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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sometimes a foreign film manages to wangle its way into the hearts of the critics, and it never becomes clear why that is so, what is so special about this one in contrast to all the others. Just recently “I saw the Devil” was a candidate for inexplicable critics’ rave, even though there is at least one split between those who feel the violence in the movie is gratuitous and those who believe it is earned. With “13 Assassins” there is no such split, everybody seems to love it. Except me, it seems. The concept of a savage brute who is protected by his status as the shogun’s brother and abuses this position for arbitrary rape and murder is fair enough. After establishing this, I do not find too many surprises, dramatically or technically, that would have caused me to raise this above almost every other Samurai-Revenge-film of the last  50 years. I do not know that many, but at least Zatoichi the Blind Samurai comes to mind, which has a level of wit, humour and creativity in handling the fights that I do not see in “13 Assassins”. The Assassins that are assembled to bring down the Shogun-brother are quite a bunch, but not a very wild one, and they are certainly no Seven Samurai. Entertaining enough they are, however.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/13_assassins_2011/

It is funny to imagine “Old Joy” as the first rough sketch which through many iterations of script and casting later resulted in “The Trip”. Not two comedians but two… well… dudes…, one more the Just-back-from-Ashram type (and they leave it at that, no further explanations beyond “Made a totally different person, man!”), not posh restaurant testing, but hot springs, or rather one hot spring in the woods, which means to hollow trees and a stream of hot water running through it, no drug and sex affairs, only a little bit of constant weeding to keep the mind open, and an initially awkward physical moment of intimacy… it goes on and on, the parallels are very interesting, as if a (slightly crazy) producer had handed out the same task to two totally different directors, asking them to do whatever kind of film they would like to do (as long as it costs less than, say, the catering of an average Hollywood production). Maybe because I have seen the much more complete and elaborated “Trip” tv mini-series just days ago, Old Joy seems unfinished, with motives such as desperate and disappointed friendship, homo-eroticism, pregnant women’s feeling of being unable in life’s fun parts, … plenty, but each only vaguely mentioned. Maybe that is the film’s charm, that it does not need to elaborate on each of its issues, because at the end of the day, it is all so clear, and everybody can be expected to have the ability to think through what he has not seen. A very interesting and very short piece by Kelly Reichardt, who seems to be one of the critics’ darlings of the decade. Need to check out more of her work! http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/old_joy/

Korean movies are the fashion of the day – or of the decade, maybe even. With outstanding contributions in the traditional revenge and thriller genre (The Vengeance Trilogy), goofy horror shlockbuster like “The Host” or dense dramas such as Poetry, with the humour of “Mother”, Korea has established itself as a market to which a subscription is worthwhile.

One aspect of this is that new output seeks to take on the past success elements and heightens them. Violence and gore, human humiliation and peril have been elevated to levels other countries do not dare to produce as a mainstream element. Korean movies these days almost seems to creak under the expectation of goriness and physicality.

We are now in the generation of “I Saw the Devil”… it is a classic vengeance story, a man loses his beloved one, and goes on a rampage. He is not particular or subtle in his approach: There are suspects, and he treats them one after the other, with great indifference to their guilt or innocence. He finds the perpetrator, and he decides to extend his pains and sufferings as long as possible. That requires catching him, hurting him, setting him free, again and again. And it requires protecting him from the police, because nothing is as detrimental to an avenger than when his victim is safely locked up.

Choi Min-sik of Oldboy fame is brilliant as pudgy psychopath with the looks of somebody who can blend completely into invisibility if needed. His counterpart Lee Byung-hyun, the supposedly good guy psychopath (not a iota better in his methods, the only difference between the two persons being that Choi Min-sik is not provided with a motive other than craziness for his deeds, and we are led to accept that if you do have a motive, you may torture and murder to your heart’s content).

The film is surprisingly boring – the repetitive nature of the cat and mouse game makes it unavoidable that you know what will happen, that at some point the mouse will find a way  out of its predicament and fight back. We see motives of “Seven” sneaking their way in, we see some Mission Impossible style stunts with cars, and we seen repeated versions of metal objects intruding human bodies.  It looks stylish (even though not as stylish as the Vengeance films do – director Kim Jee-woon neither has the stylistic nor the dramatic chops of Park Chan-Wook), but it is pointless. As the friends of the Filmspotting podcast put it: we learn nothing about the nature of evil, and then why should I watch it? It may lead to the conclusion that the violence is an end in itself in this film, and that would explain why it really does not affect the viewer.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/akmareul_boattda/

From minute one, it is rather obvious what will happen in this film. That does not mean that it would not be entertaining – it is most of the time, even though Reverend Cotton Marcus is not the person you want to identify with: an obnoxious, self-important actor on the stage of Christian tv preacherism, probably the least likeable category of persons in the world apart from ancient Lovecraftian demons. He is lucky that one of those demons is around as well, so he comes off as the good guy.

