Montag, 30. Juni 2014

Filmfest München: Nachthelle (Bright Night)

It takes a lot to establish and maintain sexual tension within a group dynamic on screen and making a good scary movie has never been easy. So when young German writer/director Florian Gottschick sets out to achieve both at once with his feature film debut "Nachthelle (Bright Night)" and fails quite abysmally, one shouldn't be too hard on him. At least he leaps high and crashes with admirable intentions.

Revolving around four principal players in a reunion of sorts on childhood grounds, this mix of intimate chamber drama/quasi-ghost story starts off promisingly enough. Following a hypnotizing 360-degree opening pan shot, hints of unquiet soon creep all over in dashing images of a dilapidated rural neighborhood, awkward attempts at conversations suggest a shared past with unspoken feelings and unfinished business. But when it's time for the second act to take things up a notch and the third to bring it all home, this movie comes up short and starts resorting to cheap thriller tricks. It's one thing when a masterful work of suspense seems so mystifying as to defy all possible explanations but compels all the same, and quite another when a film just goes out of its way to confuse by moving in metaphysical circles without a thought for logic, meaning, context. If there's one more "Waking-Up-Oh-It's-Just-a-Dream-or-Was-It?"-moment in this movie, I might need to scream.

The cast is fine, if not given particularly interesting roles to play. The whole personality split angle and the presumed to be dynamite ménage-à-quatre aspect are wasted and bring nothing new to their respective genres. As arbitrary and confounding as it is, the sex scene near the end feels neither erotic nor unsettling and seems more like an overcompensating afterthought than anything.

Filmfest München: Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have always worked with the simplest of plot constructs and it's no exception with "Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night)", a movie dedicated solely to a woman's weekend-long attempt to persuade her co-workers, one by one, to give up their bonus in order to stay employed. It's to the Belgian maestro duo's credit that even within such minimalist narrative perimeters they manage to pack their usual wealth of insights into human nature, here again challenged by choice and circumstance, so the end result is realist cinema at its most relatable and involving. But it must also be said that this script, while honest and reflective in its depiction of the less fortunate, is not the most eventful or inventive the Dardenne brothers have ever cooked up. Its final act also fares dangerously close to Hollywood-esque motivational writing so doubts of contrivance would not be wholly unjust.

Apart from believability issues due to her million-dollar looks, lead actress Marion Cotillard's performance as the depressed and soon-to-be-jobless Sandra is of unimpeachable greatness. As a person she's perceptive enough to know that it's not the incessant crying that best describes sadness and desperation, but the shame, the exhaustion, the debilitating fear, the deadly repose; and as a performer she has the faculty to access and channel all those expressions of emotional hollowness to invite you into her character's dreadful inner terrain. Possessing such intelligence and skill, she can break your heart more with a smile than those tears that just seem to pour out of her like tap water.

Too standardized and calculated to be called movie magic, this is nonetheless lovely work and, for all its faults, an urgent, eloquent reminder for more empathy and kindness.

Sonntag, 29. Juni 2014

Filmfest München: Young Ones

The narrative aspect of American writer/director Jake Paltrow's "Young Ones" is problematic. The plot doesn't have an immediately identifiable hook or a consistent, emotional anchor, so it's hard to feel invested in this post-apocalyptic tale set in a water-deficient future that's sort of about a father-son relationship. The relative roughness of the direction is most pronounced during a pivotal scene that presents the central conflict of the film, where perspectives, motives, consequences are neither clearly nor efficiently staged, causing a further loss of momentum in the storytelling.

What makes this film nonetheless quite special is the unexpectedly and wonderfully retro feel it brings. From the editing that's heavy on the fading effect, the numerous dramatic close-ups and intense zooms, the overall timeless, sandpapered look, to the smart, disorienting soundtrack that features both oldies and creepy, modernistic compositions, this movie deliberately depicts the future with a nostalgic approach and the contrast is exciting. That the director opts for a largely de-CG-ed style and to actually build many of the futuristic props complements that strategy and pays off handsomely. Of the actors, Michael Shannon is as reliable as always, his absence in the latter part of the movie makes a sudden lack of weight on screen felt. Kodi Smit-McPhee is probably the most successful casting choice though. With his distinct presence- all limbs, bones and forehead- he offers enough blankness and oddness to intrigue, and he chases that with a reasonable dose of solid acting in the final act, too. Nicholas Hoult is the obvious weak link of the group, unconvincing at some crucial turns of events in a semi-villainous role.

