Cast Against Hype

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

Tag: thriller

Dead Serious Digital Dreams in ”Devs”

 

Even if you didn’t know this was the brainchild of a certain Alex Garland, known for ”Ex Machina” and ”Annihilation” just to name a few things, you might have guessed it. On the other hand; I will never know if I had, because that very fact was one of the things that piqued my interest to begin with. Apparently the guy is somewhat fascinated by the Brave New Digital World in general and Artificial Intelligence in particular. 

– So many decisions are made about our future, by people who know so little about our past, complains a character involved in extremely advanced tech development. 

But who can you trust in this day and age, if not the most ground-breaking, pioneering IT companies around? The ones who keep radically changing our entire worldview and our potential as a species? What could possibly go wrong? 

The techno-conglomerate around which everything revolves in ”Devs” certainly has power and influence. Big buildings, impressive architecture surrounded by lush environment while harbouring a few secrets. One employee, recently recruited to the most secretive, prestigious department of all, suddenly dies. Suicide, according to the company itself, a version supported by a disturbing video which would convince most people. One notable exception being the dead guy’s girlfriend who also happens to be employed by them. Industrial espionage appears to be part of the story, but as the series moves along it becomes pretty clear that’s not the real point, rather a narrative device to get the plot going. 

So, what is ”Devs” about, really? This is where it gets interesting for real. You have a traumatized but still determined young woman seeking the truth about a gruesome death, her ex-boyfriend reluctantly being brought in to help her in her quest; a likewise emotionally damaged tech visionary running experiments concerning the past, using advanced algorithms in his own quest to determine the future, and, well… There are other things going on here, but what makes this show special is the philosophical-existential inquiry. The plotting may be somewhat scattered and some details are simply there to make things happen, quite obviously so. But Garland and his team are on their own quest. The search for the truth about free will, maybe?

Remember the Tree of Knowledge, as described in The Book of Genesis: How much knowledge is too much? Is it a good idea to accomplish everything we can accomplish? Would it actually be possible in the near future to predict all human behaviour based on what happened before, as registered by powerful computers examining every pattern in history since the dawn of time? Then again, the idea of a Multiverse, where there might be different potential scenarios playing out simultaneously. There are competing views displayed here, regarding the idea of one given direction as opposed to multiple, parallel outcomes depending on where a certain simulation takes you. If I got this right. And I can’t say I’m 100 percent certain of anything even after watching the complete miniseries. 

”Devs” in other words, deals openly and unashamedly with the why of everything. As a viewer though, of course you will notice how the showrunners make choices in terms of visual design and – not to be neglected – sound. Sometimes it’s all stunningly beautiful and the next moment permeated by everyday greyness, but there is a clear visual strategy. Garland and his accomplices are also fond of starting out and finishing episodes accompanied by minimalist yet suggestive and intriguing pieces of music, emphasizing dissonant harmonies and reinforcing that sense of uncertainty; the paradoxical qualities of a show that manages to be frightening, inspiring, surprising and soothing in almost equal measure. You could argue it’s moving at a snail’s pace at times before exploding and turning things we’ve seen so far on its head. It illustrates breathtaking concepts followed by mundane observations. 

If someone tells you what you are going to do, how will it affect what you actually do? The question of free will and the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play. It becomes increasingly obvious that the show asks you to deal with concepts like determinism and destiny. If there really is a choice or everything you do in life is the inevitable result of events and actions that took place before. When someone tells our heroine ’the sense that you were participating in life was only ever an illusion’ this might be where the plot was leading us all along. Or maybe there are conflicting worldviews here: one or the other could be confirmed, while another is discarded. Unless there are options and we are given the choice of deciding to which one we prefer to subscribe. Arguably, not all of the problems presented are resolved, simply because it’s kind of impossible. But ”Devs” does manage to maintain suspense and unpredictability all the way into the closing moments. Amen. 

