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Payload (2011)
Sacrificing all for a delusive hope
6 March 2018
Classical greek tragedy in the sense that Simon finds himself forced to make tough decisions to save his beloved kid brother Dave, but ultimately you wonder whether all his choices, all his bravery and moral struggles, can achieve more than modify the mode of universal destruction.

While Orwell asked in "1984" whether human beings can, alone or with a beloved partner, resist torture and state terror and preserve individual, inner sanity and humanity, Willis asks whether love is even possible, even a meaningful concept in the midst of dystopia, dehumanization, mistrust, and fear, how it may look when it tries to act, and what it can possibly change. Maybe very little?

In spite of all the callousness, brutality, and cynicism of the world painted, the story is told with minimal gore, but with very expressive, almost poetical images - from the prologue, the opening shots exposing Dave's dreams, up to Dave's exodus at the end. Definitely worth viewing, even though it may seem excessively dark to some.
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Where are the First Nations?
20 May 2016
I agree this film is worth viewing for the gorgeous images of nature. However, there are several aspects that make me wonder.

How can it happen that the trapper never meets any First Nations people, in particular Northern Athabaskan people, apart from his wife? If that is merely due to low population density, how can it happen that he never thinks or speaks about them, in particular considering how much he's worried about the role of man as part of nature, as a respectful partner of nature, and the danger that man might stop playing that role? There are many First Nations in North America striving hard to live a lifestyle respectful of nature, and they are far from giving up on it, even though their Nations have been under dire pressure from European-style civilization for generations. As opposed to our two trappers in the film, there are many young people among them; actually, First Nations populations in North America tend to be growing today.

I can't understand why the film-makers chose to keep that topic dead quiet, in particular considering that more than one First Nation is mentioned during the end credits of the film, so it does appear they used indigenous knowledge and help in making the film. It seems disrespectful to me, and filled with bitter irony, to make a film claiming that nature needs man for its equilibrium, and then represent man as a white trapper, not once mentioning First Nations... Certainly not all white people are evil, and First Nations are not simply "noble savages", but the general tendency is that white hunters have not been all that helpful to the equilibrium of nature in North America, and First Nations have greatly suffered from it. A white trapper using First Nations for nothing except getting a much younger wife to serve him is even worse than the average racist cliché...

Besides, i have to support the observation by hsilberstein-1 that the behavior of the trapper makes you wonder. I admit i lived in cities all my life, so i may not be very qualified to judge back-country survival skills, but i have done a lot of alpine mountaineering in my life and i have done a number of multi-day hikes in the outback in Canada, in bear country, some of them solo. In addition to the dubious scenes listed by hsilberstein-1, there are several more where he behaves in ways that even i, with my limited experience, can easily recognize as needlessly asking for trouble. Among the worst is his encounter with the adult brown bear. He surprises a huge Grizzly at close range, and the animal is obviously deeply scared by the man: It gets up on its hind legs and bares his fangs, which a Grizzly usually only does when feeling threatened. What does the trapper do? He utters no word. In such a situation, it is imperative to start speaking (no matter what) in a low, monotonous voice, like when consoling a child. He does not move at all. In such a situation, it is imperative to slowly back away (without turning around and without stumbling). He does not slowly raise his arms to appear larger. He does not pick up his dog, thus risking that it might run away or that it might even make a rush at the bear, or that the bear might choose to try and catch it. Instead, he challenges the already upset bear by staring at him for a considerable time, right into his eyes. He is indeed lucky to get away with that absurd, almost suicidal behavior. Kudos to that bear for keeping his cold blood anyway and doing the reasonable thing, just leaving the scene all the same. Given numerous instances of such strange behavior, i doubt this film has much merit as a documentary.
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Terrible betrayal of love
14 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The spirit beloved by the young heroine is obliterated because he accidentally saves a stumbling boy from a fall, so all that remains for them a is one moment of bliss in a lethal embrace and then a lifetime of remembrance for the girl... What a sad ending... But that's just the surface. Even worse, it's missing the point!

The girl truly loves the spirit. She apparently loves what is special about him: His gentleness, his calmness, his willingness to help, his touch with nature, his playfulness, his fidelity. She also genuinely cares about his well-being, for example worrying what he might do in winter, and she makes plans for becoming able to spend more time with him, planning her professional life accordingly. So far, so good.

