Samstag, 25. April 2015

Interview: Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Apr. 24, 2015)

Iranian-American writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's feature film debut "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" was the talk of the town at the Sundance Film Festival last year. After a fruitful tour of the festival circuit, it arrives in German cinemas on April 23.

The first "feminist Iranian vampire Western noir" is quite an eye-catching label that's often used to describe your film. Did you set out to do a genre-bending project with all those elements in mind?

It's funny when you have to put a definition on something, because it's hard to do. But I guess you have to call it something for people to grab on to.
It all started with the first time I put on a chador. It was a prop from a different short film that I shot in 2009. I put it on and just felt like a bird, a bat or a stingray and it made me want to ride my skateboard. The minute I put it on I wanted to feel the wind because it had a weight to it and everything. Then I thought, "Oh, of course, this is a vampire. This is an Iranian vampire!" I couldn't believe nobody had thought about it before. It felt so obvious.  

Even on a presumably small budget, the film looks exceptionally stylish. What or who would you cite as your aesthetic inspiration?

I'm very into the anamorphic format, the vintage anamorphic lenses, as with all my favorite American movies from the 1990s and 1980s like "Back to the Future" and "Die Hard", or also "Legend" and "Blade Runner". Anamorphic lenses bend and distort a little bit of the sides of the frame. They flare with light and they have a soft quality to them. I find it beautiful. My next film, which I'm shooting in a few weeks, is also anamorphic. This one is going to be in colour. I love that format and I also loved the idea of doing it in black and white. I was looking at a few films when I was thinking of the idea of this story. There's a film called "Rumble Fish" by Francis Ford Coppola, And "Once Upon a Time in the West" by Sergio Leone. And also "Wild at Heart" for this kind of crazy, chaotic love story. A love story with this kinetic energy, where the world is kind of violent and hopeless around these two people who connect.

The scene where The Girl is putting on makeup at her house – it also reminded me a little of Wong Kar Wai films. 

It's funny you should say that. My director of photography, Lyle Vincent and I have a lovely collaboration. We're very much spiritual warriors together. He's shooting my next film in a few weeks too. He loves Wong Kar Wai. I like what he likes about it and I think it comes in a little bit, especially the patience. But Wong's a little too patient for me. I like to mix things up, with a little bit of a laugh, energy, a bit more light-hearted fun.    

It's also hard not to notice the killer soundtrack when watching the film. Can you talk briefly about it? 

I write with music. Sometimes I have the music before I even have a character. Sometimes a song would sound like a character or feel like this is what the moment should feel like or what the story is about. Every film wants different kinds of music, for that part, for that story, for that character. A film is such a ticket to adventure. It starts with something you're fascinated by, and then it needs things, and so you get to go look for things. I knew Kiosk, which is one of the modern Iranian groups. They have a song that opens the film and closes the film. I found Radio Tehran – they're such a lovely band. Their music is like the Persian version of The Pixies, like this sweet, nostalgic kind of rock. And then there was Daniel Brandt, who's a German friend of mine. He's a DJ and makes electronic music. The song that the pimp plays in the movie, this dirty, crunchy techno song, it's from his first electronic group called The Free Electric Band. Now he's in a group called Brandt Brauer Frick and they do electronic music with orchestra. So he was like, "Are you sure you want to put that song in the movie?" And I was like, "Yeah! It's perfect for the pimp!"    

Many of the key scenes in the movie are not very verbal. How did you make sure they remain potent/communicative?

I was born 30 percent deaf and I think I've always been interested in certain kinds of things. In movies where people talk too much I'd really get bored because I'd miss a lot of it. I also grew up watching a lot of Westerns with my dad. It's funny people often bring up Jarmusch, thinking that that's an influence, but I've never really liked Jarmusch's films because the people talk a lot. I also think words often make a big thing small. And I think one of the exciting things about cinema is that it doesn't just depend on what people say. It's about the mood, the world, the sound design, the light, what you see and what you choose to show or not to show... There are so many things, it's limitless, like a dream. So I think you don't need to say too much.

Your film feels effortlessly sensual, which cannot be said of the crop of young-adult vampire movies Hollywood has churned out of late. Have you seen any of them and wherein lies the difference?

Vampires go way back. It's one of the most juicy mythological characters. I mean, you have "Bram Stoker's Dracula", you have "Nosferatu". It's such a tool to explore so many different things and can go in so many different directions. But the Twilight movies don't do it for me. I've watched the first one – it's just different. I also think it's hard to be sexy when you're trying to be sexy. For me I'm very interested in tension between moments of something happening. I think all the power and chemistry happen in the anticipation of something. So holding things apart, things not being able to come together for complicated reasons... that tension makes you excited.

There's a subversive edge to your film that might especially appeal to Berliners. Have you been to the city and what's your impression?

Berlin is great. I love Berlin, I miss it actually. I was there for five months. That's when I started writing this movie. I don't know how to explain it but I really like the Germans... maybe because you guys are so bad. I have a lot of very good German friends, they're some of my favourite people.

Donnerstag, 23. April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Apr. 21, 2015)

The original Avengers movie (2012) was something of an anomaly. Larger than life and all over the place with its assembly of superheroes and their respective mythologies, it took most skeptics by surprise how painlessly things came together, sailed along and ended in a resounding, otherworldly bang. This time around, as dictated by the laws of sequels, every aspect of the film from its scale, decibel level to the possibilities for tie-in merchandising only got bigger. Without the element of surprise, however, the continuation of the saga proves a more labored effort, which costs it quite a bit of charm.

Starting in the middle of an extended chase-and-battle sequence, all the major players enter the picture one by one like summoned during roll call. It's an efficient way to set the stage when you have so many stars to present; and seeing such a colorful bunch fly, storm, hammer, or in the case of The Hulk, hulk through a forest infested with baddies can certainly stir up childlike glee in the most stoic of minds. However, as early as in these opening minutes, a stiffness creeps beneath the streamlined, somewhat sterilized fights. One senses how the appearance of each character and the distribution of their screen time have been minutely planned and balanced out. This owes, no doubt, to the strict financing and marketing mandates particular to blockbuster filmmaking. But it also results in something that feels less organic than calculated and compromised. The script comes across as somewhat overwrought too, sacrificing a fluid, compact storyline to make sure every Avenger gets their moment to shine (or brood) and that geographically, half the globe is represented. Convoluting matters further is the heightened dramatic focus, as the grim backstories and inner demons of our heroes are reintroduced via the vaguely defined superpower of mental manipulation. Not that comic books adaptations can't have depth, but when we're dealing with mutants and alien princes decked out in capes and spandex, playing it too straight might not be the wisest move.

Though not as fresh and exhilarating as its predecessor nor as concentrated and sleek as, say, any of the standalone Captain America movies, this second outing, again orchestrated by Joss Whedon, still has many good tricks up its sleeve. The titular villain of Ultron is a mighty cool creation. Conceived as a superior, bodiless consciousness able to teleport and resurrect itself in this interconnected digital age, its visual manifestation is tremendously done in a Genesis-like sequence sparkling with fluidity and immanent menace. As can be expected, the special effects are out of this world. Especially notable is the further enhanced sensation of flight achieved here, thanks in part to the sharp 3D imagery. But even more impressive is how much it's still done practically. Sets, robots and machinery actually built to be destroyed place you in an alternate reality the way no computer generated illusion can and the sheer size of this production is astonishing. Finally, what makes a project like this endearing even at its silliest and most overblown is its helmer's intimate knowledge of and absolute devotion to the material. And this Whedon has in spades. A scene towards the end shows the Avengers congregated in a circle fending off evil troopers attacking from all sides. An excessive stunt for sure, but it brings the comic book pages to life in such an explosion of vigorous, unadulterated geekdom it'll send fans straight to heaven and more than amuse the rest.

Sonntag, 19. April 2015

Run All Night

Veteran crime boss Sean (Ed Harris) and his old buddy/ hitman Jimmy (Liam Neeson) are pitched against each other after the retired but still proficient killer guns down the son of his longtime patron to protect his own. Thus begins a 16-hour spanning hunt through the mean streets of New York City.

The setup for the somber action thriller is ludicrously simple if, for its own purposes, also quite effective. Not too much time is wasted before the object of sympathy is established and all that's left for the audience to do is follow the father-son duo in distress through a stretched-out, fatally eventful night. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra first made a name for himself in the horror genre, which probably explains why he's much better at fostering tension or a darkly ominous ambiance than choreographing and executing action sequences. So while there are a couple of gritty chase scenes where the sweat of the parties involved and the speed of the situation they find themselves in can be properly felt, most of the car maneuvers or shoot-outs underwhelm with their unoriginality or lack of technical finesse. The writing is not good and when it tries to show depth by straying into dramatic territories, the result is inevitably counterproductive. More than anything, the clunky attempts at verbally communicating the strains and reconciliation between a guilt-ridden parent and his resentful child prevent the movie from being an unencumbered ride of brainless fun. Redeemed are the equally awkward conversations between the two pals-turned-nemeses only by the immediately commanding presence that Neeson and Harris bring to the screen. Their tragedy-marred weariness, age-worn easiness, absolute stillness in posture and speech can make just about any scenario watchable.      

