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Within the first couple of minutes if “The Invitation” you understand what director Kusama is doing. She is setting up Will as the skeptic or even the paranoid guy who cannot just enjoy the party he and his old buddies have been invited to, but smells a rat around every gesture. We assume that we have to play along and assume that the director and author want us to assume that we think he is wrong about all this, because it would be so obvious, which again would lead us to believe that he is right about all this, which again might be reason enough to doubt it … so you have to decide which side you are on: is Will just a party pooper, or is there something going on that puts all the guests in danger? The experienced cinema audience will realise that whenever John Caroll Lynch gets invited to the party, there is a maniac or at least a child molester around, no? Will David play some music in the end (loved Treme!), or will he kill everybody and serve them to his guru for dinner? So you got your clues, and need to put the pieces together before the reveal comes, for maximum satisfaction.

You can only play this game for a while, then it gets boring. “The Invitation” does ok in deciding when to stop playing and start getting serious. But then again, once you stop playing, you change genre, and you either end up in Bunuelian social drama (guests discussing their relationship issues over dessert) or a slasher film. Both options are not very appealing unless very well done. If you only start doing them halfway through a film, what are the chances of getting it right?

So this is a bit of several genres, with nice ideas and very good actors, but then again, the film never reaches perfection in either genre. As soon as the truth about the setup has been revealed, the whole thing deflates quite a bit, and not even the strong hands of John Caroll Lynch can rescue it completely.

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

„Based on a story by Stephen King” more often than not spells disaster. Not sure why that is, but apart from the notable exceptions (“Shining”, “Carrie”, “Shawshank”, “Stand By Me” and some others) the majority of film and tv versions comes across as sloppily compiled B-class at best. I always thought that with King’s detailed depiction of character and atmosphere, his books are better suited to a tv series format, but not so many of those held up to the promise (“Salem’s Lot” does, I suppose).

“11.22.63”, produced by JJ Abram’s Bad Robot company as an original series for Hulu, is based on a novel of considerable volume, is packed with 1960s atmosphere, and lives to a certain degree off its Groundhog-like reset button that the protagonist needs to push a couple of times in order to get things right. This might be the major difference to this tv show, which moves forward in a more linear fashion, skipping something like half of the book, and mostly getting away with it. I guess only those who did enjoy the epic scale at the novel’s heart, stressed by the repeated attempts to start anew into the effort of stopping the Kennedy assassination, triggering each time a new 3-year countdown clock, will find that there is something missing. Taken as it is, the tv story moves along nicely, driven by James Franco’s madly charming protagonist, trying to work his way through the 1960s, an age without mobile phones and sneakers. He faces the expected adversaries (gambling mafia) and the less expected ones (the past fighting back against efforts to meddle with history), and gets his share of physical and emotional bruises. His love interest and the rest of the cast populating this world are all well cast and contribute to successful suspension of disbelief where needed. I consider the book to be among King’s best works in 20 years – the teleplay is not as strong by far as the novel it is based on, but as a gripping miniseries, this works perfectly well. The final scenes are moving and true, and once you have reached the end of the final episode, you will be awarded with your fair share of tears.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/11-22-63/s01/

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!

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

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.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/spotlight_2015

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.

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

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.

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

 

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!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mountains_may_depart_2016

 

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.

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

 

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!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/room_2015/

 

If you have seen Tobias Lindholm’s previous films, you know that there will not be a “Green Zone” waiting for you. In the same way “A Hijacking” was the cinema verite version of “Captain Philipps”, “Krigen / A War” takes the more blunt, calm, realistic and consequently more powerful approach to the challenges soldiers face when thrown into their Afghanistan or Pakistan assignments.

In short: this is Pedersen’s third film I have seen, and they are all outstanding! In theme, Krigen is closely related to “The Hunt”, featuring a set of characters who need to judge and make decisions based on the information they have, whether it is a commanding officer in a combat situation or a judge and jury needing to assess whether he has failed in this. You have to mix moral and legal arguments, and you have to consider the consequences of your actions.

