Making love out of thin air

Love Island wants to entertain in the best way it knows how. It’s at times clumsy and hackneyed, with a very short attention span, but it is sweet, goofy and sensuous, and it is hard to dislike it. Reader, I was entertained. It consists of standard scenes making up a flimsy summer comedy about a love triangle in a holiday resort under the Croatian sun called… well, Love Island. It’s a movie like filo pastry: you like it, sometimes you crave it, but it’s not anybody’s favorite food. There’s Liliane (Ariane Labed), beautiful and pregnant, and her husband Grebo (Ermin Bravo), a lovable dork. Liliane and Grebo seem to look forward to being parents. But there is Flora (Ada Condeescu), who works at the resort as a diving instructor and animator, and she and Liliane were a couple once.

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Flora wants to seduce Liliane, and eventually, Liliane lets herself be seduced; Grebo zeroes in on Flora, and she lets him. The story is more or less predictable, and the characters don’t exist outside of what they want – they all want to make love, just not with each other. This is not a sex comedy – Flora still loves Liliane, Grebo genuinely loves Liliane, but also lusts after Flora, and Liliane loves Grebo, too, but still has strong feelings for Flora, especially when Flora is standing on the karaoke stage and singing just for her. If only Flora could learn to love Grebo, then they could have incredible threesomes while waiting for the baby to be born. Oops, just gave away the ending. Sorry. Flora is not a femme fatale, but wants to get Liliane back, and if that involves seducing Grebo, so be it.

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All the three leads are good-looking and attractive. Comedies stand or fall with the charisma of its protagonists. Flora is a gorgeous redhead, but if she had straight, black hair, you would get something like the Piper-Alex-Larry love triangle from Orange is the New Black. There is a dreamlike flashback to Liliane and Flora as a double act of mermaids in a pool for the divers to look at. Grebo turns into something of a celebrity because he is singing Winds of Change on karaoke night. There is an unexplained hockey team, training in full gear minus the skates in the sweltering heat. There is Franco Nero quoting Pasolini. There are guests who think that Winds of Change is by Bob Dylan. There is that obligatory scene where Grebo leaves the resort, hurt that his wife might choose a woman over him, but since that woman is Flora, he sort of gets the point and is quick to return. And by Jove, there is a bathroom scene where Grebo wants to get rid of unwanted body hair by using those wax strips. He hides that from his wife, and she does exactly the same, and both do it for Flora. Love Island takes standard comedy scenes and makes them look new.

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Love Island is also partly a fairy tale. A real pregnant woman could not dance the way Liliane does. And the childbirth scene reminded me of the exuberant style of Moulin Rouge. The movie has fun with itself, but isn’t all over the place with its comedy. Towards the end, Grebo kisses another man. Why? Because he can, and because he wants to, and because most nude scenes don’t involve him. The story is about Liliane and Flora, but doesn’t make a point of it. Love Island might just pass the Bechdel test without even trying.

Strong Woman vs. Gruff Man

For more than an hour, The Homesman is one of the best-told films I can remember. It is directed by, and starring, Tommy Lee Jones, based on a screenplay co-written by him. The secret prime mover, however, is a woman named Mary Bee Cuddy, played to perfection by Hilary Swank. Miss Cuddy, unmarried, devout and outspoken, lives on her own farm on the Nebraska Territory. The year is 1837, and this is the frontier. If you go West, you will find disease, hunger, isolation and hostile Indians. There is nothing but flat grassland as far as the eye can see. No villages, just huddled groups of little colorful houses crouching under an overwhelming sky.

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Cuddy accepts the job of escorting three traumatised wives back east to Iowa (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) because it’s the right thing to do. Their respective stories are harrowing in their own right, and Jones finds the right pictures to show us. The two-month journey ahead of them might be just as dangerous as their miserable frontier lives. Miss Cuddy knows that and enrols the help of a man sitting on his horse, a noose around his neck. This is George Briggs (Jones), who has lived in a house that, to him, seemed empty, but his neighbours claim that the man living in that house has gone East to find a wife. Cuddy cuts him down on condition that he helps her reach the border to Iowa. He agrees.

