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In no particular order.
Check out the other films I've watched recently in Dial M for Miscellaneous.
Check out the films I didn't like in Films that are disappointing, overrated or just plain bad.
Did you know that Jabba the Hut was guarded by Iranians?
What about Argo? Well, it's no denying that Argo is an enjoyable espionage movie. The pacing is tight, there is some tension and an interesting story arc. It's easy watching and certainly no waste of time. But it gets lavished with all this praise. Just take a look at some professional reviews and you see what I mean. This movie is meant to show how much Ben Afleck (let's face it: he used to be a horrible actor) has grown over the years both in terms of acting and directing. It is indeed hard to deny that his acting skills have greatly improved (his directing skills I cannot comment on). He is far more reserved, and far less cheesy: just very composed and steady. But it's also not difficult to improve on the horrible performances he used to give. Only the smallest bit of self-reflection should do it. But let me ask: is all the praise he gets for the film really justified? I don't think so. Firstly: it's just an entertaining movie, no more, no less. We've got millions of 'm. Secondly: it's hugely patriotic; think the 'subtle' inclusion of American feelings/flags etc. Thirdly, and most importantly: the angry Iranians are either being portrayed as generic Orcs in Lord of the Rings, or as the generic aliens surrounding Jabba the Hut in Star Wars. When we see them driving the car through the streets we see exactly the same angry mob we always see on the tube: a false stereotype is being reinforced here, without any subtlety whatsoever. More importantly: when one of the American guys was talking to an Iranian official he started to talk in a Jabberish Irianian accent that sounded like "Jabba di Jabba", just like 3CPO said it. I thought that was a little dumb to be honest. I thought that at the time I was watching that scene. And guess what... right before the end credits they even showed us the friggin' Star Wars action figures for crying out loud (!), and lo and behold who figured prominently... 3CPO. You're honor, I rest my case.
Spring Breakers (2012)
Spring Breakers is more an experience to undergo, than a film to watch.
When the intro credits of Harmony Korine's crazy candy-coated "pop poem" popped up in the weirdest font you have ever seen, this was enough for some guys in the audience to mention the option of leaving, for at this point they must have felt cheated out of their boobies. But then the film started teasing precisely those guys, by showing one of the most gorgeous pair of boobies ever to grace the earth totally soaked in beer, filling the entire cinema screen, rotating in slow-motion, in perfect sync with Skrillex's Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, for what were only a few seconds, yet felt like an eternity! It seems they got what they wanted, and in a way they did... and yet I bet they must have been freaked out in the wrong way. They would rather not have been woken up by boobies, by putting them so close by, but they would rather have wanted to enjoy them comfortably, normally.
Spring Breakers is indeed not normal. It is more an experience to undergo, than a film to watch. It is a radical work of audio-visual poetry that is extremely immersive and dream-like. At first, the film may appear to be either completely lacking in meaning or to be completely obvious and one-dimensional in that regard, but on repeating viewings it becomes clear that it is in fact extremely layered, diffuse and inscrutable. On the one hand it ironically contrasts the caricatured spring break 'authenticity' spoken mostly through mobile phones, by its opposite reality, yet on the other hand explores the spring break lifestyle from within, by letting us inhale its vibe as if it were some strange religious drug experience. There are many layers of meaning, and the most obvious ones (the relation between spring break and violence) are so over the top that they ultimately seem to be the least important ones.
After the first scene is finished we hear a gun-cock and we are transported to quieter settings. Two girls, Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) tease each other with highly sexualized gestures, but the background tone is different here. This is mostly because we hear Cliff Martinez on the score, who does what Thomas Newman did for American beauty: to create a deliciously delicate atmosphere that you can almost breathe in. When the four Disney girls decide to collect all their money to go on spring break, they celebrate this plan by "experimenting" a bit in their dormitory: Cliff Martinez makes it sound like poetry, while Benoît Debie (the cinematographer) makes it look like a bunch of spring flowers blossoming. Legs are thrown in the air with Kubrick-like precision, but then more dynamic and with a more Lynchian Mulholland Drive type of atmosphere.
