Donnerstag, 28. Mai 2015

Roundtable interview: 侯孝賢 (Hou Hsiao-Hsien) (聶隱娘 (The Assassin))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on May 27, 2015)

1. Why did it take so long to make this movie? What has been the most challenging aspect of the process?

I've wanted to shoot the film for a long time, but for about 8 years I was occupied with organizing various film festivals in Taiwan, namely the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival. At first I only intended to spend 2-3 years on the job, but whenever I realized something's not working, I'd feel compelled to restructure the whole festival. So I ended up spending 8 years upgrading both festivals and only got to filming "The Assassin" afterwards.

2. What made "The Assassin" so different from all the martial arts movies that came before it?

Whatever film I make, realism is always of critical importance to me. This realism can be staged, but if the footage doesn't seem authentic enough to me, then I have no use for it - which is why we had to stop and restart filming on "The Assassin" time and again, making adjustments constantly. The same thing happens again in the editing room. If any given shot doesn't look real to me - whether technically or in terms of the performances- I'll just take it out. Only after such a selection process do I even begin to do the edits. So my editing process is not dictated by the script. Even if a shot ends up ambiguous this way, I'm ok with leaving some room for the imagination.

3. Was making a kinetic, high-flying kung fu movie never the plan?

I could never have done that. When you're dependent on too much technical assistance, you necessarily lose control over the film you want to make. The material others present me with is never what I have in mind. Some of the fight choreography originally planned for this movie, for example, was just not what I wanted. What I needed for this movie was something closer to reality, which is the hardest thing to do, because it has to show the force, the impact in a plausible way. And the fights should be meaningful as well. When the action choreographer first described to me how the fight scenes were usually done, I immediately knew that's not what I was going for. It's just not something that interests me. To put it simply: the personality of a character should directly affect how he or she fights. Every character has their special qualities, and that should be reflected in the action sequences.

4. How did you come about picking this character to be your heroine?

The movie is based on a novella from the Tang Dynasty. Back then, they still used classical Chinese to write novels, where each single character meant something, thus enabling them to write really concisely. But even with such a short tale, I only used a part of it for the movie. What interested me above all was this character. Her name Nie Yinniang captured my imagination. The family name Nie is composed symbolically of three ears. The first character of her given name, Yin, means hidden. And Niang means woman. What I pictured in my mind when I saw the name was this female assassin, hidden from sight, eyes closed but always listening. When she detects sonic changes in her surroundings, she'd open her eyes, leaps out of her hiding place, and in one whoosh finishes the job. Little did I know then, that Shu Qi is afraid of heights and could never jump down from treetops, so we had to modify that.

5. The imagery of the movie is exquisite and breathes with such life. Could you talk about how you achieved that technically?

We used a lot of silk for the production. Back in the Tang Dynasty, they used a lot of partitions in forms of drapes and curtains. Even just a normal bed is often separated by screens. And these were basically all silk-based in material. My art director bought huge quantities of silk from Korea and India, picking the material according to what's envisioned in the script. The great thing about silk is that, when shot in a certain light, it looks just beautiful. This is a major factor for the look of the film.

6. Did you shoot this movie on film or digitally?

I shot it on film - using over 500,000 ft of it. But I needed to convert it into digital form afterwards, because all the post-production equipment these days only works digitally. Color grading on digital print turned out to be a completely different thing, which cost me a lot of time to learn and experiment, and I still think the quality of the result isn't as good as it was in the pre-digital age.

7. Does (long-time collaborating DP Mark Lee Ping-Bin) have a preference regarding film vs. digital?

We both prefer film, which is why we shot on film, but the post-production technology in Taiwan is still not up to par.

8. The idea of you doing a wuxia movie raised eyebrows. How do you think this film fits into your body of work?

To me it's still the same as my previous work, because ultimately it needed to pass the test of my eyes. If something looks fake or flawed to me, I won't use it. If the lighting in a scene is off, I won't use it. I don't even care that much about continuity. I have my own way of patching it all together, which is why this film might strike some as oddly discontinuous. Actually I was worried that my foreign investors wouldn't be able to understand "The Assassin", considering the way it was edited together. But it seems that they got it just fine, then it's all good.

Montag, 25. Mai 2015

68. Cannes: Dheepan

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on May 24, 2015)

Until losing its cool in the third act and ending on a relatively soft note, French veteran Jacques Audiard‘s "Dheepan" is a muscularly directed dramatic thriller about the difficulties of starting over and the inevitability of violence. Clear-eyed, tightly wound, and cinematically and psychologically immersive, it’s a furious ride of a movie that actually has something to say.

We first meet the three protagonists under fatally dire circumstances as a civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka burns with hellish intensity. A former soldier, a young woman, and an orphaned child, joined by chance and the common need to flee the country, assume the identities of a deceased family. Renamed Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), the man who has seen too much death in his life becomes a janitor and caretaker at a housing project outside Paris. His pretend wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), also starts working for a demented old man living in the compound. Their supposed daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), is sent to French school and made to readjust, most notably by being told not to eat with her hands. In order to escape an atrocious past, they’re ready to fake, forget, and get lost in a new, unfathomable culture. Little do they know that, under the pacified surface of first-world civilization, things are not nearly as peaceful as they look.

