Haven’t we all once thought about covering a concrete wall in vibrant colours? Spraying graffiti is a classic act of modern rebellion; issues that can’t be talked about are brought to the literal surface of their environments. The artist themselves stays anonymous, as long as they aren’t caught in the act of painting or decide to specifically label their work with a trademark, which obviously heightens the chance of them being traced. It holds a particularly strong significance in cities where power monopolies with oppressive tendencies are located. Medellín, Colombia has a long and bloody history of drug trafficking; the cartel of the infamous Pablo Escobar had the city in its firm grip for decades. After this grip dissolved, Medellín showed its will to move forward and displayed massive changes in both infrastructure and mindset. One of the big signs of that change can be seen on the streets: Graffiti artists young and old use the walls of the city as their creative outlet and poignantly change the streetscape. This movement is a sign for the undying hope of moving on from the past and a rebellion against the oppression of expression. In Days of the Whale, we are introduced to this scenario through the eyes of Christina and Simon, two young people often spotted at La Selva, an old house that offers refuge to a collective of graffiti artists, which they both belong to.
When scrolling through Netflix’s recent catalogue, it’s gratifying to see a lot of content focusing on under-represented minorities, especially in genres that are commonly concentrated on white, straight stories of privilege. While some, such as Pose and Everything Sucks!, manage to establish effective narratives of inclusion, others, such as Insatiable, fail miserably and feed into dangerous prejudice. It’s a relief that Special – the world’s first dramedy series about a young gay man with cerebral palsy – is not only respectful towards its subject, but also conscious of other struggles surrounding him.
Whatever your stances towards the streaming service and its hyper-capitalist nature, it’s hard to deny that Netflix has given a platform to a specific group of high-quality serials. They share a firm grasp on the modern zeitgeist, push boundaries in terms of representation and bring original dramatic concepts to the table. It’s obviously a completely different story how the company treats their output —there is an easily comprehensible tactic of catering and extreme calculation. Netflix has understood that taking risks can pay off, but as soon as they don’t, any “misinvestments” are avoided —case in point are the recent cancellations of excellent, culturally significant shows such as Everything Sucks! and One Day at a Time due to insufficient viewers. That being said, it’s great to see some strong, original television being brought to the mainstream. One example particularly stands out in this context; co-created and written by regular collaborators and North-American indie darlings Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, The OA is a tightly plotted and character-focused genre mishmash that handles its concerns of trauma, belief, death and human relationships with a stunning amount of suspense, vigor and pathos.
The show’s premise is one that is hard to encapsulate. A hurricane of mysteries sets the ground for the events surrounding Prairie Johnson (played by Brit Marling), her mysterious disappearance—and return. Prairie used to be blind, but has her sight has been restored after reappearing on the radar. The incident draws a lot of attention to her and her adoptive parents, who particularly struggle to understand what happened. Instead of opening up to them or the authorities about the events and why she calls herself The Oa, Prairie contacts five people that couldn’t be more different, orders them to leave their front door open in the middle of the night and meets up with them in an abandoned house to tell her long, incredible story and the role they each play in it. The group, first plagued by skepticism and mistrust, slowly grows to be some sort of family and the fact that their only prior connection was being members of the same school, fades away.
Fatih Akin, Turkish-German director with international acclaim, has a reputation. His background as the child of Turkish immigrants is irrefutably ingrained into his films, which work through a headstrong voice that continuously offers a refreshing perspective in the overwhelmingly white realm of contemporary German auteur cinema. His cinema is angry and often more focused on its morally ambiguous character’s journey than the ever-present politics of their situation. This is an approach that doesn’t always work out: 2017’s In The Fade slightly stumbles when it shifts from a political testimony of judicial failure to personal revenge tale, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch how Akin’s clings to this kind of storytelling and attempts to dissect the personal implications of the political.
He continues this narrative attempt with his newest film, The Golden Glove, an adaptation of a novel based on a real-life case, and sparked controversy in the 2019’s Berlinale competition as a result. Critics of national and international outlets harshly criticized the unflinchingly graphic story of serial killer Fritz Honka, who centers the films politically loaded narrative and whose violent acts against women leave a deep feeling of unease and disgust in the viewer’s gut. It’s absolutely legitimate criticism, but busy festival schedules and a perhaps biased (and understandable) attitude against the serial killer narrative might have blocked out the film’s qualities as a rich and engaging study of the marks of psychological violence that the wars of the 20th century left on German society.
