strong, led by the ever watchable Jennifer Lawrence, who's still very compelling in her third outing as Katniss Everdeen. Letting despair, suspicion, indignation, the realization of duty and the burden of responsibility flow unfiltered through her open face, she's more persuasive and charismatic as the Messiah figure than Daniel "The Boy Who Lived" Radcliffe ever was. Though not given much to do, the supporting actors bring it whenever they're on screen. The sizzling chemistry between Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, each inhabiting a forceful character with ease, is simply delicious. Director Francis Lawrence tells a good story, even if his hand isn't always steady. Editing is rough, especially in the beginning, where less than ideally-timed cuts mean palpable hiccups for a start that could have run more smoothly. Visually, the CGI shots are still not quite perfected, but some traditional action sequences, like a nighttime rescue mission later in the film, impress for their design and tension.

Split in two like other blockbuster finales in recent years, the first half of Mockingjay doesn't feel thin or padded thanks to a refreshing change of scene and thoughtful discourse on the psychology of post-modern warfare. And while its target audience is still unmistakably marked, people a lot older would be surprised by how much they can relate this time around.

Montag, 17. November 2014

10.000 Km


(Originally appeared in Film International on Nov. 16, 2014)

Spanish writer/director Carlos Marques-Marcet's "10.000 Km" is the kind of movie that's powered by so much honesty and insight that, despite the built-in developmental restrictions from its limited thematic focus, casts a universal spell and hits you on the most visceral level.

Photographer Alex (Natalia Tena) wins an unexpected grant for a one-year residency in Los Angeles and moves out from the apartment in Barcelona she shares with long-time boyfriend Sergi (David Verdaguer). It's a joint, if not altogether voluntary decision for a couple already making children plans. But then again, 10,000 kilometers don't mean what they used to back in the pre-internet era, or so the knee-jerk reasoning goes. We thus find the two protagonists stranded in prolonged separation, trying to keep their romance, now stretched across two continents, alive.

The premise is simple, quotidian in that it depicts something which happens every hour of every day in an age of globalized professional and private networks. The strength of the script, however, lies exactly in the fact that, with an eye for detail and a voice of absolute authenticity, it allows you to see the fundamental, timeless humanness at the core of this most sympathizable of dilemmas. The sense of recognition and empathy inspired by the sight of the tentative, slightly ashamed search through a partner's new Facebook contacts or those unbearable seconds pregnant with meaning and suspicion before an instant message gets replied, injects an immediacy into the struggles portrayed on screen that makes you picture, with a feeling of transcendent connection, tiny heartbreaks just like this taking place out there in the real world, in real time. And while the last two-thirds of the movie can't entirely escape the formal repetitiveness and material looseness of an episodic narrative structure, the scenarios themselves are conceived with a consistent lack of affectation they are never less than beguiling to watch.

The terrific writing is further elevated by the wonderful performances from the two leads. Tena dazzles with the complete physical ease she brings to her embodiment of the vivacious, driven, passionately feminine Alex. Moving with unself-conscious agility while emoting freely, she sells someone perfectly comfortable in her own skin who suddenly finds herself torn between cool-headed career considerations and hot-blooded needs for companionship. During several extended, wordless close-ups of her face throughout the film, including a particularly memorable one at the end of an unsatisfactory cyber sex experiment, she nails the gradual but unmistakable transition of her character's inner state, letting the ebb of delirious excitement or the growing discomfort at a dawning reality beautifully play out across her expressive features. Even more impressive is probably Verdaguer as the doting, tortured, hopelessly insecure Sergi. With adoration, desire and proprietorship always cooking just beneath a bravely nonchalant surface, he gives the idea of the modern male- tolerant, supportive, domestic- all its unspoken fragility back and charms the burning heartbeat of the film to life. His delivery of a question near the end of the movie, with a caught voice, tear-streaked cheeks and a look so painfully, defiantly enamored, is likely to be as devastating as anything we'll have seen all year.

Technically, the movie liberally uses webcams, Google Street Views and other means of communication to circumvent its budgetary limitations while remaining visually convincing and relatable. There's nothing modest, however, about the 20-min plus, uncut opening sequence, which not only proves the merits of the aforementioned writing and acting but also showcases the technical prowess behind the camera. Beginning with an impassioned, realistically scripted and orchestrated sex scene that leads to a lengthy post-coital talk and the subsequent discovery of the surprise E-mail, followed by an argument and its settlement at the breakfast table, it's an unbroken take that's a small epic in and of itself. Both actors display great range within this continuous shot, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster ride of ecstasy, shock, rage and reconciliation without ever breaking stride. The camera is confident in its pace and fluidity, rounding corners and following the atmospheric changes in the room with expert command. Elsewhere, the spatial and optical parameters of the scene are all imperceptibly but precisely negotiated to give it a richness that compensates the edit-free challenge. Considering the discipline and directorial instincts required of realizing such a feat, any doubts of the promise Marques-Marcet shows as a filmmaker should be silenced even before the title card formally drops.

Comparisons of this film to the similarly-themed Sundance winner "Like Crazy" (2011) are inevitable, but the more appropriate reference might be "Weekend" (2011) or "Her" (2013). Although both dealing with long-distance relationships, "10.000 Km" is characterized by an acutely adult sensibility absent in the Anton Yelchin/Felicity Jones-starrer. Instead, bracketed between two sex scenes that contrast distinctly in tone, sentiment and context, it reminds more closely of the evolutive nature of love described in Andrew Haigh's melancholic indie gem. And in its examination of vicarious intimacy facilitated by technology, it calls to mind aspects of Spike Jonze's futuristic tale. Ultimately, what makes all three of these comparable, if vastly different pictures work, is their understanding of the insurmountable, primal longing for closeness of our race. And with words and direction that overflow with genuine tenderness, an impeccably cast on-screen couple shooting sparks of chemistry left and right, as well as scenes of wrenching intensity or penetrating revelation, "10.000 Km" has earned its place as a worthy addition to this line of vital modern romances.

Sonntag, 16. November 2014

Before I Go to Sleep


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 13, 2014)

The second adaptation of a bestselling crime novel about a dysfunctional marriage to hit the big screen this fall – after David Fincher's "Gone Girl" – is the similarly pulpy but far less effective "Before I Go to Sleep" by Rowan Joffe. Based on S.J. Watson's book of the same name, it's a loyal translation that reminds one of all the weaknesses of the original and adds little flavour through the cinematic treatment.

