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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Ben Wheatley amused and irritated, grossed out and astonished me last year with his “Kill List”. That was, to say the least, an unconventional bit of cinema. And he seems to be on track to remaining just that: odd and unconventional. “Sightseers” is following a couple of not too handsome, not too bright tourists on their way in a caravan through England’s not too spectacular sights. They are simple people, it seems, Chris a slightly off “author” of a book he has trouble describing (“like the process of finding myself while traveling”), Tina the rather simple-minded follower, who tries to adore him, show off her good sides, and finding the idea of a trip of sexual exploration totally cool.

Things go off-track, there are accidents, there are unpleasant encounters, and all of a sudden, we are in “Badlands” territory, with our traveling mates not really on the run, but on a continued path of wreaking havoc among those they encounter. While not the motives, but at least the background of Chris becomes clear, Tina’s efforts to prove herself become more determined, not entirely to the benefit of the other campers they meet or their dogs.

Without spoiling it, the film’s finale is a pleasure, turning the table in a way that may not be entirely unexpected, but that surprises at least in that it showed that a Clyde should never underestimate his Bonnie.

“Sightseers” is not thoroughly satisfying, as the characters are a bit too dull to provide real pleasure. As always, however, I am terribly grateful for a film that defies the streamlined narration of Hollywood cinema, turns the concept of who can and cannot be the hero of a film on its head and makes me like, or at least sympathise, with people who are utterly unlikable. I hope there’s more to come from the Wheatley cabinet of curiosities…

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

Another splendid and strange film from my list of international arthouse movies that I wanted to see for years. A group of Trappist monks are tending to their monastery in the hills of the Algerian hinterland. Civil War breaks out, and the local muslim extremists start getting on a rampage, killing guest workers and spreading fear among the locals. When they approach the monastery, the monks have to decide whether to flee or to make a stand.

That summary sounds about right, but is completely wrong. This is not a thriller, even though there is tension and fear. Whenever I thought the film might move into that direction (some form of “Assault on Precinct Jesus” would have been conceivable), the monks start praying for enlightenment, engage in lengthy debates about their moral obligations, commitment to their faith, and the role they have been given when joining the order. The conflict is stalled when Christmas comes around and there are more important things to do, such as celebrating holy mass, and the killer squad leader apologises for not having realised the importance of this, and steps back for the time being.

“Of Gods and Men” does not have the conflict between terrorists and monks at its heart, but the maybe more complicated conflict between people’s conscience, beliefs and human fears. These monks are no heroes, they are worried and scared, and they are complicated in their internal dynamics of making decisions, caught in some semi-democratic system of debate and criticism. Their leader may be weak, I kept wondering whether challenging his leadership would not have been the right thing to do. But they have a strong bond woven by their institution and their faith, which does not make such things come easily. They draw the strength they need from prayers, and from sitting around a table, listening to classical music.

It is very silent in dealing with these conflicts, but that does not make it less thrilling. The thrill is to realise that these are real people, faced with real dangers, having to make real choices with severe impact on their own life and on the life of the people they take care of. Whether in the end they make the right choices is ambiguous, you have to decide for yourself what you make of it.

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

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/of-gods-and-men-2011

Walter Hill! The Warriors! 48 Hours! Streets of Fire! (sorry, but I do like that one…), Extreme Prejudice!! Now looking through his film list, wondering where he’s been all this time, I realise there have been some depressing developments going on with this supposed Son Of Sam (Peckinpah). So my first surprise at seeing him helm the Stallone Resurrection vehicle “Bullet to the Head” was replaced by a disheartened sigh of understanding…  “ah I see… the mortgage, the drugs” (can’t be the expensive hairdresser, judging from his Rottentomatoes mug shot).

Having said that, “Bullet” enjoys the benefit of having a back-to-back release with Schwarzeneggers “Last Stand”. I am the only person in the world who either saw and / or liked Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing”, back in the days when Bruce Willis was cool. So not only does Schwarzenegger and his Korean director play (intentionally? No… nobody on that production has a sense of humour. Or has seen any movie in their lives) on the Walter Hill back list harmonies, but they also face off mano-a-mano about who has the least terrible old-man-pretending-to-be-an-action-hero flick of the decade to offer. I have to say, Stallone has a clean sweep. By no means is “Bullet” as annoyingly stupid, as insultingly boring as “The Last Stand”. It is a bit like “Expendables” (first one, obviously): so straightforward and non-twisted that it is actually astonishing how the authors could get away with it. No surprise, no development, just setup (killer needs to team up with cop to save both) and linear (pardon the pun) execution, decorated by some nice tattoos, several of which are on the pleasantly slender body of a Ms Sarah Shahi, which obviously must be a very elaborately made-up screen name.

There are perfectly good moments in life when such a film serves its purpose. Having just seen “Oslo, 31 August” on a Sunday afternoon and it’s still too early to drink two beers (and you don’t feel like succumbing to drug abuse after that experience anyway) is such a moment.

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

Isn’t life fun when you are in rehab and try to fix all the broken things that you have left behind? No, it’s not. It is depressing, because you realise that some bridges are burned forever, some parts of your life are desolate beyond repair, you have wasted years using drugs or trying to come up with the money to use drugs, and (maybe most dramatically) you have lost the faith in other people’s trust and affection. The turning point in Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, 31. August” comes when Anders (our “hero”) goes to a job interview, and during the interview the fact of his addiction comes up. Stunningly, it is not the interviewer who turns the atmosphere in room, it is Anders himself, embarrassed and suspicious about the counterpart’s motives, he shuts down, gives up and runs away. He is less able to deal with his history than many people around him are.

Upon roaming the streets during his day off from the clinic, he is trying to reattach himself to the social life and reality of his city. It is a harrowing effort, and a futile one. He does not have many skills for dealing with solitude, fear and worries. He is tempted by the tools he used to know from earlier, alcohol and other drugs, and he is struggling an uphill battle against caving in again.

It is certainly an actors’ triumph that this film is not terribly boring and depressing. Well, depressing it is (what is it with these Northern Europeans, honestly… cheer up!), but because Anders Danielsen Lie does not play his part in a melodramatic way, I felt in good care, it seemed an honest performance. Honest to the point that all the options he appears to have or not have I understood. Seeing how the story develops, that means some unpleasant reflections about one’s own choices in Anders’ situation.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/oslo_august_31st/

Back to the future

Lacking decent cinematic entertainment these days (Fast Six? Seriously? Sparta says NO!), I could not but check on history to improve the present. Who’s the most reliably entertaining director? Robert Zemeckis! What’s the film that did entertainment me most consistently over the decades? “Back to the Future”!

It is surprising every time: Back to the Future (at least the first one, if one tends to be excessively critical) holds up, defies its age and would (I am quite sure) be a roaring success in the theatres if released today exactly as it was in 1985. It has two lovable characters at the center, it has a hate-able villain, and it has the liberty to be just  about as silly as the time travel motive would allow. And that is very silly.

Watching the three films in a row is fanatastic, I never did do that before (I am not even sure whether I have seen the second part completely before…), and it show how skilled Zemeckis and his script writer (that would be … ah: Zemeckis, with Bob Gale) is in interweaving the motives and also the footage of the first film into the other two, without (at least to me) annoying the audience with being bluntly repetitive. I still do like first film best for its originality and humour, but contrary to popular opinion (i.e. Tomatometer) I very much like the second part, too, with its slight venture into what the future holds for us (and 2015 is still a bit away, I am sure the flying cars will come true! The 3D Shark of Jaws 19 did already!), without too much focusing on a science fiction vision.

Part 1 (1985): http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/back_to_the_future/

Part 2 (1989): http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/back_to_the_future_2/

Part 3 (1990): http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/back_to_the_future_3/

Ken Loach doing another of these light-hearted comedies with a social edge…  He cannot but start this film about Robbie, a good-for-nothing but not perfectly crooked Glaswegian lad who tries to reestablish his life after messing up royally through bouts of drink, drugs and violence. Loach shows early on (and has it voiced by one of the characters later on, but by then we understood already) that there is no way you can escape this rotten and wretched social environment if you once were so much part of it.

Only when it comes to finding a mechanism to escape does the film show its light side: He goes North, the film injects a bit of a road movie feeling into the story, and as the road Robbie and his buddies from community service are travelling leads way up into the Scottish Highlands, that is very pleasant to watch. The plan they have is a wee bit moronic and forces suspension of disbelief quite a bit, but by then it’s a comedy, and they get away with it. There is a very expensive cask of whiskey somewhere up North, and that cask must come to the rescue of these good-hearted, but somehow failed characters.

Loach never forgets that he loves these guys, and that he has a profound understanding of how they got to become who they are, that it is very difficult for them to reinvent their lives. He tweaks and twists the story line to make it possible, but cannot hold back to shatter one dream or the other along the way.

With Roger Allam (he of “The Thick of It” fame – need to watch this once every year!) and John Henshaw there are two lovable “grown-up” characters holding pressure against the immature goofing of Robbie and his friends, and the oddities of the Whiskey tasting and collecting culture provides a nice tapestry on which some shenanigans can be painted.

The film is a bit of an odd mix, in its social calamity and its stoner road movie segments, but in the end, it is very funny, a pleasure to watch for all the reasons mentioned. Subtitles recommended…

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

Now well…  I just realise I never came around to writing my comments about the previous JJ Abrams Star Trek revamp effort, and seeing this one now reminds me of why that was. They are both not bad films. For what they are – pre-Summer blockbusters trying to reinvigorate a concept that has already proven to have a large fan base – I guess it’s as good as you can get without offending your traditional customers. Those customers want a bit of space action, a bit of chicks in tights (or underwear, in this case), a couple of funny-looking alien life forms that turn out to be nice guys, and a clearly identifiable villain with a posh English accent. So that’s what they get. Of course Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana are very watchable (Chris Pine not so much, to be honest), and of course Benedict Cumberbatch is almost as funny a name as Zaphod Beeblebrox, but still… the film perennially reminds me of more original and more uncompromising peers, and if I see one more movie where the villain at one point is locked up in a Hannibal Lecter cage, I will throw a stone at it to get him out and eat the director!

