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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Another great tv show from the UK, a clean-cut “Whodunnit” with two perfectly cast lead detectives, the grumpy and secretly handsome mastermind investigator from Scotland with a dark past (David Tennant), and the pudgy local gal with a conscience and a social network to maintain (Olivia Colman). Not much to say about it but that the way the investigation goes is rather run-of-the-mill, with attention wandering from one suspect to the next. But the show makes it clear that it also deals with reality, and with the cruel realities in small communities such as Broadchurch. If you are under suspicion of having killed a child or committed another atrocity, the community turns against you, and most likely in a way that cannot be fixed (ask Mads Mikkelsen’s kindergarten teacher in “Jagten”, he can tell a story about this). “Broadchurch” does not paint this over, it puts it at the heart of the story, which is more about how intrusion disrupts this community, and how dynamics shift with these disruptions. A place like Broadchurch, this becomes very clear, can be a very rough place to live, despite all its natural beauty. It’s the people…

Funny note on the side: a US  network will adapt this for the American audiences… because it is assumed that FOX audiences are too stupid to understand English or Scottish?? Any expectations about how the edge will be taken off this great show in the process are allowed…

After a stretch of thoroughly watchable and entertaining films, it was clear payday was due  … I am not sure who the target group for this would be. Children under the age of… say … 50 do not know who the Lone Ranger was and have not spent many afternoons with him in front of the black / white tv. The elderly will be appalled by the stupid and utterly boring script that features mainly people sitting on horseback looking over the desert and trains chasing each other in confusing ways.

Has anybody asked for this? After 30 minutes I was bored, after an hour I started checking emails, after seven hours (I think) it was finally over and I was glad. The 30-something per cent at Rotten Tomatoes is actually a very kind treatment of a very unnecessary and ill-conceived, ill-executed film. Worse than “John Carter”? Yes, and by quite a bit!

After Blomkamp shattered the establishment with his cheap and excellent “District 9” some years ago, there was the question of how to follow up on this. A small and intimate drama about Sount-African tribal conflicts could have been an option, a black actors’ version of Hamlet an unexpected liberating choice, or a big-ass science fiction cgi jamboree with star acting power. He chose the latter, kind of a re-doing of his previous feature for people with more money, and I am not sure whether this was a good choice. Despite all its imaginative world-scaping and wide scope beyond Earth, it feels a wee bit conventional. What’s more, if you can say after just two feature films that Sharlto Copley is a household name in the Blomkamp universe, maybe it should be considered to change this. Establishing this actor as eccentric oddity can only, I think “Elysium” proves, only be carried that far as a concept. While his introduction was promising (“Get Krueger”), he very soon started to get in my nerves with his exaggerated accent and his ruthless killer attitude. Jodie Foster had her own problems, it seems, it’s the first time I see a major actress getting dubbed over (and not very well) in a major motion picture – was she experimenting with a similarly stupid accent and postproduction decided that it is unbearable? The only pleasant presence – as ever – is Matt Damon, likable superstar and world saver, your boy from next door with the muscle power and the brains to save the day and the world.

I do appreciate the splendid look of both worlds Blomkamp conceived, the run-down Hunger-Gamish District 11 Earth and the Gardens of Eden on the space station revolving in safe distance from Earth for the benefit of the better-off. If you take these looks away, however, there is not much left to keep the mind busy. This would be solid for most directors, but I kind of hoped that Blomkamp would be one of the more edgy kind of directors.

They could afford one decent actor.

They had two great songs to work with.

They had three hours of stage show to condense into movie format.

It was a lot of limitations the makers of “Sunshine on Leith” had to deal with, admittedly. Making a musical based on the Greatest Hits of Scottish band “The Proclaimers” (internationally known for, I would say, one song) is a bit of a balance. Or not even a balance really: you will not find a substantial audience outside Scotland, maybe even outside Edinburgh, so can just as well go all the way and make the film maximum Edinburgh-Proclaimers-fangroup-oriented, with very little left for anybody not part of that particular subgroup of humanity to go with. Those others can thoroughly enjoy the energy of the pub singalong in “It’s over and done with”, have a laugh at the “Let’s get married” performance, and very much hope that they will pull off a decent finale with “I’m Gonna be (500 miles)”. Those three bits work well, and I wished those were the 20 minutes of film I had seen. As a matter of fact, the film is considerably longer, and it drags along in parts with cranking of shoehorned storylines zigzagging along Proclaimers titles, strangely serious depictions of strangely irrational and agitated women, very strenuous bits of ballad singing and an arduous process of waiting for our on-screen characters to get through their emotional upheavals and get to the next good song. Thanks to Peter Mullan for making these parts in-between the real stuff more bearable, but even he cannot turn this into a proper or even good film.

