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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Richard Gere can certainly carry any kind of film. He has the looks, the cool, the seniority, to be placed in the heart of a story and wait for it to unfold around him. He does this here, only that he also becomes the victim, his slightly dodgy business practices – while being well-intended (it’s Richard Gere, after all!) – and his not always perfectly correct private endeavors at some point come together, and unravel his world. He has to deal with the fact that even he, the infallible juggler of Wall Street and Main Street, is a mere mortal, and that making mistakes is a reality even for him.

I lived off Richard Gere’s blood in this film, trying hard to ignore the not very interesting cascade of business domino stones falling over, and trying very hard to ignore the even less interesting private shananigans that drive the drama. To be perfectly honest, I struggled a bit with the way he was positioned here, though: While he may look like the perfect entrepreneur and perfect family performer, it all plays too well into the Gere-cliches. I was waiting for surprises that derail the film from its straightforward track, but there were none to be found. While looking slick and being played with confidence on part of everybody involved (Susan Sarandon does what she needs to do, and I am glad to see Tim Roth again after a while), what pretends to be a thriller of sorts did not feel like one.

Joe Dante… sometimes you wonder where all these legendary filmmakers of times past end up, what they do twenty, thirty years after rising to fame (Piranha, Howling, Twilight Zone, Gremlins… what a run between 1978 and mid-eighties!). In a recent interview with him, I learned what he was doing the last three years, at least: waiting for his film to be released. Seems that with they were shooting in authentic 3D, waited for more cinemas to be able to present it properly, and then were overtaken by a deluge of retrofitted 3D Summer blockbusters that occupied all the screens. Finally, last year in the UK, and recently in the US, they managed a limited  release, but apparently with a pretty disheartened distributor. What else could explain that this film is not the kids Summer hit of the year? It has all in it: ghosts and ghouls, clowns and comedy, young love and young adventure. The motives are classic: haunted house (maybe), evil forces (definitely), late revenge, ignorant adults and brave kids. What’s not to like? One way of assessing it is as a film that is brave enough to old-fashioned, and maybe that’s what broke its neck at the box office? The recent efforts in old-fashioned’ness did not pay off too well (I remember being very underwhelmed by “Super 8” myself). I hope this one has a long life on the DVD shelves of modern kids, it does not look as if it would look outdated very soon, it may have the Poltergeist spirit in it.

I remember having read some reviews about this film that were surprisingly positive. Surprisingly because I would not expect anything from a film about a US president involved in part-time vampire hunting (or getting hunted). This sounds like “League of Honourable Gentlemen” and “Van Helsing” – and these are terrible things to be reminded of. Turns out, “Abraham Lincoln” is just as bad. There is no reason why it should happen to be Abraham Lincoln to have this ill encounter with the vampire world other than it would be a most ridiculous idea – but other than giving him a clever idea how to end the civil war towards the end of the movie, it is irrelevant. Also irrelevant is everything else, the side characters, Lincoln’s main adversary, the slavery issue.

The only thing the film does is to run from one cgi-axe-slinging, cgi-blood-spurting, cgi-vampire-face hissing fight into the next. And the cgi is the worst I have seen since… does the Tic Toc Toe game in “War Games” qualify? Whatever drove anybody to make this, this person has a very different taste, mindset and expectations about entertainment than I have…

This film is a star vehicle if there ever was one. Or is it? I am merely wondering whether Woody Harrelson is a “star” in the way movies define them? He seems to me to be outside the star system in a pleasant way. He has featured in a great number of great movies, has almost always played a crucial role, if not the lead. He has a recognisable and watchable face and physique, and he oozes this atmopshere of brooding easily turned into peril whenever the wrong person says the wrong words. But naming the 10 greatest movie stars of the past two decades, would there be many who would remember to mention him? I would, but then again, maybe I am … you know …

Seems to me director Oren Moverman (whose 2009 “The Messenger” I really have to catch up with, got that on my list for three years now) wanted to make a film about this Harrelson phenomenon, rather than about a crooked cop. It can be argued that the crooked cop genre has been terminated by Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” anyway, so there is no point in replicating it and asking another actor to fill Harvey Keitel’s shoes. At face value, it is a similar film: the over-the-top performance and stylization of Keitel’s earlier character is mellowed down in this more verite-style (and more American) film. There is only one centerpiece (despite some impressive support casting, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Robin Wright and Ned Beatty…), and that is Harrelson, who has the role tailor-made to his filmography and face. This is an ageing face, one that seems to indicate that the person wearing it actually has been through a lot, and might look like the face of Peter Mullan in “Tyrannosaur” very soon.

