Karl Self

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Reviews

Reclaiming Amy
(2021)

Restoring Mitch
This BBC documentary comes ten years after the death of Amy Winehouse, and five years after the Acadamy Awards-winning documentary Amy. Although the latter didn't set out to be overly caustic, it showed Amy's father Mitch in two unfavourable situations, once telling his daughter to that she must do a show and in another case bringing his own camera team. This documentary explicitly sets out to "set the balance straight" and tell the parents' story. I'm not sure it's the point of any documentary, especially one by a publicly financed broadcaster, to tell a one-sided story.

Sessomatto
(1973)

Sexy comedy and proud of it
Normally the epithet "sexy comedy" is a cinematic death knell, but the cooperation of the fantastic Laura Antonelli, Giancarlo Giannini and director Dino Risi turned this into a timeless classic. And yes, it's funny and sexy. In nine segments and probably inspired, in a good way, by Woody Allen's "What You Always Wanted To Know About Sex" which was released a year earlier.

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead
(2015)

Nomen est omen
This documentary brought The Damned out of obscurity for me. A band with an incredible history of Top of the Pops appearances, the first UK punk single, chart hits, solo successes, launching Lemmy Kilmister and the bassist of Culture Club just on a side note. Despite being ahead of their time and repeatedly making it into the charts, their nomen seems to have been their omen, ultimately splitting the band into two warring factions.

The Female Animal
(1958)

It is said that when a woman fights for a man, she does so with dialogue and fiery looks
How did they ever get that past the Production Code? An ageing alcoholic actress picks up a toy boy, who is then seduced by her alcoholic precocious daughter. There are so many powerful, but deeply unhappy, women here that you could pave a road to Rome with them, and wittier dialogue in a single scene than in the entire Holy Bible. Really, it's a must-see if you enjoy sharp dialogue as much as I do. I'm certain that Tarantino borrowed the "stuntman housekeeper" concept for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood".

A Billion Lives
(2016)

Unabashed promo video for vaping
Not sure whether I quite expected that. I'm pretty sure that vaping is the lesser of two evils, which can easily be determined by sitting next to a vaper and then next to a smoker for fifteen minutes.

Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi
(2007)

Who's whackiest of the bunch?
Yeah, those Evangelicals sure are a whacky bunch. Alexandra Pelosi, filmmaking daughter of whacky Nancy Pelosi (who looks a lot like an Evangelical wife BTW), visited the choice whackiest of the bunch and got them to talk into her microphone. To be honest, it almost endeared them to me.

Anvil: The Story of Anvil
(2008)

Finish school
I just saw it again after over 10 years and still loved it. It's the story of everyone who showed promise and never got further than that. Then again, Cactus were the heroes of Anvil, and where are Cactus now?

Just two notes: When Anvil appear in that pub in Prague-Smichov, somehow Otto Walkes appears briefly on stage with them, Germany's most famous comedian.

And then there's the title plate "Munich, day 32" but they're somehow not in Southern Germany but in Linköping, Sweden (or the next picture is in Linköping but they're still somewhere else, but they're certainly not in Munich as suggested.)

Vai viegli but jaunam?
(1986)

Is it easy to be old?
This is a rare document of how live in the Soviet Union seemed to be set in stone even on the onset of Perestroika, and even more so after the core meltdown at Chernobyl and during the climax of the Russia-Afghanistan War. It was called the Cold War and the Iron Curtain for a reason. The film starts with the aftermath when a bunch of incredibly tame-looking youths are charged with wrecking a train car after a concert, and get handed down sentences of over three years. Then there are bona fide punks rummaging through Soviet Riga, being disgruntled, snarling and up to no good, just like in my neck of the woods back then. Auteur Juris Podnieks talks to them all, the rebels, the squares and the thieving ballerinas, all of this accompanied to a very bad soundtrack indeed. It made an enormous impression back then, all the more so as this was somehow, mysteriously the Soviet Union but not Russia. The same train cars of Latvia are doing fine, by the way, the same stock is still operational in 2019. Only the rebels have grown old and grey.

Heavy Water: A Film for Chernobyl
(2007)

Why poetry?
There is so much interesting stuff to tell around Chernobyl. As evidenced by the success of the current HBO miniseries. But instead this is poetry and wobbly images. This totally missed me.

