Freitag, 17. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Whiplash

(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Oct. 17, 2014)

Calling American writer/director Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" the sadomasochistic version of "Dead Poets Society" is certainly an oversimplification. But they do both feature a talented, aspiring artist motivated, pushed by a driven, passionate mentor. Only in this case the story is set in the circle of competitive jazz bands and instead of being nurturing, the teacher-student relationship portrayed is all kinds of abusive.

Centered around the young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), who's desperately trying to make it in the jazz band of his conservatory, the screenplay isn't particularly subtle in its writing, especially when it comes to crafting dialogue outside the musical arena- a dinner scene that bluntly demonizes every un-jazz-savvy family member of the protagonist comes to mind. But it's based on refreshing, convention-defying ideas which it explores to their merciless end. For one, it takes a look at the unbelievable, sometimes debilitating work that goes into becoming somebody on the concert stage. Through a series of swift and publicly humiliating replacements within the band, we're soon reminded of how elusive the notion of glamour or the association of cultured elegance are in this context, and just how brutally real the necessity to constantly prove yourself is. An even more interesting aspect of the story is of course the dynamic between the newbie and the monstrous bandmaster Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Throwing all clichés about the inspirational educator out of the window, this weathered, volatile, incredibly mean musician shows no inkling of attachment to his underlings. He makes it very clear they're but the vessels for his vision and he has no time for a leaky vessel. Exercising every form of psychological torture on the band members without blinking an eye, this character is a fascinating creation who finally meets his match near the end of the film, when the disgraced disciple comes back with a vengeance and all bets are off.

Indeed, what makes this movie a brilliant character study is how readily unlikable it paints its protagonists. On the one side is the man put in charge of training, guiding a new generation of players but who embraces that task with such a militant attitude it borders on terrorization. And just when a tragic incident or an impassioned speech during an after-work drink lets you think there's a soft core inside this ruthless dictator after all, the script actually bends it backward again with yet more twists that reveal an even darker side to a personality utterly, beguilingly unknowable. In the other corner is the bright-eyed and bitterly tormented boy who starts out like your typical sympathy figure, only to surprise you later with the depths of his obsession and an almost twisted greed for success. Playing with such forceful, compellingly vile characters and leaving no room for common decency, the movie spins into a thrilling mind game in its all-out crazy finale which might not seem entirely plausible in its outcome but nevertheless electrifies with its energy and the sheer unpredictability of how things will go down.        

The terrific acting duo of Teller and Simmons infuses the lively antagonism between coach and pupil with practically combustible fuel. As the ambitious and furiously single-minded Andrew, Teller shows, if not enough nuance, such intense vigor and burning will you not only believe the sweat, blood, spit and tears flying off him and dripping all over the drum kit, you can almost feel them. And in those breathtakingly quiet moments before the first drumbeat drops on stage, the screen is as much stretched tight by the sonic anticipation as by the weight of his concentration. Simmons is frightening and mesmerizing as the conductor, general, God of the troupe. As natural as he is barking obscenities or welling up at a memory, he truly shines when he's only acting with his eyes, fingertips and the slightest flicks of his wrists. It's the lack of flamboyance and the Swiss-watch precision of his movements that sell someone who's seen and heard it all, who's too good at and too sure of what he does to waste any second on unworthy sounds. From idolized reverence to murderous hostility, the two of them share a dance through the emotions that's never less than riveting to watch.

The movie is not without its faults. As mentioned above, the screenwriting is rough at times and the ending has believability issues. And while it's a great touch for Chazelle to try to visually reconstruct jazz using free-flowing, very spontaneous shots and cuts, the editing can appear a little manic, unnecessarily erratic in places. But overall, this is something so violently alive it can't help but be exciting. Plus a soundtrack as cool and groovy as that, and one could even be forgiven for falling in love with this enthralling, fervent imperfection.

Mittwoch, 15. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep)

(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Oct. 15, 2014)

Turkish epic drama "Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep)", the winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, lives up to its title in more sense than one. It's a mostly chill, sedate affair that unfolds at its own pace, it's optically often accompanied by snow or a misty white. Most importantly, sitting through the film really does feel like spending and then waking up from hibernation, as drawn out and somewhat dream-like as the experience is. Whether or not this also means it's an inspiring, enjoyable or even worthwhile time spent at the cinema is another question.