A woman who has lost her ability to store memory beyond one day wakes up every morning to find a strange man sleeping next to her. It's an enticing enough hook but as in the book, the inherent absurdity and inadequacy of this single-line premise becomes obvious very quickly. On a narrative level, the apparent impossibility of building trust and forming intimacy under these circumstances renders the central relationship such a pointless pursuit it seems blatantly suspicious even without any of the half-hearted encouragement. And just on a technical level, the only vaguely foreboding but immensely repetitive process of witnessing a lead character start from scratch over and over again is tiresome to say the least.

The third act of the movie, beginning with a loud and unexpected slap, sends a much-needed jolt to a hitherto sluggish rhythm. But the big reveal, while momentarily spine-tingling, especially in its implication of the sick psychology of enslavement at work here, also feels deeply contrived and suggests everything that has come before is designed solely for the purpose of that bang of an ending. Elsewhere, the principal cast boasting multiple Academy Award winners delivers absolutely nothing remarkable and the scoring of the film, which crams every banal moment with ceaseless orchestral manipulation, is patently, noteworthily misguided.

Donnerstag, 13. November 2014

Timbuktu


Mauritanian writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" is a graceful, visually enchanting film about the plight in certain parts of Africa taken over by militant Islamists. Probably too mild in language and style for its message of protest, it paints nevertheless a quietly affecting, wonderfully transportive portrait of a land in struggle.

The script is anecdotal in nature, pieced together by snippets of the Jihadists' invasion of the local life and culture. Various customary practices are forbidden, dress codes are forced on women and ideological brainwash on young men. Individually these incidents are often hair-raising to watch, but due to a lack of momentous push from a more closely-woven context, aggregately they don't pack as huge a punch. The characters are likewise drawn with an authentic, naturalistic hand but not enough substance to really make you relate. The emotional profession of love for his family by an imprisoned man near the end and his subsequent execution which takes a tragic extra toll underline this insufficiency in character-building, as a more deeply-felt connection to the misfortune portrayed is denied.

The direction is patient, lyrical, unaffected, placing the viewer squarely in the grandeur of an ancient, vibrant continent. Hauntingly beautiful images like those of a single lit tent in the dark expanse of the desert under the palest moon or an accidental offender cutting the surface of a placid, golden pond open as he leaves the crime scene behind, compel with their scale and majestic air. Meanwhile, a game of fantasy football is not only visually arresting but immediately brings home the ludicrousness of cultural suppression. The use of music in this film is consistently inspired. The tender, evocative score carrying just a note of ethnic flavor and lots of earthly melancholy, is a winning companion to the delicate photography. A scene of friends secretly singing and jamming at home showcases the human voice at its purest, effortlessly communicating the simple joy of harmonious sound.

As a political statement, "Timbuktu" errs on the modest side, but as a humanistic reminder of endangered traditions and liberties in an under-scrutinized corner of the world, it's composed with great poetry and deserves admiration.

Dienstag, 11. November 2014

Short takes


Brazilian director Paulo Morelli's "Entre nós (Sheep's Clothing)" is a relationship drama in thriller packaging which fails to be either dramatic or thrilling. Centered around a group of friends who meet again to dig up the time capsule they buried ten years ago- just before one of them died in a car accident- the plot is messy, fatally unfocused. Not content with just exploring the moral dilemma of someone living off the theft of a dead buddy, it tries to spice things up with sexual tension between every other combination among the protagonists. The result is something utterly, at times laughably implausible. Not helping matters is the overzealous film score with its obvious, exaggerated emotional cues, which reaches a low in one absurd scene of desperate intercourse on a swing set. The amber-ish translucent cinematography delivers some lovely, advert-ready imagery of the leafy valley in São Chico but it's not nearly enough to save the narrative mediocrity crushed by its own blind pursuits.      

Neither Victorian classical nor fashionably contemporized, "Mr. Turner" is a peculiar film to consider. Chronicling the life of famed 18th century marine painter J.M.W. Turner, it follows no conventional biopic trajectory and depicts the various dealings of its protagonist in a fairly loose structure. But while there are dry patches during the rather lavish 150-min running time, for the most part it remains an absorbing, inexplicably magnetic experience. Once again, British maestro Mike Leigh puts his uncommon gift of capturing the humor and profundity of the everyday to use. How he coaxes a thoroughly foreign, ancient type of quirk out of interactions from a bygone era is remarkable. The cast is also superb, not just Timothy Spall as the cruel, passionate Turner, but also Dorothy Atkinson as his meek housekeeper, Marion Bailey as his loving final companion along with other memorable guest appearances. The golden cinematography is often beautiful but the curious score rising like a constant question mark is perhaps even more impressive.

British director Matthew Warchus' "Pride" is traditional storytelling of the tidiest kind: identifiable hardships, uncomfortable confrontations and painful setbacks lead ultimately, unerringly to a triumphant, heart-warming finale. To cover the many aspects of the unlikely alliance in mid-80's England between Welsh miners and the London gay community, the well-meaning script can feel quite abbreviated and formulaic, with reconciliations too easily facilitated and changes of mind not convincingly mapped. That said, the message of solidarity is nothing if not inspiring and the direction is familiar but undeniably sturdy. Together they bring about this highly infectious burst of joyous, righteous convictions which culminates in an expectedly but nonetheless powerfully moving ending. Technical details are fine with some notable retro costume design. The whole cast is delightful, especially the mighty Imelda Staunton, who, as a tiny but unstoppable ball of energy, gives common decency a necessary, unapologetically loud voice.

The Rio-set kidnapping thriller "O Lobo atrás da Porta (A Wolf at the Door)" is all kinds of exciting until that stupendously crude ending. While the disappearance of a child seems to be cleared up just 5 minutes into the film, it's all but the beginning of a twisted tale of infidelity, lies, jealousy and abuse. Brazilian writer/director Fernando Coimbra shows tremendous promise as a stylish, engrossing storyteller. By way of contradictory narratives offered from different perspectives, he gives what's portrayed on screen a jagged, unsettling edge of unreliability. And despite the less-than-crystalline picture quality, the handheld camera is always positioned at bold, suggestive angles or in oppressively close proximity to the action to keep a smothering grip on the viewer's imagination. Lead actress Leandra Leal plays flirty, petrified and brutalized to great effect, making it doubly frustrating that the film should wrap on such an emptily violent note, spoiling expectations of an appropriately surprising release from all the suspense.

