The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Solidarity beyond a retweet – are you up for it?

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It’s not that hard to display solidarity as long as you’re at a safe distance from the object of your sympathy. You can retweet the call for help from someone in distress, you can show them support by liking them at Facebook. You can run long discussions about what society needs to do to even out the odds for people who are born under economically vastly different circumstances. It’s so pleasant to participate in this kind of actions. It makes you feel good about yourself. And it doesn’t cost you a penny.

But what if solidarity became a real thing, not an issue for a vague collective, but something that is required by you, personally? Imagine that someone asked you to refrain from a raise of salary so that someone else who needs it as well, or better, would get it instead. How would you react?

This is the theme of Two Days, One Night, which is the latest movie by the Dardenne brothers. Marion Cotillard plays a young woman, Sandra, who recently has gone through a depression, which has kept her away from work. Now she’s back, but during her absence the employer has found out that they could do without her as long as her colleagues work some overtime. The workers have been given a choice: Either Sandra is fired and everyone else will get a bonus salary. Or Sandra is allowed to keep her job and they won’t get anything extra. The choice is theirs. As the movie begins, there’s already been a voting, where the outcome was that Sandra would be fired. Because of some issue with the voting, it’s been decided that she’ll be given a second chance. A new voting will take place. And we get to follow Sandra as she tries to persuade her colleagues to vote differently this time.

Surprisingly exciting
This is a concept that unavoidably makes you think of 12 Angry Men, where also a man with only words as his tool tried to talk an entire group over to change their unanimous decision. What makes it different is that it doesn’t take place in a closed room where the group is assembled. Since it takes place during a weekend, Sandra has to look them up one by one in their homes, confronting them individually. Another difference is that Sandra isn’t particularly eloquent in the way she presents her case. She just asks everyone pretty upfront to let her stay and refrain from the bonus and leaves the choice to them.

Whether Sandra succeeds or not is in the spoiler territory, so we won’t go there. But I can say as much that it was surprisingly exciting to follow her in her mission. You could easily imagine that it would be a little bit repetitive to watch someone putting the same question over and over again to different people. But somehow it never gets dull; you’re always curious about what the response of the next person will be.

In this way it reminds of the last Dardenne movie I watched, The Kid with a Bike. At a quick glance, both of the movies are small and quiet. But at the same time they’re full of big human issues, in this case about your obligations as a human being towards yourself and your closest family and towards others. How much do we need? At which point is it time to share? When is not sharing an option? It raises all those questions, but refrains from providing all the answers and refrains from getting preachy, examining the choices of the individual from a morale standpoint rather than a political. It’s only 95 minutes long, but still manages to provide a lot of food for thought.

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014) My rating : 4/5

Written by Jessica

September 25, 2014 at 8:08 am

Posted in Two Days One Night

Guardians of the Galaxy – the amnesia version

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guardiansI’ve fallen behind in my writing about movies I see. It’s been more than a month since I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and admittedly this is a little bit long to wait before you put your thoughts together in a post.

My more disciplined fellow bloggers write about the films they watch right away after they’ve seen them. Some even take notes during the screenings, just so they won’t forget any detail. I have a more laidback, not to say lazy attitude towards movie blogging: I write when time and enthusiasm are available in equal measures. And here’s no particular order in my writing. I write about whatever comes to my mind. Sometimes it’s the movie I watched yesterday. Sometimes I watched it months ago.

The Guardians of the Galaxy is one of those movies that have been scrambling around in my to-write-about-list for far too long. And now I barely remember a thing about it. And actually this fact per se, probably says something about what impact it had on me. Which is none.

There are a few things about it that I remember:

  • Explosions
    As I remember it there were lots of them. Too many if you ask me. I love science fiction and I love movies that take place in space, but only if they come with cool, mind bending ideas. If it’s all about explosions, it’s not much of science fiction to speak of. Not in my world.
  • “I am Groot”
    There was a character who had the form of a tree, a midge version of an ent, who kept delivering this one line over and over and over again. Thinking about it, it was probably the only line he had. Somehow it stuck with me and it gave me some giggles. I assume the actor did a good work in the timing and delivery. If you only have one line you can put your energy into performing it well, I guess.Hooked on a Feeling. Oh, that song brings so much nostalgia for someone who grew up in Sweden in the 70s. Björn Skifs made it to the top of the billboard back then, and now he’s apparently done it again. He’s not my favourite artist by any means, but he seems to be a genuinely nice guy and hearing the song again makes me smile.
  • The struggle to stay awake
    I know there are a lot of fans of this movie out there; basically I’m the only one who didn’t fall in love with it. It must sound ridiculous to all of you, but I need to be honest with you: I was bored and disengaged to the extent that I was close to falling asleep throughout the movie. I had to slap myself constantly not to. That’s something I usually only have to do with slow, bloodless art house movies. It shouldn’t happen watching this kind of film. But it did. Not a good sign.

