Cast Against Hype

Reflections on film and other forms of storytelling from a Swedish wannabe-storyteller…

The Best Begins with a B: Albums of the Year, 2017

Artrock. Plain ol’ pop. And a bunch of other stuff in between, above, below and surrounding these categories. The year of 2017 AD possibly wasn’t one of the overall most cheerful throughout human history (though probably preferable to, say, 1350, 1914 or 1939). But music was alive, in spite of or maybe because of all discomfort and absurdities going around globally. Well, you know. You were here. Presumably on the same planet during the same period. Anyway, here are some examples of artistic endeavours that helped make life more satisfying and even provide inspiration and hope for the future. Imagine that!

1. Barock Project ”Detachment”. Poor Italians. No World Cup coming up this summer… Once upon a time Germanic tribes supposedly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire and this past fall one of those tribes (my own, to be precise) kicked Gli Azzurri out of competition for the most prestigious prize the world of sport has to offer. Yes, needless to say, Soccer is what really counts. Still, a bunch of Italians happened to produce my favourite album of 2017. Conceptual, powerful and subtle all in one memorable effort.

2. Bent Knee ”Land Animal”. Young and obnoxious artrock with a temper and gunpowder on its sleeve. I’ve been an admirer since the ”Shiny Eyed Babies” album a few years ago, and this here is almost precisely equally great.

3. Beatrix Players ”Magnified”. A trio of trained, disciplined ladies take us back in time, sometimes seemingly to another dimension. Sparse, carefully selected instrumentation and arrangements, strikingly tasteful and nuanced. Music as painter of images.

4. Steven Wilson ”To the Bone”. Former Porcupine Tree frontman with a persistent following decided to lighten things up a little, relatively speaking. As usual, he delivered space and depth but also one or another shockingly catchy pop tune, such as ”Permanating”.

5. Loney Dear ”Loney Dear”. One of Sweden’s most consistently praised musical mystics keeps gliding along on a wave of some surreal magic… Whatever it is. Now with the backing of Peter Gabriel’s record label if I’m not mistaken.

6. Father John Misty ”Pure Comedy”. Tales of life in a beguiling ballad format. Not exactly exaggerated optimism all over, but would that be prudent in these times? Father John nevertheless manages to infuse an energy and wry smiles into his brand of melancholy meandering and sometimes it’s just plain irresistible.

7. Residente ”Residente”. A journey. For real. Some sort of fascination with DNA sets Mr René Juan Pérez Joglar from Puerto Rico off on a quest around the world, searching for every influence that’s fit to include on one album. Intriguing, exciting and soul-stirring. And…

8. Cobalt Chapel ”Cobalt Chapel”. Back to Medieval Times! Or something like that, although with access to electronics. Not sure if I’m able to accurately describe this in a satisfying way. You just have to find out for yourself.

9. Blondie ”Pollinator”. ”Fun” is the title of one of the songs. And they certainly seems to have fun, these former legends whom I actually feared had left us for greener pastures or bluer skies.

10. Paramore ”After Laughter”. More pop in the best sense of the word. Somewhat inspired by 1980’s polyrhythmic pop, I think I read somewhere.

11. Kaipa ”Children of the Sounds”. Swedish veterans that really parked their vehicle sometime back in the 1970’s and yet manages to avoid the moss covering it all at this point. This sounds more or less like they always do, but to my mind they’re always welcome when they decide to release something new.

12. Arcade Fire ”Everything Now”. Dance! Take a break and contemplate existence. And… dance! And so on. What’s not to like?

13. Robert Plant ”Carry Fire”. Old and stubborn, though probably even wise. And still curious! That old Led Zeppeliner who constantly seems to discover something new from the planet’s musical flora.

14. Steve Hackett ”The Night Siren”. Another stubborn old guy who refuses to retire. The most prolific former Genesis member still wrings whatever he can muster out of his guitar, and it still sounds relevant, with dreamlike qualities and massive soundscapes.

15. Benny Andersson ”Piano”. Those melodies sounds familiar, don’t they? From ABBA, ”Chess” and other eras in the life of a Swedish keyboard virtuoso. Now scaled down to just… Piano. Simple but sometimes simply transcendent.

 

Honourable mentions, some of which has been personal favourites for a long time and in other cases just showed on my radar in the last stretch of 2017. Still keep discovering stuff, the way it should be, you know:

Temples ”Volcano”, Kansas ”The Prelude Implicit”, Roger Waters ”Is This the Life We Really Want?”, Danay Suárez ”Palabras manuales” , Beck ”Colors”, The Killers ”Wonderful Wonderful”, Oumou Sangaré ”Mogoya”, Sparks ”Hippopotamus”, Nad Sylvan ”The Bride Said No”, Gizmodrome ”Gizmodrome”, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith ”The Kid”, Lizz Wright ”Grace”, Europe ”Walk the Earth”, The Mute Gods ”Tardigrades Will Inherit the Earth”, Ninet Tayeb ”Paper Parachutes”, Café Tacuba ”Jei Beibi”, Luiza Lian ”Oyá tiempo”, Ibeyi ”Ash”, Natalia Lafourcade ”Musas”, Café Tacuba ”Jei Beibi”, Derek Webb ”Fingers Crossed”…

As usual, I ought to mention a few sources from where I got suggestions on new things to discover, or known quantities ripe for rediscovery. Such as Rolling Stone, Paste Magazine, Relevant Podcast, NPR, Song Exploder Podcast… And others. Also, most of this music is available on Spotify – probably also on other streaming platforms. Go discover!

