Donnerstag, 25. Dezember 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 25, 2014)

Ridley Scott's retelling of the Hebrew enslavement under and liberation from the Egyptian tyranny is visually striking but narratively lacking work that's miraculous only on a rather superficial level.

The screenwriters' (there are as many as four of them, which is almost never a good sign) pursuit of a more humanistic, reality-based take on the legend is legitimate but the result – a protracted mid-section about the new-found domestic life of Moses – proves oddly out-of-place and encumbering for the film's momentum. When the focus returns to the main business of killing people, the spectacles are brought back via the hellish extravaganza of the 10 plagues. But the stimulation remains optical as the lavishly staged mass slaughter never quite attains the moral or intellectual imperative that makes a story compelling.

That said, this is an unquestionably handsome production top to bottom. The art direction is particular and tasteful, bringing scale and design together to recreate the imposing, symmetrical grandeur of a lost empire. The costumes are gorgeously rendered, matching the overall golden look of the film with a tone of earthy luxury. And although larger-than-life CG-ed imagery dominates many of the combat sequences, a sense of liveliness is often injected into the picture by the able, swift cinematography. Showcasing Scott's mastery at orchestrating action scenes on gigantic canvas, all these elements align for the climatic parting – or closure – of the Red Sea, to evoke that trembly feeling of anticipation that's not unlike a holy experience.    

Biblical tales are supposed to be more about faith than plot, so it seems almost blasphemous to hold the movie's incoherence and illogic against it. In this regard, the film's biggest failing might be its unwillingness to give itself completely over to unreasoned spirituality, allowing unsuccessful attempts at dramatic tension to hold it in a somewhat awkward, neither-here-nor-there place.

Sonntag, 21. Dezember 2014

Short takes

"Blue Ruin" is unapologetic, well executed genre fare that should satisfy the bloodlust of fanboys and -girls. The straightforward setup of revenge and counter-revenge, however, might prove too elementary for a higher level of viewer engagement. American writer/director Jeremy Saulnier certainly shows artistic ambitions in the long stretches of time where we're just treated to a quiet protagonist on a mission, wordlessly but fervently. With great sound design and a discerning eye for effective camera angles, he manages to build tension and communicate foreboding even in the absence of a full-fledged plot or much dialogue. The shot of the hero emerging from around the corner with a rifle trained on his targets near the end, for example, is hugely exciting for its sheer boldness in construction and idea. The lack of a more developed, nuanced backstory does disappoint though, affording all that violence graphically portrayed a whiff of pointlessness and juvenile inevitability.  
"Exhibition" is one of those Art Films with a capital A that are so tremendously empty they tend to alienate everyone in the audience before breaking any ground. Set around a middle-aged artist couple living in an immaculate townhouse, there's no noteworthy story to speak of. Hints of intimacy issues and personal safety incidents are dropped but overall British writer/director Joanna Hogg is far less concerned with narrative than the conveyance of a highly abstract, idiosyncratic sense of space. The focus of her camera is on the architecture itself, with its every aspect prominently featured and almost fetishistically considered. While such militant experimentalism shouldn't be punished, in this case the endless takes of shutters, staircases, skylights along with all the other shapes and surfaces of the compound just don't evoke much beyond a flatly aesthetic appreciation. Neurotic and self-centered, this is only suitable for those who can endure prolonged nonsensical contemplations in film.        

"Men, Women & Children" turns out to be a perfectly tolerable affair thanks to drastically lowered expectations from all the stinky press. The preachy, melodramatic non-ending is very damaging for sure, but what came before is a colorful if extreme exposé on sexuality in the age of instant messaging, a piece of horny Americana presented with linguistic and cinematic finesse. American writer/director Jason Reitman again brings a decidedly, alluringly modern sensibility to his storytelling, injecting a brisk blood flow and a healthy dose of cynicism to the proceedings and characters, making them seem dangerously present. The cast is solid, Rosemarie DeWitt and Judy Greer are their dependable selves, even Adam Sandler's performance as the frustrated, hormonal father is nowhere near bad. Though the whole thing gradually collapses in the third act, the calm enunciation of Emma Thompson as the foul-mouthed narrator and the coolly indie-flavored soundtrack spiked with warmly lurid desires remain a blast.

"Paddington" brings the beloved bear gloriously to life in a holiday film that actually deserves the attention of everyone in the family. The themes of displacement, cultural acclimation and finding a new home are dealt with genuinely, without condescension and made funny by the dry, self-deprecating London humor. British writer/director Paul King moves things along at a lively pace, playing with animation and live action with a splash of magical surrealism to seamless effect. The human cast is superb, with the divine Sally Hawkins bringing a ton of heart and the delicious Nicole Kidman whipping up some cartoonish evil. Best in show is probably Ben Whishaw as the voice of the 3' 6''-tall hero though. Brimming with sincerity, naïveté, wonderment and vulnerability, it's a captivating vocal performance that matches the achievement of the character design in brilliance. Textured both in looks and tone, it's a truly 3-dimensional creation that delights no end.            

