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Monthly Archives: December 2011

I watch a lot of movies, but rarely has a film so surprised me, made me (metaphorically) bite my nails and make me bounce on the seat with cries of joy, outrage, disgust and verbal wonder (i.e.: “WTF?!”).

A post-Ken Loach killer social drama? Portrait of a Serial Assassin Assassinated By Religious Fellas in White Cricket Jumpers, Wicker Man Style?  Bonkers Roadkill Revisited? I think this kind of small, mean-spirited, uncompromising film can only come out of “no budget subsidy schemes” (I think that was the word used in the end titles), and is all the evidence needed to cry out for the continuation of such schemes. A young (I think, actually for all I know he could be 105) film maker lets it all out, processes the terrible all the terribleness of humanity into one piece of aggression: killers that want to be cool, but are just unhealthily crazy. Assassination victims that seem to have deserved what they get. Politicians that rule the world by way of secret tribalism (I kid you not). Mobster bosses that look like aged and surgically modified versions of Christopher Walken. And all this fun starts out like a British social drama about the dude who just cannot support his family anymore and gets nasty over the failure. Two great actors at the heart as the charming killer team, some nice support through the wifes. In the end, all the charm is in vain, of course.

Despite the average American white male believing otherwise, baseball is an exotic niche sports to most of the world’s population. Easy enough to be understood, making a movie about it or before the background of it is bold, as sports movies have a hard time with the best of sports – even more so with a sports where 70 per cent of the time is spent on spitting and grabbing your own crotch.

Of course, “Moneyball” comes from a different direction, one where it does not really matter what sport is at the center of the action. The important ingredients are: it is a traditional sport that will show plenty of resentment against introducing innovation in management, and it needs to be a sport with high commercial stakes. Then it works: the introduction of a new general manager, who brings in ideas about selecting players based on sound statistical analysis rather than the gut feeling of some scouts, the massive risks taken by hiring problem payers, underdogs, ageing stars or anybody else where affordability meets expectation value in the field – all that makes a bold management thriller rather than a sports movie. It is safe to assume that Aaron Sorkin saved the day by proving (mainly through “The Social Network”) that a topic completely irrelevant to most audiences can be turned into an atmospheric portrait of men fighting adversity.  Well done again, and well done Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill for staying upright at the center of this.

This is a cool-hearted, slickly designed, constrained thriller that oozes peril while never spelling it out. Nobody runs around frantically, nobody chases an alpha monkey, nobody has any chance of reaching a breaking moment of curing the disease that breaks out and threatens to kill a considerable share of the world’s population. Hence no real showdown, no just-in-time delivery of the saving antibodies or serum or whatever it is these films usually deliver three seconds before viral apocalypse. Instead, people are doing their jobs, developing vaccines, trying them out, developing distribution plans, keeping people from killing each other, analyzing what happened and whether anybody is guilty, blaming it on the government, cheating their way into slightly better immunization than they are eligible. It is a perfectly plausible scenario, and more frightening than the gospel according to “Breakout”. With an odd combination of mostly really good, often really strange actors (Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law…) , with real families attached to the key researchers in particular, with fear balancing determination to get that thing fixed, “Contagion”creates an atmosphere of high tension, and keeps it up without shouting at the audience. An arthouse disaster movie that has more in common with Michael Winterbottom’s science fiction ventures than with the genre of virus outbreak action thrillers, it is to me one of Soderbergh’s best movies of the decade.  Excellent writing, too, e.g. upon stumbling across the virus lab talk: “Should I call someone?” – “Call everyone!” or somebody scoffing at Jude Law, the conspiracy theory blogger: “Blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation”. Well spoken!

Almodovar has never been alien to sexual possessiveness and obsession. It seems a lot of his sexual motifs had to converge towards a crazy scientist movie – and here it is. Frankenstein rises, and after two hours I even realized he looks like an aged and slim Antonio Banderas, because it’s him – seems I have not seen him in a long time.

He holds captive a beautiful creature that he seeks to bring to bodily perfection, albeit against her will. Over the course of the film we learn about this person’s past, about the doctor’s past, his family’s past, the misunderstandings that made him make erroneous choices, and we start expecting that all this is not poised to end very well for most characters in this movie. It does not, but maybe there is a happy ending, and everybody but those dead will live happily ever after. Not in the way they originally planned, but with slightly adjusted life patterns.

Great acting, fabulous production design, especially in the design of the doctor’s residence / prison, plenty of  fine cars and fine clothing, and an atmosphere of impending family doom make this another one of Almodovar’s great achievements. In its horror movie ambitions, it is even a bit lighter to consume that previous works, but there is darkness all around, so it is not entertainment of the lighter note.

I have been frequently scolding myself for giving new Woody Allen movies yet another chance, despite knowing better. This peaked in outright self-hatred for exposing myself to the decrepit old man fantasy brain-turd about what cardboard cut-out young Europeans do with their spare time that was “The Lobotomy of Christina in Barcelona”. I promised to myself: never again! And yet here I am, falling victim to the critics’ community that claimed – again – that Allen is back to form and that “Midnight in Paris” was worth giving him another chance.

