Samstag, 28. März 2015

El Club (The Club)

(Originally appeared in Film International on Mar. 26, 2015)

When "No" (2012) took the festival circuit by storm and eventually won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination some years back, there were probably a handful of us who remained unconvinced or even slightly mystified. The historical drama about the ad campaign that brought down Pinochet's military regime was certainly substantial, informative, ably told, but that all-decisive spark of genius, that masterful sense of ease or vitality might have been wanting. It's comforting and doubly exciting then, to see Chilean director Pablo Larraín return with a bona fide tour de force of a movie that delivers on all that promise so many saw in him.

Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, the ruthlessly dark and acidly funny film opens unspectacularly enough. We see a man playing with his dog on the beach as he keeps throwing a bait tied to a fishing rod around in wide circles, keeping it ever just out of reach of the eager but hopeless hound. We see the same man, joined by three other similarly inconspicuous, middle-aged to elderly compatriots and an unassuming woman, silently dining together. And we see them follow a dog race in town closely, albeit somewhat surreptitiously, where their well-trained pet does them proud and finishes first. All this is shown while the temporal setting is not clear, the location nondescript and the arrangement these people live by unexplained. Within the purplish, foggy first frames of the picture, which optically give the impression of being softly out of focus, everything seems still, routine, calmly resolved. Yet at the same time, the pacified appearances speak a disturbing oddness that can't quite be contained. In fact, it might just be the careful hush that gives it away.
The mystery of what's really at stake is temporarily kept alive with the arrival of Father Lazcano, a new addition to the "community". Some details do surface as rules of the house are relayed. We learn these are all clergymen and -woman. They must abide by a punishingly strict code of conduct which practically isolates them from the rest of world. It's obvious too that they don't enjoy any intrusion or attention, a fact made notable by the unannounced visit of a drunk drifter, whose mere presence and loud, unseemly accusations against the freshly settled Father Lazcano from outside the residence bring on tremendous distress inside. The movie essentially starts when the demanded confrontation ends in tragedy and another priest is sent down to investigate the incident.

Screenwriters Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos and Larraín himself are smart in their approach to telling a story about secrecy. In gradually, almost reluctantly revealing plot elements and character histories, the viewer is relegated to the role of a true outsider, constantly intrigued by but excluded from this group of five. We get to first spend time with these curiously blank faces, observe their tenuous, rarefied existence, experience them as human beings with their fair share of quirks and penchants- context-free, judgment-free. A moral dilemma is thus created when the icky background of how they ended up in this semi-self-imprisonment is introduced and, seeing this once so harmless-seeming bunch in a brand new light, one must decide whether or not and, indeed, how to side with them any longer.

The verbally explicit, tonally chameloeonic screenplay makes no apologies for its ridicule and attack of the Catholic Church, landing joke after joke about the backward thinking and perverted logic passed down over generations. At the same time it exposes the human devastation wreaked by such restrictive dogmas coupled with habitual lying to work up some palpable, righteous rage. By turns ironic and angry but always based on a solid, juicy plot which often can't be found among the lofty affairs shown at film festivals, this is highly satisfying auteur cinema with that exceptional audience appeal. When, in the final act, all the dirty laundry is laid bare and the dimension of potential disaster is made clear to the investigating priest, we get to watch first-hand how the survival instincts of a thousand-year-old institution click, sealing off every leaky opening and chopping down loose ends like a well-oiled machine. It's a stroke of brilliance in screenwriting that, paced like a thriller, brings the absurdity and wretchedness of the situation home. By letting the audience in on the rotten secret from within, it's also quietly saying: "Welcome to the club".