Great final sequence in front of the Edinburgh National Gallery, though. Wish I had been there and could have gone with the cast and the bystanders for a couple of pints down Rose Street…

Mads Mikkelsen is the one reason why I watched this, I would usually stay away from costume dramas around royal families, even if the approach is a bit more interesting than usual. Mikkelsen plays the physician Struensee who is called to the court of Denmark to tend to the pregnancy of the newly and unhappily married Queen. Those two enlightened people get along much better than the Queen with her sick and simple husband, and relationship complications ensue…

What’s interesting about the film is not the tender romance between to people of letters, but the intrigues around the Danish court, the strategic positioning of a liberal physician amidst a flock of conservatives and revisionists, a battle for education and enlightenment, and a tale about the weakness of the king against his bureaucracy. The film, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who was the screenwriter for “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, does not compromise or beautify things, it is quite sober about life at court, the possibility to battle the establishment and the degenerate nature of royal systems in general.

All this circles around Mikkelsen – with a lesser actor the production could easily have fallen into a Merchant / Ivory trap, but he has the face and stature as well as the seriousness to represent a silent fighter, lover, and intellectual (maybe that order is wrong, or maybe it changes at some point). It is quite astonishing how Mikkelsen can in a very short period of time pull off this performance and his even more terrific part as suffering next-door neighbour in “Jagten”. He is one of the great actors of our time!

Having finally identified Johnny To to be the one Hongkong director to pay attention to, I am working my way (slowly…) through his back catalogue. So after the splendid “Drug War” I took on 2007’s “Mad Detective”. Not knowing what to expect, merely approaching it through the name of the director. And what a stunning surprise that holds… it is (of course) about police corruption and organised crime and brutal killings. But it is also about a weirdo police detective who tortures dead pigs, then himself by asking to be locked in a suitcase, later cuts off his ear so he can give it away as a token.

It’s a while ago now that I saw this, but there are some vivid memories of meetings and shootings in the woods, about Detective Bun staggering and running around a world that he mostly shuts out from his stream of inspiration, a whole society of multiple personalities populating a dark world … It is a crazy and twisted film, but in the competent hands of To and Wai, I almost never lost track of what was going on (I was particularly proud of that given that some people are actually represented by as much as eight actors…). While it does not have the narrative density and punch of “Drug War”, it is another example of edgy and innovative film making out of Hongkong by maybe the one director who is consistently terrific.

Is it excessively violent, as has been claimed by some critics? Sure. Is that a bad thing, is the violence gratuitous? I don’t think so. Utopia is a dystopian thriller that does not really come up with a new story line (Katheryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” immediately comes to mind, as do a couple of convoluted Dan Brown stories), but what it does is combine the run-of-the mill “The Company hunts down The Kids because The Kids stumbled across a Dark Secret” plot and provides a new setting for it.

Very often, the bleaker sides of British life provide very interesting change of pace, backdrop and atmosphere for just about any story, and the same applies here: this is a very British tv show, and one of the advantages of British tv is that they usually do not shy away from extremes and edges. Hence: yes, violent and brutal in the way the hunters treat the hunted, at the same time often funny and peculiar, and even the kid actor is not annoying. Most of the cast is great, actually, with award for most creepy hit man in recent history going to Arby, the chubby guy in the bomber jacket, lurching slowly through this world, leaving behind a trail of blood (not in his face, though, he has this well-practiced habit of protecting himself from splatter…).

The only slighcomplaint I have is that I wish the story’s core McGuffin, a graphic novel manuscript that allegedly contains information on a number of global diseases, was exploited a bit more cleverly. I felt a bit let down by the actual explanation, and by the fact that the artwork itself plays less of a role than you would expect or wish. Still: a visually stunning and atmospheric dense, thrilling and entertaining piece of modern television.

