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Monthly Archives: September 2006

Spike Lee got himself a strange job here: it is surely not a merely technical task to do a documentary such as "When the Levees Broke", but there is a certain amount of just handling things to it: the footage needs to be found and screened, the people need to be found and interviewed, and then the whole truckload of material needs to get cut down to a format appropriate for the HBO screen (which, you have to admit, is a larger screen than you usually get for tv documentaries). If you are lucky, you also find a local musician to add some sad tunes and a personal story. I have to admit, that despite the fact that every factual statement has been repeated too often, and despite the rather tacky use of staccato-cut repetitions of certain sentences ("there was an explosion"), I enjoyed watching the film, mainly because it delivered information that I previously did not have. I only very occasionally got news at the time the levees broke in 2005, and from the distant perspective, it was hard to understand what the big deal about it was: a storm, broken levees, high waters, people escaping, some dying. This is a story that happens all over the world every single day. What struck me when seeing the film was not the size of the catastrophe (to be honest: I think this was something guaranteed to happen some day when you build a city where they built New Orleans). But I think I might have gotten behind the reason why the Americans consider this to be a major national desaster instead of just another nature-inflicted catastrophe. Of course, there is New Orleans itself as a symbol of the US South’s way of living, apparently very much detached from what’s going on in the rest of the country, and not just since yesterday. The way the people speak about "them" in the rest of the country, the way they see the offshore oil fields to be their own property rather than "American" is quite telling. I am sure it is (or was) a very charming place, but one reason for this charm may be this very detachment. The very throrough destruction of a very charming place with its very distinguishable folklore is surely one reason for the shock (I reckon a smilar destruction happening to some city in Virginia or South Dakota would not have stirred so many emotions).

More importantly I think: there is this amazing level of dislike and distrust Americans (and the people in the film) show with respect to their government. There is a striking discrepancy between this distrust and the very high level and quality of help they expect of this same government at the same time. And there is the deep disappointment when this help does not come in. Which is odd, as they didn’t trust their government to begin with… This looks and feels like a really wretched relationship.

So I really do have to say that (counter to most other opinions that I heard or read) I think the film is too long, and I also think that it never finds its true story. I would not hesitate to blame this on Lee’s lack in experience as a director of documentaries, I am just a bit surprised that HBO producers did not help him out of it. If not for the huhe emotions boiling in New Orleans, I think the US audiences would have been rather disappointed, too. As it is, this does not matter, of course, and at the end of the day, it was quite interesting to watch.

And did I not recently wonder what the hell Harry Belafonte was doing on the "Live 8" stage? This time I wondered what the hell he was doing in this film and why the heck was he rambling about Hugo Chavez??

Nightmares and Dreamscapes is a mini-series version of some Stephen King short stories or novellas, produced for TNT and screened in early 2006 for the first time. I would reckon that it is one of the better / more accurate and also relatively professional efforts to turn King stories into moving images. There are some really nice episodes, with others being rather of the “ah well” quality. But you have to give them that the more boring ones have their cause rather in the original story than in the filmmakers’ efforts. This is no Palme d’Or material, but at the end of the day: King is no Nobel Prize material, either, but an excellent read when the latest Rushdie novel turns out to be a bit sulky…

1) Battleground
William Hurt? Indeed! That’s a nice starting surprise for something that I expected to be another boring and uninspired “Film based on a story by the Master of Horror” I never stopped reading every bit of novel and short story he wrote – but I did stop watching these B and C pictures after Children of the Corn came out, I think. Especially since they started producing them for tv. So that was an indication of a mid-budget production, which is something. TNT as a producer, … ah well, why not. And it turns out that the show is fun, that the special effects are not too tacky, that Hurt’s performance is as brilliant as his performances usually are – and that the fact that it’s him (the serious, reflective, quiet guy who likes to mourn and to suffer in all the flicks that we’ve seen, maybe apart from “Spider Woman” 😉 ) provides for a nice break in expectations. Watch him get into the infight, the jungle battle, with the little green ones, see him turn vicious and light the torch…