Larraín is a patient, wickedly skilled storyteller who knows he's got a great tale up his sleeves. While fully aware of the gravity of the subject matter, he dips into it deceptively light, facilitating an easier immersion in the particular circumstances and, in the process, allowing for a vivid, more open-minded look at the condemned. Instead of victimizing the perpetrators or trivializing the atrocities committed at their hands, however, this unsensationalistic, almost relaxed treatment uncovers the sick psychology behind the veil of holiness even more tellingly. For sure, overall the movie is not without its bumpy stretches, marked sometimes by a lone cello score that arguably lays it on too thick. But compared to "No", Larraín shows significantly boosted confidence and a playful dexterity here, drifting in and out of comedy, delighting with a blasphemously dry humor. Through this partly comic-like quality plus emphatic motifs and iconic visual cues, he also helps the movie obtain a fabulous, almost mythological air. This last achievement is of course not possible without the contribution of a superb team of actors, each bringing a distinct brand of unnameable peculiarity to the character ensemble. Among the many fine performers Alfredo Castro is fearlessly committed as the withdrawn, proudly repressed Father Vidal who now finds his life's purpose only in a greyhound. And Antonia Zegers gives the chillingly composed and resolute Sister Mónica the inner fire that makes her status as the guardian of the group believable.  

Unsurprisingly and entirely deservedly, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Berlinale. No doubt it will offend many people's sensitivities and it probably won't be Vatican's favorite movie of the year, but wherever one stands on the issue of systemized abuse within the Catholic Church, this is first and foremost an engaging and uniquely powerful cautionary tale about hiding, ignoring, self-deluding. It's about the terrible cost of concealing so much so long until, as a character says at one point, "you don't know who you're covering up for anymore."

Mittwoch, 25. März 2015


American directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's sci-fi horror romance "Spring" doesn't quite work as a whole but definitely has some things going for it. Set in an Italian coastal town where a young Californian boy escaping from the woes of life befriends an enigmatic girl who may be more than the kind of crazy that he can handle, it transplants a Linklater-esque talky relationship drama onto hardcore genre soil. Ideally adventurous, atmospherically lush and optically striking, it's a refreshing splice that titillates more with the promise of alien fruit than what it actually bears.

While consistently intriguing thanks to its unconventional premise, the script is structurally and substantially off, with an hour of tease and no real danger, followed by a less than solid third act that feels faintly desperate in its attempt to be romantic. The two protagonists discuss about everything from living in the finite to regenerative embryonic cells but the prolonged exchanges sometimes sound affected and verbal communication just doesn't seem like the natural response to situations involving, for instance, the discovery of monstrous beings inside a loved one. Terrific visual-aural design does provide much lovely distraction though, compensating significantly for the failings in writing/editing. The cinematography by co-director Moorhead, with its tender, yellowish hue and delectably warm glow, dazzles from the first frame on. Whether gazing at crashing waves, blossoming flowers, writhing insects or decomposing livestock, the camera pulsates with the industry of life and death, rendering the film's cryptically concise title meaningful through an air of possibility and rebirth. Neither the score nor the sound effects are truly remarkable but individual insertions of artfully engineered noise crackle like live wire and succeed in giving the pervasive echo of restlessness even more buzz.

The two leads Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker are both easily likable, with the former bringing a particular dose of earnest youthfulness that's casually disarming. Unfortunately the performances and their chemistry are overshadowed by the inadequacies of a film too high on one cool idea without realizing how to turn it into a full-fledged narrative.

Montag, 23. März 2015

The Guest

When done right, genre cinema stirs, scratches, satisfies a silly but very human itch for mayhem the way no sophisticated art film can. And American director Adam Wingard's "The Guest", a comically retro-fueled action thriller, does just about everything right.

Wasting no time whatsoever, the film introduces the unannounced arrival of the titular house guest right away- a mysterious, creepily sincere ex-army named David. Claiming to be a close friend of the family's deceased son during service, he stays to become everyone's new best friend until...people start popping up dead all over the place.