When the girls arrive at spring break we see a bunch of people partying wildly and loudly, contrasted by a more quiet, poetic display of after-party relaxation. The beautiful movements of the scooter-lights somehow make it believable that Faith calls Spring Break the most religious place she has ever been in. At the same time we see Cotty (Rachel Korine) representing the wilder, raunchier side of spring break, in a very brave and respectable, possibly career-damaging performance. Sometimes, the religious/nostalgic feelings seem to turn into a funny social critique: "Yeah, we saw some beautiful things out here", while we see the Disney girls peeing on the side of the road. And yet the flow, the mood and the utter horniness of the film are so strong that it is hard to see this as a simple generation critique by a grumpy old guy. There is more than enough to enjoy here. Sometimes even so much, that the viewer may feel guilty and besmirched and feel like he or she is watching a stupid exploitation flick. This way, Korine confronts us with the fact that to one-dimensionally condemn the spring breakers for their sex-craziness and superficiality would be deeply hypocritical, as we are all equally guilty as charged when enjoying the film.
Certain events lead to the introduction of the Alien character (James Franco). When this silver-toothed gangster-rapper said "look at my sh$$tt" with two machine guns in both hands for the tenth time, I couldn't help laughing. ;) The performance and transformation that this guy managed to pull off has to be seen to believed! This is where the film introduces more conventional (i.e. comedy) story elements, but certainly does not give up its Malickish liquid narrative. But unlike Malick, Korine combines poetry with dirt, high-art with low-art, beauty with raunchiness, light with darkness. This makes it all so much more palatable. When we hear this creepy Alien's thoughts, we learn that poetry is on his mind, and even though this ought to be preposterous it somehow manages to be deeply touching. Brit and Candy slowly unveil the true extent of their psychopathic side and it seems that Benson and Hudgens are a perfect match for Franco, who are all giving the definitive performances of their careers. This compromised poetry culminates in the scene with Britney Spear's Every time, with the pink balaclavas, baggy black trousers and colorful sneakers, making those girls look like strangely cute yet dangerous little bunnies, while the music calmly soared, and my God, how beautiful this was! This would have been my favorite scene of all time, if it were not surpassed by the final scene by a nose length. This final scene is a truly gorgeous audio-visual spectacle in slow-motion, not unlike the finale of 2001, although within the framework of the story, and with a washed-out score underneath. The balaclavas in that scene were fluorescent, neon-colored this time, varying from pink, to blue, to white depending on the lighting. And against the background of the pitch-black night, and the bright purple pier this was simply to die for!
Only God Forgives (2013)
Unjustly booed away at Cannes
Nicolas Winding Refn's new feature, Only God Forgives is a good film, his best offering I've seen so far. This is not only style over substance, but (like Spring Breakers) also style as substance. A grim mood is created through long stretches of brooding red lights reflected on faces, while the violent outbursts seem to be discharges of visually overcharged surroundings, with electricity built up after long silences with lots of eye candy, stylized framing and an exciting electronic/ambient score by Cliff Martinez. All of this underlines the desires, motivations, and emotional experiences of a bunch of messed up characters. So you could say that, the mood and the meaning are meant to be "the residue" of the style, just as Korine explained his intention for Spring Breakers. This is why both films are not empty stylistic offerings, but resonate on a deep affective level. And, because a non-narrative substance can be incorporated into the style, to pursue the ideal of style over narrative substance is not superficial per se. What is also positive, is that unlike Drive (and Bronson), the narrative substance that remains is not messy per se, just lightweight. Although the story is quite simple and pure in execution, it is certainly strange, abstract, and a little drawn out. Especially the beginning relies mostly on mood, leaving little time for traditional story-telling. This worked for me, but I can understand that many others find it tedious. There is a lot of ambiguity, mostly having to do with the mysterious motivations behind Gosling's character. He has the same elation on his face as in Drive, but more perverted and strange this time. Apart from this there are a few abstract/absurd elements in the story: for instance, certain characters meet each other in paradoxical and inexplicable ways. But to me this was more a matter of deliberate ambiguity and mystery than messiness. The film is also extremely violent. Not constantly, more like a series of intense hits after long silences. This is not primarily used to entertain or bludgeon the viewer, but more to convey the moral conflict going on in Gosling's character. And the final scene may have felt completely weird and ridiculous to many people (I heard much laughter in disbelief), but to me it made perfect sense, albeit in an absurd way, because it seemed to be the only resolution to the conflict going on in his mind. The song at the end just felt like the perfect continuation of the beautiful absurdity just before it.