Since my memories of it are so scarce and vague I’ll refrain from giving it a proper grade. But it’s not an overly wild guess to say that it wasn’t for me. If it had been, I should have remembered something more about it shouldn’t I?

To all of you out there who loved it – and I know there are many of you, basically everyone except me – congratulations on a fun, exhilarating movie going experience!

I was bored. [takes cover]

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) My rating: ?

Written by Jessica

September 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

On the need of transparency about cliff hanger endings

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maze runnerIn the marketing there’s nothing that indicates that The Maze Runner is anything else but a standalone movie.

The main movie theatre chain in Sweden gives it the following description on their website:

“Thomas wakes up locked into a gigantic labyrinth. He’s not alone and the only chance to get out alive is to collaborate and put together the clues they find, which appear to lead to an organization called “W.C.K.D”. The movie is directed by Wes Ball and based on the bestselling book by James Dashner.”

I had no idea what I was in for as I watched it, but I totally expected to get a full story. Imagine my surprise when it suddenly ended, without any conclusion or closure. We were almost as confused as we’d been throughout the movie about the purpose of the labyrinth and the greater picture of this world and its inhabitants, although at a slightly higher level.

We’re used to see this kind of cliff hangers in season finales of TV series. But when you go to see a movie you’ve got different expectations. You expect a movie to have a clear end, and if it doesn’t, you’ll know that on beforehand. The first Spiderman movie works perfectly well on its own. The first Hobbit movie doesn’t, but it was so clearly announced before that this was one book that would be made into three movies, that I don’t think that it can have escaped a single person in the audience. If you went to see it, you knew what you were up for: a three-part series. And yet – the first Hobbit movie is more of a finished story than The Maze Runner is.

Have they done this on purpose? Are they deliberately deceiving the audience, luring them into watching what they think is a movie, to then leave them hanging a third way into the story, so that they have to see the sequel to make any sense at all out of the first movie?

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that it’s more about sloppiness than calculation. They assumed that everyone already knew that this was yet another three-part adaptation of a young adult book series. But they were wrong. Everyone didn’t know.

The Maze Runner on its own is about as finished as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and they should be more transparent about it. A correct title of this film should be: “The Maze Runner: Part 1”.

Cliff hangers as such are acceptable in movies as in TV series. But we should be able to make an informed choice before throwing ourselves into an entire series of films.

Refreshingly free from love
After this little rant it’s time to say something about the movie. The Maze Runner operates in the same field as The Hunger Games and Divergent: young adult fiction about teenagers fighting to survive in a competitive environment in a dystopian world. I would describe it as a crossover between The Hunger Games and Cube, with a bit of a Lord of the Flies vibe.

Funny enough, considering how much I’ve complained about the lack of resolution, the movie is better the less we know about what’s going on. The initial mystery intrigued me; the hints about the explanation towards the end of the film not quite so.

What I also liked about the film is the look of it. It didn’t come as a surprise when I learned that the director has a solid background in the art direction department.

The characters are a little too many and a little too thin for me to keep them apart from each other. For some reason (not explained) there are only boys who are brought to the labyrinth. With one exception. Following the pattern from the previous franchises in this genre, I would have expected some kind of love drama to appear around this one girl. I was so happy when this didn’t happen. This film is refreshingly free from love triangles. (Apparently it deviates from the book in this aspect, so I’m not too hopeful that future installations in the series will remain love free).

All in all it’s a nice popcorn movie for all of us who think that The Hunger Games and Divergent are entertaining rather than terrible. A little bit on the thin side, a little bit forgettable, but thrilling enough to keep my attention throughout the film and perfectly ok within its genre.

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball, US 2014) My rating: 3,5/5

Written by Jessica

September 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Posted in The Maze Runner

The delicious fusion of sweetness and sorrow

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skeleton twins

My sister. I need to see my sister!”

The thought keeps coming back at me as I watch The Skeleton Twins. I laugh a lot, I cry even more and I keep thinking about my sister who lives 700 km away, the one I only see a couple of times a year, the one that is too busy making a career and raising three children to have time for me.

Sister, do you hear me? For a moment I think she does before I remember that we’re both rational people who don’t believe in such things.

Sister, let’s run away, let’s get into a fight, let’s get drunk, let’s make up, let’s talk all night about our dirtiest secrets and let’s hug up together in the darkness, as if we were the last people on Earth, waiting for the stars to devour us!

I guess most people love their siblings. But when you come from a family that has been dysfunctional in generations, that has weirdness tattooed into its DNA, there’s another dimension to it. There is another person out there who you don’t need to explain the unexplainable to because they already know. No matter how many years that will pass, no matter what different orbits your life choices will toss you into, you’ve got that rubber band between you that can bring you together again, if needed from opposite sides of the universe.

Onion peeling
The Skeleton Twins is a movie about a pair of twins who meet again after not seeing each other for many years. They’re both in a rather miserable shape, but it takes some time before they start acknowledging it in front of each other and to themselves. It’s a case of onion peeling, where layer after layer is exposed. The first one is pretty hard to get through and then we pull them off one after each other, tears falling as we go, until we reach the soft, sweet core, where all pretence and all lies are gone.

This makes this movie sound unbearably sad, so I need to say right away that it’s not. It is definitely deliciously melancholic and touching, but it’s also very funny. As I mentioned before I did laugh a lot, considering how grumpy I am about comedy in movies, that’s quite an achievement.

It reminds me a little of my reaction to another movie a few years ago, Beginners, which I fell in love with right away. It plays in the same genre: movies that make you feel good and bad at the same time, with a strong indie vibe. I know there are people out there who can’t stand that kind of films people who hate quirkiness with the same ferocity as others hate Michael Bay movies. If you know that you’re one of those people, this is probably not for you. But if you’re a fan of the genre, watch it, cry, laugh and enjoy this delicious fusion of sweetness and sorrow. And then go home and give your sister or brother a call straight away.

The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, US 2014) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

September 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Posted in The Skeleton Twins

A ghastly, grotesque and gorgeous movie for children with guts

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I’m at a matinee screening which is supposed to be for children (7 years age limit, unless you’re in party with an adult, in which case there’s no limit at all.)

On the screen I can see how the already ugly and scary villain goes through metamorphoses due to an allergic reaction to cheese. His face is twisting and turning into a formless mass that would make Frankenstein look cute in comparison. And yet this is a mild care compared to what’s to come further on. There will be torture. There will be gruesome deaths in front of our eyes. There will be gigantic robotic death machines controlled by evil creatures.

I look around me in the cinema and every child I see looks strangely composed. No one is having a breakdown, no one is sobbing. They even seem to have forgotten about their popcorn boxes. The only sound that doesn’t come from the film is when someone leans a bit in the long direction and falls off the plastic stool they had put on top of the ordinary seat in order to see better. There’s no hysterical reaction whatsoever as far as I can see. And I think to myself: “Children these days! They’ve got guts!”

Stop motion technique
The Boxtrolls is ghastly, grotesque and gorgeously looking movie made with classical stop motion animations, made in a style that makes you think of Tim Burton or perhaps Terry Gilliam.

The story goes like this: Cheesebridge is governed by a cheese loving aristocracy. In the sewers dwells a population of a certain kind of trolls, which like to dress in empty boxes. The trolls are oppressed in the worst possible ways and there’s even an exterminator who is trying to evaporate them altogether. Among the trolls lives a human boy who is trying to save the box trolls by the help of a girl who is the daughter of one of the cheese aristocrats.

As you here it’s not terribly complicated, which is a good thing, especially for a movie aimed at children. Trying to explain the plot whispering in the ear of your clueless child is not a pleasure, neither for the child, nor for everyone around you. In this case there’s no need for explanations. We “get it”.

As opposed to many other movies for young audiences, it doesn’t have “merchandise sales” written all over it. It’s possible that some kind of toys exist, but it-s clearly not the sole purpose for making the movie. It’s not a vehicle.

Some brief final thoughts
Thumbs up: for the uninhibited use of imagination and the craftsmanship and love that has gone into the making of it. You can tell. It’s just beautiful.

Thumbs down: for watching it in Swedish with dubbed voices rather than in the original English. We did it for scheduling reasons, but I hit myself when I saw what actor voices we missed, including Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. Gah! Don’t do my mistake. Watch the original.

And whatever you do, don’t miss: the delicious little extra scene that comes after the text credits. It’s worth waiting for and made me love this film even a little more.

The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi, UK 2014) My rating: 4/5


I wasn’t the only one in the audience who watched it as an adult. I was in company with the other bloggers in the Swedish film blogging network Filmspanarna. Here’s what my fellow bloggers made of it (all in Swedish):

Fiffis filmtajm
Har du inte sett den? (blog)
Har du inte sett den? (pod)
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord

Written by Jessica

September 17, 2014 at 6:00 am

Posted in The Boxtrolls

An Allen is an Allen is an Allen

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magicinthemoonlightI’ve been a fan of Woody Allen’s movies for as long as I can remember. I like most of what he does, including The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, where I think I stand pretty much alone as a supporter. This said I have to admit that the standard has fluctuated a bit in recent years.

I enjoyed Midnight in Paris, though it was a little forgettable. Next up was To Rome with Love, of which I now remember nothing at this point. There was some opera singer taking a shower on a stage, right? And a tourist pic of a police directing the heavy traffic in central Rome. The rest is blank, sorry. 2013 was a good Allen year again, offering Blue Jasmine with a sensational Cate Blanchett as the leading actress. It ended up in my top 20 of the year.

There’s nothing sensational about this year’s Magic in the Moonlight. It’s another go at the fake wizard/medium/hypnotizer theme we’ve seen in other Allen movies. A pretty woman, a somewhat annoying/distract/egocentric/ male stand-in for Allen. Some fun twists and turns, some charming dialogue with some cleaver lines that give food for thought. It’s set in another beautiful setting in the tourist district in Europe that has the sponsorship this time around. It’s also set back in time, to relief us from the burden of watching ugly cell phones, boring googling sessions or reckless usage of social media. This is classic Allen territory, without any surprises.

Or maybe there was one, I hadn’t expected that I’d feel as cold as I do for the love couple (this is a romantic comedy in case it has escaped someone). Ever since the Pride and Prejudice TV series I’ve been a dedicated fan of Colin Firth. Nothing he makes can be wrong. Nothing. Equally I think Emma Stone is a charming actor, not only a pretty face, but someone who conveys personality and interesting inner landscapes. But as much as I love those actors, I don’t want to see them as a love couple again – ever. It’s not a match. The age gap is huge (and so typical, when will we ever see a movie where the woman is 25 years older than the man?), but it’s not just that. There’s something about the chemistry. I don’t believe in their love and I want him to get back together with his original girlfriend.

If you’re not all that familiar with Allen but would like to be, there are many other of his movies that I’d rather point you to.

If you are a fan like me, well then you’ll see it regardless. It’s an Allen after all. And I’m already longing for next year’s movie. Following the every-second-pattern, we have a great one incoming.

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, US 2014) My rating: 3,5/5

Written by Jessica

September 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Musings on the danger of using social media in movies

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Within a short period of time I’ve seen two movies where usage of social media is an essential element of the plot.

In Frank Twitter and YouTube was used to build an audience for a rock band. In Chef social media basically rule the world. That’s where careers are built and ruined and if there’s anything you can take away from this otherwise lacklustre film, it’s the crash course in how to handle Twitter and Vine.

Two examples aren’t enough to call something a trend, but I suspect they’re not the only ones we’re going to see this year. And I must say that I’m a little conflicted about it.I can see what they’re trying to do there: be relevant to a young, contemporary audience. There are hundreds of thousands active Twitter accounts in Sweden alone, which is a very small country. 54 percent of the population is on Facebook. Of course social media matter and why wouldn’t they matter to the characters appearing in your movies, provided they’re not hobbits or elves living in a fairy tale land where messages are sent by magical orbs or butterflies.

The traps
But for how understandable it is that you include them, I think it also is a little risky.There are traps to fall in if you don’t beware.

One is that a middle-aged screenwriter may have an idea about how different social media work, but isn’t necessarily an expert user. It’s so easy to get some detail wrong. I’m not necessarily thinking of the actual mechanic of it, such as how long a tweet is or how people respond to or forward certain messages. That’s fairly easy to make a quality check on. What can be a bit trickier is to make it believable. Is it likely that a such and such tweet will catch fire in the way it does in the movie? Is the tone right? Does it spread at a likely pace? Or is it obvious that it’s sprung out of someone’s idea about social media rather than coming from their own experience? If you get it wrong, you’ll rub all those young expert users the wrong way with your clumsy attempts to be modern.

Another risk is that you’re tempted to make too much of a deal out of the social media. If it starts to dominate the movie rather than being a part of people’s everyday life, it gives the movie a silly, unbalanced feel. And it also signals: “hey, I’m a middle-aged person who just discovered social media, isn’t this a remarkable thing?” Very uncool.

A strong timestamp
But the biggest problem, of course, is that it sets such a strong timestamp on the movie. The development in this territory goes at a crazy speed and within a year or two so much can happen that the movie you had spiced up with that magic social media ingredient now all of a sudden looks hopelessly outdated. If telephones an computer design age quickly, it’s nothing compared to what social media does. And the question is: does it age with charm, the way that old cars or space pyjama suits from the 60s do? I can’t know for sure yet, but I suspect not.

My suspicion is that the filmmakers are perfectly aware of this danger, but it’s not such a big deal. They’re not aiming for making a new Brief Ecounter, which can be enjoyed by generation after generation of film lovers. They have their box office race running over a few weekends, and under that brief period their chosen social media isn’t likely to go anywhere.

I’m curious to see what we’ll think about today’s movies with social media in fifteen years. Will they have aged the way that You’ve Got Mail has? And if so, will they likewise have charm enough to make up for it?

photo credit: kelly.sikkema via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

September 12, 2014 at 1:00 am


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