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Monthly Archives: September 2012

After having been not too disappointed by “The Avengers”, I was trying some catching up with Joss Whedon’s backlist and came across some surprisingly good comments about “Serenity”. I read it somehow served as the big-screen replacement of the cancelled “Firefly” tv show, which again put me off a bit, as this show, despite a large and enthusiastic fan base, bored me quite a bit after watching the first one or two episodes.

I am not sure how exactly “Serenity”  fits into the “Firefly” universe, but it seemed to me that the audience is expected to be rather familiar with the show – I had some troubles getting into the story and the politics of the universe it is set in. Taken at face value, “Serenity” looks like a straight-to-video odd mix of Star Wars, Battleship Galactica and some other genre classics. Given some of the costumes, you can chip in “Conan” for good measure, with a pinch of “Road Warrior” and any “running Zombie” movie. Is that a good thing? Hmm… the skill set of the actors and the quality of the special effects reminded me of the original Galactica tv show rather than the remake, so maybe not. Are these more technical deficiencies compensated for by original story or drama?

Hmmm… some colonised planets go to hell because some of the experiments the “Parliament” has conducted did not go as well as was claimed? The universe needs to know about this to bring down the Alliance? The psychic girl with the stunning combat skills is somehow the key to all this? Hmmm… actually, turns out she’s not, and turns out the whole story resolution is nothing but a bit of shooting and hitting “Ravers” (“Crazies” they were called in other movies) in the face. I somehow assume that there are connotations to all this that I did not get, that this may be another case of a film that pretends to be dumb, but has a sutext that you can appreciate.

However, despite my good intentions this subtext did not reveal itself, so in the end what I saw was a slightly dumb space opera, patched together by somebody who has seen it all, and who could not afford better cgi than the average network tv show.

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

It is hard to learn about the sheer existence of “Battleship” and not learn that it has built up the reputation of being among the worst films you will see this year at the same time. And it’s true, what can you expect of a film “presented by Hasbro”, making it a film version of a game that had its heydays in lazy afternoon school classes, and all the high-tech factor of two pieces of paper and two pencils. The fact that there is actually a board game Hasbro certainly charges money for is ridiculous enough and somehow defies the charm of the original concept. Now a high-budget high-tech high-concept Alien Invasion movie… what good can that bring?

Honestly? I was entertained! It ain’t no “Battleship Potemkin”, in case you got confused, but it ain’t no “Battle: Los Angeles”, either. It does not have the chops and humour of “Independence Day”, but it has all the hardware, patriotic nonsense and Rihanna in place that makes that kind of film work and often pleasant to watch. Of course when Liam Neeson is involved these days, this will not be a subtle reflection about humanity’s fight for survival, but how often do you see a large naval vessel have an acceleration like a Porsche, and can do power slides like a snowboarder? It’s not real? Duh…

There is even a positive message in “Battleship”: future alien invadors will jump-rope into our cities and despite their superior technology, ability for interstellar travel and Transformer-like battleship machinery, try to conquer the world in mano-a-mano combat. That will take a while, so no need to panic, unless you are located on Hawaii, where you will get smashed by goofy wheels of fire. Mankind, you stand a chance against these slightly disorganised “super carrots”.

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

A bunch of teenagers takes a weekend off in a remote cottage, with plans to indulge in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Upon arrival, they start dying. Hardly ever has a film taken the premise of the teenage slasher flick so bluntly and straightforwardly, making sure that halfway through the 90 minutes running time, the game is up. But wait… there are oddities about “The Cabin in the Woods” which you can initially ignore – the audience is given no information on the context of the opening sequence where some cynical lab workers are preparing for a project run (the always fabulous Richard Jenkins and the always smart-talking Bradley Widford, who basically plays his role of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman again, just in a different office, you could call it Black House Chief of Staff…). You could be inclined to ignore this bit, but there are recurring sequences where it becomes clear that the teenagers are somehow the project, and the cabin they are about to visit the set of an elaborate show that is put on. “Truman Show XXX”? Or “House on the Lake Big Brother Edition”? Well, something like that, only with a purpose.

That purpose might be a tad convoluted, but it allows for two nice  parallel strands of narration, where clearly the one taking place in the project control office is better written, more witty, because more over-the-top and with better actors. But the authors are well aware of the clichees they are serving, and the unavoidable “We should stay together” idea the kids develops is immediately countered by the masters’ annoyance, initiating  appropriate countermeasures. These are the authors of a horror flick script that have to make sure the group is split up to be able to deal with them the way they need to deal with them – and they are in a better position than the average “Scream”-like author, because they have safeguards in place, they know their genre…

“The Cabin in the Woods” is fun to watch for anybody who has had his dose of horror films and is sufficiently overdosed by them. It knows all the conventions and pitfalls of the genre and does its best to make them the topic of the film, taking no prisoners in finding diversions and … let’s say “Deus Ex Machina” solutions, even though Deus is not involved, it seems. Not always in the most brilliant fashion, but always with a twinkling eye telling you “Seriously, you are scared of slasher zombie movies? Seriously? You should know better!”

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

I watched “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia” quite a while ago, and then did not write anything about it, because I did not know what to write. This happens sometimes with bad movies, where all that comes to mind is on level with the produce that has just been consumed, “crap”, or “brainless” are sometimes the only words can can summarise the experience, and that’s all that is necessary.

“Once Upon A Time in Anatolia” is different, because it is an outstanding film. But given the fact that hardly anything happens in it, and that it is not happening for about two and a half hours, left me a bit lost for words. Of course the best ever “En Attendant Godot” review comes to mind: “Nothing happens. Twice.”, but it has been taken already, plus here in “Anatolia”, “twice” would be inaccurate. What does happen is that a bunch of people try to find the body of a murder victim, but the murderer has been a bit drunk when doing the deed, and is not perfectly sure about which solitary tree on which empty field next to which well he chose to dig a hole under and hide the body. Hence a lengthy road movie through the Anatolian hills commences, interrupted by stops to check whether it’s this tree and this field, to spend a night at a friendly village, or to have a smoke and a pee. That’s about it.

You will realise you cannot access the film after about 10 minutes. Then you are either in or out. If you stay in, the movie meserises you with its long shots of the Anatolian hills, interrupted only by the small lights of the police vehicles trying to find the needle in the haystack. It also mesmerises you with the courage to chose silence as the dominant soundtrack, which is such a pleasant change to the overwhelming noise patterns of modern films that it should be granted all awards for “best soundtrack” just to spite Hans Zimmer and teach him a lesson. The dialogues between the police officers, the doctor, the murder suspect and the village folks are wonderful in their lack of pretentiousness, these are just some mostly nice people stuck together on an involuntary road trip, they are no philosophers, just a bunch of tired men (and occasional pretty girl). Some mysteries unfold over the course of the dialogues, such as the case of the woman who predicted her won death, or the specifics of the murder they are trying to solve, but each sentence has its own right in being just casual conversation, there is no need for drama or spectacle. Still, everybody learns something about themselves, their life’s challenges, their perpectives, their guilt. Nobody learns what to change about it, but that’s maybe just the way life is…

Does that sound as if it is the one film you must see if you only see one film this year? Hard to believe, but that’s exactly what it is.

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

It was a good idea (actually, it was not an idea, it just happened…) to watch Promotheus after all the hype had abated. When sitting down in the cinema, I felt pleasantly free of all the expectations that burdened the film as the missing link between… let’s say “2001 – A Space Odyssee” and the “Alien” franchise, the ultimate vision of Ridley Scott, that ultimate visionary. I could sit down and see a move that started at the beginning and ended some two hours later, and I think my viewing experience benefited from this.

What I got to see was a film with stunning visuals, with an opening sequence of outstanding natural beauty, and quite a gripping story to follow. The three key points you could read about are true: 1) it looks beautiful from beginning to end, and honourable mention to the 3D use, which was harmonious and used subtle light compensation to accommodate for the 3D-induced light loss in the darker sequences, 2) Michael Fassbender confirms his status as one of the best screen presences there are today, and I would marry him if I could, 3) the script could have done with a bit more non-Hollywood liberties.

On the latter: I was surprised to feel disappointment creeping up in me as soon as the story picked up the “Alien” thread. When that happens, the film has already established a life and universe in its own rights, and playing to the fan base that was expecting (and was led to expect, by the early production history) to see “Alien – The Beginning” took away quite some momentum. It took away the possibility to further follow the actual theme of the film, which is the creation of mankind, and why would anybody want to do such a thing. Alien shananigans were not necessary for this, and only dampened my enthusiasm for what could otherwise have become a very profound and spectacular Science Fiction classic.

As it is, it is a visual spectacle with mostly very convincing actors (I did not care too much for Noomi Rapace as the female lead, though, she felt a bit arbitrary in what she was doing, probably a script thing), and a couple of sequels in the waiting. Fine with me, but I cannot help but mourn the fact that it could have been so much more.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/prometheus_2012/

I had not seen “Wild at Heart” in many years, and what a pleasant surprise it was to re-visit it! Absurd theatre at its best, dark and violent comedy, with camp performances by Nicholas Cage, Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe! Scene upon scene, I came upon classics, scenes I thought at the time I would never forget (special mention: Bobby Peru’s exit …). It is maybe the hardest thing to combine all these elements of drama, craziness, eternal love, Elvis Presley, murder, rape and snakeskin jackets into something that is compelling and fun to watch, but David Lynch establishes here that after his “Blue Velvet” kind-of-mainstream success and the deconstruction of serialized tv as we know it, he was here to stay as the grotesque conscience of audiovisual art. You can watch this in the cinema, on your home screen or on the wall of a modern art museum, and it has its right place wherever you are. Need to see “Blue Velvet” again, and soon! Favourite scene: Bobby Peru’s dialogue with Lula in her hotel room. I know, I have a weird taste.

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

Great post at 3guys3movies, made me think about which tv shows I was not only addicted to when I laid hands on them, but could imagine watching all over again at some point. The immediate candidates may sound a bit conservative, but I cannot remember having been as enthused about anything on tv before or after.

Masterpieces:

  • The Wire
  • Sopranos
  • And Tony Soprano’s evil twin at Deadwood (I still cannot get over the fact that a tv company is unable to finish this amazing show, co*%su@#ers!)
  • Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (technically a tv show, even though it was screened in cinemas internationally … I spent some nice seven hours in a row in a run-down arthouse theatre… time of my life!)
  • The Killing (Forbrydelsen, Danish original): wow, fantastic, and the Danish original is so much better than the US remake
  • The Thick of It: Malcolm Tucker is the most fun tv character I can remember, seriously!
  • Twin Peaks: just watching it again, oh I love David Lynch for what he is doing to network tv here!
  • Life on Mars (UK version, of course, should anybody wonder)
  • Kir Royal: no that’s a German Special.. I have no idea whether it makes sense outside Germany, but it is the greatest thing I have ever seen coming out of German tv. A short series about the life of a Munich gossip columnisthttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kir_Royal_%E2%80%93_Aus_dem_Leben_eines_Klatschreporters; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090465

Flawed Masterpieces:

  • Battlestar Galactica (even though it has its periods where it loses track of its goal, but recovered quite well)
  • West Wing (half of the show is outstanding, even though it might have run a bit too long, and suffered from staff changes)
  • Lost: yes, sure, all what’s wrong has been discussed, I still loved 90 out of the total 100 episodes
  • South Park: just watch all episodes again on their website, and agree that this is not a tv show, but it is a cultural phenomenon without equal. And fun!
  • 24: give them the honour – this was a great format, and great cast. Maybe two seasons too many, of course.

Honourable Mention:

  • Let’s not forget the first season of “Heroes”, which after many years of annoyed absence brought me back into checking out tv shows. TV can be that well written and produced?
  • Dexter also reshuffled the tv show deck of cards quite a bit, and even though I felt a bit annoyed around … cannot remember, was it Season 3? … I am now on it again with old vigour.
  • Jericho: the uncompleted masterpiece, could have become a classic

Too early to tell:

  • Newsroom
  • Breaking Bad: I very much enjoy it at the moment, not sure whether I will go back to it in some years’ time, though
  • Boardwalk Empire: but let’s see where this goes…

I remember I made some notes on the phenomenon of tv shows when realising that I, well, started to like them…

https://thomas4cinema.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/tv-shows-and-other-reflections/

https://thomas4cinema.wordpress.com/2008/03/13/disoriented-tv-shows/

All the TV notes I took can be found here

I have no idea whether this 10-part tv show is or will ever be available internationally, but it is certainly the best I have seen come out of German tv studios in a long time. Unsurprisingly (given Dominik Graf’s long history in entertaining AND ambitious movie making), it works best when seen in one go, it looks and feels very cinematic, and mostly ignores the conventions of tv productions: harmlessness, low production values, isolated one-episode plot developments. This is great cinema made for tv (for arte tv, primarily, which confirms that despite all its flaws, this French-German channel still is the heart of European quality production). And I do believe it is a show that could work on international markets: a team of cops investigating the Berlin mafia, which is run by an Eastern European mob, Vietnamese cigarette dealers and slimy German business men. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, murder, but also serious attention to the parallel societies that exist in modern Germany, with traditions and expectations that not only pose a challenge for politicians calling for better migrant integration, but also for the families themselves that feel all the rifts domestically, between their own generations. It is violent and funny, thrilling and authentic. Fantastic show!

http://www.daserste.de/unterhaltung/film/im-angesicht-des-verbrechens/index.html

http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/kino/dominik-graf-zum-sechzigsten-des-kinos-bester-liebhaber-11880068.html

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Im_Angesicht_des_Verbrechens

After the great Danish show “The Killing”, eager to check out more from this kind of surprising newcomer in producing internationally renowned tv shows (and movies, of course, but that history is already quite long), I stumbled across “Borgen”. Originally I was thinking that it would be another crime show, and was confused when after one or two episodes, there still was no assassination attempt on the newly elected Danish Prime Minister (just Birgitte, seems the Danish all call each other by first names), but she was instead struggling to balance her family life with the requirements of office.

This show is ideally seen back to back with “West Wing”: you cannot have a clearer view on the differences between running the same office in a very large and powerful versus in a very small and, let’s say socially ambitious country. Everything that is pretentious and loud in the West Wing (tv show or real life alike) is humble, silent and hands-on in the castle that hosts the Danish government. Governing Denmark is thwarted by lack of babysitters, by dissatisfaction of husbands, as much as by cunning coalition partners, inept ministers, media corporations with an agenda and international crises. You do have the characters similar to the brains of West Wing here, but they are not primarily running their mouths. As much as I enjoyed the over-writing of the Aaron Sorkin characters, I did also enjoy the frequent stunned silence of the Copenhagen staff when there was nothing left to say and no visible way out of the malaise.

Very very good tv, two seasons aired, a third in preparation, to which I very much look forward!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borgen_(TV_series)

Reviews:

http://joehubris.com/node/72

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8998115/Borgen-BBC-Four-review.html

I was very embarrassed to realize that the latest Sight & Sound list of the films perceived by film critics “the best of all times” includes quite a bunch that I not only have not seen, but wanted to see for a long time. Fight procrastination, get the DVDs! And for some rather inexplicable reason, I chose “La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc” as a starting point (might have to do with me starting that project at 3 in the morning, and my assumption was that “Man with a movie camera” would be less … shall we say “entertaining”).

It is an impressive movie on many levels: technically, the Criterion Collection’s transfer has resulted in astounding clarity and harmony of the image. The black and white is neither rough nor overtly contrasted (as I have experienced with previous silent movie re-masterings), it supports the clarity and purity of the sets (the court at Rouen, I believe) and the incredible faces cast for the judges and trial audience in a perfect way. The film’s design is somehow cold, with oppressive white walls and sharp-edged archways. The camera does all kind of things to support the irritation and confusion Jeanne experiences, it flips over, gets close, shoots upwards, alternating between long still shots of Jeanne’s face and the often frantic events surrounding her. Now as for this face itself: I find her to be stunningly beautiful, with her short hair and pure face, slightly over-the-top dreaminess in her expression, often silent observation of the procedures that will lead to her death. From what I know about the historical “facts”, I have the impression that Dreyer very consciously decided not to represent her argumentative and intellectual side too overtly (seems she was quite the counterpart at her trial), but rather to stick with the core of the matter: that the church has decided to kill the one person who seems to have direct access to God’s own thoughts and plans. That let her, how to say, confounded and confused, and to show these emotions, words are not needed. You need a face that can show suffering and innocence, a strong conviction about her beliefs (to the degree if stubbornness, no doubt) and the ability to overcome simple incentives for a cheap way out of her malaise. Ms Falconetti plays this wonderfully, and while there may be two or three cuts to her listening face too many all in all, the holds the film together by being the silent and immobile victim at its center. Nothing is overplayed in the way that we today often associate with the silent movie era, the stage-like excessive expressions are absent, this is a subtle film that also, I think, does not set out to glorify Jeanne d’Arc. Based on the trial transcripts, it shows what seems to have happened: the church decided that a heretic must die, and at the end of the day found an easy victim, because this victim was more afraid of betraying her God than of dying.

I am very happy I finally caught up with this film, and don’t mind that it has been now rather than 20 years ago, after I have seen so many less modern and intensive movies that all were produced at least half a century after “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc”. This film’s beauty stands on its own feet, but its cinematographic power and impact can only be realized from today’s perspective.

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

Firstly: this documentary about a Tokyo sushi chef is beautifully shot! With great care, the beauty of food and kitchens is the aesthetic heart of “Jiro dreams of Sushi”. Scenes about the preparation of the rice-fish combo alternate with interviews of the key personnel: Jiro the 85 year old master of sushi, whose 12-seat restaurant is legendary, and who still has the ambition to think about nothing but how to improve the next day’s menu over today’s. His elder son, caught in a Prince-Charles-like cul-de-sac of life, doomed to be the eternal apprentice, as his father is still of good health and also the star and face of the establishment. The younger son, who broke out, we come to believe, and is quite relieved that he could open his own restaurant, even though he is losing out on the fame of the original place (and the possibility to set the starting price for a meal of upwards of 300 Euros).

It will not have been fun to grow up as the son of Jiro, he is driven by everything that has to do with his business, by atavistic values about how to treat family members, he has been shaped by a fate that set him alone on the street at the age of nine, struggling for survival, climbing up the social and economic ladder one step at a time. He is not a bad or bitter guy, he is quite pleasant in his demeanor, and talks warmly about the fact that he has to do what he has to do to maximize the perspectives of his children.

This makes for an interesting mix of a film: partly it looks like the (well-shot) official advertising clip for the restaurant, partly it appears to a Western audience as a heart-breaking look into the rifts of Asian cultures, balancing between tradition and modern times. It is also populated by odd characters on the supplier side: the fish dealer who says if he cannot buy the one best tuna he picked for the day, that day there just will not be tuna. The rice dealer who insists that the Hyatt Hotel will not be granted the honour of using his rice, as they just do not have anybody who would be able to cook it properly. And the octopus who enjoys a 45 minute massage before being cooked and eaten by Jiro-San’s patrons.

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

“Avengers” got a surprising load of good reviews, so I caved in the end and convinced myself to gave yet another superhero film a chance. And in the end, I admit that I would have rather seen “Avengers” than any of the movies that fed into it. “Hulk”, “Thor”, “Iron Man”… all showed that the big misunderstanding has been that they could carry a whole movie – and that has only been true (IMHO) for the first Iron Man, if at all. But throwing them together into a big camp melange reduces the pressure on either of these guys, gals and ghouls (such as the impossibly dull Captain America) to carry a movie. So the authors could find some nice lines for Robert Downey Jr and could stop before he gets annoying again. They could sketch the cuter side of Mark Ruffalo, and keep it at that.

Actually, Hulk is quite entertaining this time, with a sense of humour and some very relaxed smashing. On the receiving end is a Michael Sheen who seems to enjoy his new role as perennial dork alien creature,  Thor brother Loki in this case, and on the governing end Samuel Jackson does the Samuel Jackson thing. Hence: no need to complain, only that it should have been the only film about those Marvel characters, not 27th – I am already so annoyed by the pile of uninspired nonsense thrown at the audiences that even a slightly better film such as Avengers cannot really console me.

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

What to say: I expected the film to be less entertaining than it actually was. It is somehow weird to see aged Will Smith fall back into his boyish role, which does not really fit his slightly more bulky and mature physique, but his face does the Will Smith thing and that can still create some good laughs (such as when Will Smith tries to explain that the fact a black man in 1969 is riding a fancy convertible does not mean he necessarily has stolen it, even though he has stolen this one…). Upon travelling back in time in order to avoid bothering Tommy Lee Jones with too much screen time, he meets Josh Brolin’s young K, who seemingly studied a lot of Jones’ movies. His gesture and composure are a really good reminder of the elderly gentleman he stands in for, and Brolin is eminently watchable anyway. There are not too many alien cgi creature experiments, but those that there are are solid fun. Next time Christopher Nolan wants to come up with a rather normal-looking, while convincing villain, he should have a close look at how Boris The Animal (“Just Boris!”) has been designed to have his human appearance meet some less human character treats. Of course this is no masterpiece, especially the last act falls a bit flat with a showdown reminding me of some dozen James Bond finales that I did not really cared for to begin with. Still, solid airport waiting lounge entertainment…

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

A pleasant and (given the topic it’s worth mentioning) harmless light comedy about the invention of the vibrator. A young doctor (played by a handsome Hugh Dancy, who smiles like a younger version of Michael Sheen) gets involved with a practitioner specialized in treating women diagnosed with hysteria – and whoever watched the film about Dr. Kellogg’s first business model will know what that means. Of course provoking dozens of “hysterical paroxysms” every day takes its toll, and the need for a less exhausting, i.e. less manual cure emerges. All this plays with a background of women’s lib movement, and of course there are various love interests, tribes and tribulations spread across the plot.

It’s kind of fun to watch the row of hysterical (i.e. sexually undernourished) women walking (or spreading, ahem) through the doctor’s office in search of relieve, and the doctor’s friend who is an ingenious electrical engineer also is nice to watch. The star is the old doctor’s elder daughter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, by far the most impressive cast member in the film (not by name, by actual performance), a warrior for the rights of the disenfranchised, women’s voting, and she has a decent right swing, too. In the end, the film is too PG12 to be of real interest, as all the edge is washed away, but still nice entertainment on a long-distance flight.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/771252678/

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