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Monthly Archives: July 2015

As I just finished watching the second season of “Utopia”, it is worth reminding myself of how great a show this is. Especially season 1 starts with a bang and then tortures the audience (and the characters) with a slow but ruthless chase by a group of people that all are after a graphic novel. That book is kept by a bunch of misfits of one sort or the other, a fan club that has been secretly discussing that lost manuscript for a long time, but their fandom clouding the fact that this book is actually something very dangerous to have, with potential impact on the civilisation as we know it.

The atmosphere of slightly decrepit, but occasionally also wonderfully stylish Britain, with a “killer squad” that could not look more odd and could not be more cruel, with a bunch of weirdos who only slowly start realising what form of trouble they got themselves into, and with a Neo-like figure (you might initially think) who is a very bad-ass leader of their personal little resistance, this is just fantastic television. Music, production design, title design all fits together to create a really uncomfortable look into a maybe near future.

Season 2 lacks the novelty of season 1, is more straightforward plotwise, decides to grow in scale instead. That is still entertaining, but less atmospheric and more straightforward. Still worth your while, though, and still much better than most things you can see on a tv or movie screen these days. “Not for the faint of heart” alarm, but you will find out whether this is for you about 10 minutes into episode 1 of season 1, or at the latest when explanations are provided as to the possible application of sand, pepper and spoon. Application to an eye, that is.

Just in time before I hope to see the second part of this franchise, I had the chance to see the first one on a plane again. Seems I saw it before, but could not quite remember. No wonder: it is not too remarkable. As super hero movies go, it is not very bad, either. Chris Evans as hero person is just not particularly memorable an actor or a character, but his abs are fine (post Captain-America-nization treatment, that is). The Nazi/Hydra counterpart people around Mr Schmitz are proper comic book villains, but I am actually a bit tired by Hugo Weaving playing this kind of character … and when his face turns from Weaving to Lucifer, I stopped believing in him as a character, that was a tad too cartoonish for me.

The overall plot device of some form of world destruction machine seems to be something very similar to a regular atom bomb. I was not too sure why the film ended the way it ended, because there are several known ways through which to change the course of a plane that do not end in said plane’s crash, but then again maybe I did not quite get the complexity of the matter at hand.

Sometimes I was a bit stunned by how much the film rushes things: suddenly there is an established “Team Captain America”, with a couple of seconds before the Captain is something of a lone fighter.

Super hero comic adaptations…   ah well… a kind of sad story…

It’s a remake of a Japanese movie, and when you forgot why you decided to remake a Japanese movie, just set it in Japan… what you need is a couple of Japanese background people, then a creepy Japanese girl and, if nothing else comes to mind, a photo camera which takes mysterious background shadows. All is set then for the most uninspired and foreseeable ghost movie in decades. Nothing happens in any way different from how you would expect it to happen after 3 minutes. It does have some nice images (the final shot comes to mind), but the whole fancy-pants advertising agency photographer setting is just annoyingly sucked dry. Most of these people are obnoxious anyway, so there is not even the need for sympathy when one or the other meets an unpleasant fate.

Note: when you took compromising and potentially existence-shattering pictures on your camera, do remember to remove them from that camera if you decide to have the device lying around your wife’s house.

It was interesting to have started watching Ramin Bahrani’s oeuvre with 2009’s “Goodbye Solo”, and following up with the early films later. Both “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop” are very different from “Solo” in that they refuse the idea of a “plot”, they do not allow the audience to witness that one terribly exciting or sad or devastating or happy event in the life of the protagonist – what they do is highlight these lives for a short while, and then look away again and allow those guys to carry on with what they are doing, the happy bits and the less happy bits.

The setting of Chop Shop is almost romantic, at least from the perspective of a little boy the age of Alejandro, our “hero”. He is part of a family of cool dudes, car repair shop owners and workers, truckers, movers and shakers of their own little businesses in some run-down part of Queens. Ale can feel very cool and grown up, can play along with the big dudes, he can even pretend to be the head of the little family consisting of himself and his sexy older sister.

He will find out, of course, that this cool life is not so cool, after all, but that there is a reason why nobody would pick it unless he or she has to. Dreams fall apart, facades crumble, and nobody has the right to blame anybody else for anything, because everybody has his / her own skeletons in the closet. That’s hard to process for a cool guy who at the end of the day is still a little boy who learns about grown up life every day.

Bahrani seems to be a master of casting. After the Pakistani coffee cart sales guy in “Man Push Cart”, his ensemble here is wider, but equally classy in a casual way. I have no idea how to find actors who can do what the script requires while still maintaining this street life grit and edges, but here they are. Not just Ale, but also his sister, his little boy friend, his boss, the guy from the competing shop opposite… most have small parts to play, but they all contribute to a fantastically realistic (from what I can judge) and natural chop shop biosphere. Great and intimate film making!

