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Monthly Archives: June 2011

“Oh, fun, at last a version of “Before Sunrise” for grown-ups” was what I thought while watching “Certified Copy” … the parallel is stunning during the opening scenes: A rather random encounter between a woman (Juliette Binoche) and an author of a book with slightly strange theories about original and copies in the art world. Plenty of talking, only on a slightly more mature level than the teenage dreamscapes of Linklater’s earlier film.

What’s strange about the book that lends its title to this film and about the ensuing conversation about his theories is not that these theories would be particularly dumb – you can easily argue in favour of the artistic value of copies, of course. What is strange is that he filled a whole book with it, without even being an art expert, and they spend a long car ride circling around the topic, while the content is rather banal, blown up to a large scale theory only by the force of modern bourgeois’ ability to savour one’s own debates excessively (Woody Allen minus the depression).

Is it a romance we see evolving? An intellectual challenge? Turns out what we have been had on, what we see is a copy of something that used to be real, but like the 5th generation cassette-tape copy of a record that once sounded crystal clear, this copy has lost most of its brilliance and dynamics. Especially in Binoche’s character, we still see the true colours of the original shining and sounding through, and she brings all her force of the mature woman to it (she is so much more interesting at her age now that she was when she was considered the sexy twen star), almost but not quite despairing over the man’s inability to keep up with her.

I do not want to spoil the plot twists (if there are any), but the question of what is actually going on and what is the relationship between the two characters is central. Roger Ebert speculates about this a bit in his review, and I like his idea that the reality we are observing changes in the course of the film, or maybe it is actually the time that changes. I could also imagine that Iranian director Kiarostami (who was responsible for the fabulous “Taste of Cherry” in 1998) does not really care what is “true”, “false”, “original” or “copy”. He maybe leaves that to the audience to decide, and that is just fine with me.

Ebert’s Review:

Rotten Tomatoes:

Hands down one of the great horror movie classics. One of the greatest films by one of the greatest horror directors, The Thing takes the already interesting 1951 Howard Hawks films and turns it into the most claustrophobic and dense scenario: a bunch of people  locked up in an Antarctica research station, an outside predator intruding, distrust flaming up, killings begin. The opening shot where a helicopter chases a sled dog through the snow desert are stunning, Carpenter’s typical soundtrack beat insinuating doom. The dog roaming through the station reminds me of the tricycle scenes in The Shining. Kurt Russell is the coolest man on the planet, and when he drowns his chess computer in J&B and calls her a cheating bitch it is just what she deserves. The re-animation scene that scared the hell out of me when I watched it for the first time as a kid so long ago, and it superbly effective every time (the head! the spider legs!!). Scene after scene, this has become a classic, with the testing of the blood for infection maybe the masterpiece even within Carpenter’s oeuvre in terms of suspense. What can I say…? Oh some things I can say:

1)      Watching this again was inspired by Filmspotting’s Top 5 monster movie list, some great picks there:

2)      I know they are apparently remaking this, and it already being a remake, I guess complaints are futile. Still: teenage researcher? Who has the grit today to make this film the way it needs to be? Good luck with it…  and trailer


This film may be the most melancholic, sad, depressing… and then uplifting, inspiring, invigorating I have seen in the last years. The story of a dull and depressed everyman (Walter could be right out of a Philip Roth novel, but he even lacks sexual obsessions and intellectual snobbism) who stumbles across the life he always wanted to lead by sheer accident when he finds a family of illegal immigrants squatting in his apartment (also accidentally, because they seem to have been conned by a middle man). Walther allows their slightly chaotic life to seep into his, enjoys the little adventures he can experience such as participating in a drum circle in central park and skipping university meetings. It is liberating to him even when he experiences the harsh side of his new friends’ life: the perennial feeling of being an outsider in the society they have chosen to be their home, the constant danger of arrest and deportation.
The Syrian drummer Tarek and his Somalian girlfriend Zainab are stand-ins for the pleasure but also the high cost of multi-cultural societies, and what makes “The Visitor” great as a movie is that it accepts both sides. Walter dives into this life, because he seems to realize that fighting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes is always better than being bored to death – Richard Jenkins’ fantastic performance manages to convey this, he gives us an aging academic mortally bored by life. Upon meeting the excessively alive Tarek, and Tarek’s beautiful and beautifully proud mother in particular who does not shy away from new challenges, Walter re-discovers life. Maybe too late, it is suggested, but it is also suggested that he may do a lot to catch up.

