Mittwoch, 16. Dezember 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 16 , 2015)

It takes a lot just to make a good movie. When it comes to extending or re-launching a movie franchise so beloved as to have become its own brand, the level of difficulty gets even higher. We’ve seen plenty of examples in genre cinema where sequels crash and burn with little to show besides the blatant greed to milk every last drop out of a proved formula or, in a sincere but misguided gesture of reverence, filmmakers go over-the-top with mythology-building and dramatisation that are supposed to add gravitas but only spoil the party.

Cut to Star Wars, the mothership of them all, a bona fide cultural phenomenon that has inspired fanaticism and redefined the term blockbuster since 1977. It’s clearly a thankless job to attempt to introduce new chapters to the original trilogy, worshipped by countless with religious fervor. The fact that not even the mastermind behind the series, George Lucas, could repeat the magic with his now infamous Star Wars prequels, speaks volumes about the complexity of the task.

Along came J.J. Abrams, who actually pulled off the impossible feat and, with this chronologically latest installment, delivered something renewed but classy, calculated but not overwrought, serious in every aspect of its endeavor but at the same time, so much fun.

Things get moving right away after the legendary opening crawl informs us of Episode VII’s premise: 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi, both the resistance and the Galactic Empire’s militant reincarnation – the First Order – are looking for a certain person to advance their cause. It’s the most basic of setups with a well-defined mission and easily identifiable conflicts, but also one that you can hold on to nicely while getting up to speed with a brand new cast of characters. Further into the movie, familiar faces start to pop up and join in the action. Together the colourful bunch will roam the galaxy, uncover truths about themselves, fight the eternal battle of good and evil – accompanied by John Williams’ ever-heroic score. In other words: it’s just like old times.

Indeed, the clever, finely-tuned screenplay incorporates prospective storylines into the indelible sci-fi legacy famously. There are plenty of new leads, including clues and unanswered questions that widen up a variety of future possibilities, but they are embedded in the same narrative of adventure and quest for freedom the world has come to know and love. Also reminiscent of the original trilogy is the fact that the film, amidst all the mayhem and adventures, doesn’t shy away from humour or variations of its Hamletian themes. So expect a heady, highly entertaining mix of laughs, tears, thrills and nostalgia. Meanwhile, this altogether lean piece of writing is confident enough to paint its players in strong, simple strokes and allow the plot developments room to breathe, leaving a refreshingly uncluttered impression seldom shared by tentpole movies of comparable caliber.

For that sense of restraint, Abrams’ direction is equally to be credited. While some of the earlier scenes might come across as blunt and betray a trace of sensationalism or indiscipline, he eventually eases into gear and tells the bulk of the story with superb flow and an almost vintage grace. Yes, the digital technology of today has enabled optical tricks unthinkable four decades ago, and Abrams more than passes the test with numerous fluidly shot, precisely edited and seamlessly visualised chase or battle sequences. But even more impressive than his ability to stage these spectacular setpieces is probably how he reins it in during many of the film’s quieter moments. Be it a lone rider speeding across the horizon, two lovers gently saying goodbye or an unlikely lightsaber duel symbolising a war carried over to the next generation, it’s the classic grandeur of these scenes that elevates the whole picture to greatness.

Without getting into the fates of their characters, it’s safe to say Ford and Fisher are better than ever, reprising their iconic roles with seasoned repose. Of the younger cast, Driver (as “Kylo Ren”) and Isaac (“Poe Dameron”) show considerable charisma that makes them appropriately unreadable/believable. Boyega (“Finn”) and Gleeson (“General Hux”), don’t fare as well, both their performances marred by a degree of overzeal. Nyong'o proves to be a weirdly off choice for a motion-capture part (“Maz Kanata”), mainly because she doesn’t convey the supposedly ancient age with her chime-like enunciation. Then there’s Ridley, who, as Rey, dazzles with a disarmingly open face that speaks innocence, defiance, doubt, an entire past.

All things considered, The Force Awakens is one of those rare cases where a sequel is not only a tremendous movie on its own terms, but an organic continuation of the saga it succeeds. Epic in scale, thoughtful in composition, loving in tone, it’s Hollywood studio production at its wowing, rousing best. Yoda would have approved.

