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Thrown together by fate, Jule and Jan embark on a road trip from Berlin to Portugal in a camper van. Along the way, they discuss love, sex, relationships. Endlessly. Will they or won't they end up together? That is the only question that hangs in the balance for a tedious two and a half hours. "It all happened so fast," quips Jule a couple of hours into the film. Not for the viewer, it didn't. A little less talk and a little more action, please.
The most annoying thing about this middle-aged fantasy of young love is the unabashed nostalgia. 24-year-olds who use paper maps and lead mostly analogue lives. Empty roads, campsites and tourist attractions all over Europe at the height of summer. You would be forgiven for confusing this with a publicity spot for the EU tourist board. This summer, fall in love with Europe. Hopelessly romantic, in the cheesiest sense.
Read the book instead
I read 'Transit', by Anna Seghers, years ago. It is a fine book, one of the best novels about the plight of the German exiles who found themselves trapped in Marseille, circa 1940-1941, trying desperately to get out of Europe before the Nazis caught up with them. This new film announces itself as 'freely adapted' from the novel. Well, that's certainly one way of putting it. The other would be to say that it appropriates key elements of the book's plot and grinds them into an amorphous mess. Sort of like saying that 600 kilos of minced beef is a free adaptation of a cow. It may be the same flesh, but all the life has been bled from it.
The main problem is the decision to mix past and present. A number of German characters in contemporary France are forced to flee an unnamed enemy. We all know that, in 1940-1941, they were actually fleeing the Nazis. This is no minor point that can be simply written out of the plot. It is the essence of why the book was written, seeing as Seghers was a communist and a Jew. So, we have to buy into the premise of modern-day Germans hiding out from French police for no conceivable reason. Fair enough if this were some dystopian future scenario, except that they are constantly using 1940s objects, like old passports; dependent on 1940s technology, like trains and ships for transportation; and faced with distinctively 1940s problems, like trying to get transit visas through Spain and Portugal. After the initial half hour of getting used to, where you think this slippage back and forth in time might lead to something interesting, it just becomes tedious and pointless.
There is also an annoying attempt to strike a tone of political urgency, without actually taking a stand on anything. This happens because the German fugitives are tenuously linked to characters of Middle Eastern origin who live in Marseille. This forced proximity gives off the slightest whiff of a comparsion between the German exiles of yesteryear and the immigrants and refugees of today. That would be a provocative argument, but it never goes beyond subliminal posturing. By failing to come out and actually say something, the film stops well short of the weighty political intentions of the book.
The three stars are for the generally good production qualities. The film is well shot, edited and acted, though the soundtrack is annoying. It's the screenplay and directing that leave a lot to be desired.
In Pursuit of Silence (2015)
A meditation on silence as a commodity vanishing from the modern world and a pondered appeal to recover it while we still can. It is a bit all over the place, as other reviewers have noted, but I see this more as a quality. The film does not restrict itself to a linear argument, but rather tracks silence and noise as foundations of our existence and being. The recurring motif is John Cage's 4'33, which serves as a benchmark for the many issues raised. The film's greatest strength, by far, is its mindful use of sound design as an element of cinematic experience. Throughout, the audience is made to 'see' sound purposefully, like in a piece of sound art, and thus to challenge the way we take noise for granted in our daily lives. Ironically, the biggest flaw, for me, was the musical soundtrack, which encroached on moments that could have more profitably been given over to silence. Highly recommend this film to anyone interested in re-thinking the many things wrong with the way we live in the age of social networking. That's pretty much everyone, really.
The end of the world in an apartment
I came out of the cinema about a half hour ago and still have not been able to utter a single word. So deeply was I moved by this film. It is a very topical picture because it gives us an insight into what people are going through in Syria. At the same time, it is a universal story of war and what becomes of humanity in times of great suffering. It could be any war, anywhere. In some senses, almost a Sartreian reflection on the human condition. Beautifully and powerfully acted. The cast is nothing short of amazing. The camera-work is just right, giving a real sense of urgency to the action but never overdoing it. The screenplay is tight, and the directing is sure. I could have done without the incidental music, but that's really nitpicking. All in all, a great piece of filmmaking and a film that is bound to become a classic.
