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Monthly Archives: October 2013

I will assume for the purpose of these notes that any reader knows how Christopher McCandless’ story ends. If not, maybe better watch the film or read at least the article or book first on which it is based.

I suppose I would not have liked McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, too much in real life. His anti-materialistic philosophy is to be appreciated, and his reaction to growing up in a family that represents much of what can be detested about modern Western lifestyle is understandable. Still, that philosophy and its application to his life is of the simplistic kind that is not uncommon among angry teenagers. He does not have a solution to the world’s trouble but to run away from it, to escape all the cages and boundaries by putting as much distance as possible between himself and all that he hates (maybe most prominently his parents). Fair enough, but maybe not of the intellectual vigour and quality those showed who provided him with the inspiration for it: all the philosophers, poets and novelists whose work he breathes, from Tolstoy through Jack London to Thoreau. Their work survived to inspire him because they decided (intentionally or not) to struggle with their world and those who inhabit it, and to see where an intellectual and practical compromise can be found. McCandless is more simple, he believes that leaving behind civilization’s oppression will provide him with some form of answer. He still relies occasionally on the materialistic system by  taking on farm work when he realises the stash of money he burned could have been used to buy the equipment necessary to get him up North, but he reaches his aim, the wilderness of Alaska and the almost unprotected exposure to the mechanisms of nature unadulterated by human presence (minus the gun and the matches and the bus that provides him shelter in the end, that is).

Emile Hirsch plays this full on, he gives it all his boy charm of adorable college graduate, and he manages to enchant people along the way into missing him when he leaves again after a short meeting of soul mates. The idealised concept of his liberty leaves people behind with a tinge of jealousy and admiration, be it the farm workers or the hippies or the former soldier who could imagine having a grandson like him. The ecstasy of taking in the beauty of the country, from Mexico to Alaska, peaks, valleys and rivers alike, Hirsch conveys with boyish enthusiasm.

The film shows Sean Penn’s admiration for this kind of life concept, something I am sure he would subscribe to as worth pursuing, but I guess he would also add that by leaving the world behind, you will find it hard to change it for the better. Alexander Supertramp did leave it behind, whether he changed it I don’t know. But I have a suspicion: the final sequence of his life plays out in one single location for a long time, trapped by nature, but also by himself. Did he get tired of his way North? Was it an intentional decision to end his voyage there, or did he succumb to the forces of nature and his limited abilities to cope with them? Or did he just not know what to do next, after having reached the end of civilisation, crossed it and bathed in the absence of humans? His notes show that he may have come to some fundamental insights there, that he realised how high a price he paid for learning about the human nature. I think “True joy exists only when shared” is at the heart of it – it took him a while to correct himself on his earlier assertion that human relations are not the most important thing in life. It would have been very interesting to read the book he planned to write had he returned from his adventure. As it turned out, we will never know what his final assessment was.

Background on the Jon Krakauer book on which the film is based:

Interestingly enough, I took until 2013 to actually verify the details of the end of McCandless’ story:

As ever when a new Soderbergh film comes out, I am keen to see it, but not enthusiastic about the prospect. He is one of these “appreciated auteurs” that seek to figure out new forms and styles, new stories and character depictions in every film, and where each of the efforts is worth my time. I needed to check his film list whether there is any single film of his that I really love… and I found some, actually, even though I do not remember them to be “Soderbergh films” in the same way I would remember every single Scorsese film to be unequivocally associated with his name. I loved “Magic Mike” recently, and a longer time ago I think I really liked “Traffic”. And almost all his other directorial works I remember fondly. What the majority of his oeuvre does to me is wrapping itself in a strange veil of oblivion, I remember elements and styles, maybe individual scenes from most, but have my trouble figuring out what they were about.

I think that is to do with me shelving Soderbergh as an experimental film maker, a creator of stylistic slights of hand, trying out this way of telling a story or that, isolating characters’ features and heightening them to see what we all could learn from doing that. An intellectual approach to story-telling, maybe, that is merged with visual means and great skill? Hah… I really don’t know, but all that is found again in “Side Effects”, which is a film featuring big stars (Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rooney Mara), tells a thriller sort of story (side effects of a drug may be responsible for a murder), and still refuses to be a big-star thriller. It is an intimate, cool and sober chamber play variation on that topic in the same way “Contagion” was a chamber play on the topic of possible global annihilation through pandemia.

I can see Soderbergh’s point (if my assumption is right) that doing yet another thriller-thriller with star-stars on this would be terribly boring, and would only lead to car chases, gun fights, maybe some people getting removed through hit squads and a dramatic ending in a court room. He does not want to see that kind of thing again, but still finds the story compelling. I do too, and I really liked most of “Side Effects” for being humble about its thriller elements and also humble about its stars (not giving all of them the screen time you would expect when reading the poster, for instance…). I am not sure about the ending, having similar troubles than the previously seen “Prisoners” in shying away from going all the way and defying the conventions of its genre, but rather coming back to the audience, hat in hand, and mumbling “yeah ok, here is a bit of a thriller after all”. By no means was the dimension of artistic surrender as dramatic in “Side Effects” as it was in “Prisoners”, where it nearly destroyed all the work of before, but still… the film’s resolution came away a tad too clean for my taste.

For a closer look at the plot:

As always splendid Slate Spoiler Special episode on “Side Effects”:

This film I saw as part of my project “Chinese Box Office Wonders” – I took it on myself to watch the 10 most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. See here for the introduction and the list of films.