However, does the spirit love the girl? His apparent fidelity might make you think so. But think again. The other spirits reveal that he wanted to experience the embrace of a human for a long time. What exactly tells us it matters to him it's this specific girl? He might have taken anybody! But remember he can't just get *any* human because the people of the village nearby are scared by the spirits of the forest. And while the girl does occasionally show warm feelings with respect to him, he is just kind and protective with respect to her, but i didn't notice much expression of specific feelings, and i doubt that's just due to the mask.

Does the spirit care about her well-being? It doesn't really look like that. He knows how much she likes him and how important he is for her; after all, she spent the best part of her childhood's holidays with him and clearly says that she wants to spend her life with him, making specific plans to that effect. He can't assume she will cope and just move on with life if he goes away; there is a real risk her heart might get shattered. He is to blame for that: Over the years, he did all to make sure she would love him. Now, he has the opportunity to spend a lifetime with her and decides against it. Can that be love? Hardly.

The stupid tragedy he is playing at the end is completely threadbare. The boy he touches is running away from the forest after the festival, and they discussed before that there are often human children at the festivals, so it's completely obvious that this boy is likely human, running home. The spirit touches the human child on purpose to be obliterated, and thus to force the girl to embrace him in his death, which before she repeatedly rejected, because she loved him; now she can't reject, again precisely because she loves him... Forcing the most explicit sexual act one is capable of, against the will of the other person, that's plain and ugly rape; the only missing element is that he is incapable of physical violence: he can't possibly rape her by beating her with a stick... But he uses her own love instead to force her hand, which is little less ugly than physical violence.

If he had really loved her, he would have grown old with her, and maybe embraced her on her deathbed. Maybe, if she would have been willing then.

There is little to make us think this girl could be stupid; quite to the contrary, she's portrayed as courageous, inquisitive, sensitive, patient, and tenacious. Very likely, even if she doesn't understand in her grief on the spot, she will understand shortly thereafter that her love was cultivated for a decade, then used as a lever for rape on her, by the person she truly loved, that turned out not to be a person, but a spirit that apparently never truly loved her.

I hope she will survive that; it will be a tough lesson to learn, and it will be even tougher to keep a kind heart after that.

Other commentators say there is no moral in this. Well, there is: Be aware you may end up betrayed even by the one you loved most, all your life, no matter how sweet it all seems. Does this only apply to spirits? The film provides one glimpse that this is not so, that it actually wants to depict generic human behavior rather than indulge in ghost-bashing: The schoolboy at the girl's home town tricks her into taking his hand just as the spirit does, by pretending that she must take his hand in order to not slip on the icy road, even though that doesn't have consequences nearly as dire.

What an abyssal, pitch-black morale to a seemingly innocuous, light-hearted story in the most beautiful pastel colors. There is some high art in hiding such a beastly wolf's heart in such a lovely sheepskin. Yet, i can't convince myself to like the film. This story has been shown too often already: A handsome man cold-bloodedly seducing a sensitive, loving, caring woman, using her for his personal climax, then abandoning her for eternity. Yikes.
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"Feel good!" - You believe that's what they really want?
21 June 2012
The movie depicts one particular strategy for maximizing performance on the job that happens to be en vogue, in particular for the management of highly qualified, privileged workforces: Tuning all aspects of the working environment in such a way as to provide surrogates for all aspects of private life. At work, people shall feel at home and like to be there, shall feel passionate about their work and like to do it, shall develop a team spirit to the point of feeling among friends at work, shall trust their superiors and HR to the point of openly discussing the most intimate aspects of the development of their personality with them, shall identify with the company to the point of founding their very self-concept on their company role and career perspectives.

Of course, for this concept to indeed maximize performance on the job, all aspects of making work seem like home and personal fulfilment need to have clear limits that, looking more closely, radically pervert the emotional concepts being exploited. You are supposed to feel at home, but never so much that you could ever relax completely - what kind of home is that? You are supposed to feel passionate about your work, but never so much that you ever follow your own, personal goals, rather the company goals have to direct all your efforts - what kind of passion is that? You are supposed to fully trust the company to optimally nurture your talents, personality, and career, knowing that they will drop you as soon as others prove more useful for them - what kind of trust is that? And so on and on...

These techniques are presented in a potpourri of supposedly documentary scenes so gross and glaring that the atmosphere of the movie regularly verges caricature - or rather, real-life satire, as there can be little doubt that such things do really happen.

