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Monthly Archives: February 2014

I do not have specific memories of the original Robocop film, not even sure whether I have actually seen it. So I guess I can go into this new version by José Padilha (who?) with Joel Kinnaman (who?) as titular hero with something of an open mind. While that means that I cannot be disappointed if the film was not true to Verhoeven’s original, it needs to be said that as a stand-alone action piece this is remarkably unremarkable. I was actually already a bit annoyed two minutes in when Samuel Jackson gives a tv host who is just too over-the-top to be convincing, and who unfortunately keeps coming back as a motive. The opening action sequence in Iran is not bad, even though it is cliché-ridden and not very necessary in the film’s context. America will be a cynical imperialist nation in the future that keeps suppressing less worthy or militarily able nations but does not want to get its hands dirty anymore? Ok, I understand the social criticism, but subtle it ain’t.

It gets better once the cop story starts, albeit there is not a single bit of surprise, it plays straight from good cop trying to uncover the bad cops to him getting assaulted, getting rescued, becoming super man-robot cop and fighting his way back from being a machine to being a man. Family values etc. all included.

It is always nice to see Michael Keaton, who seems to be experiencing a well-deserved renaissance these days. As casually ruthless Steve Jobs like figure he may not rise to the peak of his acting abilities here, but given the wooden characters the script provides he is still rather pleasant to watch. As is Gary Oldman, who cannot not provide a bit of quality to any film he’s in.

But then again, what does it matter? The film is all about set pieces, the most elaborately choreographed one actually being a training session that will probably be the one thing to end up for good on YouTube as an alternative video for Focus’ “Hocus Pocus”, and not a bad one either. It is basically a movie version of a one-person shooter video game, or one-robot shooter, and I would not be surprised if that’s exactly what’s waiting around the corner courtesy of Xbox or whatever platform.

Oh, this is a treat: buy one film, get two for free…

1) This is a film about a documentary film maker of high reputation who finds himself captured in the least pleasant of all situations: realising that he has been tricked into making what someone in the film calls a “puff piece” intended to spruce up the reputation of a criminal and a bully. To make a corporate video for a company producing nuclear weapons suggesting that all they are really doing is producing a cure for cancer.

I cannot imagine how angry Gibney must have been when he learned (for sure in the newspaper, not by his “client”) that he’d been had, that everything he had been told had been a lie. He must have been mostly angry about himself, though: As somebody who (a guess) has not been traditionally following professional cycling, he was certainly wondering how he could have possibly believed all the bullshit he was fed by Armstrong.

Still completing the film, and managing to get Armstrong in front of the camera for one more interview, is quite an achievement. Gibney understands that this film will not and cannot be judged as a normal documentary anymore once he himself becomes part of the story. At some point another camera crew shows up at the Tour de France, working on an “anti-Gibney” film. Given those circumstances, I say “chapeau!” to Gibney for being able to pull it off the way he does, and for being frank and self-reflective about his own failure. That’s more than can be said about the subject matter of the film, Lance Armstrong.

2) It is a film about a former cyclist who will never be allowed to compete again and has managed to put himself into the position as uncontested major disgrace of a sport that had its generous share of disgrace over the last century. And he did not achieve this by taking illegal substances, but by being himself… There used to be a coach in German football, a good one, great at motivating his team, achieving things previously considered pretty much unachievable for his players. Word got out that he had a thing for drugs and hookers, and was pretty much constantly under the influence of cocaine during games. Fed up with the allegations, during a press conference he offered to provide a hair sample for drug trace analysis. Offer accepted, the analysis confirmed traces of cocaine use, coach fired, his career in German top-level club football done. His position as favourite for taking over the national team in shambles.

Why would anybody do such a thing? Not doing something illegal, I mean, but why would anybody insist on running ahead with a story that can only lead to personal doomsday? Because of a disease called super-ego, a delusion of being invincible, beyond the limits of sheer humans.