This latter bit is the most grueling insight: whether you choose to protect your comrades that are under fire, or that of the locals that you were sent to protect, whether to speak the truth at a court of law, or to lie for the sake of a “right” outcome, whether to endanger your family for the sake of doing the right thing… sometimes all options are utterly cruel.

The course of action does not offer an easy way out, all the choices made here have irrevocable consequences that will stay with the characters for the rest of their lives, most likely with damaging consequences. You can only imagine what the main character’s Claus Pedersen’s life will look like a few years down the road. He will suffer, and will be torn apart, and his family will join him in his suffering, and that looks like the best possible outcome. The cast is a who is who of all the brilliant Danish television that I have grown so fond of over the past years, with Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling  of Borgen fame probably the most well-known. Lindholm seems to have taken over the role as flagship of Danish cinema from his Dogma-based predecessors. Looking at the quality output of that little market keeps leaving me stunned…

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

 

Preparing for the imminent release of the much-praised “Room”, I was a bit hesitant to finally catch up with “Richard”. What I had heard reminded me a bit of “We need to talk about Kevin”, and while there have been very few better films over the last years, this is not necessarily something to look forward to…

Turns out, “What Richard did” is very different. It is not about a devil in human disguise, but about an average, albeit very handsome and popular, guy, rugby hero and family charm. As things happen, there are missteps, and sometimes a misstep cannot be undone. The film takes a lot of time to introduce us to the person before throwing the person in disarray. This allows you to make an assumption on what his possible reaction to “the incident” would be, whether he would be able to “do the right thing” (as he stresses early on in the film), and what that right thing could be.

These characters are for real, that’s what makes the film so strong. Especially the father (played by the brilliant Lars Mikkelsen) – is that the brother of Mats? one would assume so.), so confident in his position in life that he has worked hard on, the position of being a decent person mainly, makes this clear. You are always as strong as the next challenge, we find out, and maybe the life of a thoroughly good person is just a life that has never faced serious challenges. Don’t feel safe!

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

When discussing “scenes of the year”, someone on the Filmspotting podium mentioned the opening scene of Sicario, and I nodded in excitement and agreement under my podcast headphones. A group of US … officials of sorts, a bit DEA, a bit FBI, maybe a bit CIA, rolls into Mexico in a small convoy of SUVs to pick up a prisoner. It is like watching the raid on Abbottabad, there is a perennial feeling of threat, the streets are lined with heavily armed police (and the suspicion is that they are not all on the same side),  the roads are cleared for the convoy and the helicopter shots follow the trail into the heart of darkness on the other side of the border, an area under full control of drug lords.

Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who is used as a formal requirement to get US agencies involved, but refuses to remain passive, struggles with her role, with her inability to merely understand, if not to influence, the greater game that others play. Those others are mainly Josh Brolin as CIA consultant and Benicio del Toro as freelance avenging angel. While his involvement may put a bit of stress on your suspension of disbelief, it is a fierce part, played with fierce intensity. If anybody doubted what kind of war this is, del Toro’s role explains it.

With its number of high-tension set pieces while devoting ample time for the Blunt character to despair about her situation (and kudos to the actress for allowing herself to look as weary as she does), this is almost perfect thriller cinema, with heroes to root for, others to despise, but sometimes not being very sure which is which.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sicario_2015/

Die Bücher sind geschlossen, Zeit für die Abrechnung des Jahres 2015 an den chinesischen Kinokassen. Fast wäre die erstaunliche Marke von 50% Wachstum geknackt wurden, aber auch die 48,7% auf insgesamt 44 Millarden Yuan bringen China einen  deutlichen Schritt näher an das prestigeträchtige Ziel, bald weltgrößter Kinomarkt zu werden. 61,6% des Umsatzes geht dabei nach Aussage der chinesischen Regulierungsbehörde auf das Konto heimischer Produktionen, Hollywood musste sich mit 45,5% begnügen.