Wingard knows exactly what kind of movie he's making and luckily has the guts and chops to go through with it. Blessedly showing zero intellectual pretension, his is a precise, gloriously playful vision characterized by sleek narrative simplicity and a sizzling, single-minded drive. In reducing his protagonists to the most basic constructs of reactions and impulses, he's created a brilliantly coarse, perfectly self-contained other-world in which to stage all kinds of stylized wackiness. And what style there is! From the bold, loud color choices, the bluntly in-your-face choreography to the kitschy, 80's-inspired music, the movie proves to be one of those rare occasions where the purposefully bloated design and sound elements feel so organic and complete as a package you can't help but cave in to their trashy charm.

Dan Stevens gives a sensational performance as the dangerously charismatic killing machine. By turns amused, flirtatious, psychopathically intense and often snapping from one mode to another within split seconds, this is a magnetizing star turn that sustains the pumped-up crazy vibe around it. Of course the film is altogether a pointedly shallow exercise in sensory pleasure, but like most things in life this unhealthy, it's nothing if not extremely appetizing and devilishly gratifying.

Donnerstag, 19. März 2015

The Boy Next Door

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

Female-centric films don't always make the best argument for female-centric films. "The Boy Next Door", an erotic thriller produced by and starring Jennifer Lopez, for example, is such a misguided effort one fails to see how having more movies like this would advance the feminist cause or shed a light on the psyche of the fairer sex.

The marriage of high school teacher Claire (played by Lopez) is in a tricky place as she's not sure whether to forgive her cheating husband after a prolonged separation. Of course this is also when young hunk Noah (Ryan Guzman) moves in next door to take care of an ailing granduncle. Following some snickers-inducing come-on lines and countless shots of them giving each other the eye, they spend a night together. But as early as the morning after, the unstable nature of the boy shows itself and it's not long before threats are made and murders attempted.

The silly excuse of a screenplay is just that: very silly. At no point do you feel confronted with any description of mindset or dissection of motives. Besides getting its two hot leads into all kinds of hip-hugging, curves-accentuating wardrobe, it's hard to identify the function of something this poorly recycled and laughably written. Guzman displays a remarkably limited acting range as he manages to fail scenes that don't demand that much of him. Lopez is a compelling screen presence but has zero credibility playing demure. The camera's almost comical fixation on her enviable figure also leaves the suspicious scent of a vanity project. Director Rob Cohen has apparently little idea of or interest in female sexuality and goes about things in blunt, generic ways reminiscent of a Cinemaxx midnight special. So it's no surprise that, unlike the similarly-themed "Unfaithful" (2002), where sharp direction plus nuanced performances can turn a bus ride home sensually and emotionally volcanic, the height of tension is achieved in this movie when an incident involving hacked printers spewing out sex photos is treated with the ticking-clock gravitas of an imminent terrorist attack.

With plenty of glossed lips and oiled abs but non-existent pace or surprise, this utterly conventional affair lands like such a dud it doesn't even score as guilty pleasure.


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

Widely tipped as a potential young-adult franchise-starter, there was a lot of hype preceding the release of "Divergent" last year. After all is said and done, the sci-fi action drama did more than okay with a global cume of nearly USD300 million, which was way ahead of other tentpole wannabes targeting this demographic like "The Host" or "The Mortal Instruments", but still falling short of expectations. The sobering box office numbers incidentally also reflected the middling quality of the film- snappy popcorn entertainment with a dose of intellectual ambition that doesn't reach any level of greatness but is nowhere near the worst of what this genre has to offer. The inevitable sequel fares more or less like a genetic extension of the original, only with some visible, mostly cosmetic improvements.

Once again based on the bestselling novel by Veronica Roth, "Insurgent" rightly sheds off about 30 minutes in length but feels, if anything, more substantial than its predecessor. The "divergent" couple Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) flees from the city and the 5-faction system that once held everything in place but is now in turmoil after an essential coup staged by power woman Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Before they can return with their names cleared and unlock a sacred message that will forever change the community's collective worldview, there will be sanctuaries sought, alliances formed, friends betrayed, presumed dead mother found and all kinds of simulation tests survived.

