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Song to Song (2017)
Lightness and weight
In philosophy both Parmenides and Heraclitus saw lightness as the positive side of the lightness-weight dichotomy. Later, the writer Italo Calvino took the same position. But it was Milan Kundera who stated it as a dilemma framed in Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return: a heavy burden can crush us, but the heavier the burden, the more real and truthful our lives become. Malick clearly takes on the latter position in this movie, which was originally more aptly titled Weightless. This theme is also connected to Heidegger's Man being called back in self-awareness and fulfillment by answering introspective questions about his existence.
Song to song is an exploration of love and ambition set against the Austin music scene. Especially around the theme of love the movie makes interesting observations: That true love is only possible by isolating yourself from the fake world (of music and money here), that walls are built around you inhibiting you from finding real love. Another observation is that early in life you love everyone, but ultimately your awareness, society, and religion lets you end up with one true love, unable to love others any more.
The notion Malick makes about love is the romantic character of love itself, romantic not in the sense we nowadays attach to it, but the original meaning as an unattainable ideal, combined with adoration of nature and emphasis on the individual and its intense emotions, the latter creating beauty and experience. Romanticism was mainly a reaction to industrialization and urban sprawl: All Malick movies have shots of urban landscapes and nature scenes; they look for beauty in that nature and have a preference for searching for intuition instead of filming fixed storyboards.
The story however develops in a non-romantic direction: Where in the quintessential novel of the romantic (or more precisely Sturm und Drang) movement the main male character shoots himself after being rejected by the woman he loves (Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), Malick replaces that hopelessness with a man who commits adultery, has regrets and is punished and tested by the woman he loves who commits far more and extremer adulterous acts.
Malick uses again a naturalistic style of filming, adding unscripted moments that occur during the movie shoot. Some footage is shot at the Austin City Limits festival and short interviews with John Lydon and Iggy Pop are included. The state of Texas features prominently: a key scene is before a Texaco gas station for example, but overall it is the unusual, non-clichéd beauty of both nature and the built-up Texan landscape that is well captured by Lubezki's camera, making effective use of wide camera angles. It also feels less slow and has more snappy cuts than Knight of Cups, which will be a relief for many I guess. The editing by a team of 8 (!) editors is however inconsistent and one of the weaknesses of the movie.
Two actresses in the movie have in my opinion the capability to give this an extra level, to give it real character depth acting on multiple levels in order to convey the emotions Malick's movies are oddly enough often lacking despite aiming for them: Portman and Blanchett. They are so underused and reduced to cardboard characters that it can almost be called a shame.
What struck me also about this movie is how conservative and deeply religious Malick's world view is: He clearly roots for Patti Smith's love story she tells in the movie for example, and sees the other musicians and portrays them as lost souls. In Song to song the woman repents, but the man only regrets. I see a parallel here with Tarkovsky's movies, which show the same religious, conservative world view. It brings up an odd observation: These two movie geniuses shatter the notion that true art can nowadays only be made by free souls, their art more in line with church-supported art like it used to be (Note: See The Tree of Life explanation by Bishop Barron).
Von Trier once remarked that he in effect makes the same movie over and over again, and Malick has come to that same point now. He has perfected his storytelling skills, hides the movie in the images and by editing, uses time and space shifting, sees salvation in nature (the element of water is effectively used here), adds autobiographical elements (music, adultery, suicide, father-son relation, ambition), so Radegund can hopefully be the creative destruction many now hope for.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Seal of approval
Now this is firmly embraced by the (art) community in the form of LoC's and MoMA's seal of approval, it has been beautifully digitally restored in a 4K DCP version. As the mother of all zombie movies it deserves this treatment.
Made in 1968 on a low budget most of the crew had multiple roles in the movie, thus we see the producer back as a zombie for example. Romero placed the movie in real, ordinary locations and that was one big innovation for the genre. And it is after all these years still scary as hell in the horror scenes, but the long preparation scenes in between and radio and TV broadcasts coming through are now somewhat old-fashioned and actually boring. The ending is still as intriguing as the movie itself.
There has been a lot of second-guessing about the double meaning of this movie. While the sequel was clearly about consumerism, this has over the years had many interpretations: criticizing American society, the wrongs of cold war politics, racism, misogyny, government and media disinformation and mistrust, the Vietnam war and the military at large. A certain theme is the overall apathy by the general public, the so-called silent majority. Gary Streiner, sound engineer of the movie, dismissed most interpretations recently during the Berlinale Classics screening as unintended but in interviews Romero has said the movie reflected the tensions of the time: "It was 1968, man. Everybody had a 'message'".
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
Caught in the past
Picking up several years later, Renton returns from his hideout in Amsterdam to make up for his lost years with his friends and of course pay them back (without rent by the way). What follows is a trip down memory lane meeting up once again with all the characters plus a Bulgarian younger girl to introduce a new part in the story.
What is really good about the movie is the very imaginative, fast and quirky visual storytelling, often noticeable in small scenes: a lift getting on screen numbers for example. This is a trademark of Danny Boyle, and it is further enhanced by the really outstanding work of longtime collaborator and DoP Anthony Dod Mantle.
It also interesting to see how times have changed and the surveillance state made its introduction: Mobiles that can be tracked, and also shots from observation cameras are used in the movie. The "Choose Life" narration is repeated in a modern, adapted version. And this is a movie where the soundtrack finally gets proper attention. From the opening song Shotgun Mouthwash by High Contrast to the excellent Prodigy remix of Iggy Pop's Lust for Life, very effectively used in the end shot.