“Back to 1942”, based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel “Remembering 1942” and by now the Chinese nominee for the 2014 academy awards, was the only film on the list I was actually quite looking forward to seeing. The topic is a serious one, for a foreign observer also one maybe not well known. On a meta-level it is always interesting to see how Chinese film makers (can) cope with aspects of Chinese recent history that are less than flattering for the rulers at the time.

On that last point, I was quite impressed. Without indeed knowing too much about the Henan drought of 1942 that, in combination with the invasion of the Japanese troops, killed about 3 million people in just a couple of months. The drought and maybe even a locust plague did away with the harvest, but but what was decisive was the government’s unwillingness to send substantial personnel and food aid. The reason is spelled out: sometimes when your burden is too big, it’s better to cast off that burden, leaving the starving people to themselves, focusing the troop efforts on a war with the Japanese that is not even fought with great determination. Even when the order comes in to withdraw from the battle lines, the military is not used to help the refugees leave the province, but instead they scavenge and steal what’s left, saving their own hides wherever they can. Food aid is hampered by an abundance of officials who care about nothing as much as about the well-being of their own clientele, and the governor of the province – even though apparently well-intended –  seems unable to cut through the mess and help his people.

“Back to 1942” is a story of plenty frustration and not much hope. There are no heroes, only people who succumb earlier or later to the cruelties of their system, be that system politics, farming, or military. The story is told from the perspective of a Henan town or village that, as everybody else, abandons their homes to flee west, in a rather irrational move, rather than moving to the warmer and less war-ridden South (but as is explained: “This is what Henan people always did in times of trouble”). Landlords turn paupers, wives and children get sold, plenty die of exhaustion and starvation and the cruel cold. The most lucky one might be the one who find some pimp to host them in a brothel or a farmer who needs a new wife and carries her away. Interesting that for the men, there is less choice than for the women on whether and how to survive.

I commend the film for not pulling many stops. If you want the good guys to survive and the bad guys to die, a drought in wartime is not where you get that. Children are separated from their families and never seen again, or smothered to death by accident when chaos breaks out. The denial and incompetence of governmental sections is addressed, as is the complicated political landscape within which these decisions had to be made. This is not always told in the most subtle way (in one clumsy scene there heads of police, education and some other departments make a claim for receiving help first, rather than the general public of Henan), but given what kind of Chinese films addressing historic events I have recently seen, “Back to 1942” is almost of spectacular quality. The acting is also very solid, with Zhang Guoli as landlord Fan in the downward spiral, Chen Daoming plays “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-Shek as tough leader who feels he needs to wall the pain about his people’s suffering behind a wall of discipline and administrative diligence. Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins pop up, the former at least with an role important to the plot development, as TIME reporter who alerts Chiang to the severity of Henan’s misery.

What I liked most, and what some international reviews oddly criticized, is the lack of pathos. This drama does not play out as structured accumulation of misery towards a resolution of death or survival, but – I think more credibly and realistically – as an effort in endurance, without a true prospect. The refugees go west until they die or are stopped. The government gets entangled in compromises without there being a Gordian knot in sight that could be cut. Individual fates start, diverge, converge, dissipate, until the world is not the same as it was before. This lack of clear and clean resolution is to be commended!

I had this review (March 2009) on my previous blog, but as I just watched the film again, why not transfer it over here and update:  It was supposed to be a normal morning, sending off the son to school and discussing dinner with the maid, when all of a sudden a group of brutes breaks into Jessica Martin’s house, shoots the maid, and takes her captive. They are asking her about her husband and where he is, and threaten to kill her and her whole family. She insists “You have the wrong family!”, but it increasingly seems that this husband – a mere real-estate agent – got involved in something nasty and dangerous. From her cell, she manages to cross some wires of a broken phone and establishes a call with a complete stranger: Ryan’s interest is to chill out on the beach, gets into his girl’s scantily used pants and show off his sixpack and the pretty-boy face on Venice Beach. Jessica manages to convince him, however, to help her safe her and her family. A chase taking him all across the city starts.

The idea is very simple and hence rather good and straightforward. Nothing worse than a complicated setting for me, and a refreshing change after all the plot twist ridden movies of the last couple of weeks. There are no plot twists here, everything plays out exactly as you think it will from early on. We only learn very late about the actual reasons for the kidnapping, and this McGuffin does not really matter for the film to be a decent thrill anyway. Most of the time the acting persons are completely unaware of the reasons, either. The car chases are too long (I mentioned on occasion I find car chases terribly boring, did I not? Why is nobody listening???), the characters are flat and the efforts at humour a bit strained (the Porsche lawyer…), but there is Jason Statham doing his Jason Statham thing, and there is Kim Basinger doing her mature desirable woman thing (works even better for me when her face is a bit battered after a hard kidnapping, wakes my protecting instincts), there is William H Macy as a cop doing his William H Macy thing in a seaweed mask and with a gun. There are innovations, though: Would you ever expect Macy to jump sideways, pulling the trigger in the fall 10 times, Bruce Willis style? Equally new was that Statham does not lose his shirt. Not once! Not even a little bit!! And there is the cute kid who is a bit scared, but then again has the time of his life playing cop and robber and being a clever hero. Quite fun, if you are in a hotel room, it’s late and the concentration span is not enough for an Italian arthouse film or a dialogue-heavy “Newsroom” episode. Second time I saw it was on a plane, just perfect for that setting, 90 minutes of solid entertainment.

