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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Disclaimer: I do not have a history of watching Japanese “Godzilla vs. King Kong”, or “Godzilla versus The Flying Beast from Outer Space”, or “Godzilla’s Babies” or “Some Japanese Scientists Throw Nukes at Some Godzilla Clone” films. Never was a fan, I am a man of good taste, you know. Hence the only film that I ever liked that I considered to be a Godzilla movie was “The Beast from 20 000 fathoms”, which technically is not a Godzilla film, but a film about a beast from 20 000 fathoms. It also has Lee van Cleef in it and a monster made by Ray Harryhausen, consequently it is way above the actual Godzilla  paygrade.

Still, for some reason the Godzilla myth is part of my cultural DNA. To what degree that is the case I only realised when I saw Roland Emmerich’s weird 1998 film, where the monster tends to grow smaller and larger depending on whether it is about to squash a skyscraper or squeeze through a subway tunnel, and looks like a leftover from Jurassic Park anyway. Not a good film, I was disappointed and still hold a grudge against Jean Reno for this. I don’t know why, really, because I do not remember what part he played, but he was the only actor I knew in that film, so here we go.

And now, I slightly panicked when I realised that after a couple of days, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla film was already on its way out of the theatres. Having heard about the supposedly quite splendid sound design, this was worse news than it had any right to be. I needed to see this film, and on the big screen with the Dolby system amped to 11. It seemed that this Godzilla person was something to be reckoned with. Because it is has been part of my early wasted years somehow, and because Gareth Edwards made an interesting film about Monsters before. Not as good a film as many hold it to be, I think, but still an indication of technical and narrative skills.

Edwards’ Godzilla is not a film I will hold in eternal esteem as part of my “Camp Pantheon”, such as, say “Terminator”, “Independence Day” or “Escape from New York”. It is too normal for that, in a way, too straightforward. But I thoroughly enjoyed most of it nonetheless. Gareth Edwards has seen too many monster films, I think, and he knows exactly what can go wrong about them. So there is an early divertion with a monster that is awoken by accident, etc. etc., only to turn out NOT to be Godzilla. Nice move, I think, even though that particular monster’s design I did not find very inspiring. When we do get some Godzilla proper later on, what I did enjoy in particular is the casual way in which the perspective moves about, looking away from Godzilla and its little winged frenemy Motu (is that the name?) just when they engage in battle. As long as possible, actually throughout the film, Edwards tries to avoid full attention to the fight scenes. He learned a lot of lessons from a lot of terrible movies (most of them “Transformers” variations, I would reckon): as soon as you focus on something very ridiculous, such as a fist-and-teeth-fight between a giant lizard and a giant Spider-ish-thingy, there is imminent danger of that set piece getting very boring very quickly. How many ways are there a lizard can bite a wing, or a spider can stab a lizard (or a robot can hit another robot, or a hobbit can kill an orc)? Exactly! Edwards knows that (Bay does not, and will never learn), and consequently, most of the time, those fights are in the background, on tv, or only the aftermath is shown in the form of seriously redesigned city landscapes (I have some friends in Honolulu, need to check with them whether they got out ok…). That is clever design within the limits of what you can do in a monster movie, and it reflects Edwards’ philosophy of directing “Monsters” some years ago. That film was very economic with monsters, maybe because of budget limits, but maybe because of the recognition that even the most perilous things lose their peril once they are on camera for too long.

The frantic and desperate American scientist, the cool and composed Japanese scientist, the separated and reunited family, the military apparatus in motion, the ambiguity about a morality to the monsters… I think there are not many ways in which such a Godzilla revamping could be done better. It’s not the execution of the film that left me a bit emotionally reserved, it was rather the genre as such, which comes down to tanks shooting at monsters, while they are biting and hitting each other on the snot. There are some artistic limits to that…, But what about coming back to the original idea of “Monsters” and showing what life would look like once Motu has more babies (say a couple of billion) and the monsters take over? “World War Z” meets “Monsters” meets “The Road”? I would pay for that!

