Extraterrestre

After a night out you wake up in a strange bed and have no recollection of what happened or indeed the name of the person you spent the night with. You find out her name is Julia (Michelle Jenner) and you introduce yourself as Julio (Julian Villagran). Oh, what a funny coincidence. Anyway, it’s been fun and you’re about to bid farewell when you notice there’s nobody extraterrestrein the streets. Oh, and there’s a UFO on top of a nearby apartment block. Turns out you’ve both missed the invasion of extraterrestrials.

Is the Spanish film Extraterrestre a movie about extraterrestrials? Well, yes and no. While the invasion is part of the story, the plot seems to be around Julio and more importantly Julia. It turns out Julia’s neighbour has an unhealthy obsession with her and Julia seems to have a boyfriend too. Excuses have to be made and stories have to invented to cover up their nightly affair. How that happens and the consequences of all those stories is the core of this film by Nacho Vigalondo. Don’t expect a lot of sci-fi or you’ll be bitterly disappointed. Expect a quirky comedy about people whose lives are being taken over by lies (and some flying saucers that inspire them). The fun thing is that none of the characters may be exceptionally likable, but because of the situation you sit there and wonder how their futures will develop. Because I wasn’t expecting anything, I can’t say I was disappointed and indeed, I genuinely liked Extraterrestre.

That’s also why I offer you this trailer with the biggest reservations. A lot of the developments are already hinted at or indeed shown. But if you want to see how the film is visually made, then feel free to check out the trailer or at least a couple of seconds. Hovering between 7.5 and 8 out of 10, Extreterrestre will probably find itself in my Top 10 of 2012. Of course, it’s already 2013 but because of the recent events in my personal life there’s a handful of movies I still need to review before the list can be compiled, so expect the list in approximately two weeks. Which leaves you for now with the trailer of Extraterrestre or, if you don’t like any form of spoilers, the end of this article. Happy New Year!

TRAILER EXTRATERRESTRE (English subtitles) from Arsenico / Sayaka Producciones on Vimeo.

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Meek’s Cutoff

In space noone can hear you scream, we all know that. But how about the deserts or similar desolate areas? Meek’s Cutoff, made in 2010 but released in the Low Countries no sooner than 2012, offers us just that, an insight into the life of a group of pioneers. Their guide, Meek, promised them he knew a shortcut to an area full of wealth. The opening shot of the movie, the pioneer women wading through a river with caged birds on their heads, immediately shows that the trip may be lots of things, but definitely pleasant. However, does that mean the film doesn’t make for compelling viewing? It all depends on your definition of ‘compelling’. Quite a number of reviewers and bloggers worldwide slagged it off for its lack of entertainment. Then again, it’s a film about a group of rough people (otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone off their initial trail for this cutoff) who are stuck in desolate areas for days and days, with almost no certainty of the next time they’ll get to water. That’s the synopsis, now wouldn’t Meek’s Cutoff be improved if suddenly the entire cast would burst into a song and dance routine, preferably a musical version of Smells Like Teen Spirit? “Here we are now, entertain us.”

The big name in the cast is Michelle Williams and compared to this film, another of her movies, Blue Valentine, becomes a romcom. Meek’s Cutoff is bleak, forcing you to watch a small group of people turn from fearless pioneers into frightened little people. Hope may be around the next corner, or not. More often not, by the way. Does their guide, Meek, know the area or is he just a boaster? If Meek is out of his depth, will the group become leaderless? Adding to the despair, is the lack of water and the sudden and shocking encounter between Williams’s character and an Indian. For some reason, the Indian follows the group and after a while he’s caught. This adds to the conflicts as the group isn’t unanimous on what to do with their prisoner.

