Combing the beach for joie de vivre

Marie Bäumer has been compared to Romy Schneider for so long that it was really only a question of time that she would play her. Emily Atef’s black-and-white 3 Days in Quiberon uses that likeness to great effect, so much so that when I picked the stills for this post, I had to check twice which actor I was looking at. The movie revolves around Schneider’s stay in a rehab resort on the French coast in March 1981, where she wants to give an interview to journalist Michael Jürgs from the German magazine Stern. It seems to be shot at least partly in its original locations. There is history between her and her favorite photographer Robert Lebeck, and she asks one of her friends, Hilde Fritsch, to come and keep her company. For Schneider, any interview was a double-edged sword because she inevitably would be asked about leaving Germany for France, the suicide of her first husband and the custody battle for her son, and of course about the Sissi trilogy. On the other hand, she was eager to go on making movies. Continue reading

We need to talk about Tracy

I was very much looking forward to Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. It took me a while to warm to Anderson’s films, but I fell hard for his stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, even though I first saw it on a tiny screen in a cramped airplane, so the thought of another animated Wes Anderson joint featuring talking animals definitely appealed to me. I was lucky to finally see Isle of Dogs in a magnificent cinema in Florence, Italy – and much of it I enjoyed a lot. The craftsmanship is exquisite, the cinematography inventive and much of the canine characters’ writing and acting funny and endearing.

Isle of Dogs

However, a Fantastic Mr. Fox this ain’t. While the film’s premise is fine, the overall plotting feels like a draft in need of rewrites. The animal characters are quirky and neurotic but they rarely coalesce into something more genuine than the assembly of quirks that Anderson’s characters tend towards at his worst. More than that, though, there is a Tracy-shaped problem that makes you wonder: what was Anderson thinking? Continue reading

A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #10: Avengers: Infinity War

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 10 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture, in which we look in on the Avengers & friends and a certain titan with a temper. Is Infinity War a worthy culmination of ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? (Beware: heavy spoilers for Infinity War, including the ending.) Also, Mege’s looked into a different kind of infinity with Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, and Matt wishes he hadn’t seen the trailer last year’s indie darling Lady Bird five times before watching the film, and we share our impressions of Jon Bernthal in Netflix’ The Punisher and Cécile McLorin Salvant in concert. Continue reading

A for Execution

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here could have been made in the late Sixties, with John Wayne or Lee Marvin, or in the Eighties with Russell Crowe. Ramsay’s movie is based on a 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, but it could also be based on a story by Jim Thompson from the Fifties. I understand the comparisons with Taxi Driver, since both movies are about traumatized outsiders confronted with violence (a lot of it their own), but You Were Never Really Here is pared down to a taut 90 minutes. Everything that does not belong to the story is not in there. Ramsay’s screenplay tells a lean, mean tale that would be ruined with too much dialogue or too much exposition. Three out of her four movies have literary origins, and she always films her own screenplays. Lynne Ramsay knows what she wants to say, and how to say it.

Travis Bickle tried to get out of his shell and find a girlfriend, no matter how clumsy his courtship was; such a thing is completely out of the question for Joe, who is deeply scarred by his war memories. Ramsay doesn’t overstate Joe’s backstory, but presents it in short, repeated, steadily extending flashbacks. These days, Joe is busy freeing underage girls from a sex trafficking ring, and he goes about his work by all means necessary. We see him buy a high-end hammer for every new job. It’s a kind of work that absolutely no-one else but him could do. Joe doesn’t mind because he has essentially shut down emotionally. That is why he is so successful at his job. Sometimes he sees suicide as a threat, sometimes as a solution, and the next moment, you find him contemplating a green Skittle.

The movie doesn’t over-psychoanalyse Joe, either. He is mostly silent, and his most frequent answer is What?, because his mind is elsewhere, or maybe he’s busy listening to the noise inside his head. His only attempts at a normal life are when he is taking care of his frail old mother, played by Judith Roberts, whom you might remember from Orange Is The New Black. Mum thinks it’s hilarious to play dead when Joe comes around to look after her. It’s a good thing Joe doesn’t scare that way. It’s the only funny scene in the movie, and it’s not really funny at all, if you think about it.

There is a strange paradox at the center of the film. We either see Joe or we see what he sees. Lynne Ramsay films him in such tight frames that it feels like we are sometimes there with him, in the same car, in the same room, that it’s hard not to feel trapped with him, and as soon as he is using violence, the movie makes us accomplices. The other side is this: since Joaquin Phoenix gives such a good performance, Joe seems to dissolve before our very eyes. I can’t really explain why, and it is all the more surprising because Joe seems to be such a doughy hunk, folded back into himself. Phoenix has played psychologically damaged men before, most of all in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies Inherent Vice (2014) and even more so in The Master (2012). He is even better here. He is always dressed in black, with a scraggly beard, muttering admonishions to himself. There is a moment where he sits down in front of a shuttered high street shop, and he immediately passes for homeless.

For a movie about a suicidal guy who uses hammers to free girls from brothels, there is not much violence. Some of it might not come from the blood, but from how Joe’s presence undeniably means life or death – life to the girls, death to their johns and pimps. There is a moment in the movie where Joe, in the middle of a hammer job, is lying on the floor, a dying bodyguard beside him. They join hands. That scene could have gone wrong, but here, it works. Dying seems to be a state of being that Joe understands instinctively.

Death and the Politburo

In case the trailer didn’t already give it away, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a comedy. Its dialogue bristle with sharp, satirical thorns. It is at turns witty, goofy, absurdist and madcap. It is also like one of those works of art that, when you first look at them, seem to depict a rabbit or a beautiful young woman – but then you realise that you’re actually looking at a duck or an old crone, and once that realisation has set in, it’s difficult if not impossible to again see what you thought you saw at first. Once that moment has set in, The Death of Stalin becomes something much darker. The verbal humour remains, but it is revealed to be the poisonous icing on a meal that tastes of ashes and death.

The Death of Stalin

Continue reading

Annihiladaptation

Although I got the novel as a Christmas present, I only read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation after seeing Alex Garland’s movie adaptation, finishing it last weekend. There are some adaptations that ruin the original for you, but that’s rarely been a major problem for me: if a story is enjoyable primarily because of what happens next, I usually don’t feel all that much of a need to read it in the first place. If there are interesting characters or ideas, if the prose is evocative and atmospheric – generally, if it’s the storytelling itself that makes the story thrilling or funny or generally engaging rather than what happens next – then I’m definitely up for experiencing a story more than once.

Annihilation

Continue reading

Shut up, MacGuffin, before you get us all killed

It’s a good thing they still make them like this. A Quiet Place is more than one notch above the Insidious or Paranormal or Conjuring franchises; in fact, the movie has its roots as much in sci-fi than in horror, because they planned at an earlier stage to embed that story here into the world of Cloverfield. I don’t want to SPOIL the movie for anyone, but if you haven’t spent the last few weeks under a rock or in Area X, you know that A Quiet Place is about a family who find themselves alone in a post-apocalyptic world wherein you cannot make a single sound or the beasties in the woods will get you. It probably won’t surprise you all that much if I tell you that an early draft of the screenplay contained only one single line of dialogue. Continue reading