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Monthly Archives: May 2009

John Rabe is running Siemens’ Nanjing operations for 27 years. Just when his tenure is coming to an end in 1937, and his replacement has already arrived, Nanjing gets attacked by the Japanese forces taking over China’s East. Rabe realises that his staying could make a difference, and he helps the international community to establish a safety zone to protect the civilian population from the atrocities that mark the path of the Japanese army.

It is interesting to see how this experiment would work out: a German-Chinese co-production, with a young director who has not had a chance to prove that he can manage big-scale porductions. A film that tries to find the balance between blockbuster-style war scenes, and the intimate struggle of a man who never choses to be a hero, but (quite credibly) becomes one by just being the same person that was the best choice for running the factory. While the first half our or more drags along a bit, shifting the figures into position on the Nanjing chess board, checking all the boxes of a wartime drama and not providing anything unexpected or exciting narratively or visually, the film gains momentum with the actual invasion of Nanjing by the Japanese army, the establishment of the safety zone, and the dense and perilious atmosphere in there that one knows from depiction of the Warsaw ghetto. People trying to get in with their lives in impossible circumstances (the school girls keeping on doing classes while the school’s attic is packed with Chinese soldiers they illegally hide), permanent crisis management on the brink of or in the face of massacre, the stunning silence of the internaational community, and through a strange twist of developments Adolf Hitler being the last hope of those despaired prisoners.
Under duress, the actors loosen up and play more freely and intensily, Ulrich Tukur as John Rabe is a very appropriate physical presence, with the right degree of Germanness around him, and the stunningly aged and worn-looking Steve Buscemi is almost too good as the cynical bonesaw in the middle of all that blood and guts.
At the end of the day, it will be the story that is more memorable than the way the film tells it, as too much conventional story-telling is not the right tool for yet another wartime story. But a solid effort at a tale that must be told.
The decision to shoot and leave the film in its “real” languages should be praised! The flavour of the period and the location gets all the more authentic this way – this is how “Valkyrie” should have been done.

Willy Wonker, excentric owner of a chocolate and candy empire, invites five children to visit his highly secretive production facilities. At the end of the day, he will pick one of the five to be given the great and secret prize.

Funny how some stories are kind of complicated to summarise in two sentences, others aren’t. This one is dead simple, and the reason may be that apart from the framework setting, nothing much happens. The production design is a splendid mix of sickeningly bright colours and psychedelic plants. The factory workers are a weird dwarfish version of a Maori tribe, including a version of their dance rituals that you would not have expected to begin with. But apart from that: the 5 kids are being decimated one by one. One is left over, he gets the prize, and the film is over. It looked nice while it lasted, but – as most Tim Burton films, sorry to say that – form strangles substance, and it is just terribly boring.

Mike Tyson recounts his life, from being the fat little boy victim of bullyism to being the unbeatable heavyweight boxing champion of the World. The film only has Tyson talking, with archive footage reminding the audience of the actually quite incredible things he did in the ring. I had not seen most of it, as the Tyson matches were on pay tv only, and noone in our family was interested enough to actually spend money on this. But his speed, his physical shape, his wild and seemingly untamable (though we learn that is not true, that it is part of his fighting tactis, and well designed to evoke fear and panic) attack against his opponents – stunning!
There is not much context here: Tyson calling his alleged rape vicitm a lying swine and his former wife a gold-digger, him stating that his longtime coach has saved his life by making him a professional athlete … it is all “what you hear is what you get”, there is no subtext to what he tells, it is the voice of a little, not too bright boy who has been around a bit, who is star-stunned by himself and the people he shook hands with, but who still has not learned that all the humiliation and exposure to the wide gaping mouths of the hungry media is not a downside of his job, but actually its core, the essence of why stars are allowed to be stars – as the filmspotting crew called it in their podcast: you are getting so incredibly rich and famous only if you sell your soul, and once they have bought it off you, they are happy to shred it to pieces, because raping girls, divorcing women, biting off ears only make you more interesting for them. This business maybe made him survive, but he paid a high price for that.