(Side note on the actors: Juliette Binoche is in that film for about three minutes screen time, and she looks spectacular! Bryan Cranston is in the film a bit longer, and does not look so good. But at least he’s got hair again… The hero person is unbeknownst to me and looks like a regular action hero in B movies. Godzilla plays him- / herself and is doing a good job and recommends him-/herself for a return in a sequel.)

Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne in one film, directed by a Mr Anderson. That could be a good thing. Unfortunately it is the very worst conceivable Mr Anderson out of the available ones  – the one with the unique ability to throw a lot of money at the audience, only to bore them senseless (see the recent Pompeii) … and it is not the best phase in the careers of Mr’s Neill and Fishburne where they get to meet him.

I am the first person to enjoy a bit of rubbish SciFi horror nonsense, my affection for the oeuvre of John Carpenter bears witness to this. “Event Horizon”, however, is like you remove the fun parts out of “Ghosts of Mars” (yes, there are some!) and add the bad parts from “The Abyss” (of which there are many) as well as any part from “Stargate” (which consists exclusively of not very good bits, IMHO).

You end up with a completely generic bit of “Our spaceship is on a rescue mission and it is going oh so wrong, damn you, genius but crazy scientist!”.  It is a boring mess, and not in a good way. Even the best part, the cgi design of the space ship and neighbouring planets, is annoying, as its quality stands in such stark design to the characters and the plot. As if the aim had been to make a nice IMAX space documentary, and then some 47 Dollars were left over to throw in some recognisable but cheap actors.

Not a classic…

Wow, reading the cast list alone makes it hard to believe this is a made-for-tv drama: Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Michael Gambon, Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham-Carter, Christopher Walken, Rupert Graves, Ralph Fiennes… and they are all doing their best!

The story of this made-for-BBC trilogy is about spying, old style. MI5 agent Johnny Worricker gets his hands on a file he should not get his hands on, he decides there must be a reason for the file being out there, and when his administration turns against him, he disappears and pursues the case on his own. Now this could sound like the latest “24” season, but mind you, it is the British Secret Service we are talking about here. The films are much more “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” than “24”, and most people maintain a very cultivated tone when accusing each other of espionage, torture or cheating governments out of tax payers’ money.

Which is not to say it is not a thrilling show to watch. Worricker is on the move across Europe for a large part, he needs to be alert and able to move on as soon as there is a threat of being discovered, he needs to face the very real threat of crooked businessmen who somehow have allied with the Prime Minister. Not as many people die as would in a regular “24” episode, but some do, and their deaths actually do have an impact.

I am not sure whether all three films are of the same quality, or whether a trilogy had been planned from the outset. I did feel a bit less enthusiastic about part 2 “Turks & Caicos”, as it enjoyed a little bit too much the possibility of nice sunsets and swanky hotel bars, and maybe allowed itself to got distracted from the characters. Still, all in all a very very rewarding piece of entertainment, with not just famous, but throughout excellent actors.

Page Eight (2011)

Turks & Cacos (2014)

Salting the battlefield (2014)



“The Andromeda Strain” terrified me as a kid, again and again. Seems the tv schedulers loved it almost as much as I did, because it feels as if I have seen this 20 times during my fragile young years… But seeing it again in our hi-tech age will certainly cut off some of the edges, and it will appear as a somehow amusing effort at tech thriller in a pre-tech age, right? Fascinating to see that the film is perfectly effective in what it is doing, and in particular in depicting the laboratory environment in which some form of possibly alien possibly lethal possibly life form is analysed. This is not just a lab, it is a system sucking in scientists, who need to descend through one circle of hellish sterility a fter another until they end being locked up hundreds of metres below the desert together with their object of fascination. The design of that scenery is terribly disconcerting, I remember when seeing this years ago, the most memorable thing was the cruel choice of colour coding for the respective levels, and I was all sympathetic when one of the researchers got epileptic fits from the occasional red lights flashing on some control panel or the ceiling. If you never had claustrophobia, watching this film might be a very good first step towards it.

The film mostly refuses to engage in apocalyptic drama, despite the threat being substantial. It follows the professionals in a sober manner not unlike what Steven Soderbergh did in his recent “Contagion”. People of a certain skill set are brought together not to reassure each other that “Oh My God, we’re all going to die!”, but to make sure we are not. So each one of them has their little area of work, alone in the system, and there is only one area of humanity, a patient ward where two survivors of the outbreak, an old drunk and a baby, are held behind contagion-proof glass walls.

At some point there is a turn to the more dramatic, with a scene in need of resolving through some heroic action. This is when the film does not quite hold up, the special effects required for this and the direction of an action scene have evolved a bit since 1971, and the slow-moving laser beams look like something you would find in a Lego box.

Despite this flaw, Andromeda Strain is terrifying still, the atmosphere of peril, down in the lab and up in the desert village, is oppressive. The film manages to provide this peril without drama, while being procedural about what needs to be done to contain the threat. I guess the word is “subliminal peril”, and that may be the best kind…

I thought that Denis Villeneuve’s last year’s “Prisoners” was actually two thirds of a great movie. Brooding atmosphere, good acting, spoiled towards the end by some convoluted thrill-seekery.

In “Enemy”, again featuring brooding champion Jake Gyllenhaal, the author apparently decided to learn from that lesson, and did away with everything but the atmosphere. Which is brooding. Jake G. plays a professor of history, with an established and somehow boring routine of looking sloppy, teaching platitudes about dictatorships to a class of students that look much better than they have any right to, and having somehow not very exciting sex with his girlfriend. That may not be the worst life anybody has, but we are shown a sequence of images that indicate there is something missing from his life. Are the opening images of some “Eyes Wide Shut”-like erotic performance any indication of what that missing element of excitement may be? If that is the case, the film does not pursue this. Instead, it creates a very disconcerting encounter of Professor-Jake with a “third rate actor” who looks exactly like him.

Up until then, I felt pleasantly disoriented with the film, from then onwards I was leaning towards boredom, borderline annoyed. Of the many things that can come out of this discovery, those chosen were either incomprehensible (the complete lack of interest on how this can be, or the inability to accept the fact that it actually can be) or rushed. When we get to the (not entirely unexpected…) point that the possibility of swapping lives is discussed, hope springs for some interesting developments, experiences and drama. We get all that, but within something like seven minutes, after which the author decides to give us spiders instead… No need to get into that bit of spoiler territory, but there is an abundance of spiders. Those spiders serve as an allegory, even though the audience does not really have a chance to unlock the riddle. Hence they are maybe not an allegory, but an unsolicited artistic element without contextual purpose, i.e. nonsense. Maybe I am wrong, and I just did not get it (“it” being whether this is all a dream or a near-death vision or an experiment or a drug vision, or a stroke-induced anaphylactic shock, or the dream of the soon-to-be-born child waiting in its womb for the water to break, or the beginning of a franchise building on the old “Tarantula” monster spider movie). After reading through some reviews, I do not think, however, that it is something I did not get, but rather something that is not there. Cryptic visual and narrative elements make sense when they can be decrypted somehow. If they stand alone, the are mere  decorative, and hence pretentious.

There is a certain beauty to this film. A bunch of not really military style gentlemen (historians and artists) getting prepped to enter the German-French-Belgian war zone in order to identify and catalogue the most precious bits of European art under imminent peril by the war activities and the Nazi’s collecting frenzy… that provides for all the necessary ingredients for a good-looking WWII film. Uniforms and explosions, beautiful French resistance ladies and plenty of European churches. It is a bit like Inglorious Basterds all over again. However… it suffocates a little bit in its production design and tries very hard to not engage in too much of a war drama, keeping its focus on the art and the beauty and the meaning as a backbone of society. Until somebody (George Clooney, I guess, him serving as director here again) realises that this is a bit dull, and does not satisfy the expectations of an audience that was lured into a war drama. Hence drama is introduced in the form of battles and stand-offs, shells flying and people dying. A motif is introduced in the form of one specific Madonna, which appears to be more worthwhile to recoup than all the rest of this immortal (or sometimes not quite immortal) art. And that Madonna then serves as the Private Ryan in that “We Will Not Stop Until…” etc. etc.

May that be rooted in the reality of the story, it makes for odd cinema. I felt the film would really love to stick with a non-dramatic approach but had to cave in to the requirements of the medium. As a result, there is too much “Basterds” and “Private Ryan” and not enough “Monuments” or “Lore” (a pleasantly non-dramatic war refugee film of recent years).

That is not to say it is a bad film, far from it. I enjoyed the whole setting, enjoyed the splendid array of quality actors (Clooney, Damon, Murray, Dujardin, Blanchett), I forgave John Goodman for being again the slightly out of place comic relief guy (“did you know they were using life bullets??”), and of course nothing can be fundamentally wrong with a film that has Clooney full-bearded (the mustache period, on the other hand… maybe this is where the film lost my undivided attention, I certainly had to look away a couple of times).

I have to admit that this is a better film that I expected, better than the previous efforts of both starring senior citizens to collect some pocket money for their pension fund. Of course you only need the title of the film to know exactly (exactly!) how this will pan out from beginning to end, it does so with a straight face and little embarrassment. Stallone and Schwarzenegger (in particular Schwarzenegger) both try to avoid too much physical stress, going for the slower movements and more remote ways of offing their opponents. Those opponents stand in the way of bringing back justice, and justice is restored at some point. The prison is well designed with a futuristic look to it, Schwarzenegger does not need to talk so much, and not a single surprise or twist stands in the way of figuring out and executing a, yes, escape plan from the super-maximum security prison. Jesus plays along (Jim Caviezel), as does Vincent D’Onofrio, so there are even some former actors involved in the cast.

Perfectly ok Friday night DVD fodder…

One of the best films I have seen this decade was “Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da” (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Strange that it took me so long to check out the other, also quite successful (and Oscar-nominated, if I remember correctly) “Üç Maymun” (Three Monkeys), but that’s how it goes… it requires several weeks of desperately checking out the cinema schedule and finally giving up hope that anything new and interesting will come out new to go back to the repertoire.

Three Monkeys starts with an accident, and takes the audience along a quiet but nonetheless dramatic downward spiral of the fallout from that accident. As it happens early on, it should not spoil things to say that the driver causing the accident uses his position and money trying to free himself of the consequences. The film is about there always being consequences: not just the affected families, but also the wrong-doer who got away with it experiences changes he has not foreseen.

As usual with this particular director, the plot is less important than the acting and the atmosphere. And the small family in the centre of the film is splendidly cast: Yavuz Bingol as Eyup, Hatice Aslan as his wife Hacer, and their son Ismail played by Ahmet Rifat Sungar all are exactly the way they have to be. They do not build up their arguments and discussions to become great elaborate dramas, there is no artificial escalation of emotions. There are emotions and arguments, but most of the time they are subdued. There are outbursts and threats, but most of the time they end of half as dramatic as when they are voiced. People argue and fight, but they usually also stop fighting and start talking a bit later.

While this is a family drama and a little bit of a critique of social injustice and the behaviour of the powerful, it is at the same time beautiful to watch. Roger Ebert mentioned in his review this gallery with stills from the film, and I can only say: when did a small family drama ever look so astonishing?

Ceylan’s new film “Winter Sleep” out this year… that’s something I really look forward to!

Woah what a cast… William Hurt as Richard Feynman, being dragged into the bureaucracy and politics of the Commission investigating the failure of the Challenger space shuttle launch, that commission being run by ambiguous-as-ever Brian Dennehy (note to self: have not seen “First Blood” in ages!), and Bruce Greenwood (what?? He also played in First Blood?? Is that to be taken as an in-joke, with the nerdy Professor as Rambo?) balancing between the dangerous edges of corporate and institutional self-interest.

I have an interest in that story since I read Feynman’s Annex to the Commission Report, it is a fabulous story of institutional failure – not quite a crime story, and because it maintains its soberness and does not easily identify villains and heroes, it makes a great example for the complexity of reality and the thrills of a scientific approach. The film tidies up the complexity a bit, and jumps on the now infamous O-ring bandwagon as soon as it is identified. I guess that can be justified in the context of a made-for-tv movie of 90 minutes running time. I still wished they had taken a bit more time allowed to hint at the sheer magnitude of mismanagement, corporate failure and backroom shuffling.

Still: a solid bit of infotainment, with an infallible William Hurt at its heart, the lonesome warrior against all efforts of cover up and make problems go away, the Don Quichote on his horse of science. As it is, his books deserve a second reading too, I remember that decades ago when I read some of his writings, I immediately felt like a brighter and better person…

Jon Snow has a thing for leather pants and swords, and he has the body and hair to go with it. That is all the good there is to say about “Pompeii”. It is uninspired to the greatest conceivable degree. Every single element you have seen dozens of times: the rebellious slave / gladiator, the fragile girl attracted by such masculinity, the evil Roman Senator / Consule who messes with local matters and wants to grope the girl, the gladiator fights, the unavoidable natural disaster wiping out what needs wiping out etc. etc. You can remix and amalgamate those ingredients, of course, as people do all the time. If you do, however, you may want to give it a new twist, a new perspective, a new realism, … something, anything new that justifies the effort. As it is, nothing new happens here at all, it feels like a an ill-written, averagely acted 1960s Italian Gladiator film that got colourised. If the idea was to revisit and celebrate the the campness of those originals, that idea has failed as far as I am concerned.

Having said that, there’s no reason not to watch it. There are muscular leather-clad dudes in all sizes and colours, girl slaves with deep cleavages, and there is Kiefer Sutherland with an English accent, just in time before he can breathe “we’re running out of time!” into an anti-terror mobile phone again. On that very basic level of entertainment needs, you will get some satisfaction. I was still wondering why it is possible to spend a lot of money on expensive volcano cgi and not a couple of bucks more on a slightly better team of authors… but maybe they already cut too many corners on their “horse running through burning city” effects team, so there was not too much to work with anymore?

While the original “Wolf Creek” was a very enjoyable addition to the genre of slashers slashing kids, with some new perspectives and some new additions to the range of things people can do to each other, the second one is doing exactly what you would expect from a sequel: it does the same, but a bit worse in most respects. I would not call it a big disappointment, but a slight letdown. They try to bring something new to the table, by opening the location, making more use of the Australian outback. But then again, the way it is done feels like perennial references to other films, which made me think that would be something you do at sequel seven rather at sequel one of such a franchise. There is the Spielberg-Duel reference, quite prominently, there is the “Who wants to become a millionaire (while keeping most of fingers) reference, there is a bit of hostel and a bit of Saw. Bad Guy Mick is a caricature by now, already in this second part elevated to be as immortal as Jigsaw or Freddy Krueger. That takes out a bit of the possible tension, as you can be rather sure that the only way of escaping his grasp is in a way that would allow him to come back to you later.

There are some holy shit moments, one involving a German boyfriend, another – oddly enough – a herd of frightened kangaroos. I cannot quite remember whether the first part already looked into Mick’s motives, but the second one is loaded with Australian features, painting him to be some form of degenerate patriot (a perverted outcome of what happens when you dump a bunch of convicts in a very remote place and leave them to rot maybe?).

I read that Wolf Creek has become some form of pride of the Australian film industry. The second part will not contribute much to that, but it will do not much damage either, as it has a very clear-cut target group. They should be pleased with it, all things considered. And they will be happy to see a third part in which Mick will do away with some aliens and French people who stepped on his holy desert patch, supposedly…


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