Samstag, 18. Januar 2014

Short takes

"I Used to Be Darker" is obviously made by someone very creative. It features wonderful musical performances and is, with bouncy colors leaping at you everywhere, never bad to look at. But even with a compact length of 90 minutes there's not nearly enough material to frame and underpin that scattered prettiness. Instead, the movie drifts along between the songs devoid of a narrative hook and what few actual plot points there are, are characterized by an inconsequential triviality so one never feels quite engaged on any intellectual level. Director Matthew Porterfield has an eye for catching the vibe and seductive aliveness of youth with his lens but fails at telling a story through it. Ned Oldham and especially Kim Taylor are much better singers than actors, commanding your attention effortlessly with their distinctive voice but missing here and there when something needs to be communicated through expressions or body language. Like its catchy title, the movie looks and sounds cool but doesn't really mean anything.

"Le Week-end" by British director Roger Michell touches on surprisingly heavy subjects in an otherwise comedic setting and gets lost now and then in some turbulent emotional shuffles. The script by Hanif Kureishi dares to recreate the mysterious, ever-elusive tapestry of sadness and elation that's called life, and is responsible for the admirably eloquent, if not always convincing words pouring out of the characters. The narrative imperfections and tonal imbalances notwithstanding, in the end it's hard not to be won over by this aggressively charming little movie with a lot to say. As a husband too smart for his own good and a wife too "attuned to her unhappiness", Jim Broadbend and Lindsay Duncan are impeccably cast and both give performances that are alternately breezy, cold, endearing, cruel, unfailingly captivating. Jeff Goldblum is also delightful in a lively supporting role, complementing the changing couple dynamics in all the right ways. Shot in frustratingly beautiful Paris with a dash of drunken jazz, the film might not hit all the marks with the intended symphony and intensity, but there's no end to its loveliness.

"The Immigrant" is an astonishing mess considering the talents involved. The story of a polish immigrant caught between two American cousins with dubious intentions while she tries to rescue her sister from deportation is not so much ludicrous as it is awfully ill-developed. Plot lines swim in and out of focus pretty arbitrarily, none of which quite carries the narrative potential or emotional heft needed for a feature film. The feelings of mistrust, hatred, attachment even sympathy between the three main characters are probably kept intentionally ambivalent by director James Gray but it does nothing to help give this movie shape or substance. There are some nice 1920's set pieces and serenely composed shots like the final frame, but the way they're used feels repetitive and the somberly waxy color palette tends to bore after a while. Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix both show occasional bursts of brilliance in their portrayal but the quality of the performances is nowhere near consistent. The ineffective, distracting score sounds out of place throughout.

"No se aceptan devoluciones (Instructions Not Included)" starts off promisingly enough, borrowing an admittedly formulaic storyline of the playboy father suddenly confronted with responsibility in the form of a child but sprinkling it with splashes of Mexican tropical flair and an organic humor thanks to the earnest deadpan of lead actor Eugenio Derbez. But the cliches that just keep coming soon catch up on all that goodwill, sucking away the last bit of plausibility and killing the sweetness irrevocably despite the relentless, slightly exaggerated sense of innocence shouting from the fairytale color schemes. Derbez, who also made his feature film directorial debut with this movie, keeps things going at a brisk pace and shows good timing in the first act, but then loses sight of the big picture when he tries to balance the comedy with an illogical custody drama that feels forced the entire time, and finally just drowns in way too much mush. The cast beside himself isn't very good, which contributes strongly to the feeling of TV soap in some emotional scenes.

Sonntag, 12. Januar 2014


It would take a whole book to describe how marvelous Spike Jonze's script for "Her" is. Suffice it so say, it's one of those rare creations that, born of a truly original idea and carrying with it an abundance of reality-based humor and despair, takes flight into the stratosphere of imagination without ever losing touch with a deeply human core, that evokes big truths in little details to display a piercing intelligence and keenly perceptive eye, that maps out a vision of the world under a hypnotic, futuristic shine with the utmost tenderness while posing so many fundamental questions about us as a being and revealing so much of our existential doubts. It's unique, beautifully-worded, tremendously moving and makes you want to put him in charge of all language ever spoken.

