Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: May 2013

“The Hunt” will not get “Feelgood Movie of the Year” on the poster, that’s a fact. All other praise it will hopefully get, and well deserved it will be. Occasionally you read reviews starting with “Hardly ever do you see a film that…”, and now I realise why that is, because during and after watching “The Hunt”, I kept thinking “wow, that’s special, hardly ever have I seen a film that …”. That was brilliantly acted, even and especially in the children’s roles. That was cringe-inducingly written, merciless almost to the point where I wanted to stop watching and have three beers instead, but then, just at the right moment, provided some form of salvation, while being aware that salvation would have been hypocritical and Hollywoodical, and made that point.  That was populated with characters whose actions I could for the most part perfectly understand, while making me thoroughly despise most of them – to the effect of making the audience realise that this may very well be exactly what you would behave like yourself, in all its despicable cruelty.

The film is about a nursery teacher (probably that profession has a different name, but he was a teacher before, so anyway) who seems to be a very nice and likable person, has good friends, slightly shattered family situation, but good looks and good character. He helps where he can and he is very good in dealing with the sometimes complicated and twisted minds of the children he is taking care of.

There is no point in trying to identify a reason why it all goes wrong, the film is exactly about there being no reason at all, and nothing he could do about it. But things do get wrong, his reputation and his life is at stake, and he does not have any means for doing anything about it. His co-star, the maybe 5-year-old Klara, is fascinating to watch in her role of being hurt and insulted, being used to grown-ups being right and having answers. She is confused and also at some point utterly helpless against the avalanche she has kicked to roll downhill. It is utterly heartbreaking to see her trying to understand her own guilt and trying to utilize the limited possibilities that she has to fix it all, only to realise that some things have their own dynamics, a terrifying way of being unstoppable.

Not the feelgood movie of the year, but the movie of the year? Mine so far!

Who does not want see a new film by Ulrich Seidl either is not interested in cinema as an art form that has unique capabilities in peeling off the layers of pretty colours coating much of our lives. Or he has never heard of Ulrich Seidl. There can’t be another reason, honestly. When seeing “Hundstage” (“Dog’s Days” years ago, I was shattered by the frankness and cruelty with which Seidl depicts his own culture, his own people. I was amazed that people are able to do that, because in modern cinema you see very little of it. He does that again in “Paradies: Liebe”, and now I think I understand why this is his perspective: he tries to like these people, despite all their flaws and seriously (seriously!) unpleasant features. Paradies: Liebe is about women traveling  to Kenya in order to get a sunburn and get laid. What they are doing is a variation on sex tourism, and here goes out the first praise to Seidl and co-writer Veronika Franz: You could make a big point about taking the sex tourism topic, objectification of the poor locals for carnal pleasure, self-deception about your motives and your inner goodness by the foreign visitors, and turning it upside down by placing not very young and not very attractive women to be the sex tourists, reversing gender cliches. They do no such thing. This is just the way it is here, and if you expect female sex tourists in Kenya to be any less questionable characters than their male beer-bellied counterparts in Thailand, then this film is very educational.

The “Liebe” in the title stems from the main character’s desire to find something more, to find the appreciation through the male hookers and gold diggers that she does not find at home in Austria anymore. Of course she knows this is all a big lie and whatever she will get, sex, affection, compliments, will only have to do with her relative wealth and her citizenship. But she, like all the others she is with, insists on lying to herself, the only difference being that she suffers more under the obvious discrepancy between her reality and her purchased dream.

Needless to say that the film is utterly without mercy when it comes to depicting the ways in which people who at home never experience the feeling of power, dominance, of being at center stage suddenly realise they can have all that for a fistful of dollars. They abuse the need of their local lovers (or sex slaves, more accurately) in painful ways, and seem to be eager to find out how far they can go in their abuse until somebody finally would break or skip.

It is not a very nice experience to be shown what kind of a messed up creature humans can be, but I love Ulrich Seidl and his films for frequently insisting that it is necessary to look into this kind of mirror.