Understanding the mechanisms at work, their means-end rationality and functionality as well as their inherent contradictions, is severely hampered by a tendency of the movie to dwell on the surface, in particular when showing long stretches of the typical new-speak management jargon that is regularly pronounced to obscure what is actually happening in a company, spreading a positive mood by making a lot of euphemistic words without actually saying anything at all. Besides, at least according to my taste, various scenes are quite long drawn-out, reducing artistic quality as well.

So i guess in the end, most spectators will be left in a state of diffuse indignation - "It's revolting how those management swine are manipulating and exploiting their staff!" - but the movie is so bewildering and confusing that few people will, right after seeing it, be able to quite understand the essence of the concepts shown. Let alone be able to come up with counter-strategies... What might be done about all this, and by whom, would be an interesting question that, unfortunately, the movie hardly even alludes to.

If you are interested in the consequences of modern human resource management techniques, you should probably go have a look at this one, but without expecting too much. In any case, don't expect any help for countering them.
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Epic theatre - but only regarding the form...
21 January 2012
Rarely have i been so hesitant on how to judge a movie - it seems at the same time exceptionally good and rather weak, both with respect to it artistic form and its political content.

Regarding the content, as mentioned by several commentators, a guiding theme of the movie is to make you feel and understand in which ways not much changed about the oppression of the South of the world by the North and of First Nations by immigrants to the new world; and even more importantly, that for bettering this, it's not enough for the average European to just be good and help the poor, because that merely leads to the paternalistic and condescending behaviour shown by the film's protagonists towards their indigenous workers. In short, the depiction of the dialectics of oppression, privilege and solidarity - in particular the voluntary, cheap, incomplete kind of solidarity - is relentless and far above average.

On the other hand, the supposed topics of the movie are hardly even touched: I learnt a lot more about the Cochabamba water war from the user comments here on IMDb than from the film itself, it doesn't really explain what that war was all about. There is a bit more material about Columbus, De las Casas and their time, but it's all fragmentary, symbolist, and doesn't form a coherent picture, as it would be needed to really understand anything about history.

Regarding the artistic form, i'd call this "Epic Theatre" in the Brecht'ian sense, as flabbergasting as that may seem in our post-modern times: Not only by the fact that the plot of the movie is "turning a movie", but by many other details as well, the spectator is frequently made aware the s/he is watching a play. To name just one example: People read from historical letters, then actually go on to comment why they read from those letters, and propose interpretations of the text, just like Brecht's chorus. Or imagine, in a movie, actors telling the stage director: "There are more important things than turning a movie" - and walking away from the scene. Fragmentation techniques, interruptions, contrast and contradiction, all these defamiliarizing elements of Epic Theatre abound, and even elements of the typical simplistic and abstract scenic design can be found in some parts of the movie in the movie. The overall effect is intense, this is certainly exceptionally artful, very unusual and worth seeing.

Unfortunately, there are several artistic defects as well. Most of the characters are rather schematic and not very convincing, in particular in their change and development, and some turns of the plot seem contrived and artificial. Even worse, the Epic elements are not used for their proper purpose, which is making the audience think, deeply understand the social conditions at hand, and critically reflect them. Sure, the alienating effect is sufficient to make you aware that you are watching an explicitly political movie - but as i said, information is missing to really understand and reflect the alleged topics. You are merely left in diffuse indignation about the injustice of the world, with some equally vague hints that it's both possibly to individually oppose and collectively fight injustice. That alone is not news, really; the depiction of both options is neither very convincing nor in any way specific.

Altogether, i deem the movie far from perfect as a work of art; but it is so diverse in its content and form that there are certainly many ways to view it, and more than one aspect that's worth seeing. Thus, i recommend you see for yourself, i don't think your time will be wasted.
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Océans (2009)
Much beauty, little information
9 March 2010
On the one hand, this movie focuses on showing the unfamiliar, the exotic, the gigantic, the violent, the frightening. Eating and being eaten is among the most frequent activities of the animals in the movie. On the other hand, many images have been selected according to the connotations and emotions they might evoke in the modern urban viewer. Often, these connotations have little to do with the animals being shown or with their behavior. For example, two converging groups of crabs on the sea-floor make you think of attacking armies, and the lonely ice bear passing a gap between two icebergs certainly won't think of a door, a door that *you* are supposed to think of as marking a choice of paths of historical importance. The common aspect of these two pervasive aspects, of the exotic and of the symbolic, is the entertaining effect on the viewer, and that's probably what the movie is ultimately aiming at.

