The Story of Film by Mark Cousins – review

“Hollywood films are not classical” Mark Cousins

“The Story of Film” is an epic 15 hour “journey” through the history of film. Creator Mark Cousins takes us by the hand and shows us hundreds of excerpts of classic films from the Lumiere brothers to Baz Luhrmann. His droning monologue is sometimes grating but at the same time knowledgeable and truly involved. I can’t possibly do this epic effort justice in a short review so I will just highlight my personal pros and cons of this remarkable achievement.

Pros

Mark Cousins must be applauded for even daring to undertake this venture. In 15 one hour episodes we are taken through the entire evolution of cinema as a mass medium artform. Cousins is staunch in his stance that film is, and in fact always has been, a global medium. He makes his point convincingly by including movies from every corner of the world from start to finish in the series. As such The Story of Film is an invaluable introduction to world cinema. It’s absolutely glorious in this sense.

Mark comes across a knowledgeable, passionate in fact, about film. He is unabashed in proclaiming his own set of “The best scene ever…” “The best director ever…” etc. Whilst some form of qualification is always welcome for the sake of clarity, it is also risky. This is something I will return to in Cons.

For anyone who seriously loves film, The Story of Film will be worth your while. You will finally see (parts of) the works of great masters whose films you had never really gotten round to watching (Ozu, Dreyer, Pasolini, the list goes on and on), so that you too can pretend to have seen every classic film ever made.

To sum up the pros: I really enjoyed The Story of Film, however to me, it does have its downsides.

Cons

Mark Cousins is a man on a mission. He wants to debunk the myth that film = Hollywood. And, rightly so. However, for me, he overshoots his mark. His recurring snide remarks at the expense of Hollywood film making undermine his efforts to achieve just recognition for world cinema. Why should one have to be bad for the other to be good?

An example can be seen in the quote that starts this review. His disdain for 30’s and 40’s Hollywood film making is clear: Cousins loathes the romantic vein of American films of the era. Thus, “Casablanca” is debunked as a classic, it is according to the master, a mere romantic bauble. However, when the very same romantic elements are used in e.g. 1970’s India they lead to classic masterpieces….this cognitive dissonance is just plain annoying.

Then there is Cousins’ obsession with form above content. According to Cousins cinema should be considered a purely visual medium. In 15 hours of film there is rarely a single comment praising well crafted character, plot, or story in film. The Story of Film is most definitely not about one thing: Story. This is rather silly and in a way, sad.

Nearly all of the excerpts Cousins chooses to show us concern compositional innovations and/or visual trickery. These are indeed crucial to the innovation of film, but cannot be considered the only measure by which to determine whether a film is great or even classical. The development of story and character is a crucial part in the history of film. Obviously Mark Cousins would beg to differ.

Finally, it annoyed me again and again that Cousins is a self proclaimed adjudicator of what is great and what is not. He often proclaims certain films, directors, scenes, shots etc to be the greatest ever. In most cases he is not professing an opinion, but god’s own truth. Mark Cousin, at least in his own opinion, is the god of film.

 

Jagten (The Hunt) review

An evil man once said: The greater the lie, the greater the chance that it will be believed.

To say I have been looking forward to “Jagten” is a bit strange. After all, the film deals with quite dark subject matter. Yet I recently rewatched and re-enjoyed “Festen” and was delighted to find that director Vinterberg was back with another look at the dark side of human nature. He co-wrote the screenplay with Tobias  Lindholm, writer of, amongst other things, the hit series “Borgen”.

In “Jagten” a teacher, portrayed excellently bij Mads Mikkelsen, is accused of the worst of all sins: sexual abuse of a young child.

What follows is an acutely observed descent into hell, for all involved. At times I found myself squirming in my seat, which is exactly what this films intends. The willingness of the townsfolk to believe everything that small children profess is both frustrating and totally believable.

This is what makes the movie so deeply fascinating and gripping. There is a frightening sense of inevitability about the way the world of teacher Jacob collapses around him.

A special mention has to go out to Thomas Bo Larson who portrays Jacob’s best friend with believable gravitas and feeling. A true star performance reminiscent of his stint in Festen.

There were really only two weaknesses that I found in the whole movie. First of all when teacher Jacob is first accused, to me his reaction is just too understated. It beggars belief to some extent that he would react more strongly. Secondly, and this is a pet peeve more than anything: Jacob’s teenage son Marcus is too heavily made up in the movie. It’s really odd and distracts from the completely realist feel of the film….

If you are into intense character studies, or just into great serious movies, make sure you catch “Jagten” – known as “The Hunt” in English language markets.