Just the other day I heard the claim that music documentaries are really good when the audience can enjoy them even without caring for that particular type of music. 24 Hour Party People proves the point, even though it’s a faux-documentary, following the fate of  Manchester’s music scene and the iconic Factory club and factory records label. Steve Coogan plays Tony Wilson, founder or initiator of these clubs and labels, as he discovers and supports bands like Joy Division / New Order or the Happy Mondays. The former I know because their front man killed himself, their successors I know from exactly one song, the latter I never heard about. As with the rest of the music that the film features, or the lifestyle it depicts, I never cared much about.

Still, this film is fantastic. Steve Coogan makes my day almost every time I see him, certainly every time I see him in Michael Winterbottom’s productions (and I hear there is a second season of “The Trip” in the making, this will be one of my tv events of the year!). He chats with the movie audience, is very personal and close, never pretends to be likable per se, but seems to represent a very authentic crazy person dedicated to his city and that city’s music. As you would expect, this story is populated by an excess of weird people, dopeheads, “artists” (in the worst and in the best sense of the word), sex, drug and most prominently rock’n’roll (rave, sometimes, after Wilson invented it…).

Another bit of evidence that Winterbottom cannot fail me, that he is among the most interesting directors working today, and that he has an astonishing quality of output over the past decade.

With Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman, but also Arnold Schwarzenegger… Looking at the cast list suggests that somebody had the good idea to cushion Schwarzenegger’s return to the screen with a bit of talent to make sure there’s something interesting to see between Arnold embarrassing himself. But very soon you start realising that you have not seen Whitaker in a long while, that you cannot remember where you know Guzman from, and it starts to dawn on you that what may look like a great cast at first glance may actually be a desperate attempt of some guys to pay for their mortgage.

It is hard to find words to describe how utterly and thoroughly ordinary and uninteresting this film is. It has no surprises, no original moments, and when they thought they managed to come up with a cool idea they just did it two or three times. How often can you shoot somebody driving an obviously very fast car, escaping his enemies by just overtaking them or driving around them??? The effort to bribe the policeman goes wrong? Then you do it again, doubling the price. And one more time. The “super-evil drug lord”, by the way, may be the most idiotic and boring villain in movie history.

When I saw that the director’s name was Kim Jee-Woon I was reminded of an old joke among German football fans that there must be two Brazils: one where Dortmund kept buying their talented wizards, and one where Leverkusen kept buying their sluggish sloths. So this director, I think, is not from the same Korea as Kim Ki-Duk or Bong Joon-Ho or Park Chan-Wook – this one must be from a bargain bin in a parallel universe. There is no drama, there is no tension, there is only the crudest sense of humour (that’s even a big word for it), there is no timing, but there is an abundance of strange out-of-place stuff (most oddly an old woman who shows up from nowhere to shoot somebody in the head).

As I grew up on dubbed versions of Schwarzenegger movies, I could never really appreciate the utter ineptitude of his acting, as it was buffered by certainly very skilled voice-over actors. For the first time in decades, I wished I had seen The Last Stand in a dubbed version, whatever language I don’t care. This is unbearable, and terribly boring.

Sometimes it’s great to read about movie trainwreck productions, because more often than not they stem from the desperate urge to make a film out of something that had been interesting as a literary source, and the following inability of the film production to find the essence of this being interesting in a movie version.

