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Werk ohne Autor (2018)
A tale for today
"Never Look Away" is essentially a film about three characters: a young artist, based on the life of Gerhard Richter, his wife, and his wife's father, a former Nazi who worked as a doctor committed to "purifying" the German race. So with the focus held so tightly on just three characters, it may seem surprising that it takes three hours to tell the story. But this film never left the feeling that too much was being told. It is a masterpiece of ideal personal relationships set against a background of truly evil and destructive behavior.
The story begins with the artist as a young boy in the care of his devoted but slightly strange aunt. We follow the artist into young adulthood and into a marriage that faces unique challenges. He carries with him his aunt's plea to "never look away."
While this tale begins at the onset of the Nazi era, much of what is presented is relevant to our contemporary world, though those political parallels are not drawn explicitly in the film.
Released in 2018, this film was honored with many award nominations and a few wins. Because of subtitles and a length of three hours, "Never Look Away" did not lend itself well to American tastes or to wide theatrical distribution. It is available on DVD or streaming and should not be missed.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
I wondered why I had never heard of "Out of the Furnace", released seven years ago, now carrying a 6.8 rating on IMDb, and featuring a stellar cast. Maybe my expectations were too high. I realized too late that it was a stereotypical story, a cowboy western, good guy versus bad guy. Worse than that -- it never settled on which of the several stories it tossed out to us that it wanted to follow to the finish. It could have been a story about a town suffering under the impending closure of the steel mill, or a family torn apart by one son's personal suffering, or the broken romance of the other son. Instead, it chose the cliché route, a dark, dreary tale with a predictable ending that it approached at the speed of a baby's crawl. I'm a fan of Woody Harrelson, but he was given a cardboard character to portray, and most of the other big names also had abbreviated roles they never got to develop. With all that talent it could have been so much better.
Only two seasons? Obviously not simple enough for most viewers. And not enough plot cliches. I watched every episode of the two seasons and never felt cheated or regarded as too dumb to follow the story. However, if you're looking for science-fiction, this is not it. The parallel worlds element is kept in the background. These episodes were character driven and shined with excellent acting and great scripts -- a lot about relationships, who we think we are, and how others see us. I have always been a J.K. Simmons fan, but I've never seen him so good. And the rest of the cast deserve equal praise for what they delivered. Yes, it could get a little confusing at times, but nobody I know nodded off through any of it.
Ocean's Eight (2018)
The low scores for this film are difficult to understand. Complaints that it lacks the charm and luster of the previous male casts don't ring true. The plot was clever, had plenty of gimmicks, and overall it demanded that the viewer pay attention. I suspect that some of the same viewers who gave this film one or two stars probably gave much higher marks to the latest super hero flick. None of these stories (complicated heists, super heroes, Harry Potter fantasies) are realistic, but we don't want them to be. I hope it was not something as gross as plain old misogyny that brought scores down. Good cast. Good acting. Story well told.
It Had to Be You (2015)
Interesting characters. Great acting. Great story. Real people in real situations. And a liberal dose of disappointment, misunderstanding, and love. What more could you want? Probably advisable to have a box of Kleenex handy.
Game Night (2018)
It's not a mystery -- the plot and resolution were evident from the first few minutes. And it's not a comedy. The actors walk through their parts with little spirit, except for Rachel McAdams who seemed determined to make the best of it. Classic Hollywood formula nonsense. There are much better scripts and directors out there. It's too bad that the movie business is stuck in the corporate rut of making movies based on the personal connections of the people in control.
Great story & acting by the entire cast. I don't understand the low ratings from some viewers unless they have some kind of personal hangups about father-child relationships. The humor mixed with pathos was perfectly delivered, just like real life. The lesson: nothing / nobody is ever perfect or all that we want it to be. We learn to adjust...
Monsters and Men (2018)
There are no stereotyped villains or good guys in this film, only different people reacting in different ways to the same event, which we never actually see. In that it resembles what we usually learn from what we regard as "news." This film is seriously under-rated and is one of the most realistic cop films I've ever seen.
