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Monthly Archives: March 2017

Oh dear… whatever else the film may be, it is not a contender for Pulitzer prize for movie dialogues … “Save your dream” … Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelson will hide under their newly purchased very expensive blankets each time they attend a screening given the lines they have to say. In general, the film made me wonder why they cast some stars among all the newcomers and fresh faces anyway. All the star appearances are off and actually a distraction. Where Rogue One somehow delivers is the new set of characters, played by new or not yet too familiar actors, that does stuff related to the Star Wars universe we are already familiar with. When the new and the old universes merely touch, Rogue One has the liberty of being a different animal, some form of war movie where the resistance fighters need to make their way to some McGuffin thing that allows them to fight for an hour against the Imperial Forces.

Of course everybody appreciates Darth Vader being around (who doesn’t love Vader, right?). But Mr Whitaker, Mr Mikkelson… sorry, guys, there are different films that had been waiting for you while you were busy learning your “lines”.  (It should be noted that there’s still Ben Medelsohn – he may not have the star power of the aforementioned, but he is the only well-known – and great! – actor who got himself a proper part written into the script).

Rogue One is entertaining once you turn off your brain and stop trying to follow what exactly is happening and how it would link to other storylines within Star Wars. Especially at the beginning the film jumps from this Imperial base to that resistance stronghold, and to that outer rim planet and another place that I forgot. You can sort the position of your popcorn and your beer while watching that. At some point, everybody is where they’re supposed to be, and then you can settle into some decent combat action, with powerful war machinery and brave fighters and high towers and and and. AT some point, the expected outcome arrives, which is when the film finds its moment of originality. The end is surprisingly bold and refreshing, and I salute you, Disney, for doing what you did. I am sure the forthcoming side stories as well as the main franchise will print plenty of money and will allows the older ones among us to think back fondly to the originality and surprises the original Star Wars movies presented. You will not find too much originality in the franchise anymore, but it still is satisfying action cinema. What is interesting is how director Gareth Edwards has found his way into blockbuster territory in such a short time, though what can only be called excellent choice of projects, even if every single one of them I would call seriously flawed. But he showed his talent and prowess for all these things are required for a big player in the action genre, and that’s where he is now, suddenly part of the new generation of whiz kids led probably by J.J. Abrams.

What can you expect from a 2016 Zhang Yimou film? Stunning landscapes, grand costumes, a bit of action at the Emperor’s Court… Yes, it feels like the dime-a-dozen historical pieces that kept flooding the Chinese cinemas in the 2000s, when setting your stories in ancient times was the only safe way to circumvent questions by the censors. This being established as an international coproduction with international star power (Matt Damon, my personal man crush Detective Pena from “Narcos”, aka Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe, who… I don’t know, needed a new kitchen for his house? Or a new house?). The story is generic enough, with only the foreign thugs who came to steal black powder being able to find their inner hero and tackle the aggressors from outside that come in the shape of slightly oversized alien-dogs. Of course there is also a bunch of Chinese star power, Tian Jing (who keeps working her way into Hollywood productions, “Kong: Skull Island “ next) as commander of some Amazon Cirque de Soleil squad that wears very tight suits and hits the drums surprisingly inefficiently and with plenty of artistry even in combat situations. They are all better at drumming than at fighting, you have to say, especially Tian Jing is not too convincing as warrior. Andy Lau chose the more clever role, looking intelligent and brooding all the time. The dialogues are cringe-worthy, and some of the performances play to a Chinese movie slapstick humour that I could never quite appreciate. That said, once the battle gets going, Zhang Yimou finds some impressive pictures including fog, balloons, and fire. The experience is dampened by the surprisingly shoddy cgi, especially in the large battle sequences, when hordes of those doggy creatures storm the Wall and the Palace – it looks very much like sub-World War Z, and I am sure there are many game designers (or gamers, for that) who shouting at the screen “I could have done that, and better!”. The film hence somehow supports the claim frequently expressed by Chinese producers and film investors that there is still a lot to be learned from Hollywood. This being a Legendary production, you would have expected more professional input from the US partner. Maybe next time…

There are twist-ending films that make it very rewarding to come back to see them over and over again, trying to identify the pieces of the jigsaw that you missed out the first or second time. This was true for the Usual Suspects when I saw it originally, when it came out in 1995. First time, it was a mind-blowing finale, second and third time it was fun to relax and smile knowingly at the deception. Now after quite a few years, the film has lost quite a bit of its thrill, I have to say.

