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Monthly Archives: October 2014

One of these films that almost defies writing anything about it, be it positive or negative. If Lars von Trier makes a movie called “Nymphomaniac” with Charlotte Gainsbourg in the lead role, I feel you cannot but get exactly what it says on the package. A cruel and poetic film about a tormented soul, a woman suffering from life, because life has dealt her bad cards. She cannot be satisfied, neither sexually nor emotionally, and this drives her to ever more varying constellations of love, sex and other forms of emotional and physical turmoil.

All this is wrapped in a story about her being found, abused and hurt, by an apparently arbitrary bystander (Charlotte Gainsbourg as the woman, Stellan Skarsgård as the man), who gets her a cup of tea and a blanket, and she decides to dump her whole life’s story on him. This does not make any sense, but it provides the necessary background for jumping between her life’s episodes. It is one way of handling it, maybe executed a bit more clumsily than you would have wished for. You may wonder whether a different structure, without the framework narrative, would not have worked better. Only the very final scene of the film gives an answer to this, where it pays off to have involved Skarsgård for the whole duration of the story instead of having him just join in the end.

There is no need to scandalise the film for its depiction of sexuality, as with previous von Trier films, even the most explicit scenes are hardly designed to provoke any sense of pornographic feeling about this film. Sexuality to this woman is a part of her life that is way larger than she can bear, it dominates every aspect  of her being without ever allowing her to reach a point of satisfaction where she could relax and take a cool breath. She will, it seems, always be driven by an emptiness inside her, by a pathological need that is beyond remedy. Skarsgård has the role of keyword provider in this (with the exception of the final scene – which I did not find to be very convincing) and is rather underutilised. In general, however, it is astonishing as ever what brave and able actress this Charlotte Gainsbourg is, absolutely fearless in the depcition of what needs to be depicted, without false pretense and without unnecessary drama. One of the really great actresses of her generation.

Von Trier shows that he is still able to address relevant and dramatic issues, but he also shows that the technical task of creating a movie, from writing until editing,  is sometimes (too frequently) a bit overwhelming to him. He could do with some good script doctors and editors, so that his films end being as messy as they have recently been. They are still beautiful and astonishing, but they could be so much better if the creative master had some more technical control over things.

I have no idea, by the way, why this is treated as two separate films. It is one piece of story, and should be consumed as such. But for what it’s worth, part 1 has the better poster.

A lot of thinking went into this project on part of film maker Ari Folman, I am sure, in particular with respect to the question which element should form the continuity of his career, the visual style or the topics. After the splendid and unsettling “Waltz with Bashir”,should he become the “Middle East Conflict Guy” or the “Stupefying Animation Guy”? It comes as a slight surprise that it is not another story of war and atrocities, or at least something dealing with the Middle East, but one of vanity and greed in Hollywood. This seems surprisingly light, friendly and anodyne a topic. Everybody knows, of course, that all of Hollywood is a bunch of supercilious twerps and 99% cent of them very bad people, too… can you squeeze something new out of this? You can, in particular in combination with that visual style established in “Waltz” and with the abundance of creative ideas introduced by the animation team.

Actually, there is less resemblance of the visual style introduced in “Waltz” than in what we know and love from Myazaki’s films – as the animation only comes in after the main character (played by Robin Wright and called Robin Wright, quite appropriately … she would be exactly the kind of actress that a Hollywood system would drop like a hot potato once she turned 31 and developed her first wrinkles, as happened to so many before. How many of those aging ladies will get a chance like real-life Robin Wright (or most splendidly American Horror Story’s Jessica Lange) to revamp their careers and jump over that gaping and unfair canyon that separates “pretty young girl” from “mature actress”.

So Robin Wright takes the only realistic option, she sells her image to the studio, allowing them to do with it whatever  improving technology will enable them. She has another career as an action hero, without ever setting foot on a soundstage again.

And then, when she gets invited to a Congress which discusses and celebrates the present and future of film making… then I stopped undesrtanding what this was about, but it was hypnotic. Upon entering the Congress area, we dive into animated territory, and it seems some form of civil war is about to break out. Robin Wright is important in this, she stands for traditional film making as well as for the future of disembodied animation, and maybe this war is all about her.