After starting from the explicit question "what are the oceans?", almost nothing is explained, so it's somewhat misleading to call this a documentary. You learn very little about where the animals you see live, how they live, and what is important for them. You learn nothing about how marine life works as a whole, as a set of ecosystems, so the topical question remains unanswered. Even the occasional facts stated remain unexplained - e.g., you learn that most species of large whales travel distances of several thousand kilometers twice a year, but you get no idea why, let alone why some feed near the poles and others in warm waters, just to provide one typical example.

What you learn about ecology and the protection of our environment is mostly old news. Species get extinct, mankind has caused the rate of extinction to grow a lot, diversity is important for ecological stability. Pollution, global warming and industrial fishing contribute to the various problems. Sure, no doubt, but no surprise either.

The film-makers explicitly express their desire that mankind should stop, or at least reduce, the havoc it's causing to wildlife and to our environment. But somehow the style they turned their movie belies their intention. It is well-known by now that you tend to regard with respect and to protect efficiently what you really know: Intimacy is required to care, intellectual understanding is required to find the proper means. This movie gives you neither. The fascination of the exotic and the technical brilliance of the images is not enough. At best it might serve as a teaser to learn more, but that's not what usually happens. When you are shown the exotic, deliberately shown as exotic as possibly, you stare at it in wonder, then get on with your own life.

All the same, the movie is clearly worth viewing, simply for the stunning, beautiful images.
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A sheer fireworks of colors
14 February 2010
While Kaestner's book, written in 1949 right after World War II, focuses on the political content, the film is most striking for its images: very brightly colored, mostly in agitated movement, spanning vast ranges of styles not to be expected in an animated movie: landscapes in the style of romanticism, traditional silhouette, some iconography bordering surrealism, lots of people and machinery reminiscent of George Grosz, a bit of Pop Art, but, above all, the aesthetics of the Hippie generation: Light, gay, psychedelic colors, flowers and small peaceful birds all over the place. Given that the film was turned in the same year that saw Woodstock, and the fact that the content is a pacifist parable, turning to hippie style is perhaps not to be wondered at. The sheer fireworks of colors makes the movie worth viewing...

Deplorably, though, the film team was so keen on playing with colors and pictures that several other aspects required to make a good movie have been neglected. Even though they had a good basic plot to work on, it is rendered in a rather sketchy way. There are long stretches of cheap slapstick comedy that could have been left out without any loss. The characters remain unconvincing, inexpressive and schematic and do not evolve during the plot - least of all the children, even though it's the children all this is supposedly about. This is particularly surprising and disappointing since the movie is based on a work of Erich Kaestner, a writer most famous for his vivid and affectionate depictions of children's characters.

Young children will, no doubt, enjoy the colors, the pictures, and the slapstick. Still, this is not just a movie for children. Children of about six years or a bit more will miss many of the political sub-tones, and in fact, when i was watching the film, quite a few times children in the auditorium loudly complained to their parents: "What is this, what is happening now?" My impression is that the film-makers rather played on their own imagination, their own tastes, and their own connotations, in the world of grown-ups - up to and including, just to name one example, an allusion to Nikita Khrushchev hammering the U.N. conference table with his shoe, an event that happened ten years earlier and would hardly be known to young children, even near the end of the Sixties.

I don't know whether Kaestner liked the way the film-makers played with his book, obviously rather for their own amusement than for pleasing others, or even pleasing children. But he might have, for he once said: "Only those who grow up but still remain children are human."
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Nowadays, not even communists will like so much praise of Moscow any more...
3 March 2009
This movie is seriously flawed as a documentary, even as a semi-documentary: It presents a conventional, uncritical view of the lives of Olga Benario and Luis Carlos Prestes in line with the official party doctrine of the traditional communist party of the former Soviet Union. This is extremely astonishing in a movie turned in 2004, and what is more, turned with financial support from the "Film-Stiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen", a public not-for-profit cultural organization supporting lots of very good independent films, and what is yet more, turned for the "Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen", one of the three national television broadcasters of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) - which is definitely not in the least suspect of any sympathy for propaganda in line with orthodox Stalinism.

Before viewing the movie, i knew nothing about Olga Benario and Luis Carlos Prestes; both are definitely less well-known in the Western world than they ought to be, and i hoped to learn a bit about Brazilian history, too, so far knowing a bit about Mexiko, Venezuela and Chile, but not about Brazil. Already while viewing the film, i became rather suspicious because there are lots of elements you will also find in old-fashioned communist party propaganda: Heroic deeds praised as such without any critical assessment of their importance and context, display of revolutionary enthusiasm of masses aroused by isolated communiques issued by prominent revolutionary leaders, constant reference to the merits of central organization of revolutionary activities from Moscow without the slightest hint to any political problems this particular kind of strict centralism might have caused.

After viewing the movie, i briefly read up on the historical facts using the web, and i must say it is obvious even without knowing anything about Brazilian history that the story has been whitewashed to please official communist party doctrine. Probably, there are no major factual errors, but you learn absolutely nothing about the political development of Luis Carlos Prestes, who apparently was a very interesting personality, but also an ambivalent character, nothing about any internal conflicts of the Brazilian revolutionary and communist movements, nothing about any conflicts between party officials in the Soviet Union and activists in the Brazialian and German provinces; yet it is outright inconceivable that there were none, inconceivable that Olga Benario knew nothing, thought nothing, discussed nothing about the deadly conflicts agitating the Soviet Union - remember that the disaster of the revolt in Brazil in November 1935 happened less than one year before the start of the infamous Moscow trials in August 1936!

In one respect, the movie is indeed nice: I depicts an extremely courageous, very strong woman, acting brilliantly as a professional political activist and as a militant fighter. Even today, that's not the most common role a young woman can take up, and in the Thirties of the last century, this was definitely very extraordinary. Olga Benario is depicted with lots of sympathy, warmth of heart and tenderness. On the other hand, several men naturally follow her lead, but without being denounced as weaklings, even though they are allowed to show weaknesses. Thus, with respect to gender clichés, the movie does show the basic sensitivity it is sorely lacking with respect to Stalinism.

In literature, it is definitely possible to find far better portraits of militant women politicians, take for example the writings of Ingrid Strobl ("Sag nie, Du gehst den letzten Weg") or Inge Viett ("Nie war ich furchtloser"). In cinematography, off the top of my head, i could name none. Yet, i can't really recommend the movie.
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Fighter (I) (2007)
Racing speed and deep dignity
11 January 2009
When you are in a gloomy or depressed mood, go watch this film. It shows a lot of beauty and joy in a very simple everyday setting, and it is very encouraging, in particular from a feminist and a humanist perspective.

When you know both the Turkish language and either the Danish or the German language, go watch the film in any case. Half of the dialog is Danish in the original, synchronized to German in the translated version, the other half Turkish, subtitled in Danish or German, respectively. When i watched it in Mannheim, Germany, the reaction of the Turkish-speaking audience proved that there must be a lot of humor in the Turkish dialog, which, deplorably, mostly escaped me, being only imperfectly rendered in the subtitles. Still, the film is interesting even if you lack knowledge of the Turkish.

Esthetically, the movie is playing a lot on the theme of speed and slowness. On first sight, there is lots of corporeal movement fast as lightning, making it a quick, an agitated film. In particular, even though this is a Kung Fu movie, watch out for the running scenes, beautifully expressing a wealth of emotions. But there are quite a few very slow, emotionally intense scenes, too. And above all, the characters develop at a much slower pace than you would expect in a drama about the coming of age; still, there is some movement in the characters to: Closely watch the villain Omar, whose part and acting i liked very much.

The contrast of speed and stillness nicely contributes to the depiction of human rage and dignity - shown at once, in the same characters, at the same time.
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Rather a humanistic than a religious view on the origins of sin and virtue
13 January 2008
This is not at all a mountain film: The pictures of mountains are few, of relatively little power even considering the time of the turning, and, as soon as the camera ventures higher than the cows and goats of the mountain pastures, of no credibility at all, if ever you have visited glaciers and alpine mountains yourself. But that's no problem; this is not about mountains, but about people, and it's an excellent film about people.

In another comment, Gerald A. DeLuca calls this is a movie about "sin, repentance and forgiveness", and certainly, Christian religiousness thoroughly shapes both the cultural context of the story and the feelings of all the characters in situations of doubt, fear and distress. Yet, this is much more than a "Christian morality tale".

In Christian tradition, there are two stories about the origin of sin: Eva and Adam and Kain and Abel. On first sight, the story of Jean and Arlette is somewhat similar to the story of Kain and Abel: It's a story about hate among brothers and sisters, about envy and jealousy. Yet, in Kain and Abel, jealousy is the primordial sin, an evil reaction to incomprehensible or unjust behavior of God.

