Sonntag, 28. September 2014

71st Venice Film Festival report

(Originally appeared in Film International on Sep. 28, 2014)

The Venice Film Festival, the worldwide oldest festival celebrating cinema, ended its 71st run earlier this month (August 27- September 6). Traditionally ranked alongside Cannes and Berlin as one of the most important stops on the cinematic calendar, Venice has seen its profile in the festival world rise and fall in recent times. In the wake of Oscar's time change in 2004, one could observe an upgrade of the glamour factor and corresponding media attention on the Lido, as more and more supposed Oscar contenders with major Hollywood actors chose to launch here, the new designated start of the fall award season. With competing festivals from Toronto and Telluride (or even New York) gaining clout and slowly establishing themselves as worthy alternatives to the prestigious but costly European platform, however, Venice has had a hard time securing those big, glitzy titles of late. For its 70th anniversary last year the fest managed to put together a properly impressive line-up including such high-profile Oscar contenders/ box office dynamite as "Gravity" and "Philomena" as well as arthouse gold from both English-language ("Under the Skin") and international ("Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)", "郊遊 (Stray Dogs)") auteurs that enjoyed a healthy subsequent run. This year, the program looked much lighter in buzz from the outset and proved even less exciting after the cat's out of the bag.

Sure enough there's the highly anticipated title that also turned out to be the homerun everyone had suspected. In this case, it's the opening night film (incidentally also the best of all 28 films this author has seen at the fest this year) "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)". Wild, hypnotic, metaphysical, it tells the story of a washed-up actor who used to be a household name playing a superhero now trying to wage a comeback on Broadway by writing, directing and starring in his own play. The script, as fussily wordy as it sometimes is, weaves together a myriad of fascinating subjects like celebrity, authenticity, perception versus reality and delivers an incisive, ruthlessly funny look inside show business, inside the essence of performance. Edited in a way as to invoke the impression that (almost) the whole movie is one single take (there are clearly separate, unrelated shots in the very beginning and near the end), it has a freewheeling, unpredictable rhythm to it that's instantly irresistible. Swaying constantly between both sides of the curtain, the illusion of an unbroken narrative not just dazzles on an optical level but also reinforces a sense of unreliability, until the line between what's real and what's staged it dances on becomes almost too vague to tell.

Essential to the success of the film is the unsurprisingly astounding cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Racing down narrow corridors and staircases, zooming with soundless fluidity in and out of the characters' faces, there's an unstoppable energy to the camera. After witnessing his Oscar-winning work on last year's opening night film "Gravity", we get to experience his unquestionable mastery again, albeit within strictly earth-bound parameters here. And it's no less breathtaking. The cast is also tremendous, led by a volcanic, wonderfully loose Michael Keaton, whose years as Batman no doubt feeds into the whole meta-aspect of the movie. But the performance is also strong on its own terms, fiery and always tinged with a hint of insanity, culminating in a scene later in the film that's thunderous, inevitable, almost scary to watch. Edward Norton is every bit as good as Keaton, bringing a pompous vanity and showmanship to the table that pushes his counterpart ever further towards the edge. Even those other actors in limited roles are mighty fine, starting with Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan, who, shining a respective sexy / maternal glow, pull the picture back to the ground when it threatens to float away on its own zaniness. Ultimately this film is the vision of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. And what a vision this man has. By turns incredibly intimate- like the many discussions between fellow actors, between a performer and a critic, between the different selves of one person- and outlandishly loud- like the handful of lavish effects shots featuring dragons and explosions- it's a rich, varied dissection of a man's psyche that's not entirely plausible but fiercely riveting all the same.  

Outside the high-flying opening night film, there's scarcely another movie in the official competition that's as all-around compelling. The eventual winner of the Golden Lion, "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)", which is not nearly as unanimously embraced by the critics as "Birdman" but certainly loved by some, also presents a unique vision, if a less substantiated one and one that, with its bloated eccentricity, feels much slighter than it thinks it is. Composed of vignettes short and long that are sometimes connected, the movie doesn't have a plot as much as an overarching idea. And one would be hard pressed even to explain what this idea is. Sure, it's about the absurdity and transience of life, about how things never make sense and have never made sense, about this comical, sad, frustrating, strange thing called existence. But even as a story of pointlessness, this one is not as spectacularly realized as Swedish director Roy Andersson's own previous two entries in the "trilogy about being a human being" ("Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor)" (2000) & "Du levande (You, the Living)" (2007)).

The numerous painstakingly designed and crafted sets do provide a visual feast and Andersson's trademark taxidermic aesthetics are intact, but this time around, they feel more limited in scope and imaginative reach. One could probably argue it symbolizes a more internalized continuation of his work, but without the grandeur, whether in style or narrative stroke, all that quirkiness does get old. Which is not to say this is not a pathologically pretty movie with acidly funny bits. A dying woman clinging on to her purse or a dance instructor openly caressing her student, for example, are simply conceived, carefully choreographed scenes that shout such inappropriateness they're a riot to watch. When all is said and done, this is a more than justifiable festival entry that should see a robust run in arthouse cinemas everywhere. It is just not as complete, as dynamic a whole as one would have hoped.

On the other side of the scale there are the bombs in the competition line-up, the percentage of which seems unusually high this year. Leading that list are, for this viewer at least, Italian director Saverio Costanzo's "Hungry Hearts" and American helmer Andrew Niccol's "Good Kill". The former is a marital-drama-turned-thriller about a young couple who fights to fatal consequences over how to feed their new born son (not kidding). An inexplicable but absolute mistrust of the medical profession on the mother's part is the central, and only conflict that drives the plot. The utter improbability of her extreme behavior, especially after being portrayed as a mild and personable character in the beginning, prevents you from ever relating or even caring. Add to that the loud, 80's-Cinemaxx style direction that gives the movie its ludicrously over-the-top third act, and you have this stinker that's not just dramatically tone-deaf but actively repellent. It's a head-scratcher then, that the competition jury chaired by Alexandre Desplat ends up bestowing two awards, namely the two acting prizes, upon this film. Even if a performance could be judged purely on its technical soundness independent of the quality of the written character, it's a stretch to think those by Alba Rohrwacher and Adam Driver are the two worthiest choices. And that's from someone who's otherwise a major admirer of Rohrwacher's work.

Equally poorly written and directed is the war drama "Good Kill", set against the background of military drones being increasingly employed to replace pilot jets in America's anti-terrorist attacks. The lead character, played by a permanently zombie-faced Ethan Hawke, is on the one hand disillusioned that he doesn't get to fly and kill anymore, but seems at the same time ever more eaten by the deaths he causes at the drone control. The script is fraught with not just such contradictions but also clichés of every sort and is basically just hammering on the one age-old mantra of all anti-war movies: killing people is bad for you. It brings nothing new to the table except exchange the conventional scenes of soldiers in battle with those of them sitting around pressing buttons, over and over again. Clunky in dialogue, rigid in direction and just breathtakingly dull, this movie has no business being at a film festival.

And then there are the other misfires that are not as all-out terrible but do nothing to raise the bar or rock the boat either, like David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn" and Xavier Beauvois' "La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame)". Both Green and Beauvois arrive after great critical success with their previous films ("Prince Avalanche" won Best Director at the Berlinale, "Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men)" won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes) so, on paper, their creds would be solid enough for a placement in competition. But "Manglehorn", a drama about a socially inept locksmith, turned out to be quite sappily written and, in its attempt at a meditative note, airless and uninteresting. Al Pacino mumbles and rants through the movie, overdoing the awkwardness of someone not used to intimacy and communication while poor Holly Hunter is stuck in the thankless role of a lovesick bank teller, with her usual piercing alertness all but wasted.

