Saturday, June 26

Review: District 9

District 9 is what you might call a snob-buster (yes, I just made that word up). One of those movies. Every critic ever gets a cinematic hard-on from it, but no one actually goes out to see it. The critics call the public idiots, the public calls the critics pretentious cynics. Everybody gets grumpy, turns their back on the other and gets back to their respective business.

This happens fairly often. And most of the time, it's understandable. The public wants escapism, the critics want art. Note that this is something very different: escapism let's you escape to a place that is not reality, while art confronts you with  reality. But I have honestly no idea why District 9 wasn't a bigger success. It's one of those rare films that has both the guts to make a profound statement and the skill to still make it very much fun to watch.

District 9 concerns, on the surface at least, a spaceship that comes to earth. But instead of blowing up the White House or something, it just hovers around a bit. It eventually comes to a stop above Johannesburg. And then it just hangs there. No-one has a clue what to do with it. After a while, the humans decide to cut their way in. What they find are a bunch of starved aliens. They don't resemble ET nor the Aliens from the movies of the same name: these are tall, shrimp-like creatures who, in fact, resemble humans a little more then comfortable. The aliens are quickly given a place of refuge and medical attention, of course. But the situation gets a little out of hand when the outsiders start mixing with daily life. And that's all I'm going to tell you about the story. Not because it's so shallow it's not even worth talking about, like in my other review of the week. It's because I promise you that you want to be surprised on this one.

Neil Blomkamp, the director of the movie, is South-African. And besides those goddamn vuvuzela's, his country is of course best known for it's long history of racial struggles. Blomkamp himself described it as "two civilizations meeting at each others doorstep". I think you will be able to guess the metaphor at hand in District 9 by now. But even though the social critique might not be the most subtle ever, the way it is pulled of is truly a showmanship of skill. Instead of pointing to something and saying: "Those are the guys you should root for", we are shown that both sides are far, far from perfect. The only thing the aliens have going for them happens to be that they are in a far, far shittier position.

But maybe I'm giving of the wrong impression of the movie here. This is not some Bergmanical pondering on civil rights, or right and wrong. Just because the protagonist isn't Batman doesn't mean this movie doesn't mean business. The action scenes in this movie (and they are plenty, trust me) are in fact downright nasty at times. Not particularly explicit, mind, but just so... dark. People are getting blown up, sliced to bits and mauled in all kind of nasty ways. But this is one of those movies in which the gritty really pays off: the atmosphere gets much more dense and serious that way.

You know, I could praise this movie for another hour or so, but you will just have to see this for yourself. Trust me: this is already essential viewing, even if you're not into sci-fi. District 9 is made out of the same material as Fight Club and V for Vendetta: social critique in the shape of an action movie. And like those movies, the story and the action elevate each other to something marvelous. I can almost guarantee that you will love this film.


P.S. This might seem unbelievable, but the movie is actually based on a true story. Yeah, really. Check this if you don't believe me.

For the music, I took the idea of social critique and good entertainment to my iTunes library. RATM was too obvious, so here is something a little more in tune with the movie: Fela Kuti.

Wednesday, June 23

Review: A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

Perhaps the sole reason I'm able to be a filmgeek is DVDs. Or, to be precise, second-hand DVDs. The damn things are so incredibly cheap that you can pretty much buy anything you want. If it's great, you have a bargain and if it sucks you have not wasted very much money. You will have only wasted your time on some masturbatory brain-fart like A Guide to Recognizing your Saints.

A Guide is about some guy (Shia LeBouf) who lives in a bad neighborhood of some big city (I think it's New York, but I literally don't give enough of a crap to fact-check that). His father doesn't love him, he had bad friends, he gets beaten up, blah die blah die blah. He sort of escapes all this and years later, when he is an accomplished writer (Robert Downey Jr., who also happens to be the sole reason I bought this crap), he returns because his father is sick and needs convincing to go to the hospital.