Am Bemühen hat es nicht gelegen: alle Kassenschlager des US-Marktes waren auch in China am Start. Die Verschiebung des Star Wars-Startes auf einen Januartermin hat sicher ein wenig geholfen, ebenso wie kreative Buchführung beim Jahressieger „Monster Hunt“, die üblichen Moratorien für ausländische Filme während wichtiger Ferien und die simultane Terminierung einiger Hollywood-Filme. Am Ende steht aber der Stolz der chinesischen Produzenten, es den Amerikanern wieder einmal ein bisschen gezeigt zu haben.

Das Potential für Wachstum liegt zudem weiter bei den heimischen Produktionen. Die durchschnittlich nur 0,8 Filmtheaterbesuche pro Kopf (USA: 3,22) haben vor allem mit der weiterhin dünnen Versorgung in den kleineren Städten abseits der Ostküstenmetropolen zu tun. Zwar kamen 2015 etwa 8000 neue Leinwände dazu, aber das ist noch bei weitem nicht das Ende des Wachstums. Das Wachstum wird vor allem abseits der Ballungszentren weitergehen, und dort ist das Publikum traditionell stärker an heimischen Stoffen als an internationalen Franchise-Produktionen interessiert.

I did not know anything about the real life incidents that led to the formation and breakup of N.W.A., nor did I know anything about the West-East struggle for Hip Hop supremacy, or the clash with the police force. Nor do I care a lot, to be honest, as most of the people involved in this seem like a thoroughly despicable bunch I would not want to meet in the dark, or at all. As I do have some appreciation of the work Dr. Dre has done over the years (in particular with Eminem, so not part of this film’s story), I found my character to develop an interest in. As I had never even heard of Eazy-E, and only vaguely know about Ice Cube, but have no clue on whether this is a rap force to be taken seriously, the whole narrative was a bit skewed to me. It still works, though. The film does convey where the anger of the gangsta rap comes from, what combination of harassment, disillusionment and macho attitude plays together to produce an almost comic level of mutual hatred and rage. While it is not clear exactly how this particular group of musicians made it to fame beyond their own neighbourhood, maybe that’s exactly the point. There is a lot of coincidence involved, a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and only a few of the characters (again, maybe Dre in particular) appear to have worked hard and systematically on their professional career. Then how this mostly street gang bunch clashes with the mechanisms of the music market, how their urge to make to riches and all that comes with it makes them blind to the consequences of what they are doing, and also makes them blind to their actual economic positions and vulnerably exposed to those who do. I liked the ambiguous role of manager Jerry (played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, Oscar for best wig guaranteed), at least I could never quite decide whether the suspicions about his abuse of his position were justified, or whether he is right when insisting “This is how it works.”.

A mostly strong cast of guys and girls I did not know, very credible in their physique and demeanor, with special mention to the Suge Knight, a truly terrifying presence.

And the music: I don’t mind hip hop and rap (while I don’t even know how to use either term correctly), so this was a powerful movie experience.

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

Wang Jianling ist nun Filmproduzent. Nachdem der meist reichste Chinese die von ihm als Immobilienfirma gegründete und geleitete Dalian Wanda Group schon vor drei Jahren durch den Kauf der US-amerikanischen AMC-Filmtheater als internationalen Akteur im Filmmarkt etablierte, gehört nun bald auch eine bedeutende Hollywood-Produktionsfirma zur Gruppe. Bis zu 3,5 Milliarden Dollar wird Wanda für Legendary Entertainment zahlen, die größte internationale Übernahme durch ein chinesisches Unternehmen in der Unterhaltungsbranche. Zuvor hatte Wanda mit Investments in einzelne Produktionen („Southpaw“) bereits Ambitionen anklingen lassen, sich von der reinen Distribution zu entfernen.