The French comedy "La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame)" is adored by some, but doesn't register with this viewer. Depicting the theft of Charlie Chaplin's coffin for ransom by two amateur criminals in 70's Switzerland, it's uninspired in writing and broad in execution. The various mishaps never sound believable and the whole third-act addition of a circus subplot feels unnecessary if not downright desperate. The selection of these average-to-awful movies, none of which seems promising either in commercial prospects or critical reception, suggests an autopilot name-recognition on the part of the festival programmers that's worrisome.

Falling somewhere in between the good and the bad are films like French relationship drama "3 coeurs (Three Hearts)", Russian semi-documentary "Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)", Japanese WWII gore-fest "野火 (Fires on the Plain)", Italian biopic "Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi)", German/Turkish historical odyssey "The Cut", and possibly the token queer cinema entry "Pasolini" from American provocateur Abel Ferrara. None of them sent the people on Lido wild but they got positive reaction to varying degrees.

Despised by some with vehemence, Benoît Jacquot's "3 coeurs (Three Hearts)" is an imperfectly conceived love triangle with a man inadvertently caught between two sisters. With a central conceit that doesn't ring true and an overzealous, darkly droning score that tries to dictate the tone every step of the way, the movie is doomed from the start. But there's plenty to like in the forceful direction that pushes the story forward with a muscular arm while always mindful of the subtlest emotional fluctuations in the group dynamics. Shot and edited with a rhythmic precision that's almost erotic, the film has a palpable beat to match its adult, near-thriller sensibilities. And all three actors in the principal cast are outstanding, with Benoît Poelvoorde and Chiara Mastroianni holding up their end of the dance expertly against the dependably wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg. Looking at any given moment both rebellious and vulnerable, hers is a face so splendidly unreadable you don't ever want to move your eyes away from. Playing a woman trapped by pride, desire and guilt, it's another effortlessly involving performance that mesmerizes and devastates.

Also dismissed by many is German auteur Fatih Akin's "The Cut", which follows an Armenian man persecuted under the Ottoman Empire on his journey out of enslavement in search of his daughters. Flatly descriptive and maddeningly linear, it's definitely not an exciting or surprising narrative. But the technical achievements of this film are undeniable. Textured production and costume design evoke the flair of a bygone era and the sprawling vista strikingly photographed completes a visually sumptuous picture. The distinctly aggressive original score with a main theme largely based on electric guitar and bass is fantastic, pinning you to your seat with its sad, angry, dangerous melody.

The complaint of style over substance applies to "Pasolini" as well, a biopic chronicling the last days of famed Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's life. The film's certainly a slight exercise, feeling with its 86-min running time limited in every way. And to have Willem Dafoe play the titular character delivering his lines predominantly in English is plainly ill-considered. That said, Ferrara is clearly having a blast sculpting this sleek, shiny plaything, and the somber but seductive campiness, facilitated through breezy camera work and silky smooth art direction, is infectious. How he jumps between reality and fiction in his storytelling is, if not the most original, an effective way in adding a formal complexity to this tricky little film.

The other biopic "Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi)" is anything but slight, in fact it just might be a little too bulky for its own good. Densely written with lengthy quotes from the works of its title character at regular intervals, this movie about gifted, tormented 19th century Italian poet/philosopher Giacomo Leopardi is by virtue of its literariness probably much more accessible to an Italian-speaking audience. The words are doubtlessly beautiful, though, and with a dedicated, appropriately dreamy lead performance by Elio Germano, the beauty really spills over in a couple of memorable, quietly profound scenes.

Definitely not quiet is Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto's horror flick "野火 (Fires on the Plain)", a movie more suited for a Midnight Madness slot. Set around a group of abandoned soldiers fighting for survival towards the end of the second World War, it's slaughter and bloodshed from the get-go that only escalate and escalate. Evidenced by the mass walk-outs at the screening this author attended, the degree of violence portrayed here goes beyond what many would deem acceptable. Innards, brain matters, limbs splash across the screen in extreme close-ups, often to be followed by cannibalistic acts. It's truly a movie too sickening to defend. However, the feverish, hyper-lush cinematography and the perturbing, nightmarish hymn of an original score do pack that cinematic intensity that should mark the work to be shown at a film festival.

In the end, the festival jury seems to find that intensity in Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky's "Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)", as it's awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director. Shot almost like a documentary, the movie records more than portrays the life of villagers in a small lakeside settlement in rural Russia. There's no plot to speak of, scenes are only very loosely connected through their shared players. Even the dialogue, mostly just chatter and complaints, sounds too relaxed to be scripted. Were it not for the arresting visuals, either the dazzling serenity of nature or the cozy storybook interiors, this film would be too inconspicuous to even register. But the worthy prizewinner does show touches of genius with the insertion of symbolic icons like the mysterious grey cat or an enigmatic rocket launch. While seeming paradoxical to the über-realistic approach he applies to the rest of the film, these cryptic sidenotes add a definitive, lyrical layer of mysticism that elevates the appeal of the picture exponentially.

Flawed each in its own way, the five movies cited above have merits that outweigh their faults, but none of them is really of a quality that would grab you by the throat or make your pulse quicken.

In this regard, some entries in the less prominent sidebar sections at this year’s fest might actually be superior to what the competition slate has to offer. Orizzonti stunner “Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)” by Austrian directors Veronika Franz und Severin Fiala, about two twin boys who grow convinced that the woman returning home after a facial surgery isn’t their mother, is at first glance standard genre fare. Employing scares of the most inelaborate kind and unsparing in all their gory details, it’s not for the faint of heart and would strike many as trashy. The austere, compulsively tidy, subliminally repressive visual style, as part of the stern, relentless direction, however, does afford the film with a brute cinematic force that sends the blood pumping. Equally arresting is the Chinese noir “殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)”, screened as part of the International Critics Week. Making his narrative feature debut here, writer/director Xin Yukun’s multi-perspective mystery about how greed, infidelity and simple survival instincts lead to the abandoned remains of an unknown person is pedestrian in look but expertly written, ensnaring you in a plot of calculations, accidents and unfortunate coincidences. At once darkly suspenseful and morbidly funny, it’s a script that’s so packed with surprises it hardly gives a break to catch your breath.

While the Berlinale is often seen as the fest of discoveries and Cannes the undisputed temple worshipping the Gods of cinema today, a sample of the official selection described above shows the Venice Film Festival caught in a somewhat awkward position in between- not big enough to net an abundance of masterworks from top auteurs, nor quite ready yet to put its name behind relatively unknown up-and-comers wowing with raw talent. With its supply of red-carpet moments noticeably exceeding that of quality films this year, it might be time for the festival at the dreamiest location possible to rethink its place.    

Donnerstag, 25. September 2014


(Originally appeared in Film International on Sep. 24, 2014)

Marking the sixth collaboration of what’s shaping up to be the most compelling and fruitful auteur-actor duo in modern German cinema, writer/director Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” starring Nina Hoss is a dashingly realized drama with a singular concept soaring in its intellectual reach and emotional resonance.