Imagine you are making a movie about a Pakistani rock star who leaves it all behind, takes his wife in order to save her from oppression and persecution, relocates to the US and starts all over again. Imagine what a terrible movie this can be? Enter stage Ramin Bahrani , the author / director whose popularity and success is maybe singularly owed to the admiration the late Roger Ebert expressed for him and his work wherever there was an opportunity. I have seen Goodbye Solo, and was very impressed by the intimate and honest performances, by the way the story of these people allow the audience to dive into their lives, participate in the atmosphere of the neighbourhood, feel what it is like to hang out in the New York parks or in the apartment with a large illegal family.

Man Push Cart – exactly those same feelings came back to me. This is masterfully casual story telling, and you can feel the director and author detesting every chance to get near a moment of sentimentality. The rock star is not rock star anymore, he is selling doughnuts and coffee out of a street cart at five in the morning. His wife is gone. Whether he sleeps at home or at the rich twerp’s apartment that he helps renovating does not matter to him. Life progresses in small steps, the whole future is visible at all times, because the future is only the next street corner, or the next party, or the next chat with the girl at the news stand.

I think I still have some of Bahrani ‘s films to catch up with, and now I am really looking forward to that!

I am already dreading the next John Woo film, him having completely lost it over the last years, never recovering from being embraced first by Hollywood and then by the Chinese cultural administration (is my guess). So to cleanse me from evil thoughts about his forthcoming Titanic With Chinese Characteristics, it’s not the worst idea to go back to Face / Off again, to see what ridiculous over-the-top Hongkong film making can do when a pile of Hollywood cash is thrown at it and when two of Hollywood’s most camp former actors use their peaking star power to most stunning effect. The story telling is almost comic style clumsy, the imagery (doves, slow motion shots, flapping long coat tails…) grotesque. The key concept at the heart of the film could not be more in need of suspension of disbelief (two opponents exchange personality when their faces and physical appearance gets surgically exchanged, and then everybody who knows about it dies).

But there is just masterful use of this concept, maybe most notable when the two opponents Castor Troy (John Travolta / Nicholas Cage) and Sean Archer (Nicholas Cage / John Travolta) face each other separated only by a double-sided mirror (who ever built such a thing? Utter nonsense!), so when aiming at each other, they are aiming at their own respective mirror image, after face exchange, so they are actually seeing exactly the thing they want to shoot at. Yes, silly, I know, and Great!

Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker…. You see that cast and you know this film is an awards chaser. Somehow this did not pan out, it came and went, and only through some accident did I stumble across it in the first place, a year after it was released apparently. I actually try to steer clear of films with Christian Bale in it, he tries so hard to be an IMPORTANT ACTOR that you can almost see the sweat dripping off the screen. On the other hand, there is Casey Affleck, and him being by far my favourite Affleck, that is reason enough.

Also, there is nothing wrong with the film, other than it is nothing special. Actually, once you have read the cast list, you can almost specifically name the key plot points, the relationships between the characters and what will go wrong in the third act. Affleck plays the disoriented little brother with all physical and emotional quirkiness he’s got. Bale plays the big brother with all the Bale-ish gravitas he’s got. And Willem Dafoe tries to keep it together between the local big crooks and his own small crook system. Between the steel factory and the woods, it will all go wrong. And the movie authors and directors will wonder why it also went wrong for their ambitious movie. Maybe because after all those brother-fighting-brother movies with Bale and Hardy and Walberg, all brotherly conflicts have been seen one time too often?

I was not really disappointed with this film, as I never built up expectations. It is a solid tale of doomed brothers.

You will view this film with a very different set of emotions depending on whether you are a father or not. Fathers are in continuous peril of losing their status as their children’s hero, with the wives usually being alerted much sooner to the fact that the swashbuckling hero is but mortal, and flawed.

The father of the family depicted in “Force Majeur” gets under severe suspicion of being a coward, running away from an avalanche and “forgetting” to take his family (while not forgetting top pick up his phone). The DVD audience will immediately jump back to the crucial scene checking whether the accusations are right, or whether his memory of the story “not being like that” is more right. Not that it really matters: the atmosphere between husband and wife is spoiled, and this tension does not seem to dissipate over the next couple of days. To the contrary – his supposed refusal to admit to his error of judgement (or flaw of character, if you prefer) leads to the wife getting on a downward spiral of despise and refusal. Bringing in some friends to spend a couple of days with them does not help, they are merely abused as leverage in the relationship game.

After “Gone Girl” this is the next instance within a short time where a film depicts the dark side of family life, of marriage. There is no resolution to be seen, the only way out seems to be for both of the partners to swallow their pride and get on with it. What a pleasant prospect.

The backdrop of the French mountains is splendid to illustrate the indifference of nature to all those emotional and strategic games those tiny and ridiculous humans are playing. And who ever went to a skiing resort will recognise the particular soundtrack of skiing, the clunking of heavy boots on bathroom tiles, the crunching of snow when walking on skis, the soft whooooosh of fresh powder snow, and the sound of engines and of silence while a lift drags you up a hill. Whenever scenes play outside, there is plenty of beauty to be seen, a beauty about to be abused by those nice middle class people to play their petty games in front of.

As if the absurdity of peaceful family life wasn’t enough, the film’s finale also adds some absurd theatre in the form of a very strange bus ride, which generations of at least Swedish film students will analyse for its meaning…

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