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These are two fascinating performances. Both have their own mind, but whereas Gribbs is brutally honest and outspoken, Cuddy wraps her stark truths and iron will in polite tactics. And then there is that scene that jerks the movie around so much that it almost breaks down. Spoilers ahead: One night, over a campfire, Miss Cuddy proposes marriage to Gribbs. He refuses her. They quarrel, and she leaves, only to come back naked and slip underneath Gribbs’ bearskin. They make love, then she leaves again. The next morning, he finds her hanging from a tree. I still don’t understand that scene. Maybe she was achingly lonely. Maybe she felt slighted by the fact that, at the very beginning of the film, she proposes marriage to the man in whose hut Gribbs lives in, a man who refused Cuddy’s offer, but instead went all the way back East to find a wife. There is nothing, however, that would hint at suicide in Mary Bee Cuddy’s behaviour. And why sleep with a man who sends her away? It’s a puzzling plot point, and it’s at least partly there for shock value. The movie’s secret is that everyone in it is at least slightly insane, but suicide? That doesn’t work at all for me.

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The movie never really recovers from losing her. Gribbs goes on taking care of the three women and delivers them to Iowa. There is a cruel irony in the thought that, if Cuddy had been convinced that Gribbs wouldn’t be able or willing to deliver the women, she hadn’t hanged herself. There is a scene where Gribbs burns down a hotel in order to get something to eat for the women and himself. It’s a bold and risky scene, but Cuddy’s absence tinges every moment of the rest of the film. In that sense, The Homesman is a misnomer, even if it is a man who brings home those women.

Best Before

Das Ewige Leben (German for eternal life), the latest instalment in the Simon Brenner movies from Austria, starts with the usual slight comedic misunderstanding. Brenner, forever unshaved and in his shabby green jacket, wants to get social security, but has no job, no fixed address, no money, and no ID on him. “You’re homeless,” the woman behind the counter tells him. Maybe that has not occurred to Brenner.

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This is the fourth Simon Brenner movie; all of them have Wolfgang Murnberger as a director, and Josef Hader as the ever-deteriorating ex-cop ex-private eye ex-ambulance driver Brenner. I can’t think of a more interesting investigator still at work – although technically, he investigates nothing, but stumbles onto wrongdoings almost by accident, and reluctantly. This movie takes a dark turn: Brenner has massive, crushing headaches and solves that problem with shooting himself in the head. He survives, barely, with a bullet lodged in his frontal lobe and pressing on his optical nerve; after his coma, he is convinced that someone wanted to shoot him. He suspects the local chief of police (Tobias Moretti).

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He’s not wrong, in a way. The plot is never discussed, but it’s there for you to figure out. There is an old crime involved, committed by – yes, you guessed it – Brenner himself, and some childhood friends. There is now a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of the woman who was part of Brenner’s gang. And that daughter is now his therapeutic councillor. Her husband is the chief of police – but the chief was also part of that gang of bankrobbers. There is blackmail, murder, memory loss, possible incest, all part of the Wolf Haas novels the movies are based on. And there’s one very devious cat.

There are moments in this movie that are as funny as the other Brenner movies, but here, after the suicide attempt, everything is tinged with a silvery melancholy because Brenner is no longer middle-aged, but veering towards getting old, and in bad health. Dr. Irrsiegler (Nora von Waldstätten), pretty and wholesome, is perfectly friendly while plotting and planning how to save her husband. There is Köck, an antiques dealer, also part of the old gang, happily blackmailing whoever is nearest.

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Das Ewige Leben is less funny than the other movies, and Der Knochenmann, with its grisly story and tight plot, is still the best movie in the series, but this one is definitely worth watching. There are eight novels out, three of them newer than this one, which should give us three movies more with him. There is a Brenner movie every four years or so. That’s quite a long wait until something is happening again.