Montag, 15. Dezember 2014

Класс коррекции (Corrections Class)

Russian writer/director Ivan I. Tverdovsky's "Класс коррекции (Corrections Class)" can't quite decide if it wants to be a portrait of the tricky, vicious peer dynamics in middle school, an indictment of the failing special needs education in modern Russia, or just a coming-of-age story with some tender puppy love, and ends up narratively diffuse. Starting off hopefully and closing on a shockingly ugly note, the movie takes numerous tonal detours in between, underlining the absence of a consistent, purposeful plan.

Contextual indiscipline aside, the filmmaker does hit all the different tones with impressive accuracy. Whether the merriment of the myopathic heroine on finding other physically impaired friends as she joins the so-called "corrections class" or the bashful first experience of attraction by two young persons coming into their own, sentiments and atmosphere are captured by curt but sure cinematic strokes. A couple of scenes involving a grumpy cleaning lady are of little significance in the scheme of things but, with the support of some brazen writing and an acute sense of situation comedy, prove wonderfully funny in their own right.

Technical aspects are accomplished, especially the agile cinematography and the tight editing. The camera swooshes and swirls with a compelling, airy lightness while presenting the focus of its attention in well-lit, sharp detail. The cuts are made with decisiveness and a strong attitude, so that even when the final result turns out not as profoundly meaningful as one'd like, the transitions themselves afford many surprises.

The film deals its most savage cards near the end when, somewhat inexplicably, everyone gangs up on the innocent protagonist. That the brutality of the attacks doesn't leave as devastating an effect or that the inconclusiveness of the last shot feels more lazy than inspired confirm the weakness of the storytelling that came before. But the confidence of the director's hand shows promise, as does his interest in tackling a distinctly little-explored subject matter.

Sonntag, 7. Dezember 2014


Spanish writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen's feature debut "Stockholm" is basically a "Before Sunrise"-redux until... well, it isn't. And it's exactly the deviant third act that, while still not quite saving the picture, makes it suddenly, undeniably interesting.

The movie begins at a private party. We don't need to wait long before guy (Javier Pereira) catches sight of girl (Aura Garrido) and swiftly makes his move. Instead of a self-introduction, he immediately professes his love for her. At this point, the receiver of that blunt declaration and the audience probably both take it as a cute, if not particularly tactful pick-up line. But then the very persistent hero follows up on his word as he chases after the apparently reluctant, home-bound object of his affection with borderline stalker-ish tenacity. Displaying inexhaustible enthusiasm and good cheer, he makes jokes, pokes fun at himself, talks in flowery circles while never forgetting to remind her of his his love. And certainly enough, cracks in the girl's stalwart wall of denial start to show. Soon things get playful, they end up at his place, "deeper" questions about life get asked, there's even a scene on the rooftop terrace at dawn, with dreamy indie pop lacing a shot of two beautiful skulls from behind.

By now you think: Oh, so it's "that" kind of film. Love at first sight, unsolicited, inexplicable connection, finding unlikely soul mate in the middle of the night etc. And you'd also be forgiven to think: Well, as a straight-up, unapologetic romance this isn't very good, is it? The dialogue, while mostly authentic-sounding, neither covers the width nor possesses the depth to make a case for the instant fireworks and send hearts on and off-screen aflutter. The acting is unremarkable. One might argue Pereira manages to keep the intentions of his atypically chivalrous character unknowable, but, judged on its own merits, the performance is endearingly if smarmily one-note. The direction also underwhelms. Drawn-out, chatty strolls have been done to much more engaging effect, and some of his bolder choices, like the comically slo-mo-ed, orchestrally accompanied elevator scene ending the night-long pursuit in a swoop of theatrical affluence, just don't work.

But then the third act begins.

It's the morning after. As the girl goes through the room she just slept in with post-coital tenderness, we the audience also realize for the first time how little we truly know about the guy. And if the subtle changes in the dynamics between the two don't inform you of upcoming surprises yet, a subsequent scene in the compulsively white bathroom will surely jolt you awake. After that slap of a moment, previously hidden, unappetizing sides of these attractive, seemingly unassailable people enjoying the prime of their youth bubble to the surface, and the story switches in an unexpectedly, distinctly unpleasant direction.

As hinted above, this last half hour or so ultimately isn't enough to redeem the whole thing from its general feel of unrefinement. While it successfully engineers a sharp twist and sustains formidable dramatic tension over some impressive minutes, that all-decisive stroke of genius tying everything together in a deadly knot is still missing. What it does, though, is turning the tables on what could be perceived as a lack of character building and actually using that as ammo in its questioning of the validity of love in the digital age. Can you get to know someone at all when individuals are rendered so anonymous and needs are so easily met? From total strangers to intimate partners, after hours of courting and probing, we can't even be sure of the protagonists' names. The girl's is never mentioned and the guy's, provided once with great reluctance, is in hindsight probably a fabrication. We don't know what condition the girl is suffering from and if that's the cause of her hostile stance later on. We don't know the relationship status of the guy and whether or not that's the reason for his change of attitude, as the girl surmises. Here the filmmaker, aided by two actors who flip their portrayals of blandly likable personas with conviction, sneakily weaponizes all that we don't know to make a chilling point: Essentially, what it boils down to in the superficial, no-strings-attached ritual of metropolitan dating is a risky game of truth and lies.

Such finer points of the film end up, in the absence of thoroughly studied plotting and expressive directing, more implied than delivered. And whether that ending is legitimately shocking or just plain lazy, would most likely be divisive much like the one in Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski's "Ida" was. Add to that the less than glowing technical aspects, including the distractingly poor voice-dubbing, a particular blow to such a dialogue-heavy film, and it's safe to say the micro-budgeted drama is probably only for the consumption of open-minded viewers especially susceptible to good ideas and ready to work for them after the curtain falls.

Donnerstag, 4. Dezember 2014

Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales)

Argentinian writer/director Damián Szifrón's "Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales)" is composed of six separate short stories, including one wicked pre-credits intro. Although their limited scope denies them the broader, more lingering impact a continuous, full-fledged narrative probably would have, the individual tales of revenge, greed, irrationality and outbreaks are all entertaining in a delightfully macabre fashion.

At its least effective, the plotting can be a bit too simplistic to stir up true excitement, as in the case of the nice engineer being pushed over the edge by the relentless car-towing of Buenos Aires. But even then, among the cartoonishly reduced twists of events that just keep stacking up against the luckless hero, a very human core can be found which sees the tiny injustices in life that could make anyone tick. This strength in the recognition of weaknesses in all of us is applied brilliantly, say, in the episode involving road rage. Just two characters on a deserted strip of land where a fateful encounter that begins with harmless taunts ends in a deadly embrace. Written with great insight into the often infantile ways of the mind and a sense of humor so sinister it would make Tarantino proud, the escalation of the situation to unstoppably murderous heights is described in one breathtaking swoop that's both intense and tremendously funny. Also perversely comical is the concluding chapter about a wedding reception that goes horribly wrong. Furiously directed and beautifully acted, it depicts with frightening relatability how there's no turning back once something snaps in you and judgment, civility, self-control are just gone like that, The director plays with contradicting tones throughout but here he really pulls off that rare feat where, amid the blood stains, glass splinters, cake remnants, between all the gasps, sobs, stunned silence, a scene so absurd and unpredictable unfolds you see nothing but humanity in it.

Technical aspects are solid. Art direction stands out in the deli section with every surface doused in ghastly, angrily primal colors. Cinematography is likewise impressive, most notably in the last story, where an emotionally complex dance and an intervening rooftop conversation are filmed with eye-catching flourish. Ultimately it's the idea of uncovering our animalistic instincts beneath the wrappings of cultivation that's the most interesting about this movie though. With some theatricality and a lot of perceptiveness, it shows you how, both sadly and amusingly, we're all nothing but mammals.        

Montag, 1. Dezember 2014


American director Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" dramatizes the peculiar real-life events surrounding reclusive industrialist John du Pont and Olympic gold-medalists in wrestling, the Schultz brothers, to thoroughly riveting effect. What actually went through these people's minds as, against all likelihood, their paths crossed and spiraled toward tragedy, shall forever remain unknowable to us, no matter how suggestively the screenplay throws elements of homoeroticism and mommy issues into the mix. If the writing errs on the obvious and slightly manipulative side, however, the mastery of Miller's direction can't be denied. Committing once again to a coldly understated, nonjudgmentally observant narrative style that made "Capote" such a success, this movie is all about building tension through atmospherically blank shots and unsparing scrutiny of characters growing increasingly unhinged. Often very quiet in more sense than one, it creates a pressurized vacuum in which to ponder the twisted personalities at work. A scene where du Pont gathers his private wrestling team and, in all earnestness, begins to give laughably rudimentary instructions not even his frail old mother can bear to watch, is so demonstrably strange it invites you to re-question everything you thought you knew about each one of its participants.

The principal cast is very strong, especially Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Playing the rich, bored tycoon, Carell inherits the demeanor, speech pattern and aura of another man. The extent of his character's sociopathic tendencies reveals itself in chilling details such as the utter calm before, during and after brutally slapping somebody in the face. It's also to his credit that a scene involving in-flight drug consumption comes off so funny and creepy in brilliantly equal measure. Tatum doesn't go through as drastic a physical transformation but looks changed nonetheless. As the impressionable and deeply insecure young wrestler, he shows you with pain etched in his face and ruthlessness injected in his self-destructive behavior just how broken this supposed champion is. Making little more than a cameo appearance, Vanessa Redgrave does that thing that only Vanessa Redgrave can do and turns every carelessly disappointed look or a line as banal as "It's a low sport" magnificent.

The film's superior on a technical level. Though mostly lean in composition, the picture has a beautifully aged, weighted feel to it. The editing is smart and highly precise, letting the sense of foreboding unfold via jarring mid-action or mid-sentence cuts. Pulling all these strings at once, Miller has crafted a taut, unsettling drama that's not entirely persuasive or conclusive in its deconstruction of troubled souls but magnetically gripping all the same.