Blutiger Freitag
(1972)

Tougher than leather ... pants
This is just a great, over the top story of a bank heist gone wrong with the greatest bad boy of movie history, Raimund Harmstorf. Chock full with (visual) violence, cheap FX and really the greatest trash talk of all times. And Gila von Weitershausen as the naive bit on the side isn't too bad either.

La chiave
(1983)

Don't throw away The Key
Just from the opening scene it's evident that Tinto Brass is in a class of his own as a filmmaker. A beautifully shot period piece in which an ageing husband gets aroused by his wife falling for her daughter's boyfriend (kind of a ménage a quatre), simply because it arouses him to see his wife aroused. I'm not into cuckolding, but it's actually a sweet, romantic film in a way, just with a lot of visual fawning over women's exposed buttocks. Tinto Brass is like that. I've heard about him but not really seen much so far. I'm glad this is beginning to change.

I Am Not Your Negro
(2016)

Black as day
First of, you have to hand it to Samuel Jackson. He could make my tax statement sound captivating. Next, director Raoul Peck manages to back him up with a stunning visual collage of archive footage.

So "I Am Not Your Negro" is a surprisingly easy watch, despite the fact that it is based on an unfinished script by James Baldwin So why is this movie called "I Am Not Your Negro"? I don't know. And in any case, I don't want "you" to be my negro. Baldwin's text is called, equally obliquely, but less catchily, "Remember This House".

What I got from this movie was that James Baldwin was a trained preacher, who tried to be an acolyte to far more charismatic civil rights activists (in the case case of Malcolm X, black racist) Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who were murdered before they were 40 years old (and in Malcolm's case, by black henchmen of his own cult). The film has to pussyfoot around the fact that two other protagonists of the era, the Kennedy brothers, were also murdered, despite the fact that they were not downtrodden and as white as the cliffs of Dover.

Baldwin is seen trying to convince liberal white Americans, who were all for civil rights in the first place, that fighting racism was somehow not an act of altruism but somehow would contribute to their own betterment.

And also that the white sheriff in "In The Heat Of The Night" and "Mr. Tibbs" have an erotic tension going on between them.

Holy Hell
(2016)

The song remains the same
The filmmaker of this documentary (Will Allen) used to be the official filmmaker of the cult for more than twenty years, so he had a lot of video material to work with, which provided a uniquely in-depth and colourful insight into the strange workings and trappings of this group. This movie can serve up a lot more than just the usual newspaper clippings and filmed retrospective interviews.

The guru of this cult is an incredibly odd and camp former / failed bit part actor and dancer (nothing wrong with that, by the way, there's a lot of those around) who apparently had a unique talent for conducting meditation session. And for recruiting some of the best looking acolytes ever. Even his disgruntled former members looked back upon those initial "shaktis" fondly, and the way they described those sessions made me wonder whether those sessions had not been spiked with psychedelic drugs.

Some members then became totally devoted to Michel, one member describes how his life centered around creating incredibly elaborate fruit salads for his master. To me, that was already the point when the sexual abuse that followed became almost inevitable. Those people have to face up to the fact that they pulled out the stops themselves.

Michel must have been very patient and sly to wait until his followers had severed all ties with the real world before he started to profit from them sexually. Unsurprisingly, and despite his public denigrations of sexuality which he used to isolate his followers from each other, he eventually started to sexually abuse his attractive male disciples.

Atomic Blonde
(2017)

Atomic Cinema
The most amazing thing just happened to me. I was visiting a city and came by this amazing-looking cinema. So I decided to watch a flick there that evening. I settled on the late show, which turned out to be Atomic Blonde on its opening night. I didn't even realize the film played in Berlin at all. As it turned out, a major action scene actually took place (and had been shot) at the cinema I was watching it in, the Kino International on Karl Marx Allee in East Berlin. It was a totally weird feeling to watch Charlize Theron battle it out with two KGB henchmen between the seats which I sat on, watching ... you get the point.

Actually, while I can testify that the outside shots are authentic, I can reveal that the inside of the foyer had been FXed (a socialist mural had been added to the wall), and the auditorium was not that of the Kino International.

