Freitag, 21. August 2015


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Aug. 20, 2015)

Nothing says made-in-Hollywood quite like a good ol' boxing movie. The combination of sweat, tears and applause, glory, setbacks and turnaround practically has the traditional three-act story arc written by itself. And it's in the ring where the American dream of winning fame and fortune by giving, risking it all is most vividly brought to life. So it should come as no surprise that with Southpaw, we get yet another one about a fighter who first loses everything, then picks himself up, and despite tremendous hardship, gets back on top again. You could hear the cheers and inspirational music from here.

Herein lie probably both the draw of the movie and its own undoing. people who enjoy watching something rough but not too demanding, dramatic but following an expectable trajectory, can sit back, let the punches fly, and get massaged in all the familiar places, in exactly the right order. Nothing about the technical details or the performances here is particularly terrible as to offend those just looking for the joyous rush of a comeback story. But boy does this one get dreadfully conventional. Every turn the plot takes, from the drunken, self-destructive behavior of the fresh ex-champion, the custody case lost and reversed, the spiritual guidance from a mentor figure, down to the montage we all know so well, where the loser transforms himself into heroic shape in front of our eyes, feels intensely unoriginal. Every loss, every triumph both predictable and unavoidable. Altogether that makes for a superficially charged but intellectually flat experience. laying the lightweight boxer, Gyllenhaal has the physicality down and nails most of the outward aspects of the performance. The labor, the ache, the murderous rage, you can buy all that. But he did not overcome an inherent air of civility, this boyish sweetness to him as a screen presence, betrayed now and again by his voice or posture, so selling him as this tough cookie who "grew up in the system" is still a bit of a stretch.

As far as rousing crowd-pleasers go, Southpaw more or less gets the job done. Just don't go in expecting subtlety, depth, tact – stuff that makes up a true emotional K.O.

Samstag, 15. August 2015

The Invitation / Kill Your Friends

Apparent budgetary restrictions and screenwriting limitations inherent to such high-concept materials notwithstanding, American director Karyn Kusama's single-setting psychological thriller The Invitation, about a reunion party for members from a previous support group and the unexpected course the evening takes, showcases some of indie filmmaking's best qualities: the audacity to build and craft atmosphere for 80 minutes out of your 90-min film, the utter ruthlessness when it comes time to pop the bloated balloon, the added edge of rawness and unforseeability of it all. Similarly groomed but delivering characterizations from polar opposites, Michiel Huisman and Logan Marshall-Green got the yin and yang of the unsettling group dynamics just right. Her smile either too perfectly practiced or betraying a deep source of reluctance, Tammy Blanchard convinces as a woman caught between reason and salvation. Smartly reflecting on the human capacity to deal with loss, the thematic relevance and compositional brilliance of this movie only slowly reveal themselves after one's had a chance to recover from its particularly harrowing finale.

There are a handful of interesting moments in British director Owen Harris' 90's-set slasher comedy Kill your Friends, most notably when the aleatory nature and sheer opportunism of the music industry it satirizes threaten to come alive despite the broad, farcically two-dimensional treatment. Those funny and scary flashes of semi-insight are rare, however, as the majority of the film is devoted to the kind of ineffectual parody that lacks both sensory kicks and a narrative sense. Lead actor Nicholas Hoult offers his take on a Patrick Bateman type of manically ambitious A&R-manager but doesn't quite have the presence or vigor to back it up. Supporting players like James Corden and star cameos from the likes of Moritz Bleibtreu do their part filling the zany quotient, but the overall air of insipidness, exacerbated by a stylistic underperformance, makes sure the movie never approaches the level of scandalousness promised by its title.


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Aug. 13, 2015)

The meteoric rise to fame in the past year of comedian Amy Schumer can be attributed to several factors. She has the quick wit and the timing down all right. But above all, you're instantly struck, taken aback and disarmed by how blunt she is, how terribly, magnificently comfortable she is in her own skin. We're used to hearing raunchy jokes about genitals with beeped-out expletives from Louis C.K. or Chris Rock, but coming from a young woman who happens to have a relatable body fat ratio, they just seem all the more inappropriate and so damn funny.

Riding against or perhaps on top of such latent sexism, Schumer wrote and starred in her first movie, Trainwreck, a romantic comedy centered around a thirtysomething commitment-phobic career woman named Amy. The self-deprecation begins with the title of course. And it doesn't take long before this Amy starts to rebel against all conventional female stereotypes and act out on screen what we all secretly believe our Amy does in her spare time: she parties like a pro, has a string of one-night-stands, falls asleep while getting pleasured by a guy and owns her promiscuity like a genuinely enlightened being. This uncommon portrayal of The Girl, or The Love Interest of The Guy, is refreshing and expectably delightful. The hilarity from a reversal of presumed gender roles continues when Amy meets Aaron the sports doctor (Hader), an old-fashioned-dating kind of guy attracted to and slightly emasculated by this wildfire of a girl who's barged into his life. So far, all pretty swell.  

