Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: July 2012

I think not too many people have seen this, so it may be worth to add a short introduction: Red Riding consists of three films, all playing in Northern England, in Yorkshire, lined up around the centerpiece of disappearing girls. I will not give away anything. Not knowing details pays off. At the end of the first part, I felt very happy that my lack of plot knowledge kept me from anticipating what happened. So stay away from plot spoilers, better stay away from any kind of content summary. Suffice to say, all three films (being named after the year they play in, “1974”, “1980” and “1983” respectively) have the matter of the disappearing girls in common, and follow the people trying to find a kidnapper or killer.

This is a British copper movie, on one level, even though some of the investigators are journalists. The roughness of 1970s and 1980s Northern England, the lack of perspective, social conflicts, violence, political upheavals, all join in to paint a great background image of a society that’s rotten on so many levels, torn to pieces by political and economic failure.

The best of British actors helps to make this credible: British-bred Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan (so awesome recently in “Tyrannosaur”!), David Morrissey, Sean Bean, Paddy Considine … the list is long of faces very familiar even to those who do not frequently chase down the latest BBC shows.

Red Riding is as good as UK film and tv productions can get. It is rough, it has edgy, very edgy characters, it does not give a damn about political correctness, it features blunt realism paired with great drama. Excellent!

1974: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red_riding_1974/ (directed by Julian Jarrold)

1980: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red_riding_1980/ (James Marsh)

1983: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red_riding_1983/ (Anand Tucker)

 

I thought this would be a light comedy about a slacker who spends his days in his mother’s basement, waiting for fate to turn around and carry him away, all the while being reasonably happy with his own lack of ambition and success. I have to admit I found myself surprised about the profundity of the film, instead. While a light tone and ridicule is all around, these guys are dealing with existential issues. The relationship between Jeff and his brother, two losers of which only one admits he is one; the relationship between the brother and his wife, a terrible mismatch of personality, attitude and social competence; the relationship between Jeff’s mother and her age… involving a desperate hunt for appreciation, a longing for love that is painful to watch.

In a directorial sleigh of hands, all these people (and more) are brought together in a finale that allows everybody to be a hero, for once. Strangely, I found that profoundly satisfying.

I am not perfectly sure whether the balance between comedy and drama is always balanced well, at the end of the day, my memory of the film leans toward the drama, the family dystopia and the certain level of mid-life despair that is on display. Maybe that is the way it was intended? Then the film’s marketing got the better of me, selling it as a light-hearted comedy. But never mind, they made me watch it, and I definitely do not regret that!

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

I am slowly catching up with Billy Wilder’s filmography, I think I was inspired by Filmspotting.net’s Wilder marathon, and really… why did I never see all these great movies before? How could I spend my life assuming that Kirk Douglas is a legendary actor when I have never seen the films that created this reputation? Here, he plays a reporter who had to get the hell out of Dodge (New York, that is) and finds cover in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He stays put, is bored out of his mind, and waits for the chance for a scoop. When a mine caves in, trapping a worker, he gets his chance. He is ruthless, charming, sexy, violent, cunning …  he is everything that’s needed for a man of such vanity and ambition. He plays his colleagues, his women, and innocent bystanders alike. When he reaches a point of realizing the vastness of the consequences his actions have, it is too late to turn back. He learns that everything comes at a price, the higher the stakes, the higher the price.

As with the other Billy Wilder movies I have seen recently (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard), there is not much in terms of outdatedness to be found. These films hold up, because they are intelligently written, cleverly structured and greatly acted. I look forward to the rest of my catching up…

