p-stepien

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Yi dai zong shi
(2013)

Deceptively beautiful ode to martial arts
"The Grandmaster" focuses on the life and times of Yip Man (played by the immense Tony Leung), a master of the Wing Chun style of fighting, now increasingly revered as one of the martial arts greats, in some part at least due to the reverence of association to the iconic Bruce Lee. After a series of movies, most prominently featuring Donnie Yen, the great auteur Wong Kar Wai takes a jab at the increasingly glorified figure and delivers a mesmeric opus to martial arts. The Grandmaster" ventures from his life in Foshan in the 1930s up until his flight to Hong Kong, where he finally manages to setup a successful school. The story itself however seems to only fleetingly linger on Yip Man, instead attempting to encapsulate the art itself (its changing fortune and how various styles from across this vast country ventured and interacted with each other) and the political overtones under which it struggled to survive, because returning to the forefront triumphant and admired. As Yip Man ventures from mainland China to the British dominated Hong Kong, the fight for the existence of martial arts becomes a extension of the struggle to maintain national identity.

As the outer reality of Japanese and English occupation brings about varying internal conflicts, Kar Wai treats us to enchanting poetic scenes of combat, bringing out the beauty of the dance with a mix of slow motion, trademark camera shots and the odd bit of wires. This does cause the fights to lack in intensity, instead bringing about the fluidity of movement and the beauty it encapsulates. Nonetheless this poetry in action and the political undertones are not enough to lift the movie, that is horrendously hampered by a disjointed and messy story. As Kar Wai decides to float in a dreamlike fashion while interjecting pathos into many speeches, the end result is unfortunately a dramatic mess, which fails to flesh out the story, but manages to stay pretentious for all two many scenes.

Restraint borders with pomposity, the tone traverse at time into over- sentimentality, while subtleness flirts unkindly with irrelevance. Unfortunately, this quasi-biopic the lack of structure works to overall detriment, leaving but a set of memorable scenes to admire, while the rest barely registers. Painfully disappointing movie, which despite my admiration, must register as a failed return by the cinematic grandmaster.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
(2014)

Branagh plummets
Jack Ryan (played by revamped Captain Kirk Chris Pine) is an ex-marine with apparently genius level intellect, who after retiring from active duty becomes part of covert CIA operations in the financial markets. When he digs up odd dollar purchases for a Russian billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), he alerts his comrades and is soon sent to Moscow to dig deeper into the evil conniving plutarchs of the ex-Soviet empire. He soon becomes a target for contracted hit-man and a part of an ensuing world-saving operation to stop impeding doom. His only hope is experienced field agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner apparently filmed this during lunch breaks on the set of "3 Days To Kill", still even wearing the same clothes). Meanwhile he must also meander between a personal crisis with his fiancée Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who suspects Ryan's second life has to do with infidelity...

Why film a Jack Ryan movie that apparently isn't even based on any of the Jack Ryan novels? Haven't read any, but with such a bold move you had better deliver a well-wrought compelling intrigue to back up your decision. As it stands Kenneth Branagh unfortunately delivers a talkative meandering story, which attempts to recreate some of the best of the Bourne franchise, but fails to create the urgency or intrigue to make it truly work. This is all structured around an absurd plot, which for some unknown reason necessitates a terrorist attack to precede a financial meltdown.

The movie suffers from a chaotically absurd pulp storyline. But whats worse the planning behind the attack ventures into imbecillic with spy mistakes piling up to a level unheard of. In such circumstances, Jack Ryan is always a step ahead of the moronic, saving the day by calling the stupid. Whereas the build-up manages to hold sway, despite the overly long background introducion to Jack Ryan (and moronic plot point of pulling people out of a burning helicopter with a broken back), it loses hold once all the pieces are put into play ending in a cat and mouse chase between dumb and not as dumber.

3 Days to Kill
(2014)

Covered with Besson's fingerprints
After the unexpected, but well deserved success of "Taken", Luc Besson as is his habit decides to utilise the concept by changes a few pieces, repackaging it and selling it to the audience. Another middle-aged (or even elderly) anti-hero is introduced in the guise of Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), an experienced top-of-the-line CIA contract killer, who finds out that a terminal cancer leaves him with but 3 months of life. Besson mixes family and carnage once again, as the now retired assassin attempts to reconcile with his wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and estranged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) before he passes on. Despite vows to the contrary, Ethan nonetheless decides to reembark into his career path, when voluptuously irritating operative Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) coalesces him into one final hit in return for access to a new experimental cancer drug (viola! magic!). As Ethan stumbles along to fix the ruptured family relationship and with his body destitute through illness he essentially crawls his way to the task at hand.

Mixing up some odd humour, including fraternisation on matters of family with kidnapped objects of torture, Ethan is yet another well-worked distinguishable character within the Besson pantheon. Whereas McG of "Terminator: Salvation" infamy directs, the entire story reeks of scriptwriter Besson's distinct fingerprints - starting from incompetent French police forces and ending at the familial mix of tongue-in-cheek violence. Much in the mold of the aforementioned "Taken", the morality of things takes an intriguing skewed path, however much less daring than that of the Macchiavelian approach of Bryan Mills. Murder, death remain a distant afterthought, never truly delved upon, instead functioning at gimmicks to make compelling or just comedic story structures.

Kevin Costner works his best in the role, but lacks the forceful stature of Liam Neeson, thus never seeming as domineering as a super agent. That said Ethan Renner is meant to be more flawed, less self-assured, however just as efficient a killer. More worryingly the moral overtones are mostly jarring, set in to forward the story, but somewhat troubling in how cynically they are utilised, while being internally lax. Overall however "3 Days to Kill" manage to keep up the action and comedy to a satisfying level, letting the troublesome issues skid by while taking everything at face value.

Somewhere within this movie is the absolutely atrocious character of Viva Delay, sent in by the scriptwriter/director solely to get animalistic response from the male audience, while offering nothing of substance or relevance. The less said the better.

Veronica Mars
(2014)

Mars Attacks
Basing my entire viewing pleasure on relatively high IMDb marks, I was unaware that the movie is a revisit into a Nancy Drew type television series with the ubiquitous then teenage, now fully grown, Veronic Mars (Kristen Bell) the charismatic protagonist. Now no longer an 18-year-old PI living in the nouveau riche fictitious Californian town of Neptune, full of wealth, petty stars and corruption, Mars has escaped to live the simpler life of a New York attorney. However, when the past rattles on her door, when one of her ex-friends brutally murdered and her ex-fling Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) the prime suspect, she decides to postpone her new life and once again pick up her PI goodie bag to find the real culprit.

Subtly mixed in tone, not overly bleak, but also not typical teenage fare, "Veronica Mars" distinguishes itself from the onset with some witty dialogue and well written script, which, albeit occasionally grinding out clichés, manages to intrigue. However it never really feels like seeking a more general appeal, instead a very strict ode to the characters of the series, leaving chance viewers like myself outside of the dynamics of the love triangles, intrigue and personal animosities. It is still well structured and filling in the dots is easily done, but that significantly deprives you of extra layers of affinity to the people involved. Bell especially oozes with charisma, capturing attention with her at times witty, but elsewhile bland and well-worn motivations. Overall, I can understand the general appeal and satisfaction level, but it never really transgresses past the effort of a well-directed season finale.

