Movie Reviews – Grace of Monaco etc.

Grace of Monaco
Hm… it didn’t knock my socks off. I wonder why they chose that episode from Grace Kelly’s life and not for example how she fell in love with Rainier of Monaco. The movie starts when they are married for a couple of years already and centers around French – Monaco struggles, sort of claiming that Grace prevented the French from annexing the little principality. I have no clue whether that is historically correct, but it does not matter, since in the movie I found it unconvincing. The extreme close ups of Nicole Kidman’s eyes do not help to establish that she was the one who persuaded the French not to invade. The acting was OK, I guess, but it failed to raise compassion. The movie did not manage to emotionally engage me in contrast to movies like „The Dutchess“ or „The Young Victoria“, which are, somewhat in the same vain. Grace of Monaco just remained too cold and distant and I also would have liked to see more emotions and action from Tim Roth as Rainier. All in all a movie that will surely be pretty much forgotten soon.

The Maze Runner
This thing seems to be from 2013 but so far it had completely escaped my attention. The premise is interesting, a bunch of adolescent boys wakes up in the central garden of a giant maze structure. During the day the concrete and steel maze beyond the garden is open, during the night the maze shifts and half mechanical, half biological monsters are chasing and killing whoever fails to return to the central garden before the doors close.
The goal of the kids locked inside is of course to find a way out. Their memories have been wiped, they have no idea why they are in there and some of them are in the maze for three years already. A bold newcomer is dead set on getting out.
They spend the entire movie with trying to get out and for the viewer the questions mount as to what’s outside, why the maze is there and who put the kids into it. The problem with building up and up like that is that you need a really smart and cool explanation in the end, or you give none. The cult movie „Cube“ wisely chose the latter and we never find out who put them into the cube, and why it exists. Smart move! The Maze Runner should have done the same. The explanation in the end that it’s a post-apocalyptic world outside and the kids have been sent into the maze to train them for survival is incredibly lame (what do you need a maze for to train when outside is training enough already?). Until the last five minutes, the movie wasn’t bad (some nice character studies of some of the kids not wanting to leave anymore) and when you watch it, stop the moment they get out of the maze and imagine how you would have let it end.

Cloverfield
A belayed review, since the movie is not that new anymore, but it left an impression on me, so I shall talk about it.
The style of the hand-held camera is very tiring, yes, and I am not sure whether I would have been able to watch it in a movie theater. At home on the smaller TV screen it was OK.
The premise: some young dudes have a farewell party for someone in New York, who is supposed to go as an expat to Japan (of all places) for a while. During their party, which someone films with a handycam, a monster of Godzilla proportions descends upon New York and goes on a rampage.
What is very well done is that the party goers have no clue whatsoever about what is going on. From one minute to the next their lives are destroyed and they face death and destruction.
One of the best scenes was for me when the camera holder and three others flee from the monster into the subway and encounter the monster’s smaller minions, spider-like creatures that attack them. The hand-held camera puts you truly into the perspective of the characters and let’s you experience the horror of the situation together with them.
I also liked all the other details, that the movie is exactly as long as a mini-dv band, 1h16 min, that it’s „government property“ now and used as a documentation of the monster’s appearance. And that, of course, there is no explanation for where the monster came from, since the guy who holds the camera and his buddies do not know. This technique gets you around wild, far-fetched and unconvincing explanations of where the kaiju in Pacific Rim come from, for example. I also liked the ending very much – they all die! The camera holder gets eaten by the monster, the rest of them is buried under rubble where the military then finds the camera and confiscates the tape.
Tough to watch, due to the hand-held camera, but great concept and very well done.

Into the Wild
Also this movie is not the newest of them all, it’s from 2007, but it left an even bigger impression on me than Cloverfield. It’s based on the true story of a smart and college educated young man, Chris, who gives it all up, drifts through the US for a year plus until he goes alone into the wilderness in Alaska. He’s suffering from identity crisis, is questioning all the materialism and the need „to have to do something with your life“ in terms of career and family.
Spoiler alert – the quest for himself and the meaning of life costs him that very life. He arrives in Alaska in late winter, finds an old bus in the middle of nowhere that some other hermit used before him, and manages to survive on his own for three months. When he wants to go back in summer, he finds that a river he crossed easily when it was half frozen, is now impassable due to melt water. He gets stuck at his bus and slowly starves, the process being accelerated when he eats poisonous plants by mistake.

He died in his bus at the age of 23 or 24 and two weeks after he died, moose hunters found him in his bus by coincidence. Had they found him three weeks earlier…
The movie is well told, alternating between scenes at the bus and flashbacks about his journey and family life before it. The guy’s journey is tainted with tragedy, since you understand his urge for freedom and leaving behind all that capitalism and materialism, and it’s such a shame that he does not survive his dream of going to Alaska and living in the wild.
For me this movie has another dimension – I was born in Germany, I live now in Japan, there is not enough wilderness in these two countries to go on an adventure like this. You can still get lost in the Japanese mountains and be attacked by a bear, yes, however, if you are equipped like Chris, hunting rifle and all, you must be extremely unlucky to die before someone finds you. There are just too many people here and the country is too small for dying in the wild. If you walk here for a hundred km, there will be a village somewhere, but if you walk for a hundred km in Alaska…
It’s a good movie worth watching and belongs to the category of‘: you’ll remember it for a while.

Movie Reviews – Hobbit 3 and others

Holidays = movie time!
Flying on planes always gives me the opportunity to catch up on things a little, so some of the movies reviewed below are not super new, but anyway 😉
I recently watched:
Locke, Captain America – Winter Soldier and Frankenweenie on planes and
the Hobbit – Battle of the Five Armies and Interstellar at movie theaters in Singapore.

Locke
Is an interesting experiment of filming a man alone in his car driving into London whilst having dozens of phone calls. The only thing you see in the entire movie is the motorway and Tom Hardy driving his car and phoning around. There are three main story lines. He is a married man with two teenage kids and has once had a one night stand with another woman who just called him that she is getting his baby that very night. He decided to drive to the hospital to see her and has to tell his wife about it. At the same time he has a very critical job issue. The following day he is supposed to oversee the pouring of basement concrete for a 55 floor high skyscraper.
He is on the phone with his family, the woman who gets his baby in the hospital and guys from work. We witness the drama unfold only via voices and the images of Hardy in his car.

It’s interesting but straining at times and the reactions of the people on the phone did not always convince me, especially the female reactions. For some odd reason I felt that this screenplay was written by a man. The women came across as hysteric, while Tom Hardy stayed oh so cool the entire time. If you are in for serious drama, watch it, if you find the thought of 90 minutes of a one man show sitting in a car dreadful, skip it.

Captain America – Winter soldier
What can I say? Typical marvel flick? I must admit I didn’t see the first captain America movie. This second one didn’t knock my socks off. What sticks in my mind most of all is that Robert Redford looked so old, despite him not looking that old in the brilliant “All Is Lost” (now that’s a one man show worth watching! While Locke lives from talking, All Is Lost lives from action. Redford hardly says a word the entire movie and yet it is very intense. But anyway, we are talking captain America here, not All Is Lost.) The second thing sticking to my mind was that Scarlet Johansen looked so sunburnt all the time….

The plot? It was as clear as a sunny day that Fury wouldn’t be dead dead. An organization like SHIELD, or the bad guy elements in it, working against the people and not for the people? No news there either. Brining down three of the flying fortresses? Well, Loki and company brought down one in the Avengers, so what’s news there? An old friend of Captain America abused in experiments? Seen stuff like that all before too. So, I missed some new interesting, funky stuff. I liked Guardians of the Galaxy much better for example, plenty of funky characters there that lighten things up 😉 I suppose funky characters is difficult in a Captain America setting.