“Rampart” works excellent as a study of this ageing man who realizes that his ways may not be the ways he wants to carry on until a lonely and angry death, maybe it’s a morality tale, maybe a Bildungsroman-style exploration of a crucial conjunction in a man’s life. What it definitely is is an intimate and very well-directed, atmospheric genre piece, giving Woody Harrelson the platform he deserves, and maybe finally elevating him into people’s consciousness for good.

It’s that time of the year… the time when the good autumn movies are still circulating among the festivals, and the bad summer movies are coming out on DVD in a big deluge of mediocrity, Ice Age 4 belongs, unsurprisingly, into the latter category. However: it is a big step up from the previous on, which really almost bored me senseless. Ice Age 4 has problems with some characters, especially with the new female tiger introduced as she would become a new centerpiece of the Ice Age franchise, only to forget about her along the way, and place her back into the plot just in time so she can pop up in “Ice Age 5: We are still here”. “Ice Age 4” has some stunning visuals, is very dynamic and is goofing about with its 3D version that was surely fun to watch in the theatre. It is also embarassed about its past, mentioning the dinosaur nonsense of the fourth part in a dismissive way. At the core, however, it’s empty. Its key characters are frankly boring (and always have been), and the villain is but a cheap rip-off from the jungle book. So, 90 minutes of casual enterainment, to be forgotten long before the next ice age comes around.

Watching Wes Anderson’s films to me is always a bit hit-and-miss. I remember that I liked Rushmore, even though I have no recollection about the film whatsoever; The Royal Tenenbaum’s I found to be over-styled and under-written; in Darjeeling Limited I liked the setting and the atmosphere, but again, have no memory of what was going on. Mr Fox looks like a nice experiment in adult animated film-making, but it drags along, and the voice acting felt somehow too melancholic and mellow, with too much chattering and not enough dynamics, I think the whole experiment was “slightly boring, in kind of a fun way”.

Now Moonrise Kingdom starts in a way that made me think “here we go, that’s how you start a story”. I watched the first minutes and was completely glued! Surreal images of family live, a set design that bounces off the walls of Clockwork Orange and Twilight Zone (mostly leaning toward the latter), immediately establishing the weirdness of the characters we are about to meet. At the film’s center are two almost non-annoying kids, a boy scout nerd and a girl that hates her family conformity. These two have good chemistry, and the comedic love-drama that evolves is sparkled with great casting choices (Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, to name the more famous ones), and also with the courage to be silly, to inject slapstick, innocent eroticism, adventure and violence, where necessary. I did not manage to keep up my attention for the full 90 minutes, there were some passages where I felt a bit let down, most notably after the opening sequence, when there was a threat of a the film moving over into “normal” territory. But all in all, this is – after “Mr Fox” – the second example of Anderson crossing lines between children’s adventures and adult film-making, in a way that produces a family film for the slightly more curious and liberal families. This may be the niche Anderson has discovered for himself? We will see with his next projects.

One interesting aspect (if interesting only for the way my brain works): It is the first time I saw a movie with Bruce Willis and only realised upon reading the end credits that it was him.

Honestly… hm, honestly? Honestly I was bored. Actually annoyed at times, by how Fellini performs his opera of self-indulgence in this film about a vain, virile, excessively popular and creatively challenged movie director. This is the second time in two days that I am writing about a self-reflective and self-indulging bit of film-making, where the fact that this is a movie is more important than what this movie is all about. Film people have this dangerous trap in their way: they think film is everything, everything is film, and film cures all diseases. Fellini was struggling with his fame and vanity, and he made a film about it. Maybe it is a more interesting than really good film, in the way that too deep a glance into the artist’s soul stands in the way of more general themes. In “8 ½”, the depression (or madness) of the director cannot be cured by healthy water or mud packages. Even applying generous doses of beautiful women do not mend his broken brain. He is diving ever more deeply into his paranoia and visions, where he indulges in the carnal pleasures, but is also haunted by his impotence to make this one more film, love this one woman, or be this one little boy again who so much enjoyed watching the old whore dance the rumba.

I have not seen too many Fellini films in my life, but I recall that with “E La Nave Va”, I had the same feeling of style dominating substance, of stunning images being rearranged and piled up to stress the one item of content or message the film carries. Marcello Mastroianni’s character wants to be left alone, but he could not survive being left alone, social animal that he is. That gives plenty of opportunity to show cabaret and variété, visions of harem and night shots of spectacular movie sets. It also allows to mock about the intellectuals and their topics, the actresses and their hollowness, the maidens and their grace, the movie producers and their crudeness. Thing is: While this is all well-intended, it is so self-reflective that appears a bit dated, a bit simple, even crude from today’s perspective. We know what the trouble is with “Guido” and the world he lives in after five minutes (Fellini is an excellent story-teller, after all). The rest of the two hours does not get us (or the director) any closer to a solution. If Guido is “cured” in the end, it is because he survived the depression, not because he made the right choices. He is rewarded with a nice and curious musical parade – and with being allowed to continue the way he was. In this final scene, I was also reminded of what Michael Philips recently said about Fellini films: while the films may be sooner forgotten than we would like to think today, Nino Rota’s music may well be immortal.

This film is not for the casual movie audience. I am serious – if you cannot honestly say that you saw, say, 100 films over the last year, stay away. If you thought Lars von Trier’s “5 Obstructions” was a self-indulgent drag, turn around. …  If you never had the urge to watch all of Wim Wenders’ oeuvre during one rainy weekend, don’t go there (never mind whether you actually did do this – it’s about your mental disposition, and that needs to be… leaning towards movies. I am sure there is a medical term for that state of mind, but I don’t necessarily mean it in a good way …).

This “film project” is about a movie camera, the one that was used by the Lumiere brothers to create what we call today “the birth of cinema”. Trains approaching train stations, well-clad people hanging out in public places on Sunday afternoons. All very French, obviously, and all very historically important. That’s the Lumiere’s films. The 20-odd modern directors (“auteurs” they would need to be called in this context) chosen to participate in this project were asked to create 52-second pieces with this same old camera, apparently without any limitations other than technical or formal. What’s interesting to see is that – without having counted – a majority seems to be utterly paralyzed by the task and goes the path of least resistance – that is, he (there are no women present behind the camera) makes film the topic of his mini-film. We see a lot of people filming people who are filming people. We see cinemas and film reels. We see Liam Neeson staring curiously into John Boorman’s camera while hanging out in military garment at Neil Jordan’s film set. We see cameras moving in circles around kissing couples and camera operators being attacked by rogue Egyptians disapproving of the very concept of cinema.

Even for somebody very much interested in cinema and film history, this would be a drag, were it not for the frequent look behind the camera (which, in turn, often films scenes taking place behind cameras, are you following). The paralysis about the topic is reflected in the paralysis of the directors asked to explain why they are contributing to this project, and why they make films in the first place. Not a single one has an interesting answer, but some are at least frank about it, stating that this question best deserves a long stretch of silence as response, or that it’s still better than suicide (or starvation? I could not quite interpret the answer of the one French guy). Some other French person starts talking as if he is part of his own French film about French intellectuals sitting around and talking about the philosophy of film. Whatever happens, the segments are short, so even the New French cinema auteur will be fading out in 30 seconds. Oh, and Greenaway takes the opportunity to declare the cinema deceased, as he does whenever asked about it.

Speaking of French guys: it seems the project initiators had some trouble finding non-French directors (or it was cheaper to get those together on one bus), and the US cinema is represented I think exclusively by directors who happen to live in New York (that would be Jerry Schatzberg and Spike Lee, seems Martin Scorsese, the doyen of film history and conservation, was out of office that morning). So you see about a dozen shorts shot in Paris, with the rest covering a bit of Europe (Wim Wenders shines a light on his own past with a scene from “Der Himmel ueber Berlin” – apparently he does agree with the rest of the world that he never quite managed to make an interesting film after that), and some decorative exoticism by some episodes set in Burkina Faso or China. Zhang Yimou probably would say in interviews that he tried to contrast the old and the new China in his segment set on the Great Wall. It is a tad silly, actually. And no journalist will ever ask him that, anyway.

Maybe its significant that Kourastami and Lynch are the two people who come in with a cinematic vision. Kourastami, the not yet self-indulging secret ruler of America’s arthouse cinema,  is maybe the only one with an idea of what to do with this camera, he figures out how you can make beautiful images not despite, but through the equipment’s limitations. David Lynch is… well, very David Lynch and has fun, which we share. Angelopoulos is ambitious and films the Odyssey. Burkina Faso’s contribution shows that these guys have humour and that you would not want to work there.

Is this fun to watch? As a matter of fact, I did enjoy it. I enjoyed some of the short films, I enjoyed some of the directors making fools out of themselves by trying to interpret their cinematic mission, vision and religion. I also enjoyed some of the “making of” footage that is mostly very cleverly edited into the sequence of short films. What I enjoyed most was maybe the sheer fact that this project celebrates the art of film-making, and whoever does that is my friend, even if he only manages a shot of a fast food restaurant next to a church.

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