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1107426-ace_in_the_hole/

I am with Mr Kermode on this: remarkably unremarkable, and maybe that is not a bad thing. I do not quite see the need for such a remake, but once it’s there, I was happy to spend money on the ticket. Admittedly, for lack of choice, because all screens are jammed with it, in all its 2D and 3D versions. Of course Andrew Garfield is an eye-pleaser, of course the updated CGI is worth admiring. But the price is high: I think because the director and screen writers would have been bored themselves by really rolling out the genesis of the Spiderman story in detail again, the rushed it. A boy discovers his special powers, and within an instant he jumps off buildings and dons a spandex costume. As a “Spiderman 1” movie, that is unsatisfactory, because the interest in that part of the story lies in how a regular guy copes with the fact that he is not that regular no more… I understand why they did cut some corners on character development (trying not to bore themselves and the part of the audience that has just watched Raimi’s Spiderman 20 times over the last ten years too much). They do, however, not offer a great alternative: skipping the development of Spiderman requires a good reason to get to the next part quickly, but that next part is dominated by a pretty lame villain. While Dr Connors, the human, may be an interesting intellectual center piece in such a setting, the lizard he turns into is just a CGI version of the gen plastic dinosaurs I used to play with when I was little. And that part even features sloppiness: a bunch of policemen gets turned into lizard thingies, and we only get back to them once they are returned to their human form? Not that an army of lizards is better than one lizard (take this, James Cameron’s “Aliens”!), but having an army of lizards and just having them sit tight on a street corner while other people are scrambling World Trade Centers? No, that was the other beast… but the building was very nicely designed.

Ah well, everything seemed a bit toned down, lacks edginess: the parents (poof, gone… ), the aunt and uncle (I kind of liked the uncle, but it is very irritating to have the US President say things like “I am not an educated man.”), and I was almost angry about Denis Leary as police chief: if you cast Leary, why completely ignore this rough and naughty-boy side? What a waste…

I am not saying that I was not entertained by the film, but I was underwhelmed on almost every level, wondering whether this film has the same potential of becoming a classic that Sam Raimi’s first and second Spiderman movies had? I think not…

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

All’s well that ends well… it took me just about five years to finally watch this, and not for lack of trying. A cursed venture it seemed like: first effort I found the James Brothers’ gang’s language too challenging to master comfortably without subtitles, but subtitles were not to be found. A year later I started watching it, all settled with beer and solitude, only to hear the phone ring ten minutes in, requiring me to stop again. Third try, maybe yet another year later, I found trouble with my media player stopping me from watching it. The first 15 or 20 minutes, including the magically lit Blue Ribbon train robbery, I almost know by heart. And now, one night in July 2012, all the stellar constellations were right: ‘twas late night, three hours until the football match, a warm night with a can of soda and another of beer. Admittedly I was suspicious what disaster could strike this time: tsunami coming in, fire alarm going off, jet lag striking me down? No… I watched it, all two and a half hours of it. And had I been suspicious that projects of such long gestation period usually do not find and end as satisfactory as one would have hoped for, that the build-up may, as it happens in life, makes promise of a climax that reality cannot keep up with… not here, not here:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is, by all means and measures and for lack of a better word, bloody awesome! I don’t know what it is, maybe a post-Western, maybe a cinematographic essay on the loneliness that fame and notoriety often brings about. Maybe it is a family drama about aspiration, jealousy and disappointment. It fuses the long breath of a Steinbeck epic with detailed intimacy of siblings and friends. It matches its love for the beauty of wind, clouds, wheat and  grass with the best moments Terence Mallick has given us. It opens the eye to the vastness and the wide spaces of the west that may only be matched by “The Searchers”. It moves along with the pace of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” – and only if you think of this as highest praise will you be able to appreciate what director Andrew Dominik achieves here, how courageously he resists the temptation of pacing up and giving in to the fleeting pleasures of Western action. The few shoot-out scenes are unlike the ones I have seen before, they are hesitant, people are scared, insecure, and when they shoot, we know they know about the impact of such violence.