Skyfall review

Years ago, I dreamt up a Bond story in which our hero is injured badly in a screwed up mission. He assumes there’s a mole…..to recover from his injuries he retires to the Highlands. Once there, the rest of the film would deal with a quite primitive life and death struggle between Bond and an army of hit men sent by the mole. Minimalist, gadgetless, in other words: everything Bond wasn’t at the time (The World is not Enough, really?).

Well, thank my lucky stars, Skyfall has, at least in spirit, made this dream come true. A quite straightforward, and comprehensible plot, based on just a few main characters. And it even takes us to Scotland!

I really enjoyed Skyfall. Sure, there are several plot holes that don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Daniel Craig’s bond is, to me, as ever ambiguous. At times I just don’t see him as Bond, yet at other moments I understand the toffish/brutish type he is portraying. Javier Bardem is the perfect creepy foil, although I found that too little was done with certain aspects of his plot line, to say more would be to spoil….

The opening stimulates the senses, and some viewers have complained that the film slows down too much afterward. I couldn’t agree less. The timing is in fact a strong point of the film. The long build up to the climax works. The finale is both exhilarating and ridiculous in the best Bond tradition. Well done Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan.

If you even slightly enjoy the Bond genre, you have to see this installment. A die hard Bond fan friend of mine actually clapped his hands in delight at the return of a number of Bond canon characters and set details at the very end of the movie. It bodes well for the future of this fascinating franchise. And then in a few more years they can reboot with Michael Fassbender as 007 – can you imagine that?

Newsroom – Aaron Sorkin

“I’m on a mission to civilize” Will McAvoy news anchor

Just a short word after seeing four episodes of HBO’s Newsroom. I know I’m playing catch up rather heavily, seeing as Stateside season two is already over, but I can’t help myself.

So what’s all the fuss about?

“Newsroom” is an HBO drama series wherein TV news anchor Will McAvoy, an emotionally damaged man, refinds, perhaps even redefines himself through the catharsis of caring about the news again. Will is portrayed rather brilliantly by Jeff Daniels, now very far removed from his “Dumb & Dumber” days.

Episode 1 starts with Will pressing the verbal self destruct button in a rant about the bankruptcy of the USA at a college get together. The general verbosity of the show is thus preshadowed. Creator Aaron Sorkin, for those who didn’t know this, loves speeches and dialogue in general. It’s not subtle but he does have a real knack for it.

The show follows actual news events and reconstructs the atmosphere of a newsroom very well, something I can attest to having worked in a newsroom, albeit one glued together with chewing gum, love and ambition rather than advertising millions.

The Bad

This is a show with a strong romantic streak, full of references to an idealized golden era of broadcast journalism. These references are more often than not contained in longwinded speeches in which it is often unclear who the character is actually lecturing. It is at these moment that I feel the show loses momentum, brilliant as the monologues may be. As a budding screenwriter one is often taught to let dialogue come from within the characters rather than using them as mouthpieces of the writer’s opinion. Dare I even say: Aaron Sorkin take note? That would be brash….

However, so far, to me, this is the show’s only major flaw, and although significant, it is not a fatal one.

The Good

This is one daring show, as it is unashamedly intellectual. For those who have not followed current affairs, or the general political debate of the last – say – five years in the USA, the show will make little sense and be incredibly hard to follow. Wow, an actual TV series aimed at the upper percentile of viewers. The very storyline of the show mirrors that aim. The fictional news broadcasters set out to no longer pander to ratings but to restore the news to what it once was: bringing genuine information to the public. Or in the words of Will: “I am on a mission to civilize”.

As mentioned above the newsroom atmosphere is executed well, and that is in no part down to the strong ensemble cast.  Special mention goes out to veteran Sam Waterston, who does a great job as TV exec Charlie Skinner, the embodiment of “better days of television” who oversees the resurrection of Will McAvoy and with him, real news.

What has really hooked me though, is the way each and every character has believable goals and ambitions and the fact that the human interactions are the true motor of the show, hiding mere plot elements very well. It is a show about people and I guess that’s what I really like.

But before this short review turns into an outright outpour of superlatives, let me say that after that opening rant in episode 1 it took me until the latter half of episode four to really get on board with this show. But now I’m on, I’m loathe to leave.

So, bring on the news!

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom – review

Yes, I know it’s been out forever. But somehow I hadn’t gotten round to it yet. And now I’m really glad I did.

Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s unashamed ode to true love. Set in the ’60s, it tells the tale of two twelve year olds who elope one fine summer on a fictional island. This leads to a search and rescue mission that involves a fun range of typical Wes Anderson characters on the island. To set the timing, a storm is brewing. So much for the plot.

I always enjoy Anderson’s eye for whacky detail, oddball characters and generally lavish set designs. However, I feel that all the visual splendor sometimes gets in the way of genuine emotional involvement. Often in his work I feel that I am looking at something rather than living it.

Going back to what I consider his masterpiece, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is notable in achieving a genuine sense of involvement. It may have taken a while but I truly believe Anderson has succeeded again in Moonrise Kingdom. It took me a while to start feeling it, but as soon as I did – around the quite realistic and gritty midpoint – I was sold.

The casting is quite excellent, kudos go out to the two young stars, who are believable at every weird turn. Special mention has to go out to Bruce Willis, who plays a great role in a understated, haunted manner.

In the end the film rings true and the feeling and story rise above the pleasing aesthetics  Recommended for all romantics and those in need of a cure from cynicism.

Meek’s Cutoff – review

“We’re not lost, we’re just finding our way” Stephen Meek

 

Finally I get round to visiting the movie theatre, I could explain why it’s been six weeks but that’s for another day. Just know that if I were to tell you, you’d accept my reasons.

I have wanted to see Meek’s Cutoff ever since it came out ages ago. Well, it finally hit Europe, and I dropped into the glorious EYE Film institute here in sunny Amsterdam to have a look.

Director Kelly Richardt has a very personal approach to filmmaking. I really enjoyed the curious minimalist charm of “Wendy and Lucy” – one of her previous films with the excellent Michelle Williams. Just a small brag here: I remember way back in the Dawson’s Creek days I predicted – to hoots of derision – that ms Williams would be a real star someday, forget Katy Holmes et al. Time has proven me right, thank the stars. She puts in another stellar performance in this slow paced, off beat western adventure.

A group of settlers with dreams of a fortune out west is lost in the great nothing. Their guide Stephen Meek is a braggard who quite clearly has no clue. We join the group in the middle of nowhere and follow a slice of their adventure. Core to this is their kidnap of a mysterious Indian who they force to guide them to water, much to the chagrin of Meek who would rather kill the man.

For those seeking an adventure complete with resolution – be it good or bad – look elsewhere. This is observation at its finest. Miss Reichardt has a real eye for scenery and using imagery to portray emotions and thoughts. No over-obvious explanations here.

Very little really happens in the film, which to some could make it boring. I did enjoy the film up to the very end, although I did check my watch a few times. And I have to admit I shared some of the dismay of the crowd when the end credits just suddenly appeared. To say more would be to spoil matters.

Special mention here for the beautiful score, all the great performances, and the use of light and dark. The passage of time is really well done by having night scenes with very minimal lights slam into daytime scenes with full desert light. I often had to literally shield my eyes from the glaring sun. The stuff of a proper movie indeed.

All in all, an interesting film which left me slightly unsatisfied in the end. For those who want to know more about the ending, here’s a post by someone who went through the trouble to translate what the mysterious Indian fellow said:

http://tinyurl.com/coj487f

On the Road

Cars and roads can take you from one place to another, which is nice.

I saw this star vehicle in the glorious EYE film institute on the north bank of the IJ river in Amsterdam. This new film museum is a true must see location for any film buff visiting the city. However if you are pondering whether to catch this cinematic rendition of Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece, the answer is simple: don’t. Just find a nice spot on EYE’s huge terrace and read the book instead. It will take you just about as much time (this is a loooong movie) and offer a much more satisfying experience.

The film never even comes close to capturing the spirit of the novel, it is neither romantic nor wild, has no sense of beat nor freedom. What the exact problem is, is beyond my scope of caring. Sometimes it’s interesting to ponder where a film misses the mark, in this case not. Perhaps it’s the casting: was “On the Road” really all about a bunch of seemingly spoiled brats just moving from place to place and trying to look moody? “Twilight” meets a 1947 Hudson?

Methinks that American cinema is in serious danger of losing it completely by bowing the the call for exclusively “beautiful people”. Exception is the lead Sam Riley. He can’t carry a film like this though. Who could?

My advice: keep driving, nothing to see here.

Festen retro review

I’ll keep it short, as do these brilliant Danes. Festen aka “A Celebration” is a cinematic masterpiece. I just watched it again, 14 years after catching it in an Amsterdam cinema.

For those of you who have been hiding under a blanket of Hollywood super hero fodder, “Festen” is a character study of a fictional Danish family with some nasty secrets. The story focuses on the 60th birthday of the pater familias Helge. Son Christian, whose twin sister has recently committed suicide, has something rather different planned than a happy birthday.

Supposedly the main attraction of the film is the infamous dinner speech scene, in which Christian breaks a long silence. And to be fair, it is that visceral yet underplayed moment that I remembered most all those years after first seeing it. Ye,t on revisiting the film, I was amazed at the attention to detail, keen observation of character in the film that builds to that very moment. Indeed the groundworks laid before the great reveal carry the film forward after that moment. The greatest “trick” the film has up its sleeve is the acute observation on the sheer amount of time it takes for the truth of Christian’s speech to sink in with the revelers.

The acting is naturalistic brilliance, the film is film in an intentionally ugly, hand held style that just adds to its voyeuristic appeal. In its time much was made of the fact that the movie was shot according to self imposed “Dogma ’95” rules. Since then, Festen director Vinterberg, Lars von Trier the other Dogma founding members have admitted that Dogma was more of a gimmick that an actual serious idea.

A true masterpiece in every sense of the word. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do: it will open your eyes to European film forever.

Prometheus review

Ok me hearties, strap into your safety harness and prepare for take off!

Prometheus – I have been awaiting it for a long time and finally I’ve seen it. In 3D, which to be honest didn’t really blow me away. But the rest of the film kept me very thoroughly entertained and intrigued for its entire running time. A propos running time, this one came in at around the two and a half hour mark, which didn’t feel too long at all.

For those who have been locked in a stasis chamber: Prometheus is the prequel to the original Alien series and deals with the original mission of a human craft to the home world of our supposed ancestors, the “Engineers”. Those travelling there all have their motives for doing so, motives that obviously will lead to conflict. The story unfolds well, a bit slowly at first, but as it’s sci fi I’m always willing to have some ground rules explained.

The tension builds gradually and does ask for both patience and some willingness to suspend disbelief. Especially the way the entire crew seems comprised of ill disciplined misfits that go into a weird abandoned strucure willy nilly begs some serious script questions. But hey, it just gets better from there, so quit complaining!

To divulge more about the story line would bring us close to spoiler territory so I’ll just say that in general a couple of major plot points were still up for discussion as the audience left the cinema, which goes a long way in explaining the mediocre reviews the film has enjoyed so far. But I just assume these queries will be handled in the inevitable sequel; to me at least they didn’t spoil this picture at all.

Some special mentions:

First special mention goes to the unsung heroes of such films, the art directors/set designers. It was all really great, a total immersion into a sci fi world, with plenty of nods to the original Alien series. A fine mix of hi and lo tech and good believable costume and special effects.

Then Michael Fassbender, proving once again that he is head and shoulders above the rest of his crop. A brilliant, mysterious role as the cyborg/android David 8 – with a chilling own agenda, or not? For me the star of the picture, and perhaps even the actual lead?

Finally kudos to both Charlize Theron and Idris Elba both providing really strong support. I found Guy Pearce strangely off, and am still wondering about Noomi Rapace who took care of the actual lead role. No Sigourney Weaver here alas.

All in all, I could go on gushing for 400 further words, but instead I’ll just say: go see the thing. Even the missus loved it, which is saying a lot considering what she asked me during the opening titles: “So this is the prequel to Star Trek, right?”

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I get it, but do I care?

In this psychological thriller/character study we follow the slow (!) unravelling of sect escapee Martha – or as the sect knows her: Marcy May. Martha is played convincingly if slightly lethargically by debutant Elizabeth Olsen.

After her escape from the communal farm out in the sticks, she stays with her estranged sister and brother in law, in a luxurious lakeside manse. Her meandering days there are intercut with flashbacks and dreams/nightmares of sectarian life.

Slowly but shurely we learn the nature of her trauma: a two year immersion in an abusive sect. Though well paced and accurately observed, the way the sect worked was to me almost like reading a text book on sectarian life. We never really see why the leader of the sect has such a following. He looks more like a burnt out hippie, if anything. There are some very strong moment though, but to venture into that would be to enter the forbidden land of spoilers.

Anyway, back at her safe house, Martha’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as she is unable to talk  with her older sister about the trauma she has experienced. They share a troubled past themselves and it is left to older sis to despair: “why can’t we talk?” This, to me, was the most intriguing question of the movie.

All along you wait for the breakthrough moment. For me that was where the tension of the movie lay. And because it was such a waiting game, with neither character really seeming to want to achieve the goal, I found the film to be too slow. Trimming about 20 minutes out would have helped enormously and yet, it’s just plain difficult to make a movie tick when all the main character does is sulk – justified though the sulking may be.

As the movie enters the third act, thing liven up considerably, and you finally have the feelings that the action is headed in a direction. Which leads up to a – for me – frustrating ending. I left the theatre feeling that the moment the movie really began, it ended.

All in all a well made film, with some good parts, some good observation and strong dialogue, but not memorable. This is one you may just want to let slide on by.