Donnerstag, 29. Mai 2014

Short takes

"Maleficent" has exactly one moment of glory, when Disney's most famous villain interrupts a stately ceremony and, in an emerald storm of fury, casts a spell on the newborn princess. The cradle, the needle, the baby and the caped slender figure... it's iconic fairytale imagery conjured into life with uncanny precision and unapologetic fanfare, a goosebumps-worthy high that the rest of the movie sadly never reaches again. Its biggest mistake lies in the misguided need to humanize/heroize the title character, which not only compromises her mythic appeal but practically chops off the wings of Angelina Jolie, who does evil like no other. Director Robert Stromberg opts for a loud, minutely CG-ed aesthetic for the film, which, while not as ugly as Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland", rarely gets the feel of a timeless tale right. When a movie about the baddest witch out there is so sanitized it takes a Lana Del Rey song in the credits to kick up the creepy factor, you know an opportunity has been missed.

"Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)" has an instantly attractive premise in the exploration of deception and its many emotional byproducts. When identities are confused and motives left unsaid, such forceful instincts as grief, rage, desire become all the more volatile and dangerously seductive. Too bad, then, that the plot lacks a convincing second act and an appropriately explosive finale, so all that build-up ultimately doesn't have anywhere to go. The movie's still highly watchable, if only as a disturbing mood piece. Canadian director Xavier Dolan keeps his penchant for splashy visual pizazz under control and operates here on a stripped look that, combined with his deft hand at close-range human observation, puts a blunt, chilly focus on the tension depicted. Maestro Gabriel Yared's music proves to be an unexpected misfire, its sensual cues too obvious and the way it's used shows about as much restraint as a Hong Kong zombie flick from the 80's.

"Edge of Tomorrow" starts off rather unspectacularly and on the whole feels long, due in no small part to the repetitive nature of its central conceit. But high-minded sci-fi movies like this do pack that extra level of satisfaction once you get past the initial feeling of foreignness and into their particular groove. However insensibly it demands you to think, once you're ready to consider the characters' plight using their bent logic, fun is to be had. Director Doug Liman acquits himself admirably describing the mundane horror of someone having to relive the same day over and over to figure out the flaw in the alien's world domination plan. Every editing choice he makes is mindful of its narrative function and he seldom misses a beat. The movie also boasts numerous furiously choreographed and shot action sequences. While the set design for exterior Paris is subpar, that final battle scene has scale, speed, intensity and style, a pure blast to watch.

"Stereo" tries to be fresh by taking familiar elements from established genre traditions and mixing them up. But the script is neither clever nor ambitious enough to hide the tired taste of recycled formulas or to elevate the picture fully above a weeknight TV-thriller. German writer/director Maximilian Erlenwein does manage to keep things interesting thoughout by the employment of heavily filtered lenses and a heightend color scheme that makes everything look deliciously dirty. The sound design is even more lascivious, cranking out all kinds of delightfully sordid, aggressively techno noises that wouldn't be out of place in Berghain. The cast does a respectable job holding things down as the movie goes into visual and aural overdrive. Lead actor Jürgen Vogel has the rare gift of appearing both menacing and fragile, giving the somewhat implausibly drawn character a more nuanced portrayal than it probably deserves.

Donnerstag, 15. Mai 2014

Grace of Monaco

French director Olivier Dahan's royal biopic "Grace of Monaco" isn't quite the epic train wreck I was so looking forward to seeing. Sure, it's poorly written, both in terms of structure- frantically juxtaposing marital scoop and political gravitas to unconvincing results- and dialogue, which is mediocre in general and gets embarrassingly on the nose in some broad, soapy scenes. The direction is also limp, if in a run-of-the-mill, not particularly offensive manner. What comes of all that is an overlong, mostly flat and at times confused movie trying desperately to make a point.

That said, it wouldn't be fair to deny the film of its merits, which could probably be summed up in two words: Nicole Kidman. Blessed with the poise and radiance of a princess and equipped with the skills and nerves of a performer to strip it all away, she is the finest choice to play Grace Kelly. Whether by simply making her presence felt through those megawatts of glamour or by communicating a starkly naked fear of someone stranded in a foreign paradise, she commands the big screen like few others can and the best directorial choices in this movie are invariably those where the camera is trained strictly on that face. Ultimately, too many factors conspire against her for this to be called a commendable performance, but don't let anybody tell you those swoon-worthy moments aren't real. Otherwise the movie is easy on the eyes, with ravishing period costumes and grand imperial locations doused in the soft glow of the Mediterranean sun. So, as uninspiring as these two hours at the cinema might be, insufferable they are not.    


There are some really nifty action sequences in British director Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla", especially in the last half hour, beginning with that brilliantly conceived and breathlessly executed paratroopers drop. But the movie on the whole is far less than the sum of its parts, problematic most of all in its attempt to reconcile brainless fun with dramatic aspirations, which feels forced every step of the way. (We are talking about giant lizards that come out from the bottom of the earth to kill us after all.) The lack of a self-aware, pulpy energy carries over to the rather wooden editing of the movie and its overall look, which goes for the raw and authentic but lands decidedly on the drab side. The visual effects are fine but nothting to write home about. Most effective are close-range shots that take advantage of the elaborate set pieces. Panoramic views, on the other hand, often expose flaws in unperfected CG-imagery and compositing. The score by prolific French film composer Alexandre Desplat also turns out to be one of his more generic creations.

