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Over the last couple of years, the story of slavery made a comeback as feature film and tv material, with Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” probably still the gold standard. It became that standards, I believe, because if exceptionally skilled directorial skills and outstanding actors. While the fact that it was based on a true story may have contributed to the hype, I’d rather believe that it succeeded despite the shackles that reality usually puts on stories. “The Birth of a Nation” has a similar starting point, using events that are now referred to as the Slave Uprising of 1831, when slaves led by Nat Turner from Virginia tried to break free. A little Spartacus, a little Braveheart, a little Twelve Years a Slave, of course.

The way this is narrated, with the focus on a character who sets out as a slave preacher, and ends up a freedom fighter, is less inspiring than the “12 Years” example, though. After watching this, I had to struggle remembering remarkable moments, emotional turning points or moments of being wowed by one of the actors. It plays out rather straightforwardly, the way you expect it to do after learning about the setting. There are some grueling moments of violence (the teeth… oh my, that’s one to haunt me), and there are ambiguous and weak characters (such as farm owner Sam) but I never felt that I am all too familiar with the characters and their motivations, never felt I was embraced by the story and the drama. I could even imagine that this is intentional, indicating that what happened did not happen in a cinematic way, but the way life works, as a succession of individually less than glamorous or dramatic events that somehow lead to a tipping point. It still means that the film never really dragged me in. I felt like reading an illustrated history text book, rather than a dramatization, missing the cinematic qualities of Steve McQueen’s effort. It’s not a bad film, it just is not all too remarkable in retrospect.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_birth_of_a_nation_2016

If you tell the real life story of Saroo as it happened, you realise there is not much story to it: boy from rural India gets lost, orphanage, adoption by Australians, later seeks to find his family years later to get some form of closure. The script of “Lion” seeks to add a bit of extra drama to it, but focuses mainly on the fact that this boy basically has forgotten about his past life, and the way he is suffering from the loss only when by chance he stumbles across something that triggers his memory. In consequence the film is not very dramatic in its best moments, but very introvert and calm. There are some beautiful scenes at the beginning, before young Saroo gets separated from his family because of an unfortunate event he only learns about much later. In these moments, it is quite a heart-warming depiction of siblings relationship and the pleasures and pains of being a kid. The second part is not as strong as a film, with its setting in less exotic Australian suburbs and the addition of characters such as Saroo’s “brother” that do not add a great lot to his story. Of course, the way the story pans out is still moving, and the use of technology to trace his past life even provides for some thrills. Taken as a whole, I found “Lion” to be a bit too unbalanced to really enjoy it. I could appreciate Dev Patel’s acting skills, and I could easily fall in love with Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a child. No doubt this is solid awards season material, but could have been bit more edgy for my taste.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lion_2016

Remember the way 24 (see here for Season 5, or here for Season 6 and here for the movie – the early good ones were too soon for this blog) changed watching tv? Realising that waiting for a week for a new episode was not a pleasant built-up of tension, but a nuisance and not the way I want to consume television? Taping shows and getting DVD boxes, preparing to binge on a couple of hours of a “real time thriller”? And apart from the format, the first couple of seasons had memorable characters: Nina Myers, the CTU director that got himself into a nuclear blast, Nina Myers, Chloe and her chubby co-worker, Nina Myers, Tony Almeida …

In a word: I did like the show, even though it became apparent during season 2 that a 24-episode run is just way too many episodes to sustain tension and a less than ridiculous plot. For the reboot of the franchise, 24 Legacy did away with this last problem and limited itself to 12 episodes, thank you! It also tried to grab as many of the previous seasons’ actors as possible and included them more or less coherently. And it introduced a new Jack Baur who – obviously – is not called Jack Baur but Eric Carter, an equally masculine name on a much more masculine guy.

