Friday, September 30, 2016

The Keeper of Lost Causes

2nd Danish Film Festival
Shang Cineplex 

Nordic noir refers to a genre of crime fiction movies from the Scandinavian countries which usually features dark, complex and bleak story lines. They are not necessarily horror movies but essentially deal with disturbing plots with twists and complex, flawed characters. It is a genre that piques my cinematic interest so this film was right up my alley. 

A previous police operation which Detective Carl Morck headed went horribly wrong, he lost a colleague and his best friend/partner was paralyzed. Taking 3 months off to recover, both physically and mentally, he is back. His superiors feel he is not ready to return to the homicide section just yet. Although he is a good, meticulous detective, he also has an attitude problem.

He is dispatched to Department Q which is the closed cases section located in the decrepit basement of the police HQ. He is also assigned an assistant named Assad, a Middle Eastern born cop whose calm demeanor and genteel personality is the complete opposite of the arrogant, brooding Carl. 

Their main task was to simply categorize and submit 2 page reports for each case. But Carl proceeds to re-open the 5 year old case of Merete Lynggaard, a young female politician whose disappearance from a ferry was deemed a suicide yet her body was never found. 
The film may sound like an average episode of CSI but fortunately it had much more to offer. The unsuspecting twists, the convoluted characters, the dreary locales, the manner the back story of Merete was screened through seamless flashback scenes, the  disturbingly dark yet suspenseful narrative which unfolds from this single cold case is enough to keep you on the edge of your seats. It had all the key elements of a good Nordic noir so it didn't disappoint, at all.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


German Film Week
Trinoma Cinemas

English is the language they chose to communicate this narrative about a really creepy place known as Colonia Dignidad. This German film which is based on actual events stars an international cast with Emma Watson (Hermione from the Harry Potter films) as Lena, a German stewardess (although nowadays they are called flight attendants) who is involved with Daniel, (German actor Daniel Bruhl) a German political activist/member of a group of young rebels who support President Allende.

Lena is in Santiago for a few days. So they spend it together. They are young, they are in love. But once General Augusto Pinochet overthrows Allende, they find themselves embroiled in the military coup of 1973. Daniel is abducted for his subversive activities and Lena tries everything to find his whereabouts. One day, she hears Daniel may have been taken to the Colonia Dignidad.

This is a camp in the outskirts of Santiago managed by a certain Paul Schafer who is ably portrayed by reliable Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist. It is presented as a charitable organization but in truth it is a cult run by an ex Nazi who enforces a strict code of conduct within the premises.  It was also further proven to enclose torture chambers where enemies of the state were taken during the brutal military dictatorship rule of Pinochet and most of them were never heard from again.

So Lena decides to join Colonia Dignidad in the hopes of finding Daniel. The whole film is focused on the activities within the camp and her desperate attempt to 'rescue' Daniel from a place where nobody has managed to escape.

It is an interesting story as it exposes a cult that was permeated by a sick ex Nazi pedophile although most of the scenes were implied and not explicit. It would have been more extensive had it also lengthily focus on the brutality within the hidden torture chambers. I understand it is a German made film so it concentrated on the activities inside the Colonia Dignidad. 

It also put the German government in a bad light as it was shown that they were well aware of what was really going on inside and were probably in cahoots with the Chilean authorities. A rather controversial point of contention which is still drawing flak from certain sectors.

It was a good vehicle though to showcase Emma Watson in a more mature role, a far cry from her pesky Hermione days. Overall, it had its thrilling moments such as the final minutes towards the conclusion but it is a pretty lightweight narrative as far as political/historical dramas go. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Stations of the Cross

German Film Week 2016
Trinoma Cinemas

As a practising Catholic, I know for a fact the agony which the lead character experiences as she tries to remain true to her faith is very realistic. Yet I also know that what Maria espouses is an extreme form of Catholic devotion. 

In the same manner that Islam has its extremists, Catholicism also has its own fair share of fanatics whose interpretation of the tenets are strictly radicalized and a very drastic form of worship.

Presented through austere frames captioned by the 14 Stations of the Cross, I admit it was difficult to fathom how a young 14 year old girl can feel so conflicted about what her beliefs require from her daily existence. 

Choosing to sacrifice and adhere strongly to her devotion in this modern world is both admirable and depressing. You can be faulted to think that the setting of the story was in the early 1960s, a period when people were still 'naive' and had conservative views, given the sparse cinematography.  

I think what struck me most was the glaring absence of any form of gadgets which could be a valid form of distraction for the current generation. Perhaps because it was set in a small German town. Or the director wanted to eradicate any form of distraction so that the audience can clearly focus on the misgivings of the soulful Maria as she remained steadfastly true to her understanding of her powerfully strong beliefs.