No! it is not as mind-boggling rubbish as “Vicky’s and Christina’s Annoying Adventures”, but it is still embarrassing. An excited movie author  finds out he will get his next funding from some European film subsidy scheme and immediately buys a very short “guidebook to the art history of Paris” – what he finds in the foreword to this book he enriches through some transitory dialogue, and that’s it, the script is ready and forces us to witness what Woody Allen today believes is clever.

There is not a single instant where the Cocteaus, Hemingways, Picassos, Dalis, Steins etc are integrated into a scenery or plot that is more than just checking  the box (and satisfying the wish of some celebrity actor who submitted a wish list to Allen’s production company what he / she would like to play). There are so many opportunities where what these artists stood for and how their role in the 1920s could have been used to create some intelligent interaction with the present is not being used, falls completely flat on the face of reader’s art digest… and all this centering around an Owen Wilson character who is so obviously nothing but an effort to recreate a young Woody Allen while clone science is not quite ready to really get the job done.

I am not as angry as I was after “Vicky Braindead Barcelona”, but almost. And that is it. So long, Mr Allen, wish you all the best with your future ventures into whatever you consider to be entertaining these days…

There are only problems with the 2011 remake of “The Thing” (yes, I know they say it’s a prequel, but seriously…):

  • Nothing in this film is in any way better than in the authoritative John Carpenter version: not the story, not the script, not the special effects, not the actors. In particular not the actors. Not the lighting, sound or editing, nothing!
  • There is not a single original idea in this, mostly we have to watch generic “spooky situations”, or copies of scenes from the Carpenter movie that are just not half as well done as they were in 1982. There may be individual fun cgi effects such as a double headed monster or a monster melting into a victim, but it is random, there is no hint of a proper original idea. This culminates in the “blood sample scene”, which teaches film students that one thing they should never try to do is re-stage a scene that is commonly seen to be perfect already. It is a bit embarrassing to watch them try, really.
  • Nothing original, down to the blood samples… and clearly Carpenter had a way of creating tension that these guys do not possess
  • There is not a single identifiable character in this. Even the girl that is supposed to be the main character or “heroine” – does anybody really know or care who she is, why she is there, what function she fulfils. Does anybody remember any name of any of the characters? Or a character feature? Nothing.
  • Nobody in this is cool. In the 1982 version, Kurt Russell is cool. The doctor going crazy and building a spaceship under the shed is cool. Childs is cool. The chess computer and the dogs are even cooler than any of the characters in the remake.

No really, what a waste of time and money, only to create something that is inferior in every single aspect to John Carpenter’s masterpiece. Need to see that one again soon to cleanse me of this 2011 nonsense.

The “behind the scenes of politics thriller” is a good genre, especially if spruced up with a bit of sex and crime. George Clooney’s latest directorial effort takes the genre a bit further into the contemplative, semi-arthouse realm, he shifts the workplace  values of the political staff, loyalty in particular, to center stage. When the spotlights are turned on to illuminate these, what we see is terrible. Loyalty is a the only currency that counts, says Philip Seymor Hoffmann’s character, the head campaign manager for Clooney’s Senator-come-President. He does not know that Ryan Gosling’s character will believe this, but take it at face value: currencies can be traded, swapped, bet on. Gosling is forced into situations, but decides his way out of them by learning from the best, the most ruthless heads of both  the Democrat’s and the Republican’s campaign. He is maneuvered by the Republican counterpart (Paul Giamatti) into a lose-lose situation, he stumbles across a dangerous episode in the candidate’s life – and he (and Clooney the director and script co-author) manages to twist both wires into one fuse.

Gosling, Hoffmann, Giamatti and Clooney make a brilliant set of lead actors in this polit-play. There may be narrative weaknesses, but maybe not: I was confused towards the end why the film does not end five minutes earlier than it does – but would it have ended, we would have missed a very strong scene that re-establishes not only the new order of power in the universe, but also indicates how little chance the winner of these games will ever have of finding redemption. Those voices in your head will never stop, this burden on the shoulders will never go away, will only become more balanced hopefully as new deeds and demons pile up.

An atmospheric piece about the mechanics behind the collapse of the financial markets. The authors do not try to explain the world of finance to an audience that would not be interested in that. What they are trying – successfully – is to tell the story of a bunch of characters experiencing a very long night on the job. Only the best of them (that means “best at their job”, not “the best people”, maybe quite the contrary ) manage to take this to be just another day in the office.

Jeremy Irons plays this slightly over the top, he is acting it, but he gets across the message that there are people who need to lead in this kind of situation (the imminent crash of a giant investment bank)  , and others who need to follow. These followers constitute a wide range of Hollywood talent old and new: Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany most notably.  Most of them do not do anything during the film: Except Spacey and Irons, most have only a limited number of lines, and with Demi Moore and Tucci, it is even a plot point that at some point they have to sit, shut up and earn a lot of money if they can manage to do that.

I enjoyed the lack of spectacle, nobody is frantically running around, nobody is shouting in panic, throwing piles of paper in the air or themselves out of windows. The world moves towards financial Armageddon silently and coldly. People wait, people think, some cry, but then again, that is mostly about their dogs, sometimes about their own careers. Maybe the best speech is the completely out-of-context explanation by the risk analyst played by Tucci that he used to build bridges, and he calculates the practical benefit of this by showing how many years of human life were not spent in cars because of one single bridge he built. He is mourning this tangible past, and you have the impression that after the war against the markets is over, he will start building again, maybe a wooden shed or a bird’s house…

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