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Blades, Blondes, Beasts and Driving Babies – My Favourite Films of 2017

 

Once more again, into the breach… As usual, at bit late. And also as usual, I haven’t seen enough. Nevertheless, here they are, my favourite films of 2017 AD. Or to be specific, films that opened in my Scandinavian home country during this illustrious and turbulent year we just left behind. Be it in the cinemas, BluRay, Netflix, airplanes (in some cases, yes) or other venues – these films caught my attention more than others.

1. Under the Shadow (directed by Babak Anvari)

Could have been labeled ”Under the Radar”. Films like these have a tendency to just disappear in the onslaught of moving images constantly coming our way. That is a shame. This combination of modern history (the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war is used as a backdrop to great effect), understated absurdities and observations about women’s life in that time and place, and on top of it all a harrowing ghost story is irresistibly frightening. Thought-provoking. And frighteningly irresistible.

2. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)

Back to the future. Again. One of the darker and least attractive visions of said future, even considering the competition (considering the official library of film dystopia already available) did result in one of the year’s most attractive films. Villeneuve might not have created one the most immediately commercially successful films of 2017, but maintains his standing as one of the truly visionary, exciting and genuinely interesting directors working today.

3. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

Mr Provocateur Bill Maher delivered an entertaining, harshly critical review of this film, and basically the whole ’drive really fast to get away from the cops’-genre on his show. Though personally I enjoyed this one far more than car-chase movies in general. The carefully selected soundtrack alone made it worthwhile. And the driving was… Special.

4. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

It’s tempting to recommend it with the caveat ’the less you know about the plot beforehand, the better’. Even the trailers seem to give away far too much information. Anyway, it’s about prejudices. And the misguided notion you might not have any. Delivered in a laughter-turns-to-screaming scenario that seriously will mess with your head in a number of ways.

5. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Honestly, an ordeal you might not want to go through more than once. But at least do it once. It’s like the Scorsesian antithesis to the unbridled hedonism he wallowed in for three hours in ”The Wolf of Wall Street” (which I also might recommend for different reasons, but still don’t entirely adore from start to finish). If this is penitence, it would be comparable to Robert De Niro carrying his discarded mercenary armour uphill and downhill and uphill again for days, in ”The Mission”. Enjoy!

6. Okja (Joon-ho Bong)

Colourful action-satire-adventure flick dealing with genetic engineering, corporate politics, public relations in a postmodern era and the unbreakable friendship between a young girl and a giant pig. You don’t see something like this every day. From the guy who brought you the relentlessly cheerful train ride known as ”Snowpiercer”. This is, in comparison, slightly more optimistic.

7. Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)

Feel-good modern history, telling the story of some unsung heroes in the American space program. Quite simply an uplifting story that never crosses the line into awkward sentimentality and exaggerated audience manipulation. It works, dammit!

8. Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon)

This also works well, in the fantasy-for-all-ages genre. We know the story. They added something to it, not sure exactly what. But as I said, it…works fine.

9. Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)

Could be that it is just a little cold and distanced, eh? But is it exciting, entertaining, full of great 80’s pop songs and a anchored by a similarly great Charlize Theron as an enigmatic and emphatically independent spy in late Cold War Berlin? Yes, yes, yes and Oh yeah.

10. Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)

Maybe another case of ’the less I tell you…’. Somehow a young, slightly lost woman (Anne Hathaway) moving back to her small, mostly downright boring hometown after a break-up registers a personal connection to a giant monster showing up in South Korea, wreaking havoc while the world watches. What’s it all about, really? Is there a deeper, existential meaning, another hidden layer to be found? Your guess is as good as mine. But it did keep my attention throughout until the spectacular finale.

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

 

The Lost City of Z (James Gray). Mysterious, a little too introvert and with some stretches but something you don’t see every day. An exploration worth taking part in.

Tour de Pharmacy (Jake Szymanski). Perhaps not strictly speaking a feature film. This HBO 40-minute satire on the wonderful world of bicycle is too outrageous to be ignored. From the folks who kindly brought you ”7 Days in Hell”, FYI.

Loving (Jeff Nichols). Extremely well acted and worthwhile subject matter. Could have used a little more temper and forward motion.