The acting is on point especially for the young actress who portrays Maria. Simple and subtle yet laden with different very expressive reactions to the endless 'challenges' she had to face in her daily evolution. 

"Stations of the Cross" give us a pure and raw narrative that is guaranteed to tug our heartstrings as we begin to question our own devotion to our faith, regardless of any religious denomination. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Beloved Sisters (Germany)

Cine Europa
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex

This 170 minutes long German film was its official entry for the best foreign-language category of the 2015 Oscars. A period drama/ biopic about the famous 18th century German writer/poet/ philosopher Friedrich Schiller. It focuses on the 20 year unusual menage a trois he shared with the Lengefeld sisters, Charlotte and Caroline. 

The film begins in Weimar in 1787 where Charlotte, the younger sister has been sent to live with her godmother Frau Charlotte von Stein (Goethe's paramour) in the hopes of finding a husband, preferably a wealthy one. The Lengefelds have fallen on hard times since the untimely demise of their aristocratic father. This forces Caroline to accept a marriage of convenience with Friedrich van Beulwitz to maintain their affluent lifestyle.

The sisters are quite close and even made a pact in their youth to always share everything with each other, shouting their pledge over the roaring sound of a raging waterfall in the German countryside. A pact with dire consequences which neither sister could resist nor escape easily from.

Soon enough,  Charlotte meets the struggling writer Schiller who was the toast of the literary scene based on his highly controversial novel "The Robbers." But he is basically penniless and it takes several long stretched sequences before Mama Lengefeld agrees to their union. Yet it is the more ambitious and flamboyant Caroline, trapped in a loveless marriage that pursues and manages to attract the attention of Schiller and they begin a passionate affair with the 'blessings' of her sister, Caroline.

Set in grandiose mansions located in the idyllic German countryside, the plot unfolds like a complex love triangle tale about loyalty, betrayal, and jealousy taken from the pages of a Jane Austen novel, except this was based on actual events. The eventual rise of Schiller as a literary icon during the Age of Enlightenment era was mostly inspired by his involvement with the two sisters. Both of them quite supportive in their own way of his meteoric rise amidst the backdrop of the brewing French Revolution which threatened their aristocratic existence.

I like the authenticity of the wardrobe as well as the horse drawn carriages, the use of the quill and the frequent letter writing between the characters. They also showed the innovations made in the development of the printing press industry and mentioned the sobering effect of the French Revolution as its ideals started spreading across Europe.

The characters were well developed and multi-dimensional, each of them with their unique personas, traits and characteristics. Contrasting personalities yet they are able to form good rapport and chemistry with each other's individual style.

Yet at over 3 hours long, certain sequences were too cloying like the part where the cast directly addresses the camera and read out loud their correspondences. The distracting voice-over which would appear intermittently throughout the entire film. 

Thankfully the last quarter of the long narrative became a bit more interesting as the two sisters really pour out their long suppressed sentiments about the importance of their unconventional arrangement. A dramatic shouting match added some much needed boost as the film finally winds down and draws the curtain on the very colorful life of Friedrich Schiller.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Second Chance (Denmark)

Cine Europa
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex

For those who watch "Game of Thrones", the name Nikolaj Coster-Waldau would be familiar as he is Jamie Lannister in that hit series. I am probably the only human being on this fair earth who DOES NOT watch it so I cannot really comment on his acting in GoT. 

In "A Second Chance", he is Andreas, a police detective who with his partner are called to a house where a domestic dispute has been reported. Tristan, an ex convict and junkie lives in a squalid apartment with his addict girlfriend Sanne. Deplorable conditions abound as exemplified by the sorry state of their little baby boy Sofus who is covered with his own feces and terribly malnourished. Andreas, a brand new parent himself to a baby boy roughly the same age as Sofus is appalled but cannot do anything as Sanne is not willing to file charges against her deadbeat boyfriend, the father of her child.

In contrast, Andreas's sprawling glass enclosed house near a quiet lake is quite impressive. In fact, I was wondering how he could afford to live so opulently on a cop's salary but I'm guessing they are paid relatively well in that neck of the woods. I don't really know for sure. 

He lives there with his emotionally fragile wife Anne who displays all the classic symptoms of postpartum depression. Easily distracted and unable to connect with her own son, she is despondent but Andreas tries his best to make her feel comfortable until a tragedy strikes which shakes both of them to the core.

It is this very unfortunate incident which pivots the film into a rather bleak and morose atmosphere where intense emotions and melodramatic sequences thrive. Against the background of a wintry setting, a chilly life altering decision by Andreas ruffles all the characters moral fibers. In this regard, the film ably achieves its thought provoking vibe, very effectively.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Lady in The Van (UK)

Cine Europa
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex

This film focuses on the true story of an old lady who parked her van in the driveway of famous English playwright Alan Bennett and stayed there for 15 long years. It is based on a 1999 stage play written by Alan Bennett which starred Maggie Smith in the lead role. 