Frankenweenie
Lovely! I had missed that movie somehow. I generally like Tim Burton’s movies even if they have sometimes the tendency to be a bit too alike in their looks. Beetlejuice is still my favorite and Sleepy Hollow is so awesome thanks to Christopher Walken… As for the puppet movies of course A Nightmare Before Christmas stands out, but Frankenweenie is pretty cool as well.

The story is simple. Frankenstein with a dog. Little Victor looses his dog Sparky to a car accident and reanimates him. Other kids at school try to redo the trick and create a whole horde of more or less agreeable undead monsters. The homage to Japanese monster movies with the giant turtle was just hilarious and the cat/bat and her owner were putting many smiles on my face too. It’s a fun movie not just for children and black and white sometimes does have its appeal.

Interstellar
Much has been debated already about the science in this movie and I shall not focus on that here. Entering a singularity… Minced meat? Space ship fitting into a wormhole? Time traveling?
Anyway, the movie had lots of great aspects, too, one of the strongest moments for me was when they visit the first water planet, to find out that it’s close proximity to the black hole causes these incredible tidal waves, then finding out that the two, three hours they had spent there cost their crew mate left on the mother ship 23 years. That was an amazing scene. Also what followed, the messages from 23 years that Cooper and Brand receive were big emotional highlights. Just a few hours for them, years for others. That was powerful stuff.

The devastation on earth was also well portrayed with those dust storms and reduced crop variety. McCaughney and Hathaway were both cast a bit against the stuff they usually do and both did excellent jobs in my opinion.
And Matt Damon as the ice planet asshole, what a befitting role 😉
Interstellar is a complex movie as I expect one from the Nolan brothers, and that I will definitely watch again, but for the moment I still like Inception better 😉

The Hobbit – The battle of the five armies
Hmmmmm… It all came to a conclusion, yes, we have gone full circle, yes. There is closure now, yes, but there was also repetition. The grand battle in the end reminded at times so much of the battle for Gondor… Whilst I never had the impression in LOTR that there was too much battling going on, in the Hobbit 3 it felt like, hey it’s enough. The Eagles again… Why do they always come only at the last minute and not the first? Why are the orcs so suicidal (e.g. the giant Orc that makes a hole in one of Dale’s walls and falls dead) What are these Dune earthworms doing there suddenly for one bit? Olifants in LOTR – Orcfants(?) in the Hobbit? Why didn’t they use cave trolls? – “they’ve got a cave troll…” As Sean Bean used to say so wonderfully in LOTR.

But there were nice things too in the movie. I liked it very much that Thranduil got more screen time. Thorin’s gold sickness and the parallels to Smaug were nicely played. The final battle between Azog and Thorin on the ice was quite epic. So, a worthy conclusion? Maybe, but one thing is for sure, the Hobbit trilogy has not reached the drama and quality of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which also is of course due to the fact that LOTR is the grander literary work of the two.

One last thing that vexes me:
Have you ever noticed all those widowers in LOTR a and the Hobbit? Elrond’s wife, dead, Thranduil’s wife, dead, Bard’s wife, dead… What is it with this wife dying? Not to speak of that we never get personally introduced to a female dwarf… Since Jackson has changed one or the other significant thing as compared to the Hobbit book anyway (introducing Tauriel, brining Legolas back) I’d have liked him to dare to give us a female dwarf character! Was that the last of middle earth from Jackson? I actually kinda doubt it.

Norma(l)n

During a recent Tower Record hunt, I came across the movie “Hitchcock” with Anthony Hopkins as the master himself and Helen Mirren as his wife. That can’t be too bad, so I bought the DVD. Well, big stars don’t necessarily make a good movie. While Anthony and Helen did good jobs, the story felt a bit thin, describing the “difficulties” the Hitchcock couple faced when directing and producing Psycho. What the movie lacked was a strong bad guy. The dude from Paramount who nearly refused to distribute the movie and the censor watchdog were not prominent enough to be counted as worthy antagonists. Also the side plot about Alma Hitchcock having a fancy for some writer did not give enough juice for a good counter-weight to Alfred.
Psychomovies
The one most striking thing about the Hitchcock movie I found to be the bit of the censor watchdog complaining to Hitch that he showed a toilet in the movie.
I was not aware that before 1960 and this movie, no toilets were allowed to be shown in US productions… and no nudity either. Which I find amazing. In Germany the taboo of nudity on film was broken by the, outside of Germany not so well known (I guess), actress Hildegard Knef. She caused one of the biggest scandals in German film history by being the first woman appearing naked on screen and that was already in 1951 in the movie “Die Suenderin” (the (female) sinner). (I might have seen it a long while back, but I don’t remember it at all and have no clue whether it was a good or bad movie).

Watching this “Hitchcock” thing had the strong effect to make me want to see Psycho again. I have seen it a long time ago, but now I promptly bought it and watched it last night. Hitch was a master indeed. Apart from the psychologist explaining about Norman Bates’ “schizophrenia” in the end, which is all telling, not showing, this is such a bold movie considering it was 1960. Killing off the heroine after 45 minutes into the movie, having an “amoral” heroine to begin with, who sneaks away from the office during lunch time to have sex with her divorced lover, then stealing money. And Norman of course, the amazing Anthony Perkins whose last evil look into the camera is worse than the shower murder scene.
That murder scene in itself, kyaaaa! The room behind the motel’s office with the stuffed birds, the famous house on the hill where Mrs. Bates awaits you. Man, this movie is now 54 years old and has lost nothing of its appeal. Also in our times of ever grander special effects, 3D etc., at the heart of it all is the good, twisted and interesting story. If you don’t have that, all your effects won’t help you. I wish more filmmakers would turn to old master pieces and learn from them. And tonight I’ll watch “The Birds” again, which I happened to order together with Psycho. Hitch, you were awesome.

Believable?

I recently watched the “movie” “Tin Man” or in Japan called “Outer Zone”. They sold it for a 1000 yen at Tower Records. I only realized later that it is a radically cut version of the Sci-Fi channel mini series “Tin Man”. I obviously haven’t seen it, and its ratings in IMDb are actually not that bad, however, I found the thing horrible. This “movie” represents the limit of what you can do with editing a story. Maybe the long version = the entire mini-series is better, but this cut to pieces something was one of the worst movie experiences I ever had.

The story felt choppy and sorry, but the leading actress seemed like the most unnatural actress they could find. Her reactions to what was happening around her were completely unbelievable. She shrugged off life-changing events with indifference. Oh, the people she thought are her parents are not her parents. So what? When she first meets the character Glitch her reaction to the fact that he has his brain removed and a zipper on top of his head is lame rather than cool, and so forth.

The wannabe steampunk look had a ridiculous feel to it rather than making things attractive because it served no purpose and was not an integral part of the story. The artificial people in the first OZ village the heroine goes to are causing the reaction – what the hell is that? What purpose does this story item serve? What does it add to the story that these people are half mechanized?
The Wizard of Oz is a great story and the movie a legend (I’ve seen it, but it’s a long time ago). I remember drama and being awfully scared of the wicked witch of the west.

In this “Tin Man” movie the characters are stumbling from one convenient event to the other: They have to find her father. The dog/creature thing immediately finds access to this city underground. There they immediately find someone who gives them a tip without motivation. Then DG, the heroine, gets abducted by no one else but her daddy. Dah!!! Maybe they need more time to get from A to B in the mini series, in the movie though clues come out of the blue and always fit and are highly convenient.