A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski). Weird indeed. And difficult to forget entirely.

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola). It looks great. The acting is quite distinguished. Somehow it didn’t keep me completely enthralled all the way, but deserves to be seen at least once.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). This particular franchise never had any real life-transforming impact on me. I tend to find most of the installments entertaining and… that’s that, basically. That said, this one impressed me more than I had expected going in. Especially the final 45 minutes or so, including the denouement, packed a punch I gotta give it credit for.

 

Oh, last year’s ranking is available here.

Superspies, Spectacular Designs and Suspicious Behaviour – My Favourite TV Shows of 2016

Simply put: Here are my personal favourites from last year’s vast supply of TV shows. Fiction category, to be precise. You might find a few that strictly speaking were released late 2015, but which I might have started watching in 2016, or whose presence here are justified for other reasons. All in all, so many shows with comparable qualities were available that I included twelve entries, followed by a couple of honourable mentions and such. Oh, I also mention the channels where I had the opportunity to watch these series here in Sweden. And at least one of the creators/showrunners.

1. ”The Americans” (Joseph Weisberg / Netflix). Four seasons have been broadcast in the US, right? Here in Sweden we are a bit behind… But the third season was the best so far. Who are we supposed to sympathize with, which side should we choose? All of them! No one! Just make sure the most important characters stay alive for a few more years. We need them.

2. ”Fargo” (Noah Hawley / HBO Nordic). I was kind of late discovering the first season, which I started watching sometime last winter, after which I went on to the next one. You know, where it’s all taking place during the late 1970’s. If the first round was really well made, the second one seemed more or less sensational to me. If only I could explain exactly why…

3. ”Penny Dreadful” (John Logan / HBO Nordic). Spectacular – and somewhat unexpected, since it wasn’t properly announced as such – finale concluded this gothic style ’let’s throw every conceivable horror character into the same bowl and do something much better with it than anyone has the right to expect’- show. A bombastic and bittersweet end to a creation which will be missed.

4. ”Game of Thrones” (David Benioff, D. B. Weiss / HBO Nordic). The latest two seasons haven’t been the definitive high points in the story arc so far, but even a slightly-below-maximum-round of this, TV drama’s biggest spectacle right now will still qualify as one of the best things to watch. And of course, the themes involved, concerning power struggles and what it takes to reach the top (or merely survive), will never grow old.

5. ”The Knick” (Jack Amiel, Michael Begler / HBO Nordic). Well, the second season was released late 2015 and finished late december then. Not sure if it was available here exactly at that time. Anyway, this Steven Soderbergh-directed hospital epic is sort of a unique little piece, that deserves repeated reminders of its existence. Brief, as it may have been. I am not certain anyone knows if there will be any more episodes. And maybe there doesn’t have to be. Clive Owen contributed a virtually magnetic presence during this whole purgatorial pilgrimage through trial and error in the world of medicine.

6. ”The Night Of” (Richard Price, Steven Zaillian / HBO Nordic). Innocent or not? And what happens in the process with a person who is believed to have committed a heinous crime and is being processed through the judicial system? And what about everyone else around? John Turturro was particularly memorable here, as a somewhat underrated and disrespected lawyer with a variety of personal problems to deal with.

7. ”Narcos” (Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro / Netflix). The hunt for the notorious drug runner Pablo Escobar continued, leading to a climactic denoument in this reality-inspired show, taking place in Colombia mostly in the early 1990’s. The question is how to go on after this, but apparently they have a plan. Other comparable cartels obviously existed – and exist.

8. ”Westworld” (Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy / HBO Nordic). Complicated and multi-layered storytelling that didn’t live up to everyone’s expectations. Mine were mostly met, even though they too were a bit unrealistic. Who am I? Who are you? What’s being human all about, really? Genuinely hoping for an even more elaborate and profound continuation eventually. Until then, some acting nominations for Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright would be in order. And that overall visual design has to be rewarded one way or another.

9. ”Billions” (Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin / HBO Nordic). How to get rich and letting others die in the process, sometimes literally. Damian Lewis versus Paul Giamatti as a successful but ruthless and sometimes reckless Wall Street investor and a stubborn State prosecutor, respectively, was an entertaining battle that we hopefully haven’t seen the last – or best – of, yet.

10. ”Black Sails” (Robert Levine, Jonathan E. Steinberg / HBO Nordic). They keep on sailing. Without apparently changing anything of vital importance in the concept that could make it more easily accessible and a smoother ride. Respectable, potent and powerful epic, starring some more or less mythological pirates in the Caribbean a couple of centuries ago.

11. ”Bloodline” (Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman / Netflix). The second season was perhaps generally regarded as less convincing and engaging in its plotline than the first, but seriously; what compelling characters, what a dense atmosphere, what captivating overviews of the Floridian landscape, what a Shakespearean family tragedy…

12. ”The Path” (Jessica Goldberg / HBO Nordic). A fictional cult. Internal intrigue. Nothing is completely self-evident. What exactly is their worldview and is it something society at large should fear or not? Constantly ambiguous and unpredictable interactions between the principal actors Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy.

