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I am pleased to report that Alex van Warmerdam's "OBER" was well
received by the audience at yesterday's Toronto International Film
Festival screening. Spectators can be fickle at 9:45 a.m., and it is a
testament to the director's talent that his film elicited a
laugh-out-loud response from beginning to end.
I tend to be skeptical of films from the Netherlands. I'm no philistine, but I have encountered several movies from this region that I can only describe as "weird." Now, I won't claim that there aren't unusual elements in this film, but they are employed in the service of comedy rather than abstraction.
Warmerdam, himself, plays Edgar, a middle-aged waiter who suffers through confrontations with his belligerent customers, unruly neighbours, his chronically ill wife, and his demanding mistress. Warmerdam's dead-pan performance is so consistent that the passivity that defines his character is not compromised when Edgar visits Herman, the screen-writer who is controlling his destiny; he is simply worn out, and has come to request, not demand, that his life might be propelled in a more agreeable direction.
Herman concedes, but as any screen-writer will attest, a compelling narrative requires conflict. The various fates that are in store for Edgar are, yes, unusual at times, but the comedy is particularly strong in this film because each trajectory is so "unexpected." Another festival film this year is "STRANGER THAN FICTION," (w/ Will Farrell & Dustin Hoffman) which has a similar premise. It was sold out before my tickets were assembled, so I can't assess whether or not it is as successful in its execution as OBER. I do feel, however, that Warmerdam's film has the potential to satisfy a wider audience than it will ever encounter, and I would urge people to seek it out. It is a film with great depth, but it needs to be emphasized that, first and foremost, OBER works as an accessible comedy that even the most skeptical movie-lovers will enjoy.
WAITER (Alex van Warmerdam - Netherlands/Belgium 2006).
Alex van Warmerdam is the writer, director and star in this original and wickedly funny black comedy, that really made me laugh with tears. The opening film at the Dutch Film Festival 2006 in Utrecht last week and almost unanimously greeted as some kind of dark comic masterpiece. Interesting trailers suggested a very inventive script as well and with a cast consisting of some of my favorite actors, Mark Rietman in particular, I went to see this with towering expectations. Well, I wasn't disappointed. It's hard to compare van Warmerdam with any other filmmaker in contemporary Dutch cinema, but this certainly was the funniest Dutch film I've seen in years.
Fifty year old Edgar (Alex van Warmerdam) is a sad-sack ober (a waiter) in a type of spacious unassuming restaurant that doesn't seem to exist anymore since the early eighties. He divides his time between needy mistress Victoria (Ariane Schluter) and his bed-ridden wife (Silvia Poorta). Since he has been a waiter for 25 years, he has lost interest in his work in every imaginable way. His life as a waiter consists of being assaulted by customers, either arrogant businessmen, or his mistress, who also frequents the restaurant on a regular basis and even demands his attention when he's working. One evening, when Edgar is given a beating by a bully customer (Pierre Bokma) he suddenly appears at the door of a writer and we find out all the action up until now has been the work of screenwriter Herman (Mark Rietman). Edgar demands Herman writes him a more assertive character and wants a mistress he really cares for. Well, he gets it, but with every new turn Herman writes, Edgar gets deeper into trouble and soon, every character in the story turns up at his doorstep, demanding a better life. Subsequently Edgar's life becomes a bizarre string of occurrences with neighbours who turn out to be professional (Russian?) criminals (who also like to throw their garbage in his backyard), adultery, three-cornered relationships, suicides and murder.
Van Warmerdam gives such a deadpan performance, it makes Jon Heder in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE look like some ferocious method actor. And watch out for Fedja van Huet. He contributes to some laugh-out-loud moments as Victoria's brother, who forces Edgar to give his sister a second chance during a dinner. I never realized he could make me laugh in such a way. A real hoot!
I feel I don't do justice to this film by looking for some arguably comparable and perhaps better known filmmakers, who are true originals in themselves, but how to describe this unique film to many non-Dutch who are not familiar with his style? Charlie Kaufman style meta-fiction meets Aki Kaurismaki, Jarmusch, and (the early) Woody Allen, combined with Van Warmerdam's keen eye for delivering visual comedy, it's hard to imagine anybody else could have pulled it off so well. I think it's his cinematic sensibility in visual comedy what makes van Warmerdam such a unique filmmaker. His films - and this one is no exception - are so truly his own, it's hard to imagine he's been influenced by anyone at all.
Just a touch short from hitting the bulls-eye completely, because it could have held back a little on the comedy element at times, it seems to be straining for effect in some scenes. About halfway the film takes a somewhat sharp left-turn towards slapstick. When the audience was still recovering from the last laugh, some "real dramatic" scenes played out, which tended to lose its impact because of the machine gun-paced bombardment of comic scenes before and after these scenes. When Edgar decides to buy a bow and arrow in some strange shop (with Rene Groothof dressed up as a woman!) it becomes a bit too much. Sure, it's very funny, but didn't seem to belong in this film.
