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Monthly Archives: February 2015

I’ve had it with those streamlined, Oscar-horny biopic bore-fests! To cleanse my system from the standard fare of family-friendly enlightenment, I occasionally need to switch to the less Hollywood narration style infested parts of world cinema. Two separate inspirations helped:

Empire’s “100 Best Films of World Cinema” is a treasure trove for anybody who loves film. A brief check brought about at least 10 films among the top 50 that I have never seen or that I planned to see again for ages. Even some I have never heard of and that sound thrilling (“Come and See”).  Let’s dive in!

And then there is the Filmspotting marathons, and currently the Satyajit Ray marathon, that started with Pather Panchali, a film that had been sitting on my virtual book/film shelf since 2010, when it was first recommended to me. And now, one night, after an overdose of “Unbroken” / “Selma” / “American Sniper” / “Imitation Game” etc. mediocrity … this was exactly what I needed. A film about nothing much happening to a bunch of poor and a bunch of less poor people somewhere in Bengal’s (is that how you write it?) countryside. A family scene in all its lovely depiction of  the beauty and cruelty of childhood whatever the circumstances. A cruel highlight on the way the oldest generation of a family has to struggle for their role in the modern family, always exposed to the danger of being pushed around or even expelled from the protective family circle. A film about the pressure imposed on individuals and families by tradition and their representatives (“you should have talked to the village elders first”), about self-delusion (“I will go to the city and find the money we need”). Maybe primarily about the casual cruelty of the world, or fate, creating new life and taking away other lives at random and without much caring about the pain and the consequences. Because the wheel of life keeps turning.

The film is shot in calm black and white that looks beautiful despite the slightly crappy transfer on my DVD, the actors are all splendid whatever the part they had to fill. Interestingly, nobody ever qualified (at least to me) as the film’s main character. The family mother needs to shoulder most responsibility, needs to be good guy and bad guy, needs to defend her possibly stealing children against the accusing  neighbours, needs to be humble towards those neighbours because she needs their current and future loans. She is suffering most from the downsides of being the unofficial head of the family, with her husband the useless poet and religious functionary being pretty much a bit of decoration in the household, if he is around at all. To me, the film circled around the film’s girl daughter, a lively and unorthodox free spirit bouncing around with energy and wit. At some point late in the film it becomes clear that this may have been a cruel trap set by the script for the audience, and it is not a pleasant moment when you realise you’ve been had. This finale is devastating in many respects, it seems the director wants to shoot a new bullet at you every other minute, as a punishment  for having been complacent for the last 90 minutes, for indulging in the illusion of romantic countryside life of simple but satisfied people.

I loved the sentence in Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review: “Standing above fashion, [the trilogy] creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived.”  That is true. I felt very much at home there, could relate to just about any of the characters, felt attached to each and every one of them like in an ultra-modern first person immersion game where you can pick the character you want to inhibit.

I do not know whether the following two films that follow the fate of the family’s small son are available, but I will certainly try to lay my hands on them to see whether this level of masterful film making was sustained by Ray.

Review of the whole trilogy:


The Brits are terribly proud of the story of the Enigma, and claim it is single-handedly responsible for defeating the Germans: at some point, the Allied troops managed to capture a German encryption machine, and after some fumbling about they managed to decode the German wartime correspondence, with relevant consequences for the war outcome. The Imitation Game is about that fumbling. Alan Turing is hired to be part of a team that breaks German codes, and he tries to do so by developing what later becomes known as a predecessor to a modern computer. He does so in Oscar-bait style, with personality disorder and against the resistance of THE BUREAUCRACY, in this case the better part of the British government seeking to shut his operation down when no quick results are being achieved. There needs to be a love interest too, and that’s a pretty and clever lady who needs to work from a different shed in their headquarter camp, because brainy ladies are equally unpopular among the military and secret service and generally the British public school community as gays (supposedly Turing) and Russian spies (supposedly Turing, albeit more for script reasons than anything else, nothing really supports the whole “policeman tries to bring him down story).

The story as such is interesting, of course, even though well known in most parts. What I found most interesting is that there were actually two achievements: firstly, finding a way to quickly decrypt the German messages, and secondly and crucially: to not use all the information that was gained, but rather to dose it carefully so as to avoid the Germans getting wind of it and changing their encryption patterns. The film decides to dedicate most time to the question of breaking the codes. The second question – the moral ambiguity, the sacrifice of life for the benefit of the war cause – is much more interesting, but is crammed into some sentences towards the end, and it is not really clear how Turing himself and his team should have any say in this beyond gathering and forwarding whatever information is to be found. I would personally suppose that this was all none of his business, but maybe I missed some factual hints as to him only forwarding select information to the decision-makers?