Set in a ruinous post-war Berlin, the film tells the story of a disfigured Holocaust survivor Nelly (Hoss) who returns home after receiving facial reconstruction surgery on the assistance of a friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), only to find that the love of her life, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), doesn’t recognize her anymore. What happens next, a scheme proposed by a supposedly unknowing Johnny and entered into by a devastated Nelly which builds the central conceit of the plot, would strike many as implausible. But to those willing to bear with the initial rawness of the premise, the payoff is bountiful. Namely, you find out the film is really tapping into the behavior/performance divide to probe a very fundamental part of our being and, in the process, examine the idea of identity against the backdrop of the most traumatized and confused time in human memory. By having one protagonist who’s either habitually deceitful or in serious denial and another whose entire history has just been wiped out, the script confronts you to with questions like: What makes a self a self? How do you re-establish individuality where collectives have been labeled and destroyed? Questions no less chilling and profound to consider, even if the way they’re asked is, in contrast to conventional WWII movies that often hit on similar subjects through angry depictions of Nazi-atrocities, much quieter in tone.

Contributing vitally to the success of this somewhat fanciful storytelling is the tremendous principal cast of three. Unhindered by his hulky frame, Zehrfeld is quickly establishing himself to be a chameleonic presence in recent years. After playing the goofy and vulnerable in the delightful “Finsterworld” (2013), the righteous and indignant in the rousing “Wir waren Könige (The Kings Surrender)” (2014), he pulls off the charming sleaze who may or may not have committed the ultimate betrayal. Kunzendorf, who German viewers know as a sassy police officer from the popular TV show Tatort, plays against type and gives us a woman steely in appearance, certain in judgment but who is secretly caught between a past she can’t return to and a future she doesn’t know how to face. It’s a beautifully unaffected performance that does justice to a character whom we only realize we know so little about after its exit. And then there’s Nina Hoss. Like other brilliant, instinctive European actresses of her generation, Hoss doesn’t let her statuesque looks get in the way of disappearing into a role and, as evidenced by “Yella” (2007) and “Barbara” (2012), her last two collaborations with Petzold, she does so by even less acting and more plain inhabiting than say, Cotillard or Winslet. Which is possibly why Nelly would not go down as her best on-screen creation, because it demands so much ostensible “acting” on her part. That said, it’s never less than riveting to watch her regal stature and here skeletal face at work. With a mixture of humiliation, exhaustion and suspicion, she nails the slight muscle twitch of someone no longer sure of how they look as well as that almost apologetic air of someone repeatedly corrected on how to convincingly behave as themselves.        

Direction-wise, “Phoenix” proves a significant departure from Petzold’s filmography, not in terms of the intense intimacy his films are known for, which this movie still very much possesses, but the aesthetic richness his minimalistic approach hitherto largely avoided. The interior design of both the living spaces and the Phoenix Club is unexpectedly striking and the classy coiffures, retro glasses and pantaloons provide eye-candy galore. All that is shot with a sumptuous texture and depth that one also wouldn’t necessarily associate with Petzold’s work. The movie’s also a lesson on lighting, which is often dim but never insufficient, always purposeful in its use of shades and shadows. And although the abundant use of silhouettes, darkened shapes, partially obscured faces and back views in a story about identities might be a bit too literal to be called masterful, in many cases these shots do actually say more about a character or their circumstances than anything explicit could.

Seldom a year would pass without the German cinema producing a handful of new NS-themed films. As decent as this self-reflective gesture is, it does get tiring. “Phoenix”, refreshingly, tackles the inhuman regime and its consequences from a strictly personal angle and dazzles. Embodied by that perfect ending jazzy and blurry in every sense, this is a delicate, incisive, spellbinding movie from a filmmaking team with no reason to stop anytime soon.

Samstag, 20. September 2014

Filmkunstmesse Leipzig: Trash

British director Stephen Daldry's Rio-set dramatic action-thriller "Trash" is a carefully engineered crowdpleaser liberally channeling his countryman Danny Boyle's Oscar-sweeper "Slumdog Millionaire". The fatigue brought on by the déjà-vu's weighs heavily on the film, even if it's a perfectly serviceable, sometimes rousing piece of popular entertainment in its own right.

Centered around three 14-year-olds living off a dumping ground whose lives are changed upon the discovery of a wallet, the movie is firmly plot-driven and sprints forward at a brisk pace all through its 2-hour running time. The script, adapted by Richard Curtis, is nicely structured to always be teasing with the next clue to the mystery. Aided by some able editing work, its parallel narrative shows diversity but remains readily digestible. Even though the story itself can't really be called original, it has an effective hook and shines a light on the problems of social unjust, political corruption and police brutality in Brazil, which are easy targets of course, but nonetheless pack with them a pressing sense of gravitas. A fundamental weakness of the screenplay, however, lies in its inability to render the motives of the young protagonists believable. Unlike "Slumdog", which smartly reduces its heroes' travails to such commonly relatable pursuit of romance within an instantly recognizable environment of a quiz show, the justification offered here for three impoverished teenage boys' selfless, life-threatening quest for truth- the repeatedly uttered "It's the right thing to do"- just doesn't fly as well.

And while both movies feature young characters constantly fleeing, dodging, leaping across rooftops and off windowsills, "Trash" doesn't spark the same level of immediacy or urgency. There's a chase sequence involving the transport of a Bible later in the film that's well orchestrated, famously shot and cut, leading in a tight, pulse-quickening last half hour, but before then the cinematography is agile in a more latent, unspectacular way. The flawed sound mix, including the less-than-precise dialogue dubbing, also contributes to a perceptible distance to the action depicted. That said, Daldry doesn't make ugly movies. Whether marine blue or mud-colored, every frame of the film is delicately shaded, thoughtfully lit and taking full advantage of the expansive Latin American cityscape or coastline. It's a lot of grimy prettiness to look at.

The three previous non-actors taking on the lead roles here are understandably not consistent in their acting. Failings show especially in scenes with extended verbal exchanges. The very unpracticed quality of their body language, however, enables the capture of brilliantly guileless expressions that would be otherwise hard to get. Except for some over-acting on the part of Martin Sheen, the supporting cast that also includes Rooney Mara and Wagner Moura is fine, if none of them has been given any heavy-lifting to do. Veteran Brazilian actor Nelson Xavier makes a very memorable appearance in one single scene set in a prison, selling with his forceful presence the fierce but merciful, alert but unagitated temperament of someone long given up hope of seeing the light of day again.

Hard to dislike for its general soundness and uplifting spirit, this movie has a little something for everyone. In its attempt to broaden its appeal as much as possible, however, it might have stayed a bit too close to the middle of the road to dazzle, to rock, to wow.

Freitag, 19. September 2014

Filmkunstmesse Leipzig: Hin und weg (Tour De Force)

(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Sep. 19, 2014)

It's hard to criticize something as excessively agreeable as the German dramedy / road movie "Hin und Weg (Tour De Force)" without sounding like a heartless cynic. Decent in conception, sincere in direction, it has charity and good will to spare. But as a narrative feature it is direly underwritten and lands its impact mainly on the strength of the moving premise alone.

An opening montage does a quick head count of the group of youngish, very good-looking friends at the center of the story who have been making an annual biking trip together for years. Squeaky clean and enticingly lit, it also introduces us to the antiseptic, commercial-ready aesthetics of the film. We soon realize, however, that it's not all kissing, hugging and harmless banter this time around, as not 15 minutes into the movie, tears, arguments break out and plans of assisted suicide are announced. Turns out one of the friends, Hannes, has been secretly suffering under the incurable degenerative disease Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and his pick of Belgium as their destination this year has not been solely waffle-motivated. People cry, regroup and soldier on, very swiftly persuaded that accompanying a young man to his chosen dying place would be the best thing they can offer. From there on the movie fares like "The Bucket List" meets "Les petits mouchoirs (Little White Lies)", with random dares fulfilled, individual perspectives adjusted and simple joie de vivre recalibrated as the fact that a loved one would soon be gone slowly sinks in.