Donnerstag, 6. November 2014

Interstellar


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 6, 2014)

The best thing about British director Christopher Nolan's space travel drama "Interstellar" is the fact that, in an age of market-oriented, risk-managed blockbusters, it actually dares to invest so much in something so relentlessly cerebral. Its readiness to engage in highly conceptual hypotheses and commitment to pushing cinematic exploration beyond the bounds of empirical knowledge make it a hardcore science-fiction film the likes of which we seldom see anymore.

As titillating as its furious imaginative reach may be, the movie proves only intermittently compelling in execution. The script's slight penchant for the fatalistic and possible overindulgence in spirituality sabotage the authority of its scientific voice. One may argue it's this emotional aspect of the story that gives the cold, perilous journey a beating heart, but "Love is the one thing that transcends time and space" does sound just as icky in context as in the trailer. That said, there are a handful of scenes which depict time as the essential factor of the human experience, where a father watches in pained silence the lives of his children he's missed out on or an old man confesses with his dying breath a secret he's kept for two generations, that are undeniably moving.

Technically, the film isn't as compact or breathtakingly seamless as last year's "Gravity". The first two hours, especially, see an often less than brilliant (non-digital) cinematography too focused on close-ups to give a sense of movement and dimension, exacerbated by some relatively lax editing. The last third improves significantly, with parallel narratives racing forward into the unknown, accompanied by Hans Zimmer's urgent, celestial, metallically orchestral score. Art direction and visual effects are not consistently spectacular but shine with particular intensity in certain awe-inspiring intergalactic flight sequences.

For better or worse, Nolan has always been an intellectual filmmaker. With this latest, his grandest effort to date, he boldly considers the unanswerable and pictures the hereafter. While the result is not as profound as one'd hope, this is the kind of substantial, serious-minded studio production the world of popular entertainment needs more of.

Sonntag, 2. November 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Turist (Force Majeure)


(Originally appeared in Film International on Nov. 2, 2014)

Swedish comedic drama "Turist (Force Majeure)" is a sneaky, unsparing, surgically accurate stab to a very particular part of the human sensibility, which makes it at once hilarious and deeply unsettling to watch. Written, directed and performed with remarkable intelligence and empathy, it tickles, provokes, cooks up delicious tension throughout, even if all that steam can't seem to find the perfect outlet in the end for an appropriately volcanic burst.

Unfolding like a travel diary, the story follows a bourgeois family of four on a skiing vacation. It's a healthy, loving, reasonably well-to-do bunch enjoying themselves at a posh French locale where work is prohibited and misery a remote notion. But then an accident involving an avalanche happens. Leaving no physical damage behind, the true aftermath of this apparently harmless interlude isn’t revealed until the dinner afterwards, as mother/wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) recounts, to the horror of father/husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the event from her perspective in front of two guests. The night ends in great awkwardness without the couple’s facing up to the crux of the problem. On the one end efforts are still being made to downplay, brush over, cover up; on the other a resignation and possibly pacifist need lead to reluctant compliance. The trauma of the experience is such, however, that it doesn’t allow to be forgotten, and the very fact that a truce of sorts has been made only adds fuel to the frustration, resentment and a host of unnamed toxic feelings bubbling beneath the surface. At a second dinner with two other guests, the dam is finally flooded and we’re left with one of the most spectacularly uncomfortable movie scenes in recent memory.

The genius of the writing is attributable to its absolute humanity and honesty. It looks all the flaws, frailties and embarrassing traits of our race straight in the eyes and mocks them without mercy. Because it’s so deeply grounded in reality, you can identify or sympathize with the protagonists’ bad decisions every step of the way. And because it’s so relentlessly candid, even when you can tell chances for reconciliation are too far gone and catastrophe is now inevitable, you can’t help but giggle along. What’s also clever about the script is its use of one relatively unassuming incident as catalyst to set off a whole chain of unforeseeable reactions. Like an Ian McEwan novel, it capitalizes on the power of extraordinary circumstances to shake us out of the protective shell of morals or self-discipline, and follows with sharp insight how fundamentally decent people can end up hurting one another so much when acting on largely blameless instincts. As the movie progresses, you can literally feel the invisible footing on which a relationship and family stands loosen like cracks spreading through ice- a tingling, anticipatory, gloriously ominous feeling.

Also contributing to the simultaneous appeal of the film as comedy and drama are the sharp direction and fine acting. Helmer Ruben Östlund, who’s responsible for the screenplay as well, shows an innate understanding of what makes us tick, what gives a moment weight, what changes the temperature in a room. Reminiscent of the earlier work of Ang Lee, his depiction of the family dynamic, complete with its secret language, subtle rules, unspoken understandings, is authentically unagitated but charged with an ever-shifting electric current. Applied to a social setting, the forces at play are even stronger with the inclusion of outsiders. And here, as evidenced by the aforementioned two dinner scenes, Östlund tracks the fissures in the fabric of acceptable behavior with the precision of a bomb disposal expert, choosing and timing the shots and edits so meticulously that no trace of embarrassment, anger, panic, humiliation quietly ripping the peace apart goes undetected. Of course, no fireworks of emotions are possible without able actors to deliver the raw material. In this case, the two leads are both outstanding. Kongsli plays the dramatic fuse of the film. None of the aftershocks would work if people don’t buy into her moral outrage triggered by the accident. And she pulls that off with flying colors. In another beautifully/ painfully observant scene where her character gets to watch the rest of her family go about their skiing routines without her from a rather compromised position, she communicates succinctly the utter despair of someone at war with her own principles. As the shamed breadwinner fighting to preserve his dignity, Kuhnke gets the figure of the slightly emasculated modern male just right. Not necessarily the leader of the pack anymore but still hanging on to the vanity of someone in charge, often feeling powerless, underappreciated, and especially feeling wronged when called a coward, it’s a fearlessly naked performance that deserves all the laughs it nets and echoes it finds. In supporting roles, Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius are also delightful as the well-meaning couple inadvertently dragged into a domestic storm. In many ways representing the viewer, their expressions of stunned speechlessness would no doubt mirror those of many sitting in the audience, which is so much fun.