Another case of “have I really ever seen those movies???” Especially part 1 and 2 seemed oddly unfamiliar, with elements that should have stuck to my memory had I seen them. The first film is a strangely conventional cop thriller lookalike: there are the bad guys, the good cops with a temper, and in two situations there is fate playing into the hands of… of doom, probably. Both Max’ colleague and his wife and kid fall prey to the road gang more or less by accident, and when that happens, the film is over. My memory, again, played tricks on me by suggesting that the killings happened at the beginning and then Max would go on a rampage to avenge his beloved ones. The one revenge scene that exists, however, is memorable, and is the one everybody seems to remember, involving handcuffs, a burning fuel tank, a hacksaw and an ankle…

Part two “The Road Warrior” could not be different, and made me smile when remembering that this is the same director who brought us the tap dancing penguins in “Happy Feet”… a homo-erotic bondage fantasy if there ever was one, with leather gear, exposed buttocks, suffocation masks and what not. Clearly some production and costume designers had a blast at making this their own special vision of post-apocalyptic Australia. Ridiculous villains with ridiculous names such as “Humungus”, a super-handsome Mel Gibson who only helps others when he has no choice, and the star of the film, the godforsaken Australian desert.

Part 3, “Beyond Thunderdome”, on the other hand, has nothing like the previous ones in terms of edge or fun. It looks like a family-friendly version of part 2, with the costumes covering more than they could, the fights ending sooner than they should, and the whole concept of a little tribe of kids waiting for a saviour from the clouds sounding more like an Ewoks episode than like a harsh dystopian action adventure. The Thunderdome itself as a scene of battle appears only briefly, the most interesting atmosphere is created in the underworld of Tina Turner’s empire, where methane is produced in a giant underground pig farm, initially governed by the creepy team of Master-Blaster. In the end, this turns out to be just a series of set pieces, walking, running, driving, exploding, of no redeemable value…

Mad Max

The Road Warrior

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

I hated the idea of remaking the brilliant Swedish vampire-teenage-coming-of-age-romance “Let the right one in”. The announcement came at the same time as the announcement to remake the “Millenium Trilogy” films, and it all seemed to be a big distrust reflex on part of corporate Hollywood: no way, this seemed to say, that American audiences can digest edgy Northern-European films. They will be confused when the supermarkets have no recognisable names and people do not have a Blue Ribbon  in the bar… Americans can only watch American movies, in terms of production values, actors and simplified narration… I remember terrible examples of this “Americanitis”, most terribly “Fever Pitch” maybe, but there are examples aplenty.

On both the “Millenium” and the “Let the right on in”, I start withdrawing my argument. In the former case because films two and three of the trilogy were really not very good, only a bit above regular tv crime show standard. There is hope that David Fincher will be able to create something more atmospheric and coherent from the material. And “Let Me In”, the US remake of “Let the right one in”, was just pretty good. It is difficult to fairly assess the artistic effort: the creativity of the material stems mostly from the book and the original film, but even for me who has seen the original twice, and hence the plot did not bring about anything interesting and new, “Let me In” was never a bit boring. It brought its own local colours (snowy New Mexico), it’s own character actors (boy, girl, girl’s  “father” all very well cast). There are some instances where specific set pieces very visibly deviate from the original, and especially the first one, the failed killing that originally took place in a gym changing room, is moved into a car, and the way it goes wrong is just stunningly filmed.

I did not regret having seen it at all, it was the strange incident of a very good film that I had seen before in an almost identical fashion, where both versions stand up on their own feet. The author of the original story said he was proud that out his one book, two great pictures were made, and he can be, as it seems the quality of the material holds it together.

The sad side of the story: this edgy little film is so European in spirit that it completely failed at the US box office. I can believe that the target group for “Let Me In” was very hard to define. Maybe the American producers are right and you cannot sell a vampire film that does not have loose-shirted teenagers in it?

