Montag, 23. September 2013

Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)

An American cabaret girl falls in love with a stiff English teacher in the Berlin of the 30s, while the Nazis start to seize power over the country.

The musical numbers in the movie are highly enjoyable and filled with great little visual ideas. I enjoyed them thoroughly. The actual love triangle story didn't impress a lot - I couldn't help the feeling that it was slanted too much into giving more contrast to the (prudish) Nazis that show up more and more during the movie.

What did stick out for me was the editing. The pacing is what I might call 'standard', but very often there are really fast cutaways. During the stage shows, there are flashes of audience visible, some of them more visually inspired than others. The woman with the monocle, obviously inspired by Dix is quite memorable, but other shots just show generic cabaret guests clapping and laughing.

I do wonder how they came up with the decision to edit that way. It could maybe be a 'director's trademark' or maybe somebody felt that they needed to spice up the performances a bit. Maybe I can find an audio commentary somewhere on that.

The way that Nazism creeps into everyday life, at first hardly noticeable, but more and more visible has been done in a grandiose fashion. Direct confrontations with Nazis are few but they are memorable and some of them very violent.

The most memorable character seems to be the MC. His affective performance on stage is not just funny, but impeccably timed and really entertaining. I'd love to see something like that in the real world.


Sonntag, 22. September 2013

Upstream Color (Shane Caruth, 2013)

A young woman is purposely infested by a parasite that turns her into a kind of zombie. She is then robbed of all her possessions.

Relentlessly praised on the internet, I had extremely high expectations for this film. I can't say I was disappointed but the story felt a bit long and too much focused on the mystery of the woman's transformation. Things come together in the end, but I there were some stretches in the movie were I felt a bit overwhelmed by the symbolism and the dream-like sequences.

One thing to notice is the camera work. The film was shot on a low budget, and the director decided to use many close-ups. There are noticeable few wide shots - which I think are the most fun to film. I noticed that I really prefer careful compositions that are a bit wider, but I can imagine the situation of this shoot. This choice of camera, quite possibly dictated by budget restrictions led to a very fast editing style, that doesn't give the story time to breathe and the actors space to act.

Although many of the short sequences inbetween are visually stunning, the film felt nervous, despite the story developing relatively slow.

One of many exceptions to this are the first five minutes of the film: The editing is perfect and the story, although absolutely unclear, builds an incredible suspense. Somewhat later I didn't had that feeling anymore - maybe I was guessing too much about a possible ending and the connections that were visually established. 

 Nevertheless, a fascinating piece of next generation sci-fi - I hope it will do well.

Freitag, 20. September 2013

Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)

The famous bio-pic of one of the most astounding man ever to live.

It's been a while since I've watched the film, but what most lingers in my mind are the breathtaking visuals, the enormous scene at the funeral and Ben Kingsley's absolutely fantastic performance. Sometimes a film maker has everything at the right place: a great script, a fantastic lead, and an absolutely astonishing locations to set the story in. This is one of those cases.

I consider writing a good biopic one of the hardest things to do. Especially in the case of Gandhi, the biography is so rich and full of details, it takes a master surgeon to disentangle the many possible strands the plot could follow.

Attenborough chose to focus on the bizarre stubbornness of Gandhi. The first couple of scenes keep repeating that theme on less important incidents, but throughout the story Gandhi's will to perservere is gradually exemplified at increasingly difficult situations. Although there is the danger of repetition, the heightening of the obstacles doesn't stop to fascinate. - A weird comparison might be the "36 chambers of the Shao-Lin" where Yul Brynner is put through a number of bizarre tests before he achieves his goal. The big difference is that Gandhi reaches his goal and fails just as epically at the same time.

There are two or three relationships I wasn't quite sure where to put. There's the lady from England, and everything in the movie strongly implies that she was Gandhi's lover. At the same time it is explicitly shown that they're not. I am still quite confused about this - I'll have to read up on that.

Little note on some shots:

The background makes an imposing visual, adds to the "wall of soldiers" in the front. And there is something quite amazing about the -one- guy walking sideways. It makes him look casual on one hand, or like the guardian of the (only?) escape-route for the doomed.
I noted the distribution of shoes(?) in the background was a bit too regular, but it works very nicely in this shot. The man stands in exactly the right distance from the 'abyss' to convey that he is afraid to closer.

Sometimes an images looks straight out of TIME LIFE magazine. The phone call looks like one of them. I wouldn't be surprised if Attenborough had a real photography as example.

 The guys in the foreground were brightly colored clothes which slowly fade towards the right of the image. There is also a visible gap between the foreground group and the men standing at the corner. The shot toward the other direction is shot in shorter lens and from higher up. Consequently, it doesn't look as good as this one.