OK, enough of that. Atomic Blonde is a showcase for Charlize Theron who gets to waste lots of KGB henchmen in high heels (Theron, not the henchmen). Oh yes, and getting more French skirt than James Bond on a skirt-getting mission in France. It's really a pre-feminism Bond movie with a female lead. Never mind the plot, really. If you really believed that Percival was a trouper and that Lorraine (Theron) wouldn't come out trumps in the end ... well, I saw it coming.

They caught the atmosphere of Berlin in the late 1980ies pretty truthfully for a fiction film.

This is for you if you enjoy wachting arses getting well and truly kicked. With a bit of girl-on-girl action on the side.

Dear Albania
(2015)

Make a movie about your mother (... tu nonen)
It would seem that few are less suited for making an intriguing documentary about an entire country and an entire people than a US-American actress who is shooting a docu pic on her first voyage there whilst trying to "rediscover her roots" on her "Albanian pilgrimage". Albania is a fascinating country, but anyone who has ever been to Durres would be hard pressed to call its beaches "untouched by tourism". And if you're describing the kanun as "vigilante justice", it just means that ou have a lot to learn. And you may end up regurgitating trite fluff about Albania being one of the "oldest Western civilisations". Portraying an entire country, it turns out, is no trivial task.

PS: And I've never before heard Prishtina described as "vibrant".

Arrival
(2016)

Departure (from the cinema)
I just watched the original "Alien" movie, which was made in 1979. Incredible. And then this botched remake of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". And then I had to take in the stellar reviews here on IMDb. Wow.

Where did it all go wrong? When was the collective decision made that movies are great just because they have an uplifting message? "Arrival" starts with an interesting premise, twelve spaceships suddenly appear all over the globe, and in the USA a linguist is dispatched to communicate with the aliens. And they always take along a canary bird for some reason. OK, that's great so far. I guess the big payoff is that the aliens look like octopi buuuuuuuuuut they have only seven legs and are caring-sharing-karma-believing hippies who want to help us out so that we will help them out in, like, three millenia. By talking in whalesong.

All over the world, the greatest minds are trying to establish some sort of understanding with the spacefreaks, but then Amy Adams, or the scientist she's playing, has the wonderful idea to write down the sentence "Hi, I'm Amy" on a piece of paper, and the aliens are like: Wow, we traveled over hundred of lightyears, and wanted to communicate with you in writing, but we wanted YOU to initiate it. And now you did! Let me throw some circles at you! And Amy's like: Oh finally, CIRCLES! Why, that's so much easier to decode than the whalesong you did before, let me draw some scientificy-looking vectors, and there! I've solved it! And by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I can now look into the future! And that totally explains all the weird flashbacks throughout the movie! But most of all: OMG, the protagonist is a woman scientist! I still have to see one convincing, let alone great movie, by Denis Villeneuve. The critics may love you, Denis. But they don't pay for their movie tickets.

Maigret: Night at the Crossroads
(2017)
Episode 1, Season 2

It all seems a bit French to me
I was certainly very excited, and from the get-go, at the prospect of Atkinson playing Maigret. At least to me, it seemed like a perfect match. And at last, here was a chance to see a Maigret of my generation.

Certainly, they've put a lot of effort into this production, it's beautifully shot and acted. But maybe they've tried to hard to impress with the stories. There's certainly always another twist and turn, but my credulity was always stretched very quickly beyond breaking point.

And it certainly was a challenge for the thespian of usually hyperactive, hyperverbal and hyperphysical role to turn out a pokerfaced observer of the human theatre, but I often had the Impression that Maigret was somehow recovering from a debilitating stroke: "Tell her ... that ... in this country ..." It reminded me less of Maigret and more of that wheezy wheelchair kid in Malcolm In The Middle.

