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Monthly Archives: May 2012

This is a rather grim Billy Wilder film, far removed from the light and brilliantly witty comedies most people praise him for. It is the story of a man being dragged down by “money and a woman”, and in the end he gets neither. This is no spoiler, it is what he tells us in the first minutes, coming into his office, drenched from rain and blood, telling his story into a voice recorder so that his friend the insurance agent will learn the truth.

I can’t say that all the characters hold up to today’s story-telling and story-reading habits: especially Walter Neff, the main character and plotter, with his 40s platitudes and slightly ridiculous machismo needs a bit of tolerance by the audience. On the other hand, this chauvinistic attitude of his (ending every sentence to a woman with “baby”) all the more grants him to be treated as an ignorant idiot, being led by the nose by whatever skirt stands in front of him. And Barbara Stanwyck’s Mrs Dietrichson is not just any femme fatale, she is a cunning spider that spun a web and lures Walter in.

It is especially the interaction with insurance buddy and good guy played by Edward G. Robinson that drives the plot, he is well placed to be a bit rough but with a good heart, he loves Walter and hates himself for being unable to solve the riddle of the death of Mrs Dietrichson’s husband.

Certainly a classic of the noire genre, especially as it is constructed in a certain non-conformistic Wilder-way. I am glad I finally had a chance to see it.

This is a tv show developed for Danish television, and it is as good as any crime show that you can find in international tv. It has a clear and terrific structure, very similar to “24”, actually, only that an episode covers a day of the investigation of a murder. Each of these days brings about more twists and turns, and what started out as a regular nasty bit of killing, develops into a political and human drama. At the heart of it is the police investigator, an intelligent, but socially mostly incompetent, almost autistic woman on her way out. The “last job” she is confronted with grabs her, and it seems she is not the type to let go before she found what she was looking for. With the slightly dark, slightly depressing, slightly muted Northern European setting, “The Killing” (or “The Crime” I think would be the more accurate translation) brings together all the best of recent popular Scandinavian literature (the Wallander crime stories, the Millenium trilogy) and films (Let The Right One In). the first season suffers from too many episodes (I call that the 24 phenomenon), so that there are moments when you know exactly that nothing you learn in episode 1 – 17 will have anything to do with what really happened. But at the end of the day, there is a very satisfying, thrilling, human, dark, twisted crime story with great characters in its center. Season 2 is actually even better timed, with half the episodes, and benefits from the time season 1 took to introduce these characters, especially the queer main police investigator Ms Lund.

Will there be more seasons? Yes, one more, I just read, and a good thing that is, because after watching just one episode of the US tv remake made it clear that this is not a good substitute…

When I watched it years ago when it came out, I do remember that there was some sort of debate on why would people like the film. Given that it could be read both as a dumbass, shoot the bugs, sci-fi C-movie with a bloated budget, or as a social satire in the cloak of a dumbass etc. etc., I went into the cinema with special attention to who would be there, how they are enjoying themselves, and for what reasons. And indeed… a majority of the teenagers in the theatre (wasn’t that a 18 certificate? Whatever became of parenting?) were cheering at every exploding bug head or severed limb, were bored or snickering at the more human interaction, and were really in for the action adventure. The more I despised them, the more I decided to like the film, maybe just to spite them for their ignorance, and kept defending the film and its director for its clever play with especially US-style patriotism, arrogance, ignorance and whatever other attribute comes to mind.

Watching it again now, all these years later… it is not as clever as it claimed to be, I admit. Of course the whole casting and production design is over the top (the pilot girl is ridiculously foolish-looking, the love interest is a college football player type… no, an ACTUAL college football player), almost comic style, with the hints at the post-intelligence world that has also (differently) been used by John Carpenter or (very differently) in the literary heritage of the 20th century dystopian novels. It is a goofy fun ride through a dumbed-down, interactive media future (“Do you want to know MORE?” click here…), with plenty of people dying because that’s the way conflicts are resolved in this version of the future: if you see an enemy, throw 100 000 ground troops at them, ignoring the possibility of viciously evolved creatures being very much superior when it comes to fighting on their home planet.

I am sure director Verhoeven had his sardonic fun as well as his feelings of satirical subversivism (word police, I confess I made that one up) when developing Starship Troopers, and it still looks good, I have to say. It will probably not become a classic of social satire the way Carpenter’s  Dark Star or (surprisingly, if you want my opinion) They Live are today. But it will stick around on home video, no doubt, and entertain us for many years.