If the film had been as good as the animated opening sequence, this would have been a decent film. As it is, it is a not very good film… it did have the most ridiculous trailer, and what the trailer promised, the film kept. Pseudo-religious boulderdash, ancient battles, dum dum bullets against over-used cgi vampires, Blade Runner city scenes, the official Priest Mobile, a bit more desert-proof than Batman’s original but clearly from the same garage. Roland the Gunslinger as head vampire and Maggie Q as the alibi girl priest (nun?) … there are so many worn out clichés in this film that it is not even fun anymore, but just annoying to watch how little creativity went into this. Paul Betanny is getting a bit more meaty and has developed a six-pack during his time as a priest novice.

This League of Extraordinary Ordinariness hopefully does not earn itself a sequel, even though the script writers seems to urge the producers to do one. Clearly, whoever wrote this has no other options…

One of these films that I only watched so long ago that I only remembered it vaguely and – it turned out – wrongly. In my memory, after a short prelude in the ghastly American home town, the film moved to Vietnam, where it would stay for the better part of the movie, to return to the US and back to Vietnam towards the film’s end. Turns out that the opening sequence where the guys’ friendship is established, the atmosphere of the hopeless steel city they have to leave and the girls, wives, neighbours from the Russian community are introduced… that this opening sequence is probably the longest setting of the whole film, with extensive deer hunting and wedding sequences … all this as a huge and epic foreplay to a short and vicious Vietnam sequence, throwing us right into the camp where three of our friends are imprisoned, and forced to play Russian Roulette. This is where the damage is done to them who ended up being caught there, and soon it is about how to coping with returning home after the war.

This is very odd narration, but it works perfectly well, focusing on where the characters are built and where they are bent and broken. The rough and sober reality of working class steel town is juxtaposed with almost ridiculously beautiful images of the mountains where they go hunting – first deepening their bond of friendship, later realising that a deep rift has opened that cannot be fixed anymore.

Great acting by de Niro, Walken, Streep and also the minor characters at home. An atmosphere that was well-crafted to reflect the careless joy of buddy-dom, then of the frantic struggling for survival, both physically and mentally, and the quiet desperation of dealing with returning to a home that is a home no more. The sequences when Michal / de Niro goes back to Saigon to find his friend have an almost absurd quality, pushing him into a strange underworld that probably was depicted more realistically than we can imagine today.

I still stick to this film, Cimino is a great narrator of epic stories, and this story is epic in that it demands everything from its characters to cope with one of the US’s and Asia’s big catastrophes. He has the ability to personalise this, to take it from a level of global politics to individual trauma reflecting and magnifying national trauma. Masterful!

I used to watch a lot of Formula 1 when I was a boy and a teenager, it is the right kind of tv amusement on a Sunday afternoon. There is speed, there is competition, and the two combined provide for looming mortal peril, which makes the thrill of watching any kind of high-speed competition. Many would deny that, but I strongly believe that this denial is strongly driven by the unpleasant realization of one’s own voyeurism.

“Senna” relies on this voyeurism. Its hero, Ayrton Senna, has made a career and a fortune playing to it, making race-car driving more competitive and fierce, playing the young vigilante outsider card against the European-dominated Formula 1 establishment, and producing great media drama for the few years his career lasted. What separates him from today’s almost forgotten heroes of similar achievements like his rival and team mate Alain Prost, or his compatriot Nelson Piquet, or so many others of similar qualities, was that as a young Brazilian overachiever, he has reached semi-God status in his home country. And he crowned and manifested that status by dying in an almost inevitable crash at age 34. Someone in the film (Prost, probably) considers what it means that this saviour of his country’s pride had achieved all that and completed it by his own death at such a young age (“we Brazilians need food, education, health care and joy. Joy has died now.”). You can never imagine him other than powerful, handsome, young and energetic. You will never have to deal with the sobering news of his old-age or illness-induced death. He has become the Mozart of racing, in that respect.

However: when watching the film, I could not help but feeling very non-Brazilian about this. Great driver, very successful for some years, charming and charismatic, but the special status, the level of divinity awarded to him also through the interview partners is almost inappropriate and slightly embarrassing to watch. The size of this personality is a product of the race establishing successful media partnerships, and through perennial background stories and personality profiles has the greatness of the Great One been narrated into the audiences the same way that the greatness of the next Great One, Senna’s successor wunderkind Schumacher, has been built. There is little to be found that is truly extraordinary about the story other than its abrupt and violent end.

“Senna” as a film is interesting in evoking the memories of what some call the great racing days, it is also successful in finding an interesting format (by using only archive footage in the cinema version – there is an extended version where talking heads are inserted amateurishly and with wrong sound levels). It does not manage, however, to explain to me that we witnessed anything but a regular human doing his job very professionally and successfully for a limited time. A job that always implied the serious possibility of getting  the gladiators killed in the course of amusing the crowds. At least Ratzenberger’s and Senna’s death in Imola probably saved some others’ lives through the increased safety standards that followed that doomed weekend.

There is a flood of high-paced animated movies these days, some better, some worse – and this one is a bit better than the rest, as it has two charming protagonists (two blue birds of unknown biological provenience), hilarious support cast (little flurry round birds that bounce around once relieved from their cages, or samba-proficient fat birds or little tweetybirds with beer cap hard hats) and a good villain (a cockatoo with bad character). The blue birds have to mate to save their kind, but first they have to survive and escape, and that is reason enough for entertaining speed racing through the tropical forest around and the narrow streets in the middle of Rio de Janeiro. And of course the big carnival parades cannot be avoided. Very colourful, high-aced and cute, and nice music, too. What else is to be desired? (As for the voice cast: The facebook boy is cute, but the star is somebody called, hilarious!)

Before Sunset, the follow-up to this film, I have seen some years ago at a film festival, and at the time did not have any context to it. I had not seen Before Sunrise, nor heard of it, nor did I know its actors. Still, for a film that only has eightysomething minutes of dialogue and walking around to offer, it was marvelously entertaining, and the final scene and final line of dialogue is unforgettable.

Now many years later, the earlier film. There is not much to be said, really, it is exactly as charming or annoying or boring (whatever your preconception to this kind of romantic comedy in the purest sense of the term) as you would expect. The dialogue spoken by people in their early twenties is as naïve as you can expect from people that age, it is all not important but exactly you would want it if you were 23 and having a night out in Vienna with a slightly too cute guy / girl. Fine entertainment, absolutely lifting the spirits if you allow it to. I think I do prefer the later film because of the actors being more mature in looks and attitudes, but that may be due to the order in which I watched them. The true star, in any case, is Vienna and its odd people, a mixture of artists and good-for-nothings and culture and architecture and that static feeling of being in a large outdoor museum reeking of dust.

I can imagine that this documentary, shot if I got it right over several years between Guangdong and Chongqing, following the fate of a typical family of migrant workers – abandoning their family to work thousands of kilometres away in factories, with only the prospect of returning once a year. It is obvious what must happen: these families are functional relationships, where one generation finances the other as long as they can, after which the relationship reverses. There is no concept of family or partnership as something emotional – nobody has been taught how to use emotions, how to deal with them and how to develop them. The world we see is bleak, and at the end of the day it is based on empty phrases (“you have to taste the sour before you can taste the sweet”) and unreflected concepts. The importance of the Spring Festival commute is maybe the biggest of those misunderstandings: the overwhelming importance of gathering with what people call their family, to travel thousands of kilometers together with millions of other people, fighting for days for tickets, getting humiliated when waiting and being exposed to the weather and the sheer disgrace of herding like cattle … and all that only to find yourself around a table with people who you have nothing to say.

The father of the family, as inept as he is in dealing with the troubles at hand, at least understands the core problem. He tells his wife that when they get home once a year and meet their children, they don’t even know what to say to the kids, because they do not have a common life and common themes.

Chinese are often blamed for behaving as if everything they are using (transport is a good example) or eating could be the last one – and here you see why that is, because when resources are limited, such as transport during a catastrophic Spring Festival, it really feels like an existential threat. And only to come back into a broken family that cannot be repaired with the simplistic means they have been given.


I do not think this is a great documentary, even though it will probably be interesting for an audience that has not yet spent time in China. The film  team, however, was fortunate or unfortunate enough to film during a truly calamitous season, when transport broke down due to heavy snow in China’s South, and they were able to work they way deep enough into this family to be allowed to observe the meltdown of family bonds. The latter is unpleasant to watch, it has a certain voyeuristic nature to it, but it indicates that many of the traditions that China uses today to maintain a structure of regularity and harmony are about to fundamentally change with young people not understanding their purpose anymore and the older generation unable to convey it.

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