This is actually a good thing in more than one way. Not only have I never considered Kiefer Sutherland to be an action hero kind of guy (I associate him mostly with things like “Flatliners”). I also just could not stand his breathless “We’re running out of time” anymore. Also, he died way too often, the wuss … Corey Hawkins seems like a decent guy, a bit vulnerable yet tough, sufficient number of family members associated with him to make for good blackmailing material if the show continues. Given the dwindling audience numbers, my guess is this will not happen, though. As an escapist diversion with evil terrorists, more evil politicians, most evil agencies and some good guys who are mostly drug dealers, it served its purpose. Network television does not have the quality of writing or production others have these days, but kudos to Fox for making the best of it.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/24_legacy/s01

Sometimes I see a film and I wonder what people, say, 50 or 100 years ago would have reacted to when seeing it. I guess that in the case of Kong, most of them would have crapped their pants and stampeded out of the theatre. Kong: Skull Island has vicious creatures and fierce fights, grand explosions and surreal sceneries. It is extremely cinematic in an over-the-top way, drawing on everything from Lost World through Apocalypse Now, with the occasional John Woo-y martial arts moments. Admittedly, I have never really felt disappointed by any of the King Kong movies in the past. Kong is a great character that writes itself a script even if the Writers’ Guild is on strike. Send some people in, some noble and some pernicious, send some other creatures in, all pernicious, and let the battle rage until last creature and / or man standing. I liked Kong: Skull Island better than Peter Jackson’s effort some years ago, there was more originality in choreography, creature design and overall goofiness of the approach. Oh and there’s Black Sabbath, so what can go wrong?

There is also some formidable cast assembled to stand by while the battle is raging between Kong and his adversaries, with John Goodman and Samuel Jackson  doing their thing for a bit, Shae Whigham having a splendid exit scene, and Tom Hiddleston surely not yet quite sure whether he was supposed to be the hero of the film, but not getting too many heroic things to do (apart from running through toxic gas in a gas mask, and then just taking it off after the POV shots had been delivered)… Tian Jing seems to be on a retainer with Legendary Pictures, not so sure whether she is doing her international career a favour allowing her to be cast for decorative and marketing purposes, they clearly could not be bothered adding words for the script just because of her.

Kong found a good way of referencing the old King Kong films, such as when Kong gets chained up, while adding new setting and definitely a new quality of cgi to the story. I felt I could have watched many more minutes of all that, especially as they kept talking about “this is just the first of many”, but seems the other evil skull creatures were on a break. As the post credit sequence suggests, we can happily expect more, maybe not involving Kong (though it might be a good idea to hire him for recognisability of the franchise and because some exceptionally mean creatures are waiting to take over the world).

Excellent entertainment!

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/kong_skull_island

Speaking of Zombies… do we have a Zombie renaissance? A Zombiessance? I sometimes wonder how the production cycles work to spurn out several films from the same sidelined genres within a couple of months… And as for all Zombie movies, it is difficult to stay original. “The Girl with all the gifts” tries to be different, tries to take a page from Danny Boyle’s ventures into Zombieland in terms of production design, shows a dystopian setting in a bleak Britain in the grip of an epidemic by “Hungries” (well… Zombies), and tries to add some juvenile heroism. This is all pretty straightforward, with the exception of the fact that there are naturally hybrid creatures, such as the wonderfully curious and reflective child Melanie (Sennia Nanua), and that the world looks very British in the same way that Children of Men looked very British. British dystopia can look a lot like British reality, just with zombies… it’s a bit more grey than other dystopias. Melanie has to escape from the research facility in which she is held, together with a rather ruthless scientist (Glenn Close… where have you been?) and two soldiers (Paddy Considine and Fisayo Akinade). They have some form of mission, but to be honest, I already forgot what they did and why they were doing it. What’s important is that they need to make it somewhere, and that Melanie is essential in this, because she is the only one who can safely walk between the Hungries and the humans.

I was not really bored, but I consumed this the way you consume something that has been on your plate quite often, with reduced interest and little enthusiasm. Sennia Nanua is great, especially in the opening sequences where she is shown to be part of a ghastly educational programme. Then there is a lot of running, shouting and shooting, and the story went the expected direction. Only towards the end does the script find back some of the originality of the beginning, with some unpleasant resolutions emerging among which the characters have to choose.

After seeing this, I was actually regretting not having read the book instead. I guess that as a science fiction horror hybrid, this could work pretty well, given the larger space available for the respective characters and the establishment of the world design.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_girl_with_all_the_gifts

 

As I read somewhere: if you are stuck in a collapsed tunnel somewhere in Korea, Jung-Soo is the guy you want to be stuck with. Despite his poor fate of sitting in his Kia under millions of tons of rubble after the tunnel through which he was driving towards his daughters birthday party falls down on his roof, with little hope of rescue and a limited amount of water and birthday cake, his spirits remain high. After he finds another survivor with a dog, he happily (well, briefly hesitatingly) shares his water, and he surprisingly does not kill the dog for diving into the food supply. I would have.

