Mittwoch, 16. Dezember 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 16 , 2015)

It takes a lot just to make a good movie. When it comes to extending or re-launching a movie franchise so beloved as to have become its own brand, the level of difficulty gets even higher. We’ve seen plenty of examples in genre cinema where sequels crash and burn with little to show besides the blatant greed to milk every last drop out of a proved formula or, in a sincere but misguided gesture of reverence, filmmakers go over-the-top with mythology-building and dramatisation that are supposed to add gravitas but only spoil the party.

Cut to Star Wars, the mothership of them all, a bona fide cultural phenomenon that has inspired fanaticism and redefined the term blockbuster since 1977. It’s clearly a thankless job to attempt to introduce new chapters to the original trilogy, worshipped by countless with religious fervor. The fact that not even the mastermind behind the series, George Lucas, could repeat the magic with his now infamous Star Wars prequels, speaks volumes about the complexity of the task.

Along came J.J. Abrams, who actually pulled off the impossible feat and, with this chronologically latest installment, delivered something renewed but classy, calculated but not overwrought, serious in every aspect of its endeavor but at the same time, so much fun.

Things get moving right away after the legendary opening crawl informs us of Episode VII’s premise: 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi, both the resistance and the Galactic Empire’s militant reincarnation – the First Order – are looking for a certain person to advance their cause. It’s the most basic of setups with a well-defined mission and easily identifiable conflicts, but also one that you can hold on to nicely while getting up to speed with a brand new cast of characters. Further into the movie, familiar faces start to pop up and join in the action. Together the colourful bunch will roam the galaxy, uncover truths about themselves, fight the eternal battle of good and evil – accompanied by John Williams’ ever-heroic score. In other words: it’s just like old times.

Indeed, the clever, finely-tuned screenplay incorporates prospective storylines into the indelible sci-fi legacy famously. There are plenty of new leads, including clues and unanswered questions that widen up a variety of future possibilities, but they are embedded in the same narrative of adventure and quest for freedom the world has come to know and love. Also reminiscent of the original trilogy is the fact that the film, amidst all the mayhem and adventures, doesn’t shy away from humour or variations of its Hamletian themes. So expect a heady, highly entertaining mix of laughs, tears, thrills and nostalgia. Meanwhile, this altogether lean piece of writing is confident enough to paint its players in strong, simple strokes and allow the plot developments room to breathe, leaving a refreshingly uncluttered impression seldom shared by tentpole movies of comparable caliber.

For that sense of restraint, Abrams’ direction is equally to be credited. While some of the earlier scenes might come across as blunt and betray a trace of sensationalism or indiscipline, he eventually eases into gear and tells the bulk of the story with superb flow and an almost vintage grace. Yes, the digital technology of today has enabled optical tricks unthinkable four decades ago, and Abrams more than passes the test with numerous fluidly shot, precisely edited and seamlessly visualised chase or battle sequences. But even more impressive than his ability to stage these spectacular setpieces is probably how he reins it in during many of the film’s quieter moments. Be it a lone rider speeding across the horizon, two lovers gently saying goodbye or an unlikely lightsaber duel symbolising a war carried over to the next generation, it’s the classic grandeur of these scenes that elevates the whole picture to greatness.

Without getting into the fates of their characters, it’s safe to say Ford and Fisher are better than ever, reprising their iconic roles with seasoned repose. Of the younger cast, Driver (as “Kylo Ren”) and Isaac (“Poe Dameron”) show considerable charisma that makes them appropriately unreadable/believable. Boyega (“Finn”) and Gleeson (“General Hux”), don’t fare as well, both their performances marred by a degree of overzeal. Nyong'o proves to be a weirdly off choice for a motion-capture part (“Maz Kanata”), mainly because she doesn’t convey the supposedly ancient age with her chime-like enunciation. Then there’s Ridley, who, as Rey, dazzles with a disarmingly open face that speaks innocence, defiance, doubt, an entire past.

All things considered, The Force Awakens is one of those rare cases where a sequel is not only a tremendous movie on its own terms, but an organic continuation of the saga it succeeds. Epic in scale, thoughtful in composition, loving in tone, it’s Hollywood studio production at its wowing, rousing best. Yoda would have approved.

Interview: Todd Haynes (Carol)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 14 , 2015)

What were the most significant changes you made adapting the novel?

The novel was told entirely from the character Therese’s perspective. The script tried to create access to the character Carol as well. We needed to be very careful about that. For example, the first time you enter Carol’s world is when the mail truck delivers her the gloves from Therese – so we’re literally transported into it, through the handiwork of this girl with an infatuation. But my biggest change was a structural one. One of the first films I thought about was David Lean’s Brief Encounter. I love that structure where you only fully understand what something means after coming all the way through the story and returning to the beginning.

The fact that these two characters are both women isn’t the defining part of their love story. Do you think this would have been possible 10 years ago in mainstream cinema?

Of course, there have always been stories about love between women. Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was a pretty big movie. Or The Children’s Hour (1961), with two major stars. When we assume everything moves in this one, forward momentum, we’re missing the interesting, circuitous leaps forward and backward that history takes.

What do you think is the relevance of this film today?

For me it wasn’t about, “Look how far we’ve come! Look how much better or easier it is now!” I think the predicament of being in love is just as perplexing today as it ever was. Also, surprisingly, coming out still seems fraught with unimaginable challenges even though the cultural landscape is so different. But social media is a distorting factor, for example. And I think proclaiming who you are is still a tender, awkward event.

When did you find your own identity?

Oh, I still haven’t yet. I don’t know I believe in identity as anything locatable. It’s always changing, always somewhat artificial, imposed from the outside, willed from the inside. That’s what interests me in all my films, whether it’s these women in domestic settings or artists acting out and refusing stable identity models.

You’ve worked with Cate Blanchett twice now. Can you talk about that experience?

The thing I’ve learned from all these actors I’ve worked with is that the things most people think actors don’t care about, like the visual style, framing, point of view, etc. – they do care about them. For Cate in this movie, what’s remarkable to me is that she knows she’s playing the object of Therese’s desire, but she’s also playing a real person. She can’t be too available to the spectator when she’s being conjured by this girl. Somehow she knows how to do that, which is so fascinating to me – to be both inside and outside the character.

What do you think has changed in LGBTQ cinema since the start of your career?

I think we’ve gained a lot and we’ve lost a lot. It’s not the same world at all as the one I came out of during the late 1980s, early 1990s. All the progress we’ve made since then is necessary, but it also means a critical perspective and a position outside the main, dominant society has sort of been surrendered for assimilation and acceptance. You know, “Being just like everybody else – but gay!” That is something I think Jean Genet is still rolling over in his grave about. Or maybe not – maybe he’s blowing his gay marriage whistle from the grave, who knows?

The Duke of Burgundy

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 3, 2015)

In The Duke of Burgundy, we are thrown headfirst into a world of fetish, roleplay and bondage shared by butterfly specialist Cynthia (Knudsen) and her lover Evelyn (D’Anna). Through his acute sense of optic and sonic style, Strickland manages to create a cinematic environment so textured it convincingly approximates the at once tender and seismic feminine sexuality portrayed.

Although the erotic drama ultimately doesn’t dig deep enough into the psyche of its two protagonists, ending on some less-than-articulate, if admittedly mesmerising visual pizzazz, it asks plenty of provocative questions about the limits of intimacy, the meaning of dominance in a (sadomasochistic) relationship, and the many inexplicable mechanisms of lust. Kudos to the entire art department, especially the wardrobe for that explosion of corsets, boots, stockings, capes, wigs, gloves, etc., which played such an integral part in realising a perhaps unfamiliar but always compelling sensual landscape.

In the Heart of the Sea

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 3, 2015)

Having made his career as a prolific actor/director/producer spanning seven decades, few filmmakers understand or have come to symbolise Hollywood quite like Ron Howard. This is a man who knows how to turn a $100+ million budget into a $100+ million looking picture and in such a way that it appeals to everyone and their mothers. With In the Heart of the Sea, he’s resorted once again to his genetically coded blockbuster-instincts and given us a piece of dashing, appetising entertainment that, despite failing to serve any higher creative purpose, satisfies anyway.

The story is told in flashbacks by old man Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) at the request of Moby Dick author Herman Melville (Whishaw) in 1850s Massachusetts. Through his account of what happened to the whaling ship Essex when he was a 14-year-old cabin boy, we travel further back in time to meet captain George Pollard (Walker) and his first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth), who had led their crew on a fateful expedition that would ultimately leave them stranded at sea and faced with the most difficult of choices.

From the authentically weathered production design, the sleek, sprawling camerawork, the sizzlingly fluid editing, to the immersive sound and visual effects, the film’s technical aspects are strong across the board, culminating in several scenes of harrowing intensity or stunning beauty. The centrepiece action sequence that sees the almost mythical white whale bringing down the Essex, for example, is executed with great might and finesse, allowing you to watch the mayhem from every angle while feeling the frightening thud of every blow. It’s the kind of wowing, how-did-they-do-that movie trick that showcases scale, velocity, impact and thoroughly impresses; one that plays up the surround experience of cinema and keeps you riveted like a kid delighting in the glorified perils.      

Probably by no accident, the swashbuckling maritime adventure morphs into a gritty survival tale around the film’s halfway mark, affording the action and the drama more or less equal room. While this suggests an ambition to please the adults as well as the youngsters in the audience, the second, supposedly serious-minded half can hardly be described as narratively ambitious. In fact, not only does the theme of surviving open water still feel too familiar from recent explorations in Unbroken or Life of Pi, the dramatic net is also cast a bit too widely between motifs of greed, environmentalism, brotherhood, guilt, man versus nature etc., lessening the urgency of the message.

As mentioned in opening, Howard doesn’t shoot for lofty goals but has a real knack for delivering meaty, welcoming, readily consumable products to the masses. In this latest case, he’s certainly served the mainstream two more hours of enjoyable distraction that feeds few fuels to the mind but fills the time nicely.

Bridge of Spies

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 26, 2015)

Set during the height of the Cold War, this espionage drama recounts the rather spectacular true story of American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks), who’s first tasked with defending a Russian spy (Rylance) caught by the CIA, then with negotiating a captive exchange between the United States, the Soviet Union and the GDR. Carrying with it the fortes and trappings of a Spielberg movie, the 140-minute prestige picture is fluently told and handsomely crafted, yet can’t quite shake the tired taste of something trying too hard to please everybody. Emotionally approachable to a fault, we’re made to feel the hero’s dejection and triumph via broadly staged scenes accompanied by a pretty literal Thomas Newman score.

But such absence of a deeper, subtler resonance aside, the master of crowd-pleasers proves he still knows how to get your blood pumping, as exemplified by an abundance of iconic shots and expertly orchestrated sequences like the smooth opening chase number. Hanks is also strong playing a simple man with great convictions, his impassioned presence carefully matched by Rylance’s unreadable equanimity. Shot evenly in New York and Berlin, Bridge of Spies is well worth watching for the history alone – just don’t go in expecting something as visceral as Schindler's List.


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 26, 2015)

Addressing mortality and existential anxieties in an often lighthearted manner, albeit not from the end of life you'd expect, is the somewhat misleadingly titled Youth. Starring the old acting legends Caine and Keitel as a retired orchestra conductor and a film director well past his prime, it follows the quibbling odd couple as they wander around a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps. In between ogling a scantily-clad Miss Universe and chatting up an otherwise colourful ensemble of hotel guests, the two argue about everything from the failed marriage of their children to the woman they both fell in love with decades ago, inadvertently triggering surges of memory that lead to unforeseen outcomes.

Booed at its Cannes premiere, the movie does err on the side of pretentiousness from time to time. Its foray into full-out dramatic territory, especially, backfires with a whiff of new-agey faux-profundity. But by and large, the brilliantly-seasoned performances and Sorrentino’s impeccable taste still lift the fabulous-looking and -sounding picture to a place of artistic, stylistic grandeur.

Ever the classic thespian, Caine brings his trademark impenetrable composure to the screen, adding mystique and just a hint of cruelty to this amicably detached character. Keitel is on fire here, delivering one perfect wisecrack after another like nobody’s business. In a cameo appearance, Jane Fonda also delights as a magnificently wrinkled, furiously bitter diva from the past. It’s a joy to watch actors of this caliber do what comes so naturally to them. You only wish all that acting showcase framed within such downright erotic visual yumminess could have culminated in a note that actually reverberates, instead of this piercing but rather forced falsetto.

Samstag, 21. November 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 19, 2015)

Whether you call them dramedies or tragicomedies, films that attack both your tear ducts and ticklish spots are now a firmly established genre, and prove particularly effective – sometimes even necessary – in telling stories about life, death and us curiously paradoxical human beings.

In the Pittsburgh-set Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, for example, the titular first-person narrator Greg (Mann) and childhood buddy Earl (Cyler) befriend schoolmate Rachel (Cooke) when she’s diagnosed with leukemia. It hardly gets sadder than witnessing burgeoning adolescence eaten away by cancer, obviously – you can practically hear the sobs in the audience from here. But it’s the humour, the sarcasm and the heroically naïve pretense that everything’s going to be fine that really works wonders and sets this movie apart.

Adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own bestselling YA novel, the script neither condescends to nor glorifies the goofy wisdoms of the young. It simply lets the sharp banter of the three leads fly while slowly peeling away layers of their self-defense mechanisms to reveal a true fragility inside. For that lovely discovery the well-cast trio, surrounded by a terrific group of supporting players, must be credited too. In a stand-out performance, Mann wins you over as the eloquent if chronically awkward protagonist. Through his open face that speaks mischief, kindness and regret, we enter a boy’s mind that knows no comedy or drama, but only compassion and the simple wish to make a girl laugh.

Directed with great verve and acute sensitivity, this film is not just a riot of emotions high and low, it says something poignant about loss, bonds, and how, on this one-way journey we must all undertake, it’s merciful to remember the fun along with the inevitable sighs.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 19, 2015)

The second half of the final instalment – and therefore the very last part – of the Hunger Games franchise concludes the series on a dutifully safe note, but a lack of the unexpected, both narratively and technically, does prevent the saga of Katniss & Co. from going out with a bang.

In a nice touch that throws viewers right back into the bleak, belligerent wartime ambience where things were left off, the film opens cold, in the middle of a physical checkup for our croaking heroine. After the title card drops, however, it’s pretty much storytelling at its squarest and most sanitised. We follow the rebels as they try to elicit support from various Districts and move towards the Capitol to take down the evil regime. Of course there are setbacks aplenty and sacrifices are made along the way, but, compared to the madly original idea behind the series-starter that smartly plays to our bloodlust and media obsession, what happens here just doesn’t stoke the imagination or tingle the spine quite the same way. Meanwhile, the political intrigue that has become the main source of conflict since the last movie also loses some of its vehemence due to the simple fact of fatigue. Not helping matters is the practiced but unimaginative direction, which recounts the adventure well enough, yet at no point feels adventurous itself, leaving behind an altogether unmemorable impression of orderly busyness.  

The cast does a fine job, even though the tiredness of déjà-vu also carries over to the performances so that, with the possible exception of some delicious scene-chewing by Julianne Moore and Donald Sutherland as heads of the two forces at war, nothing really stands out. What can’t be blamed on the corporate greed that split the finale in two and caused the inevitable watering-down is how, after four very successful films, the visual effects remain distractingly off. Whether it’s monstrous waves of dark matter flooding apartment blocks or scenes of imperial assembly meant to overwhelm with their sheer grandeur, the proper sense of scale, speed and mass seldom comes across to create that perfect illusion.

All things considered, the Hunger Games movies most likely still rank among the better YA fantasy adaptations out there. At the very least they ask interesting, ambivalent, subversive questions beneath all the adolescent-friendly packaging. And although there’s a whisper of regressive gender politics in the short epilogue attached to this concluding chapter, Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed with strength and great conviction by Jennifer Lawrence, is as valid a role model as any for young people everywhere. We just wish the filmmakers would have trusted their audience enough to try something more daring, sophisticated in their approach – and hired better tech teams while they’re at it.

Filmfest Hamburg 2015

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 11, 2015)

This year we’ve covered the film festivals in Cannes, Venice, and of course the Berlinale here at Exberliner. Was there any reason, then, to pay a visit to their younger, considerably smaller counterpart in Hamburg? Turns out there was. Cinephiles may not get the same roster of glitzy world premieres from A-list auteurs at the beautiful Hanseatic city, but the Filmfest Hamburg offers that rare opportunity to actually enjoy a thoughtfully curated programme featuring obscure arthouse hits and major award winners. Away from the stress of “See it here first!” and cushioned in the romantic chill of autumn, the comfort level of spending some days in Germany’s second largest city – and Berlin’s often-rival – getting drunk on cinematic highlights and discoveries of the year, is surprisingly high.

For those who couldn’t make it to Locarno or San Sebastián, the 23rd edition of the FFHH has scooped up a healthy sample of their competition lineup. Right Now, Wrong Then, the eventual winner of the top Swiss film festival, is a sweet, dizzyingly idiosyncratic mind trick from Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. Telling the tale of a chance encounter between a famous director and an aspiring painter that may lead to something more – not once, but twice – the two-parter bears all his signature quirks. Although it never reaches the strange, giddy heights of In Another Country or exudes the breezy, organic charm of Hahaha, this formally daring reflection on coincidence, perception and choice does intrigue with a bold expressive form and should delight Hong-loyalists everywhere.    

