Sonntag, 6. Juli 2014

Filmfest München: 2つ目の窓 (Still the Water)

The goat-killing, as terribly cruel as it looks, is probably the most moving thing about Japanese writer/director Naomi Kawase's island-set existential drama "2つ目の窓 (Still the Water)". Serving as a violent reminder of how powerless we are in the grip of mortality and the futility of struggle, it's not the most subtle of metaphors, but at least in these scenes we're just fed the savage imagery and don't get the message further spelled out in monologue or voice-over form, recited with exclamation for the hearing-and-comprehension-impaired.

That the filmmaker feels driven, even compelled to pay tribute to the mysteries of life and death, man and nature, is plain to see, and those are surely profound subjects that have fascinated the human species for as long as time. But imparting wisdom about the fundamental questions of our being through bluntly worded dialogue exchanged without sufficient context is just not the way to go. As undercooked as the plot of this movie and in-your-face the directorial style, the reverence soon gets lost in crude execution and comes across as incredibly childish.

Unsatisfactory also on a technical level, the film's cinematography lacks depth and dexterity, it also features numerous night scenes that are evidently underlit. The ample shots of mountain ridges, beaches, waves and trees, or those of the young couple on a bike whizzing along the coastline are certainly lovely, but these things rather can't look any other way.

Filmfest München: Le meraviglie (The Wonders)

"Le meraviglie (The Wonders)", the story of a beekeeping family in rural Italy, is a marvelous achievement in writing, direction, performance and design. Whether in its depiction of father-daughter relationship or a young sisterhood, the script is penned with an ingrained understanding of and the utmost tenderness for all that makes the familial bond dear, maddening, irreplaceable. Breathing authenticity, immediacy and a palpable warmth throughout, it rivets and delights no end. Particularly, by never fully explaining the composition of the household in question, it affords its protagonists a convincing complexity and unknowability inherent to every family history. And by describing the sometimes silly gestures of love like a parent's idea of a great gift to his child, it makes the whole bittersweet dynamic come alive.

The actors, down to the ancient singing grandmas, are well cast. Monica Bellucci in disco-Goddess mode gives the scenes of the glitzy variety show that all-decisive push into neon paradise and it's fabulous. In a limited role, Alba Rohrwacher is her usual faultless dreamy self and provides the movie with a soulful anchor. The true stars of the film, however, are Maria Alexandra Lungu and Agnese Graziani, who play the sensitive, perceptive teenager and her chubby, gloriously happy little sister. It's a pair of beautifully unaffected, lived-in performances that never ring false and make up a harmonious dance.

Director Alice Rohrwacher succeeds not only in telling a story with great narrative fluency but shows an unerring aesthetic sense as well. The film looks amazing with its retro set pieces and a faded, weighted texture reminiscent of old photo albums. As exemplified by the opening and closing sequences, it's also often framed in dazzling, suggestive compositions bordering on the mythical. In a combination of both these talents, a fire-lit, dialogue-free scene near the end plays boldly with the disappointment of reality and the redemptive power of imagination. It's a scene of childlike wonder conducted by the most mature hand, an absolute winner.

Samstag, 5. Juli 2014

Filmfest München: Clouds of Sils Maria

"Clouds of Sils Maria" presents a curious case. On the one hand, it boasts an intriguing premise worthy of exploration, it's written with great sophistication and it's passionately performed by a sizzling actress-duo. There's nothing sloppy or frivolous about the whole production. And yet the movie comes off not quite the smart, intense chamber piece it aims to be, but a rather stuffy, meandering talkie lacking in contour and spark.

Centered around a veteran movie star whose life gets stirred when the scriptwriter that made her famous passed away, the film is born not just by magnificent vista of the Alps but even more so by mountains of dialogue. Which is in itself not a problem, but this screenplay makes one too many detours in its obvious fascination with age, celebrity, female companionship and the essence of performance to be called concise or measured. That the battle of words is often carried out in static surroundings exacerbates the airless, cumbersome feeling. French writer/director Olivier Assayas is a proven genius storyteller but here his hand is mostly obscured. You can definitely still tell the film is made by someone with an unfailing cinematic instinct- the classy scenic transitions and a couple of psychedelic sequences are particularly memorable- but on the whole the direction is less than striking.