What I found interesting is that, knowing about the fictitious nature of the flashback sections, I lost interest in those bits almost entirely. I still found it very watchable, that director is a great entertainer after all, but knowing that the story within the story cannot divulge any real hints as to the actual events that occurred, my attention almost exclusively awoke whenever the story returned to the interrogation room. Maybe that’s what is the major flaw of the film: it is not a Whodunnit of the kind where you can play along, say Sixth Sense or Memento, but you are a passive observer to a pleasant crime piece, which will turn out in the end to not be what it seemed to be. Still, to be noted, excellent entertainment also thanks to the splendid cast, most noteworthy maybe Pete Postlethwaite and Chazz Palminteri, but Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-awarded performance as Verbal Kint will certainly be the one to be remembered for the ages. Will see it again in a couple of years for sure, let’s see how it will have held up…

if you are a father, be warned: if you have all your senses together, you will feel poorly equipped for your role after watching this. Viggo Mortensen is the loving, intellectual, practical, funny, strict, unwavering man you strive to be but are incompetent to become. He holds together his generously numbered family (I lost count how many children) after his wife is hospitalised. This creates two parts, one of which is considerably better than the other. I assume the script was developed around the idea of “hipster father trains his children in the woods to become brain soldiers”, and that section is brilliantly played and conceived. Challenging his kids’ intellects and bodies, celebrating Noam Chomsky day, hunting deer, establishing dress codes for various occasions (not naked at dinner) is both hilarious and inspiring. You may not feel affection for all his efforts to create a mini platoon of anti-capitalists, but you have to honour the result: a bunch of bright minds that are advanced enough to challenge even the foundation on which their family has been established (including the decision to enter the establishment by way of fancy university degree).

When the film moves into the second part, with father and kids leaving their camp and entering civilisation in order to face the real life in which their mother and wife has been sick, the film loses a bit of its steam. The father is confronted with the limits of his influence on that outside world, the kids are confronted with a number of things they have not been taught (like kissing girls). Maybe it is because a character like the one depicted by the ever-brilliant Viggo  Mortensen is more impressive when seen in isolation, and appears to be more clownesque when put in the hostile environment that is the American middle class. Maybe just because the mission they are on does not provide for enough substance to make that part as interesting as the beginning.

Whatever the reason for me being less enthusiastic about the road movie part may be, all in all this is thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring. I am not surprised it did not burn the box office, but I am sure it has and will retain a passionate following, if only because of the “Full Frontal Viggo” completists (“It’s a penis. Every man has one.”)

Let’s all take a deep breath… yes, Toni Erdmann is a funny and sad film, a combination that rarely works, but here it does. Yes, it being a German film makes this maybe all the more surprising, especially for those unfamiliar with German cinema. Yes, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller’s performances are great, especially Hüller is impressive in her balancing the sad corporate robot slowly developing some form of human capacity over the three hours of the film. And, oh yes! there are set pieces such as the already notorious party towards the end of the film that warrant any praise available. My Goodness, that is weird and funny!

However: I do not feel the same form of alarm that some expressed over “Toni Erdmann” getting sidelined at the Oscars. While I have seen not too many of the competitors, the film has some flaws to deal with. At times I felt the pacing was off, it dragged along in some scenes, triggering the hope that something hilarious would happen soon. Simonischek’s role of Ines’ father Winfried, while properly established to be that of a sad clown, was at times less uncomfortable to watch than I would have wished for. It all comes together towards the end in a finale that was excessively satisfactory to watch, but I have to admit that somewhere in the second act I felt a bit bored. What did the setting in Bucharest contribute to the story? Not sure, to be honest, other than a possible EU production co-funding …

I would still like to praise the film as much as I can, but I was a bit surprised to read all the reviews after it broke out at the festival circus, the high expectations that built up during the Summer and Fall did not quite materialise.

I wouldn’t say that I am the greatest admirer of Verhoeven’s oeuvre, but there are definitely a couple of items on his list that are unforgettable in their own way: Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers are eminently watchable and (at least I believe so) intellectually profound entertainment behemoths, Black Book at least an interesting nonconformist challenge to the audiences. “Elle” is … different. It is a mature drama with an outstanding performance by Isabelle Huppert at its centre, one of those very few actors and / or actresses that spike my interest in a film whatever it is about or by whom it was made (others: Michael Shannon, Viggo Mortensen, … hm… the list is very short, it seems). Huppert makes the film work, even though the script is not thoroughly convincing. The film depicts a rape victim’s reaction to the violation in a way that questions many if not most of the expectations. Here is a woman that has been broken and violated in more than one instance, and yet she is – in her own way – in no way willing to have her victimized. She takes control of the situation and her environment, roughs herself through the calamities of her private and professional life, but never gets thrown into the pitfall of revenge heroine that less skilled authors would have written for her. This creates large (LARGE) moral ambiguity, and that is what makes the movie an excellent one. Every person coming to see this may have other moments “Honestly, you are NOT doing that!”, but my guess is everybody will have one or two of those. As always, Verhoeven loves to make a contribution to the debates around feminism, objectification, media consumption and all those other topics than can make the world a glorious or a ghastly place. Huppert takes it all on, fearlessness impersonated that she is, and makes us leave the cinema wanting to read up on all the reviews and discuss with our friends. That’s the way to do it!

