109: ATM

Have you ever driven across one of those huge parking lots at your local mall at night? You know most of the time nothing much happens there, but what if it did? What if you went to get some money and some lunatic starts to threaten you. That’s exactly what happens to Emily, David and Corey after they leave the annual Christmas party. They are being stalked by a homicidal maniac who for no apparent reason want to kill them. As time moves on the situation becomes more tense.

I always hold out hope that a movie is better than I expect it to be. ATM starts off fine with a moody credits sequence and a halfway decent introduction to our heroes, David, an investment banker with a conscience, Corey, who is the office jerk, and Emily, a stunning young lady who David has a crush on. David finally musters the courage to ask out Emily to lunch and even offers her a ride home, but Corey wants a ride as well and tags along. Instead of going straight home they stop at an ATM to get some cash. Big mistake. This is the beginning of a nightmare.

ATM is written by screenwriter Chris Sparling, who also wrote the far superior claustrophobic thriller Buried. With ATM he tries to continue this sense of claustrophobia by putting the protagonists in a glass box instead of a wooden one. The idea is amazing, the execution is only moderately successful. First-time feature film director David Brooks, who made an excellent short film called Gone in 2009, has a good idea what he wants to do. He uses the fluorescent lighting inside the booth and the local lightning in the parking lot to great effect to create a chilling environment for his movie. Unfortunately the screenplay doesn’t help him in any away.

Every time Brooks tries to do something cool with his movie the screenplay throws him a curveball that he just can’t hit. There are just too many incredulous elements to the story to make this into a coherent movie. For example: Why does everybody park so far from the ATM booth? Is it so much trouble to park next to the booth when it’s freezing cold outside. The same goes for the security officer who arrives at the scene later in the movie. I’ll bet he would have been of much more use if he could actually have heard what the victims were saying. Another thing is that the villain wears a dark jacket with a fur-lined hoody. Conveniently for the movie a lot of other people wear the same type of jacket so mistaken identities become an easy way out. These are some of the many plot holes ATM boasts. What started out as a reasonable thriller turns into a startling display of poor screenwriting. Especially the ending is incredibly unsatisfying. Here be spoilers.

I have nothing against a plot twist. The good ones can be incredible and some even enhance your subsequent viewings of a movie. Not so with ATM. Here the plot twist comes totally out of the blue and makes no sense whatsoever. The movie implies that the killer is somebody who targets these locations because of their surroundings. It doesn’t matter who gets caught in the mayhem, as long as somebody gets killed and he gets away with it. This makes his quite a scary killer. Somebody with that amount of disregard for human life is always scary. Curiously the movie also implies an elaborate plot engineered by the villain to frame David, the insecure one of the three. This would indicate a relationship between David and the villain. It seems that ATM doesn’t want to choose between these two versions of the story and with that it leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

If you want a proper claustrophobic thriller, I would recommend Phone Booth or Buried. Those are two movies, while also not perfect, still maintain an air of plausibility for the viewer to enjoy. ATM doesn’t and is therefore doomed to go down in history as a failed first-time effort from a talented young director.

> IMDb

108: Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans has a lot to live up to… and not in a good way. Its predecessor, Clash of the Titans, is infamous for being the first movie that used 3D to an effect that ruined the movie for a lot of people. While that could certainly be true (I didn’t see it in 3D), the movie itself also wasn’t really good. It was boring, long, and generally just a movie version of a bad video game. It was therefore a big surprise that Warner Bros. went ahead with a sequel so quick after the failure of the first film. Now, after having seen Wrath of the Titans, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by it, but I must admit that again I did not see it in 3D.

In Wrath of the Titans we pick up the story ten years after where we ended the last time. Perseus (Sam Worthington) now lives somewhere in a small village with his son, minding his own business. He certainly has no interest in following his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) in his footsteps. Not after what happened in the first movie with the Kraken and all. But, of course, this is not going to last. Perseus’ half-brother Ares (Édgar Ramírez), the God of War, has struck a deal with Hades (Ralph Fiennes) to capture Zeus and use him to free Kronos, the father of Hades, Zeus and Poseidon (Danny Huston), who they managed to imprison in a gigantic underground prison called Tartarus. Now it is up to Perseus to find a way to free his father and safe the Earth once again from some devastating threat.