Enter stage World War Z, the film, with its sad story of trying to figure out how you can inject a hero character into a story that describes many heroic acts, but has no heroes, not even real villains (you can hardly blame the “Z”s…). It is a twisted pleasure to read about that (e.g. here), but more importantly, after a couple of years of recurring seeing the book mentioned, I finally picked it up and gave it a try.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, comes about as some form of “minority report” in the sense that it collects the outtakes that did not make it into the official UN or something report about the Causes and Consequences of the Death of Nations (sorry, economists’ humour…). Maybe inspired in this by Richard Feynman’s additional narrative to the Challenger report, the author collects interviews to present a personal story of the end of the world as we knew it. The strength of the book is its global approach, glimpsing at Russia and China, the US and Canada, Israel and South-Africa with almost equal interest. While the references to these countries are their politics and governance system are not always subtle (at least in the cases where I could judge it they seemed to be of a rather Readers Digest depth), this provides the opportunity to play with the idea what various countries’ and governments’ reactions to global crisis would look like – and the result is fun. Unless you are a Zombie or Russian military or just about anybody the book mentions, that is… The book has the minimum plausible amount of humour, a generous amount of pathos (Her Majesty! That Japanese blind dude!!), and a plain and unpretentious tone that protects it from being just a zombie novel. I now actually do not only look forward to reading more about the train wreck tent pole movie disaster of the decade, but to actually seeing it…

On the Book:

On the Movie:

Maniac suggests that it could be a clever and intense thriller from the perspective of a serial killer, observing the world from inside his twisted mind. It is not a clever and intense thriller, however, it is… what’s the right word… dumb and clumsy. That starts with the realisation that the first person perspective from Elijah Wood’s character is a bad idea (I am sure it sounded like a good idea at the time of the first script meeting), continues with the very (very!) bad idea to have his voice as an off-voice (a consequence of the first choice, because he’s usually off-camera), which leads to him either talking more than necessary to have something to do, or talking in a voice that is mixed to sound subjective, i.e. much closer to us than the other characters’. Again, it certainly sounded like a compelling idea to somebody at some point.

The film is ridden with stunning depictions of violent abuse and murder, and I felt strangely uncomfortable with that, as the whole feel of the movie is not one that would warrant this kind of depiction. It looks off, gratuitous, maybe even gratuitously purposeful in that it felt to me that Elijah Wood wanted a serious deviation from the furry-footed character for which he is iconic. Seems he chose the role to get as far away from that as possible, accepting any absurdity the script was throwing at him. Not sure whether he did himself a favour…

This three-part made-for TV drama covers the paths of five German friends in the later days of World War II. A mixed bunch of professions (from soldier to showgirl) and ethnicity (one of them is Jewish), they believe nothing can tear their friendship apart, until they are separated by the course of their respective lives, and that’s enough to do away with that illusion. We follow their respective fates, wondering whether they will keep their promise and reunite after the war is over.

The show tries a couple of things at the same time: It tries to be more honest about the cruelties of war than the odd mainstream TV drama would be (going “Private Ryan” / “Band of Brothers”, but from a German perspective). I think it also seeks to show that hardly anybody was completely on the side of “good” or “evil” during the Nazi regime and the war. It also takes an unusually wide sweep at the range of directions from which you could expect harm: army, SS, collaborators, benefactors, turn-cloaks  rebels, Germans, Jews, Polish, Ukrainians  Russians … there is not a single group around that would not have blood on their hands one way or the other, by looking away, by snitching, by staying silent, by trying to be correct, by being cowards and by trying to be heroes. War time gets you all, the show seems to say, whatever your intentions were. The production got quite a bit of heat from Poland for showing the Polish partisan fighters being basically a bunch of anti-Semitic rogues. Whether this criticism is justified or not I can’t judge – they are certainly depicted as not very nice people, despite fighting Nazis Inglorious-Basterds-style.

That is a bit of an odd message, if you project it it could be read as the whole society as somehow being victim of circumstances, unable to escape their personal doom. I try to understand where that specific twist of the script comes from: if you make mainstream TV, or mainstream cinema, all commercial logic screams for identifiable heroes that the audience can crave for. Only yesterday I read about the rewrites for the “World War Z” film, the parallel seems obvious: You don’t want to have a hero who is “just” a killer (even “just a killer of Nazis / Zombies”), and if you have heroes who need to be “also” killers (because otherwise there would be no need to include them in this film), at least you need to provide them with enough morale stature and background to make them suffer from their choices. And that means you need to also give them the benefit of being victims.

Without doubt, this aspect his something going for it, without doubt there have been plenty of Europeans falling into this overlapping zone of “compromised by circumstances”, opening interesting points for debate. I do not mind focusing the film on this group as much as others did in their sometimes heated discussion about the moral position of the film.