Virgil Cole (Eric Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) come to Apaloosa, a small town out in the wild wild west that is threatened by the thugs around Randall Bragg (Jemery Irons). After Bragg had killed the former city Marshall, all authority is given to Cole, and he actually manages with wit and ruthlesness to keep things at bay and put trouble behind bars. But things are in towns like that: women, more thugs, more mercenaries create more trouble, and in the end it is up to Hitch to clear things up and relaese everybody into their own destiny.

How often do you get Eric Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons on one screen. Plus Rene Zellwegger if you like that kind of amusement? Not too often. And here it comes with that very special sense for each actor’s strnegths, which happens to be similar for all three leads: a controlled calm, a touch of cruel, the ability to be uncompromising. And the stench of self-mockery hanging over their heads, allowing them frequently to fall for the nymphomaniac piano player, or to desperatly struggle for words like a kid in a spelling competition. Especially Ed Harris sits in the middle of all this like a rock with a smiley painted on his side, and the twittering and flirting girlfiend Ms French.

The movie moves along calmly, and even the more Western elements like the stand-off or the train robbery are conducted with a blunt realism that is very refreshing. These guys do not move towards a show-down, but towards the necessity to make some decisions about their lives. The finale is intelligent in this, three people being set free with only one shot.

Samir gets caught and imprisoned in Yemen when selling explosives to Islamist terroritsts. In prison and after, he gets closer to the group and gets involved in their preparations for attacks in the US. At the same time, his path crosses frequrently with FBI agent Clayton, who is trying to identify the people behind the latest series of attacks against US citizens and who thinks Samir might play an important part in this.

The main problem about the film is that it has a major plot twist near half-time, and that from minute one of the movie, everybody is aware of this. So when the twist finally comes, it stirs more like a cringing feeling than one of surprise, and that cringe comes from a feeling of insult – how stupid, Mr Scriptwriter and Casting Director, do you guys really think we are? Did you ever sit together in the prep meetings?

Apart from that, the film is pretty solid, with nice exocticism of the Yemenite terrorist scene, an interesting choice of US and Canadian locations that are not yet completely over-filmed, and a good cast of actors to support it (most prominently Don Cheadle and Saïd Taghmaoui), both the Americans and the Arab ones. And the finale really is well designed, as at some point there is no possible hope of stopping the attacks, and that situation is well processed into a preyy satisfactory final blast.

Speed Racer grows up adoring his brother Rex, a race car driver of outstanding talent. The whole family of racing afficionados is shattered by Rex’s death in a terible accident, but Speed still grows to become the next family member to rule the race tracks in his family’s self-developed car. After he rejects the offer by the Royalton corporation to join their team of high-tech trained and welathy star racers, the corporate power turns against him, seeking to destroy his carreer and family.

I did not fancy to watch this film for years, because the plot as just outlined is so terribly boring that I could not imagine to possibly survive a screening. I do not like car chases in regular movies, I do in particular not like car racing movies, because I am not interested in car races. Film-audience mismatch, huh? However: Lured by the prospect of some eye-candy that would get me through an evening that I started being very tired to begin with, I picked the most spectacular-sounding effects orgy I had available, which was Speed Racer. I had seen clips before, which in terms of production design and colouring in particular had reminded me of a strange mix between Dick Tracy and The Flintstones (Papa Racer, in particular, cannot deny his resemblance to Fred F.). The opening race sequence is impressive, artistically well done, very innovative, and strangely hesitant in its show-off qualities. I only realised later (in the final scenes) what the film is doing: preparing you over two hours for more and more spectacular, more and more disturbing visuals. The design of the race sequences, but also of the city and the corporate headquarters of Royalton is outstanding, fabulous! But if you got exposed to the final race right away, with its absolutely ferocious editing, psychedelic designs, breath-taking speed, the un-trained mind would probably shut or melt down right away.
Interestingly enough, the visuals and effect are countered with over-simplistic dialogues, humour and characters, which in the comic spirit of the film is perfectly ok. Even the in principle completely annoying little brother with his monkey friend and smart mouth seems to fit in organically in a very Stooge-ish kind of way. The martial arts caricatures are silly and pretty funny.
I hate to admit it, but not really, because I like nice surprises: this was one of the most orginal blockbuster movies I have seen in quite some time. When finished, I immediately rewatched the final minutes for their sheer stunning beauty.

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