Honourable mentions: ”Orphan Black” (Netflix) might have been at its best in its very first season, but maintains a level of mischief and excitement that keeps it from losing its appeal for me. And Tatiana Maslany’s versatility has to be praised as well. Scifi show ”The Expanse” (Netflix) is somewhat difficult to grasp and accurate describe, but it does have its own voice and other attractive elements. Criminal drama ”Quarry” (HBO Nordic) seemed really promising at the beginning and I cannot quite explain why I haven’t finished the whole first season yet. But I will. ”Mr. Robot” (SVT – the Swedish non-commercial television broadcaster) might have made things more messy than they needed to be, but remains intriguing and compulsive nevertheless. ”Banshee” (HBO Nordic) has been a guilty pleasure for me a couple of years and managed to go out with a… Not sure if it’s a bang. But somehow true to itself. ”Midnattssol” (translates as ”Midnight Sun”, on SVT), a Swedish-French thriller set in the far north of Scandinavia was definitely uneven, but managed to capitalize on the magnificent natural surroundings of Kiruna, taking advantage of its exotic qualities and tell a story of broken people trying to solve what looks like a string of connected homicides with decidedly unpleasant methods involved.

 

Also available in Swedish at Fair Slave Trade, another blog forum of mine.

 

Intrepid Investigators, Intelligent Innovators and Insightful Invasions – My Favourite Films of 2016

So, these are the best ones. I think. From what I’ve seen in 2016. Also, bear in mind, these are films that opened in Sweden some time during the course of this past tumultuous year. In some cases, their world premieres took place in 2015. Just to clarify. And of course, I haven’t seen everything I should have. So, there you go. And here they are, my personal favourites: 

1. Spotlight (directed by Tom McCarthy)

A real old-fashioned drama about Old Media when it’s working they way it should. The truth just has to emerge, one way or the other. Behind one of the year’s least extravagant and eye-catching titles you will find of the most extraordinary and eye-opening pieces of storytelling. Comparable with ”All the President’s Men”, ”The Insider” and ”State of Play”. Actually superior to those distinguished works in some aspects. A true ensemble effort where the director seems to make himself invisible in order to emphasize everyone else – and the story.

2. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)

Not to be confused with a documented, definitve true story of the legendary innovator. But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has done what he tends to do best: deliver almost annoyingly clever and multi-layered dialogue for intelligent but sometimes emotionally disabled characters, stuck within confined spaces.

3. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)

Claustrohopia, guilt, existential issues. What’s not to enjoy? And talking about confined spaces… A large portion of this film really does take place in one room. Is it above all a celebration of the power of imagination and creating your own world in order to endure extreme situations and prolonged suffering? Whatever it is, it works.

4. Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore)

Maybe not a straight documentary, devoted to presenting both sides of a story. Michael Moore – yeah, he’s back – is not even trying to do that. Who knew? But he cheerfully picks his favourite features from (mostly) European nations’ selections of benefits, and then proceeds to market those ideas to his own homeland. A kind of mischievous moviemaking that feels particularly welcome a year like the year that was.

5. The Revenant (Alejando González Iñárritu)

They really laboured in every possible way to make this film, and it shows, for better or worse. But the final result cannot be called anything else than a feat, an impressive ground-breaking work that needs to be rewarded. Like finally handing that Oscar to Leo. And putting it on this list.

6. Bridget Jones’s Baby (Sharon Maguire)

Not to be confused with ”Rosemary’s Baby”. Bridget is back! And we missed her, didn’t we?

7. The Big Short (Adam McKay)

OK, I still don’t get it, completely. How the world of finance works and what exactly went wrong with everything a few years ago. But they sure do try to educate us here. And entertain. Groovy.

8. Snowden (Oliver Stone)

Not as explosive as he used to be. More subtle. Still, Stone makes this highly relevant recent-history retelling pretty powerful. Once again, it’s not easy to figure out exactly how all of this works, in this case surveillance, but after this film you at least get the feeling it’s worth reflecting on.

9. Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood)

A decision has to be made. Sooner rather than later. Literally, it has to do with life and death. But who exactly will have to decide? Again, surveillance is in focus, and specifically drones. ”Good Kill” raised the same issues recently, but here it’s even more intense and morally ambiguous.

10. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

Back to the 70’s. And worn out private eyes trying to make a living. This is not the most pretentious production of 2016, but we need some of this stuff too sometimes, right?

 

Honourable Mentions:

Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass), Hail, Caesar (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Disappointments:

Independence Day: Resurgence (Roland Emmerich)

You would think that 20 years of figuring out an idea for a sequel to one of the most financially successful cinematic projects ever, would result in something slightly more inspired than this. It didn’t.

Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov)

I respect what they’re trying to achieve. It does have some good stuff in it, but as a whole it just never convinces me this remake was necessary.

The worst: The Do-Over (Steven Brill)

Dear Mr Sandler: You need therapy. Or a baby-sitter. Or both.

 

Films I wish I had seen already – but hopefully will sooner rather than later:

Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Son of Saul, A Bigger Splash, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Nocturnal Animals…

Films  from 2015 I regretted not having seen before this time last year, but had the opportunity to see later on and turned out to be more or less as good as I hoped: Sicario, Rosewater and Wild Tales.

 

By the way, here’s my ’Best of’-list from last year. Just because.

Memorable Music Videos 2016: ”The Veil” – Peter Gabriel

The man is not as prolific as he used to be. Still, the former Genesis frontman can boast a legacy superior to most other musicians this past half-century. And when he does record something new, you better pay attention. ”The Veil” is included in ”Snowden”, the Oliver Stone biopic released earlier this fall. And yes, it deals explicitly with that film’s protagonist, Edward Snowden. The song itself is decidedly not instantaneously ’catchy’, it doesn’t have a distinct ’hook’ and neither is it conceived as a hit in the traditional sense. Gabriel is not even trying to do that. And he’s never been traditional. Instead it sneaks up on you. Experimental? Yes, you might say that. Atmospheric? Check. A bit ambiguous and mysterious, the way many of his other great songs come across. The visuals, containing clips from the movie, reflect a world that we (especially a year like this) might have come to know as conflictive and confusing but also shows signs of hope and courage under fire in the midst of it all. Take a look and have a listen.

Also, you might check out this compilation of songs, considered by a Guardian journalist to be ten of the best Peter Gabriel’s ever recorded. Not necessarily the ones I would have picked in all cases, but hey, we’re talking a mind-blowing amount of clever compositions to choose from…

 

Mind-bending Movies: ”Triumph of the Trump” (2016)

This is not only one of the strangest films I have seen in my entire life. It is definitely also one of the longest. When did it even start – a year ago? Who can say, really? It concluded in a way about a week ago. But now it seems the story is just beginning anyway. Whether it will continue to be a tale of victory or disaster or another of many possible alternatives, remains to be seen. I am still not convinced it’s really happening. From the way it is presented, it’s supposed to be documentary, a part of our reality now. Is it, really?

mindbendingmovies-logo1It stars an unlikely hero of sorts. A man on the verge of retirement, you would think, launching himself into a new career while claiming the title of champion for the working class, the masses and the so-called silent majority. As it happens, he himself was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Or is that a proverb in English? This is still not my first language… Also, I – like many other people on this planet – have been watching this from some distance. There obviously has been some voting going on. Most of us around didn’t have that privilege in this case. But we are bound to be affected by the outcome. We are just not sure exactly how, because, you know, the man is unpredictable. And he likes it like that.

The story can be – and has been – told från different angles. And I admit to mostly following it from a more critical perspective. He simply never seemed like a true hero to me. I have met people who appreciated the fact that he didn’t care about being politically correct. My own reflections on the matter are rather that he doesn’t care about being correct. Early on, he presented his plans to build a great, great wall as one of his main priorities when elected. Of course, heroes build walls. We have seen it in the movies time and time again, haven’t we? Not roads or bridges primarily, right? But he does have the best words. He did say that. ”I have the best words”. Or did that really happen? Sometimes it is difficult to know for sure. It’s all getting surreal. This alternate reality feeling came to a head this November. There was an election day on the other side of the pond. My daytime job as a teacher usually means early mornings. So I started watching the election coverage but had to give up at, like one o’clock at night. I got up again at five in the morning, which translates to something like 11 o’clock in the evening, American East Coast Time. And you might be familiar with relevant events taking place at that time. ”The Twilight Zone” started early that day.

As I said, this is one of the longest films I’ve seen. And still, like many people where I live, I haven’t strictly speaking seen it from the beginning. I’m certain I don’t have the whole picture. Who has? But obviously it started long ago. To be more precise, our hero has made a name for himself not just by being very very rich. There is also a little detail called Reality TV. We have those shows here as well. I just don’t know anyone over here who actually watches or used to watch these particular Reality TV shows. The ones he used to make. How important are they, really? For a guy who likes to scream and complain about dishonest media, he certainly has had a lot of use for it. In that way you could see him as a monster created by exactly that particular machinery. A special entertainment segment. An integral part of our culture. Globally, but maybe most significantly in his own homeland. So, I’m still on the fence about this whole drama. Is it really happening? Has it all been scripted from the very beginning? Someone somewhere obviously made a lot of money from it all. Our hero maybe. But he’s hardly the only one. I do feel pretty certain that there will be sequels. Or rather new chapters to come. Will this be a complete nightmare or something completely anticlimactic?