Get Out (2017)
Not clever enough by half
The marketing campaign wants to convince you this film is a clever take on schlock horror movies, with knowing political undertones. Yeah, right. Just another schlock horror movie, and a pretty bad one at that. The so-called discussion of race is pointless and shallow. Blood, gore and stereotypes. Yawn. Don't waste your money. The only thing clever about this film is the marketing campaign.
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
A vampire movie
20 years on, we catch up with the main characters of the epochal Trainspotting. All has changed except their essential selves. So, if you loved Trainspotting, you will love T2, right? Wrong. The screenplay plunders the first film so thoroughly that the sequel is almost self-plagiarism. All the jazzy effects cannot camouflage the fact that this is a soulless attempt to cash in on past glories. Danny Boyle sucking the last caked stains of blood off the bones of what was once a good idea. Not satisfying, just sad.
Raving Iran (2016)
A very good student documentary
Having visited Iran last year for the first time, I am fascinated by all things Iranian. And this film provides great insights into how the state oppresses people's lives there. Some great footage of fly-on-the-wall situations that really make you wonder how they managed to record such scenes at all. Things you would never have occasion to observe as a tourist, but which are obviously all around you, just under the surface. Those scenes alone make the film worth seeing, if you're interested in Iran. Apart from that, the narrative is a little shallow. Nothing much happens besides the tedious process of two young DJ's trying to make it out of Iran. Many people will probably find the film dull, especially those who go to see it for the music or club angle. I would have appreciated it if the director had been more forthright about why and how the film was made. Put herself into the picture a little more. Yet, for a first film, this is a very good piece of work. Hope to see more from her.
The Revenant (2015)
Recipe for pretension
Take one whole side of 'Inferno' (1953, Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming); add two cups of 'Grizzly Man' (Werner Herzog) and one of ''Apocalypto'; a sprig of 'Into the Wild' and a dash of 'There will be Blood'; season with a tablespoon of Tarantino. Let the whole mess half bake for 256 minutes at maximum carnage. The result is a film in which Iñarritù's undeniable talent succumbs to the public's insatiable appetite for screen violence for its own sake. James Bond on his best day could not take the sadistic punishment meted out to Leonardo di Caprio in this parable of 'vengeance is mine'. Somewhere along the line, amidst all the gore, punctuated by delicate and sometimes mawkish moments of dreamlike spirituality, the story loses sight of itself. Not to say that the hundred million budget wasn't well spent. The opening battle scene and the near-fatal encounter, early on, are superbly done. Some of the best CGI I've ever seen put to good use. Worth the price of the ticket just to see these two sequences. Otherwise, Iñarritù should get back to what he does best: shooting a tight screenplay with great acting and less grand philosophizing about nature.
Only God Forgives (2013)
I certainly cannot forgive
It is hard to imagine how this film could be worse. Whether it be the inane screenplay, the pretentious cinematography or the cheesy soundtrack, this is beyond bad. It's embarrassing for all involved. There are quite a few moments that make you squirm in your seat, both because of the sadism with which the violence is enacted (intentional) and the nasty Orientalism with which Thailand is depicted (inescapable). I loved Drive, but this is like a soulless pastiche of the style of Refn's earlier work. Sadly, it seems, a one-hit wonder as a director. A film to be avoided, at all costs. Oh, I just thought of how it could get worse. It could not have Ryan Gosling in it. I'll bet he wishes that was the case.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
A most pretentious load of twaddle
Very much an attempt to shoot a sitcom as if it were Shakespeare. The plot revolves around a heating-oil executive's attempts to maintain an ethical attitude in the face of nasty competition and the pressures of ambition. The premise could become a worthy exploration of human nature if it were written and directed by David Mamet (think Glengarry Glen Ross). In the hands of J.C. Chandor, it turns into 125 grueling minutes of mood and mannerism without substance. The screenplay is flat and has more loose ends than the awful hairdo they have burdened poor Jessica Chastain with. (She is the only good thing in the picture, by the way.) The characters are uniformly stiff and one- dimensional, parading through a tired range of racial stereotypes and NYC-movie clichés: the politically ambitious African-American DA, the emotionally unstable Latino youth, the orthodox Jewish businessman with a heart of gold, and so on. By far the worst part is the main character, played by Oscar Isaac. It is hard to say if he was directed to do a bad impression of Al Pacino in the Godfather or if this was his own clever idea. Either way, it's excruciating to watch him trying to lend gravitas to lines so banal they could come out of a Brady Bunch movie. Awful screenplay, hiding behind camera and music that try desperately to induce you to lend some sort of emotional weight to what is actually a boring exercise in form and genre. Mr. Chandor should be barred from making films until he apologizes for this.
