Samstag, 10. April 2021

The Empty Man

© 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved / Walt Disney Studios

★★★★

"Prior kombiniert Nihilismus mit wesensverwandten Denkansätzen – der Prolog spielt im buddhistisch geprägten Bhutan, Amanda und ihre Clique gehen auf eine Highschool, die nach dem Sprachphilosophen Jacques Derrida benannt ist – und verdichtet diese Bezüge zu einer alles durchziehenden Urangst: vor der Leere des Universums, vor der Vorstellung, dass jedweder 'Sinn' darin eine menschengemachte Illusion ist."

Ganze Kritik auf Maximum Cinema

Dienstag, 6. April 2021

Maximum Cinema Filmpodcast #22: "Capone", "Burrow", "Promising Young Woman"

© Olivier Samter

In Folge 22 des Maximum Cinema-Podcasts sorgen drei Filme für viel Gesprächsstoff: Capone irritiert Daniel, Olivier und mich mit wenig Tiefgang und viel Make-up, während Lola eine Lanze für Josh Tranks Gangsterdrama bricht; beim Pixar-Kurzfilm Burrow sorgt schon die Inhaltsangabe für Uneinigkeit; und in Emerald Fennells oscarnominiertem Promising Young Woman geben das irreführende Marketing und die ungewöhnliche Herangehensweise an Traumata zu reden. Die Episode ist auf allen gängigen Podcast-Plattformen verfügbar.

Freitag, 2. April 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon

Vor 500 Jahren wurde das Land Kumandra von den Druun heimgesucht, bösen Geistern, die Menschen in steinerne Statuen verwandeln. Doch dank eines letzten Aufbäumens der mächtigen Drachen konnte das Ende der Welt verhindert werden: Sie opferten sich, um eine magische Kugel zu erschaffen, mit denen die Druun gebannt werden konnten. Kumandra war gerettet, nicht aber der Frieden unter seinen Bewohner*innen: Es entbrannte ein Streit um die Drachenkugel, und das Land, das an einem drachenförmigen Fluss liegt, spaltete sich in fünf regionale Stämme auf – Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon und Tail.

Raya (gesprochen von Kelly Marie Tran) ist die Tochter von Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), dem Anführer des Heart-Stammes und Beschützer der Drachenkugel. Als Benja Delegationen aller anderen Stämme zu einem Bankett einlädt, um die 500-jährigen Differenzen endlich beizulegen, verschuldet Raya eine Katastrophe: Sie zeigt Namaari (Gemma Chan), der Prinzessin von Fang, die Kammer, in der die mächtige Kugel aufbewahrt wird; das Artefakt zerbricht in fünf Teile, jeder Stamm reisst sich ein Stück unter den Nagel. Und zu allem Überfluss werden die Druun dadurch von ihrem Bann erlöst und terrorisieren Kumandra von neuem.

Weitere sechs Jahre später befindet sich Raya auf der Suche nach dem sagenumwobenen "letzten Drachen", mit dessen Hilfe sie ihren Fehler ausbügeln und Kumandra einen will. Doch wie sich herausstellt, entspricht dieser Drache nicht ihren Vorstellungen: Sisu (Awkwafina) ist nicht der erhoffte Druun-Schreck, von dem in den Legenden die Rede ist, sondern ein unbeholfener Schussel.

Wer erklären will, worum es in Raya and the Last Dragon geht, braucht einen langen Atem. Der 59. Film aus der Animationsschmiede von Walt Disney Pictures mag, Abspann nicht eingerechnet, keine 95 Minuten dauern – doch das Fantasy-Epos von Don Hall (Big Hero 6) und Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) wartet mit so viel fiktivem historischem Hintergrund, so viel Erzählstoff und mythologischen Andeutungen auf, dass es bisweilen wie der Zusammenschnitt einer Disney+-Serie wirkt.