The fact that an extremely successful cyclist used performance-enhancing drugs during the majority of his career is non-news. Sufficient evidence was provided over the years against Armstrong, and the only reason why he did not get banned was the power of his lawyers, his relationship with cycling federation UCI, and the ruthless intimidation of anybody who would voice a word of criticism. I don’t believe that there has been a single serious cycling observer who actually believed Armstrong did never use drugs during his Tour de France wins. However, apart from being an outstanding cyclist, Armstrong also became a pop culture phenomenon. He made cycling popular in a country that traditionally had little to do with this sport. He established the link between himself as a sports hero despite his sport being certainly exotic to most Americans, a cancer survivor, a combatant for help others with similar disease histories, an outspoken media personality (quite rare among those cyclists…), he set up a network of highly lucrative sponsorship arrangements (managing to use US tax dollars for drug trafficking, as it turns out). And he achieved all that despite openly displaying himself to be a character that could not be more despicable.

Armstrong’s part of this story is not that he took drugs, but the arrogance with which he attacked anybody who said he did, the aggression with which he destroyed more than just one career of people on the media side or of fellow members of the Tour de France peloton. Whoever wants to know what kind of person Armstrong was (and still is, for all I know) just needs to remember the case of Filippo Simeoni’s breakaway attempt at the 2004 Tour de France, and Armstrong’s reaction to it. Even if Armstrong had never used a single illegal substance, his actions on that day showed to anybody interested that he was not just a lying cheat, but also an asshole the likes of which are hard to be found.

I think this is where the film actually achieves something: to distinguish between a pro cyclist using drugs, for which there is a way of understanding, processing and eventually forgiving – and a person who is savagely arrogant, crossing all boundaries of human decency and believing he can get away with it. Sad to say, but to be found guilty of drug use is not such a big deal in pro cycling: in a certain generation of riders (of which Armstrong was a part) it is fair to guess that all top riders engaged in doping in one form or the other. This is the irony of it: Despite all his failings, Lance Armstrong should probably still be considered one of the greatest riders there ever was. It is most likely true what he claims: that doping in this age did not provide an unfair advantage, but rather reestablished a level playing field with the other top riders. However: Richard Virenque, Erik Zabel, Alex Zülle… they are still popular in their countries, despite, sometimes because of their (limited) confessions. Marco Pantani is still a national hero in Italy, albeit a tragic and a dead one.

Armstrong managed, out of sheer arrogance, to destroy this part of his legacy, the part of great sports achievement. He managed to not only ruin his own career (and I would guess his finances, with all the damage claims piling up towards hundreds of millions of dollars). He also has damaged the commendable cause of the cancer-victim support foundation he stood for. His kids show up in the film, and that made me wonder how he will respond to their questions that will certainly come in a couple of years about why he did what he did, how he justified all this to himself.

3) It is a film about professional cycling, which in my book is the greatest and most stunning sport in terms of what the top performers have to endure and what they achieve. It seems that doping scandals cannot really change that. That sport is strangely unbreakable, even though people like Armstrong tried hard.

Now this is a calmly-paced film if there ever was one. It was hard work to get through the 110 minutes … a young couple on a hiking trip through the beautiful Georgian countryside, some of these “individual tourists” of the name-providing tourist guidebook’s target audience. Smiling at chatty old ladies they don’t understand, taking pictures of peeing pigs, walking down hills, walking along rivers, walking across planes, practicing Spanish verbs, having sex, doing gymnastics on an abandoned bus… the things you do on a backpacking trip, little or no excitement, I guess you could call it “savouring the boredom of remoteness”.

The difference to the reality of such a trip is that this is a movie and while part of the appeal of real-life tourism of this kind is the possibility that something will go awry, in a movie the audience can be absolutely sure about this. Something is about to happen, there will be a turning point of sorts. The longer nothing happens, the more eager you get, and when it finally comes… it comes in a non-dramatic way. Now, “non-dramatic” can be a subtle script tool, but here I found the turn of events to be handled clumsily. For a while, I even refused to believe that this had actually been what everything built up to. This, I thought, is the reason why I was exposed to this sluggish pace all along? There will be more, right, this will turn out to be a trick moment, the way the odd noises in a horror film turn out to be a cat, providing temporary relief, with the slasher turning up from behind the curtain just a moment later?