Not so in "Visages d'enfants": there is no primordial sin in the movie. All the characters are capable of love and understanding, none of them is actually evil or cruel. In that respect, it is quite humanistic, in spite of the ubiquitous religiosity. Where, then, does sin come from? The origins shown in the movie are surprisingly simple: plain misunderstandings, subtle and unconscious inattentiveness to the feelings of others, well-intentioned behavior all the same hurtful to other's feelings, and to a large extent: fear and pain.

The ultimate cause of the drama is obviously Pierre's failure to adequately address his son's intense mourning. But my impression is that the father is above all afraid and feeling helpless. In particular, he is afraid that he won't be able to stand a solitary life for long, he is afraid that he won't be able to cope with the household work beside his duties as the mayor of the village, he is afraid that he won't be able to show enough of his love towards his two children, he is afraid of losing patience with them as indeed sometimes he does, he is afraid of failing his children's' education. His courage is sufficient to tell the priest about part of his anxieties, but he lacks the strength to show weakness in front of his son. All those small weaknesses, failures and misunderstandings are extremely beautifully and convincingly depicted in the movie and you also see again and again how small hurts done breed mistrust, malice and hate, and hate breeds new hate, getting worse and worse.

In Christian tradition, the remedy to sin is remorse, confession, prayer and penance; and ultimately, trust in divine mercy. In the film, there is indeed remorse, in particular in Jean. Confession is not done in front of God, but in front of other human beings. Prayers do not ask for divine pardon, but for help in earthly distress. There is no trace of penance at all. Salvation does not arise out of divine, but out of human mercy and love.

Of course, overcoming evil by means of forgiveness and love is a central concept of Christianity. Yet, Jean and his family need remarkably little help from God: No doubt, they do pray hard for divine help, but they are most successful when they act themselves in human, pitiful, and in particular in courageous ways. They prevent tragedies when they overcome their pride and fear, they find help when run they for it, they save lives when they put their own life at stake, they find love when they save their enemies.

In Christian tradition, even more than jealousy, the origin of sin is alienation from God, the decision of Woman and Man to live their own life, to gain knowledge by themselves, not to respect the limits that God set them. Ultimately, that's why only God can save them in the end. But in this film, people save themselves by overcoming their own weaknesses and finding their own strength, compassion and love.
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Very beautiful, but flawed from a literary perspective
6 January 2008
This film shows very beautiful and very diverse pictures of animals, landscapes and weather. It is also worth viewing as a touching story of the personal development of a young girl, emotionally maturing during her friendship with the fox. Young children will also enjoy the film as a - though somewhat conventional - adventure story.

Unfortunately, even though many emotions are beautifully depicted using fine literary and cinematographic means, the film has an annoying tendency to also work with very old-fashioned, heavy-handed narrative techniques. In particular, the girl's emotions as well as the lessons she learns from her adventures are often rehashed in explicit comments from an intrusive narrative voice, in fact her own voice as she remembers her adventures a decade later. This gets particularly irritating in those cases where those comments are given repeatedly. Usually, the intrusive narrator just restates emotions that are obvious anyway, but in a few cases, her comments are even required to fully understand details of the plot.

Besides, the plot contains a few gaps that seem hard to fill in; you might perhaps call some of them inconsistencies, harming the overall credibility of the film. So, you will need to take it with a grain of salt, and definitely with a larger dose of passion than of reason and logic...

All the same, viewing the film together with your six to eleven year old children will probably be a rewarding experience, providing lots of subject matters to be discussed afterwards.
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The Chorus (2004)
An Allegory of Passion, Compassion and Joy
29 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Several people observed the plot to be simplistic, the characters to be mostly black-and-white stereotypes, consistency and credibility to be incomplete. Let's give an example: Even though passion and compassion are indeed key points of pedagogy, it is hardly credible that Mathieu might be so overwhelmingly successful while lying all the time. Even though he keeps lying just to protect the children, real children would continue lying at him as well.

If you judge the film as a psychological drama, you will indeed find fault. Except Pierre Morhange, hardly any one of the characters experiences any development, and even the change in Pierre's character is neither painted in any detail nor particularly convincing. A drama would require unity of its plot; yet, the film contains several plots only loosely tied to each other: the injury of the caretaker and its consequences, Mathieu's struggle against the director, Mathieu's efforts to help Pierre find himself. No, this is not great drama.