One of the most touching love stories ever made
The maker of the beautiful Tokyo.Sora has outdone himself with what is one of the most touching love stories ever made. The film starts with two teenagers who fall in love but are unable to express themselves romantically. Every (awkward) silence seems filled with meaning and things left unspoken, accompanied by a guitar play which is constantly repeated but never fails to beguile us. Years later they meet again. A simple, minimalist concept but extremely effective. Ishikawa creates meaning not by plot complexities, but through the perfect simplicity of atmosphere, perfectly precise framing, perfectly subtle coloring, perfectly natural acting purified of all the remnants of theatricality which the medium never succeeded to fully shake off (not even through the work of Ozu), and by letting the open sky envelop the main characters as a rejuvenating force, that can grant us warmth and happiness on the one hand, yet can overwhelm and numb us on the other hand, if we fail to open ourselves up to it entirely. In the latter part, the sky is covered up by the drabness of city-life. Life is but a mere shadow of the past now and possibilities are reduced to the roads that lead only to the familiar. The more we yearn for the past, the more it slips out of our grasp. But even then, there is hope. 10/10
Citizen Kane (1941)
How to watch a movie like Citizen Kane? To the film itself!
How to watch a movie like Citizen Kane? It's supposed to be the best film ever made according to the most prestigious poll in the world, for decades in a row, only recently being surpassed by Vertigo. It seems to me that there are potentially two major factors related to this fact, that might bias and distort our judgment of the film itself, our naked experience of it so to speak. The first one is the most obvious: either a fear of being excluded from the cinema in-crowd, or otherwise just being overwhelmed by all those respectable opinions of all those respectable critics who surely must know what they're talking about, or just plain unintelligent herd-mentality, might cause you to think that this film is much better than it actually is. There is also a less obvious possibility: the fact that this film is so highly revered might cause you to think that you are only bullied into thinking that it is so great, and that you start to think that the only way of preserving your authenticity is to denounce it or to greet it with a lukewarm response. Personally, I know I'm susceptible to both distortions, both based upon the a priori fact of 'Kane' being canonized as it is. A fact that, in these cases of distortion, will determine your opinion of the film, regardless of whether or not you have actually seen it. A fact that may very well blind you completely to "die Sache selbst". I think that a phenomenological reduction is in order here. A commitment to completely shut out the knowledge of Kane having the reputation that it has, while watching it. Only then are you perhaps able to actually see the film, let alone judge it. But this is no easy task. In fact it is an impossible task. Therefore, it would seem to follow that it is impossible to watch it. That may be true strictly speaking, but of course not all things are as black and white as the film itself. It is all a matter of degree and a matter of at least trying, or perhaps not of trying, but of letting go, much like 'trying' to sleep cannot be successful when it is literally a matter of trying. But if that is what you shouldn't do, then what should you do? I think that you should let yourself be immersed by the film, let it touch you if it gives itself to you and let it fail to touch you if it tries too hard, if it pulls on your heart like it were only a puppet on a string. All in all, it is your heart that provides you with the most reliable compass. That is not to say that your heart should be opposed to your mind and that if it would 'merely' blow your mind it wouldn't be good enough. Again, things aren't as black and white.
