Dienstag, 25. September 2018

Incredibles 2

© Walt Disney Studios Schweiz

★★★★

"Insofern ist Incredibles 2 ein gelungenes Sequel. Auf Einladung eines reichen Philanthropen (Better Call Saul-Star Bob Odenkirk) versucht Elastigirl, den Ruf von Superhelden zu verbessern, während Mr. Incredible den Haushalt schmeissen muss. So kann Regisseur und Solo-Drehbuchautor Brad Bird immer wieder zwischen kurzweiliger Action (mit neuen und alten Helden) und urkomischem Familien-Slapstick hin- und herschalten."

Ganze Kritik auf Maximum Cinema (online einsehbar).

Montag, 24. September 2018

The Children Act

Following in the footsteps of films like Paweł Pawlikowski's The Woman in the Fifth (2011) and Bille August's Night Train to Lisbon (2013), Richard Eyre's The Children Act is the latest example of an accomplished director struggling to make their literary source material seem relevant.

Adapted from Ian McEwan's 2014 novel of the same name, the film is a curiously insular exploration of marital estrangement, religious fanaticism, and the divide between the legal world and everyday life. With the stiffest of upper lips and a sense of restraint which at times borders on indifference, it tells the story of Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), a judge in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales, who is called upon to rule over a morally controversial case: Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), the 17-year-old son of two Jehovah's Witnesses (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh), is dying from leukaemia and in need of a blood transfusion – a procedure strictly prohibited by his faith. Meanwhile, Fiona's husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) is openly pursuing an affair because of her emotional unavailability.

The Children Act sees the venerable Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) reunite with McEwan for the first time since 1983, when they collaborated on the acclaimed anti-Thatcherite drama The Ploughman's Lunch. 35 years on, the two reprise their roles, with the former in the director's chair and the latter providing the script. And yet, whereas their earlier venture tapped into the pressing issues of the day, from nascent British neoliberalism to the Falklands War, their new one feels like a rather pointless exercise.

This is not to say that the duo, in order to make a good movie, is required to make political statements of any sort. In fact, judging from McEwan's contributions to non-literary discourse in recent years, holding off on such commentary might not be the worst idea. Still, for a film that so prominently revolves around ideas and the power contained within them – played out most notably in the clash between British law and the Henrys' reading of the Bible – it would have been appropriate for it to say anything at all.

But The Children Act is remarkable only for its solipsism. It contents itself with recounting the barebones plot of McEwan's novel, which becomes increasingly unbelievable, as Adam develops a strange fascination with Fiona that goes almost wholly unaddressed. Aspects such as this – or the film's awkwardly insistent portrayal of Fiona as an emotionally stunted quasi-spinster – would be easier to overlook in a more story-driven film, but there is precious little to work with here in narrative terms.

As Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is wrestling with a controversial case, her husband (Stanley Tucci) informs her about his dissatisfaction with their marriage.
© Ascot Elite
As a character study, the affair falls flat as well. Even though Emma Thompson is reliably majestic – and supported by strong turns from both Stanley Tucci and Fionn Whitehead – neither Fiona nor any of the other characters invite a lot of empathy or evoke a strong emotional response. They are flawed figures caught in a tale of moral ambiguity, presented as if from afar – respectfully, or perhaps ironically, detached. It can't be a good sign that the most engaging character ends up being Nigel (Jason Watkins), Fiona's put-upon assistant at court, while the film's most captivating moments involve the protagonist interpreting the law out loud.

I have not read the book The Children Act is based on, therefore I cannot judge whether it is a faithful adaptation – though I assume it is, given that its screenwriter also penned the source material. However, I am confident in calling the work of Richard Eyre and Ian McEwan an unsuccessful adaptation because it made me doubt that there was anything worth adapting in the first place.

★★

Samstag, 22. September 2018

Searching

Die Karriere des indisch-amerikanischen Regisseurs Aneesh Chaganty begann 2014 mit einem rührenden Werbespot für Google Glass, gefilmt mit dem angepriesenen Produkt. Vier Jahre später kräht kein Hahn mehr nach der High-Tech-Brille – doch das ästhetische Konzept der Werbung hat sich gehalten: Chaganty hat es zu seinem Spielfilmdebüt weiterentwickelt. Dieses ist ein mehr oder weniger gewöhnlicher Thriller mit einer hochgradig ungewöhnlichen Erzählweise: Searching spielt sich ausschliesslich auf Computer- und Smartphone-Displays ab.