Filmfest München: Левиафан (Leviathan)

Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Левиафан (Leviathan)" is a lucidly, almost dispassionately told relationship drama/social satire with comedic intermissions, moral implications and political undertones. As the description would suggest, it aims wide, tackling a broad range of subjects from family, friendship, loyalty, corruption, to the fundamental questions of guilt and innocence. As a direct consequence the attention of the filmmaker gets spread thin a little, so that not all of these themes are treated fully or thoroughly. Some of them get dropped in unsatisfying haste, like the conclusion of the first legal dispute and the end of a long-standing bond. Others are substantially underdeveloped, as in the case of a major plot point in the final act, where we are not nearly well-informed enough to comprehend the why's and how's.

That said, the direction coaxes a delicate authenticity out of the happenings, making you believe in every laugh break amidst lots of somberness. The camerawork, except for a couple of beautiful location shots, is strong in a not-attention-grabbing way. It follows the characters intimately in fluid movements without ever seeming obtrusive or obvious. The cast, especially, is tremendous, each of them bringing a needed color to this mosaic of personalities and human longings. It's hard to single out any one of the actors, but Elena Lyadova as the stoic, enigmatic wife, Anna Ukolova as her spirited, freewheeling friend, and Roman Madyanov as the hedonistic, deliciously single-minded mayor all give naturalistic, undeniably delightful performances.

Non-film-related reasons to see this movie: experience the superhuman Russian language being read at superhuman speed in two court scenes / witness how the Russians drink their vodka, I mean, wow.

Freitag, 20. Juni 2014


British writer/director Steven Knight's "Locke", set entirely in a car on a freeway drive and featuring one sole actor, feels slight overall but deserves to be lauded for its ambitious approach, accomplished screenplay and a riveting lead performance.

As with all movies which set such steep logistic restrictions on themselves, the danger of it being just a gimmick is real. In this case, the movie can't avoid the fatigue of repetition once the novelty of the conceit wears off. However, as with the script, which also shows signs of tiredness getting caught in loops of telephone conversations circling around but one essential conflict that's not exactly sophisticated, a tingling sense of meaning and profundity comes to its rescue at the end of the ride, when some doors are closed and others opened. It's less mind-blowing insight than an unassuming, quietly affecting remark on life, the randomness and transience of it, and it's done with intelligent writing, amplified by the deliberately enclosed physical and temporal environment.

Tom Hardy shows formidable range and undeniable star charisma as the titular driver. His character's predicament, as I have hinted at, doesn't necessarily come with dramatically high stakes. But he manages to draw you into the private struggle of someone curiously particular through convincing, naturalistic body language and measured, emotive facial expressions. When all is said and done, the movie is still too limited in its reach and intensity for my taste, but for the distinctive qualities mentioned above and the easy confidence with which the director brings them all together, it nonetheless offers a rather stylish, calmly reflective kick.

Donnerstag, 12. Juni 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Oh my: ladies, get your tissues ready. "The Fault in Our Stars" is a powerhouse tearjerker that could conceivably send some viewers into hyperventilation. Quoting often verbatim from John Green's eponymous bestselling novel and directed with an appealing, youthful beat by Josh Boone, it's also one of those rare, note-perfect translations from page to screen, which doesn't make it automatically a great movie as much as one that inherits all the strengths and weaknesses of the original material.

The book, based on the potentially exploitative premise of doomed romance between cancer kids, certainly has its moments. The author goes out of his way to turn down the sappiness and strive for authenticity through the portrayal of a toughened mentality of teenage survivors and their lucid outlook on the finite nature of existence. In the process many acute observations about loneliness, love and the fundamental unfairness of life are captured in not particularly refined but nonetheless heartbreaking language. And except for a couple of scenes where the music comes across as too sentimental, the movie gets that tricky tone of tragedy wrapped in an air of rebellious humor with surprising accuracy. It's sad, but not mournful, endearing, but never condescending. Contributing in no small part to this achievement is the pair of impeccably cast young lead actors. Shailene Woodley, while never looking quite as sick or frail as one would probably expect, embodies the role of Hazel Grace Lancaster with compelling assurance and anchors it in careful sensitivity. Ansel Elgort's performance as Augustus Waters is rather on the one-note side, but he carries it with such genuine warmth and unpolished charm you can't help but sympathize. The chemistry shared between the two puts practically all other on-screen couples from recent young-adult films to shame.