Ricky Gervais is a mystery to me: he seems to be terribly famous, but I don’t know for what. I have seen “The Office”, but as that was a British tv show, it cannot really explain his international fame. The “Ricky Gervais Show” is already a post-fame format, that lives off the fact that somebody of the fame format of Gervais moves on to unconventional media formats (podcast and animation). Now that I saw “Extras” and “Life’s too Short”, I understand a bit better how he established his brand, at least in the UK. The recipe is always the same, and it is actually mostly very funny: you have the sad creatures of the media world, those longing for fame and fortunes, and you observe them in their uphill struggle. As in The Office, and also The Ricky Gervais Show, it is important to have spectacular losers around – Gervais is vain, but not too vain to be unable to fill this role himself occasionally, as he did in The Office. Warwick Davis, the dwarf teacher of Harry Potter movie fame, takes it on himself to become the hilarious laughing matter of “Life’s too Short”, he plays his own twisted self (in the spirit of Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip”), an exaggerated version of his own real life character. He tries to get odd jobs (Ewok at birthday party is not the worst) and insists on his Star Wars and Harry Potter fame, against all empirical evidence to the opposite.

Extras is one rung down the ladder of fame, it features the extras circulating the British tv and movie productions sets like flies the … agricultural waste product. Their intrigues and efforts are funny enough, but often topped by guest appearances of real celebrities (I cannot begin to wonder how difficult it was to get Robert deNiro to do this… and Kate Winslet can be filthy, my goodness)!

This is why British tv can be so great: short stingers into the flesh of good taste, leaving you plenty of time until the next episode to wonder whether it is particularly intelligent of you, the audience, to like this kind of humour, or whether you are just as susceptible to fart and boner jokes as the odd …well, Ricky Gervais.

I had not seen this one since it came out, and I forgot that it was Robert Zemeckis who made it. I write this because when I saw his name, I immediately felt kind of happy – he has delivered so many entertaining films over the years that he really is one of my favourites, with very few misses. Same here: “FedEx presents Castaway” is one of Tom Hank’s more interesting performances. It has a very pretty location, a lot of sun and beach scenes, and a funny script. What can go wrong? Only this time around I was wondering whether it could not have been a little bit more grim, shown a little bit more of the desperation that certainly must take its toll. There is this … is it 3 year ? … time leap in the middle, and I could imagine that some of these times have not been all jolly and exotic fruity. Which again led me to think how interesting it is that whatever topic Zemeckis touches on, the result will be a family film. He could probably do a Night if The Living Dead remake and end up with a hilarious ride through the graveyard, PG 12. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not always what one would prefer from a given subject matter. So maybe Zemeckis and Spielberg should spin off an adult entertainment section of their studios and start with “FedEx presents Cannibal Castaway”. I would watch that.

As always with comic book adaptations (exceptions of Superman and Batman, if I may), I had never heard of this hero. And it’s not even a hero, he is… a slightly above-average skilled knife thrower. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask, indicating that he, too, has some injustice to fight and he, too, will blow up the British Parliament in the end (seriously: how many potential comic book adaptation readers are out there who know who Guy Fawkes was? What he did? Seriously…). The film disappeared from my memory as quickly as I can say “Tower Bridge”, but there are some pretty moments, especially towards the end, when “V” calls for the whole population of London to storm the Bastille… no, the Parliament, because … er … so he can blow it up better? The logic did not really become clear, why he needs a year’s preparation and why everybody was supposed to be there. But it was somehow directed against the evil Chancellor (did I not just read about him in Hunger Games?) and for the lone girl who can bring him down (did I not just… never mind). So there is this girl V stumbles into at the beginning and she does not matter but in the end she puts him on a train ride to Westminster, which is a very pretty image and culminates in very nice fireworks. But really, it did not make much sense…

Mossad Nazi kidnapping thriller with Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson? This is as safe a deal for me as possible. But it starts out a bit irritating when we are shown the actual events of a 1960s mission to kidnap a wanted concentration camp doctor and take him to Israel for trial – while somehow it seems it is the mystery about these events that are the heart of the film. Later on, we learn why it has been a good idea to show us what happened, but that feeling of falseness never left me up until that turning point. As a thriller, the film has a bit more going than Spielberg’s Munich had some years ago, it has its one set piece to focus on (quite early in, actually) and does it very tightly (most interestingly through use of a subway train that gives the task force several 14 second bursts of activity). The script also includes all the other elements you would suspect in this film: the kidnapped war criminal xenophobe manipulating kidnappers by spreading secrets; doubts about the mission; balancing the greater good and the individual interest. The one question I always find interesting in the context of Mossad films is not tackled, though, namely whether it is maybe not very poor style (or a criminal offense) to go into other countries and kidnap people from there in the first place. Seems for Mossad script authors,  that is standard operating procedure, so they do not touch it.

Tom Wilkinson looks important as ever, Helen Mirren is very good as the woman who lives off her history for decades, and begins to believe that this may not be healthy, especially given the circumstances of that story.

It was not the most gripping of all thrillers, but solid and entertaining, with some nice glances at cold war Eastern Berlin. It came and went at the box office, so I suppose this format is not the most promising one these days, maybe because people do not understand international conflicts anymore, at least not those of the post-war period?

