donderdag 4 februari 2016

Today's Review: Francofonia

The second review by my hand posted on FilmTotaal this year (but more is well underway!):

Francofonia - recensie

This is an intriguing compendium piece to Sokurov's breakthrough film Russian Ark, though it lacks the stylistic punch of that particular film. Of course, doing another 100-minute one-take shot would have felt repetitive, as if the director attempted to capitalize on his own past glory. So there's none of that in Francofonia, but that's not to stop Sokurov from pulling a few more cinematographic tricks out of his hat. That, and the overall message, matters more to him than following conventional narrative expectations. Which is made clear a bit painfully, as Francofonia is literally all over the Louvre, rather than sticking to the single time frame that one would have expected to be the primary focus. Even though the museum's survival of the war years during WW II appears to be the subject at hand, Sokurov has a lot more to tell about the place's long history, not to mention sharing his personal thoughts on both the Louvre's background, its place in art history and the treatment of art in general. That's a lot to tackle for a 90-minute movie...

And of course, as a result, not every episode of the Louvre's story proves as interesting. In fact, all of the film suffers from Sokurovs tendency to change subjects, drone on about the abuse and capitalization of art works and sudden jumps to different time periods. Nevertheless, the message remains clear: museums should not be reduced to pawns of commerce, politics or dictators. They are time capsules that tell all of human history and should be carefully preserved, kept well away from the power hungry. The German occupation is just an example of and an hommage to a period in history where the joining of forces between two like minded men, who by all accounts ought to be diametrically opposed, preserved countless artifacts for posterity. Sokurov thanks both men for their assistance to cultural history. But he also isn't afraid to remind us that the origin of the Louvre itself is steeped in conquest and theft. After all, the emperor Napoleon captured many pieces of art on his campaigns abroad and had them shipped to the capital of his empire. Hitler simply attempted to do the same and failed in the Louvre's case, while succeeding in a lot of other cases. Art and politics certainly aren't mutually exclusive.

It's a point Sokurovs makes with the help of various stylistic choices, some proven in prior works, others applied for the first time in his case. Though there are no excessively long takes used as there were in Russian Ark, his introduction of historical characters sharing their insights and motivations with us is taken straight from that film. In this case restricted to only two characters (Marianne, the French Spirit of Freedom and Napoleon), rather than many. This is not a coincidence of course, as Francofonia's main tale also deals with two characters, the museum director (representing the side of French freedom) and the Nazi officer (the conquering party, the Napoleonic figure). Their story is intercut with historical footage, while it is itself disguised as historical footage by its old fashioned framing and the many print scratches applied. It would have worked even better if it was in black and white, but apparently Sokurov disagreed. He disagrees with a lot of things in Francofonia. Like art being shipped over seas as any other piece of cargo in containers on large freighters, its very existence threatened by a violent storm. Why does art suffer so much indignity and indifference today, he laments. No matter how fragmented his thoughts as shown in Francofonia, it's hard to disagree with him, when ancient buildings and statues are demolished left and right by zealous barbarians, who are also eager to simply sell such cultural heritage to the highest bidder to fund their cause. World War II may have ended seventy years ago, but art remains ever in danger at the hands of subversive ideologies. Francofonia serves as an cautionary reminder of what could be scrapped from the history pages forever if we are not careful and respectful of art's place in our cultural mind.

maandag 1 februari 2016

Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs 2: Velociraptor/Spinosaurus 2-pack