The dynamic between what’s happening below ground and above, with the head of the rescue operation trying hard against all odds to get to the buried victim, and with the Jung-Soo’s wife being positioned as a mostly silent conscience of the rescue, the film manages to sustain the level of suspension that is necessary to avoid the boredom that could have happened in a less skilled script. Towards the end, there is some plot convolution going on, but proper placement of humour and the pretty impressive cast serve to divert from this. “The Tunnel” manages to keep the audience at the edge of their seats, and at least as far as I am concerned, I would not have placed any money on who is going to win this, Team Mountain in liaison with greedy suits and embarrassing politicians, or Team Kia, trying to dig a way out of this malaise.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_tunnel_2016/

Of course Zombie movies are not everybody’s piece of cake. They are not even everybody’s piece of cake among those who like zombie movies, given the amount of nonsense that has been around for the last decades. Whenever I see a trailer or a plot synopsis for such a film, my defenses go up immediately and I wonder where a new film may find something original to tell in a setting where the undead start roaming, or most recently running, the earth. Hence, after some of Romero’s films, and after Danny Boyle’s “28 days / weeks later”, and after “World War Z” added the Global Blockbuster aspect to the genre, I keep suspecting that I have seen everything that could be fun about them.

This is partially true for “Train to Busan”. It is not much different in terms of plot from “Dawn of the Dead”. People are locked up in a confined space while the world around them falls to shambles, they need to defend themselves against intruders and at some point they need to get out. This kind of setting is made to create social comment, you can nicely place the good guys and the bad guys, the selfish and the mellow-hearted, the fanatics and the hesitant. The difference here, firstly, is that to a Western audience, the social commentary goes into somehow different directions.

Korean movies have their topics, and they turn up here as well: blind career-orientation, class awareness, family bonds… the ruthless business guy replaces the egomaniacal redneck. Apart from that, execution needs to be judged, and “Train to Busan” shows all the features of today’s professional action cinema. Exploding trains, burning cities, and of course, hordes of very fast zombies come together for an entertaining bit of action. It is not tight enough to make you forget the plot holes. Most notably: if they discover early on that the zombies only recognise their prey on sight and are easily calmed by putting up blind screens, why is this not used later on when clearly this would have been a very good idea? Be that as it may, the film rewards with proper heroism and a very well executed closing scene. There may not be the need for more Zombie movies, but when done like this, hey why not?

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/train_to_busan

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.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/rogue_one_a_star_wars_story

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…

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_wall_2017

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…

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/usual_suspects

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.”)

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/captain_fantastic

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.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/toni_erdmann

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!

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/elle_2016

 

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.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/manchester_by_the_sea

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.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/split_2017

 

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!

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/arrival_2016

Evil coconut pirates? Check! Stupid rooster sidekick? Check! Dwayne Johnson trying to sing? Check! Sharkhead magic-mess? Check! The key ingredients for a funny story with pretty Hawaiian setting are in place, Moana does hardly set a wrong step. The songs are enjoyable if you enjoy this kind of Broadway formula, with the title character’s song “I am Moana” actually rather memorable in its theme tune-ishness. The story of the stubborn almost-princess-girl ignoring the rules and finding her true destiny is nowhere near original, but then again, what is? She is gorgeous and courageous and she defies establishment, and that’s what counts in uplifting films aimed at kids these days. The mission she has to accomplish is easy to be forgotten sometimes and fades into a McGuffin background noise, at least until she actually arrives where she is supposed to arrive and faces a Lava Monster that reminds her of what’s at stake. What stands out is one character and one song, however: The Shiny Crab is weird and creepy and amazing on a level that reminded me of “Tommy” and its age of psychedelia more than anything… do not care whether this does in any way related to the young target group, the Crab ROCKED!