Like the book though, the movie can't completely shake the fishy taste of misery porn, and while it maintains a lively cadence, the slightly disruptive feeling of chapter-to-chapter jumps is still there. Add to that a mid-section that sags a little and you've got an all-around enjoyable but flawed romantic drama. It's nothing if not effective though- I can't remember the last time I heard the uniquely unsettling sound of an entire theater crying.

Mittwoch, 4. Juni 2014

Short takes

"Blended" fits right into Adam Sandler's distinguished filmography, meaning sitcom-ready, pun-heavy dialogues, carried by little sense of storytelling and a lot of non-acting, are again used to fill out extremely unlikely scenarios with varying degrees of distastefulness- all in the name of some harmless, brainless fun. The script is so mechanically engineered you can see every bump in the road miles ahead and the gags are so prevalent the narrative function of film editing becomes obsolete. As a screen presence Drew Barrymore has an inexhaustible supply of charm but that alone can't bring back the good cheer and disarmingly natural dynamic she shared with Sandler in "The Wedding Singer" or "50 First Dates". Here and there you can still get that spark between them for sure, but the majority of the movie is so drowned in cliches and stupidity it's beyond salvage. Some impressive African sets and an omnipresent, overzealous choir provide highlights in this otherwise disappointing reunion directed by Frank Coraci.

"Zeit der Kannibalen (Age of Cannibals)" is a sneaky, snarky little thing that doesn't have much going in, but makes the most out of it on the vital combination of good directing, writing and acting. Revolving around all but three main characters and set entirely in hotel rooms, the film is limited in every sense, but German director Johannes Naber makes smart decisions to afford it contour and urgency while taking full advantage of the sharp words penned by Stefan Weigl to keep a wry mix of tones afloat. The terrific trio of actors, Devid Striesow, Sebastian Blomberg and Katharina Schüttler, brings a believability to their flawed, at times downright despicable roles that makes their greed, cynism, insecurity and hypocrisy fascinating to watch. The confident editing, responsible for the brisk pacing and bold theatricality of the film, as well as the suggestive, wonderfully odd music also score. Sadly the movie's adrenalin-pumped ending is not quite there yet to bring the whole thing home, but by then all the right places have been duly teased.

"Les rencontres d'après minuit (You and the Night)" proves yet again that, in the dissection of sexuality, the French are eons ahead of the rest of us. Their take on the subject can be so advanced, in fact, that it mesmerizes and completely befuddles. This movie, built on the premise of an anonymous sex party, starts off in thunderous horror mode, dives headfirst into high camp, revisits old-school supernatural elements, then ends like a grand, Greek tragedy. Playing with such a variety of styles and genres, it's safe to say gender lines are but the first to be blurred along the way. The result is something so bizarre one can hardly tell if it's the deepest discourse on immortality and the transcendent sadness of the universe or just a total farce. Kudos to writer/director Yann Gonzalez for daring to go there and never settle. Even though this debut work shows obvious room for improvement both narratively and technically, that kind of individuality and artistic courage are reason enough to celebrate.

"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is less a movie than an exercise to cram as many wisecracks into two hours as possible. Turning the classy, nostalgia-laced notion of the western genre on its head for comedic effect is a decent enough idea, but it's probably one more suitable for a stand-up gig than a full-blown cinematic production, as the lack of rhythm, substance and the sheer inconsequentiality of everything portrayed here would make you soon realize. And it's not that authenticity and era-appropriate humor are untouchable golden rules either, but when the characters only talk in one-liners and frat/poop jokes are all there is in the supposed alternate version of the American outback, it gets boring fast. Director/ lead actor Seth MacFarlane seems too fond of himself both in front of and behind the camera, which grates. There's some nice costume work overall, but the production design is subpar for a studio picture and the orchestral music is a poor fit for the rampant shenanigans.