After reading Dan the Man’s comments on “Carrie” , and also after being reminded of the forthcoming remake, I thought it’s high time I check this one out again. As avid Stephen King aficionado, this is one of very few films based on King stories that I mention as “not terrible” when being asked about King adaptations. However, I have not really seen it in a decade or two, so about time I reassessed whether the memory of a really disturbing tale of a high-school teenager matches my memories of it.

It does not completely. The film has aged a bit, and I soon got the feeling that this will be a “wait for the climatic scenes” experience (of which fortunately there is one in the early minutes). Getting through the terrible hairdos and the sometimes equally problematic acting was more of a drag than I remembered. I also admit that I find it very hard to watch any film set in a US high-school, as the usual depiction of the people populating these high schools indicates these must be the most terrible places in the world, filled with obnoxious idiots interested in not much beyond their interpersonal shananigans.

Anyway: I was on the brink of dismissing “Carrie” as a film that was great at the time (i.e. I had the perfect age and mindset to thoroughly enjoy it when I first saw it), when the prom sequence started. Even there, the direction is a bit old-fashioned from today’s movie viewing experiences, with John Travolta and that Bad Girl Without Acting Skills hidden under the stage, and the editing going a bit too often back to her grinning face (however: the closeup of herself licking her lips in anticipation of the delicious dessert to the prom finale is still quite appetizing…). But how de Palma realises the building of hope, the feeling of belonging, the emerging beauty of a life, and then hammers it away with the throw of a bucket, how he stays on his heroine, how Sissy Spacek takes her time from being shocked, through being confused, through being angry, yet remaining the fragile little thing she is… even as an avenging archangel she looks as if a gust of wind could blow her away. And how she returns (walking very very slowly) to her home cradle, where everything was wrong all her life, but where at least there was cradling to be found, and where she hopes to find a place of rest at mother’s shoulder. This is stunning direction, still, using all the tricks from the director’s toolkit, the slow motion sequences, close-ups, and split-screens to add to the surreal horror that a cruel reality threw at Carrie White.

The film consists of a handful of what I would consider excellent scenes, linked by a narrative that de Palma did not really seem to care too much about. He was – my guess – interested in creating a half-erotic, half-disturbing disturbing shower scene (and he did, although I would still prefer the one from “Dressed to Kill”… hm… should watch again to make sure), and a prom finale that shows how all the disappointments, all the worries and fears, all of a teenager’s angst (including the unspeakable defeat of realising that “Mother Was Right All Along”) collide and merge, leading to a climax of blood and terror. In the best sense of Hitchcockian “movie theory”, de Palma never leaves any doubt about what perils are lurking, in case anybody does not know already from reading King’s breakout novel. He shows us “the bomb under table” early on, and not just when he takes us into the preparations for the prom prank. When Tommy invites Carrie, we know about everybody’s motives, and we are able to take a good guess on how well this will end. Maybe if you have only fed on modern tales of terror, you are not prepared for how very much  de Palma is a director (and King is an author) who does not give a damn about your hope for resolution. Catharsis is the best you’ll get, and that sometimes involves a lot of fire. If anybody had hoped for justice to be served in the end, the good being rewarded and the evil punished… Carrie’s rage is an equal opportunity avenger, and this is what I maybe like most about book and film.

I am glad I watched “Carrie” again. Despite the slight coat of dust it has collected, it still contains some milestone scenes and images, and in general is a story

And it made me really go back to the book again, this slim masterpiece of suburban terror: “there was a look . . . oh, dreadful. I can’t say it. Wanting and hating and fearing . . . and misery. As if life itself had fallen on her like stones.”

I think there are two ways you can do a film that is based on historic life-or-death events: either the story is sufficiently obscure, so you can expect the majority of your audience not to know about the outcome. Then you make the average thriller, ignoring the event’s real-life foundations. Or the story is widely known, then you will need to find an approach to telling that story that makes it independent of its outcome, transcends the facts to tell a larger story that is appealing independent of whether you know the result. This is quite a feat, and some of the results (whether you like the films or not) are memorable: Cameron’s “Titanic”, Howard’s “Apollo 13”, or more recently Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” I would call successful attempts at the latter approach. There are more examples for the former, including many where the story is based on some literary source, which in the same way determines the outcome.

Captain Phillips, I feel, could not decide which way to go. I learned that an American regular news audience will know the story of the Maerks Alabama quite well, as it has been widely covered in the local news at the time. Either I just missed it, or it has slipped my mind since, or it just was not as big a story in the rest of the world. I did not know or remember how the story of a bunch of Somali pirates hijacking a massive container vessel near the horn of Africa played out. Until, that is, somebody told me in a movie review just a day before I planned to see the film  …

This can only be guesswork now, but I think it would have been a perfectly workable thriller had I not known the end in advance. As I had the misfortune of stumbling across that review, the second half, which focuses the action in an isolated place and is exclusively about whether or not the Captain will get out of this in one piece, did not work at all for me. I felt bored. Of course there is a certain level of action and thrill when Greengrass gets his fingers on uniforms and a shaky camera. But that kind of heightens the feeling of all this is much ado about nothing, as nothing new will be revealed to me in the end.

Having perceived this as I did, I suppose I must judge the film to be just not of the same quality as the mentioned examples where the known result did not affect the pleasure of viewing. I seem to understand what Greengrass is doing, he closes in on the individual fate of the Captain’s fear and suffering, he intends to tell the story from the inside perspective. It was not working for me, though, as he too often distracted me from that personal  story by fetishising about the military machinery moving into place. I could appreciate the acting (of Hanks, and also of some of his Somali counterparts, even though I am not chiming in with the chorus of highest praise for Barkhad Abdi’s breakout performance. It was not bad.), but kept my distance.