Das Investment erscheint passend: Legendary produziert genau jene Filme, die chinesische Säle füllen, Special-Effects-lastige Blockbuster wie „Pacfic Rim“, „Jurassic World“ oder „Godzilla“ treffen den Geschmack der neuen chinesischen Mittelschicht und sind maßgeblich am enormen Umsatzwachstum an den Kinokassen beteiligt.

Während die von Wang initiierten Wanda Studios in Qingdao noch im Bau sind, dürfte sich das Unternehmen damit mittelfristig auch eine solide Auslastung der 400 Hektar großen Anlage und einen Wissenstransfer durch die in Qingdao arbeitenden Filmemacher versprechen. Das neue Unternehmen kann durch den Status als heimische chinesische Produktionsfirma auch deutliche Vorteile bei der Genehmigung neuer Produktionen und der Erlösanteile beim Verleih erwarten.

Legendary-Gründer Thomas Tull soll weiterhin das kreative Ruder in der Hand halten, eine Einmischung in Stoffentwicklung und Produktion sei explizit nicht vorgehesen. Wang Jianling ließ anklingen, auch ein Börsengang sei denkbar.

A Western as a Western should be: gritty, dirty, crude, mumbly, and with heroes that are not very heroic, women that are good-hearted and desirable, and shootouts that do not turn out the way they are intended to.

Michael Fassbender holds it together, being handsome and cool, always on top of things even when all hell breaks loose, until he isn’t… but the new young boy Kodi Smit-McPhee also performs greatly as dreamy-eyed adventurer of love. The way his adventure does not play out well in the end has a tinge of artificiality that does not quite match the rest of the film, but still worked well for me. There is a touch of grotesquery when his Jay is passive observer to how his dream floats away in gun smoke. He also has a great entering scene, covered in the dust of a burning forest, beautifully shot and already indicating the things to come. Ashes to ashes…

The plot about a bunch of outlaws converging towards a little house in the prairie that promises a considerable reward for those who get there first allows for enough tension to add to the atmosphere. Director John M. Maclean is mastering this like an old hand, but with his own special touch, with relaxed sobriety. His skill shows even more in a robbery scene taking place in a way station where some protagonists stock up on food and gear and which involves a couple of desperate Swedes, a shopkeeper and of course cool hand luke Fassbender.

A very pleasant and intense contribution to the Western genre that shows that it’s still alive, if treated by the right people.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/slow_west_2015

I do like del Toro’s movies in general, but I am not what you would call an unambiguous fanboy. While I loved Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, I stayed lukewarm on his Pacific Rim and Hellboy films.

Crimson Peak seeks to return to the style and narrative of the earlier efforts, manages to create a stunning visual setting and a pleasantly vulnerable damsel in distress, but never manages to sustain a feeling of threat, of fear or of horror. Neither does it seems to want to, it is not a horror film as such, more like a variation on a bad relatives thriller set in a haunted house. Between those motives, I could not quite engage, it was pleasant to watch, but never fully gripping. There is a bit of gore, a bit of almost camp evil, a bit of romantic love story and a bit of comic-style winter storm. The house is very nice though, even though it is not recommended as a cottage for your winter holiday. A little bit underwhelming, the whole thing, but at least it was fun to watch Jessica Chastain play an evil witch. Not sure whether arthouse Jessica enjoyed it too much, but I understand that working with this director is something you would do even if the script is not up there with his best.

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

This is as old fashioned a film as it gets: a righteous lawyer, a cold war setting, generous production design and costumes to re-create late 1950s East Berlin. Even if you have not heard about the case of the Abel-Powell prisoner exchange, or forgot the details, you will never be in doubt how this will pan out or who the hero of the narrative will be.

But it does not matter: it is very entertaining to watch Tom Hanks become Jimmy Stewart, the good and clever man facing all the twists of politics and the adversities of being a negotiator left alone in the GDR (and without coat in the Berlin winter, that is no fun). It says that the Coen brothers wrote the script, but it appears to be standard Spielberg issue, the sardonic humour of the Coen universe is missing, so I am not sure what they contributed other than maybe the occasional East German bureaucratic outburst or the bunch of supposed family members conjured out of thin air.