All the same, very many people were deeply moved by the film - how can that be? The film is allegorical, and allegory appeals directly to the heart. Mathieu represents Passion (incidentally, for music), Compassion and Tenderness (towards his boys). The effect of passion and compassion is Joy, represented by Pierre near the end of the film. The director represents the opposites: in place of Passion, Rage; in place of Compassion, Callousness; in place of Tenderness, Violence; the consequence is Torment, shown in Mondain. Pierre demonstrates that joy (shown when he first ventures to sing) leads back to passion (when he starts to strive for perfection) and ultimately to compassion (when he becomes thankful towards Mathieu). On the other hand, torment leads back to rage and violence (when Mondain physically attacks the director and sets fire to the school). And what does Pépinot represent? He doesn't have anything, he hardly knows anything, he does not do anything, but he is always waiting at the gate. That is Hope, and of course it is fulfilled in the end.

Allegory does not need development, it is static in essence. Allegory does not need logical consistency for its power, but it depends on simplicity and beauty - and of those two, lots may be found in the film.

It is not by coincidence that the whole film is placed in a universe by itself nearly disconnected from all the world we know - or the one our parents knew in 1949. This is indeed how allegory works best: any references to the complications of real life would just distract from the essence to be represented. Thus, for example, the boys sing classical music only - even though real boys of that age would have asked for contemporary music quite soon. Having seen this film, you would not guess that radio and television became mass media long before 1949.

Now you probably wonder why i rated the film so low - even though i recognize it as a touching work of art in the field of allegory. Well, allegory was well suited to the state of human mind of the Middle Ages, and its last height came about during the age of Romanticism. In our time, allegory is no more sufficient to describe social or even moral affairs.

Besides, the picture is not even flawless as an allegory. For example, i fail to understand why Pierre's mother is mentioned in the plot at all. She has no allegorical meaning, she pollutes the allegory by references to contemporary social reality (a single mother forced to work as a waitress), and - horrors in the context of allegory! - a story is told about her, a plain every-day love story. Perhaps the film-maker feared the general public would deem a film lacking any kind of romance just too boring.

Besides, the film sometimes slightly drifts away from allegory towards psychological drama (without convincing in that field, as stated above). The director, as the allegorical figure of Callousness, ought not to enjoy the construction of paper planes, in fact he ought not to enjoy anything; as the allegory of Order and Authority, he ought not to act spontaneously, in particular not to join the boys in the football area after being shot with the football. In reality, even the worst villain may suddenly show passion or joy - but not in allegory.
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NeueWut (2005)
Ridiculizing and trivializing grass root democracy
15 July 2006
NeueWut was massively promoted in Germany by left-wing unionists and even by some independent left-wing intellectuals. People claimed it were a touching documentary of social protest inspiring hope and courage.

You could not be farther from the truth. What is shown is mostly hopeless blundering of people who have little or no experience in political activism and who mostly lack any theoretical background. Those people largely show courage and hope, but that makes the obvious futility of their efforts only harder to bear. Still worse, several of the main characters are on the verge of lunacy and should care about their mental stability and maturity rather than trying to become politicians - experience shows the kind of badly directed protest such people develop will sooner or later drift off to right-wing extremism.

If at least the film-maker would depict his characters with some basic respect... Instead, he hands them in to ridiculousness by exposing their utterly private weaknesses and mental disorders to the general public. This should not be done to any human beings, even if they must be criticized for misdirected political activism.

The social movement of the "Montagsdemonstrationen" (monday manifestations) in Germany truly lacked political maturity, theoretical foundation and clarity of political objectives. But this film picks out some its worst aspects, drawing a misleading caricature of what happened on the streets during those months of activism. There were hopeful approaches to grass root democracy and countless other nice aspects to this social movement that could have been described - had the film-maker been seriously interested in the progress of social equality and freedom. Instead, the message of this film amounts to the following arrogant insolence: In post-modern times, political activism against right-wing libertarian rollback is nothing but the despicable and absurd hobby of manic losers.

After viewing the film in a self-governing sociocultural youth center in Heidelberg that is rather famous for its brilliant selection of little known to unknown political films (and which was crowded to the brim with nearly twenty people on that evening), i felt utterly depressed. If the political culture of Germany were what this film will make us think, we could as well commit suicide now.