While it's certainly not as broadly tactless as the Jack Nicholson / Morgen Freeman star vehicle, the movie lacks the rich context of Guillaume Canet's Gallic box office champ. The events along the journey that are supposed to be a sample of the thrills and bitterness of living; that should, if not make sense of, then properly celebrate the cruel, beautiful transience of life, are not very memorably devised by screenwriter Ariane Schröder. Especially clumsy is, as usual, the strange sexual humor widely seen in mainstream German productions. There's a whole subplot about the frustrated sex life of the wedded couple in the group, complete with an episode at a swingers' club the troupe just happens to pass by. Not really funny and sorely implausible, at the end of it you just wish somebody would explain what it's meant to convey. Elsewhere, audience might be inclined to forgive such equally unrealistic bits as the spontaneous outbreak of a mud fight lusciously shot like a Timberland ad, and there's a storyline about a hot girl picked up by the group's playboy, whose parting words to her vacation flame provide a rare moment of poignancy, but the script as a whole remains light, malnourished. Also contributing to the film's lack of weight is the less-than-ideal editing, which is prone to chop off scenes before they have a chance to play out and breathe. Among others is the pivotal scene of Hannes' last romantic night with his girlfriend hurt by the inadequately timed cut.      

Superstar Florian David Fitz won a Best Actor Lola for playing someone with Tourette's syndrome in "Vincent will Meer (Vincent Wants to Sea)". His performance here as Hannes is not nearly as physical, rarely stressing the outward symptoms of an ALS patient. Which is in itself not a problem, but, as emaciated as he looks, he never seems like someone who's about to die or is ready to die. So when he declares "My life ends tomorrow!" in an impassioned speech later in the film, it's just not as reverberating as one would hope. Otherwise soulful and engaging, it appears he's simply been given too little material to develop a full-fledged character. Of the ensemble cast, Jürgen Vogel is best in show, playing the class clown / eternal bachelor always game for a fling, but he can probably do this part in his sleep.  

When all is said and done, "Hin und Weg (Tour De Force)" is a well-meaning movie enjoyable for its pristine imagery, bookstore music and affecting idea. Director Christian Zübert might not be the most compelling storyteller, but he sure knows how to do the picturesque landscape of the European heartland justice. The way he shoots the ending, lucid, straightforward, dignified, also shows a respectful grasp of the subject matter, if not a particularly stirring one.

Having said all that, judging by the loud sniffle-fest the screening this reviewer attended ended up becoming, the general public might be much more susceptible to seeing innocent, attractive people dying on screen and that last assessment would be a miscalculation on the author's part.

Mittwoch, 17. September 2014

Filmkunstmesse Leipzig: La chambre bleue (The Blue Room)

There are movies that, even without your realizing what exactly transpires in them, sweep you off your feet with the sheer force of their style. French writer/director Mathieu Amalric's "La chambre bleue (The Blue Room)", an adultery drama/murder mystery, employs a highly fragmented narrative to purposefully complicate the telling of a probably straightforward story, but it does so in such a hypnotic way you can't help but be enthralled.

As someone often allergic to unnecessary filmmaking trickery used to disguise material insufficiency or solely to show off, I find Amalric's direction both technically accomplished and substantially justified. Jumping constantly between perspectives and different points in time, the editing is erratic yet anything but random. It always seeks out the perfect split-second to cut away and the exact frame to land on that would best stun, confound and suspend the spell of a prolonged erotic-dream-turned-nightmare. The close-ups-heavy cinematography is equally effective, capturing an urgent, corporal need of the two protagonists that's beautiful, primal. And what beguiling impressions these two actors have left for the camera to catch. Amalric, who also takes on the lead here, has found a phenomenal counterpart in Stéphanie Cléau. Not effortlessly attractive in the classical sense, she has that hint of wild, almost predatory passion hidden beneath a placid facade, which is not only complementary to the meekness of the male character, but in itself works wonders for a story about desire and power play.

For sure, the extended interrogation and courtroom scenes in the latter part of the film do begin to drag, a major failing especially for a film running only 76 minutes. But as a disturbing, sensual, all-around charged chamber piece accentuated by an alluring Hitchcockian score, it's a sly directorial exercise that surprises with the dexterity of its hands and the boldness of its strokes.

Filmkunstmesse Leipzig: Mommy

(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Sep. 16, 2014)

It's at once understandable and baffling that Jane Campion's jury awarded Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's 5th feature "Mommy" the coveted Jury Prize in Cannes this year. The film's altogether likable and tugs at heartstrings because it openly aims for them and, of Dolan's films to date, it's the most eager to please. But it underwhelms for the very same reasons.

Set against the fictional backdrop of a new Candaian legislation, under which overtaxed parents may unconditionally enter their behaviorally disturbed children into medical facilities, the movie tells the story of a love-hate-fear relationship between a single mother Diane and her hyperactive adolescent son Steve. Written also by Dolan, it's the least ostensibly sexual of his scripts and concentrates on such universally embraceable themes as the uplifting, exasperating, redeeming familial bond and the never-ending yearning for freedom. At his best, Dolan shows in his writing an uncanny understanding of human psychology and finds its expression in inconspicuously staged scenarios ("J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother)", "Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)"). With this latest work you can still sense that fine radar at work in the characters he creates- vividly drawn, fueled by passion and impulses- but there's also a less satisfactory narrative arc in terms of plot development to be observed. The introduction of the neighbor Kyla, arguably the most interesting character of the movie, first jolts the somewhat flatlining storyline back to life. And the ensuing unconventional ménage à trois does hold your attention for a while, before another bottleneck seems to be reached and you realize nothing except easy appeals to common sympathy seems to be driving this thing forward. Dolan is nothing if not an instinctive writer though. And you notice that sometimes even better in what he leaves unsaid- in this case the whole back story of the mysterious Kyla, who would rather spend time with a mother-son duo with a penchant for violence than with her own husband and child. Never fully explained, she becomes this unknowable but thoroughly intriguing figure that serves as the much needed catalyst in a duet that otherwise would've long grown old.    

The direction is equally fine if not unflawed or particularly challenging. Possibly taking a cue from the bad notices he got for going overboard visually with "Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats)" and "Laurence Anyways", "Mommy" is relatively subdued in optical terms. Gone are the fanciful, indulgent color sprees, substituted by a more grounded, quotidian look. Of course there are still the occasional sequences of surreal prettiness, like a golden boy falling slo-mo onto a bed drenched in golden light spilling through golden curtains, and, let's be honest, even when he goes for shabby, there's that slight rosy tint to a Dolan film. But overall it's a controlled aesthetic that serves the story well and would likely offend no one. At other places, though, Dolan displays an ambition to up his directorial game to only mixed results. Most obvious is his choice to play with the aspect ratio of the film, which looks unusually narrow for the majority of the running time. It takes some getting used to, but at least this viewer sees that approach as an effective way to leave out the rest of the world and focus on the predicament of those portrayed by simply chopping off the panoramic view. However, the couple of times he expands the field of vision to the normal, wide format and back again, coinciding with the sudden sense of liberty or returning despair experienced by the characters, feel too literal to be called genius. Also less than ideal are the scenes where he goes for the warm and fuzzy moments shared by damaged people, which often come across as forced, and the way he uses music in this film, with the loudly soothing score and the Top 40-friendly soundtrack both being a tad too pushy.        