Mittwoch, 18. September 2013

In the heat of the night (Norman Jewison, 1967)

When a falsely arrested black man turns out to be a police officers he reluctantly helps the sheriff of a racist small town in the South to solve a murder, despite all their tensions.

This was a highly entertaining watch for me. Just seeing Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier play off each other is worth the time. I was fascinated by Poitier, but I somehow preferred Steiger's crazy mood jumps.

For example: The sheriff's patience wears thin pretty fast with the smug behaviour of the big city homicide expert Tibbs (Poitier) - In one of the best confrontations between the two, the sheriff lets his deputy arrest Tibbs out of blind and helpless rage. Everybody in the room (and the audience) understands the pointless move but we can feel with the sheriff who just went over the edge of his intellectual and emotional possibilities.

Tibbs keeps cool and has the upper hand, until he is confronted with his own racial prejudices. The scene where he meets the rich white land owner is amazing: it's not the open racism of the small-towners that brings down his guard, but the cultivated and just-as-smug old guy.

As the film went on, I lost interest in the plot a bit - hoping to see more of Poitier and Steiger clashing on screen. Which is a good thing - the resolution of the story felt a bit thin and there is a wee bit of deus ex machina in the showdown scene. In general a highly enjoyable film and a must-see of stellar acting of the main two characters.

Something else I noted: all the other characters in the movie seemed a bit cardboard - and not very smart, either. This elevates Poitier's character but renders a lot of the backdrop a bit too cartoony. Would the film be newer, the other inhabitants of the town might just be as stupid, but much less obviously so.

Montag, 16. September 2013

Himmel über Berlin / Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987) - #TSPDT 250

An invisible angel roams the streets of Berlin when he realizes that his spiritual existence is not the fulfillment of his destiny.

Bruno Ganz's subdued performance takes a bit to getting used to, but his appearance on the big screen is so mesmerizing that it was my joy to watch him for the full length of the movie. He barely speaks and when he does it often sounds like he is reciting from heavy prose or dense poetry.

The film in itself doesn't try to hide its schematic and for today's tastes the switch between b/w and color might even seem rather crude. I really loved the black and white renderings especially when the dancer was sitting in her trailer - beautifully lit photography at its best.

The dreamlike narrative that manifests very slowly from the uncountable narratives the two angels encounter as they roam the streets of Berlin is just as unreal as the conclusion of the story: love doesn't meet out of coincidence, lovers are drawn together by fate, a force more powerful than all the eons that the angels have waited for the arrival of man.

The woman's speech at the end of the film is one of the most beautiful I have heard in a German film. Maybe I'm too romantic or maybe I fell for the french accent.


Sonntag, 15. September 2013

The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

An empathic assassin tries to perform his final job to get the money to save the eyesight of one of the innocent bystanders injured during a former murder.

There are many great things about this movie, but I was especially astounded by the editing and have looked at a sequence of scenes in particular.

When Ah Jong goes to kill his final victim, the police force is also shown. Their job is to protect the (obviously scumbag) rich guy from being shot or attacked. They fail gloriously at their job.

The first scene starts with the police officer receiving instructions to protect the VIP. Officer "Small B" gets the file on his desk, then we cut to the head of the force giving some information on their protection job on a long dolly shot. The dragon boat race is intercut with this scene, alternating between long lens and slow motion shots. At the same time "Small B" and his assistant are shown in a 2-shot - effectively separating them from the anonymous police "mob".

The second scene starts with a bunch of dragon boat shots - lots of slow motion and no music. There is a small scene with the VIP arriving and exiting the car, cut against "Small B" and his assistant. Again, effectively, separated. 

Continually intercut with documentary footage of the boat race, the assassin and the VIP arrive at their positions at the same time. This part is tied together by the sound design, with crowds, boats and speaker announcements.

The scene where the VIP greets the people in the boats is the only one where he is connected to the boat race. His shots are mostly long lens: the POV of the assassin waiting on one of the boats. His reactions (or rather: lack thereof) are shown in closeup and super-closeups.

When he picks up the gun, there is a sequence of interesting camera angles. Straight - closeup on hands - a shot practically from above and a low angle shot in slow motion.

For a short time the story moves with the VIP - when he is given the paint to put the final paint touches on the boat. The camera remains with him and shows close-ups of his paint strokes. Suddenly, the two hands holding drum sticks, patiently waiting for a signal are shown. Together with the music this heightens the tension of that moment.

After about 8 cuts the final drop of paint has been placed and the drum starts playing. There is fierce intercutting of Ah-Jong's motioneless super closeup and the hands that beat the sticks. The tempo of the cuts rises and suddenly, the assassin jerks up the gun, aims and shoots the VIP.