But enough about all the preparations. To the film itself! Was I touched by the film? Yes I was. In fact at times I was touched deeply by it, more than I remembered from the last time. Especially by some of the scenes with Kane's wife in the opera house and the scenes in Xanadu, where the true nature of their relationship was revealed. But is Kane a manipulative film? Yes it is. I think that Orson Welles perhaps suffered from many of the same faults as Kane himself, like Leland said: "You don't care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love 'em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules." Citizen Kane is a film that self-consciously wants to be loved. No, it demands to be loved, to be taken before anything else. Very, very hard work went into the making of it to ensure this. It avoids extremities and one-sidedness so as not to exclude any viewers. It includes beautiful and innovative shots in order to appeal to critics and formalist, but mostly not so obvious as to become elitist. It tries to be deep, profound and mysterious and takes itself dead-serious. There was one scene that didn't touch me as much this time, even if it did before, and that was the Rosebud scene at the beginning: it was so intensely self-serious that for a fraction of a second it went over the top for me and became almost comical, like a self-parody (and the fake mustache didn't really help there). But mostly the film is absolutely perfect in terms of editing, narrative and dramatic development, composition, cinematography and an undefinable feel of greatness and precision permeating almost every shot that can only be the product of extremely hard labor and loads of talent. There were also less than perfect qualities, such as the somewhat slower development of the middle part, the acting that varied from great to constructed, even from Welles himself. Also the atmosphere is strange: mostly the film smells like newspapers, money and power-grabbing. Of course that is what the film is about, but as an atmosphere that is normally not really a virtue. Still, this dry and somewhat suffocating atmosphere becomes part of the tragedy of the film, just like the fact that the film is just as manipulative as Citizen Kane himself, becomes part of that tragedy and actually deepens it. Just by not succeeding to create a beautiful atmosphere, the film tragically makes us wish to be released from it and makes us yearn for something lost. Just by the fact that it tries to manipulate us, tries to pull our strings too hard, and fails to touch our hearts because of it, the film becomes the very deadness and emptiness that sends chills down our spine, from the top of our heads, straight to our hearts. 10/10
The greatest and most thought-provoking film in decades
This is a 7 hour long film, whose long takes slowly start to creep under your skin and ultimately leaves you enchanted. In an almost abandoned village, the remaining villagers plot and scheme to get away with the money, but are all conned out of it by the false prophet Irimias. The story might appear to be about the end of communism or the exploitations of capitalism, but this is not the case. At the heart of this story lies the plight of a traumatized child (Estike) and an old recluse (Doctor). They are the true victims of a monstrous scheme which deprived them not of their money, but of their hope for a full, rich and human life and ultimately of their lives as such. What they were confronted with was a picture of a society in which cold, heartless human beings destroyed their own lives and those of others through their low-life plodding, drinking, fornicating - in short - through their unrelenting, drunken dance of Satan. It was this picture that killed them.
What is perhaps most striking is the relation between this film and Tarkvosky's work. I think that, although this remains highly speculative, Tarr has taken up Tarkovsky's work as the thesis of a Hegelian dialectical triad. The thesis is the subjective, poetic and intimate splendor of a girl, Estike, sitting perfectly still with a purring a cat on her lap, a scene which lasts for minutes! So far Tarr's images are the offspring of Tarkovsky's work, although Tarr's long takes seem to capture the core of someone's existence with concrete textures in an almost sculpture-like way, whereas Tarkovsky's images seem to revolve entirely around their poetic nature. The antithesis however is the introduction of an ethical dimension: we learn that Estike is not only a deep girl who has an openness towards the sublime, but is actually a traumatized child with very very deep psychological problems, because we actually see her torturing and killing her cat and finally killing herself. Thus the poetic image is suddenly interrupted by an objective antithesis, although this ethical moment is also revealed as something which was always already present in the existential renderings of the film's characters: this is perhaps Tarr's critique of Tarkovsky! This ethical moment ultimately solidifies itself as a social and political moment, in that society's nihilism is identified as the cause of Estike's tragedy. However, the ethical, the social and the political are ultimately dismissed as one-sided, because the conduct of Irimias and the total abandonment of Doctor shows us that the ethical fate of society and the individual human being, cannot ultimately be determined by political means alone, but also demands a more radical transformation of man, perhaps an openness towards the sublime, which yields a synthesis between, the poetical, the intimate and the sublime with the ethical the social and the political. What is thoroughly un-Hegelian however, is the way in which Tarr ultimately sketches a very bleak picture of society, in which this synthesis is far from realized, and gives us nothing in the way of assurances that it is in fact realizable: on the contrary, it shows us only the dance of Satan.