He will join a club of gentlemen now in possession of a significant proportion of the decision-making power in this world, on this planet, right now. The most visible ones share some common traits. Like displaying a certain impatience when things don’t go their way, not responding well to insults or for that matter a difference of opinion in general. They know how to get sufficient people rallying behind them. They are also the kind of people that psychologists love to analyze. And why wouldn’t they? Of course, far be it from me to name names and run with gossip. Suffice it to say that one resides in Russia. One in Turkey. Syria. One used to rule Italy. Of course there obviously has to be many more of them. The phenomenon in itself is not new and could happen elsewhere. In France. Yes, even in my home country in Scandinavia. It’s all just great. Huge.

Recently, just after this election I got around to watching ”Independence Day: Resurgence”. The long-awaited sequel we, as it turns out, could’ve done without. But it made me think and draw some unexpected conclusions. Eureka! They are already here. They are slowly and strategically taking over. No matter from exactly which part of the universe they originated, we are now a part of their big happy family. We cannot be sure exactly what the grand design is. And whether we are supposed to survive as a species. But maybe we we are going quietly into the night after all. Truly mind-bending indeed. What’s not to like about that?

A lot, actually.

Mind-bending Movies: ”The Cell” (2000)

mindbendingmovies-logo1Are there too many movies about serial killers? Yes, definitely. Do they all live up to their intentions? No, of course not. This one maybe doesn’t either. Not completely. But – director Tarsem Singh and screenwriter Mark Protosevich at the very least made a serious effort to do something different, to go boldly where others feared to tread. Visually, ”The Cell” is exciting, sometimes truly original and oftentimes quite shocking. Unfortunately, there are moments when it all begins to feel like a sterile exercise and accusations of ’show-off’ are not entirely without merit. Overall, I’m an admirer, albeit with some objections. It is a film that probably was ahead of its time in some aspects. 

Just to clarify, this is also the kind of movie that most of mankind probably wouldn’t love unconditionally. After having seen it for the first time on a big screen in Gothenburg late 2000, I spontaneously felt I really couldn’t recommend it to a whole lot of people among my friends or family. Following Jennifer Lopez on her odyssey into the mind of a serial killer simply didn’t seem like a healthy experience for most of my acquaintances.

Pretentious, was a word many critics used to label it back then as I remember. On the other hand, legendary critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) hailed it as one of the best films of the year. A film to either love or hate, you might say. But that simplification seldom rings 100 percent true. There’s always a middle ground to be found. Especially if you – like me that first time– get almost equally fascinated and confused while watching it. For starters, you need to try tuning in to the same frequency as then first-time movie director Tarsem Singh, another one of those music video directors who at that time seemed to invade the world of movies, maybe hoping to be recognized as real artists. If you’re suffering from extreme claustrophobia, on the other hand, this could be quite an ordeal. ”The Cell” invites you to a David Lynch-like confrontation between innocence and evil, between purity and rage. As if a cross-pollination of Gloria Estefan and Sarah Brightman got lost at a promotion party and woke up in the living room of Marilyn Manson.

There are three things I always value in a film, regardless of genre. Things that need to be prioritized by the filmmakers. Start, finish and soundtrack. ”The Cell” delivers on all three. The opening shots are a real beauty, with Lopez in a white dress, riding a magnificent black stallion through a mysterious desert landscape heading for a rendez-vous without the romantic pay-off that could have been expected in a different story. The finale offers a level of tension and a scenario reminiscent of ”Silence of the Lambs” and (yes, I mean it) ”The Godfather”. It’s about clever cutting while simultaneously charging the images with symbolism that I prefer not to divulge if you’re in for the surprise elements as well as the visual experience of watching. I will try to avoid overt spoilers here, even though 15 years have passed since it was first released. Imagine that. Time flies. The finish makes me forgive many of the issues I have with other details along the road. And the music, yes. Most good movies tend to have a potent soundtrack of some sort (with Hitchcock’s ”The Birds” being one of the distinct exceptions to the rule). This is not an exception. Howard Shore was by then a man who had established himself, not least in the world of suspense, to the point of becoming the Bernard Herrmann of his generation. Almost. Here, he demonstrated something I hadn’t quite heard before, some obvious oriental influences I guess director Singh must have explicitly asked for.

Speaking of ”Silence of the Lambs”, back in the 90’s and early 00’s during the seemingly never-ending wave of serial killer flicks, some viewers/critics/marketing people would inevitably greet every new entry to the subgenre with slogans such as ”this makes Hannibal Lecter look like a lamb” or things to that effect. Still, few movie psychopaths have managed to surpass the charismatic portrayal that Anthony Hopkins delivered under the supervision of director Jonathan Demme. In his 27 minutes (I read that somewhere) of screentime Hopkins did more than just introduce macabre methods of murdering people. Similarly, in ”Se7en”, the greatness was not simply a question of morbid innovation when it came to finishing off the chosen victims. Something deeper was at play.

