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Monthly Archives: August 2012

It may be worth to add a short plot summary, as many people will never have heard of this film or its director, one of Germany’s most talented: “Sturm” is about Hannah Maynard, a prosecutor at the Den Haag court, seeking to find evidence against a Serbian general suspected of war crimes during the Serbian-Bosnian war. The key witness turns out to be less reliable than hoped for, but before the trial collapses, she finds another witness, sister  of the former, who seems to know more than she originally wanted to reveal. Maynard travels to Serbia and Bosnia, trying to find the truth behind everybody’s personally biased stories, in order to save her case (and her career) and gets entangled in a game of politics and family.

I have seen this film a hundred times… not this film specifically, but films with very similar story story lines. They are usually set in (or rather: after) World War II, sometimes Vietnam or Cambodia. Interestingly, I have never seen this with the background of the breakup of former Yugoslavia. Maybe I have just missed the many movies that were made in the course of the last 20 years about this atrocious war in the heart of Europe – or did nobody really dare to tackle it? Were producers shying away from what has always been considered a terribly complicated situation, with ethnic minorities, shifting national borders and obscure international alliances playing in?

Maybe so. In any case: it’s worth doing it. The Balkan war provides for interesting settings and characters, especially a German audience will not feel estranged, as so many refugees and later migrants have mingled in the German community and today are integral part of it. These people who got tortured, raped and killed during the war are people who were friends or family of our friends or colleagues. I am not sure whether this film already constitutes a movement, a widening of perspective beyond what Fatih Akin has established with his uncompromising new definition of what constitutes a German “Heimatfilm”, but I certainly hope so. I want to see more stories about these people who live between two worlds, I want to see more about how they are dealing with conflict and anger, and how they are fighting their fears to stand up in a trial that will expose too much of their self for comfort.

I have to add: this is by no means a perfect  movie. The drama at its core is played half-heartedly and brings about not too many surprises. The prosecutor is provided with a … say … home conflict that is a bit too convenient to be credible. A complete nuisance is the German dubbing: while the film starts off with people speaking their respective local language, at some point we are thrown into a Den Haag setting where everybody seems to speak German, with respective local flavor. Apparently the film was produced with an international cast, it eludes eludes eludes me why they have to mess its authentic international character up through this nonsensical (and poorly recorded and mixed, very flat) dubbing. Sorry, but a dubbed film always sounds a bit like a porn movie… and not in a good way …

Despite the flaws: a very interesting film, well worth checking out!

Watching “Total Recall” and “The Dark Knight Rises” within a couple of days raises interesting questions. I got entangled in an argument about whether or not either of the two is “better”, and realized that this is not as easy as it sounds. At the end of the day, I do not agree that “Total Recall” is the better films, but it can be said that it is – provided you feel a certain taste for this – the more honest and less pretentious, maybe all in all more entertaining piece of action cinema. Of course it is interesting to watch Christopher Nolan fail with his efforts to bring seriousness and maturity into comics originally made for children (come on, no point to argue…), but it’s also a bit of a drag, and especially in the recent “Rises” installment a failed attempt, in my opinion. “Total Recall” is not pretentious, it is just straightforward production design meets kick-ass action.

As I am officially an old person, I always felt the comparison with the more light-hearted, at the time more innovative and certainly more grueling original Verhoeven movie end of up in me deducting points. If you go to see it with a bunch of people who have never seen that original camp masterpiece, however, you can get an experience of unadulterated joy and amusement. They like the sets stolen from Blade Runner, and those flying flat cars stolen from that film I cannot remember right now (I, Robot, I think), and they think that Collin Farell is awesome cute (that’s me thinking this, actually). While I felt a slight and increasing boredom the louder and more unrelenting the action sequences grew in the third act (car chases… who needs car chases, honestly?!), the younger audience was glued to the screen and the popcorn munching grew more frantic with every explosion.