The movie looks fantastic. A minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic underlies the bold, linear framing and composition of the picture, captured by some pristine lensing. Panoramic view of the Alpine vista, both in the splendor of the day and the menace of the night, grace the screen at regular intervals. The sound work on the film, from the whooshing of the slides cutting through snow to the suffocating sonic void inside the mountain lifts, is also remarkable. Particularly noteworthy is how the director uses the visual and aural design to reflect and reinforce the corresponding mindset of the characters within. Treacherous weather accompanied by orchestral music and the occasional firing of snow cannons, crashing avalanche exposing the dangerous hollows beneath the snowcapped perfection all play into the apt synergy of technical and narrative storytelling.

It’s a shame then that, with so much going for it, the movie doesn’t exactly end with a bang. A scene low on visibility and high on allegorical value that leads in the ending is most likely meant to appear staged and equivocal, but however one looks at it, it lacks in its outcome the deep pull or vicious bite of what’s come before. As for the actual finale, which involves another unexpected occurrence on the group’s way home, it’s not as well-conceived as the central conflict to evoke similarly relatable response in its fallout, so that even though the film closes with a somehow newfound cool attitude, you kind of wish it would be something less harmonious but incisive, messier but profound.

Freitag, 17. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Whiplash


(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Oct. 17, 2014)

Calling American writer/director Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" the sadomasochistic version of "Dead Poets Society" is certainly an oversimplification. But they do both feature a talented, aspiring artist motivated, pushed by a driven, passionate mentor. Only in this case the story is set in the circle of competitive jazz bands and instead of being nurturing, the teacher-student relationship portrayed is all kinds of abusive.

Centered around the young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), who's desperately trying to make it in the jazz band of his conservatory, the screenplay isn't particularly subtle in its writing, especially when it comes to crafting dialogue outside the musical arena- a dinner scene that bluntly demonizes every un-jazz-savvy family member of the protagonist comes to mind. But it's based on refreshing, convention-defying ideas which it explores to their merciless end. For one, it takes a look at the unbelievable, sometimes debilitating work that goes into becoming somebody on the concert stage. Through a series of swift and publicly humiliating replacements within the band, we're soon reminded of how elusive the notion of glamour or the association of cultured elegance are in this context, and just how brutally real the necessity to constantly prove yourself is. An even more interesting aspect of the story is of course the dynamic between the newbie and the monstrous bandmaster Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Throwing all clichés about the inspirational educator out of the window, this weathered, volatile, incredibly mean musician shows no inkling of attachment to his underlings. He makes it very clear they're but the vessels for his vision and he has no time for a leaky vessel. Exercising every form of psychological torture on the band members without blinking an eye, this character is a fascinating creation who finally meets his match near the end of the film, when the disgraced disciple comes back with a vengeance and all bets are off.

Indeed, what makes this movie a brilliant character study is how readily unlikable it paints its protagonists. On the one side is the man put in charge of training, guiding a new generation of players but who embraces that task with such a militant attitude it borders on terrorization. And just when a tragic incident or an impassioned speech during an after-work drink lets you think there's a soft core inside this ruthless dictator after all, the script actually bends it backward again with yet more twists that reveal an even darker side to a personality utterly, beguilingly unknowable. In the other corner is the bright-eyed and bitterly tormented boy who starts out like your typical sympathy figure, only to surprise you later with the depths of his obsession and an almost twisted greed for success. Playing with such forceful, compellingly vile characters and leaving no room for common decency, the movie spins into a thrilling mind game in its all-out crazy finale which might not seem entirely plausible in its outcome but nevertheless electrifies with its energy and the sheer unpredictability of how things will go down.        

The terrific acting duo of Teller and Simmons infuses the lively antagonism between coach and pupil with practically combustible fuel. As the ambitious and furiously single-minded Andrew, Teller shows, if not enough nuance, such intense vigor and burning will you not only believe the sweat, blood, spit and tears flying off him and dripping all over the drum kit, you can almost feel them. And in those breathtakingly quiet moments before the first drumbeat drops on stage, the screen is as much stretched tight by the sonic anticipation as by the weight of his concentration. Simmons is frightening and mesmerizing as the conductor, general, God of the troupe. As natural as he is barking obscenities or welling up at a memory, he truly shines when he's only acting with his eyes, fingertips and the slightest flicks of his wrists. It's the lack of flamboyance and the Swiss-watch precision of his movements that sell someone who's seen and heard it all, who's too good at and too sure of what he does to waste any second on unworthy sounds. From idolized reverence to murderous hostility, the two of them share a dance through the emotions that's never less than riveting to watch.

The movie is not without its faults. As mentioned above, the screenwriting is rough at times and the ending has believability issues. And while it's a great touch for Chazelle to try to visually reconstruct jazz using free-flowing, very spontaneous shots and cuts, the editing can appear a little manic, unnecessarily erratic in places. But overall, this is something so violently alive it can't help but be exciting. Plus a soundtrack as cool and groovy as that, and one could even be forgiven for falling in love with this enthralling, fervent imperfection.

Mittwoch, 15. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep)


(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Oct. 15, 2014)

Turkish epic drama "Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep)", the winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, lives up to its title in more sense than one. It's a mostly chill, sedate affair that unfolds at its own pace, it's optically often accompanied by snow or a misty white. Most importantly, sitting through the film really does feel like spending and then waking up from hibernation, as drawn out and somewhat dream-like as the experience is. Whether or not this also means it's an inspiring, enjoyable or even worthwhile time spent at the cinema is another question.

A plot summary in this case would be difficult because making up the film's hipbone-flattening 196-minute running time are actually rounds and rounds of discussions between the characters about a variety of subjects. There are expository interludes showcasing the sprawling landscape of Anatolia or its wildlife, but they mainly serve as intermissions between the talks and are thus, as gorgeous as they often look, largely superfluous from a storytelling's point of view. But talk the people in this film certainly do. The male protagonist Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a well-to-do hotelier and landlord who used to be an actor and is now also a columnist/ aspiring author. What first prompted the series of reflections on his part is a rock-throwing incident initiated by the young son of one of his tenants Ismail (Nejat Isler), who's behind on rent and expropriated, humiliated accordingly. A visit to the child's home expecting reconciliation not only doesn't offer the rich man closure but further aggravates the emotionally unstable Ismail who's just recently been released from jail.