Side note to US tv producers: six episodes is the perfect length for a tv drama. No need for convoluted plot twists, no need for quarter- and mid-season interim pseudo-finales…

This is the second time that I think a last dialogue line from one of the “Before…” films will remain unforgettable to me. Since seeing “Before Sunset” I love the wonderful final dialogue “You’re gonna miss your plane”,  – “I know”, and now they’ve done it again, albeit a little more pretentious and constructed, with “It must have been one hell of a night we’re about to have”. But that’s what these Linklater-Delpy-Hawke packages are about: to create dialogues, and to play the hell out of them.

“Before Midnight” is almost disturbingly populated with other talking cast, and a lunch conversation on a pleasant Greek terrace is more of a reminder of the Woody Allen dinner chats we used to love than the dialogue between two lovers the “Before” trilogy was known for. But the film needs to make a point: after courting and catching, the time of twosome-ness is if not over, but reduced, this couple has enlarged their social circle not just by adding a kid or two, but also by hopping amidst a circle of friends and a social networks that comes with a long-lasting relationship. The holiday weeks dedicated to having sex as often as possible are replaced by the wish to have as pleasant a spot in the sun and some local dishes while learning about the local hosts and having conversation about literature.

And arguing. I am not whether co-author Delpy intentionally creates a character for herself that is increasingly irrational and requires a lot of patience on part of Ethan Hawke’s character as well as on part of the audience – she is picking up a lot of the cliches about middle-aged women, about their shape, about their role in life, about whether or not her boyfriend would fall in love again if they had not met decades ago, but would meet on a train today. He keeps his composure, remains charming, seems to be very familiar with her randomly excessive emotional state, and sits (or lies on the sofa) through it with great charm.   He has a lot of chances to give severe responses to her chatter, but restrains himself. So I was wondering: is this film an instruction manual for relationships with agitated women?

She does not come across a very pleasant person, to say the least, and it is this honesty about how difficult relationship maintenance sometimes is that makes the film a credible, while still romantic and entertaining, bit of movie making. I can’t say that I want to meet them again in ten  years, but I never had the urge to meet them again after the previous segment of their lives. Still, it’s worth it, and both Delpy and Hawke show that given the right situation and the right director, they can be impressive actors.

If I heard the Coen brothers were to film the Arkansas regional yellow pages, I would not hesitate to buy a ticket. Which is weird, as their output is anything but consistent from where I’m standing. There is a “Ladykillers” for every “Fargo” and an “Intolerable Cruelty” for every “No Country…”. But when they hit the right buttons, the results are so rewarding I would not miss it for the life of me. At their best they are such an insurmountable force and source of beautiful images, sardonic humour and melancholic drama that I do not care anymore what their films are about. I would rather see three of their failures rather than missing out on a good one. “Inside Llewyn Davies” is a good one, even though I do not give zip about American folk music or cats, find the music usually a torture to my ears and the pets as well as their owners sometimes hard to endure. But such is their craftsmanship: Take a slightly talented, not too likable folk musician, expose him cruelly to his own failures (especially by showing him where success can be found quite easily: in a goofy run-of-the-mill pop song with Justin Timberlake), and then expose him to John Goodman, which is always a life-changing and creepy thing in Coen movies.

Even though Llewyn Davies is a person I would usually not like a lot, I could feel his melancholic quest for the next step in life, his lack of willingness to adjust himself, him feeling insulted by a world that clearly does not understand his art. To adjust a line from “The Commitments”: He is a person who finds it much cooler to be an unemployed musician than an unemployed sailor, but the result is almost the same, he is just utterly unable to get a grip on his life, and relies on what’s left of his friends to keep going at all. Oscar Isaac is splendid at this. Of course he is a suitable choice because of his dual career in music and acting – but he is a great choice in particular because he manages to keep his sad eyes steady on the dark road ahead, manages to suffer the slings and arrows etc. without even twitching, just keeps on going, with very little change of sluggish pace. He is kind of a Lebowski if Lebowski would have had any form of talent, but the result is not very different, minus the White Russians. And because Isaac’s Llewyn Davies is such a consistent and credible representative of this very life, I also very much enjoyed the music he performs, because it is a very truthful expression of himself, and the only thing he is good at is being truthful to his music.