It is apparent from the start that director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) got the memo from the studio that Wrath should be less boring than Clash, directed by Louis Leterrier. There was lots of action in Clash, but it was just not exciting. Fighting a bunch of giant scorpions should not have been boring, but it was. All we wanted was a clash of the titans and not more babble between gods about how hard life is for them. In Wrath all the exposition has been toned done a lot and replaced with a rather streamlined plot. That leaves a lot of room for some great action sequences beginning with the trashing of Perseus’ village by a fearsome chimera. We are off to a good start here.

Then we are off on our adventure. Perseus and Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) set out to find Poseidon’s demigod son Agenor (Toby Kebbell), for he is the one who can find the way to Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), who can forge a spear that can kill Kronos. Phew, are you still following me? Wrath of the Titans moves fast and doesn’t stand still for nobody. If you lose track of who’s who and what’s what, you are on your own. That’s refreshing, because Clash did the opposite. Before we know it we are knee-deep into the labyrinth of Tartarus, where the minotaur awaits the heroes. The labyrinth itself also is a formidable foe, with walls constantly moving back and forth and entire hallways moving around. It’s pretty spectacular. And then the endgame begins with the gigantic Kronos breaking free, surfacing and wreaking havoc on the world. It is always a sight to behold when something this big can be seen on the big screen. Kronos is made of lava and the animators made sure every drop of it was animated in a correct manner. This thing is gorgeous and scary at the same time.

I loved the way Ares was used here. He is this jealous prick who wants nothing more than to destroy the Earth in exchange for the ability to remain immortal, because humans don’t believe in their gods anymore. And when humans don’t believe in their gods anymore, they seize to exist. Ares is a hothead, he isn’t God of War for nothing, and seeks the most extreme solution to his impending doom: sacrificing his father. While Ares is unwavering in his quest for immortality, it is Hades who starts to have doubts about what he is doing to his brothers and the world. As the story progresses he changes and in an effects-heavy movie like this I was surprised that Fiennes managed to get these nuances across. Amidst all the mayhem and visual carnage there was actually a story being told here with religious tones and all. Nice.

I know Wrath of the Titans is still a pulpy action movie that shouldn’t be this entertaining given its pedegree, but it is. I wholeheartedly recommend that anybody who loves sword-and-sandal fighting, big monsters and great actors check this out. Skip the starter, go right to the entrée.

> IMDb

107: The Hunger Games

I just don’t understand the appeal of The Hunger Games. Maybe it’s my age–I am about twenty years older than the target audience–or maybe it’s the fact that I have kids of my own. I would do anything in my power to protect them from harm and therefore the very idea of a society that puts its children in harm’s way is downright atrocious to me. No matter what the reason. No matter what the political motives are. And add to that the fact that the eponymous game in the movie is a celebrated televised event makes it all the more despicable.

In The Hunger Games everything revolves around these awful games. For some reason the various districts are required to deliver two of their children to the capital for them to compete in a battle to the death. One of these kids is Primrose Everdeen, a young child. Her sister can’t let this happen and volunteers to take her place. And it will be so. Together with a boy who has serious self esteem issues she embarks on an adventure to the capital where she is pitted against twenty-three other kids, including her district mate. Who will come out on top? Katniss or one of those other bloodthirsty teenagers.

In a world where moral standards are cherished a game like The Hunger Games would never be organized. Willingly providing children from your community to appease some oppressive government elsewhere and having them killed on television for ratings would never be accepted. There would be riots to prevent this, people would revolt, no matter how dire their lives are and will be. You just don’t touch the children. I said, “In a world where moral standards are held up” and clearly this is not the case in this story. Seemingly everybody is in on this stuff. There are no clues given that there could be a rebellious fringe element in this society that opposes these Games. People who could set the record straight. It is clear that when everybody just keeps cooperating with these lunatics, then this will never end. Maybe this is subject matter that is addressed in the sequels, maybe, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t and won’t read these books.

Another thing I can’t wrap my head around is the visual presentation of The Hunger Games. I like the way Katniss’ home district is portrayed. It is dirty and realistic. You would not want to live there. Compare that to the upper class world in the capital where everything is incredibly overdone. This doesn’t have to be a problem, a little color makes sure you know the difference between the two worlds, but here the difference is so outlandish that it becomes laughable. Stanley Tucci with blue hair, Wes Bentley with some garish beard type thing and Elizabeth Banks looking more like Lady Gaga than a leader. I just can’t take this world serious.

Then there are some strange holes in the logic of The Hunger Games, one of which was really bothering me at the beginning of the movie. It seems like this Hunger Games thing has been going on for quite some time, maybe even as long as before these kids were born. If I were to cooperate with this conceit–and I wouldn’t–I would train the hell out of my kids. Just in case they are chosen to fight for my district. Why wait with the training until they are chosen? That would be just a stupid thing to do and a sure way to loose this game.

The annoying meddling in the proceedings of the game by the production team is also strange. For example, at one point Katniss strays a little too far from the game and the producer decides to turn her back. He does this by staging a forest fire, by shooting fireballs at here and by dropping a tree on her. Well, I thought the purpose was to have these kids kill each other. Instead the production team is killing her. That is just cheating. Why not have them run around a courtyard with bombs around their necks and see which one is the last kid standing. Oh, and everybody seems to have very strange names in this world. Hmmm, odd.

Although the author of the book says she did not base her stories on the Japanese movie Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000), but we all know that is bullshit. She took that story and expanded it. I happen to like Battle Royale quite a bit. This is strange, because it is basically the same story. Shouldn’t the same themes of child murder and oppression bother me just as much as in Battle Royale? Sure they do, but that is not what upsets me the most about The Hunger Games. It is the glorification of the game and its players that is so beyond me. These kids are championed on large stages and television shows as if they have chosen this life for themselves and most of them act like that as well. The kids in Battle Royale are just dumped on an island and left to their own devices. There is no daily show chronicling the exploits of these kids, there is no glory, just survival, brutal survival. Maybe if The Hunger Games has dispensed with the whole first hour and showed just the game itself with some context peppered along the way, it may have been more appealing to me.

I have to say, though, that Jennifer Lawrence gives a great performance given the material she has to work with. It is nowhere near her stellar breakout performance in Winter’s Bone, but nonetheless a nice piece of work that gives The Hunger Games just that little bit of much needed extra depth. Also noteworthy is the score by James Newton Howard, who infuses the movie with an extra layer of atmosphere. All in all I can not recommend The Hunger Games or discourage anybody from seeing it. This is one of those movies that is so subjective that any recommendation from me is superfluous. Watch it, and make up your own mind. I didn’t care for it.

> IMDb

106: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Anybody who has kids will tell you that sometimes they can get on your nerves really bad. So much so that you’d want to hurt them, send them to another home or turn back the clock to a moment where you would have the choice to have them or not. This passes. Trust me, it doesn’t take that long. At least, that’s the case when your kid is not Kevin, the central figure in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a new thriller by Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar).

Kevin is the kid from hell. From the moment he sets foot on this Earth he seems to decide to make his mother’s life miserable. He won’t stop crying as a baby, he refuses to start talking, he intentionally soils his pants and ultimately he commits a horrible act at his high school. It drives Eva, his mother, played by Tilda Swinton, insane. More so because he seems to behave relatively normal when his father (John C. Reilly) is around. Not having somebody to confide in about Kevin’s behavior makes the anguish even worse for Eva. She is powerless, she is desperate, she wants out.

Lynne Ramsay keeps the audience on their toes. We switch back and forth between past and present like we are looking at a scrapbook of memories and impressions collected by Eva. We Need to Talk About Kevin presents a life that according to Eva should not have happened. She never wanted Kevin. He was an accident. She needs to find a way to reconcile her own feelings towards his place in her life and the way he acts around her. It is heartbreaking to see her spiraling downward into this depression because of this little devil that lives in her home.

But that’s one way of looking at it. I heard about another theory I really like. Eva looks back on her life with Kevin after hearing what happened at Kevin’s school. She sees everything he has done through new eyes. The crying, the toilet training, the screaming, she sees it all as a personal attack on her. What we are basically seeing here are Eva’s tainted memories of Kevin and this could be the onset of a mental breakdown or something. It puts the whole movie in a different light that would explain the relationship Kevin has with his father. Kids, in my opinion, tend to lash out more towards the parent they see the most. Feeling that your kid has it out for you can be quite normal. Combine those with the horrible act Kevin perpetrates and you get a volatile mix of emotions that is unhealthy. This theory also clears Kevin’s name a little bit, because he is painted incredibly evil. I love this theory and would love to hear Ramsay’s thoughts on this.

There is also the fact that in Eva’s memories there is no place for anything else than the people in her life. The family moves into an incredible house that is enormous. The house feels empty. There is hardly any furniture and what furniture there is is white. The kitchen is also almost empty except for some white dishes in the cupboard. It is as if Eva just has room in her head for her memories of Kevin’s exploits. Nobody lives in a house like this with two children. In the present things are bleak, to say the least. Eva now lives alone in a small house and she is the victim of frequent attacks because of what her son did. Her house and car are soiled with red paint and in the street she is verbally abused and eyed constantly. She goes to work in one of the most unglamorous travel agencies in the world.

During the movie we see Eva clean the red paint from her house with power tools, razor blades and scrubbers. It is as if she is desperately trying to erase the blood her son spilled. The color red can be found everywhere in the movie. The foreshadowing is omnipresent and can be a little pushy sometimes. We Need to Talk About Kevin feels like a series of beautiful tone poems that seem to be thrown together loosely, but Ramsay knows exactly what she is doing and ramps up the intensity during the movie. At the beginning the pieces are fairly short, but they start to become a little longer to convey a little more narrative to guide us through the maze in Eva’s head. It isn’t a pleasant ride, but certainly an infinitely interesting one. Highly recommended.

> IMDb

105: Stranger Than Paradise

Jim Jarmusch No. 2

There is something mesmerizing about Jim Jarmusch’ films. They tend to look like they go nowhere, lingering on moments we normally glance over and forget. It often feels like an endurance test for the audience. The long takes and the pregnant silences are common occurrences. I always have to put myself into a certain mindset, an almost meditative state even, in order to watch Jarmusch’ movies. I have to slow my brain down to let all the information Jarmusch provides seep into my head. Not an easy feat in our hectic society. Stranger Than Paradise, while certainly more focused than his first feature Permanent Vacation, still carries that slow Jarmusch quality.

We follow the exploits of Willy, a New York hipster who arrived there about ten years ago from Hungary. The movie opens with a shot of a young woman who stands around looking at airplanes that are coming and going at the airport. This is Willy’s niece Eva, who visits him by surprise. Willy doesn’t like this one bit. He doesn’t need his busy life shaken up by babysitting his 16-year-old niece. Well, busy, not so much. He is a hustler, who gambles on horses and such to make his living. He just doesn’t want the aggravation of having to look after someone. It turns out Eva doesn’t need his help and she leaves him to go live with her aunt in Cleveland.

Stranger Than Paradise is told in three parts. The first, called “The New World”, is described above and is actually Jarmusch’ short of the same name. This part shows the monotonous life in the city. Willy’s friend Eddy comes by sometimes, Eva cleans the apartment a little, she steals some supplies. They watch football together, which Willy tries to explain to Eva and while she certainly isn’t dumb, he just gives up, because he just doesn’t need the hassle. The story of his life, I guess. Then the time comes for Eva to leave and Willy is surprisingly upset about this.

A year later, in the second act, we see Willy and Eddy win at a poker game, which gives them the opportunity to leave the city and go to Cleveland to visit Eva. A visit that is mostly uneventful. They visit Eva at her workplace, they catch a movie, they visit Lake Erie during a snowstorm, although they don’t see much of it. The third act sees the guys leaving and deciding to go to Florida, where they have some gambling to do and stuff like that. I say stuff like that, because that is all they do. It is not really a very glamorous life these guys lead. That is not to say they are unhappy. They have fun, tell jokes, go on road trips. It could be worse, right? The real question is why would we want to spend ninety minutes with them? Beats me, I just do. It’s this intangible quality Jarmusch’s films have.

Stranger Than Paradise is shot in the same grainy black and white fashion his first picture, Permanent Vacation, was shot in. Especially in the second act, when our heroes are in Cleveland, this lends a dreary snow-covered look to the city that in color would not have been this effective. The same goes for the third act when Florida is made to look like an equally dreary place, when in reality this is mostly not how it is.

The cinematography is mostly on par with Permanent Vacation, in that Jarmusch sets up the camera and lets the scene play out. The only difference is that he pans the camera a little more. He always, however, shows the world of our heroes as cramped. The rooms they stay in are all either stuffed with furniture or just very small. It shows that these characters are locked in their lives, no matter where they go. Even in Florida, where they have the chance to go out and walk around, they stay in their motel room. They don’t really want to do anything about this, this is their life and they are fine with that.

As I said at the beginning, it took me some time to get into Stranger Than Paradise. I had to shift gears to really appreciate what Jarmusch has done here. Jarmusch doesn’t judge these characters, nor should we. They may be hipsters, slackers, gamblers and maybe even illegal immigrants, but that doesn’t make them any less human. And people who listen to “I Put A Spell On You” by Jay Hawkins over and over can’t be all bad, can they?

> IMDb

104: Doodslag (Manslaughter)

Holland is a small country with a lot of people. Every inch of that country is filled with people from all different walks of life and nationalities. This means there are a lot of problems to deal with. People get on each other’s nerves, become less tolerant towards one another and little is needed to make the situation get out of hand. This is where Doodslag, a new thriller by Pieter Kuijpers, comes in. It addresses issues that are tough to talk about, because there are no clear answers.

Ambulance driver Max is a kind soul. He wants to take care of people, his family, his co-workers, the people he picks up with his ambulance. Max feels he surrounded by intolerance. When he wants to take a stabbing victim to the hospital he is told to detour to another hospital because of a soccer match. Next he goes to somebody’s house where the victim doesn’t want to be treated by Max’s co-worker because she is of Moroccan decent. Little by little his disdain for the people he needs to serve begins to grow. One night the proverbial shit hits the fan when he is en route to a mother whose pregnancy is about to end in trouble. He comes across a road accident, but his co-worker decides that the boy could just go to the emergency room by himself. His friends don’t agree with this and start threatening Max. He hits one of the boys and drives off. The boy dies and the mother and child live. Was what Max did the right thing or should he have solved this in another way? And what role does entertainment play in the way the people perceive this man who just for one second had enough of what he saw around him.

Max is played by Dutch stand-up comedian Theo Maassen, whose stand-up shows are always rife with social commentary. It isn’t entirely accidental that he plays the role of the man who has had enough. He has talked about this so often on stage that we could actually see him doing this. His nemesis is a man called Felix, a stand-up comedian like Maassen himself, who doesn’t shy away from words that can be viewed as populism. He has the power to make Max a criminal, but also to make him a hero. One of the most interesting moments occurs when Max is called onstage with Felix to talk about his experiences. The uneasiness in Max’s eyes and the way he stands there listening to the words Felix says about him and the boys who pester him is touching and proves that Maassen is an excellent actor in his own right.

Felix is played by classically schooled actor Gijs Scholten van Aschat. He portrays Felix as the sleazy entertainer who always has a funny answer to everything. This would have been an incredibly interesting character, because he is the person who Maassen could be in real life. Too often director Kuijpers uses Felix to express the things he wants to convey to the audience. This comes across as preachy and makes the movie a bit too easy. When something is spoon fed to the audience the thinking process is eliminated, isn’t that what this whole thing was about?

Doodslag also addresses the feeling that everything can be said in a free society. The trouble is that this is not the case in my opinion. Of course, you should be able to say anything you want, but that doesn’t mean that you should say everything. It is a slippery slope where hurting someone’s feelings can become an entitlement to some people and common sense goes out the window. This phenomenon crops up everywhere: in politics, in entertainment, in everyday life. This is a problem that needs to be addressed, but how do you address a problem that is so often solved with words that hurt other people? I don’t know.

Doodslag is divided into four acts. The first three are fine. The tone is vicious, there are lots to think about and the performances are excellent. It is in the fourth act that Max goes all out Travis Bickle on the world. He confronts his ‘bullies’ with a gun, because that is obviously the only language they understand. He confronts the xenophobic man about his attitude towards Moroccans, who resists his threats and asks him if what Max is doing is the normal thing to do. While Max’s frustration is understandable, the actions he decided to take can not be condoned. It is like watching Death Wish. You understand where the protagonist is coming from, but anybody in his right mind should condemn his actions. It is this unpleasant tone in the fourth act that ruins Doodslag. Max turns into a misguided vigilante and is no longer the person we want to root for. He has truly become Travis Bickle. A tortured soul. A criminal. A lunatic. And Kuijpers keeps screaming through the screen, “Look what we have done, society!”

> IMDb

103: Commando

After watching Missing in Action I was in the mood for some more shlocky ’80s action movies. Over the weekend I was writing my review of Missing in Action for Battleship Pretension when I read about Matt Singer hosting a 35mm screening of Mark L. Lester’s Commando with the director in attendance for a Q&A. I would have loved to be there, but the event was in New York and that is on the other side of the country. A little far away for just one screening. So I got Commando on blu-ray… it was on sale at BestBuy.

Commando is the story of John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an ex-soldier who tries to live a quiet life out in the woods with his daughter (Alyssa Milano) now that he is retired from the army. At least that is until his old teammates are picked off one by one by a mysterious organization. A general comes to his house to warn him, but it’s already too late. The thugs have kidnapped Matrix’ daughter and they want him to murder somebody in South America so they can seize power down there. Of course Matrix doesn’t want to cooperate, but what choice does he have?

From that moment on Matrix is constantly either running from or chasing the bad guys. He is accompanied by pilot Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), who gets involved in this mess when one of the bad guys hits on her. I guess it’s not her day. We tag along while Matrix trashes a shopping mall, a hotel, a weapons store and finally a small island. Every fight is more ridiculous than the next, which are filled to the brim with one-liners for Schwarzenegger to utter with his adorable accent. Hearing him say lines like “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I’m very hungry!” or “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.” is worth the price of admission alone.

Commando is a ridiculous movie by any means. Matrix escaping from a plane by way of the front wheel and dropping into a swamp. Matrix lifting a phone booth above his head to get his opponent to give up. Matrix smashing a car through the front window of a gun store to get some weapons. Director Lester, who would go on to direct such gems as Showdown in Little Tokyo with Dolph Lundgren and Extreme Justice with Lou Diamond Phillips, relishes everything screenwriter Steven E. de Souza (who would perfect his one-liners in Die Hard a few years later) has dumped into the screenplay. Every over-the-top set-piece, every stupid piece of dialogue, every gratuitous shot of Arnold’s muscles (those were actually demanded by the studio), he goes all out with it. And that makes Commando such a joy to revisit once in a while. It is shameless entertainment and that makes it so much better than Missing in Action, which is truly an embarrassment to movies.

> IMDb