A plot summary in this case would be difficult because making up the film's hipbone-flattening 196-minute running time are actually rounds and rounds of discussions between the characters about a variety of subjects. There are expository interludes showcasing the sprawling landscape of Anatolia or its wildlife, but they mainly serve as intermissions between the talks and are thus, as gorgeous as they often look, largely superfluous from a storytelling's point of view. But talk the people in this film certainly do. The male protagonist Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a well-to-do hotelier and landlord who used to be an actor and is now also a columnist/ aspiring author. What first prompted the series of reflections on his part is a rock-throwing incident initiated by the young son of one of his tenants Ismail (Nejat Isler), who's behind on rent and expropriated, humiliated accordingly. A visit to the child's home expecting reconciliation not only doesn't offer the rich man closure but further aggravates the emotionally unstable Ismail who's just recently been released from jail.

From there on it's basically one prolonged scene of debate after another. Aydin discusses with his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) about the right time for charity. Aydin's divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) proposes the theory that not defending oneself against vice is the way to correct wrong and make right. The two women argue about self-deception, forgiveness and shame. The two siblings fight about the virtues of thinking versus doing. It's not long before one gets the feeling this is a family that can just sit around the breakfast table and find the tiniest cause for a major philosophical discourse. Meanwhile the themes of their elaborations can't be easily embedded in an organic whole and the thought processes themselves often follow a loose, stream-of-consciousness logic, so they can come across as pretty arbitrary, ostentatious, even banal. At one point a character accuses another of watching too much soap opera, which sounds like an unintentionally accurate attack on the film's overly stretched and immoderately dramatized writing.        

Paradoxically enough, the one thing that most conceivably justifies the awarding of the Palme d'Or, a hypnotic pull of the film that lulls you into a meditative trance, stems most likely also from the ceaseless conversations. The constant outpour of words, as random as they might seem individually, and especially the implied stringent commitment to critical thinking on their writer's part, give the picture not just the obvious air of cultivation, but an internal grandeur, a serious-minded majesty. Aggregately this intense communication of ideas stimulates and appeases the human need to be understood much in the way of Richard Linklater's "Before..."-trilogy, although to those allergic to too much dialogue in movies, this would probably seem like Céline and Jesse on steroid duking it out on every existential issue there is, in short, an interminable torture.

The fineness of the filmmaking itself here is beyond doubt. Shot predominantly indoors, the camera placement is precise in its evocative choice of angles, its movement slight but graceful, The exteriors, whether of railway swept by blizzard, graveyard covered in fog or housing nestled within rocky topography, are not only beautiful to look at, but provide via their contrast to the dimly lit living quarters a vivid reminder of the tirelessly contended theme of good versus evil. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is an elegant storyteller with many things to say. His determination and patience to let it all out in one go might well prove too hardcore for the general movie-going public, but if one needs any proof that he could also shoot concise, emotionally poignant scenes without resorting to a dictionary's worth of vocabulary, one must look no further than a scene late in the film where Nihal pays a visit to Ismail's house to make an unexpected offer, where the most interesting exchange probably takes place through camera and body language.  

Acting-wise, everyone in the principal cast is solid, led by an assured but brilliantly weary Bilginer. Playing someone who has fought his whole life to get to where he is, he shows an ease in countenance and an unapologetic conviction in mentality that's very persuasive. Sözen and Akbag may not be as compelling, inherently limited by more confined character arcs, but they both bring repose and intellect to their roles that make their eloquence, if still affected at times, not all-out preposterous. Wit even less screen time but nonetheless impressive is Isler, whose pained glances, pregnant with indictment, are part of the reason why the aforementioned scene with prominently few lines works so well.

In all, "Winter Sleep" is a technically refined, well performed chamber piece featuring certifiably chatty characters who rub bubbles out of anything and everything. Its intentions are admirable, but with an unrealistically wide aim and a compulsively verbal approach, the desperation a viewer feels when he checks to find there are still hours on the clock is also very real. However elevated the language and tasteful the execution, you know there's a problem with a movie this high-minded when every time the clueless Japanese tourist turns up to make lighthearted, grammatically incorrect chitchat in between perfectly penned speeches, all you feel in the dark is grateful.  