Interview: Todd Haynes (Carol)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 14 , 2015)

What were the most significant changes you made adapting the novel?

The novel was told entirely from the character Therese’s perspective. The script tried to create access to the character Carol as well. We needed to be very careful about that. For example, the first time you enter Carol’s world is when the mail truck delivers her the gloves from Therese – so we’re literally transported into it, through the handiwork of this girl with an infatuation. But my biggest change was a structural one. One of the first films I thought about was David Lean’s Brief Encounter. I love that structure where you only fully understand what something means after coming all the way through the story and returning to the beginning.

The fact that these two characters are both women isn’t the defining part of their love story. Do you think this would have been possible 10 years ago in mainstream cinema?

Of course, there have always been stories about love between women. Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was a pretty big movie. Or The Children’s Hour (1961), with two major stars. When we assume everything moves in this one, forward momentum, we’re missing the interesting, circuitous leaps forward and backward that history takes.

What do you think is the relevance of this film today?

For me it wasn’t about, “Look how far we’ve come! Look how much better or easier it is now!” I think the predicament of being in love is just as perplexing today as it ever was. Also, surprisingly, coming out still seems fraught with unimaginable challenges even though the cultural landscape is so different. But social media is a distorting factor, for example. And I think proclaiming who you are is still a tender, awkward event.

When did you find your own identity?

Oh, I still haven’t yet. I don’t know I believe in identity as anything locatable. It’s always changing, always somewhat artificial, imposed from the outside, willed from the inside. That’s what interests me in all my films, whether it’s these women in domestic settings or artists acting out and refusing stable identity models.

You’ve worked with Cate Blanchett twice now. Can you talk about that experience?

The thing I’ve learned from all these actors I’ve worked with is that the things most people think actors don’t care about, like the visual style, framing, point of view, etc. – they do care about them. For Cate in this movie, what’s remarkable to me is that she knows she’s playing the object of Therese’s desire, but she’s also playing a real person. She can’t be too available to the spectator when she’s being conjured by this girl. Somehow she knows how to do that, which is so fascinating to me – to be both inside and outside the character.

What do you think has changed in LGBTQ cinema since the start of your career?

I think we’ve gained a lot and we’ve lost a lot. It’s not the same world at all as the one I came out of during the late 1980s, early 1990s. All the progress we’ve made since then is necessary, but it also means a critical perspective and a position outside the main, dominant society has sort of been surrendered for assimilation and acceptance. You know, “Being just like everybody else – but gay!” That is something I think Jean Genet is still rolling over in his grave about. Or maybe not – maybe he’s blowing his gay marriage whistle from the grave, who knows?

The Duke of Burgundy

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 3, 2015)

In The Duke of Burgundy, we are thrown headfirst into a world of fetish, roleplay and bondage shared by butterfly specialist Cynthia (Knudsen) and her lover Evelyn (D’Anna). Through his acute sense of optic and sonic style, Strickland manages to create a cinematic environment so textured it convincingly approximates the at once tender and seismic feminine sexuality portrayed.

Although the erotic drama ultimately doesn’t dig deep enough into the psyche of its two protagonists, ending on some less-than-articulate, if admittedly mesmerising visual pizzazz, it asks plenty of provocative questions about the limits of intimacy, the meaning of dominance in a (sadomasochistic) relationship, and the many inexplicable mechanisms of lust. Kudos to the entire art department, especially the wardrobe for that explosion of corsets, boots, stockings, capes, wigs, gloves, etc., which played such an integral part in realising a perhaps unfamiliar but always compelling sensual landscape.

In the Heart of the Sea

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Dec. 3, 2015)

Having made his career as a prolific actor/director/producer spanning seven decades, few filmmakers understand or have come to symbolise Hollywood quite like Ron Howard. This is a man who knows how to turn a $100+ million budget into a $100+ million looking picture and in such a way that it appeals to everyone and their mothers. With In the Heart of the Sea, he’s resorted once again to his genetically coded blockbuster-instincts and given us a piece of dashing, appetising entertainment that, despite failing to serve any higher creative purpose, satisfies anyway.

The story is told in flashbacks by old man Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) at the request of Moby Dick author Herman Melville (Whishaw) in 1850s Massachusetts. Through his account of what happened to the whaling ship Essex when he was a 14-year-old cabin boy, we travel further back in time to meet captain George Pollard (Walker) and his first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth), who had led their crew on a fateful expedition that would ultimately leave them stranded at sea and faced with the most difficult of choices.