As mentioned above, given my limited knowledge about animation styles, I would call this Myazaki territory. Not just because of the actual style, but because of the abundance of free-floating fantasy, the overwhelmingly fantastic imagery, the lack of realistic boundaries. It certainly is gripping and looks splendid, even though I could not quite follow what was going on and who was fighting whom. A visual feast nonetheless, allowing us to enjoy the skills of Folman’s animation team in a more relaxed setting than in his previous effort.

The antidote to the Brad Pitt vehicle “Fury”. I had this film sitting on the shelf for years, and I had a good expectation of it being a pretty good film, because everybody whose opinion I value said it was good. Still… it took an ill-conceived and wasted opportunity of putting a tank in the centre of a motion picture to make me watch a well-conceived and frighteningly realistic version to cleanse myself from the former.

Lebanon takes place in the first Israeli-Lebanese war, the opening titles explain, but it does not matter. The crew manning the tank is not political, they are not ideological, what they are is young, incompetent and scared. They are part of a very professional death machine, but the people making the plans and giving the orders are not in there with them (most of the time), most of the time they are on their own, and have plenty of time to doubt and to hesitate, to want to go home and to cry for their mothers.

Interestingly, the confinement to the inside of the tank does not, as you may expect, create a feeling of claustrophobia, the way Wolfgang Petersen managed with “Das Boot” and his submarine setting. That tank feels quite spacious, everybody has his little corner, and given what the hostile world outside looks like (apparently Syrian-controlled Lebanon), it feels rather cozy and protected inside. This outside world is exclusively seen through whatever the looking device is called in a tank, maybe periscope, and the whining of the maybe periscope’s engine when it scans the environment provides the main soundtrack of the film.

The tank follows a mission deeper inside hostile territory, the mission goes into unexpected directions, unpleasant directions, there is shooting, there are prisoners, there are executions without trial and there are burning civilians and shot children. There are very unpleasant allies who you would rather not entrust with your life.And in the end, there is the very real feeling of the fighters fighting a fight of which they neither know the rules nor the opponents nor have a clear understanding of the goal of the fight. Even inside a killing machine such as a battle tank, you can still feel like a pawn, pushed around the Middle-Eastern chess board. Grim!

If you imagine a film starring Brad Pitt, made in 2014, depicting the story of an American tank crew moving inside Germany during the last months of the World War II, you will most likely imagine exactly what “Fury” looks like. Dirt, mud, grit, spectacular explosions, vicious killing machines, a couple of individuals who should not have died but do, a couple of Nazis who could have been captured but are just executed on the spot instead, and a very unlikely survival in what I found to be a terribly cowardly contrived ending … “Let’s show how terrible and cruel this war really was”, somebody certainly said at one of the script meetings, and the only problem with this is that we have kind of seen it all before… so they start where “Private Ryan” and “John Rambo” have exited the stage, taking on the big calibers and showing how those can blow human limbs and all other body parts to smithereens, what a terrible thing an anti-tank missile is when it’s directed against the tank you are sitting in, and what a great thing it is when it’s directed against the enemy.

This is not done poorly, it is just a bit conventional, does add very little in terms of visual style or story to the massive oeuvre of World War films. What is spectacular is the “silent and awkward scene involving civilians which will not end well”, where we learn about a particular feature of German women: they seem to very keen on having sex with whoever just killed their husbands, parents or children. The history of the German  libido, it seems, needs to be rewritten!

I am not sure whether the film was promoted as a serious effort in processing war experiences or as a great autumn bang-pow-kawooom movie. If the former, the film failed miserably. If the latter, this kind of works, there are some nice tank-on-tank scenes in particular, even though I have to admit I was rooting for the German Tiger tank, as it was more pretty and it was fighting bravely one against three.

Even though I did not think as much of David Ayer’s previous directorial effort “End of Watch” as others did, that still was two thirds of an excellent movie, and upon reading his name I was disappointed to see something as conventional, mainstream and sometimes dumb as “Fury”. Fallen into Hollywood’s money trap? Maybe into Brad Pitt’s money trap rather, it seems recently the films he produces or co-produces do end up less ambitious than they started out…

(BTW: When I saw the title on the cinema listing, first thing I thought was there is a remake of that tv show with the black horse we loved as kids. Would have been more honest…)

Final part of the “Paradies” Trilogy, following “Paradies: Liebe” (Love) and “Paradies: Glaube” (Faith), this is an uplifting bit of Austrian RomCom, following in the footsteps of the Peter Alexander and Hans Moser lakeside musical comedies…. Well… there is some music… the chorus of the obese kids singing “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat! … Clap! Clap!” It is the sound of Ulrich Seidl making Austria (but not only) look into the mirror, slapping it in the face and forcing it to look longer, to take in all the ugly details of the image.

Imagine where in the world you would least like to spend your summer holidays. If you did some research on the options, at some point you have a list with a lot of Ebola hospitals, refugee camps, Boy Scout camps and the like. Once you reach the option “Obese Teenager Diet Camp in Austria”, stop right there. It won’t get any worse. Teenage girls obsessed with losing their virginity and eating; ill-haired sports instructors intellectually rooted in Hitler Youth summer camp and Guantanmo traditions; village youth not minding the occasional public date rape; camp physician with whatever kind of problems leads one to take off your clothes and ask your patient to examine your bare chest.

As always, you will not find a nice person in the film, but at least you can – if you feel inclined – identify some traces of the problems the characters carry around (some reviewers actually criticised the film for these “cheap answers”… see what Seidl makes people do…). For those fat kids, it seems to be a routine of getting pushed away from their families, into this diet camp or that, with the usually separated parents at home quite happy about being left alone for a while. The staff working at the camp must always keep up the façade of sternness and discipline, while sometimes just wanting to be a troubled human themselves among all those troubled humans that come through their patch-up machine every year.

Those three “Paradies” films should be a monument of Austrian cinema verite, to be hopefully remembered for a long time, and I hope they will be bravely defended against critics who accuse the author of soiling the beautiful Austrian image. He is brave for doing this, and should be commended for this courage alone. In particular, he should be praised, however, for having made three spectacularly honest and incidentally absolutely splendid and thrilling films.

When a film opens with a sequence of an aging woman kneeling down in her study in front of a cross, taking off her blouse and bra and starting to whip herself while saying prayers… and when this film then carries on to present thoroughly depressing truths about ordinary people of various religious denominations… and when this film features the character of the “Travelling Mary”, a wooden statuette of Jesus’ mother who is doomed to be carried by a very annoying and deluded Christian door-to-door salesperson to astonishingly creepy everyday neighbours of hers (even though I have to give to that one neighbour that he is the one entertaining and funny bit in the whole of these three “Paradies” films… “No, my knees really do hurt, can I kneel the other way round?”) … then… welcome to the world of Ulrich Seidel!

I remember I thought (and maybe wrote) upon seeing the first part of his “Paradise” trilogy (“Liebe”, about Austrian women up for sex tourism somewhere in Africa) that what is most surprising about Seidel is his effort to like these people. I think he has given up on this now. Maybe at some point during research of Austria’s murky Christian underworld, he started weeping and told himself “My God, canst thou take them back?”

You could play the fate of the woman who leads her lonely life of home-flagellation, Mary-Carrying, crucifix-masturbation and organ-hymn-dilletantism as a cute story of warm-hearted solitude. Not here, though. For  reason that remain obscure, at one point she had taken a Muslim husband, possibly only to prove her tolerance, and she still praises the day when that husband got paralysed and impotent following an accident. This is not a nice thing to think or tell him, we believe as an audience, but then again, the wheelchair-bound husband is himself not able to take on the role of this film’s warm-hearted hero. Paralysed or not, he is a prick. Living with him (sometimes) is the other form of flagellation our heroine sometimes burdens herself with. Again, we are not so sure why she does not just kick him out, but suffers his abuse, but this is how she rolls…

This is as terrific, splendid, horrible, truthful  as cinema goes. It is also very uncomfortable to watch (even though it would be more uncomfortable if one was Austrian, I guess…). It is, strangely enough, a gripping tale, too. When I watched Brad Pitt’s tank extravaganza “Fury” a couple of days later, I checked my watch about 10 times over the course of two hours. During “Paradies: Glaube” I never even thought about how far we are in, or how long it would still go on. The way Seidl paints his portraits of the less pleasant parts of reality is as thrilling as art can be.