The old Greeks had some of the most striking and illustrative ways of explaining the world. In their cosmos, titans, gods and men were constantly engaging in a great struggle that bore one tragedy after the next. These myths were boosted by the genius of great writers such as Homer, Hesiod and Apollonios, who captured the brutal and absorbing tales vividly on paper and thus enabled them to be preserved. It’s pretty common that Greek mythology is used as point of reference in art, which makes sense, given that it shaped Western art in more than just a few ways. It additionally poses some sort of archaic, self contained and detailed otherworld, grappling with human conflicts in a fascinating manner, even though obviously outdated.
So it isn’t completely innovative that Austrian director and screenwriter Wolfgang Fischer intentionally uses the implications of his sophomore feature’s title, Styx —the stream and deity which separates the land of the living and the land of the dead in the realm of Greek mythology —to create a subtextual tension that illustrates the film’s stakes. The film follows the journey of Rike, a middle-aged Austrian woman and doctor, who sets out on a lone journey to an island in the middle of the Atlantic and eventually encounters an overloaded and critically damaged refugee ship, whose appearance puts an end to her carefree adventure.
It feels as something has been missing from big studio films in recent memory, at least when you ask general audiences. The kind of archaic, action-heavy and pathos-ridden blockbusters that usually draw many to the theatre, seem to have lost their appeal. In the exact moment where the cinema as an institution has gained a major rival in the form of streaming services, the films that usually gel so well on the big screen, with their opulent production design and their often CG-supported visual grandeur, seem have lost contact to their potential audiences, no matter how visually inventive or audacious they are. Some of these films get a push in the case of a positive critical reception or massive marketing campaigns, but in general, new franchises are hit hard at the box office. Recent examples are plenty and to be fair, many of these films are forgettable. But even films that truly stand out have to take major losses in their cinema runs.
One example is Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014), an action film with a star-studded cast, a talented crew and stellar reviews. It concisely mixed genre conventions into big entertainment — but despite the quality on display and the accessibility in the film’s storytelling, the general public wasn’t interested in seeing it. And while they didn’t get away with a positive critic’s consensus, flopped films such as the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending (2015) and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) have gained a community of fans, who admire them for their courage to be original in their vision of spectacle and who prevent their names from being forgotten in the flash flood of the contemporary blockbuster landscape. It’s a slightly different story with Mortal Engines — but not all too different.
Mortal Engines (2018) – directed by Christian Rivers, all right reserved to © Universal Pictures
The base setup of the film is one that seems to be, in theory, a safe bet: produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, who used to be the biggest name of the industry in relation to the type of filmmaking in question, Mortal Engines somehow managed to completely bomb at the box office. It is actually quite a shame, because the film keeps its promise of – big – and manages to possess much more vigor and excitement than the average blockbuster film.
German sneak previews can be fun. You pay a fixed amount of money for a ticket and get to see a movie ahead of its official theatrical release. The actual gag of that concept is that you obviously never know which movie will play, and while it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities based on upcoming releases, there’ll still be a broad range of films that have a chance to be shown. In conclusion: It’s as likely for a studio comedy to screen as a Cannes competitor — quality, genre and degree of audience compatibility are completely variable factors. The only right way to play this game is to leave your expectations under the doormat. Additionally it doesn’t hurt to bring someone with you. Since the surprise and the challenge to keep an open mind is injected into the premise, it doesn’t even need to be someone who is much of a cinephile — either way, the event is even more fun in the presence of good company.
It happened to be that just a few days before Christmas, I found myself in one of these sneak previews. The German release of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters was imminent, so a sweet tingle of hopeful delusions swelled right before the screening and was restlessly shattered as it became clear, that the movie shown was going to be Instant Family, a Mark Wahlberg/Rose Byrne-led comedy about an American middle-class couple adopting three children after finding their lives in a dry spell. On first glance, it sounds like an appalling, class-insensitive expression of a white-savior narrative, one that is still so widely accepted that it would hardly come as a shock if the film turned out to be exactly that. The actual shock came gradually with the realization that the film doesn’t only possess truly effective comedy in realms of absurdity I had never expected, but also manages to pull off a surprisingly sensitive dig at its narrative, which never goes the route of the melodramatic and offensive hell I feared.