The serial killer in ”The Cell” is named Carl Stargher and played by Vincent D’Onofrio (fans of Netflix’ ”Daredevil” will recognize him as Very Bad Guy Wilson Fisk last year). Superficially, he’s neither that creative nor unbelievably intelligent. He doesn’t command a strong presence or irrestibility on any level as I recall it – check out that haircut, for one thing. However, early on he just kidnapped his eight intended victim. They’re all young women first being slowly drowned in a glass cage, then bleached to become part of a disturbing dollhouse, and later on just dumped somewhere on the outskirts of town. For roughly half an hour a number of things seem familiar from other serial killer-themed movies. The predator preys while the good folks at FBI search for clues, perform autopsies and gather for yet another tense morning meeting surrounded by walls covered with crime scene photos, and concluded with stern requests that they ’search thoroughly – and quickly’. Then, the hunt is over and ”The Cell” comes into its own.

The killer’s in a coma and the usual interrogation techniques are useless. Enter Ms Catherine Deane (Lopez) who’s the point woman from an experimental program including electronic explorations into the world of the subconscious. Deane, reluctantly, agrees to infiltrate the seemingly inactive mind, to be confronted by the horrors of the past as well as the even more frightening present. Exactly how these impulses are transferred is never quite clarified (at least not in a way I’m capable of interpreting) and it might be of lesser importance. But the idea in itself makes one’s head spin somewhat… The last frontier crossed, the last unexplored continent open wide? The interaction between body and psyche is the focus in this film. How much physical and mental strain can a human being cope with, without suffering irreparable damage? Could the mind convince the body that a virtual experience is real and what happens then? The plot keeps switching between a California landscape where the sun shines constantly, and a big black hole where reason has been replaced by a disturbed individual’s wishes of being able to command his entire surroundings.

In the classic story ”The Portrait of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, the protagonist wanted his portrait to age in his stead. His wish was granted and the painting gradually came to reflect Mr Gray’s increasingly degenerate soul. If you’re blessed with a normally developed sense of insight and perception, you could imagine what the soul, the inner world, of a serial killer might look like and determine if it’s worth the price of admission (or a DVD copy, or whatever) to subject yourself to the experience. If you do it, you won’t have to look for subtle details. The images will come right at you, intensely and mercilessly. Director Tarsem doesn’t hold back when it comes to the twisted and violent. But – and this is crucial – he shows cause and effect and also emphasizes the opposite of evil. Catherine comes off as almost angelic, but not as weak and gullible as first impressions might lead you to believe. She strives to save the miserable abused child who’s become a monster and she doesn’t settle just for the imminent objectives set up by the FBI; saving the eight woman before it’s too late. This line of storytelling is a balancing act, for Lopez as well as for Tarsem, but here it’s obvious that the film shares some common philosophical ground with Michael Mann’s ”Manhunter” (based on Thomas Harris’ ”Red Dragon”), as it happens another film containing the character Hannibal Lecter.

The syncretistic symbolism here is likely to confuse as much as convince. Tarsem doesn’t hold back in that respect either; he and screenwriter Protosevich get their inspiration from, well, basically everywhere. Horrible creatures reminiscent of ancient Greek mythology? Check. East Asian interiors and Catholic saints? You bet. Occasionally the story seems to take a break just for the opportunity to wallow in its fantastical imagery. There are a lot of impressions to interpret and I hope the filmmakers themselves know what they’re up to. But, if there’s anything ”The Cell” does not claim, it’s that badness or evil should be something innate, natural to some people, you’re simply born with it and that’s that. There is something more inquisitive going on here, not quite finished but certainly raising interesting issues to debate afterwards.

So, how do the actors fare in all this? Lopez gets a a lot of screen time and room to move (in spite of the title) and D’Onofrio’s role as the schizophrenic Stargher is a true challenge, for him and for the rest of us trying to decipher his character without a degree in clinical psychiatry. Vince Vaughn as a FBI agent gets to act out more gradually, while accomplished actors Dylan Baker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste seem underused as scientists running the experiment. They’re sort of stuck behind their terminals and reduced to mostly functional, tech-oriented duties.

It’s possible that Tarsem Singh in his feature debut did take on a little more than he could handle. Not everyone is Orson Welles first time around. However, as I said before, to me the film seems rather to have increased its value than diminished in hindsight. ”The Cell” is in so many ways a bold undertaking, a brave beginning and a film that still stands out for what it dares try and many others haven’t. Singh went on to make a perhaps even more fascinating little film called ”The Fall” (one that you really should see) and the somewhat less than brilliant ”Immortals”. His career hasn’t quite been what this film promised, but hopefully it isn’t over yet. Pretensions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

”Money Monster”: Better as Urban Thriller than Media Satire

Honestly, I had never heard of the man before. It’s not like we watch these kinds of shows on a regular basis here in Scandinavia. At least not the American ones. Still, when a purported financial wizard by the name of Jim Cramer went on Comedy Central’s ”The Daily Show” (which I did watch on a regular basis at the time) a few years ago and wound up almost annihilated by the now legendary host Jon Stewart, it was great entertainment.