As for the actors, I never thought I'd ever complain about too much Juliette Binoche, but in this movie she actually overdoes it now and again. While it's certainly breathtaking to watch how she pulls back from hysterical laughter to complete, chilling tranquility within a second and to just take in that diva-licious radiance of hers, a degree of subtlety is missing. Kristen Stewart holds up her end of the duet surprisingly well, more natural and present than she's ever been. All in all, many worthy parts make up this stately, substantial but strangely underwhelming sum.

Filmfest München: Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language)

It's really not just verbal communication that old French master Jean-Luc Godard bid farewell to in his "Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language)". Try coherence, logic, sanity. From the very first frame of this collection of video data that may or may not be called a movie, it's clear somebody has made the decision to throw reason out of the window. What follows is a seemingly interminable parade of random images, robotic delivery of monologue from off-camera, sudden noises, people talking over one another, then more random images. Nothing makes sense and everything is distorted, hacked, uglified in a way that evokes no sentiment nor conveys meaning. It's cinematic madness at its most inexpressive and least stimulating.

On rare occasions, said random images are so optically enhanced they leave behind a somewhat feverish impression, but for the most part, the digital photography is just a compilation of grainy pictures with serious coloring issues. Even more tiring is the fact that the camera is never positioned at a sensible distance and/or angle, so we're asked to endure more whims and the constantly skewed world view of the filmmaker. The one surprisingly trippy aspect about the film is its innovative use of 3D, which sees some scenes split into two parallels superimposed upon each other. Squint and you get a pair of simultaneously running sequences.

Overall, this is still very much an insufferably monotonous, pretentious and self-indulgent piece of pseudo-art, to be avoided at all cost.

Freitag, 4. Juli 2014

Filmfest München: Lügen und andere Wahrheiten (Lies)

The largely improvisational dramatic comedy "Lügen und andere Wahrheiten (Lies)" is a nice showcase for the actors and, owing to its unscripted nature, often captures a lively intimacy in relaxed atmosphere that's seldom seen in German cinema. However, without a more concrete road map to hold it in place, the movie soon falls out of focus and hangs in midair like a cosy but vain drifting exercise.

Director Vanessa Jopp devotes her attention to a group of loosely connected characters and how the dynamic between them changes with lies, half-truths, withheld information. The former she does pretty well, drawing us into a circle of friends, neighbors, lovers, making us believe and warm up to their ticks and quirks. The latter pursuit is not quite so successful, as the story becomes hopelessly bloated in the middle and a thematic cohesion can only be found with reluctance. The ending, abrupt in a rather gracelessly truncated way, is just one of the related symptoms. The cast is more than solid. Meret Becker and Florian David Fitz, especially, register detailed emotional fluctuations through minute muscular and manneristic control, proving they have no trouble playing goofy and destroyed.

Easily agreeable with a bohemian sway but eventually too slight and contrived, this movie remains enjoyable on a superficial level but doesn't really get any point across.

Donnerstag, 3. Juli 2014

Filmfest München: Il capitale umano (Human Capital)

Italian director Paolo Virzì's "Il capitale umano (Human Capital)" is a skillfully structured whodunit with social relevance as well as a keenly observed character study brought to life by a terrific ensemble cast.

Told in chapters and from multiple perspectives, the story traces a group of people from diverse backgrounds leading up to and following a fateful evening with deadly consequences. Besides a couple of extended, markedly fluid tracking shots, the direction is relatively free of bells and whistles, opting instead for a deliberate, evenly considered approach. Aided further by some superior editing work that cuts, inserts and revisits scenes without losing the overview or seeming redundant, the result is not just narratively clear, but tightly woven and briskly paced. The acting is also strong, in part thanks to the luminous Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who's in top form here, playing a failed actress suffocated by a marriage into the über-rich and seduced by the dirty scent of freedom. Physically and vocally exact, her performance gets the boredom, frustration and thirst of someone constantly underestimated just right, making the character vulnerable but also dangerously unpredictable.

In the end the puzzle turns out to be a bit too simplistically constructed and the resolution disappointingly straightforward, so the movie doesn't wrap on a high note, but otherwise it's 110 engrossing, technically polished minutes that keep you teased, absorbed, comfortably entertained.

Filmfest München: Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados (Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed)

Spanish writer/director David Trueba's "Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados (Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed)" is the kind of movie where angelic human beings with sympathizable troubles cross paths, hold hands, and find out that no problem can't be solved when you live by a quotable philosophy and your heart's in the right place. Earnest, accessible, resolutely middle-brow, it's no high art but a readily digestible, inoffensively sentimental semi-road-movie with strong production values.