Mad to the Max

I am either the ideal or the wrong person to review Mad Max: Fury Road. I like my movies simple but suspenseful, on the realistic side, with weight and witty dialogue, with rounded, believable characters. Mad Max doesn’t have any of this. Instead, it’s a loud, shrill, monomaniacal high-speed romp through a barren, deadly post-apocalyptic landscape. Reader, I loved it. Movies like this elicit one of two likely responses: you either want to get off that hellride, or you cry for more. I cried for more. What doesn’t truck with me is complaining about the action and violence; that would be like jumping into a pool and complaining about the wetness. You’ve been warned.

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I haven’t seen any of the other Mad Max movies, but apparently the first film, from 1979, defined the genre of post-apocalyptic action movies, and it also jump-started a very young Mel Gibson to superstardom. All four of the movies, including this one, have been directed by George Miller (the same guy who gave you Babe and Happy Feet). He is hell-bent on doing three more.

Let me see if I got the mythology right: Mad Max (Tom Hardy) mourns his dead family when he is caught by the chalk-white, bald minions of Immortan Joe, a merciless ruler who controls the water supplies from his sky-high Citadel in the middle of a vast desert: “Do not become addicted to water. You might resent its absence.” Nestlé must like the guy. Mad Max is valuable to Joe’s people because they tattoo his back with the information that his blood makes him an universal donor, and he is healthy in a world where everyone looks sick and emaciated. Or something.

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There is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a woman who once might have been captured just like Max and now has the regular task to transport fuel from Gas Town back to Immortan Joe’s Citadel. Fuel, like water and food, is scarce. But Furiosa deviates from the usual route because all of Joe’s wives are on board, and it’s their plan to escape to a mythical Green Place where they are free of patriarchy. Or course Immortan Joe and his army are after them. So are the thugs from the Bullet Farm. And one or maybe two other factions. There is a People Eater and an Organic Mechanic… I say: Let it all wash over you. It’s like Lawrence of Arabia dropped an amount of acid that might kill a fair-sized camel.

There is less CGI stuff than you might think. They erased the stunt cables and enhanced the color palette of the landscape, but many of the stunts are real. So are the wondrous vehicles. There is a different kind of kinetic energy at work here than in, say, an Avenger movie. And Mad Max is nothing if not kinetic energy turned to eleven. It is so over the top that it provides its own music: there is a truck with four huge kettle drums, and another vehicle with a dude playing his fiery guitar in front of a wall of loudspeakers. Imagine Motörhead headlining the Burning Man festival.

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They kept a lot of the dialogue to an absolute minimum. It’s all in the camera angles and in the faces. Tom Hardy sometimes disappears into the foreground because he essentially wants to get out of it alive. Charlize Theron doesn’t compromise, but there is compassion in her Furiosa all the same. And there is Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult, one of those white bald minions who switches sides and helps the women escape.

Ah, the women. There are five or six of them who have been forced into marriage to Joe, among them Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who is very pregnant with Joe’s male heir, and Zoë Kravitz. There is a group of female renegade warriors later in the film. They have their fair share of screen time, but since everyone and everything is so silly and action-oriented, it’s hard to tell if this film is some kind of feminist revelation. The women do things that determine the outcome of the story, but it’s still a male-dominated world. One thing is worth knowing, though: the dialogue between Furiosa and Splendid and Toast and Dag and Cheedo was supervised by Eve Ensler. Yes, that Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologue fame. Using narratives of real-life war-scathed women is really rather lost in a movie like this, but if you get to improve a film from a genre where women are underrated and more often portrayed as victims than cast as protagonists, you go ahead and take the opportunity.

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I could have easily disliked this film. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a certain kind of movie. Mad Max: Fury Road is the right kind of film if you want to take a rollercoaster ride without actually moving an inch. It’s popcorn cinema by a guy who has done three movies that led him up to this one. It is utterly silly, and it knows that. It doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of apologizing for its silliness. It wears its badge of goofiness proudly, and in earnest. Take it or leave it, but hellrides don’t come much better than this.