Better Late Than Never – My Favourite Films of 2019

It’s late, I know. As an excuse I spent three weeks around Christmas and New Year in Mexico with my wife and her family and didn’t get around to do a whole lot of writing and compiling in general. Still catching up. Anyway, the decade is already wrapped up and you can find my favourite films and TV shows, respectively from the decade we just left behind here. But 2019 was quite a decent year for movies, actually one that I still find difficult to sum up, knowing that I haven’t – that word again – caught up with everything that could have ended up on my Top Ten. And  as you might be aware of, The Oscars are just a few hours away. So, finally, here we go…

…and oh, just to be clear; these are films that opened in Sweden in 2019. Some of them might seem that they belong on last year’s rankings but they simply hadn’t arrived here then. 

1. The Favourite (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

Three women in a British 18th century court, fighting it out in different ways over who holds the real power. So smart, so entertaining. So…My Favourite last year.

2. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

Good old-fashioned whodunnit turns out to be a little more than that. New franchise for Daniel Craig?

3. Us (Jordan Peele)

They’ve been waiting. Now it’s time. Our world is about to be turned on its head for ever. But who exactly are the good and bad guys here? Jordan Peele proves ”Get Out” wasn’t just luck. 

4. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

I have come to admire his work more and more over the years. I was a bit slow in recognizing his genius, I admit. This is both beautiful and disturbing, thought-provoking in a way I do appreciate, especially when you rewind the finale in your mind to figure out what it really means. If there is one and only one possible interpretation. 

5. Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)

Elton John. No easy childhood. or young adulthood. And success didn’t result in happiness right away. Colourful, entertaining modern musical-fantasy. 

6. Instant Family (Sean Anders)

Charming little gem, starring a relatively young couple getting involved in foster-parenting and finding out what it takes to make a family. 

7. Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)

Charlize Theron, never funnier. Unexpected chemistry with Seth Rogen. Will they be First Couple or not?

 

8. Deadwood – The Movie (Daniel Minahan)

Closure at last. More than a decade after one of the best TV shows ever ended somewhat abruptly, we revisit the small frontier town to find out what became of those struggling citizens and their arch-nemesis named Hearst. Worth waiting for.

9. Vice (Adam McKay)

The story of Dick Cheney and his rise to power, told as a darkened sort of satire-comedy and a great Christian Bale in the lead. 

10. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

Aging Spanish film director examines the life of an aging Spanish film director in an understated, slow-burn drama that never really raises its voice, but maintains attention throughout. 

 

Honourable Mentions:

Ready or Not

The Irishman

El Camino – A Breaking Bad Movie

Films I feel bad about not having seen yet: 

Parasite

High Life

Joker

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

… and a few others.  

And which film will win Best Picture tonight? As I said, still catching  up, but it seems like that ”1917” would have a shot, right? Probably a great achievement. I should go see it. Although, why do I feel like heroic war movies are not exactly what the world needs most right now? I know, I know. It’s probably more nuanced than that.

No Marvel Included – My 40 Favourite Films of the Decade

Fully aware of everything I haven’t seen, these are what I consider my 40 favourite films (all categories included), released in the decade now coming to an end. An era seemingly defined by the superhero genre, which, I might add, is not represented here. Now you know. It’s not that I can’t enjoy a Marvel or DC adventure now and then, but – how many of them are truly great cinema? SPOILER ALERT 2: a few filmmakers have stood out more than others in these last ten years; Nolan. Villeneuve. Garland. Cuarón. It will show. Also, I will emphasize the difficulty in ranking these films in a particular order. The difference in quality and impact between number one and, say, 20, is not really huge. These are all works of art and storytelling that I deeply appreciate for somewhat varying reasons. 

1. Spotlight (Directed by Thomas McCarthy, 2015). Classic storytelling. Traditional. Methodic. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Dealing with a sort of traditional, painstakingly thorough investigative journalism that might fall prey to the great extinction. Hopefully not. And hopefully these kinds of films are not a completely dying breed either. 

2. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010). Layers on layers of dreams and adventures in the subconscious. Maybe more than a strictly speaking healthy dose of food for thought. But it does provide lasting impressions of an ambivalent variety that clearly shows a master has been at work, playing with our minds and stirring our senses. 

3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). “Mean Girls”; 18th Century version. Could have been insufferable, but turns out so improbably right in all aspects that it becomes irresistible. 

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Basically all action and no plot, but what action! And what visual extravaganza! I surrender. 

5. The Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park, 2016). Basically all advanced plotting and no action, at least not action action. But consistently surprising, mesmerizing and maybe the working definition of infernal affairs. 

6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014). Who is most real? What is conscience? And which is Alicia Vikander’s best role so far? Maybe this one. Maybe. 

7. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016 ). One of the decade’s most significant auteurs explores humanity confronting the unknown, but probably most of all, the very concept of time. Doesn’t have to be completely comprehensible to be absorbing and more or less unforgettable. 

8. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). More on the unknown. More on time and what it really means. Seemingly dystopian vision turns into something mindbendingly magnificent.

9. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016). War is coming. So is an evil spirit in the house. Mother and daughter struggle to maintain sanity and a grasp pf reality – whatever that means – in a sensational directorial debut that deserves a bigger audience. 

10. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013). Basically just about the urgent struggle for survival, alone in space, for 90 nail-biting minutes. 

11. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón, 2014). Different tales, yet it seems like one coherent story about, well… people. Our fragile nature and sensitive ego. Entertaining and disturbing in equal measure. 

12. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017). Taking on a cultural heritage like this and moving forward with it demands a visionary mind equipped with nerves of steel. Like the intrepid monsieur Villeneuve.

13. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010). So sad, so unrelenting, so deeply existential and still beautiful in spite of telling a story about people growing up with no real future, or hope or being valued as individuals. 

14. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018). These impossible missions for Tom Cruise et al just keep on getting tougher. And the films are getting better and better. Sometime I guess they will have to pull the brakes and at least put a younger hero in harm’s way, but when? 

15. Coco (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, 2017). Death. More colourful than ever. Still offering more depth and dimensions, not least regarding memory and how we handle the inevitable – like loss. 

16. Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010). Films like these aren’t really being made. Especially not in Sweden. Probably it’s an illusion that it actually seems to exist, but I put it on my list anyway. Don’t wake me up and tell me it was just a dream.

17. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). So, this is how it all began? And now we’ve all handed our lives over to him? Interesting… 

18. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017). Some laughs but mostly horror in a directorial debut you didn’t see coming from one half of comedy act Key & Peele. 

19. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). Perfection until death, as told by a perfectionist who always seems to elicit strong reactions of the more polarized variety. He has to be rewarded here. 

20. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018). Rich, nuanced drama with an almost unparalleled attention to mundane details and subtle changes in relationship dynamics.

21. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018). Another inspiring trend among the most memorable movies of late is the plot doesn’t have to be 100 percent comprehensible to be – yes, memorable. Not as long as it provides food for thought and intriguing impressions. 

22. Spring (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, 2014). Lost American hiding out in the south of Europe meets a woman that is anything but ordinary. Horror-romance story turns unexpectedly inspiring and frankly uplifting in the midst of a macabre premise. 

23. Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013). I am pretty sure Danny Boyle has directed objectively better films than this one, but more outright entertaining? I doubt it.

24. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013). The creative combination of sensible science fiction and sensitive relationship-oriented drama has been one of the most encouraging trends in filmmaking during this decade. And yeah, obviously it says something about us and our time. Something that may or may not be equally encouraging. 

25. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012). The rest of the quadrilogy didn’t fully deliver the same punch that this first instalment promised. It wasn’t bad, but not as gut-punchingly gorgeous in a weird way that made this first chapter a must-see. 

26. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010). Dennis Lehane wrote the story. Scorsese directed. DiCaprio starred. Questions?

27. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017). Priest with environmental angst struggles with just about everything. Films like these hardly ever get made. Let alone made this well. 