Looking at the credits, telling this story seems to have been a passion project for a big group of movie artists who had the vision to imagine how beautiful it would be: Ridley and Tony Scott, Brad Pitt and a whole range of other executive producers chipped in their names and probably purses. The cast is star-studded from top to bottom, with the story moving towards the outstanding triangle of Brad Pitt as Jesse James, Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Sam Rockwell as Robert’s brother Charley being the last men standing (honestly: if only three Actors’ Union cards were issued for the next ten years, these three could very well be my choice!). All of them deeply melancholic in their own ways and according to their own characters, all of them stranded at some point in their lives where they really are not sure what led them there and how to move on. Sam Shephard, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, …  every character is filled to the brim with personality – and that is all the more remarkable as some of these guys really are not the reflective, talkative guys. But also the mostly silent smokers of the type of Frank James, Jesse’s brother, enrich the atmosphere with their brooding realism.

So much to be said, so many scenes to be remembered. Build an altar for DP Roger Deakins in the corner of your living room and thanks him every night for conjuring up these images, or painted them al fresco on the living room wall right away. Listen to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack on  dark night or on a sunny afternoon, and feel the melancholy seeping in. Outstanding!

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

“Brave” has an odd starting point for a Disney-Pixar movie: a princess, yes, yet no prince. No love interest, but a troubled daughter-mother relationship. A very limited number of cute creatures (and those that there are not too played out), and some scary fights to the death main characters have to engage in. Of course there is lightness: the setting in the Scottish highlands in the age of the old clans makes for language hilarity, kilt action and rough dinner entertainment. But the whole mood is a tad dark, even before the film goes Myasaki, with floating forest spirits and wood witches.

There is a lot to be said about it, but the one thing I will remember was that I am underwhelmed by the key turning point, the queen’s change of fate brought about by her daughter’s anger. Was that all, I wondered, after long talk about fate and change? The turning point allows for some cute moments, no doubt, including giant bears trying to eat with fork and knife and trying to maintain royal grace in general. But in the end, what I could enjoy was the Scottish atmosphere, not the plot or its twists. I could not help the feeling that the film owes its existence rather a current wave of medieval fashion than that one great idea for a story that Pixar has become so famous for. Entertaining while it lasts, but not much more, I am afraid.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/brave_2012/

There is a single image I remembered from seeing this film the first time when it came out: Adam Sandler standing in his oddly blue-coloured suit, holding his cup of coffee, outside the warehouse that is his company headquarter. Hard as I tried, nothing else. And even when watching it for a second time now, looking out for bits of memory, nothing came up. I have not seen that film before. I have, of course, but may it be that the  queer nature of the story, the visual goofiness, the sometimes psychedelic imagery do not make for a memorable movie experience … unless you put it into the context of this great film maker’s oeuvre, as I did.

You easily recognise the no-compromise approach of Anderson to epic storytelling even in the confines of this little love story with a twist. The opening alone, with a crashing car and an abandoned harmonium, feels like a film school student really wanted to go for the uncompromising way: you think I am going to tell the audience what to make of it? Think again, this is post-modern cinema!

Maybe, in other words, the film is a bit pretentious? It almost certainly is, albeit in an entertaining way. You are distracted from the love story by the crime plot, or the other way round, and the thriller elements are disrupted by comic relief, often slapstick. Does it fit together? It does, in a way, but I felt slightly distanced, I did not feel the love for the movie again that I seem to remember having taken away after first  watching it. Still: Adam Sandler in the chains of a not-really comedic thriller love story is good for Adam Sandler, whom I only liked in one other film, the one where he plays Adam Sandler experiencing a fatal disease… what’s it called “The Comedians”?

An odd piece of work, all in all, with a lot of contextualisation necessary to really enjoy it – still: it’s possible, I did like it, but maybe will not fall in love with it again. Maybe old age on my part…

www.rottentomatoes.com/m/punchdrunk_love/

A Bruckheimer-Ridley Scott film about a mission to extract a Somali warlord gone belly-up… that sounds like visual ecstasy. And it is. It is more Bruckheimer than Scott, actually, with a large armada of expensive military equipment being thrown into the ring, fabulous helicopter shots, illuminating and visually exciting aerial shots of the narrow streets of Mogadishu.