Well done, Coens, to mix this melancholy with hilarious outbursts at dinner tables, cat testicles (or the lack of them), Goodman monologues, and all the rest of the cast typically populating Coen films. Utterly enjoyable, despite the music and the cat(s?)!

Admission: no, I do not want to be like the guy played by Leonardo di Caprio. He is a dick, an obnoxious (using that word the second time in movie notes today…) arse, a typical representative of a social group that is thoroughly despicable. On the other hand: wouldn’t it be nice to accumulate this level of wealth and spend it while being a nice and amicable person such as I am? The cars would be more eco-friendly (I am sure Lamborghini can accommodate that), the houses  would be energy efficient, the drugs organic and the hookers would be very healthy and not surgically improved.

I have the feeling that part of what is appealing about “The Wolf of Wall Street” is just that: that there is a decrepit life style in front of us that still few would outright reject. That the way to the (financial) top by creating an llusion of imminent wealth for a less market savvy clientele through penny stocks can be so quick is appealing, even though we would prefer different means. With Jordan Belfort there is an incredibly unlikable person at the heart of the story, a used car or bible salesman if there ever was one, and even such a terrible person can be clever enough to make a fortune.

The film does not miss a step in clarifying that all Belfort wants is money and what money can buy. He gets an early briefing by an utterly magnetic Matthew McConathingy (still frighteningly skinny, I would guess not quite recovered from his “Dallas Buyers Club” appearance), with the film’s best scene early on when they sit down for lunch and the introduction to life on Wall Street starts off.

The rest of the film is not as intense or funny, but Scorsese is a professional filmmaker enough to be able to maintain interest for his anti-hero that even though there are lengths and redundancies in the script, it never quite crosses the border to boredom country. For me, at least, I heard there are other opinions. The film even affords some bits of film making avantgarde by allowing editor Schoonmaker some unconventional cuts and scene shifts, a mix of continuity editing errors and ill timing, but in the end a very effective way of establishing disorientation where that is appropriate.

I was happy to go with the flow, even the sometimes disrupted one, with the sometimes dull life of high finance and high expense bills, with the slight boredom of such life that requires to step up the speed a bit more, bring in more hookers and more cocaine and larger yachts and – worst of all – Swiss bankers. And there are some set pieces – Scorsese style – sprinkled across the three hours running time (btw: Indonesia running time 165 minutes… that should indicate a significant decline in prostitute and substance abuse and Jonah Hill party activity, I would guess). Notably a slapstick sequence involving some vintage drugs, a country club payphone, a white Ferrari and di Caprio trying to keep Jonah Hill from making a stupid phone call. I was thinking that this scene could really pull an audience out of the drama, that it could be seen as a silly bit of movie star self-presentation and disruptive to the more sinister things that are going on. As I thought that, maybe it was a little bit true for me. I did, however, concede that it only stresses the character of this film as a satire, that it did away with all suspicions that this is a displaced “Goodfellas” we are seeing. While there are parallels (most snappily formulated  by a BBC 5 Live listener in summarising “Fuckfellas”, splendid!), “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a different category, always looking for absurdity rather than tension, mostly managing to maintain a state of amusement rather than knuckle-biting. We do not care whether Belfort / di Caprio gets caught in the end, anyway. Or maybe we want him to get what he deserves. Either way, there is no rooting, there is no imminent danger, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a succession of scenes of excess and absurdity. As such it is of course the lesser film than its mob counterpart. But it is very amusing at that, with the largess and splendour matching the most expansive Scorsese films such as “Gangs of New York” or “Casino” –  and certainly much more rewarding as a film than the dull and misconceived “Hugo” was.

“Dallas Buyers Club” has all the characteristics of an “Award Movie”: sick people, homophobia, a star in the main role who  went through a stunning physical transformation for this role, and last but not least the “Erin Brokovich” factor of the little guy standing up against industry and government’s collusion and immorality.