The story apparently really happened to somebody called Dito Montiel. He later wrote a book about it, called A Guide To Recognizing your Saints. And then somebody decided to make a movie out of that book. That somebody is called Dito Montiel.

And there we have the exact reason this film sucks. It's an auteur project. Someone had some troubling experiences, and decides to milk it for all his worth. Oh sure, it was probably very hard for him to grow up in an environment like that, but that doesn't mean it has any dramatic resonance with the audience. In fact, most of the characters are so unlikable or just downright retarded it's hard to even give a crap. One of the stupidest characters, for instance, decides at one point to jump on the train tracks. His friends, who seem to possess functioning brains, yell at him that he's an idiot and should get back up on the platform. The guy seems to respond. He walks to the edge of the platform, where his friends are trying to hoist him up. But before he wants his life to be saved, he ask that the friends, I kid you not, tell him how much they love and appreciate him. They respond in the most logical way: by continue too shout athim that he's an idiot. Unmoved, he stands still while the train is approaching, not even getting out of it's way, and SPLAT! Retard jelly.

Is this supposed to be dramatic? Should we feel sorry now? I had a hard time not laughing. I'm sure it was really dramatic when it actually happened, but that doesn't mean it makes good screen drama. Notice that this is a pretty major flaw when you're trying to make a dramatic film.

Something that also struck me as being very odd, if not downright stupid, is the casting. Oh, the ACTORS are all fine. But the combination off them just doesn't make any sense. For instance, the protagonist has a girlfriend when he is younger. She is, logically, about the same age as he. But in the "many years later" parts of the movie, the protagonist is played by Robert Downey Jr., who was 40 at the time. The girlfriend is played by Rosario Dawson, who was 26 at the time. They are both great actors, but seeing them talk to each other as if they are friends from way back is just ridiculous. Also, who ever thought that Shia Lebouf and Robert Downey Jr. looked anything like each other? LeBouf might look a bit foreign, but Downey Jr. is as white as a snowman. THIS IS A PROBLEM IF THE CHARACTER IS SUPPOSED TO BE ETHNIC.

Pretty much how I felt after watching the film

A Guide to Recognizing your Saints is a dramatic film that doesn't work as a drama and, frankly, doesn't work as a film either. The big mistake the movie makes is that whenever something bad happens on the screen, the audience will completely agree that this is very traumatic and perhaps even shed a few tears. The only tears I shed were for the time I had lost watching this piece of trash.

The soundtrack was really good, though.


I wish the movie would have a little more of the gritty madness that Tom Waits uses to describe the bad parts of town. Oh well. Be sure to turn your amp up a little beyond a comfortable volume.

Sunday, June 20

Pulling Rabbits: On Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry is one of the only truly inspired people working in the movie industry today. Whereas most cineasts are considered "original" if they don't work exactly by the books, Michel Gondry makes films that are so crazy you will hardly believe what hit you. Take, for instance, this video he made for The White Stripes:


Holy. SHIT.

Now THAT'S what I call original.

Michel Gondry's career started out a little different then you might expect. He used to be the drummer for the (actually rather horrible) French rock band Oui Oui. He made some music videos for them, which soon turned out to be much better then the music itself. Things started rolling, he got assignments from some big names, and things really got interesting then.

He has thus far made videos for Paul McCartney, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Bjรถrk, The Foo Fighters, The White Stripes and Beck, and they are all awesome. If you feel the need to catch up on your music and your cinema, you could do a whole lot worse then going through Gondry's music videos on Youtube. Also, make sure to check out his Rubik's Cube videos. In the first one, he is solving a cube with his feet. It took a while for anyone to figure out that he just made a video in which he messed up a cube and played the video backwards. In response to that, he made a video of him solving a cube with his nose. No, really.

Michel Gondry has made only four feature-length movies in his life, which is very little for a director of his renown. The best of his movies are undoubtetly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. Of those, I think the latter is definitely more "Gondry-ish". This is mostly because Eternal Sunshine was written by Charlie Kaufman, who has a way to turn movies to his hand, but also because Sleep bears much more resemblance to his other work.

The Science of Sleep is about a dreamy young man called Stephane, who lives in Paris and is in love with his neighbor, Stephanie. He also has a soul-crushingly boring job at a calendar manufacturer, with a blue-balled guy of 40 who claims to be punk as his co-worker. This is only the tip of the iceberg of all the weirdness in the movie. But what happens in the film hardly matter, actually: it's the way it looks. Because it looks like this:

That is not a screenshot, but all those things are definitly present in the movie. And I'm not going to say anything more about it. Because you just have to go see the movie for yourself, but also because I don't think words can do justice to Gondry's fantastical imagination.

But perhaps the coolest thing about Gondry is that he doesn't work with great illusions. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. You won't wonder: "how did he do that?". You'll wonder: "how did he come up with this stuff?"

The mantra of Modern Art has always been: "I could do that! Yeah, but you didn't." And in that respect, I count Gondry as one of the most original artists in the history of cinema.


EDIT: it turns out I made some mistakes. I'm glad my readers are so alert. They have been fixed :)

I could of course include one of Gondry's great, great music videos here, but I'll leave that to you. Instead, I present you: The Gentle Waves!

Monday, June 14

Pulling Rabbits: On Tarantino

Everybody who will read this knows who Quentin Tarantino is. Some love him, some hate him, but you all know his name. That is a pretty exceptional position for a filmmaker, and a completely unique one for an independent one. It's something that people tend to forget, but Tarantino never made a movie with a big studio or production company. But he is still one of the most recognized  directors of all time. I would like to muse a bit upon the man who made being a film geek cool and sexy.

Or, you know, a little less pathetic at least.

Tarantino almost literally exploded on the scene in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs. With the ultra-violent gangster flick he did something that hadn't been done in a long time: making a brilliant film out of sheer love for film itself. Threading in the footsteps of the filmnerds that made the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), he took his love for movies that were usually frowned upon by "serious" critics and poured it into something that made even the moist stoic cinephiles pur with joy. And when he released Pulp Fiction two years later, the euphoric audience handed him the greatest honor a film can receive: a Palme D'Or from the Cannes Film festival. Since then, the quality of his work has varied, but it mostly has been good to excellent.

That is not to say his work has been uncontroversial. Far from it, actually. His "violence is a ton of fun" approach has not exactly fared well with some of the more conservative voices in the industry, and I'll have to admit that the eye-scene from Kill Bill 2 made me squirm as well. But the most opposition comes from people who blame him for not being original.

I can't really say this is untrue. The man talks about films even faster then me, and escpecially so in relation to his own films. But is this a problem?

I don't think so. Every filmmaker, every artist even, has his sources of inspiration. Tarantino is just very open about it. But perhaps we should see his movies less as just winks left and right to other people's works, and more as a collage artist: someone who puts pieces of other people's works together, and creates completely new meaning in the process.

But the primary reason Tarantino has a special place in my heart is his taste. And his willingness to share it. To me, and everyone in the audience, he seems to say: "Hey, you know what I like? Really awesome movies. I like pretty women, kickass rock 'n' roll and big swords. Do you like that too? Great! Let's pack our stuff and go on the trip of a lifetime!"

And so I did. Two hours later, when all the bad guys had been killed and the credits rolled, I got out of the pink Caddilac and Tarantino drove away towards the sunset. I stood there, waving, with a smile on my face. "Godspeed you, you beautiful basterd", I whispered. And then I fixed myself a scotch and a Big Kahuna Burger.


The music has been tipped by Stijn, my former roommate and self-proclaimed "Music Aesthetic". He hates Tarantino.

Friday, June 11

Review: A Hard Day's Night

It's not particularly a secret that I LOVE The Beatles. Their music is so well-written and so well-executed that it still feels original, despite being over 60(!) years old. I have heard their songs a million times already, but I can still listen to them and find something new to like every time. 

Okay, enough of that. The Beatles, besides making wicked awesome music, also made some movies. And I happened to stumble upon the dvd of what I heard is the best of those: A Hard Day's Night. I remembered this movie not only being featured in a book I have of the 100 greatest movies of all time, but also on as Roger Ebert's list of Great Movies. I bought it without second thought, of course.

How could I have refused with such great cover art? Seriously, this poster rocks.

The movie follows The Beatles around during a "typical" day. They run from hordes of screaming fans, they run from the cops and they run without any reason. In between the running they dance, make jokes to reporters ("How did you find America?""You turn left at Greenland") and try not to lose sight of Paul's grandfather. And they play music, of course.

The movie is just as nonsensical as it sounds. It's hard to shake the feeling that the planning stage of this movie took about ten minutes and a whole lot of liquor. And the execution is far from flawless, too: the story is pretty much non-existent, the montage and cinematography are rather awkward at times and the pace lies surprisingly low for a movie in which everybody is constantly running.

Insert obvious Forrest Gump reference here

But although the movie might not be as brilliant as I had hoped, it has two saving graces. The first is the soundtrack, of course. But the second is something that really sets it apart: the fun everybody is having. You can literally see the guys just grinning. Not because they are supposed to, but because they can't help themselves. The movie feels more like something a group of friends make for shit and giggles then a serious cinematic undertaking, but just happens to be starring four of the greatest musicians of all time.

At the time, A Hard Day's Night was a major hit. This was mainly due to the immense popularity of The Beatles. But how does it hold up now? Not as good as their music, that's for sure. If you are a fan and can appreciate something that feels like a 1,5-hour long silly Youtube video with a really high budget, like me, I think you will like this one. But if that particular prospect doesn't appeal to you, you are not really missing out on anything either.


I had a hard time not to include any Beatles music, but I managed to constrain myself. Here is another great sixties band.

Sunday, June 6

Pulling Rabbits: On Controversy

Every movie critic writes controversial stuff. For instance, I think David Lynch is a sadistic psychopath who has only vague ideas of what this pesky "film" thing is supposed to be. See? Controversy. The reason for this is simply that critics work with opinions, and people tend to differ in those. But the things that probably causes the most controversy is when one or more important critics dislike a popular film for being "too explicit".

The examples are endless: Roger Ebert calling Fight Club "fascist" and "macho porn", Pauline Kael calling A Clockwork Orange "pornographic", Bernardo Bertolucci actually being send to jail for making Last Tango in Paris. The list goes on and on. Notice that all those films are NOW (pretty much) considered to be classics or, at least, very very good. This is something that can haunt a critic for years: "Why didn't you see it for the genius it was when you first saw it? I totally did!" The fans then have a giggle at their superior judgment and go watch the dvd for the twelfth time. It really can put a dent in a critics credibility: Being seen as old-fashioned or prudish isn't very good for your reputation, especially in the circuit of cinema.

This stuff was outrageous back in 1896.

But something that is easily overlooked is that films, no matter the times, sometimes are just too explicit. For a contemporary example, think of Saw. And for an older example... Well, most of those are long forgotten. Only the real film buffs even know of the existence of something like Cannibal Holocaust, and even less have actually seen it.

The problem with explicit content is that it really has to to be meaningful to work. Take, for instance, this scene. You should know that before the fight started, the shabbier guys where raping a girl.

The violence might not be to revolting for a modern audience, but when it was released (1971) this was pretty heavy stuff. And you can still see the contrast between the pretty heavy beating the boys deliver and the cheerful music. But it beautifully illustrates what goes on in the minds of these boys. Violence is fun, just another outlet from your daily life. A theme that is as relevant now as ever.

You know what really is the only thing that makes controversial content justifiable? Actually creating controversy. When something is called "controversial" these days, it almost always means that some puritans where shocked, some teenagers loved it, the critics were "meh" and the general public didn't give a shit. You know the deal. But you know what "controversy" actually means? Something that people disagree with. Note that this is something completely different then outraged.

Disagreement means that somebody makes a choice that you don't think is the right one. And if a director makes a movie with content that you think is wrong, you'd better be able to tell why that is. And to do that, you have to think. What do I think of this or that matter? Is the director prejudiced or do I just see discrimination everywhere? Is the filmmaker perverted, or am I prude? If an artist can move people to reflect like that, he has done his job.

The Dutch artist Tinkebell strangled her own cat to make a purse of it. Do you find that disturbing? Then why don't you care if millions of pigs are killed each day? See, now THAT is controversy. She exposes our hypocrisy and forces us to look at ourselves.

Mission accomplished.

Micheal Haneke, an Austrian director, had something very interesting to say about big-budget movies. Most filmmakers despise them, but he said: "Those movies are fine. A lot of people are in shitty situations, and they want to escape those. However, it has nothing to do with art. Art always has to seek the confrontation with reality".

And THAT is what explicit violence should be used for. Telling the truth. Not giving fetishists boners.


P.S. OF COURSE I don't really think David Lynch is a psychopath. I just don't like his work. Please don't flood the comments.

I had no idea whatsoever which song I should post here. Nothing I could think of seemed appropriate. So I just decided to use a nice song that is nice.

Saturday, June 5

Review: Black Cat White Cat

Genres are bitches. If you assign one to a movie people will start to expect all sorts of things. When you call it a thriller, the audience will expect people to die. When it's called a romcom, kissing is to be expected. And if you call your movie Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!... Well, you get the point.

But the one genre that defies this notion is comedy. Simply put: if a comedy is funnier then another comedy, it is a better comedy. A scarier thriller is not a better thriller per se, a more dramatic drama does not make a better drama by default, but a comedy HAS to make you laugh as much as possible. Whatever it takes. And while Black Cat, White Cat might not be brilliantly on a purely cinematic level, it made me almost crap my pants with laughter every time I've seen it. And I've seen it three times now.

The movie, which is set somewhere in Eastern Europe, is about a father and a son, both gypsies. The father is a bit of a blundering small-time crook, who always sees his good intentions go wrong. After a particularly daring plan has gone wrong, he has to marry his son Zare to the sister of the man who screwed him over. But Zare isn't really eager to do that, since the girl in question is about half his height. It also involves an old man who constantly drives around in what looks like a stripped-down T-Ford, a woman who can pull nails from wooden boards with her ass and an orchestra in a tree. And a wedding where everything gets smashed, the bride runs off and the marriage commissioner is a junkie. And a pigs eats a car.

The movie doesn't really make sense, but it doesn't matter. It's not even trying to. Instead, what we get is a complete mess of slapstick, gypsies, AWESOME music and just plain hilarity. The atmosphere is pretty much what you would get if Laurel and Hardy would go to Hungary: light and funny, with nothing larger then a table surviving until the end of the movie. The movie is also genuinely funny, something that is actually very rare for movies labeled as "comedy". The humor might not be too sophisticated, but it's never vulgar or cheap either. Just plain fun.

 Random goats are always the best goats.

I guess that's the only thing you have to know about the movie: it's fun. It's incredibly much fun, in fact. The rest hardly matters. If you want to really laugh your ass off at a movie once, don't hesitate to track this one down.


P.S. I would like to stop for a moment to honor a great actor and filmmaker who passed away a while ago: Dennis Hopper. He has made and acted in some of the most original and groundbreaking films ever, including Easy Rider and Blue Velvet. Besides that, he was also a great photographer. He will be missed. Rest in Peace.

On a somewhat happier note, this is my 50th post on the weblog. I hope people have as much fun reading it as I have writing it.

This song fits the atmosphere of the movie absurdly good. So good, in fact, that if you like the song I'm pretty sure you will like the movie. Drunken gypsies, hurrah!