From there on it's basically one prolonged scene of debate after another. Aydin discusses with his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) about the right time for charity. Aydin's divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) proposes the theory that not defending oneself against vice is the way to correct wrong and make right. The two women argue about self-deception, forgiveness and shame. The two siblings fight about the virtues of thinking versus doing. It's not long before one gets the feeling this is a family that can just sit around the breakfast table and find the tiniest cause for a major philosophical discourse. Meanwhile the themes of their elaborations can't be easily embedded in an organic whole and the thought processes themselves often follow a loose, stream-of-consciousness logic, so they can come across as pretty arbitrary, ostentatious, even banal. At one point a character accuses another of watching too much soap opera, which sounds like an unintentionally accurate attack on the film's overly stretched and immoderately dramatized writing.        

Paradoxically enough, the one thing that most conceivably justifies the awarding of the Palme d'Or, a hypnotic pull of the film that lulls you into a meditative trance, stems most likely also from the ceaseless conversations. The constant outpour of words, as random as they might seem individually, and especially the implied stringent commitment to critical thinking on their writer's part, give the picture not just the obvious air of cultivation, but an internal grandeur, a serious-minded majesty. Aggregately this intense communication of ideas stimulates and appeases the human need to be understood much in the way of Richard Linklater's "Before..."-trilogy, although to those allergic to too much dialogue in movies, this would probably seem like Céline and Jesse on steroid duking it out on every existential issue there is, in short, an interminable torture.

The fineness of the filmmaking itself here is beyond doubt. Shot predominantly indoors, the camera placement is precise in its evocative choice of angles, its movement slight but graceful, The exteriors, whether of railway swept by blizzard, graveyard covered in fog or housing nestled within rocky topography, are not only beautiful to look at, but provide via their contrast to the dimly lit living quarters a vivid reminder of the tirelessly contended theme of good versus evil. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is an elegant storyteller with many things to say. His determination and patience to let it all out in one go might well prove too hardcore for the general movie-going public, but if one needs any proof that he could also shoot concise, emotionally poignant scenes without resorting to a dictionary's worth of vocabulary, one must look no further than a scene late in the film where Nihal pays a visit to Ismail's house to make an unexpected offer, where the most interesting exchange probably takes place through camera and body language.  

Acting-wise, everyone in the principal cast is solid, led by an assured but brilliantly weary Bilginer. Playing someone who has fought his whole life to get to where he is, he shows an ease in countenance and an unapologetic conviction in mentality that's very persuasive. Sözen and Akbag may not be as compelling, inherently limited by more confined character arcs, but they both bring repose and intellect to their roles that make their eloquence, if still affected at times, not all-out preposterous. Wit even less screen time but nonetheless impressive is Isler, whose pained glances, pregnant with indictment, are part of the reason why the aforementioned scene with prominently few lines works so well.

In all, "Winter Sleep" is a technically refined, well performed chamber piece featuring certifiably chatty characters who rub bubbles out of anything and everything. Its intentions are admirable, but with an unrealistically wide aim and a compulsively verbal approach, the desperation a viewer feels when he checks to find there are still hours on the clock is also very real. However elevated the language and tasteful the execution, you know there's a problem with a movie this high-minded when every time the clueless Japanese tourist turns up to make lighthearted, grammatically incorrect chitchat in between perfectly penned speeches, all you feel in the dark is grateful.  

Montag, 13. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Плем'я (The Tribe)


(Originally appeared in Film International on Oct. 13, 2014)

The Ukranian dramatic thriller "Плем'я (The Tribe)" marks the arrival of a major directorial talent in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who delivers a feature debut here that’s artistically challenging, topically provocative, stylistically assured, and an all-around daring, alluring, searing work of vision. Set in an educational institution for the deaf and mute, the entire movie is acted out in sign language without any translation, subtitles or voice-over. From the very start, the viewer is thrown head-first into a world devoid of speech and made to stay there for a 132 minute runtime that often feels like such a compressed vacuum that it literally takes your breath away. If the very first scenes, as curiously indistinct as they are observed from across the street or the edge of a ritualistic assembly, don’t yet make the one-of-a-kind quality of this film known, you soon find yourself in (apparently) the principal’s office with the new, introverted student Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), followed by an exchange completely impenetrable to anyone unversed in the art of signing.

There will be many more situations like this, in which one has no way of knowing what’s being said, ordered, questioned, debated, but the brilliance of the director lies exactly in the fact that he understands human communication, even when stripped of all conversational tools, can sneak through the most imperceptible channels and light a spark of recognition on the most subliminal level. Indeed, one quickly realizes no words are needed to convey such primal fears of exclusion, exploitation or abuse. And in the practiced efficiency with which tasks are carried out and hierarchy established on the school compound, one can readily spot a sinister enterprise long before the actual criminal acts begin. Of course, this implies a much more instinctual and less precise form of comprehension, which ultimately counts against the relatability of the script, but the emotional ripples it stirs up are just as real. An argument between two girls via a lot of furious gesticulating later in the film, for example, baffles in terms of its exact meaning but remains utterly compelling to watch for the sheer passion it captures.

Further enhancing the unique experience of following a story without always being informed of what’s happening are the strong visual and aural imprint of Slaboshpitsky’s hand. Scenes set in a crowded student cafeteria are silent except for the busy clutter of cutlery, as well as scenes depicting a group visit to an amusement park at night with only the creaking of the merry-go-around audible, are intensely sound-focused and disturb with an inherent strangeness. An extended sequence of a complete gynecological procedure shows all the motions gone through with rapt attention and inflicts an almost physical pain through those unblinking eyes. Combining both elements, a carefully choreographed public fight/mob scene staged against waves of eerily muted cheers engenders such peculiar artificiality and ceremoniousness that one suspects it would make Lars von Trier proud. These directorial tricks wouldn’t work without the support of an able technical team, and, especially in the case of the visual department, first-time cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych impresses with a tremendous sense of space. There is nothing amateurish or accidental about his camera, which expands and constricts its view with purpose and design, filling the images with geometrical cues and a tangible aliveness too glorious to go unnoticed.

As hinted above, the writing on the film (also by Slaboshpitsky) isn’t as watertight as the directing. On the one hand there’s the built-in problem of limited articulation, which prevents us from being totally sure of some finer points of the plot and thus identifying with the characters with more conviction. On the other, the plotting itself is a little repetitive at times, especially with the prostitution scheme enacted time and again. And if it’s not supposed to be an attack on the social reality in the Ukraine, the general lack of supervision within this facility also feels unaccounted for. Another smaller weakness is the performance by Fesenko in the lead role, which might be too unvaried to bring the viewer closer. These faults in screenwriting and acting contribute to an extremely violent ending that seems to be carried by too little context except simple-minded rage. Even so, the journey leading up to that blood-splattered point is an absolutely transfixing one and it gratifies to no end seeing such fearless creative risk-taking pay off with flying colors while witnessing an impossible idea realized with big, confident gestures.