The international cast boasts skilled, effortlessly soulful supporting players from different continents who are criminally underused here. While I will probably never tire of watching Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins act, making them play the most clueless scientists ever, constantly looking shell-shocked and saying very unintelligent-sounding things, is still pushing it. And poor Juliette Binoche is hardly in the picture. The true star of the show, Godzilla himself, roars and stomps like nobody's business but is curiously unmemorable, possibly due to said unspectacular visual design of the film and a choreography that's a bit simplistic and less than original.

Sonntag, 11. Mai 2014

2014 German Film Awards

The handsomely made but stupendously one-dimensional revenge western "Das finstere Tal (The Dark Valley)", in which a guy returns to his birth place to kill off everybody, sweeps the 2014 German Film Awards, taking home 8 Lola's, including Best Film (Silver). The movie is not bad per se, but just so blatantly unoriginal in concept and incessantly serious in execution it's like a Tarantino rip-off with the caffeine taken out.

Beating it to the top prize is the 4-hour family saga "Die andere Heimat- Chronik einer Sehnsucht (Home from Home)", which also won prizes for Directing and Screenplay. 

Together with the Nazi/Stasi persecution drama "Zwei Leben (Two Lives)" (Bronze), the three winners in the Best Film Category are also the three most humorless candidates of the nominees. Yeah, should have known. 

Full list of winners: 

Donnerstag, 8. Mai 2014

2014 German Film Awards- preview

This year's German Film Awards will be handed out tomorrow night. The 6 movies nominated for Best Film in order of preference: "Finsterworld" > "Fack ju Göhte" > "Die andere Heimat- Chronik einer Sehnsucht" > "Das Finstere Tal" > "Love Steaks" > "Zwei Leben".

(Not a particularly strong group of contenders. My alternate nominations would look something like this:
"Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)"
"Tore tanzt (Nothing Bad Can Happen)"
"Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat)"
"Fack ju Göhte (Suck Me Shakespeer)"
"Die andere Heimat- Chronik einer Sehnsucht (Home from Home)"
"Der Medicus (The Physician)"
"Die Frau des Polizisten (The Police Officer's Wife)")

Award Predictions:
Best Film: "Die andere Heimat- Chronik einer Sehnsucht" (Gold), "Finsterworld" (Silver), "Fack ju Göhte" (Bronze)
Best Director: Edgar Reitz "Die andere Heimat- Chronik einer Sehnsucht"
Best Lead Actor: Dieter Hallervorden "Sein letztes Rennen"
Best Lead Actress: Jördis Triebel "Westen"
Best Supp. Actor: Michael Maertens "Finsterworld"
Best Supp. Actress: Sandra Hüller "Finsterworld"
Best Screenplay: "Finsterworld"
Best Cinematography: "Das Finstere Tal"
Best Editing: "Zwei Leben"
Best Production Design: "Der Medicus"
Best Costume Design: "Der Medicus"
Best Make-Up: "Der Medicus"
Best Score: "Das finstere Tal"
Best Sound Design: "Das finstere Tal"

Mittwoch, 7. Mai 2014

Short takes

"Tracks" chronicles one girl's journey through the vast expanse of the Australian outback with four camels and a dog. It's easy to like since the concept behind it about men versus nature is graceful in its simplicity and the movie itself is competently made throughout. The photography is unsurprisingly gorgeous, capturing the barrenness of the desert and the translucence of the ocean in all their grandeur and purity the beauty feels holy sometimes. As a dramatic feature it's rather undercooked, though, limited in its ability to surprise and move by the trappings of a real-life story. The challenges along the road are all more or less forseeable and none of director John Curran's attempts at developing an emotional association with the protagonist, whether from the angles of a love interest, a loyal pet or a troubled past, has the needed space to brew.

"Neighbors" by Nicholas Stoller has a premise that shouts comedic potential but never really delivers on that promise. The script lacks fluency and in its haste to pack gags and retain a shred of emotional relatability somehow misses both the anarchic outrageousness and the tender core it aims for. Even with a brisk running time of 96 minutes, the jokes often feel repetitive or forced. All the major cast members have their moment to shine but none is consistently good. Faring especially poorly is Seth Rogen, who has rarely tried this hard and come off so obnoxious on the big screen. The talented Rose Byrne is mostly wasted in her flustered efforts to catch up with Rogen's obvious, excessive improvisation. And Zac Efron is just not very funny. That the movie gets stolen by a dialogue-less infant says a lot about the quality of the material.

"Reaching for the Moon" tells the romance between famed American poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares in by-the-book biopic format, with all the ups and downs pretty much mapped out from start to finish. Director Bruno Barreto hardly ever tries anything remotely innovative, so while the two-hour film flows by smoothly enough, it also remains resolutely unremarkable. Technical aspects are uneven. Best in show is the diverse, subtle costume design while the original score is constanttly overwrought, adding unnecessarily sentimental notes to an already soapy narrative. Lead actress Glória Pires has charisma to spare but is rarely given worthy lines to deliver. Views of Rio de Janeiro's sweeping coastline and Samambai's lush ridges offer welcome respites from the stupor of melodrama.

"The Selfish Giant" is the kind of movie to watch when one's feeling a little too comfy in their blessedly unchallenged existence. Set around an impoverished community in rural England, it's about people who have not known one easy day in their life. Through lucid lensing that communicates a depressing urgency and puts the ugliness of it all in striking focus, writer/director Clio Barnard hits that gritty note from the get-go and never strays. With sober, compact language, verbal or visual, she takes you to a place and time that feels awfully real. Child actor Conner Chapman is so well-versed in the calloused language of the abused and so practiced in the expressions of the perpetually disappointed it's heartbreaking to watch. Not terribly original but authentic to a fault, this movie is a powerful, relentlessly bleak dose of social realism.