You get to know some key players, you get to know the layout of the mission, you hear the code word “Irene” to get it all started… and then confusion seeps in, at some point indifference. No doubt the confusion part is intentional to a point, as it only reflects the confusion and disorientation of the staff on the ground and in the air, chasing around the city, trying to find the helicopter that was shot down, trying to get the hell out of there, trying to survive while bullets and grenades rain down upon them.

That is not good for an audience, though. Editing and directing should allow me to keep ahead of the people I am watching, give me an impression of their confusion by understanding it, by seeing what they cannot see. If I do not have a better overview, I do not enjoy the movie, I feel like the first person in a shooter, bouncing about with every new image that is thrown at me.

But except disorientation (which at least has some action value), the worse part about “Black Hawk Down” is the boredom that settles in during the second half. At some point, groups of people nestle down in their respective hideouts, waiting for better times, i.e. rescue. They are stuck, we are stuck with them, and as terrible is it may be to just sit there and wait, watching them sitting and waiting is not terribly exciting, just a bit dull. At this point, it would have paid off to have a more limited cast of characters, so at least you could identify with them.  As Scott has hurled around some 20 lead characters at the outset, and flings them all into battle at the same time, I did not feel I had the time to identify them, identify with them, and feel their pain. They merge into a mass of dusty and bloody uniforms, only  distinguished by the way they exit the scene towards the end.

A shame about a film of such grandiose visuals, but direction and editing really did not help me enjoy it as much as I could have. The film was far from being the arbitrary and pointless money-burning machine a Michael Bay movie usually is, but seeing these flaws in a film by an often greater director is a bit disappointing.

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

I am almost lost for words… so you can beat down Zeus with some rocks, or poke him with a trident, you can run down some dirt track to end up in Hades, and Cronos, father of Gods, just looks like the balrog from Lord of the Rings after some years of petrification? My g(o)odness, that was a dull experience… Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, what are you thinking? Hope you donated the paycheck to a good, a very good cause …

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/clash_of_the_titans_2/

 

I did not watch too many movies over the last couple months, and the reason for that is also the reason for this blog post. Seven seasons of “The West Wing”.. long anticipated, often postponed, frequently reminded by those who watched and loved the show… now finally it is accomplished, and it was a very joyful ride!

The professionals populating the show are almost a caricature of high-powered politics brokers, movers and shakers: those who run the White House, those who want to run it, those who will run it. With a core staff over the first couple of seasons that is consistently brilliant: the chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, head of communication and spokesperson, there is a team assembled around the President (very well represented by Martin Sheen, who would have thought…) that makes credible the nation of workplace as family substitute.  The job is a 24/7 commitment, private lives fall apart, but these people are very good at what they are doing, and the dialogues they shoot across the West Wing halls are razor-sharp, witty, often wise, always elaborately carved and molded, mostly by master smart dialogue  artist Aaron Sorkin. These guys are too bright and good to be credible, but they do not need to be, because they are all allowed to be human at the same time. Maybe that is the actual strength of Sorkin? Not supercharging a script with his battery of dialogue firepower, but creating human beings you care about – and once he has achieved that, he can put them into any situation, because the audience will care and forgive.

It may well be that the show went on for too long, and took some turns it needn’t have… but I felt that the dilution of the staff integrity by replacing actors / characters, the loss of identification was something I could, well, identify with. No situation, no setup or team is so perfect that it would be stable over time, and if it remains stable, then the internal dynamics change, and suddenly you grieve the loss of all the fun you had back in the days, and all the spirit that got lost somehow along the common way.

In the end, when all turns around the run for Jed Bartlett’s successor in the White House, a fascinating new character and actor is introduced for the role of congressman Matt Santos – and for that last run, the show picks up speed again, you start caring again and maybe you can believe that would the show start all over again, you would be hooked again… with a different white house carpet, a different commander-in-chief, but hopefully always with the spirit of change for the better that seems to carry these people through their blackberry-poisoned days.

P.S.: makes an eerie double feature with the current HBO show “Veep”… the strange lack of swearing even in crisis times that demand it is offset generously by this “The Thick of It” US remake.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_West_Wing

%d bloggers like this: