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Monthly Archives: February 2018

So far, my assessment is that Iannucci cannot go wrong. Someone who wrote “The Thick of It” has a lot of credit in my books, and I will always look with great affection of positive spirit at what he is doing next. “The Death of Stalin” needs that credit, because there are some items where I had to swallow a “WTF?!” and hold back with my skepticism for a bit longer. And, yes, it pays off. Having the story of a mass murderer and his fate, and the flock of accomplices around him, as the setting for a comedy is a bold starting point. Once you accept that notion, the film does not hold back on the atrocities committed by this system, the system of mortal fear and arbitrary danger that was imposed as a policy instrument.

This is very very bold, I have to say. While thinking about whether it is an act of genius or utterly misjudged, I started laughing. Then I wondered whether I should have. And continued laughing (or gasp-laughing, if that’s a thing). My judgement would be: yes, you can do this. It is in line with a tradition of British comedy that knows little boundaries and tries to find the next threshold to step over. It is a tradition that owes a lot to Monty Python’s: the organ donation in “Meaning of Life” was legitimately funny? Then the same applies to the Central Party Committee wading in Stalin’s pee or Jason Isaac’s comment on the execution of a prisoner (“well that’s done then”, if I remember correctly). On procedural issues: The choice of having an all-English language cast chattering along in their native language (be it English or American) is irritating for a second, and then you swallow it, as it allows for those great comedic actors lined up to do their thing (I do not fancy the idea of everybody speaking English with Russian accents, and having a subtitled comedy might take off the edge a bit, no?). Simon Russell Beale as the Shakespearean / Machiavellian Beria in particular, and Jeffrey Tambor as limp leader Malenkov made my day, Steve Buscemi holds it together with his Steve Buscemi thing, Michael Palin is given some nice dialogue with his dog.

As with the all comedy based on violence and “poor” taste, I feel hesitant to just be enthusiastic about the film, but in the end, I am. After all, the violence may be more physical than the one exerted by Malcolm Tucker, but Iannucci has found a way of walking the balance to make another comedy purely based on incompetence and villainy. Kudos!

Even though it has been ages since I watched “Princess Kaguya”, it stays very vividly in my mind. What is particularly stunning is the … how to say … very different aesthetics, the water colour appearance, giving the whole film a dreamy appearance. Even more than other Studio Ghibli films, the supernatural elements take a very casual role, are taken as a given by whoever is affected. There is a tiny baby that emerged from a bamboo shoot. That baby is taken in by the family of the bamboo cutter and grows at a stunning rate. Weird, yes, but then again, she is loved just like a regular child. Her friends play with her and like or dislike her, just as they would a regular girl. Her being special  basically means that her education will require some special measures. As her presence comes along with the presence of a fortune that can be spent on a domicile in the capital and the introduction of nobility, well let’s do that. Soon the film turns into a very melancholic glance at a girl who would like nothing more than being allowed to stay where she likes it most, the rural patch where her foster parents found her. She cannot bear the burden of needing to be noble and gracious the way tradition asks her to. She cannot take seriously the promises the men willing to marry her make, and mocks them, only creating more inconvenience to them and to herself. It does not matter at all that she is from “somewhere else”, because she wants to be a simple girl from a bamboo cutters’ family. There are moments of great despair, she seeks to go back to her old home, only to find out she can’t, that everything has changed, and that the boy the probably loves most has become something of a crook after her disappearance. The story moves Kaguya towards the almost inevitable return to her real home, and the final scenes are as dreamlike as can be, with a very calm yet joyful “extraction”.

Beyond the proper and true telling of the story, what makes the film magic is really its looks. I have not seen this used in a film before, and was initially curious, then skeptical, and finally thrilled. The Ghibli masters manage to be innovative through being old-fashioned, and chose the exact right visuals for telling this particular story. I keep always checking film for toddler-friendliness, to see when I will finally be willing to expose a little child to a large-scale movie. I keep coming back to certain classics of the Ghibli output, such as “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighour Totoro”. “Kaguya” may well be a candidate on this list, as it is mostly calm and warm-hearted, but does not shy away from the truths, dangers and possibilities of growing up.

What? Wait… Wow! WTF??!! Hey this is a funny police creepy-thriller with a chubby police officer in some Korean small town with very poor weather. He is stumbling into some creepy crime scenes and how he starts to see all kinds of ghosts and ghouls and gets all agitated about it… hilarious, right? No. Turn that premise around and let’s say this is an ultimate-level horror movie, as in good vs evil, and some police officer and family father has the fortune of stumbling into it. Epic, right? No. It is The Korean Exorcist with one hell of an exorcism by a Shaman who maybe really knows what he is doing and to whom people should listen more carefully when he is giving instructions (he gives two in the course of the film, and ignoring them  turns out to be costly). Oh and it is a careful allegory about xenophobia in rural Korea, where people turn against the Japanese guy when things go awry, because he is creepy, and nobody understands him anyway. It is about the deeply frustrating efforts of parenting, and how to make the right choices for your kid. And Zombies.

There are two memorable set pieces in this film, and I am pretty sure even when I cannot remember a thing about the plot anymore, I will never forget those: 1) an utterly frantic shaman ceremony to expel a ghost who may or may not be there at all, with wild drums and spraying chicken blood and wild dancing and coffin nails … think Epiphany Proudfoot without the sex but a goat! 2) I have seen many thriller / horror finales, but never any like this. The action happens at three locations and we get cuts from here to there to yonder, and back, and back, and … everything gets slower and slower, the action grinds to a halt, all three locations / characters are as well as paralysed, unable to move forward and take on the challenges, or to at least run away as fast as they can. A thrilling end game where there is indecent eating in location 1, chatting with a pretty girl in location 2 and taking pictures in location 3. Our hero is faced with an utterly unresolvable task of figuring out who says the truth, his shaman buddy or the Lady in White, and everything depends on whether he gets it right. I still do not have half a clue about what “really” happens, and in particular why, but that film putting the brakes on and screeching to a halt amidst the highest tension  and about the highest stakes is bold as bold can be. Fabulous!

Hong Jin-na has three major pictures on his CV, and all three are excellent entertainment. Can’t wait to be thrown off the track again by him soon! Oh, and Kudos to Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo the police officer. He plays all notes on the fiddle, from slapstick to horror!

After catching up with a few films I watched over the last months, now I am stuck with this monster of a film… what to write about it? It requires comment, no doubt. Dismissing “mother!” as a mere act of madness is possible, but the question (to me) is whether it is an act of madness to be appreciated and praised, or rather frowned upon. Maybe I have to start by writing that I was never bored, that each time the life of Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem threatened to move into smooth territory, and each time the previous intrusion of craziness was done with, the director leads you one step further up the ladder of mayhem.

It starts with what looks like an innocuous visit by an admittedly creepy stranger (then again: Ed Harris, who lets Ed Harris into the house in the middle of the night and expects a calm night?), the increasingly deviant behavior of Bardem’s character towards his wife, his life, and his fans. The bunch of relatives Harris lures into the house. Their increasingly violent struggles. Harris’ wife and her alcohol-fueled unsolicited streams of love advice. The sons (of Brendan Gleeson, actually, but that is just background fun). The literary agent (girl! you managed to defy expectations…), the squad team, the disciples, the … Lawrence gawks at all this, she is a bystander to her world being turned upside down, her house being turned into an allegory for … many things: Earth, religion, motherhood etc.

The breaking point for an audience comes, I guess, when you kept shouting at Lawrence  “Do Something!” for an hour, and she still won’t. If you go with it, feel her victimhood and the role she plays as being subjected to a world going mad around her, then you will stay to the end, maybe even watch it again and stumble across quite a few rewarding clues and traces hinting at the things to come, and what the larger picture here may be.

I love crazy movies that don’t lose control of their structure, so I have to say: this was brilliantly done almost beginning to end! I loved to hate Bardem and almost everybody else in the film, and I loved to follow this world being torn to pieces and recycled in another effort to make things better. This is edgy, and edgy is direly needed amidst all the straightforward story telling that we face every day.


Imagine “Stand By Me” without a quest for a body, but with an occasional hooker mom, you are… no, still not anywhere near Florida Project. But they feel like relatives: Florida Project is also a feelgood movie about the beauty of childhood, the carelessness of roaming about your neighbourhood during the summer break, ignoring all your little world’s problems for a few weeks. The kids who live in the decrepit compound just outside the Magic Kingdom make the best out of the strange setting, skim off the tourists’ dreams and ice cream money. It’s not as if they are not aware of the financial duress of their families, the film’s heroine Moonee frequently joins her mother in her third- and fourth-job efforts to sell perfume to tourists out of a plastic bag and is made to witness and participate in the more dire efforts her mother engages in to make ends meet. But it is their world, and they embrace it and use it as their playground. They play and they joke (“there’s a leprechaun at the end of the rainbow who watches the gold pot” – “let’s go beat him up!”). They make friends and they lose them. They burn hoses by accident, just like every other kid, right?

That’s why the film , at the end of the day, is about the beauty of childhood, not about the calamities of the financially depraved. Merging the two into one light-hearted yet profound glance at a world most of us will probably initially feel very detached from works masterfully.

All the while during watching Lady Bird, I was drawing parallels to “Boyhood”, this masterful and calm analysis of how life takes no prisoners when you are part of a family. These are perfect companion pieces for those wondering what it’s like to be a parent. While Boyhood took a larger perspective, Lady Bird is more narrowly focused in time and personnel, looking in particular at the relationship between the self-named high school teenager Lady Bird and her mother. But maybe that only is the natural result of the family father drowning deeper and deeper in apathy and depression after the loss of his career. Both films are frank, in good times and in bad times.

It cuts deep, I have to say. Fortunately, my guess is that only those who actually do have children will really appreciate how deep, what pain there is involved to have those cute little toddlers take over our lives and run away with it (as Boyhood said so brilliantly), or even turn it against us (as it looks in Lady Bird sometimes). Maybe it’s like the pain of childbirth: you start forgetting how much it hurt very quickly, as a protection mechanism of nature, or no one would ever be foolish enough to have another baby. The pain of having to deal with a teenager defining her own life can be no less. If people could anticipate what it means to live through the various stages of a parent-child relationship, how many would decide to start a family in the first place?

Lady Bird and her mother both do not shy away from a fight, about the respect for the family or the proximity to the parents in choice of college. Both accuse each other of passive aggressiveness, and they are sometimes unable to change their communication pattern, because they’ve been there too often and are exhausted. You can feel that the sometimes harsh reaction of the mother is the result of years of combat, her moderation and mediation fuel is in the red, she says things we never want to say to our children but are worried that at some point we will (“do you know how much it cost us to get you through your life?”). Boyhood had those moments of conflict, and they were brilliantly managed by cutting away to the next time slot and showing that the smoke from all those battlegrounds had dispersed into nothingness, other matters have come about and everybody just moved on. Lady Bird, being dedicated to a much shorter period of time this family passes through, is less gracious, stays on one of these conflicts for longer and shows how the family members struggle with somehow finding a resolution for these existential threats to the family bonds. It will be allright in the end, but damn is there a lot of not-allright to overcome until then.

There is often talk about the loss of childhood, about the slow process of losing the lightness of childhood, of realising one day that you have not been out “to play” in years, wondering why not and somehow succumbing to the fact. There is, we see here, also the loss of parenthood. At some point, the world has moved on and you are sitting on your kitchen table (Boyhood) or in your car (Lady Bird) facing the reality of the empty nest, another pointer that your life has completed its maybe most important stage and has left you on the wrong side of whatever. Lady Bird’s mother tries to fight this realisation to the very last moment, and she has to face that new reality while feeling she has been betrayed, which makes it almost impossible for her to get through it with her head up. In both films, those final scenes are heart wrenchingly cruel. What is a consolation is that if we cut a year into the future, we can assume that everybody has learned to deal with the new stage in life (Lady Bird off to college), that everybody is better able to merge love and anger into a new glue for that family. After all, even in her most glum moments, Lady Bird defends her mother’s actions by appreciating that she is acting out of great love for her daughter.

Lady Bird was much praised as an important contribution of a female perspective by a female film maker. Seen in the context of the current debate about harassment and objectification, that may be a valid point. I did not read this film as having a particularly female perspective, though. It is just very competent film making, on the example of a family where the women play the more active role, take on the fights where necessary, and the men / boys frequently just hop on the back seat and hope that the ladies won’t crash the whole thing in the ground. That is not a female perspective, but maybe a true reflection on many families’ reality.

It is hard to differentiate “Lady Bird” as a cinematic achievement from its achievement in showcasing some profound examples for what it means to be a family. As a movie, despite the brilliance of all the actors and the competence in style, it may not even be spectacular. As an analysis, it is.

This film managed to break all the Chinese box office records to become the highest grossing film ever in the Chinese market. When you watch it without knowing that, you might be tempted to guess that it is just another run of the mill martial arts films that are a dime a dozen in China, with plenty of military fetishism and patriotism. Compare it to previous holders of the China revenue top spot, “Fast and Furious 7” or some “Transformers” or the other, or even some Chinese titles that took the box office by storm over the last years, it is very very stunning that this film has done the same. It is, without judging, a very simple action film, along the lines of some “Expendable” aesthetics, but without that franchise’s star power, stripped-to-the-bone scripts, or production values.