Montag, 13. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Плем'я (The Tribe)

(Originally appeared in Film International on Oct. 13, 2014)

The Ukranian dramatic thriller "Плем'я (The Tribe)" marks the arrival of a major directorial talent in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who delivers a feature debut here that’s artistically challenging, topically provocative, stylistically assured, and an all-around daring, alluring, searing work of vision. Set in an educational institution for the deaf and mute, the entire movie is acted out in sign language without any translation, subtitles or voice-over. From the very start, the viewer is thrown head-first into a world devoid of speech and made to stay there for a 132 minute runtime that often feels like such a compressed vacuum that it literally takes your breath away. If the very first scenes, as curiously indistinct as they are observed from across the street or the edge of a ritualistic assembly, don’t yet make the one-of-a-kind quality of this film known, you soon find yourself in (apparently) the principal’s office with the new, introverted student Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), followed by an exchange completely impenetrable to anyone unversed in the art of signing.

There will be many more situations like this, in which one has no way of knowing what’s being said, ordered, questioned, debated, but the brilliance of the director lies exactly in the fact that he understands human communication, even when stripped of all conversational tools, can sneak through the most imperceptible channels and light a spark of recognition on the most subliminal level. Indeed, one quickly realizes no words are needed to convey such primal fears of exclusion, exploitation or abuse. And in the practiced efficiency with which tasks are carried out and hierarchy established on the school compound, one can readily spot a sinister enterprise long before the actual criminal acts begin. Of course, this implies a much more instinctual and less precise form of comprehension, which ultimately counts against the relatability of the script, but the emotional ripples it stirs up are just as real. An argument between two girls via a lot of furious gesticulating later in the film, for example, baffles in terms of its exact meaning but remains utterly compelling to watch for the sheer passion it captures.

Further enhancing the unique experience of following a story without always being informed of what’s happening are the strong visual and aural imprint of Slaboshpitsky’s hand. Scenes set in a crowded student cafeteria are silent except for the busy clutter of cutlery, as well as scenes depicting a group visit to an amusement park at night with only the creaking of the merry-go-around audible, are intensely sound-focused and disturb with an inherent strangeness. An extended sequence of a complete gynecological procedure shows all the motions gone through with rapt attention and inflicts an almost physical pain through those unblinking eyes. Combining both elements, a carefully choreographed public fight/mob scene staged against waves of eerily muted cheers engenders such peculiar artificiality and ceremoniousness that one suspects it would make Lars von Trier proud. These directorial tricks wouldn’t work without the support of an able technical team, and, especially in the case of the visual department, first-time cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych impresses with a tremendous sense of space. There is nothing amateurish or accidental about his camera, which expands and constricts its view with purpose and design, filling the images with geometrical cues and a tangible aliveness too glorious to go unnoticed.

As hinted above, the writing on the film (also by Slaboshpitsky) isn’t as watertight as the directing. On the one hand there’s the built-in problem of limited articulation, which prevents us from being totally sure of some finer points of the plot and thus identifying with the characters with more conviction. On the other, the plotting itself is a little repetitive at times, especially with the prostitution scheme enacted time and again. And if it’s not supposed to be an attack on the social reality in the Ukraine, the general lack of supervision within this facility also feels unaccounted for. Another smaller weakness is the performance by Fesenko in the lead role, which might be too unvaried to bring the viewer closer. These faults in screenwriting and acting contribute to an extremely violent ending that seems to be carried by too little context except simple-minded rage. Even so, the journey leading up to that blood-splattered point is an absolutely transfixing one and it gratifies to no end seeing such fearless creative risk-taking pay off with flying colors while witnessing an impossible idea realized with big, confident gestures.

Samstag, 11. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Fehér isten (White God)

(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Oct. 10, 2014)

A striking first frame or opening sequence, while not the solution to every problem, is definitely a big plus for any movie. After all, it's the image that most immediately leaves an impression, sets the tone, puts your imagination to work. And a hugely promising start the Hungarian dramatic thriller "Fehér isten (White God)" does have. Unfortunately it turns out to be one of those downhill slides that never manage to regain the initial height again.