And the rest of the film? Moving from set piece to set piece, some of which less exciting (finding Maui), some more (Coconut! Pirates!). The imagery can be absolutely stunning, such as when Moana sees the reflection of her ancestors as voyagers in a dream-like sequence, or when granny’s tattoo comes to life. The craftsmanship involved here is fantastic. As things are, this must be a key contender for the 2017 Oscar race, and it should be able to keep up with competing “Zootopia” and the slightly more interesting “Kubo and the Two Strings”.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/moana_2016

 

The first thing to note (as it comes up at the very beginning of this yet-another-Marvel-sub-franchise) is that I love Tilda Swinton, and I love Mads Mikkelsen to pieces! Seeing either of them in the role of martial-artsy super witchmasters is, however, wrong on all levels (more wrong for Mikkelsen, for some reason, don’t ask me why). I know, it’s great to cash in on the brainless machinery that produces superhero franchises these days, but I feel very uncomfortable watching them touch this. It’s a bit like walking into your parents’ bedroom and seeing, you know… just saying… On the bright side, this is not as bad as other recent comic book adaptations, I have to say. There were some attempts at humour (albeit sometimes force-fed into the plot, see Mr Wong), there were some fun references to greater pieces of art (Groundhog Day, most notably, but also Inception’s fluent approach to city architecture and The Matrix’s, well, matrixness). I am sure diehard comic book fans felt obliged to shout hooray at the expected cameos. That whole universe with witches and wizards sitting next to the Avengers universe of superheroes, however, looks quite stale and unnecessary. While the authors made the best to set up a large parallel franchise, I do not believe there is plenty of potential to tell interesting stories. It is too generic, and the interesting cast members are now gone (one must assume). What’s left is Benedict Cumberbatch, but to be honest, if I want to see somebody wearing Littlefinger’s dress, I would much prefer this to be Aidan Gillen). Cumberbatch has been moved from interesting actor to mannered mainstream commodity, and has never been a reason for me to watch anything to begin with.

Hence: Not my piece of cake…

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/doctor_strange_2016

It needs quite a bit of something different to get me interested in comic book adaptations these days. I get confused and bored between all those team this, team that franchises, and I remember being slightly amused by only two out of the last 15 or so Marvel, DC and whatever comic adaptations (the first Avengers film, and Guardians of the Galaxy were slightly amusing).

As part of the problem is the streamlined and family friendly environment in which all this takes place, Deadpool got my attention when it became clear that it is neither. It’s hero is a narcissistic prick, a potty-mouth supreme and they producers take the “comic style” premise seriously. Not so much neon-clad fist fights, but excessive and gratuitous violence, so much over the top that it can only be justified within a comic setting. And they got me with the opening credits: if you don’t laugh at “Director: overpaid corporate tool” and “Written by: the real heroes”, then you can just as well leave the theatre right away. This, I got the signal, is a film made by the guys who are as fed up as I am, and they found a channel for their anger in making a film they would like to see.

Superhero Wade’s casual conversations with his buddy Weasel and his flatmate Blind Al, the bickering with minor X-Men characters over their failed efforts to recruit him (and the producers being unable to afford more senior X-Men members)  … these are the film’s strengths. When it comes to the third act, as you would expect, things get a bit more straightforward, epic battles lead to epic destruction and ultimate happy endings. But despite this more conventional part, they managed to keep me interested and entertained – in stark contrast to the likes of recent Superman or Iron Man installments, where boredom started creeping in as soon as the final battles commenced.

Hence: very entertaining adult entertainment, which will certainly trigger more of the same which will be much less entertaining. Let’s take it as it is, a surprisingly fresh element in an otherwise stale genre.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/deadpool/

Stephen Chow knows how to make blockbusters for Chinese audiences. My guess is he is mystified as to why they keep racking up box office records in China, while being ignored by the rest of the world. The reason, I think, is because they are pretentious and poorly made. They pretend to be blockbusters of international quality, while actually being slightly embarrassing variations on what you have seen on the screens already. As the Chinese domestic audience seems not to care about the absolutely sub-par quality of cgi in films consisting mainly of cgi, he is getting away with it here, but not there.

This is what stuns me the most, really: you would expect that Chow and his producers could afford to bring in some serious cgi talent when making films about Chinese mysticism or mermaids. The revenues generated from his films would allow for the extra expenses. But you end up seeing crappy waterfalls, half-developed monsters and afternoon-tv explosions. This is distracting… what’s also distracting is the lack of judgement about to what level to raise the violence in a romantic comedy such as “The Mermaid”. I guess the lack of a film certification system and board is to blame. They would certainly have a word with the producers about scenes of vicious slaughter amidst a family entertainment movie such as this…

After the “Journey West”, another mystifying disappointment…

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mei_ren_yu/

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