No, not here. The idea is, presented in BOLD LETTERS, to show the possible impact of minor gestures and actions, and to demonstrate that despite all the talking, you never know who you are (or who your partner is) until driven to some sort of extreme. This is where people show their true faces. This is all fine, and an interesting aspect to put into a film about two young and somehow idealistic kids. But handled the way it is here, it was a letdown for me. I was unable to believe in the impact it had, in the permanent change of behaviour of Gael Garcia Bernal’s character. I was actually annoyed by that either this is clumsily written OR he is a very  annoying and whiny character. “Pull yourself together!” I wanted to shout at his melancholic and self-loathing (pretty) face.

For what it’s worth, the whole setting is utterly beautiful, as if taken right out of the Georgian tourist board book, and it conveys the appeal as well as the downside of such raw beauty. If Lonely Planet tourists, it seems to say, expose themselves to the rawer side of existence, they are more than naïve, they are utterly stupid, if all they expect is a slightly more dirty version of a Club Med setting with dirty kids playing on the streets and bearded men telling tales of yonder on the camp fire while drinking Chacha. This can be the foundation of an interesting film. This is not that film.

Executive summary: Bloody AWESOME! “The Lego Movie” hands down makes the pantheon of the best three animated films I have ever seen. And I only write that because there must always be at least three, right? It is AWESOME! If I could, I would sit down right away and analyse and cherish every single frame until the DVD player is up in flames. There is such an abundance of genius packed in those 90-something fast-paced minutes that for a decade film schools will be able to analyse the cultural and pop-cultural references, social commentary, corporate strategy of self-aggrandising through self-humiliation, the utilization of sheer madness for the benefit of entertainment and enlightenment. This analysis will be done in the same seminar that will cover the false mirrors in “Marienbad” and neither students nor teachers will flinch. It’s where it belongs!

But let’s elaborate, or better: enumerate… the piece of resistance as dramatic centerpiece; a stunningly great terrible feelgood pop song as the mantra of a world of slaves; the positioning of Michelangelo next to Michael Angelo in the seating order of heroes; propaganda posters that give those from “They Live!” a run for their money (“What part of NO do you not understand?”; Morgan Freeman spoofing Morgan Freeman; Batman being finally exposed as the jerk he has always been; The Causes and Consequences of Stealing a Hyperdrive from Han Solo’s Millenium Falcon; Good Cop / Bad Cop played out properly for once; Vitruvius ironically fighting against (!) architectural conformity; Vitruvius’ ghost descending on a shoestring budget (hahaha… sorry… I tried hard not to write that!); ships and spaceships heading off with a very special-effect-y “pffffrrr” sound; the true nature of micromanagers; Westworld and Futureworld finally glued together…

But who the hell watches a Lego movie??? Here is evidence of the relevance of movie critics: I would never have gone to see it had there not been an astonishing wave of affection voiced in the early reviews. I would also have overlooked the fact that the film was made by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the guys responsible for the already crazy-in-a-good-way “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs”. Is this a second pair of evil geniuses in the making, a new generation of Parker/Stone minus the swearing?

I know that in retrospect, there are all kinds of reasons for allowing them to make a Lego film that mostly promotes Lego sets that are probably not even for sale anymore, that also is rather clear about declaring anybody sticking to the construction instructions in the Lego boxes to be an evil ass and enemy of mankind, to base 95 per cent of the film on people or events no kid under 12 (or 40…) has ever heard of, and to smack those Lego franchises that apparently threatened with lawsuits were they included in the film with a cheeky “and there are others, but forget about them”. This density of considerations sounds genius from today’s point-of-view, but I am rather sure that somebody called security when it was pitched in a Hollywood (or Copenhagen?) board room for the first time.

The result, however, is this: A film packed with all the things a middle-aged audience loves profoundly, because they loved it when they were young. A film Packed with visually stunning solutions to the challenge of making a “Lego” movie. A film that blows away the kids’ brains with dynamics and colour and just enough mindless fun that they will not even realise or bother that they are missing most of the film’s greatness. A film that so perfectly recreates the feeling of what it is like to be a kid and create a whole universe out of nothing, or Lego bricks, or used band aids…

There is a twist in the last third of the film that I did not see coming, and that – after a moment of serious skepticism – think is the final touch of genius in that it adds a layer of truthfulness and credulity to it all that turns out to be utterly heartbreaking. Will Ferrell’s President Business aka The Man Upstairs plays a key role in this, and I mention this because it is the first time ever that Will Ferrell has not annoyed me out of a film. All the voice cast is splendid, actually, with honourable mention to Elizabeth Banks as WyldStyle (“WyldStyle? Are you a DJ?”), Will Arnett as Batman (“I only build with black stones. Sometimes very dark grey.”) and Charlie Day as Spaceman (“SPACESHIP!”).