Kurt Cobain will have his revenge on all of us

It’s the darnedest thing with Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. I can see that it’s a good documentary, but I have no idea what it wants to do or where it wants to go. It latches on to the biographical details as a red thread, and everything in it – the music, the drawings, the puppets and statues – is by, or at least featuring, Kurt Cobain. A bio-pic would feature a lot more interviews. Ok, so maybe it’s all about Kurt Cobain as an artist. Hardcore Nirvana fans will appreciate that, but all others must be warned: Cobain’s artwork is as uncompromising as his music. Since the movie is 130 minutes long, that means a lot of monsters. I grew slightly tired of exploding entrails and erected penises.

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The excerpts from his diaries are more interesting. There are songlines, thoughts, directions, to-do lists and ideas that bring you very close to what he thought was important to him at the time. Together with all the newspaper snippets in the second half of the movie, MoH gives you a lot to read. My eyes started to grow tired. Maybe reading the actual published diaries would be easier. The interview bits are moderately interesting, but kept to an absolute minimum – how else can you explain the absence of Dave Grohl? Wendy O’Connor talks about how she caught her son using heroin. Courtney Love goes on about how she is sure that taking heroin while pregnant didn’t affect Frances Bean in the slightest.

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The movie does two things very right: it doesn’t play the intro from Smells Like Teen Spirit until it’s called for, and it doesn’t glorify anything, especially not Cobain’s suicide. This is not a hagiography, and neither does it feel the need to push Cobain off his pedestal. There never was a pedestal. Montage of Heck shows his childhood, his teen years with some beautifully animated scenes, then his first concerts with Nirvana. The rest is history. What’s probably new are the home movies with him, Courtney and baby Frances. My feeling is that they are so intimate that they shouldn’t have been publicized.

Ah, the music. It hasn’t aged. The most fascinating scenes contain Kurt Cobain doing what he does best: playing his stuff. Throwing around his guitar and crashing into the drum kit gets old very fast, but there are moments on stage when Cobain seems almost happy. Other moments show his despair: during boring interviews, and on stage, overwhelmed by his own success. He stubbornly denied being the spokesperson for anyone or anything, only to be asked how it felt to be the mouthpiece of a lost generation. Together with his stomach problems and heroin addiction, it’s a miracle he found the inspiration to write his songs.

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I can very well live without his drawings, but want to have a look at the written bits of his diaries. What MoH has done to me is that it has rekindled my love for the music. It’s immediately accessible and listener-friendly. You have to remind yourself that many of the songs are driven by bilious self-loathing. Cobain knew how to write a song better than anyone. Most bands can count themselves lucky having two or three great songs. Nirvana’s discography is surprisingly short, but there are at least a dozen songs that have become part of rock music DNA. There is an energy that is unique to Nirvana’s songs. They seemed to be able to perpetuate themselves. I hope Kurt Cobain realized that.

Love and war – same thing

Les combattants is essentially a love story, but the movie is at its best when it forgets that. There’s Arnaud, a carpenter who helps his older brother build pergolas in other people’s gardens. He looks on as the daughter of their latest customers fills a backpack with roof tiles and jumps into the family pool. He fears she might drown. “It’s combative swimming,” she replies, as if she did that every day. She does. Later, he will give her a ferret as a pet.

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She also puts a whole fish in a blender and drinks it all. “I have to prepare for the end,” she says, although she doesn’t know exactly what that end might look like. Madeleine is not a gun-toting tomboy, nor a pessimist, but a young woman who thinks it’s her best choice to enrol in the French territorial army. She can be outgoing, but chooses to stay silent because she is not too good with people. She seems constantly on the brink of exhaustion, what with all that survival training. When Arnaud sees her, he is not love-struck at first, but curious enough about her to enrol alongside her. Madeleine has not much of a clue that he might like her. She takes his tagging along with a shrug.