Samstag, 11. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Fehér isten (White God)


(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Oct. 10, 2014)

A striking first frame or opening sequence, while not the solution to every problem, is definitely a big plus for any movie. After all, it's the image that most immediately leaves an impression, sets the tone, puts your imagination to work. And a hugely promising start the Hungarian dramatic thriller "Fehér isten (White God)" does have. Unfortunately it turns out to be one of those downhill slides that never manage to regain the initial height again.

Blunt, structurally complicated and contextually unusual, a static overhead shot of crisscrossing streets and highway on a crisp morning in Budapest- completely empty of traffic- drops like a brick with an almost illusionary optical starkness. The sense of unease only escalates as a lone bike-rider then pedals across the abandoned city, chased by probably the only thing even more worrisome than a pack of blood-thirsty zombies- a pack of angry-looking dogs. It's an arresting overture impressive for its classical composition and tonal urgency. When it's followed after the title card directly by a sequence of the young biker girl playing with her mutt in careless frolic from another time, the contrast is strong, the curiosity and expectation stoked great.

For a while, it seems that the high hopes would be proven valid, too. The movie remains forcefully present, making especially good use of intensely corporal, symbol-heavy imagery like the carcasses and innards of skinned livestock in a slaughterhouse that are promptly, somewhat vulgarly stamped "suitable for consumption". The smart iconography continues with the main character design: girl in hoodie, with bike in hands and trumpet in rucksack, roaming the neighborhood side by side with her loyal sidekick. It's an instantly catchy, almost fable-like figure that easily consolidates a surreal tale around itself. So far, so good.          

But then writer/director Kornél Mundruczó appears to run out of fresh ideas. The critical second act that should establish the story of how the frightening canine army came to be, begins with a hasty, simplistically constructed desertion that feels sorely inadequate. The subsequent parallel narrative is uneven at best, with the storyline following Hagen the dog consistently more interesting than the one about his anxious owner. The many angles that part of the story tackles, including the father-daughter relationship and a half-hearted attempt at adolescent romance, are generically conceived, failing to quicken the dramatic pulse which drops whenever the focus moves away from the dog. But even on the more adventurous front, the journey of a house pet to becoming a ruthless prizefighter is not particularly winning. The handful of escape sequences lack an adult edginess and come across as too harmless and Disney, an effect further strengthened by the fairly literal use of "villainous" or "adrenalin" music throughout.

The third act, which ideally would bring the story full circle and realize that scary promise from the beginning, also falls way short. While the massive stampede scenes are still unquestionably awesome, without sufficient secondary references to back it up, the horror element employed here significantly misses the mark, so that everything from the theatrical woman-dog stare-down at the shelter gate to the subsequent elimination of the butcher, the animal trader, even the dog-hating neighbor, gets rather unintentionally comical.

The most glowing asset of the film is doubtlessly its award-winning (Palme Dog 2014) canine cast, in particular the leader of the pack Hagen. Easily out-acting all all his human colleagues, he fascinates with exact and expressive movements, whether in petrification, alertness, rage or bewilderment. Through the variety of his reactions he also manages to save the unimaginatively choreographed and shot dog fight scenes from truly tanking. Ultimately the spectacles and some soulful animal performances aren't enough to salvage a film struggling with finding its own personality though. The vicious brutality depicted here and there can hardly be reconciled with the kiddie-friendly plot paternalistically rendered. And when the final weapon against the bestial invasion, which everyone in the audience has long guessed, is drawn and resolves the crisis as expected, the deliciously macabre undertone from that great opening quote "Everything terrible is something that needs our love" is irreversibly flipped. What you see then among the fluffy chaos on screen is, above all else, a wasted opportunity.

What We Do in the Shadows


New Zealander writer/director duo Jemaine Clement/Taika Waititi's vampire mocumentary "What We Do in the Shadows" is, as the unanimous blurb concert on its poster suggests, indeed hilarious. It represents the kind of grassroots, idea-centric comedy that proves winning not in spite of its logistical limitations but beause of them.

Shot through the lens of a documentary crew granted exclusive access to the life of four flat-sharing vampires in Wellington, things look makeshift and soberly unpolished from the first frame. When one of the tenants flies out from his coffin by way of some rudimentary wirework and starts introducing his flatmates with the bubbly excitement of someone not used to media attention, you might groan at the by now overused faux-realistic/found-footage style of filmmaking and ask how much longer the gimmick is going to last. In this case, however, the approach turns out to be in itself the source of comedy as it cleverly puts the myths of the bloodsucking immortals in the context of modern-day life and the hilarity from all the incongruence takes care of itself.

With the seriousness of a news team and the earnestness of people trying to be informative/entertaining on camera, the film takes us through the unexpected troubles and challenges the undead might face today. The scenarios are smartly conceived brimming with a dry, diabolic humor. The jokes keep coming but they feel organic, spontaneous, almost careless in their telling. The calculated air of strategically placed punchlines and gags commonly experienced by studio pictures is reduced to a minimum. Even though there are a couple of minor rough patches and the abrupt ending can use some bulking up, overall it's a very funny and creatively compelling piece of writing.

The production value is as hinted very modest, with all the effects shots looking somewhat dated and amateurish. But that plays into the whole mocking tone of the film well and stokes with endearing dorkiness even more goodwill. The cast, which includes the two directors, is funny in their matter-of-fact portrayal of vampires of different descents and temperaments. In all, this is a treat for those who like their movies cheekily macabre and don't mind geeky genre sensibility or drab lighting.

Freitag, 10. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Potsdam: Jamie Marks Is Dead


American writer/director Carter Smith's supernatural drama "Jamie Marks Is Dead" plays with interesting themes but the way they come together is so absurd one soon stops to care.

