James Cameron :: USA :: 2009 :: 2h41

On the faraway planet Pandora, a human mining company wants to move an indigenous population to be able to extract valuable minerals from under their village. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent in to attempt diplomacy before they resort to military force. The villagers get the point, listen to a few inspiring speeches and decide to fight back.

As you will have guessed from the summary, Avatar is not about the story. This is old-school blockbuster cinema: the story is just simple and customary, so that you not only do not have to think but there is nothing to worry about either. The movie is about showing-off special effects, which, as usual, can already be seen in the preview on their website. To fully understand this blockbuster strategy, let us search further for a moment: the site is integrated with YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. And then there is the merchandising, even before the movie starts you will already have seen the spin-offs with Coca-Cola and games on your Playstation, PSP, Xbox or even your iPhone. All this made me check with McDonalds and you can rest assured: they are also ready to cash in. I am sure Fox has taken care of the production of puppets, mugs and T-shirts for the holiday season too. This is all so tacky for a children’s movie, but does it still matter? Well, in a sense: yes it does.

The bad guy in Avatar is the mining cooperation (which incidentally shifts the blame of its immoral behaviour onto their shareholders). It is in their name that the planet Pandora is being destroyed and the villagers killed (or displaced). The xenophobic and ecological disaster which is the cooperation in the film, is reflected by the real life version (a conglomerate of US companies huddled around a copyrighted image cutting out others with an ephemeral, disposable product). The movie criticises what it represents itself – the use of capitalistic power to the detriment of others. The movie just pushes capitalistic behaviour further than its own production house does (with criminal consequences). But are we supposed to take a blockbuster movie seriously? But then if we discard the story and are prepared to ignore the moral message, then why should we bother going in?

There is actually an answer here: the dream world which is on the planet Pandora. It is absolutely magical! A civilisation which is as a mix of Amazonian Indian and African cultures with a holistic Gaia-type world view. They live in the trees in a Jurassic-ish rainforest world with wavy ocean-like properties. It is all credible enough and beautifully worked out (irrespective if you watch the 3D version or just the big screen). In a word, it is spectacular! The memory of the trip through their world makes me want to return. I think they might have a solution for that. On the playstation. Or on the iPhone…

( / / / etc.)


The Box

The Box

Richard Kelly :: USA :: 2009 :: 1h55

It’s 1976 in small town USA. Southerners Norma and Arthur Lewis, a NASA scientist and a school teacher, live a comfortable life beyond their means with their son Walter. At the first set-back, Norma realises they have no financial buffer. A tall stranger appears at that exact moment to test their morals: he offers them a box with a button. If they press it, they will receive a million dollars and someone they do not know will die. They are not told how or who will die, but just that someone –they do not know– will die. The young couple stares at the box wondering what to do.

For those of you who think they recognise the plot, this is a feature length version of a famous Twilight Zone (1985) episode called Button, Button (from the short story by Richard Matheson). The original film was 20 minutes long, with some notable differences: there we were introduced to a stuttering Arthur and a chain-smoking Norma who live as a bickering working class couple in California, trying to make ends meet. The couple, when presented with the perverse choice, take opposing ends. Arthur is morally outraged by the idea while Norma is blinded by the prospect of the influx of wealth, hiding behind the anonymity of the obscure murder.

But the reason to push the button, poverty and misery, are removed in the contemporary version. The contemporary Norma and Arthur love each other, they are both healthy, living in a beautiful house, fully equipped with everything they could ever need, they go out to the theatre when they want to and even have a sports car and fancy clothes to boot. Under such circumstances, even a little set back should make you wonder what could that million add to their lives? Norma explains that it would “make it easier to live the life they want”, which makes you wonder what on earth they are missing. She says it would “provide security for their entire family”, but if they thought that was important, they would not have been living above their means. The final argument, is “are we ever going to leave Richmond?”. If the script had been a little more challenging, Arthur could have responded: “We have to kill someone because we never took the trouble to leave Richmond?” The reason to push the button is not there. Norma is fooling herself, succumbing under her own greed. And she is to realise it very quickly. But of course, too late.

The Box starts out as a stretched Twilight Zone episode brushed up with the contemporary Hollywood feel-good ethos (everybody is beautiful, wealthy, intelligent and loving) even if it does not suit the story. But as the film rolls on it starts to seem more and more like a M. Night Shyamalan movie. But then there are so many tangents, that you lose count. Some of them end up being storyline fluff while others become mysterious supernatural escapades. This is a wild moral adventure, best watched under cover of night, even if it is scarred by obscure lapses in logic. It is none the less enigmatically captivating, leaving the pieces in your head for assembly afterwards – even if you end up throwing the pieces on the floor because they do not fit.

(The Twilight Zone episode:

The Limits of Control

the limits of controlThe Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch :: USA :: 2009 :: 1h56

A tall black man in a shiny suit (Isaach de Bankomé) is sent to Madrid. A few mysterious meetings later, he gets off a train in Seville. And then another stop. He is on a mission, or perhaps on several missions, taking him cross country over the Iberian peninsula. This is a film without a customary narrative, leaving you to paradoxically guess the ongoings. Paradoxically, because every step taken by our hero is meticulously planned and controlled. He, at least, knows what he is doing, with a silent, patient cool.