One of the worst sequences is when DG remembers her past. She walks through the woods, the dog/creature thing tells her to remember an oh, so suddenly she remembers everything.
Horrible plotting, one dimensional characters, no explanations for how the heroine and her entourage travel from a to b – and oh, suddenly they are back at the tower of her sister who is possessed by the evil witch of the west.
Why does the bad sister have followers at all? What’s in it for them? Nothing in this movie adds up and it’s a great lesson for every writer on how NOT to do it.
Your characters need motivation, more than one character trait, and they need to react naturally to what’s happening around them. Your plot needs to be logical, even in fantasy you need to explain how people get from A to B, you must make things difficult for your characters instead of presenting them with the next clue on a silver plate. Great lessons learned, thanks, you do really learn a lot as a writer from bad examples 😉

Ballet Under the Dome

Okay, this blog entry will be a little bit of a stretch – Russian ballet vs. American TV.
I’ve been to my first ballet ever and consider that worth a report and I’m watching the series Under the Dome at the moment and got some comments about it too.

Ballet:
I spontaneously went to see my first ballet ever last Wednesday, The Matthew Bourne “all men” production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
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I guess it was a good choice to make this my first ballet ever, since I at least remotely knew something about the story, thanks to a movie I like very much – Black Swan – with Natalie Portman. So there is this princess Odette, who is turned into a swan by a curse and only true love can bring her back or she will be turned into a swan forever.
I kinda expected a “black swan” – the bad sorcerer who turns her into one somewhere but either I didn’t get it or it was missing from the Matthew Bourne production. In the original the hero, Siegfried, is not married and his mother seems to be bitching him around, but in the Bourne production she looked more like his wife than his mother, at least to my eyes.

It was amazing to see just a few gestures establishing their relationship. They looked like they have been married to each other for politics and especially she does not like him and rejects any sort of affection he is trying to show her. Very subtly expressed with just a few gestures and how the dancers posed their bodies.
The swans were impressive, all men and they did an excellent job at looking animal like. I’m kinda interested in seeing a classical production of the ballet where the swans are all girls. With men as swans the esthetics were elegant, yes, but also animalistic. Odette was danced by a dancer called Chris Tranfield (I think) and man, the guy was good. I found the scenes without the swans a bit long and dragging at times, but whenever the swans were around it was interesting and impressive. These dancers don’t seem to have bones in their bodies.
The finale of Odette and Siegfried dying was really amazing to watch. You don’t need words to tell a story. As a writer there are quite some lessons to be learned from that 😉
I shall be on the lookout for more ballet.
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Under the Dome:
I’m watching that on hulu and while I liked at least most of the first season it’s starting to be a bit bland in the beginning of the second season. It’s about a small US town suddenly being trapped under a mysterious, invisible and indestructible dome some 30 miles wide or so. Although there is no ultimate revelation yet, aliens seem to be involved. What I find noteworthy about this series are only two things. Uncle Hank from Breaking Bad is playing the main bad guy (quite well) here and the other thing is the Game of Thrones syndrome of killing off major characters like flies… What has Mr. George R.R. Martin done??? He kicked off a trend to kill your characters. While your protagonists should suffer, yes, go through hardship, have tough decisions to make and and and, what good are they to you if they’re dead?

That does not mean like I’ve never killed off one of my characters but I am weary of the numbers. If I counted correctly, within the 15 episodes that I watched of Under the Dome, five major characters have bit the dust, especially during the last few episodes, where it’s more or less one per show. The dangerous thing about that is that the viewer gets used to it, detaches him/herself from the characters, since you have to be prepared that they are having switched their lights out. The character killing only has an impact if you were invested into that character and when it becomes a standard plot device it loses its impact in my humble opinion. The other issue with that is that you need to replace those characters with new ones that you have to draw out of your hat like a magician and that just doesn’t work all the time. I’ll keep on watching Under the Dome a bit more, let’s say until the Uncle Hank (here he is Big Jim) character bites the dust, but I am not invested anymore. However, thanks to Under the Dome for teaching me something about character deaths for my own writing 😉

Breaking Bad and Godzilla Reviews

I know I have severe delay, Godzilla has long screened in Europe and the US, but it just started here ten days ago. That’s my excuse for Godzilla. For finishing Breaking Bad only now, I have no excuse but I’m gonna do a review nevertheless 😉 Since, another coincidence, both beasts star Bryan Cranston.

Godzilla
I did a funny thing for Godzilla, I more or less deliberately watched it dubbed in Japanese. It was screening in Shibuya, where I work, only in Japanese, which is quite a rare thing, by the way, usually they offer both, dubbed in Japanese and original at the same cinema. But, Toho cinemas, belong to the Toho group, which also happens to be a production studio and which also happens to own the Godzilla franchise. So maybe there was some strategy or deliberation behind the Toho cinemas in Shibuya showing the Godzilla movie only in Japanese.
It was wonderfully awkward to see Walter While talk Japanese.

Dubbed movies always make me cringe, no matter whether it’s English to German or Japanese, but since the Japanese language is so quite different from English, the mouth movements horribly mismatch.
I liked the beginning of the movie best with its scenes in the nuclear power plant in the fictitious Japanese city Janjira (there is no town like that in Japan), with its nice jabs at the Fukushima disaster. Later on tsunnami images of Hawaii of course also remind us at least here in Japan of the tsunami that knocked out the Fukushima reactors).

After the Bryan Cranston character was dead things went downhill. His son just could not carry the movie. For me he was too “normal”, too colorless, just your common soldier with a pretty wife and cute kid, who is oh so righteous and thoroughly good and oh so ready to sacrifice himself for his people and his country.
I am not sure why Ken Watanabe is currently more or less the best known Japanese actor outside of Japan. He always makes the same face and is pretty boring. There are numerous other Japanese actors who are leagues better than him, for example Toshiyuki Nishida or Koichi Sato or Naoko Takenaka to throw just a few names around – maybe their English is not good and that’s why they don’t get to work with non-Japanese directors???

Back to Godzilla. He looked fat… while I liked his looks in general, especially the ragged rocky island image of the horns on his back, he was a bit too plumb. The two Muto creatures he fights were interesting, if anatomically a bit impossible, I guess. At least they looked like that to me. To have them around made a nice opportunity for Godzilla to survive and be sort of a hero after all. I would have liked that hero aspect of Godzilla to be less emphasized and it kinda made me laugh at the end when Ken Watanabe and Juliette Binoche almost cry for Gojira as he lies passed out in the streets of what was formerly San Francisco and they think he’s dead. I personally could not detect a decent reason for Gojira to fight those two. They’ve done him nothing wrong. Why should he care? If he at least had them for food, but he just throws the last Muto’s head away after killing it. Sure, one shouldn’t argue with logic in a Godzilla movie, but nevertheless. So, all in all there were some good scenes, especially in the beginning but all in all I’ll rather stick with the original.

Breaking Bad
Now that series is some great TV. I loved every bit of it until the end of season 4. That should have been the end, well, but it couldn’t be, I know. I think Gustavo Fring is one of the greatest characters ever created. What an awesome villain and how masterly performed by Giancarlo Esposito. Another hilarious character that will forever stick in my mind is Saul Goodman, what a slimy, nasty fellow, just awesome. The great strength of Breaking Bad is its incredible collection of quirky and yet believable characters. All of them, Marie, Hank, Walter Junior and of course Skyler, Walter White and Jesse are rich and quirky and believable characters. That combined with a thrilling story makes some knock out entertainment.

Where things fell a little bit apart for me were in season five the hole that the death of Gus Fring left behind. It was clear they had to get to Walter somehow in the end, but the late introduction of this Todd dude and his white trash uncle were no replacement for the chill and thrill of Gus Fring.
I also found the argument why Walter wanted to brew again, because he was excellent at something rather weak.
For me the story ended with the demise of the big bad guy = Gus Fring and the end of Walter was lacking motivation in a way. I admire the consequence though of the white trash uncle indeed shooting Hank. I don’t think that in a, for example, 1990ties US TV series stuff like that would have happened.
My respect for the writers for creating such great characters – there is a lot to learn from the writing point of view from Breaking Bad and fanfares for Gus and Saul, please. 🙂

Recent Movie Review – July 2014

More movie reviews:
I spent some time on planes again and watched a bunch of movies – so here is the digest:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Let’s start with the highlight… afterwards it goes downhill 😉
Oh, I love quirky movies like this one. First of all, what an incredible cast, Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Adrian Brody…
How do you get such a cast together? Amazing.
I can’t really tell you what this movie is about, the league of magnificent concierges? How to keep your dignity in the most impossible situations? How to survive crazy regimes? The value of work ethics? How to take proper care of your customers and subordinates as well?
Watch it and find out for yourself what you think this movie is about. From the visual point of view, this movie is also pretty remarkable, since more or less every shot is centered. I don’t think I ever saw a movie that is centered to the middle of the screen to such a degree. That alone has intriguing effects and there must have been quite some measuring going on during shooting to have it all in the center of the screen 😉 A quirky and simple but intriguing story that makes you giggle and squirm (in a good way). Watch it, if you are into quirky stuff, definitely, this thing is a pleasure like a glass of good wine, or a piece of excellent chocolate.

Nebraska
Another squirm movie, if on a different level than the Budapest Hotel. This is Bruce Dern as an old, alcoholic man, long retired, who thinks he has won one million dollars (magazine scam) and who insists on going to Nebraska to collect his prize. Behind this frame hides the real story about backwater and rather poor US lower middle class life, defunct families and small town bickering. Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad plays one of the sons of Bruce Dern by the way, hilarious.
The social study of this black and white movie is intriguing. The black and white of course contributes deliberately to the general bleakness and plainness of the movie where real friends are rare and where communication among people has long ceased to be meaningful. Old couples who love/hate each other, fathers who never listened to their sons and vice versa. The TV as the “communication” tool that holds the families together. E.h. when a bunch of people sit in front of the “flickering box” (as Germans sometimes call TVs in a love/hate kinda manner) without talking to each other, creating a false sense of “togetherness”. Yes, they sit in the same room together, but they haven’t talked to each other in years. It’s a hard to bear movie in a way and I don’t want to watch it again, but if you are into “art” or at least “indie” films, this is a good one to watch, slow, without special effects and focusing on human drama.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Now this is a classic example of a movie with a meaningless title. But, considering the plot, I admit that it’s damn difficult to give this movie an intelligent title.
The movie has three distinct parts (spoiler alert). Part 1 is about a down and out bike stuntman who travels the US with a mobile amusement park crew and finds out that he left a woman pregnant somewhere when he returns to the place a year later. Bitten by guilt perhaps he quits, stays, but the woman has found a new boyfriend in the meantime. The bike dude has no money, finds a partner who persuades him to start robbing banks. After things go wrong, he is killed by a police officer in maybe self-defense.
Boom, the protagonist is dead and the story shifts to the next protagonist, the police man who shot him. The police man suffers from guilt because he ended a life, finds out he had a baby son just like him, etc. He uncovers corruption in his department and is suddenly a “hero”.

Boom, 15 years later. The story shifts again and we are now focusing on the son of the police man and the son of the biker, they go to the same school, they get involved in drugs, biker’s son finds out that the father of his buddy is the police man who shot his father, etc.
To have such a plot in a 2 hour 20 min movie is a bit unusual, so credits to the writers for this. All 3 stories were rather interesting, if not grand and “wow”.
Since I did not know a thing about this movie before watching it, I was surprised that the protagonist dies after 40 min. Hey, an innovative movie.
Critique point number one is that this thing was ENTIRELY humorless. There was not one scene where you could smile, not even a cynical smile. Thus the thing took itself too serious, which, in my opinion is a big down-side. And then the title: How do you name a movie or a story like that? The Place Beyond the Pines is where it happens… but dahhhh… so what? They really should have tried to come up with a better title for this thing. Worth watching, but do not expect to have a “good time”.

R.I.P.D
This is a classic Hollywood “high concept” movie. Something that you can pitch in one half-sentence to a producer in an elevator, in contrast to the previous three movies described above.
“The Rest in Peace Department is about policing after you’re dead.”
Police officer, happily married, dies while on duty, goes to a place between heaven and earth where other deceased police men like him see to it that things between heaven and earth remain “in law and order”. He gets teamed up with a “teacher” police man – the elder partner who doesn’t want him, but they gradually become friends, played by Jeff Bridges.
There is a bad guy who wants to destroy heaven, (Kevin Bacon, who else ;-)) and Jeff and young dude have to prevent that from happening.
“Ghost” elements because Patrick Swayze – eh, young police dude – has to protect his still alive wife form the inter-world bad guy. Big fuzzy special effects of bad guy trying to destroy the world… I don’t think I have to continue.
In short this was super standard happy-end Hollywood and exceedingly boring, supported by the fact that Jeff Bridges was a Marshall from 1850 or so and talking in a Texan??? accent that I really really could not understand. So maybe I missed some good jokes, but I’m inclined not to believe so. Category, no need to watch it, seen it a hundred times before, Hollywood at its worst. Hail to the Budapest Hotel! 😉

Recent Movie Review May 2014

Here’s some movie digest of relatively recent movies (American Hustle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Frozen, Europa Report, World War Z). Unfortunately, I am a bit short on time these days and must admit that I saw most of them on various tiny in-seat airplane screens instead of big cinemas but “shouganai ne” = it can’t be helped.

American Hustle:
Interesting. Nice twisted plot and nobody is what he/she seems and layers of lies like layers of onions, but somehow I did not find this movie overly original. There has been loads of stuff on con artists and onion layer plots. I cannot resist to compare it to Inception, which I liked much much better, since there was at least the unique and fresh aspect of reality bending to it with the streets of (was it Paris?) Paris folding towards you for example.
What irritated me about American Hustle was that I thought the whole time Amy Adams was Nicole Kidman… (now why did I think that, hu? Some resemblance perhaps?) and I also was sort of esthetically offended that Christian Bale looked so so so ugly in this movie! (laugh) He is not ugly and congrats for the ability to make himself ugly but it’s such a waste! There is so much ugliness around us, why add to that when it’s not necessary? Well, I am half joking of course, there was some nice acting there, but nevertheless how Bale looked like in that movie made me cringe the entire time.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
I don’t know the first movie of this title that is apparently from 1947 (wow, who dug that one out of the ground again?) and cannot compare, but I found the new version to be almost entirely delightful. I am not a big fan of Ben Stiller, but in this movie he made me even like him 😉 It’s a nice story to see this guy doing things he’d usually never do because of a tiny mishap. I love this theme of tiny things causing big stuff and it’s just wonderful to have the negative inside the wallet and Mitty overlooks that and goes on this epic hunt. The shark in the icy waters of Greenland was over the top of course, but the exploding volcano in Iceland made up for that again and the Afghan warlords being softened up by cake as well. With plots like that you can easily disappoint the audience – we are waiting the entire movie for getting to know what was on that darn photo. That’s dangerous, the more you make the audience wait, the higher are the expectations and I feared the movie would crumble with the revelation of what’s on the photo, but, at least in my opinion, the outcome was adequate and fulfilling the promise and premise.
This movie was a great reminder of the “contract” you make as an author or director with the audience. You promise to deliver something (entertainment of whatever form) and the audience expects a fulfillment of such a promise. It would have been fatal for the movie not to show what’s on the picture for example or to have something disappointing on it, but the director = Stiller knows that lesson and delivers in the end. Well worth watching.

Europa Report
Never heard about this movie before and I am sure it has not seen any screenings in Japan. It’s a European SciFi movie it seems about a manned mission to the Jupiter moon Europa where mankind hopes to find the first extraterrestrial life in the presumed ocean under the icy surface.
The premise is a bit lame, countless missions on countless spaceships have gone out to find extraterrestrial life in the SciFi movie history and Jupiter and its moons are especially critical since there is something called 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I’d like to give the style of the movie a bit of credit. It’s all told backwards sort of. The mission fails and we know they won’t return more or less right from the beginning, but then it unfolds that they managed to repair their communication system (to simplify it a lot now) and we get to see the recordings the crew made during their journey = the movie has sort of mock-documentary style. Apart from 2001 elements, there are “Alien” elements too (on Europa itself), then a little bit of “The Abyss” and last but not least “Event Horizon”, sort of demonstrating how difficult it is to make an “original” SciFi movie these days. The documentary style also results in the actors being “kinda cold” and I found it difficult to identify with them and to feel anything for them.
Interesting experiment, but I guess this movie will soon be quite much forgotten especially with such a lame and “misleading” title…

World War Z
I know, I know, it’s been a while since that movie came out, but I had missed it and now finally saw it. I have nothing much to say about it except for impressive human/zombie ladders reaching over the barriers erected in Jerusalem and finally zombies who are quick instead of slow. If the fastness of the zombies and the consequences that their speed has is the only thing truly remarkable about that movie then… Anyway. Despite a bit of zombie tiredness due to too many zombie movies (and novels) I am still a fan of the Walking Dead and am looking forward to its next season 😉 World War Z I can do without…

Frozen
Now that main song (Let it go? Am not sure about its title) is quite an earworm as we say in German (a catchy tune) indeed. I am wondering why it appeals to people so much. I don’t know the original story by Hans Christian Andersen and how much it has been “disneyed” – I bet the snowman thing is a Disney addition for example.
The movie is only the fourth movie ever to have broken the 20 billion yen mark in Japan (the others are Titanic, Spirited Away and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and is insanely popular here (especially among women). The old advertisement slogan “women appeal to women and men appeal to men”, seems true for this movie. Twitter feed in the NHK news at 23:30 the other day spoke of “it’s appealing that there are two heroines and not only one”, for example.
I personally found the snowman a bit annoying and it reminded me somehow of Jar Jar Binks! Lol. Although of course he was not as bad… I think Jar Jar Binks enjoys the status of worst character ever in any movie 😉
What’s a bit unusual is that the story is astonishingly populated, two heroines, two heroes of which one turns out to be a bad guy, plus the obvious bad guy, and not to forget the elk, the trolls (and the snowman). Even if it got watered down by being “disneyed”, there is some fine character crafting in the background done by Andersen, which surely contributes to the success of this story. But hey, in the end it’s 80% about that song after all, I guess 😉

The Hobbit – Desolation of Smaug Review

So, two weeks ago I went to see The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug finally, at a huge cinema next to Kawasaki station in latest IMAX and 3D technology.
Overall I liked it, but I also definitely liked the first Hobbit movie or the Lord of the Ring movies better. It’s always an expectation game of course, too. I did not have high expectations towards the first Hobbit movie and was positively surprised that I could live with it despite being a bit of a LOTR fan.

Now of course the expectations towards part 2 were high and maybe that is one of the reasons for why I felt disappointed in several areas.
Before the “critique” here is what I liked about the movie.
Legolas is back 🙂 and his evil daddy (I didn’t realize in the first part of the Hobbit that Thranduil was Legloas’ daddy) is pretty awesome. Half of a miracle that such a nasty father can have such a nice son. I found the blue artificial looking contact lenses of Legolas a bit thick, but anyway.
The humans were nicely characterized too, the honorable Bard and the nasty lord of Lake Town plus his sidekick were nicely done and portrayed.

But now let’s turn to the issues I had with Hobbit 2:
1) Movement:
Maybe it was not even such a good idea to watch it in IMAX 3D. My adrenalin level was high, due to driving to the theater by car, which still costs me quite some courage, and that may have played a part in it. But it was sort of a roller coaster thing and sometimes I had to avert my eyes and started feeling woozy… I found the whole movie very strenuous for the eyes. Usually I have no problem with 3D, this was the first time I did have a problem.

The constant movement got mightily on my nerves. Also with Smaug, just hold still for one second please so that I can take a good look at you! Constant movement loses its appeal if not counterbalanced with stillness. The barrel ride also didn’t knock my socks off. It was fun, yeah, but what does it add to the story? It was an action sequence for the 3D’s sake and not for the story’s sake.

2) Logic:
Of course this is fantasy, and yet… 5000 tons of gold do not liquefy in 5 minutes, not even with dragon fire…. This is about exceeding the strangeness budget – every story/movie has a strangeness budget (I’m sure I mentioned the strangeness budget in whatever other blog entry of the past three years or so). In principle every reader/movie goer is prepared to suspend his/her disbelief for a while. If I’m going to read a fantasy story or watch a fantasy movie the strangeness budget is of course much higher than when I watch a drama or a documentary. And yet, that does not mean that you can do whatever you want, things must be believable in the realm you are dealing with. I am ready to believe in dragons and wizards when I watch something like the Hobbit, but liquefying tons and tons of gold in five minutes is exceeding the leeway that I am giving the story as a reader/viewer, stuff like that throws me out of the movie and has this “pff” effect that usually you desperately want to avoid as the author or movie maker.

The thing that vexed me most though was the stupid back entrance. Why do they need to go in via the back entrance? Did I miss anything? Smaug is asleep, unless he has rigged the front entrance there is no reason why they couldn’t walk in at the front. Especially because in the end Smaug leaves via the front entrance and Bilbo too without any harm done, so what’s this whole show about needing to find the back entrance? Then, would Smaug leave his treasure and his enemies behind and fly an attack against Lake Town? Hmmmm….

3) Characters:
I can’t say I liked Thorin so much here… the tormented hero theme worked wonderfully in part 1 but not here, suddenly he abandons his heirs Fili and Kili? He is totally ungrateful to Bilbo all the time, despite him getting them out of the Elven prison and finding the key hole at the back entrance? And the entire key hole issue angered me too: Thorin and the other dwarves give up just like that, sun’s down, no key hole, see ya later? So it again has to be Bilbo who finds the key hole and stays until the moon comes up?

Then sending Bilbo into the dragon’s lair just like that? Smaug knows the smell of dwarfs, fine, but at least Thorin could send Bilbo off and not Balin. And when they meet again he gives him not even a pat on the back but – you got the arkenstone? and blocks his way with a sword? All this added up to me not liking Thorin anymore. I think there is a fine line between a villain being mean and a hero being unkind. You expect the villain to be mean and forgive him more easily, but a hero being unkind and ungrateful turns the milk sour…

Then I also have a great issue with Bilbo. I cannot shake the feeling that Bilbo is reduced to a back character when in a group. Alone he is fine and the initial confrontation with Smaug is awesome but otherwise Martin Freeman gets lost in the crowd. He just doesn’t fill a room. Elijah Wood managed to fill the room, he has a bigger presence than Freeman despite having been so awfully young when Lord of the Rings was happening.
The dwarves were also less distinguishable than before. Fili got a much bigger part and “shone”, but a bit at the expense of the others who would have deserved more time and room.

And last but not least, would Tauriel fall in love with a dwarf so easily? It was a nice twist, but it was all happening too quickly and came out of nowhere and was not believable to me either.
Oh, and Gandalf… also Gandalf is happily abandoning his friends to go off on a different quest? Hmmmmm… All this reminded me of the good old RPG rule – do not split up the group…

All in all the Hobbit has turned pretty darn dark. I admit that I never read the Hobbit, only the Lord of the Rings as a teenager, but it feels like nothing much is left of the original children’s tale.
Anyway, I shall buy it on DVD nevertheless once it comes out here and watch it again and I also want to watch the final part, but I am not entirely happy with part 2 I must say…

Opposing the “Hunger Games”

I recently watched the first “Hunger Games” movie and am as annoyed about it as I thought I would be. Apologies to fans of that movie and its follow ups, but here is why I am pissed at it.
I think it sucks because it is a) absolutely not original and b) because I don’t buy the premise.