Freitag, 13. September 2013

The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946)

Professor Rankin, a teacher in a small town in Connecticut marries the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. She has no idea that the man she loves has a very sinister past.

There is something comically surreal about the whole plot. Although the film shows some signs of a typical film-noir, it is more a political satire on post-war America. Undercover war crime agents hunting Nazi sleepers is a rather blunt set-up and many of the actions in the film verge on the ridiculous.

When the 'bad guy' is finally uncovered, Welles' character goes through an inconsistent zigzag of confiding the truth to his wife, and at the same time lying to her. On the other hand he is a amateurish murderer with very weak planning ahead for such an allegedly super-smart war crime architect. His escape attempts towards are lame and stupid - packing a bag or hiding in his favorite spot in the church tower when the whole town is searching for him.

I can understand why Welles didn't like this film in particular. Nevertheless, it was a box office success at its release

One could well argue that this film is not so much about 'evil Nazis' but about the perception of their folklore in the US after the war. It seems that most of the concentration camp footage was not publicly known yet, so this was the first time the Americans got confronted with the atrocities visually - it must have had quite an effect.

There are one or two scenes that are rich in suspense and were enjoyable to watch - even if the actions therein made no sense:

- When Rankin is found by Heinike, he gets lured into the woods. While Heinike gives a long speech about finding God and redemption, Rankin decides that he will kill the man - and you can see it in his eyes.

- Rankin holds a great speech about the evil spirit of the Germans (being himself a Nazi, of course) and promoting their complete annihilation. Edward G. Robinson's dead-pan reaction to all of this made it even more hilarious than it already was.

- The finale with Rankin being killed by an angel carrying a sword was outright bizarre. In a very funny way. 

The way Welles used depth in the camera was quite interesting, too. The camera is often placed really low. Close-ups were possibly often shot giving the faces (Welles' head, mostly) a strange distortion, while a lot of stuff was happening in the background at the same time.

Montag, 9. September 2013

Man on a ledge (Leth, 2012)

A convicted felon threatens to commit suicide by jumping off a high building. While a detective tries to talk him out of it, his real motives emerge.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to connect with this film - it is a solid action/thriller/heist mix, but for me the characters weren't very deep. Cinematography, editing and music were all well done, and the visual language appropriate for such a film.

Some random thoughts of mine:

The protagonist Nick and his ex-police partner Mike have an ambiguous relationship. At one point it's clear that Nick doesn't trust Mike anymore. His back story is credible, because he actually presents his wife to Nick, giving him a reason to abandon his co-worker for his family. This is also the core moral of the movie: "Don't trust anybody but family"

Detective Mercer's back story is dropped in hints and bits by Nick and her co-workers. This lead to a long bunch of exposition during the first part of the movie, when she talks to Nick on the ledge. And her alleged problem being a woman in the police force feels fabricated. Except for Edward Burns few snide remarks, everybody seems to let her do her job. Loads of outdated cliches here, with sleeping pills, the phone call "come here right now", etc.

In terms of plot there was an unbalanced amount of very well though-out heist plans and pretty naive crowbar methods in the steps of Nick's action. At one point there is a "Mission: Impossible" type of floating above the air, but actually far more realistic and even funnier, and in the next moment we have a horrible "cut the red wire" cliche. These kind of things kill tension immediately. I wonder why this was left in the script.

I also felt very uneasy about the ending. It seemed like the whole thing was built around the idea that the guy should "jump" off the building. Sounds like somebody in a meeting said: "If we see a guy standing on a ledge for hours AND we paid good money at the box office, he should jump, no?" - And as I've learned myself from countless meetings: It's the BAD ideas that are the hardest to kill.

Ssa-i-bo-geu-ji-man-gwen-chan-a / I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK (Park Chan-Woo, 2006)

A young woman is institutionalized after a suicide attempt - she believes that she is a killer cyborg.

The film starts out as a surreal comedy and at times becomes so absurd that I wasn't sure if I really want to go on, or if Korean slapstick is simply lost on me. But once all the characters are well established the story turns to a very moving and beautiful story about love between lost souls. I've felt compassion for every single side character - although their actions seem ridiculous at first, once their back story is established everything (sort of) makes sense in that universe.

As I've experienced often in newer Asian films there is an abundance of beautiful pictures and smart compositions. I also noticed the ease with which the director shifts from very long takes on steadycam to the fast editing of violent genre movies - RoboGeisha comes to mind. The script has been well developed and practically every remark made in the first half does somehow pay off in the second half. Brillant execution by Park, and definitively a director I want to see more of.