What did not help my reception of “Captain Phillips” was that just recently I had seen “A Hijacking”, which does exactly what Greengrass would have needed to do: focus on the claustrophobia, the fear, and the persons suffering it. No, Greengrass actually would have needed to do that more urgently, as his story was rather well known, while the Danish one was fiction (I think).

So whatever the reasons, I was a bit disappointed and bored by the film, and I am slowly starting to get annoyed by the visual style of Greengrass and his DP Barry Ackroyd. As remarked by Mark Kermode a couple of times: About time somebody gets him a camera tripod for Christmas.

How much evil do you need to do in order to do good? No, that was someone else. Hugh Jackman’s approach is similar, though: how much ruthlessness is justified in order to achieve the right goal? He plays the father of a disappeared, supposedly kidnapped, daughter, he is not satisfied with the efforts of the police and of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in particular, and he just won’t sit down and wait for things to play out by the book. Quite late in the film, in a strong scene of confrontation taking place in a car in the midst of a ghastly snow-rain, for maybe the first time he explains himself, and makes the very good point that there is not much else anybody would do, with a kid (or rather two, as her friend disappeared as well) missing for a couple of days, with the statistics speaking more against her reappearing with every minute that passes. How could a father be expected to do anything else but do whatever is available to him?

Now the tension between this understandable logic and the fact that his character is a very unpleasant, self-righteous man create the strength of the film. I understand what he’s doing, but I still cannot develop sympathy for him beyond the one he earns by the sheer fact of his daughter’s abduction. Beyond that he is a terrible person, somebody who I suppose nobody would like to have as their father or spouse. He needs to weigh the chances of his actions against what the police is doing, and whenever his own actions could endanger the regular investigation, he decides that he is right, they are wrong. He insists on doing the right thing, and puts blame on whoever is available, preferably Gyllenhaal’s detective Loki. Of course Hugh Jackman is still the most handsome boy in the hood, and a man-crush of mine if there ever was one (actually, there might be three…), but he makes it very tough for me to adore him in this film. Will watch his robot combat film again for catharsis…

The location of the action does not help to make me feel better: perennial rain and cold, a dull suburbian atmosphere clustered with remnants of what some may call a brighter past, a rather depressing setting in general, and in particular one could feel sorry for the poor sods who have to join search parties in the pouring rain, grazing though every bit of the woods to find a trace of the girls.

This dense atmosphere, the contrast of the diligent, talented, and obviously very skilled detective on the one side and the vigilante brute on the other, the very obscurity of what  actually happened… this made a great and memorable film. Up until a very specific moment, when I felt this beautifully constructed piece of art almost irretrievably collapsed and plot construction became plot convolution. That moment which turned “Prisoners” from one film into a very different one had to do with the discovery of some blood not being what or whose we thought it was. I am sure in some copy of the script somebody made a dash at that point and noted at the margin “plot twists galore from here”. None of the twists were necessary, most were detrimental to what had been built up before, whichever way the plot would lean became a rather arbitrary spectator sport. A regular average thriller is what the film turned to become, while it could have been an intense drama about a clash of characters and the question down which dark passages pain (and arrogance) a man can go, bending rationality and hurting others in more way than one.

I think the strength of the first two acts will ensure that my memory of “The Prisoners” will be a find one, but I am not sure time will heal the disappointment about a missed opportunity.

Another example in the increasingly annoying series of … no, not “Nicolas Cage embarrassments” this time, he is surprisingly low key. But the series of “if it’s based on a true story, it promises to be somewhat boring”. If they would have just taken the case of a serial killer based on the rather scenic background of Alaska, and a State Trooper who (just in the last days before retiring from the job, mind you…) sets his mind to catching the bad guy, trying to identify the pattern behind all this… this could have been a nice addition to that particular sub-genre. However, as the reality behind the plot dictated (I suppose), we have to endure the frustration of a Trooper who kind of knows exactly who the perpetrator is, but who just cannot find enough evidence to arrest him while that guy (John Cusack, by the way, who seems to have seen better times in his career) just denies all allegations. Is it a cat-and-mouse game that keeps the audience on edge? No, it is just that: a rather frustrating experience, without any particular tension. At some point all is resolved somehow, but even that moment of resolution is a bit arbitrary, as if the authors were desperately looking for some plot device that could bring a Hollywood twist into the whole affair.

Mon dieu! What was that??!! It was… it is about … err…

Leos Carax, where have you been? I remember when late in the 1990s, he came out with these visually and emotionally powerful movies, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf  and Pola X  I remember in particular. Seems he disappeared for a while since, and my guess is that it took him all that time to find the best possible way to fool his next movie’s audience. How he achieved this with “Holy Motors” is no small feat, the film is designed to look like a conventional business kind of thriller for the first 10 minutes, and then gets crazy. And then some more crazy. And never stops. We follow a day in the working life of Monsieur Oscar, driven around Paris in a white stretch limo by his driver Celine. He has a lot of “appointments” that night, and the nature of these appointments is what gives the film structure. There is an agency behind all this, and the agency is very keen on him going about his appointments with passion and dedication, they cannot afford for his professional spirit to flounder. It would be a shame to say more and spoil the fun of the voyage, but suffice to say that over the course of the film, with each appointment, the assessment of who Oscar is and what he is doing changes significantly, taking the audience a step closer to the “truth” each time.