Apparently, Cramer made himself a name with – among other things – a TV show called ”Mad Money”. And I guess it might be possible the makers of ”Money Monster”, including director Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster) found some inspiration in that postmodern cautionary tale. Here, it’s flamboyant, self-centered TV personality Lee Gates (George Clooney) who suddenly finds himself taken hostage while broadcasting his live show called, surprisingly, ”Money Monster”. A young man with a gun and a suicide vest pays a visit and Gates needs to apply all of his skills as a professional motormouth to distract the uninvited guest from turning the studio into dust and debris. The young man is, as it turns out, an investor of sorts. A regular guy who put too much of his savings in a fund recommended by Gates a few weeks earlier. It was supposed to be as safe an investment as they come…

However, something weird happened to the stock in question. Millions, literally millions of dollars vanished into thin air, a fact the company responsible are trying to explain as the result of a glitch in the software they were using. People in general have a hard time buying that, including the guy with the gun. And, increasingly, the staff at the TV station with Mr Gates in the midst of it all.

The concept for the film is decidedly more conventional than, say, ”The Big Short”. But needless to say, the financial meltdowns of later years contribute to the plot and our understanding of it, whether or not it’s mentioned out loud. That said, ”Money Monster” works better as a well-paced urban thriller with a slightly comical touch than as conversation-starter on global economics 101. Jodie Foster’s main ambition seems to have been just that, telling a suspenseful story playing with our inherent tendencies to distrust everything we’re told, wary of possible Ponzi schemes and such. Also, George Clooney and Julia Roberts (as Gates producer) are cast in comfortable parts, the kinds of on-screen personalities they could inhabit almost on autopilot if need be. Luckily they don’t simply settle for that. The film does work up a tension to a certain point, while providing enough small surprises to avoid making it all too predictable.

It would seem probable that the director & co have glanced at films such as ”Dog Day Afternoon”, ”Inside Man” (where Foster herself played a minor but significant role) and a number of other thrillers involving hostage situations in general. This is not exactly original storytelling to the core of its being. Simply put; if you think you would appreciate ”Money Monster” based on genre, synopsis and who’s in it, you’re likely to like it enough not to find it a waste of time. It’s not entirely consistent in tone, nor particularly effective as a satire on the media and/or Wall Street shenanigans. But as a whole, the experience and competence involved help make it a slick, satisfying ride for some 90 minutes and change.

Game for a Laugh? Seriously Fun Stuff from 2015

Apparently it used to be a popular entertainment program on British TV, for a couple of years back in the 1980’s. ”Game for a Laugh”, that is. I don’t think I ever had an opportunity to see it myself. But it did inspire a hysterically funny sketch on the likewise British satire show ”Not the Nine o’clock News”, dealing with the concept of ordinary citizens manipulated into taking part in practical jokes in TV, with some disturbing results.

Disturbing and drastic are also adjectives that can be useful for describing what happens in the world of ”Game of Thrones”, a phenomenon with few equals in today’s television drama landscape. Maybe the sense of humour isn’t the most prominent feature of the HBO flagship (though it is there, too) but one of the more intriguing consequences of its success are the regularly occurring parodies and pastiches produced in its wake. Like these two items, both qualifying for a spot on my personal list of cultural high points of 2015. The first one being actor Kit Harington starring as the the deeply solemn and serious-minded bastard and Night’s Watch man Jon Snow, in this case invited to a fashionable New York dinner party by talk show host Seth Meyers.

Harington also has a crucial part to play in the unfortunately still not quite finished project ”Game of Thrones – the Musical”, with compositions by Coldplay and a bunch of ”GoT” actors signing up to sing and – in some cases – dance a little as well. 2015 has been a year with many troublesome things happening in the world, but there were some bright spots in the culture department, at least. Here you can find two of them…

From Russia With Love: Possibly the Best Interview of 2015

They talk. And talk. Some of them better and offering more substance than others. These chosen ones who at some points got themselves handed their very own talk show. Most of the really influential ones are located in the USA. Including one very British, bespectacled gentleman who used to hone his craft for years as a ‘correspondent’ at The Daily Show hosted by a certain Jon Stewart (you know, the guy who in turn handed these reins over to Trevor Noah last summer): John Oliver. At the moment he is my personal favourite in the business we’re talking about. He is committed, energetic with an unusual pathos and he dares to spend more time than most colleagues, going in depth investigating current topics within the framework of a half-hour weekly show on HBO. One of the high points of his Last Week Tonight show last year was a trip to Russia for an interview with the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The combination of the exiled, quietly reflective critic of surveillance society and Mr Oliver’s unpredictable interviewing technique made for an instant classic in this particular genre.

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