Love After Love (2017)
I saw that Metacritic gave it a much higher score and I really like Chris O'Dowd, but I found this film pretentious and embarrassingly disconnected from reality. Drippingly self-indulgent. My wife and I gave it up after 20 minutes. I would not want to know these characters.
Beats Star Wars: the Last Jedi
Way better than the last Star Wars and most other sci-fi films. Very imaginative, plus a lot of fun and action. Contrary to a few other opinions, I thought the actors fit the roles and did a great job. ALL of the characters, including the digital, behaved like real people, not just mechanically following a formula derived from preceding films. If you don't like the on-screen characters, that doesn't mean the acting was bad. Maybe it's just a reflection of your discomfort in seeing certain roles portrayed. There is a modest element of romance, which always makes some viewers uncomfortable in a shooting and chasing film. Bottom line: this movie is seriously under-rated.
The Florida Project (2017)
Remarkably over-rated. Willem Defoe is great, but there is no story and there is nothing funny about the irresponsible adult characters or their feral kids. This is almost a documentary, but it fails as a feature film.
The Prisoner (2009)
Kafka meets Camus
If you've read the other reviews you know this is not a remake of the original TV series of The Prisoner. This is much smarter, more obscure, certainly more existential. Not so much about trying to escape from an externally imposed imprisonment as a study of reality and self-delusion. This is not a straight-forward linear plot, but one that challenges the viewer. It's a wonder that it ever got made for television.
That's the substance of my views, but I'll add that the acting is stellar, the cinematography is haunting, and the crisp directing and editing demand that the viewer pay attention and make an effort to sort things out, which some viewers may resent.
The wide range of viewer scores for this six-episode series produce an average score of 6.3 (in November 2015), which is meaningless. Those who liked this series loved it and those who didn't like it, for whatever reasons, hated it. There are not many opinions in between the best and the worst, so the average of 6.3 only indicates that slightly more people loved it than hated it.
The Signal (2014)
Great but not for everyone
"The Signal" is more horror film than sci-fi. It's about three people trapped in a threatening environment they do not understand. It is also about reality, and how our concept of it can easily be shaken by unexpected circumstances that are inconsistent with our past experiences and perceptions. In the early portion of the film there is a brief reference to Philip Dick, the master of reality tales, and to his book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," which became the basis for the film "Blade Runner." Later references capture some of the mystique of "The Matrix" and also an often overlooked film from 1997, "The Cube."
Comments posted here about "The Signal" seem to be sharply divided: viewers seem to either hate it or love it. The displeasure is easy to understand. Those who expected a sci-fi story with a lot of techno-gadgets and special effects are likely to be disappointed. The same applies to those who are uncomfortable with the concept of victimization, a common basis for horror films and a key element in "The Signal." But those who like to read Philip Dick or who enjoyed "The Cube" will find much to admire in this film, a low budget effort with a smart script.
good acting, nice camera work, lousy story
I need to say that no specific plot details are revealed in this review, but some general observations suggest some plot points. If you haven't seen this movie, this review might spoil it for you, but I'm not recommending that you do see it.
Birdman is an unfortunate mix. I'm a fan of Michael Keaton, so I came to this film with a bit of a bias in his favor. I am pleased to say that I thought his acting was superb. Also, the camera work was interesting, though not original. The continuously moving camera coupled with creative editing and CG work gave the impression of one continuous shot. That also suggested a degree of reality -- seeing events as they happened -- which ultimately was not supported by the story. This movie fails completely in its inability to present itself either as reality or as fantasy. It also fails by creating a protagonist who serves no apparent purpose in the story except to cause us to feel sorry for him.
Keaton plays a former actor in super hero movies who is despondent about becoming too old to maintain that role, which apparently has become indistinguishable from his self-image. While despondence is a great dramatic hook, we usually expect a good story to present us with despair that arises over something that would matter to most of us, for instance a runner who loses the use of his legs, an architect who goes blind, an employee who gets fired. It's troubling that many viewers can identify with a man whose despair arises from his self-image as an aging super hero. While we don't usually hold films to the standards of the best classical dramas, those Greek and Shakespearean plays set some guidelines that have worked for centuries now in providing solid entertainment. Those guidelines are nowhere evident in Birdman.