Denis Lavant (also an old acquaintance of “Pont-Neuf” times) is at the heart of this, he needs to provide credibility to the absurdity of the plot through his acting. Which he does, full on, no breaks, no limits. This must be the dream part for any actor, and I am sure many would have killed to get it. From cool banker to crazy cannibal, romantic lover to leader of fantastic band of accordionists… he gives it his all, and he is fabulous! The film is fabulous, too, and I do not understand why it had so little international attention. An hommage to cinema itself, a masterpiece of acting and directing, a tour-de-force through all of life’s desires and despairs in the course of just one night…  when the film ended, when the final scenes provided some form of absurdist resolution and clarity, I was only laughing and thinking: what a great thing movies are!

Alfonso Cuaron has quite a CV to show by now: he’s responsible for some of the most thrilling, most intense, and most dramatic films of the last decade. Maybe being the most commercially-minded of the current Mexican whiz kids, he does hardly fool around, the stakes never get low in his projects. The end of youth (Y Tu Mama Tambien), good versus evil (Prisoner of Azkaban), or the future of mankind in what I would still consider a clear contender for the one of the best films I have seen in the last decade, “Children of Men”.

And now he throws Sandra Bullock and George Clooney out into space, and at them he throws everything that moves: Early on in “Gravity”, Ed Harris’ voice tells the two of them that they have a problem because of a “chain reaction” triggered by an exploding satellite. And man, has the concept of a chain reaction ever been illustrated with such vigour and brutality as when we’re shown what kind of havoc the laws of physics can wreak in the absence of gravity and in the presence of moving objects. The scenes that depict these raw and unimpeded forces to me were what made this film a real ride. Through the calmness of the opening shots (somebody calculated this to be a 17 minute take without cut, even though that may be a bit hard pressed when we’re talking about a universe consisting exclusively of cgi patterns and structures – no camera, no cut, right?) the scene is set for a first display of catastrophe, and from then on I was a believer in Cuaron’s physics and his design of atmosphere.

That atmosphere is one of perilous silence, where the lack of sound (“in space noone can hear you scream”, remember?) in contrast to the visuals going on is utterly stunning, and enhanced by a soundtrack that gives “Inception”’s “wwwrrrrrrmmm” a run for its money. I realised along the way that I find it thoroughly refreshing not to be annoyed by the sound of explosions for once, I hope the next “Transformers” movie will be set at the ISS as well. Or inside Mars, out of sight.

Dana Stevens at the “Slate Spoiler Special” podcast made an interesting point: wondering whether any others actors who could pull off the roles written for Clooney and Bullock, her result was zip… and it’s sort of true. Casting anybody but Clooney to fill the “Danny Ocean in Spacesuit” role would have rendered that part mostly ridiculous and incredible. Maybe the choice for female lead is wider, but the required combination of maturity and vulnerability, the credibility the actress needs to bring along as a tough chick and a hurt mother in order to do the many crazy things she does without appearing like a character in a jump-and-run video game, but still as a human being, seems quite a challenge. Even with Bullock, the feeling sometimes creeps in that the script writers had a bit more interest in machinery and gravity than in the (few, very few) people populating or operating them. I would bet that the extended spacewalking from A to B (and then to C) was triggered by somebody realising that this was the best way to have really mind-boggling imagery of Planet Earth from above (“hey, and if we do it during the dark period, we can have all these fantastic images of the Nile delta with the lights and all, wouldn’t that be cool?” Yes, it would!).

Some of the scenes are quite a bit on the nose (entering the spacecraft though a small opening, embryonic position…), some are utterly contrived (dream or near-death sequence providing Ms Bullock with all the technical expertise you will ever need to run a foreign space craft), and why it is that Clooney has to leave Bullock at some point was not really the most clear aspect of the script. But what the film achieves is that I cared little about that. I set my timer to 90 minutes and was eager for some more debris action. I did not even care much about how the film would end (even though I was taken a bit aback by how it did end, feeling a tinge of disappointment, just a tiny bit…), but reveled in its beauty and in how the laws of physics were used to heighten this beauty. Outer space is a bit like a condo designed by some overeager interior designers: usually not a very livable place, but it certainly one gorgeous to look at.

Side note: seems the most severe diversion from the reality of space travel was the absence of space diapers in Sandra Bullock’s undergarments. I am quite happy to accept that bit of artistic liberty, and that underwear design has advanced since the days of Lieutenant Ripley.

Side note 2: whichever idiot is responsible for the design of a space craft that only has Chinese characters on the control panel? It’s not a video recorder, dude!

Side note 3: “I have a bad feeling about this mission”…

“Pusher” tells the rather bare-bones story of a Frank, guy too deeply involved in the business of dealing drugs, ambitious to play the cool mid-level drug lord, actually being nothing but a low-level runner for some already not very high-level Yugoslavian dealer in Copenhagen. Around the level of Breaking Bad’s Skinny Pete, I would say, minus the funny bits. And he is not even good at what he is doing, unable to pay his debts to his boss, messing up his deals and getting overwhelmed by the network of buyers and sellers he needs to keep his business running.

Refn tells this story as he does tell stories: focusing on creating the right atmosphere. This is a bleak, very much un-glamourous drug pushing scene we are shown, with an astonishing amount of dialogue compared to his later films, creating a very naturalistic depiction of the life and times of this particular sub-culture.

I do not agree with those who see “Pusher” as a masterpiece, as I do not quite understand what the greater point of the script is. I did like the film, no doubt, but rather as a stylistically competent petitesse rather than a coherent and full-fleshed movie experience. But I very much liked was most of the actors’ performances, in particular Zlatko Burik’s creepy-crazy kitchen drug kingpin.

This is a childrens’ film if there ever was one: a very simplistic story structure, good and evil properly defined, no doubt about the outcome, and effects to burn your eyes and ears while shutting off the brain. That’s not a bad thing, but after the hype in the build-up of the film’s release, and after the reputation del Toro brings to the table after his previous work, it is a bit too straightforward a movie experience to get me really excited. It was fun to watch how much del Toro and the team enjoyed being allowed to pretend to be children again, taking imaginary monster toys and robot toys, hitting them against  each other and shouting “bang!”, “wham!” and “argh!” As with “Super 8” a while ago, there was a lot of talk about nostalgic glances back into childhood, about the film being “old fashioned” of sorts. As with “Super 8”, “Pacific Rim” looks as if the makers had more fun looking back than the audience.

Jonah Hill plays Jonah Hill, James Franco plays James Franco, Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen, and some other guys I don’t know play themselves, too. Hermione Granger is allowed to say “fuck” on screen for once, and seems to enjoy herself, and the end of the world is cloudy with a chance of bong-smoke and some other mind-altering substances…

Not much to say  on this, other than it seems like the coda on the career of some comedians who have reached the end of what they were doing for the last decade, and seem to celebrate this with an orgy of self-referentialism (which probably is not a word… anyway!).

And why not? I could rather enjoy this because I do not have the habit of watching all these slacker movies, but even I could not lose the feeling that there is not much new in this film, that I am rather served some form of executive summary of the previous screen adventures of Rogen and Friends. The meta-casting kind of works in places, with Jonah Hill insisting on being America’s Sweetheart, for example, or James Franco keeping all the props from his movies hidden in his basement. I am not sure whether I have ever seen Danny McBride on screen before, but it seemed that he threw some form of mature humour eggs into the basket, providing a welcome distraction from the rest of the bunch.

I suppose everybody had fun on set, and some of the fun spills over. Still, the whole movie appears to have been made for the cast rather than the audience, a grand derniere party of infantile dick jokes. May this kind of film rest in peace.

Chris Nilan was an NHL pro whose task was to intimidate the opponents and thus protect the more technical players (I allow myself to call them “the real hockey players”…) from indecent interference with their ice ballet. “Last Gladiators” describes his career, and uses this to introduce me to a world that is very NHL, a world I admit I did not know about: players exclusively hired for their ability to win a punching match, to stay on their feet while the opponent lies bleeding on the ice. The fact that this is not only accepted as part of NHL culture, but actually expected by everybody watching, as some form of side show to the main event of wondering who scores the most goals, was unexpected, and quite a bit revolting. I grew up watching a lot of international hockey, where that kind of activity is seriously frowned upon, detrimental to the aesthetics of the sport. I stand by it: it is rather despicable to look to deeply into this basement of the NHL, but equally fascinating it is to learn about how it works. The fierce competition among these hit men, the hot breath of the young guns the aging generation feels in their necks, the slave trade between teams, moving players like domino pieces across the continent. I felt like I needed a three-hour reel of best performances by Larionov, Makarov, Jagr, or Gretzky to cleanse myself and regain faith in the beauty of the game…

Ron Howard is and remains a master of simple but not oversimplified entertainment cinema. I think him and Zemeckis share that title, I do not see anybody else mastering the craft of catering to a widest possible audience, while hardly ever assuming that this audience is stupid. “Rush” is another bit of evidence to that theory: it is about people spending their lives driving around tracks that are not safe in cars that are too fast. Despite what could have happened in such a movie (and has happened before), the drivers and most of the characters surrounding them appear as human beings, driven by human emotions and motivations.

On some level, you could even call “Rush” an art house movie of sorts. There is sufficient use of German and Italian spoken in the film that it will probably qualify for best non-English language movie at the next Academy Awards. I was impressed that they chose to stick with the multitude of languages present in the international Formula One circus rather than taking the dumb Tom “Stauffenberg” Cruise  route and deciding that everybody around the world has to speak English with a stupid accent. Also, interestingly, there are some  references to German cultural life and celebrities that I was pretty sure will be lost on anybody non-German. Party at the house of Curt Juergens? Niki Lauda was certainly impressed to find out, but given that “Rush” is obviously targeted at a very broad international market, I would not be surprised if most audiences were scratching their heads, trying to figure out why this scene was there, and why we should consider it important to Lauda.

It is this level of attention to detail that is the fun about “Rush”: not just the names of the drivers swarming the lanes, but also the advertising on the cars, the music they listen to, the drinks they have, and the houses they live in. This has certainly be a dream job for a team of production designers, and as far as I am concerned, it was a job well done.

As for the story: of course I believe that the rivalry between Lauda and James Hunt existed in some way along the lines described, and maybe it even was confirmed by Lauda to have been the a source of inspiration and an engine of recovery while in hospital. Niki Lauda was there to stay, while Hunt made an early exit from the circuit and one from life not much later, so it’s hard to compare their respective impact as drivers and personalities. But I honestly do not have the memory of James Hunt being more than a footnote in Formula One history, no match in legend-dimensions to the guys he was competing with. There was Mario Andretti on the track, there was Clay Regazzoni, Emerson Fittipaldi… but James Hunt? Anyway: played quite well by Chris Hemsworth of “Thor” kind-of-fame as an immature playboy, who will not understand why it is that he cannot get past the boring Austrian guy with the funny teeth.