My major problem with the film was that to me it never solved the “reality challenge” – even if you do not know anything about the real life events, you will have a strong opinion how the film will end after watching about five minutes. At the end of the day, the film’s script does not manage to add thrill, it does not achieve to surprise, to add anything beyond what we already know or strongly suspect. The ideal audience would be very much illiterate teenagers who have never heard of that war and who won it, I can imagine they would root quite a bit for Turing to crack those bloody codes. All the rest of us is checking some history lesson boxes, shelving this film as a well-intended, competently executed, and – yet again – slightly boring addition to the biopic genre.

“Unbroken” is a solidly directed, well designed, suitably cast, and dishearteningly boring film. I was thinking about why that was, and the only possible answer I could come up with was: as so often, real life just does not deliver the same quality movie scripts than a decent author’s workshop in Beverly Hills or Sundance (even though a lot of talent was involved in fixing this script – even the Coen brothers were at some point hired).

Not to get me wrong: this was a terrible ordeal the main character, Olympic runner Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) had to endure. Plane crashed, long ordeal on a float in the pacific, followed by a series of Japanese prisoner camps, and with the particular attention of a sadistic Japanese camp officer. Long distance runners, I suppose, have a way of enduring pain for longer stretches of time than regular people. So we are made to witness a wrestling of power of the mind between the Japanese guard and the prisoner, where the refusal of the American to have his will broken only infuriates the guard, having him reveal more and more sadistic streaks. Impressive. Repulsive.

Still: As a three-act drama this did not quite work out. The respective ordeals as such do not work: they are sitting on a boat in the ocean – as they are doing this in minute 10 of the film, we do not really doubt that our hero will make it out of there alive. He is forced to lift a pole and is threatened with death if he drops it. Again: The film wouldn’t be called “Unbroken” if he dropped it, would it? … With that title, one must assume that he did not just not break, but actually survived and lived to write a book about it (the “Captain Philipps” phenomenon, I would call it). Hence very little chance of building up tension in the individual scenes, at least with respect to Zamperini. While the stakes for Zamperini were terribly high – for the movie audience, there are none.

It is one of those cases… thou shalt not make a movie out of a factual story. That’s what documentaries are for.

Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini? Sold! Really, there is no need to even tell me a plot synopsis if Hardy is involved, I will check this film out one way or the other. And with Gandolfini… he has cuddled and mumbled himself so well into my comfort zone through not just his Soprano performance, but also the few other things I have seen (In the Loop, Where The Wild Things Are and that most recent performance in “Enough Said”)… I feel very comfortable with the idea of him starring in a film I am about to see anyway. And playing the owner of a dingy bar involved in some Chechnian mafia business? A perfect fit!
But it is a funny constellation: Hardy, the bullhead tough guy of so many films, is the big soft guy here, with a heart for a (indecently cute) bulldog puppy and a lack of interest in social interaction – an odd start for a bartender. And Gandolfini plays it low key as the guy who has to deal with all those crooks, who has to stay on top of things without being confrontational. Those two actors really hold it together, and allow the little plot that there is to unfold. There is no big-style mafia collision course, there are some personal dramas, some people trying to make new starts, and there is a very unwise former boyfriend of Noomi Rapace’s character who sets his mind to bringing on some action, after all. That the end of the film brings on some classic mobster motives is fine. That’s what life out there is like, the film seems to whisper, but if you keep a cool head and occasionally change the name of the bar, all will be fine, all will go on.

Lovely little film, full of excitement and devoid of cheap thrills.

The good news is that Tim Burton does not wrap everything in cotton candy in this film about a family of painters with an issue. There is no singing Johnny Depp and no goth-painted what-was-her-name-former-wife-of-his? It is a mostly straightforwardly filmed illustration about the grotesque life of the Keane family. Apparently it is (based on) a true story, one I did not know about. That’s a good thing when going to the movies, of course, the story had all the chances of taking me by surprise, exciting and amusing me.

The thing is: when I realised where the story was going, I got instantaneously bored. A con-man sort of serial husband and serial imposter talks his wife into selling her pictures under his name… even with Christoph Waltz in the starring role this could not grab my attention. Actually, Waltz is part of the problem here: these days, he easily falls into the “Doing The Waltz” trap, an overacting of his slightly sophisticated, slightly twerpy standard part. As “Big Eyes” requires just that (maybe because the “real” Keane was like that, I assume?), his performance is borderline persiflage of a certain kind of person. For me, this was too much, and I would rather blame Burton for it than Waltz, who we know can be much more subtle. The narrative framework with the journalist as a narrator also does not make too much sense, given the almost utter absence of this journalist from the action.

In the end, we have a colourful, somehow feel-good, frequently funny depiction of the foolish world of “artists and pretenders”, but the film is never more than slight, never more substantial than a printed Keane poster on a bathroom wall.