The Man Who Knew Too Much
(1956)

Like being tailgated by Mario Andretti
Doris Day in a Hitchcock movie where she sings "Que sera, sera" -- twice? Yes, it really did happen. And what's more, it was Hitchcock's remake of one of his own, earlier, British films. You'd expect him to have phoned this one home, or at least to have ironed out the snags of his first version -- but, amazingly, the remake is a complete dud. At least the concept is interesting -- an average guy becomes a peon -- and ultimately, hero -- in a spy story. A bit like in Die Hard, but without the explosions. But the story is ludicrous, a spy gives him a vital bit of information for no reason whatsoever, except to kickstart the story. And, equally for no discernible reason, except for the exotic scenery, the first part of the film takes place in Marrakesh. Unfortunately, the hammy scriptwriting continues all through the film. I had to check the box to make sure this really was an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Smrt u Sarajevu
(2016)

Our house
Although I thought "No Man's Land" was way overrated, and even though I was skeptical about "Smrt u Sarajevu" being based on a play by French philosophy superstar BHL (Bernard-Henri Lévy), I found this movie to be captivating, surprising, poignant and insightful.

Inside the (really existing) Hotel Europa in Sarajevo, several narrative strings unfold simultaneously. While preparations are underway to commemorate the shooting of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914, which triggered the First World War, on the roof there are talking head interviews by a TV station, an important French actor arrives to rehearse his role, the hotel manager has to deal with an impending strike which would push his house into certain bankruptcy, while in the cellar a mafia figure is running a seedy but profitable night club, and he is making the hotel manager an offer he can't refuse.

This is ultimately a movie about the Yugoslaw wars and the siege of Sarajevo, a subject which surprisingly many films have failed to deal with. "Death in Sarajevo" is a rare exception.

Projekt A - Eine Reise zu anarchistischen Projekten in Europa
(2015)

Never trust a hippie (reloaded)
Anarchism is Greek for "whatever", apparently. This documentary displays several incongruent people and groups, who are attributed as "anarchists". There is a group in Athens who have turned a parking lot, which used to be frequented by drug dealers, into a park or public garden. There is a trade union in Barcelona, which calls its system "anarchosyndicalism", even though I couldn't really make out the difference to representative democracy. There is a professional protester in Germany, who leaves jail after having vandalized army property, and who later chains herself to a railroad track in order to obstruct the transportation of nuclear waste.

This movie left me with the feeling that "anarchism" is the vaguest of political labels on the market.

Berlin Rebel High School
(2016)

School's out for ... actually, it's still on for these kids. Sorry.
This is a well-made fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows the lives of a bunch of young reprobates living in Berlin. Their common denominator is that they attend the private school SFE (Schule für Erwachsenenbildung, "school for adult education"), referred to in this movie by its way cooler moniker, "Berlin Rebel School". There are several schools like this, offering a second chance to those who dropped out of the state school system and are over the age for secondary education. The others are probably not as cool as this one, which looks like it's set inside an occupied bunker, decorated by Keith Haring on LSD, and run by the Doobie Brothers. The movie narrates the story of the kids in a sympathetic and easy to follow manner.

Unfortunately, we get to know relatively little about the school itself. The students have to pay a moderate tuition of €148 per month, while the staff have to scrape by on the meagre (and uniform) minimal wage of €12,50 per hour. Decisions are made by the school parliament, i. e. by students and employees together. Since it is a school for adults, attendance is voluntary, we see students and faculty consume copious amounts of cigarettes, beer and oftentimes joints, and there are no grades -- EXCEPT for when you want to leave the school with more than a warm handshake, in which case the students need to pass regular state examinations in a dreaded regular school.

There are many interesting questions which the film doesn't address. First and foremost, why do students, who managed to get themselves kicked out of sometimes 10 schools in a row, cope so much better in this school? Is it really just the laid-back attitude? And how do the students get by financially -- do they have to rely on wealthy parents to subsidise their tuition, room and board in Berlin?

The Business of Recovery
(2015)

Amy Winehouse was right
This is one of the best documentaries I have seen recently, after a great number of duds. Before I saw it, I used to think that checking into a rehab was the natural thing to do for somebody having a serious addiction. Apparently many rehabs in the United States, including the famous Betty Ford Center, are glorified (but very expensive) care homes which do little more in terms of therapy than taking you to an AA meeting in the evening. In other words, you could get the same therapy for free, while Alcoholics Anonymous and their 12 step program are a lot less effective than is widely believed.

By the way, at one point a woman claims that defibrillators (which she pronounces somewhat like "defibulator") cost a mere US$200. Just for the record, they cost upwards of US$1400.

