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Monthly Archives: June 2007

Oh dear… Werner Herzog is a ping pong ball, bouncing off the various aspects of his artistic life. At some point during the last 40 years, this was very thrilling to see, how he manages big-style pieces of operatic greatness (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu – all the Kinski films, actually), and then again the small odd things, of the “Jeder fuer sich und Gott gegen alle” variety. I am not sure when it was that he added the additional feature of his “poetic documentaries” to the portfolio, might have been around the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, when Herzog came to film the burning oil wells and speak odd comments to it. That film had great qualities: sensational colours, beauty of the terror, poetry of music, etc.

Today, I honestly belive Herzog has lost most of what made him a great film author: his texts become self-indulgent and tacky, his pictures are uninspired, or he is just re-processing other people’s materials. After having seen “Grizzly Man” and “Into the Wild Blue Yonder” recently, he starts getting on my nerves (I am bit scared at the prospoect of “White Diamond”, which is still waiting on my DVD shelf). “Blue Yonder” shows: (1) Herzog loves National Geographic and always wanted to be one of these Cousteau-like star nature documentary film makers, (2) his ideas of what is innovative is somehow stuck somewhere shortly after Koyannisqatsi hit the screens some decades ago, (3) he will probably never do a fictional feature film again, because he finds it hard to distinguish an interesting story arc from arbitrary rambling, and he enjoys it too much putting his perception of his own artistic subtlety into the center of his work – all things that are much easier to do in documentaries. Oh and (4) Billy from “One flew over the Coockoo’s nest” is still around, and judging from his IMDB entry, busy on the job, which is good news. Keep up the good work. Billy, I mean. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443693/

I never heard of this until I read with incredulity about the production story (http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/kino/0,1518,490956,00.html, German only)  and went out to find the film in order to chek it for any trash-cult potential. It is outright and indisputable rubbish. It has the worst cgi since… hm… the one mentioned here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGm59vRAlsI (from 1:59, but also observe the "most random movie line ever"). The story’s premise (meaning the Bradbury part of it) is quite interesting, being one variation on the evergreen topic of "what if we could travel into the past and what if we fucked it up?" And they (I don’t know whether the original story or the scriptwriters for the film) found one way of allowing for some drama and development in the present, by not having past changes affect all at once and as a continuous development since whatever past happened. They introduce rings of change that roll over the world and bring about jumps of changes. So there is some opportunity to jump and run and to actually know that something went wrong in the past. The  way it is executed is beyond words, with Ben Kingsely wasting his talent (again…), a couple of very standard tv explosions and subway implosions taking place, and no depth in the script that would go beyong two molecules of dinosaur-monkey crap.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318081/

Catching up on Jia Zhang-Ke – as the shops still don’t widely provide the latest "Dong" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0855784/), I needed to revert to the film that probably made him famous (is he famous? Let’s assume he is, at least since "Still Life", http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0859765/). I have to say, while the trivia that and how the film caused Jia’s first professional ban (see http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20070612_1.htm for the story and the speculations) is quite interesting, the film itself is a pill more tricky to swallow. There is clearly a lacking of professional equipment and skills (slap the lightning crew, or the camera operaotr, or whoever was in charge of controlling the lightning continuity), and this is all not very important, because the film was clearly done on no budget and with difficult circumstances. What is sad, however, is that the film feels much longer than it is, and there is a weak script to blame. You can engange in showing a certain arbitrariness of life and fate in China’s areas that have not yet been reached by Kind Midas’ touch, and without doubt the story told is closer to reality than most of the films we can see every day. It’s not particularly interesting, however, to watch a small-scale crook just being. There is no real development, there is no real drama, there is a certain way of dullness, only temporarily moved when Xiao Wu meets a girls he really fancies and for whose attention he goes at great length. These are the strongest passages, watching this relationship develop is moving, but it’s over soon, and the film comes back to a number of issues and events that are not very stringelntly put together. I can only be so critical because Jia Zhang-Ke is very good today, and you could already see this in "Xiao Wu", and this early is beyong doubt a strong piece of Asian naturalistic film-making. But, with a better editing and story development and the courage to cut it down to 90 minutes, I believe it could have been much stronger already.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0144020/