The feelgood movie of the decade? In a way, it is. It is about love, and how it holds up against old age and disease. About the ever-true notion that ageing is not for cowards. About the need and the ability to trust each other, even it that means standing up against all those nice guys with all their bloody good intentions, whom you just want to sod off.

Jean-Louis Trintingant and Emanuelle Riva have the power to convey all that, as an old couple, together for 60 years, who have reached the final stage of their lives. It is her health that caves in first, but it could just as well have been the other way around. Maybe the film would have been exactly the same, maybe it would have played out completely differently? That’s one of the interesting questions Michael Haneke raises, while only cursorily touching on them. He asks her what she expects him to do, what she would have done had she been in his shoes. And by asking her he is asking us, the audience: who has the strength of not only making promises when talking about sickness and care, but of sticking to those promises, even when you think you cannot bear the burden and the pressure anymore. Whether to take the relatively easy way out and commit your sick partner into the hands of the health system, or to see it through to the end. What do you do if there is no more hope, if all you see is suffering, when the only clear perspective is  death, but not an easy one?

As a film, this is played very straightforwardly. The focus is on the two main characters, plus the occasional appearance of their daughter (Isabel Huppert). In a certain way, the film shows exactly what you expect it to show. This may also have been the reason why I have left it on the shelf for a while. I did not expect many cinematic surprises to distract me from the bleakness of the story. The only hope was to expect brilliant performances from the two lead actors. Strangely, this is exactly what the film features, but because of the stunning brilliance of those two amazing actors, they do not provide the comfort of “performance”. They are as utterly credible as the characters they play as I have ever seen in a film. They play themselves into the league of the best Ingmar Bergman performances, and  with their becoming the characters elevate this chamber piece about ageing and dying to a level of sober heartbreaking honesty such as is very hard to be found in theatre or cinema.

Michael Haneke has now established an oeuvre that is truly astonishing, both in quality and in range. To have “Amour” as a follow-up to the more lavishly decorated “White Ribbon” shows that there is hardly any story this genius cannot tell.

Hans-Christian Schmid is one of my personal favourite directors working in Germany today, one of a trio of directors telling very personal and dramatic stories without fear and with greatest skill (the other two being Christian Petzold and Andreas Dresen). “Lichter” (Distant  Lights) and “Requiem” are true highlights of the last decade in German cinema, “Sturm” also a very interesting and daring venture into a suppressed debate.

“Home For The Weekend” has all the characteristics of New German Cinema, albeit of the kind that is dealing with family and relationship, with guilt and consequences of actions. It is about a family that seems to be all right at face value, with the regular monetary troubles or the career doubts. With the children grown up, the mother decides to take a radical step, one that is very important to her, as she expects to get some quality of life back after a history of disease. What erupts is a surprising level of oposition  on part of her family, a serious distrust into her ability to make her own decisions. The family was, it seems, quite happy to have a less troublesome mother, even if they know that she was suffering. Being doubted and attacked, she feels that her family would rather see her false self, but does not want to be burdened with her true one.

All this plays in the realistic style New German Cinema is known for, without much production fuss, carried by the actors. Those are for the most part excellent, they are able to display how layer after layer of harmonious family is shed and some unpleasant truths emerge.

Without spoiling it, it seemed to me the ending is particularly cruel. Within a very short time, the husband has adjusted to a completely new situation, has changed from one way of life to another, has not even suppressed bitter memories but rather seems to see the developments as a change for the better for his and his family’s life. What is truly bitter is that he has a case, and it would be dishonest to negate that his position can be understood.

One of those very good films coming out of a very reflective generation of German film makers, not the most entertaining bit of cinema, but a very rewarding one.

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