Set during one of John Lennon's film shoots in southern Spain in the 1960's, the story follows a lonely school teacher, a runaway boy and a pregnant girl as they arrive in the sun-kissed seaside town and meet even more decent, down-on-their-luck countrymen trying to get by. As suggested, subtlety is not what the screenplay goes for, and the direction, pinning down the emotional cue of any given scene with a hammer, is also on the broad side. But with such aggressive appeals to the common niceness of people, some genuine feelings are bound to be struck, not least of which the simple sadness of reaching the end of a journey shared with kindred souls. Ultimately these scenes of endearment can't belie the fact that the movie as a whole is too neatly orchestrated for any organic dynamic to unfold. That or I'm just a heartless cynic.

Lead actor Javier Cámara is as effortlessly winning as always. No matter how potentially cringe-worthy the scenario, he swings it like a pro and softens whatever artificiality with a natural charm. The romantic production and costume design, the tenderly lit photography and the jazzy, melancholic guitar-based soundtrack are responsible for how gorgeous everything looks and sounds.

Filmfest München: Cold in July

The first half of American director Jim Mickle's southern noir "Cold in July" is altogether uninteresting, proving it takes a lot more than just thunderbolts, creepy, inarticulate old men and incompetent police officers to get the home invasion horror right. And purposefully going overboard on the cheese factor by recycling, magnifying familiar genre elements doesn't automatically make you cool, either, because that too has long been done. With a major change of course and the introduction of a new character halfway through the film, things do turn significantly for the better, leading the way to that promised final bloodbath, but overall nothing groundbreaking here.

This whole movie is a little silly, really, what with the synthesizer blazing gleefully in the background as people get ready to kill one another. The filmmaker is most likely aware of the ridiculousness and actively pursues it, but without a corresponding sharp sense of pacing and aesthetic, a self-deprecating B-movie stays a B-movie and it can only go so far. Which is not to say it won't find an audience. With liberal use of rifles, unhindered exercise of private justice and senior citizens acting tough in cowboy hats and wife-beaters, it doesn't get much more red state than this, and I'm sure that's all gravy to the steak-eating cinemagoers. You just wish there'd be a little more original idea, snappier execution and better characterization for the rest of us as well. Of the actors, Don Johnson is the obvious scene-stealer, bringing much-needed humor to the otherwise leaden proceedings.

Mittwoch, 2. Juli 2014

Filmfest München: Under the Skin

With its narrative function turned way down and conceptual visuality way up, British writer/director Jonathan Glazer's idiosyncratic, highly experimental "Under the Skin" is less a feature film than a cryptic art project. 

Starring Scarlett Johansson as a man-eating alien, the movie is verbally uncommunicative to the extreme. Viewers are given virtually no clues as to the history, identity, motives, capabilities of this extraterrestrial and there's hardly a plot to speak of. Instead we just witness the arrival of this unknown being and the demise of her preys, everything unexplained and stupendously, shockingly, scorchingly stylized. It's almost impossible to describe how strange and arresting some of the movie's images look. They play with light, colors, exposure, dimensions to leave behind such an otherworldliness on screen you can't tell if it's pretty or grotesque anymore. Add to that an equally bizarre soundtrack with a main theme that's languid, sensual, dangerous, ritualistic, and you've got a fully immersive experience that's at once completely blank. A mesmerizing, bombastic vacuum. 

Judging the merits of something so willfully cooped up inside its own universe is tricky. For my taste, something essential is still missing from a cinematic production when it can't be told apart from a Björk music video. The astonishing achievement of the movie's art department is unquestionable though. Cold, carnal, seductive, disgusting, this film has footage that's traumatically beautiful.

Filmfest München: Dessau Dancers

A movie like "Dessau Dancers" doesn't really belong at a film festival. It means well, features entertaining dance numbers and has lots of innocuous, populist appeal, but artistic aspirations? Next to non-existent.