The eventful, richly observant script touches on themes of humanitarian asylum, cultural acclimation, and the true makings of a family. Crossing continents and milieus, it sheds light on the misfortunes of those we don’t necessarily notice in our blissful oblivion. And while certain plot points that emerge later on carry with them a whiff of Hollywood-esque artificiality, this story mostly unfolds with a natural dynamic. Its message, whether political or sociological, is delivered through a strictly personal perspective based on the evolution of the characters, sounding earnest instead of preachy.

Even stronger is Audiard’s mise-en-scène, which has such a firm grip on the timing, visual composition, and tonal changes of these proceedings that, despite any thematic unfamiliarity, you fall right into its groove. Whether in moments of urgency or during the occasional breaks of levity, a sense of immediacy and presentness stands out. Also remarkable are the handful of fight-and-flight setpieces towards the picture’s end. While Audiard proved his knack for hard-hitting action in "A Prophet", the level of flesh-on-metal impact, made palpable here in a swiftly executed crash sequence — or the force field of breathless tension created within an apartment block at war — still stuns.

Antonythasan, once a Sri Lankan boy soldier himself, is superb in the lead role. Face etched with experience and posture weighed down by deep sorrow, Dheepan’s every move feels significant, sometimes heartbreakingly so, as it reminds you of someone who’s lived through such unspeakable horrors and forgets how to just be. All the more delightful, then, are his expressions of innocent curiosity and genuine relief, which would come out of nowhere and just light up the screen. Srinivasan, making her acting debut here, brings much tenderness and vulnerability to the equation, although her performance in a couple of emotional scenes could probably use some fine-tuning.

Considering the impeccable fluidity and narrative clarity of what came before, the last half-hour of "Dheepan" does appear distractingly messy. Flashbacks or insertions of purely fantastical frenzies get a little out-of-hand, while outbreaks of rage and frustration err on the excessive side. The actual ending, mere seconds of shockingly happy footage, also comes across as slightly awkward when concluding so much tragedy. One may argue that it’s nothing more than a wishful projection of unrealized dreams, but the sugary aftertaste it leaves only serves to reinforce a vague impression of mainstreamed sentiments that don’t reflect well. 

Informative, compassionate, technically polished, there’s no doubt "Dheepan" is a work of extraordinary craft and great heart. Still, one kind of longs for the day when Audiard would ride his gritty side all the way to the finish line, sending us off with a bang instead of a settlement.

Freitag, 22. Mai 2015

68. Cannes: 聶隱娘 (The Assassin)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on May 22, 2015)

The Cannes Film Festival represents the pantheon of arthouse cinema, so it does raise eyebrows when a wuxia movie is included in its official selection. After all, this is a genre known for superhuman speed and loud, physical forms of expression, stuff that fantasies are made of but not exactly traits one associates with fine arts. That's until Taiwanese maestro Hou Hsiao-Hsien came along to deliver his version of kung fu. The resulting "聶隱娘 (The Assassin)" turned out to be the quietest, most introspective and deliberately-paced film in competition, a feat so rare and radical it casually revolutionized decades of filmmaking tradition.

This being a Hou movie, dialogue is predictably sparse. Details about the historical setting and the relationship between the characters are made doubly impenetrable by the fact that the script is composed in an archaic language used for literature. So much is clear: in 9th century China, when the prosperous Tang dynasty found itself in decline and increasingly held hostage by autonomous garrisons, a young woman named Nie Yinniang is sent home after years spent in seclusion perfecting her swordsmanship. To steel her mind against all worldly attachment, Nie's master orders the assassination of Lord Tian, the governor of a dominant province who also happens to be her cousin. Subsequently, secrets about Nie's past will be revealed and her killer instinct put to the test.

While this might sound like quite a meaty plot, you probably won't feel that watching the film. All main characters are hermetically un-verbal and what little is spoken can sound like a puzzling string of names or some intricately phrased but unspecified intrigue. Instead, the narrative is largely fueled by what's left unsaid, purposeful blanks framed in a sea of scenic shots - brooding, suggestive, never openly expository. You get the sense that Hou is interested as much in the rituals and decorums of a bygone era as in the events that are supposed to take place within such context. Rapt attention is paid, for example, to the preparation of a bath or the playing of an instrument. For minutes on end, we would seem to be looking at nothing but the ancient quotidian silently running its course. The overall impression of passivity and calm becomes so pervasive, in fact, that when the occasional fights do break out and emphatic music takes over from a soundtrack of minimal ambient noises, the tear in the stillness feels downright intrusive.

But yes, there are indeed scenes where people engage in balletically lethal combats, although expectations of elaborate, minutely choreographed setpieces à la Ang Lee's "臥虎藏龍 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)" or Wong Kar-Wai's "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)" would go unmet. Further defying what conventions of the genre dictate, the action sequences here are clipped and to the point, not particularly fanciful in conception nor expansively executed. There's little flying around and the outcome of a duel is mostly decided within seconds. One smartly aimed slash of the dagger or a couple of strikes on the right spot is usually all it takes. If anything, these bursts of violence remind one of Japanese samurai movies which place reticence, calculation and the concentration of will above the outward grace of movements.

If a slight tone of caution can be detected behind these remarks, it's to signify that a movie so utterly, defiantly itself is never intended for the masses. To those who seek to be challenged by uniquely cinematic voices, however, the towering achievement that is "聶隱娘 (The Assassin)" should be apparent. Ever the master of slow-burning atmospherics and distilled human truths, Hou shoots and cuts the film with signature repose. Scenes often commence where you don't expect them to and end a beat or two after all is said and done, letting the meaning of the moment linger in the air. Collectively it injects a delicate, soothing rhythm into the picture that feels effortlessly classy. Meanwhile, longtime collaborating DP Mark Lee Ping-Bin dazzles again with an abundance of heart-stoppingly beautiful images. From the b&w intro sizzling with a cool sense of modernity to the dusk-lit interiors drenched in silken glow, the film looks consistently exquisite with a stripped-back aesthetic that contrasts starkly with the pompous CGI favored by mainstream Chinese-language productions in recent years. Restraint is also on display in Hou's use of music. Giong Lim's distinct, evocative score only accompanies certain parts of the proceedings, but every time it counts. The grandeur and poetry of the ending shot, for example, would not be complete without such inspired, reverberating sonic support.    

Shu Qi and Chang Chen embody their roles as the titular assassin in search of inner peace and the warlord troubled by a lifelong debt with great conviction, even if the storyline doesn't have room for acting fireworks. Sheu Fang-yi is well cast as the ruthless nun who might have sent her pupil back home with an agenda of her own. The placidity of her features and the precision of her gestures sell this chillingly unknowable figure who would and could terminate your life without batting an eye.

Ultimately this movie belongs to the mighty creative mind of Mr. Hou Hsiao-Hsien. By bringing an arthouse sensibility to the wild, imaginary world of wuxia, he's pulled off the unthinkable and reinvented the game. Unhurried, mood-driven, pregnant with a transcendent reflection on life and death, "聶隱娘 (The Assassin)" is a singular vision realized with absolute mastery of style and a lightness of touch that's to die for. Of all the competition titles in Cannes this year, it just might be the most vitally unmissable.

Sonntag, 17. Mai 2015

68. Cannes: あん (An)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on May 16, 2015)

Festival programming is more often than not fraught with ulterior considerations. Which is why so much is being read into symbolic placements such as the opening film. In the case of Cannes, that applies not only to the competition, but also the sidebar sections, led by Un Certain Regard. Since it's generally perceived as a "downgrade" when new works by popular auteurs previously invited to the competition are shown instead in UCR, the added prestige of opening the section is often seen as a compensatory gesture. This happened with Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola among others. This year, it also looked like "あん (An)" by Cannes mainstay Naomi Kawase is getting a pat on the back for being inferior to "2つ目の窓 (Still the Water)", which just competed for the Palme d'Or last year. As it turns out, "あん (An)" is in many ways superior to the island-set existential drama and definitely a more enjoyable watch. It might just not be high-brow enough for a loftier slot in the lineup.

The movie opens with a middle-aged man getting up to work. His is a one-man enterprise that sells dorayaki's, a beloved Japanese confection made up of red bean paste wrapped between two bell-shaped pieces of pancakes. Wordlessly, he gets everything ready. And as soon as the dough hits the pan, a sweet aroma fills up the entire screen. You could hardly imagine a more endorphin-inducing working environment, but from the man's posture and expressions, you get the distinct impression he's not enjoying himself at all. The story essentially begins as the reluctant pastry chef Sentaro (played by Masatoshi Nagase) is visited by an unlikely applicant for part-time help, the 76-year-old woman Tokue (Kiki Kirin), whose difficult past will slowly come to light and alter the younger man's outlook on life.

Building on the premise of a gastronomical revamp to encompass personal histories and a reflection on public health policies, the movie proves surprisingly substantial. To be sure, Kawase's trademark penchant for abstract spiritual musings are very much still there. Shots of the sky, cherry blossoms, sunshine filtered through wind-swept branches are interspersed throughout the picture. But unlike "2つ目の窓 (Still the Water)", which erred decidedly on the flimsy side to come across as somewhat pretentious and self-important, there's a solid human core to the relationship portrayed here that gives the blank, meditative pauses a degree of weight and context. Especially after the truth about Tokue's conspicuously deformed hands are revealed, these adoring, at times downright fetishistic looks at nature acquire a whole new level of meaning. Not only do they remind us of the transience of all things innocent, they also speak volumes about a character so stricken by destiny as to appreciate every passing moment of beauty.

Contributing immeasurably to this empathetic tone is Kiki's soulful, splendidly unaffected performance. Playing someone with a sad secret to guard and a militantly cheerful exterior as defense, this portrayal could have gone off the sappy or the farcical end so easily. Instead, she succeeds in first tricking you into seeing this harmlessly wacky old lady who talks to red beans and greets birds, then smacks you awake with a lucidly unsentimental side free of self-delusion or -pity. It's a testament to the precision and dignity of her performance that a couple of monologues delivered towards the end of the movie, blatantly targeted at your tear ducts as they are, hit every note with but the minimal trace of exploitation. Masatoshi has the less showy role but holds up his part of the duet with commendable restraint.

On the whole, "あん (An)" is probably still not for those with a low sugar-tolerance in film. The borderline food-porn level of scrutiny afforded to the steaming sweets combined with the inherent schmalz of the subject matter could conceivably send them into shock. That said, it remains a well-crafted mainstream effort with accessible emotions and that whiff of Kawase-que zen. In terms of artistic aspirations, it aims a little lower, but at any given point, it feels honest and earthily relatable, which is actually more than one can say about many of the high-minded competition films.

68. Cannes: La tête haute (Standing Tall) / Tale of Tales

The 68th edition of the Cannes Film Festival opened on a sober note with the decent, if unspectacular social drama "La tête haute (Standing Tall)". Telling the story of 16-year-old Malony (Rod Paradot), a child of neglect and disenfranchisement who grows up to be quite the model delinquent, it chronicles the struggles a marginalized young man faces in France today, as well as the endeavors and failings of the country's youth correctional system. Chronicle is the operative word here, because more than anything the film feels like a record of the many trips the protagonist makes to the judge's office, his failed attempts at rehabilitation and socialization, his improvements, relapses, breakdowns. Naturalistic to a fault, the direction wins points for its integrity but leaves one desperately hoping for some sparks, provocations, anything unexpected.

To be sure, there's no shortage of violent moments. Numerous verbal and physical confrontations keep the decibel level pretty high throughout. But both the story and the telling of the story feel awfully familiar, bringing hardly anything new to the reformed adolescent genre. This tired impression significantly lowers the impact of the drama, while the repetitive narrative structure or the slightly paternalistic, PSA-esque tone of the film doesn't help either.

Paradot is solid as someone raised to harbor anger and mistrust. The combination of defiance, cunning, masked innocence and pumped-up bravado in his expressions, somewhat reminiscent of Jack O'Connell's breakout performance in "Starred Up", turns him into a dynamite with a short fuse, dangerously charged and forcefully present. As his messed-up, loopy mother, Sara Forestier also delights, offering the film some effective comic relief. Catherine Deneuve's performance as the sympathetic child court judge is comparatively muted, cruising more on her formidable poise than nuanced characterization. Writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot shows heartfelt concern for the subject matter, but her approach to it might prove too rustic and her script can use some restructuring/streamlining.

Italian director Matteo Garrone's English-language horror fantasy "Tale of Tales" is a splashy re-imagining of three Gothic fairytales that, while not exactly meaningful in aggregate, stuns your every sense nonetheless. A depressed queen obsessed with the need to bear child resorts to a shaman, a lustful king gets entangled with two old women who might not look their age, a ruly princess tries to escape from an ogre she's married to by her father - the stories told are relatively simple constructs and bear no apparent contextual relations. Cutting from one to the other and back again, one might legitimately ask if it's all just a pointless exercise in style. But what style this is!

Furiously designed with a nasty contrast of colors and materials, the costumes, props, set pieces whip up storms of spectacles from frame one without ever sinking into juvenile frivolity. Unlike "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) or "Maleficent" (2014), the lush production springs not only from a spiked imagination but also a decidedly adult sentiment. Whether dashing through a stonewall maze or getting chased across the misty forest, you feel the pull of a sinister alternate universe and the uneasiness is just delicious. With the added sonic suggestion of a repressively somber string-based score, and even potentially farcical scenes like the underwater dragon slaying speak a genuine menace. No one from the international cast particularly stands out, although Salma Hayek and Toby Jones are both their reliable selves and own their eccentric, comically heightened roles with aplomb.

It's a pity the three parts of the movie aren't more organically connected to benefit from coherence or momentum. But by smartly drawing on the dark nature buried beneath most bedtime stories and hitting that tone of macabre playfulness with such remarkable precision, Garrone has achieved something that, as strictly two-dimensional and message-free as it is, thoroughly entertains, utterly bewitches.

Freitag, 15. Mai 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on May 15, 2015)

Carrying three iconic predecessors and cross-generational expectations on its back certainly doesn't make it easy for the fourth entry in the "Mad Max" series. When the movie doesn't exactly open with a bang, for example, one's inclined to immediately assume the worst and declare it a disappointment. That the film manages to ride against such odds and eventually overcome them, blowing the most skeptical of minds in the process, is thus a particular testament to the brilliance and tenacity of the talents involved.

Using ominous voice-over to recount dire-sounding background information over grim stock footage of doomsday scenarios, the trademark post-apocalyptic tone is re-established within minutes. But while the sandy look and spontaneous outbreak of car chases also remind one of the 80's classics, there's a smoothed-out quality to these first scenes that betrays a far less gritty core, an impression reinforced by the choice to comically speed up parts of the sequences. This perceived "softness" continues as the evil warlord is introduced and, despite the grandeur of his hellish kingdom, fails to jack up the excitement level beyond that of bemused admiration. To be fair, every aspect of the film's visual design until this point is delectably savage. Cages, chains and other unseemly contraptions celebrate a wanton decadence while disability and deformity of all kinds get rampantly fetishized. But the fact remains that, when the aesthetics of the macabre and the orchestration of outlandish stunts have been so famously revolutionized by your own previous incarnations, it's hard to clear the "never-seen-this-before" hurdle.

That changes as the film races forward and just keeps getting bigger, bolder, badder.

The skimpy plotline of a group of imprisoned women running away from their tyrannical captor along with fellow escapee Max (Tom Hardy) gains momentum and emotional heft through a desperate, single-minded drive. Stylistically, the prolonged fight for survival also rises to astounding heights. Envisioned by the master of carnage that's George Miller, the deadly, ever-escalating hunt-and-flight features colors, compositions and choreography so violently, breathtakingly beautiful, they threaten to burn right through the celluloid. The last 30 minutes of the film, during which murderous rage and acrobatic acts meet to jaw-dropping results, are not only insane in conception and impeccable in execution, they reach that rarefied place of unimaginable madness to instantly dwarf all tentpole actioners in recent memory.

Hardy does a fine job taking over from Mel Gibson. His voice work is especially remarkable, informing the audience of someone so unused to trust and self-expression as to struggle with the very act of speaking. Charlize Theron gives an award-worthy performance as rebel leader Furiosa. Broken, steeled, physically and psychologically strained to the extreme, it's a transformation that feels etched in flesh. When she lets out a gut-wrenching cry of anguish or looks straight into the camera with half of her soul missing, the pain and emptiness are palpable and deeply unsettling.

Patiently, steadily building to a high-flying, death-defying climax that may well have re-invented the game, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a spectacle, a visceral experience, an urgent reminder of how cinema could and still can evoke such awe, such a pure, near-religious sense of wonder.

Montag, 11. Mai 2015

65th Berlinale festival report

(Originally appeared in Film International on May 11, 2015)

The Berlin International Film Festival- or the "Berlinale"- celebrated its 65th edition earlier this year (Feb. 5- 15). Locked in bitter, continental weather with little sunshine and no palm trees, Berlin is no match for Cannes both in terms of glamour and prestige. In the past decade, the growing presence of the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place merely days in advance, also threatened to steal the thunder away from the German capital. The challenge for festival director Dieter Kosslick to put together an exciting, unexpected, important selection is thus understandably huge. So it should be reported with a sigh of relief that, despite the inevitable bombs, the first A-list European film festival of the year is still going strong and its crop of premieres should be more than enough to jolt cineasts everywhere awake, probably even shape the rest of the festival-year.

There's no shortage of seasoned masters in the competition lineup. British provocateur Peter Greenaway returns with "Eisenstein in Guanajuato", an unconventional biopic of famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Focusing on the last days of his year-long stay in Mexico during the early 1930's, the comedic drama is as much biographical as it is fantastical. With split screens, swirling camera, interjecting shots of wildlife, illustrations, historical photographs, archive footage, images fading in and out of color, sped up and slowed back down, the entire first half of the movie bursts at the seams in terms of style and directorial whims. It's a welcome feast of stimuli that culminates in the bound-to-become infamous deflowering scene which depicts- at length and in great detail- Eisenstein's sexual initiation through expert seducer Palomino Cañedo. Both breathlessly graphic and hilariously allegorical, it's a sparsely but boldly staged centerpiece that juxtaposes the movie's themes of carnality, mortality and liberty to uproarious effect. Maybe that kind of intensity just can't be sustained though, as the movie's manically talky second half, in which the two exuberant, committed leads Elmer Bäck and Luis Alberti struggle to keep up, slowly dwindles down to uninvolving eccentricities.

Also uneven is legendary German director Werner Herzog's "Queen of the Desert". Starring Nicole Kidman as British explorer/anthropologist Gertrude Bell, the decades-spanning biopic is surprising only in how thoroughly unsurprising everything about it is. Sprawling, straightforward, sentimental, it's a throwback to earlier times when linear narrative was embraced and unabashed romanticism considered cool. Of course the roughened and proudly indie-minded critics and bloggers today don't see things that way. So professions of eternal love and panoramic shots of the heroine locked in passionate kiss with an earnest-faced James Franco, for example, didn't go down well with the press to put it mildly. At the risk of sounding defensive of a stuffy, needlessly exhaustive movie that's too conservative for its own good, the acting and technical details are actually solid here. Exquisite production design, especially of the posh residences and bustling bazaars, is easy on the eyes. Kidman is very much in full command of her expressive faculties, scoring with the textbook "breaking-down-while-getting-bad-news" scene and compelling with her deep-voiced, oceanically calm narration. Ultimately uninspired, this grand, by Herzog's standard curiously sane film could nonetheless please fans of old-fashioned storytelling or squarely educational cinema.        

Kind words can't be found, however, for French veteran Benoît Jacquot's "Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid)" or German maestro Wim Wender's "Every Thing Will Be Fine". The latest Mirbeau adaptation starring Léa Seydoux as the feisty, scheming house servant Célestine is a fragmented, ineloquent, tonally schizophrenic mix of drama, comedy, satire and everything in between. Based on anecdotes recollected from the protagonist's life which are so bafflingly assembled as to defy any sense of coherence, what vaguely feels like an early twentieth-century class observation with a whiff of feminist protest functions as neither. Seydoux is reliably sharp but those sparks she and Jacquot sent flying in their last collaboration "Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen)" (2012) are nowhere to be seen. Everything is also definitely not fine in Wenders' first narrative feature in seven years, a New England-set relationship drama. After a promising start, where the catalyst that sets the whole guilt-themed story in motion is expertly encapsulated in a wide, static shot, the clearly misguided plot dissolves into sappy episodes depicting the lives of those connected by the tragedy. Banally and formulaically written, the film never probes beyond any superficial level of pain. The only curve ball in the script comes near the end, where things take an unnatural turn to morph into a home-invasion thriller. But by that point this feels more than anything like a desperate attempt to raise the non-existent stakes. Considering also the largely unjustified use of 3D photography and the sluggish editing marked by a parade of title cards awkwardly announcing the passage of time, it's hard to think of veritable arguments for the film's inclusion in the competition lineup (albeit screening out of competition) except to coincide with the lifetime achievement award bestowed upon the iconic filmmaker at this year's fest.

Previous Golden Bear winner Terrence Malick, on the other hand, has every reason to be there again with "Knight of Cups", a dazzling, majestic contemplation on the many facets of love. Much like his recent work, the film is highly impressionistic, composed of samplings of the various relationships a man's been in, each taken during a different stage, from courtship to divorce. Characters drift in and out of the story unannounced, unexplained. Neither the causal nor the chronological relation between the segments is apparent. Random photographic interruptions of geological formations or the west coast cityscape further complicate a material, linear understanding. However, compared to "The Tree of Life" (2011) or "To the Wonder" (2012) , both of which did not please this viewer, the strong, seemingly instinctual editing lends the chaos a cadence that transcends literal comprehension and completely captivates. Rhythmic, soothing and ever-building like the fetishistically pondered waves on Malibu Beach, the flow of pictures washes over you in all its variety and the experience is just hypnotic. Though probably too disorderly to rank among DP Emmanuel Lubezki's best work, here and there individual shots, whether racing like speeding light or serene as an old monk's face, still stun with their splendor. The commanding presence and charisma of Christian Bale, whose lines are almost exclusively read in voice-over, also help the film achieve its magnetic pull.

Apparently the international jury chaired by Darren Aronofsky wasn't in the mood to honor old masters though, as none of the films mentioned above went home awarded. Instead, it's mostly the next generation of filmmakers who won their favor. British writer/director Andrew Haigh's follow-up to his widely acclaimed romance "Weekend" (2011), another relationship drama which chronicles the unraveling of a decades-long marriage one week before an anniversary celebration, aptly titled "45 Years", won both leads Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling statues. Seeing that it's a very stripped-back, performance-driven piece about two people discovering each other anew, the fact that its acting gets noticed doesn't come as a surprise. Especially in the case of Rampling, whose icy stare still cuts through glass but is mellowed here by a touch of insecurity and suppressed panic, the validity of the choice is unquestionable. Courtenay's work as well as the film as a whole, however, don't necessarily stand out. Too fixated on the appealing but simplified idea of a freshly defrosted ghost from the past testing and rocking a lifelong bond, the elegantly lean script has believability issues and comes across as petty from time to time. To his credit, Haigh does manage to stage a marvel of an ending shot, which quietly closes in on the dancing hostess while laying bare her doubts and desperation twirl by casual twirl until we're given such naked access to her inner turmoil it feels revelatory, almost intrusively so.  

Sharing the silver bear for artistic contribution are German romance-turned-heist thriller "Victoria" and Russian sci-fi drama "Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds)", both enormously ambitious undertakings and just the fourth narrative feature of their respective helmers. Although the movies are nothing alike, the achievement in cinematography being lauded is easy to recognize in either one of them, which incidentally both clock in at around 140 minutes. Shot in one single, unbroken take, Sebastian Schipper's "Victoria" boasts bold and edgy camerawork by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen which, if nothing else, injects a dangerously volatile energy into the proceedings like a live wire (reviewed in detail previously). "Under Electric Clouds" by Aleksey German, son of German Senior, is a different beast altogether. Told in chapters that bear minimal temporal or contextual relations with one another, it's a cryptic, fable-like collection of moving images deliberately, moodily photographed by Sergey Mikhalchuk and Evgeniy Privin. As languid and surreal as "Victoria" is immediate and dynamic, the film will arouse the suspicion of pretentiousness and test the patience of many with its dizzyingly nonsensical dialogue (to the extent that disconnected monologues addressed at each other can be called dialogue). When viewed as a piece of visual tapestry, however, the merit of its handiwork is indisputable. Aided by superb production design that weaves together elements of the past and the future, the daringly framed, enigmatically lit pictures work up a proper sense of sophisticated nihilism. So whether one is history-savvy enough to appreciate its veiled reflection on contemporary Russia, it's hard not to get sucked into this dreamscape of electrified, baffling beauty.  