What I found interesting in terms of plot was the conflict between the East Germans and their Soviet big brothers, and the handsome and serious face of Sebastian Koch as Attorney Vogel (after “Homeland”, second big international performance within the year), with Burkhart Klaussner adding the desired hysterical touches. It is those minor parts I found to provide the actual beauty to the film, with solid-as-ever Tom Hank’s performance merely serving as the foundation and key pillars. Soviet spy Abel is the most impressive of those: with a few comments he lays out the laconic fate of people of his profession: “Are you not worried?” – “Would it help?” He is the secret hero of this tale about rule of law, and patient diplomacy. Not quite “Tinker, Tailor … ”, but certainly plenty of spies.

On that note: “Deutschland 83” should make an interesting companion piece, let’s get started with that one…

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

This is just the film I’ve been waiting for for months. Honestly, the year in cinema has been a disappointment. Partly because I did not see a lot. But also because there were not many films that really really sounded as I needed to see them. When reading about “Ex Machina”, I thought this might make the tide turn, and indeed it did.

Claustrophobic and cinematic, a chamber piece basically about two guys being locked up in a fancy cottage/lab where they can drink, dance and develop A.I.-powered beautiful girls. Oscar Isaac as reclusive weirdo mastermind is in the habit of manipulating his staff and androids, while Domhnall Gleeson (who now officially was in all good films of 2015, and in some others as well …) is happy to allow himself get manipulated to a certain point, because in exchange he may get a glance into truly future-changing technology. And into his own nature, preferences and abilities. And he can watch Oscar Isaac dance.

The plot can maybe be described as the part in Blade Runner that we did not get to see, where Androids got developed and the engineers tried to figure out the glitches and develop some testing devices. Some of them wondered whether those droids shouldn’t be more sexy, and they clearly got it their way, with a line of superbly beautiful samples getting assembled (Alicia Vikander as key counterpart Ava, the actress apparently known from Royal Affair, but I cannot remember. And Sonoya Mizuno as Asian-style housemaid with benefits Kyoko).

The atmosphere is cold, with splendid scifi decorations, sometimes reminiscent of Andromeda Strain labs, around the house, but countered with the beautiful setting of the facility, surrounded by woods, mountains, waterfalls. The plot is tense, moving towards an unavoidable showdown, and coming up with the odd surprise. The finale is well played out, with the final scenes not quite spectacular, but spectacular in their simplicity and “correctness”.

It is the power play between Isaac’s Nathan Bateman and Gleeson’s Caleb Smith what makes the film an excellent piece of cool thriller. Those two actors, and writer / director Alex Garland, have reached a peak of their skills, you would not believe this is Garland’s feature debut – but he is clever and experienced enough of a writer to know when to confine a scene to the power of words and acting. Splendid cinema!

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

11181391_oriThe guy whose name I keep forgetting and who – together with that other British guy with the glasses whose name I keep forgetting – is the most famous actor whose names I keep forgetting. Him, anyway, he is a guy just sacked from his submarine or ship company, and decides to put a crew together to get his hands on a sunk boat that got drowned in the Black Sea with plenty of Nazi gold on board. All have forgotten about it, but going there still means diving under the Russian Black Sea fleet, which apparently is something not considered a good idea.

This is played straightforwardly, the initial setup, introduction of characters, and then all are locked up in a submarine that does not look as if you would like to spend an hour in, let alone a couple of days or weeks. Things go wrong, tensions flare, things go more wrong. This is good, low-key entertainment, benefiting from the claustrophobic atmosphere that comes automatically with submarines. All the characters are well played, with a pleasant realism to the setting and the characters populating them. Not a spectacle, even though it gets a bit cliché-spectacular towards the end, but still an interesting and pleasant addition to the genre. Kevin McDonald has made better films (“Last King of Scotland”, most notably), but many directors have made worse.

Jude Law, by the way… and Colin Firth being the other one. Now I will remember! For a day.

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

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