Whether it would be possible to use the Star Trek premise to make something edgy, challenging and unconventional (a Star Trek: Solaris, or Star Trek: Moon, or even a Star Trek: Ken Russel extravaganza…) remains an open question. As it is, it is decently entertaining, but lacking any surprises or emotional upset (Spoiler alert: no – I did not believe that Kirk could die… seems they did not quite understand why “Wrath of Khan” is still such a classic).

I am increasingly bored by this kind of entertainment, I have to admit. Lacking alternatives (the “Inception” or “Source Code” of 2013) I will keep watching them, but is it just me or is the industry in a creative paralysis? Will “Pacific Rim” come to rescue? I kind of doubt it…

The 2013 one: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_trek_into_darkness/

And the 2009 one:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_trek_11/

Was this a film? Not quite sure about that. I liked it a lot, but maybe would be more inclined to call at a semi-experimental look into the psyche of torn family life. The family we observe is torn physically, as the father decided to do something very stupid, leading directly to jail, do not cross “start”. During the years he spends there, his wife has to deal with the consequences of his stupidity, she has to find a way to take care of their children (was it three? Four?) and her life. The husband has somehow the easy part in this, he sits in jail and waits to be visited frequently. On the phone he asks banal questions about how school was and what the kids got for Christmas. He is sitting it out, avoiding to get too personal or emotional about the whole situation, forcing his wife and their children to process the emotional impact of such a life.

Why is that experimental? Because director Michael Winterbottom (no need to praise him anymore here… he is just an astonishingly multi-faceted wizard!) viciously refuses to introduce a plot, or to allow situations to escalate, to make an impact on the next step of everybody’s life. Every day is a day, to be observed on its own, and he shows how you can do that, how stuff happens that could have grave consequences (the wife looks for emotions somewhere else, the husband is caught smuggling dope into the prison, the son starts despising his father), but they don’t, they balance out, the pendulum swings back and tomorrow today’s agitation is replaced by some other form of normality. Is that what the film is about? To provide evidence of Dostoyewsky’s notion that human’s prime characteristic is that they can get to used to everything? It would be a convincing case.

The actors, by the way are mostly splendid, judging from the credits this is an actual family.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/everyday_2013/

Easy to be mocked, I know, but: I did buy the new Dan Brown book on the day of its publication, and it entertained me whenever I was stuck in an airport or plane or coffee shop for the next couple of days. That’s what Dan Brown books are for, I believe, and they are quite good at that.

Of course “Inferno” gives you a bit of a hard time, even compared with its predecessors. In the first two Robert Langdon books, I was aware of course of Brown’s, let’s say, unpretentious writing style, and “Lost Symbol” lost not just its symbol but its composure when sickening plot twists came pouring on the readers’ heads. The drive of the narrative kept me on it, though.

With “Inferno”, that could have been different. From very early on, the book got on my nerves: It is so excessively repetitive, redundant and detailed on irrelevancies that I really had to grind my teeth and bite my tongue. I would have been willing to stop reading the time a video sequence that plays a role in the plot (or does it? Actually no…) is described for the … I don’t know … fifth time. The 10th time around I wanted to scream. The way arbitrary knowledge from what was certainly a generous collection of tourist guide books the publishers had provided Brown with free of charge was interspersed, or rather sprayed across the book was less annoying, actually quite cute in a way. Next time they should do little text boxes on the side of the page, or embed the tourist association’s video introduction to … whatever it will be next time. Moscow? Beijing? Something with plenty of tourist information offices that can provide maps and easily readable information on the two or three top attractions of the place.

And that leads to the reason why I stuck with the book even though it is written in even worse style than the previous ones (at one point I was: this looks like the book of somebody who wants to copy Dan Brown style, but somehow gets it all wrong – only to realise: oh yes, that’s exactly Brown’s problem…), and I cared even less about the characters than for those in the previous books. “Inferno” is about Florence and Venice, and I love Florence and Venice. It is about Dante’s Divina Commedia, and I love the mythology of that book and the artwork that it inspired. Even more than in the Rome or Paris of “Lost Symbol” and “Da Vinci Code”, I enjoyed running along familiar streets, learning what lies underneath, who built it and how he was murdered. That kind of story. A novelised tourist guide book through what happen to be two of my most favourite places in the world (plus one that I always wanted to visit, but haven’t managed yet) and one of my favourite books – they should do that for every city! Actually, “they” do, with Brown working his way through the global map, with Ruiz Zafon providing Spain backstopping support…

All in all: an often painful, but still entertaining experience, through the sheer luck of location and literary references. That same book playing it out in Madrid or Berlin would certainly have been unbearable, though.

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