Harder to justify is the other tie on the winner's list, the awardage of the best director prize to Radu Jude for his b&w western/historical satire "Aferim!" and Malgorzata Szumowska for her spiritualistic drama "Body". While both films are quite innovative in their approach, they also come with more evident lackings. Chronicling the journey of a father-son duo to catch and bring back a runaway gypsy slave to his master in 19th century Wallachia, "Aferim!" is colorful in every sense but one. Loud, physical, featuring tortuous acts and politically incorrect expletives of every kind, it depicts the matter-of-course practice of slavery in such a broadly theatrical manner you don't know if you should be offended or amused. While atrocious wrongs are being committed on screen, Jude opts to capture it all through a documentarian's keen but level stare suggesting some innocent cultural observation. This stark contrast, betraying neither a straight condemnation nor an outright parody, is disorienting. It leaves you with the impression of having seen something ostensibly crude yet secretly coded, and for that heady trick the direction should be applauded. However, the formally venturesome film meanders for a considerable amount of time in its mid-section. At several points amidst the hateful speeches and violent encounters, the excessive hysteria threatens to drown out all context and turn the whole thing into a costumed farce. Also showing promise but failing to deliver is the largely dismissed "Body". The movie features three vividly drawn main characters- a prosecutor mourning the death of his wife, his estranged, anorexic daughter and her rehab supervisor who also happens to be a medium. Szumowska does a remarkable job acquainting us with these lonely souls drifting in the cold belly of modern-day Warsaw. Through anecdotes and smart, optical suggestion we get inside their heads to experience the empty drive that steels a man against the most heinous crimes, the dry retch that takes hold of someone crippled by the sight of food, the desperate need for company that reaches beyond the boundary of rationality. And by constantly shifting the focus between the three while pursuing the dual themes of body image and bodies as vessels for spiritual contact, she comes up with a blend of relationship drama and supernatural thriller that's uniquely suspenseful. It's too bad, then, that the film falters in its second half as the parallel narratives, despite running tantalizingly close to each other, never find a perfect place to meet. Costing it even more goodwill is the unwarranted shot of sentimentalism towards the end.

The fact that the Berlinale has been a champion of Szumowska's career (invited three times in the past five years, twice in competition and once opening the sidebar section Panorama with "Elles" (2011) ) may have tipped the scales in her favor somehow. Same goes for another female filmmaker who has long got the festival's endorsement, Isabel Coixet, whose latest effort "Nobody Wants the Night" technically didn't win any award but was given the honor of opening this year's festivities. Also widely, maybe even more vocally jeered by the press, the dramatization of an unlikely and treacherous journey to the North Pole by Josephine Peary in search of her husband- famed British expeditionist Robert- actually fares pretty well up to its halfway mark. The heroine, portrayed by Juliette Binoche, is a confident, educated woman who, at the beginning of the 20th century, can easily hold her own in a room of gentlemen. Her exceptional combination of intellect, elegance, ambition and less-than-clarified motives for tracking down her spouse lays the groundwork for an interesting character study. Gorgeous cinematography showcasing textured sets and costumes drenched in honey-colored sunbeam or endless, ruthless terrain covered in fifty shades of white certainly doesn't hurt either. But the last hour of the film is fatally reduced to the story of Josephine and an Inuit girl she befriends in the wilderness, played by an off-form Rinko Kikuchi. Spatially cramped and emotionally gratuitous, the protracted, clunkily described process of the two women's mutual cultural acclimation unfortunately seals the fate of an otherwise respectable piece of work.

Echoing the strong presence of Latin American cinema at the Berlinale this year, two of the top prizes eventually went to Spanish-language productions from that continent and they are both more than deserved. Guatemalan writer/director Jayro Bustamante took home the Alfred Bauer Prize for his feature film debut "Ixcanul", a tender familial drama/coming-of-age tale about a 17-year-old Mayan girl rebelling against her predestined path for a chance to see the world outside. The starting point of the story is a familiar one: marriage by arrangement to an older man with the guarantee of financial security or elope with the young, good-looking farmhand who doesn't have a penny to his name? The choice might be obvious, but what happens after the heart has had its way is told through a series of unexpected plot twists that inform us so much about young Maria, her family, and the daily struggles they face. In addition to the compact, perceptive script, Bustamante's direction and the performances by his non-professional cast evoke a richly indigenous fragrance that permeates the whole film, successfully overcoming the unevenness of its visual realization. Opening and closing with the blank visage of a bride silently getting prepped, this heartfelt, gently affecting film breathes and pulsates just like the Ixcanul Volcano looming in the background, a constant reminder of all things impermanent, unknowable. On the other end of the scale for gentleness is the Grand Jury Prize winner "El Club (The Club)" by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, a scathing, ruthlessly comical indictment of the Catholic Church. Brilliantly plotted, paced and performed, it's also inarguably one of the highlights at this year's fest (reviewed in detail previously).    

Finally, after travelling to Arabian deserts and British countryside, Romania's past and Russia's future, we land in a cab on the streets of present-day Teheran. Looking out through a featureless windshield via an ordinary, grainy POV shot, the ride in Iranian writer/director Jafar Panahi's "Taxi" begins on a mute note. In the course of the next 81 minutes, during which the driver picks up, chats with and sends off customers, this leisurely, quotidian look and feel would persist, making it all the more delightful when the movie ends up delivering such an eloquent, resounding discourse on justice, integrity, freedom of expression and the place of the arts in an authoritarian society. Episodically structured with intricate links built in to ensure consistency and momentum, the screenplay is a masterful construction. On one level, the deceptively simple, banter-like conversations add up to a kaleidoscopic montage of everyday life that reflects the changes, dilemmas, and a general lack of consensus Iranian citizens today have to contend with. And as per usual now, Panahi creates another level of perception by consciously blurring the line between reality and fiction. Playing the role of the taxi driver himself as himself, a famous filmmaker forced to earn his living elsewhere after being banned from filmmaking, his well-publicized predicament feeds back into the story, teasing with the immediacy of fact and the distance of representation. This formal inventiveness not only invigorates a logistically restricted narrative but also gives off a good-natured playfulness that softens the accusatory tone which might otherwise be too pointedly political. Just as extraordinary is Panahi's direction. The economy of his compositions, the skill and fluidity with which he switches between perspectives, his impeccable timing that allows the peripheral elements in a scene to speak, all contribute to an ending that's the epitomy of modesty but so precisely staged it pulls various thematic threads together and drives them to a transcendent, ironic close. Addressing difficult, fundamental issues with intelligence, compassion and a miraculously light touch, "Taxi" is funny, poignant, and the rightful winner of the Golden Bear.    