At times the film looks like an old-school 1970s thriller. At other times, we see carefully chosen images which look more like works of art photography than than part of a feature film. At again other times, the surroundings and characters are so painfully normal that it seems out of place with the rest. As you are taken along, you will notice that the same structure of the scenes is repeated, with little curious reminders forwards or backwards in time to create an overall harmony. Perhaps the aesthetic could have been even more formal than it was, as after all the whole film takes on an experimental role. The background canvases of the countryside might at times even have been fake, as it would not have mattered. Reality is a flexible notion in the film and could easily have been bent a little more.

Reconstructing the film in a cafe afterwards is a lot of fun, so try to avoid seeing the film by yourself. You can take the side characters, the locations and the sparse exchanges to reconstruct a world in which the different characters all have their own obsessions and interests. But somehow they all work together. This succession of characters who are “in” on the conspiracy, even originate from widely different horizons, apparently all motivated to work together against the final puppet-master, whose presence we feel intrusively hovering above us throughout the film. And make sure you are up for it too. If you did not catch it yet, the pace of the film is slow.

Sin Nombre

sin_nombreSin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga :: USA, Mexico :: 2009 :: 1h36

Sayra is picked up in Honduras by her father, who she barely knows, to take her up north with him to New Jersey (USA). Without money and without papers. Once on her rough and dangerous journey to a prospective better life, she meets the young Mexican gangster Willy. The young man, nicknamed Casper, had grown up in the violent Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS) gang. Their stories begin to intertwine as Casper slowly but surely turns his back on the gang, and Sayra takes his hand so they can run together.

Sin Nombre (“without a name”) drags us through the underbelly of society, along the railway tracks, with the aspiring immigrants, the profiteers, and the omni present gangsters. The dangerous journey they embark on, is one which will define their lifetime. For Sayra, if she makes it to her family in New Jersey, she will be at the beginning of her new life as an illegal immigrant. However it turns out, her story will have started with that continental crossing, on the roof of that train. For Willy, who knows he can not outrun his Casper shadow, his future is as uncertain as the whims which control the life and death of a gangster.

Carefully put together with an excellent cast, Sin Nombre is as a fictional companion to La Vida Loca, with the wider perspective of poverty and migration in North America. Long after you have left the film, you will still see the train cutting through the countryside with, on the roof, a mass huddled together dreaming of a better future for themselves. A dream, which survives through the hardships and cruelty of the world. A tough watch.




Lynn Shelton :: USA :: 2009 : 1h35

Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a quiet life in Seattle with his wife Anna, when his old university friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard)shows up, as the prodigal son. Andrew has been bumming around for ten years in hippy semi-artistic circles, and the two men look at each other as different versions of what they could have done with their lives. From a combination of an “I’m free, you’re not” kind of argument and an amateur porn-as-art festival, comes the idea of the two of them having homosexual sex on film. Although the idea repulses them, neither wants to give in to the other, for the risk of losing face at the challenge.

The idea of a homosexual challenge is both very silly and potentially amusing, but here we are left stranded at the former. And it has silliness written all over it. It has even been shot in a messy way – with an unstable, low quality camera which is sometimes out of focus. The script follows suit, by seeming to be mostly based on improvisation judging by its simplicity. The film is actually the 20 minutes or so in a hotel room (where they are to have sex), the rest could just as easily have been scrapped. The whole amateur approach could have been an added value for a film which needs the “fear-of-gay discomfort” element to work, but we never actually get to some value, to be able to consider any more added on.

The characters act (and dress) as if they are 15 years old, with a matching insecurity, no sophistication (although supposedly with an education), teen-style pushing each other around and with no direction in their lives. They are just permanently uncomfortable with themselves in relation to others.

Ben is supposed to be living a dull bourgeois life, with a wife and house, and Andrew the adventurous drugs and swingers life, but neither are a mentionable success. If being married and having a house is to be considered boring (!?) then the movie could have shown them sitting silently in front of a TV game show, with him taking a grey commuter train to work in the morning and Anna pruning the roses under the auspicious eye of the elderly neighbours. So to speak. Just saying that he has a house and a wife is meaningless.

If the contrast is supposed to be with his country-hopping lost friend Andrew, then surely Andrew should have received a little more credit himself, rather than just a pretension. Already in the introductory scenes, Andrew is shown giving an inappropriate kitsch gift followed by a story of his work at an artistic community in Mexico, which we can only assume to be a failure as he left. Despite his talk about art, he does not produce anything or show any understanding of it. That leaves us with sex and drugs. His uncommitted swingers life should have given him an ease in sexual relations, but even there he does not excel, or have any noteworthy advantage to justify a superiority. The character is just shown as a loveable loser. The contrast does not work.

Basically, we are left watching two cowardly superficial characters fail. If they had wanted to succeed they could have brought along some alcohol. Or some drugs. Or perhaps eased themselves into it with something more accessible first. Or perhaps they should have just set themselves some more constructive goals, closer to their heart to try to grow up. As the director should have done. And remember that this production is marketed as a comedy. Perhaps something funny could have been squashed in there somewhere in too…

The Reader

The ReaderThe Reader
Stephen Daldry :: USA, Germany :: 2008 :: 2h03

Germany. 1958. The bright Michael Berg is only 15 when he meets a woman in her mid-30s, Hanna (Kate Winslet). She is an introverted, distant, sad character who takes advantage of the presence of the young man to start a sexual relationship. Their meetings are quickly transformed into a reading-for-sex exchange, which brings some emotion into Hanna’s empty life. But one day, she is gone without a word. Years later, when Michael is studying law at Heidelberg, he finds himself in a courtroom where he sees Hanna again: but this time, accused of an atrocious war crime.

The movie mostly brushes over Hanna’s exploitation of Michael, although her inappropriate relationship with the impressionable young Michael destroyed the rest of his emotional life, as is often the case with the abused young. He managed to build up a relationship years later which turned into a failed marriage, followed by an incapacity to be a real father to his daughter. But as the tragedy of his vacuous love life unfolds, he never points a accusative finger at Hanna, as he unhappily lives in the Stockholm syndrome. Partly because she has done worse. Much worse.

In contrast to the indifference the film shows with regards to the ruins of Michael’s life, the brutish Hanna is placed centre stage. Half way through the film we are already in the courtroom, to hear what she had done during the war. The proud, unsophisticated Hanna naively answers the questions as if from a confused post-war generation. As with the abuse of Michael, she is not only unrepentant, but seemingly oblivious to the damage she has done. The only reason we can find for her motivation, besides her cold simple character, is her covering up of her secret.

Hanna holds a secret, which is given to us already in the first quarter of the film, which determines most of her actions. This superficiality hidden behind her pride, she defends with her life. In fact, when pushed, we see that it is more important to her than her life itself, or, for that matter, the lives of others. Why this is so important to her, or from whence this comes is never answered. The unveiled secret is, by itself, too superficial to explain anything.

But there is another twist. As we too know her secret, as does Michael (although for such a bright young man it took him surprisingly long to figure it out). During the trial, he considers shedding her secret despite her explicit will to keep it hidden. In betraying her, she would have received a considerably reduced sentencing. In staying silent, she would live in prison with her pride intact. Michael respects her decision, which is very noble, but we still do not know why she is putting herself though all this, other than the most likely thesis that she is just stupid.

Hanna, who has spent her life with literature, is peculiarly enough incapable of any poetic words above the painfully simple. And that is what you are watching. I would not recommend sitting through two tedious hours of this only to be left depressed and empty at this unfinished, awful story. See what else is playing.

Girlfriend Experience

Girlfriend experienceThe Girlfriend Experience
Steven Soderbergh :: USA :: 2009 :: 1h25

Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a young escort prostitute who is working on her business of draining as much money out of men she can manage, while keeping them company through the credit crunching storm, pretending she cares for them. Surprisingly enough, she is in a relationship with personal gym trainer Chris, who has supposedly managed to accept her promiscuous ways.

The film has a dreamy aesthetic, swinging in and out of focus with dito music and shuffled chronology. Chelsea waltzes through the scenes of her supposed life almost without touching the ground. She tells us candidly, as if we are following her, that she adapts to each of her clients, hiding her real self, to show only that which the clients want to see. But what we see, are ordinary men treating her in an ordinary way. Would anyone pay for having someone “fake caring” for you? Perhaps, but these are “normal” men with time on their hands, and not the cliché hotshot lawyers in need of a human fix between deals. The client meetings, which take up most of the film, are just them talking about money. All the time. The clients are talking recession or protective investment as her prostituting “business” is supposedly untouched. If you consider discussing money bad taste, this movie offers you no mercy.

As you watch all the financial banalities being exchanged, you just patiently wait till they finish talking. When they ARE finished, you realise that the movie is over. You never get to know Chelsea, why she is a prostitute at all. You never get to know Chris either. He is shown in a few side scenes selling his personal trainer services, suggesting a superficial parallel with Chelsea. So why does he accept her sordid life? Would it not have been interesting if he was a small town character who was fascinated by the big city and voyeuristically lived off her stories of the intimacy of others? Or perhaps someone who has had an endless stream of failed relationships, and finds comfort in her promiscuity, in her endlessly returning to him? As it stands, we can not sympathise with them because we do not know them. Worse still, I suspect that the main problem is that they are actually as empty as their conversation. This in turn hollows out all the relationships they are in, including their own.

In true American tradition, this is a film about sex which is all talk. None the less, it managed miraculously to scrape together an “R rating”, for some reason, to protect the American teenagers. Unfortunately, abroad we are not as lucky – our teens still risk to be exposed to this profound senseless boredom. We will just have to warn each other.