300: Rise of an Empire
(2014)

Crossing the line
A follow up to the spectacularly overblown pathos of "300", Zack Snyder and crew brings back the "THIS IS...!!!" with blood-spurting slow-mos extravaganza. This time with horses marauding from ship to ship, humans jumping 30 feet like they were half-grasshoppers, an overdose of testosterone that would make Charlize Theron grow a beard and countless dramatic declamations that seem to never end. In between the splattering and burly half-naked men running area in glee as arms, legs and heads fly, we are treated to an endless mix of the grandiloquent tirades, woodenly delivered by varying characters. Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) takes several shots at exalted speeches, struggling not to topple off of the many elevated podiums, thankfully however his loyal soldiers turn a deaf ear and all same cheer on their literately challenged leader. For whatever he lacks in enunciation and screen presence, he makes up for with a six pack, making love with the opposing female general (Artemisia played by Eva Green), lots of shouting and being the world record holder of spear-throwing (at some 300 feet).

Other characters also take on the gauntlet and challenge Stapleton at overplaying their roles, as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), widow-queen of Sparta amps it up with her own dose of pomposity, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) goes medieval as a pinless Pinhead impersonator, Artemisia makes a prolonged death wish by wearing the audiences patience thin, while a couple of other characters challenge for screen time, but fail to resonate. The best actors in this movie are inherently those from Zack Snyder-directed "300", especially Peter Mensah, known best for being kicked down a well or David Wenham as the one-eyed Dilios. That said the stand-out actor in the sequel is Gered Butler as King Leonidas, who features in this sequel as scene excerpts are borrowed from the original. And it says a lot when the best acted scenes come from another movie...

"Rise of an Empire" coincides with the actions of "300", first running parallel, then followed by the decisive sea battle under Salamis, where the sea forces of Xerxes were wiped out in a concerted effort of Greek polis. Naturally, director Noam Murro decides to amp up the action as well as make the war as comical as possible. Inasmuch as Xerxes actually did have superior forces, the difference in soldiers and ships has Persian forces multiplied, while Greek forces divided. Add on the appallingly distasteful tirades about 'fighting for the freedom of the world' and forming Xerxes and the Persian empire into some devilish evil, and you receive a derisive portrayal of events past, which feel ill-suited not only to historical facts, but also common decency.

Overall, much like in the original, this very lax attitude towards truth can be forgotten, even forgiven, given the overblown grandiose concept of storytelling. However, "Rise of an Empire" lacks the same powerful cast, especially given the forgettable Stapleton who is dwarfed by Butler's powerful portrayal, the storytelling swagger as well as the dramatic build-up, which makes the whole ludicrosity of "300" work. Instead, the sequel feels like a poor expansion on Snyder's work, based on a simplistic scheme of introduction, battle, short character focus, grandiose speech, battle, short character focus, grandiose speech (or two for good measure), battle, short character focus, grandiose tirades, ultimate battle (may have missed one or two speeches or battles in between).

As much as graphically this is a riveting eye-catching spectacle, much like the original, it is a ultimately a tiring bore. Technically a joy to behold, but after the first few visual spectacles the form starts to wear thin and the lack of gravity or purposeful storytelling sinks in, exposing it for what it is: a truly appalling TV-grade movie.

Non-Stop
(2014)

Disappointing
The last true action hero, the towering elderly Liam Neeson returns to his recently found career path of on-screen macho in this hi-flying adrenaline rush. Neeson plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic ex-cop with family issues (doesn't he always?), who now works as one of the thousands of air marshals, hired in the aftermath of post-9/11 frenzy. Often unverified and with little to no background checks, various non- suitable personnel is let on-board aeroplanes (at least such is the premise of the movie) with an armed gun. Soon after start off Marks starts receiving enigmatic text messages claiming that sooner than later people will start dying on the aeroplane, unless funds are transferred to a given account. As Marks attempts to hunt down the perpetrator the body count starts to increase and soon doubts arise as to who the real culprit is...

Initially promising, especially given Neeson makes for the ideal off- beat antihero, the story shifts into a whodunit scenario, with paranoia rife as to the people responsible. As such the movie however lacks originality and seems like a laboured rip-off of "The Flight Plan", which at least managed to keep tension high and had the audience guessing as to the insanity of the main character. Here the tension is much less palpable, albeit the payoff is way less ridiculous, although still with a significant dosage of ludicrousness. Action sequences are nonetheless top-notch and watching Neeson (once again) combat in closed quarters never gets old. Looking past that the story never really seems mysterious, the identity of the culprits is never really feasible and its pretty easy to identify non-guilty parties, even if at one point in time the finger gets pointed at them. By the end the movie swerves into the realm of laughable resolution, not only with the appalling motivation of the baddies (so bad the actors had trouble with even phoning it in). On top of that we find layered mad-hatter plotting of the evil dudes and all sort of air flight procedures being thrown about in gibberish rants, but the characters seem all to happy to omit the real options at their disposal (such as armed fighters not allowing a plane to lower altitude despite the real threat of a bomb on board).

As good as Liam Neeson is, the story does syphon your intellect, leaving me ultimately disinterested. Obviously not as far fetched in idiocy as "The Flight Plan" or the cult favorite "Snakes on a Plane", but just enough on the wrong side of logic to derail an otherwise well paced high-altitude thriller.

Edge of Tomorrow
(2014)

Best Flop EVER!
It what seems to be the most spectacular big budget flop of the season, comes "Edge of Tomorrow", a sci-fi action extravaganza that is one of the best genre movies of the decade. With home sales losing out to teen bromance, overseas return seems to be doing very well, which brings all sorts of questions as to why the Cruise-led alien invasion flick got pummelled so hard in the United States. Word of mouth must be immensely positive, as this is obviously the must see movie for all true sci-fi lovers, and critic's feedback has been verging on unanimous praise, so obviously something else is awry.

Two films immediately come to mind when watching "Edge of Tomorrow", a correlation so obvious that probably every other review pinpoints the influences, namely comedy classic "Groundhog Day" and Verhoeven's vastly underrated "Starship Troopers". Stuck between these two concept movies evolves a surprisingly original and fresh story, which manages to successfully warp expectations.

All out war with an alien invasion brings together humanity, when an asteroid crash-lands into central Europe, carrying with it a scourge of otherworldly twirling dervishes called the mimics. As they quickly conquer most of Europe, the counterattack is initiated by a victory under Verdun, where the Full Metal B... Rita (Emily Blunt) singlehandedly kills over a hundred mimics with the newly designed exoskeletons.

Cage (Tom Cruise) is the head of PR for the army, a whimpering coward so terrified of the front-line he attempt to blackmail his superior to avoid participating in the fight. With an imminent Normandy type assault planned the following day, Cage finds himself stripped of rank and thrown into a unit heading for the front-lines. The mass landing ends in slaughter with Cage killed in action... only for himself to be inexplicably captured within a time loop.