Although we see traces of fantasy throughout the film in Keaton's delusions, we are led to believe they are simply his personal hallucinations, particularly since no one else ever sees them. That casts the film in the role of a reality tale. However, in the final few minutes we are presented with a fantasy scene that is witnessed by someone else, suggesting that we have been duped and that the reality of all that preceded those final moments is in question. That's not good story telling; it's only confusion and audience manipulation.
This film contains two major gimmicks that were clearly intended to let some viewers think they were seeing something smart and clever, while actually they were only experiencing dishonest writing. Norman Rockwell once said if a magazine cover he was painting wasn't working, he'd add a dog. If it still wasn't working he'd put a bandage on the dog's foot. Here we got the dog and the bandage. One of those gimmicks is the ending described above. The other preceded it and involved Keaton doing something while on stage that served no useful purpose in the story except to provide some suspense, until the inevitable moment finally arrived.
I have no argument with morality plays and with pure fantasy. Maleficent is a recent example. That story used fantasy to convey some views about human relationships. There was no confusion between fantasy and reality, and the story was driven by a need to resolve a wrong, a resolution which occurred predictably but in a satisfying manner at the end. Birdman doesn't even come close.
The Zero Theorem (2013)
probably Gilliam's best ever
Nietzsche would have loved this movie. It is probably Gilliam's best work, again casting the "corporation" as the villain, much as he did in Brazil. It is about a man searching for his purpose in a world full of distractions. Those are, of course, the same that our contemporary culture produces: pervasive surveillance, addictive computerized gadgets, porn, intrusive advertising, to name a few. The humor and satire are brilliant, and a second viewing might be necessary to catch all the satirical stuff going on in the background. Love and personal connection are raised as a possible answer to the question about purpose. The main character's struggle with that issue cements the plot into something that is not just preachy and philosophical. The acting is uniformly great and all of the main characters, played by Christoph Waltz, Gwendoline Christi, David Thewlis, and Lucas Hedges, are a delight to watch. The same can be said about the smaller parts filled by Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon. But if you're not into big questions that seem to be without answers -- things like the meaning of life -- it might be better to stay home and watch reruns of The Budapest Hotel.
Under the Skin (2013)
Great or boring?
Most audiences love this film for its subtlety and its allegorical tale – a vision of human life through the eyes of an outsider. A few viewers found it boring. Here's a suggested analysis of that breakdown:
LOVED IT: It's a blessing that there is very little dialog in this film, and what exists is basically non-essential small talk, such as "Are you okay?" For an American, some of the Scottish accents were so thick that I could barely make out the words, but it didn't matter because the dialog was largely inconsequential and could be understood to convey elemental feelings and attitudes, even if the exact words were obscure. Also, the plot does not depend on dialog. More about that follows. The regard of the main character, Scarlett Johansson, changes dramatically as she encounters ordinary people of all sorts, the young, the old, the aggressive, the timid. Eventually she ends up looking at herself in a mirror.
BORING: This film is not for action-thriller addicts. There are no explosions, no space ships, no shooting. Whatever violence exists is the kind found in real life. Except for the ending, this might have been a movie about a serial killer who makes some profound self-discoveries. This film is also not for those who do not like subtlety and prefer to have the dialog tell them what is going on, much like the usual stuff on television, which has so much talk that you could close your eyes and usually still follow the story. No one on the screen ever says that Scarlett Johansson is an alien. If you didn't know that (and who doesn't?) from all of the publicity, you might be surprised by the ending. Likewise, there are no alien artifacts of any kind, no special weapons. The black pools seen in trailers might be pure metaphor and would just as well have fit a movie about a serial killer. So, if you want everything explained, this is not your movie.
As some one who thought this movie was great, I will add that it invites the viewer to consider his own vision of his place in humanity, what we are, how we behave alone or with others. Can that be boring?
It's a kids' movie. As my wife and I left the theater an 8-year-old behind us said he'd seen it three times. We could barely get through one showing. It's so bad that we broke into laughter at some of the silly, stereotypical dialog and predictable plot elements. Kate Winslet walks through her part as though she'd been blackmailed into appearing. Kafka it is not. Not even close. It is obviously derivative of Hunger Games and does not even pretend to be the morality play or political satire that some seem to think it represents. The closest it comes to a "genre" is a Hong Kong martial arts film, but most of those are better. None of the characters act or react like real people. It's not good science fiction, not good fiction of any other kind.
Your Sister's Sister (2011)
Smart film. Smart dialog. Smart characters. No stereotypes. Not a cliché-driven romantic comedy, which obviously put off some of those who reacted negatively.
From start to finish, the roles and situations develop in unpredictable ways that never seem false. There must have been a lot of improvisation go into the script, because the conversations never sound false, and the characters all act and react in ways that could not be more natural.
It is funny without being silly, and it is sad at times in ways that measure the depth of the relationships. Great stuff!
Ang-ma-reul bo-at-da (2010)
you can't make this acceptable by calling it art
The acting was good, the cinematography was good, the directing was good, but the theme is unremitting glorification of violence, notably brutal violence against women. If this movie had left out the women and the sex, and pitted the bad guy against other men, I suspect we'd find fewer favorable comments here. Being able to overwhelm the viewer with graphic scenes of rape and mutilation does not constitute art. This is porn, no matter how nicely it is dressed up. With regard to the narrative line of this film, it makes little sense, as someone else has already pointed out. Catch and release is good in fishing, not in a serious film.
Beginners is a great film that will not satisfy a few viewers, as evidenced by other comments here. First, here's what it will not do: it will not feed you a linear story with a single, simple plot. The beauty of this film is in its complexity, which faithfully reflects the dynamics of real life. There are flashbacks. There is highly cinematic use of material that is intended to suggest mood, rather than deliver it with dead dialog. Yes, the dog gets a few subtitles, highly credible for anyone who has ever owned a dog. There is even a brief moment in which solid colors flash on the screen, and we occasionally visit the protagonist's revealing sketches. There is a message in all of this that some will not appreciate. Several stories are magically woven together: the son's difficulty in maintaining a relationship, the girlfriend's own hesitation to commit to one place and one person, the mother's endurance of a marriage that worked on only one level, the father's adjustment to his new gay life, and his boyfriend's worries that he is not accepted because he is gay. Whew! That's a lot to cram into one story, but it works remarkably well and we see in the end that all the characters were what the title said, Beginners.
The Pacific (2010)
From the opening moments filled with marshmallow music to the perfect Norman Rockwell home, this is a bit of melodramatic puff. Dad's a doctor, the white colonial house is an American dream, and the family owns a perfect spotted dog that relentlessly trails the despondent son. Rockwell once said that if one of his pictures wasn't going well he would add a dog, and if it still wasn't going well he'd paint a bandage on the dog's paw; maybe the makers of "The Pacific" should have added the bandage.
If you like the kind of war movies made in the 1950s, ending with John Wayne's absurd "The Green Berets" in 1968, you will like this. If you are looking for something more honest, you might try the Showtime series, "Generation Kill," about Iraq, or Terrence Malick's 1998 version of James Jones book "The Thin Red Line." It was about the Guadalcanal campaign, like the beginning episodes of "The Pacific." Malick achieved a more electric depiction of the personal distress of battle, absent the cliché infested, slow, non-battle scenes of "The Pacific," in which it is impossible to shake the realization that these guys are actors. If you're not so interested in battle but want a better look at what war does to its participants away from action, try the 1946 classic "The Best Years of Our Lives." For at least this viewer, "The Pacific" does not begin to approach the style and dramatic impact of any of these other titles. This one was made for TV and it looks like it.
