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Monthly Archives: March 2016

That’s my kind of film! A bunch of ruthless financial managers, even the good ones good only to the extent that it would interfere with their bonuses and investment profits, ruthless lifestyle and self-indulgent behavior. With first class actors enjoying their excessive characters (Christian Bale, as usual over the top as thrash metal investment genius), breaking the fourth wall cuts (the Chinese Quant getting some facts straight to the camera), and complex financial market derivatives explained to the ignorant audience (like me) by scantly dressed ladies in bubble baths.

The script manages to make me feel entertained (not just, but also by by Selena Gomez’s cleavage illustrating how betting on other people’s bets create an avalanche of virtual money that causes real damage) and enlightened. It is akin to the Stephen Hawking effect: Even if in fact I am still ignorant, I feel that after watching this, I know what CDOs are and how they made the global financial markets fail. And to the extent that I still don’t, I don’t care, because the narrative focuses on some key developments (“The prices still don’t go down, and it’s the rating agencies fault!”), which are easy to swallow. You can read all the real life financial market references as a mere McGuffin to trigger the behavior of a certain bunch of people living in a parallel world of high finance, or you can skip back to the complex bids and have that thing about the bubble bath explained to you again. Just for the fun of it.

Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt are all giving their best, they make this breed of highly skilled and socially dysfunctional experts believable and scary. A more fun-oriented version of what Zachary Quinto and Jeremy Irons presented in “Margin Call”, and more substantial than Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the “Wolf of Wall Street”. Special Interest blockbuster at its best!

One of those films that come along looking like a proper Oscar contender, and indeed, in the last instance the film managed to beat “The Revenant” to the Big Prize… thanks to the Academy loving stories about the media, and certainly also thanks to Mark Ruffalo doing a splendidly charming job on the PR trail. But It is a good film, no doubt! Especially the ensemble cast led by Live Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo makes this an intense experience. A team of investigative reporters hunting down the story of pedophile priests is something you have to actively mess up, and the authors and the director do not do that. This is competent writing, with a clear drama evolving, and a low key direction and acting of the ensemble. Only a little shouting and crying, but enough, and a real-life story sufficiently outrageous to make for audiences rubbing their eyes in disbelief. I do not think that Spotlight will be remembered and rewatched in a couple of decades the way “All the President’s Men” is, or even the way “The Revenant” will probably be. It is still a rock-solid bit of mainstream arthouse worth every minute of attention.

While the preeminent feature of the Star Wars prequel episodes I to III was that they were all consistently terribly written and edited, and were overall painful to watch, the first installment of the VII to IX trilogy at least showed some respect to the intelligence of the audience. Grown-ups will probably not find a lot of originality and entertainment in “The Force Awakens”, but one can appreciate the effort that went into the creation of a great experience for the core audience of 8 to 13 year old boys. I very much doubt whether this will be an experience as intensive as it was for those who experienced George Lucas’ revolutionary space opera 40 years ago, though. There is nothing revolutionary or brave about “The Force Awakens”, it does the right thing most of the times and steps wrong only rarely. The one remarkable thing about the film may be casting Adam Driver as evil Darth Vader Clone. This is utterly bonkers. He is the only character in “Girls” who has my sympathy occasionally, and I cannot not imagine “Girls”-Adam running around the apartment, naked, light saber to the attention…  it is splendid nonsense-crossover!

It’s nice to see the old crew again, even though it become a bit of ticking the boxes (aka Star Wars Old Fart Bingo) after a bit, with the film’s final moments being completely anticlimactic. I kept hoping for Master Yoda, in his original character of fragile 1000 year old ear dwarf rather than his later cgi-kong-fu self, but neither was provided. Disappointing.

As was frequently reported, the story is kind of exactly the same as the story of episode IV, so no need to criticize this. The next two films may have a different visual and narrative style given the directors involved, and that is something to look forward to after the corporate robot that is J.J. Abrams, but will there be a revamping of magic? Given the confinements within which this franchise has to take place, I doubt it.

You are entering a world where it is illegal to be single, and if fate strikes you, takes away your partner, for example, your path of falling in love again and finding a new partner leads you to a matchmaking hotel. If you fail to find your match, you will be turned into an animal of your choosing… a lobster, in the case of our “hero”. Heard enough? If this intro makes you keen on checking out “The Lobster”, it probably is because you loved “Dogtooth”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ breakout movie, and you are hoping for more eccentric entertainment and reflection on the dismal state of our world. You will find it here. Not as concise and stinging as in Dogtooth, but recognizably weird enough to enjoy the plot and the abundance of odd characters. The population of the hotel are range from the guy banging his head frequently on the wall to ensure that he is a good match to the lady with perennial nosebleeds, the room service lady whose job description includes stimulating the guests into sexual desire, a toaster that is applied to those choosing to masturbate rather than to find a partner, a dog who used to be a hotel guest but failed to find a lady in the given time, a misogynist lady who beats said dog to death to find out whether her match really is as morally indifferent as she requires… and the list goes on. Escaping from the hotel is not better, as the “Loners”, living out in the woods, have rules that are as ridiculous and cruel as those made up by the establishment. What do we learn from the film? That it would have been more tight had it stayed within the confinements of the hotel, as it loses a bit of its direction after spreading out into the real world of family connections and Loners. And that despite its flaws I am looking forward to Lanthimos’ next film, and would find anything “normal” utterly disappointing.

Colin Farrell plays the lead role, by the way, which I only found about upon reading the credits. It is to the credit of the film that it does not matter whether there are recognizable stars in it (Rachel Weisz too, and the very recognizable and utterly lovely John C. Reilly). Great cast playing their parts in the spirit of this creepy/goofy/gory science fiction satire.