2) Crouch End
As expected, the quality of the first episode does not quite hold. The story, to be honest, is not the best choice to make a film out of it. It draws too much on the Lovecraftian universe, is more or less an hommage to all the Cthulhu and whatever they’re called myths laid out by the crazy American. They try to have a bit of this in the show, but it only comes down to some street signs and a really ill-animated cgi beast that is eating the ill-performing husband of the ill-performing female (forgot the names). But it does remind me to find out where I put my copy of “Tales of the Cthulhu”, to catch up with latest developments on the mad author (was it Nabukadnezzar?) of the dangerous book calling up unspeakable horrors (what’s its title again? I never thought I would ever forget that!)

3) Umney’s Last Case
Tastes a bit as if too many screenplay authors could not quite agree on which way the story should go, so they had it end in an even more open (maybe arbitrary) fashion than the short story. It is about Chandler, so production design is everything, the hats, suspenders and dresses being more important than the plot. Interesting from today’s point of view is, of course, to see how much fun King developed even some years ago in writing himself (or his alter egos) into his stories and interfering directly as a Deus ex machina – not resolving issues in this case, of course, but causing a big mess. Brilliant as always: Wiliam H. Macy – and again one wonders how they can afford to get somebody like him into a production that has hardly any well-known directors or script writers. Keeps me reminding to check how Hollywood stars earn their money…

4) The End of the whole Mess
Speaking of causing a mess: that’s what they do in this episode big style. Quite a good main actor (Ron Livingston) whom I did not know tells the story about himself and his little brother, who takes the classical path of trying to do good and ending up doing the worst to everybody. That core idea is actually one that King uses a couple of times – unknown side-effects of this or that, slowly creeping into the system and finally creating a bit of disaster. In this case, I have to say my thought was: so what? Everybody seems to be happy, apart from those who did not catch the disease, and this is quite similar to what the layout in “The Cell” was (or in “The Stand” or in “Tommyknockers”, or or or…). Be crazy, be happy!

5) The Road Virus Heads North
Tom Berenger… Platoon, yes, but… anything else? Not that I remember. And I also wonder whether it’s the same Berenger, as the scars in his face seem to have diminished over the last how many – 15? – years. But he’s good. He is another Stephen King alter ego, a writer of great success and lost dignity (not lost, actually, but supposedly crawled up to where there there is no light). He gets entangled with some ghost on some picture he picked up somewhere, and as we never quite learn why him and what that bugger really wants, we don’t take it soo seriously. When threat becomes arbitrary, I guess it looses its thrill, as the escape routes are blocked, anyway.

6) The Fifth Quarter
One of these deviations Mr King occasionally offers from his established path of mystery, thrill and horror. A story about love and crime, about bad guys and worse guys, about live alternating between a trailer and a prison cell, with little hope of interrupting that circle. Crime, however, helps sometimes, and in this case it leads you to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s not a particularly original story, but it’s well filmed (the professional quality of camera and lightning struck me once more – the whole mini-series is on a considerable technical standard).

7) Autopsy Room Four
Nice little gimmick, with the paralysed victim on the autopsy table, fully awake, yet unable to express his thoughts – which basically are: “get the damned scalpel off my body!!!”. Fair enough, and with some moments of retarding elements and suspended action due to romantic interludes of the autopsy doctors, there is the chance for the supposedly dumb assistant to save the day. The main actor is brilliant in his… hm… paralysedness? You have to give him that he is able to sustain many hours of shooting stark naked, with a moderately attractive actress fumbling his genitals. I wonder what an average work day on the set looked like.

8) You know They’ve got a Hell of of a Band
This, I guess, is one of the stories somebody must write at one time: a couple of people plunged into celebrity heaven, or rather celebrity nightmare, as we are dealing with Stephen King. You can reanimate your childhood heroes, but you don’t need to care too much about a plot, because the sensation of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix showing their faces is supposedly enough to make a nice show. I am afraid it was the weakest story at the mini-series’ finale, which is a bit of a shame, but makes it easier to turn to something new…

The best link ever put online? I don’t know, but it’s competitive, that’s for sure. Actually, a Top 1000 list is much mopre pleasant than a Top 10 or Top 100 list, there surely have not been more than 213 really great films over the last century, so all of them are supposedly included and the trick is to find out which ones they are.

What’s great about the NYT site is not the list of films, but the fact that the links to the original reviews are being offered. So you can savour the insight of the critic about the early Martin Scorsese: “one of the best of the new American filmmakers”) and the late … well … the mid-aged
Kirk Douglas and his “Spartacus”: “the music score of Alex North is good and loud”).
This is a temptation for any film buff, so be aware of the addictive qualities of these reviews – and go for it! Two a day, at least!
Here it is:

The Guardian takes up on the story of director Lou Ye, who brought his "Summer Palace" movie to Cannes festival without the official approval of the Chinese authorities, namely SARFT. Considering that he experienced a filming ban before, Guardian writer Jonathan  Watts wonders about his reasons.,,1868415,00.html

So often, the film based on or inspired by a novel has disappointed. From what can be read these days, "Perfume" will be the culmination point of all possible disappointments. Of all books, it is the least visual, its most crucial aspects taking place exclusively in the mind of Grenouille (while he remains almost motionless for 7 years, how about that for a movie?). The novel is something like a Holy Grail for us Germans, showing a narrative and linguistic power that we had not expected from German authors – this opulence of sensuality and the outrageousness of the protagonist’s amorality are just too powerful to resist when you grew up with the likes of Siegfried Lenz, Hermann Hesse and Martin Walser…  (I think the success stems more from this surprise, less from the actual qualities of the book). I am a bit afraid that this monolithic achievement of German post-war literature might get damaged by the film. Films, as much as I love them, may be able to interpret specific motives from literature and create a new piece of art on top of them (see Kubrick, or Hitchcock). They are also (sometimes) able to add an artistic perspective to an already well-known story. By that I mean the cases where the story is sufficiently well-known (so well-known, as a matter of fact, that you can play with the storyline again), but does not necessarily have a standing as a major literary achievement in its own right. And thinking about the example for this category, I cannot but think of the "10 Commandments" and all those flics based on the same book… Where things can go really bad is when the book has all features of a masterpiece: plot, characters, drama, thrill, language. This now may be a matter of taste, but in my opinion, the only possible way of making a good film out of such a book is the "Kubrick way" (maybe that was why according to rumors Patrick Sueskind had him in mind as a director? So that the book remained unharmed? We don’t know). Any effort to merely add the pictures to the letters will end in desaster. No, not desaster, but let’s be more personal: In boredeom. I have never felt as bored in a major movie than in the first part of "Harry Potter", where nothing of substance was added to what already existed in the book. The only interesting thing was the ommissions. The pictures? No, I did have pictures before, trust me on this, anybody has plenty of pictures when reading a good book. (No, I do not really want to claim Mr Potter’s biography was on the same quality level as Mr Grenouille’s, but they have their similarities in their monumental impact on the literary scenes – and they are both entertaining, for some).

What we can expect from the "Perfume" is a very naturalistic film, with the stench of Paris and of Grasse, and the sweet odour of virgins about to get killed being put into colours. No doubt it will look great. Expecting more than that would be daring. Beyond that, what I hope is that not too many movie tie-ins and picture books hit the shelfes and spoil the uniqueness of what Sueskind has achieved for German literature.

A review after the press screenings can be found here:

Digital movies in the countryside
From CRI :

    China will try digital movies in rural areas, with 1,200 digital movie system (DMS) machines being delivered to eight provinces in October.

    "Due to the low cost of DMS developed by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), rural audiences can enjoy high-quality digital movies for only a few yuan," said Mao Yu, vice director of the SARFT digital program management center.

    According to the SARFT, the test will cover 16 cities in eight provinces. Each village will be allocated one DMS set.
    "To carry out the plan nationwide we would need 100,000 to 200,000 DMS sets," a SARFT source said

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