What I do mind (and what seems to get often neglected over the political and moral discussions) is that “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” is not a good film. Its script is too straightforward and predictable to be thrilling, the dialogues are often wooden beyond belief (mostly representing more the cliches of what Germans and Nazis in particular are supposed to sound like rather than finding a natural tone), and the acting … my theory is confirmed that the great strength of US TV production is the abundance of great talent to choose from (authors, actors, directors, maybe most importantly). Germany does not have that benefit. There may be a dozen actors who would be able to seriously represent the characters depicted here, but sadly most of them are not in the film, and there are many more characters to play than a dozen… There are people who can make fantastic TV in Germany, but these are pushed to the sidelines of the mainstream. Other than in the new Scandinavian TV renaissance, German TV seeks to be more conservative about what it wants to bring on the little screen.

In consequence, I was sometimes bored, occasionally annoyed. Especially as it is so obviously inspired by ambitious TV dramas such as Band of Brothers (in particular in terms of structural design) I found it impossible to excuse it for its flaws.

Wikipedia entry (with plenty of plot spoilers):,_unsere_V%C3%A4ter

In my head, Norwegian films have an international reputation derivative of the “Scandinavian” school of film-making: either they are weird little social dramas populated with very strange, very Scandinavian characters who make up for the lack of sunlight by lightening up their inner self with the help of clear alcoholic liquids, helping their outer calm and reserved nature (most recently: all the cast of “Lilyhammer”, or just any kind of Kaurismäki film). Or they have real drama at hand, against which even excessive amounts of alcohol does not help, then it gets depressing and arthouse’y. Not that I could name an example for that one…but I guess “or just any kind of Kaurismäki film” should also fit here.

“Headhunters” seems to merge the two, and adds a bit of new School of Scandinavian Thriller (if there is such a thing, I think there should be) for good measure. The people are all weird, and Roger Brown, our “hero” is among the weirdest. He is a crook and a scumbag, he is obnoxious and lacks self-confidence because of his stature, and he needs a lot of money to keep his gorgeous wife happy. That’s why he steals art off his high-profile-job-seeking clients, and unavoidably at some point that means he will mess with the wrong guy. That wrong guy is Clas Greve, played by the currently omnipresent Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Whoever follows Jamie Lannister knows that it is not a good idea to interfere with the Kingslayer’s plans (especially when he still had both hands available), but maybe Game of Thrones does not play on Norwegian TV yet, so Roger decides to go for the Rubens painting in Clas’ house, and is probably more surprised than anybody else (more affected, too) that this sets in motion a vicious hunt that leaves bodies left and right on the Norwegian roads, leaves skulls shaved, knives stabbing, scars bleeding, and cars tumbling.

This is a great movie! The characters at the center are all twisted in their own rights, so you don’t even need to decide whom you would like to get the better of the rest. It surprises by jumping from crook-art-thief to maniac-on-rampage genre with the flick of an eye, and the script is tightly enough woven to make sense despite all that, and give some sense to it all in the end.

The second part of Iron Man almost had me at the point of abandoning hope for the franchise. Trying to recall the plot of Nr. 2, I honestly do not have a clue anymore. I remember a feeling of utter boredom, and that’s about it. Maybe only the fact that “The Avengers” managed to inject some refreshing humour into the Marvel universe shop made me interested in the new Iron Man installment at all, and that was followed by some positive reviews, indicating they might have found a new story to tell.

“New story to tell” is a bit of a stretch. What’s happening is that they partly de-technologize the whole enterprise by taking away a lot of the nonsense robot crap from Robert Downey Jr.’s Mr Stark. That has its benefits, as it forces the authors to go back to the question why Stark is supposed to be a likable character despite his at times ill-humoured nature and utter arrogance. He needs to be a mechanic again, and he’s good at fixing things with his hands and brains. But the arrogance comes back on him with a vengeance in the shape of another tech genius with a grudge, a Mr Killian. That one, played by Guy Pearce (looking too much like Denis Leary to really push aside the Spiderman images) teams up with supposed super-villain The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and they seek to blow Stark Enterprises and ideally the whole of the US to smithereens.

This is where the problems started for me. While I liked the overall setup and the way the terror starts closing in on Stark and his girlfriend, I found the “army” working the dirty terror work utterly ridiculous. They have, say, certain skills or features that are central, I suppose, to the work they are doing, but as soon as that became obvious, I got bored with them right away. That meant whenever there were fighting scenes, my attention immediately switched over to pressing matters such as the previous dinner or when to go to the gym the next day. There was plenty of fighting, so my next day was carefully planned through upon leaving the theatre. On top of that comes my serious, boredom-bred dislike for flying and fist-fighting robots. I will only see one more movie involving that special item, and it will be directed by Guillermo del Toro, I think that will have been quite enough for a lifetime. Another aspect I found annoying is the role of Don Cheadle: I really love that actor, and he’s doing a good job here, but why is that character in the film in the first place? It seemed completely detached from everything else that was going on, and cutting those scenes would have been a fine idea given that the film is 20 minutes too long anyway.

This is not to say I did not like the film. Author and director apparently decided (and I am in line with them) that there is no way of taking all this superhero nonsense seriously. Consequently they injected a lot of nice humour into the script, not just Tony Stark rapid-fire dialogue, but also such pleasant details such as episodes from “Downton Abbey” to accelerate the recovery of bomb victims. Their coud de grace in that respect is, of course, how to deal with the super-villain “The Mandarin”, who is built up with great care and editing expertise to be seen as the nemesis of Western civilzation – and who is later on (politely spoken) deconstructed from Bin Laden to Wizard of Oz, making best use of Ben Kinglsey’s range of acting skills and his fearlessness in the face of camp humour. This is all over the top, and I can literally imagine the “true Iron Man fans” cringing in their theatre seats, running home to cuddle with their action figures and praying for a more religious believer to take over the franchise. To me it was just the way to save Iron Man 3 from utter irrelevance.

As often with documentaries, this one stands and falls with its subject matter for me. I do not like films too much where a single event causes a long movie, without actually providing substance to anything underlying it (“Man on Wire” a while ago, “Sugarman” recently). “Cheney” is better. As a documentary it does not seek to be very cinematic (Morris’ McNamara documentary would be the clear contrast), but at its heart is a very interesting person. The film is fascinating as long as that person’s story is interesting.

Dick Cheney talks, he gets a couple of soft and a couple of harder questions, but the striking thing is to see a multi-coloured tableau evolve that is Dick Cheney. At the end of the film’s running time, I had the feeling that I knew pretty well what that man is about, where his opinions come from, what his attitude even towards the topics he did not talk about were, and what position he would take if confronted with another decision similar to the ones he discussed in the film. He presents himself quite openly as a stubborn man, as somebody who rarely finds reasons to  deviate from a once-formed opinion, and as somebody who quite astonishingly does not care about legal matters once he’s decided what’s the right thing to do. Once he formed an opinion, this is by definition the right thing to do. If (as detailed in the interview) the Ministry of Justice with all its legal brain power is of the opinion that a citizen surveillance programme has to end because it lacks any legal foundation whatsoever (a story that was new to me, and very fascinating: all the key staff had signed resignation letters prepared for the case that the programme would get an extension, as they would not be involved in such an illegal operation), then they are wrong. The right thing to do for Cheney in that situation is to circumvent the President as long as possible, and face him with a twisted story of the Ministry’s last minute change of position. If the Intelligence services of the world agree on Iraq being not in possession of weapons of mass destruction, then he produces the single sheet of paper claiming that some years ago they tried to purchase plutonium. The documents falsifying that claim are not produced. If it’s necessary to torture somebody to supposedly learn some new intelligence, then that’s the right thing to do…

I was astonished, I admit, never in my life have I experienced anybody who holds or held a public office who so openly negates the meaning of law and justice. That insight alone made watching “The World According to Dick Cheney” worth the time.

Now imagine “The Sopranos” getting a spin-off financed by the Norwegian Board of Film Subsidies and the Lilehammer Post-Olympics Tourism Promotion Committee, and further imagine that Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band guitarist has never been to Norway before and thinks it would make for a great family holiday to spend some days among the Vikings. The work packages are quickly divided: the Norwegians provide the settings and the actors, and Steven van Zandt brings his old coats and suits he nicked of the HBO sets and writes his own lines as if he was still on Tony Sopranos payroll. The result is “Lilyhammer”, a TV show that brings a bit of New Jersey mobster flair to the otherwise more than calm place of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Frank Tagliano gets there to hide from his former associates, but basically ignores the new environment and keeps doing what Silvio was doing, opening a club, pulling strings, manipulating the local politicians and businessmen, gambling and smoking.

I was well enough entertained by this, even though it is a far stretch from original. But van Zandt is consistent and works perfectly well as the ignorant crook who just refuses to change his ways just because he ended up at the colder end of the world. I am still hoping for a cameo from James Gandolfini in the next season, but even without it, I will be happy to keep crossing my fingers that the American mob won’t track him down, that his girl sticks with him, that his shoes won’t get ruined by the perennial snow and that he can end the neighbourhood war with the Norwegian garbage separation Nazis.

I felt disappointed with myself when I could not love the documentary about South-African musician come builder Rodriguez with the same verve the people who recommended it to me did. I had mixed feelings. My impression was that while the filmmakers had that one great bit of novelty (pop singer giving it all up, perceived dead, starts a new life, while he is getting more famous every minute, without knowing about it), they are not skilled enough as documentary authors to really make something out of it, finding an angle to make me care.

When you boil down the story to its essential, there is not even too much of a novelty: he used to be a musician, now he’s in construction, but his old records still kind of sell. Hmm… That’s kind of nice for him, but as a film story it requires a bit of sprucing up, and you would hope that the man himself has something interesting to contribute. However, he is not interesting or edgy enough of a character to make watching his interview bits work. Apart from that, there is just the short news item of a rediscovered former pop start, blown up into a feature length documentary. Did not help that I do not care too much for his kind of music…

If you read Dan The Man’s review, you will learn more about it, at least he liked the music …

Watching this new Bourne installment and “Jack Reacher” within 24 hours was maybe not such a good idea. The boundaries get blurry, the heroes get slightly indistinguishable, the action set pieces get even more arbitrary then they would be one by one. But let’s try: apart from everything that’s true for “Jack Reacher” (perfectly fine if you go in without expectations of a breakthrough event movie, ideally hot outside, air conditioned inside, maybe popcorn available if your diet plan allows etc.) Jeremy Renner looks the part of not indestructible, but still convincingly hyper-skilled action hero (no wonder, he took green AND blue pills, extraordinary mind-body coordination, mind you! They made that up, not me…): He climbs across snowy mountains , fights off packs of wolves single-handed, performs self-surgery and even manages to get a girl involved (in the interest of the audience’s girlfriends, I guess) in a setting that could have been perfectly fine without any female presence.

Bond-style change of exotic scenery (Alaska and Philippines, most prominently) allow for a change of survival style and scenery, abundance of global surveillance cameras  available to the US department trying to track him down to finish cleaning up their secret programme nr. 3 (nr. 1 and 2 were done away with in previous films, I am sure they have a couple more up their sleeves to shut down and set in motion global carnage among their agents, if there are any left), convenient speed of recovery from what was promised to be an almost lethal viral experiment. Even motorbike chase sequences through Manila alleyways are there, for those who care for that kind of worn-out spectacle.

Too late, the authors realise they should establish a proper opponent, and quicker than you can say “Next Generation Bourne Clone”, there he is, conveniently located in Bangkok so he can be flown in on short notice. Only that really was a bit late, so he only has some 10 minutes to stalk our heroes Terminator-like, super-double-blue-pill powered that he is (“minus the emotional aspects”). Meaning I did not care for that guy, even though he looked kind of cute. Maybe they can clone him for the next film: “Bourne-Bond versus Asian Predator”  offers itself as a title.  I assume they need a new hero anyway, I can’t imagine Renner wants to be stuck with that kind of franchise for too long. While it certainly generously paid for some gas and water bills for himself and director Tony Gilroy (of “Michael Clayton” fame), I suspect they are aware that there are better things to do for people with talent.

19% Tomatometer? Come on, what’s wrong?? The film has some beautiful scenery shot in Thailand, it has some crazy ladies (nothing can go really wrong if Tilda Swinton is involved), it has Leo di Caprio (love him or hate him, but he’s a pretty boy), even some mean drug lords and the drugs that come with that. Of course all these people hanging out on that “secret island” are despicable, and there are no other people other than the cleaning lady in the Bangkok hostel (the only non-despicable and funny character), but that’s what the film is about, isn’t it? Stupid people doing stupid things ending in ill fate before beautiful sunsets. The film is too long and too empty, but what can you do, the book isn’t much better, only more elaborate. Who was disappointed by “The Beach” did not read the plot description, and people like me who only watched it to complete their Danny Boyle back catalogue are not surprised that there are some duller moments showing up in the past of one of today’s most prestigious film makers. It’s not a great film, but probably better than spending your time watching “Die Hard in the White House” (which I will probably do anyway – there are days that call for it).

Around 20 minutes in, I developed the feeling that I’ve seen this film before…  I still cannot swear on it, but the initial setup looked terribly familiar: a young (and absurdly handsome) guy checking into strangers’ houses while they are away, staying for a while, using all facilities, reading their books, fixing clocks and scales, and then leaving without obvious trace. You wonder how long that can work until he will stumble across somebody to surprise him, and of course this is what happens and what sets the film in motion. He meets a girl, trapped in her house and her life with an abusive and in general psychopathic husband, and the two develop a silent understanding that it might be nice to share some part of the future with somebody who cares a bit and does not talk a lot (the dialogues between the two are astonishingly well written…). They move on together for a while, and there are scenes that indicate that they are just the perfect team of silent loners with human skills (a sequence involving a body and a burial ritual especially).

Needless to say, Korean issues come in: police corruption and violence, in this case, and family violence, but also a certain affection to the spiritual. Kim Ki-Duk manages to give the film a spin towards the latter that could have been laughable in the end, but quite to the contrary is beautiful and touching.

I shelved “Lincoln” for a while, torn between the perception that it would be a very interesting, while somehow dull, illustrated history lesson on the 13th amendment to the US Constitution (something that, while intellectually interesting, does not sound cinematically exciting), and the assumption that Spielberg usually does not really do boring (ok… he did, but not too often). Having seen it now, both was right. It is not boring, it is interesting, it is mostly well played, and it’s often even beautiful to watch. Ideally you would be very much awake and concentrated to follow the sharp discussions around the concept of slavery, and it is very enjoyable and rewarding to observe what somehow strange takes this discussions involved. Some characters opposing the abolition of slavery not because they thought there should be slaves, but rather because they were worried about the consequences of millions of people all of a sudden being released at once into economic and personal liberty. Lincoln himself pushing for the vote on the amendment at that specific time because he needed to have it passed before the slavery-reliant South was defeated, as a majority of citizens supported the amendment as a measure to end war, not as a measure with its own virtue. Thaddeus Stevens stepping back from the key concept of racial equality for the sake of political pragmatism. And so forth.

I suppose watching this for an averagely educated American is like watching films set in World War II for Europeans: you know a lot about the background already, you hope for a new take on it, revel in recognition of characters and situations, and sometimes you flinch when a completely obvious point is illustrated a tad too much. As a non-American, most details were new to me, so I could thoroughly enjoy this abbreviated history of Lincoln’s maybe most lasting achievement. I was sometimes wondering whether the fact that I could rather easily follow what was going on meant that for Americans that must be too simplified? But then again: it still is a piece of entertainment that needs to tweak the narrative into a linear cinematic structure, and few people do that more authoritatively than Spielberg and his writers.

So I could enjoy without guilt Tommy Lee Jones’s Mr Stevens and his rather … undiplomatic rhetoric. I could savour Daniel Day Lewis’ smooth voice and perennial urge for story-telling (certainly most annoying for his staff and cabinet). I admired the ease with which Southern (was that “confederate”?) emissaries were handled by Northern  (was that “union”?) military. The scenes in the Senate were actually a bit too much, the tone of the discussions there were almost as ludicrous as in today’s real-life British parliament, so that certainly was an invention of the screenwriters, right?

While “Lincoln” takes a rather personal Lincoln perspective, it also hints occasionally at the darker sides of the going-ons, such as his relationship  to his wife (Sally Field) or atrocities the Civil War brought about even in the late stages. I do not blame the film for holding back on this, as the story is not about assessing Lincoln’s legacy. It’s about how one specific piece of legislation was conned and bribed and argued through the legislature, and as such – as a politics procedural – it was very enjoyable.

“Mama” is a ghost movie. It is not a horror film, mind you, it is neither scary or violent or gory or terrifying enough for that. It reminded me (especially in the final scene) more of the kind of fairy tale (involving a ghost) that children would tell each other at nighttime under their blankets, candle burning  and threatening to set the whole children’s room alight.

Structure, perspective, characters, resolution all point towards the things kids find scary (fundamentally so: abandonment, loss of parents, neglect, solitude, darkness), so I must  admit the scary bits did not work for me. People my age know I need to call Dr. Venkman when encountering a ghost in the attic, so I am in no danger from Mama, but the characters in this film (as in most ghost movies) take a long time to come up with the obvious solution, to the point that the writers apparently found themselves in a bad mess of a narrative cul-de-sac and did actually (actually!) turn to the most blunt and embarrassing resolution to point the characters: making somebody appear to tell them “Go back to the cottage!” Ok, got it, they have to go back to the cottage, and sorry if was laughing at the scene…

The actors are not bad, mostly (only when they are forced to say things like “Go back to the cottage!”): Jamie Lannister looks better than in Game of Thrones recently (not just because he grew his hand back in “Oblivion” and has taken some baths since…), and there’s nothing you can do to make Jessica Chastain look stupid (even though they sometimes tried hard here). The child actors are also convincing, at least when they show up in person, their cgi’ed personalities were a bit too … the whole cgi, actually.

But that brings me back to the starting point: the whole design is kid-scary (Mama’s floating hair, bent physique and all), and as that, I suppose it works. Whether the film is actually suitable for the audience it will work best for is something that’s hard to judge. But fairy tales are often rough, so why not take your 10-year-old and see how long the nightmares will keep your family up…

Nothing wrong with that film. It’s not good, sure, but if you are rather tired on a Wednesday evening, and the cinema provides well-functioning air condition and iced tea, it’s better to see this one in the theatre rather than, say, the latest Terrence Malick reflections (not that the latter would have been an option in the local cineplex). Two days after seeing it, I am hard pressed to remember details, but it seems that Jack Reacher was called in by a former soldier to help out on a mass killing charge, and that’s what he does with cool attitude and physical ability beyond that of his opponents. Is there a doubt he will find out about the true reason of the murders, and hunt down the perpetrator?

Tom Cruise is credible enough in that role is super problem fixer, Werner Herzog is the same as he is in his documentary voice-overs (i.e. pleasantly creepy, if slightly ridiculous), Robert Duvall is always a pleasure to have around, Richard Jenkins and David Oleyowo are sadly underused. Of course there are car chases, and fist fights in which Cruise can reassert himself as true action hero, and all ends well, somehow, for some. It is a bit of spruced-up John Grisham story all in all (maybe then you would need to call it a Lee Child story, but I am no expert on his work), but maybe that’s what’s needed to make that kind of investigation / procedural tale work.

%d bloggers like this: