What luck today?

His name is Zain, and he is standing in the office of a police station in Beirut, Lebanon, in his underwear. He hasn’t seen a bath in days and looks malnourished, his face is grey with sleeplessness and worry. The doctor who comes to examine him assesses his age at 12 or 13. Zain himself doesn’t know, his parents can’t or won’t produce a birth certificate – maybe there never was one. Zain, like his siblings and his parents, is an illegal citizen in his own country. Because of the pressure of abject poverty and a war-torn economy, the parents abuse their kids verbally and physically. Zain does what he can to protect his siblings, most of all his younger sister Sahar because he is sure that his parents will try to marry her with a shopkeeper. Continue reading

Throwing down the gauntlet of 2018

It’s saying something if the first thing I remember about the movie year 2018 is not a movie, but a character. Thanos looms large – how could he not? With one fell swoop, Marvel solved its most prominent problem and made very, very sure that we wouldn’t forget their biggest, baddest baddie. He has depth – I believe him when he says that he fulfills his mission partly against his own will, and that it cost him everything. And he – goddamn it – is successful. Of course, my experience of Avengers: Infinity War was deeply colored by my favorite daughter sitting beside me who couldn’t believe that half her favorite MCU characters went up in ashes. Maybe this was this generation’s Bambi. Continue reading

The Rear-View Mirror: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Nobody understands the confidence game better than David Mamet. His movies, most of all his debut House of Games (1989), show you in great detail how his con men entrap, use and manipulate their victims for money, influence, sex, or all of the above. His take on the long con is so simple that he is a playwright first and a moviemaker second; his games only need a stage and a few props. He often enlisted the late Ricky Jay, who was a magician first and an actor second. It’s also proof that more complex things are going on than meet the eye, but the con very often happens in plain sight. The point of any confidence game is this: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” It’s the perpetrator’s choice, and the victim is hopelessly trapped. Some characters know what is happening to them, but can’t do anything about it. Others simply have no clue. There is a cruel purity to such a concept. Continue reading

It’s got to get bad before it gets worse

I am going to go out on a limb and say that even those viewers who say they like Gaspar Noé’s movies don’t find them easy to sit through. It’s hard to like any of his movies in the conventional feel-good sense. Nobody likes von Trier that way, either. And while von Trier is on the darker side of the emotional cineastic spectrum, Noé can be almost maniacally, forcefully happy by way of a drug-induced high for a short time, but his movies, sooner rather than later, always tip over into loss and despair. Irreversible has that unflinching and seemingly endless rape scene, Enter the Void is about a guy overdosing and then floating above Tokyo, visiting his sister and other people. Love is about a three-way relationship breaking apart, which is almost conventional for Noé. All of them, however, have in common their pretty radical storytelling, floating unsteady camera, flickering primary colors, and their unapologetic leaps into nudity and/or violence.

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The Rear-View Mirror: 253 (1994)

Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 was published in print in 1996, but it saw daylight on the internet in 1994. It’s about a London tube train on the Bakerloo line, travelling southbound from Embankment to Elephant & Castle. It’s a seven-minute ride, with stops at Waterloo and Lambeth North. This is from the foreword: “There are seven carriages on a Bakerloo Line train, each with 36 seats. A train in which every passenger has a seat will carry 252 people. With the driver, that makes 253.” And this is the novel for you: it contains 253 characters, each of them travelling on the train for those seven minutes. There are 253 entries in the book, each 253 words long. Repetitive? Well, yes, but boring? Not to me. Continue reading

Unable to stay, unwilling to leave

It’s spooky how easily Christian Petzold’s Transit juxtaposes the mass escape from Germany in 1940 with the mass migrations of today. There should not be so many parallels between the two movements, 70 or 80 years apart, but there are. His movie is based on the 1944 novel Transit by Anna Seghers, which mainly takes place in Marseille and is about a small group of German migrants who want to flee Nazi Germany and get a transit visa in order to get to Mexico. Petzold’s movie shows them in today’s Marseille, trying to flee the country, but getting stuck in the red tape procedures that must be all too familiar to any migrant anywhere. Continue reading

Hit the Road, Jack

What should I do with a movie like The House That Jack Built? Not only is it a Lars von Trier movie, which can’t be a walk in the park at the best of times, but it seems to be his most controversial feature yet, and that is saying something. There are moments in Melancholia (2011) that are as good as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. I’ve watched The Element of Crime (1984) more times than I can remember. He’s held parts of the movie-making scene hostage with his Dogma movement, producing some interesting results, only to break his own rules later. On the other hand, von Trier’s movies are, more often than not, unkind or cruel to its women. And The House That Jack Built is about a serial killer whose victims are mostly women. At least in this feature, von Trier’s misanthropy cannot fully obscure his misogyny. I know that it would be a grave mistake to confuse the writer-director’s attitude with the movie’s, but it’s von Trier’s oeuvre that seems to repeatedly mistreat its female characters. I try to give him the benefit of doubt, but there is a point where my doubt shows cracks. Continue reading

Love and Music

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is brim-full of music, singing and dancing, but it’s as far from a musical as it is possible to be. If you have seen Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), you know what mood to expect. It opens with three people travelling through the snow in a van to remote Polish villages, recording the music of farmers and working class members. We learn that those three people are the co-directors of a musical college who want to find the biggest talents in order to tour Europe. The introverted musical director, Wiktor, soon falls for a fantastic singer called Zula. She knows what she wants, and she wants Wiktor, there and then. In Poland, in 1949, it can’t have been easy at all to be that forward for a young woman. That Zula is on probation because she stabbed her incest-minded father makes her even more fascinating to Wiktor. Continue reading

The Rear-View Mirror: Lone Star (1996)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

What still gets me in John Sayles’ Lone Star is its simple device of showing you that time has passed. Let’s say there is a scene at the edge of a river in Texas, a woman and a man talking, set in the 1960ies, and then the scene comes to an end, and the camera slowly pans to the right, where there is another character in the here and now, the grown-up son of the man from long ago, watching the scene before his mind’s eye. Just by letting the camera move, the story is told in a flashback without a cut. Lone Star is not at all the first movie to do this, but to me, it was a simple but effective way to show that years, even decades, have gone by. Continue reading

The Rear-View Mirror: Out of Sight (1998)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There is nothing that can date a movie like style for style’s sake. It’s one of the hallmarks that betrays a movie’s age, and while some stylistic choices can turn a movie into a classic, other styles might simply not age that well. Think about small things like lens flares. Or think about the dogma certificate. That doesn’t mean that they are bad movies; it’s just that sometimes, movies get stuck in the times they were made. Nostalgia isn’t the worst reason to re-visit a movie you haven’t seen in a long time. Continue reading