An interesting find in the local DVD store – and an interesting realisation that I don’t think I ever watched this in full. There is a whole load of things to be said about the amazingly well-produced music, the psychedelic touch of the time that this animated flick maybe represents better than any other piece of art, or the sheer beauty of the music. So: without doubt, brilliant time-piece. It is, however, a bit like watching some D.W. Griffith thing again: it does not transport the same qualities into today, gets a bit boring after a while and surely requires a well-balanced mix of drugs and attitudes to give you the right amount of giggles all the way through. Still fun to watch and maybe the first longest music video of the world… And it still does remind me of the days in grammar school when "Yellow Submarine" was the chosen song to learn our first English rhymes…

Overview over reviews at IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063823/externalreviews

It was easy to read and hear a lot about this one in advance (including a lot of praise by people to had already seen it in advance screenings or through the copies that could be found online), nobody spins the wheels as well as Michael Moore, and this is a talent that is at least half the fun of watching his films: you start watching having the feeling you are sharing information that is important! Or rather: IMPORTANT! And it is, of course. There is no doubt that the happy triangle of education-pension-health is among the greatest worries in people’s life-planning. Whether it becomes overblown competitive (education), non-financable through changing age patterns (pensions) or … in the case of the health system (or rather: the health insurance system), the trouble maker is not so easily identified. It has to do with money, of course, and the costs of … what? Now let’s be honest: not living in the US is a great problem for understanding the system’s and the film’s core point. Apparently, if you live in the US, you are firstly not legally obliged to have health insurance. Let’s say, on a general note, this is rather stupid, as low-income families in particular will under these circumstances choose not to have insurance and safe the money for supposedly more pressing expenditures. The system sets an incentive for getting yourself into trouble, because as soon as illness occurs, you are on the verge of being ruined. So this is a flaw in the system, and it is very hard to understand how it can be, espacielly if the notion the film works on is true that the whole system is dominated by lobbyists of the health insurance companies. These should lobby for compulsory insurance: firstly it means more members, and secondly it means more distribution of risk, meaning more profit despite less monthly membership fees.

While this first point is odd, the second is odder: you have an insurance system that basically works ruthlessly on the basis of ad-hoc approval by people who work for for-profit companies. Emergency or illness and prior approval of treatment by a company representative??? I don’t blame the film for being outraged and polemic about this – if you live in a country where such a system is being commonly accepted by anybody with a voice, then there is plenty of reason to be … not outraged, maybe, but stunned. What really strikes me about this film is how many people / voters apparently take this ridiculously dysfunctional and inhuman health care system they live with for granted. Allow me to be a little bit insulting (and unfairly so, I’m sure): any country with a population slightly more educated about what’s going on in the rest of the world would be out on the streets about such ludicrous processes as pay-as-you-go-medicine, even more ludicrous vocabulary such as "socialist health system" for any system that establishes a solidarity-based risk- and burden-sharing between ill / healthy and poor / rich.

The film is not a bad film, it does what it needs to do for its audience. The problem is that for most audiences outside the US, the film has a completely different point. Americans are supposed to wake up to the facts about their rotten system. Non-Americans just need to stare in incredulity at the fact that the Americans need to be woken up in the first place.

Overview over reactions: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sicko/

The New York Yimes has the interesting story about a new yellow label
trailers can get for online distribution. This only refers to "age
appropriateness", and does not specify an age group. What it means is that
the trailer is suitable for "visitors to sites either frequented mainly by
grown-ups or accessible only between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m." It is a bit of a
funny mix-up of 19th and 21st century, but at least now there's a certain
chance of having trailers that reflect the film better than before, as
opposed to having family-firendly trailers luring audiences into movies they
do not want to see. You will figure out a way to find out what time it is at
the location of the server. Or your location as a user? Or the film
production company's location? Or the producer of the slasher blade that is
being used to . anyway: The (useless) remake of "Halloween" has the honour
of being the first to use it.There is also an R-rated version of the trailer
tag, in appropriate and attractive red. These "require viewers to pass an
age-verification test, in which viewers 17 and older have to match their
names, birthdays and ZIP codes against public records on file", says NYT
online.
Full story at
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/13/movies/13yell.html?ex=1182916800&en=3f7ce7
9d259bc517&ei=5070 (registration required, but free, and worth it, anyway!)