Blunt, structurally complicated and contextually unusual, a static overhead shot of crisscrossing streets and highway on a crisp morning in Budapest- completely empty of traffic- drops like a brick with an almost illusionary optical starkness. The sense of unease only escalates as a lone bike-rider then pedals across the abandoned city, chased by probably the only thing even more worrisome than a pack of blood-thirsty zombies- a pack of angry-looking dogs. It's an arresting overture impressive for its classical composition and tonal urgency. When it's followed after the title card directly by a sequence of the young biker girl playing with her mutt in careless frolic from another time, the contrast is strong, the curiosity and expectation stoked great.

For a while, it seems that the high hopes would be proven valid, too. The movie remains forcefully present, making especially good use of intensely corporal, symbol-heavy imagery like the carcasses and innards of skinned livestock in a slaughterhouse that are promptly, somewhat vulgarly stamped "suitable for consumption". The smart iconography continues with the main character design: girl in hoodie, with bike in hands and trumpet in rucksack, roaming the neighborhood side by side with her loyal sidekick. It's an instantly catchy, almost fable-like figure that easily consolidates a surreal tale around itself. So far, so good.          

But then writer/director Kornél Mundruczó appears to run out of fresh ideas. The critical second act that should establish the story of how the frightening canine army came to be, begins with a hasty, simplistically constructed desertion that feels sorely inadequate. The subsequent parallel narrative is uneven at best, with the storyline following Hagen the dog consistently more interesting than the one about his anxious owner. The many angles that part of the story tackles, including the father-daughter relationship and a half-hearted attempt at adolescent romance, are generically conceived, failing to quicken the dramatic pulse which drops whenever the focus moves away from the dog. But even on the more adventurous front, the journey of a house pet to becoming a ruthless prizefighter is not particularly winning. The handful of escape sequences lack an adult edginess and come across as too harmless and Disney, an effect further strengthened by the fairly literal use of "villainous" or "adrenalin" music throughout.

The third act, which ideally would bring the story full circle and realize that scary promise from the beginning, also falls way short. While the massive stampede scenes are still unquestionably awesome, without sufficient secondary references to back it up, the horror element employed here significantly misses the mark, so that everything from the theatrical woman-dog stare-down at the shelter gate to the subsequent elimination of the butcher, the animal trader, even the dog-hating neighbor, gets rather unintentionally comical.

The most glowing asset of the film is doubtlessly its award-winning (Palme Dog 2014) canine cast, in particular the leader of the pack Hagen. Easily out-acting all all his human colleagues, he fascinates with exact and expressive movements, whether in petrification, alertness, rage or bewilderment. Through the variety of his reactions he also manages to save the unimaginatively choreographed and shot dog fight scenes from truly tanking. Ultimately the spectacles and some soulful animal performances aren't enough to salvage a film struggling with finding its own personality though. The vicious brutality depicted here and there can hardly be reconciled with the kiddie-friendly plot paternalistically rendered. And when the final weapon against the bestial invasion, which everyone in the audience has long guessed, is drawn and resolves the crisis as expected, the deliciously macabre undertone from that great opening quote "Everything terrible is something that needs our love" is irreversibly flipped. What you see then among the fluffy chaos on screen is, above all else, a wasted opportunity.

What We Do in the Shadows

New Zealander writer/director duo Jemaine Clement/Taika Waititi's vampire mocumentary "What We Do in the Shadows" is, as the unanimous blurb concert on its poster suggests, indeed hilarious. It represents the kind of grassroots, idea-centric comedy that proves winning not in spite of its logistical limitations but beause of them.

Shot through the lens of a documentary crew granted exclusive access to the life of four flat-sharing vampires in Wellington, things look makeshift and soberly unpolished from the first frame. When one of the tenants flies out from his coffin by way of some rudimentary wirework and starts introducing his flatmates with the bubbly excitement of someone not used to media attention, you might groan at the by now overused faux-realistic/found-footage style of filmmaking and ask how much longer the gimmick is going to last. In this case, however, the approach turns out to be in itself the source of comedy as it cleverly puts the myths of the bloodsucking immortals in the context of modern-day life and the hilarity from all the incongruence takes care of itself.

With the seriousness of a news team and the earnestness of people trying to be informative/entertaining on camera, the film takes us through the unexpected troubles and challenges the undead might face today. The scenarios are smartly conceived brimming with a dry, diabolic humor. The jokes keep coming but they feel organic, spontaneous, almost careless in their telling. The calculated air of strategically placed punchlines and gags commonly experienced by studio pictures is reduced to a minimum. Even though there are a couple of minor rough patches and the abrupt ending can use some bulking up, overall it's a very funny and creatively compelling piece of writing.

The production value is as hinted very modest, with all the effects shots looking somewhat dated and amateurish. But that plays into the whole mocking tone of the film well and stokes with endearing dorkiness even more goodwill. The cast, which includes the two directors, is funny in their matter-of-fact portrayal of vampires of different descents and temperaments. In all, this is a treat for those who like their movies cheekily macabre and don't mind geeky genre sensibility or drab lighting.

Freitag, 10. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Potsdam: Jamie Marks Is Dead

American writer/director Carter Smith's supernatural drama "Jamie Marks Is Dead" plays with interesting themes but the way they come together is so absurd one soon stops to care.

The title doesn't cheat- the meek, badly bullied high school student Jamie Marks is indeed dead from the get-go. He still plays a part in the story though, as his ghost starts to turn up at his classmates' houses. What's annoying about how the plot then unfolds is not that, despite some heavy hints offered later in the film, we never truly find out the why's and how's of Jamie's death. This could still be chalked up to deliberate character-building through mystique and intrigue. The fact that the movie never cares to explain the "laws" of the underworld as envisioned here, how it works and how beings from both sides interact, is very problematic though. It borrows freely from the genres of horror and children's fantasy without ever elaborating on the reasons or rules, so every new development seems disconnected, arbitrary. What makes matters worse is how poorly the motivations are established everywhere in the film. Why the sudden interest of the jock-y Adam in his dead classmate? Why does he decide he needs to get away with Jamie and subsequently pisses off that other ghost Frances? What is with all that "word-feeding" Jamie demands and what puts his troubled soul to rest in the end? Most ridiculous of all is probably the way the two supporting female characters- Adam's mom and the woman who paralyzes her in a car accident- are drawn. This whole subplot actually feels like a strangely irrelevant afterthought, but whenever these two show up, they never fail to sound and act so fake you half expect them to be exposed as just imaginary figures at any moment.

It's apparent the filmmaker wishes to address adolescent sexuality and other subjects such as forgiveness and redemption though all this paranormal activity, but his direction is often wishy-washy/inexpressive where subtlety and clarity are needed. The emptily busy script and only average acting (lead actor Cameron Monaghan is wooden and sometimes stiffer than the dead) don't help either. It's no coincidence that the one place where dramatic pretensions are dropped and we're allowed to just enjoy the spectacle of a mean spirit going berserk- where the much angrier ghost Frances shows her true colors after her place gets burned down- also happens to be the one scene in the whole film that at least stirs up some decent tension.

Donnerstag, 9. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Bande de filles (Girlhood)

French writer/director Céline Sciamma's teenage drama "Bande de filles (Girlhood)" chronicles one girl's journey of self-discovery with great energy and compassion. Propelled by a charismatic central performance, it's tenderly involving all the way through, even if the narrative slackens here and there.

An efficient set-up quickly fills us in on the plight of the underprivileged heroine Marieme. Stuck in the projects with too many extracurricular obligations, she doesn't have the grades to advance in school, can't see her prospects and has fury to burn. It's not long before a clique of girls pick up on that restlessness and take her under their wings. With a newfound sense of empowerment and an outlet for all her frustrations, Marieme thrives with this group of friends. But dealings with that side of the law ultimately lead her down a path that, for all the fun and liberation it brings, is not necessarily her own.

The director shows a superb grasp of female camaraderie as well as the groove of the youthful and proudly African. While she describes the racial tension and the familial problems surrounding the gang well enough, the best scenes of the movie are inevitably those that are strictly, simply celebratory.To watch these tough young women dress up in stolen clothes just for the sake of the others and party in a hotel room all by themselves, the momentary bliss that seems to block out all the failed efforts and crushed dreams of the world outside really rubs off on you. The possibly indulgent but nonetheless infectiously happy Rihanna sing-along showcases the heavenly rhythm and vibe that only black people seem to possess.

Lead actress Karidja Touré delivers a star turn as the willful, persistent girl looking for a way out. Although the open-ended way the film concludes feels lazier than inspired and leaves too much in the air blatantly unanswered, it's a fully realized performance that stands on its own and prompts you to fill in the blanks.

Filmfest Hamburg: 勝利 (Uncle Victory)

Chinese writer/director 張猛 (Meng Zhang)'s kindergarten-set gangster dramedy "勝利 (Uncle Victory)" is a positively squirm-worthy clunker where the gags fall short and the tearjerks turn sour, where efforts are put in all the wrong places and just about nothing works.

Following a brief, cheesily CG'ed opening sequence we meet the title character, a heavily tattooed ex-thug recently released from jail after a ten-year stint. His broad, exaggerated body language, heavily featured in the first scenes of the movie, suggests a lowbrow laugher in the style of Hong Kong comedic genius 周星馳 (Stephen Chow). Not long afterwards, however, the camera cuts to a gigantic construction site where an entire gorge seems to have been gutted open, and sentimental music starts to play as the ghastly sight is lamented by some other thuggy-looking people and hints of an unsettled score are dopped. Thanks to some rough editing, the movie already seems narratively confusing and tonally schizophrenic by then. Some additional, not especially plausible turns of events then motivate the protagonist to run his own preschool. Together with a dancer from a nearby club, these two unlikely educators start to recruit and take care of kids and theoretically, hilarity ensues. Theoretically.

Hilarity doesn't ensue for several reasons. Besides resorting to the obvious slapstick, the screenplay can't come up with jokes with a longer fuse or a deeper reach. The acting is subpar. Lead actor 黃海波 (Haibo Huang)'s willingness to engage in embarrassing acts of simplistic construct is respectable, but funny he's not. Lead actress 張歆藝 (Xinyi Zhang) performs on an even more superficial level and comes across terribly affected. This movie is also a case where defaults in the technical department undermines the storytelling. Except for a few isolated shots where one sees consciously composed imagery, the cinematography is drably pedestrian, dampened further by some gaudy art direction. The dialogue dubbing is conspicuously poor, diminishing the immediacy of the punchlines still more.

The biggest problem probably lies in the direction, though. Doggedly juxtaposing the kiddie humor and a deadly serious revenge plot without finesse leaves the film limping between comedy and drama, mainstream and hardcore. The supposedly crowdpleasing finale with the school performance and the blood-stained mascot backfires in so many ways it's sad to watch.

Filmfest Hamburg: Tu dors Nicole (You're Sleeping Nicole)

Canadian writer/director Stéphane Lafleur's female slacker movie "Tu dors Nicole (You're Sleeping Nicole)" has cute, witty dialogue sprinkled throughout and recurrent flashes of visual/aural flourish, but as a feature film there's just not enough material or structure to make it feel present, memorable, consequential.

Set in suburban Canada, the young protagonist has the house to herself and a long summer ahead with the parents away on vacation and her first credit card in hand. The brother soon moves in with his rock band, whose new drummer seems to have the right stuff for a romantic fling. The best friend talks her into booking a spontaneous trip to Iceland, only to back off from the plan herself. And then there's the ex-boyfriend with his new wife cruising around and the skinny kid from the neighborhood with a newly dropped, ingeniously dubbed voice making age-inappropriate advances... While plenty of events seem to take place, they're not driven by a central narrative and appear altogether peripheral, decorative. Besides acquainting the audience with these characters, the story barely progresses after the entire first hour.

Here and there we're treated to deceptively goofy passages that strike a chord with their take on the folly of life. And the black-and-white photography, while not always looking crisp or high-contrast enough, does give us some yummy, warmly atmospheric shots, often accompanied by psychedelic, indie-spirited music. One can also hardly fault lead actress Julianne Côté, who not only makes a strong physical impression with her boyishly square chin and high forehead, but is also quite winsome with her open looks of impatience, suspicion, relief. But overall, the movie is way too lax to make any substantial impact. Above all else it serves as an additional reminder of just how miraculous an achievement the similarly themed and styled German stunner "Oh Boy" was.

Mittwoch, 8. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Club Sándwich

Mexican writer/director Fernando Eimbcke's mother-son relationship dramedy "Club Sándwich" feels like a short film not only because it barely squeezes past the 80-minute mark, but also because of the singularity of its focus and the intimacy of its setting. The logistical limitations notwithstanding, it's hard not to be charmed by something which stokes such genuine emotions with empathy, humor and sweetness to spare.

Smartly choosing a holiday resort in off-season as location, there's a strong sense of place to the movie. Whether tanning by the pool or having room service in their beds, you're keenly aware of the isolation of these two vacationers, stranded in a paradise of brilliant boredom with only the company of the other. And while the mom is having the time of her life spending day and night with her favorite guy, you get the idea the milky, chubby son just hitting puberty is getting restless underneath his still babyishly perfect skin. Everything changes, of course, when the girl enters the picture.

Like a coming-of-age story told from dual perspectives, this film is as much about the boy's discovery of sexuality and independence as about his mother's devastating realization that they'll soon be two instead of one. Written with an observant eye and great sympathy at heart, the screenplay is peppered with authentic, adorable details first establishing the well-oiled, self-sustaining partnership of this single-parent-only-child duo, then cracking that exclusive bond ever wider open with the arrival of the pretty young thing. A game of punishment late in the film where the older woman tries with infantile desperation to yank the attention of her son away from this other, suddenly infinitely more interesting person is so endearingly pathetic you can hardly bear to watch.

Lucio Giménez Cacho plays the teenager on the cusp of adulthood with appropriate impassivity. It's the occasional little gestures of curiosity or rapture that betray the hormones at work behind that mask of cool nonchalance. María Renée Prudencio is very affecting as the jealous-turned-despairing mother unprepared to watch her most prized possession drift away. A scene near the end where she goes to buy chips by herself will probably break the heart of every mom in the world.

Altogether the movie still gives the impression of being slight and unfinished, but as a yearnful, melancholic mood piece it is really quite lovely.

Dienstag, 7. Oktober 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Ξενία (Xenia)

Greek writer/director Panos H. Koutras' tragicomic road movie "Ξενία (Xenia)" is disorganized in conception and even clunkier in execution. Throwing one too many themes into the mix without a consolidated plot where everything has its place turns it into a hodgepodge of sorts lacking any real bite.

The journey of the two teenage boys to find their biological father in Athens is eventful all right, but whether the participation of one brother in a talent contest, the mobbing and gun-shooting incident, or the interlude with the hospitable uncle who may or may not be more than just a good friend of their mother, the numerous intervals are not embedded in a meaningful story arc nor presented with enough subtlety to be dramatically effective. The odyssey is further paved with plenty of camp elements, from a dreamy, moonlit cruise liner carrying a diva singing her heart out to several impromptu karaoke numbers or dance routines, but none of them has the sophistication or really goes over the top to milk noteworthy guilty pleasure. There are a few aesthetic highlights in the film, where fantastical creature or atmosphere are featured to take the focus temporarily out of the ugly reality, but overall this is not a particularly good-looking picture. Acting-wise, Kostas Nikouli plays a convincing part flaunting the tight pants and the lollipops, but this character is written with too little coherence to be much more than a colorful caricature.

On the one hand being unapologetically shrill and blunt, on the other attempting a nuanced attack on the geopolitical, sexual and identity politics of modern-day Greece, the movie most likely has its heart in the right place, but what ends up on screen is so middling in every way it fails even being a hot mess.

Samstag, 4. Oktober 2014

Gone Girl

David Fincher's "Gone Girl" starts off rather rockily but recovers in a significantly better second half to deliver a more than worthy adaptation of Gillian Flynn's manipulative, coarsely satisfying bestseller. By no means among Fincher's finest work, it's nevertheless a fast-paced, sleekly-executed marital thriller that earns extra points for daring to go to some pretty ugly places.

Staying perhaps detrimentally faithful to the book, the movie is immediately hampered by having to cover too much ground using a more print-friendly parallel narrative structure. The result is something very talky, densely edited and constantly jumping back and forth in time/perspective. While it never gets confusing or less than intriguing as the stage is set for a suspicious missing person's case, there's no room left for the scenes to breathe and brew, so a thicker atmosphere of mystery that memorably shrouded such gems as "Se7en" or "Zodiac" never comes to be. In fact, some rapid-fire exchanges here are so sped up they leave the realm of believability and seem like a parody of themselves. The efficient but unexciting practicality of the approach further extends to the sunny, sober photography unusual for a Fincher film. Coupled with the bland beauty of the two leads Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, kept rightfully impenetrable but still very much insipid, and you've got a first half that feels stuffed, even less convincing than its imperfect source material.

If the set-up isn't quite the knock-out, the pay-off, essentially the entire last 75 minutes of the film, aces it. In swift, smoothly practiced motions the evil scheme is revealed right away. But instead of losing steam from the extraction of suspense, you get the sense the movie only now comes alive with the air suddenly spiked with diabolism. The pressing tempo also starts to make sense as the stakes become clear and every passing second a lost opportunity to turn the mind game around. Both Pike and Affleck benefit from acting off other players and the strong suporting cast finally gets something to do here. Neil Patrick Harris plays successfully against type and stands out as the creepily affectionate ex-lover. Sela Ward has but one scene but shows how effective she can be portraying the robotically, viciously pretty. Even Tyler Perry turns out to be a decent casting choice, tuning down his hysterical on-screen persona to bring a mild voice of reason to the mess.

The editing and scoring of the film both come from frequent Fincher collaborators but, as solid as they are, seem comparatively uninspired. Even without feeling as rhythmically immaculate or sounding as fiercely magnetic as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or "The Social Network", though, this movie flies by in a heartbeat. And especially in that ending, where the characters each harbor their own calculations and are mutually protected/trapped by the lies and false intentions of the other, it improves tremendously on the book's affectedness through vivid visualization.

Freitag, 3. Oktober 2014

Dracula Untold

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 3, 2014)

Irish director Gary Shore's feature debut "Dracula Untold", about how Transylvanian prince Vlad became the most famour vampire in history, is a serviceable Medieval war movie on its own terms but, in its misguided efforts to nobilize such an iconic figure of evil, also a hopelessly self-defeating cause.

The screenplay follows a very conventional trajectory, seeing the protagonist first confronted with the dilemma of keeping peace or offering his people up as soldiers, then tempted by the dark powers of the undead, and finally swiping out his enemies in full force, but not without making some sacrifices of his own. It's a straightforward stroll with a couple of icky if still passable turns that might be better enjoyed at half cerebral capacity. The biggest selling point of the movie is its often fetching visual design. Beginning with a nifty opening sequence where the camera dashes between warriors frozen in action, the production shows scale and aesthetic appeal. While the look of the movie is definitely not as bleakly gothic as one would hope given the subject matter, it also smartly avoids the garishness characteristic of many mainstream studio pictures in this genre, even if a lot of the exterior or aerial shots still seem overly CG'ed.

The biggest problem of the movie lies in this inexplicable need to sanitize a known and widely adored villain, which could also be observed in Disney's "Maleficent" released earlier this year. The enduring popularity of these characters is largely attributable to their being ruthless and scary. Making them a jilted lover or a doting father only compromises that seductive charm. When Dracula the brave leader and pained family man finally takes that bite near the end and all heroic music breaks loose, Bram Stoker might well be turning in his grave.

Lead actor Luke Evans channels a more mature and likewise expressively challenged Orlando Bloom, looking deadly serious throughout. Sarah Gadon is solid, even if her natural creepiness is wastefully concealed. Veteran actor Charles Dance has it worst appearing as the ancient being from the caves, not only poorly made up and hardly menacing but having to deliver the senseless, embarrassingly derivative film-ending line.