Die Welt ist aus den Fugen – und Raya (Stimme: Kelly Marie Tran) versucht, sie wieder geradezubiegen.
© Disney
Es steht ausser Frage, dass das Drehbuchduo Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) und Qui Nguyen hier konzeptuell Grosses geleistet hat: Mit Kumandra wird hier eine reichhaltige, lebendige Welt geschaffen, die sowohl in den diversen kulturellen, philosophischen und religiösen Traditionen Ost- und Südostasiens verwurzelt ist, als auch in der jüngeren Popkultur, die sich von denselben Quellen hat inspirieren lassen – vom breiten Kanon ostasiatisch geprägter Young-Adult-Fiction bis hin zum Nickelodeon-Serienhit Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008).

Doch diese Welt erhält keinen Platz, um sich zu entfalten: Raya and the Last Dragon erzählt eine videospielähnliche Item-Sammel-Geschichte nach Schema F: Raya und Sisu reisen von liebevoll ausgearbeitetem Ort zu liebevoll ausgearbeitetem Ort und nehmen es dort in knapp gehaltenen zehnminütigen Sequenzen mit Gegenspieler*innen mit regionsspezifischen Fähigkeiten auf, um schliesslich ein weiteres Stück Drachenkugel zu ergattern. Zeit, um die Lokalitäten etwas näher kennenzulernen, bleibt kaum je, denn es wartet stets schon die nächste Destination.

Raya bittet Sisu (Awkwafina), den letzten Drachen, um Hilfe.
© Disney
Neu ist diese Erzählstruktur nicht, schon gar nicht im Animationsfilm. Allein 2020 folgten sowohl das DreamWorks-Sequel Trolls World Tour als auch die chinesisch-amerikanische Produktion Over the Moon einer ähnlichen Handlung; das Gleiche gilt für einige der besten Werke der jüngeren US-Animation. Doch ein Coraline (2009) oder ein Inside Out (2015) verstanden es, ihre Schauplätze überschaubar und der Filmlänge angemessen zu halten. Wo es sich jene Filme erlaubten, näher auf Figuren, Konflikte und thematische Motive einzugehen, rennt Raya unerbittlich seinem Plot hinterher, auf Kosten der Figurenzeichnung: Die Titelheldin ist eine farb- und tiefenlose Protagonistinnen-Schablone, deren einzige erkennbare Charaktereigenschaft der Wille ist, die ihr vom Skript zugedachte Mission zu erfüllen. Und auch die Mitstreiter*innen, die Raya auf ihrer Reise begegnen – darunter ein einsamer Krieger (Benedict Wong) und eine Baby-Meisterdiebin (Thalia Tran) – dienen vorab als Mittel zum Zweck oder scheinen als kalkulierte Publikumslieblinge mit Aussicht auf eine Spin-off-Serie gedacht zu sein.

Auf der Suche nach den Bruchstücken der magischen Drachenkugel kommt Raya die gewiefte Namaari (Gemma Chan) in die Quere.
© Disney
Das ohnehin schon überladene Fantasy-Actionabenteuer tut sich auch keinen Gefallen damit, seine mythologisch-historischen Versatzstücke mit zeitgenössischen komödiantischen Einlagen "anzureichern", ausgehend von Awkwafinas Casting als Sisu. Die New Yorker Schauspielerin, Komikerin und Rapperin, die vor allem für ihre urkomischen Leistungen als Charakterdarstellerin in Ocean's Eight (2018) und Crazy Rich Asians (2018) bekannt ist, spielt hier weniger eine klar definierte Rolle, als dass sie eine Leerstelle im Drehbuch mit ihrer eigenen Comedy-Persona ausfüllt – was nach ihrer grossartigen dramatischen Darbietung in Lulu Wangs wunderbarem The Farewell (2019) besonders enttäuschend ist. "I'm not the best dragon", warnt Sisu Raya bei ihrem ersten Treffen. Warum genau, bleibt weitgehend ein Rätsel – ausserhalb der Tatsache, dass Sisu, wie die meisten von Awkwafinas Film- und Bühnenfiguren, ein ungelenkes Plappermaul mit akuter Witzelsucht ist.

Es ist diese fehlgeleitete Kombination aus oberflächlich erzähltem Epos und einer familienfreundlichen Version linkischer Impro-Comedy Marke Judd Apatow (Trainwreck, The King of Staten Island), wo Sprüche über Gruppenprojekte geklopft und Meta-Kommentare über peinliche Situationen gemacht werden, an welcher der Film letzten Endes zerbricht. Raya and the Last Dragon wirkt nicht wie eine kohärente Vision, sondern wie eine Sammlung einfach zu vermarktender Einzelteile, die in einem Disney-Marktforschungslabor zu einem franchisentauglichen Monstrum zusammengepappt wurden.

★★

Dienstag, 30. März 2021

Maximum Cinema Filmpodcast: "Don't Believe the Hype" (Live an den 45. Schweizer Jugendfilmtagen)

© Olivier Samter

Am 20. März feierte der Maximum Cinema-Podcast im Rahmen der 45. Schweizer Jugendfilmtage sein Live-Debüt – wenn auch pandemiebedingt via Zoom. Daniel, Olivier und ich unterhielten uns rund eine Stunde lang vor Publikum über Quentin Tarantinos Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) und die Erwartungen, die an grosse Regisseur*innen gestellt werden. Die Unterhaltung ist jetzt als Spezialepisode auf allen gängigen Podcast-Plattformen verfügbar.

Dienstag, 23. März 2021

Maximum Cinema Filmpodcast #21: Schweizer Filmpreis, Bier und Cordon bleu für Dimitri Stapfer, "Raya and the Last Dragon" und "WandaVision"

© Olivier Samter

Der Schweizer Filmpreis steht vor der Tür, also nehmen Daniel, Lola, Olivier und ich die Kandidaten im Rennen um den besten Film unter die Lupe, während Mirjam Schilliger den Schauspiel-Shooting-Star Dimitri Stapfer interviewt. Danach steht in Folge 21 des Maximum Cinema-Podcasts Disney im Zentrum: Wie schlagen sich der Animationsfilm Raya and the Last Dragon und die Marvel-Miniserie WandaVision? Die Episode ist auf allen gängigen Podcast-Plattformen verfügbar.

Sonntag, 21. März 2021

WandaVision

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for the first four episodes of WandaVision.

Watching WandaVision, the new Disney+ series seeking to lift from the shadows two characters marginalised by the Marvel Cinematic Universe's overplotted big-screen spectacles, is a deeply weird experience. Marking the Disney-owned Marvel Studios' return from a pandemic-induced 18-month release hiatus, Jac Shaeffer's nine-episode limited series serves both as a much-needed corrective to a franchise formula that has gone a little stale in recent years and as an uneasy reminder that we would have been perfectly fine if the hiatus had continued indefinitely.

In fairness, WandaVision can be read as an honest attempt at wrestling with the emotional shortcomings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), starting with its very premise: it casts as its protagonists the telekinetically gifted Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android love interest Vision (Paul Bettany) – two superheroes who have played a somewhat active part in the first decade of MCU movies, most notably in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but who have, overall, remained largely ancillary characters, their relationship mostly relegated to blink-and-you-miss-them scenes of interpersonal development. So to use these characters to well and truly get the MCU underway again, after the quasi-franchise reset of Avengers: Endgame (2019) and a likely industry-changing pandemic, is a bold move, to say the least.

Yet for three episodes or so, creator and head writer Jac Shaeffer, along with director Matt Shakman, delivers – and improves upon – the kind of gentle stylistic and tonal self-innovation by which the MCU's very best entries distinguish themselves. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) gestured towards Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollack; Ryan Coogler's Black Panther (2018) dabbled in afrofuturism; James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy-in-the-making plays fast and loose with the boundaries between goofy adventure comedy and earnest pathos – while WandaVision pays tribute to the history of scripted American television entertainment, with just a dash of the uncanny surrealism with which Casper Kelly's brilliant 2014 short Too Many Cooks skewered the grotesque world of 1990s sitcoms.

Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience."
© Disney
The first episode, "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience," after fittingly retro opening credits, finds Wanda and Vision settling into their new house in picturesque Westview, New Jersey, in what appear to be the 1950s. Plunked in the cosy plainness of a domestic set borrowed from the likes of I Love Lucy (1951–1957), dressed in the period-appropriate garb of middle-class WASPs, filmed in black and white, framed by 4:3 aspect ratio, and accompanied by an overeager laugh track, the two newlyweds have to navigate that most archetypal of low-stakes sitcom kerfuffles: Vision's boss (Fred Melamed) and his wife (Debra Jo Rupp) come for dinner and must not find out about their hosts' extraordinary abilities. Misunderstandings and main course-related emergencies ensue, naturally.

On the one hand, this is a fairly startling break with what the MCU, particularly under Infinity War and Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo, has accustomed its audience to – no more breathless exposition, followed by competently choreographed, if hopelessly overlit CGI action, followed by even more exposition. On the other hand, "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience" also works as a charmingly antiquated piece of comfortable wind-down television, with just the right measure of intrigue and eerie wrongness about it – a red dot of light in a sea of greys here, a small sliver of Lynchian horror there – to suggest that there is more afoot than cheery, tongue-in-cheek nostalgia.

Episodes two and three, "Don't Touch That Dial" and "Now in Color," essentially follow suit, and add to the overarching narrative mystery by seemingly moving forward in time: "Dial," with its animated credits and Stepford Wives-adjacent view of suburbia, invokes the witch-out-of-coven high jinks of the 1960s classic Bewitched (1964–1972); while "Color" dials up, in true 1970s Brady Bunch fashion, not just colours and collars, but the familial hullabaloo as well.

Wanda and Vision's sitcom world seems to be moving through the decades.
© Disney
Part of what makes these first episodes such a delight are the game performances Shakman gets out of the series' leads. Olsen and Bettany are clearly having the time of their lives channelling Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke, delivering even the corniest of zingers with infectiously joyful conviction, expanding upon the scant depth the MCU has so far afforded their eminently likeable characters.

However, Marvel storytelling and franchise filmmaking being what they are, it hardly comes as a surprise that what happens in Westview doesn't stay in Westview. Before long, the town's environs are crawling with military personnel and assorted scientists, desperate to figure out what is happening inside the force field-like haze that surrounds Wanda and Vision's new home.

It's at this point, right at the end of episode three, where it becomes clear that WandaVision won't reach escape velocity; that it will inexorably be brought back down to the terra firma of MCU convention. After the wholesome, at times unsettlingly hyperreal strangeness of the opening three episodes, episode four, "We Interrupt This Program," while still reasonably intriguing, mainly plays like patronising reassurance: 'don’t worry, you will get answers to all your questions, and in a familiar fashion at that.' That familiar fashion being, of course, overlit exposition.

That's not to say Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, and Kat Dennings, who play our alternative, 21st-century, 'real life' heroes, aren't an appealing trio. In fact, their office space banter serves as an amusing contemporary echo of Wanda and Vision's carefully calibrated quips: what are 2020s comedy tropes, if not Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore persevering? But the trio are a chop off the old Marvel block nonetheless – plucky vigilantes who help the military rid itself of a scheming bad apple seeking to use its power for evil. The all too well-worn motifs, story beats, and in-universe winks and nods are out in full force – a move exemplified by the fact that Dennings, in playing astrophysicist Darcy Lewis, is reviving a character last seen in 2013's Thor: The Dark World.

Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) embarks on an investigation into what is happening with Wanda and Vision.
© Disney
While this is not catastrophic in and of itself – after all, it would be naïve to expect a Marvel-produced streaming tentpole not to eventually return to what made its studio the juggernaut it is – it is not a little disappointing how readily WandaVision abandons what made it so unique in the first place. Yes, the sitcom samples don't just disappear post-"Program": there are variations on Growing Pains (1985–1992), Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006), and Modern Family (2009–2020). But as a result of the impact the external military machinations have on Wanda and Vision's slice of TV suburbia, they are far less dominant in terms of style and narrative, far less playful in how they advance the overarching plot than the earlier ones.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, much of the intrigue evoked in the more formally adventurous episodes dissipates once WandaVision scales back the experimentation. One major casualty of this development is the central relationship between the two titular characters. Although the series visibly reaches for bittersweet poignancy, particularly in the final two episodes ("Previously on" and "The Series Finale"), Wanda and Vision cannot seem to fully cast off their status as underexplored MCU bit players: the sentiments that are expressed are vaguely touching, but they still end up lacking the emotional grounding and the sense of character for those sequences to really land.

It certainly doesn't help that "Previously on" and especially "The Series Finale" are, to a considerable extent, a blandly typical third act in the Marvel mode: villains are revealed, evil plans outlined, numerous seeds for future franchise fodder planted. The action feels perfunctory too, even by the standards of the MCU, where, it seems, every standout sequence – the opening to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), the Led Zeppelin-enhanced brawls of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), the battle royale of Infinity War – comes at the cost of three forgettably non-descript ones. Here, Wanda and Vision face off with their respective nemeses in the most generic of ways: hands shoot differently coloured lightning bolts, while bodies smash into the pavement. A series that started with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany cracking jokes about flying saucers in front of a live studio audience could hardly have ended in a more anticlimactically unimaginative way.

Rambeau is joined on her mission by astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park).
© Disney
So this is Marvel, one year on from its COVID-delayed resurgence after Endgame, with another two Disney+ series (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki) and another two movies (Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) coming out or set to come out over the course of the next six months. "Phase 4" of the MCU is raring to go, by the looks of it.

Yet if WandaVision is anything to go by, I don't know if this is a prospect I relish, personally speaking. For while it is a serviceable miniseries (even if it runs almost exclusively on fumes by the end), its ultimate effect is a sobering one: it's difficult to appreciate and admire Shaeffer's attempts at breaking with the Marvel formula when the series that was marketed as 'the weird, experimental one' ends up back on square one, ready for the next piece of franchise media to pick up where Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) left off. Is this as good, or rather as unconventional, as things are going to get? And if that is the case, why bother? Of course, WandaVision is, in a sense, incidental to this thought process. It just had the misfortune of being the thing that ended the MCU's compulsory 18-month break – and, by virtue of being more diverting than convincing, confirming my own personal impression that I never felt a distinct yearning for that hiatus to end.

Where do we, where does Marvel go from here? The latter question isn't difficult to answer: WandaVision was a streaming hit, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is shaping up to be one as well. If the international COVID vaccination schedules hold true, Black Widow will be perfectly positioned to be part of a first wave of blockbusters waiting for cinemagoers in a tentative 'post-pandemic' world.

Not even sitcom suburbia is safe from the trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
© Disney
The first question, meanwhile, requires some personal, non-generalisable introspection. For my part, I can say that, in the wake of "The Series Finale," I found myself feeling nostalgic for Iron Man 2 (2010), of all MCU titles – even though I barely remember what happened in it, beyond Mickey Rourke cracking electric whips and Samuel L. Jackson starting to assemble the Avengers.

What I do remember, however, are the circumstances I saw it in: it was early May of 2010, the week before my last day of high school. My dad and I took a miniature road trip to another city to see the movie, because it was only playing in a dubbed version in my hometown. Before heading into the cinema, we walked along the lake at dusk and ate the hot panini we got from a takeaway. During the film, I occasionally leaned over to him to quickly explain stuff to him. Even though it was a full cinema, I was the only person who stuck around to wait for the post-credits scene. After it was over, I went outside and told my dad how excited I was by all the Avengers build-up happening in plain sight. The next day, I tried my hand at a video review that fortunately never saw the light of day.

Overlit action, you were not missed.
© Disney
More than a decade later, I realise that my excitement for the MCU probably peaked with The Avengers (2012); that many of the positive feelings I associate with the franchise may be inextricably bound up with experiences like the one above and the nostalgia resulting from them; and that my emotional investment in these movies likely reached its natural endpoint with Endgame and Far from Home.

Given all of that, it's doubtful that WandaVision could ever have hoped to shepherd me back into the dedicated Marvel fold. Still, I find it quite telling that, 13 years into one of the most ambitious ventures in longform cinematic storytelling ever attempted, the franchise is at its most exciting when it embraces the surreal comfort of television sitcoms, and at its most tiresome when it promises even more franchise.