Also crossing over from Locarno and later even winning the London Film Festival is Greek writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a wicked comedy set around six men on a fishing trip. Out of boredom the group starts to play a game where each of them devises a contest in secret and scores the others accordingly, in order to determine who among them is “the best in general”. As ambitious as it is ludicrous, the highly unusual premise picks apart modern masculinity in an often frivolous manner, hovering between broad gags and unsettling insights. While the film ultimately feels too unstructured to land any substantial, lasting impact, it may well count itself a worthy addition to the new wave of Greek cinema sparkling with conceptual brilliance à la Dogtooth or Alps.

Equally quirky, albeit more carefully mapped out is Dutch helmer Alex van Warmerdam’s comedy-noir Schneider vs. Bax. Featuring a hitman eager to get back to his own birthday party, another coke-snorting hitman doubling as a writer, an old prostitute dragged into a hit job by accident and other cuckoo characters that could have been lifted from a Coen brothers flick, it dances through an endless supply of plot twists and keeps you hooked on its deliciously macabre humour.

Not nearly as entertaining is the San Sebastián alumnus The Demons, a coming-of-age drama crossed with kidnapping thriller set in suburban Montreal. Canadian director Philippe Lesage has an eye for suggestive visuals and the nose for creepy atmosphere, but the film borders on the schizophrenic with its many subplots and tonal changes. Lacking a strong focal point to drive the whole narrative, we’re left to admire the undeniably effective camerawork and the moments of foreboding beauty it brings.
Other festival champs include Sundance winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a lively, tender and, above all, seriously funny tearjerker that actually deserves both your laughs and sobs. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon gets the healing power of comedy and delivers a refreshingly, brutally genuine take on the girl-dying-of-leukemia genre. His trio of perfectly cast actors, assisted by a terrific group of supporting players, also helps inject that air of inspired unsentimentality into the film.

While less innovative in its approach, French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Cannes hit Mustang proves to be a jolt of energy impossible to resist. Set around five sister growing up in a conservative household in rural Turkey, the girlhood drama vividly depicts the debilitating effects of female oppression and the indefatigable human need to break free. Glowingly photographed and showcasing some affecting, naturalistic performances from its young leads, the film doesn’t aim terribly high but breathes so much life it dazzles nonetheless.            

So yes, the festival tent of the FFHH appears positively modest in comparison to the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the Palazzo del Cinema or the Berlinale Palast, but it’s never about that glammed-up hoopla in Hamburg anyway. Over there by the lovely Alster river, it’s more about appreciating good movies, special movies from all over the world that might have gotten lost in the shuffle even for avid festival-goers, as well as the opportunity to exchange ideas with the filmmakers in a relaxed environment. Honestly, what joy it is to (re-)watch gems like The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) or The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos) on a giant screen without the hassle of hour-long queuing; and where else do you get to speak with László Nemes (Hungarian director and Cannes Grand Prix winner for Son of Saul) at length without some demoralising journalistic jockeying? All things considered, the 90-minute ICE ride seems like an awfully reasonable bargain indeed.

Les démons (The Demons)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Nov. 6 , 2015)

Part coming-of-age story, part familial drama, part psychological thriller and even carrying with it a whiff or two of supernatural horror, Canadian director Philippe Lesage’s first narrative feature The Demons is a composite of intriguing leads, except none of them really goes anywhere. The result is something almost psychedelically meandering – or simply arbitrary and incoherent.

The story is built around Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), a watchful, contemplative grade-schooler who seems uncommonly serious for his age. He has a painful crush on his teacher, he suspects his father is having an affair, he fears he might have gotten AIDS for being an unknowing homosexual. In addition to all that, he learns there’s a kidnapper/killer on the loose who targets little boys just like him in suburban Montreal. With a worried look etched on his face, our protagonist leads us through the anxiety-filled everyday of a young person just starting to stumble on life’s many complexities.

While this premise is promising enough, the structure of the actual script is seriously off, pieced together from isolated anecdotes without a firm grasp on arc, momentum or thematic focus, so that the whole thing comes across pretty loose and strangely shapeless. Like the limited attention span of a pre-teen, the story can’t follow through on any of the subplots it started. As a result, scenes of Félix’s quotidian pile up but fail to charm or inform in the aggregate. A couple of overtly emotional twists later in the film thus land with hardly any impact.

Around its halfway mark, the inarticulate but generally sweet-natured drama turns unexpectedly sinister as the child abduction plotline takes over. Further stressing a lack of continuity, the narrative leaves Félix’s POV altogether and switches to the school lifeguard with an unspeakable secret. Despite the perspective and tonal disconnect, this part of the movie proves the most effective, thanks to the simple fact that it settles for a more consistent, undistracted portrait. Dedicating a significant chunk of screen time to the act of crime as it slowly progresses from intent to execution, from a relatively harmless joyride to the dreadful final trip into the woods, Lesage does a surprisingly good job creeping under your skin with this patient observation of a disturbed mind at work. And even though the violent outcome of this ugly episode is somewhat predictable, the shock of seeing human beings’ raw, animalistic urge of lust, shame and regret play out this plainly still leaves a ringing echo behind. So it’s with some reluctance that we once again return to the whims of Félix, until the film wraps on an appropriately confounding note.

Overall, the film is never a chore to look at. Cinematography by Nicolas Canniccioni not only pleases the eye but conjures up a quiet sense of malevolence through its unnatural composure. Whether tracking the breezy drive of a killer looking for his next victim or gliding languidly across a swimming pool bustling with activity as if withholding something terribly obvious, the camera often releases a magnetic pull that tickles and alarms. What also delights is that, rather refreshingly, the child is not portrayed as the embodiment of innocence here. How their curiosity and lack of moral inhibition can lead to mindless cruelty gets the honest treatment for once. Félix forces his will on his even tinier schoolmates doing things that would have seemed mean, borderline criminal, if taken out of the juvenile context.

It’s a shame, then, that the evocative, partially compelling picture can’t seem to sort out what it really wants to say. Throughout the many incidents that suggest plenty but express little, we get a taste of the angst and confusion of someone first finding his own identity, but in terms of what’s so demonic about growing up, we are ultimately none the wiser.

Montag, 26. Oktober 2015

Arab Movie

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 26, 2015)

As recently as two generations ago, when Israel was still a newly founded state and its citizens were dying daily in armed conflicts with the Islamic neighbors, movies from its biggest adversary Egypt were broadcast on Israeli public television every week and captivating the imagination of people across ethnic descents and political persuasions. This cultural phenomenon is the focus of the engaging and informative documentary Arab Movie.

Co-director Eyal Sagui Bizawe expanded from the history of his own Egyptian-Jewish family to incorporate interviews with other spectators from that period, as well as actors who have participated in Egyptian productions then and film industry professionals. Their recollections piece together a vivid picture of a nation fervently anticipating the Friday afternoon movie program on TV while giving us a rough idea of how this improbable weekly ritual ever came to be. At just over 60 minutes, Arab Movie turns out to be surprisingly substantial, dealing with subjects personal and societal, cinematic and self-reflective. Especially the immaterial but profound bond between a film and its audience it portrays touches on a nerve amid all the historical gravitas.

It’s hardly possible to talk about international relations in the Middle East without getting tangled in a context of religious and political correctness. However, this unassuming but thoroughly researched movie demonstrates with a compelling voice that good stories skillfully put on film can cross the unlikeliest of borders and bridge the most distant of hearts.

Donnerstag, 22. Oktober 2015

The Walk

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 22, 2015)

The maker of such potent crowd-pleasers as Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, and the Back to the Future trilogy, Robert Zemeckis is not necessarily known for his tact or fineness of touch. But it’d be an understatement to say this man knows how to put on a proper spectacle, something that so enhances the sensory aspect of cinema it makes your inner 12-year-old squeal. With The Walk, he’s delivered yet another envelope-pushing technological marvel that isn’t quite as impressive on the human side of things.

We’ve all heard of the titular, unbelievable stunt at the center of the story: in 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt) walked between New York’s then would-be landmark – the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – at the height of 1350 feet. Expanding on that singular achievement which will forever mark Petit’s life, the movie takes us back to his childhood spent performing on the streets of Paris and learning tightrope walking with a circus ringleader. From there he graduated to bigger and ever-higher things, eventually landing in front of the ultimate challenge that beckoned fatefully from across the Atlantic.

Employing a less-than-graceful framing device that repeatedly cuts back to Gordon-Levitt addressing the viewer as a first-person narrator at the top of the Statue of Liberty, the screenplay suffers from a heavy-handedness that has as much to do with its structure as with the abundant Hallmark-ready dialogue. Attempts at mapping a peculiar mind with enough shadows and steam to drive a man to such extreme actions also fall flat. You just never really get inside Petit’s head to figure out the whys.

The film takes a significant turn for the better, however, as it enters the second half with a sharpening focus and increasing fluidity. The long-ish segment where Petit and his crew sneak onto the rooftops of the towers and set up the stage for next morning’s performance is expertly paced, orchestrated without a hiccup. It’s through this preparation work that you first get an idea of the scale and sheer dimension of the operation planned. So when all the pieces are finally set and the hero is about to step out into an almost mythical nothingness, the thrill is very real.

Such thrill continues as Zemeckis and his visual department smartly take full advantage of the 3D photography and floor-to-ceiling IMAX format to recreate probably the most realistic cinematic experience of vertigo ever. The jumbled depth perception, the sweating palm, the buckling knees, your body reacts downright physically to the perfect, all-enveloping illusion brought about by these pictures. And although Zemeckis isn’t successful in explaining Petit the artist, he certainly pulls off the feat of selling this seemingly random, reckless act as art. By the end of his historic stunt, which turns very quiet, introspective near the end, it’s hard not to be touched by the iconic image of the man on a wire, the transcendent calm and the marvel of having witnessed something impossible being achieved.  

Overall, The Walk fails at the drama but makes up for a lot of lost ground with its technical pizzazz. Whether or not making you feel the wind at your feet and the tremble in your legs in a darkened theater should be considered a function of cinema, it’s simply nice to hear that familiar squeal from within every once in a while.

The Tribe - pro & con (with Mark Wilshin)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 15, 2015)

Pro: Silence is golden

Performed entirely in sign language without complementary subtitles, The Tribe is one of the most daring cinematic experiments in recent memory and it pays off big time. Austere, enigmatic, simmering with a quiet menace, it’s two-plus hours spent in a pressure cooker with an inevitably explosive ending.

Beyond the setting of an educational institute for the deaf and mute, and the fact that there’s some serious bullying going on around campus, we don’t understand much of what’s happening. From the moment our unnamed hero arrives at the silent compound, however, you find yourself in the grip of a terribly clever filmmaker who composes such expressive, eloquent images they give you enough clues to piece together your own narrative. The various non-verbal forms of communication, meanwhile, demonstrate vividly just how much we all have in common, down to the most despicable of motivations and the most barbaric of intents.

Airlessly intense with a constant promise of bad things to come, this dramatic thriller offers a singular movie-going experience that mystifies as much as it mesmerises and shocks. However ugly things get, you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

Con: Deaf and dumb (by Mark Wilshin)

A controversial festival hit, Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is the rather bleak tale of an unnamed deaf teenager (Fesenko) who, after making his way through the post-apocalyptic streets of Kiev, starts at a new boarding school. Overrun by gangs, it’s a violent, criminal demimonde of thieves, pimps and prostitutes. And for Ukraine, The Tribe is a piercing cry against the country’s dystopia of crime and emigration, an outraged scream against its lack of leadership and control.

But it’s a shout that’s been silenced. Filmed entirely in sign language, Slaboshpitsky refuses to subtitle his deaf characters – a conceit that keeps his tribe at arm’s length. And while we might overlook this disdain for his viewers’ understanding, the absence of subtitles turns his deaf characters into gesturing clowns – occasionally laughable, largely unintelligible and deprived of agency. Instead of subjects, the tribe members become objects to be gawked at, and Slaboshpitsky’s narrative suffers, incomprehensible in its detail, delivering instead a tale sketched in broad strokes with neither subtlety nor finesse. Reduced frustratingly to one single idea, The Tribe is a distasteful half-story content with playing dumb.

Black Mass

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 15, 2015)

An even more extreme case of cut-throat ambition is the focus of a biopic that hits the screens this month. Detailing the unlikely alliance between South Boston crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Black Mass gives you two people from both sides of the law who found their way to fame (or infamy) and fortune by stepping over a trail of corpses.

It all started when Connolly proposed a collaboration to his childhood friend in 1975: If Bulger agreed to provide information on other gangs in the neighbourhood, the FBI would turn a blind eye on him and his illegal doings. For Connolly, having this exclusive insider source ensures he becomes a star at the Bureau. For Bulger, he gets the feds to take out his competition and, on top of that, a license to basically do whatever he pleases. Brilliant. But what about rule of law? Or the code of the streets? Forget it. These two aren’t going to let such trivia stop them on their quest for greatness.

Depp excels as the ruthless kingpin-slash-informant. Besides the unflattering physical transformation he goes through, including waxen skin and rotten teeth, his gaze acquires an icy, reptilian quality that believably turns victims of his terrorisation into a trembling mess on several occasions. Such psychologically potent scenes are the exception unfortunately, as director Scott Cooper is too busy relaying all the historical facts from over a decade of animalistic partnership. Savage, spiteful, and stranger than fiction, the film still makes for an interesting character study overall, even if a lot of nuance gets lost in its gleefully loud genre routines.

Boi neon (Neon Bull)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Oct. 10 , 2015)

From Blue Is the Warmest Color to Stranger by the Lake, from Pride to The Danish Girl, movies dealing with LGBT issues or characters have become ever more present at film festivals and cineplexes these past years. Against such background it’s especially intriguing to consider something like Neon Bull – a Brazilian rodeo drama in which everybody turns out to be straight – and its place in queer cinema.

The story is centered around hunky groundskeeper Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), who spends his days at a rodeo in rural Brazil taking care of the animals, keeping up the localities and assisting with the races. On these chores he’s joined by a small, tightly-knit group of people including precocious girl Cacá and her mother Galega. They all dine together and sleep in neighboring hammocks, collectively facing down the monotony of an arduous, menial existence more as a family than co-workers. Iremar, meanwhile, has a passion one doesn’t necessarily associate with his work or lifestyle – he’s totally into making clothes, from the designing all the way to the cutting and fitting. Without ever explaining where this enthusiasm came from, scenes where the tough cowboy is seen sewing at night or dressing mannequins appear random and almost disorientingly at odds with his circumstances. Our preconceptions are further played with when he has Galega bend down in front of him in a suggestive position or sneakily flips open a dirty magazine to the picture of a naked female model, only to go about taking the young woman’s measurements and drawing imaginary garments onto a masturbation-tested page.

It doesn’t stop at the tease with gender roles and macho stereotypes either. Subtly but surely, Mascaro establishes a fevered, deeply sensual visual language that, while never describing same-sex intimacy of any kind, releases a strong homoerotic charge. Not only is there a marked focus on male anatomy – see a group shower scene shot on steamy lens and the sequence where Iremar has to stroke a prize stallion’s comically engorged genitalia in order to steal its semen – which deviates from the female objectification customary in mainstream, heterosexual cinema, the overall languid, yearnful tone highlights a repressed quality of the rampant carnality threatening to break free. In this sense, it registers as a near-surprise when the sexual preference of the main characters is revealed towards the end.

One could fault the movie for being narratively lacking because, admittedly, there isn’t much of a coherent plot making some kind of point. Galega doesn’t overcome any challenges, neither does Cacá come of age. It’s not really about Iremar’s endeavors to realize his dream, nor is it a systematic critique of a society that leaves parts of its citizenship living under impoverished conditions. However, even within this loose storytelling structure, Neon Bull still functions as a casually transportive experience and a compelling investigation of masculinity in modern-day Latin America. Driven by Mascaro’s freely associative direction that draws heavily from the physicality and animalistic nature of rodeo races, the film approaches human sexuality on a subliminal level that feels raw, essential. By breaking down taboos like explicit phallic depictions and the asexual sanctity of pregnant women, it further gains a subversive edge usually seen in queer cinema. Cinematographer Diego García, who also shot Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mesmerizing Cemetery of Splendour, provides by turns breezily idyllic and swelteringly sensuous images here. The prolonged, one-take sex scene that more or less concludes the movie is captured with such unblinking intensity it packs the impact appropriate for all the pent-up desires as well as the story’s one unexpected revelation.

Cunningly ambivalent and stickily atmospheric, Neon Bull is an impressive exercise in style that further broadens the possibility of queer filmmaking. One only wishes it could have embedded such daring and verve in a more fully realized context.

The Program

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 8, 2015)

One of the enduring, almost mythological appeals of America has always been the promise that anyone has a shot at glory over there. As long as you persist and are willing to pay the price, nothing is out of reach in the land of the free, the home of the brave. Dream big, do whatever it takes, win everything.

That people can take this too far and resort to unthinkable measures for the sake of success is illustrated with sharp, ironic sobriety in the Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. Chronicling Armstrong’s rise to the top of the Tour de France, his unprecedented seven-year dominance of the cycling championships, and how it all came crumbling down after his elaborate doping scheme was exposed, this movie compels with its portrait of an insanely driven, charismatic yet repellent character, someone both winsome and loathsome. The scenes where the sportsman lies around getting his chemical boosts or frantically pumps water into his veins to avoid drug detection go hand-in-hand with those of a doting, inspiring icon taking extra time with cancer kids during hospital visits. And it’s through such paradoxical – both pitifully absurd and admirably kind – depictions that this man really starts to make sense.

Frears (The Queen) is, of course, no stranger to profiling complex, controversial public figures. Here he not only taps into a fascinating mindset, but further widens his observation to include the societal impact of celebrity and our collective obsession with feel-good narratives – how the fact that no one wanted to ruin the party most likely allowed a scandal to go on much longer than it should have. In the process, he’s crafted an engrossing anti-hero story that doesn’t reflect well on the rest of us.

Interview: László Nemes (Son of Saul)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Oct. 8 , 2015)

Is it true that the film was turned down by the Berlinale?

That is true. They didn’t want us in competition at least. I had thought, for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it would be a good film for Berlin, but…

On the other hand, the movie didn’t only make Cannes competition, which is rare enough for a debut feature, it went on to win the Grand Prix as well. Can you talk about the whole Cannes experience?

Well we knew pretty early on that we’d be in Cannes but we didn’t know in which section – we thought, maybe Un certain regard. And then came the news right before the official announcement that we’d be in competition, which was really quite a shock. To be honest it was scary, too. But we knew of course that this would give our film the kind of exposure it wouldn’t get otherwise. I also think the slot the festival chose to put us in – early on in the fest, low-profile – was suitable for the film.

Before going there, I had thought it’s going to be just superficial excitement, but when we actually presented the film, it was an almost spiritual experience. You feel a connection to the film, to the festival, to the audience. When I was walking into the theater, it felt like everything was in slow motion. And it was the first time that the cast and crew reunited after the shoot wrapped almost a year ago, so it was very special.

Most debut films would be impressive if they show ambition or have a brilliant idea. Yours is – on top of that – also technically accomplished. Where did you learn to do that?

I was an assistant director for years. I was an assistant to Béla Tarr in Hungary for two years, which taught me the basics of not just filmmaking, but high-level filmmaking – in terms of how to choreograph a scene, how to stage complicated shots, how to work with a professional crew etc. Also I had made three short films before this. And I had built a relationship to some key creative crew members over the years: the DP, the production designer, the sound designer. On such a foundation I can communicate with them effectively. It’s like we’ve been doing rehearsals all this time.

Talk about the technical achievement of the film, can you share how the astonishing cinematography came to be?

My cinematographer (Mátyás Erdély) is my age but he’s much more experienced – he’s shot like 15 features films. I think to shoot this film did require that kind of experience too, because this is a film where the cinematographer must be not just very good, but also someone who could resist the temptation to shoot a beautiful movie. The images needed to have a raw quality, not a pretty one. So I think it was important that he has had all that experience, for he’s past the stage of his career where he was just concentrating on pretty lighting, framing, and compositions. He understood the fact that visually, we needed something low-key, simple and raw. With that understanding we were able to speak the same language throughout the shoot. Before this we had made three short films together and he’s a cinematographer who’s involved even on the screenplay level. He asked me all the time about the story. For him it’s always story first. In fact we established a set of codes for this movie which we actually wrote down. Rules like: this is not a beautiful film. No beautiful shots. There would be no aestheticizing the suffering of the people. Or that the camera should be trained at eye level, making it a very subjective experience. Also, to use more or less only one 40mm lens because we wanted something that’s close to the human perception. And we didn’t want anything iconographic that would distract people’s attention. The movie should look a little messy, with an uncertain, unfinished quality.

And why this aspect ratio?

We were deciding between widescreen and the narrow academy aspect ratio. In the end we found that widescreen – although it would have looked very nice – would have been too… cinematic, it would have made a spectacle out of the background, made the background so stylistically important that we would lose the portrait-like focus we wanted for the film.

So you wanted the film to feel like a portrait.

Yes, we wanted it to be like a portrait because it’s about one man’s experience in hell. We’re all companion to the main character, he guides us through hell.

Can you talk about making the main character as non-verbal as he is?

These men are dead. This is something very central to how we approached the characters. These are special people. They’re so beyond traumatized they don’t function as normal human beings anymore. So our main character, like the others, is sort of a robot. He’s like someone who’s already dead but comes back alive or suddenly finds some life inside. So it had to be approached in a very low-key manner. The way these people are confronted with sufferings and the constant presence of death, why would they even be talking? As closed up as they must have been, it couldn’t have been natural for them to communicate their inner feelings. So that is a basic trait of our main character.

In fact we can’t even be sure if it’s really his son at all, can we?

Yeah it’s something that keeps coming back. And I think it’s essential to the story to try to discover who, what this boy is, and also to contemplate the implications of both possibilities. The viewer must consider both scenarios. In the end, I think the question we can ask ourselves is: does it matter if it’s his son or not?

The implications might be even more powerful if it’s not.

Yes, absolutely. A lot of people in the crew – I’m not going to say who here – think the boy is not his son.

Have you noticed different reactions from different audiences with this film?

I haven’t travelled enough to assess that. But overall I feel a strong engagement on the part of the audience every time, whether in Europe or North America.

What do you think is the relevance of a Holocaust film like this today?

I think people never had a direct, visceral understanding of what it might have been like to be inside a concentration camp, to be caught in the middle of an extermination machine. There have been attempts to approach it in a more intellectual manner, but not viscerally – to put you in the shoes of someone in that situation. It’s something that cinema can achieve, this kind of direct, intuitive relationship between the individual audience members and the character. We lack empathy in the sense that there’s a distance when we think about the camps in abstract terms. So I hope this movie can help make people really feel what it’s like to be oppressed and destroyed in our human experience. Also, if we consider Holocaust as a myth and not as something that took place in this world – I mean, Auschwitz was a factory, built by people and not by martians – if, as a civilization, we don’t address the genocidal tendency in our nature, how can we prevent such atrocities from happening again? So – maybe I’m being optimistic here – I think that’s something that cinema can do, to speak to the human in the audience. From there we can draw our own conclusions and the message becomes universal.

So it’s not just anti-Semitism that you’re trying to address with the film.

Absolutely. Of course, Jewish people have been subject to so much hatred for a long time so it’s specific in this sense obviously.

Donnerstag, 1. Oktober 2015


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 1, 2015)

The first narrative feature from Alejandro Amenábar in six years is an eclectic mix of things. Although they don’t add up to the lean, compelling elegance of either The Others (2001) or The Sea Inside (2004) – that one-two punch which put the Spanish director firmly on the map – the experience of going through such a sauna of sensory stimulations proves nonetheless exciting.

The movie begins very much like your run-of-the-mill police thriller, with a stone-faced cop (Hawke) bent on solving a crime when a young girl (Watson) accuses her father of molestation and abuse. Grim but unsensational, the story unfolds with the calculated intrigue and unchallenging prose of an easy airport read. After a regression therapist (Thewlis) is brought in to hypnotise the parties involved, however, things get increasingly nasty, pushing the picture ever deeper into the realm of hardcore horror. And just as you’re settling into the mode of a proper scary movie, ready for the climatic bloodbath to arrive, that’s when the biggest shock hits and the film reveals itself to be about none of those things at all.

The story, especially its ostentatious twist ending, will infuriate many for an ill-concealed air of smugness. But while it certainly isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, leaving retrospective plot holes left and right, the decision at its core to take the battle inside, turn it into a man’s fight to stay sane, is appealing and spookily effective. Through Amenábar’s typically strong visualization, the sense of paranoia, of a desperation to hold onto reason, positively leaps off the screen in certain scenes.

Skillfully executed and performed on a seemingly shrill but in fact highly conceptual script that could have been developed more gracefully, Regression is a pretend studio production with a raging indie heartbeat. It doesn’t get the balance trick quite right yet, so the tonal shifts come off forced at times. The vigor, style and decibel, however, combine to ensure a ride full of unexpectedly wicked fun.

Inside Out - pro & con (with Seymour Gris)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Oct. 1, 2015)

Pro: Brain meets heart

While other major animation studios cash in on the family audience by churning out harmlessly simple-minded money-making babies year after year, Pixar has always prided itself in its more innovative, sophisticated offerings. With Inside Out, yet another title can be added to that catalogue of hugely entertaining, glowingly original creations.

Instead of going into outer space with a robot or looking for a fish across the ocean, this adventure takes place inside young girl Riley’s head, where emotions are personified and scrambling to adjust after their host gets uprooted from her life in the Midwest. With childlike exuberance and deceptively naïve design, the film visualises the mysterious workings of human consciousness and some of the most primal, often difficult changes we all go through as adulthood approaches and innocence fades. The depictions might seem crude at times, but the ideas behind them carry such truth you can’t help but be reminded, enchanted, touched.

Bursting with empathy and heart, this wildly imaginative film is not just a rollercoaster ride full of delights and pitfalls. It’s a proper celebration of everything that makes us the thinking, dreaming, profoundly imperfect, impossibly complex creatures that we are.

Con: Wrong-headed (by Seymour Gris)

In Pixar’s latest feel-good frenzy, we experience 10-year-old Riley’s inner world as she goes through an oh-so-traumatic move from a safe small town to scary San Francisco. We’re privy to her inner turmoil shown as a garish fantasyland with a control centre operated by five obnoxious multi-coloured characters: the emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust.

The manic blue-haired Joy is boss, naturally. As things go haywire, Joy journeys through Riley’s mindscape, rides the “train of thought”, stumbles through a Hollywood-esque Dream Factory and falls into the dark chasm of the unconscious. All very inventive and cute, but the way this is sold to us as being inspired by the latest psychology research is highly irritating, as is the unavoidable message that nerdy, spectacled Sadness turns out to be the saviour. “It’s okay to be sad!” the film screams, like a pedantic educational video.

Let’s get real: Inside Out is a mildly entertaining ride, but none of it really makes any sense. The structures of Riley’s psyche seem arbitrarily fantastical, a patchwork of the past century’s theories. Freud? Jung? Behaviourism? Whatever! Is this supposed to appeal to sensitive parents set on raising emotionally literate brats? Judging by audiences at theatres, it surely appeals to ‘kidults’ who relish having their children’s emotions explained to them served up on a pop-psychology plate.

Freitag, 25. September 2015

Venice Film Festival 2015

Of the 34 movies I saw at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, these are my favorites.

Best film: "Desde allá (From Afar)"
Runner-up: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
honorable mentions: "Francofonia", "Anomalisa", "Abluka (Frenzy)"

(Two brothers descend into paranoia and lunacy as conflict takes over the streets of Turkey in "Abluka (Frenzy)" (u.l.); a Russian old master reflects on history and culture looking at the Louvre under Nazi occupation in "Francofonia" (u.r.); predator, benefactor, lover, betrayer are all one in the atypical romance from Venezuela "Desde allá (From Afar)" (central); little puppet man finds the one in a sea of sames on a business trip to Cincinnati in "Anomalisa" (l.l.); time is ticking as a woman battles the corrupt Mexican insurance practice that is the very embodiment of "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)" (l.r.))

Best director: Aleksandr Sokurov ("Francofonia")
Runner-up: Lorenzo Vigas ("Desde allá (From Afar)")
honorable mentions: Rodrigo Plá ("Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"), Duke Johnson / Charlie Kaufman ("Anomalisa"), Emin Alper ("Abluka (Frenzy)")

Best lead actor: Alfredo Castro ("Desde allá (From Afar)")
Runner-up: Abraham Attah ("Beasts of No Nation")
honorable mentions: Guillermo Francella ("El Clan (The Clan)"), 馮小剛 (Xiaogang Feng) ("老炮兒 (Mr. Six)"), Fabrice Luchini ("L'hermine (Courted)")

Best lead actress: Catherine Frot ("Marguerite")
Runner-up: Valeria Golino ("Per amor vostro (Anna)")
honorable mentions: Alicia Vikander ("The Danish Girl"), Juliette Binoche ("L'attesa (The Wait)), Jana Raluy ("Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)")

(Catherine Frot as the worst opera singer in the world whose very public acts of self-humiliation have very private motivations (u.l.); Valeria Golino as a professional woman grappling with her messy family and love life through spontaneous musical numbers (u.r.); Alicia Vikander as portraitist Gerda Wegener and devoted wife of the man who would eventually become Lili Elbe (l.l.); Juliette Binoche as a grief-stricken mother hanging onto a lie with dogged resilience in order to survive (l.central); Jana Raluy as a desperate everywoman who goes to unthinkable lengths to secure the drug that could save her dying husband (l.r.)) 

Best supporting actor: Luis Silva ("Desde allá (From Afar)")
Runner-up: Michel Fau ("'Marguerite")
honorable mention: Jesse Plemons ("Black Mass")

Best supporting actress: Lili Popovich ("El Clan (The Clan)")
Runner-up: Dakota Johnson ("A Bigger Splash")
honorable mention: 許晴 (Summer Xu) ("老炮兒 (Mr. Six)")

Best screenplay: "L'hermine (Courted)"
Runner-up: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
honorable mentions: "Desde allá (From Afar)",  "El Clan (The Clan)", "Marguerite"

Best editing: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
Runner-up: "Francofonia"
honorable mentions: "El Clan (The Clan)", "A Bigger Splash", "11 minut (11 Minutes)"

Best cinematography: "A Bigger Splash" 
Runner-up: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
honorable mentions: "Abluka (Frenzy)", "El Clan (The Clan)", "L'attesa (The Wait)"

Best art direction: "The Danish Girl"
Runner-up: "L'attesa (The Wait)"
honorable mentions: "Per amor vostro (Anna)", "Equals", "Anomalisa"

Best costume design: "The Danish Girl"
Runner-up: "El Clan (The Clan)"
honorable mentions: "A Bigger Splash", "Equals", "Marguerite"

Best film music: "The Childhood of a Leader"
Runner-up: "A Bigger Splash"
honorable mentions: "El Clan (The Clan)", "Francofonia", "Looking for Grace"

The terror and perversity hidden within the Puccio household elevated to chilling heights through an unexpectedly upbeat song selection in "El Clan (The Clan)"(top); the feelings between the sexy foursome are as jumbled and alive as the by turns blaring, suggestive, ominous notes in "A Bigger Splash" (right); a whole new level of scale and cultivation is brought about by the grand, floral orchestral music in "Francofonia" (bottom); nothing else can quite keep up with the humorous, fanciful, über-quirky score in "Looking for Grace" (left); the violently restless mind of a tantrum-ready child aurally realized through Scott Walker's deafening, frightening creation in "The Childhood of a Leader" (central) 

Best sound: Abluka ("Frenzy")
Runner-up: "Beasts of No Nation"
honorable mention: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"

Best musical number: "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" in "Anomalisa"
Runner-up: "Emotional Rescue" in "A Bigger Splash"
honorable mentions: "Der Hölle Rache" in "Marguerite", "Waiting for the Miracle" in "L'attesa (The Wait)", opening sequence of "Per amor vostro (Anna)"

Mittwoch, 23. September 2015

Interview: Sharon Maymon / Tal Granit (The Farewell Party)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 22 , 2015)

Is any aspect of your film based on real-life events or experiences?

Sharon Maymon: The idea of the film came from the death of Helga, the grandmother of my ex-boyfriend. She died at the age of 80 from cancer. We were there the day she died and saw how death released her from pain and suffering. But then the paramedics came into the room and, for half an hour, tried to bring her back to life. It felt so absurd. From that moment of absurdity came the idea of the film.

What made you decide to employ comedic elements in a film about assisted suicide?

Tal Granit: Sharon and I had directed short films together before and in most of them we approached heavy social subjects with humour. We found that it’s a powerful tool to open the hearts of the audience while talking about very difficult issues.

Maymon: And it was not just a scriptwriting decision, either. We also cast comedians for the film. All the actors in this film are well-known comedians in Israel from the 1970s. We knew that if we cast these people, they would bring the humour, the right comedic timing with them.

And how did you make sure the comedy works – that it’s funny but, in view of the context, not insensitive?

Maymon: It’s very hard. We had lots of arguments. We would argue about one word in a sentence for a whole week. We knew that we had to stay very sharp in order to strike the right balance. It’s certainly a risky thing to do, but if you’re not taking risks when you make a film, it’s boring.

Have you noticed different reactions to the film in different countries?

Maymon: I’ve noticed that in countries where euthanasia is legal, people are more interested to know how it is in Israel. But ultimately this movie is about feelings, love and separation. So I think it’s the same everywhere.

Granit: Also, wherever we travel with this movie, there’s always someone in the audience who wants to know if we kept the “mercy-killing machine”. It seems that, across cultures and borders, everyone is secretly hoping to have such a machine – just in case.

Speaking of the mercy-killing machine, where did you get the idea for that?

Maymon: It all started when the characters wanted to put their friend Max out of his misery but realised that they couldn’t do it themselves. Because we wanted to add a light touch to the design of the machine, we used the Shabbat timer and the bicycle chains. We knew the apparatuses that Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian and Dr. [Philip] Nitschke used, and ours is a combination of those two and some humour.

Your movie features an entire cast of senior performers, which doesn’t happen that often.

Maymon: I actually think that these days, there are quite many movies with senior casts, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel parts I and II, Quartett, etc. – and they’re all blockbusters! Now Hollywood finally figured out only pensioners go to the cinemas anymore. [Laughs] Actually, we’d worked with the main actor Ze’ev Revach on a short film 11 years ago. We wrote this role specifically for him. It’s the same with lead actress Levana Finkelstein, who I’d also worked with before. We didn’t think about their age.

Roundtable interview: 蔡明亮 (Tsai Ming-liang) (那日下午 (Afternoon))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 21 , 2015)

When I was watching the film, I almost felt like I was watching something too personal. What made you decide to open up like this? 

I’ve always been very open about myself. And my movies have always made people uncomfortable. In Taiwan, this movie first appeared as a book. So journalists were excited about all the “scoop” they found in it. As far as I’m concerned, however, there’s no scoop here. It’s my life, I’ve never been secretive about it. Kang-sheng Lee and I, we just rarely talk about it. And I mean, what are movies supposed to be about if not private thoughts and emotions? The creative process is inevitably private. People might think it’s strange for artists to bring their private life into the films they make, but that’s exactly what we do and what we ought to do.  

You also shared things about your creative process in the film, which many directors avoid doing. 

This is not a film on filmmaking. The reason why I inquire about Kang-sheng Lee’s process in the film is that I almost never communicate with my actors. So when we had a chance to talk like this, I was genuinely curious to know what was going through his mind when we shot this scene or that. It was definitely not my intention to lecture on filmmaking or share my method through this film. Everyone approaches filmmaking differently anyway.  

Many filmmakers also avoid the discussion of what cinema is, but you seem ready to engage in such discussions.

I remember when my fifth film Good Bye, Dragon Inn premiered here in Venice, every single one of the journalists – well, at least all the Occidental ones - asked me the same question: “What is cinema?” I was excited by that question because it hadn’t been discussed enough. Just now another journalist pointed out to me: “There’s never a script to your films.” I asked him in response: “Do you think a film must have a script?” He answered with some exasperation: “Yes, of course!” This serves to prove my point that cinema has been industrialized, commercialized nowadays. Within that structure, there’s not much room for creativity anymore. So we actually need to re-think what cinema is under such circumstances.  

When this film was revealed as part of the official line-up, the initial festival designation was neither feature film nor documentary, but the curious term “non-fiction”. 

People have often had trouble categorizing my films. The Marseille Festival of Documentary Film wanted to have the Walker series in competition, for example, to which I said: “It’s not a documentary though!” The programmers simply responded: “But we think it’s a documentary!” So film festivals all have their own criteria, and many of them are willing to be flexible when it comes to my work, which is often hard to categorize. This year, I purposefully submitted Afternoon to the Golden Horse Awards as a narrative feature, almost as a prank to see how they’d react – and sure enough, it got eliminated.  

But did you set out to make a narrative feature or a documentary with Afternoon?

I didn’t think in those terms when I was making it. But after I saw the finished movie, I felt like I was playing myself in a way - like I was the co-lead of my own movie. We were getting filmed after all. So even if we weren’t “performing”, we were kind of playing ourselves. There was actually another film festival that wanted to have Afternoon in their competition as a narrative feature, they thought it’s a love story! But in the end I chose Venice to premiere the film.    

People generally like easy labels though. 

For me the product of a creative process doesn’t have to be categorized one way or another. But the world we live in works in very standardized ways. It demands you to put things in categories. A short film or a feature film must be how many minutes long etc. I never quite understood such rules. I’ve tried to break these restrictions with my work before.    

In the movie you talked about selling tickets to your films on the streets of Taiwan, which seems quite a contrast to the kind of rock-star status you enjoy at A-list European film festivals.

Well, I started out doing theater and have always had a commoner’s perspective. I don’t think of art as something exclusive or elusive. Directors aren’t emperors. Whether I go on the streets to sell tickets or get treated differently at film festivals, I find it all very normal, because the circumstances are different. Lately I’ve been busy preparing for an exhibition in Guangzhou in connection with the museum screenings of Stray Dogs, where I also needed to do promotional work to sell tickets, giving speeches everywhere. People were surprised how low-maintenance I was but I thought it’s the most logical thing in the world. This is what the circumstances require. My goal is clear: I want as many people to see my work as possible. Whether they’ll like it or not is another question.    

You seem to really enjoy challenging the conventions, the rules, even at such traditional, classic film festivals like Venice.

In Asia, especially in Taiwan, I rebel even more strongly again any form of establishment. I chose not to release my films in cinemas but in art museums. And even then I would change the usual practice of art museums. I made them extend their opening hours to nighttime and allow people watching my films to sleep in the museum. Art museums also have their share of established rules, which I think only makes them less approachable for the public. And when people see my films in a museum, they also tend to be more open-minded about them – the slowness doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore. So I do like to play with these rules about how things are supposed to be done. In Taiwan I’ve also shot a 23-min film to be shown in cinemas. In the ad campaigns I asked the question: Must a movie be 90 minutes long?        

Can you talk about the genesis of the project Afternoon?

After Stray Dogs became a prize-winner at the Golden Horse Awards and at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, people became really curious to see the movie. I insisted on showing it only in art museums, because otherwise it would have been the same small group of ticket buyers who’d see it in cinemas. This idea got the attention of some publishers, who contacted me to write a book as a companion piece. I thought it’d be boring to go the usual route and publish the script, attach some film stills and making-of materials. So I came up with the idea to have an in-depth discussion with Kang-sheng Lee, who’s the focus of Stray Dogs. After we shot the whole thing, I watched it back and thought it’s actually quite nice, visually in particular. Together with the images, it became something that’s more than just words. So I decided it should stand as a cinematic piece.  

Your films, including Stray Dogs, have often raised the critique that they’re not films, but art pieces. 

Well, film is art. That’s why I always go back to the essence of film when I make one. And for me that’s the image and not the story, not even the performances. So I spend most of my efforts on perfecting the images of my films. You can look at it the other way around too. In 2007 I was invited by the programmers of fine arts to do an exhibition at the Biennale, but my concept for the piece was still film.

Where did this refusal to stick to labels come from?  

It is true that I’m wary of labels. I’ve never liked limitations since I was little. I think that has a lot to do with my childhood. I grew up in Malaysia in the 60’s. Back then things were fairly relaxed, free. The limitations came later. And they made me uncomfortable. After I left Malaysia and started working in Taiwan, I also encountered many limitations. A screenplay should be written in a certain way, for example. I always tried to rebel against such rules and was fortunate enough to meet many people along the way who supported me. After I started making films, my work quickly found its way into the European market. The European investors or distributors were much more open-minded.

You mentioned you rarely communicated with your actors. But, from Kang-sheng Lee to Shiang-chyi Chen (female lead of Stray Dogs), you coached such amazing performances out of them! How did you do that?  

It’s different with individual actors. With Kang-sheng Lee, you don’t need to coach him. All you need to do is give him a scenario. Because of his age and living experiences, he can naturally give you the appropriate response. In the case of Shiang-chyi Chen, it’s more about getting rid of things because she, as a student and now a professor of performance arts, carries too much baggage with her. As a director, all I’m after can be simply described as authenticity.

The 15-min dialogue-free penultimate scene of Stray Dogs is already legendary. How did you make that work?

My goal as a filmmaker is not to create drama, but to craft images. So scenery is of the utmost importance to me - the actors must become part of the scenery. When that happens, they’ll be able to express everything there is to express. The scene you mentioned we shot twice. The first time I quickly yelled cut because it was obviously not working. But we got it the second time. The thing is, filmmakers generally work under a lot of restrictions like running time, storyboard, plot etc. I don’t submit myself to such restrictions. Of course, I face a different kind of challenge as a result. The process I need in order to get to the result sometimes seems pointless. A scene of two people standing next to each other for an extended period of time, for example. At some point it also strikes me as empty. But should I accept this emptiness? Emptiness is a part of life after all. These are the questions I have to consider before making my decisions. So I allow imprecision in my work from time to time. I actually like this imprecise quality. It strikes me as true to life. The audience responds to this kind of film differently as when they watch conventional dramas, where they know when to laugh or cry. Instead, everyone would have their individual reaction. To me, that’s the proof of true creative work.

Venice Film Festival: 老炮兒 (Mr. Six)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 20, 2015)

From the late 80’s til the early 00’s, Chinese cinema has been a mainstay at A-list film festivals worldwide, picking up trophies left and right. Things changed, however, as the Mandarin film market experienced an exponential growth in the last decade, inspiring many award-winning “underground” filmmakers to go “mainstream”. While making movies for a mass audience is in itself a perfectly valid pursuit, the drastic decline in quality of these auteurs’ commercially-oriented work has been more than disheartening. Golden Bear (Red Sorghum, 1988) and two-time Golden Lion (The Story of Qiu Ju, 1992; Not One Less, 1999) winner Yimou Zhang, for example, has given us splashy CG-extravaganzas like House of Flying Daggers (2004) or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) that are a far cry from his earlier work in terms of subtlety and insightfulness. Palme d’Or winner Kaige Chen (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) crashed and burned with the much-maligned Sacrifice (2010); and Cannes Granx Prix winner Wen Jiang (Devils on the Doorstep, 2000) also dropped to career low with his box office hit Gone With the Bullets (2014). And so one approaches Hu Guan’s latest effort Mr. Six, which closed this year’s Venice Film Festival, with understandable caution.

Guan certainly hasn’t struck gold internationally the way those mentioned above have, but he’s been quietly establishing himself as a distinct new voice in Chinese cinema over the past decade. Whether it’s the thickly atmospheric Design of Death (2012) or the kinetic, Tarantino-esque The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel (2013), his films display sharp personal, societal observations mixed with an unapologetic genre sensibility. With Mr. Six, traces of those attributes are still noticeable, but it’s sadly still a step-down that feels suspiciously market-driven.

The titular character (played by Xiaogang Feng) is an ex-gangster pushing sixty who no longer has money or turf wars on his mind but patrols his old neighborhood as a self-appointed magistrate. He doesn’t allow bullying, swindling or any such injustice and tolerates neither ill-mannered crooks nor bad cops. Because he’s been the boss of things for so long, people both sides of the law naturally defer to him and he gets to keep up the appearance of an authority figure. That changes as his estranged son Xiao Bo (Yifeng Li) is abducted for crossing über-rich heir of Party functionary, Xiao Fei (Kris Wu). A washed-up gang-leader who used to call the shots must now face a new generation of bad boys who don’t play by his rules anymore.

Sounds ripe for an exciting father-son drama, Taken-style. All the more surprising, then, to find a movie this tame, thoroughly unspectacular. On the action front, there’s very little happening except for a couple of car chases and modestly staged fist fights. The former, unimaginatively shot and heavily reliant on additional light and sound effects, fails to produce any convincing sense of speed. The latter, brief and scarcely choreographed, betrays a half-heartedness at odds with the film’s promised hard edge. Indeed, not much of the bold, fancifully theatrical camera work one associates with Guan’s films is on display here. There are striking shots of daily life along ancient Beijing hutongs or, signaling the final showdown, an old man trekking over the surface of a giant frozen lake, but the beauty is more of a more plastic, superficially pleasing variety that’ll probably sweep nobody off their feet. The editing is also underwhelming, cutting scenes into such short, digestible units they barely have room to breathe or build up a rhythm. Add to that a production design as sleek and posh as per modern Chinese blockbuster standards, and you get an overall visual impression of a carefully groomed teen idol who’s easy on the eyes but lacks depth, heft, personality.  

Speaking of teen idols, pop stars Li and Wu are both serviceable if unremarkable in their roles which, to be fair, aren’t terribly well written. Li can’t quite shake this doe-like quality from his big, pretty eyes to play an angry son living out his rebellion, while Wu simply can’t work up the venom or fury needed for the villainous part. There’s a brittle two-dimensionality to their performances that prevent them from registering on any emotional level. It falls on veteran director/actor Feng to bring the weight of screen presence that ultimately saves the picture from completely tanking. With tremendous poise and an oceanic calm that comes from decades of experience - in life as well as in film – he nails a character who’s seen everything, has life long figured out, and feels impatience above all else when imposing young chaps try to rattle him with bravado and threats. Paternalistic, fair-minded, loyal to a fault, Mr. Six is someone born in another time and who still fights for his values. As a metaphor for the endangered conscience in an ever more materialistic Chinese society it’s a bit obvious. But as a movie character it’s a fine creation, one that’s enhanced invaluably by Feng’s wonderfully aged star turn.

Plotted with limited imagination and directed with atypical flatness, Mr. Six features a strong central performance and shares its humanistic concern with Hu Guan’s previous work but is nevertheless an artistic underachiever. Altogether it’s not so much an outright disaster as a worrisome indicator of Guan’s readiness to compromise. Ironic then, how in a movie where the protagonist is constantly lamenting the good ol’ days, we also wish its helmer would go back to the way he used to do it.          

Venice Film Festival: Desde allá (From Afar)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 14, 2015)

Proving yet again that festival juries don’t read the trades or pay attention to chatter, the Golden Lion of the 72nd Venice Film Festival was presented to the Venezuelan drama Desde allá (From Afar), a film that screened relatively late at the fest, when general opinion on the Lido seemed to have settled on this being a race between Rabin, the Last Day, Blood of My Blood and Francofonia. In a discerning and gutsy move, the star-studded jury chaired by Alfonso Cuarón decided to recognize the achievement of writer/director Lorenzo Vigas’ debut feature over those higher-profile pictures from established masters. It’s gutsy because this film tells a moving if deeply unpleasant story with a significant ick factor that’s going to put many people off. It’s discerning because, as contained and particular as the film’s subject matter and as unassuming as its approach, From Afar delivers an incisive, poignant, surgically precise character study that deals a fatal blow in one crisp, clean stab.

We first meet Armando (Alfredo Castro), a middle-aged dentures shop owner who finds release for his closeted urges by bringing home young men he picks up from the streets. Not five minutes into the film we already see him fervently masturbating to the sight of a teenage boy’s exposed behind. There doesn’t seem to be any physical contact involved and the brief rendezvous goes down consensually. Yet the hushed atmosphere, the cash exchange and the marked age difference between the two participants, underlined by close-ups of one’s wrinkled face and the other’s babyishly smooth skin, give the whole episode a sleazy, repellent air.

Judging from Armando’s nonchalant demeanor and practiced orchestration of the meeting, you get the idea he’s been doing this for a while. But nothing has prepared him for Elder (Luis Silva), a street kid with a fiery temper who backs down from a deal, turns to assault and rob the older man before fleeing his apartment. It’s no surprise that Armando doesn’t report the incident to the police and silently stomachs the injuries he suffered. Things get interesting, however, when he seeks out Elder again and, without a hint of anger or fear, willingly offers to pay this violent, unreliable person a second time, thereby setting in motion a chain of events none of them could have expected.            

Written with a forthrightness that cuts through caution and shame, the screenplay allows a highly unconventional relationship to run its course. The two main characters are anything but sanitized, amply demonstrating their least appealing qualities while trapped in some desolate far reaches of the human psyche. There are no labels put on the many emotional gray areas they go through. Instead, we simply witness how out of an animalistic, mutually exploitative arrangement grows something approaching tenderness, which in turn triggers reactions in both of them as subtle as they are devastating. Through it all, Vigas’ writing remains non-judgmental and keenly observant. He doesn’t attempt to explain everything with words, but the raw honesty of his voice compels every step along the way.

Vigas the director also knows to keep the ambiguity alive, playing with composition, depth and distance in a way that emphasizes the gap between the protagonists. Armando is often seen from the back, looking out onto a pool of potential prey, his estranged, supposedly abusive father, or just this mysterious boy who might be sleeping right in front of him, yet could not be more remote, heartbreakingly unknowable. In the scene where Elder first introduces Armando to his family and friends at a dance, the camera traces the wondering looks of different parties from across the floor, communicating with little verbal help a tension simmering in the room as curiosity, attraction, jealousy and everything in between slowly take control. Like the rest of the film, the staging here is economical, the styling modest, but the immediacy and effectiveness of the visual language are unmistakable.  

Both leads are excellent. After a brilliant turn as a pedophile priest in Pablo Larraín’s Berlinale-winner El Club (The Club) earlier this year, Castro dazzles again with the complex portrayal of someone harboring a secret. Restrained, alert, camouflaged by an exterior of prudence and indifference but desperate from a mind coarsened beyond repair, Armando is an exceptional creation that repulses, captivates and mystifies. On paper it would take some persuasion to buy a character of such contradictions and obscure motivations, but Castro’s face, at times hardened by despair, at others softened by longing, informs you so much of a chronically lonely person that, on an intuitive level, everything falls into place. Newcomer Silva brings an unpolished explosiveness to the picture, which plays off Castro’s calculated placidity tremendously.    

Powered by a sea of suppressed, unreciprocated feelings, From Afar beautifully describes the mechanisms of desire in what begins as an almost-love story that ends up something tragically different. It might not be the most ambitious or technically achieved film of the Venice competition line-up this year, but it certainly cuts closest to heart, leaving behind the most jagged tear.