If you know anything about social movements in Germany, don't waste your time on this one. If you don't know much about Germany yet, don't let this film form your prejudices.
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Even fewer weak points than expected...
14 July 2006
Other comments nicely point out the excellence of this film's mountain photography. That's why you should go watch it. Yet, before viewing it, i feared the plot and the film's perspective on humankind might be quite annoying. Gladly, this is not so.

Leni Riefenstahl has a rather doubtful reputation for acting Nazi propaganda films - but this film is quite free from patriotic or chauvinist sub tones. In fact, it is pleasing even from a modern feminist perspective, actively avoiding and rebuking gender clichés, which is quite astonishing in a piece of art dating from pre-WW2 times.

Many ancient mountain films, in particular German ones, praise heroic fight. On first sight, some people claim this one does so, too. On closer inspection, i don't think so any more. Granted, Dr. Krafft does act heroically - but it's completely obvious less obsession and more prudence from his part would have served everyone much better. Hans wants to be a hero - but for that very reason is proved the greatest fool. Maria, the least heroic of all the party and the most sensible, clearly leaves the best impression in the end. A film can hardly promote heroism by showing off its dumbness...

The film has its weak points, but naming these rather shows how good it actually is: The film's location is the Piz Palu north face. Yet, many scenes have been taken in the Piz Morteratsch south east face. So far, no problem - a north face has bad sunlight, but the film dwells on light. On top of that, turning a film in the Palu north face would have been suicidal. That ice wall is indeed extremely dangerous and quite famous for its icy avalanches. Yet, the faking of the location could have been better concealed in many scenes. Viewing a panorama in the background that simply cannot be seen from the location the foreground is meant to represent IS disturbing if you know the whereabouts. A few glitches are even worse: For probably technical reasons, when searching for climbers in the steep Palu north face, the film actually shows scans of a flat glacier basin (the Vadret Pers glacier tongue, as far as i remember). This gross inconsistency will annoy you even if you do not personally know the Bernina mountains.

The weakest point of the film are the subtitles. Clearly, they are meant to help understanding of the plot - remember this is a mute movie. A few of them are certainly required, but they are simply far too numerous, and many just rehash what is obvious from the fine pictures, anyway.

But hey, superfluous subtitles and faked locations - we ought to be glad not to find more serious defects to complain about...
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Garden State (2004)
Absurd theater in the 21st century
14 July 2006
Let's call this a post-nihilist film: All the young characters are already used to the Pinter-ish feeling that life makes no sense, the world cannot be understood, communication and empathy are impossible, caring for any one else or trying to do anything meaningful is utterly futile. They do not expect anything from life, they do not even try to wait for Godot any more. They see modern poverty, richness, inequality, alienation, injustice at the side of their roads, taking all of it for granted, failing to understand whether it has anything to do with their own misery. They do not even suffer; if they ever heard about Sisyphe, which seems rather unlikely, they just don't care. They simply vegetate, doing absurd things - working as a policeman, being on drugs, being rich, living on the verge of mental disorders - whatever, it simply makes no difference.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Godot arrives in their quiet city: A young man who fled his loveless father a decade ago and returns for his mother's funeral. In several ways, this guy fits perfectly into ubiquitous absurdity: He is as far from knowing anything about himself as any one else, and he is doing as little as any one else. Yet, his appearance does make a difference; in a way, it is utterly disturbing: He arouses genuine curiosity. Curiosity is what slowly makes tiny bits of empathy creep into all that ocean of indifference and absurdity. No wonder this leads to a love story - but this love story is not the whole point: Even though absurdity mostly prevails, some of the other characters slowly start acting in slightly more human ways, too. Watch out for it!

Lots of other comments blame the incoherence of the film, the incredibility of its characters, the many clichés. Right, true. But maybe part of that was even done on purpose. After all, what kind of coherence, philosophical depth and fine art do you expect in a film about post-modern absurdity? Probably some of the film's jokes will seem silly to you, perhaps you will enjoy others, perhaps you will even enjoy the ironical way some of the silly ones are presented...

There has been absurd theater before this film, so showing absurdity is certainly nothing new. Proposing empathy and love as a remedy to absurdity is not exactly original, either - yet, in spite of the film's many shortcomings, the way this idea is presented does not seem disgraceful or artless to me. There is some charm about it.

And i feel there is at least one idea shown in this film that hadn't occurred to me before. It's in the last sentence spoken in the film. I can't tell any more about it, or I would have to mark this as a spoiler. When you heard this last sentence, re-read my previous paragraph. Taking the film alone, the conclusion you will arrive at is frightfully credible.
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