But what a treat this was, with stunning photography and beautiful locations. I'm sure this is a film that audiences in other countries should enjoy as well. The film will probably be released in Canada (was already shown at the Toronto Filmfestival) and in the U.S. under the title WAITER.
Camera Obscura --- 9/10
Alex van Warmerdam is the David Lynch of the Dutch cinema. His movies
are enigmatic and absurd, and they are filled with dark themes and
sexual tension. ''Ober'' is no exception, although it did feel a bit
more mainstream than ''Grimm'' or ''De Noorderlingen''.
This story evolves around a waiter getting smacked around by nearly everyone in his near vicinity. Fed up by this misfortune, he decides to pay the author of his story a visit and ask him for a few chances in the scenario of life. Wrong choice. From that point on the story becomes weirder and weirder.
I was a bit disappointed at first. The story of meeting the author of your life has the potential to become a thought provoking movie like ''Being John Malkovich'' or ''Eternal Sunshine...''. But sadly it didn't quite reach that level. It's more of a well-crafted and absurd comedy than anything else. That doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the movie. Alex van Warmerdam, playing the role of the waiter himself, displays himself as a comical genius. It's really funny to see this poor guy being used as boxing equipment by almost everyone. There is also a totally random scene in which nothing else happens than seeing an old lady wrapping up a bow and arrow. It may sound boring, but on-screen it is hilarious.
As a whole this is a highly enjoyable and funny comedy. Not as good as I hoped for, but certainly better than most of the Dutch garbage released. We need this kind of movies to put Holland on the map of the movie business.
I watched this movie yesterday evening. First of all: too bad there was a break, we were just reaching the point where I started wondering whether there would be a happy or a tragic ending. It was remarkable there were almost no scenes in broad daylight. It also struck me the restaurant was almost empty. The atmosphere resembled somewhat the paintings of Dennis Hopper. If you would have told me the story was located in the 50's, I would immediately have believed that. In a way, the story is timeless, and though we are in a city, it is completely unimportant which city this is. You see Edgar one or two times in a tram from the Hague, but you see so little of the city, you don't have the idea the Hague is the location for this movie. The humor is wonderful, many times characters overreact, with as result principal characters end up in funny situations. If you recall the British comedy Fawlty Towers, and like the character of Basil Fawlty, you know what humor to expect.
Edgar (Alex van Warmerdam) is an ageing waiter with a life as empty as
the spacious highway restaurant in which he works. His mistress sits at
a table hoping to get some attention from him in a last desperate
attempt to rescue their sinking relationship. Some guests take
advantage Edgar's serving position to humiliate him in a spectacle of
absurdity. Edgar is at the bottom, and sees only one way out - to
complain to the writer of the story to get better lines or at least a
shimmer of happiness in his life.
This is a peculiar piece of film. A character complaining to the writer about the misery in his life is one thing, but the side characters come along as well, and the writer's girlfriend who interferes with their fate as well Nothing good can come out of this. Edgar not only lives his misery but realises that the creator of his fate is pushing him through the absurdity on purpose. When Edgar complains about his submissive suffering, all the writer can do to justify himself is telling Edgar that he must suffer. When Edgar protests, the writer retorts that he knows what he has in store for Edgar, as if there is some higher purpose for Edgar's suffering. But that is bluff. The writer does not know where he is going with his story and merely sends Edgar off on a chase from misery to surreal.. ￼
The pace of the movie is upbeat is the first half, but when we get a key scene in the thriller aspect of it, the acquisition of a weapon, the movie grinds down to a halt! Edgar walks into a bashed-up curiosities cabinet, asks for the weapon, to which the owner, an old man dressed up as a woman, proceeds to get it down and wrap it up with a painfully slow imprecision. The audience can nail-bitingly complain all they like, but they will have to wait till he is finished for Edgar to get out of there to solve his problems in the last leg of the story. When you submit to the will of the director of the film you too have to sit through the lot, just like Edgar and the other characters.
As the movie does not really go anywhere, as far as the story is concerned, it is tempting to dismiss the entire film, despite its originality. We see the writer, although he is just a character in the film, and can not help but curse his incompetence at creating an incoherent, illogical story. But at the same time, it is that same incompetent writer which put the brilliant dry humoured dialogues into the script which had the audience laughing out loud. Still clearly one of the most original directors in European cinema today, do not miss out on him, but if you have not seen any of his work yet, start with Little Tony or The Northerners, leaving this one for later.
Ober, was one of the MANY films shown at the Seattle International Film
Festival this year and one of the few I selected to view. Ober is a
very black comedy which in many ways is an insider joke that only
writers would fully appreciate. Often times when deeply involved in a
writing project whether it is a screen play,stage play, or novel, a
writer will feel like his/her characters have "taken on a life of their
own". Well, this is what happens to Herman the screenwriter whose
storyline begins to displease Edgar his main character.