Was it a good idea to make a sequel from this? The audience expects more of the same, and definitely gets it here. The plot is nearly identical with another twist. But can the director bring something new that isn't explored already? In the end the answer is generally no and here and there yes, and we end up with a movie where not only the characters, but also the viewers are caught in the past.
Image and reality
Here's a director that really grows with every movie he is making and it is very interesting to follow these steps as a moviegoer: Post Mortem was so idiosyncratic that my interest started, In No he explored the technical side of movie-making only to further advance his technical and storytelling skills in the seriously underrated El Club. And after Neruda Jackie can now be seen as his best work to date, for the first time directing a big production with US actors, producers and staff attached. The result is highly interesting, offering exactly what most mainstream movies are missing nowadays: courage and cinematic exploration.
Right from the beginning the impression starts to dawn that something special is done here, combining images of Jackie with reality. What Larraín also does is to make the hand-held camera entering and moving into the personal space around Jackie, to a point where it almost feels inappropriate for the viewer. Jackie's shifting states of mind are in this way well-documented and can be internalized by us, while Portman's outstanding preparation and acting makes this approach work, in collaboration with the cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine, creating what he called "the sneaky intimacy". The score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin) creates the eerie, detached atmosphere the movie intends to display.
There are many interesting scenes in this movie, but three stand out for me: The airplane scene just brings over the feeling of loss, desperation, solitude and detachment so well I have never seen anything like this in a movie. In the end, the shots of Jackie watching mannequins and shop windows from the car enhances the idea of her public and private image and is rather powerful. And the Malick reference filmed during golden hour in the end is apt here. Downsides are the Camelot musical and priest parts (not the acting itself by John Hurt BTW), they are overlong and start to undo the unsettling effect of the movie. The more graphic parts in effect also detract some of the power of the movie and were unnecessary additions in my opinion.
The movie does a great job by mixing movie shots with real footage of the 1962 White House tour; this game is rather effective. Portman now effectively interprets a performance by a character she is playing, creating the basis for the multi-levelled acting performances she is renowned for. For recreating the tour footage in the movie vintage cameras from the 60s were used, comparable to what Larraín did in No, so the scenes shot in 16 mm could be mingled with the documentary footage.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
Exploitation and exploration
Based on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who made several expeditions to the lost city of Z, believed to be the remains of El Dorado in the Brazilian jungle. The movie follows three of these expeditions and first picks up his life with a long introduction from his military career onwards. The movie becomes only interesting with the start of his first map making expedition on the border of Bolivia and Brazil in 1906. Based on documentary and field research (pottery finds), Fawcett became ever more convinced that a complex civilization had existed there. The movie then touches upon a second expedition initiated by the Royal Geographical Society that lead to controversy about his role in that expedition. The first World War comes in between before he makes his last expedition in 1925 with his son.
The script is based on the fascinating book by David Grann, who visited the region in 2005 and came back with interesting findings about Fawcett's expedition. By now, Fawcett has turned into an icon of exploring ancient civilizations, making its way into popular culture, Indiana Jones and The Lost World come to mind.
The movie and script is however too obvious for the story at hand. It is painting by numbers, going from phase A to B in Fawcett's life without any intelligent storytelling, ending up with a movie that I first thought was made for TV or online. Compare this to the classic Herzog movies Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, and it is clear what went wrong here: Being about exploration, the movie itself shies away from exploring cinematic possibilities and just plays it safe. Wouldn't it for example not be far more interesting to just focus on that final expedition and make the multiple accounts into a movie? Why Pitt's Plan B saw anything in this is beyond me, as the company has by now a reputation of risk-taking (and often being awarded for that).
But don't get me wrong: The movie is still watchable and the story itself is enough to keep your attention. And it is very nice to see Darius Khondji popping up here as DoP, you can still see his groundbreaking work in Se7en shining through.
Freak Show (2017)
Trudie Styler's first feature film is about staying loyal to yourself and what you stand for despite being bullied and physically assaulted. That this theme touched a nerve during the Berlinale, where it was shown in the Generation14+ youth section, was clear with a raving audience afterwards and long lines waiting before the cinema.
Bullying is still not taken serious enough in our society: nearly all people have experienced it at some time in their lives, either at work, school, leisure, at home or in the public space. Leading often to violence by the bullied person, or depression and in the worst cases suicide, the latter being the leading cause of death among the age group of 15-25. So this movie will be a good education tool for schools to discuss the theme.
The movie is fluently directed, well edited by Sophia Copolla's frequent editor Sarah Flack, has wonderful costumes and the soundtrack plus score is fitting. Although mostly aimed at a youth audience, Bette Midler and John McEnroe have small roles so the parents aren't left out. The young British actor Alex Lawther (the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) played the lead character Billy Bloom and has some future ahead I guess.
There is an interesting parallel with Mean Girls, as the part where Billy analyses his voters and classmates has the same kind of sociological and psychological analysis that made that movie so interesting.
During the Q&A afterwards Trudie talked about how certain bullies receive great power, sometimes even leading to the White House. And bullying is indeed often associated with the so-called dark triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy).
The Party (2017)
Shot in black and white and clocking in at just over an hour, it is one of the more original movies coming out of the Berlinale. Several elements stand out, like the production design by Carlos Conti (37°2 le matin) with its odd, detached feeling bringing to the movie, but also the daring cinematography by Aleksei Rodionov (Idi I smotri, Orlando!) combined with good editing makes the movie work.