Ganz neu ist die Idee nicht. Davon abgesehen, dass der Stil eine fast schon zwangsläufige Evolution des Found-Footage-Horrors von The Blair Witch Project (1999) und Paranormal Activity (2007) ist, hat Chagantys Produzent, der Kasache Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), diese Sparte in den letzten Jahren zunehmend für sich beansprucht: Unter seinem Einfluss sind Computerbildschirm-Horrorfilme wie Unfriended (2014) oder Profile (2018) entstanden. Es wird nicht lange dauern, bis sich dieser Gimmick totgelaufen hat. Doch wenn es soweit ist, wird Searching als ein Höhepunkt des Subgenres in Erinnerung bleiben.

Dies ist nicht zuletzt dem Umstand geschuldet, dass sich der Film erzählerisch nur bedingt von seiner extravaganten Ästhetik leiten lässt. In bester Thriller- und Mystery-Manier lässt sich seine Handlung auf wenige Sätze herunterbrechen: Die High-School-Schülerin Margot (Michelle La) ist verschwunden. Ihr verwitweter Vater David (ein grossartiger John Cho) macht sich mithilfe der Polizistin Rosemary (Debra Messing) auf die Suche.

Zu dieser narrativen Geradlinigkeit passt auch, dass sich Searching nie anmasst, ein Film über die im Rampenlicht stehende Technologie zu sein. Obwohl die berüchtigte Internet-Anonymität hier durchaus von Belang ist, sind im Drehbuch von Chaganty und Co-Autor Sev Ohanian keine technophoben Untertöne zu spüren. Vielmehr entsteht der Eindruck, etwas Zeitgemässem, längst Überfälligen beizuwohnen: Informationstechnologie und mobile Kommunikation gehören seit gut einer Generation – Margots Generation, um genau zu sein – zum Alltag. Zeit, dass das Kino auch dieser digitalen Seite des menschlichen Lebens Rechnung trägt.

David (John Cho) sucht seine Tochter – und das Publikum sieht auf Smartphone- und Computerbildschirmen zu.
© Sony Pictures Releasing Switzerland GmbH
Erreicht wird dies auf ungewohnte, aber überraschend einfach zugängliche Art und Weise. Ein Grossteil des Publikums dürfte sich mit Chat-Verläufen und Facebook-Fotoalben bestens auskennen. Anhand dieser und weiterer Medien – vorab Videotelefonie und Nachrichten-Websites – eine Geschichte zu verfolgen, wirkt anregend innovativ.

Auf dieser festen stilistischen Basis bauen Chaganty und Ohanian ihr Thrillerkonstrukt, welches durchgehend spannend bleibt – selbst wenn sich gegen Ende einige genretypische Unglaublichkeiten einschleichen. Doch weder diese noch die etwas überhastete Auflösung vermögen das letztliche Gelingen des Projekts zu verhindern: Dazu ist das Ganze schlicht zu kurzweilig und zu mitreissend. Searching ist ein Film, wie ihn wohl Alfred Hitchcock gemacht hätte, wenn er in den 2010er Jahren gearbeitet hätte – eine hervorragend inszenierte Achterbahnfahrt mit einem gesunden Hang zu trendigen Spielereien.

★★★★

Montag, 17. September 2018

Jusqu'à la garde

Eines der berühmtesten Zitate der kanadischen Schriftstellerin Margaret Atwood lautet, sinngemäss: "Männer haben Angst, dass Frauen sie auslachen. Frauen haben Angst, dass Männer sie umbringen." Jusqu'à la garde, das Langspielfilmdebüt des Franzosen Xavier Legrand, erzählt in erschreckender Intensität von diesem Missverhältnis.

Der Film, quasi ein Remake von Legrands oscarnominiertem Kurzfilm Avant que de tout perdre (2013), dreht sich um die zerbrochene Ehe von Miriam (Léa Drucker) und Antoine (Denis Ménochet), dem im Scheidungsprozess sowohl Miriam als auch die beiden gemeinsamen Kinder, die 18-jährige Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) und der elfjährige Julien (Thomas Gioria), häusliche Gewalt vorwarfen. Doch die Richterin (Saadia Bentaïeb) lässt sich davon nicht beeindrucken und ordnet an, dass Julien fortan jedes zweite Wochenende bei seinem Vater verbringen muss.

Lange hält sich Jusqu'à la garde darüber bedeckt, worauf sein feinfühliges, minimalistisches Porträt einer zerrütteten Familie hinausläuft. Es passiert nicht viel: Miriam und die Kinder besichtigen eine neue Wohnung. Julien sträubt sich gegen die Wochenendbesuche bei Antoine. Antoine streitet sich mit seinen Eltern (Jean-Marie Winling, Martine Vandeville) über seine prekäre Wohn- und Arbeitssituation. Joséphine verbringt trotz Miriams Misstrauen Zeit mit ihrem Freund (Mathieu Saikaly). (Letzteres ist zwar der schwächste Handlungsstrang des Films, enthält aber die vielleicht interessanteste Einstellung: ein Teenager-Drama im Kleinformat, eingefangen durch den unteren Spalt einer Toilettentür.)

Die Gewalt, über die zu Beginn vor Gericht gesprochen wird, ist spürbar, bleibt aber über weite Strecken unsichtbar. Antoine ist aufbrausend, mitunter aber auch umgänglich. Beinahe scheint Legrand sein Publikum dazu herausfordern zu wollen, Antoines Sicht der Dinge Glauben zu schenken und die Glaubwürdigkeit der scheinbar übervorsichtigen Miriam in Zweifel zu ziehen.

Julien (Thomas Gioria) muss gegen seinen Willen jedes zweite Wochenende bei seinem Vater (Denis Ménochet) verbringen.
© Filmcoopi
Das ist die Perfidie häuslicher Gewalt, insbesondere jener, die sich gegen Frauen richtet: Der Reflex der Gesellschaft ist das unentwegte Pochen auf immer noch mehr Belegen, selbst wenn einander untermauernde Aussagen wie jene von Miriam, Joséphine und Julien vorliegen. Bevorzugt werden sichtbare Spuren ehelicher Handgreiflichkeiten – wobei auch diese nicht vor dieser Kultur der bedingungslosen Skepsis gefeit sind.

Jusqu'à la garde erinnert nicht zuletzt daran, dass nicht alle Gewalt physischer Natur ist. So stellt Antoine seine Ex-Frau wiederholt als hysterische Paranoikerin dar – ein klassischer Fall von "Gaslighting" – und fährt als ungebetener Gast bei Joséphines Geburtstagsfest vor und löst so, in einer herausragend inszenierten, so gut wie wortlosen Szene, eine veritable Panik aus. Solche Akte der Einschüchterung und der emotionalen Erpressung lassen sich vor Gericht nur schwer nachweisen, sind aber sehr wohl Teil gewaltsamen Verhaltens.

Mit zunehmender Dauer zieht Legrand in der Manier eines Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep) die Schraube an und verdichtet alle diese Gedanken über brutale innerfamiliäre Konflikte zu einer zutiefst erschütternden, verstörend sachlich vorgetragenen Schlussviertelstunde. Hier wird die institutionelle Vorstellung des idealen Schlichtungsprozesses, mit dem der Film begann, komplett auf den Kopf gestellt: Auf die Mediation folgt die Eskalation – und mit ihr die Erkenntnis, dass beim Thema häuslicher Gewalt, gerade gegenüber Frauen, ein Umdenken stattfinden muss.

★★★★★

Montag, 3. September 2018

McQueen

While I consider myself a fan of cinematic documentaries, I often find myself feeling faintly unfulfilled by those dealing with the life and times of a celebrity. Perhaps it's unfair to feel this way, as it's nearly impossible to approach these films in an unbiased way, seeing how their subjects are usually widely mediated public figures.

Still, thinking back to films in this vein – Asif Kapadia's Amy (2015), say, or Wim Wenders' Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018) – I struggle to muster up any kind of lingering emotional response. But take works like Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog (2015), Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson (2016), Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Yance Ford's Strong Island (2017), or Regina Schilling's Kulenkampffs Schuhe (2018) – personal journeys, intimate histories, and politically charged biographies – and I still feel their visceral impact.

This is the frame of mind in which I saw McQueen, the documentary about the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. It is a movie very much in the Kapadia mold – highly informative and deeply invested in its protagonist's ultimately tragic life. In fact, Amy may well be its closest analogue stylistically as well as narratively.

Like the Amy Winehouse portrait, McQueen casts its spotlight on a working-class Londoner who found fame thanks to a combination of phenomenal talent, hard work, and sheer brazenness – and who died prematurely, scarred by depression, substance abuse, and the unforgiving demands of stardom. And although Lee Alexander McQueen was 14 years Winehouse's senior, he, like her, was surrounded by cameras from the very beginning of his career. This is a documentarian's dream, and Bonhôte and Ettedgui make ample use of what looks like a considerable archive of home movies from the early and mid-1990s, showing a young McQueen finding his feet in the competitive world of fashion.

In these early years, which the movie lays out in a lot of detail, the audience, with the help of interviews with friends and contemporaries, gets to know a likeable subversion of both the Britpop era's "new lad" figure and the stereotype of the devoted fashionista. McQueen – "Lee" to his friends and family – loves a raunchy joke but doesn't exhibit the toxic tendencies of post-Thatcherite masculinity. He came out as gay at 18, against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. In 1996, he arrived at Givenchy – an unpretentious larger-bodied London lad, friends/co-workers in tow, taking on the traditionalist, etiquette-loving world of haute couture. It's these passages that prove the film's most compelling, not least because of the raw, authentic video insights into McQueen's life at that time.

Fashion designer Alexander McQueen, pictured with his mother Joyce.
© Ascot Elite
As the movie progresses, things become sketchier – coinciding with McQueen's becoming more insular. Developments like his liposuction treatment or his cocaine habit are addressed but hardly dwelt upon. Interviewees are increasingly reduced to psychologising the man, while Bonhôte and Ettedgui attempt to forge connections between anecdotes and the fashion shows that divide their subject's life into chapters. There is an argument to be made that this approach actually does a disservice to McQueen, as the harsh, fickle nature of the fashion business undoubtedly exacerbated his personal problems. His long-time friend and mentor, London fashion queen Isabella Blow, who killed herself in 2007, partly attributed her depression to her age, which she identified as the cause of her waning professional influence. (McQueen himself would take his own life in 2010.)

Nevertheless, McQueen remains interesting, engaging and, thanks to the contributions of the broad range of McQueen familiars it features, moving throughout. It may never really escape its conventionality, but it's hard to fault it for that. Still, for all its competence, I can already feel it slipping from my memory.

★★★

Samstag, 1. September 2018

BlacKkKlansman

Warning: This review discusses the closing minutes of the movie.

After three viewings of and numerous discussions with friends about BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee's blistering adaptation of black police officer Ron Stallworth's memoir about his 1979 infiltration of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan, I still find myself at a loss for words in the face of this abrasively unsubtle masterpiece.

This is a film that manages to be laser-focused in its message as well as strikingly broad in scope. Under the veneer of procedural comedy, Lee explores the all-encompassing evil of racial oppression – from both interpersonal and structural racism to issues like respectability politics and weaponised whiteness.

The movie's opening minutes already suggest the thematic complexity Lee is wrestling with here. Tellingly, the very first frame is not even his own: it's a scene from Gone with the Wind (1939) – not only a beloved milestone of American cinema but also an unabashed love letter to the Confederacy, a political entity based on little more than the shared desire to keep alive the practice of owning people as property. Lee, it seems, is pointing out – and placing his own work in the context of – U.S. cinema's history of romanticising racism.

This is expanded upon by a second prologue unconnected to Ron Stallworth's remarkable story. Starring Alec Baldwin – Saturday Day Night Live's Donald Trump – as fictional segregationist Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard spouting white-supremacist talking points in a 1950s-style propaganda piece, it reflects on the literal and figurative whiteness of the screen. By the end, Beauregard, having veered off script, misplaced words, and ditched his pseudo-diplomatic demeanour in favour of impassioned, racist fury, stands in front of a screen showing scenes from D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) – its tinted images celebrating the KKK playing on his white face. It's among the most semiotically interesting scenes in recent memory – and its uncomfortable staging, daring its audience to laugh at unfiltered, unchallenged bigotry sets the tone for what's to come.

In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes Colorado Springs' first black police officer.
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
Even though calling BlacKkKlansman a comedy is similarly problematic as identifying Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) as one, the movie does aim for laughs fairly regularly. The premise makes that nearly inevitable: after signing up for the local chapter of the KKK over the phone, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), Colorado Springs' first black police officer, enlists his colleague, Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to meet his Klan contacts in person under his name.

The absurdity of the situation isn't lost on Lee and his co-writers David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott. Ron's phone interactions with the largely unsuspecting Klansmen, most notably chapter president Walter (Ryan Eggold), terrorist-in-waiting Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), and Grand Wizard/national director David Duke (Topher Grace), are often nothing short of hilarious.

But the movie never lets you forget the seriousness underpinning it all. Felix may seem ridiculous when he's scratching his forehead with his gun and is asking Flip whether his penis is "circumstanced" – but he is still a rabid ethnonationalist who entertains his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) by fantasising about ethnic cleansing and raising his arm for a Hitler salute. His antisemitism prompts Flip to start thinking about his Jewish heritage.

Ron teams up with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
David Duke, meanwhile, may be a Southern caricature who gets his comeuppance in one of the film's most triumphant moments; but Lee makes a point of grimly declaring Duke's project of mainstreaming white nationalism a success: he has the Grand Wizard lead a large group of smartly dressed white people chanting, "America first!" – the slogan around which Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural speech was built.

This is not even mentioning the indiscriminate use of the n-word and other slurs whenever Flip mingles with the Colorado Springs Klansmen. However, BlacKkKlansman still manages to counter the hateful ideology it necessarily gives a platform to in a meaningful way. It achieves that first with the inclusion of Ron's first intelligence assignment – the infiltration of a speech by former Black Panther dignitary Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), also known as Stokely Carmichael.

Lee is at the top of his game as an enigmatic director here, intercutting Ture's rousing antiracist speech about black beauty and black independence with stylised, floating close-ups from the crowd – literally shining the spotlight on black faces in a way that mainstream American cinema has so long refused to do. He follows it up with another loving celebration of black beauty: the camera follows Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier), his future girlfriend, onto a crowded dancefloor, where it lingers for a long while over the joyous crowd dancing to "Too Late to Turn Back Now" by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose.

Over the course of the investigation, Ron even makes contact with David Duke (Topher Grace), Grand Wizard of the KKK.
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
Just as these scenes assert black identity and reject the racist assumptions driving white supremacy, a third scene in that vein forcefully pushes back against the equivocation of racism and antiracism – a position favoured by so-called (white) moderates up to this day. As David Duke is formally inducting Flip into the KKK and asking God for more white men in the world, Patrice and the local black student union are hosting an elderly man – played by civil rights icon Harry Belafonte in what may well end up being his final performance – recounting a lynching he witnessed as a young man. The sequence concludes with Duke and his acolytes shouting, "White power!", followed by Belafonte raising a fist and leading his audience in the "Black power!" chant. The argumentative thrust of the parallelism is clear: although the two sentiments sound alike, it is blindingly obvious that the latter one is a natural and necessary reaction to the oppression enacted by the former – if one bothered to actually listen.

These moments elevate BlacKkKlansman above mere historical dramatisation, as they diligently – and with more than a hint of righteous anger – contextualise and talk back to the bigotry that is being portrayed. And yet, Lee consistently refrains from explicitly staging the violence that results from the KKK ideology. Rather, in a final, shocking turn, he lets reality speak for itself.

Ron's job as an undercover detective casts a shadow over his relationship with student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier).
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
As with the opening, the final minutes of Lee's movie are not of his own making. But instead of Gone with the Wind's Confederate nostalgia, the audience is confronted with footage from the neo-Confederate hellscape of the "Unite the Right" rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017: torch-bearing white nationalists chanting, "White lives matter!" and "Jews will not replace us!"; armed neo-Nazis beating up people; a car driving into a crowd, killing 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer; David Duke cheering on the right-wing violence; Donald Trump claiming that there were "very fine people on both sides."

It's a devastating scream of anguish and anger Lee lets loose on his audience with these final moments – one that left all three audiences I saw BlacKkKlansman with in stunned silence. But the horror is by no means gratuitous. On the contrary, the graphic link to the highly publicised events in Charlottesville feels like the necessary conclusion to this often highly entertaining but at its core deeply disturbing story – a safeguard against cinemagoers shrugging off the violent racism on show as a threat safely confined to the past.

★★★★★