There is an accident at the heart of my memory about the Formula 1 season of the time, and I was surprised to find out that the drama that enfolds after that accident is actually no less stunning than the build-up to the crash itself. Did that season finale really play out like that? Then I have to thank Ron Howard indeed for reminding me of it, because it is an almost incredible story.

No need to mention this is quite stunningly filmed and competently directed, right? This is Ron Howard, after all, who knows how to entertain the senses…

Update Oct. 2013: 

This was the second time I saw The Chaser, honouring its listing in the filmspotting series of contemporary Korean films, and also honouring my memory loss regarding the fact that I saw it just over a year ago. But even after I realised that, I did not see a reason to abort the project, because I also remember that it was a really solid thriller, with all the ingredients that make the Korean thriller genre so worthwhile. It has a main character who is a crook, but still able to develop affection for the girls he used to consider only as merchandise in the game of pimps. He invests himself – his time, his business and his good health – to get back to the guy who apparently is responsible for the disappearance of a number of working ladies. The police is – also in good tradition of many Korean recent films – borderline incompetent, the villain is thoroughly psychopathic, but sufficiently controlled that we are not dealing with just an effort to avoid a massacre from happening. The script is more tricky than that, it allows to develop some form of pity and sympathy for the bad guy, who quite obviously is deranged, and in need of help rather than deserving our, the audience’s, unconditional despise.

They even manage to arrange a “Leon” moment, by introducing an incredibly cute girl to the story, who (of course) distracts our hero from doing what needs to be done, but who (of course) manages to crack open his heart and soul a bit, even though he would not really admit that, I suppose…

The finale is cleverly written, with outrageous developments leaving the audience ideally speechless. It is a refreshing reminder that deviating from the Hollywood formula of what satisfies an audience can make for much more satisfying film experiences.

Original Comments March 2012:

What’s wrong with these Korean people? Can it be that a certain social, economic and political environment systematically produces a taste for graphic violence, for the depiction of people hurting other people, for films that at some point feature a character (at least at some point, at least one character) drenched in blood, standing in the middle of a room with an axe-hammer-pick-axe-sword-baseball bat etc. in his hands, looking exhaustedly at the mass of human bodies around him that he has just beaten and cut to pulp? To be honest, I don’t blame them, those Korean people, I tend to very much enjoy these films with their uncompromising approach to bad things that can happen. But still, why is it them, and all the time? Strange, isn’t it? Of course because you have these central elements to every decent Korean thriller since I guess the Vengeance trilogy (at the latest, I am not very literate about Korean film history), newcomers need to offer variations – this newcomer here (director Na Hong-jin, whose directorial debut “The Chaser” is, and who has followed this one up with the very interesting “Yellow Sea”) places his elements in the framework of a cop thriller. You see at the outset what is happening, who is the bad guy, and how bad (pretty bad – it’s Korean…). You get to know the likable crook, whose main interest is to protect his investment, as there is somebody out there messing with the hookers that are on his watch. And there is the police force, which – again, what’s wrong with Korea??? – seems mostly to be a bunch of corrupt, imbecile and lazy slackers. Similar to “I saw the Devil”, the key is not finding the bad guy – the key is to trying to hold him in custody, and when you cannot do that anymore, to run very fast to keep the worst from happening. Now, this being a Korean thriller, it is almost the reverse of the Hollywood cliché: you almost expect things to turn out dismally, you almost expect all of your audience hopes to be kicked in the teeth… and the film delivers on this expectation to a good degree.

What distinguishes this thriller from others (Korean or not) is that it is pleasantly rooted in reality. People don’t just show up in places, they need to get there. They don’t just flee from the police, they need to turn a whole lot of hooks and loops to get away. They don’t just find the bad guy – they put a lot of effort into searching. With a city such as Seoul (or at least the suburb where most of the film plays) that is great to watch, as the place has twisted alleys and slopes, providing the structure of a little Tuscan mountain village, with all the opportunities for chasing, hiding, finding, and getting terribly exhausted after running up the hill. And at some point, somebody stands in the middle of a room, drenched in blood…  It’s all there for a perfectly entertaining night at the movies, if you happen to have a taste for this!  and