Sure, romantic license is exercised here and there to not quite seamless effect on a technical level. But then comes Joaquin Phoenix, who gives one of his mildest but most beguiling performances on screen. Playing the solitary surrogate letter-writer falling for a computer operating system, he brings just the right combination of dented inwardness and self-contained innocence to always convince. Through the repressed longing, curiosity, hesitance or a sheer sense of wonder coded in his looks, his words, his posture, you buy into that almost desperate need to hold on to some warmth or signs of intimacy, even if they're offered by a voice in a box.

The visual and aural design of the movie is beyond reproach. The lovely color palette reflected in the set and constumes glows with a cozy temperature that also hints at a streamlined, alienating perfection. The score provided by Arcade Fire with all its hopeful flow, quiet retreat, tragic haste is so eloquent and picturesque it informs you of the emotional topography shared between the man and the machine. On top of it all is Jonze's direction, which has got the bittersweet, lonesome, fantastical but cuttingly palpable tone of the film down to a T. The way he inserts those joyous flashbacks silently and without warning into the protagonist's most vulnerable moments kills me every time.

Freitag, 10. Januar 2014

12 Years a Slave

British director Steve McQueen made his best film to date with the exquisite, gut-wrenching, immensely powerful drama "12 Years a Slave". Following the decade-long journey through hell by a man unwittingly sold into slavery, John Ridley's screenplay neither panders nor exploits, but recreates in the most faithful, candid manner that unthinkable alternate universe not 200 years from today. The words pouring from his characters, whether imploring or abusing, are not just beautifully succinct, they come from such an honest place and carry such simple, profound conviction they hit you right in the heart before you can even process the horror contained in them. McQueen is a master storyteller, framing and sequencing the scenes in a way that's often breathtaking in its grace and brutality, its bloody, hopeless poetry.  

Technically the movie is a feat top to bottom. Sean Bobbit's cinematography uses candlelight, bonfire or the setting sun to splash the most stunning hues of the Southern sky across the screen. How he lets the black actors sink in the shadows and observes their darkened shapes with his confident lens is not just visually arresting but metaphorically expressive. Joe Walker's editing is precise and assured and Hans Zimmer's electronically enhanced score is risky but strikingly inventive.

Ultimately, though, it's a collection of superior performances that pulls one into the story that has been told in different forms for many times. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings kindness, sophistication and perseverance to the title role, communicating the distress of someone caught between two worlds in detail and with so much dignity. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the slave owner couple are brilliant exactly because they don't play the evil incarnate with leers and sneers but chill you instead with that transcendent calm, holding down any challenging gaze with simple-minded, unwavering contempt and loathing. Last but not least, the warmth, breath and soul of the movie come from Lupita Nyong'o, who is a revelation of physical elegance and emotional accessibility. When she begs for mercy, first from a compatriot then from a tyrant, the pain and suffering of an entire people is so present on her nakedly open face it's as overwhelming and devastating as anything I've seen.          

Just as everyone needs to see "La vie d'Adèle" to witness love, they also need to see this movie to witness hate. Pure and blind. Watching this movie is to be reminded that without reason and empathy, human beings are all but carnivorous creatures or pounds of trembling flesh.

Mittwoch, 1. Januar 2014

My Top 10 Movies of 2013

Honorable Mentions (cinematic highlights from movies that did NOT make it to the top of my list):

The breakthrough performance by Jella Haase as Chantal in "Fack ju Göhte" / Onata Aprile as Maisie in "What Maisie Knew" / Samuel Schneider as Ben in "Exit Marakkech"
The art direction of "Stoker" / "The Great Gatsby"
The film music of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" / "Boa Sorte, Meu Amor" / "Los amantes pasajeros"

The on-screen duo Sandra Bullock & Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat" / Gemma Arterton & Saoirse Ronan in "Byzantium"
The cinematography of "La grande bellezza" / "Post Tenebras Lux" / "Una Noche"

The performance by Paulina Garcia as Gloria in "Gloria" / Anders Danielsen Lie as Anders in "Oslo, 31. August"
The screenplay of "消失的子彈 (The Bullet Vanishes)" / "Die Wand" / "The Best Offer"

The ensemble cast of "廚子.戲子.痞子 (The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel)"
The on-screen couple Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke in "Before Midnight"
The breakthrough director Ramon Zürcher for "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen"

The musical number "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" from "Inside Llewyn Davis" / "Love Is an Open Door" from "Frozen"  / "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Misérables"
The action sequence "airfield showdown" from "Fast & Furious 6" / "Busan apartment" from "도둑들 (The Thieves)"

Runners-up (all-around solid movies just missing my top 10), in alphabetical order:

1. Blancanieves
2. 寒戰 (Cold War)
3. Finsterworld
4. Flight
5. Fruitvale Station

6. 一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)
7. Jeune & jolie
8. Mud
9. Tore tanzt
10. The Physician

And finally, the cream of the crop- out of the 220 movies I saw in 2013 (a personal record!), these are my favorite 10, in alphabetical order:

1. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)

Sharply observed and mercilessly written, Woody Allen's latest story takes you plunging into the psyche of a pathologically vain and insecure woman. Filled with scenarios that ring frighteningly true and dialogue at once cruelly funny and acidly biting, it's a script that probes the inside of a proud but pitiful mind with the precision of a surgeon. It allows you not just to witness the gradual collapse of sanity but be reminded of the abuse and neglect we exercise on those around us without a second thought. Juggling the gravity of the material and the comedy in the approach, the cast is splendid all around. Cate Blanchett uncovers every single one of the innermost human survival instincts in a revelatory performance that's mighty but deplorable, ragged yet majestic. Sally Hawkins plays the yin to her yang in a marvelous supporting turn. Every time they clash on screen it's music to my eyes.

2. The Broken Circle Breakdown (dir. Felix Van Groeningen)

The joy of love and the grief of loss are polar opposites of the emotional spectrum but beautifully brought together in this heart-wrenching tale about the tumultuous relationship between a Belgian couple. With the innate understanding that the most powerful way to engage and touch through film is to simply let the humanity of the situation play out, helmer Felix Van Groeningen refrains from showy directorial tricks and relies on the expressions, looks, bodies, voices of his actors to take the audience on a journey through light and darkness. Soberly but profoundly told, aptly edited, sincerely performed and accompanied by the sweet, earnest sound of bluegrass music, this movie is a pitch-perfect, enormously moving celebration of birth, death and all the transcient happiness and sorrows in between.

3. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Delivering one of the best arguments why movies still need to be seen in cinemas, "Gravity" offers an experience that's transportive, all-enveloping, awe-inspiring. Carried by director Alfonso Cuarón's singularly daring vision, aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's lyrical, fluid, omnipotent camerawork, enhanced by immaculate sound design and the cutting-edge visual effects technology of the day, this movie realizes the grand illusion of space travel complete with the weightless pull, the breathtaking splendor, the deafening airlessness, the claustrophobic infinity and it's all spectacular. Sandra Bullock displays physical strength and grace as the stranded astronaut and George Clooney in his brief moments on screen leaves warmth and solace behind. Thanks to them the film is never just a showcase for cooly metalic technical wizardry but also a resonant story about finding a connection and a deeply felt meditation on the reason to live.

4. Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Granted, the script and the narrative arc of Guillermo del Toro's robot-vs-monster movie are not the most original out there. But it more than makes up for that with elaborate, brillianly conceived and masterfully executed action sequences that, despite their otherworldly scale, never seem overly CGI-ed to the point of being mechanical and alienating nor so compulsively edited as to lose all sense of speed and perspective. Demonstrating a magnificent visual blueprint, impeccable employment of cinematographic and sonic techniques as well as some truly stupefying special effects, these scenes soar high and they always land with an impact. The result is 130 minutes of pure, jaw-dropping awesomeness. Watching this movie is like leaping into a pool of icy water on a hot summer day, the shock to the senses is visceral, the satisfaction immediate. You know it's silly and probably not the most advisable thing to do, but every part of your body screams in pleasure anyway.

5. Le passé (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Family is a battlefield and love can be weaponized. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi gets this and crafts the most suspenseful film of the year accordingly. Unassuming at the outset, this relationship drama proves to be a labyrinth of secrets and lies, pitfalls and entanglements that keeps rounding corners as it raises the stakes. The script is exquisitely constructed, pitting strong personalities and their versions of truth against one another without ever taking sides, all the while leaving just enough room for speculation to draw the viewer ever deeper into a mystery where everyone's conscience is at risk. Directed with momentous force and dazzling poise, featuring an ensemble performance of the highest order, this movie makes you see the intricacy of the workings of the heart and proves the humanity of our being lies in the fact that though every passing second is already in the past, nothing's ever really gone.  

6. 郊遊 (Stray Dogs) (dir. 蔡明亮 Tsai Ming-liang)

There are strange movies, incomprehensible movies and then there are Tsai Ming-liang's movies. In any given lineup his film would always stand out by a mile and this one's no exception. Epic long takes featuring random bits of life from a squatting family bearing no narrative element or thematic coherence make up its 130+ minutes. From every point of view it's a beast created out of blind indulgence and pure whims. However, Tsai is nothing if not a master conductor of the symphony of chaos, an artist who sees the essence of life in all its magnificent disorder. He composes images with the rapt attention of a fanciful child and let them flow by with the stony patience of a wise old monk. In the sure-to-become legendary penultimate scene, when all that jumbled beauty culminates in two people standing wordlessly next to each other for a quarter-hour, when everything's so dead and quiet you can hear your own breath in the theater, it's also the most poignant, vital, absolutely liberating cinematic moment you're likely to experience all year.

7. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

Equally impenetrable is Shane Carruth's fragmented, poetic, mystifying "Upstream Color". It's pointless to talk about plot here, seeing how purposefully, violently its creator tries to disarrange all you see. But Carruth, who also wrote, edited and scored the film, succeeds in making an enigmatic mass so organic in its alienness, so completely and gorgeously foreign it confounds yet captivates nonetheless. Technical aspects of the movie are across the board outstanding, from the crisp but dreamy cinematography, magnetically synthesized music, bold, logic-defying editing to the dense, layered, aggressively present soundwork, everything comes together to build a trove of impressions and sensations with such kaleidoscopic richness that, even without meaningful verbal communication, the themes of identity and loss of self rise instinctually, vividly to the surface.      

8. La vie d'Adèle (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

Movies are faked reality, fictionalized lives, staged, made-up, rehearsed. But every once in a while, a film will come along that's so sensitive, empathetic, so keenly attuned to facets of our most primal urges and feelings it makes you relive that skipped heartbeat, that caught breath and even those tiny trembles of exhilaration and anticipation caused by something as close to the heart as love. Now things don't get much more real than that. Abdellatif Kechiche chronicles in this movie the relationship between two young girls with care, candor and the utmost compassion, his two lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux throw themselves into the characters with ferocious commitment and bare their souls with beguiling transparency. The result, as straightforward and unembellished as it is, is realist cinema at its most compelling and a fearless pursuit of truth not easily to be forgotten.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Filmmaking doesn't need to be an exercise in restraint. This raunchy adaptation of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort's unbelievable life story demands to be recognized exactly because it dares to go there, to push hard, to lose control. Non-stop profanities, heavy drug use, a parade of kinky sex and debaucheries fill up three hours of hedonistic screen time. A little excessive/repetitive? Yes. But was moderation ever a concern for people like Belfort? Probably not. With sadistic humor and explosive charge, Martin Scorsese takes the audience into an authentically rendered world of greed, decadence, the twisted American dream, and while what's portrayed is often shockingly offensive, watching the movie is never less than electrifying. Principal reason is, besides the superb cinematography, a staggering star turn by Leonardo DiCaprio. Crazed, charismatic, thunderously domineering, he gets the inseparable combination of tragedy and comedy in this larger-than-life character and delivers a performance that is, like the movie itself, scary because it's so terribly hilarious.  

10. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

One of the first movies I saw this year remains one of its very best. Written by Mark Boal with substantiality, concision, cool-headed reason and directed by Kathryn Bigelow with ironfisted focus, this military procedural thriller about America's decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a tight pack of muscles sculpted with discipline and finesse. Expertly shot, capturing both scenes of combat and consultation in striking frames while pondering all the different shades of the exotic desert light, and flawlessly edited, giving the film its lean shape, relentless tempo and a constant sense of urgency, it's intense but clear-sighted, allowing the viewer to fully submerge in the environment and mindset of those involved. Jessica Chastain shines in the role of CIA analyst Maya, showing not just her fierce intellect, steely will but also the downward spiral into obsession, supplying the film with a perfectly ambivalent concluding remark.