All three principal actors are strong. Suzanne Clément plays Kyla with the necessary reticence and makes you see in her a woman finally allowing herself to be happy with her crazy neighbors. Anne Dorval is highly watchable as the hot mess of a mom with partially dyed hair and bejeweled jeans. Even though her performance still betrays a hint of shrill mechanicalness in those scenes of aggressive confrontation, she's delightful in her sassy body language and shows especially good timing in her delivery of feisty one-liners. Even more impressive is probably lead actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon, whose Steve is explosive, goofy, sweet, flirty, sometimes all at the same time. The instability of his mind and the depth of his anger are beautifully portrayed in a scene set in a Karaoke bar. Bringing three distinct personalities to the screen, these three actors keep you engaged and invested even when the storytelling itself slacks, so that even a moment like taking a group selfie can end up being as pregnant with emotion as it is.

Avoiding to a large extent any controversial subject or subversive stance, opting for a pleasantly inobtrusive visual style, coasting a lot more than previously on compassion and basic kindness of the heart, there might be shouting, fighting and maiming galore in "Mommy", but it might also just be the most widely accessible and least risky movie Xavier Dolan has made so far.

Freitag, 12. September 2014

Maps to the Stars

"Maps to the Stars" is kind of like and kind of not like what one would expect from a movie about celebrity, excess and the twisted cosmos by the name of Hollywood.

You know going in it'll be about how neurotic actors are and how cutthroat showbiz is, and the acidic, ruthlessly satiric script by Bruce Wagner, in which ridiculous, clearly fabricated yet frighteningly probable scenarios are concocted with a biting language hurtful, malevolent at every turn, indeed gives you that. It depicts with an almost offhand shrug the rarified lifestyle of stars in the context of therapy, drug abuse, promiscuity and an ingrained hierarchical, nepotistic survival instinct. Everybody's always pitching, gossiping, second-guessing, back-stabbing it's hilarious and also exhausting just to watch.

The tone is correspondingly dark, with the recurring themes of incest and arson revisited with disturbing frequency. Somewhat surprising is how the film goes that extra mile into supernatural territory from time to time. But, reinforcing the point that this town is haunted by its own inhumanity and paranoia, these all-out crazy interludes feel inobtrusive, even appropriate. So far- the snarky dialogue, the wacky story- it's all cruel, wicked fun.

That Canadian director David Cronenberg doesn't opt for a high-gloss, fast-paced look or beat for the film, is the true shocker. Instead, the tale about all these glamorous people trapped in far-fetched realities, moves at a deliberate, sometimes languid speed. Except for the posh furnishings, the picture looks plain, listless, conspicuously sans makeup and there's almost no music. One could argue this approach accentuates the intellectual and moral vaccum these characters live in, but some tightening, cutting and polishing would probably strengthen the effects of a perverse world subsisting on vanity and better communicate its crazed energy.

The actors are good, first and foremost Mia Wasikowska, who gets the nervous, doubtful and patient faces of an unbalanced person just right. Julianne Moore has the showiest part and she bares it all- flaccid flesh and vacant soul- to portray this deeply troubled actress passing her prime. Unhinged, self-righteous, pathologically insecure, it makes for a great, even sicker counterpart to Michael Keaton's Birdman. In limited roles, Olivia Williams, John Cusack and the reliably creepy Sarah Gadon are all well cast and complete an unflattering mosaic that's L.A..

Dienstag, 9. September 2014

Venice Film Festival 2014

The 71st Venice Film Festival is over. Of the 28 movies I saw, these are my personal favorites.

Best film: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
Runner-up: "殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)"
honorable mentions: "闖入者 (Red Amnesia)", "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)",  "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)"

(Retired widow in Beijing feeling demons from the past awakened by a mysterious intruder in "闖入者 (Red Amnesia)" (u.l.); Futility and trancience of life comically dissected in "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)"  (u.r.); Former superhero waging a comeback on Broadway while fighting to stay sane in "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (central); Identity and motherhood questioned with the most brutal consequences in "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)"  (l.l.); Greed, infidelity, guilt leading to the abandoned remains of an unknown person in "殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)" (l.r.))

Best director: Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)")
Runner-up: Roy Andersson ("En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)")
honorable mentions: Chaitanya Tamhane ("Court"), Benoît Jacquot ("3 coeurs (Three Hearts)"), Ulrich Seidl ("Im Keller (In the Basement)")

Best lead actor: Elio Germano ("Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi)")
Runner-up: 黃渤 (Huang Bo) ("親愛的 (Dearest)") 
honorable mentions: Michael Keaton ("Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"), Benoît Poelvoorde ("3 coeurs (Three Hearts)"), George MacKay ("Bypass")

(黃渤 (Huang Bo) as the father obssessed with finding his kidnapped son (u.l.); Benoît Poelvoorde as the man caught between two women who happen to be sisters (u.r.); Elio Germano as the gifted, tormented poet/philosopher Giacomo Leopardi (central); George MacKay as a marginalized teenager trying to do good (l.l.); Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor looking for meaning and salvation (l.r.))

Best lead actress: Charlotte Gainsbourg ("3 coeurs (Three Hearts)")
Runner-up: 趙薇 (Zhao Wei) ("親愛的 (Dearest)") 
honorable mention: 呂中 (Lü Zhong) ("闖入者 (Red Amnesia)") 

Best supporting actor: Edward Norton ("Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)")
Runner-up: Michael Shannon ("'99 Homes")
honorable mention: Timur Bondarenko ("Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)")

Best supporting actress: Clotilde Hesme ("Le dernier coup de marteau (The Last Hammer Blow)")
Runner-up: Chiara Mastroianni ("3 coeurs (Three Hearts)") 
honorable mention: Jennifer Aniston ("She's Funny That Way")

Best screenplay: "殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)"
Runner-up: "闖入者 (Red Amnesia)"
honorable mentions: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)",  "親愛的 (Dearest)", "Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi)"

Best editing: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" 
Runner-up: "殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)"
honorable mentions: "3 coeurs (Three Hearts)", "Bypass", "Im Keller (In the Basement)"

Best cinematography: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" 
Runner-up: 野火 (Fires on the Plain)
honorable mentions: "Bypass", "3 coeurs (Three Hearts)", "Sivas"

Best art direction: "黃金時代 (The Golden Era)"
Runner-up: "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)"
honorable mentions: "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)", "Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)", "Pasolini"

(Early 20th century China with all its flair and dilapidated glamour recreated in "黃金時代 (The Golden Era)" (u.l); Morbid hilarity Swedish-style realized with cold, taxidermic aesthetics in "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)" (u.r.); Coziness and serenity of country life in Russia expressed through storybook interiors in "Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)" (l.l); Tension, paranoia, cruelty rendered through stern, oppressive tidiness of an Austrian mansion in "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)" (l.cen.); Opulence and decadence of Italian high society from the 70's revived in "Pasolini" (l.r.))

Best costume design: "Pasolini"
Runner-up: "The Cut"
honorable mentions: "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)", "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)"

Best film music: "The Cut"
Runner-up: 野火 (Fires on the Plain)
honorable mention: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" 

Best sound: 野火 (Fires on the Plain)
Runner-up: "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)"
honorable mention: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

Montag, 8. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: 黃金時代 (The Golden Era)

Hong Kong filmmaker 許鞍華 (Ann Hui)'s "黃金時代 (The Golden Era)" is a visually sumptuous, directorially superior but substantially anemic biopic about early 20th century Chinese author 蕭紅(Xiao Hong). It looks stunning and unfolds in an unconventionally elaborate way. But with a running time of 3 hours, no amout of cosmetic, however smashingly beautiful or inventively applied, can disguise the fact that there's just not that much of a story to tell.