First of all the originality issue:
This movie is a lame remake/combination of two other movies: The Running Man from the 80ties, an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie where modern gladiators are fighting to the death in a televised spectacle, and the Japanese movie Battle Royale from the year 2000.
You can read their respective plot summaries on IMDb: The Running Man and Battle Royale.

Battle Royale is in my humble opinion an awesome movie – it caused a bit of a stir when it came out in Japan due to its provocative premise of a group of 40 high school students (teenagers around 15 or 16) being deported to a lonely island where they are killing each other until only one person is left who is allowed to go home. Sounds familiar?

I wonder whether the author of the Hunger Games knows this movie and is thus guilty of plagiarism.
It is quite possible of course that she did not know Battle Royale – I am unsure as to how far this movie made it beyond Japan. However, the parallels are so detailed, that I bet she knows the movie.
Battle Royale stars the also outside of Japan relatively famous “Beat” Takeshi, some may know him better under his real name Takeshi Kitano. He is an actor/director (whom I wrote my master-thesis about) who has quite a number of (rather violent) movies under his belt that made him known outside of Japan as well. He also starred in some Hollywood movies like “Johnny Mnemonic” and others. See his filmography here at IMDb.
So, in Battle Royale Kitano plays the nasty teacher who arranged for one of his classes to be sent to the deadly game.

And here comes in the issue about the premise.
Let’s compare the premises of Battle Royale and the Hunger Games.
Battle Royale: In a near future Japan, youngsters have become more and more rowdy and have no respect anymore for adults and the helpless adults have invented the Battle Royale Act in the desperate try to discipline and scare the students.
With military support, a selected class is deported to an uninhabited island and are given one rucksack each that contains a random weapon and some provisions (sounds familiar?) and they have three days to kill each other until only one is left. If they don’t kill each other all their heads will explode thanks to a neck collar they all received. (Did I miss this detail? Is there a time limit in the Hunger Games? Doesn’t seem to be – the little black girl nurses Katniss back to health after the hornets attack for days. So why do they even play the game? Why don’t they just refuse to kill each other (and sit it out and starve together)? To have no time limit is illogical)
So, the major conflict in Battle Royale is a generation one: adults vs. rowdy teenagers. They attack the teacher Kitano (as a nice piece of spice the name of Kitano’s character in the movie is Kitano) in his school and he’s finally had it with them and invokes the Battle Royale Act.

Now what’s the premise in the Hunger Games? In an imaginary future state a nuclear war has happened (some 75 years ago, more comments on that later) and the 12 “districts” that have lost have to pay an annual tribute by sending one girl and one boy between 12 and 18 to the “hunger games”. Eh? Why?
Why children between 12 and 18? Why not young men who just became fathers? Why not pregnant women? I can find no reason for the age of the contestants (as opposed to Battle Royale where the reason is generation conflict). The only reason seems to be that this was originally a YA book and YA protagonists need to be between 12 and 18 years old so that their same aged readers can identify with them…. dah….

Then why this kind of tribute (sending a teenage boy and a teenage girl to the games) and not any other? What is the motivation behind this “method” of “paying back debts to the victor”? If I was a dictator I’d want goods and money from the people I conquered, which apparently they are getting too, but why this gladiator game on top? To humiliate the districts, yes, but there are loads of “better” ways how to humiliate the people I conquered. The motivation for the teenage gladiator games seems to come out of nowhere.

Then, they are going on for 74 years already? You gotta be kidding me. Why hasn’t anyone revolted throughout the previous 73 years? Okay, the North Korean regime is around now for some 60 years but nevertheless, 73 years and nobody tried to knock out the regime in the Hunger Games before?

Next, the storyline: For me it was as clear as Tokyo on a sunny winter day that Katniss would win the tournament. Zero surprise, zero suspense.
Even though they show the “winner” of the Battle Royale at the beginning of the movie there is suspense, since we don’t know yet what’s going on and we also wonder why the winning girl is so young as soon as we see the class that will go on the Battle Royale = a mystery that needs to be solved.

Finally, the TV announcer of the Hunger Games seems to be a completely lame imitation of the incredible girl who explains to the Battle Royale students via video how the “game” works. This is my absolute favorite part of the movie. There is this silly 20ish fashion girl who explains in a funny, bright and over-the-top happy manner the gruesome rules of the killing game. The contrast between her delivery and appearance and what she says is gob smacking. And the contrast between her delivery and appearance and the reaction of the 40 students is equally awesome. Two die during her instructions. There is real terror and it’s totally believable.

So, the bottom line of these musings is that Battle Royale is a great horror movie, which deserves to go down in the annals of movie history, whilst the Hunger Games is a lame-ass, plagiaristic rip-off of something much better and more intelligent. I have no clue at all why this movie and the book behind it deserve any sort of attention! 🙁

Various “Great Gatsbys” Review

I have recently subjected myself to a Great Gatsby marathon. First I watched the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, then the Robert Redford movie and last but not least I read the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s a good story but I wouldn’t give it five stars for one reason: Daisy.

The problem with the whole book and story in all three version for me is that in my opinion Daisy is not a likeable character. Why the heck does Jay Gatsby love this woman so much? She is shallow, selfish, materialistic and pretentious. She does not deserve to be loved in such a fierce and condition less manner as Gatsby loves her. The intensity of Gatsby’s feelings is awkward.

Maybe that’s the point, maybe what the author really wants to tell us is that all love is an illusion or rather, self-made. She doesn’t even need to be perfect, Gatsby makes her perfect in his mind. But when she rejects him in the hotel scene, a part of him has to realizes that his dream is far from reality. It would have been better for Gatsby had he never met her again, then he could have continue with his dream about her in which he constructs her to be his ideal woman.

But, if this is the main issue, if Daisy doesn’t need to be real, then I don’t get this message clearly enough. To bring this message across she either needs to be more ideal in “real” terms or she needs to be even nastier than as she is described now. The way the novel reads itself, Daisy Buchanan is neither fish nor meat and that is disappointing.

Let’s define fish as bad girl and meat as good girl for the moment.
If she were meat it would be wonderfully tragic that Gatsby was whipped to war or thought he needed to make more money to make her happy and by parental pressure or whatever she could not wait and married Tom. Now that would be a bit boring, since we have seen unhappy love stories like that manifold.

If she were fish she needed to be nastier and the gap between Gatsby’s ideal and her real self would be more obvious. She’d need fewer friends, fewer positive comments about her and the narrator, Nick, should like her less. She could do some bad stuff and yet Gatsby loves her and it would have been an act of masterly writing to bring that across in a convincing manner.

As you can probably already guess, the latter construction would, in my opinion, have made a much better novel.
For my taste, the novel is walking a too fine line between fish and meat that makes the actions and reactions of the people in it fuzzy and hard to identify with. Some may say that is the art of this novel and may find that to be appealing, for me though it’s not convincing or rather not consequent enough.

Anyway, it was a good object of study and I have the feeling I learned something about character building. I, by the way, still like the underplayed Redford version less than the more showing rather than telling DiCaprio version as far as the movie is concerned.

SF Movie Reviews – Prometheus, Into Darkness, etc.

I did some SF movie watching/catching up lately, and here are some short reviews:

Prometheus
I bought Prometheus for a 1000 yen (cheaper than watching it at the movies here) and luckily did not spend more money on it, since I am asking myself this: Why, oh why, Ridley Scott, did you think you had to make “Alien” again? First of all the movie contains a horde of overused SF plot-lines – humans meet superior species, superior species tries to kill us for no apparent reason, big company boss abuses his power… and so forth. Then, why again? Alien was great, let it be. Why the need to explain how the ship with the “navigator” got there and how/why it was infected by the “alien” species? Sometimes it is nice to have a prequel to understand how it all came to pass, but in the “Alien” case this seems so unnecessary. Now, if the original “Alien” had been a bad movie, I might still swallow that the director felt the need to make a “better” prequel. But the original “Alien” happens to be one of the best and most acclaimed SF/horror movies ever made and while making sequels is sort of a necessary evil this prequel seems like sacrilege to me.

