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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Identified a pattern here: mother issues I already found in my previous Korean film marathon. Now I feel there are police issues as well. Issues with police officers closing their eyes when faced with family atrocities (“Bedevilled”) and officers prone to beating and abusing suspects and prisoners (basically all the films I’ve recently seen, particularly disturbing maybe in “Mother”, or in “3-Iron”).

So when these issues meet “Bedevilled”’s topic (family violence, if you want), it is not surprising that things get a bit out of hand, i.e. violent, which again seems to be the overall topics of at least the Korean films I come across (or I need to check my selection procedure, might be it says more about me than about Korea).

Here we have a particularly pretty city girl visiting her particularly sad childhood girlfriend, who is stuck on a remote island with an abusive husband and a bunch of senior citizens that would give Macbeth’s witches a run for their money.

Emotional discrepancies, betrayed childhood memories, moronic brothers… through that into the mix with the above-mentioned features of any good Korean movie character, and you can guess this ain’t gonna end well for some, worse for others.

While “Bedevilled” may not have the most original script in how it makes the drama evolve, it is yet another piece of evidence that Korean cinema is very authoritative when it comes to depicting people pushed to the edge and beyond. Maybe there’s no need to watch too many of these, but catching up once every decade is definitely worth it. There is an abundance of competent directors, actors and screenwriters that can at any time pull off an entertaining night drenched in blood.

What’s to be said? Solid. Could have been worse. No surprises, but – in the words of The Wittertainer – all good-looking and well-dressed, which seems to be the specialty (if one may deduce this) of Thron Legacy director Joseph Kosinski (“Thron” was so generically inoffensive that I even forgot to write about it on the blog, I just realise…). It is the sport of the week to count the references (politely expressed) to other, usually greater, cinematic achievements. It is kind of easy, because Oblivion covers them all. That does not really matter, because these days, it seems it takes quite a touch of genius to add something new to the genre (even the well-loved “Moon” was not exactly original in terms of plot, only better compiled than most).

So this film lives off its production design (quite clean, given the post-apocalyptic circumstances. Surprisingly, the film was not shot in 3D, so the white was actually white rather than grey, that’s another bonus point), the performances of one or two side characters (beloved Melissa Leo, Andrea Riseborough with her cute accent and some mean little drones – oh and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau grew a new hand since Sunday!). The film plays out the way it has to, and it plays it… well, solid.

I have not read up on the production history, just found it initially somehow odd that “Lore” is an Australian-produced film directed by Aussie Cate Shortland, while looking like as German a film as you can get (I can only assume it has to do with grant schemes, tax loopholes and the like). Maybe even more so as the film takes the well-told story of the Allied forces closing in on Berlin from all sides, pushing back the German army, stirring hope in some of the citizens whose path they cross and fear, sometimes terror, in others. The end of World War II was a time of collapse and confusion in Germany, and “Lore” is very good at showing what this means in practice: not knowing where to go and how to get there, not knowing whether the next person you meet will feed, shelter, rape or kill you.

The titular girl does not only need to worry about her own fate, but having been abandoned by her parents and left with her siblings to take care of, she needs to pretend to be grown up enough to protect those little ones, as well. She is not a heroine, she is confused and frightened, she has no way of judging the intentions of the people around her, especially not as she has spent her life in a devoted Nazi family, and finds it hard to match the lessons her parents had taught her with the reality she is now thrown into on her quest to find the shelter of her grandmother’s home at the other end of the disintegrating country.

This quest is told in a dramatic, emotional, cruel, but almost always straightforward fashion, in a very (for lack of a better word) pleasant way the film does not (for lack of yet another better word) cinematize (i.e. over-dramatize) events. Stuff happens, people die, and you move on, because you have to. This is maybe the strength of the film and the key to its international success: that it maintains a casual position of observation, that it does not want to bring out the strings and trumpets to tell you when we are experiencing a sad or dramatic moment. Those many people lost in their previously own, now occupied country, with order breaking down and truths being turned on their heads, probably felt nothing more than lost and sad. And this maybe explains why bringing in a non-German filmmaker was a very good idea: she manages to assess the lives of these people with a fresh view, probably less burdened by the hundreds and thousands of hours of movie and tv footage on the topic the average German has been exposed to over time.

Richard Linklater is a director whom I find interesting rather than exciting. Like Michael Winterbottom (whose work I prefer) or Wes Anderson (whose in general I do not), I am usual keen on checking out his latest output, but I can never get myself  to be very enthusiastic about it. The “Sunset”/”Sunrise” trilogy (“Midnight” coming up) I liked a lot, while his recent “Me and Orson Welles” I found a bit dull and conventional in contrast. “Fast Food Nation” was enlightening, “A Scanner Darkly” visually interesting, but I could not conjure up love for any of these (exception “Before Sunset”, but that maybe had to do with me attending a premiere screening with Julie Delpy, who performed at the premiere after-party and got angry at the inattentive drinkers and chatters, well done, Mademoiselle!).

Jack Black is an actor who I shelved in my mental drawer of “Could be an extremely good actor, but why is he wasting his talent on all this nonsense ?”. I never saw a film with him that I loved, but that could not stop me believing in him, so to speak (I am sure he was grateful for my constant support through all these artistically barren, yet certainly lucrative  years…).

Matthew McGonagall (sorry, I did it again… just can’t write his name) by now has become an actor that does not deter me from watching a film. After “Killer Joe” and “Magic Mike”, I start wondering whether everything before was just a big prank, seeking to confuse critics and casting agents. He can be a great and intense actor, and he certainly has a nice Southern drawl.

Now these people of ambiguous record in my own book of appreciation come together and make… a very good film that defies categorization. It is a weird film, with a “hero” who is terribly boring and annoyingly nice in that way small-town middle-aged ladies love. Him being an undertaker with passion adds to the oddity of the film, but only slightly, as it seems to fit perfectly his calm and humble demeanor  he has the skill to soothe the mourning relatives, and he can sing like an angel at the funerals (Black’s singing and dancing in this film is nothing short of spectacular!).

Even the fact that he develops a somehow inappropriate relationship with one of the clients does not spoil his apparent integrity, they are all very nice about him courting an elderly lady (Shirley McLane) who seems to be bedded on gold and ill temper, raising only the slightest suspicion that his motives include digging that gold. The humiliation he has to endure in that relationship should, we (i.e. small-town community and myself) believe, certainly be worth a little compensation (or damages) in the end.

The trick of “Bernie” (to me) is that Bernie is presented as the utterly likable person, while at almost any moment I wanted to shout out what an annoying character he is. That works together well, especially when in a crucial twist of plot the audience is forced to decide whether to still hold Bernie’s candle even though he has done an altogether not very good thing. To me, that act humanized him to a point where I could finally really like him. At the same time, I could start despising all those fellow citizens that stubbornly claimed that either all the rumors are bogus, or that there must be an explanation, or that all these laws and regulations turning against Bernie are rubbish and should be ignored (the “Dick Cheney Negation”, you could call it, but maybe only after you’ve seen “The World According to Dick Cheney”, which I just have).

Jack Black smiles and trots through the film as if he has never been the loud and annoying comedy hardball that he was in so many roles. Low, high-pitched voice and soft, almost floating walk, trousers in general a bit too high on his bulging waistline, he makes a fascinating Bernie, in a fascinating change of style for himself.

Guardian interview with Jack Black

This was considerably more entertaining than it had any right to be! Of course you cannot go into a screening with lower expectations than those I brought to see this film (correction: If I go to see the next Transformers movie, those expectations will be rock bottom), but still. Yes, it’s too long, and yes, some of the (especially female) cast looks off. But James Franco is the accurately misplaced crook and charlatan that he needs to be, there’s some nice flying-monkey humour (not sophisticated, but funny), some standard flying ghouls, and an elaborate scheme to bring the wicked witch down.

While the effort to create links to the 1939 classic were not too subtle, either, I found myself enjoying the little details they created to make the fans of the old film happy, while never forgetting that probably a vast majority of the audience who went to the cinema to see James Franco has never seen that original one. Franco for the teenagers, the scarecrow for us old people. Jolly good entertainment all in all, with nice fireworks and some morale about sticking to your promise etc. What else do you expect? Promised and delivered by Sam Raimi, who seems to feel quite comfortable in family entertainment these days.

Did I mention I believe Koreans have mother issues? I believe Koreans have mother issues! Seeing “Pieta” (praised by Hongkong Film Festival audiences, I think awarded with director’s or script prize) just a bit after seeing “Mother”, a scheme appears. That scheme is that Korean mothers are all-embracing, absolutely without compromise when it comes to taking care of their babies. Those babies being grown-up men or toddlers doesn’t matter, they are all on when it comes to protecting them from harm (“Mother”) or avenging them (“Pieta”).

The film is about a professional thug, loan shark and sadist, who indulges in supporting his clients collect the money they owe him by helping them have accidents to collect insurance money. This is a bit hard to watch at times, but then again, if you get into Korean movies, you know what you’re in for. Somebody wrote in a review that the first hour of the movie required her to constantly look away, while the rest made her cry. I understand what she means… Our “hero” is faced with some twist of fate, in the form of a woman who decided now it’s time to make up for all the times she has neglected her son, and devotes herself to the task without compromise whatsoever. While loan-shark man starts off into this newly found family pattern with, let’s say, hesitation, he quickly realises that there have been some things about having a caring mother he actually did miss and appreciates, if not longs, to catch up on.

Now… this is not the place to spoil the fun of watching the movie by indicating how this will end, but let’s say that Korean mother-son relationships are always complicated, and that if you ever encounter a Korean mother with a plan, you better run the other way, as you never know what part in her scheme you might end up playing.

Side note: I loved the fact that the film’s title can only be properly understood after watching it, clever…

Kim Ki Duk is apparently a very prolific director, the professionalism of setting up the scene and putting the actors to task was obvious made me wonder why I have not seen any of his films since “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring”, which I absolutely loved. Seems I need to catch up on yet another gap in my Asian film knowledge…

A Look At Chinese Cinema: Too Much Capital, Too Few Quality Films.

I like Mr Ng’s comments, because he agrees with my key thesis that most of the Chinese film quality calamity comes down to the lack of an age verification system. Or in other words: the lack of willingness to treat the adult part of the audience as adults. The absence of such a system is the most powerful censorship instruments, limiting mature storytelling to the films made for the international festival markets – or not at all.

White Material

I would love to sit down with Claire Denis and ask her whether she wants her audience to like Maria Vial (Isabelle Hupppert, fabulous as ever). I hope the answer is “no”, because I thoroughly despised her.

My reading: Maria has plenty of guts but is completely devoid of brains upon deciding whether to abandon her coffee plantation when the civil war rebels in an unnamed African state are approaching. She is closing her eyes to the atrocities happening around her, pretending that she is basically a local and nothing can happen to her (ignoring the fate of the locals getting mutilated and killed all around her). She is, in this attitude, maybe the prototypical white settler in black Africa of the colonial/pot-colonial transition period, she is able to lie to herself to a degree that is astonishing, and whatever ill fate will come upon her and her family (by the way: if anyone ever wondered whether Christopher Lambert made another movie after Highlander – here comes the answer) she will blame it on somebody, to be sure, but she will not be able to understand that the only person to blame is herself. She does not understand that she is sacrificing her family and employees for the sake of some stolen property garnished with some principles. Almost everybody in this film is right, only she keeps being ignorant and wrong.

Alternative reading: a woman with big heart and love for the country she lives in and where her son was born is not afraid of the political turmoil, but firmly stands her ground, unwilling to leave those behind who have been entrusted upon her.

Now … whether this is a very good or an utterly ridiculous movie seems to almost completely depend on which of the narratives the author had in mind. I accept the proposition that both these readings can be part of the same story, but I had the slight feeling that I was supposed to accept the second one – which made me cringe. I hope it’s not the case, and the interpretation that Maria Vial is basically an out-of-control lunatic is not just one I am reading into it.

Independent of this, the film is very strong in depicting the stark brutality of rebels on the rampage in the African post-colonial states, taking back with force what they believe has been taken from them, in the process dehumanizing whole societies and bringing down the remaining pieces of social order and civilization their country has achieved. An unsettling movie experience, whichever way you lean in the reading of the story.

House of Cards (BBC)


No, not that NetFlix one. This one: the evil brother of “Yes, Minister!” and “Yes, Prime Minister!”, the ruthless evil uncle of “The Thick of It”. The BBC three season BBC show with a terrifying Ian Richardson at its dark heart… As Government whip and (spoiler alert… ah well …) Prime Minister, he is not stopping at anything to pursue his personal goals (he does have political opinions, I guess, but that is a side effect rather). He talks to the camera, and often reverts to Shakespearean monologues, some of which even made it into British political lingo. He is utterly quotable in any situation that requires cruelty and insult, and the only difference in that respect to Malcolm Tucker is that he maintains his temper and style, and would never insult his own and the lesser intelligence of the victim by use of crude language. What he says is “Would you like to be my slave? To put it bluntly: You have a remarkable brain, and I should like to plunder it”, or “Let’s give their mothers something to cry about, shall we?”, followed by “I think I’m ready for a bit of mischief now”.

Behind every successful politician, there is a creepy Lady Macbeth, and this Elizabeth that stands behind Francis Urquart is as LadyMacbethian as you could wish for …”break him, Francis…” is only the beginning, with her role getting stronger through the seasons, and only late will we realise what kind of lady she really is.

The stand-off with the king in Season 2 was kind of breathtaking: “Your Majesty, it is you I want to destroy, not the monarchy”, and I wonder whether ever before on British TV somebody dared take on the monarch so straight-facedly, open visor, pulled broadsword and ready to draw blood.

But – as FU mentions himself in the opening of the show – “nothing lasts forever, even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”, before he turns Margaret Thatcher’s portrait on the face and grins diabolically into the camera…

Creepy side note: MT died the day in real life when I watched her dying in the show…

Wikipedia article here

Les Revenants

Twin Peaks, The Walking Dead, anything talky from French Nouvelle Vague, Mogwai music, creepy kids movies as recently introduced in this blog, The Mist … if any of this appeals, then Les Revenants (“They Came Back”, or “Rebound”, as it will be called in UK tv), an original production of the French Canal +, is the thing to see. The eight-episode season 1 opens with the accident of a school bus, killing all or several of the children. And then we are dropped into the actual story, with teenager Camille coming home and scaring the living daylights out of her family.

I hesitate to give away the core premise of the show, as it is only divulged over the first couple of episodes, and it’s fun to go along with the cleverly constructed script, and allow oneself to accept the reality of the small French town with the same speed that town’s inhabitants do. I would recommend to read as little as possible about it before watching. What can be said is that the writers deal quite excellently with taking quite an extraordinary exposition and throwing it into normality. Must be my fable for Stephen King, who is the master at confronting small-town normality with completely-and-utterly-not-normal disturbances. Les Revenants does that with the help of stylish production design, stunning location, great actors and disturbing soundtrack.

I am not quite sure I like the information that there will be a second season. Almost all the way to the end, I was convinced that there is a way of dealing with the story in a satisfyingly abstract and open fashion (that’s where the Twin Peaks reference comes back…). They chose otherwise, let’s see how they live up to the challenge. In any case, this first season was a great example of very French tv at its best, something that admittedly I have not seen in a very long time.

Revenants Soundtrack by Mogwai

Spoiler alert: Wikipedia for (too much) background

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