The good thing is that despite checking all those boxes, this film does not feel heavy handed. It is a film about the age of AIDS and how it affected people, but what’s more important is that it is about one guy who decided that he will do whatever necessary to not die, and then widens his perspective – not towards becoming a modern Robin Hood and helping all those poor sick people around him, but towards identifying a group of customers that has a high propensity to purchase a product he has identified. There is no need to love Ron Woodfroff, played by a Matthew McConaughey with angry intensity and no pathos whatsoever. He is sick, he will die of the sickness, but that does not mean that he suddenly would need to become a good or even nice person. He is a half-likable, half-disgusting hick at the beginning, and stays that way until the end of the film. The audience still roots for him, because by trying to save himself and make some money, he discovers an incredibly inhumane system of government approval for drugs, an industrial drug testing strategy that cares more for fast-tracking than for curing, and he discovers what it is like to be on the wrong side of the casual homophobia he has been sporting as part of his rodeo cool guy image himself. He fights against that system not because of the humanity in his core, because he is pissed off by them throwing stones in his way.

With a sensational cast of high and low profile side actors, from Jared Leto as as transgender Rayon, Jennifer Garner as Doctor Saks or also Michael O’Neill playing a partly disgruntled partly disheartened FDA agent, and my favourite Griffin Dunne as cool and shrewd Mexican-based doctor Vass,  “Dallas Buyers Club” should be a justification for giving out cast or casting awards.

Admittedly, I was a bit confused at the beginning of “12 Years a Slave”. Steve McQueen’s film did not start off as a Steve McQueen film, the dominance of stylised camera and narrative which made me love his previous work (“Hunger” and “Shame” – both outstanding pieces of art) was replaced by a surprisingly straightforward approach to telling the story of a man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Abandoning his visual particularities would take away his powerful emotional capacity, right?

Wrong! Fortunately, and stunningly, McQueen is able to tell his stories, he proves here, in whatever way suits that story. The sex addict and the political prisoner of his previous features deserved an intimate, and sometimes visually excessive illustration that reflected their agitated and excessive state of mind. While Samuel Northup, the main character of “12 Years a Slave” certainly has his share of agitation and emotional upheaval to face, the situation he is confronted with is, however, completely different. For the most part, the film is about normality in slavery. About the regularity of being humble property after a short period of catastrophe. Catastrophe becomes the norm, and most of the film is in consequence showcasing the regular life on a farm in the rural parts of slavery-stricken North-America. It is not about the constant quest for the escape plan, the efforts to rise up against the landlord or the fight against the desperation of being bound and dispossessed. Northup’s only strategy is to stay silent, to keep a low profile and be as useful as he can be.

In this respect, the film is a calm, almost casual description of country life, and at times it is almost possible to forget the inhumanity that created this situation of a “free man” being picked out of his life like a sheep being picked out of its flock by a hunting wolf. Michael Fassbender makes sure we do not forget, however. His farm owner is not just part of the slavery machinery, but he is a terribly deviant and messed-up person, torn between power over land and lives, between his urges and tempers. Being subjected to this creature of arbitrary temper (with a not much less terrible wife pushing the right buttons when necessary), without any means of opposing it, turns out to be the curse of the slaves working on his farm. It also, I was mulling, it was the reason why some heart for opposition against their fates remained in these slaves at all. You can easily imagine how a group of slaves settles into their fates of being farm hands at the farm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s relatively calm and civilised master. At the Fassbender farm, any day can turn out to be one spent in the comfort of simple labour – or it can end in being whipped to death.

McQueen manages to make this unimaginable act of inhumanity that slavery is imaginable by not trying to demonise it. He is taking his time to give the audience a feeling for all kinds of normality the situation entails, and refuses to create a big drama out of either the pleasant or cruel moments. It is credible how the days of regular labour pass by, how sometimes a chance for escape goes unused, how even faced with unbearable cruelty, such as a man being strung up on a tree, such cruelty is absorbed, and ignored, with life going on around it. There is no “Spartacus” moment where the slaves rise against their master. Even though that master is by all standards a terrible person, he is not a particularly evil villain, but a regular member of society, backed by this society’s legal and ethical code. By rising against him a slave does not become a hero, but merely a dead slave.

There is also no dramatic soundtrack score that would explain the seriousness of the situation to those who did not yet get that now’s the time to raise your weapons! The moments of particular cruelty are almost all very silent, because they do not require anybody to talk or shout, and a slave is better off in general only doing what is required. There is very moving singing, indeed stirring emotions not the least among Solomon Northup. But this is singing on the fields and at funerals, and it is very calm and intense, a masterful use of music to indicate a forthcoming change of pace and attitude.