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Almost none of the scenes play out the way you think. There is a very tender moment where they paint each other’s face with camouflage colors. Another scene shows raindrops on her naked skin. Arnaud is fascinated, but all Madeleine wants is for him to punch her. Madeleine realises that the military is actually not hard-core enough for her, so she and Arnaud desert into the woods. There is a surreal scene at a gas station where they seem to grow apart, but actually find something out about each other. Arnaud doesn’t have much interest in joining the army, Madeleine wants it far too much.

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The film avoids almost all of the clichés of boy meets girl or of the army. By the end of the movie, the two of them have grown closer together – in what way is for you to decide. Les combattants shows you fresh faces and an unusual story, told in an unusual way. Arnaud is played by Kévin Azaïs, slightly dorky and clueless about who he wants to be; Madeleine is played by Adèle Haenel, and I have a hunch that she might go on making good to great movies.

No strings on her

Can a machine ever be truly intelligent? Can it have feelings? If a machine fakes these things convincingly enough, at what point does the appearance become the real thing? Whatever the answer, Hollywood tends to remind us that it’s a bad idea to fall for robots and AIs, however seductive they look and however much they sound like Scarlett Johansson. Ex Machina is not alone in dramatising the Turing Test, but Alex Garland’s first film as a director is definitely a striking addition to the genre.

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Ex Machina‘s Ava (Alicia Vikander) is one of the most intriguing movie AIs I’ve ever seen. It would have been easy just to make her a sexy, seductive woman that easily passes not just the Turing Test but whatever test would have to be devised to find out whether a computer can pass as human when flirting (the Samantha Test, perhaps?). Ava, while sexy, is clearly not human. It’s not her semi-transparent iMac design so much as the way she moves and talks so deliberately, the way she behaves. Is she only imitating human behaviour, is her learning process as yet incomplete – or is she something else altogether? Ava may be Ex Machina‘s greatest asset, but she is not the only character in this film whose behaviour falls into some uncanny valley. Her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a bullying genius for whom humanity has little to do with humaneness, and there is more than a little Bluebeard to him even before we see the remains of his previous ‘wives’ that he tellingly keeps in his bedroom. And then there’s Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who should be the excited kid that found the Golden Ticket, but who soon realises, if not soon enough, that he’s as much of a rat running around a maze as the beautiful subject whose intelligence he’s told to assess.

Ex Machina is a fascinating sci-fi three-hander, the kind of smart, philosophical science fiction that Alex Garland does well (even if he doesn’t always know how to end them), but it can be something of a cold fish, mostly due to Caleb being a somewhat frustrating character; he is awkward and aloof, but in ways that – together with his orphan background and lack of friends – made me wonder if his humanity was something we shouldn’t quite take for granted, and a hard-to-watch scene late in the film suggests that he harbours the same doubts. The film resists making him too much of an audience stand-in, which is an interesting choice – but it also creates a distance that kept me from fully engaging. Garland’s scripts, not least when directed by the likes of Danny Boyle or Mark Romanek, find intriguing ways of combining the cerebral and the emotional, the ethereal and the earthy, but I’m not sure I fully understand what, as a director, he does with Caleb. For lack of a better word, there’s an unfinished quality to him: as much as Ava is not human, she feels like more of a character than Caleb. I appreciate that Garland didn’t sentimentalise the character, but I haven’t yet found a way to integrate his oddness into either my feelings or my thoughts about Ex Machina.

Regardless of whether Caleb passes my own version of the Turing Test, Garland’s film succeeds at being intelligent sci-fi – and like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, there may be some quibbles about the ending (though to a much lesser extent than with Sunshine), but what Garland brings to genre cinema, whether as a writer or as a director, is a worthwhile addition. It would make for a fascinating, and uncomfortable, companion piece to Spike Jonze’s Her. It would be interesting to compare Samantha and Ava’s notes on humanity.

P.S.: Ex Machina isn’t Domhnall Gleeson’s first encounter of the robotic kind, although last time he was on the synthetic side of things. If the Gods of YouTube permit, you can check out the entirety of “Be Right Back” from the second series of Black Mirror. Well worth watching and at least as chilling as Ex Machina: