Samstag, 29. November 2014

Еще один год (Another Year)

Relationship dramas are hard to get right. You're not supposed to overplot them and lose a natural believability but you should somehow chart the up's and down's of the fluttering hearts; sentimentalizations are to be avoided but then every emotional wrinkle along the road must be felt. Russian director Oksana Bychkova's "Еще один год (Another Year)" doesn't quite make the test and gets stuck somewhere between its attempts to be casually authentic and genuinely affecting.

Following the lives of a young couple over the course of one year, the movie is formally linear and unorthodox only in the several temporal leaps it makes. While progressing at a deliverate pace on a day-to-day basis in the beginning, the story jumps ahead by months near the end. It's a conspicuous decision that draws scrutiny upon itself but the payoff is not immediately clear. Even if the purpose is as literal as to show a distorted sense of time between different phases of a relationship, it's not entirely working because the last part is too compressed to register as much more than a hastened wrap-up. The writing is uneven. There are a couple of exchanges that capture the teasing, intimate, adorably dopey tone of voice used by two people who know each other too well. But a far larger number of scenes are plagued with an inexpressive redundancy which doesn't allow us to get inside the heads of the two capricious, easily jealous characters.

Both lead actors are fine if underserved by their roles. A critical scene of argument is performed with enough childish outrage and cruel dispassion to remind you what a sad thing it is to behold the demise of love. Technically the film's unremarkable. The hand-held camera feels particularly nauseating without the aid of meticulous lighting and the sound sometimes comes off muffled. While the pedestrian look and the loose narrative are apparently both aimed at creating a realistic setting for close-range, incisive observation, they end up rendering the film anemic and disorganized.

Dienstag, 25. November 2014

No Good Deed

At one point during British director Sam Miller's Atlanta-set home-invasion thriller "No Good Deed", the protagonist taunts his victim: "With all your brains [...] you'd have figured out the game by now." But that's exactly the problem. Up until the movie's last minutes, we actually don't know what game is being played. And for essentially one extended duel fought at close quarters, not clarifying the motivations of its aggressor and the stakes of the situation all but takes the life out of the whole conflict, leaving something behind that's senselessly violent and mildly ludicrous.

The story begins as a convict escapes police custody, settles a score with his unfaithful lover, then lands, by all appearances, on the doorsteps of a random house. It's not clear what he wishes to achieve and why he's terrorizing the poor woman living there. The female lead- a former prosecutor specializing in crime against women, no less- further comes off as exceptionally unintelligent, not just being unobservant and grossly careless, but, like all other supporting characters, somehow intent on antagonizing an obviously dangerous man. Such is the frustration from watching a tepid cat-and-mouse play with two dull/dim participants.

Idris Elba certainly has no problem holding the camera's gaze, but something about his portrayal of an emotionally unstable sociopath just feels forced. If a successful villainous role can turn the audience both repulsed and sympathetic, this poorly sketched and inconsistently acted mass murderer who gets stabbed and hit in the head so many times during the course of the film it starts to get comical, confuses above all else.

Cheesily thunderous but never truly over-the-top, this failed B-movie doesn't even give you the satisfaction of some legitimate guilty pleasure. Its one good deed might be the fact that it manages to bring things to a close within 84 short, relatively painless minutes.

Donnerstag, 20. November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1

Leaving the arenas behind and snapping straight into revolution mode, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1" is easily the most interesting entry in the franchise to date. The conceit of televised teenage killings, while successfully played out in the first two movies to entertaining, provocative effect, provides ultimately more shock value than a viable premise outside the realm of gruesome fantasism. The themes of oppression, rebellion, heroism and media manipulation come into much clearer focus when grounded in the gritty reality of bunkers and strategy rooms. Insofar as bomber jets getting shot down by a young girl with a penchant for archery can be called adult, this movie strikes an unexpectedly ageless chord with its subversive message and angry tone.

The cast is strong, led by the ever watchable Jennifer Lawrence, who's still very compelling in her third outing as Katniss Everdeen. Letting despair, suspicion, indignation, the realization of duty and the burden of responsibility flow unfiltered through her open face, she's more persuasive and charismatic as the Messiah figure than Daniel "The Boy Who Lived" Radcliffe ever was. Though not given much to do, the supporting actors bring it whenever they're on screen. The sizzling chemistry between Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, each inhabiting a forceful character with ease, is simply delicious. Director Francis Lawrence tells a good story, even if his hand isn't always steady. Editing is rough, especially in the beginning, where less than ideally-timed cuts mean palpable hiccups for a start that could have run more smoothly. Visually, the CGI shots are still not quite perfected, but some traditional action sequences, like a nighttime rescue mission later in the film, impress for their design and tension.

Split in two like other blockbuster finales in recent years, the first half of Mockingjay doesn't feel thin or padded thanks to a refreshing change of scene and thoughtful discourse on the psychology of post-modern warfare. And while its target audience is still unmistakably marked, people a lot older would be surprised by how much they can relate this time around.

Montag, 17. November 2014

10.000 Km

(Originally appeared in Film International on Nov. 16, 2014)

Spanish writer/director Carlos Marques-Marcet's "10.000 Km" is the kind of movie that's powered by so much honesty and insight that, despite the built-in developmental restrictions from its limited thematic focus, casts a universal spell and hits you on the most visceral level.

Photographer Alex (Natalia Tena) wins an unexpected grant for a one-year residency in Los Angeles and moves out from the apartment in Barcelona she shares with long-time boyfriend Sergi (David Verdaguer). It's a joint, if not altogether voluntary decision for a couple already making children plans. But then again, 10,000 kilometers don't mean what they used to back in the pre-internet era, or so the knee-jerk reasoning goes. We thus find the two protagonists stranded in prolonged separation, trying to keep their romance, now stretched across two continents, alive.

The premise is simple, quotidian in that it depicts something which happens every hour of every day in an age of globalized professional and private networks. The strength of the script, however, lies exactly in the fact that, with an eye for detail and a voice of absolute authenticity, it allows you to see the fundamental, timeless humanness at the core of this most sympathizable of dilemmas. The sense of recognition and empathy inspired by the sight of the tentative, slightly ashamed search through a partner's new Facebook contacts or those unbearable seconds pregnant with meaning and suspicion before an instant message gets replied, injects an immediacy into the struggles portrayed on screen that makes you picture, with a feeling of transcendent connection, tiny heartbreaks just like this taking place out there in the real world, in real time. And while the last two-thirds of the movie can't entirely escape the formal repetitiveness and material looseness of an episodic narrative structure, the scenarios themselves are conceived with a consistent lack of affectation they are never less than beguiling to watch.

The terrific writing is further elevated by the wonderful performances from the two leads. Tena dazzles with the complete physical ease she brings to her embodiment of the vivacious, driven, passionately feminine Alex. Moving with unself-conscious agility while emoting freely, she sells someone perfectly comfortable in her own skin who suddenly finds herself torn between cool-headed career considerations and hot-blooded needs for companionship. During several extended, wordless close-ups of her face throughout the film, including a particularly memorable one at the end of an unsatisfactory cyber sex experiment, she nails the gradual but unmistakable transition of her character's inner state, letting the ebb of delirious excitement or the growing discomfort at a dawning reality beautifully play out across her expressive features. Even more impressive is probably Verdaguer as the doting, tortured, hopelessly insecure Sergi. With adoration, desire and proprietorship always cooking just beneath a bravely nonchalant surface, he gives the idea of the modern male- tolerant, supportive, domestic- all its unspoken fragility back and charms the burning heartbeat of the film to life. His delivery of a question near the end of the movie, with a caught voice, tear-streaked cheeks and a look so painfully, defiantly enamored, is likely to be as devastating as anything we'll have seen all year.

Technically, the movie liberally uses webcams, Google Street Views and other means of communication to circumvent its budgetary limitations while remaining visually convincing and relatable. There's nothing modest, however, about the 20-min plus, uncut opening sequence, which not only proves the merits of the aforementioned writing and acting but also showcases the technical prowess behind the camera. Beginning with an impassioned, realistically scripted and orchestrated sex scene that leads to a lengthy post-coital talk and the subsequent discovery of the surprise E-mail, followed by an argument and its settlement at the breakfast table, it's an unbroken take that's a small epic in and of itself. Both actors display great range within this continuous shot, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster ride of ecstasy, shock, rage and reconciliation without ever breaking stride. The camera is confident in its pace and fluidity, rounding corners and following the atmospheric changes in the room with expert command. Elsewhere, the spatial and optical parameters of the scene are all imperceptibly but precisely negotiated to give it a richness that compensates the edit-free challenge. Considering the discipline and directorial instincts required of realizing such a feat, any doubts of the promise Marques-Marcet shows as a filmmaker should be silenced even before the title card formally drops.

Comparisons of this film to the similarly-themed Sundance winner "Like Crazy" (2011) are inevitable, but the more appropriate reference might be "Weekend" (2011) or "Her" (2013). Although both dealing with long-distance relationships, "10.000 Km" is characterized by an acutely adult sensibility absent in the Anton Yelchin/Felicity Jones-starrer. Instead, bracketed between two sex scenes that contrast distinctly in tone, sentiment and context, it reminds more closely of the evolutive nature of love described in Andrew Haigh's melancholic indie gem. And in its examination of vicarious intimacy facilitated by technology, it calls to mind aspects of Spike Jonze's futuristic tale. Ultimately, what makes all three of these comparable, if vastly different pictures work, is their understanding of the insurmountable, primal longing for closeness of our race. And with words and direction that overflow with genuine tenderness, an impeccably cast on-screen couple shooting sparks of chemistry left and right, as well as scenes of wrenching intensity or penetrating revelation, "10.000 Km" has earned its place as a worthy addition to this line of vital modern romances.

Sonntag, 16. November 2014

Before I Go to Sleep

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 13, 2014)

The second adaptation of a bestselling crime novel about a dysfunctional marriage to hit the big screen this fall – after David Fincher's "Gone Girl" – is the similarly pulpy but far less effective "Before I Go to Sleep" by Rowan Joffe. Based on S.J. Watson's book of the same name, it's a loyal translation that reminds one of all the weaknesses of the original and adds little flavour through the cinematic treatment.

A woman who has lost her ability to store memory beyond one day wakes up every morning to find a strange man sleeping next to her. It's an enticing enough hook but as in the book, the inherent absurdity and inadequacy of this single-line premise becomes obvious very quickly. On a narrative level, the apparent impossibility of building trust and forming intimacy under these circumstances renders the central relationship such a pointless pursuit it seems blatantly suspicious even without any of the half-hearted encouragement. And just on a technical level, the only vaguely foreboding but immensely repetitive process of witnessing a lead character start from scratch over and over again is tiresome to say the least.

The third act of the movie, beginning with a loud and unexpected slap, sends a much-needed jolt to a hitherto sluggish rhythm. But the big reveal, while momentarily spine-tingling, especially in its implication of the sick psychology of enslavement at work here, also feels deeply contrived and suggests everything that has come before is designed solely for the purpose of that bang of an ending. Elsewhere, the principal cast boasting multiple Academy Award winners delivers absolutely nothing remarkable and the scoring of the film, which crams every banal moment with ceaseless orchestral manipulation, is patently, noteworthily misguided.

Donnerstag, 13. November 2014


Mauritanian writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" is a graceful, visually enchanting film about the plight in certain parts of Africa taken over by militant Islamists. Probably too mild in language and style for its message of protest, it paints nevertheless a quietly affecting, wonderfully transportive portrait of a land in struggle.

The script is anecdotal in nature, pieced together by snippets of the Jihadists' invasion of the local life and culture. Various customary practices are forbidden, dress codes are forced on women and ideological brainwash on young men. Individually these incidents are often hair-raising to watch, but due to a lack of momentous push from a more closely-woven context, aggregately they don't pack as huge a punch. The characters are likewise drawn with an authentic, naturalistic hand but not enough substance to really make you relate. The emotional profession of love for his family by an imprisoned man near the end and his subsequent execution which takes a tragic extra toll underline this insufficiency in character-building, as a more deeply-felt connection to the misfortune portrayed is denied.

The direction is patient, lyrical, unaffected, placing the viewer squarely in the grandeur of an ancient, vibrant continent. Hauntingly beautiful images like those of a single lit tent in the dark expanse of the desert under the palest moon or an accidental offender cutting the surface of a placid, golden pond open as he leaves the crime scene behind, compel with their scale and majestic air. Meanwhile, a game of fantasy football is not only visually arresting but immediately brings home the ludicrousness of cultural suppression. The use of music in this film is consistently inspired. The tender, evocative score carrying just a note of ethnic flavor and lots of earthly melancholy, is a winning companion to the delicate photography. A scene of friends secretly singing and jamming at home showcases the human voice at its purest, effortlessly communicating the simple joy of harmonious sound.

As a political statement, "Timbuktu" errs on the modest side, but as a humanistic reminder of endangered traditions and liberties in an under-scrutinized corner of the world, it's composed with great poetry and deserves admiration.

Dienstag, 11. November 2014

Short takes

Brazilian director Paulo Morelli's "Entre nós (Sheep's Clothing)" is a relationship drama in thriller packaging which fails to be either dramatic or thrilling. Centered around a group of friends who meet again to dig up the time capsule they buried ten years ago- just before one of them died in a car accident- the plot is messy, fatally unfocused. Not content with just exploring the moral dilemma of someone living off the theft of a dead buddy, it tries to spice things up with sexual tension between every other combination among the protagonists. The result is something utterly, at times laughably implausible. Not helping matters is the overzealous film score with its obvious, exaggerated emotional cues, which reaches a low in one absurd scene of desperate intercourse on a swing set. The amber-ish translucent cinematography delivers some lovely, advert-ready imagery of the leafy valley in São Chico but it's not nearly enough to save the narrative mediocrity crushed by its own blind pursuits.      

Neither Victorian classical nor fashionably contemporized, "Mr. Turner" is a peculiar film to consider. Chronicling the life of famed 18th century marine painter J.M.W. Turner, it follows no conventional biopic trajectory and depicts the various dealings of its protagonist in a fairly loose structure. But while there are dry patches during the rather lavish 150-min running time, for the most part it remains an absorbing, inexplicably magnetic experience. Once again, British maestro Mike Leigh puts his uncommon gift of capturing the humor and profundity of the everyday to use. How he coaxes a thoroughly foreign, ancient type of quirk out of interactions from a bygone era is remarkable. The cast is also superb, not just Timothy Spall as the cruel, passionate Turner, but also Dorothy Atkinson as his meek housekeeper, Marion Bailey as his loving final companion along with other memorable guest appearances. The golden cinematography is often beautiful but the curious score rising like a constant question mark is perhaps even more impressive.

British director Matthew Warchus' "Pride" is traditional storytelling of the tidiest kind: identifiable hardships, uncomfortable confrontations and painful setbacks lead ultimately, unerringly to a triumphant, heart-warming finale. To cover the many aspects of the unlikely alliance in mid-80's England between Welsh miners and the London gay community, the well-meaning script can feel quite abbreviated and formulaic, with reconciliations too easily facilitated and changes of mind not convincingly mapped. That said, the message of solidarity is nothing if not inspiring and the direction is familiar but undeniably sturdy. Together they bring about this highly infectious burst of joyous, righteous convictions which culminates in an expectedly but nonetheless powerfully moving ending. Technical details are fine with some notable retro costume design. The whole cast is delightful, especially the mighty Imelda Staunton, who, as a tiny but unstoppable ball of energy, gives common decency a necessary, unapologetically loud voice.

The Rio-set kidnapping thriller "O Lobo atrás da Porta (A Wolf at the Door)" is all kinds of exciting until that stupendously crude ending. While the disappearance of a child seems to be cleared up just 5 minutes into the film, it's all but the beginning of a twisted tale of infidelity, lies, jealousy and abuse. Brazilian writer/director Fernando Coimbra shows tremendous promise as a stylish, engrossing storyteller. By way of contradictory narratives offered from different perspectives, he gives what's portrayed on screen a jagged, unsettling edge of unreliability. And despite the less-than-crystalline picture quality, the handheld camera is always positioned at bold, suggestive angles or in oppressively close proximity to the action to keep a smothering grip on the viewer's imagination. Lead actress Leandra Leal plays flirty, petrified and brutalized to great effect, making it doubly frustrating that the film should wrap on such an emptily violent note, spoiling expectations of an appropriately surprising release from all the suspense.

Donnerstag, 6. November 2014


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 6, 2014)

The best thing about British director Christopher Nolan's space travel drama "Interstellar" is the fact that, in an age of market-oriented, risk-managed blockbusters, it actually dares to invest so much in something so relentlessly cerebral. Its readiness to engage in highly conceptual hypotheses and commitment to pushing cinematic exploration beyond the bounds of empirical knowledge make it a hardcore science-fiction film the likes of which we seldom see anymore.

As titillating as its furious imaginative reach may be, the movie proves only intermittently compelling in execution. The script's slight penchant for the fatalistic and possible overindulgence in spirituality sabotage the authority of its scientific voice. One may argue it's this emotional aspect of the story that gives the cold, perilous journey a beating heart, but "Love is the one thing that transcends time and space" does sound just as icky in context as in the trailer. That said, there are a handful of scenes which depict time as the essential factor of the human experience, where a father watches in pained silence the lives of his children he's missed out on or an old man confesses with his dying breath a secret he's kept for two generations, that are undeniably moving.

Technically, the film isn't as compact or breathtakingly seamless as last year's "Gravity". The first two hours, especially, see an often less than brilliant (non-digital) cinematography too focused on close-ups to give a sense of movement and dimension, exacerbated by some relatively lax editing. The last third improves significantly, with parallel narratives racing forward into the unknown, accompanied by Hans Zimmer's urgent, celestial, metallically orchestral score. Art direction and visual effects are not consistently spectacular but shine with particular intensity in certain awe-inspiring intergalactic flight sequences.

For better or worse, Nolan has always been an intellectual filmmaker. With this latest, his grandest effort to date, he boldly considers the unanswerable and pictures the hereafter. While the result is not as profound as one'd hope, this is the kind of substantial, serious-minded studio production the world of popular entertainment needs more of.

Sonntag, 2. November 2014

Filmfest Hamburg: Turist (Force Majeure)

(Originally appeared in Film International on Nov. 2, 2014)

Swedish comedic drama "Turist (Force Majeure)" is a sneaky, unsparing, surgically accurate stab to a very particular part of the human sensibility, which makes it at once hilarious and deeply unsettling to watch. Written, directed and performed with remarkable intelligence and empathy, it tickles, provokes, cooks up delicious tension throughout, even if all that steam can't seem to find the perfect outlet in the end for an appropriately volcanic burst.

Unfolding like a travel diary, the story follows a bourgeois family of four on a skiing vacation. It's a healthy, loving, reasonably well-to-do bunch enjoying themselves at a posh French locale where work is prohibited and misery a remote notion. But then an accident involving an avalanche happens. Leaving no physical damage behind, the true aftermath of this apparently harmless interlude isn’t revealed until the dinner afterwards, as mother/wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) recounts, to the horror of father/husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the event from her perspective in front of two guests. The night ends in great awkwardness without the couple’s facing up to the crux of the problem. On the one end efforts are still being made to downplay, brush over, cover up; on the other a resignation and possibly pacifist need lead to reluctant compliance. The trauma of the experience is such, however, that it doesn’t allow to be forgotten, and the very fact that a truce of sorts has been made only adds fuel to the frustration, resentment and a host of unnamed toxic feelings bubbling beneath the surface. At a second dinner with two other guests, the dam is finally flooded and we’re left with one of the most spectacularly uncomfortable movie scenes in recent memory.

The genius of the writing is attributable to its absolute humanity and honesty. It looks all the flaws, frailties and embarrassing traits of our race straight in the eyes and mocks them without mercy. Because it’s so deeply grounded in reality, you can identify or sympathize with the protagonists’ bad decisions every step of the way. And because it’s so relentlessly candid, even when you can tell chances for reconciliation are too far gone and catastrophe is now inevitable, you can’t help but giggle along. What’s also clever about the script is its use of one relatively unassuming incident as catalyst to set off a whole chain of unforeseeable reactions. Like an Ian McEwan novel, it capitalizes on the power of extraordinary circumstances to shake us out of the protective shell of morals or self-discipline, and follows with sharp insight how fundamentally decent people can end up hurting one another so much when acting on largely blameless instincts. As the movie progresses, you can literally feel the invisible footing on which a relationship and family stands loosen like cracks spreading through ice- a tingling, anticipatory, gloriously ominous feeling.

Also contributing to the simultaneous appeal of the film as comedy and drama are the sharp direction and fine acting. Helmer Ruben Östlund, who’s responsible for the screenplay as well, shows an innate understanding of what makes us tick, what gives a moment weight, what changes the temperature in a room. Reminiscent of the earlier work of Ang Lee, his depiction of the family dynamic, complete with its secret language, subtle rules, unspoken understandings, is authentically unagitated but charged with an ever-shifting electric current. Applied to a social setting, the forces at play are even stronger with the inclusion of outsiders. And here, as evidenced by the aforementioned two dinner scenes, Östlund tracks the fissures in the fabric of acceptable behavior with the precision of a bomb disposal expert, choosing and timing the shots and edits so meticulously that no trace of embarrassment, anger, panic, humiliation quietly ripping the peace apart goes undetected. Of course, no fireworks of emotions are possible without able actors to deliver the raw material. In this case, the two leads are both outstanding. Kongsli plays the dramatic fuse of the film. None of the aftershocks would work if people don’t buy into her moral outrage triggered by the accident. And she pulls that off with flying colors. In another beautifully/ painfully observant scene where her character gets to watch the rest of her family go about their skiing routines without her from a rather compromised position, she communicates succinctly the utter despair of someone at war with her own principles. As the shamed breadwinner fighting to preserve his dignity, Kuhnke gets the figure of the slightly emasculated modern male just right. Not necessarily the leader of the pack anymore but still hanging on to the vanity of someone in charge, often feeling powerless, underappreciated, and especially feeling wronged when called a coward, it’s a fearlessly naked performance that deserves all the laughs it nets and echoes it finds. In supporting roles, Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius are also delightful as the well-meaning couple inadvertently dragged into a domestic storm. In many ways representing the viewer, their expressions of stunned speechlessness would no doubt mirror those of many sitting in the audience, which is so much fun.

The movie looks fantastic. A minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic underlies the bold, linear framing and composition of the picture, captured by some pristine lensing. Panoramic view of the Alpine vista, both in the splendor of the day and the menace of the night, grace the screen at regular intervals. The sound work on the film, from the whooshing of the slides cutting through snow to the suffocating sonic void inside the mountain lifts, is also remarkable. Particularly noteworthy is how the director uses the visual and aural design to reflect and reinforce the corresponding mindset of the characters within. Treacherous weather accompanied by orchestral music and the occasional firing of snow cannons, crashing avalanche exposing the dangerous hollows beneath the snowcapped perfection all play into the apt synergy of technical and narrative storytelling.

It’s a shame then that, with so much going for it, the movie doesn’t exactly end with a bang. A scene low on visibility and high on allegorical value that leads in the ending is most likely meant to appear staged and equivocal, but however one looks at it, it lacks in its outcome the deep pull or vicious bite of what’s come before. As for the actual finale, which involves another unexpected occurrence on the group’s way home, it’s not as well-conceived as the central conflict to evoke similarly relatable response in its fallout, so that even though the film closes with a somehow newfound cool attitude, you kind of wish it would be something less harmonious but incisive, messier but profound.