Nothing can make up for the awesome scene where Kane “bears” the alien, also not the admittedly admirable action of the female lead getting into a med-box and having her alien surgically removed via caesarian section while being conscious and then stenciling the wound shut. Since there was Kane and his “child”, this in principle awesome scene just becomes a tired rip-off of the epic original. And that is, at least in my opinion true for the entire movie, it is a tired rip-off of its epic original and belongs into the category: movies that should not have been made.…

Oblivion
Well, the concept was not bad and the clarification at the end more or less cool, however the way to that one moment of coolness was much too long. Somehow the story was too thin and could have been told in half the time. This is the problem with let me call it “idea-based” science fiction. You have one cool idea and nothing more and then you are trying to make a novel out of it or a movie when in fact your one cool idea delivers only enough material for a short story. For me Oblivion was a classic example for that – spoiler alert. The one cool idea is that the Cruise character and his science officer or whatever function she served on their ship got captured by the evil aliens and they made thousand of clone copies of the two and sent a whole army of Cruises back down to earth without the copies knowing anything about each other and thinking they are all unique. All the other ideas, drone gone bad, destroyed planet, resistance fighters and evil aliens we have seen a million times before. In my opinion that one cool idea did not justify a full movie.

Cloud Atlas
Interesting, but I don’t think I understood it. I could not see a connection between the six or so stories in different time periods. Maybe I was too tired, the screen in the airplane was too small or I did not understand everything due to the lousy sound quality on a plane, but I for my part did not see a connection between those stories. Each story in itself was interesting to a varying degree and it was fun to see the same actors all over again in different costumes, especially Hugo Weaving as a bad-ass female nurse in the old people are breaking out of an asylum story was hilarious, but no clue what that asylum story had to do for example with Neo Soul. Also, the Neo Soul story was just a tired rip-off of the classic Soylent Green.
I would have liked to understand the big picture and it would have been cool if there had been one, if anybody got it, let me know.

One other remark though, I did not like the characters in this movie too much. They were all too much victims and passive and suffering needlessly. Why did the guy with the music piece kill himself? His motivation was not apparent to me. The guy who got poisoned on the sailing ship just lay around suffering, not once asking why and trying to end his suffering, his black friend had to do all that for him. Tom Hanks in the last episode as well, instead of whining, do something. He does in the end, but less whining would have made this character more likable. So, if anybody can tell me what the red thread was in those six or so stories I’d be grateful, I haven’t discovered it.

John Carter of Mars
Hmmmm…. Nice piece of science fantasy but I am not surprised that it flopped. Though this story might have been sensational in its time and though George Lucas has massively taken story elements from it, the thing is that Star Wars is thirty years old and to shoot something like John Carter of Mars now was just the wrong time. Had it been released instead of Star Wars it would have become cult I suppose, but not thirty, almost forty years on and not after the horrible Phantom Menace which had all the desert chases and aliens that resemble the Tharks. It’s a nice story and its well done, but it just comes forty years too late.

And now the highlight!
Star Trek – Into Darkness
I sat in the “Star Trek” from 2010 with the new crew expecting to hate it, but then the movie turned me around and I loved it, especially the new Spock, Uhura, Bones and Scotty. Therefore my expectations to this second movie with the new crew were very high.

It was a good movie but I am a little disappointed that they rehashed Khan Noonien Singh yet again.
It was a strike of genius to revive him in the “Wrath of Khan” and I agree that “Wrath of Khan” is one of the best Star Trek movies as general opinion seems to be. It was dangerous to revive the story yet again and considering that danger they did quite well, but nevertheless this second movie with the new crew did not surpass the first.

Though quite different in appearance than Ricardo Montalban, Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job personifying Khan. But the recurring theme of the gone bad admiral was boring and in general I was disappointed that they didn’t find anything else to rehash. To revive it once = Wrath of Khan = awesome, to do so yet another time?…
There are plenty of other story threads the writers could have picked up.

The parallels to Wrath of Khan notably the sacrifice of Kirk instead of Spock were thus predictable and did not produce an ounce of emotion.
It threw me though totally how Kirk was realigning the warp coil – banging with his feet against delicate equipment in high radiation, what hilarious nonsense.
All in all the movie was fun and had some great elements and funny puns but the first with the new crew was definitely better.

Here is my personal Star Trek movie ranking by the way:
First Contact
Wrath of Khan
The Voyage Home
Star Trek (new crew)
(Everybody hated it but I liked) Nemesis
Into Darkness
The Undiscovered Country
Generations
Search for Spock
Insurrection
Star Trek the motion picture
The Final Frontier

What’s your ranking? 😉

Saw “Saw”

I have a colleague at work who is a big fan of „The Walking Dead“ and we are chatting about what’s going on in the TV series every now and then and recently he asked me whether I had seen the “Saw” movies. No, not yet. I have nothing against the occasional horror movie but I had thought for some reason “Saw” was splatter of the worst kind and had avoided the stuff.
My colleague said, oh, it ain’t worse than The Walking Dead. So, since the entire Saw series was/is available on Japan’s hulu, to which I have subscribed, I took it upon me and watched the entire series of 7 movies over a span of a couple of weeks.
I am now thoroughly horrored 😉

The following needs a spoiler alert warning.
As so often with series like that the first part is the best. The series shouts that part one, which was produced relatively cheaply, was planned as a one shot. Now that one shot was successful, and since it’s about a serial killer, they “mined” the story excessively with another 6 (!) movies.

It should have, in my humble opinion, been left at the one movie – greetings from commercialism.
Now, the first one has a good, high concept premise:
What happens if two guys wake up in a large, defunct and decrepit bathroom, one foot chained to pipes at either end of the room and a bloody corpse lay in their middle and their captor started a wicked life-and-death “game” with them?

The title “Saw” is very smart. The two are being watched by “Jigsaw” the mastermind of the situation who has played “games” like that with several other people before the current victims, and who likes to cut jigsaw puzzle pieces out of the skin of his victims.
The other “saw” refers to the two saws which are left as props in the bathroom. Not hard to guess, but in the end, one of the victims indeed does it and saws off his own foot in order to free himself from the chains.
Then, as a third level, there is the nice circumstance that “saw” is a part of the name “Jigsaw”. So we’ve got “saw” on three different levels.

The seeing itself has also three levels: The lowest: the obsessed policeman who (tries to) watch Jigsaw, the guy in the middle who watches the victims, and the real Jigsaw who is watching everything “on the highest level”. The author of the thing has invested some thought into his plot! Yeah!

I didn’t see the ending coming either. The audience is led to believe that the dude who watches the two victims via a camera installed in their room (the guy in the middle level of “seeing”, as it turns out) is Jigsaw, but as a last bang and with all the plot threads coming neatly together, the real Jigsaw turns out to be the corpse in the room between the two victims. He only played dead, meaning he “saw” the whole drama unfold itself live, while being in the same room with his victims and while manipulating the fake Jigsaw as well.

I am not surprised that the first movie was a success. It had everything a horror film needs: Some gruesome situations, awful decisions of the victims, the victims not being so much victims but bad guys themselves, very nice plot twists and turns and horrific moments and no happy ending.
The original Saw is a damn good horror movie.