We have a situation that can by now be called “classic” – a camera team is filming documentary footage, and we are watching the footage. Interestingly (to use a kind word), despite the fact that the filmmakers are not in a position to edit the final film before we see it, we see edited out-of-sequence passages, revealing a bit of the sloppiness with which the film was produced.

In terms of plot development, it is actually pretty well controlled: we are witnessing a process where the priest discovers a number of problems with his latest exorcism, and while each of these problems lead him to a next one (sickness – schizophrenia – incest – rape – murder …), he seems to believe that he is still on top of things and can help resolve the issue by sticking around. And whatever wild behavior we observe in Nell, the supposedly possessed teenager, it all is within the realm of being explainable through rational argument, and some girl’s serious muscular bendability…

The big disappointment comes at the end: you cannot end a film less creatively than this one, script doctors apparently ran completely out of steam or had to hurry to a Thanksgiving (or Halloween?) dinner, and dropped their pens. Sloppy again.

I will have forgotten about The Last Exorcism in a month, but as it was raining heavily yesterday, it was just the right companion while it lasted.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/last_exorcism/

This seems to be a German phenomenon at the moment: films that look professionally made, but that are outright disasters because of their thorough lack of originality. Germany is the engineering country, after all, so why to expect a funny and inspiring and witty story? Right, and somebody decided it was necessary to make this story into a 3D version so that the expensive equipment pays off. There is not a single funny thing in here, there is no funny character, there is no witty dialogue, and if you are older that four and hence are able to read, you will have no surprises with the plot whatsoever. An uninspired copycat of better works out of the “Lion King to Ice Age” story drawer. Boring.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/animals_united/

A documentary by Jonathan Demme about former US president Jimmy Carter, or more specifically about a book promotion tour Carter did in 2006 and 07 for his book on the Palestine conflict. Demme occasionally steps back to give a slightly wider perspective, on Carter’s work as president as well as on the work the Carter Center does, and then zooms in to further document the controversy about the book stirred by the assertion of Apartheid being practiced in the West Bank and Gaza strip. It is interesting to see how a former president travels, how he is continuously under siege by entourage, how the interaction between him, his publishers and the media works, how academic grievances flare up and are being handle… plenty of interesting material, with the slight downside that Demme does not focus on a single one of them. The film title suggests that the film is about the person Jimmy Carter at large, but there is not enough of this in the film to justify that. It seems that the book controversy was encountered by coincidence, and that the film producers lacked the courage and / or permissions to go into more detail on the actual content of this. So it all remains a bit of a patchwork, with the most interesting bits for me being the flash backs to the time of the Carter administration and the Camp David meetings, while the personal story falls rather flat for lack of detail. Interesting, but not much more.

This is a ride back on nostalgia lane, but not in a very good way. I do love Stephen King, I do like George Romero, and the Creepshow comic that come out sometime in the early 80s was something special, if only for the fact that in those days, the world was a very much non-networked place and it required months and money transfers and daily eager observation of the mailbox to get it after ordering it through the awesome “Castle Rock” fanzine. Good times…

Watching this film version again today (after watching it 35 time in the 80s), I have to admit most episode are underwhelming:

There is “Father’s day”, which show the very simplistic nature of most spook stories in the creepshow tradition: man gets murdered, comes back from grave, hunts everybodt down, done. More a reminiscence to ghost stories than frightening in itself (the 1980s hair, clothes, music and – take this, young people – cassette recorders are actually frightening). “The Lonsesome death of Jordi Verrill” is great basically for the fact that Stephen King stars in it and gives a camp performance as moronic Jordi being eaten by weeds. “Something to Tide You Over” casts Leslie Nielsen very much against his clichéd comedian image, as a betrayed husband with a revenge plot that turns against him, approaching with wet feet splashing….  “The Crate” may be the longest segment, and also the most complete of a story, and a cast that just about looks like a John Carpenter movie: Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau and Fritz Weaver. Holbrook is always great, he is the last-generation sad faced character that today would be played by William H. Macy. He takes revenge on his annoying wife by showing her the hungry creature that they found in an ancient crate under the college stairs… Finally, “They’re creeping up on you” is in design and style an almost surreal piece about too rich person with too many paranoias, especially about bugs. On the other hand, it turns out he is right to be worried about the cockroaches invading his supposedly air-tight and bug-proof apartment.