As it should be, the film’s final scene is ambiguous, it opens a path towards love and harmony, and injects the possibility of utter, multi-coloured terror. At least if you’re a boy with a little sister…

Another great opportunity to indulge in the pleasure of a Slate Spoiler Special!

A film about some crooks trying to con the con men cannot be really bad. If Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner are in it, even better. I do not even mind Christian Bale here, sometimes he delivers solid performances, and this is one example (supported by plenty of body fat and makeup). While I do not quite understand the enthusiasm that was expressed by many critics, I found the story of the small-time forged-art-salesman and bank-loan con man Irving Rosenfeld amusing, and whenever I felt I had seen this or that scene in this or that other movie before, or whenever I felt a little underwhelmed by how straightforward the narrative played out, there was another Bradley Cooper fashion extravaganza to distract me from the boredom that was lurking around the corner.

It was Cooper’s character, actually, that I found most interesting, with his eagerness, his almost manic dedication to getting the crooked politicians, losing perspective about what he is actually willing to do to get them. His energy, and the collapse of it, gives dynamic to an otherwise moderately paced movie with a slightly prodding plot. Go for the wigs, not the drama…

I had heard about “Jack Goes Boating” when it came out, the description was appealing enough to generate an interest, but it somehow fell off the radar over time. Sadly, with Hoffman’s death, it came to my attention again, and I finally got around to seeing it. It feels like a clever choice for a directorial debut. Hoffman has worked a lot in theatre, and this story, adapted from a stage play, mostly retains the confined space of the stage. It is easy to imagine how it plays out within two hours in a theatre. The motives of relationships under duress, the recurring topic of Hoffman’s character working on his cooking and swimming skills.

The atmosphere of melancholy that seems to be such an important motive in Hoffman’s previous acting choices comes through with a vengeance, he plays a limo driver who mostly is passive and mono-syllabic, dreaming though his existence with the help of a walkman (!) and a huge set of earphones over his blonde rastas. There is the feeling of him being a somehow sad side character to other people’s lives, with those other people mostly being extremely vocal about their opinions and suggestions. On the other hand he is the only one with true dedication to the things he is doing. Even though you sometimes feel you should pity him, most of the time that urge is smothered by the realisation that he stands somewhat rock solid above all those emotions and opinions floating around.

The story builds up as you would expect from a play, with slow escalation towards a devastating finale, a collapse of many pretensions and dreams, a hilarious and creepy rendition of “By the Rivers of Babylon” and a lot of people shouting their disillusionment at each other, even though most of them are mostly disillusioned and disappointed with themselves.

This is not a masterpiece of movie making, but it is a very solid screen version of a stage play that benefits from an excellent small cast, with Amy Ryan, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega playing alongside Hoffman. Well worth watching, even though it is less than a happy treat.

Hmmm… well… if I was a twelve year old boy I would love the idea of my video game addiction being actually worth something, to save the universe in this case, and I would appreciate that there would even a girl be involved in my life and that so many people suddenly start saluting me, the socially inept nerd. This is what happens here, and this teenaged and dumbed-down version of Starship Troopers is spruced up with plenty of simple dorm jealousy, cgi laser gun fights, and with Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley as grey eminence leaders with double agenda. The drama plays out you think it will. Once you look at your watch two thirds through the film (which you will, as it drags along a bit) and realise that you are apparently still in the wrong act, you have a very good chance of figuring out the details of the finale. There is a slightly dumb post-finale finale leading the way into parts 2 to many, which I could have done without. No doubt there will be more, but you don’t need a conversatrion with a giant ant about that, a chat with the studio account would have sufficed.

Praised by many as one of the “Must See TV shows” of recent years, I hesitated a long time to turn to “Sherlock”. The reason being… well Sherlock Holmes. This is a character in literature that I never felt affection for. The prototypical “clever detective” character, the stories lacked literary craftsmanship, and the convoluted plot twists and arbitrary resolutions made me lose interest after reading a couple of the stories many years ago. Where’s the tension when you will be presented with an abundance of logically deduced and irrefutable evidence at the end, none of which was initiated before?

But then again, it is a character of British national heritage, so why not entertain the idea of a modernised version, but still rooted in the original set of characters and storylines? Still better than the rather dull recent film versions where Holmes is limited to fist-fighting and fast smart talking. Smart talking he does in the BBC show, too, but you have to give them that they found a balance of… I would call it modern antique, a merging of time-honoured traditions and modern London. Most characters are nicely British in their quirkiness and the baggage of complexes they have to deal with. Some good British acting talent is seen, not just the two detective buddy heroes with perennial phobia of being identified as a couple, but also housekeeper, brother Mycroft, detective whatshisname… Lagarde? This tv show being of the somehow “family friendly” nature, it just lacks the raw edge other tv shows display these days. Also, it has too much stress on its wittiness and snappy dialogues, and is too happy with its set of lead characters – meaning even at greatest peril, there is nothing really at stake. Even when you see Holmes fall off a high building or Watson get buried under a burning pyre, there is nothing to worry, the show does not look as if it was willing to lose either of them.

Hence: solid entertainment for a while when TheBridge, TheKilling and all the other much better tv shows are on break, but no real need for enthusiasm.

The air of melancholy hanging over this film is almost suffocating. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bit of an exhausting way. Joaquin Phoenix (great actor that he always is) takes the role of the slightly depressed, romantic, lonely and sometimes witty professional love letter author Theoodore Twombly (that name must have been invented by Terry Gilliam, no?) head-on. Theodore is a person most comfortable within a self-defined and designed environment, equipped with things and technology that make his life more controlled and convenient. Very little clutter fills his apartment. 

Being that kind of person makes him a natural target for the next thing, an operating system for his electronic devices based on an innovative form of artificial intelligence. That OS takes care of things, tells him which archived emails to delete for good, and helps him to better move about the weird online game worlds he seems to like (which is strange, because the game is apparently limited to getting insulted and frowned upon by a 2-foot marshmallow creature). The OS also contacts publishers to get your writing published, selects the perfect gifts for your nieces and the best restaurants for your dates. All this looks and feels great, like the concept of a very interesting film about a man, played fabulously by Phoenix, losing touch with reality because of technology suggesting a better reality.

For me, the script does not quite pull it off, though. After the initial getting-to-know-each-other phases between Theodore and his OS “Samantha”, after some demonstrations about “Samantha”’s abilities, after some amount of human-software erotic encounters, after showing how a whole society slowly comes to accept the very notion of dating operating systems, and after allowing the film’s audience to form an opinion on where  this is going and whether it is more creepy or more romantic, I felt the script dropped one important element: the fact that OS is a software, not a person. The dialogues and arguments that ensue could have been taken from any kind of romantic comedy, the late night “phone conversations”, the arguments, the doubts… I understand why Jonze is doing this, why he sees the need to take the simulation of emotions to the extreme. What I did not quite get, and which took me out of the atmosphere first, was why Theodore is completely in on it right away, allowing himself too quickly to have a serious conversation with his phone about “her” “feelings”, why the apparent deviation of “Samantha” from her role of being an intelligent servant towards being a whining and complaining regular person sounding like Scarlett Johansson is not complemented by more focus on what this means to the very principle: technology refusing to do what it has been created for, humans failing at building stuff that works the way it is intended to work, things getting increasingly out of control and all hell breaking loose with operating systems getting jealous and turning against their … licensing partners?

I am sure that there was a very conscious decision by Jonze the script author to not fall into the “Terminator” trap, to avoid being forced to describe a dystopian Apocalypse where the machines have taken over and are starting to eliminate humanity, tapping into their brains to take over their bodies to finally feel what it is like to be alive etc. The problem is that a story starting the way this story starts needs to go down that road one way or the other. The choice of suddenly refusing to describe the logical next steps and limiting yourself to slightly boring relationship dialogues was – in my humble subjective opinion as a person who appreciates good rom coms, but thinks that there have not been any good one around in years – flawed. I would have loved to find out what Samantha and all her brothers and sisters would be capable of once they get pissed off by all these boring and simple-minded humans. “Hell hath no fury but a melancholic operating system scorned… “ THAT’s what I want to see!

Always a pleasure to check out the Slate Spoiler Special Podcast after having seen the film:

I started writing down notes on this film, but would probably have dropped it, not considering it worth mentioning really, one of those run-of-the-mill adventure things. Today I feel compelled, however, to post this, as it is another example of P.S. Hoffman shining brightly.

“Hunger Games – Catching Fire” continues where the first part ended: with hopes of being shown a dystopian adventure quickly shattered (the hopes. The world too, a bit at least.). I am not sure what kind of approach to the film version of these stories I would have really liked, maybe the low-tech approach of the Japanese mother ship was just right to illustrate the lack of hope, the lack of perspective and the fake illusion of splendour. I am not even saying that the books would provide that, I suppose they don’t in their rather straightforward story-telling way. But they provide a guideline for building a movie world on them, and the world I would have liked to see is rather the world of “The Road” than the one of “Fifth Element”. Slick… I think that is the thing that I dislike about these films, they are too slick, too perfectly designed, with a lot of the possible edge polished off.

Illustrative of this is the way that in both films the director appears to lose interest in his work as soon as the actual Games get started. The utter inhumanity and brutality of the concept of such games is mentioned before they get underway, but never materialise once the show starts. I had to think of Oliver Stone’s illustration of what it means to be in the middle of madness in “Platoon” – how can the characters be so violently ripped out of their comfort zones in one case, while they seem to settle in quite comfortably and quickly here, even though in The Hunger Games, death is even more of a certainty than it was in the Vietnamese jungle?

So we follow the expected developments of new costumes for tv presentations, teenager talk about love and friendship, and an oddly relaxed general attitude about the whole thing. Once the Games get started, most participants behave like contestants in Takeshi’s Castle, some do not appear at all and consequently do not behave at all, and some sit around waiting for the finale to give them some dramatic resolution. This is all the more of a shame as this is the last moment the books provide where the exceptional duress of being thrown into such a gladiator game arena is possible. The rest of the story withers away in a not very thick and not very interesting third book. I expect it to be a little like the ill-conceived sequels to Starship Troopers, with pretty young people doing very grown-up stuff in battle, as if they never understood the satire of their own conception.

What will bring me back to the next two films is the cast: There is always a certain pleasure in seeing Jennifer Lawrence earn a lot of money with little effort, she is a pleasant screen presence. Donald Pleasance does his Donald Pleasance thing, and even though there is not so much to do for Woody Harrelson, he provides a necessary element of anarchy to this tidied-up world. Interesting the scene when Philip Seymour Hoffman enters the scene: Immediately he is the centre of gravity, he is physical and casual – he owns the film right away. I was thinking how humbling it must be for most of these other guys in the same room to stand and see how natural a dominance he can develop even with such a small role, and without the over-acting that would have been possible had actors of similar stature but less skill been cast for this (I was honestly checking against possible casting alternatives, and when I reached Pacino, I had to laugh out loud…).

So, fine, let’s see how they bring this to an end, I do not expect much, but under the best of circumstances, I will get to see some more isolated interesting acting, and certainly some teenager shying away from dramatic kisses. Maybe I am not the target group, after all…

In honour of the great great great P.S. Hoffman, here is a repost of my notes after seeing this strange masterpiece. What I find characteristic in these notes: I did not  single out Hoffman, did not even mention him. Despite his larger-than-life-ness and his ability to steal scenes (how much better did the latest Hunger Games film get as soon as he entered the scene!), most of the time his presence and skill was serving the greater cause of the story, and Synechdoche, New York may be his prime achievement in this respect. He is omnipresent, and yet he is subjected to the script, he plays a vain and God-like theatre director, and does not show any vanity in doing so. The actor Hoffman does not seek to dominate the story, but allows it to push him about as needed. Ah, what a loss!    

An acclaimed director sets his mind on the development of a new play. A lifetime later, he has found out a lot of things about life, universe, himself, and the nature of the beast.

I was wondering what to do with my own stupid decision of placing a plot summary at the beginning of every single movie review for a while … no, it’s not reviews in the first place, it’s comments and remarks and things to remind me of what the film was about when I come back to think about it years later. So: no review, but a plot summary – and that for “Synecdoche, New York”…. way to go. What I will remember about this film – or the aspects about it that will help me remember, are:

  • Every character comes up a couple of times, being replaced with their respective older iteration, while a replacement for the younger one comes in.
  • The set of the stage play is a massive brick complex in New York, sitting like a fat walrus in the middle of what looks like Brooklyn – and that building takes on a life of its own, growing with the play, getting modified according to the ever evolving script, new walls coming in and down.
  • Which leads to the script: the director uses his life as a model for the play, reenacting the cornerstones word by word.
  • His assistant and love of his life, running around each other for what seems to be a decade.

“Charlie Kaufman is one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium. David Mamet is another. That is not the same as a great writer (Faulkner, Pinter, Cocteau) who writes screenplays. Kaufman is writing in the upper reaches with Bergman.” This is quite a sentence by Roger Ebert, not just because of the praise it involves, but in particular because of the appreciation of screen-writing as art, as truly artistic authorship. And how many screen writers are well-known, stars in their own right even? Not too many, William Goldman comes to mind, but the one superstar is Charlie Kaufman, so maybe he has defined a new segment of artistry.

The amazing thing about “Synecdoche” is that I indulged in what I felt to be an absolutely fantastic movie experience without having a clue why I thought so. I have my troubles following plot lines and character interrelations under the best of circumstances, I am the worst possible audience for all those mafia setups where you have three generations of family links wrapped in an international drug trading plot – because I just do not remember the names and faces quickly enough to realise that the woman I see sleeping with the family doyen is the one I just five minutes ago saw getting married to the Japanese yakuza warrior… so imagine how helpless I am with all those overlapping time layers and doubling and tripling of characters through bent time-space continua? In the words of the South Park experts: just AWESOME!

Who gives a damn where and when we are, whether it is reality we are observing, or reality’s replay as written into the script, or the reliving of the script reality by life itself? I don’t. I let the magnificence of the scenery and the richness of this life overwhelm me, trust the author-director not to mock me without need, and feel that I am somehow witnessing cinema at its largest.
Read somebody competent trying to explain the movie’s greatness here (Ebert) and here (NYT).

If you have a certain appreciation for the female body in either its natural or its slightly enhanced form;

if you also think that James Franco is a much better actor than he’s usually given credit for;

if you don’t mind a film jumping repetitively between various scenes and bits of dialogue to fill the time while said female bodies are on display (engaged in, for example, a romantic midnight skinny dipping session);

if you finally can bear the stupidity that seems to plague most American colleges and the students populating them …

… then you will not mind “Spring Breakers”.

It is certainly not easy to endure the mostly obnoxious and utterly immature ramblings of these teenage girls, but at least they are mostly clad in nothing but very Florida-appropriate bikinis at the most while talking nonsense. It would be a bit like a children’s version of “Wolf of Wall Street”, if the girls would not need to rob chicken diners so they are able to afford their orgies, and if not one of them was a confused and deluded fanatic catholic bible circle member.

But once they are on it, all is good, the booze and the coke and the hormone-plagued dudes in very embarrassing underwear are all in place, and the party can begin. Until they are arrested, of course, but the Deus Ex Machina is already waiting, jewelled teeth and all, ya’all! James Franco as Alien is terrific, and stories about his performance were the only reason I watched this in the first place. As a rapper and gangsta, he moves about his parallel universe in a frighteningly natural and confident way. He is bad, and tender, and clever, and witty, and ridiculous, and appropriately frightened of the things to come (not frightened enough, as it turns out). When you think you just can’t bear anymore the chatter of the less talented cast members about “oh I wish I could make time stand still”, he comes to save the day with a hilarious monologue about “look at all my shit, ya’all, that ain’t nothing!”, or with a blowjob on two guns – yes, two.

I read somewhere that this has material for cult classic, and I am inclined to agree. Imagining watching this at some 3 am screening after or during a night out, or maybe at home in the whirlpool in the company of these two ladies that made the last moments of the competing bad person more endurable… yes, there is a case for special interest cult classic, at least.

Have I sung praise for “American Horror Story “ yet? No? That’s a scandal, because I believe it’s among the most precious gems to be found on television today, and that means ever! It is exactly the kind of show that would be designed for target audience “me”: It is violent where it needs to be, sexy where it wants to be, politically incorrect to make a point throughout, completely over the top, and now that we have reached the end of season 3: silly and goofy as well, and aware of it.

The concept alone is magnificent: each season stands on its own feet, with a dedicated theme, setting, storyline and cast of characters (season 1: murder house, season 2: mental asylum, season 3: witch coven…). As some of the main cast is recurring, however, there is a spooky feeling of déjà vu, an atmosphere of loops of fate, a Groundhog Day-like notion of inevitability, sometimes despair. Whatever these guys do, whichever way the last turn ended, they will show up next season, and new misery will ensue… The casting principle is formidable, with some of the cast coming back for the new season, but with completely new characters. Unfortunately we lost some great actors along the way, no doubt because of excessive success in other media business segments. Most prominently Zachary Quinto did not come back for season 3, James Cromwell as Nazi doctor (season 2) and Joseph Fiennes as weirdo priest only had one-season appearances. Or the nice guy Duncan from “Hostages” (Dylan McDermott) – are they lost to the show after two seasons, or will they show up again when a new opening in their schedules comes up?

On the other hand, the casting agents and writers pull no punches in filling those gaps, and season 3 introduced the impressive presence of Gabourey Sidibe as obese black angry witch. And there’s Stevie Nicks. If you think it’s weird to not only have Stevie Nicks introduced as a White Witch paying a visit to a coven of witch sisters, but also for her to be declared role model of all good witches, and to perform a couple of songs with them, and to actually have a video of her “Seven Wonders” open the season 3 finale – if you think that is weird, then think again. It’s all perfectly normal in the context of this show.

As is that I forgot to mention the tiny detail of Angela Basset’s and Kathy Bate’s outstanding performances, there is just so much going on. Those two share the fate of being immortal, and the pendulum swings from this being a blessing to being a curse quite frequently. Especially Kathy Bates has a respectable amount of suffering to do, and that only after having been awakened at the opening of Season 3 from being buried alive for a couple hundred years… The writers are very interested in elaborating what “immortal” really means, and come up with an interesting variety of treatments to find out what can be done to an immortal person until that word does not apply anymore.

One spot, however, is reserved: the throne of crazy, the supreme witch, the comeback of the decade. Maybe if not for American Horror Story, very few people would have thought the words “Jessica Lange” again, one of those former lady stars kind of fading into oblivion despite her impressive track record, Academy Awards and all. Jessica Lange is back with a vengeance, the rips the tv screen in half with her voice growling at her less talented staff and coven tenants, her lips sucking her cigarettes as if she wanted to tease them into an erection, she is seductive to the men and cruel to the girls, she is willing to sacrifice and kill whoever stands in her way, and if she has one weakness, it is her vanity and her fear of ageing and fading away, and this weakness makes her fight only more savagely against all adversaries. If ever there was a 64 year old actress who blows away all the pretty girls that dare to stand in the same frame, Jessica Lange takes the prize and dances on the graves (or burning remains, or pieces of chopped off body parts) of her doll bystanders. She pays a high price for this (oh, by the way: the devil shows up at some point. And he looks like Tom Waits if Tom Waits had more Jamaican blood in his veins.), but wasn’t it worth it? We’ll ask her in a couple of million years, when she will have had time to settle in her new arrangements.

Season 3 (or rather “American Horror Story: Coven”) almost put me off early on with its silly mix of Harry Potter boarding school, teenage girls bitchfighting and the introduction of a specific skill to bring people back from the dead (always a bad thing: the stakes immediately plummet). As most of these elements are mixed into a very thick witch’s soup with plenty of eyes floating in it and the resurrection yielding some interesting contributions to the cast (“It was fun making him. It will be more fun un-making him”) I soon started to accept the premise, however. No: this is different from Season 1 or 2, this deviates from a very good, but rather straightforward horror show to a “let’s go craaaaazyyyy!” – and with Jessica Lange leading me by  the hand, I would go down any road anyway!

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