28. Vanishing Waves (Kristina Buozyte, 2012). ”The Cell”, the Lithuanian version. Only, I would say, even better. Has to be seen to be believed. 

29. Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 2012). What’s it about? What isn’t it about? An epic, challenging adventure anyway.

30. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011). Uplifting? Not so much. Definitely thought-provoking and in a weird way almost inspiring. Is it about the end of the world or is it a metaphor for something else? You make the call. 

31. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). Over and over again, the same groundhoggish day fighting invading aliens. Underrated scifi-action piece, also one of Tom Cruise’s most underrated performances. 

32. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011). For some reason I like his darker side more than the lighter one, and his has to be one of the darkest things he ever did. Antonio Banderas might be doing his best work ever here, incidentally. 

33. Mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017). Yeah, you might hate it. Hate it, and I will not hold it against you. Personally I find it a magnicent mess, or rather spectacularly messy but in a magnificent way. 

34. Snowpiercer (Joon-Ho Bong, 2013). Ride this train! Well, if you’re still alive in this post-apocalyptic vision, you don’t have much choice. 

35. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014). Vampires! Comedy! Vampires and comedy! Yeah, you’ve seen that combination before. But you didn’t see this combination before. 

36. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). Heavy, hard-hitting history that just about everyone ought to watch at least once. If you can stomach it. 

37. Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012). Probably not entirely truthful, but imminently entertaining about unlikely hostage rescue operation in Iran, post-revolution 1979. 

38. These Final Hours (Zak Hilditch, 2013). Heartbreaking rendition of a world about to end – yes, really end – and one man’s final attempt to do something meaningful for someone else before it’s all over. 

39. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014). Priest in a small town gets a very specific death threat. By whom? And how should he spend what might be his last week alive? 

40. The Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, 2011). Norwegian thriller set in some sort of corporate world, keeps the suspense going with nasty surprises, one after the other, until… You’ll see.

 

Some close competitors and honourable mentions:

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle), Four Lions (Chris Morris), The Secret in their Eyes (Juan José Campanella), Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo), 127 Hours (Danny Boyle), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy), Baby Driver (Edgar Wright), Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood), Snowden (Oliver Stone), Gone Girl (David Fincher), Kill the Messenger (Michael Cuesta), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos), Atomic Blonde (David Leitch), The Martian (Ridley Scott), Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley), Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow), Silence (Martin Scorsese), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve), Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson), Skyfall (Sam Mendes), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh), Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)…

 

Coming soon: My Favourite TV Shows of the Decade. With or without superheroes.

100 Films You Should See (If You Haven’t Already)

 

Hitchcock, Alfred. Is he included on the list? Since you asked, yes. By Fred Palumbo – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c21483, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1305493

It’s always personal. Still, there is a canon. Some films are simply extremely likely to show up on virtually every “Films you should watch before you die” whenever these lists appear. Some of these are here. Such as “The Godfather 1 & 2”, “Citizen Kane”, “Jaws”, a couple of Hitchcock and at least one Chaplin. But I did omit a few of the usual suspects… You will not find “The Shawshank Redemption” here. Not that it’s a bad movie. It’s a pretty good one. But it never meant that much to me personally and I still struggle to comprehend the fact that it resides as the Number One Movie Ever Made, as voted by the users of Internet Movie Database. Obviously there is a black hole where my heart ought to be. Anyway, sooner or later you have to create one of these very, very important compilations yourself, right? I found an excuse a few years ago in a work-related context. I teach social sciences and similar stuff to adult students who didn’t complete all of their basic education, or what in Sweden would be the equivalent of high school, and feel the need to fill in the blanks. Now and then I take the opportunity to sneak in some cinematic/storytelling themes like brief film history, genre definitions, narrative arcs and the like. This spring I decided to update this list and in the process translate it into English for some reason. Just because.