So nice work in all sectors, but basically it is the actors who have to carry through in this dark comedy, somewhat difficult to define: Third screwball, third Woody Allen, and a third Britcom but definitely with a style of its own.
Potter herself gave the best synopsis by calling it a movie about ideals and convictions getting tested in a crisis situation. The really good script lines are dispersed among the excellent cast, although I do have a weakness for the role of Timothy Spall, such a great and modest actor, gripping the movie from the start onwards.
Why not rate this higher? I think it lacks a really great ambition, it is a nice ensemble piece, but despite the good things feels somewhat empty, more entertainment than art. The sum of the parts just doesn't add up enough for me, which often means the difference between OK and excellent.
Return to Montauk (2017)
Volker Schlöndorff has made a career out of screen adaptations of major novels. His Death of a Salesman stands out as an excellent work, with Malkovich and Hoffman in some of the best work of their careers. Return to Montauk is his third movie in ten years, based on the story Montauk by Swiss writer Max Frisch, although it deviates substantially from that story and can almost stand on its own, this story about a writer on a book tour in New York catching up with his past.
It is difficult to point out what went wrong here. His French co-workers cannot be blamed as the editing by Hervé Schneid (Amélie) is excellent, and also the cinematography by Jérôme Alméras doesn't disappoint. From the beginning there is tension in the movie after the inventive screen titles, and the first half of the movie sets up the story quite nice: It makes the impression of a more serious Woody Allen movie and the characters are well established. Stellan Skarsgård is good, Niels Arestrup is an excellent but underrated actor.
However from the moment the trip to Montauk starts the movie loses its interest. First, the story-line from that point is so predictable that it becomes boring. Second, Schlöndorff's somewhat mechanical style doesn't help here either. And last, Nina Hoss is a real disappointment here and cannot pull off the kind and level of acting required. It is especially in the omnipresent medium shots and close-ups that her facial expressions and her body language aren't good enough to carry the movie, while she essentially is in the centerpiece of it.
The theme (writing meeting his past) is so worn-out that nothing new is added to the movie universe here. The style and content of the movie feels old-fashioned and out of date. Times have moved on, so this was not well received at the Berlinale, where several festival visitors eagerly awaiting this movie talked about their disappointment afterwards. And the philosophy parts are so pseudo-intellectual it is an insult to the field.
The Dinner (2017)
The premiere gave way to a little scandal here, as the original writer of the novel bluntly refused to attend the reception afterwards, citing how bad the movie was and strayed from his intentions, finding it too moralistic as he saw it as an immorality tale; and themed too much around violence and mental illness.
This is however a well-directed movie by Moverman that stands on its own and the whole feud is a classic case of writer dissatisfaction with the liberties a director has taken with the material, remember King for The Shining or Kundera for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. So instead of playing the blunt drama queen the writer could have respected the interpretation, but they almost never do being in love with their own material.
This is well-directed by hiding the story like Haneke often does, next to putting you multiple times on the wrong track where the movie is heading. The movie works by playing to fundamental human psychological weaknesses the characters show in observing and interpreting information, and working that into the script so the viewers make the same mistakes. Clever. Sometimes however, the director is too much in love with his script, with overlong sequences in Gettysburg (we get the picture after ten seconds, but it draws out for minutes) and history lessons by Coogan as a teacher. Next to this it has several weakness in editing, the cinematography is also average, and the dark humor often falls flat.
Gere, Coogan and especially Linney give excellent performances, contributing to the unsettling effect the movie ultimately has.
Yes, it is a morality tale, but I disagree with the general view currently established that this is preachy, after all the ending is open and the moral dilemma is anchored in personal strife and views on solving these dilemmas, referring back to several schools in ethics like teleology, deontology and utilitarianism.
State of the Union
This is the third and final installment of the Wolverine series and the tenth X-men movie. In a post-apocalyptic near-future no mutants have been born for some time. Professor X (or Charles Xavier) is seriously ill and dependent on medication. He lives with a weakened Logan (or Wolverine) and Caliban in a rundown factory near the US border in Mexico. Logan has a job as limo driver and smuggles prescription drugs to Mexico for Charles. Disillusioned, their ultimate dream (and last wish for Charles) is buying a camper or boat and make a final retreat.
James Mangold has a typical directorial style you can almost instantly recognize: Relatively long tracking shots, slow in tension building, meanwhile freeing the camera to explore the space beyond the characters. Rest assured however that the action scenes are fast-paced and on the firm side of the R-rating, a bit gory here and there. In my opinion the movie could have been cut by some minutes, as it is overlong.
Jackman and Stewart are well known, but the real revelation here is the kid Laura (Dafne Keen), with a stunning performance reminiscent of Jodie Foster in Scorsese's early works when she had about the same age. At the world premiere I attended she also stole several moments.
After 9/11 we saw an outburst of movies that directly or indirectly referenced the event. The ascent of the current US administration will be another such watershed moment where movies will directly or indirectly criticize new policies. Although this was shot before the election there are several eerie parallels in the script to the current themes in US society and politics: Disillusionment (simple wishes of Logan cannot be realized), availability of health care, illegal immigrants, border politics, Canada (not the US) as Eden, the promised land. Medical experimentation by US companies inside Mexico and most striking: the dreamers. There is a central theme throughout the movie about dreams and reality, made more poignant here by the reference to the X-Men comic books themselves.
Most of the time Marvel movies are too predictable and straightforward for me; this is (like and again unlike Deadpool) different. See it for yourself!
Final Portrait (2017)
Swiss-born painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti was obsessed with the human head and incorporated both surrealism and cubism in his works. Being a perfectionist, he was continuously reworking his own sculptures and paintings, sometimes even destroying them if he was not satisfied with the direction the work was going. This working style is in sharp contrast with the film director's style here: Focusing on Giacometti's portrait of New Yorker James Lord this turns out to be an over clichéd Hollywood version of an art movie. Too neat, too clean, too cautious and basically just painting by numbers. Not only is the storyline very thin, there are only a few moments of inventive storytelling, for example how the adultery is introduced from both angles or how a dinner with Giacometti and his partner with Lord ends.
It all lacks directorial vision and the script is weak, lacking focus and inventiveness. That the basic setup for a movie like this (artist-model) can be interesting was proved some time ago by Rivette in La Belle Noiseuse. The chosen angle here is not that relevant and the movie could have been more interesting by providing tension and character depth, or by focusing on other aspects of Giacometti's life: His connections to Miró, Ernst, or Picasso (the latter only shortly touched upon in a conversation in Père-Lachaise cemetery), his background, or his first unfinished project in New York for Chase Manhattan.
Is it all that bad? As an actor directing here there is one saving grace: The acting. Especially Geoffrey Rush's interpretation of Giacometti is remarkable and Oscar-worthy.
This version is based on the original Cendrillon from 1697 by Charles Perrault and the animated Disney-movie of 1950. It is a standard movie with little risks taken in order to satisfy all age groups. Although most fairy tales were much grimmer than the watered-down versions we now present to children, here it neatly follows the formula and is almost painting by numbers, as you can expect from a director like Branagh. Pacing is however well done and two scenes stands out: the moment when the fairy prepares Cinderella for the ball and the reverse at 12 midnight have a lot of energy and drive and are well executed.
The true excellence of the movie lies in the work of cinematographer Dante Feretti, who gives a rich and interesting color and lightning palette to several scenes and the wonderful production design of (his wife) Francesca Lo Schiavo. Actingwise Helena Bonham-Carter has the best role as the fairy and Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine has some scenes where she surprises, but a more villain-like interpretation of her role (when allowed) would be more interesting as her talents are wasted here.
The movie played out very well with audiences in Berlin, but then they are usually in favor of mechanistic movies with a clear story, which this movie certainly is. Recommended for fans only.
PS This is a replacement comment as this review was deleted by IMDb based on an abuse report filed by another user; this was done without notice and without mentioning the abuse itself. It is widely known that this abuse reporting is itself abused by some users (and marketing people) to remove reviews of certain movies a bad development where IMDb should be more aware of and act against.
Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015)
Everything Will Be Fine is a small intimate movie, but suffers from an average screenplay and you can almost feel Wenders trying to bring intellectual depth to the movie. Although the center ultimately is the grieve and guilt following the death of a child in a car accident and coming to grips with that, it touches many themes which leaves the viewer purposively confused about the center and where to root himself in this movie in the first place: Broken relationships and families, stalking and a writer offering almost everything for success and coping with his remorse.
The use of 3D in the movie is sometimes quite effective. For example, the first two scenes worked well, showing dust and then snow creating a haze in the image suggesting the troubled mind of Tomas. In addition, there are other clever movie techniques at work: turning the camera in directions where you would not expect it to go (turning the camera away from the action or showing a wider angle of the situation); also making effective use of time, hopping forward frequently so the viewer has to adopt his frame of reference. Although the cinematography is not bad, you start missing the collaborations with Robby Müller producing his best movies in the past.
Gainsbourg (illustrator) I think is one of the oddest actresses around as she doesn't (or maybe can't) act. Franco (writer) is consistently clever and restrained in the movie, although you see him struggling in the first scenes. The score of Desplat is very apt for the atmosphere of the movie.
I hope Wenders finally wins his deserved first Oscar, not for this but for the excellent Salt of the Earth documentary.
Queen of the Desert (2015)
Queen of the Desert breaks form with several other Herzog movies: A female lead character, a grand Hollywood-like production and most interesting: a different perspective on the culture-nature dichotomy and the effects of cultural distance that almost forms the core of Herzog's work.
It tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Kidman), an English writer and traveler who became more and more influential in the Middle East region through her unprecedented travels where she formed bonds with several future postcolonial leaders. Later in life she became involved in politics and helped to found several nation states (and determine its borders), along which Jordan and Iraq through the Hashemite dynasties. She worked in close cooperation with T.E. Lawrence (Pattison).
It is always interesting to see what's left out of the story: her efforts to establish the new countries were far more extreme and tiresome (plus the real reason Iraq was founded: cost-cutting by the British Empire), her witnessing of the Armenian genocide and slave trade, her actual spying role, her relative poverty, illness and depression later in life. What is paid attention to elaborately are her love interests (well played by Franco and Lewis), both ending in tragedy. But too much are we watching a watered-down, Hollywood interpretation of Bell by Kidman and not the real strong and intelligent woman she obviously had to be handling the complexities of deal making in the region.
Yet some typical trademarks of Herzog still shine through: travel to unknown, unmapped places where people find their cultural beliefs and visions on reality tested. In Herzog's world, venturing into nature from the cultural boundaries of existence always leads to suffering and destruction, mankind being unable to conquer the forces of nature. What makes this movie then atypical in the work of Herzog is that Bell finds solace and fulfillment through that process. Also atypical is the time we spent inside: these scenes inside the bastions of power are unfortunately not the best in the movie, and in the landscape scenes, Herzog seems much more on his turf.
Herzog always saw himself as resisting the banality of the images film is projecting, but here he somewhat contributes to that process. Despite that Queen of the Desert is still very watchable, informative and yes, even entertaining.
Potentially this could have been the most interesting work from Anton Corbijn, as he is himself a well-known portrait photographer. The story is about Magnum photographer Dennis Stock (Pattison) convincing a reluctant upcoming James Dean (DeHaan) to follow him to make a series of portraits. As you might know, Magnum set new standards in photography and Stock in his famous series contributed to a completely different view on portrait photography of stars: natural setting, confrontational, honest and direct.
During the movie, a bond grows between the two, as Dean turns out to be an atypical Hollywood star ignoring the rules set out by his superiors resulting in several confrontations. Stock largely ignores his duties to his former wife and their child and becomes obsessed by Dean's idiosyncrasy. The second part is the most interesting as it almost deconstructs Dean's life and character: Dean comes from a farmland family of Quakers, likes local poets and is fond of his background and actually despises stardom. Stock is first able to shoot pictures in New York (you probably know the famous photograph) and in Indiana.
So what are the downsides: the pacing is too slow, the editing certainly not perfect and the most important trap: Corbijn as photographer is too much in love with the story, finding details relevant that are actually not that relevant. The question keeps popping up: Why does this matter? Life fails in a way as a mood piece, but is still a relatively good and stable character drama as the deconstruction works well.
Maybe both Pattison and DeHaan are too light to pull this off more convincing, but one role is certainly amazing: Ben Kingsley as Jack Warner is so spot-on you will be remembering the character despite the limited screen time.
Knight of Cups (2015)
Sein and Dasein
Recently Peter Greenaway confessed he almost never saw a movie because there was no development to the form, still being a staged play, with actors doing their lines before the camera: just painting by numbers. Malick is one of the few that do not fit that description of the current state of the art, the others being directors like Tarkovsky, Kar-Wai and to a lesser extent Kubrick.
In Knight of Cups all of Malick's trademarks are present: Rapid intersection of images, hiding of the story in the imagery, perfection in editing and the stream of consciousness-technique where thoughts and feelings are woven in voice-over with narrative. Knight of Cups has many autobiographical elements like The Tree of Life (loss of a brother) and To The Wonder (loss of relationships) already had: A son reflects on the essence of life, on his problematic ambiguous relationship with his father (recently deceased, one chapter in the movie is called Death) and on his relation with his surviving philanthropic brother (also deceased). Then there is the stream of women passing through his life and his feelings of lack of fulfillment. Strongly biblical in nature, questions of guilt and forgiveness pass on throughout, the movie being Malick's therapeutic instrument for reflection on his own life. It invites the audience to deconstruct the images, working as a kind of reversed post-modernism. It blurs the line between real and imagination, combined with the images it works almost hypnotically.
There is a strong comparison here to Tarkovsky's autobiographical Zerkalo / Mirror, where the story itself was simple, but the container was rich and complex as only film can be. (There is the famous story of the cleaning lady (check it out on IMDb) who explained this Tarkovsky movie in one sentence to all critics still baffled by its meaning and trying to make sense of it all).
There are so many great elements in Knight of Cups only a few can be stipulated here:
Comparing deep personal problems to the largest possible context, for example shots of the atmosphere going over in shots of Rick's convertible. Humanity finding his true salvation in nature, frequently a scene ends with a shot of rock formations (or the famous moving stones) in the desert, suggesting time, eternity and acceptance. Christian symbolism: A whole scene in Las Vegas ends with a statue of an angel.
Imagewise, it is his most accomplished movie: amazing shots of both nature and culture intersecting in a way that keeps haunting you; Lubezki's cinematography and Fisk's production design here at the height of their possibilities. One example: The allure of female beauty is brought to the screen so beautiful and intelligent it results in striking image after striking image: shoes, bodies, masks, ads.
It is very interesting to compare the vision on humanity Kubrick, Herzog, Mann and Malick have: Where Kubrick was the Sartre of filmmaking being pessimistic about the existence of man; Herzog sees nature and human culture as strictly separate entities where humanity should not venture. In Mann's world, humanity has lost its emotions, being captured in its own Foucauldian technological prisons. Malick however sees humanity in disarray with nature and part of salvation lies in the resolution of that misalliance.
It can also be said that Malick's work is the visual equivalent of the writings of Heidegger, Malick being the translator of Das Wesen der Grundes / The Essence of Reasons. In Knight of Cups we see an inquiry into Sein (Being) through a person for whom Sein is a question (Dasein). Experience can only be described from the viewpoint of this Dasein. A voice without a voice, coming from conscience, calls Man back in self-awareness and fulfillment (back in Eigentlichkeit from Uneigentlichkeit) meanwhile answering questions about his own existence.
This won nothing in Berlin with all prizes going to minor, uninteresting filmmakers. I think it would also be difficult for Aronofsky to admit his own filmmaking limitations. Although it will likely receive little peer-to-peer or critical appraisal, it brings the art of film to a higher level, earning a place in film history considerable time from now: nonsensical to many, life altering for some.