Admittedly, the idea to bring the story of the first generation of break dancers in the former East Germany to the big screen is enticing. But this central conceit, and basically the only raison d'être for the film, is treated in an offhand, heavily caricatured fashion so that any possible political, historical bite that might come from the colliding world views is promptly taken out. Other than that, the plot is a pile-up of clichés from unappreciative family members, a brotherhood under test to that roundly implausible finale. Having a good-looking but acting-wise unimpressive cast doesn't help. Technical aspects are standard, with a colorful soundtrack and some cute costume work providing perky 80's groove. The set design doesn't fly with me though, with the majority of scenes looking like they're shot right inside one studio.

It would be a lie denying the electric, happy current that charges through one's mind and feet when old-school beats drop and teenagers start twisting joints in disobedience against a repressive regime. But for a movie supposedly about rebellion, German director Jan Martin Scharf's work here is not nearly wild enough.

Filmfest München: Pelo malo (Bad Hair)

It takes a while before the Venezuelan youth drama "Pelo malo (Bad Hair)" gets to its point and the way it concludes feels more like a hesitant, anticipatory semicolon than a solid period. Even then, the narrative wanders a little between two ends, never quite focusing on one course. It's safe to say the movie's not the most compact, concentrated effort out there.

That said, by building her film around a nine-year-old boy who's bent on straightening his unruly curly hair for a school photo shoot, writer/director Mariana Rondón has found a beautiful angle to look at gender roles in today's Latin America. More directly concerned with sexuality of prepubescents than, say, "Billy Elliot", it examines those identity-defining moments in life where one's first confronted with attraction, and those are, needless to say, quietly volcanic moments. Convincingly written and gently played by Samuel Lange Zambrano, the film instantly gains a clarity and an edge when it deals with such precious, mysterious, terrifying episodes where a young person learns more about himself and grows further away from innocence.

Other than that, being a Latino film, a celebratory joie de vivre cannot miss. Though it's decidedly held back overall, there's one musical number in the movie featuring a grandma singing and dancing with her grandson. And the minute mouths are opened and bodies start swaying, it's just all second nature to them and cinematic fireworks for us.

Dienstag, 1. Juli 2014

Filmfest München: Wir waren Könige (The Kings Surrender)

I really wanted to love "Wir waren Könige (The Kings Surrender)" because there are segments in this police thriller where absolutely everything is done right and it's a pulse-quickening beauty to behold. Which is a surprise, considering the movie starts off with a bang only in the literal sense, as the opening raid scene, while choreographed and shot competently enough, lacks that extra kick of speed and gravity to make it great. At this point doubts that the film will wind up being just another slightly more refined TV-crime-film- well made but limited in scope and flair- would be justified.

But then the multiple storylines begin to expand and intersect in a fantastic mid-section, where the characters take form, the suspense mounts, the stakes get higher, the plot thickens. With authorial patience German writer/director Philipp Leinemann devises a web of conspiracy, corruption, coincidences and conflicting interests, which he then executes in a number of superbly timed, precisely staged, evocatively shot and scored scenes that are hugely impressive for their narrative clarity and technical finesse. Some of them pack such promise in their grand, atmospheric strokes it sends chills down your spine. The actors are also uniformly good, if more as a tight, complementary ensemble than individual stand-outs.

So it's a pity that the movie can't seem to find an ending that's explosive, satisfying enough, one that could elevate itself once and for all from the familiar, moralistic, Tatort-friendly format. Because after reaching such a level of complexity and scale, you get the feeling the story finally comes back down to settle in a small, modest place.

Filmfest München: The Skeleton Twins

There are movies that approximate life through a thoughtful mapping of all this tragicomic randomness around us. And then there are movies which try that route, plan a deliberate dosage of fun and misery in advance, but end up looking doubly phony. American writer/director Craig Johnson's "The Skeleton Twins", about two estranged siblings reuniting and facing their demons, falls unfortunately more into the second category. It's less a dramedy than a comedy that prefers not to be called a comedy and/or a drama that'd rather not be taken too seriously.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are two of the most brilliant comedians of their generation but apparently feel the need to prove their dramatic chops as well. Which is a shame, really, not only because they are so much better at making us laugh, but also their rightly celebrated SNL-personas are so established by now that any foray into humor-free territory is immediately put at an enormous disadvantage. Both are by no means bad actors, but it only takes a few minutes of lip-syncing dual of "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for everyone to see where their true instincts and genius lie.

And so we've got two immensely likable entertainers acting against their impulses in a movie that strives to stay real but feels from head to toe manufactured. That I don't believe for a second Wiig and Hader are playing twins is just the first of its problems.