Within a mix of exceptional features and poor contrivances, this summer has been one of the most successful. Following "Captain America 2" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past", the blockbuster season seemed to have peaked. And apparently so did the audience, leaving out "Edge of Tomorrow" from their 'to-watch' list. Nonetheless as far as movies goes Liman (a hit-and-miss director of "Jumper", "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr and Mrs Smith") blows his predecessors out of contention in terms of a stunning mix of style and substance. Whereas other features had their flaws and "Godzilla" was an outright disappointment, "Edge of Tomorrow" comes good from the get-go, the only jagged moment coming late on with a jarring out-of-tone ending. Successfully mixing drama, comedy, bleak atmosphere with moments of emotional tension functioning hand-by-hand with ice-breakers and comedic jumps, the scriptwriters truly nailed it. And who would have thought given how uninspired some of Christpher McQuarrie's and the Butterworth brother's previous endeavors were: ranging from "Jack Reacher" and "The Tourist" to "The Last Legion" (although it must be said McQuarrie also has "The Usual Suspects" credited to him).

Unlike many features of its kind, "Edge of Tomorrow" manage to avoid being solely testosterone driven, albeit the movie does feature a rag-tag squad of misfit soldiers in the Aliens mode, together with Bill Paxton. Albeit action-packed there is a lot of heart flowing, especially with the notion of death being such a frivolous thing and the concept of constantly reliving your beloved one die. Naturally a lot is taken tongue-in-cheek, even these intruguing issues are primarily utilised for their dramatic effect, not for their philosophical options. Issues are skin-deep, tooled and geared so that the video-game premise of immortality isn't the sole pull of the story. Thus the movie is nowhere near "Groundhog Day" in terms of underlying contextual commentaries. In essence this is a popcorn movie. Just one of the damn finest there is.

Godzilla
(2014)

Garguatuan delivery of monsters, lax drama
Gareth Edwards reinvigorates Godzilla on the American soil with his gargantuan portrayal of the famed post-nuclear monster, which retreads the origins of its fame and imprints them within this big-budget modern-day extravaganza. Even Godzilla itself diverts form the T-Rex blunder of the 1998 movie and captures the big-footed original monster of the Japanese series in CGI perfection. However Godzilla is not the sole malevolent creature to appear in this movie, as the famed mega-predator enters into a all-destructive chase for another humongous kaiju (or MUTO as it is defined in this movie) with a devastating EMP blast.

In the midst of this epic battle humanity and the army struggle to contain the destruction, while Edwards, like in "Monsters", struggles to imprint human drama as a backdrop to events. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a scientist at a nuclear power plant, loses his wife (a brief cameo by Juliette Binoche) to one early attack by the MUTO, thus becoming obsessed with the monster and the encompassing government cover-up brought in effect to hide the truth. As a character and as an actor Cranston is a short-lived emotional highlight in the story, which unfortunately soon loses traction with what feels like his premature death. This loss leaves us battling for interest in the lax son of Joe, demolitions expert soldier Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is a bland shell of a character, generic to the extreme, effectively keeping us disinterested in the story and leaving us hoping for a fast-forward to more massive destruction of metropolis. MUTO expert Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and the wife-nurse Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen) are equally unengaging, dull as a dishwater and forgettable. The overall lack of character imprint into the story coupled with audacious coincidences littering the movie, make the drama inert and feel like an important position on Edwards' checklist of blockbuster movies components.

I did however immensely like as Edwards slowly builds tension, initially only showing massive bones of the leviathan creatures or just the aftereffects of their presence, then only sifting through bits and pieces of destruction through news reports, whilst avoiding showing the battles between Godzilla and the MUTOs, leaving space for total San Francisco annihilation for the final act. Nonetheless with the lack of emotional engagement "Godzilla" feels like but a mild success, a poor dramatic relative to the much more successful giant-bashing "Pacific Rim" feature of 2013, who has a superb mix of absurdity, pathos and general character formation that is vastly superior to Edwards effort.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
(2014)

Comic enjoyment intertwines with top notch acting and excellent human drama
In the convoluted time-travelling plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fox molds two X-Men franchises into one, by colliding the future mutants, now living in the post-Sentinel cleansing wastelands of Earth with the past versions of themselves from Nixon-era 1970s. With mutant genocide bringing about the collapse of civilisation, the remnants of the mutants, including core X-Men members: Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Warpath (Booboo Stewart) and the once infamous Magneto (Ian McKellen) attempt one last daring ploy to avert the imminent disaster. This means Wolverine must be sent into the past with the use of Kitty Pryde's powers to stop the murder of Sentinel mastermind Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by mutant rights activist turned rogue Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The future's hope lays in averting the past - thus Wolverine must force the downtrodden and resigned drunkard Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the imprisoned Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) to stop the occurrences of days to come from ever coming into being. Only Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and a fickle youth Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are willing to aide the best at what he does...

Amongst the many faucets of success of Bryan Singer in he reclaiming of the franchise, one seems to be strongly undervalued by most viewers. Despite an onslaught of characters the X-Men are rejuvenated thanks to one simple truth: not all character need to be character studies and albeit each of the cast receives their moment in the limelight, the X-Men resonate all so much more strongly that the super-powered mutants need no introduction. To a varying extent introduced in previous episodes of the series, most of the characters function as direct imprints from the comics, cartoon series or previous movies with the entire mythology appropriated to them. They need not be presented, delved in, they just function as part of a well-oiled team of superheroes. Much like in the comics the movie finally understands that focus can only be placed on a select number of characters, the rest operate within action sequences to wow the audience into submission, while the drama evolves around just a few in their midst.

Thankfully also focus shifts away from Wolverine, the franchises most important and recognisable character, towards the trio of Professor X, Eric Lensherr and Mystique. Wolverine still features heavily in the plot, but is mostly a backup cast member with limited impact on proceedings, but with charm and character attributes helping to liven up the story throughout. Nonetheless McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence shine with a well-thought out plot centred around the morality of Mystique and the dark path she has chosen to follow. Support cast is unanimously superb within their characters, even if they receive but a few minutes of screen time they each memorably capture their moments: Storm is godlike and enchanting, Colossus is almighty, Blink has a lingering presence, Iceman is all-powerful, while Magneto of the past and future display their otherworldly power. Quicksilver naturally steals the show, but Singer has improved in leaps and bounds in his presentation of fight sequences. Only Bishop cries out for more screen time and focus, which hopefully he will receive come X-Men: Apocalypse.

Also thoroughly enjoyed the teamwork, so key to the comic book, that is on show throughout all the future sequences of battles with Sentinels.

It says a lot that the two mayor flaws of the movie are its short runtime of 130 minutes (it honestly feels like the movie could easily go on for another 60 or so minutes and never lose traction on the audience) and the fact that we have to wait for the next episode of the series for another 2 years (how I wish this was a mega-budget several episode series...). Minor faults of the feature are some laboured story, which at times struggles to piece together the plot holes of past episodes, and the somewhat funny, but ultimately jarring, jokes centred around Magneto's supposed involvement in the assassination of J.F.Kennedy.

By far the best comic-book movie of the year and arguably only inferior to "The Dark Knight". The mouthwatering prospect of X-Men: Apocalypse is just too far away to bear...

Visage
(2009)

Picturesque posing
Famed Taiwanese auteur Ming-liang Tsai ventures into France to deliver a love poem to the works of Truffaut in the form of an opaque slow- flowing visual poem, devoid of a conventional story, instead harbouring its message of collages of images. The slight frame of the script focuses on the filming of a movie by a foreign director (Kang-sheng Lee), arguably the most proclaimed participant of a quasi-plot. Intertwining with him are the cast and crew of the movie, with Truffaut's favourite actor Jean- Pierre Léaud as the lead man, Fanny Ardent as the film's producer and Laetitia Casta as the co-star.