A struggling artist, working on his ultimate effort, to direct a stage play, a play that will prove him right or wrong, will redeem or destroy him. But the intensity and circumstances of the play makes it increasingly impossible for him (and for the movie audience) to distinguish between play and reality, between play in play and reality, between mindset within mindset, etc.

With this description, this could be either of at least three movies that spring to mind: 8 ½, Synechdoche, New York, and – well – Birdman.

Of these three, Birdman is the least complex and the least remarkable one. Which is not to say that it is without merit. But in comparison this story of a former superhero actor who is now haunted by his superhero alter ego and some superhero visions as well as by the narrow dark alleyway that is the only remaining path to rescue his career and his respectability. The film decides to take a somehow particular approach to telling this story, by using one long camera shot, with invisible edits, stressing the personal perspective maybe, in any case stressing the frantic succession of events and impressions. This directorial oddity is used to quite good effect, I have to say. Only late in the movie did I realise that they are doing this, that they are having the camera bounce between characters, following them every which way, disallowing discontinuity of space while being quite happy with discontinuity of time (there are some time lapse moments that create some neat effect within this one-shot scenario.

And then that’s about it. The plot itself, the characters hopping around this formally exquisite structure are not much worth mentioning. In the best tradition of “Babel” (and from what I hear about “Biutiful”, also there), the formal achievements are what Iñárritu excels at, while he does not have too much to say about the people populating his field. Of course Michael Keaton is great (isn’t he always?), and it is kind of amusing to see him being haunted by his former Birdman self, and to self-elevate and what not. But what is the point of the whole story? That actors who are past their shelf live struggle in the world of young superheroes. Right… Imagine doing the same film with a female lead then. Would give us a whole new Sunset Boulevard experience… that’s a film I would rather have seen, actually!

As it is, Birdman is sufficiently entertaining and occasionally amusing. The Awards hype has more to do with the fact that academy members love themselves and their industry, so a run down actor always scores.

Whiplash is not subtle, it is probably not important, it may not even be credible or consistent – but it is a hell of a lot of fun, it is a ride! It made me remember that old concept about art: I may not care about the love life of Eskimos, but I am still happy to hear a good story about said love life. Same thing about Jazz: I happily appreciate that it is very difficult to learn and that at least those who perform are very happy about it. Beyond that I try myself in tolerance and physical distance. I would not seek out anything Jazz-related when feeling the urge to be entertained, but it certainly has its characters and its stories to tell. Yet oddly enough, one of my favourite films is about Charlie Parker, and I remember that I was thinking how terrible that music is and why the guy was wasting his talent on it instead of playing some proper music (just kidding… not quite like that… but a bit like that).

And here again: after reading some reviews I decided this was actually the only film in all that Oscar hype season that I really really wanted to see. Professional musicians is something I can relate to, and evil teachers is something everybody can relate to. Shattered dreams, family conflicts… there are too many things that sounded thrilling about Whiplash. And really, it was a thrilling picture! The whole works: the underdog kid stumbling into an opportunity to shine, the face-off with the Jazz orchestra band leader and conductor who has been forged from particles of the Full Metal Jacket drill instructor and the odd nutjob American football coach cliché. And despite his madness, as all good villains, he has his point in arguing that if anybody had ever told Carlie Parker that his play was all right, good enough, if Parker had ever stopped despairing about his own improvement as a musician… then there would have been no improvement, no Bird. And it comes down to the message that both the film and my real-life experience reflect: very very good musicians, and very very good craftsmen of any sorts, are hardly ever sane. Sane just does not cut it. Sanity makes you accept too many boundaries you hit, allows you to accept average results.

Whiplash is clever in not just being satisfied with showing off this realisation of a young drummer, his path from being eager through being manic about his progress, to the point of surrendering. He has his comeback, and then he has his major and public setback, and then he is fighting back… Someone compared the final scenes with Rocky, and it’s true in more than one aspect. That young guy realises a lot of things, and one key insight is that you can always carry on fighting, there is no need to surrender, whatever the situation looks like.

Even though the mechanism of bringing the film’s characters to wherever plot point they are needed is a bit clunky at times – when these people are in place they pull all stops. Am I dragging or rushing? The film does neither, is usually very much on the spot and in control of its pace. And as this is very much a duel, let’s name the contestants: in the blue corner, the rising star on the drum kit, the naïve and slightly desoriented Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman. And in the red corner, the Master of Manipulation, the Wizard of Wicked, he who draws blood and swallos it when needed, J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher. (I have no idea how they managed to teach Miles Teller to play the drums like we can see (or appear to see?) him do, but those drumming scenes alone are fabulous! )

It has been discussed and people have been shouting at each other – the summary would be that American Sniper is unable to convey what its message is.