“Poetry” is one of those films that I have been looking forward to for years, and started watching occasionally, only to realise each time that no, now is not the time, now is not the right mood. It’s strange how this sometimes works, how a film can communicate from minute one that it is special and worthwhile, maybe even excellent, and still resists being started at an arbitrary moment. It made me wait until it called on me, told me “now is the right time”, and no surprise, when that happened I was immediately immersed and enchanted.
This is not the odd Korean “police man with mother issues” or “domestic abuse provoking vicious revenge” kind of film. It has an almost European calmness to it, a focus on one character who is neither a hero nor a victim. It is an ageing woman we are witnessing struggling with her health and her family, and who seeks to find something more in life than meeting the expectations of working and caring for her family. This is where the title stems from, she checks into the local adult education poetry class, and through this finds the liberty to do what she had done before: look at the world with wondrous eyes, allowing herself to focus on beauty and harmony rather than getting entangled in all the petty challenges life throws at her. Those challenges she has to deal with, too, such as the fact that her daughter has more or less dumped her son at his grandmothers’, and that this son is rather unpleasant and ungrateful piece of work. Or that a crime happens and the elderly lady has to deal with the consequences of that crime, and finds herself in the midst of machinations that she cannot possibly identify with.
The film’s beauty comes from two things: The first is the calm camera that allows actress Yun Junghee to elegantly stroll or sit through her life, appreciating her usually moderate pace and upright composure. She tries to maintain some virtues and culture in the midst of a society that frequently does not care about such things. The second is the seriousness with which poetry as a means of expression is treated, with a teacher who is almost comical in his earnest reminders about the importance of this literary form, and about the help he wants to give with students in at least catching a glimpse of it. I was tempted to (silently) mock this odd counter-culture of poetry readings, introductions of the new hopeful poetry masters and the various discussions about how to create the right mindset for writing a poem. But the film is too truthful to allow that, the characters on screen have so serious and unadulterated dedication to the subject that even silent mocking is not called for.
I am often hard-pressed to remember the ending of a film, and justify that to myself by the ending being only a minute detail in a much larger narrative and composition. In this case that will be different: in the same way particularly ill-conceived final acts or scenes can seriously spoil the pleasure of watching a film, “Poetry” has one of the most satisfying endings I have seen in a long time. Again, it is honest and truthful to the characters, whether it is happy or not is up to everybody to decide. What it is in any case is beautifully written and directed, a memorable completion of what we have seen before.

What does it mean that now for the third time I feel compelled to write about Breaking Bad (comments after Season 1 here, after Season 3 there)? Even after the cycle has closed, and the show experienced a mostly worthy finale, it is worth reflection, I suppose. Mainly because it maintained an impressive position about people’s characters: given the impulse, people can change, and whoever tells a story about people staying the same is a liar.

Not just Walter White, whose change from nerdy teacher and family man to ruthless murderer and drug lord plays at the heart of the show. With him, it’s actually easy to see how his insulted vanity only waited for the opportunity to break bad and show them all what kind of man, what kind of leader has always been hidden under the seemingly soft shell. His early efforts of managing his classes, his family and his career (with the key event of being cheated out of a lucrative business venture, as he would put it, years before the show’s narrative even started) leave no doubt that he is a hurt diva, and immediately garbs the opportunity to prove his true self.

But also the changes in his wife, or in Jessie the Apprentice, are fascinating to observe. They’ve had five years to grow and age in the show, and that alone would have left them different persons. Given what they had to experience and process over these five years, they arrive at the show’s finale as people very different from those they were before. Or maybe – just as with Walter – their part in the story has violently ripped away all the covers and costumes, and allowed them (or forced them) to be more close to their true self, having shed a lot of the costumes and masquerade they put on because it seemed expected of them. Skyler can be cruel and determined, Jessie can be unforgiving and himself. Is the morale of all this that sometimes a dictator is needed to get the most real character out of somebody, because only upon suffering they can decide whether resistance is called for? And only resistance to an evil force activates the primeval instincts that are sometimes necessary parts of personality?

Walter Whyte certainly created the his own enemies, he turned the flock of humble followers into mortal enemies, triggering his own downfall. He achieved this by being too greedy, not about the money, but about proving that he can bring down empires (Gus’, in this case) and replace them with new ones of his own design. Greed triggered by pride… a fatal combination. As summarised by the resident Breaking Bad philosopher Nazi Uncle: “Jesus, what’s with all the greed here? It’s unattractive.” That’s right. We learned many dimensions of greed over the course of five seasons of Breaking Bad, be it the greed for money, the greed for control, for being the most clever person in the room, or the greed for family and normality. Most of Breaking Bad’s characters are too eager to achieve their goals, and get to feel the consequences.

Did they wrap up the show the best they could? I suppose so. I have no doubt everybody was very, very keen on finding the best possible route towards the end credits, and the result was good. When looking back at the show in a couple of years’ time, I will probably not remember how this played out in detail (whereas I am already looking forward to seeing the final Sopranos episode again sometime soon, or the finale of the British “Life on Mars”). What I will remember is the two Mexican killers walking up to the old lady’s (witch’s?) house in their shiny grey suits, passing the crawling pilgrims, starting to undress. I will remember a pink teddy bear floating in a swimming pool, and a glass eye sucked into the pool’s filter. And I will remember the foggy eyes of Jessie when he is wandering through his own house like in a dream, seeing the party going on around him, not sure how he got there, whether this is what he was trying to achieve.

This Japanese animated film almost lost me within the first five minutes. Pop Idol girls struggling with the breakup of their girl group, and with overenthusiastically devoted fans? Fortunately sufficient seeds were planted to suggest that something interesting could follow. One of those fans looks a bit creepy (don’t judge a book by its cover, unless you are watching an animated Japanese film…), the hero of the story seems eager enough to leave all the manufactured pop star system behind her and turn to acting. This is something not appreciated by some of her supporters and her management, and so things start going awry.

It is fascinating to watch. The film manages to intertwine several levels of reality, dream, imagination and paranoia, preventing the audience from being sure whether how close what’s on the screen is to reality. It conjurs memories of all different themes from all kinds of film and literature heritage (“Misery” and “Shutter Island” I was thinking of occasionally), and if you have any ideas about animated films targeting children by principle, the film’s depictions of violence and nudity will cure you of that. It is a thriller proper, and reminded me that there are not enough adult-oriented animated movies around, combining adult themes with mature and complex story-telling.

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