From the authentically weathered production design, the sleek, sprawling camerawork, the sizzlingly fluid editing, to the immersive sound and visual effects, the film’s technical aspects are strong across the board, culminating in several scenes of harrowing intensity or stunning beauty. The centrepiece action sequence that sees the almost mythical white whale bringing down the Essex, for example, is executed with great might and finesse, allowing you to watch the mayhem from every angle while feeling the frightening thud of every blow. It’s the kind of wowing, how-did-they-do-that movie trick that showcases scale, velocity, impact and thoroughly impresses; one that plays up the surround experience of cinema and keeps you riveted like a kid delighting in the glorified perils.      

Probably by no accident, the swashbuckling maritime adventure morphs into a gritty survival tale around the film’s halfway mark, affording the action and the drama more or less equal room. While this suggests an ambition to please the adults as well as the youngsters in the audience, the second, supposedly serious-minded half can hardly be described as narratively ambitious. In fact, not only does the theme of surviving open water still feel too familiar from recent explorations in Unbroken or Life of Pi, the dramatic net is also cast a bit too widely between motifs of greed, environmentalism, brotherhood, guilt, man versus nature etc., lessening the urgency of the message.

As mentioned in opening, Howard doesn’t shoot for lofty goals but has a real knack for delivering meaty, welcoming, readily consumable products to the masses. In this latest case, he’s certainly served the mainstream two more hours of enjoyable distraction that feeds few fuels to the mind but fills the time nicely.

Bridge of Spies

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 26, 2015)

Set during the height of the Cold War, this espionage drama recounts the rather spectacular true story of American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks), who’s first tasked with defending a Russian spy (Rylance) caught by the CIA, then with negotiating a captive exchange between the United States, the Soviet Union and the GDR. Carrying with it the fortes and trappings of a Spielberg movie, the 140-minute prestige picture is fluently told and handsomely crafted, yet can’t quite shake the tired taste of something trying too hard to please everybody. Emotionally approachable to a fault, we’re made to feel the hero’s dejection and triumph via broadly staged scenes accompanied by a pretty literal Thomas Newman score.

But such absence of a deeper, subtler resonance aside, the master of crowd-pleasers proves he still knows how to get your blood pumping, as exemplified by an abundance of iconic shots and expertly orchestrated sequences like the smooth opening chase number. Hanks is also strong playing a simple man with great convictions, his impassioned presence carefully matched by Rylance’s unreadable equanimity. Shot evenly in New York and Berlin, Bridge of Spies is well worth watching for the history alone – just don’t go in expecting something as visceral as Schindler's List.


(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Nov. 26, 2015)

Addressing mortality and existential anxieties in an often lighthearted manner, albeit not from the end of life you'd expect, is the somewhat misleadingly titled Youth. Starring the old acting legends Caine and Keitel as a retired orchestra conductor and a film director well past his prime, it follows the quibbling odd couple as they wander around a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps. In between ogling a scantily-clad Miss Universe and chatting up an otherwise colourful ensemble of hotel guests, the two argue about everything from the failed marriage of their children to the woman they both fell in love with decades ago, inadvertently triggering surges of memory that lead to unforeseen outcomes.

Booed at its Cannes premiere, the movie does err on the side of pretentiousness from time to time. Its foray into full-out dramatic territory, especially, backfires with a whiff of new-agey faux-profundity. But by and large, the brilliantly-seasoned performances and Sorrentino’s impeccable taste still lift the fabulous-looking and -sounding picture to a place of artistic, stylistic grandeur.

Ever the classic thespian, Caine brings his trademark impenetrable composure to the screen, adding mystique and just a hint of cruelty to this amicably detached character. Keitel is on fire here, delivering one perfect wisecrack after another like nobody’s business. In a cameo appearance, Jane Fonda also delights as a magnificently wrinkled, furiously bitter diva from the past. It’s a joy to watch actors of this caliber do what comes so naturally to them. You only wish all that acting showcase framed within such downright erotic visual yumminess could have culminated in a note that actually reverberates, instead of this piercing but rather forced falsetto.