Year of release: 2004

Description: the small Spinosaurus figure stands in a walking posture, with its left leg posed forward and the left arm raised, its mouth opened as if roaring and the end of the tail bent pointing to the right. Its underside (throat, belly and inward part of the upper legs) is painted light brown, while the same colour is found on its back below the sail and the front top half of the tail, as well as above the eyes (like eye brows) and on the snout. The rest of the body is coloured regular brown, while the sail is painted dark brown. On either side of the creature, two pairs of black stripes are found, one pair on the flanks and another on the upper legs. The claws on the feet are painted black, but the claws on the hands are unpainted. The edges of the mouth are black, while the animal has white teeth and a dark pink (almost brown in fact) tongue and inside of the mouth. The figure has very small yellow eyes with black pupils, and carries a white JP logo on its right upper leg.
The Velociraptor stands in a stalking pose, its right arm and leg stretched outward and its head raised upwards with its mouth open, as if it means to jump on something. The tail is raised upwards and bent at the tip. Most of the body is coloured very light green (almost beige) except for the lower legs and feet, most of the head (except for the ocular area and underside of the lower jaw) and the back, which are coloured reddish brown. On its back, this brown colouring runs over the upper arms and legs and flanks in triangular shapes. The very middle of the brown section on the back is painted yellow, which also forms similar shapes running over the brown triangular colouring. The claws on the feet are painted in the same yellow, but the claws on its hands are not painted. The figure's underside (throat and belly) is coloured in a very vague different hue of light green, and may actually be called beige when inspecting it very closely. The Raptor has yellow eyes with cat like black pupils and black eye liner, while the edges around its mouth are also black, and the creature sports white teeth and a dark pink tongue and inside of the mouth. The figure carries a black JP logo on its left upper leg.

Analysis: and so the infinite repainting of smaller dinosaur figures kicks into full gear, after having been introduced moderately in JP III Camo-Xtreme. These dinosaur 2-packs offer very little besides the occasional imaginative paint jobs, except for the chance to create huge armies of identical dinosaur sculpts. Why anyone would want that is a good question. Creating armies of Imperial troops from Hasbro's Star Wars lines is not unusual, since such figures usually stand in a neutral pose and they all look alike any way. But having twenty figures of the same species in the exact same attack posture, except with totally different paint jobs, makes little sense at all.
In the case of the Velociraptor/Spinosaurus 2-pack the paint jobs are at least okay. In fact, the Raptor paint job is actually quite good. The double claw like pattern on its back underscores its aggressive nature, attack posture and its own big claws. Such appeal is not to be found in the Spinosaurus, which looks a bit dull by comparison, but not a total loss either. Something more original for the sail would have been welcome. Also a real shame the claws on the hands of both creatures have been omitted, since the detailing of both figures is otherwise fairly good.
The Raptor, which in normal circumstances would be more or less in scale with Hasbro's human figures (though not in the standard JP situation where Velociraptors are hugely oversized), is lucky he's almost as big as the Spinosaurus. In reality any Spinosaurus would just bite the Raptor in half. In a fight between these two dinosaurs, the Raptor with its lethal sickle shaped claws would probably win the day.

Repaint: yes. Both figures are repaints of dinosaurs that originally came with human figures for the JP III line. The Velociraptor was paired with Alan Grant, while the Spinosaurus belonged to Amanda Kirby. Both figures have been repainted before for JP III Camo-Xtreme, and would be repainted several times again for this line, JPD3 and JP 2009.

Overall rating: 6/10. There's nothing novel to both sculpts, but these new paint jobs are adequate and certainly not as bad as some of the repaints to follow. Like most dinosaur two-packs from JPD2 and JPD3, this is one of the more common releases and it can still be found without trouble, usually for low prices because they're not in high demand (for obvious reasons).

zondag 24 januari 2016

Oscars 2016: The Predictions

It's late January, so it's time for another round of predicting who will and won't go home with one (or more) of them little gold statuettes. Based on uncanny prior experience deducting winners, in-depth knowledge of the Academy's politics and personal acquantaince with all its members, I should get a lot of these right. Too bad I have little of the above, I'm just a guy with a gut feeling and an opinion, coupled with above average knowledge of movies and stuff. So there's bound to be a few misses here, but then, the Academy sadly never asks what I think. 

Best Film:
First Choice: I wanna say Mad Max: Fury Road, since that's the film I thought best of all the movies nominated I've seen. Which is less than half of them, admittedly. Gimme a break, the other half hasn't even been released here yet! I plan on seeing the rest ASAP. That being the case, I have a hunch it's gonna be The Revenant.
Second choice: The Big Short. Because Inarritu already won Best Picture only last year, so it wouldn't be fair to the others. Mind you, a lot of black people will remind you fairness is not something the Academy takes into account...