The script of “Wolf Warrior 2” is utter pants, as is the whole setting, the editing and most of the cgi. You only recognize a mature narrative structure when it’s not there, and here it so much not there that you stumble across plot point after plot point, not because it would be terribly contrived (ok, there’s that, as in Dr Chen’s ability to cure whatever virus they cure), but because it is clumsily implemented (same virus: our hero got it, and then he suddenly ungot it, but the script forgot to be excited about it). There is stuff… the odd setting within a Chinese community in “Africa” (wherever that may be), for instance, which feels like an alien spaceship landed in an exotic country. Maybe this is just the way it is? There is a tank battle that looks as if kids filmed it on an abandoned junk yard with some hi-def video camera they nicked off their uncle. There are some very decent hand-on-hand combat scenes, though, and much was made of the Russo brothers input as advisers on the stunt and action work of this film. Most notably, the very opening sequence is clearly where they spent most effort to get a grip on the audiences, an underwater fight between our lead hero and some anonymous pirates off the coast of Africa. From there onward, drama and quality is deteriorating. The film has quite a few remarkable elements, but most of them are remarkable in all the wrong ways: there is Frank Grillo, for example, who seems to be so well known even though it seems I have hardly ever seen him in anything… he hopefully has a chance to have this entry expunged from his IMDB record, or he did at least earn enough money to send his kids through college. I checked Wikipedia, he has three sons, he needs the money.

On the brighter side, there is Celina Jade who plays Doctor Rachel, kind of the female lead, and always dressed in tattered half-transparent tops in a completely ridiculous but visually appealing way. Given she is a rather competent and attractive bilingual actress, I am surprised I have not seen more of her before. Perfect co-production co-star. And of course Wu Jun. He has the star power of a Matt Damon or Tom Cruise, with the ability to convey having the right moral compass, but still the ability to act as a ruthless killing machine if need be. He is a very competent as a fighter, and given the right choreography, he performs some impressive set pieces. They are not held together in any coherent manner, but given the box office results  that should not give him a headache. The preview for Wolf Warrior 3 was already included in the credits of this part 2, so whatever criticism the film endured ricocheted off its armor like a bullet off Wu Jing’s vest…

“Are you still torturing niggers?” – “You don’t say Nigger torturing no more, it is supposed to be persons of colour torturing.” When a film makes you briefly wonder whether this exchange is meant as a joke or whether the person saying it means it… then the film got you hooked. Sam Rockwell delivers the line, and despite the film revolving about Frances McDormand’s character and her odyssey to get her daughter’s killer arrested, it’s Rockwell’s film. I love that actor, even though I have not seen too many of his films. I do remember, however, how I was watching “The Green Mile” and even though I saw Rockwell for the very first time back then (I think), he has this handsome and fierce appearance that makes him the most disgustingly likable villain on the screen. Here he is caught in all of the textbook macho poses, until his career and his life get shattered, and even in his worst moments I feel I kind of want to hang out with him and maybe comfort him and help him get out of his misery. It would be a very funny night out, is my guess. The film allows him to slowly realise that what he’s doing, who he pretends to be and how his mother (glorious performance by Sandy Martin!) tried to shape him is a track towards solitude and misery.

After this little detour, back to the fact that “a film with Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, directed by Martin McDonagh” is an almost perfect description of “This film was made for me in particular”. I am a big fan of McDonagh’s since “In Bruges”, the genre of “foul mouthed violent comedic thriller” that he excels in is what makes me smile. Or laugh out loud. When comparing the humour in “Billboard”’s actually quite bleak and grim setting with the pathetic efforts of outright comedies like “Girls Trip”, I feel I either do not get comedy, or I do get comedy, and I am very happy that “Billboards” has my kind of humour. The script is far from perfect, the twists and turns somehow more uncomfortable than the general tone of the film had called for (such as when the town’s attitude toward McDormand’s Mildred shifts after an incident with Sheriff Willoughby). At the end of the day, this is a low key drama with an unsmiling heroine that let me forget the flaws by sheer force of characterization, acting and – yes – a bunch of violently funny outbursts.