The title doesn't cheat- the meek, badly bullied high school student Jamie Marks is indeed dead from the get-go. He still plays a part in the story though, as his ghost starts to turn up at his classmates' houses. What's annoying about how the plot then unfolds is not that, despite some heavy hints offered later in the film, we never truly find out the why's and how's of Jamie's death. This could still be chalked up to deliberate character-building through mystique and intrigue. The fact that the movie never cares to explain the "laws" of the underworld as envisioned here, how it works and how beings from both sides interact, is very problematic though. It borrows freely from the genres of horror and children's fantasy without ever elaborating on the reasons or rules, so every new development seems disconnected, arbitrary. What makes matters worse is how poorly the motivations are established everywhere in the film. Why the sudden interest of the jock-y Adam in his dead classmate? Why does he decide he needs to get away with Jamie and subsequently pisses off that other ghost Frances? What is with all that "word-feeding" Jamie demands and what puts his troubled soul to rest in the end? Most ridiculous of all is probably the way the two supporting female characters- Adam's mom and the woman who paralyzes her in a car accident- are drawn. This whole subplot actually feels like a strangely irrelevant afterthought, but whenever these two show up, they never fail to sound and act so fake you half expect them to be exposed as just imaginary figures at any moment.

It's apparent the filmmaker wishes to address adolescent sexuality and other subjects such as forgiveness and redemption though all this paranormal activity, but his direction is often wishy-washy/inexpressive where subtlety and clarity are needed. The emptily busy script and only average acting (lead actor Cameron Monaghan is wooden and sometimes stiffer than the dead) don't help either. It's no coincidence that the one place where dramatic pretensions are dropped and we're allowed to just enjoy the spectacle of a mean spirit going berserk- where the much angrier ghost Frances shows her true colors after her place gets burned down- also happens to be the one scene in the whole film that at least stirs up some decent tension.

Donnerstag, 9. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Bande de filles (Girlhood)


French writer/director Céline Sciamma's teenage drama "Bande de filles (Girlhood)" chronicles one girl's journey of self-discovery with great energy and compassion. Propelled by a charismatic central performance, it's tenderly involving all the way through, even if the narrative slackens here and there.

An efficient set-up quickly fills us in on the plight of the underprivileged heroine Marieme. Stuck in the projects with too many extracurricular obligations, she doesn't have the grades to advance in school, can't see her prospects and has fury to burn. It's not long before a clique of girls pick up on that restlessness and take her under their wings. With a newfound sense of empowerment and an outlet for all her frustrations, Marieme thrives with this group of friends. But dealings with that side of the law ultimately lead her down a path that, for all the fun and liberation it brings, is not necessarily her own.

The director shows a superb grasp of female camaraderie as well as the groove of the youthful and proudly African. While she describes the racial tension and the familial problems surrounding the gang well enough, the best scenes of the movie are inevitably those that are strictly, simply celebratory.To watch these tough young women dress up in stolen clothes just for the sake of the others and party in a hotel room all by themselves, the momentary bliss that seems to block out all the failed efforts and crushed dreams of the world outside really rubs off on you. The possibly indulgent but nonetheless infectiously happy Rihanna sing-along showcases the heavenly rhythm and vibe that only black people seem to possess.

Lead actress Karidja Touré delivers a star turn as the willful, persistent girl looking for a way out. Although the open-ended way the film concludes feels lazier than inspired and leaves too much in the air blatantly unanswered, it's a fully realized performance that stands on its own and prompts you to fill in the blanks.

Filmfest Hamburg: 勝利 (Uncle Victory)


Chinese writer/director 張猛 (Meng Zhang)'s kindergarten-set gangster dramedy "勝利 (Uncle Victory)" is a positively squirm-worthy clunker where the gags fall short and the tearjerks turn sour, where efforts are put in all the wrong places and just about nothing works.

Following a brief, cheesily CG'ed opening sequence we meet the title character, a heavily tattooed ex-thug recently released from jail after a ten-year stint. His broad, exaggerated body language, heavily featured in the first scenes of the movie, suggests a lowbrow laugher in the style of Hong Kong comedic genius 周星馳 (Stephen Chow). Not long afterwards, however, the camera cuts to a gigantic construction site where an entire gorge seems to have been gutted open, and sentimental music starts to play as the ghastly sight is lamented by some other thuggy-looking people and hints of an unsettled score are dopped. Thanks to some rough editing, the movie already seems narratively confusing and tonally schizophrenic by then. Some additional, not especially plausible turns of events then motivate the protagonist to run his own preschool. Together with a dancer from a nearby club, these two unlikely educators start to recruit and take care of kids and theoretically, hilarity ensues. Theoretically.

Hilarity doesn't ensue for several reasons. Besides resorting to the obvious slapstick, the screenplay can't come up with jokes with a longer fuse or a deeper reach. The acting is subpar. Lead actor 黃海波 (Haibo Huang)'s willingness to engage in embarrassing acts of simplistic construct is respectable, but funny he's not. Lead actress 張歆藝 (Xinyi Zhang) performs on an even more superficial level and comes across terribly affected. This movie is also a case where defaults in the technical department undermines the storytelling. Except for a few isolated shots where one sees consciously composed imagery, the cinematography is drably pedestrian, dampened further by some gaudy art direction. The dialogue dubbing is conspicuously poor, diminishing the immediacy of the punchlines still more.

The biggest problem probably lies in the direction, though. Doggedly juxtaposing the kiddie humor and a deadly serious revenge plot without finesse leaves the film limping between comedy and drama, mainstream and hardcore. The supposedly crowdpleasing finale with the school performance and the blood-stained mascot backfires in so many ways it's sad to watch.

Filmfest Hamburg: Tu dors Nicole (You're Sleeping Nicole)


Canadian writer/director Stéphane Lafleur's female slacker movie "Tu dors Nicole (You're Sleeping Nicole)" has cute, witty dialogue sprinkled throughout and recurrent flashes of visual/aural flourish, but as a feature film there's just not enough material or structure to make it feel present, memorable, consequential.

Set in suburban Canada, the young protagonist has the house to herself and a long summer ahead with the parents away on vacation and her first credit card in hand. The brother soon moves in with his rock band, whose new drummer seems to have the right stuff for a romantic fling. The best friend talks her into booking a spontaneous trip to Iceland, only to back off from the plan herself. And then there's the ex-boyfriend with his new wife cruising around and the skinny kid from the neighborhood with a newly dropped, ingeniously dubbed voice making age-inappropriate advances... While plenty of events seem to take place, they're not driven by a central narrative and appear altogether peripheral, decorative. Besides acquainting the audience with these characters, the story barely progresses after the entire first hour.

