Samstag, 21. November 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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

Whether you call them dramedies or tragicomedies, films that attack both your tear ducts and ticklish spots are now a firmly established genre, and prove particularly effective – sometimes even necessary – in telling stories about life, death and us curiously paradoxical human beings.

In the Pittsburgh-set Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, for example, the titular first-person narrator Greg (Mann) and childhood buddy Earl (Cyler) befriend schoolmate Rachel (Cooke) when she’s diagnosed with leukemia. It hardly gets sadder than witnessing burgeoning adolescence eaten away by cancer, obviously – you can practically hear the sobs in the audience from here. But it’s the humour, the sarcasm and the heroically naïve pretense that everything’s going to be fine that really works wonders and sets this movie apart.

Adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own bestselling YA novel, the script neither condescends to nor glorifies the goofy wisdoms of the young. It simply lets the sharp banter of the three leads fly while slowly peeling away layers of their self-defense mechanisms to reveal a true fragility inside. For that lovely discovery the well-cast trio, surrounded by a terrific group of supporting players, must be credited too. In a stand-out performance, Mann wins you over as the eloquent if chronically awkward protagonist. Through his open face that speaks mischief, kindness and regret, we enter a boy’s mind that knows no comedy or drama, but only compassion and the simple wish to make a girl laugh.

Directed with great verve and acute sensitivity, this film is not just a riot of emotions high and low, it says something poignant about loss, bonds, and how, on this one-way journey we must all undertake, it’s merciful to remember the fun along with the inevitable sighs.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

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

The second half of the final instalment – and therefore the very last part – of the Hunger Games franchise concludes the series on a dutifully safe note, but a lack of the unexpected, both narratively and technically, does prevent the saga of Katniss & Co. from going out with a bang.

In a nice touch that throws viewers right back into the bleak, belligerent wartime ambience where things were left off, the film opens cold, in the middle of a physical checkup for our croaking heroine. After the title card drops, however, it’s pretty much storytelling at its squarest and most sanitised. We follow the rebels as they try to elicit support from various Districts and move towards the Capitol to take down the evil regime. Of course there are setbacks aplenty and sacrifices are made along the way, but, compared to the madly original idea behind the series-starter that smartly plays to our bloodlust and media obsession, what happens here just doesn’t stoke the imagination or tingle the spine quite the same way. Meanwhile, the political intrigue that has become the main source of conflict since the last movie also loses some of its vehemence due to the simple fact of fatigue. Not helping matters is the practiced but unimaginative direction, which recounts the adventure well enough, yet at no point feels adventurous itself, leaving behind an altogether unmemorable impression of orderly busyness.  

The cast does a fine job, even though the tiredness of déjà-vu also carries over to the performances so that, with the possible exception of some delicious scene-chewing by Julianne Moore and Donald Sutherland as heads of the two forces at war, nothing really stands out. What can’t be blamed on the corporate greed that split the finale in two and caused the inevitable watering-down is how, after four very successful films, the visual effects remain distractingly off. Whether it’s monstrous waves of dark matter flooding apartment blocks or scenes of imperial assembly meant to overwhelm with their sheer grandeur, the proper sense of scale, speed and mass seldom comes across to create that perfect illusion.

All things considered, the Hunger Games movies most likely still rank among the better YA fantasy adaptations out there. At the very least they ask interesting, ambivalent, subversive questions beneath all the adolescent-friendly packaging. And although there’s a whisper of regressive gender politics in the short epilogue attached to this concluding chapter, Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed with strength and great conviction by Jennifer Lawrence, is as valid a role model as any for young people everywhere. We just wish the filmmakers would have trusted their audience enough to try something more daring, sophisticated in their approach – and hired better tech teams while they’re at it.

Filmfest Hamburg 2015

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 11, 2015)

This year we’ve covered the film festivals in Cannes, Venice, and of course the Berlinale here at Exberliner. Was there any reason, then, to pay a visit to their younger, considerably smaller counterpart in Hamburg? Turns out there was. Cinephiles may not get the same roster of glitzy world premieres from A-list auteurs at the beautiful Hanseatic city, but the Filmfest Hamburg offers that rare opportunity to actually enjoy a thoughtfully curated programme featuring obscure arthouse hits and major award winners. Away from the stress of “See it here first!” and cushioned in the romantic chill of autumn, the comfort level of spending some days in Germany’s second largest city – and Berlin’s often-rival – getting drunk on cinematic highlights and discoveries of the year, is surprisingly high.

For those who couldn’t make it to Locarno or San Sebastián, the 23rd edition of the FFHH has scooped up a healthy sample of their competition lineup. Right Now, Wrong Then, the eventual winner of the top Swiss film festival, is a sweet, dizzyingly idiosyncratic mind trick from Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. Telling the tale of a chance encounter between a famous director and an aspiring painter that may lead to something more – not once, but twice – the two-parter bears all his signature quirks. Although it never reaches the strange, giddy heights of In Another Country or exudes the breezy, organic charm of Hahaha, this formally daring reflection on coincidence, perception and choice does intrigue with a bold expressive form and should delight Hong-loyalists everywhere.    

Also crossing over from Locarno and later even winning the London Film Festival is Greek writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a wicked comedy set around six men on a fishing trip. Out of boredom the group starts to play a game where each of them devises a contest in secret and scores the others accordingly, in order to determine who among them is “the best in general”. As ambitious as it is ludicrous, the highly unusual premise picks apart modern masculinity in an often frivolous manner, hovering between broad gags and unsettling insights. While the film ultimately feels too unstructured to land any substantial, lasting impact, it may well count itself a worthy addition to the new wave of Greek cinema sparkling with conceptual brilliance à la Dogtooth or Alps.