"Visage" however detaches itself from indulging into a flowing story to tell, instead building the entire movie around carefully designed set- pieces with jump from image to image. The camera is mostly static, peering in from the outside on the actions of the cast, as if eavesdropping and voyeuristically capturing the moment. However, whatever happens outside these moments is irrelevant, forcing the viewer to arduously fill in the dots, a task that in the movies taxing runtime may prove too strenuous for most viewers, even to the cinephile crowd so in love with the odd and unexpected.

The movies is constructed from these captured moving images, slow shots with little to no dialogue with moments of musical outbursts, when characters lip-sync to various songs. Several moments have you especially captivated, the highlight being in the beginning sequences, when a static camera peers into the director's kitchen and observes his futile attempts to clog a drain, finally resigning to the inevitable and resting at his mother's bedside in an awkward quasi-incestuous scene. These wackier, off-beat scenes manage to liven up the otherwise laborious proceedings, but the movie shifts focus slowly to more darker imagery with a sexual culmination in a abattoir as eerily disgusting as it was distasteful. Each such scene of this fragmented movie lasts several minutes, thus utterly deflating a casual viewer and even leaving the more auteur crowd grasping at straws to admire. The imagery is at times starkly captivating, with certain moments fully worth the watch from a purely aesthetic point of view. Nonetheless the visual side in itself fails to engulf for vast periods of time, instead capturing imagination on-and-off.

The entire movie is also unfortunately a black box, which requires all the appropriate background input to deliver any type of understanding to the ongoings. The type of movie where any self-respecting film critic would never dare say that he failed to understand the references and symbolism, thus giving him an intellectual ordeal to paste together the scenes. Thankfully the long scenes offer apt possibilities to contemplate each passing portrait, given you don't nod off in the midst. Personally I felt lost in translation, even if vast elements struck a cord, the overall message remained an enigma, not helped by my attention constantly dropping in-and-out of the movie. As such I can fully understand certain auteurs finding the viewing a hard-worked pleasure, but overall I hold the firm belief that whereas movies should be challenging, they should also not require the audience to strain to just keep awake during the watch. As a medium it needs to be engaging, not a painful chore, pure artistry and intellectual proficiency is not enough.

This Is 40
(2012)

Inneundos overflowing
Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) are both homing in on 40, a breakthrough age, where youth is now firmly behind us, highlighted by their elder teenage daughter Sadie (Maude Apatow) going through her puberty. Far from a dysfunctional family nonetheless Debbie and Pete struggle to rekindle the attachment and mutual fulfillment that this marriage has brought forth. Pete is a loving father, despite the fact that Sadie was never planned, he affectionately tries to perform his duties, even if his love for rock music places him as somewhat of a family outsider. Coupled with his ailing music label, dedicated to the old timer music lovers, Pete is increasingly left alone.

In turn Debbie owns a clothes store, (wo)manned by the alluring Desi (Megan Fox) and the troubled Jodi (Charlyne Yi), one of them guilty of stealing profound amounts of money, thus further increasing the family financial crisis. Sadie, hot on the heels of her first period, is an avid "Lost" fan and is going through a period of teenage angst, which spitfires as an open rebellion to the actions of undeniably immature parents later on in the movie. In the background we have the star of the movie, Charlotte (Iris), an 8 year old with wit to die for and a knack for a short but pinpoint summary of events.

Much in the vein of "40 Year Old Virgin", Judd Apatow gets in deep with an odd mix of slapstick, vulgarity, toilet humour and the rampant Tarantinesque meandering dialogues. Nonetheless, where it works in other movies, the low-brow humour felt markedly out of place for the majority of this family drama, jaggedly deflating tension and dramaturgy in order to force a cheap laugh. On top of that Apatow attempts to overdose on sideshow (primarily unfunny) jokes, which derail attention and exacerbate running time. Nonetheless the movie has a pretty decent flow, but I found myself distinctly uninterested as to where the drama is headed, which questions how effective mix of comedy and social commentary actually is. One of Apatow's weaker scripts isn't helped by its predictability and overly sexual innuendos.

L'épine dans le coeur
(2009)

An odd ode to family
Michael Gondry, renowned for his visual escapism and audacious visuals, brings us a sombre, almost exclusively down-to-earth low key picture of the life and times of a section of the Gondry family. Focused primarily on his Aunt Suzette, a retired school-teacher is a secluded village district, Gondry subtly paints a picture of an ordinary family and its trials and tribulations. Save for the odd bits of quirky animation, a train-set functioning as a time device and a bit of cinematic fun with invisible children, Gondry goes full frontal bare minimum on us, largely escaping more inventive cinematography, instead for a more sombre, albeit simultaneously ecstatic presentation of tidbits of family history.

Aunt Suzette is an endearing person, as is her somewhat estranged, even resentful, son Jean Yves. Firmly on their shoulders the almost prosaic movie does delivers moments of restrained satisfaction, much like peeking at home movies of your neighbours. Venturing a bit through time and touching on some grinding internal family issues, Gondry's documentary is a slight odd ode to the Gondry clan, which at times feels too personal to actually be suited for a publicly attainable feature. The movie even features significant snippets of private collections of 16mm home-made movies, which, largely unedited, imprint an even more voyeuristic feel to the viewing. By the end credits I did come to like the family, and even developed an affinity for the warm demeanour of Michael Gondry himself. Suzette as well as draws you in and surprises with small tidbits of prolific wisdom as well as her heartfelt remembrance of days past. This is probably the type of movie most of us would dream of doing - a summary of a life of someone dear to you kept forever on celluloid.

Morrer Como Um Homem
(2009)

Plodding and pretentious
A middle-aged transvestite Tonia (Fernando Santos), who works as a prominent drag-queen diva in a Lisbon club, finds herself losing her professional footing, when a young black artist Jenny (Jenni La Rue) is quickly stealing her limelight. However, this ultimately falls secondary to her more personal issues of a youthful boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David), who is a drug addict, and her previously estranged son Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), who deserted the army after killing his lover in a frenzied loss of control. Despite the self-destructive tendencies of both her protégées, Tonia is never dissuaded to drop a lost cause, even though Rosario persistently pawns her belongings and Zé Maria remains overtly contemptuous for his parent.

João Pedro Rodrigues starts off with a bang: two soldiers in full camouflage engage into their carnal desires in the midst of a dense wood. Soon after they venture into a touch of voyeurism, observing a homosexual couple in their house, which in turn seems to trigger an intense rush of self-hate in one of the soldiers, who shoots his lover- comrade in arms. Portrayed with the use of some brave, if not always successfully framed, camera-work, "To Die Like a Man" starts off strongly, suggesting a power of themes to be harnessed. Soon after however focus shifts to Tonia, who in herself is a delight to view, but is pasted onto a jarring disfragmented story, which at times seems more interested in capturing eerie odd shots, then actually telling a story. Jumpy and unfocused the picture gives off a strikingly independent, almost unprofessional, vibe, that at times is shaken off when Rodrigues actually succeeds in capturing a cinema moment.

This is not helped by the often wooden support cast, who at times drops off into pointless banter, or ventures into singing in graveyards or reciting poetry (the only moments when the movie decides to stay still and deliberate with a given scene). Plodding on within its odd self- imposed chaos, characters fail to resonate, despite a solid performance by eye-catching Fernando Santos. The artistry involved does engage or something capture the imagination, but framed withing a fickle story it simply drags the promise away, letting the movie die with a whimper. Obviously a pretty divisive movie many viewers will find the audacity of some experiments profound and help gloss over the weaker spots, but my interest waned after tiresome ongoings and never came back into focus.

Enter the Void
(2009)

Drifting in oblivion. With pizazz.
Gaspard Noe big bang return misfires with the ultimate clash of style over substance. When a young American drug dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) inadvertently gets gunned down by trigger-happy policemen in downtown Tokyo, a concoction of drugs and sensory overload deliver an after-life experience like no other ever presented in cinema. As Oscar drifts out of his body we view the world through his mind's eye in a collage of flashbacks, flash-forwards and overall time anachronism that would make Terence Mallick green with envy. As we weightlessly venture over Tokyo we observe the lives of those left behind, like Oscar's long lost, recently found stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), whom he promised never to leave behind or view the ordeals of Alex (Cyril Roy), Oscar's best mate, now hectically on the run from police.

Dispatching off traditional narrative "Enter the Void" is mesmeric trip floating over the city of Tokyo, fluorescing with bright neon colours, which underline the trippy nature of the entire concept. As such the cinematography is bold and brings about a weight of promise, which slowly sifts away with the exacerbating runtime of nearly three hours. Shockingly devoid of layered afterthought, instead delivering skin-deep existentialism, "Enter the Void" rings hollow with the concept of rebirth seemingly serving purely for exploitational purposes, such as the possibility to present a vagina's view of an ejaculation or a twenty minute voyeuristic ride into soft-porn, when Oscar decides to fly through the excessively graphic inner-goings of the Hotel Love.

All in all Gaspard Noe seems to aim to project a concept that everything in life is about sex, even death. And then pursues every possible route to undress a female and provide for gratuitous nudity. This leads to unnecessary scenes of Linda peeing on an pregnancy test or having an abortion practically stark naked. Gaspard Noe seems to underline this notion when the movies culmination features sexual organs emanating a radiant angelic light. Even here Noe's focus is mind-numbingly simplistic, giving in to the most basic atavistic notions, such as sexualising breast feeding (with an uneasily eroticised presentation of sucking nipples by an infant) or strong hints of incest. This obsession knows no boundaries, even within the realm of the story itself (whatever fragmented presence of it there is). Within the confines of this ludicrous script the first thing a recently deceased Oscar does is venture to his sister to first observe her pole-dancing and then to get all orgasmic with her lover-employer.

After a mostly intriguing opening the story soon dissipates inhibiting positive reception due to its uninvolving and wooden characters and tries to save face by going full frontal in increasingly shorter intervals. Fronted by impeccable artistry of cinematography "Enter the Void" is a treat for the eye and for the senses, but even the best concept will leave you numb sooner than later.

Gaspard Noe's attempt to go full throttle 2001: Space Odyssey is to an extent a spellbinding and worthwhile mess of movie. Lacking in gravity, it nonetheless makes for required viewing that allows to discover new boundaries of film language and thus forward the concepts provided to make a movie that is actually something more than a pseudo-artistic dive into eroticism. Noe really should focus on his true calling and enter into an art-house porno-debate with Lars von Trier.

Only God Forgives
(2013)

Red and blue cocoon of irrelevance
Hot of the heels of his breakthrough to the big league, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a vivid pastel of imagery firmly situated on top of a self-flagellating revenge flick, which makes Johnnie To look like Akira Kurosawa. When Billy (Tom Burke), one of two brothers leading a drug trafficking ring and muay-thai fighting arena, haplessly decides to go on a hunt to rape and kill a underage prostitute, he is soon exacted punishment through the actions of police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). This in turn brings about a spiralling circle of violence, when their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) attempts to induce vengeful retribution on those responsible, despite the half-hearted opposition of the quietly numb younger sibling Julian (an ever-distant Ryan Gosling).

With "Drive" as a reference point, Refn seemingly intended to push the envelope further down the road, replacing the withdrawn anti-hero with a tirade of depraved villains, offering only two characters: Chang and Julian any sort of moral code, however skewed and lopsided it may be. This essentially makes neither the story nor the characters relatable in the slightest, making the almost oniric film language painted with red and blue (to an extreme not ventured into since the glory days of Dario Argento) a distanced voyage into a dark fable of gloom and doom. Depending on your taste buds this is undoubtedly a hit-and-miss type of movie, easily attention grabbing with its artsy endeavour in bloody circles of violence, but lacking essential movie meat underneath the skinned body. As such it can be admired for its crazed trippiness or for the beautiful suddenness of splattered carcasses.

This beautiful cocoon of irrelevance is essentially good viewing, but despite its adventurous experimentation it still seemed overly derivative of Hong Kong, Korean or other East Asian revenge dramas. Nonetheless Refn boldly borrows aesthetics and even some concepts or specific scenes, successfully transposing the language into a Western- made movie (a success in itself) without a hint of pastiche or reverence. From a filmmaking point of view a success, but with characters so detached from viewer interest it comes off more as a failed experiment into the formation of an alternative 'non-hero' protagonist.

Blue Jasmine
(2013)

Allen past meets the present
Never a stark admirer of Woody Allen, whose body of work of the past 20 years has left me admittedly lukewarm, "Blue Jasmine" nonetheless had me pulled in from the get-go. Lacking a Woody Allen character, while being led by a strong performance by Cate Blanchett, who plays the titular Jasmine, it suddenly felt fresh and appealing. Still distinctly Allenesque, "Blue Jasmine" focuses on the trials and tribulations of a former New York socialite, whose husband Hal (Alex Baldwin) was convicted of massive money fraud, thus torpedoing her down the ladder and forcing her to move to her adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco.

Ginger, a member of lower spheres, was massively hit by Hal and Jasmine's fall from grace, as he and her former husband investing much money into the financial pyramids. Nonetheless she welcomes Jasmine with open arms, ever welcoming not only her presence, but also her lifestyle and expectations into her life. When Jasmine starts questioning Ginger's new boyfriend as a aimless simpleton, who may not be a classy uptown gentleman, but nonetheless is a loving, caring presence, Ginger accepts the criticism and slowly distances herself from Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Meanwhile Jasmine, previously hospitalised and still caught talking to herself, struggles to accept the downgrade in her lifestyle, still plotting a way back up the social ladder, dreaming of becoming an interior decorator, whilst keeping both eyes open for a potential rich future husband.

Flashbacks frequent the movie, as Jasmine's crazed talking to herself, transports us into her head and the memories of what transpired in New York and caused the financial empire of her husband to topple. And unfortunately it is the plot the proves the ultimate downfall of "Blue Jasmine", as it takes a recognisable autobiographical turn as Allen decides to punch out out his former wife Mia Farrow. As Jasmine turns out to be a deluded, obsessive woman, who is hell-bent on serving revenge to her husband for cheating on her with a young bimbo, one can't help but connect the dots with the debacle of early 1990s.

Whatever the qualities the movie may have it suddenly becomes embroiled in the past, even more explicitly by the recent public letter by Dylan Farrow, who 20 years ago claims to have been raped and sexually abused by her estranged father-in-law Woody Allen. Suddenly fiction and reality collide, and with all likelihood being that Dylan Farrow is telling the truth, the sour taste in your mouth brings you to the point of vomit. My wife, a previously devout Allen fan, finished the viewing with the simple summary: Woody Allen is finished for me. Unfortunately Woody Allen's ill-fated attempt to hit back at his past and point the finger all so indirectly at Mia Farrow, is bound to be met with blow-back. However decent the movie is and however superb a performance Blanchett gives, "Blue Jasmine" transgresses the fictionalised story and hurts Allen's credential leaving the viewer maddened at the director's ill-gotten form of revenge.

Coupled with the recent revelations I and my wife are now of the firm belief, that any actor who from now on plays in a Woody Allen movie is morally inept.

Xi you: Xiang mo pian
(2013)

Buddha palm bonanza
The Chinese mainland is troubled by angry demons, born from injustice and rage, vengeful spirits with supernatural powers. Enter the demon-hunters, a breed of almost superhuman warriors, all with special traits that make them worthy adversaries. Amongst these deadly fighters, who capture demons via their brute force, is the Buddhist apprentice Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen), whose weapon of preferred choice is a book of Nursery Rhymes, which appeal to the inner good laying dormant within each evil creature. However this course of action makes him a laughing stock amongst other demon hunters, amongst them Miss Duan (Qi Shu), whose eternally replicating bracelet make her a worthy adversary of any supernatural foe.

Nonetheless Xuan Zang's inherent goodness and dedication to his beliefs, slowly earns him Duan's adoration, which Zang rebukes citing his focus on the Greatest Love. However Duan remains adamant to capture the love of the monk-fighter. Meanwhile a vicious pig-demon causes havoc, thus causing Zang to search out the aide of the Monkey King.

A huge fan of Stephen Chow's earlier work I must admit that his newest feature has left me somewhat wanting. His requisite absurd humour remains present, but either the sense of novelty has whittled away, or the movie lacks the subtle mix of drama and lampoon comedy which made "Shaolin Soccer" or "Kung Fu Hustle" so memorable. Heavily Buddhist in its morality, Chow attempts to introduce the ridiculous, but struggles to replicate a cohesive atmosphere throughout the movie. It was still entertaining to view, but much like the family drama "CJ7", it left me wanting for a rewatch of his previous works. Often unfunny, even laborious, despite its multitude of intriguing concepts, "Journey to the West" is a half-hearted entertaining, but ultimately disappointing, addition to Stephen Chow's filmography.

The CGI isn't always up to par, especially with regards to the animal monsters, who often seem like takeaways from the Sci-fi Channel.

Spring Breakers
(2012)

Phantasmagoric teenage angst
After a bout of flying nuns and Michael Jackson impersonators, Harmony Korine returns with his most mainstream production yet. A mesmerising tale of a quartet of cash-strapped teenage students, living in small-town USA, that decide that a Florida escapade during spring break is a necessity to lighten up there dim, repetitive existence. Devoid of the monetary means they decide to hold up a local diner, thus already pushing the limits of their expectations as to this excursion. Somewhat the outlier of this group of friends is Faith (Selena Gomez), a bible-hugging devout Christian, who nonetheless knows the worth of going crazy with the like of Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine).

With the ill-gotten gains they venture to student-crazy Florida beaches, where breasts are bouncing, beer is pouring and the foursome aim to spend a moment of eternal perfection in this vapid spurge of debauchery. Faith wishes for time to stop and the sun and fun to become permanent, as the four friends ride the town on their rad scooters. With a backdrop of destructive parties, lack of hindsight and total no-holds-barred partying, the inevitable occurs as the dream collides with a breath of reality. Enter Alien (James Franco) who offers of prolongation of the dream - undying lack of responsibility for your actions. Faith hits her limit and promptly resigns to return to drab existence, but the remaining threesome delve into the gangster lifestyle of robbing spring breakers and pushing dope. Spring break forever, y'all!!!

Harmony Korine borrows his artistic style heavily from fellow auteur Terrence Mallick, delivering a similarly sombre tone of existentialist dramaturgy, where flashbacks, flash-forwards, jump-cuts and images are juxtaposed to off-camera narration by the characters. Nonetheless Korine introduces a cascading chaos to the proceedings, as if attempting to replicate the drunken orgy that are summer Florida excursions in the way he tells it story. The end result is a unmissable sense of resigned acceptance of the inevitable countered by the joyous bliss of expectations, which basically underpins the whole concept of the movie. The movie falls back on spring break as a hopeless attempt to remain young and live the eternal party, dauntlessly striving to avoid the lingering reality to filter through teenage euphoria.

The artistic premise works well, although people either unaccustomed or repulsed by Mallick's method of storytelling may be taken back by the hypnotic narrative. Nonetheless severe flaws populate the overall movie, as Korine decides to forgo certain structural story-telling necessities or dashes headfirst into logical pitfalls, thus severely weakening the overall impact. At one point, for example, you can't help but wonder how a semi-renowned characteristically looking gangster-rapper like Alien can audaciously hold up people at gunpoint without any police blow-back.

The biggest issue itself is the presentation of the female leads. Or its lack. Apart from Faith, who is given some background as to her church praying everyday life and some insight into her thought processes (with a key monologue about the mundanity of life), the remaining threesome are an amorphous being, which are hard to differentiate from each other, not only as to their character traits, but also physically. Rachel Korine stands out somewhat with her pink hair, but it took me the better part of 40 minutes to distinguish the actresses between each other and with the closing credits I still had no sense of identity to any of them. This in part brings about the misogynist accusations, which are sometimes hurdled at the movie. With such disposable barely-clad anti-heroines with strong sexual innuendos often present, the overall concept tends to be laid to waste by the utter lack of interest into who exactly these women are.

Five Broken Cameras
(2011)

Damning Evidence of Ethnic Cleansing in Israel
A personal and intimate portrait of the progressing encroaching of Palestinian land by the Israeli state and their Zionist cavaliers, is filmed over a period of several years. Starting in 2005, camera after camera, "5 Broken Cameras" is frank in its portraying of the startling injustice that has beholden an entire populace.

A clear indictment of Israel as a country as well as the crazy people who claim right to the land based on biblical scripture, the olive farmer Emad Burnat films his side of the story. Naturally one can claim bias, but truly the ongoings captured on tape by the cameraman cannot be exonerated or justified, nor do any of the films detractors manage to concoct any compelling counterarguments instead of the non-sensical 'Cry Wolf' tactic. Night raids on a village in order to arrest random children? Claiming land by appropriation? Burning down orchards of peaceful farmers? Shooting at children throwing stones? Army allowing settlers to attack unarmed peaceful protesters? Banning people from building structures on their own land? Widerspread harassment techniques to stop people from protesting? Throwing people out of their own house at night because its now a "Closed Military Zone"? Shooting a captured and restrained man at point blank range in the leg? Total disregard to their own court rulings? A sniper shooting a 11 year old boy in the head? And the best Israeli apologists can come up with is... but but but... they threw rocks.

A firm believer that somewhere along the road only a one-state non-religious democratic solution can avert a brutal war. The Zionists must accept that their inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people will have to end in bloodshed - be it theirs or the genocide of the Palestinian people. Only peaceful reconciliation inspired by the greats like Nelson Mandela can counter this inevitable tragedy. Unfortunately "5 Broken Cameras" leaves little space for hope...

"5 Broken Cameras" has left me mad and riled at the international community in general, which allows an apartheid state committing daily acts of ethnic cleansing through the use of force, appropriation of land and unjust racial policies to be a member of the international community. Despite governing a state that makes South Africa's apartheid look weak and crippled, Israel has yet to have any sanctions hit against it. Even worse - USA persists in funding the same army that is brutally encroaching human rights on a daily basis.

Frozen
(2013)

Disney back to the roots
A very liberal take on the Hans Christian Andersen "Snow Queen", has Walt Disney animation forcefully returning back to its roots, whilst learning heaps from their fruitful cooperation with Pixar. With top-notch animation directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee instill heart into proceedings, but reimplanting the musical magic of the pre-1960s classic cartoons. Princess Else (Idina Menzel) was born with a tremendous gift, able to create beautiful icy structures out of nothing. However her power is so immense, creating a risk to her loved ones. Despite the loving care of her parents she becomes afraid of her rampaging powers, especially after she accidentally injures her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Else locks herself away, becoming a recluse detached from her beloved Anna, who slowly grows up full of joy of life and explosive happiness, untouched even by the death of her parents.

When Else turns 18 she is to become queen of the kingdom, but fear causes her to cast a spell of eternal winter to encapsulate the land. As Else runs away into the high-rise mountains, Anna goes after her in an attempt to save the kingdom. She is soon joined by the ice seller Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusted reindeer dog Sven, as well as by the magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) in a touching adventure fraught with trials and tribulations...

"Frozen" possesses a musical zest, which hasn't featured in Pixar movies, but once was a hallmark of Disney animations. These traditions are effortlessly immersed into the beautifully told epic journey of friendship and timeless love. The amount of singing and dancing, especially in the opening half of the movie, comes somewhat as a surprise, but even more unexpectedly it never seems out-of-place as if coming from a bygone era of filmmaking. Seamlessly capturing the inner child, "Frozen" adds some spectacular imagery in ice, making it a magical journey for both kids and adults. Rife with some witty humour as well as the odd bout of slapstick, this is almost the perfect mix. Even the ending is sung in the perfect note, despite my misgivings of a trite well-worn route. That said Disney's newest feature is hardly adventurous, rather treading a easily anticipated dramatic path, which settles to deliver the expected in a fabulously enticing manner with beautiful surrounding, exquisite costumes or endearing characters (with the heat-loving snowman and the dog-deer Sven a special treat).

Of special note is the lack of a defined villain, as the story is built around the concepts of human frailty, lack of internal confidence and mistakes that lead to terrible consequences. The antagonist is a tragic character of old, not by definition or nature, but by fate.

Some quibbles should be made about script logic, especially the character and contradictory actions of Hans (Santino Fontana) raising an eyebrow or two.

The Family
(2013)

Familial Goodfellas
Luc Besson returns to his sardonic best with a ludicrous and bloodily entertaining attempt to make a morally defunct Mafia family under witness protection into positive protagonists of a largely entertaining movie. The head of the titular dysfunctional family is Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro), former Sicilian crime-lord of the New York. Now going under the name of Fred Blake, he, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo) are moved by operative Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) into the unsuspecting quaint town in Normandy. Despite their status as key witnesses the foursome struggle to adapt their ways. Prior to movement Fred murdered a neighbour with which he had a local feud, whilst Maggie blows up a local grocery on her first day after the move. Meanwhile Warren quickly sets up his structures in the local school, taking a slice of the cut from cigarette dealers and arranging himself bodyguards. Belle leads the least destructive life, but finds herself drawn to the substitute teacher - a chemistry student from Paris. While they foursome start causing havoc in the town, the American mafia still has their sights set on revenge...

Wickedly funny, even if morally deficient, "The Family" brings about one of the more enjoyable De Niro performances in a while. Whether its coping with his anger or engaging into his new career as a writer, Fred is captivatingly fun to watch, as is Maggie - rigid, but yet emanating with warmth. The most enjoyable parts come however from the contrasting banter of Tommy Lee Jones and his troubled special agent, who seems inexplicably drawn to the crude charm of the mafia snitch patriarch. Coupled with some witty dialogue, Luc Besson has delivered one of his best features in years. Typically focused on entertainment, Besson cooks up an excellent mix of family drama, teenager angst and gangster comedy makes it a surprising gem, which may not be especially memorable, but is endlessly entertaining.

The Butler
(2013)

A short story of Afroamerican rights
Inspired (to use the term with a large pinch of salt) by the true story of Eugene Allen, who served over a quarter of a century as a butler in the White House, basically functions as a crash course to the human rights of black citizens in the United States. Renamed as Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), "The Butler" shows the rise of a boy raised in a cotton farm to finally end up as one of the most high regarded butlers in the White House's employ. With a troubled early life, where his father was ruthlessly murdered by a powerful landowner, Cecil slowly lifts himself up by doing one of the few jobs available: serving whites. Immaculate at his employ he becomes drafted into the White House, where he works under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon or Reagan. However, his own children fail to be proud of his father, as his eldest son Earl (David Banner) is deeply engaged into the struggle for black rights of the era.

In a poor year for 'Oscar films', "The Butler" seems to be in the race for Academy Awards. Nonetheless Lee Daniels feature film is at best a crash course into black rights, slowly showing the evolution from blacks being indiscriminately murdered down south to slowly gaining rights to vote and how consequent presidents slowly broke down the obstacles to having true equal footing in society. Gaines is shown as an integral confidante with which such issues as touched upon. Cecil Gaines however is the glorified 'house ni$$er', subservient and part of the system, that is slowly being changed. Meanwhile his son Earl presents a stark opposite approach, as an unrelenting and ideological youth actively involved in the struggle. Together they form a simplified social rift, where the two approaches unknowingly work together to change the position of blacks within the United States of America. This creates a visible portrait of the inner complexities of black rights and their evolution through time.

I was somewhat saddened by the extent of which the movie diverges from the true story of Eugene Allen with the key protagonist of Earl being totally thought up as is the entire plight of Cecil's childhood. With such script dishonesty it beckons as to why even suggest this story is 'inspired by', instead of just making a movie indiscriminately . Lee Daniels keeps the movie emotionally low-key, putting in certain sticking plot points, such as the internal fight of black White House staff for equal pay, instead affording most detail at showing snapshots of given eras. This black history focused ride through the XXth Century the audience comes to understand how far the United States have managed to change within the time-span. Half a century ago the black man was unable to eat alongside a white man in the southern states. Now Barack Obama is president...

Nonetheless, "The Butler" is littered with contrivances and obviously attempting to pull all the right strings to receive the expected reaction. Lacking in subtlety Lee Daniels obtrusively hit the key points in history home. Given the historical scope of the feature it can be argued that this route was the only possibility to present such a vast film in such a limited movie runtime. Forest Whitaker performs his role with zest and will undoubtedly have an Oscar nomination coming his way...

Saving Mr. Banks
(2013)

A spoonful of sugar too much
Another 'inspired by a true story' movie surefiring its way to this years Academy Awards, tells the story of the odd cat-fight between P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the famed Mary Poppins books, and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) en route to the production of the live action feature. After 20 years of constantly pressuring the author on selling her book to Disney, Travers finally reluctantly agrees given her financial plight. However, she stipulates the need for her to have control over the end product with script authority and veto power. This creates tension with the scriptwriter and the musicians (especially given Travers is reluctant to agree to any music at all). With this uneasy relationship slowly boiling over it seems like the picture is destined for failure. However, the experiences of the writer bring back painful memories of her youth, which give insight as to the origins of her beloved flying nanny.

The movie juxtaposes the prickly P.L. Travers with the overbearing optimism of Disney and the Californian sunshine. Watching Disney especially, presented as a jovial and considerate person, as opposed to the troubled Travers, managed to arouse my inner grumpiness, cheering on the Australian-born children author in her endeavour of being an full-fledged pain in the buttocks to the animation studio and her employees. Ultimately somewhat let down that Travers lets herself be corrupted by the twinkle toes of Hollywood, especially with the externally honest, internally two-faced Disney in mind. Thus, I must admit I failed to catch on to the rampaging mirthfulness of the movie, instead finding myself irritated by the positive light being shone on the American way of being, as contrasted to the straight-faced jabbing sardonicism of the foreigner.

Emma Thompson remains a shining light throughout, in thick or thin, in drama or comedy, delivering arguably the best and most complete performance of the year (regardless of sex). Beautifully layered thanks to her starkly English attitude as well as some very well intertwined flashbacks, much can be forgiven and forgotten. Nonetheless, when Disney slowly seems to be winning the fight for the heart, I found myself pulling back emotionally at the insincere American entirety of the movie. Especially given the presentation of Walt Disney in this movie is a far cry from reality, sugar-coating a man who deserves no such accolades. The internal conflict that drives the movie slowly irritates, with the only emotional impact owing to the sidelined back-story of P. L. Travers and exceptional acting by Thompson.

Captain Phillips
(2013)

Greengrass Struggles Aboard the MSV Maersk Alabama
Paul Greengrass of Bourne fame ventures into the semi-true story of Captain Richard Phillips and his encounter with the not-so-bloody not-so-terrifying pirates of the Somalian coast. When the MSV Maersk Alabama, loaded with food for the poor, starving children of Africa (rolleyes), embarks onto its course to the port of Mombasa from the Oman coastline, they are full aware of the dangers posed by pirate activity in the area. With Somalian kidnapping on the rise, the loaded cargo ship is but another prey for the rag-tag band of yellow-toothed AK47-wielding outlaws. Normally a crew would back down and hand over the ship peacefully, but not this yippee ki yay band of die hards (with glass traps to boot). Led by the scrawny Muse (Barkhad Abdi) this band of hijackers has met their match!!!

Achingly overwrought "Captain Phillips" intends to thrill, together with manipulative background music attempting to heighten the tension, where there is none to behold. Somehow, most people seem to have fallen into the trap set up by Tom Hanks and Greengrass' shaky cam, but when the foursome of motley pirates are set to collide with the navy and seals the attempt to keep tension high is as ludicrous as the outcome is inevitable. The fearless Somalian fishermen-turned outlaws versus the entire might of US military excellence - never has an action thriller been so lopsided in favour of the so-called 'good guys'. This is one movie where I actually found myself rooting for the 'bad guys', despite Greengrass's best intentions to have Phillips and the overbearing force of the US Navy being perceived positively.

Riddled with unnecessary focus on detail the movie irritates with its trite dialogue, often inserted to add some skin-deep expansion on the plight of Somalia, but never offering any attempt to flesh out any of the characters. Lacking any meaty commentary Greengrass basically offers a straight up action film, which however lacks the ingredients to make it interesting. The conclusion is foregone from the outset and the lack of depth fails to really emotionally involve with anyone. With the story basically devoid of tension from mid-way (when the terrorist kidnap Captain Phillips and use an escape pod to head for the mainland), the last hour is overbearing to the point of excruciating cries for the story to just end. The realistic fly-on-the-wall never really helps, as it struggles to imbue a sense of purpose of proceedings, making you almost wish for the crew to just dump Captain Phillips in the water, so the movie will finally end.

With an overwhelming sense of patronisation of the plight of Somalians, "Captain Phillips" also barely treads on the right side of the moral landscape. Not to say that Somali pirates are justified or noble, but the story has been literally whitewashed with the fearless 'whites' saving the day and outsmarting their opposition (I believe not a single talking part from the 'good side' was offered to a coloured person). The "Smiling Pirate" Muse has been vilified, not one mention being made of him actually being underage, with absolutely no focus being placed on 'his side of the story', apart from some banal shopworn tag-lines about his fisherman roots. The beginning was actually promising, when Muse was introduced, but soon focus shifts away from him and suddenly we become overpowered by American patriotism coupled with overblown music intended to force a sense of tension. Single lines of dialogue are afforded to wider ranging issues with Rich Phillips supplying an opening comment about the rat-race juxtaposed with the conditions of life of ordinary Somalians one of the few high points of the drama. Apart from that its an pompous mess of action overly focused on the title character and his emotional responses than to actually posing any serious questions.

Tom Hanks acts his heart out, but with such a divisory persona it's hard to really connect with him. The best acting is therefore on the side of the worn Somalian naturals like Abdi, who deserves Oscar recognition much more than Hanks. Nonetheless, the secondary cast of the cargo ship crew was mostly terrible and laughable in their execution, offering a few hardy laughs with their picturesque poses and worried mimicry.

Within the cascading amount of Somali pirate movies, this is by far the worst. "A Hijacking" is hardly a great movie, but shows how deficient Greengrass's storytelling is. Just around the corner: "Fighting without Nets" will premiere at Sundance and hopefully present a movie with more than one layer to it.

Don Jon
(2013)

Debutant jitters by the Don
Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs and stars in the whimsical tale about a pornographic addiction. Eons away in style, tone and gravity as compared to the similarly themed "Shame", "Don Jon" is a comedy drama set in New Jersey about Jon, a narcissistic young man, whose life is focused on his bulging biceps, one night stands and his addiction to porn. Dedicated to a simple few things, Jon isn't the type who looks for long term relationships. Until he meets the blonde bombshell Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson in her most charismatic role in years), who captures Jon's undying attention and slowly wraps him around her finger - making him take up a business course, fighting his small idiosyncrasies and - worst of all - obliging him to resign from pornhub...

The star of the movie excels as the straight-forward Jersey Italian, unaware of his weakness, living in denial, yet too simplistic to remold himself. The denouement, when it comes, seems however largely out of character, as Jon gains depth, complexity and self-awareness far beyond anything suggested earlier in the movie. Such a revelatory change happens plot-wise, but seems overly forced, lacking a structural backbone which can not be explained by the impact of his affair with classmate Esther (Julianne Moore).

Nonetheless, "Don Jon" is an extremely enjoyable affair, especially for its target group - men at large - uncovering some unspoken truths about masculinity. At times Joseph Gordon-Levitt's script reveals some true wit and foresight, with the last scene of Jon in a confessional a true mantelpiece of the movie, delivering a wickedly accurate commentary on the institution of confession. Slightly uneven, "Don Jon" does also mostly capture the man's point of view on the subject matter, albeit (possibly purposefully) omitting the female perspective so widely approached in rom-coms. Thankfully the comedy does so, while omitting crude sexual humour in a porn-focused movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers an admirable debut, especially with some of the manly banter and in the construction of several scenes. With time and experience (and a more subtly developed script) he may yet become competition for Ben Affleck as the most talented next-generation actor-director in America.

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