When all is said and done, Berlin has put up a more than worthy lineup featuring established names and new voices, artistic achievements and humanistic statements. Although the film selection is altogether a tad less accessible than last year and might not see any of its picks fly as high as "Boyhood" or "The Grand Budapest Hotel", it remains an interesting, provocative, vitally eclectic one. So now the pressure is on the Croisette and the Lido to hold up their end of the European trifecta in the coming months.

Sonntag, 10. Mai 2015

The Babadook - pro & con (with Eve Lucas)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on May 7, 2015)

CON: Ba-ba-boring

While its coldly pristine photography pleases the eyes and the rare female-driven narrative is very much to be appreciated, this insipid excuse of a horror film bores more than anything else. Yes, childrearing is tough and exhaustion could be the least agreeable of sensations, but a tired mother and petulant son do not make for a scary movie. In the course of the story, which weaves together the familiar haunted house setup and a frustrating case of ineffective parenting, we feel sympathetic toward our first overtaxed, then wrongly accused heroine. But fear – that trickiest of emotions to artificially encourage – remains elusive. There are jumpy moments (almost exclusively the result of sudden movements or loud noises) but the difference between such instant, knee-jerk reactions and the lingering, purely psychological response of dread should be clear.

And so we wait for the poor woman to relax, the nasty kid to calm down, and the director to stop startling us with pop-ups or screams. But that’s pretty much it. The performance by Essie Davis is intense and technically sound, marking the progression of her character's unravelling with escalating force. But seen from the perspective of a genre film lover, it feels like a wasted effort in a fundamentally misguided attempt to terrorise.

PRO: Whose mind is it anyway? (by Eve Lucas)

Worried about things that go bang in the night? You should be. Not the page-bound variety, the Babadook nursery spook of infantile fears with which young Samuel (Wiseman) terrorises single mother Amelia (Davis), insisting on nightly inspections of dark spaces before creeping into her bed and robbing her of what little sleep remains.

No. It’s inner demons that can rise and destroy. Like all good monsters, they’re in the mind – and not just those of children. First-time director Kent hints as much when we learn early on that Amelia was the author of “oh, some children’s books” before she lost her husband in an accident on the way to the hospital for Samuel’s birth. Six years on, that violent tragedy and its unarticulated legacy has found darkness in Amelia – and in a terrible voracity that sucks mother and child into the cellar of unresolved trauma. Set largely in a house of blues and greys that reflect chillingly on a doomed family, Kent develops the Babadook as an amateur monster who moves with desperate crudeness before exploding into a metaphor for mind games that we ignore at our peril. Frightening in implication more than affect, "The Babadook" will throw its shadow over your dreams for longer than you might expect.

Samstag, 9. Mai 2015

The Water Diviner

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on May 7, 2015)

Boasting the visual opulence of a cross-continental spread and the historical gravitas of World War I, this drama-adventure nevertheless fails to engage, move or inspire, proving that debut director Russell Crowe still has some way to go as a storyteller.

Based on true events about a family man from Australia who ventures into the turbulent political hot zone of post-war Turkey to find his missing sons, one suspects the potential for an emotions and adrenalin-filled ride is there. Sadly, such promise is not to be for the film is doubly dulled by a lack of focus and the plainness of its voice. Subplots that don't go anywhere get picked up and dropped off with little consideration for timing. The blandly benevolent tone used to describe forgiveness, reconciliation and a burgeoning romance lends the proceedings an overall sense of limitation despite the obvious grandness of their scale.          

The movie does feature striking imagery, however, with the baffling geometrical wonders of a mosque interior and the stunning shades of light thrown by the setting sun gloriously captured on fine, dusty lens. But all that beauty ultimately can't make up for the low stakes, the weak pulse and the punch that never came.

Samstag, 2. Mai 2015

The Voices

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Apr. 30, 2015)

It's not everyday you get to see a horror comedy that's actually both scary and funny. For that French director Marjane Satrapi must be congratulated. Her latest work, about a psychologically imbalanced man who converses with animals and dismembered heads as he slips down a homicidal spiral, not only hits those tones but hits them hard.

Designed with pushy prime colors cast in artificial ambient light, the movie has a fantastical look that strikes one as hyper, slightly manic, an impression strengthened by the occasional musical choreography. Building on that chirpiness, the inner urges of the protagonist as voiced unfiltered through his cat and dog come across as innocently, genuinely loopy. Which makes it all the more surprising when the knife is out, the body parts start piling up and a real sense of dread toward this unhinged personality seeps through.    

Despite its delightfully wild range, the movie ultimately feels more uneven than layered. Ryan Reynold's performance lacks the necessary elasticity to pull off such an unpredictable character. A couple of sharp, rather heavy-handed dramatic turns and the somewhat ill-considered ending also suggest the filmmaker got too excited over an admittedly cool idea and bit off more than she could chew.