Best Actor:
First Choice: Leonardo DiCaprio. Nominated six times before. So don't you think it's about time as much as 'about time' can get?
Second choice: Michael Fassbender. Even though he didn't look much like Steve Jobs physically, he certainly got the rest right to make for a memorable performance.
Best Actress:
First Choice: Cate Blanchett. Because, you know... Cate Blanchett!
Second choice: Brie Larson. For getting stuck in a room and acting her way out.

Best Supporting Actor: 
First Choice: Christian Bale. Another hunch, but I'm not that impressed by this batch of candidates.
Second choice: Mark Rylance. Such a sweet, mild mannered performance. For a spy hellbent on destroying the US of A and the assorted freedom that goes with it. But still we like him.

Best Supporting Actress:
First Choice: Rooney Mara. Because I like to think Cate Blanchett's talent is highly inspirational. Getting intimate with her increases the acting capabilities of others, perhaps? Not to say Mara was no good prior to meeting Cate. Far from it in fact.
Second choice: Rachel McAdams. Because I've seen the other options on the big screen and I can't pick.

Best Director:
First Choice: George Miller. Because I want him to win, not because I think he actually will. Anybody capable of crafting such an insanely fantastic world at his advanced age and getting embraced by audiences and critics alike deserves to win.
Second choice: Adam McKay. A more likely scenario.

Best Screenplay:
First Choice: Spotlight. Seems the least unlikely candidate.
Second choice: Inside Out. It's gonna win Best Animated Feature for sure, but it quite deserves this one as well.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
First Choice: The Big Short. Because it's so highly intelligent and complicated. Oh no, it isn't, that's just what Wall Street wants you to think so nobody asks them the hard questions and they keep getting away with the shit they pull. And that's exactly what this script makes painfully clear.
Second choice: The Martian. A hunch. And because science is fun again.

Best Animated Film:
First Choice: Inside Out. Duh.
Second choice: I wanna say Shaun the Sheep, because I almost cried, but reason makes me say Anomalisa. Because it's unlike most animated features getting this nomination. It's not for kids, for one thing. So that makes it a different thing which deserves a chance to shine. But Inside Out is gonna take its glory, make no mistake.

Best Foreign Film:
First Choice: Son of Saul (Saul Fia). No competition.
Second choice: El Abrazo de la Serpiente. Still, no competition though.

Best Cinematography:
First Choice: This one is really hard. All contenders have very bold, innovative cinematography.  Sicario and Mad Max: Fury Road sure impressed me, but I think it's gonna be The Hateful Eight.
Second choice: Sicario. Because it's kinda the underdog here, and everybody loves an underdog.
EDIT: Fuck that, it's gonna be The Revenant, too!

Best Editing: 
First Choice: Competition is not as strong here. The Revenant.
Second choice: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Production Design:
First Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road. If you've seen it, you know full well why. Crazy production design for an insane world.
Second choice: The Martian.

Best Costume Design:
First Choice: Cinderella. Lavish got a new dimension. In 3D.
Second choice: Mad Max: Fury Road. Again, crazy.

Best Hair and Make-up:
First Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road. It's becoming my mantra in the technical department, but I just have strong faith in it.
Second choice: The Revenant. That's that handsome Leonardo DiCaprio fella under all that mud and blood, you know?

Best Score:
First Choice: The Hateful Eight. Same reason as Leo: it's high time after six snubs. Plus, he has been a master at his work for decades and this score was just totally brilliant. More so than the movie itself in fact.
Second choice: Sicario. Because it scared me, which it was supposed to.

Best Song:
First Choice: Spectre. Because the writing's on the wall. I didn't much care for it at first to be honest, but it really grew on me.
Second choice: whatever. Youth.

Best Sound Mixing:
First Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road, same as before.
Second choice: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Best Sound Editing: 
First Choice: Star Wars: The Force Awakens actually. The soundscape of Star Wars is a universe on its own even now another has taken over, and at least one sound award should acknowledge that fact.
Second choice: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Visual Effects:
First Choice: Ex Machina. For being subtle and not drawing attention to itself, but still totally believable. For those who didn't know, Alicia Vikander doesn't actually look like that in real life, that's all VFX.
Second choice: Mad Max: Fury Road. Because of that whole Mad Max thing I got going here, in case you missed it.

Best Documentary: 
First Choice: The Look of Silence. Can't go wrong with Indonesian genocide. Part 2.
Second choice: Amy. Because it appeals to the masses more than Ukrain, Nina Simone or drug cartels.

Februay 28th will tell me how right, or rather, how wrong, I am. What a lovely day!

donderdag 21 januari 2016

Today's Review: Sneekweek

Another week, another review:

Sneekweek - Recensie

Expectations weren't high, and with good reason it turns out. Dutch movies usually aren't great to begin with, but Dutch movies emulating popular American films are often worse. In this case, it's Scream that's being "hommaged". This is a horror comedy made by people who obviously love horror films and have seen their fair share of them. But they've never actually made one before, and it shows.

The plot starts out oh so conventional. A bunch of students accidentally get someone killed in a silly game and do the dumbest thing imaginable (which is usual in this genre): they cover it up and try to forget about it. It obviously doesn't work, and when we catch up with them two years later, the recently graduated college kids turn out to be using not only the fun type of drugs to cope with their shady past. The standard horror trope archetypes are applied to these characters, the likes we've seen a thousand times before. The fact they spend most of the movie either bickering or engaging in supposed sexy slang doesn't make us care at all for them, we just want to see them die horribly fast. For that, the movie certainly takes its time. The masked killer soon stalks the premises of their backwood residence - insofar there are any backwoods in Friesland - but it takes quite a while before people really start dying. Meanwhile, our patience is tested when the kids argue their way from one party to the other, accompanied by obnoxiously loud techno music. To appeal to the modern generation I guess.

And then the second half of Sneekweek arrives. All bets are off as to the identity of the killer. It's not as obvious as you might think. In fact, it's not considerably complicated either, the movie just feels like making it so by twisting things around to such an extent that everybody is suspect. The kills pick up pace rapidly, but leave a lot to be desired in terms of originality or scariness. Not to mention in terms of looking convincing, which they don't. The story quickly turns equally messy, until the final reveal which feels like a big letdown. At least the comedy starts kicking in by providing a few good laughs to horror aficionados, including a memorable oneliner or two. These obviously reference the genre more than they do the movie itself, as is the Sneekweek's intent. The movie's whole set-up is one big reference to the genre, playing with conventions and adding narrative surprises by making things seem different than they are based on what you expect from a slasher movie. Thing is, this sort of film is hardly novel by now. In fact, Sneekweek's prime example Scream is already 20 years old by now, and has been referenced so often that making similarly selfreflexive films has become a horror staple itself.

Sneekweek hardly innovates. It does surprise from a narrative stance, but not in a satisfactory way. The movie desperately tries not to adhere to our expectations, and thus ends up confusing audiences more than frightening them. Unless they didn't see Scream or any similar self referential slasher films these past two decades. Considering the movie seems to focus on an audience of 16 to 18 year olds with its young cast and irritating soundtrack, there's bound to be a few people who feel this horror movie was original. Whether they'll enjoy it remains another question.

dinsdag 19 januari 2016

Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs 2: Spinosaurus/Tyrannosaurus 2-pack

Year of release: 2004

Description: the small Spinosaurus figure stands in a walking posture, with its left leg posed forward and the left arm raised, its mouth opened as if roaring and the end of the tail bent pointing to the right. The entire animal is painted bright blue, save for the belly which is coloured beige instead. Also, a red stripe runs from the back of the head over the neck and back to about half way of the tail: the sail, which is positioned right in the middle of this stripe, is also red. On either side of the figure, another red stripe runs from the neck over the flank to the very top part of the upper leg. Both of these red stripes contain a very thin black stripe within them. This Spinosaurus has white teeth, a dark pink tongue and inside of its mouth, black edges around the mouth, small black eyes, black claws on its feet (not on its hands) and a black JP logo on its right upper leg.
The T-Rex stands in an aggressive posture, its head curved to the left and its arms outstretched as if attacking something. The tip of the tail is bent pointing upwards and to the left. It has small pads on its feet to give it extra support. It's mainly coloured dark beige (or very light brown), except for its underside (throat and belly) which is light yellow instead. A thick red stripe runs from the nostrils over the head, neck and back to the front upper part of the tail, while on its head, neck and back various smaller red stripes run out of this main stripe. Additional red stripes are found on both upper legs and the lower jaw. The T-Rex has white teeth, a dark pink tongue and inside of its mouth, black edges around its mouth, small yellow eyes (with black pupils and black eye liner), black claws on its feet and hands and a black JP logo on its left upper leg.

Analysis: an obvious combination of dinosaur figures for Hasbro's dinosaur two-packs for this line (as well as all of the following lines) is this pairing of a T-Rex with a Spinosaurus, so kids (and playful/bored collectors) can re-enact the infamous battle between both super predators from JP III in miniature. That would be pretty dull considering neither figure has any moveable parts, so all you can basically do is bash them against each other. The paint jobs are not the most impressive shows of Hasbro talent of this line. The Rex is downright ugly, and while the Spinosaurus' original colour scheme has some appeal, it's rather monochromatic. More effort should have been given in both cases, and judging from the identical Rex/Spinosaurus pairings still to come, this was never tried since these successors were also a big let-down.
So who would win this fight? Why, the T-Rex of course. Not because it is the king of dinosaurs as some avid fanboys keep reminding us, but simply because it is by far the heaviest of both sculpts and easily knocks over its rival.

Repaint: yes. Both figures are repaints of dinosaurs that originally came with human figures for the JP III line. The T-Rex teamed up with the Military General, while the Spinosaurus came with Amanda Kirby. Both figures have been repainted before for JP III Camo-Xtreme, and would be repainted several times again for this line, JPD3 and JP 2009.

Overall rating: 4/10. There's nothing new to both sculpts, nor are these paint jobs especially appealing. Like most dinosaur two-packs from JPD2 and JPD3, this is one of the more common releases and it can still be found with little effort, usually for low prices – not surprisingly – because they're just not in high demand.

zaterdag 16 januari 2016

Today's Review: The Danish Girl

Finally another review for FilmTotaal:

The Danish Girl - Recensie

Basically this movie embodies wasted potential. There's a capable director and a number of wonderful actors, some with notable award winning accolades to their name, attached to this film, but it just doesn't manage toengage the audience. It looks great, but it doesn't feel so. If transgenders are looking for a movie that illustrates their long plight and continuing calls for understanding and acceptance for their cause, I fear this is not it.

The strongest reason of its failure as such, is that it's simply too clean, too good looking. Though Eddie Redmayne looks androgynous enough to get away with playing both sexes effectively, his Einar's/Lili's long road from man to woman, though destined to end in tragedy, simply is too easy, certainly for the times we are dealing with. Yes, he's forced to leave his own country in search for a more accepting environment and yes, he's looked upon by medical minds as a freak of nature, sick in spirit and in desperate need of a gruesome cure, but the progresion of the movie doesn't live up to the many decades of violent misunderstanding if not downright cruelty inflicted on transgenders. Lili is surrounded by caring people who all too easily accept her plight and encourage her to do what she feels she should do, despite the danger this will place her in and the hardship it causes those closed to her, especially her loving wife who never signed up for this when they got married and who is finally enjoying some professional success. The scene with the physicians looking to operate on Lili with force to "cure" her woes is played more for laughs, though historically there's nothing funny about this sort of medicine which could be described as blatant torture. The only time Lili is physically confronted with her otherness is when she's beaten up on the street by two random hoodlums. Other than that, as transgender drama goes, this one is surprisingly happy.

But despite these shortcomings, The Danish Girl has all the hallmarks of a solid period piece. It's capably directed, just not memorably so, unlike director Tom Hooper's own The King's Speech. Costume and set design is top notch, nobody will deny. The lead actors are at the top of their game and their Oscar nominations are well deserved (though I doubt they're good enough for a win), while the supporting cast is equally up to its task. But for all intents and purposes, it's not enough. Emotionally, The Danish Girl underwhelms, thanks to a script that plays it safe and doesn't feel like shocking the audience too strongly. Maybe it feels the notion of transgender struggles is risqué enough as it is for audiences? That would be rather offensive to the people it means to represent, who admittedly won't feel very much represented by it anyway.