Maybe every country at any moment in time has one director that single-handedly manages to provides a comprehensive view on his own nation. For his own people to reflect on, and for the world to see. People like Ken Loach, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Truffaut, and today these could be Tobias Lindholm, Christian Paetzold, Steven Soderbergh. Never mind the respective quality of each film, but as an oeuvre, these are powerful depictions of life, in all its gory and glorious reality.

For today’s China, in my opinion nobody can challenge Jia Zhangke in this role. With a fantastic stretch from “Platform” and “Pickpocket” in 2000, through the splendid wasteland of “The World” and peaking at 2006’s “Still Life” (still up there with the best mainland Chinese films I have ever seen), he will not let go, he seeks to show the happy and ill fates of the ordinary people, in how the concept of ordinary shifts through China’s development, he shows victims and crooks, people passing their lives in passive endurance and those engaging in a constant uphill struggle. Scott Tobias writes “No director has done more to chronicle change in contemporary China and the instability it breeds in the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.” Well spoken!

“Mountains May Depart” (judging from the Chinese title, intended as a companion piece to “Still Life”) may not be the most coherent or powerful of his films. It does, however, achieve one thing the previous works did not achieve – it uses a large time scale to show the consequences of choices made decades ago. Starting in 1999, with a love triangle in a decrepit and depressing coal mining town in Shanxi  province, we follow the three leads through life. The choice of partners, choice of location, and choice of life concept all play out through the decades until 2014 (when we meet the three again, in different circumstances), and in 2025, when some choices are just not reversible anymore. We need to judge by ourselves whether something could have been changed if only 25 years earlier people had felt less bound by tradition and expectations. Formally, the film’s aspect ration changes with each time leap, starting from grainy 1:1.33 images of dusty Fenyang and ending with colourful widescreen Australia. It’s a fake sign of splendour, though, image brilliance is not reflected in life’s brilliance.

Tao Zhao as Tao Shen plays the central female role, and for once she may be the weak spot of the film, as she remains smiling in the face of adversity for just a bit too long to remain credible. Liang Jindong as Liangzi, her would-be lover, is more powerful in his mostly silent acceptance of the Tao’s choice. Zhang Yi as Zhang Jinsheng has the somehow ungrateful part of the newly rich twerp to play. We may start out despising him, but in the end, when he is sitting in Australia, faced with a son  who does not speak his language and is completely detached from anything his father stands for, you may well feel a bit sad for him.

Sadness always plays big in Jia’s films, and this is no different here. Sadness looms over two and a half decades of life, and the only bit of hope is – again – Tao, who to the very end, and in the very final scene, takes life with a smile and a dance… in your face, sad world!


Instances of arbitrary violence, linked by a number of characters trying to lead their lives in modern China. “Modern China” being not the fancy and rich China, but the China torn by migrant work, split families and existential pressure to make a living, while seeking to stick to some form of old values.

There is the worker who cannot accept that the village did not benefit from the sale of a coal mine, the father-gangster returning to his family and leaving a trail of blood, the spa receptionist with the hope of a better life with a new husband, the factory worker who is despairing under his job situation.

The depiction of these people’s fates is always moving and powerful, even if the links between the stories do not quite pan out as coherently as you would wish (strange thing that the film received the screenplay award at Cannes, of all things). Jia Zhangke picked bits and pieces from the Chinese microblogging universe, events that every Chinese online citizen not only knows about, but most likely actually participated in, such as the public outrage campaign about the treatment of the spa employee stabbing a public official. He also adds more such items in the background, most notably (and as subtly as American films frequently inserting people watching 9/11 coverage on the tv…) the Wuzhen train crash. It is a statement about the everyday violence encountered in this often cruel society. Not just the rampages and the deaths, but also the social situation that build up to them, with often inhumane family situations and desperation being omnipresent in so many people’s lives.

As always: Jia Zhangke manages to be the narrator of today’s China. He has done it more elegantly before, but it is still a very powerful document and a mostly splendidly acted and beautifully shot piece of film making.


Firstly, it is astonishing to see what other films ran as contenders for the Best Film Academy Award. Compared to “Room”, many trivialities put up on screen pale, and should be actually a bit embarrassed to be on the same list as this. “Room” is a fantastically intense, moving, dramatic and beautiful bit of film making, with outstanding cast. Taking the situation of a kidnapping and captivity as a starting  point and then deciding to not make this an escape thriller, or a torture drama, or a revenge plot is bold and brave, and raises the script above all the rest.

The film is about two lives with very different starting points, and how these two people deal with an abrupt change. There is the mother, who had a live before Room, who knew what she lost and has an expectation on what’s to be gained if a way out can be found. And there is the boy, who has never seen anything but the four walls and the ceiling of Room, and whose primary expectation about getting out is one of fear of loss. He is more right than his mother, maybe, because live outside is more complicated, especially when exposed to the expectations of the family and the public. The media is without mercy in driving home the most painful points, and the mother, after years in captivity, is not flexible enough in her thinking to counter the assaults. There are several scenes where the initially introduced perfect mother figure crumbles and finally collapses, where the danger of telling a fairy tale is quickly done away with and authentic humanity and fallibility shows its face. The mother struggles to attach herself to other things or persons but her son, and also struggles with explaining her emotions and rationale during captivity. She collapses when during an interview the question comes up whether the thought might not have crossed her mind to find a way for her son to get out, with her staying behind. Having observed those two people’s lives, this suggestion is so outrageously cruel that words fail.

Watching “Room” may be a harrowing experience, but what a beautiful and, yes, uplifting one, too!

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