Steve McQueen has proven (if he needed to) that he can master more than just moments of heightened excess, presented with artistically heightened artistic intensity. He can calm down the narrative pace, can engage at length with a wider cast of characters, can focus on a small group of people and by doing so open up the view to allow a stunning glance at a whole society at guilt, rotten and inhumane to the core without even realising it for the most part. While watching this, at one moment I had a horror vision of this story being in the hands of less talented directors and script authors – and I felt very very happy that it was McQueen who was telling this story with great calm, with lack of pathos and without any perceived compromise.

(It’s bit unfair to assign all praise to the director, I know. The cast is fabulous throughout, even though co-producer Brad Pitt is responsible for an odd and unnecessary moment that certainly was necessary from some financiers’ point-of-view…)

I promised myself to not fall for film critics’ promises of the next Woody Allen being a “return to form” again, I have read that so often, and fallen into the trap of of insultingly stupid Reader’s Digest Tourist Guide Versions of Spain, Italy and France, that there was no way I would ever see a Woody Allen movie again. This time it was peer pressure, however, the sentence being “You cannot be so ignorant not to see this”… ok, I did go and see “Blue Jasmine” and was stunned what kind of film maker Allen still can be.

How could that happen? Is it that a director would be embarrassed to present Cate Blanchett with a stupid script, so he put an extra effort into preparing something worth her contribution? Or is it that after some slight commercial successes (I think) he is at liberty again to make the kind of movie the auteur responsible for “Hannah and Her Sisters” would actually like to make? Maybe he is just back to the old rhythm of making one film for the laughs, and the next in memory of Bergman, and this one was clearly on the Bergman side. It is not quite “Scenes of a Marriage”, but rather “Marriage aftermath”, with Cate Blanchett playing a rather superficial but not stupid woman woman, some kind of accidental gold-digger who was lucky for a while but then realised she bet on the wrong horse, that the gold was all fake. With her husband a bit of a hustler and a lot of a crook (not enough screen time for Alec Baldwin!), she has to face the harsh reality of all the shopping trips, big houses and plenty of cars and afternoon cocktails getting ripped  out of her hands after the house of cards collapsed. She has to face the accusations of why she did not realise all that much earlier and got out of there while she still could (what was the name of Tony Soprano’s wife again?). She has to deal with the fact of relying on the help of her sister whom she always despised for lack of ambition and poor choice of men.

Bringing those two together, and throwing in the jolly fun but hopeless and somehow weepy boyfriend of the sister (the Italian really really bad guy from Boardwalk Empire’s Season 4), promises imminent catastrophe. It is a strength of the film not to give away who will lose out in this, but to indicate early on that this is not the kind of movie where everybody will live happily ever after.

Cate Blanchett is carrying the film with grace, sometimes strong grace, sometimes wavering under the influence of booze, pills and damaged pride. She plays a ridiculous woman whom we still can feel pity for, as the damage done to her life is not just damage to a façade, but it is profound damage, and whether this is due to her own ignorance or not – she did not see it coming. We do not need to love or like her, she is a despicable and obnoxious and supercilious person, but Blanchett plays her so well that I had no problems feeling empathy and feeling her suffering, wishing for her to find a way out of the misery she had gotten herself into. It is Blanchett’s achievement to make me want to see her get out of it, it is Allen’s achievement to create a film around her that is sad and depressing while being entertaining and funny.

This will certainly take a place in my Christmas video playlist, honorary member of a very short list that currently features only “Scrooged” and “Die Hard”. We learn that Santa Claus is a nasty guy feeding off children’s bodies, that he was put away deservedly and buried in a mountain somewhere on the Northern rim of Finland, and that the scientists who carelessly played into the hands of ruthless businessmen to dig him up do not know what they are dealing with. His minions show up first, zombie-like killer creatures that feed off whatever reindeer or kid stands in their way. Pietari, the young boy of a reindeer breeding family, is the only one who has read the right books and understands what’s going on, and he will need to become a hero in the fight against the evil elves and their buried master. He does that with children’s wit and plenty of explosives, and it’s no spoiler I think to say that he manages to save Christmas eve from monstrous calamity – and even comes up with quite a clever business plan for dealing with the leftover elves.

The weirdness of the premise, the oddness of the location, the shrewdness of the characters make this a fun movie. Mixing the Christmas tale with cgi monster elements, and throwing in helicopter drama for good measure is a refreshing take on the sickeningly sweet Christmas supply we are usually fed. Every slightly intelligent kid should prefer this over what Disney and Barbie have to offer, and the grown-ups can join the fun. Maybe after finishing the film on Christmas eve, the whole family can sit down to slaughter some zombies on the X-Box.

 Finally I caught up with this magnificent piece of film making: A family in Tbilisi, Georgia, is confronted with the death of the brother / son who lived and worked in Paris. Marina, Otar’s sister, gets the news of Otar’s death and decides to hide the news from mother Eka, as Eka’s health seems to be dwindling. Eka is the certainly loving, but at the same time cruel matriarch of the household, never hiding her favouritism for her son Otar, with his occasional calls or letters bringing the house to a standstill immediately. She is running the family with unpleasantly conservative hand and carrying plenty of unpleasant notions about society and politics. Still there is a profound love between all family members, also from Marina’s daughter Ada, a young and modern girl trapped in this conservative family setting – sometimes hating it, sometimes being a very natural part of it. Things develop as they have to: Eka decides to visit Otar in Paris, and the daughter and granddaughter join her on the trip without really knowing when and how to break the sad news to the old woman.

The film lives off the actors’ skill to depict the normal tensions of a family that lives in a society that is changing more quickly than others. Not only is Georgia subject to all kinds of turmoil and change, but the very family has a strong orientation to the West and to France in particular, brought in by Eka’s love for the language and culture. No surprise, hence, that there is the constant dream to go to Europe and have a better and maybe more interesting live there, first realised by Otar himself, but also ingrained in the lives of Marina and Ada.

How the drama in Paris, the process of finding out the truth about Otar’s whereabouts, plays out is masterfully done, with grandmother Eka running off on her own, making the discovery she needs to make on her own, and having to deal with them on her own. This is not done in a tacky way, but in a way to allow everybody to maintain a solid feeling of honour and pride, and come out as a stronger family despite the lies and tensions that we witnessed before.

About time the year 2013 brought about some impressive US quality cinema other than anything with Matthew McConaughey, but here it is. Bringing somehow together the best independent US movies can provide (even though I’m not even sure this counts as an indy), “Ain’t Them Bodies Saint” reminded me of milestones as old as “Bonny and Clyde”, as new as “Winter’s Bone”, with the “Assassination of Jesse James…” reference thrown in for good measure and for Casey Affleck’s sake (and I was reminded of the Terrence Mallick links by Christy Lemire’s review  … very true actually). Affleck’s eerily high-pitched and always somehow tortured voice provides the atmospheric backbone of this drama about a good-for-nothing who still seems to be a good person and loving partner. As it needs to be, the world wants to keep him from doing the one thing he seeks, which is to be reunited with his girls – and in a very calm but very dedicated way, he works his way towards them after getting out of prison.

This is not a thriller about hide-and-seek, about escape from prison or about cheating the headhunters. It is doing all those things in a slow, meditative fashion, letting me feel the approach, allowing to savour the desperation of likely  failure, never questioning that Affleck’s character is exactly doing the right thing, even though it’s completely wrong and doomed. There is never any doubt about where this is going, but the doomed nature of his quest, and him pursuing it knowingly, makes this a love story with guns rather than a western with a love story, with excellent cast throughout (apart from Affleck and his love interest Rooney Mara, honourable mention to Ben Foster as love-struck local sherriff and Keith Carradine as shop owner with double agenda). And in another reminder of “Jesse James”, it is the soundtrack by Daniel Hart, which allows the film to push the story to the background, lays out a carpet of atmosphere on which the characters can tread with soft steps, floating towards each other and then apart again. The music turns the whole film into something like a piece of video art, reminding me (again, seems the film is also about conjuring memories of other films and stories) of how I felt when seeing Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”.

Sometimes you come across documentary films that take your breath away. Does not even matter whether they are well made or not. This one is very well made indeed, by one of the leading and currently apparently excessively productive documentary forces Alex Gibney. But just reading some facts would be enough: over decades, priests sexually abused, molested and raped children under their care, and plenty of them being deaf children living in dedicated church-run boarding schools. As if that was not bad enough, the church’s institutions knew about it for decades, there is even footage and letters in which the persons in question clearly admit to their acts of crime. There is a letter from one priest to the Vatican in which he bluntly admits his past actions, but promises to spend the probably short rest of his life being a good and humble servant of the church. And he’s off the hook… And if that was not bad enough, the internal legal procedures prevented most of the perpetrators from being prosecuted either by the church or by regular law enforcement and judiciary, the canonical law of the Vatican protecting most from prosecution. As if that was not bad enough, the emerging cases were at some point all directed onto the desk of one person, future Pope Josef Ratzinger. And hardly anything happened… some priests were sent to work in other parishes, the purchase of remote islands to create pedophile-priest camps was considered, known pedophiles raise within the ranks of the church while the church’s management knew everything that’s to be known about their deeds. What elevates this film from a statement of devastating facts to an impressive piece of film-making is in particular the statements of the victims, many of them deaf and using sign language in the interviews. This may be due to the fact that I am not used to watching people sign, but nothing is as heart breaking as watching one victim describe and depict how one particular priest came into the sleeping dorm of the children every night, staking out his prey like a wolf stakes out sheep, and then picking one for the night. And what’s best? At the end of the day the film carries a positive spirit, of people who are willing to put up a fight against silence in the house of God, against injustice and ignorance, against an Omerta all over the world that seeks to protect the criminals and ignores, sometimes tries to cheat the victims. That’s what documentary film-making is about!

I am not one of the persons you would need to convince about the perversity of SeaWorld-like shows or any other form of making caged animals jump through hoops or pretend to be human. So I kind of had an outside perspective on “Blackfish”, wondering how a film-maker would try to explain to all those parents and aunties taking the kids to this kind of shows that what they are really doing is soliciting animal torture. In this case, with Orcas featuring in Gabriela Cowperthwait’s film, very beautiful, very intelligent and very large animals. I think it’s not a coincidence that at some point a former trainer said about an Orca being transferred from a run-down aquarium to a SeaWorld franchise “That’s great, we thought, he’s going to Disneyland!”. The same kind of machinated fake reality you can find at Disney’s resors you can also find at the SeWorlds of this world: Illusions of perfect human-animal friendship, of a life in peace and fun for the creatures, of allowing them to do what they like best, play and fool around for the benefit of the audiences. That all this is based on trainings involving feeod deprevation and punishment, locking the animals up for half days in cages that immobilise them, incarcerating them for life in prisons that cause them to physically and mentally wither away is hidden from the public for sake of a perfect illusion. And when the animal gets psychotic after years of being locked up and deprived of everything it needs to thrive, then penic ensues about this illusion breaking down and causing a billion dollar machinery collapse. Many of the former animal trainers feel terribly guilty about what they did at these parks, and it makes you wonder whether you should not shout at them, punch them in the face and ask them (after youpunched them) how they can pretend to have been unable to understand what they were doing when they were doing it. But it seems rather credible, as some said, that many were blinded by the chance to work with these stunning creatures, and that later, when they realised what they took part in, they could not get themselves to leave, could not get themselves to abandon their friends in the tiny aquariums. It sems this film has triggered a considerable debate in the US about the sea shows, and that is a very good thing. As someone in the film states at some point: it can only be hoped that in 50 years, people will look back at how animals were treated back in the days, and will feel stunned and ashamed.

#472: Top 10 Films of 2013 | Filmspotting.

One of my favourite start-of-year activities: working my way through the filmspotting list of films of the year. Some terrific choices to catch up on!

What can I say? Even if the script would have been complete corny rubbish, those two actors would have held the film up. As it is, the script is pleasantly non-corny most of the times. I would never have watched this film if not for Gandolfini, the terrible rituals of American middle-aged middle-class people looking for new partners and happy family life and talking a lot of nonsense most of the time while wearing fake smiles is just not my piece of cake. I am still glad that I did see it, because getting an insight into the tortured lifes of mostly obnoxious people is somehow soothing to the soul as long as these people are not me…. And Ms Dreyfus has one of the nicest smiles on tv, I adore her for her smile, wit and talent since she appeared in Veep. So these two people made my day, or my evening, while I had to bite my knuckles sometimes bearing the rest of the characters (mostly played by a very decent cast).  

A somehow very fitting and melancholic farewell appearance by James Gandolfini… I already miss him!

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