Tacky as can get: in Beijing’s South there is an amusement park which featrures Eiffel Tower and pyramids, New York’s skyline and Taj Mahal. All a bit smaller, all mostly populated by Chinese staff, but at your convenience, and without the arduous travel that is usually involved when you want to see the originals. Jia Zhangke’s film is not about the "attraction", but I guess he very successfully tricked the management into believing that it actually is, and tht this film would be like a free advertisement for their park. Hardly so: the film shows how ridiculous and fake this kind of amusement is, how sober and poor the lives of the singers and dancers and security guards that run the show, how dull this whole setting is and how culturally degenerated one must be to come up with that kind of rubbish as a prime capital attraction. In front of this tapestry of wicked taste, true live evolves, however, and the relationships between the people working and living in "the world" are as manyfold as they are all over the world, the real one out there, I mean: Love and jealousy, amibition  and despair, theft and death. After watching my second Jia Zhangke film in two days I am inclined to believe that the motif of his work could be "Just Life, take it or leave it". His films are very honest at that: they are real-life dramas in the best sense of the word, with dullness seeping into lifes and adding to the pain at times, and little joys being generously granted by fate at others. I could not tell what "happens" in the film, but – with all its weaknesses – it is very rewarding to watch and makes me look for more of Jia’s films.

Jia ZhangKe may be the most interesting film-maker mainland China has today. Within just a couple of days, I watched “Still Life / Sanxia Haoren” and “The World / Sijie”, and I guess it’s fair to judge from these very recent films that Jia unites the ability to tell a touching story of human desire with the necessary technical skills to present them in a cinematic fashion. This combination is very rare in China, from my experience: you either have very intensive stories, with big and true drama, focussing on how the forces of fate play with human beings. These films are usually ambitious first features, produced at no budget and little professional experience and skill. And then there are the big budget equivalents to a Bruckheimer flick, with more costume than brain and more cuts than dialogue words. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have made their new homes there, and not much hope is that they ever get out of that corner again.

Sanxian Haoren has not much to offer in terms of story or story development. It sets out to show the despair leading to people traveling long ways in search of their lost marriages, even though they know that there is nothing much to be found. And actually the quest is only just about those partners, it is more precisely aimed at the common daughter (who has gone) and at the divorce documents (which are about to be signed). So there is not really a hope for the missions to yield some positive change, some re-establishment of a previous state of happiness. There was no state of happiness, not for the man who bought his wife for 3000 RMB some years ago and now wonders whether she ran away from him, and not for the woman who has not seen her husband for two years and knows that other women have always meant more to him. These stories do not really meet, but they are located in the same surreal area of the three gorges dam, where every day takes the people farther away from the lives they want to lead: by flooding their previous homes, by demolishing their current ones, and by making plans for migration to other places of hope, where more money can be made in the mines of the North, or in the factories in the South. It is all a bit depressing, that’s true, but there is also a very human touch to it: people do care about their lives, their partners and their future, and they are still able to suffer when they are lonely. I could imagine that one reason for making the film was just to show that, because you cannot take it for granted in today’s China.

Review in Villagevoice from 2008 (that’s how long films hover around until anybody sees them…)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sanxia-haoren-still-life/

I wonder what I would do if I had to write the next season of “24”: the challenge is that after a couple of show that had very similar patterns, there is now a need to break out of that pattern, while the pattern existed for very good reasons. The key element of the pattern is: You have to provide highlights, not just at the end of the season, but in regular intervals. That requires that you “resolve” situations frequently. This again requires that the situations you resolve are not the most critical ones. So there’s always a bigger fish coming up, and the audience knows it, and you know the audience knows it. I will be glad to see how the makers get started into their “re-booting of the franchise”, which they promised for next season, because Season 6 clearly suffered from the audience being too well acquainted with the mechanics of this show.