Little is known of Margaret Shepherd (Maggie Smith) as she shows up in her decrepit yellow van in a quiet Camden neighborhood. Frail yet very loquacious with a wicked sense of humor, her van is piled with all sorts of items and when you engage her in conversation, she comes across as a deeply religious person who always invokes the Virgin Mary.  Is she mentally unstable? Is she a fugitive from the law? Does she have any family? How has she managed all these time living in a messy and quite dirty, cramped vehicle?

Maggie Smith reprises her role as Margaret Shepherd in this film adaption and as usual gives an excellent performance. Shepherd is the complete opposite of her award winning role as the Countess Dowager in the hit series Downton Abbey. Yet Dame Smith's commanding screen presence is the true anchor in this otherwise tedious film.

Alan who recounts the story through an on and off voice over is portrayed in dual role. The real Alan who has to put up with Margaret and his alter ego who is the one who writes the narrative aka as the voice in his head.  I don't really see the purpose behind this type of presenting a character because after a while it just got too creepy for my taste.

Well back to Miss Shepherd, there is only so much crankiness one can tolerate from such a curmudgeon and I think that Alan must have been quite a patient person to put up with her. Perhaps she reminded him of his own mother who was advancing in years and eventually put in a home. Perhaps he pitied the old woman who didn't have much in life. Or maybe as a writer, he found it appealing to have a close encounter with such an intriguing character. She inspired him to write more even though she could be quite disruptive and would often ruin his train of thoughts.

There is so much more to discover about the lady in the van yet we are fed with just enough details without ruining her mysterious aura and at the same time we are not left completely in the dark, either. In that regard, it was an effective narrative about her life.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Louder than Bombs

Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert,
Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid

"Break the Silence"

Contrary to its title, there are no loud explosions or screeching car chases to capture your attention. The drama is drawn out by the intense mixture of emotions exhibited through its three main characters who all happen to be male. A father and his two sons who are still learning to deal with the sudden loss of their wife/mother. 

3 years after war photographer Isabelle Reed's (Isabelle Huppert) death, her family must relive their grief as an exhibit of her work will be displayed together with the launching of a book about her life. The wounds are still fresh as the real cause of the car accident which claimed her life is bound to further create a conflict among the remaining members of her family.

Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) a former actor turned high school teacher still struggles to connect with his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), a loner who finds solace in extremely violent video games. While eldest son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a married professor is overwhelmed with the daunting tasks of being a brand new parent to a baby boy.  

I understand how difficult it must be for men to openly express their true feelings and this film vividly portrays the inner struggles each of them go through in dealing with their profound grief. 

It was good to see Gabriel Byrne again in any film and he doesn't disappoint as his portrayal of Gene is raw and poignant as a father trying his best to keep the fort running, so to speak. 

French actress Isabelle Huppert as the seasoned war photographer is shown through fleeting flashbacks but however little we see of her is still memorable as she commands a strong screen presence.  Her character is more able to connect with her deprived subjects in war torn countries than with her own sons who naturally act and feel distant to their mother. 

The same sentiments that are sometimes manifested through soldiers who come home from fighting overseas yet they can't wait to go back to the war zones. An abrupt disconnect that is sadly quite common and in a way quite painful to those living through it.

For a film that is quite quiet, both in form and dialogue, it still manages to pack in a lot of emotional nuances that is really powerful and thought provoking. For me that is the essential mark of a true dramatic narrative that several films seem to be lacking nowadays so I'm glad I was able to witness a rare gem like "Louder than Bombs".

Monday, September 5, 2016

45 Years

Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

A blast from a past threatens to dampen the simple yet elegant celebration of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff's (Tom Courtenay) 45th wedding anniversary. A letter from the Swiss government informs Geoff that they found the frozen intact body of his former girlfriend Katya who died from a fall while they were hiking in the Swiss Alps, several years ago.

This letter throws Geoff off course as all his profound memories of his Katya come flashing back. He is in a daze sneaking off in the middle of the night to watch old videos of their time together. Kate though tries to remain focus on the preparations for the anniversary still enthusiastic even as she observes Geoff's changed demeanor. 

Set in a small English country side town, the film is clearly a vivid portrayal of the poignant breakdown of a seemingly happy marriage between a childless couple. It is painful to watch as long hidden and well suppressed feelings slowly brew to the surface. Kate and Geoff's contrasting reactions and demeanor adding to the tension of their now very fragile union. Would the celebration push through or would they cancel?  

Great subtle acting from veteran actors Rampling and Courtenay give this simple yet very meaningful (especially for couples who have been married for a long time) movie, so much life. 

It is important to observe Rampling's face during the last scene ... excellent performance. This shot alone is worth all the different emotions we, the viewers go through as we watch in awed silence "45 Years".

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