zondag 10 januari 2016

Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs 2: Spinosaurus and Stegosaurus two-pack

Year of release: 2004

Description: the Stegosaurus stands in an active posture, with its body bent, its head and tail pointing towards the left, like it’s defending itself from an aggressor. Its dominating colour is green, which is found on its head, neck, flanks, all of the limbs and both sides of the tail. Its underside (throat, belly and most of the lower part of the tail) is coloured yellowish beige. The top parts of the animal (top of the head and neck, the back and upper part of the tail, as well as all the back plates) is painted dark brown. On either side of the figure several brown stripes stick out of the main brown colouring, running over the flanks and tail. On all but the really small back plates a thin reddish brown stripe is located in a triangular pattern. The tail spikes are coloured black, while the figure's claws are not painted and it sports small yellow eyes (no pupils) with black eye liner and a black JP logo on its left upper leg.
The Spinosaurus is positioned in a crouching move, its right arm resting on the ground, possibly stalking potential prey. Its left arm is raised upwards and its mouth is opened wide. Like the Stegosaurus it features a three-way paint job. The underside (belly, front part of the lower tail section and top parts of the inside of the limbs) is painted beige. Almost all of the head, the sides of the neck, the flanks, the rest of the limbs and most of the tail is coloured very light greyish brown. Lastly a thick light blue stripe runs from the neck over the back very close towards the end of the tail and also covers the back sail. On each upper limb, an additional pair of small blue stripes is found. The dinosaur has black claws on its feet, but the claws on the hands are not painted. The tongue and inside of the mouth are coloured dark pink, the teeth are white, and the space between the teeth and the edges of the mouth are black. The animal has small black eyes and a black JP logo on its left upper leg.

Analysis: finally, some other figures repainted! We've seen repaints of both this Stegosaurus and Spinosaurus before, but not nearly as often as some of the other JP III miniature figures. It's a welcome change, but a far cry from new figures of course. Both figures feature okay new paint jobs. In fact, in the case of the Stegosaurus, the paint job might actually be more interesting than on its first try (JP III Wave 2 if you recall), but not as daring as the one seen on its Camo-Xtreme counterpart. Green works well on Stegosaurs as we've observed before. The differently coloured tail spikes and the adorning of the bigger back plates are also a nice touch. Too bad the claws are not painted though, and the lack of pupils looks kinda creepy (for some reason such an effect works much better on carnivores than it does on innocent herbivores).
The Spinosaurus is less successful on the paint job front and has been done more justice on the previous two specimens. It's not necessarily bad, but the combination of light brown and blue feels too soft for a super predator and lacks the feel of menace which would suit it better. More use could have been made of the sail, since this is the figure's most distinctive feature. The little blue stripes add a bit of diversity in the paint job though. The lack of pupils, as stated above, works much better on a carnivore like this and gives it an eerie, slightly twisted feel. A shame the claws on the fingers are not painted while those on the feet are, this feels rather sloppy!
In a battle between both figures my money would be on the Stegosaurus. It's bigger, bulkier and has those nasty tail spikes to slap opponents in the face with. And because of the abundance of plates the Spinosaurus has a hard time finding a good place to sink its teeth into this herbivore. Apparently, the Spino is aiming for a low angle attack. Or the Stegosaurus has already brought the Spinosaurus to its knees... your interpretation really.

Repaint: yes. Both figures are repaints of dinosaurs that originally came with human figures for the JP III line (second wave in both figure's cases). The Spinosaurus teamed up with the Military Diver, while the Stegosaurus was paired with Paul Kirby. Both figures have been repainted once before for JP III Camo-Xtreme: the Stegosaurus would make a second appearance in this line, as well as a final appearance in JPD3. The Spinosaurus had to wait until 2009 to be featured again in a JP toy line (the aptly named JP 2009).

Overall rating: 6/10. There's nothing new to both sculpts, unless you don't own the previous releases yet. These new paint jobs are pretty nice, though nothing really special or appealing. It's good to see some of the less often repainted figures for a change. Like most dinosaur two-packs from JPD2 and JPD3, this is not an uncommon release (though not as common as the rest of them, it appears). It can still be found fairly easily, usually for low prices because it's just not a very popular set.