For some unconvincing logic, roughened character development and the plastic air of its imperfectly imagined cosmos, the story can't be called smart, although it does feature interesting individual aspects. The political angle of the inter-factional warfare, for example, mirrors timeless human motivations and intrigues accordingly. Despite the persisting problem of unrefined CGI and a gray-ish, dystopian visual palette that could be lifted directly from the "Hunger Games" series, the film also looks better than the first one. The lovely art direction on that commune-like refuge, the impressive aerial photography during a couple of chase sequences and the generally crisper editing all did their part. Acting-wise, no one from the cast particularly stands out, meaning James is not as wooden as the last time around but also that Winslet underwhelms yet again in icy dictator-mode. Overall this is not a bad way to kill two hours, even if, as in the case of most teenager-oriented cinematic products, one might be hard pressed to name where that time went just a few days later.

Donnerstag, 12. März 2015

Berlinale: Cinderella

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Mar. 12, 2015)

Perhaps a live-action adaptation of beloved fairy tales is just an inherently doomed idea, seeing how even without the ill-advised reinvention that Snow White and Maleficent underwent, Kenneth Branagh’s version of "Cinderella" is still such a chore to sit through.

Staying pedantically true to the original, the story about a commoner girl tyrannised by her stepmother and -sisters only to end up with the prince is exactly as you know it: decency triumphs, endurance pays off, love conquers all etc. The straightness, and squareness, with which it’s told, however, proves grating and intensely adult-unfriendly. The production is grand but unrefined, betraying a pompous and slightly garish style. Celebrated costume designer Sandy Powell certainly had a field day whipping up this colourful explosion of clothes, but most of her creations here, including the iconic glass slippers, are of the sparkly fluorescent sort that don’t necessarily speak quality.

The centrepiece dance scene at the royal ball, though, is beautifully choreographed and, as carried out by the film’s two attractive leads, looks like a million bucks. Cate Blanchett is clearly having a ball herself playing the evil stepmother, but her portrayal of meanness does sometimes fall into the cheaper winks-and-puffs school of villainous acting.

Montag, 9. März 2015

Berlinale: Victoria

(Originally appeared in Film International on Mar. 9, 2015)

Calling German writer/director Sebastian Schipper's "Victoria" the runaway sensation at this year's Berlin Film Festival is overstating it a little bit, considering how critical response to the film was not nearly as unanimously amorous as to, say, Jafar Panahi's "Taxi" or Andrew Haigh's "45 Years". That said, if sensation is to be defined by that jolt of electricity a film sends through the audience's collective minds simply because it's so fresh, bold, recklessly charged, then "Victoria" definitely fits the bill. For all its failings and divisive choices, this is a movie that wows.

Set in present-day Berlin, where a young Spanish girl could plausibly be dancing to deafening club beats at half past four in the morning and trying to flirt in broken English with a bartender she just assumes to be Swedish, the movie follows its titular heroine (played by Laia Costa) as she navigates the thrills and dangers of the German capital during one fateful night. Picked up by the drunk Berliner boy Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his gang of friends as she's leaving the anonymous underground paradise, Victoria gradually finds herself drawn to the world of the marginalized represented by these guys, a place of quiet disillusionment and stolen bliss, unquestioned camaraderie and pure chance. When the casually flirtatious predawn hours take an ugly turn, she might already be in too deep to call it quits.    

As prominently proclaimed in all its press materials, the film is shot in one single take. And unlike the newly-minted Oscar winner "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)", which only has the appearance of an extended, continuous shot but is in fact edited together, "Victoria" actually unfolds in real time and its director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen has had his hand on the camera for the entire duration of the film. For better or worse, this will remain the defining characteristic that makes the movie so exhilarating and frustrating at once.

Obviously it's hard not to gush about a full-length, 140-min-running feature film done without edits. Inherently unusual and compounded by a dynamic storyline which sees the characters drift/flee from place to place in situations relaxed and dire, the feat of the never-breaking gaze is not just tremendously difficult to pull off here on a logistic level; psychologically, the sense of spontaneity and risk it brings also feeds right into a narrative about life's unforeseeability. Whether observing close-range the budding affection between Victoria and Sonne in some quiet moments or chasing down staircases and open streets in panicked, violent pursuit, the camera never blinks or pauses for breath. In so doing, it mirrors in visual terms the path taken by the protagonists, one that has no return nor a safety net. Versatile, volatile and vibrant, it's not exactly a surprise that the international jury chaired by Darren Aronofsky ended up awarding the cinematography of this film a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.

However, it needs to be pointed out that, as daring and expressive as this approach is, it also leaves the technical insufficiencies of the camera crew plainly exposed. While there are sequences in the film that are captured with undeniable excellence, be it the short bicycle ride about town that spells a wondrous ease as we glide along or the electrifying intro where the face of the heroine is slowly picked out from a raving crowd and purposefully tracked, the picture quality of a significant chunk of the movie is less than optimal. Often hurried and underlit, the supposed "rawness" of the imagery proves disorienting in the long haul and cannot compare to the balance of urgency and clarity, authenticity and majesty achieved by Emmanuel Lubezki on "Birdman". When the cameraman strains with palpable difficulty to push his way in and out of a crowded elevator or up and down a narrow ladder, for example, with the focus blurred and the view shaking terribly all in service of continuity, one wonders if a bit of stubborn bravado has compromised the creative value of the choice.  
An even bigger problem attributable to this dare of a directorial decision is that the writing is just not up to par. From a story by Schipper and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz, the film is most likely not scripted but extensively improvised. The improvisation is by itself not an issue, but when you can tell the actors are making things up to say on the spot pretty much all the time, it gets painful. Long-winding chitchats lacking structure and low on substance take up stretches of screen time, during which you hope nothing more than for somebody to cut the filler out, reorganize the words into meaningful dialogues and snap some life into things. Paraphrased: it's the best argument for the invention of editing. As the not negligible amount of walk-outs at the film's press screening at the Berlin Film Festival would suggest, it's not this reviewer alone who finds various meandering talks between the protagonists insufferably mundane and padded.

Even when judged independently, the story is not nearly perfect. Plot-wise, the transition around the 2-hour mark that sees the film switch to full-blown Bonnie-and-Clyde mode feels slightly awkward, resulting in 20 subsequent minutes plagued by implausibility and a pettiness typical of German run-of-the-mill crime TV. Also hurting the movie is unsatisfactory characterization of Victoria. Although we do get a peek into her backstory about how she landed in Berlin with dashed dreams longing for a new start, many of her decisions at the following turns of events remain mystifying if not downright improbable. And without connecting with her motivations every step of the way, the emotional investment of the viewer, including the payoff at the end, is regrettably held in check.          
Despite these rather harsh critique, "Victoria" is ultimately a film well worth seeing and bound to find fans. Beyond the sheer effort that went into enabling this unbroken optical illusion, both the director and his principal cast show unmistakable promise. Schipper is at his best when crafting fleeting moments of happiness. The aforementioned bike ride scene is supplemented by a deliberate vacuum of sound and the sudden touch of music, which add to the sense of freedom, carelessness, and in their transience give the interlude a sigh-like quality. These sentiments are anything but random too. They reflect with striking accuracy what urban Berlin has come to stand for. It's a refuge for the young and lost, detached and unsettled. By capturing such feelings of cherished impermanence, Schipper has the pulse of a great city firmly in his grip. Both Costa and Lau are strong. To watch them perform from the highest of highs to the most desolate of depths, unedited and ever-evolving, is like witnessing a live stunt act. Although they've not been given the material from which a performance could really take flight, theirs are technically superior work that's all the more impressive for the challenge posed. As summarized in opening, "Victoria" is not going to please everybody. But even its most ardent detractors would probably admit to being knocked sideways by this abnormally, almost foolishly ballsy experiment of a movie.