Equally quirky, albeit more carefully mapped out is Dutch helmer Alex van Warmerdam’s comedy-noir Schneider vs. Bax. Featuring a hitman eager to get back to his own birthday party, another coke-snorting hitman doubling as a writer, an old prostitute dragged into a hit job by accident and other cuckoo characters that could have been lifted from a Coen brothers flick, it dances through an endless supply of plot twists and keeps you hooked on its deliciously macabre humour.

Not nearly as entertaining is the San Sebastián alumnus The Demons, a coming-of-age drama crossed with kidnapping thriller set in suburban Montreal. Canadian director Philippe Lesage has an eye for suggestive visuals and the nose for creepy atmosphere, but the film borders on the schizophrenic with its many subplots and tonal changes. Lacking a strong focal point to drive the whole narrative, we’re left to admire the undeniably effective camerawork and the moments of foreboding beauty it brings.
Other festival champs include Sundance winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a lively, tender and, above all, seriously funny tearjerker that actually deserves both your laughs and sobs. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon gets the healing power of comedy and delivers a refreshingly, brutally genuine take on the girl-dying-of-leukemia genre. His trio of perfectly cast actors, assisted by a terrific group of supporting players, also helps inject that air of inspired unsentimentality into the film.

While less innovative in its approach, French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Cannes hit Mustang proves to be a jolt of energy impossible to resist. Set around five sister growing up in a conservative household in rural Turkey, the girlhood drama vividly depicts the debilitating effects of female oppression and the indefatigable human need to break free. Glowingly photographed and showcasing some affecting, naturalistic performances from its young leads, the film doesn’t aim terribly high but breathes so much life it dazzles nonetheless.            

So yes, the festival tent of the FFHH appears positively modest in comparison to the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the Palazzo del Cinema or the Berlinale Palast, but it’s never about that glammed-up hoopla in Hamburg anyway. Over there by the lovely Alster river, it’s more about appreciating good movies, special movies from all over the world that might have gotten lost in the shuffle even for avid festival-goers, as well as the opportunity to exchange ideas with the filmmakers in a relaxed environment. Honestly, what joy it is to (re-)watch gems like The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) or The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos) on a giant screen without the hassle of hour-long queuing; and where else do you get to speak with László Nemes (Hungarian director and Cannes Grand Prix winner for Son of Saul) at length without some demoralising journalistic jockeying? All things considered, the 90-minute ICE ride seems like an awfully reasonable bargain indeed.

Les démons (The Demons)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Nov. 6 , 2015)

Part coming-of-age story, part familial drama, part psychological thriller and even carrying with it a whiff or two of supernatural horror, Canadian director Philippe Lesage’s first narrative feature The Demons is a composite of intriguing leads, except none of them really goes anywhere. The result is something almost psychedelically meandering – or simply arbitrary and incoherent.

The story is built around Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), a watchful, contemplative grade-schooler who seems uncommonly serious for his age. He has a painful crush on his teacher, he suspects his father is having an affair, he fears he might have gotten AIDS for being an unknowing homosexual. In addition to all that, he learns there’s a kidnapper/killer on the loose who targets little boys just like him in suburban Montreal. With a worried look etched on his face, our protagonist leads us through the anxiety-filled everyday of a young person just starting to stumble on life’s many complexities.

While this premise is promising enough, the structure of the actual script is seriously off, pieced together from isolated anecdotes without a firm grasp on arc, momentum or thematic focus, so that the whole thing comes across pretty loose and strangely shapeless. Like the limited attention span of a pre-teen, the story can’t follow through on any of the subplots it started. As a result, scenes of Félix’s quotidian pile up but fail to charm or inform in the aggregate. A couple of overtly emotional twists later in the film thus land with hardly any impact.

Around its halfway mark, the inarticulate but generally sweet-natured drama turns unexpectedly sinister as the child abduction plotline takes over. Further stressing a lack of continuity, the narrative leaves Félix’s POV altogether and switches to the school lifeguard with an unspeakable secret. Despite the perspective and tonal disconnect, this part of the movie proves the most effective, thanks to the simple fact that it settles for a more consistent, undistracted portrait. Dedicating a significant chunk of screen time to the act of crime as it slowly progresses from intent to execution, from a relatively harmless joyride to the dreadful final trip into the woods, Lesage does a surprisingly good job creeping under your skin with this patient observation of a disturbed mind at work. And even though the violent outcome of this ugly episode is somewhat predictable, the shock of seeing human beings’ raw, animalistic urge of lust, shame and regret play out this plainly still leaves a ringing echo behind. So it’s with some reluctance that we once again return to the whims of Félix, until the film wraps on an appropriately confounding note.

Overall, the film is never a chore to look at. Cinematography by Nicolas Canniccioni not only pleases the eye but conjures up a quiet sense of malevolence through its unnatural composure. Whether tracking the breezy drive of a killer looking for his next victim or gliding languidly across a swimming pool bustling with activity as if withholding something terribly obvious, the camera often releases a magnetic pull that tickles and alarms. What also delights is that, rather refreshingly, the child is not portrayed as the embodiment of innocence here. How their curiosity and lack of moral inhibition can lead to mindless cruelty gets the honest treatment for once. Félix forces his will on his even tinier schoolmates doing things that would have seemed mean, borderline criminal, if taken out of the juvenile context.

It’s a shame, then, that the evocative, partially compelling picture can’t seem to sort out what it really wants to say. Throughout the many incidents that suggest plenty but express little, we get a taste of the angst and confusion of someone first finding his own identity, but in terms of what’s so demonic about growing up, we are ultimately none the wiser.