My impression was that the producers try to compensate by making the villains as interesting (and as many) as possible. The best way to do this is to abuse personal relationships, and in come…

*** Spoilers from here ***
Jack Bauer’s brother. And Prince Philipp … ah sorry that was in “The Queen”, here he is Jack’s father! Now how personal can it get? And the Chinese bad guy who captured Jack and tortured him for two years (I do have the feeling that the show’s fate on Chinese tv has been sealed with this installment – last time they just captured Jack for a reason, this time they are nasty!). And a Russian who is unimportant enough to get killed soon in the process, but is responsible for all this mess. And a vice-president who is a jerk, and a right-wing warmongering  jerk at that. As usual, you have the ambiguous character, this time played by Peter McNicol, giving us the Presidential advisor Tom Lennox. I have a bit of trouble liking the current set of characters they way I liked their predecessors: Milo is not up to Edgar, and gets what he deserves for being in love with the wrong woman (who is boring herself), and nobody could ever step in to fill the gap Tony left behind. At least Jack’s annoying daughter has been done away with, and I hope it stays that way.

As for the action, there is no need to complain: we have ourselves an A-bomb blowing part of LA to smithereens, a couple more to keep up the threat over some episodes, and then indeed something that can be called a little cheat: the story line about the bombs is over, really, they won’t go off, but of course we are only somewhere near episode 18, so what to do with the rest of the time? Start new trouble, out of blue nowhere, because those devices built into the Russian nukes grant access to “the whole Russian defense system” – shame nobody had mentioned that before, would have been a bit more credible as a plot twist. Anyway, so there’s a new reason to keep moving and kill relatives and gross out parts of the audience by new and innovative ways of getting rid of implanted tracking devices (“Careful with that axe, Eugene”).

It all kinda works out, the pacing is done well enough to entertain, but there is this feeling of being not really sure in what kind of McGuffin world we ended up (and in retrospect, it’s pretty and increasingly hard to distinguish the seasons). I like the very end of the end, however, where for a change people do not shout at each other, where Jack is allowed to look deep into the bottomless pit of his empty life, and where all the running and spinning and crashing stops just long enough to make us wonder whether that show could not really do with a bit of humanity in the next season. Maybe that would be the way  of saving it from utter arbitrariness.

I kind of simulated the US watching experience by wathcing the first (pre-break) episodes a couple of months ago and then waiting for the season finale before I got into the rest of the season, and devulged it in one piece. I read criticism that people were unsatisfied with the story moving over to the "others"’ place early in the season. I don’t share that feeling – I was actually glad  to get at last some less mysterious background on them, some factual knowledge about who they are, what they are up to  and where their soft spots are. That was provided, through the backstories on Ben and Juliet, and through that, the whole direction of the show was pushed into a more rational one. While through the previous two seasons, it seemd embarassingly apparent to me that the authors had no idea of where they would lead the show when they drfated the beginning, and that they would need some serious force majeur to get some of the less explainable story elements reapired at some point between now and the show’s end, I now think that the dissatisfaction of many viewers with the show’s occasional arbitrariness has yielded some good results: the total length of the show has been defined (with three more 16-episode seasons to go), and it appears to me that they have also outlined the show’s ending and some ways to get there. That’s good, and the show became more coherent through it. I only hope that they have signatures under all the actors’ contracts they need until the end.

** Now spoilers follow, beware
I wrote the last because an exit as ridiculous as Mister Eko’s is not necessary again, if you want my opinion. Was about as useless as last season’s shooting of the two girls who got into police trouble and needed to get removed from the show (forgot her names: Hurley’s love interest and Sawyer’s sex interest).

Overall findings: I still don’t like the character Kate (Mother Theresa, as I like to call her), and her screwing around with Sawyer is nothing I would appreciate (I am sure she will give him a pillowtalk lecture on philanthropy now and again, the useless bitch). I still think Jack is in general a bit boring, but pretty interesting when under pressure, or drunk, or drugged, or all of this, while doing surgery. Sawyer is getting better and better every day (especially with the edge now that he’s a full-fledged murderer, yessirsonfabitch!), and if he ever gets removed from that show it will be then end of it, sonofabitch. John Locke recovered well from a dull first half-season (maybe also due to the authors’ work on the show’s future story threads and ending?) and has gone from creepy to threatening. Charly’s untimely death is nothing to cry about, the only downside is that he did not take Claire with him, that bore (somebody on a blog wrote that there may be case for Charly coming back into the show through flashbacks, and threatened to kill somebody if it will lead to more replays of the offensively bad hit-single his band had. I already plead for that man’s pardoning). For some reason Sahyd kept a low profile, and I am a bit worried as for the reasons. Is that an exit strategy? Or will he come back with a vengeance, and lead the endfight against a group of "Others" lead by John Locke, after having tortured Jack to death in an effort to retrieve information on the whereabouts of Jack’s father’s body? Just speculating, sorry…

The finale of the season was fun, and for a change I surprised myself by very soon figuring out what all this "flashback" was about. My personal interpretation: one of Desmond’s flashes, nothing more, because there is no way anybody will seriously get off that island before sesaon 6. But let’s be patient and eat a lot of veggies and fruit so we stay healthy and live to see the next season. Sonofabitch!

