Montag, 26. Oktober 2015

Arab Movie

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

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

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

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

Donnerstag, 22. Oktober 2015

The Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tribe - pro & con (with Mark Wilshin)

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

Pro: Silence is golden

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

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

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

Con: Deaf and dumb (by Mark Wilshin)

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

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

Black Mass

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

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

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

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

Boi neon (Neon Bull)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Program

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

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

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

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

Interview: László Nemes (Son of Saul)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why this aspect ratio?

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

So you wanted the film to feel like a portrait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donnerstag, 1. Oktober 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Inside Out - pro & con (with Seymour Gris)

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

Pro: Brain meets heart

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

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

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

Con: Wrong-headed (by Seymour Gris)

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

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

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