Relying heavily on in-camera self-narration, all major characters in the film address at some point the audience directly, either to introduce themselves or to provide the next clue about Xiao's life. Compounded by some tricky editing which scrambles the chronology of the account liberally, a piecemeal, eclectic picture of someone emerges, like a mosaic viewed from constantly shifting perspectives. It's a bold method that takes you off guard and, at least in theory, could best recreate the multifaceted quality of any personal history. The surprise wears off, though, as these testimonials pile up without corresponding pay-off and the formal experimentalism starts to feel more like a stunt than an altogether meaningful decision. Particularly detrimental is how, through this semi-theatrical approach, the movie attains a loosely episodic nature that further undermines character establishment, which is paltrily done in the writing department to begin with.

Reading like an accumulation of trivia, the screenplay details the many stations Xiao has travelled through in her short life and inserts quotes from her work at regular intervals apparently to mirror the internal changes she experiences. The problem is the tidbits gathered here are not really conducive to providing insights into the protagonist's psyche, they're not even always interesting. By soberly reciting the various challenges she's faced growing up and her encounters with other renowned writers of the time, it's often tediously factual, uninvolving. A significant part of the story, for example, is tangled up in the relationship between her and 蕭軍 (Xiao Jun), a seemingly on-and-off affair somewhat confusingly relayed through the aforementioned editing. By the end of which we're no closer to seeing this young woman or understanding her choices. The performance by lead actress 湯唯 (Tang Wei) also fails to make us relate, even if it's technically sound. Above all there's a lack of unpredictability and range that made her breakout star turn in "色,戒 (Lust, Caution)" so eye-opening and cut so close. As played by her, Xiao remains an elusive if soulful figure not necessarily worth discovering. Adequate but in no way revelatory, 馮紹峰 (Shaofeng Feng)'s performance as the man of her life is equally underwhelming. Within the large supporting cast, 郝蕾 (Hao Lei) probably fares best, bringing a spark of energy to an otherwise rather mute ensemble.

This is by no means a bad film, though, looking as exquisite as it does. Especially in its first half, literally every frame is a tableau, gorgeously designed, lit, and photographed. Fogged windows, smoky bistros and dilapidated walls fill up a screen that's permanently doused in the most atmospheric colors, be it the deepest of amber or the faintest of azure. Poetic around every corner, you can tell there's not a single accident in the picture's aesthetic realization. And as fussy as the film ends up being, there's no denying it's a graceful person sitting behind the camera overlooking this whole luminously cultured but superfluous enterprise.

Venice Film Festival: Burying the Ex / Court

"Burying the Ex" is a lifeless, biteless, incredibly generic thing that in no way lives up to the name of its maker, horror maestro Joe Dante. Helping itself to an assortment of genre clichés and ha-ha one-liners, it's lazily plotted and, as a zom-rom-com, neither scary nor romantic. It doesn't work as a parody of those traditions either, lacking the necessary intensity of cinematic language. So it ends up being this very predictable, very tame, mildly amusing wannabe joker dying of lethargy. Lead actor Anton Yelchin is probably not at fault here, even if he doesn't exactly win you over with any fresh on-screen creation. Ashley Greene, on the other hand, confirms she's one the least gifted actresses out there, managing to be forcefully unmenacing, unfunny, uninteresting all at the same time. Her zombie ex-girlfriend is the centerpiece, the raison d'être of this movie, so it's hard to get people to care when her presence is as non-existent as it is. Everything in the tech department, from sound to special effects make-up, is unremarkable. Not even horror fans just seeking to get their fill would be happy with this one. .

"Court" is a somewhat bulkily written but beautifully directed legal drama that, belying this simplified categorization, extends its concern beyond the criminal dispute at its heart to the lives of all parties involved. Indian writer/director Chaitanya Tamhane is a skillful storyteller, setting up a distinctive stage as he introdruces the central figure in the possibly incendiary folk music singer, upping the stakes along the way as he presents the justice system in the country governed by archaic, politically motivated statutes, and then flesh out his characters as he regularly visits their off-courtroom life, allowing the viewer to observe them from a completely different angle. Marked by creativity, daring and a level-headed efficiency, the direction elevates the story from a single case to a broader narrative, a common cause, a big picture. The editing is just as great, knowing where to let the scenes breathe and how to jump cut to the most impactful next frame, surprising yet always reasoned. Technically raw but boasting a realism that's not mocking or sentimental, this is the kind of effort that shows promise in a first-time filmmaker.

Sonntag, 7. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: Good Kill / Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)

It's hard to find anything to like in American writer/director Andrew Niccol's flat, somber drama "Good Kill". Set around the time military drones were increasingly employed in America's war on terror, it is bluntly written, mechanically self-explaining without ever coming up with a fresh angle on how wars take a toll on their participants. Basically all it does is recycle the age-old mantra of all anti-war movies: taking lives will make a crazy person out of you! And it does so not through scenes of combat but of people sitting around pressing buttons, over and over again. No matter how many times they stress this is just as bad as slaughter in the old way, it remains breathtakingly dull to watch. Probably attributable to the direction, there's a rigidity to the proceedings throughout, nothing seems dynamic but strangely, poorly rehearsed. Lead actor Ethan Hawke certainly doesn't help matters donning a zombie face and uttering his lines ever so robotically. January Jones fares just as poorly. To be fair, she's not been given the juciest role to play, but this performance as the suffering wife is just grating. The sense of omnipotence from the drone controls and the panning aerial shots brings to mind "The Truman Show", which Niccol also wrote. But the parallel ends there, as not an ounce of the originality and empathy of that movie can be found here.

Russian writer/director Andrei Konchalovsky's "Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman's White Nights)" is a sedate, hyper-realistic but somehow also dreamy portrait of a group of villagers from rural Russia shot in near documentary style. It's notable for how closely its narrative resembles the spontaneous, disorganized trajectory of life. There's no plot to speak of. Instead, we just follow the titular character as he delivers mail, runs errands, goes about his daily routine and meet the other residents of this lakeside settlement. The dialogue is composed mostly of busy chatter or petty complaints, often sounding too relaxed to be scripted. While the movie might not rock anybody's boat for its absolute stillness and everyday plainness, it definitely has its moments, especially those where art spills over and approaches something incredibly simple like truth. Plus, it looks lovely from start to finish. Whether it's the serenity and dazzling color palette of nature or the warmth and vibrant clutter of the interiors, the film evokes a child-like wonder in you with its charming storybook aesthetics. The mysterious grey cat and the inexplicable rocket launch add a seemingly paradoxical but lyrical layer of mythical surrealism to the picture, a genius touch from the helmer.

Samstag, 6. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: Pasolini / Le dernier coup de marteau (The Last Hammer Blow)

One could dismiss American writer/director Abel Ferrara's "Pasolini" as no more than a shrill campfest complete with an orgy scene accompanied by fireworks and a falling star. But when touched by a master player of style, it also becomes this sleek, darkly shiny thing purposeful in its own way. Chronicling the last days of famed Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's life, the freewheeling biopic glides in and out of the realm of reality, teasing with changes in perspective without a care for consistency. While none of it seems to be done in a uniquely meaningful way, the formal diversity brings a necessary structural complexity to a picture otherwise too limited in scope (running only 86 minutes). Providing eye candy galore to further enliven the biography is the posh production and costume design, silky, lush, sparkling with an almost erotic luxury. Willem Dafoe is properly absorbed in a larger-than-life personality, even if the narrowness of the film never allows the viewer to get inside the head of this character. The fact that he mostly speaks in English is evidently a major problem, distracting and strengthening the impression of an ill-considered farce.

Channeling the heart and naturalism of the Dardennes and Ursula Meier, French writer/director Alix Delaporte's "Le dernier coup de marteau (The Last Hammer Blow)" is a moving coming-of-age tale about a boy growing up in hardship. With the focus strictly trained on a single-parent family, the script and direction draw you into the very ordinary, very real struggles of the less fortunate. In its attention to detail, the script carries with it a truthfulness that's modest but compelling; the direction, unshowy as it is, is observant of subtle emotional fluctuations to convey an honesty and tenderness towards the characters. Thus, when the unknowing father returns to town to conduct an orchestral piece and the adolescent son set out to meet him for the first time, the potentially cheesy scenario is made genuine, endearingly awkward. It's a shame, then, that the movie falters in the third act, failing to build on the momentum to strike a surprising note, instead of settling for a harmless, if slight and a tad affected ending. Young lead actor Romain Paul might be too placid, impassive in his performance to be called great, but, with a steadfastness that suggests inner turmoil, he never loses your attention either.

Venice Film Festival: Im Keller (In the Basement) / Sivas

Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl's "Im Keller (In the Basement)" is an ably made, gleefully disturbing documentary about what people do in the secrecy of their homes. The premise is fascinating, a fact you recognize as soon as the camera follows a middle-aged woman down flights of stairs and into a world that she prefers. A primal sense of curiosity and a dread of what's to come drive the picture accordingly. For his part, Seidl has certainly found people with quite "unusual" hobbies to share, and they're all candidly laid out without a trace of embarrassment or judgment. In fact, it's the calm, explanatory banality of the presentation- visually sparse, aurally vacuum- like a masochist neutrally counting the blows she receives on her bottom, that makes the experience unsettling. Streamlined, clear-eyed, appallingly open-minded, it's all kinds of incorrectness made ready to consume. Ultimately though, I don't think the movie reveals so much as merely demonstrates what we humans are capable of. And it's not a pretty sight.

Set in the brutal world of dog-fighting, Turkish writer/director Kaan Müjdeci's feature debut "Sivas" is a sporadically thrilling but overall unfocused and emotionally lacking drama. Shot on hand-held camera that's agile in a sharp and not nauseating fashion, the film successfully captures life in rural Turkey by picking up vivid particulars and especially shines in the handful of canine fight scenes. Using classily composed panoramic views of the battles as well as breathtaking close-ups of the animals at work and the people caught in bloodlust, these sequences sparkle with speed and ferocity, throwing you right in the middle of the action. Elsewhere the film doesn't quite work, as none of its many plot points- the child-dog relationship, the coming-of-age story, the social, political critique- is given enough treatment to count. Young lead actor Dogan Izci is adorable but doesn't really get to stretch any acting muscles here.

Freitag, 5. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: 闖入者 (Red Amnesia)

The editing on Chinese writer/director 王小帥 (Wang Xiaoshuai)'s dramatic thriller "闖入者 (Red Amnesia)" is decidedly off, so that on the one hand, the movie doesn't feel tight enough, meandering here and there; on the other hand, cuts at critical junctions of the story are often made less than ideally, missing that sweet spot only exact timing can get you and coming across as hasty or redundant when it's going for suggestive. That said, a layered, resonant script that takes the problem of an aging society as background to reflect on guilt and its repercussions is captivating throughout and largely redeems the picture.

Set in modern-day Beijing and around a mysterious domestic harassment case, the movie excels not in its technical achievements, looking mostly pedestrian and not thoughtfully lit. But the intrigue mounts steadily as the anonymous antagonization escalates and cutaways to a silent, seemingly parallel plotline further give rise to an air of malevolence. Even though nothing truly violent ever happens, as a viewer you feel your sense of security slowly breached, in part thanks to the utter unextraordinariness and frightening plausibility of the situations depicted. The eventual revelation of the source of all this bother is not particularly skillfully designed but, riding on a whole history of sentiments, its impact is nonetheless formidable.

Lead actress 呂中 (Lü Zhong) doesn't exactly hit it out of the park with this meaty role of a dedicated mother who would stop at nothing for her family and who now has to suffer the consequences. There are several extended monologues or scenes of pure physical performance that she doesn't perfect, but the ambivalent, tentative, slightly shameful look of someone with an unspeakable past she brings is priceless. Brilliant actors 秦海璐 (Amanda Qin) and 秦昊 (Qin Hao) are relegated to secondary parts here and don't have much to do except snap and pout but of course they are still brilliant snapping and pouting.

Altogether effective both as a home invasion mystery, which the original Mandarin title (lit: "The Intruder") alludes to, and as a drama with a broader concern for the human mechanics in times of emergency, which the English title aptly captures, this is an intelligently written, diligently performed film that uses a timely issue to deliver a timeless message.

Donnerstag, 4. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) / Bypass

True to form, Swedish director Roy Andersson's "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)" is a wryly caricatured look at life from the sidelines, with opaque philosophical, existential musings masked behind painstakingly staged, cartoonishly orchestrated scenes. His trademark taxidermic aesthetics are present from the first frame on: comical, heavily made-up figures look frozen in time or pinned under glass in stiff poses amid surreal, minutely manicured surroundings. The script is just as eccentric, creating the unlikeliest characters who behave in the most peculiar way, including a dance instructor who keeps caressing her pupil, two morbid men who work "in entertainment" and a musical number, during which guests in a bar line up to kiss the female owner for free drinks. Except for a bit depicting the execution of slaves that seems insensitive and in its explication too on-the-nose, it's all quite amusing, innocuously mean both on a visual and cerebral level. But the appeal of the intentional, heightened artificiality does get old after a while, and the episodic nature of the film, underscored by the not always seamless scenic transitions, prevents an organic wholeness, a coherent meaning from ever emerging, so there's a sense of limitation that's even more apparent than in, say, the grander, more ambitious "Du levande (You, the Living)". That said, at its best, this film pokes fun at the absurdity and transience of it all with a delicious deadpan humor that's seldom seen.      

British writer/director Duane Hopkins' visually arresting but narratively wanting "Bypass" is a tender character study that's too light on plot to land a greater impact. The young protagonist has a brother just out of jail, a drop-out sister under his custody, a debt he can't afford to pay back and a disease that makes him throw up and convulse. After accompanying him through his daily routines with these many plights, you get it's a story about people who have nothing and are about to lose more. As dire as that sounds, the film's a gem to watch. The cinematography is crisp in texture and brisk in motion, constantly finding interesting aspects of faces, gestures and a post-industrialized cityscape that are beautiful to ponder. In a couple of excellently shot chase scenes, the camera, dashing through alleyways and up elevations with clarity and urgency, further impresses. Thanks to a soft glow from the exquisite, sometimes bold lighting choices, the modestly budgeted movie also often looks like a million dollars. Lead actor George MacKay doesn't necessarily show range in a role limited by his own circumstances, but there's an openness to his face that's very inviting. Overall there's too little development in the script department for the film to have scale but the director definitely shows promise, not least in his strong sense of rhythm, evidenced by the smooth assembly of the desperately fast and the heartbreakingly slow.

Mittwoch, 3. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: 野火 (Fires on the Plain)

Japanese cinema does extreme like no other. "野火 (Fires on the Plain)", which tells the story of a group of abandoned soldiers hiding from unspecified enemies and killing off each other for survival towards the end of World War II, basically offers the the filmmakers a license to exercise their most savage imagination, and director Shinya Tsukamoto gladly takes the challenge.

The film starts off mercifully, perhaps deceptively light, introducing us to the ailing central character and the fatally treacherous surroundings he finds himself in, with "only" the occasional shots of dead bodies or scenes of animal slaughter. Even during this comparatively mild part of the movie, however, an exceptional stylistic fury is to be noted. The camera moves fast, presses close, instantly creating a distressing sense of panic. The overexposed imagery, splashing a kaleidoscope of colors across the screen, is so intense it buzzes with heat and a religious fervor. Fueling this feverish spell is further the strange, perturbing original score that sounds like a nightmarish hymn. Sitting through the first half hour, you feel trapped in a lush, twisted Buddhist paradise, unsettling but somehow also calm. That's before the second act kicks in, and then the third, of course.

Nothing in the latter parts of the film can possibly be called calm. Aggravated by hunger and controlled by beastly instincts, humanity peels off and carnage adds up. Not shying away from any last bit of gory detail, the director treats us to close-ups of blasted, decomposing corpses, severed limbs, brain matter, intestines and in one particularly memorable shot, a whole cheek falling off a man's face. The climax of the movie is reached in a massacre scene where, within blood-and-mud-splattered frames, humans explode practically like popcorn. Add to that ample depiction of cannibalistic acts, and the whole last hour passes like one endless, hellish scream.

I don't think anything justifies portrayals of this kind of über-violence, even when they're supposed to embody an anti-war message. As a work of cinema, it's just much too sickening to be defended. That said, the photography and music of the film are both ace as described. The blistering, abnormally bright impression they leave behind is hard to wipe away. Tsukamoto also plays the lead and looks appropriately lost, horror-stricken, eaten by insanity. Placing somewhere between arthouse and B-horror, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Quentin Tarantino, this movie probably won't find a wide audience beyond its festival run and that's probably for the best.

Dienstag, 2. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi) / Loin des hommes (Far From Men)

"Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi)" is an earnest, stately, densely written biopic about famed 19th century Italian poet/philosopher Giacomo Leopardi. Often quoting verbatim the verses of its central character, the reverence with which writer/director Mario Martone treats the subject matter is palpable, and all those precious words bring with them a gentleness to the picture so universal it transcends the challenge of translation or reference. That said, the movie just might be a bit too literate to appeal to a broad audience. The constant, apparently unabridged recitations of Leopardi's work, though cinematically framed in the context of the various stations of his life, is steep and lessens the narrative fluency. Lead actor Elio Germano is appropriately dreamy, impassioned, tormented as the genius increasingly crippled by the demands of his own mind. The final scene, filled only with his musings in the night, with as many stars in the sky as in his eyes, is undeniably moving. The music, by turns swelling and sizzling, tries to add a contemporary touch to the story but, especially in the case of the several English language songs used, proves an ill fit for the classical beauty portrayed on screen.    

"Loin des hommes (Far From Men)" is the type of movie you can't say you don't like without sounding like an ignorant, unsympathetic cynic. But as a matter of fact this Algerian-set historical drama/adventure, in which a French teacher must escort an Algerian convict to the next destination, doesn't strike me as above average on most counts. Production value is unremarkable, although they definitely found some impressive locations to shoot in, letting all that sand and rocks afford the film a naturally rugged look. Viggo Mortensen is dependably good as someone caught between two identities but acting in not one, but two non-native languages (French and Arabic) does take away some degree of conviction from his performance. Reda Kateb is definitely adequate as the other half of the on-screen duo though his is not a breakout star turn on the level of, say Tahar Rahim in "Un prophète (A Prophet)". Writer/director David Oelhoffen opts for a sober style to tell the story of friendship born under conflict and the senselessness of hate. While the goal is certainly respectable, the results are rather unexciting.

Venice Film Festival: The Cut

German writer/director Fatih Akin's "The Cut" is a blow-by-blow account of a man's journey out of enslavement in search of his family against the background of the mass persecution of ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire during the first world war. Clocking in at 138 minutes and shot across several continents, it's an epic endeavor that wows with its scale and finesse but underwhelms for the complete linearity of its narrative.

An unspectacularly staged first act sees the central character taken away from home and made a militant worker. Neutrally descriptive, squarely procedural, the flair and nimbleness that one has come to expect from Akin's work is instantly missing. The stiffness of the direction improves over the course of the following two hours, but what's portrayed is still very much a straightforward pursuit, and despite its grueling time span, an altogether ironed-out one. There's no denying the admirable intentions of the filmmaker to recreate a past fraught with unjust and misfortune, but in many ways what he achieves through this approach resembles more closely an exposé or historical document than a cinematic piece.

Tech work on the film is remarkable all around though. Great production design gives the picture a texture, almost a fragrance from another time that's wonderfully transportive. The cinematography captures dutifully the often stunning vista of sprawling deserts or a bustling Havana. The personal highlight is the dazzling, hypnotic score composed by Alexander Hacke though. The electric guitar/bass-laced main theme trembles with violence and exudes an exotic menace that at first seem like an odd fit for the movie, but in fact bring out the angriness of a fateful, forgotten epoch. Lead actor Tahar Rahim is fine if not entirely captivating. There's a boyish purity in his eyes that compels without fail though.

Patiently told, beautifully designed and shot, this is an enjoyable multi-continental production that's too mild for its own good. In absence of the brutal force of "Gegen die Wand (Head-On)", the spellbinding poeticism of "Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven)" or the infectious energy of "Soul Kitchen", it might also be Akin's softest yet.

Montag, 1. September 2014

Venice Film Festival: Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy) / Hungry Hearts

Two twin boys who grow convinced that the woman returning from a facial plastic surgery is not their mother serves as the simple premise for Austrian writer/director duo Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala's horror tale "Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)". Plot-wise rather insubstantial, the movie is largely incident-based as it follows the daily life of the three in a secluded villa and witnesses how the mutual abuse between mother and children escalates to horrific heights. Lacking a  narrative to drive things logically forward, the ritual of watching one disturbing anecdote after another gets tiring fast. A last-minute twist, while not entirely original or elegant, does manage to compensate for this lacking somewhat by flipping the story on its head and rouses interesting questions. By far the defining achievement of this feature debut, however, is the striking visualization. Stark, high-contrast lighting adds pressure to the already creepy atmosphere from the sleek, oppressively pedantic production design. Depicting unbelievable cruelty of the hair-raising sort, the final act is not for the faint of heart but catnip for genre-fans.

"Hungry Hearts" is a shockingly bad marital drama-turned-thriller by Italian writer/director Saverio Costanzo. Starting with a measly idea bloated into a tediously written screenplay, only to then be loudly directed to end up this unconvincing, unengaging, unappealing embarrassment of a movie. Revolving around a young couple battling over the right way to feed their new-born child (not kidding), we're supposed to just accept the mother believes in a vegan diet for her baby, coupled with a no-sunshine policy. Why she mistrusts and denies the entire medical profession is also never explained, so her self-righteous tantrums and protestations all seem unfounded and laughable. Even the dependably charming Alba Rohrwacher can't save such a one-note, roundly unreasonable character. Tonally it's all over the place, almost comically schizophrenic, but not in a disciplined, premeditated way. The picture also looks oddly dated, the director's choice to repeatedly use fisheye lens and fade-out cuts further makes a punishing experience that much less tolerable.