Gerald’s Game has never been one of my favourite King novels, hence I have only read it once when it came out. I had a basic memory of the plot but not much in ways of where the personal calamity that befalls the lady at the beginning was going or how it ends. Suffice to say, when the opening scenes happened, I felt deeply uncomfortable, to the point of wondering whether I really liked the idea of Jessie being tied to a bed post. I was shouting (silently) “No, don’t, not the cuffs!”, but she was not listening, and things started to happen. Thanks to two great actors (Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood), this worked terribly well. It is a chamber piece that conveys the horror of being stuck in an uncomfortable place all too well. Jessie’s memories, her inner monologues, her virtual escape buddies… I was captivated and rooted for her. And for the dog. I am inclined to pick up the book again to see especially how those dark places in her past that she mulls over play out when given more space. As a tight little bit of tension cinema (or Netflix-pic, rather), this was done very well.

We know this phenomenon from “Stand By Me” or “Shawshank”: there is a certain nostalgia with Stephen King source material that has nothing to do with his reputation as a horror writer which very much appeals to cinema audiences. As he is (in my humble opinion as a Constant Reader) unsurpassed in characterization, especially of nostalgic settings, of coming of age stories and of underdog heroes, this is what works greatly for people who can’t really be bothered with the horror genre. As “IT” is in many ways an extended cut of The Body / Stand by Me, it is no surprise that this new version, the first chapter of which focuses on the kids’ first encounter with the evil that torments Derry, has been a vastly successful adaptation. I just reread the book a short while ago, and while reading I was wondering how the book’s structural flaws might work out on the screen. Doing away with the intercutting between past and present, and doing two movies dedicated respectively to one time period might have been a good idea, even though I believe that this means the second movie will fall a bit flat in contrast, as it is also less powerful in the book.

For me, chapter 1 did work, even though I am not as enthusiastic about it as many reviewers. It very much provides an executive summary, slightly corrected (and partly improved) version of a large narrative. As you would expect, you cannot engage nearly as much with the movie losers as you can with their book counterparts, as so much of the back story needs to be left out.  Still: they create a wonderful atmosphere of childhood, of Summer holiday and what it’s like to be a kid. There are scenes that are actually very moving, when nothing happens but the kids roaming about, hanging out, chatting and enjoying Summer while they can. The horror elements are kind of traditional, horror prototypes the way the book envisages them, and work as such, even though that’s clearly not what the movie is about. How the loss of childhood, and even of childhood memories is handled will, to me, will decide on the quality of the second chapter.

This is very very odd. The film is, my guess, utterly incomprehensible, if not silly, from a Dark Tower novice’s perspective. There is mid worlds and centerpiece worlds, gunslingers and black stones, dark towers and beams with turtles… and the effort to explain how this all belongs together and links to what that Roland supershooter does is weak, to say the least. For a Dark Tower fan, it deviates completely from what’s written, adds characters, adds science fiction elements and other weird stuff, without really getting to what’s the spirit of the novels. The Man in Black is a vulnerable villain-Jedi, no mystical dark force, and how the hell Jake gets through that first portal despite being attacked by some wooden panel monster eludes me… I do understand the intention of kicking off a set of sequels and tv shows, setting up a centerpiece movie from which all the other products will emerge, I actually got quite a bit excited about this idea, allowing the epicness of the volumes to unfold. But this? Nope… this was a belittling of a vast literary achievement, a dwarfification of a giant piece of literature. Might be that things can be resolved through some of the follow-up pieces, but then again, given the justifiedly devastating reception of this film, I very much doubt there will be much in terms of follow-up…


As far as opening sequences go, The Villainess has it all, a fierce martial arts first person shooter combat rampage through some factory building, where a single fighter (lady) takes on a whole company of what can only be assumed to be really bad Korean people. You know nothing about context and the players, but a couple of minutes in the manic camera moves away to show the heroine and bounces around the final location of the fight, and you cannot but fall in love with that terrible warrior woman. Then comes a soothing set of Korean rain, I breathe, and wonder… how would they possibly follow up on this opening? Never mind, she’s hot!

Of course what follows it not quite up to par with the opening, a bit of Nikita and a bit of Police Academy: Girl Assassins! Some confusing time layers and a lot of gratuitous violence mix with a teary story line about daughters in general and daughters of villains in particular, and about wives who got wronged once too often. But as compensation you get sword fights on high speed motorbikes, and what I would assume must be a VIP mafia bus fight. It wasn’t always perfectly clear to me who was who and why they were who, but in the end, there were villainy villains, and nice and mellow villains, and a villainess who is least villainy of all, but still has to do the villainy fight against the men that betrayed her. Can’t say I was not entertained, even though I wonder whether organized crime in Korea is really as dependent on knives and swords as a means of battle. Once somebody brings an automatic weapon to a fight, they all stare quite blankly into the hopping fish eye camera…

Very entertaining, all this, and another piece of evidence that Korean cinema is as reliable as it gets.


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