Gone Girl (2014)
Stories, Roles, Identity
Fincher is a competent director capable of committing himself to a script and executing it in ways that breathe craftsmanship. Cronenwerth as his cinematographer is known for delivering constant quality (Fight Club). Pike was until now an interesting, but somewhat bland actress. We have a relatively inexperienced writer (married to a lawyer). But what these and other people did here is far more than the sum of the parts; Gone Girl with its cheesy trailer will probably some years from now be considered as a classic, that type of movie where initial reception was average. To fully understand what has been done here might require multiple viewings.
The first main theme of the movie is the battle between word and image. Both are writers, producing stories and words. The female "writer" tells her story in voice-over, recreating a supposed past. She uses the spoken word, but imagines using the written word and being a successful writer with illustrated (!) books. She is the archetypical untrusted narrator, weaving stories that might or might not be true. The male writer is more and more overpowered by the image: Being constant on TV having people talk about him, photo shots with supposed fans, observation cameras, etc. This dualism between word and image is mirrored in the detectives: The female acts on words; the male one on images. Note for example that the female detective sometimes wears sunglasses to protect her from the bombardment of images. The whole movie is drained with the male-female dichotomy: marriage as lies, as projections, sex as weapon, power asymmetry.
Once the story is revealed the lawyer is introduced: He knows how to combine words and images in weaving a coherent story, not necessarily the truth as Nick would like to put out. The next level is about a battle for storytelling and stories: role-playing, acting and reality starts to intertwine more and more until the resolution comes. Mirroring current trends in (especially but not exclusively US) society that storytelling and misuse of rhetoric has substituted rational analysis, all enhanced by media-images being communicated: See how astounded Nick and the female detective are when in the end the truth can't be accepted as the stories are accepted as facts.
The female writer creates her own models and starts enacting and staging them; the robbery a piece of reality sipping through. Note also the overuse of shots with bridges, bridging the gap between image and word, between reality and story, between role and personality. It ends with questions about identity, how it is formed and what it means to develop, have or act out one.
There comes another layer as not only the characters in the movie, but also the audience seeing this movie fall victim to this, as also they are lured into the movie and its stories and cannot help but feel almost misused about this. It is an unnerving experience.
There is a trap in this kind of movies: That structure stands in the way of emotions (see for example Medem's Sex and Lucia). Not so here; Fincher is extremely competent in balancing the two. It even starts and ends with this debate (duality of the same shots): Reasoning vs. Emotion, another main theme in the movie.
The effects of all this are astonishing. Please see it twice.
To the Wonder (2012)
The Old World
In The New World, an indigenous American was transformed in what was considered civilized Western culture. The Tree of Life explored fate on an individual, human level by putting it into the perspective of the largest (and smallest) entities possible. In a way, To The Wonder is The New World upside down, meanwhile expanding on the philosophical and religious issues from The Tree of Life. So we have here an unhappy French woman immigrating to the US, seeking love, but also exploring her life and the subject of love in the context of religion. Many themes are worked upon: Nature vs. culture, romantic notions of love vs. biblical (or nature's), liberty vs. bonding, egocentricity vs. care, rich vs. poor, technology vs. nature.
Where most movies are annotated, simple storyboards, this is pure cinema. Almost every shot has a meaning, a context and flows from the notions the movie is exploring. See for example how the images interact with the themes: how horses, plains, sunlight, buildings, etc. are photographed. Most filmmakers don't even reach the stage of making interactions work, here there are too many too count: e.g. in the beginning the Paris images are cut very rapidly, hereby underscoring the fast, intuitive nature of the beginning of a romance (which phase quickly fades), devoid of any obligations or care.
What is new here is the wide-scale introduction of many hypothetic fantasy elements: the marriage, the child, which I noticed confused many viewers. The music is less bombastic and more subdued, and more modern classical music like Pärt is used. Is there criticism? Malick shoots a lot of material and like Kubrick and Kar-Wai edits it to perfection, but working with a group of five editors leads always to some loss of consistency. Like Tarkovsky, Malick's movies become increasingly religious at the end of their career. But, the holy grail of movies is transforming you in an almost religious experience, not introducing the church as such in the story. The religious points intersect in a strange way with the more philosophical issues: it is therefore probably deeply personal, but for the viewer almost unresolved.
To fully understand this (or other movies from Terrence Malick) you cannot ignore his most influential inspiration Heidegger. Although a book could possibly be filled with further analysis, you can see some obvious parallels. Like Heidegger's work, Malick's visual language is very poetic to the point of being hypnotic. It also relates to his earlier work Being and Time and the concept of Dasein. Dasein refers to being thrown into but also assuming possibilities, taking care, being responsible for your choices, thereby escaping the temporality of calculation, also by being resolute. These same elements can all be encountered in this movie, just as the crucial elements of time and history related to the concept, and the question of being in general.
I stumbled upon this during a sneak preview and I must unfortunately admit it is probably one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It has a terrible screenplay, most actions and characters in the story are utterly unbelievable. It is so badly edited that the pacing is wrong in almost every scene. Camera-work is amateurish (Dutch cameramen usually ARE reliable in this regard) and the unexperienced director has no clue about making the story work for the screen. Most acting here is so laughable that the audience laughed at scenes that should be heartbreaking. The only acceptable performance comes from Rossy de Palma, known from several Almodóvar movies.
The story is about several European civil servants meeting at the EU-center Brussels and starting and finishing relations. It is somewhat in the realm of Bertolucci's The Dreamers: Young people experimenting with their lives, sexuality and ending back in reality again. At first sight it seems like some sponsored EU propaganda, showing how great it is to meet all kinds of different Europeans. Many scenes are filmed in Brussels and Strassbourg, the EU color blue is prominently used (even the plaster is blue). However as the movie progresses more criticism arises: unnecessary locations to Strasbourg, nobody actually works in the movie (the only work scenes are afternoon drinks). Add to this that you can see the characters not only as standing for themselves but also for their respective nations, the whole pointlessness of European integration comes to light (intended or not?). In the end everybody is alone again, signified by the atom symbolism in the Brussels Atomium.
It seems like an intelligent movie, it even could have been, but it fails so utterly in all movie departments that I can unfortunately only recommend that you avoid this like the plague.
Hailed as a great technical achievement by introducing a new generation of stereoscopic cameras, Avatar changed the movie theater landscape. A couple of years later, it seems already somewhat dated in its use of 3D. Movies like Life of Pi have enhanced standards in 3D, offering a more total immersive experience than here, for example in reflection, depth and other visual effects.
The worlds defined are beautiful and interesting. The cinematography by Mauro Fiore was correctly rewarded with an Academy Award, as was the production design. Some ideas in the movie are also fascinating and modeled on biology: neurons, synapses, sources, ecological diversity and the interconnected networks between all things alive and dead. See how in the end nature cooperates and triumphs over the next quarterly statement.
Furthermore, the integration of several genres in one movie is an accomplishment in itself: war, adventure, science fiction and romance. Despite being a good overall idea, the further detailed script following is less intelligent and especially the lines itself are sometimes badly written, bordering even on the edge of being kitsch and laughable. The avatar idea is in itself great, but again needed more work in the script, just going in and out your avatar is too simple and the idea as a whole should have been further explored (introducing some welcome mythification in the story).
The message is anti-war and pro nature, but to make that statement it needs the war movie format to keep us entertained. It also references Aliens (even Ripley has a new role), and in form and style there is too much overlapping. I hope they fix these problems in Avatar 2.
Filmmakers can be excellent in the visual narrative, the structuring of a movie or the staged play itself. Only a handful of them are able to handle these three qualities simultaneously. Haneke for example, although competent in the latter two, misses visual imagination. His movies are mostly too static to be relevant in say 20 years.
Haneke's trademark is the hiding of the story beneath the surface and in this respect Das weisse Band can be seen as Caché 2. Besides heavy borrowing from his own movies there is also an extreme amount of copying from very diverse types of filmmakers.
Most remarkable is the acting here, almost Scandanavian in nature (restricted, inside-out) and almost identical of that found in Bergman's work. The pastor's section is strongly reminiscent of Fanny and Alexander, both in style and substance. Also borrowed in this segment is Bergman's strong symbolism, although generally less powerful and more direct here (the bird, e.g.).
The voice-over's diction and neutral tone reminded me of Dogville and Manderlay (von Trier). A lot of camera-work is also done by fixing the camera behind the character, showing his or her perspective in the story and mostly seen in work by the brothers Dardenne (and later Aronofsky's The Wrestler).
Haneke copied the shock-editing from Kubrick, and it is almost strange to see so few other filmmakers use it, while it has become one of Haneke's major styles. The other major style is mentioned before: hiding the story, whereby the reverse consequence is that 'The camera lies all the time' (taken from DePalma).
Das weisse Band also resembles The Village from Night Shyamalan, but here the overlapping is only superficial, as the political allegory about the dooming world war is more direct. The allegory itself, albeit intended powerful is relatively weak, as the mapping of events and institutions in the village is not always directly possible to the complex factors surrounding the start of WWI.
The whole movie contains almost no music (except for some live music), the persons representing institutions in the movie have no name, things also present in La Pianiste. The tranquility of the acting and the slow pace all transform you to the beginning of the 20th century, but again copied from Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (both Kubrick and Haneke make also heavy use of Schubert).
The problem is that Haneke's style is not innovative enough for me to be overwhelmed by his productions. In the first hour Das weisse Band comes a long way in setting out something new, but after all the typicality's of Haneke's movies are introduced, the interest on my side faded. I hope in the future he will act as another famous Austrian and ride more the waves of creative destruction.
TV vs. Film
Movies used to have a more or less fixed camera position, later fixed to some character or point-of-view, with the action revolving around the frame. More intelligent filmmakers (e.g. DePalma, Tarkovsky) showed us what can be possible with a non-fixed camera position and clever editing, and with them the camera eye widens and also limits what the viewer sees or perceives, often having to make up the meaning or interpretation of it all. So, where to go from there?
REC uses the clever idea of moving the camera eye to the non-acting cameraman, and although the idea is not unique, it is well done here. From then on, you can do things like blurring, putting it off for some time, extreme shaking, make it stand in the way, etc., all things a horror movie actually needs to build tension or relieve it.
As humans we are often strangely attracted to blood and accidents, but also want to shy away from it. This ambiguity is used here very well in what we are allowed to see and not, sometimes crossing the line a bit, then again straying too far from the action, increasing our curiosity.
And the movie is well constructed, with the main focus on the difference between the boring world of television and the exciting world of film. Look for example at the start scenes with a bored reporter making uninteresting material with standardized shots or the hilarious interviews after the first strange happenings and see how TV is portrayed here, and then later all the action, shots and positions in the film parts of the movie.
Some things are not new: A key is needed to enter a new part of the house thereby solving another part of the mystery (Mulholland Dr.) or the ending (C'est arrivé près de chez vous / Man Bites Dog), but it still makes REC an enjoyable experience. I hope they don't screw up the Hollywood-remake Quarantined, although the title already gives little hope, with Hollywood's fixation on "explaining it all because we suppose our audience is stupid".
Premature birth and death
This is much praised for its unusual approach to the abortion debate combined with its overall cuteness. And although it certainly entertains at a basic level, there is not much more to this than an ordinary girl-loves-boy story combined with a well-off couple with problems and an endearing mom and dad.
I may disagree with most of you but for director Jason Reitman, whose timing in comedies is exceptional whereby he far surpasses his father, this is a step down compared to Thank You For Smoking. And although all actors try to make the most of this material (especially Ellen Page, in a very good performance comparable in likability to McDormand in Fargo), it is the critically acclaimed writing I had the most problems with.
Screen writing requires so much more a professional attitude and commitment than ordinary writing. Unfortunately, Diablo Cody is largely inexperienced and also not overly gifted as a screen writer. I observed several serious problems: The story is not very well structured, the characters are too one-dimensional and cardboard (take Juno's father, a painful one-dimensional role) and the script contains only a very small amount of instances where the lines themselves are above average. A comedy script has to be tightly written, with every line hitting you and being part of a larger construction where everything fits in and tightens itself around the main story (American Beauty comes to mind).
My guess is it is again that time of year where Hollywood needs a new (writing) star on the rise. And her personal story is more fascinating than this one. So I predict that in a few years time no one will talk about Juno or Cody.
...and for the so-called American indie culture: That died several years ago and was fully absorbed in the Hollywood mainstream. Just for marketing purposes the label is still useful.
Du levande (2007)
Some people think of Sweden in a negative way: too neat, too clean, too serious, too organized and too Northern. A people tortured by their own religious fate and history, sometimes leading to depression and compulsive heavy-handedness. This need not be a problem for a filmmaker, as for example the late Bergman has shown us what can be cinematic possible under these conditions. Bergman used his identity as a starting point and did not explicitly comment on this identity as such.
Andersson however does the reverse: He comments only on this identity hereby dissecting his people to the bone: In his world Sweden is equivalent for hell on earth. But he does not take this any further and for me this is just not art but merely annotation. Despite the exceptional amount of time it took to make this filmmaker has serious limitations he clearly cannot step out of.
Compared to his previous movie Sånger från andra våningen / Songs from the Second Floor, there is also not much progress to be observed. The intention was that this was more accessible, but the difference is minimal and the few scenes that try to please a larger audience aren't the best in the movie. The same absurdism and minimalism also still apply, there is the one-shot camera position and the (lack of) action in front of this shot. Yes, the stills are well done, some of the scenes actually work and the coloring and positioning is amazing. But does that make an interesting movie? Thinking in a negative way, this is cinema taken a step backwards.
Andersson's background as a maker of commercials shines through in the elaborate setup, but I find his movies about as empty as those commercials. There is a message about mankind, but it is trivial and without much depth.
American Gangster (2007)
If a top classic movie is made, it is often unsure how this came about. That is, if all the right disciplines do all the right things this is just not enough. The positioning and interaction of these elements is what makes a true classic, so if for (a simple) example a camera move is followed by a shift in the story and the characters at the same time, you have an enhanced experience. It is more often than not the case that filmmakers are not aware how they made these interactions work. This causal ambiguity also explains why it is impossible to replicate just another classic by the same or different film makers. A top director is however more aware than the average ones of these interactions and often exercises a far larger control over the total work that in these days have turned into gigantic, almost non-manageable projects. The late Kubrick comes to mind as the genius and control freak in this regard, and he also let his movies evolve, thus avoiding the trap of rigidities and able to adjust the interactions.
Ridley Scott is one of the top directors of our time. American Gangster contains dozens of interesting shots and perfect location shooting and set building. Ridley Scott makes every scene worth looking at in itself. The apartments in a dilapidated neighborhood looking like prisons, the framing of the first shots (those with Bumpy) and the last shot in the transfer of one area into another, the many references to other (gangster) movies (Scarface, Goodfellas for example) are examples of his great talent. Also in storytelling, he refrains from presenting the story in a simple manner and let us work to combine some of the pieces.
But the story and especially the script is far too linear for Scott's talent. In Gladiator he could expand on the notion of the arena as a theater, in Matchstick Men he could play with the audience in tricking them in a movie about tricks, in Kingdom of Heaven he could link it to the Islam-Christianity dichotomy. But here, there are just some loose elements like Vietnam, drug-addicted NY neighborhoods and a black imitating Italians. Steven Zaillian's script is just badly written, not able to make this story work beyond the obvious and also contains some unnecessary elements that detract from the story (the love story for example. Next to this I find it hard to believe that this was edited by Pietro Scalia, who did the fantastic editing in Black Hawk Down and Gladiator.
Denzel Washington has never topped his performance in Training Day and is unable to do something extra for this movie; Russell Crowe tries to replicate his performance from A Beautiful Mind, and both are also not able to surpass the limitations of a weak script. American Gangster contains luckily an enormous amount of side roles that are true revelations.
So in the end American Gangster is in itself a decent movie, but pales in comparison to the movies it tries to build on, such as Goodfellas/Casino, Cidade de Deus and The Godfather.