Bogart & Bergman – together at last! No compilation like this would be complete without “Casablanca”. But you knew that already. By Warner Bros. – eBayarchive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80446534

Sometimes these projects make you realize things about yourself and the issues at hand. Like the fact that 95 percent of these titles were directed by men. Says something about the industry, but still a bit troubling. Or that only four of these films are Swedish. Maybe less troubling. 79, I think, are spoken primarily in English. Nine were shot in black and white, if I remember correctly. The total number of Mexican directors are… Well. You can see for yourself. In the AD 2019 version of my own personal “100 films you should see”. Full report available now in pdf below.

Related: A decade is coming to an end. Currently I’m trying to figure out which films, TV shows and albums (music, that is) from these past ten years I did appreciate the most. Some time before 2019 turns into 2020 I will have the answers and publish them here, I hope. Who said it was going to be easy?

100 Films you should see-PJL2019

Death, Disappearing Acts and Details of Daily Life – My Favourite Films of 2018

So… Are these the very best? As always, I probably missed a few serious contenders. Also as always, this is about films released in Sweden during 2018 AD. Which, for example, might mean some Oscar nominees and even winners of last year could show up here. Do they? Let’s find out, shall we?

1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (directed by Christopher McQuarrie)

They run, hide, jump and fight to save the world. Many are called but few are chosen as well as Tom Cruise & Co in this surprisingly persistent and still vital movie franchise.  

2. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)

Grand and intimate, beautiful and troublesome, in this magnificent ode to life in Mexico City during times of turbulence back in the early 70’s. Though most of all, so impressive in its depiction of daily life and its attention to details. 

 3. Annihilation (Alex Garland)

What is it really about? What happened in that weird, glowing forest? We could discuss that for hours on end without completely reaching an agreement. Anyway, it’s one of 2018’s most consistently intriguing films. At least I agree on that. 

4. Coco (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina)

Death. It’s really colourful and attractive, right? At least in this Mexicanized musical universe. 

5. Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Stefano Sollima)

Death. Sometimes it’s all too unnecessary, don’t you think? Can’t we all just get along? Still, entering this world means being trapped for two hours, wondering where it’s all going, whom you’re to supposed to sympathize with and why. 

6. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)

One is falling, the other one rising and they love each other. But… It’s complicated. Impressive directing debut for Bradley Cooper, who doesn’t let the actor Bradley Copper retain all that much dignity when the going really gets tough for the protagonist. Also, Lady Gaga is in the movie. You knew that, right? Come to think of it, she’s probably the real protagonist. She can sing! And act, incidentally. 

7. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

Light entertainment indeed… Or, no. Ethan Hawke as a preacher with a tortured soul trying to figure out the purpose of his life at a point where he’s lost a family, maybe his faith as he used to know it and possibly hope for the future in general. What kind of catharsis could be in store for him – and us? Well, it is painful. And also somewhat hopeful. 

8. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)

Death. Again… Oh by the way, watching films on airplanes. What’s your stance on that? I did that in this case. Could it be this one deserves a higher ranking? Entertaining and shrewd satire. 

9. The Post (Steven Spielberg)

The Master’s ode to the Free Press. Traditional, highbrow, old-fashioned, maybe. But also entertaining and kind of… is it this little word important I’m really trying to emphasize here?

10. Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz)

Israeli drama, apparently not entirely appreciated by everyone within the country itself. It becomes political in a sense without really trying to be overtly that. It’s human, it’s complicated and deals with tragedy, sorrow and young lives put on the line in a way that you just don’t see every day. It’s got style. And substance. And might mess with your head in a constructive way. 

 

Honourable Mentions:

The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody

I could name a few others, but let’s draw the line here for now. Of course I will discover a few more masterpieces from 2018 eventually, which I’ve missed so far. Hopefully. Also, I am aware that none of my top ten this year were directed by women. ”Lady Bird”, mentioned honourably being the exception all in all. Yes, as I said, probably I have some more revealing discoveries coming up…

 

Last year’s top ten can be found here

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.

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.

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