Here and there we're treated to deceptively goofy passages that strike a chord with their take on the folly of life. And the black-and-white photography, while not always looking crisp or high-contrast enough, does give us some yummy, warmly atmospheric shots, often accompanied by psychedelic, indie-spirited music. One can also hardly fault lead actress Julianne Côté, who not only makes a strong physical impression with her boyishly square chin and high forehead, but is also quite winsome with her open looks of impatience, suspicion, relief. But overall, the movie is way too lax to make any substantial impact. Above all else it serves as an additional reminder of just how miraculous an achievement the similarly themed and styled German stunner "Oh Boy" was.

Mittwoch, 8. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Club Sándwich


Mexican writer/director Fernando Eimbcke's mother-son relationship dramedy "Club Sándwich" feels like a short film not only because it barely squeezes past the 80-minute mark, but also because of the singularity of its focus and the intimacy of its setting. The logistical limitations notwithstanding, it's hard not to be charmed by something which stokes such genuine emotions with empathy, humor and sweetness to spare.

Smartly choosing a holiday resort in off-season as location, there's a strong sense of place to the movie. Whether tanning by the pool or having room service in their beds, you're keenly aware of the isolation of these two vacationers, stranded in a paradise of brilliant boredom with only the company of the other. And while the mom is having the time of her life spending day and night with her favorite guy, you get the idea the milky, chubby son just hitting puberty is getting restless underneath his still babyishly perfect skin. Everything changes, of course, when the girl enters the picture.

Like a coming-of-age story told from dual perspectives, this film is as much about the boy's discovery of sexuality and independence as about his mother's devastating realization that they'll soon be two instead of one. Written with an observant eye and great sympathy at heart, the screenplay is peppered with authentic, adorable details first establishing the well-oiled, self-sustaining partnership of this single-parent-only-child duo, then cracking that exclusive bond ever wider open with the arrival of the pretty young thing. A game of punishment late in the film where the older woman tries with infantile desperation to yank the attention of her son away from this other, suddenly infinitely more interesting person is so endearingly pathetic you can hardly bear to watch.

Lucio Giménez Cacho plays the teenager on the cusp of adulthood with appropriate impassivity. It's the occasional little gestures of curiosity or rapture that betray the hormones at work behind that mask of cool nonchalance. María Renée Prudencio is very affecting as the jealous-turned-despairing mother unprepared to watch her most prized possession drift away. A scene near the end where she goes to buy chips by herself will probably break the heart of every mom in the world.

Altogether the movie still gives the impression of being slight and unfinished, but as a yearnful, melancholic mood piece it is really quite lovely.

Dienstag, 7. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Ξενία (Xenia)


Greek writer/director Panos H. Koutras' tragicomic road movie "Ξενία (Xenia)" is disorganized in conception and even clunkier in execution. Throwing one too many themes into the mix without a consolidated plot where everything has its place turns it into a hodgepodge of sorts lacking any real bite.

The journey of the two teenage boys to find their biological father in Athens is eventful all right, but whether the participation of one brother in a talent contest, the mobbing and gun-shooting incident, or the interlude with the hospitable uncle who may or may not be more than just a good friend of their mother, the numerous intervals are not embedded in a meaningful story arc nor presented with enough subtlety to be dramatically effective. The odyssey is further paved with plenty of camp elements, from a dreamy, moonlit cruise liner carrying a diva singing her heart out to several impromptu karaoke numbers or dance routines, but none of them has the sophistication or really goes over the top to milk noteworthy guilty pleasure. There are a few aesthetic highlights in the film, where fantastical creature or atmosphere are featured to take the focus temporarily out of the ugly reality, but overall this is not a particularly good-looking picture. Acting-wise, Kostas Nikouli plays a convincing part flaunting the tight pants and the lollipops, but this character is written with too little coherence to be much more than a colorful caricature.

On the one hand being unapologetically shrill and blunt, on the other attempting a nuanced attack on the geopolitical, sexual and identity politics of modern-day Greece, the movie most likely has its heart in the right place, but what ends up on screen is so middling in every way it fails even being a hot mess.

Samstag, 4. Oktober 2014

Gone Girl


David Fincher's "Gone Girl" starts off rather rockily but recovers in a significantly better second half to deliver a more than worthy adaptation of Gillian Flynn's manipulative, coarsely satisfying bestseller. By no means among Fincher's finest work, it's nevertheless a fast-paced, sleekly-executed marital thriller that earns extra points for daring to go to some pretty ugly places.

Staying perhaps detrimentally faithful to the book, the movie is immediately hampered by having to cover too much ground using a more print-friendly parallel narrative structure. The result is something very talky, densely edited and constantly jumping back and forth in time/perspective. While it never gets confusing or less than intriguing as the stage is set for a suspicious missing person's case, there's no room left for the scenes to breathe and brew, so a thicker atmosphere of mystery that memorably shrouded such gems as "Se7en" or "Zodiac" never comes to be. In fact, some rapid-fire exchanges here are so sped up they leave the realm of believability and seem like a parody of themselves. The efficient but unexciting practicality of the approach further extends to the sunny, sober photography unusual for a Fincher film. Coupled with the bland beauty of the two leads Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, kept rightfully impenetrable but still very much insipid, and you've got a first half that feels stuffed, even less convincing than its imperfect source material.

If the set-up isn't quite the knock-out, the pay-off, essentially the entire last 75 minutes of the film, aces it. In swift, smoothly practiced motions the evil scheme is revealed right away. But instead of losing steam from the extraction of suspense, you get the sense the movie only now comes alive with the air suddenly spiked with diabolism. The pressing tempo also starts to make sense as the stakes become clear and every passing second a lost opportunity to turn the mind game around. Both Pike and Affleck benefit from acting off other players and the strong suporting cast finally gets something to do here. Neil Patrick Harris plays successfully against type and stands out as the creepily affectionate ex-lover. Sela Ward has but one scene but shows how effective she can be portraying the robotically, viciously pretty. Even Tyler Perry turns out to be a decent casting choice, tuning down his hysterical on-screen persona to bring a mild voice of reason to the mess.

The editing and scoring of the film both come from frequent Fincher collaborators but, as solid as they are, seem comparatively uninspired. Even without feeling as rhythmically immaculate or sounding as fiercely magnetic as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or "The Social Network", though, this movie flies by in a heartbeat. And especially in that ending, where the characters each harbor their own calculations and are mutually protected/trapped by the lies and false intentions of the other, it improves tremendously on the book's affectedness through vivid visualization.