Michael Winterbottom, Samantha Morton und Tim Robbins – a surprisingly big-named cast for a Winterbottom film. A star like Tim Robbins as the gravitational centre, who – also through his physical presence, that man is just so tall – determines the film’s mood just by slumping his shoulders or by walking erect (funny for me that I saw him in two films in a row, once here and the other time in "Team America – World Police", where he gets deservedly slaughtered after annoying everybody to death about buying hybrid cars and saving the climate for our children). And actually this is what the film is about: people’s moods and the world’s mood. This world is a very technocractic place, lacking emotions in a way similar to what was depicted in "Gattaca". It’s aseptic in a bit of a cliché-science fiction manner, but with the interesting twist that most of the settings are real-life today’s Shanghai settings, so not really much SciFi at all. (The completely coincidental sidenote is that I started watching the film while sitting in a Shanghai hotel, without knowing in advance where the film is set – that was odd, because the locations there are just very SciFi, without much need for beefing them up for futuristic style). The "crime" story that pushes ahead story development (first about faked papers, and then about illegal mating) is more the excuse to push the personnel around their world a bit and allow them to be depressed. It is a very watchable way of developing the story, however, just a bit boring, with style dominating content just a bit too much. That there is not much hope in such a world comes at no surprise, but it’s interesting to think about the final resolution: (now spoiling) if memories can be manipulated in a way that the cheating husbands do not remember their adventures anymore, that would be actually brilliant, wouldn’t it? The whole concept of crime and punishment would be turned upside down, as memory removal would make anybody innocent, whatever atrocity he/she committed. Whether the wife will be able to life with her husband happily everafter is another question, but if she thinks it through, there is no reason not to. In any case: another interesting film by probably the strangest and one of the most interesting directors / auteurs around.

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040813/REVIEWS/408130301/1023
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0345061/

Roger Ebert found the right catchphrase for this flick: it's an "equal
opportunity offender", it sets out to make a list of things that could be
considered offensive by parts of the audience, and works its way through
them. Most of it has to do with sex and patriotism, so the offences are
rather harmless for European standards, however, and never force you to
change from alightly amused observer to . er . well, being offended. The
producers actually mention on the DVD extras what they initially set out to
do: a puppet version of a Bruckheimer movie, without any changes, as they
consider these Bruckheimer blockbusters to be comedies in the first place,
just that he doesn't know, "because he's a turd". While that may be true,
watching "Team America" reveals that they are not just comedies, but also
rather boring most of the time. And during those parts of the fim where
nothing offensive or disgusting has been added, they manage to reach the
standards of the original: a boring blockbuster, just with puppets on
strings. Fortunately, there are some nice add-ons, such as the team
manager's (completely job-driven)obsession with oral sex, the interesting
range of sexual behaviour on display between hero and barbie doll, amusingly
effective plastical surgery on the hero, or a nice opening sequence, where
Team America destroys more of Paris than any weapon of mass destruction
could ever have achieved. And the most decent secret message to alert your
team members. And an excellent soundtrack with very well tailor-made lyrics
("and this is a monataaaage, and in a montaaage you see time going by much
quicker, and you need to fade out at the end of a montaaage, because it
makes even more time appear to have paaaased" – " 'Pearl Harbour' sucked and
Ben Affleck needs acting classes' "). And proof of the makers' quote that
they don't like actors, not a bit, those despicable whores! And Matt Damon
shouting "Matt Damon" all the time. And and and. a lotta funny bits.
Roger Ebert manages not to have an opinion at
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20041014/REVIEWS/4
0921007/1023
More opinionated, the Variety review:
http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117925177.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&p=0

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