Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.

At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.

Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

These words preceded the Coen Brothers' 1996 snowy masterpiece Fargo. Famously, they were a lie. The directors added it to their original script in order to make audiences believe their crazy story about blackmail, murder and a professional bird-painter called Norm. In the case of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the first two lines of this disclaimer hold up. In Fargo, Steve Buscemi buries a suitcase filled with money and marks the spot with a red window scraper. In 2001, a Japanese woman unable to distinguish between fiction and reality travelled the United States in search of the treasure. This is her story.

Kumiko was executive-produced by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and it's easy to see what attracted him to the project. In Payne's last directorial effort Nebraska, we know from the start that Bruce Dern's mission to claim a million dollars is doomed to fail. Kumiko is in the same situation. Writer-director David Zellner treats this delusional character nevertheless with the utmost respect. The film takes time to investigate Kumiko's life. She strolls through the streets of Tokyo with the demeanour of a sulking teenager and she is unable to cope in social situations. Meanwhile, everyone is making her feel inadequate. Her sole purpose lies in an old VHS copy of Fargo, which she studies over and over again. These early scenes give us a strong sense of the character and her loneliness. Zellner plays around with music and sound in a clever way in order to channel Kumiko's inner disposition.

The director also makes the smart decision to avoid Coen-esque elements until the second half of the film, when Kumiko meets a string of eccentric strangers on her travels across Minnesota. Unfortunately, the film mirrors its protagonist's trajectory and loses its way slightly. Zellner indirectly and directly invokes a Werner Herzog-classic called Stroszek, but he lacks the German's strength of conviction. Where Herzog kills the American dream with a dancing chicken, Zellner lets it get off with a slap on the wrist. His conclusion doesn't necessarily need to be as bleak and cynical as Herzog's, but the ending didn't manage to have an impact on me. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is nevertheless an interesting character study about loneliness and the power of dreams. And it's a true story.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: CGI-porn and fuming air-vents in Jupiter Ascending

I wanted to enjoy Jupiter Ascending. It had the potential to be a camp romp of a space opera. The actual film is however more frustrating than a Sam Allardyce-team, falling short on nearly every level. Not even my main man Channing Tatum was able to save it. The film was written and directed by the Wachowskis who are still clinging onto the enormous success of The Matrix. I have a lot of respect (but little love) for the siblings' audacious, semi-successful attempt to bring Cloud Atlas to the screen a couple of years ago and I was hoping they could carry over some of this momentum to a simpler project.

The only real ambition of Jupiter Ascending lies in the special effects. The release date had to be delayed by six months so that the movie’s complex visual effects could be polished to a shine, which is hardly surprising because the film seems to use all of them. The Wachowskis are great when it comes to building new worlds and Jupiter Ascending verges on CGI-porn. There are foreign planets, spaceships and giant talking lizard-creatures. Then there are more foreign planets, more spaceships and a pair of flying trainers. Everything looks so extra-ordinary and spectacular that we begin to lose interest and soon feel trapped in uncanny valley.

The plot and the characters don't do the film any particular favours. They are constantly undermined by elaborate and tedious action sequences during which a lot of stuff blows up. It's essentially a classical fairytale with added space-travel. Our "hero" Jupiter lives a normal life as a cleaner in Chicago until she discovers that she shares her DNA-sequence with a recently deceased royal which makes her the rightful owner of the Earth. I use the word "hero" in inverted commas because the term "damsel in distress" is unfortunately more accurate. Mila Kunis spends the entire film being repeatedly rescued at the last moment by Channing Tatum's mercenary Caine (Channing ex machina?) and awkwardly running away from fuming air-vents.

Jupiter's inheritance becomes the target of two brothers (who are, genetically speaking, her sons). They want to use our planet's population for the production of a remedy that indefinitely prolongs their lives. There are some interesting ideas about hierarchy and the value of human life in this idea, but it is quickly abandoned in favour of more explosions. The strongest moments come when the film is at its most bonkers. Sean Bean turns up a delivers a gloriously silly monologue about bees: "Bees are genetically programmed to recognise royalty." The romance between Kunis and Tatum is amusingly and probably unintentionally awkward. I did like the fact that for once, it is the girl who gets the guy/wolf.

Then there is Eddie Redmayne. Oscar-frontrunner Eddie Redmayne. His performance as one of the two villains transcends the simple notions of "good" and "bad." He has transformed himself into a soft-spoken, extra-terrestrial version of Blackadder sitting on a floating throne. His wheezy, raspy voice turns into a roaring scream at seemingly random moments. Redmayne fully commits to this ridiculous character and delivers his lines without a hint of irony. His performance will divide people, but at least its not yet another CGI-explosion. I can respect that and he almost manages to make the film worthwhile.