The American East coast lends itself to chilling stories about chilled emotions in grim environments. People scuffling about with their jackets zipped up, ghastly wind ruffling hair, and a general feeling that being there is a survival task rather than a chance to experience warm feelings . When I started watching “Manchester by the Sea”, I immediately had this cold atmosphere thrust upon me, and it never left. The way Lee Chandler’s back story unfolds over the first half of the film does not provide comfort either, it is uncomfortable in a fundamental sense, but not in the way a thriller would do to finally unravel the secrets of its protagonist, rather in the way that makes me suffer with Lee despite not knowing what he experienced. I did not feel that I really needed to know, but when we learn about the reasons for him leaving his old home, it is still shattering. Very much so, actually: When we see the flashback, it is devastating in the way it plays out without artificial drama, allowing the course of events to destroy lives in more than one sense.

There are some brilliant moments in the screenplay that are worth remembering, especially everything that happens at a police station. How Lee falls into an abyss, and how this is made even worse by the authorities refusing to allocate blame. This suffering, and the lack of repercussion, feels real, and who better to play silent and intense suffering than Casey Affleck?

When Lee returns to Manchester, it is to take care of his brother’s affairs after he suffered a heart failure. How this forces him to deal with aspects of his life he never wanted to deal with again is cruel. While Michelle Williams’ presence in the film has been significantly overstated by poster and trailer, when she is on screen she delivers some moving touches. There is one scene when she meets him on the street and admits to her ex-husband some things he does not want to hear that I would watch over and over again, uncomfortable as it is, for the sheer brilliance and intensity of these two characters who have lost the ability to communicate with each other.

On the other hand, there is always a way forward, isn’t there? Hard is it seems to believe, they all carry on, and move the film to an actually rather uplifting finale. So don’t fear the grimness, watch it to celebrate what comes next.

This is one of the cases where advertising and a film’s reality do not perfectly align – while the title and the ads suggest a film about a man with split personality, there was not really a suggestion of what the film really would be about. That left me hesitant, but when I watched it and discovered that there is a somehow straightforward abduction story at the centre (happening within the first couple of minutes), which is then used as a platform on which the mental state of “Kevin” (James McAvoy) play out, I was soothed. This is a thriller at its heart, and whatever else there is does not completely rely on the question of how many personalities Kevin may display. Actually… when it comes to the revelation of that final incarnation towards the end, the film loses a bit of its credibility and forced me to swallow my “oh Shyamalan!” cries of pain. McAvoy had done quite a great job at playing the eerie and threatening and pitiful by way of sheer acting proficiency – this is a bit devalued when the more, say, spectacular events occur in the finale.

There are other oddities and instances of writing clumsiness, such as the role psychiatrist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) plays in the whole affair. I am tempted to say that I will never see a Shyamalan script that is as tight and stringent as I would like it to be. Still, all in all “Split” is a decent thriller that was hardly ever boring – it looks like a slightly higher-budget B-movie perfectly suited to consumption at a midnight screening on a Friday night.

What a heart breaking and beautiful film, what a terrible and beautiful ending! Over the days after seeing it, I got hit by the film again and again, in a way that rarely happened. That had nothing to do with this being about aliens arriving at Earth, but by the film featuring a woman who learns some painful truths about life.

There is a case for arguing that the film is not about aliens at all, but about the insight that life deals with mortality and about the insight that this is the one aspect of life you can do nothing about.

Amy Adams is the film’s heart and soul, and while you may wonder at the beginning why it is that she is somehow shoehorned into the position of being chief negotiator with whatever life form it is that descends upon our planet, it all makes perfect sense at some point.

The film plays with time lines in a very intelligent and crafty way, never cheating the audience, never going for the cheap thrill of the “aha!” moments. There are moments of “aha!”, but they all embrace the whole of the story, creating completeness rather than sudden twists and turns less talented writers would have fallen for. Denis Villeneuve excels again: Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival… what a run!. Together with screenwriter Eric Heisserer he has created a masterful bit of cinema that stuns narratively and visually. You can dive into the beauty of the alien’s communication patterns, can enjoy the astonishing sound and production design, while at the same time never abandoning the admiration for the serious storytelling you are experiencing. But to stress it: This film looks so BEAUTIFUL! The production design of the spaceship, the design of the visual language they use for communicating with the aliens… stunning! The visual and acoustic beauty serves the story of this woman, who brings all her talent and knowledge to the table, takes risks and is rewarded in an existential way, both cruel and beautiful.

Of course, praise also goes to Jeremy Renner, who serves as some form of facilitator for Amy Adams’ path, and to the other supporting cast such as Forest Whitaker and Tzi Ma, all positioned perfectly. At the end of the day, it’s still Adams’ film and hers alone.  Want to see again!

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