In the end this is a more than worthy Cinemaxx weekend feature, reassuring in its disposably entertaining quality. Don't expect too much, and one might even have a decent time before it all slips comfortably from memory.

Sonntag, 5. April 2015

Hedi Schneider steckt fest (Hedi Schneider Is Stuck)

How the human mind can just snap without reason is an endlessly fascinating subject which, in movie form, enables a reflection on our being that often proves vastly enlightening, thought-provoking. German dramedy "Hedi Schneider steckt fest (Hedi Schneider Is Stuck)" is plagued by too much flimsiness, however, to move, challenge, or make any sort of point at all.

Starting off amusingly enough, the titular character first gets literally trapped in an elevator, then one day just falls prey to the wiring of her own head, where no amount of patient waiting seems to help anymore. Writer/director Sonja Heiss has a knack for milking the most comedy out of neurotic figures and situations, so the laughs come easily, even when the quirks feel artificial after a while and the narrative threatens to dissolve into context-less, ha-ha anecdotes. What really does the movie in is the faulty second half, where the tone wobbles and the eccentric, impulsive behavior of the protagonists comes across as strangely robotic, childish in light of the seriously unfunny condition of chronic anxiety. The ineloquence continues with the completely out-of-the-blue, last-minute attempt to wrap things up on a note of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. Disingenuously new-agey, the ending doesn't have the desired transcendent effect but rather deepens the impression of hyped inconsequence.    

Like the movie itself, the performances by the two leads Laura Tonke and Hans Löw work better in purely comedic realm. Cracks of one-dimensionality begin to show when she plays the suffering wife too straight and he goes for the frustrated husband pushed to infidelity. A technical highlight is the delightful score by Lambert, whose candy-coated synthesized melody sounds soothing and surreal like elevator music from the cosmos, bringing the film to an unlikely climax during a fantastical night-walk sequence.

Freitag, 3. April 2015


When Marion Cotillard, as widely assumed, "stole" the fifth slot of the Best Actress nominations from Jennifer Aniston at this past Academy Awards, many Oscar watchers were surprised. After all, "Cake" is the classic example of popular comedian crossing over to hard-hitting drama by playing someone with (mental) illness while glammed-down to unrecognizability. Usually a formula for success- it worked this very year for Steve Carrell ("Foxcatcher") in the hotly contended Best Actor category- the former Friends-star wasn't able to ride it to nominees' land. As far as acting can be evaluated and ranked, though, there's really no contesting this particular call on the Academy's part. Both portraying middle-aged women combating depression, Cotillard's Sandra ("Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night)") is so soaked in and accustomed to pain she breathes, blinks, even smiles despair. Aniston is certainly more than fine herself as Claire, someone made bitter and crass by the trauma of loss. The opening scenes with her, especially, pack an instant impact- not just because the hardened lines and loosened skin contribute to a scarred and mirthless exterior that's a shocking far cry from everybody's memory of Rachel Green; but her eyes are lazied, posture stiffened, voice alarmingly chilled. For a first impression, this stylistic and vocal reinvention is quite compelling.

Partly due to the well-meaning but formulaic writing and the less-than-subtle direction, noticeable flaws in the performance do begin to pop up, however, as the story unfolds. The arc of the self-destructive lost cause opening up after finding a kindred soul feels too familiar and compromises the integrity of the character. Director Daniel Barnz's attempt to enrich the depiction of pure misfortune with some offbeat humor is commendable but often backfires under his broad strokes and an overtly Sundance-y air of affectation. As a result, Claire's motivations don't always seem reasonable nor her actions justified. Just on a technical level, Aniston can't entirely switch off her razor sharp comedic instincts and every, perhaps unconsciously, but nonetheless perfectly delivered deadpan contradicts somewhat the otherwise distraught façade with a supposedly broken core.

From the humanistic concern, spiritualistic approach to the stripped, transformative lead performance, this movie is full of admirable undertakings. But good intentions famously don't make for good movies. Lacking in consistency, authenticity and finesse, this is a cake that's made from healthy ingredients but tastes funny.