The rest of the series one does not need to watch. The “games” Jigsaw and his successors play get more and more “elaborate” in terms of killing machines and you ask yourself when and where and how anybody could possibly construct such stuff undetected. The plot is desperately trying to intertwine the movies keeping the high level of the first but fails and the “revelations” in the end get more and more fantastic and less believable.
Saw III is the most brutal one and more busy with torturing the victims than anything else. The last one has the most ridiculous games and for whatever reason the plenty of blood spilled is ridiculously pink. The only thing that the last movie has going for it is the total-party-kill style and a re-appearance from one of the victims of the very first movie to tie them all together somehow.
Anyway, the Saw series is a nice lesson for: don’t expatiate upon a (good) story that’s been conceived for only one movie (or book). But if you want to see one great horror movie, watch part 1 and don’t bother with the rest.

Django Unchained – Review

I wouldn’t call myself a Tarantino fan, or am I one? When I look at my DVD collection there is Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds… So am I a Tarantino fan after all? Of those four DVDs, Inglorious Basterds is my favorite mainly due to Christoph Waltz. His Nazi villain was just awesome.

However, now Django Unchained (though the title is just horrible) has received the honor of becoming my new favorite Tarantino movie and not only because of Christoph Waltz.

Spoiler alert… if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you are hereby warned.
I like going to movies (or reading books) without being influenced by any other opinion, meaning I don’t read reviews etc. before I see the movie (or read the book).
Therefore, I quite naturally presumed that Waltz would play the villain again, but oh, he doesn’t! Well, they are all villains in a way, only that the others are even worse. Waltz and Foxx happily shoot, thanks to their jobs as bounty hunters, many a worse villain without much blinking, especially on Waltz’s behalf. What makes the Waltz character a good guy is that he becomes Foxx’ friend and is opposed to slavery.

In the first half of the movie Waltz shines with his dry humor and sorry to say, but he steals Foxx’ show a bit.
One of the highlights in the first half of the movie goes to Don Johnson and his Ku Klux Klan buddies though – the movie is worth its box office money for that scene alone when the thirty or so Ku Klux Klan guys complain that they can see nothing through the cloth bags over their heads. What a hilarious scene!

A word about the general plot, which is another reason for why this movie greatly appeals to me. Waltz frees Foxx from slavery and makes him his bounty hunter partner but Foxx’s goal is to save his wife from whom he got separated. Now his wife’s movie name is Bruennhilde… Waltz, who plays a German, can’t believe his ears and tells Foxx a tiny bit of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung – that Bruennhilde annoyed Wotan, the highest god, and he banished her inside a ring of fire on top of a mountain and only a hero can save her. That hero is of course Siegfried… I have a special relationship to the Ring of the Nibelung thanks to my “She Should Have Called Him Siegfried” novel, which is (very loosely) deals with the Ring of the Nibelung as well 😉
So, since Foxx’ character is setting out to save his Bruennhilde, it turns him into a Siegfried!

The second half of the movie though belongs to Leo. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the nasty, ruthless plantation owner Candie, who is the new master of Bruennhilde and he does it marvelously.
At first Waltz steals Foxx’s show, then DiCaprio steals Waltz’s and Foxx’s show… much like Waltz’s portrayal of the villain in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has a great feel for villains and his heroes just cannot keep up with them. DiCaprio is gloriously supported by an absolutely amazing Samuel L. Jackson, who plays DiCaprio’s head servant with great bravado.

The DiCaprio story is, at least in my opinion, a masterly piece of plotting. Everything leads up to a handshake, more I will not reveal, and in that handshake scene both DiCaprio and Waltz outdo themselves. It was, for me, totally believable that Waltz just cannot abide that handshake and does what he does. Awesome display of plotting and acting. This is how you create edge of the seat tension and drama and it was superbly resolved. For me, the movie kind of ended at that point and I found the denouement a bit too long, but another highlight remained, the demise of the Samuel L. Jackson character.

The only thing I have to complain about in this movie is Bruennhilde, the “real” Bruennhilde is a Valkyrie and not a damsel in distress as she was presented here. I’d have loved to see her more active and less “screamy” and victimized. But hey, nobody’s perfect, also not Tarantino.

The violence in the movie is so over the top and corny (except for the thing with the dogs) that I had no problem with it at all. The music stresses the corniness wonderfully and helps to take the bite out of the hard topic of slavery as well.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed Django Unchained and I will surely buy the DVD when it comes out!

The Prettier Mona Lisa

Tokyo has a great many museums and I admit that I am not making as much use of them as I should but I could not miss a substantial part of the Mauritshuis collection being on display in Tokyo including its most famed and priced picture: Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

I was wondering why the Mauritshuis allowed the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum to show parts of its collection but the clarification came right at the entrance to the venue where a panel said that the Mauritshuis closed to the public in April this year for 2 years (wow) to undergo restoration and reconstruction. So, the Mauritshuis sent its collection on tour and to celebrate its own reopening, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum won the deal it seems.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s o-bon holidays season in Japan and many companies (as well as the one I work for) had closed the entire or parts of last week. I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum on Tuesday the 14th and Ueno Park, which brims with museums and also the Ueno Zoo, was incredibly crowded despite juicy mid August temperatures of 33 Celsius or so (in the shade of course).

Entering the park there was a giant queue to one of the museums and I thought, hell, if that is the Metropolitan Art Museum I’ll go home again immediately, but luckily the queue was for the Ueno Royal Museum and their Tut Ank Amun exhibition.
Arrived at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum next to Ueno Zoo, I found a sign which happily announced that the waiting time to get into the Mauritshuis exhibition was only 10 minutes. That sounded much more promising indeed, after all the exhibition had already started on the 30th of June.

In contrast to the Tut Ank Amun exhibition, the queue was also inside the acclimatized building and the short wait was easy to handle.
The exhibition spread over three floors starting in the basement and working its way up. Even though the waiting time had been only ten minutes, the crowd was huge and even bigger in front of every picture.

In the basement the exhibition started with the history of the Mauritshuis, then landscapes and seascapes and history paintings. The first floor was devoted to Portraits and Tronies the second floor to Still Lives and Genre Paintings.

The crowd moved agonizingly slowly from picture to picture and was transported from floor to floor via a escalators. The famous Girl with a Pearl Earring had her own room and inside it the crowd split into a queue and a gathering. The queue was for people who wanted to see the Girl from “relatively” close up without further heads in the way but while walking and not stopping in front of the picture. The gathering was behind that first row of passers by and people were allowed to stand there and stare at the Girl as long as they wanted, but always with someone passing between them and the picture.

Even the first row passers by didn’t get closer than a meter. The picture hung behind a balustrade and a sheet of bullet-proof glass which was cleverly integrated into the wall, meaning the picture hung behind it in a flat alcove. The lightning was perfect and the bullet proof glass did not glean and felt as if hardly there. The procession until one got to the picture took about 15 to 20 minutes. After the procession, I sneaked into the gathering in front of it and was as so often happy for my height and did manage quite a good look at the picture.
It is beautifully done, yes. The light composition is perfect and she is very pretty and one does indeed wonder if she was a real model and person or not.

Three other paintings left a deep impression with me too, all of them Rembrandts. Two of them were Rembrandt’s self portraits as a young and old man. I don’t quite understand why the people from the exhibition did not put them directly next to each other but had one painting by Rembrandt “the Laughing Man” in between. It would have been, at least in my opinion, much better to have those two self-portraits right next to each other. The eyes stayed the same, but otherwise quite shocking to see this young, optimistic and cocky face next to the old, tired and puffy one.
The third picture that impressed me much was Rembrandt’s Simeon’s Song of Praise which is a masterpiece of lighting again.

Despite the throng of people this was an exhibition well worth seeing and it compensates for my disappointment last year, when I was in Amsterdam seeing the VanGogh Museum and the National Museum where there was a postcard of the Girl with a Pearl Earring in the museum’s shop saying “I’m in the Mauritshuis in The Hague”, and I had no time to go there, well, now I didn’t need to 😉