I get it: people find it very hard to follow the twisted aesthetic and narrative mind of both Philip K. Dick and Paul Verhoeven – I would still guess that having a large-scale re-release of the old film would have had the same effect on the audience. This one is a bit too soft, too straightforward, too well crafted in some ways, it lacks the stunning originality and the dark humour of the original and only in very few moments acknowledges its roots. When it does, it does so cleverly, however, watch the scene when Quaid / Hauser gets through the security check and you will be happy to seen an old girlfriend.

First comment: if you spent the first 20 years of your life outside Glasgow, see this with subtitles…

Second comment: Lynne Ramsey (who I adore for her recent “We need to talk about Kevin” adaptation) is a somehow fearless social observer. Fearless in not caring about whether there is a traditional  “story” or “plot” to be found in her script, but willing to go at great pains (sometimes literally) to put human beings into real-life situations and allow us to observe what kind of life exists on this planet. Sounds like a David Attenborough documentary? Could be actually, if the filming would be more flashy. The world she shows in Ratcatcher is wildlife, human style. Decrepit suburbs, dysfunctional families, economic misery… but guess what, the story she tells is not depressing. It is the story of, say, a boy who lives in the midst of this, and as kids are (or maybe all people are like that), he takes the given as given, exploring it and being curious about the inner workings of the society he grows up in. He plays and learns, about life and girls, he is angry, sad and happy, as kids are occasionally. Most importantly, he is an alert and curious observer, and fearless about facing up to the more demanding challenges of his life (kissing, saving a friend’s life, these things).

It has been observed that Lynne Ramsey is not very cinematic here. That may be true, but is appropriate to the subject matter. It is a blunt and colourless world we are shown, you know it from recent films like “Fish Tank” or “This is England”, and would be a lie to make it look more pretty than it is. It still is a beautiful film.

Wow… this is no, well… low frills action cinema, with a straightforward setting (“Get in. Get him. Get out alive.”), expected twists (“You were dead the moment you came here.”) and the necessary level of emotions (“you will be an uncle.”). Between those, it’s ruthless action, with guns, knives, and fists. The heroes are brave, but vulnerable. The villains are gorgeous and valiant. There is a point near the end of the film where my sympathies actually tended to turn and I wanted to reward the heroically fighting bad guy with my shouts of support. I think I did shout, actually… That the action is set in an Indonesian high-rise mostly does not matter. Neither does that it is about a fight between a police squad and a local gang. What does matter is the combination of stylish-gritty setting (yes, there are slow-motion sequences of flying bullets, but they are not glittery, they are mean). What also and in particular matters is that at some point the combatants are reduced to their skills in martial arts (some by necessity, some by choice, interestingly, because killing with guns, in the words of my secret hero of the film, “is just no fun”). Gratefully, nobody flies around on string wires. If people fly, they fly because somebody throws them out of the window or because they are in the midst of an explosion. There is a tangible feeling of hurt and pain everywhere, nobody hits or gets hit for free, everyone pays a price for his actions. The one thing martial-arts-related films seem unable to overcome is the rule that regardless of how many opponents are around, the hero only gets attacked by one or two at a time. I appreciate the sportsmanship, but that is something I already found irritating when Bruce Lee fought his way out of his calamities…

A very entertaining piece of genre film-making, not just for martial arts admirers, but for anybody who is not squeamish and occasionally enjoys observing other people having much greater problems than oneself.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” – “Yes, it is.”, Noriko  says with a smile. She wants to remind the younger girl that there is no point neglecting that families drift apart, that kids drift away from their parents, and that the longer the family exists, there more you will be encountering disappointments. Not because anybody would mean evil, but because they do not fit together anymore, the lifes of the parents and the children. Longing for the perfect symbiosis of childhood, when dependency from one side and sheer joy from the other work in harmony, later life brings about feelings of being bothered and being a burden.

This is what Tokyo Story shows in its very simple setting: An elderly couple travels from the countryside to Tokyo to see their children, and they experience joy about the reunion, but also pragmatism about the inconvenience. People have lost the touch for temporarily reuniting families, and sitting in the middle of Tokyo, the parents experience that while welcome, they do not have a role to play in their childrens’ lives anymore. A realisation that the father takes with the stoicism that maybe only an Asian head of family can conjure, on the verge of ignorance and coldness. The mother may take it more to the heart, and the heart gets sick in the process.

There is no real point in discussing whether this is one of the greatest films of all times (as its long-term membership on the Sight & Sound lists would suggest), or just a very good one. I have to thank the fact that it is mentioned very frequently on these lists that I finally got around to watching it. What it is is timeless and universal, it covers truths and observations, is not limited to its cultural setting. Everybody who ever has been a parent or a child (do the math…) understands 5 minutes into the film what this will be about, and will be able to feel great empathy with the characters and their respective strategies of dealing with the course of life.

Roger Ebert’s original review when the film was released in the US 1972:

and his later appreciation in his “Great Movies” series:

Especially the latter a very interesting read!

Yes, we saw that before. Recently in “The Wrestler” and “The Fighter”. Earlier in “Rocky”, or with a twist in Clint Eastwood’s boxer movie … whatsitcalledagain… . So often in-between. These films do follow a very tight scheme, they have to, I guess, the need to build an opportunity for the fighter, and how better to do that than by first throwing him / her down into the gutter, making the reach for the opportunity so much more existential? What’s the difference between “Warrior” and all the other films about the fighter who tries to do it one more time, to beat the odds, to reach the pantheon of his craft, to beat the living daylights out of his opponent? There is no fundamental difference, but it tries an aspect that was worth trying. Several differences, actually: Setting up two brothers against each other, and – as Roger Ebert in his review so correctly points out – not taking sides for either. Having these brothers played by major movie stars who both happen to occasionally be excellent actors. Using a sport that I at least have not yet seen featured in a major movie, Mixed Martial Arts. Having Nick Nolte around being grumpy and worn out is almost playing it by the book, seems you need to have the rough, lost father figure in that genre. Makes for great parts for the elderly movie stars, and of course Nolte can do this, he is made for this kind of role, conventional as it may be.

“Warrior”, it turns out, is well worth seeing, especially for the scrip and directorial experiment of having two equal heroes, and for me personally in having the ferocious force of nature that is Tom Hardy on screen, who can be so subtle and feminine, but wait until he takes a breath, pumps up his chest and comes for you. One of my favourite actors at the moment, who does not seem to make wrong choices.

So much anticipated, so much demanded, charged with so many expectations. What can an author deliver when he has stunned an audience that is usually fed with boredom and uninspired tales of superheroism by delivering something a tad darker, a tad more edgy, borderline intelligent, and is then thrown into the need of completing a cycle that must not be completed? Nolan has undoubtedly injected inspiration into blockbuster cinema with his interpretation of Batman as a human being with flaws and (physical as well as character) weakness. He has – together with his DP of trust and choice – delivered outstanding optical values in his movies. He has also created a critical and  audience response that is way beyond what the actual films reward, in my opinion. These are great pieces of entertainment, so much better than the regular Summer blockbuster products that bore the living daylights out of us every year. None of his Batman films is a “very good film” in my definition, but they are all well worth watching, refreshing in their approach, and I expect to enjoy seeing them again and again over the years. “Very good entertainment”, that’s what they are.

