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Monthly Archives: March 2014

This film is odd, to say the least. Maybe it is because I am not familiar enough with the comedy genre these days, I found its structure and narrative almost eccentric to the point of grotesque, and was outright stunned by the producers throwing production values at the audience as if there was no tomorrow: locations from New York through Green- and Iceland to Afghanistan (admittedly mostly filmed in Iceland), open ocean spectacular, special effects of Spiderman-like dimension with chases through Manhattan and leaps across elevated roads into burning buildings… while all of this looks quite fabulous, I found it to be in a strange sort of mismatch to the story. At the end of the day, that story is a simple one, about a simple man, with a crush on his colleague. Don’t get me wrong, the Icelandic tourism board can be proud of this, Mitty’s chase around the world for a missing picture looks absolutely beautiful and has very nice and funny moments with appropriate comedic understatement (say: the helicopter pilot karaoke singer). But maybe everybody develops a feeling for the appropriate way a given story should be told, and my feeling was that this very story would have benefited from being told in a more humble way. Funny enough, then it would have been a regular urban rom com, and I would never have been interested enough to check it out. One of the many paradoxes this film provides.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in the film’s center are very good, by the way, even though all the location scouting that is rewarded with a conversation with Sean Penn about Snow Leopards does not really leave a lot of time for interaction between the two. I cannot remember ever enjoying and specifically remembering watching Stiller in a movie – until this week, when I saw “The Royal Tenenbaums” as well as “Walter Mitty” within a couple of days. I think my gaps in the Stiller oeuvre are mostly because his movie tends to be in a sort of comedic corner of the movie world that bears little interest to me. Happening to come across him in this film (where it seems he was actually arm-wrestled into directing after everybody else defected, if I interpret the news clips correctly) did me a favour, because he is quite a subtle (and certainly at times very handsome) actor.

In summary: this weird creature of a film entertained me quite a bit, and irritated me no less. Better than being bored, right?

Now that my Anderson mini-marathon is over (not much of a marathon really, with just four films), I can summarise: same as before. Having another look at those films confirms that Anderson to me is in a corner of film making that is called “appreciated, not loved”. Seeing “The Darjeeling Limited” again helped me understand a bit better why that may be.

For one: I tend to dislike the actors he casts. There is a lot to be said about that, but the short version is that Bill Murray is better in films not directed by Wes Anderson, that Anjelica Houston is better in films not directed by Wes Anderson, and that I just don’t like what Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are doing (in the case of all Wilsons: the way they talk I almost find physically painful and annoying). Nothing to be done about that, I guess.

On the bright side: Darjeeling Limited had Adrien Brody, and having an actor of this quality around made me feel much more affection for the film right away. Unfortunately Schwartzman and Wilson are still there, and prominently, so I did not stand a chance of really getting into that film.

Linked to this, the other problem: Anderson does comedy. Now that does not sound like a very heroic insight, but it took me this mini-marathon to understand that that’s all he’s doing. My earlier impression was that he does some sort of profound drama wrapped in and lightened up through comedic and absurdist elements. On seeing the films again I find very little drama though. Whatever there is (like a family falling apart and trying to reunite, or brothers travelling together to mend the broken bond, or the deep water director on a downward career slope), is buried under and trivialised through bits of funny, visual eccentricities, and some absurd theatre. So it’s comedy guided by a bit of drama, rather than drama elevated by comedic elements. And unfortunately, I don’t like most kinds of movie comedy, and I do not very much share Anderson’s sense of plot humour (even though I find his visual humour often has a touch of genius, I want to have a Dalmatian mouse!).

Darjeeling Limited is more interesting in that it does not feature Anderson’s perennial voice-over narrator device, which I find tedious in most films, and found particularly tedious in the couple of Anderson films I saw this week. The film also has some form of plot in the form of the brothers’ train trip to reassemble what’s lost in their family structure, it has some twists and turn to distract them from this quest, a very (very!) pretty Indian train attendant and a cleverly used, not over-used, exotic setting.

But despite all this, the films trods along in a dreamy fashion, not just literally often with slow motion shots, but overall conveying the slow motion that you may find in not very exciting dreams. And as it was so clear in Darjeeling, I realised this is also something I do not find too appealing as a motif in Anderson’s films: they tend to go at a slow and steady space, do not feel the need for chance of pace, because they seem quite satisfied with what they are showing. A bit overtly pleased with their own visuals, they are, is that it? Maybe. In any case, it is probably the prime reason why I never watched an Anderson film (maybe with the exception of Moonrise Kingdom) without starting to look at my watch halfway through at the latest.

And what’s weirdest of all: I now really look forward to Grand Budapest Hotel… it probably means that I like Anderson as a director, but I do not like the films he directs. A bit of an odd finding (and I do not recall any other directors where this happens), but here we go, always room for new experiences in life!

While the typical phenomenon with me and Wes Anderson films is that I am pretty sure I saw them when they hit the theatre screens, but have next to no recollection about them, the exception is “Steve Zissou”. I believe it is the only of Anderson’s films that I have never seen at all (even though… I might have seen it, just cannot for the life of me remember whether I actually did…). Everything pre-watching I find problematic: the title, the poster, the story and the trailer. So much for qualified decisions about seeing movies… but all those things have kept me from catching up with it. Maybe after my experiences with the other Anderson films I’ve seen, that can be explained: it all made me expect that what I find unattractive about Anderson’s films I would find in its most undiluted form here. A detached narrator explaining about a weird set of characters, guiding me through eccentric events while never allowing me to feel empathy.

And it’s true: Like in “Tenenbaums”, it is easy to go back to the film and talk about the funny weird things: Wiliam Dafoe’s Klaus character, the film-in-film about a murderous shark that could just as well have been directed by Ed Wood, the funny Smurf hats Team Zissou prefers, or the surprising shoot-out with a bunch of pirates. Because there is no coherent narrative, though, but rather a patchwork of scenes about human weirdness, I find it hard to remember what the film was about and where it went even just a week after seeing it. Some bits can be liked without ever feeling affection for the whole thing. And it doesn’t help that Owen Wilson again has a lead role, which I find an unnecessary feature of any movie.

The strength of Wes Anderson is that he finds a visual style that will make me want to see everything he does, no questions asked. I now have established for myself that he is great enough and interesting enough and special enough a director to make seeing his films a rewarding experience. I have also established for myself that I cannot hope to ever feel the passion for his films that I would feel for other director’s work. It’s strange, isn’t it? But strange sometimes is good… quite frequently, actually, when it comes to art, now that I think about it.

I must have seen this movie when it premiered around the time of the Berlin film festival in 2001, but it is the prime example of me never being able to fully connect with Anderson’s films. I just didn’t recall any of it, but – as with all his films – I feel somehow obliged to give it the opportunity of another viewing. Anderson makes films that are inaccessible to me in a way that I can appreciate what he’s doing, while remaining an outside observer in a way similar to somebody looking at an oil painting in a gallery. You would not dare judging that painting after a quick glance, right?

Alec Baldwin’s baritone voice narrates and guides us through what I would call an illustrated description of the Tenenbaum family. Along come quite hilarious scenes of family members breeding Dalmatian mice or writing infantile plays about some kids in animal costumes. The narrator structure leaves me detached, an interested observer, receiving a back story that currently has no relevance to me. This is a reaction I often have with voice-over narration, I feel it is frequently used when the authors have surrendered the more complex task of telling what there is to be told on screen, or if there’s nothing to be told, merely bits and pieces to be illustrated. Hence: I was entertained by this … not sure, half-hour? … montage, but it reconfirmed to me that I have a problem with Anderson’s story-telling.

I think I prefer the second half of the film, when the back story is done, and Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum tries to sneak himself into the family again (quite successfully, in the end), and when the mature dysfunctionality of this family comes to play. I kept the position of impartial observer, though, frequently wondering about things like whether Bill Murray’s character would be promoted to a more prominent role at some point, or whether there will ever be a film in which I do not find Owen Wilson annoying. I think my lack of empathy again comes through the perennial use of the narrator: I am not asked to partake in this, but I am asked to observe, an Anderson tool that will probably forever keep me from loving his movies, while thoroughly admiring what he’s doing.

I can’t live with the guilt of having no proper clue about Wes Anderson’s films, of “not getting him”. I see them, I forget them, and I am left with the feeling that I should have worked harder to understand them and appreciate their achievements better. So let’s go back to all those films that I have seen, that I remember to have found odd in a pleasant way, but mostly that I cannot remember at all.

As I am doing four Anderson film notes in a row (I still shy away from calling those “reviews”… Roger Ebert wrote reviews, I sketch observations, at best…), many things do not need to be elaborated about “Rushmore”, as they are typical of Anderson, a director with a very particular and peculiar visual and narrative style that does not change much across his oeuvre. The one standout thing about watching “Rushmore” again is that I did not like the main character, obnoxious Max Fischer, elitist student of elitist Rushmore academy, master of all extracurricular activities and not half as brilliant as he thinks he is. Anderson has a thing about self-declared geniuses, see “Tenenbaums”, but while in “Rushmore” the misunderstanding about the brilliance of the main character is never deconstructed, in the later “Tenenbaums” the ordinariness of all those child geniuses comes back at them with a vengeance. Is Anderson himself fed up with all this self-satisfaction?

While an initial dislike for Max is necessary to go along with the flow of the film, a change of attitude, and the development of affection and empathy for him would be necessary to appreciate what he’s doing in his quest for love – by the lady he pretends to himself to love, and by the surrogate father he adores, because he represents everything his real father never was.

My attitude towards that Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman, never changed, though. I thoroughly dislike him, want to shout at him and slap him in the face for messing with lives he should stay away from. The one character I liked, unsurprisingly and consequently, is the person who knocks him one in the face, the straightforward, no-bullshit school bully with the charming Scottish accent. I felt like cheering at the knock-out blow.

Again, I was happy to appreciate all the visual bits and pieces, the funny decorations and school projects. I remained a dispassionate observer once I realised that I was rooting for the wrong team, and that Max will not turn out to be sent West, but will somehow appear as the hero to many people who should have every reason to cast him out.

I can understand why many people don’t like, others thoroughly dislike this film. I would like to ask for their forgiveness when I state: I really love it. Of course there are some motives that may be problematic to watch for some: a little girl helping her father to shoot up heroin. Scenes that are as close to necrophilia as you can get while avoiding it, and scenes that are close enough to indecent use of child actors to make you wonder whether there was police on the set to make them stop at any moment. Grime and gore involving deceased family members. Jeff Bridges being in hyper-Dude mode… pretty grim stuff.

On the other hand: this is a fairy tale, and fairy tales tend to be grim, at least the good ones. And the Wicked Witch is not just wicked, but rather twisted in her unrelenting love to her mother and former boyfriend. There is Dickens the neighbourhood “boy” (how old is he anyway? 17? 45?) with considerable parts of his brains missing after some apparently thorough surgery. But that surgery now allows him to be a match for the girl that enters his life with abundant fantasy, a high-pitched giggle and an unstoppable urge for adventure.

There are the decapitated Barbie dolls that can be quite nasty best friends, but are capable of honest emotions (terror, in this case) when being threatened with being entombed in a human stomach for all eternity. And there is Jeliza-Rose, the gorgeous heroine of this story, who dreams it all up or at least fills the gaps in her reality with dreams of almost Terry-Gilliam-like richness and absurdity. Ah yes, that’s because it is Gilliam who uses every opportunity to surround her world that could not be more desperate and depressing with all the ingredients that allow especially young kids to turn an unpleasant reality on its head and create a world of imagination on the ruins of all those shattered dreams the parents have promised. Jodelle Ferland plays this magnificently, with great innocence role-playing her annoying (and dead) mother, engaging with whatever is around her, including very unpleasant developments in her new family setting after she moves to a new countryside home together with her Dude-ish junkie father.

The film is flawed, no doubt. There are moments where you wonder how much of the film had to land on the cutting-room floor because of contractual obligations (it cannot be coincidence that it is exactly 120 minutes long, and that there are odd jumps in the plot). There are moments where you would expect a cut to a somehow more richly illustrated setting than what you get, and the thought of budget constraints crosses the mind.

But despite all that, it is a brilliant fantasy-fable-fairy-tale about the flexibility of a child’s mind, and a gorgeous-looking film at that. The grassy fields, the lonely house, and the underwater kingdom of the Monster Shark are all Terry Gilliam at his best, a feast for the eyes and for the brain. If, that is, the brain has retained enough of a child’s willingness to deal with whatever is thrown at it.

The good doctors at the BBC5live Kermode and Mayo film show have started a debate about dubbing films, and I can’t contain myself. Having grown up in the in the disapora of German media (basically everything gets dubbed), I am getting more and more angry by this debate. I am not quite yet on a crusade against it, but getting there…

People say things like “oh, wasn’t Brad Pitt so great in Inglorious Basterds?!” to which I reply curtly (and rudely, I know): “How the hell would you know, not having heard a single word of what he said, and how he said it?” Is acting all about the looks of actors? Rough guess: at least 50 per cent of an actor’s performance is about how (s)he speaks the lines. Without that, all talk of good versus bad acting is futile. How can you ever laugh about Russel Crowe when you have never heard him try an accent?

As there are not very many skilled voice actors who can do dubbing, the same voices appear all the time. Case example: the same German voice actor dubs Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Aykroyd and John Cleese … this may be funny, but it has nothing to do with trying to represent the skills of a specific actor in the dubbed version. It’s lazy.

Dubbed versions completely destroy the cultural atmosphere of a film, there is no way of immersion when you see a bar fight in a Glaswegian pub while hearing the actors insult each other in perfect high-German. I have recently seen a version of the terrific “A Separation”, dubbed in Chinese. No sense of the frantic and chaotic atmosphere at court, no feeling of life in Iran. Just people talking to each other in Chinese, and not looking as if they would want to do that, being in Tehran and all…

Dubbed versions get dialogue dubbing on top of the original version, they never get the sound mixing right. The dialogues appear dominant, the background disappears. It’s like people talking in a sound booth while the film plays in the background… oh right, because that’s exactly what it is.

There has been a handful of examples in the history of film and television where the writing and performance of the dubbing was superior to the original. The British show “The Persuaders” is hilarious and a cult classic in the German version (“Die Zwei”), because the dubbing authors decided the show was rubbish and needed completely different dialogues. But you know what? I would much rather occasionally slack off a film or show for its being rubbish rather than systematically be denied the ability to assess its true quality.

Dubbing is for people who don’t care about the quality of a movie. Here, now you have it!

After the first two seasons of Borgen I admit I was very keen on seeing more about this, even though I was wondering where they could possibly take the story of former opposition politician, then Prime Minister of Denmark.

Season 2 ended with…

…. spoiler alert …

… the announcement of new general elections by an invigorated Birgitte. Season 3 opens with a Birgitte who had been defeated in those elections and needs to find a way to keep herself entertained and busy in the private sector. It pays the bills, but we know that she cannot be too happy, being unable to live her urge of making the world a better place. No surprise then that soon enough there is a way for her back into the treadmill of politics, and she grabs the chance with enthusiasm. Less opportunity this time for family feuds and emotional upheaval, even the boyfriend sidekick that makes the occasional appearance is used to further her political cause. This is a tougher Birgitte, one that appears liberated from the political institutions that were, and feels she can reinvent the political system. The other women in play are less stable against emotional turmoil, especially former journalist come party spin doctor Kathrine sometimes behaves like a teenager after her first rejection, but maybe that is a realistic scenario and just appears as uncomfortable to watch on screen as it does in life.

The show continues to work its way along a “human West Wing” track, with the superbrains of Sorkin’s White House soap replaced with people more easy to identify with, to the point of me trying to figure out how I would deal with the decision-making situations at hand. This cumulates towards the season finale, when the question comes up whether moderate political success can be turned into prestige by way of shortcuts, and what the right thing to do is given a very specific set of choices. That these discussions about the fate of the Danish government take place in the casual settings of corridors or broom closets makes Borgen a pleasant alternative to the glitzy American productions with similar topics. But the true strength of the show is the feeling of the importance of politics, as a process of shaping society rather than the mere urge to run it.

If Season 3 really was the final season, as Price indicated, that is a clever move. All conceivable scenarios have been worked, and by replaying earlier scenarios the show would risk losing credibility. Still sad to say good bye though…

There is quite a lot of hype about this show, it has all the ingredients that seem to work these days, with plenty of wigs and contemporary (60s and 80s) costumes, and with a cold war atmosphere of snooping and spying that seems to experience a renaissance .

The starting point of a Russian KGB couple embedded in American society is nice enough and provides for some promising expectations, some of which come to play already in Season 1: apart from the generally complicated task of getting information on US missile defense systems, FBI operations and foreign policy, the interesting bit is how to make this work while living a supposedly regular suburban life with children and colleagues, and living a bunch of parallel relationships while trying to figure out what the own marriage is all about. And then there is that neighbour… that neighbour is an FBI counterintelligence officer and is played by an immensely intense Noel Schumacher, fighting his own demons at work and at home, and honestly being the one character that is truly interesting (maybe with the exception of that KGB granny of “Justified” fame).

As these shows go, you are dealing with a mix of long-term narrative (all  marriages disintegrating, the FBI guy’s relationship with a KGB staffer turned to become an FBI snitch) while providing crime-show-like one-off suspense through the missions our spying heroes have to complete. The latter I could do without, actually, I feel the show would benefit from allowing its characters to have a more long-term approach, a Soprano-like appreciation of life being mostly about nothing special happening, even amidst a life of crime, and this nothing special being the engine of fate.

One interesting aspect is that the two “illegals” (i.e. Russian spies) we are to identify with are quite nice people, while committing all sorts of crimes. Does that qualify as a moral dilemma? Not really actually, maybe because by now we are used to this in quality tv, but I felt it easy to accept that most of the people affected by fatal violence had it coming one way or the other, by being not very nice people, or by choosing a line of work that frequently gets you killed.

The twist that worked for me quite nicely is that any audience perception of “them” being the bad guys despite being nice guys, and “us” being in a position to do whatever is needed to defend against them, is shattered halfway through the show by showing that moral integrity is not as clearly allocated as some might have wished for. Hence: no more good guys / bad guys scenarios, but rather a fierce war for survival frequently thwarted by uncalled-for emotions and personal affections. If they carry this ambiguity into season 2, there is a chance for the show of getting from pretty good to pretty damn good.

A Thor who looks like the annoying race driver from Rush, a Loki who looks like a junior Michael Sheen, a rather entertaining girl sidekick to that other princess from those other Star Wars movies, and a rather nice use of London as victim of serious destruction. That’s all there is to say. Oh, and kind of full frontal and other nudity from Stellan Skarsgard, that’s something to consider when deciding whether you’re up to the challenge of seeing this.

There are not many reasons, really, it’s another one of these banalities that are more quickly forgotten than produced… The one thing that really made me think was why pay a lot of money for SIR Anthony Hopkins when you then hide him behind all that facial hair and eye patch… but in the words of Michael Caine: … I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific …

Coming back to some of Philip Seymor Hoffman’s earlier films, I realised that I have actually never seen this “Mr Ripley”, very odd, but maybe to be explained by the fact that it is based on a Patricia Highsmith story, which I generally do not appreciate too much.

Knowing the general thrust of the story, I did not find myself surprised too often, and there was a point around minute 90 where I thought that this would have been a very nice film would it stop here. It carried on for quite a bit longer, and I felt it somehow lost the density of its plot in that extra time and the extra locations. It still is quite entertaining, despite the fact that considerable level of suspension of disbelief is frequently required to go along with all the ways Ripley manages to avoid his double identity blowing into his face. Whenever that happens, there is the chance to get distracted in the beautiful shots proudly presented by the Italian tourism board, which certainly must have been quite happy about the display of living wealthy and cultured lives in their villages and cities.

As happened so frequently: Hoffman steals the scenes, he is probably on screen no longer than 15 minutes altogether, but he is energetic and dynamic and sly, and is the only person to manage having me take a position in the plot: I did not care too much who of all the obnoxious characters the script is full of will have the better end, but when Hoffman’s Freddie Miles comes on, I was a fanboy right away. He is also obnoxious and annoying, but in a nice and honest way, a bonvivant you want to hang out with and benefit from. Babyfaced Matt Damon is no match, and the strength of the script is maybe that it makes audience sympathies turn at some point, and accept Ripley as what he is, a liar, a cheat, a murderer.

This film works much better if you are familiar with the Mary Poppins film of 1964 the genesis of which it describes, and even more fun if you read up on the complicated history of that film and the problematic characters of both Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) at the heart of it. I have not seen Mary Poppins in about 30 years, I would say, and only know a little bit about fighting about the production. But still, to my surprise, it worked for me as a piece of slightly cheesy entertainment, pressing some of the right buttons. The back story of the mostly misogynistic children’s book author was presented to provide an interpretation of where she comes from and why she is the twisted person that she appears to be. Hollywood serves as a backdrop of absurd theatre as well as of somehow ruthless capitalism, albeit somehow charmingly so (you have to give them that they are rather enthusiastic about what they are doing). There are some foot-tapping-inducing bits of music from Mary Poppins, some tear-inducing scenes of families breaking apart, and it would not be a proper Hollywood-Disney film would there not be a finale that provides closure and an upbeat note for everybody. All a bit of a lie, really, but who cares in a film about a film about flying nannies and dancing penguins?

Revisiting Mary Poppins is lined up, and now I am actually looking forward to seeing it again at last.

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