I had a close relative with addiction, and I can confirm that, even when profit is not an issue, it's the dark ages. It really is faith- based rather than "what works". So many people will throw their little spiel at you, whether it's something they're doing for a business or whether it's a show they've seen on TV. A shocking number of people will put the blame on you for not being willing to set up a "hot chair" type of "intervention". You sort of have to become an instant wizard.

Other than what this documentary propagates, I think it is of little consequence whether addiction is seen as a disease or not.

Broken Flowers
(2005)

I'm trying to unsee this
I just rewatched Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise, which are simply awesome movies. Fast forward twenty years on, and Jim Jarmusch came up with Broken Flowers, which feels like it was directed by the artistically-inclined nephew of the owner of the movie studio. Jarmusch, bless him, apparently wanted to do another "Lost In Translation"-type flick with Bill Murray. In "Lost In Translation", the unlikely pair of average shmoe Murray and American sweetheart Scarlett Johansson are stranded in a faceless hotel and gradually form an emotional bond. In Broken Flowers, average shmoe Murray revisits his girlfriends from 20 years ago, and their sultry daughters and receptionists, all of which turn out to be foxes. Quite a challenge to make us believe that twenty years ago, Murray set their little hearts on fire, stayed with them for a few short months, sodded off and moved on to the next girlfriend, dropped off the horizon, and now they're like "oh, you're back, how nice, do come in". How is this amazing feat mastered? Brilliantly, by Murray not getting a word out. It's a bit like "act like you don't care, this will make the girl try anything to get your attention". And he's giving each of them a bouquet of pink flowers. Oh man, this is bad.

Jarmusch apparently wanted to do a movie with Murray, didn't have a script, and this was exacerbated by the fact he had the most beautiful actresses in the world at his beck and call.

And typically for the wicked ways of the movie industry, this cinematic trainwreck garnered a Palme d'Or at Cannes. Kudos, they managed to give it to Jarmusch for the one terrible movie he made.

Small Is Beautiful: A Tiny House Documentary
(2015)

About small minds, not small houses
"He never asked me for anything. I wish I had that kind of relationship with everybody."

"Very early on, someone took a huge crap right next to the house. That was pretty unpleasant."

"Have you learned anything unique about me through this process?"

"I'm trying really hard not to let the lack of permanence and rootedness influence my experience of tiny house living."

Congratulations, documentary. You've made me hate tiny houses, and the tiny-minded souls that live in them. And Portland.

Apparently tiny houses full of obnoxious, self-centered people, who think they're special and better than normal people.

I wonder whether the hippies in the 1960ies and 1970ies were like that? So supercilious?

Actually, the documentary is technically well made. They probably could have pulled off an insightful documentary about tiny houses, but chose instead to focus on the self-absorbed people who apparently dwell in them, based on thefar-fetched assumption that people who live in or build a trailer (let's face it, that's what they are) must somehow all have fascinating stories to tell.

By the way, tiny houses, usually going by the name of "Bauwagen" ("construction Trailer"), have been a microtrend in Germany since at least the 1980ies. I know people who have lived in them, in most larger cities there are projects where people dwell their tiny houses in public spaces ("Wagenburgen"), only there has never been such a media hype about it. That would have been an interesting angle for the documentary to explore, though.

I've noted the trend in documentaries to pretend to be on a subject, only to then refuse to give you any solid information but to turn it entirely into a people story.

Kundschafter des Friedens
(2017)

They Trying' To Make Me Return From Rehab
Like the agents in this movie, many of the actors in this movie were reactivated. Roles for OAP thespians are pretty thin on the ground -- and have always been. In the case of Jürgen Prochnow, this is practically the first time I have seen him since Das Boot.

The plot idea is brilliant -- Germany's secret service has a serious problem in far-away "Kadschikistan" and has to reactivate a troupe of former East German agents for their "contacts in the field".

Like in so many German comedies, they sort of forgot about a small but esssential ingredient -- a good script, ideally one containing witty dialogues. So off they fly into some former Soviet boondocks where everybody speaks with excessively guttural accents, and women are treated like in a Channel 4 documentary. The former nemeses (plural of Nemesis, I looked it up) eventually rally together against a common foe, roll credits. Frankly, I suspect that German movies suffer from too much benevolent public financing, and not enough I-want-my-money-back investors.

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