With its bracketing prologue and epilogue sequences, and its animated elements to introduce each segment, the film manages to convey the feeling of the comic book. It does not, however, create something very thrilling, and is more a homage to the horror comic books that some of us loved so much when we were little. But I still treasure the comic book with Bernie Wrightson’s illustrations!

Now what is attraction of watching goats walk through an Italian landscape, funerals snaking through the village main road, Good Friday processions following that same path, char burners preparing to pile up wood, goat herders sitting and smoking, snails invading a kitchen table? It is fabulously beautiful! Technically not a silent movie, yet there is no dialogue. It just is not necessary, because what people are doing mostly requires no talk: herding goats (the goats do a lot of talking, though), chopping  wood, waiting for death to arrive. We watch one year’s full cycle of life, we see birth and death, we witness the drama of a little goat getting lost, of the Roman soldiers almost arriving too late for their passion play, and of the stand-off between a dog and a kid that was left behind. We see this filmed with an almost completely static camera, sometimes taking in as much as the whole village in one shot, not zooming in on the details that surely are there to admire, but rather staying back, watching everything with the same level of attention, as if stating that whatever exists deserves the same right to be observed, whether it moves and talks or whether it is a street corner that does not do a thing apart from hiding what’s behind. The camera is sucking in the beauty of the hills, of the trees, of the smoke coming out of the burning charcoal, of the people’s faces. It is one big effort in meditation, and if anybody dares to think that this could be boring: I watched it between 3am and 5am in the morning, and never even lost a thought about getting tired.

After reading Philip French’ review, I also seem to understand the film’s title and how it relates to what we see on the screen. If Pythagoras claims that each of us has four lives within us (the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human), then it is not surprising that the director treats everything he sees with an equal level of admiration. Also read the NYT review by A.O. Scott.

It might be a case of pretentious delusion, but I really think this is the best film I have seen since… need to reorganize my ranking list…

A group of prisoners escaping from a Siberian Gulag is kind of a safe bet for a film: you have plenty of landscape, perilous situations, probably crossing rivers and being chased by dogs, you have vast landscapes and beautiful panorama shots of mountain ranges and of deserts. All that is here, including Ed Harris, who starts developing an interesting old-man’s face. Thing is, that beyond these aspects that you know will be there, there are not many surprises to be had in this film. Maybe it was not the best of choices to open the film with a text insert telling the audience how many of the escapees will make it all the way from Siberia to India. Maybe it was also not too good of an idea to stick relatively close to the truth of the “real story”, as real life usually does not provide great story arcs. In the end, “The Way Back” is worth watching, if only for the actors and the landscapes and the dirty costumes. Despite this solidness, it left with me a slight feeling of indifference.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the-way-back/

Michael Winterbottom remains one of the most interesting directors today, and you can bet good money on all of his projects offering something interesting. In “The Trip”, he combines a tv reality show concept of traveling from posh countryside restaurant to posh countryside restaurant for a cuisine-testing bit for a newspaper, with… several things: firstly, a deep and dark glance into the psyche of actors and comedians, then a terribly funny stand-up comedy backstage glance, an odd and sometimes irritating merge between real life and fiction by using two comedians who play heightened (or not heightened, how should I tell?) versions of themselves. All this in the very strict structural confines of a tv show that has 28 minutes per episode, and I think 7 episodes. It is like a food porn remake of Winterbottom’s own “Nine Songs”, with eating replacing the sex and driving replacing the music. Just like “Nine Songs”, it is far from perfect: the McGuffin of the food tour never really convinces, it is just a means to structure the whole thing, but it is a bit too promotional for that purpose and sometimes the kitchen and food preparation shots seem a bit cold and out of place. Maybe those are second unit shots by the Guide Michelin camera team? A very different set of emotions runs through the rest of the film. There is so much jealousy and coolness and wisdom about life, the actors are brave in accepting the limitations of their role in life, but they have the right to be sad, and it is unforgettable how sad Coogan looks when he admits that actually he has one big Nemesis, and that is Michael Sheen, and the bastard gets all these great parts that he, Coogan, could play almost as well.

Terribly funny dialogues and comedic scenes are interspersed, the joint efforts to reconstruct the way Michael Caine spoke through his career, the way Richard Gere seems to reflect upon a remark before responding, and with that slight hesitation… a killer of a scene where Coogan and Brydon get into their own form of comedic blood frenzy about the proper way to announce the battle that shall begin tomorrow at daybreak, or at nine-thirty-ish, rather…  And then they take you out of it again and give you a creepy and funny eulogy on their imaginary graves. I was thinking all the time that these two actors really had to be brave, because this script is based so well on how they are or could be that there must be some terribly truths about themselves to be found in here.

Brilliant absurd theatre. Watch the whole tv show, not just the re-edit that was released in the theatres!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trip_%282010_TV_series%29

Coen Brothers, Western, Jeff Bridges? What can go wrong? Nothing, really: True Grit is the way you would expect  it to be after learning the setup. While I wrote just some minutes ago that “The Way Back” suffers from being perfectly predictable and without interesting surprises, “True Grit” is perfectly predictable, without interesting surprises, but in a great and entertaining way. My conclusion is that it’s all about the characters populating this dirty borderland between the dangerous and chaotic settled land and the even more dangerous and completely uncharted Indian territories. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon and Josh Brolin and even the annoying girl, plus all those wrecked adventurers they meet on their way, either as a gang of thieves, or as suppliers in their road house… they are all unconventional in the way that is enjoyable to see. Seeing this right after watching all of the brilliant “Deadwood” show more or less in one go, I now must put on my hat, saddle the horse and ride out into the dusty hills, all the while spitting and cursing like a sailor about them f*&%ing co&%suckers. Ahh, what bliss! Al, we miss you!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/true-grit-2010/

This is a seriously weird movie. If you imagine merging the darker sides of “The Red Shoes” and “Black Swan”, throwing it into the “8 1/2” machine, blending it with “Synechdoche, New York” and then popping some pills before watching the result. Goodness, this is weird…  Only in retrospect, after reading about the production history and learning that it is basically a film version of the director’s life while making a film about making … no: Bob Fosse did the double stunt of staging “Chicago” while directing his Lenny Bruce film, and it seems that pressure released some interesting creativity… it is fantasy about death and embracing death as a way out of all the pressures and burdens, it is a big video clip with gorgeous dance sequences, it is a dark twisted fantasy about the dream world that you can escape into to escape reality. It is about one self-defined larger-than-life director and his downward spiral. He has a stage play to stage, and a movie about a comedian to direct. All is carried by Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, who is silent and majestic, sexy and sloppy, an egomaniac and a lover of life and of death.

A sometimes confused and often confusing celebration of art as a craft that requires full immersion from those who want to taste it, and a film that is beautiful to watch even when some of the bits and pieces do not fit together.

Very low budget meet low expectations, which makes this a rather enjoyable experience. Plenty of Vampire-Zombie-Thingies have taken over the earth, and people have to get through it in order to reach a safe haven. Sounds familiar? Oh so very much, what can you do? Except for some ridiculous montage sequences where the junior hero gets Karate Kid-like lessons in anti-vampire-stake-handling, “Stake Land” keeps you plenty amused with a steady (a tad monotonous) rhythm of attacks, road trip, attack, and road trip again. “28 days” knows much better how to handle this situation, and so does that Zombie tv show that I found to be pretty  good last year on Showtime or HBO. But as you cannot permanently re-watch these, and in-between “Stake Land” provides for some amusement. When I first heard the title, I took it to be “Steak Land” and that would have been an even better movie …

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/stake_land/

Until I saw “Sucker Punch”, I thought “Pope Joan” certainly must be the worst film I will see this year. “Sucker Punch” takes “stunningly bad in a completely non-entertaining way” to a new level:

  • The worst actors and particularly actresses I have ever seen together in one film. These girls are utterly non-believable as anything, and in particular as action chicks. There is one scene where one of them has to throw a Molotow cocktail and man, can she not throw, this looks like a three year old girl at softball tryouts. They cannot say their ill-begotten lines, they cannot run or jump or throw, they certainly cannot hold a gun or sword… this inability is paired with poorest choreography, leading to boredom of a dimension hitherto unheard of in such a noisy movie, even giving Transformers 2 a run for its money.
  • The structural idea of having video game sequences as stand-in for dance scenes is just stupid to the umpteenth degree. “We need them get fighting somehow” – “how do we do that if they are in a mental hospital?” – “what if we make them think the hospital is a brothel and each girl has a dance and a dance is actually a fight scene that we can throw some cgi on.” – “what? Anyway, go ahead… “ à if you are producing movies, you can have such a meeting. If you ever have such a meeting, you must stand up, punch whoever came up with the idea in the face, and then tell them to just do a damn movie and stop hallucinating.
  • Who is older than 12 and still finds these girls’ outfit sexy? This is Disney grade sexiness, a toddler imitation of the girl-warrior sexy ferociousness depicted in films like “Sin City”.
  • An incredibly ill-chosen song that is covering all those fight-dance sequences and that at the second repetition is so annoying I actually wanted to put in my earplugs and listen to my own playlist.

If evidence was needed: Zack Snyder makes terrible movies, more pretentious and less entertaining than Uwe Boll, he has nothing to say aesthetically or otherwise. Can somebody please stop him filling the cinemas with his rubbish and blocking out real movies?

I am struggling with the superlative, but I do believe this could be the worst film I have seen in a decade (and that decade has “Pirates 2” and “Transformers 2” in it). The project was doomed from the beginning, I believe. The novel on which it is based is maybe a nice beach read, but does not have any of the substance the truly great historic epics have. It is a one-idea book, a woman becomes pope, and squeezes this idea until the eyes of the readers bleed. The filmmakers apparently believed that  all you have to do is to create some nice sets and invest in dirty medieval costumes, and success of “Name of the Rose” proportions is nigh. Nay! The film exclusively consists of sets and costumes. Whenever anybody speaks a line, it is dialogue (or, even worse, voiceover narration) of the most primitive style, structure and content. It is as if nobody who wrote that script had ever seen a film, nobody had ever heard human beings speak, as if the whole history of cinema would not exist and you could start the craft anew by arbitrarily throwing some words together. The actors cannot do anything with this, and the actually only redeemable feature about the film is not even John Goodman as pope somebody, but the knowledge that Goodman was mentally completely absent during the shoot, conjuring up the image of what he can do with the paycheck while shutting himself off to the atrocity this  production surely must have been. It is hard to speculate what would have happened had original director Volker Schloendorff not been sacked from the job, and how he would have managed to massage this material into something gritty and edgy and interesting. I do not see how, but he definitely would have been the better scrip writer himself and would not have suffered through these wooden words falling dead every single time anybody speaks… Ghastly!

And it seems the film was quickly hidden from public sight, too. No Rotten Tomatoes review yet, and only a slim Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Joan_%282009_film%29

I do not like sitcoms and comedies in general. In cinema, there is a very thin thread of comedic masterpieces from “To be or not to be”, through “Tootsie” to maybe “Juno”. In tv, I keep hating the general flow of below-average sitcoms and comedies, catering to ironing housewives and crotch-scratching housemen in the breaks between football matches (or the other way around, for gender equality reasons)… They are not, I believe, written to be a serious work of art, sloppily produced and inconsistent in quality. I did have my fun with parts of the “Drew Carrey Show”,   even more with “The Thick of It”, but here endeth the story of my comedic affections. I laugh the most when the humour is hidden in the drama of real life – where situations or characters are just ridiculous, not so much comedic. “The Sopranos” are fantastic comedy, and so are all the Coen Brothers’ movies (except the “comedies”…).

Now “30 Rock”… amazing… great writing, great casting, perfect setting, stunning run of cameos (Al Gore, Whoopy Goldberg, and the whole bunch of GE executives who are in for the laugh). In particular it is the perception that Tina Fey is throwing all her life in there, and she does not do that lightly. I did not know anything by her before reading her “Bossypants” book (which reminded me in many ways of Craig Ferguson’s brilliant “American on Purpose”) but when reading that I fell in love with her serious approach to her humour right away. She conveys the feeling that she would be best person in the world to hang out with, and that is also what makes the show so thoroughly likeable. After finishing reading the book, I had to get the show right away, and watched it almost in one go, all seasons…

As she mentions in her book, the show centers around the incredible talent of one person, and that is Alec Baldwin. I have no idea how, based on his previous roles, one could see his ability to play Jack Donaghue the way a sculptor sees a little twisted eight-footed dragon with a funny hat coughing up yellow balloons hidden in a block of marble, but Ms Fey did just that, and he is one of the greatest and most  subtle comedic characters I can remember having seen.

I am kind of glad that there is not much more out there of comparable quality, because it seems there is an addictive quality to seriously fabulous comedy…

http://www.nbc.com/30-rock/

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