And now, did he find himself in that terrible dead end of a trilogy’s third part, where so many franchises died a miserable death and left the movie machinery as well as the audiences wondering whether third parts should not be outlawed by a globally implemented “Trilogy Impossibility Decree”? No, that did not happen with “The Dark Knight Rises”. But still, I felt the film feels burdened by so many needs that creativity suffered. Futile to wonder whether a different age certificate, a different director or script author would have been able to unleash the bonds that tied this one down. The Batman needs to be brought back, he needs to have a love interest, needs to show that he, at the end of the day, is one of the good guys, driven not mainly by his torn psyche and his damaged interpretation of social values (the way many of his adversaries are), but by his goodness, his moral integrity. In this film, he is – sorry – too good to be interesting. While this was offset in the previous “Dark Knight” by a nemesis that was meaner, more intelligent, more passionate and more torn, in the latest Dark Knight installment, such a creative center of the film is missing. Just a few moments ago I was wondering about why the martial arts film “Warrior” was worth seeing despite being just another variation on the “Rocky” theme. And the answer to this (“because they take both key opponents equally serious”) would have been the answer to making “The Dark Knight Rises” a much more interesting film.  As it is, even beloved Tom Hardy, who really plays the hell out of his Bane character despite the limited means of expression he is given, is not given this level of counter-gravity, because at the end of the day, he is just a mercenary without morale. The effort of de-superhero-izing Batman, for example by limiting the game of gadgets and having key set pieces directed as blunt fist fights, does not really pay off. The audience never doubts who the winner will be at the end of the day, and sadly (really the only moment where I was thoroughly disappointed with the film) was when after the grand finale, they get what they want. Without spoiling it, I can say that to me the film’s final scenes devalue the moral position of Batman and Bruce Wayne, devalue the importance the showdown’s finale would have had otherwise as an astounding act of sacrifice. As it is, the film ends on the low plateau of a Dan Brown novel, minus the parachuting priests.

All in all, I think “The Dark Knight Rises”  is as good as one could hope for, it is certainly not a let-down. Maybe I wished it would not exist, so that all the possibilities of a fallen Batman character could have kept floating the realm of imagination. I would guess Nolan is as relieved as I am that his mission is accomplished and he can turn towards new projects where characters and worlds can be created from scratch.

I liked the Hunger Games for their no-frills, low-style approach to telling a story of adventure and individual courage. You had a story of a girl in distress, pretty helpless at first, bounced about by her low-privileged background, finding her strength later, but dissatisfied that she has to. The first book, on which this film is based, is the strongest in this respect, because it deals with a motive that I very much appreciate in movies and books: take regular person, throw that person into a very irregular situation, and observe how (s)he reacts. Stephen King’s books often work like that, and that is my best point of reference.

In order to do that, and to be able to assess and appreciate the development of a character (should I call it pretentiously a “Bildungsroman”? Maybe a bit too ambitious a term for many such settings, but in the end, yes, that’s what it is) you need to paint the tapestry in as much detail as possible, show the everyday life, show the characters that surround our hero, and how all that constitutes the “normality” from which the lead character will be ripped later on. The “Hunger Games” book does that rather well, despite its slim volume, we are familiarised with the lives and times of what we get to know as “District 13” folk. Later on, we learn about the opponents in the Battle Royale (sorry, but it IS too obvious a parallel to not be mentioned), about their districts, their individual strengths and weaknesses, their aims and strategies.

Now: almost all that is missing in the film… while it starts off with nicely shot, gritty and earthy impressions of Dickensian age of labour and despair, as soon as Katniss Everdeen hops on the train to the Capital, all background painting stops. The Capital city, its population, the other districts, her mentor, her outfit consultant, her opponents and partners in battle are just there, but we don’t know them. The love story with her compatriot combatant, staged to begin with, confusing later on, cannot be understood unless you have read it. The role of her not-quite boyfriend back home is limited to a couple of edits where he is allowed to look disgruntled. That is a shame, because for what it’s worth, the emotional upheaval of a 16-year-old girl can be interesting in the context of a movie about a 16-year-old girl.

The film is strong where it allows Jennifer Lawrence (a great actress, no doubt, and star of “Winter’s Bone”, which still lingers on the top spot of my favourite movies of the last couple of years) to be confused, disoriented, and without strategy. As damsel in distress, she is perfect, she brings the looks and posture of somebody who is not a hero, nor aspires to be one, but can grow into a fierce opponent if forced to. Falling off trees, stumbling across meadows and sitting and waiting is  what she is very good at, and what the film manages to create as her modus operandi to win this battle.

Another example of a movie taking away all the spirit of a novel? Not really, as I found the film pretty entertaining nonetheless. But the opportunity has come and gone to take this first instalment of the story and get me involved. I will certainly be an interested observer in what’s happening next, but no more than that.

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