The Zero Theorem (2013)
So bad, it's atrocious
As a fan of Terry Gilliam's prior work, I was confident that this film would live up to 'Brazil' and 'Twelve Monkeys'. Couldn't be more wrong. The screenplay makes Forrest Gump look sophisticated. The characters are uniformly caricatural: the tortured genius looking for truth, the hooker with a heart of gold, the tech-savvy adolescent wise beyond his years, the shrewd business mogul who manipulates all, and so on, and so on. Art direction, musical score, set design, range between annoying and just plain over the top. Special effects and computer graphics straight out of the late great Cannon Studios tradition of C for cheeeeesy. As regards the cast, Matt Damon is wooden and Tilda Swinton (who I revere), histrionic. Only Christoph Waltz manages to keep his character afloat, through stilted dialogue and terrible costumes, for which he deserves a better part. The worst thing, by far, is the mannered camera work, which makes every one of the seemingly endless 107 minutes excruciating to watch. This film is an embarrassment to all involved. If you like Terry Gilliam, do yourself a favour and skip this one.
Zeit der Kannibalen (2014)
How do you say 'a real turkey' in German?
I was intrigued by the trailer for this film and decided to go see it based on the rating on IMDb. What a mistake! It starts out well enough, and for the first half hour or so actually seems like it might go somewhere. Then, the plot reels out of control into a completely implausible, ethnocentric (borderline racist), fantasy of what German business consultants get up to when traveling in 'third-world' countries. The main problem is that whoever wrote the screenplay evidently has little or no experience of actual business people or the countries portrayed. The characters are puerile and two-dimensional. Their actions and reactions amount to little more than bad caricature. I felt sorry for the actors, who struggle to make the characters believable and sometimes even succeed. The trouble is the screenplay, as well as some pretty poor decisions regarding production design (particularly the use of abstract backdrops to represent the cityscape outside hotel windows). This only reinforces the impression that you're watching a theatre play that has been poorly adapted into a film.
Liquid Sky (1982)
Improves with age
I saw this movie in New York in 1982, when it came out. I was only 18, then, a nerdy teen trying to act blasé. Pretentious art-house antics, I scoffed. But, the picture stayed with me, over the years. Every once in a while, I would think of it. Gradually, all but the most basic plot line evaporated from memory. I just saw it again now, for old time's sake, and have to say it really impressed me. Despite its many faults (bad acting, lame scripting, among them), this is an outstanding piece of work. Not only is Anne Carlisle an amazing figure - straight out of Nan Goldin's 'Ballad of sexual dependency' - some of her dialogues are profound and prescient. So much of this movie was ahead of its time: the music, the visuals, the attitude, even the discussion of endorphins, which were then so little understood that they don't even use the word in the screenplay. This is one of the great pieces of independent film-making from the 1980s. Two more concepts that were little understood at the time this film was made and which it helped to shape: the 80s and the idea of 'indie'.
La vie d'Adèle (2013)
This film has been heralded as a sensitive portrayal of a young woman's sexual coming of age. At over three hours, it is as tedious as that line might sound to more cynical ears. The hype about this being a politically correct, right-on approach to female homosexuality is exactly that: just hype. The way it is shot is a smooth revamp of what feminists used to call 'the male gaze'. Nothing innovative about it: same old 'girls on film' that Bertolucci might have shot in the 1970s, complete with lots of close-ups of mouths slurping pasta. In an age when 'lesbian sex' is probably one of the most popular search terms on Google, the whole thing struck me as trendy posturing about sexuality as a pretext to show naked women writhing and stroking. And, the girls are both lovely (as well as great actresses, by the way). As soft porn goes, it is not bad - right up there with Courbet and David Hamilton, which is why I give it a 6, and not a lesser score. Now, what REALLY annoyed me is the long-long-winded lengths to which the director goes to disguise his sexploitation tactics with edgy, jerky, quasi-documentary depictions of daily existence in urban France (sanitized into a racial paradise, where every scene contains Africans and Arabs living in perfect harmony with their white countrymen), which aesthetic he clearly ripped off from films by the Dardenne brothers and/or Ursula Meier's "L'enfant d'en haut" (a brilliant film, which also features actress Léa Seydoux). Don't waste your time with this copycat stuff. Go check out the originals!
Phantom Lady (1944)
some great scenes
The wired jazz scene with Elisha Cook banging away at the mad drums is worth the whole movie. Plus, there's Ella Raines, looking lovelier than ever. This movie must have really disturbed 1944 audiences. There's a psycho murdering sculptor with strong hands and a fatal weakness. There's fat nasty policemen who breathe down everyone's necks. There's Aurora Miranda trying to steal sister Carmen's act. There's lots of sweating in the August swelter of New York. There's plenty of bad acting and bad dialogue. But, there are also some really unusual shots of street scenes during the long sequence in which Ella pursues the bartender to his death. Strong stuff, indeed. And, did I mention there's Ella Raines looking lovelier than ever? I think I'm in love.
Desert Fury (1947)
This is one of the great crypto-gay B movies of its day. If you take the ridiculous story line at all seriously, it couldn't rate more than a 4. But, if you scratch the almost non-existent veneer, it's definitely worth a 7 for its ability to sustain the ambiguous sexuality of the plot for the full 90 minutes. Can a good girl who knows she likes it bad be happy with bisexuality and incest? Or will censorship and patriarchy force her into submission? It's a festival of bitch slapping, double entendres, guns as phallic symbols and a pigskin glove. Plus, Mary Astor is great as the hard-nosed old gal who talks straight and steers queer. I wish they still made them like this. Kind of makes you miss the days when they had to really work overtime to make gay films.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Fitzgerald as rap video
The jury has been out on Baz Luhrmann for a long time. A lot of people were won over by the quirky combination of Claire Danes + Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Romeo + Juliet'. Others (myself included) were taken in by the sheer over-the-topness of 'Moulin Rouge'. I recently saw that again and found that it has aged badly. But, I decided to give 'The Great Gatsby' a chance, anyway. I figured, why not? What have I got to lose? Well, apart from the admission price and a few hours of my life, I find that my good memories of the book and of the 1974 version (Robert Redford, Mia Farrow) have been permanently compromised by this piece of rubbish. Let's start with the casting: Tobey Maguire was a mistake, Carey Mulligan was a big mistake, Leo is good. On to the special effects: atrocious! You'd think with this kind of budget, they could do a decent chroma key. Finally, the so-called production design: oh my god, how could they do this to Fitzgerald?!?!?! The whole picture is like an extended hip-hop video, complete with extras and music from more than one specimen of the genre. If someone had only told me that the executive producer is Jay Z, I might have had a chance of saving my time, money and self-respect. Fitzgerald did not deserve to be so rudely travestied. The jury on the Luhrmann case is in: guilty of being a hack.
Take This Waltz (2011)
Embarrassing and pretentious
Don't get me wrong, I like a 'chick movie', and I really wanted to like this one, since I am a big Michelle Williams fan. Having said that, this is a particularly bad specimen of bad female directing. The characters are all clichés. The camera work is painfully trite. The dialogs are stilted (especially the 'dirty talk' scene in the café, which is supposed to be sexy and is just embarrassing). The climactic scene, with the camera rotating around the bed while time passes, is one of the most pretentious pieces of movie-making since Oliver Stone thought he could be Francis Ford Coppola. This is like a self-help book laced with pseudo-feminist attitude and blown up to feature length. Proof that you really can be too cool for school and still fail to do anything worth bothering about. Voted most likely to be forgotten in ten years.