Audiences are uncertain whether they should be angry at the film’s message or at Clint Eastwood for being unable to make that message clear. Here is my interpretation: I think there is a disgusting fetish for people who are good at killing other people. This is a mass phenomenon among some groups of society, and in particular maybe in the US, a country with a history of gun ownership, a history of pro-militarism and a history of longing for heroes. Maybe Eastwood saw the story of a sniper’s life and realised that this story illustrates many ill-conceived concepts of heroism. There is somebody who kills a record number of people, and instead of questioning why this was necessary and discuss the terrible cost some people have to pay for playing an important role, he becomes some sort of celebrity for it, a hero in certain groups, and – it seems – never encourages those who celebrate him to question this enthusiasm, as it is enthusiasm for inflicting death. If your attitude towards violence and war is one of “unenthusiastic appreciation of occasional necessity”, then watching the American Sniper go on one tour after the other to Iraq makes you sick. He goes and calls it his duty, but truth seems rather to be that it is the only thing he is good at and where he feels at peace.

You would want to sympathise with his wife, only that the movie leaves so little space for her that there is no way of feeling empathy. You would want to hear about the doubts he has and how he is torn between his duty and his humanity, but he does not express this doubt. What is actually most interesting (and the reason why in the end I believe that Eastwood did create the right film rather than the wrong one) is that this Seal team member is maybe not a hero in his own film. His only positive attribute is his ability to shoot and kill people. He is actively supressing any form of emotion, carries a big macho monkey on his back, does never admit that he is upset or unhappy (or happy for that matter). When he happens to stumble into a doctor who takes his blood pressure, the display shows that this guy is permanently on the verge of exploding, pushing away everything to stay hidden behind his façade. Eastwood, I think, is not celebrating a mass murderer (even though there are others who believe that he does), but he is criticising stupid and simple macho attitude, male inability to commit to a family and he also criticises the American (military and civilian) public  for making that guy a hero.

I hope I am right with this interpretation, because otherwise I have seen a terrible terrible film.

To be honest, I frequently have a hard time understanding America’s problems with facing its own history, and particular issues such as slavery or racism related to this history. Is it really so difficult to discuss the dark sides of one’s own country’s past? I know Japan and China have trouble doing this, but why the US? Is it a matter of being ashamed for what the parents or grandparents did? That is what I do not understand – guilt is not inherited, but responsibility is. If my grandfather committed crimes in war or was a KKK racist, there is no reason why I should be shamed into shutting up about it. The only reason why I personally should be ashamed is if I failed to speak out against war crimes or racism in my own family, or on a larger and systematic scale in my nation, my people, my country or whatever collective concept you apply. I should know better, and I should speak out!

I am writing this because last year’s “Twelve Years a Slave” and now “Selma” both triggered strange reactions among the American public. Whether the word “nigger” could be used in a film about that time, whether it was justified to merge some timelines into something half-fictional in order to create a structure better suitable to a film. Both films showed violations of human rights and dignity of such a massive dimension that it is stunning that not everybody talks about why this past has not been more thoroughly processed.

In the case of Selma this is young history, very young, and seeing how law enforcement treated peaceful protesters on the edge of the backwater town  that gives the film its name is as chilling as the atrocities we can see on tv today that happen in some war ridden African state (a chapter of US history that I suppose every American knows, but most non-Americans have not heard of unless they are specifically interested in US history). The courage of Martin Luther King and his allies is impressive, but to me the most stunning aspect was to learn about the vicious violence law enforcement and government utilised against the protesters and the unadulterated form of racism and a concept of racial superiority on display, and publicly. There is not a very big gap between this behaviour and attitude and the other racially motivated mass oppression and mass murders of the last centuries.

As a film, I felt … how to say – less disappointed than by other biopics, mainly because the topics and events on display were well and intensely directed. The explosion of violence at the first march from Selma made my blood freeze, and was one of those moments where a film should bear a sticker saying “warning: contains scenes that will make you very angry. Very!” I guess that a documentary about those events would have stirred the same emotions in me, but with the rather well chosen cast of mostly not-too well known actors I enjoyed watching the dynamics unfold. I did not make any connections with those characters’ real-life counterparts, because other than the US president I did not know any of this personnel. I only learned in the closing credits about their respective importance and fate, but they were still credible as a bunch of people that happened to be there when a well-crafted moment in civil society history unfolded, choreographed by the mastermind of public relations instinct that apparently King was.

The Kermode / Mayo programme and some others mentioned an important quality criteria for a biopic: do not try to cover the whole life, but focus on one incident of relevance. “Selma” did this very well, with an outstandingly credible lead actor David Oleyowo and competent directorial skills. I am still not a huge fan of biopics in general, but this one was better than I expected it would be.

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