There are some violent scenes, but so overplayed those scenes seem to be more parodies of movie violence than the "real" movie violence.
One scene toward the middle of this film is especially funny and painful at the same time. It involves an old shopkeeper and a bow and arrows. That scene appears to have been shot in "real" time,and with minimum edited put in the movie in real time. Funny and painful, but funny anyway.
Ober, which is German and Dutch for "waiter" is subtitled which for me was annoying. I understand a little bit of Dutch so I could pick up on some of the dialog and spent so much energy on listening, I missed reading some of the subtitles. It would be nice if this wacky gem could be dubbed into English.
If it should appear at an "art" movie house or a film festival in your community you should go see it.
Most films about human life's ordinary characters are able to charm audiences as they depict the true feelings of human beings. Dutch film 'Ober' is one such film which succeeds enormously as it has chosen a very good theme. It is in the form of the depiction of a waiter who can be hailed as the most ordinary of all ordinary people. Director Alex Van Warmerdam is able to add extra strength to his film by playing the leading role. As the film begins, Alex is shown to bear all insults with utmost coolness and fortitude. However, as the film progresses, Alex decides to ask tough questions about his fate. This situation gives rise to a series of hilarious encounters with screen writers who exercise absolute control over their characters and their fates. In the field of art, an artist is given complete control to develop the characters. One must nevertheless ask the most pertinent questions : Who controls the life of a character ? Is it the character himself/herself who controls his/her destiny ? Does the character have an independent existence ? These questions do not have simple answers as a lot of subjective perspectives do come into picture. Director Alex Van Warmerdam makes a good try at answering them in his film "Ober". His film is a poignant plea for respecting all human beings regardless of their foibles.
Edgar is a waiter in a mediocre restaurant. I could go on, talking about his bedridden wife, his lover, her overprotective brother. But to do so would be to miss the point of this sublime exercise of the writer's art. Ober was my introduction to the films of Alex van Warmerdam and is still my favourite of the many wonderful movies he has produced. On one level it's a black comedy, on another it's an exercise in surrealism, on another level it's an existential movie that asks "What would your life be like if you could talk to your creator". And, on every level, it is completely hilarious. I totally disagree with the reviewer who complains about it being subtitled. I don't speak a lot of Dutch so perhaps that makes a difference, but the actors speaking their native tongue produce an energy in the dialog that is completely lost in dubbed movies, IMO. I cannot praise this film enough. It made me laugh like a loon, it made me cry, it made me think, and I kept thinking about it long after it had finished. That makes it a work of art, in my book.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After all the positive words about this film, we went to see it
yesterday. Granted, the film did have some rather funny moments.
But all in all, it did not leave a very good impression. Without spoiling anything of the storyline: some sad 50-year old guy named Edgar has a miserable life and decides to complain with the writer of his life's scenario, who as a consequence decides to make his life even more miserable and surreal.
In this respect, the film's idea is quite (actually quite too) similar to the plot of Adaptation, with the same crazy consequences for the story. However, there are two main differences. First, because we know quite soon that Edgar is a fictive person, we cannot really be 'moved' by whatever harm is inflicted upon him. Second, the mental and physical abuse that is actually inflicted upon him is totally without any sense, purely sadistic and (with a few small exceptions) simply absolutely not funny.
According to the scenario writer: "You simply should suffer". In my opinion, a story that is only about someone suffering for no apparent reason at all is not something you should be waiting for.
Apparently, a great way to sell a bad script is to make it appear as written by someone inside the movie and make all kinds of metaphysical references around it.
*** Spoilers below ***
Really. Why does Edgar need neighbours that play excessively loud music in the direction of his wall? Why does he need to be physically assaulted by some idiots in the restaurant (if such people would really exist, they probably would be lynched)? Why doesn't he ever call the police? People are assaulted and killed and nobody does anything about it? People's character changes with every scene (the Japanese guy, anyone)? Very surreal, obviously, but also completely nonsensial.
Other than a bit of editing anomalies in the beginning, I have no
complains about this film. Other AVW's film that I saw previously was
"Grimm" and that was exceedingly refreshing. Obvious that comparison
will be made with other movies of similar theme. But I don't think I
can give too much away except it is fun, funny, surrealistic, yet true
to the "characters" of the film.
the story is like Stranger than Fiction, but better - welllll.. my preference anyhow. It's done in deadpan style - leaving the exploration and the enjoyment - to the audience.
The film is low budget (if you compare to Hollywood) but well crafted with "situations", "scenes", shots and dialogue. There are times, some scenes seem slightly awkward, but in the back of your mind, because you know the situation, you understand the reason why these scenes seem awkward.
Now I really have to see "The Dress"
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