If you’re wondering where that all leads to, the answer is a bit unpleasant: Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t give an answer, the film has an open ending. It’s up to you to interpret the final scenes and look (attentively) for details. The Indian doesn’t know English and therefore what he’s muttering is not understood by the group. Helpfully, his words aren’t subtitled. It adds to the lack of references, which is a great way to sum the movie up. You’re about as lost as the pioneers. What we do know is that the Indian likes to carve messages on the rocks. Some travellers think this is a sign to his tribe and that they’re about to be lynched. However, one pioneer himself left the word “Lost” behind earlier in the movie, so maybe that’s what the Indian is communicating as well. Yet, what adds to the mystery is that, unlike the pioneers, observant viewers may spot other messages in the background. What does it all mean? Feel free to share your comments below or send a postcard to the usual address for nostalgic reasons.

The internet, that widely available source of information, does not help Meek’s Cutoff. The incomprehensible language has been translated by surfers and others commented on how historically and geographically correct the film is, which means you can find out for yourself whether the group will find a way or not. Whether you want to know that information is up to you and that’s the choice director Kelly Reinhardt leaves you. That this was done on purpose is evident in the way the film unrolls. Less clear, at least to me, is why the film was restricted to 1.33:1 in a time when widescreen has even become standard on television and computers. For me, widescreen would have added more background (and therefore desolation) but this way you’re closer on the skin of the pioneers.

Don’t expect to be entertained by this film. But watch it if you’re in the mood for “raggedy” and “rough”.

7.5/10

Dom (The House)

“There is always hope.” Such ended one of our most recent posts. But is there? The next three reviews are not about mainstream movies. If that adds to the perception that any blockbuster will get a bad review and there’s nothing but praise for other movies, then that’s a shame. Maybe I’m having better luck picking old and arthouse movies these days. That’s what in store for the next ten days, by the way. Two arthouse movies and a silent classic. There’s still time to run away if you want to.

Let’s start with one of the two movies I watched in The Hague. It wasn’t a holiday in the strictest sense of the word: there was a visit to the literary museum (for a retrospective on a writer I admired) and as a result, it sort of became a literary weekend, a chance for me to reload my batteries and continue working on my upcoming novella. On top of that, it was the warmest weekend of the year and someone had the audacity to build my hotel next to an arthouse cinema. Should I mention it had airconditioned rooms? And that everyone was doing something to avoid being in the scorching sun?

Dom (The House) was the first movie I watched. Fair enough, as it had jumped to my attention when I was still at home, googling to see if The Hague had any interesting theatres slash movies. For any readers who never got used to what’s been happening in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall became a bit of rubble, Dom is also a blessing. It’s a Czech movie with Slovakian funding (hence an alternative title and the Slovakian dubbers being mentioned on the end credits). So basically, you can name any country in “that area” and there’s a fair chance it was involved in the making of this film. Dom (which apparently rhymes with ‘Tom’) is the sort of movie people think of when you throw the label “arthouse” at them. You could expect the Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach to make something like this. To be honest, I find myself skipping this sort of movie more and more: hundreds of similar films are made every year and they’re more often than not quite predictable. You know the story, a young girl has a strenuous relationship with her father. The protagonist is either an outcast or the belle of the town (check the latter option here) and things happen that will either repair or completely destroy the relationship. Oh, and in case the movie is set in a poor area or a village in Eastern Europe, there’s always the hope of a better life, often in London, Paris or the US. In Dom‘s case, we have a girl, Eva (Judit Bárdos), who’s skipping school with the help of a doctor’s son. She uses her time to write papers for the other students and the money she earns goes into a hidden envelope. One day it will be enough to afford a trip to London and become an au pair there. Unaware of his daughter’s dream, her father is building a house for her in the backyard.
All this doesn’t sound too original, but the details count. The trailer won me over because it included the scene right after her father discovers the envelope and steals the money in order to buy more bricks for the house. There’s a wonderful ambivalance there: the same money she’s keeping to fulfill her dream is being used to get her the dream her father wants her to have. What happens next is that the family goes to church and you’ll never guess who’s playing the organ. She takes up the role everyone’s expecting of her (the beautiful, pious player) but then she doesn’t take her finger off the key for the final tone. In a most subtle way, this shows a gigantic rebellion between father and daughter in which everyone gets involved.

By everyone, we also include the nice young man who gives Eva a lift when she’s missed the bus. It turns out the man is an English teacher and translator. As readers of the Avenue, you’re all aware of how untrustworthy that sort of type is, but Eva is young (we’ll gloss over “fictional” and “heroine in a movie so something needs to happen”) and she falls for the one person who’s really nice to her for no obvious reason. Of course, we can tell that Eva won’t be able to pretend she’s sick forever, so one day she has to return to school and you’ll never guess who the new substitute teacher is. (Between you and me, the English books used in the movie are at least ten years old. One can only hope it’s a prop and not the genuine classroom material the Czech kids in 2010 still had to use.)
Finding out her lover is suddenly her teacher isn’t too much of a problem for Eva (in her own words), so how could we make the situation worse? Is it by a) letting someone barge in on them fooling around or b) having Eva find out he’s married? You guessed it, it’s both a and b.

And while Eva is trying to cope, there’s more happiness lurking around the corner. Eva’s older sister, who’s married a no-good guy, moves back to the area. Eva’s father isn’t too happy. That he cut off all the connections to her, is evident because he’s using bricks from the house he was building for her to make the house for Eva. And thus we get lots of conflicts, between father and daughters, between the father and his reluctant son-in-law, between Eva and her classmates, between Eva and her lover. With a film made in such a remote area, you wonder how they could squeeze so many arguments into the plot.

That Dom works, is thanks to a great cast and the direction skills of Zuzana Liová, but the location works in the movie’s favour too: the remote area helps you imagine how a young girl wants to dream of a live abroad. The characters are well developped as well. Despite all the far from sympathetic things he does (bursting into the bathroom to turn off the taps while Eva is taking a bath is another example), you cannot hate him. Despite of his shortcomings and very much in his own way, he wants the best for his daughter. He just can’t see that his plans may be different from his daughter’s. Smack in the middle of all these conflicts, is Eva’s mother who has to deal with all this passive aggression. Does all of this sound like something Loach or the Dardennes might have made? Then don’t forget that the difference here is that Dom isn’t set in an ugly part of a city, but in a remote area of Eastern Europe. An area that is like the film’s characters, at the same time beautiful but desolate. And because it all fits and manages to avoid being heavy-handed, the film is successful.

8.5/10

Take This Waltz

Sometimes a review is inappropriate. All you can say might ruin the movie. All you can say is but an opinion. Take This Waltz, by Sarah Polley, is such a movie. In it, Margot (Michelle Williams) meets a guy she’s interested in. To complicate stuff, he (Luke Kirby) appears to be her new neighbour and the platonic flirt is even less innocent because she’s married. Furthermore, there seem to be intimacy problems between Margot and her husband (Seth Rogen). For instance, when she’s lovingly fighting with her husband, she doesn’t like it when he kisses her while calling her a little girl. Those issues and the fact that her husband is very pre-occupied with the cookbook he’s writing, draw her to the flirty neighbour and it’s time for an hour of “Will they, won’t they?”. And while that’s going on, you can spend the entire time observing how Margot moves (in a way a key to understanding the film better).

Williams looks like she’s here because she was in Blue Valentine. Rogen and Sarah Silverman appear to be cast because they’re comedians and their roles needed some funny lines, but none of it matters because everything just works. Atom Egoyan is thanked in the credits and Polley seems to have learned from him how subtly added music can highlight a scene (I had to think of Egoyan during the “postcard scene”).
Speaking of music and how subtle the film is, check out this clip from the film. It features another song by Leonard Cohen (and before you ask, yes, the title of the film does appear as a song in the movie):

At which point it might seem odd to talk about Swedish-Danish cop show The Bridge… Not really though, part of what made it so good is that the Swedish cop Saga Noren looked like she had Asperger’s syndrome. However, nowhere in the series were you pointed to that fact. That’s the good thing about this film. So much of the many relationships (Margot and her husband, the neighbour, Margot’s family-in-law) are they for what and how they are. Amateur psychologists might be quick to give their diagnosis, but stay until the end and things might not necessarily be like you’d expected at first. Even the opening scene of the movie doesn’t get clear until later in the film.

Speaking of staying until the end… the movie ends with punches you might not have expected. As the lights went on, three couples hadn’t moved an inch. Had it lasted another minute, I might have left the cinema in tears too. And even though I didn’t, when I left the cinema, the sky was crying instead of me.

8/10

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

It’s a fair cop, Fox, you’ve caught me. I confess, there’s nothing I love to do more than to sneak into the cinema and film it on my camera. Because to me, the popcorn crackling, the ringing of mobile phones and the sounds of people talking just add to the movie experience and that’s exactly how I want to share it with my many terrorist friends.

Question: is Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter the final Fox movie I’ll watch in the cinema? Answer: maybe. Because when you’ve just paid nearly 9 euro to go and watch a film, there’s nothing you like better than a message accusing you of theft. Apparently to Fox, every moviegoer is a criminal. And honestly, in the past two months I’ve made up a tiny bit of my backlog and I’m getting horribly annoyed by the copyright message I have to endure every time. Of the more than 50 movies I’ve watched in July and August, there was literally one that thanked me for purchasing the film and supporting it. Now there’s a message. The others just put on a generic message that by my copying the film I’m doing a bad thing or even supporting terrorism. Luckily, the movies you rent on your digital tv don’t come with this message. On the other side of the scale, there’s series. You’re actually forced to watch every episode of a disc in one go or else you have to endure the same copyright nonsense again and again. That is why rather than buying Borgen, I watched it on BBC Four. I’ll repeat it and hope that all the copyright people are reading along: because you’re forcing me to watch a message that is not directed to me (as I have already purchased your bloody product) I buy fewer movies on DVD these days. And if, like Fox, you are now going to put up that same message in the cinema, I’ll be glad to send you my cinema card, so you can swallow on it. Oh, and while we’re at it, your statement consisted of only four sentences: is it too much to ask you not to make a grammatical error in four short sentences?

So after the almost faultless message of the copyright people, the people at Fox were kind enough to start the film. While your blood is still boiling from being accused of theft with a camera, there’s nothing you like to see more than a shoddy CGI effect. Fortunately, that’s exactly how Abraham Lincoln kicks off, but then again you can’t blame the product. After all, it’s not a movie. This is the brainchild of somebody who wanted to flog a lot of 3D television sets, but thought the store samples were too short. Oh, if only somebody would make a commercial of 100 minutes… and thus we get a tree being chopped with splinters scattering in every possible direction. Especially in the first five minutes, the 3D ad (sorry, movie) justs adds effect after effect, hoping nobody noticed the script editor was still missing on the first day of shooting. Even the film’s climax, which is set on a train, is nothing but a long commercial without any artistic value whatsoever.I can only hope it wasn’t made to look convincing. Say what you want about the 50s B-movies which also dabbled with 3D technology, but you’ll have a hard time trying to find one where the plot was basically as non-existant as here.

Speaking of artistic value, the director of this film (whom we shall only name as Timur B, for we believe we don’t have to name and shame the guilty people) and the post-production department must have understood how awful their mess was: they tried to make the movie look cool by blowing up the sound. By adding loud music and effects, you certainly get the feeling something is going on, but unfortunately, the entire thing was so loud I had to protect my ears from time to time. If those moments have taught me anything, it’s that a lot of the scenes lose their entertainment effect if you’re partially muting the sound.

Bad CGI effects, a shambolic effort to plug 3D and loudness to mask an inability to have a gripping scene… it doesn’t sound too positive, this review, now does it? Erm, not really, and it’s even worse because the premise looked promising. However, it all seems like the ‘product’ is only made to cash in: not just on the 3D hype, but also on Twilight and True Blood. Without a doubt, some cigar-smoking producer said: “You had me at 3D vampires.”
Vampires or not, if only the people in Hollywood forced themselves to look at the 2D version as well: you can add as many 3D effects if you like, but if there’s nothing substantial in the movie itself, people will feel cheated and the 3D rage will end sooner than they think. But they’re not worried about making a bad product, they worry about that one jerk who brings a camera to the theatre. Give people better movies and they’ll return to those expensive cinemas, some even after having watched it illegally (because it’s not the same as watching it on a giant screen). Or continue on this path and lose everyone. You are losing me, 3D. You have lost me, Fox. Do you get the message or do you want me to send it in 3D?

2.5/10

P.S. Finally some good news that I couldn’t seem to fit in the review… hrm, I couldn’t insert something positive into the review, isn’t that a sign of how abysmal a product is? Anyway, I did want to mention that Mary Elisabeth Winstead is very good in this film. She steals the film – not literally, Fox, you don’t want to accuse even your actresses of theft – and I hope for her that she can give a similar performance in a better movie.

The Muppets

Having already seen Haywire, I had to pick another movie. (Yeah, this post is a sequel to the previous one. Isn’t that exciting? No? Never mind.) So why not The Muppets? But at the same time, “why” The Muppets? Another muppet movie, did we really need it? Well no, but here’s the good news: it isn’t too bad. It’s not great either. The song and dance routines seem to be completely out of tune sometimes. For no obvious reason, characters can burst into a song. Some songs are also out of place: after Moulin Rouge, “Smells like teen spirit” already got a musical version and at least there’s a Nirvana member in the cast (Dave Grohl is the drummer of The Moopets). But when the Muppets are rebuilding their theatre, all the characters start singing “We built this city on rock’n’roll”. Are the Muppets really that rock’n’roll? I have some doubts.

One of the men behind the reboot is Jason Segel and let’s all guess as to whether his puppeteer role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall had anything to do with the producers okaying this. Segel has comedic timing, but I didn’t always “believe” him when he started singing while looking at the audience. The fourth wall is one you better not break because very few are able to look through the screen convincingly enough for you to believe the actor/actress is truly addressing you instead of looking down a camera lens. Good news for The Muppets though: one of the people who can pull it off is Amy Adams and she’s the female lead here. To be honest, Adams is one of those actresses who can get me to watch a movie I’m not interested in and not feel disappointed.
And to be fair to Jason Segel (also one of the film’s writers), most of the time he’s doing a fine job. Like any episode of the original show, the film needs a “special guest star” and that’s the weak point of the film. Not only because it’s Jack Black and he’s horrendous when playing natural: there’s a scene where Jack starts punching people during an anger management class (which Animal is attending too) and even I’m better at delivering a fake punch. Equally present in that scene is Kirsten Schaal and maybe Jack can watch the dvd and look at how it should be done. Just look at Kirsten, Jack, just look at Kirsten. Once Black is in the role of “reluctant guest host”, he’s doing better, but there’s still the big problem: the film has many cameos. Is Jack Black, the anger management student, the real Jack Black or not? And if so, what about the many other stars? Should we recognize Sarah Silverman in the waitress role or not? Is the lady singing at the school Leslie Feist or not? And have Foo Fighters hit rock bottom and is that why Dave Grohl is drumming in Fozzie’s band? That’s quite confusing and it would have been better if Jack Black hadn’t been in any previous scene. Just let one of the Muppets say he knows where a star lives and then kidnap him. That way the movie would work better because it hinders the rest of the film. During the fund-raising show the Muppets are organising people like Selena Gomez pop up and it’s clearly Selena as herself. But the first person to come to the show is a homeless hobo, who looks a lot like Zach Galifianakis. Should we recognize him or not? It’s a fine line but once the writers start crossing it the entire time, it doesn’t help the film.

That was my biggest objection during the film. I had two objections before I started watching. First and foremost, the title… why “The Muppets”? The first movie had the equally inspiring title The Muppet Movie, but the later films had titles which added something, e.g. The Muppets take Manhattan. Just using The Muppets as title, suggests that either the Muppets have been forgotten (as suggested in the film) and the film works as a reboot. I don’t think that’s the case: a lot of kids still know the show after all. The other reason – we’re clearly forgetting laziness – is that the title suggests that this is the definitive Muppet movie. That’s rather cocky, wouldn’t you agree?
Objection n°2 is the character of Walter, the Muppet-like ‘brother’ of Jason Segel’s character. Again, the writers messed up in a way. They try and make us believe that Walter is a genuine person, but later in the movie there’s another song and dance routine where we see the Muppet version of Segel as well as the flesh and blood version of Walter (Jim Parsons). So wait, have we now been watching Walter as he sees himself or is he actually a “muppet”? Bearing in mind, the film makes you believe the furry creatures really exist, it then becomes tough to distinguish what’s supposed to be real and not.

Those objections do weigh on the film, but overall it’s not the disaster I assumed it was going to be. I guess that’ll have to do as praise these days.

6/10

P.S. And yeah, there’s also a version of “Mahna Mahna” in the movie. You know, that track from the scene with that 1969 ‘sex documentary’ which later became a Muppet classsic? In case you didn’t know, the track was used for a scene in Svezia, inferno e paradiso (“Sweden: hell and heaven”) where Swedish girls went to the sauna. Here’s the scene, but don’t expect to see anything.

Haywire

This was going to be a post about two movies, but not only did the review of the second film become too long to keep it all in one post, there was also the issue of the IMDb, where I was fact-checking like any good reporter would do. Unless you work for a tabloid, CNN or Fox… What bothered me was that the IMDb kept the ‘news’ about the second Snow White movie as lead news of the day. According to the IMDb, Kristen Stewart would be dropped from the next movie. Anyway, I actually bothered to check and according to the site Gossip Cop, it’s not true. I’m glad to hear that because the ‘article’ on IMDb suggested that Stewart would be dropped from the movie but not the director. That rumor, for that’s what it was, highlights the bottom line of the past weeks: why is everyone pretending that Kirsten is the only one to blame in this story? [Because she’s more known than the director she had a fling with? – Ed.] Without justifying her actions (which she doesn’t do either), can everyone stop this madness? War criminals and convicted athletes got a better press this past month. Whether you like her or not, Kirsten started acting at the age of 9. She’s in the spotlights because she was in successful movies, she didn’t look up the press to sell her career. How many “Give us some rest”s does it take before the press get the message? And why did it take the IMDb a full day to post the rectification to their story (which, given the news about Mayim Bialik‘s accident got buried to the smaller news)? If we had to nail all the 22-year-old girls who’d made a misstep to the cross, we wouldn’t have time to watch any movies. And that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Stewart recently starred in On The Road and Robert Pattinson in Cronenberg‘s Cosmopolis (reviewed here). Now there’s something to focus on, people. Back to business everyone! Speaking of “business”, here’s a review:

My digital tv provider offers me one free movie a month, which is awfully nice of them. In the past I used that chance to see some movies which never got a cinema release, but after the past year – which was so demanding I was forced to spend the past two weeks resting (which luckily coincided with the Olympics) – it mainly enabled me to see the movies I never even caught in the cinema. Last month I had to choose between Haywire and Poulet aux prunes (the latter won) and this month Haywire was once again of the final three movies in my list. As I couldn’t decide, I went to the IMDb to look up some information on the films from my shortlist. The lead actress from Haywire looked familiar, though and I couldn’t exactly pinpoint which movie I knew her from. Still the choice hadn’t been made, so up to YouTube for some trailers and clips. And that’s when it hit me. I had seen actress Gina Carano before and I knew her from… Haywire.

In earlier reviews at the Avenue (or its predecessor) we might have mentioned that it might be better for Steven Soderbergh to make one good movie a year rather than two acceptable films. But even then we didn’t expect that we could forget about one of his movies entirely. The synopsis, the poster, some stills… no recollection. It even took us a couple of seconds during the trailer to jumpstart our memory. Then a couple of scenes returned: the hotel scene, one of the scenes where our heroine has to escape the police and especially the remote house in the climax. Oh yes, that movie. Soderbergh is a capable director, but at the time we didn’t think this was a memorable movie. Turns out that this conclusion would prove to be painfully correct.

5.5/10 (I think)