Well hyped for the Oscar season last year (and one of the prime snubs when it did not even get a nomination), “Project Nim” documents the fate of a chimpanzee, more or less from cradle to grave. To a certain point, that story has been seen last year in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: taken out for experiments for sign language, Nim is in a long-term programme under the supervision of one university institute, but with varying foster families. These families are the actual “stars” of the movie… as it was a research project, all is well documented by video, and some of the people involved have been interviewed for camera today. There are all kinds: morons who believe that you can, or even should, raise an animal the same way you would a human child, there are animosities and jealousies especially between the female participants, there are hippies who just think this is way cool a way to spend your uni assignments, there is a hedonistic yet mostly realistic professor who keeps believing in the research aim, but who does not have a problem to cut off the whole thing when it’s clear that nothing of scientific use will come out of it anymore.

Between all these interests and emotions sits that ape, being tortured and abused for other people’s causes. He seems to bloom for a while, but it also becomes clear that many of the stories about affection and interaction the interviewees talk about seem to the mere fads of their imagination.

As a document of this project, “Project Nim” is quite interesting. As a film, a piece of art, I did not find much to admire. In this, it reminded me of the other film I have seen by James Marsh, “Man on Wire”, which was quite fascinating as a story to read about in the newspaper, but ran out off steam after half an hour into the film. Similar here: you get the idea soon enough of what is wrong with the concept of a wild animal as baby substitute, and not too many surprises come after that.

Of course never in my wildest dreams would consider watching a British tv show about the arduous lives of the English nobility and their servants. When I was little, my sister kept watching “Upstairs, Downstairs”, which was as close as I ever got to watching British costume drama. Now Jane Eyre recently Craig Ferguson made me vulnerable, and Craig Ferguson’s perennial praise of Downton Abbey finally got me, so I watched the first two seasons. Well, certainly, my lord, there are more edgy and powerful stories told on tv, but not all the time, and there are some episodes that really are powerful. The story moves through the build-up of World War I, through the war and into the Spanish flu – and each of these brings about drama. The producers manage to create a set of recognizable characters (always important for me in shows with such a large cast), and usually avoids black-and-white clichés (servants Thomas and O’Brien may be exemptions to that rule, they are getting a bit on my nerves by now). The grumpy granny Ladyship Cawley played joyfully by Maggie Smith must surely be the darling of the script authors, as she is suffering from lack of sophistication more than anybody else (“Are you afraid people think you are American if you speak out freely?”, or “No Englishmen would dream of dying in somebody else’s house…”). Butler Carson (“the world does not turn on the style of a dinner!” / “My world does!”, or “he gave me the advice to speak what I think.”- “that sounds a bit wild…”) holds it all together, Valet Bates who is bursting with integrity and honour, to the point of hurting himself and his beloved ones… ah, nice one, I look forward  to finding out in September whether Mitchell got Mary, Bates gets out of his calamity, and maybe His Lordships finds a little maid in his chamber.

“If you are turning American on me, I will go downstairs!”

It is one of the ideas most people had at times, but then again almost everybody shies away from the sheer magnitude and unclear rewards: reading an encyclopedia front to back, as if it was a novel or at least a non-fiction book with a narrative. There is no logic bringing you to do this, but then again there is no logic keeping you from doing it. If you want to know everything that’s written in the book, you may just as well start at Aaa and finish at some Polish town the name of which I forgot, but which started with Zy…  A.J. Jacobs does this, and he does it with the mother of all encyclopedias, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He considers it a writing project, because he is, above all, a very entertaining writer. I have once read a review by a journalist who had just survived I think 14 hours of the full-length Faust 2 performance, and I was reminded of this here. He sprinkles in knowledge from the encyclopedia, we learn about a lot of things we did not know before (major theme of the Encyclopaedia seems to be favouritism of cross-eyed women in French philosophers. That, and liturgical overgarments). But the interesting bit, of course, is to learn about A.J.’s own experience. In the theatre review mentioned, the author came back to the topic of food, developing a furious jealousy of a colleague of his who was clever enough to bring a foot-long sausage sandwich into the hour7-to-hour9-slot. Here, we learn how the EB always seems to provide him (sometimes more, sometimes less useful) advice on how to get his wife pregnant, ideas on how to fill small talk with substantial references to royal venereal disease, or chances to get filthy rich by winning Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. This Bildungsroman of a man longing to become another edition of Goethe or Leibniz as comprehensively literate and educated (and we learn how much Goethe despised Leibniz – I did not have a clue!), and struggling at the same time with the concepts of educated versus intelligent, is great to read. We know exactly what he was like when, as a boy in school, he was convinced to be the smartest person on the planet, and we can feel with him how this view started crumbling over time. Shrunk to human size, he now strugglers to climb not on the shoulders of giants, but on the pile of books that reaches 4 foot level in his study and accompanies him for a full year, 60 Million words, 65 000 entries, if I remember correctly. Quite an achievement, but I am glad he did it on my behalf, so I do not have to be the one… and just while reading his book, I learned that EB will cease their print publication  after what … 140 years? Sic transit Gloria mundi…

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