Shutter Island (2010)
Ignore the celebrity status of Scorsese and DiCaprio and this is an otherwise simplistic B-movie. DiCaprio's acting is uneven, like his Boston accent, and Ben Kingsley seems to be going through the motions only to collect a check and get back to real drama. Like much American cinema, you could experience this movie with your eyes closed. There is nearly constant dialog, explaining everything we ought to be able to figure out on our own. The shifts in point of view, from exclusively DiCaprio's for most of the film, to omniscient near the end, only emphasize that the producers didn't trust the audience's ability to understand what was happening, even though it's neither complicated nor original. To avoid any confusion, the flashbacks and delusions are clearly labeled. A few nights before viewing this film I watched "A Prophet" ("Un Prophète"), a French film about confinement and crime. It too used delusions, but relied upon the viewer to recognize what they were, rather than simply identifying them. That film was thrilling, suspenseful, grim, in ways that "Shutter Island" did not come close to achieving.
The Informant! (2009)
even better the second time
This is a subtle movie that proves that voice-over narration can actually contribute something useful to a movie, beyond just explaining what's already on the screen. Matt Damon is masterful in his portrayal of a mixed-up business executive who is trying to advance himself financially and in his career. He becomes trapped in his own deceits, meanwhile maintaining a positive attitude and distracting himself with mental meanderings about what he regards as his own successes. Some of the subtlety shows in his escalating personal expenditures -- you have to watch for them, nobody directs your attention to what is going on in the background. The voice-over cleverly establishes a character distinct from the one portrayed on the screen, the one seen by the protagonist's co-workers and wife. The Matt Damon we see and the Matt Damon we hear are virtually two different people. The casting of the supporting roles is also extraordinary. The supportive wife is not the dingbat she might have been in less capable hands and the co-workers look as though they stepped out of a real office. I've watched this movie twice and I'll probably watch it again. Besides being very funny, it is also a great study in human behavior.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
"Vicky Christina Barcelona" will be praised by the few remaining Woody Allen fans and condemned by the rest of us, whose model for drama is derived from classic Greek theater. The demands for statement of circumstance, a crescendo of conflict rising to a crisis, a resolution of the crisis, and a brief concluding summary are missing from VCB. The convention of character change -- Othello changing into a wife murderer, Hamlet deteriorating into madness, Scout's discovery of important life values in "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- is also missing. The usual expectation that minor characters are introduced into a story if they have some purpose, is ignored. And of course, the common convention of a plot, as opposed to a vignette, is nowhere on the horizon. The extensive use of anonymous voice-over narration does not salvage this wreck and only leaves the audience annoyed and patronized.
It is worth speculating that if someone else had proposed to make this same movie, someone previously unknown, it never would have gotten financed.
Vicky and Christina are not believable from their first introduction. That the stiff and conservative Vicky would have traveled to a foreign country with the impulsive and directionless Christina to spend two months together is inconceivable. Given that the initial premise fails, the rest is an embarrassing exploration of an old man's fantasy about two young women.
At one point Vicky meets a young man in a language class, another possible diversion for her. Although he seems dramatically interesting, he disappears after his one brief scene. His exchange with Vicky adds nothing to her self-awareness or any other aspect of the movie. The scene could have been cut entirely with no consequence except elimination of any expectation in the audience that the young man might have some purpose in the film.
When the endless display of self-descriptions by each of the characters becomes tiresome to all, including the characters, we experience a classic "deus ex machina." Maria Elena is dropped into the little that remains and fires off a few sobering rounds.
The movie ends pretty much where it began. Vicky is the same Vicky, conservative, now married, willing to make the same compromises she has always made. Christina is still floundering around trying to discover herself. Whose movie was this? Was it Vicky's or Christina's? In the end neither of them holds our interest.
Die 3 Groschen-Oper (1931)
listen to a CD of the play
While the Criterion DVD version of this film has great picture and sound quality, that doesn't address the movie's primary failure -- it does not resemble the play. Most of the music is gone. What's left has either been shortened or rearranged. Most notably, it's not the same story. Others have commented on the altered ending. Also, the relationship of Polly and Mackie, which was presented as true love in the play, has become a cavalier, defiant, almost frivolous encounter.
While the play had a significant amount of comedy, the movie has substituted physical slapstick for comedic dialog. The play also had some earthy lines that were probably too strong for a movie, and a political message that the movie determinedly avoids.
There are some great CD recordings of the play, including a 1958 version with Lotte Lenya. Listening to one of those while reading the English translation is a lot more satisfying than the movie.