Freitag, 27. Dezember 2013

Short takes

"The Physician" by German director Philipp Stölzl is a historical epic adventure the likes of which we hardly get to see anymore. Sprawling, substantial, linearly and passionately told, classically beautiful and gloriously lavish, it's conventional, old-fashioned cinema in the best sense of the term. Gorgeously textured production design recreating the European dark ages or the opulence of the Persian empire is captured in light and shades so luscious the images threaten to drip. The stunning cinematography is laced additionally with a romanticism that composes visual poetry every chance it gets, whether in throwing a starry spread over the Sahara dunes or casting a longing look across the moon-drenched rooftops. The romance is further kept alive by superb young British actor Tom Payne- in a movie that could be faulted for being simply too much, he not only carries the 150 minutes with great ease and charisma but also gives them a beating heart.

"Fruitvale Station" has the brilliant idea of telling the story of police brutality victim Oscar Grant by reconstructing the last day of his life before he was gunned down unarmed. Like other movies about real-life tragedy and especially about casualties of systematic unjust, it has its moments of glorified sentimentality that could prompt shouts of cheap martyrdom or sainthood, but so strong is the accompanying dose of humanity and compassion that such impulses may well be overcome. The suspicious taste of expoitation is further cleansed by the soulful, grounded performance from a strong ensemble cast. In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan is effortlessly winsome and utterly compelling as a man trying to stay clean and start afresh. Authentic, organic, riding on the rythmic flow of the black culture, writer/director Ryan Coogler's feature film debut pulls you in and forces you to see the extraordinary struggles within every ordinary life.

"Nebraska" is nowhere near as rich, sharp, fully realized as "Election" or "Sideways" but it does pick up a little after director Alexander Payne's creative dud "The Descendants". In following a father-and-son roadtrip to cash in a bogus prize, it paints a not always flattering, but affectionately frank portrait of the American midwest, complete with the empty land, the endless sky, the simple people and their dashed dreams. The script is less driven by plot than by this homebound devotion but does have some wryly funny, brilliantly envisioned scenes involving the chitchat or bickering among groups of senior citizens. Performance-wise, Bruce Dern and Will Forte are both in fine form, complementing each other in their respective pensive sunkenness and inept eagerness. But the highlight is provided by June Squibb as the foul-mouthed wife/mother who storms through the otherwise quiet journey stealing every scene with deadpan charm and tremendous force.

"The Spectacular Now" starts off promisingly enough and ends on a nice note, but what comes between is a somewhat muddled love story with too many angles and messages that, despite coming frustratingly close to hitting that emotional mark at various points, gets sidetracked repeatedly and ultimately fails to deliver on the potential it obviously has. Director James Ponsoldt shoots individual scenes with an appealing honesty and youthful enthusiasm that's infectious and disarming but has trouble keeping up the narrative momentum. The best thing about the movie is lead actor Miles Teller, who wows with a raw, nuanced, highly watchable performance that makes up for a lot of the inconsistency written in his character. The same can't be said for his on-screen partner Shailene Woodley, who looks the part but doesn't quite bring the level of naturalism to it.

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