But then the movie goes into a prolonged second and then an off-puttingly reconciliatory third act where Amy is made to realize her faults, quit her bad habits and win back The Guy. It's the most standard of all story arcs and shouldn't be judged too harshly. But then again, when the supposed anti-romcom led by the symbol of liberated female sexuality fares this closely to Sandra Bullock/Meg Ryan territory, it's damaging. The final cheerleading routine alone cancels a lot of the goodwill from the strong if goofily delivered message of empowerment.

As a performer, Schumer is best when she's just doing a bit. With a twinkle in her eyes and all the ease in the world, she could get away with saying the least classy things. The scene where she recounts the experience of fishing a condom out of her body to the horror of surrounding young moms comes to mind. SNL-cast member Bayer, playing Amy's friend Nikki, also contributes to several golden moments with her signature clueless expressions. On the whole, Trainwreck is a decent enough piece of work with solid laughs here and there. It's just that, with a brain like Schumer's behind it, we honestly expected more.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Aug. 13, 2015)

There's a scene early on in this big-screen revival of the 1960s TV series where a dashing CIA agent escapes out of East Berlin with a dashing young woman in tow, chased by another dashing KGB agent. The car maneuvers involved are intricately choreographed, oiled and fired up by some fast, razor-sharp editing, shot and lit from all kinds of sexy angles. The period set and costumes are rendered with an extra helping of retro continental flair while the snappy, jazzy score sends an irresistible charge of fun through the whole thing. It's the sort of elaborate, very physical stunt-parade done with exceptional taste and timing that, as a cinematic experience, satisfies on every level.

The movie doesn't exactly go downhill from there, but one is reminded of British director Guy Ritchie's relative strength in staging action sequences as opposed to plain old storytelling fairly quickly after that. This being a fictional collaborative operation between Washington and Moscow at the height of the Cold War, the odd-couple dynamic is unsurprisingly played to the full, as is the fish-out-of-water theme featuring a stern Russian spy perplexed and offended by Western customs. These cheeky jokes and slapstick gags – some more effective than others – are inserted too frequently for a healthy narrative flow. By constantly interrupting the plot proper – about the retrieval of a nuclear warhead made by Hitler's favourite scientist, but still – they knock the film unmistakably off balance.

That said, what a delicious exercise in style this is. Looking yummy and sounding even better, the film's level of chic just climbs and climbs as the attractive cast flaunt their ever fancier wardrobe to the slick beats of European caper. In short, a thoroughly worthy choice for two hours of harmless, guilty pleasure on a hot summer day.

Donnerstag, 6. August 2015

Man Up

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Jul. 27, 2015)

Using mistaken identity as the central conceit in a romcom is hardly the most original move. Just like Sandra Bullock, who can't find a way to tell Bill Pullman that she's not the fiancée of his unconscious brother in While You Were Sleeping, or Tom Hanks, who can't risk telling Meg Ryan that the man she falls for on the internet is the competition that threatens to sink her life's work in You've Got Mail, everything conspires against quirky thirty-something Nancy (Bell) from coming clean after she starts going along with being Jessica, the younger and actual blind date that funnyman Jack (Pegg) is supposed to meet in this gleefully unrealistic cotton candy fare with a strong 1990's vibe.

Neither the familiarity nor the froth is necessarily a problem for crafting an effective piece of escapist entertainment. And Man Up does deliver an unwrinkled, readily digestible story arc filled with streamlined gags that you can follow on autopilot and feel mildly amused by. The decision to place the big reveal halfway through, followed by some uncomfortable truth-telling, even feels almost daring in how it lays bare the hypocrisy behind the rituals and etiquette of modern-day dating. Said temporarily edgy tone is, of course, quickly replaced by mush again, for the film to end in Love Actually-esque romantic urgency on time. But overall, it's a smooth if predictable ride where the exuberant, innocent good cheer just about offsets the tiredness of déjà vu.

Ultimately, the reason why the film doesn't really take off probably lies with the casting. Pegg and Bell both have likeable screen presence but their outward, neurosis-charged antics tend to overlap instead of coalesce, often creating a high-decibel impression of manic activity and seldom sending your hormones racing through vicarious romance.