Saturday, March 17, 2018

Chungking Express

Chung Hing sam lam; romance / drama, Hong Kong / China, 1994; D: Wong Kar-wai, S: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Valerie Chow

Two stories from Hong Kong: while going after a criminal, police officer He Qiwu, number #223, encountered an unknown woman with a blond wig for the first time. She organized a drug smuggling business that failed, which left her very upset. Qiwu is sad because his girlfriend May left him on his birthday. Qiwu meets the blond wig woman and they fall in love... Faye, a saleslady in a small snack bar, falls in love with police officer #663, but is too scared to do something directly due to her short hair. When a woman, a flight attendant, breaks up with the said police officer, she leaves him a farewell letter and the keys to his apartment at the snack bar desk—which thus land in the hands of Faye. She uses the keys to secretly enter his apartment and clean it. One day, he catches her in his apartment, but she runs away. A year later, after Faye returns from California, she is now a flight attendant, and the infatuated police officer meets her again.

A lot of critical recognition was aimed at director Wong Kar-wai, and not without reason, since his unusual two-story romantic drama "Chunking Express" is an impressive, gentle, emotional and melancholic little film. The film consists out of two stories—the 1st one that lasts for 40 minutes, and the 2nd one for 60 minutes—which are unconnected, featuring two different protagonists, and this peculiar direction may puzzle some viewers: different and 'discreetly eccentric', it is still a successful drama the way it is, where the cinematography has a lot of aesthetics, but the characters are the main highlight, and that is its principal virtue. While the 1st story has its merits, the 2nd story is the "real deal", featuring a romantic "proxy poke" concept so sweet that not even "Amelie" would be ashamed off, the one in which a girl, Faye, accidentally obtains the apartment keys to the guy she is in love with, and thus secretly enters his apartment while he is away, trying to leave clues to him. The characters are wonderfully shrill: police officer #223, for instance, was born on 1 May, so he buys cans with an expiration date of 1 May, whereas police officer #663 tells a vet mop, which leaks water, not to cry. Superb song "California Dreamin'" is featured six times (!) throughout the film, whereas the final song, "Dreams", is sung by actress Faye Wong, assembling an unusual cavalcade of emotions, and circling out its unique melancholic mood.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Days of Being Wild

Ah fei zing zyun; drama / romance, Hong Kong / China, 1990; D: Wong Kar-wai, S: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Andy Lau, Rebecca Pan, Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Hong Kong. A lad, Yuddy, seduces Li-zhen, a saleswoman working at the sports arena desk, and they start a relationship. However, Yuddy gets bored and disappears from her life without any explanation. Walking alone at night, Li-zhen is comforted by a police patrol man, Tide, but refuses to end up with him. Yuddy manages that another woman falls for him, dancer Mimi, but then dumps her as well. An angry Mimi confronts Li-zhen, but the latter tells her that Yuddy just dumps all the women like that. Yuddy confronts his adoptive mother and leaves for Philippines in order to find his biological mother. He is robbed by a girl but meets and befriends Tide, who became a sailor. Yuddy ends up in a fight in a hotel. While traveling in a train with Tide, one of the criminals tracks down Yuddy and shoots him in the wagon.

"Days of Being Wild" pretty much sums up all the frustrating aspects about director Wong Kar-wai: overwhelming aesthetics, underwhelming writing. While the cinematography is exquisite, filled with several wonderful, lush, beautiful shots and images, his storyline is strangely thin, with several 'empty walks', especially in the banal writing of dialogues, since some of the lines almost sound as if they came from a soap opera ("I told you not to love me! You got his car, and now you want even me!"). The final 20 minutes, where the main protagonist, Yuddy, suddenly decides to go to Philippines to search for his biological mother, are misguided and lead nowhere. Still, even in this 'raw' approach, Kar-wai has moments of magic, featuring nostalgia and a humanistic sympathy for his imperfect characters, especially in the puzzling protagonist who is a restless and aimless individual, a man who finds love (with two women), but leaves them because he hasn't found happiness with them, so he goes to search for love for his biological mother in the (illusory) search for some comfort, some peace of mind.

The most was achieved out of excellent actors: as great as Maggie Cheung is, she is overshadowed by the high calibre, genuine and irresistible performance by the fantastic Carina Lau as dancer Mimi, whose character is a joy to watch. One of the most charming sequences is the one where Yuddy returns to his apartment, angry that Mimi has not cleaned the floor. Mimi meets him sitting on a chair in a fancy, short dress, by saying: "Am I pretty?" - "Did you wipe the floor?" - "I did! It's just dry because of the heat. Don't believe me? Do you want me to swear?" - "Swear by cursing yourself!" - "I won't do that! OK, I'll clean it when I go out, alright?!" Another interesting leitmotiv is the one of time (in the opening, Yuddy tells Li-zhen that he will always remember that one minute before 3 PM, on 16 April 1 9 6 0, because he spent it with her) and the search for some permanent value in life. As cryptic and peculiar this movie is, and its strange directions, it is difficult not to be just a little bit enchanted with it in the opening encounter in which Yuddy tells Li-zhen that she will dream of him tonight, and the next morning, he shows up to spot her all tired, leading to a magical dialogue ("I haven't dreamt of you last night." - "That's because you haven't slept at all. But you see me now, anyway").


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey; comedy, USA, 1936; D: Gregory La Cava, S: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Mischa Auer

Godfrey is a homeless, unemployed man living near a dumpster. One night, a rich and spoiled woman, Cornelia Bullock, offers to give him 5 $ so that she can win in a game in which millionaires contest in who will find a scavenger first. Godfrey refuses, but his protest gains the admiration of Cornelia's sister, Irene, who hires him as the butler in her mansion. A Harvard student, Godfrey feels humiliated, but accepts the job of a butler. The parents, Alexander and Angelica Bullock, also look fondly on him. When Alexander announces they are broke due to a stock crash, Godfrey informs them that he took Cornelia's necklace to invest and save their fortune, and then quits to run a diner where he employed 50 homeless people from the dumpster. Irene then marries Godfrey.

A gentle "screwball" comedy on the effects of the Great Depression, as well as a consoling commentary on the relations between the upper and the lower class, as well as the people poor with money yet rich with integrity, and people rich with money and poor with wisdom, "My Man Godfrey" is a well made film, yet still failed to achieve that desired status of a timeless classic, even though it was released during the 'golden-age of Hollywood'. Too many of its solutions are simplistic, especially in the too neat, optimistic happy ending which advocated that people should not be judged by their status, whereas the writing is not always on full capacity mode, obvious in several moments of 'empty walk', yet it still has some endearing virtues that give it freshness.

The character of Godfrey, a former Harvard student who now has to accept a job "beneath his standard", the one of a butler, is engaging and easy to identify with, whereas some of his pearls of wisdom are great: in one sequence near the beginning, when he is homeless, he has a funny exchange with a waiter ("Address?" - "City Dump 32."), he later talks to his friend ("It's surprising how fast you can go downhill when you start to feel sorry for yourself."; "The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.") while in another he gives a speech that sums up the arrogance of Cornelia with such a smashing elegance that it deserves an ovation (he calls her a "spoiled brat" whose "misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve a comment even of a butler on a Thursday off"). The love subplot between Godfrey and Irene is a weak link, though, because they do not share enough chemistry, while she is a rather underdeveloped character. The genius performance by excellent Euegene Pallette as father Alexander Bullock with a "rocky" voice stands out the most, since his stoic yet sympathetic stance steals the show, forming a highlight of the film in the most hilarious moment of the story: the one when he loses his temper, escorts the pretentious piano player Carlo outside the room and then a sound of breaking glass is heard. When Alexander returns, he has this golden exchange with his puzzled wife: "What happened? What did you say to Carlo?" - "I said 'goodbye'!" - "Well did he go?" - "Yes, he left very hurriedly through the side window."


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Cría Cuervos

Cria Cuervos; drama, Spain, 1976; D: Carlos Saura, S: Ana Torrent, Conchi Perez, Maite Sanchez, Monica Randall, Geraldine Chaplin, Florinda Chico

Madrid. Ana (9) is a girl obsessed with death. Unlike her two sisters, Irene and Maite, she is an unhappy and pessimistic child. Their mother died from an illness, while their father died from a heart attack while having sex with another woman. The three girls are thus now raised by their mother's aunt, Paulina, and maid Rosa. Ana observes the negative things in the world around her, from her grandmother bound to a wheelchair up to the additional death of her hamster. Ana still prevails and returns back to school.

"I can't understand people who say that childhood is the happiest time of one's life. It certainly wasn't for me. Maybe that's why I don't believe in a childlike paradise or that children are innocent or good by nature. I remember my childhood as an interminably long and sad time filled with fear, fear of the unknown." This quote of the (grown) up heroine Ana perfectly sumps up the theme of this unusual "anti-kids film" by director and screenwriter Carlos Saura, who decided to make a movie about kids for grown ups, breaking the often presented cliche that childhood is idealistic, instead showing how life's problems can befall even the young ones, here embodied in the 9-year old heroine who is obsessed with death. Saura presents this unusual clash of innocence and harsh reality with very simple means (Ana walking up to the bed of her dead father and just looking at him; Ana burying her dead hamster in a box) with the only metafilm jump being the camera pan from a 9-year old Ana to a grown up Ana (Geraldine Chaplin) in the same scene, who looks directly into the camera and confesses her "fed up" feelings to the viewers. A quiet, intimate, rather measured little film, emotional and sad, a sober deconstruction of cultural myths of a happy life, yet with huge sympathy for the unlikely "Goth girl" who already gets some things about life right from the start. A very good, though still a little bit overrated film, "Raise Ravens" suffers from a rather vague meandering of the storyline, and ends on a incomplete note, without a clear, satisfying conclusion, yet still says a few pearls of wisdom while presenting its actual theme of a clash between what people would want to be true and what really is true in the dark reality in this "existentialist kids film".


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bitter Harvest

Bitter Harvest; war drama, Canada, 2017; D: George Mendeluk, S: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Tamer Hassan, Barry Pepper, Terence Stamp, Aneurin Barnard

Ukraine during the Bolshevik occupation. Yuri is a farm boy living in the countryside, in love with a girl called Natalka. Upon Bolshevik troops, led by fundamentalist Sergei, molesting a farmer and demanding his land due to collectivization, Yuri's father intervenes, but is hanged by the Bolsheviks. Yuri goes to Kiev to study painting, but feels suffocated by the Soviet directives that ban any individuality. In order to subjugate the rebellious Ukraine to Goreshist Russia, genocidaire Joseph Stalin orders a confiscation of all food from the farms, causing mass hunger that ends in Holodomor. Upon entering a bar fight, Yuri is sent to prison, but manages to escape and return to his village. In a raid by the Ukraine patriots, the Bolshevik dungeon is torched and Sergei killed. Yuri, Natalka and an orphaned boy escape from the Soviet dictatorship and flee West by jumping into a river.

A systematic policy of extermination of at least 2,600,000 people in Ukraine, Holodomor was at the time the worst genocide perpetrated in human history, taking a toll larger than some of the bloodiest wars ever seen and decimating the local populace. Despite such catastrophic plight, it was only rarely the topic in cinema, and one of the films that talked about it was George Mendeluk's "Bitter Harvest" that delivered a rather well made story. The storyline could have been better developed, with more inspiration or points prepared beforehand, yet it works thanks to great cinematography that looks very modern and great actors: excellent Tamer Hassan stands out the most as the sadistic Bolshevik villain, Sergei. Some insights into the relations of people at that time are a rare find, such as the scenes depicting Ukrainians rebelling, even organizing armed resistance to the Soviet yoke, though the scale of the mass deaths still does not to seem all-encompassing, except for a few exceptions (the Bolshevik soldiers taunting Ukrainians in a pub, stating that the starvation is "saving Soviet ammunition"; the Bolshevik raiding the farmers' homes, even stealing food from their cellars; Natalka suffering a miscarriage due to food shortage, etc). Mendeluk sometimes gives more weight to patriotism than to cinematic style, whereas there is not enough pathos, though "Harvest" is still a good film about integrity and the small people fighting against the oppression, that managed to avoid some bigger cliches when such topics are handled.


Friday, March 2, 2018

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; fantasy / grotesque; USA, 1988; D: Terry Gilliam, S: John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Purvis, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Robin Williams, Sting

18th century. During a siege of a coastal city on the Balkans by the Ottoman Empire, a group of theatre actors is performing a play of the adventures of Baron Munchausen. Their play is interrupted when Munchausen, now an old man, appears on stage himself and tells the audience about his adventures: he won a bet against the Turkish sultan because his friend, superfast Berthold, managed to run a 1,000 miles to Vienna and back and get a bottle of great vine, and thus Munchausen's crew, which included Gustavus, Adolphus and superstrong Albrecht, took all the gold from the treasury. An 8-year old girl, Sally, believes Munchausen and goes an a trip from the Moon up, a Volcano up to the stomach of a giant fish to find all of Munchausen's crew and bring them back to the city where they stop and banish the Ottoman army. Back in reality, Munchausen demands the gates to be opened, and the Ottoman army is indeed gone. He then rides with his horse and disappears on the horizon.

One of the most expensive movies from the 80s with a budget of around 40 million $, this fantasy extravaganza is at the same time one of the most bizarre movies of the said decade, achieving a mixed result—some moments are playful and creative, some are just plain indecipherable or 'autistic'—yet all identify Terry Gilliam's instant trademark 'Felliniesque' style as an auteur. A loose remake (or reboot) adaptation of von Baky's '43 classic "Munchhausen" and K. Zeman's '62 version "The Fabulous Baron Munchausen", Gilliam's film gives a more bitter and dark edition of the stories, completing his informal "Trilogy of Imagination" in which the people try to find a way out from the cruel, damaging world through escapist fables (the first two films being "Time Bandits", which showed this theme from a child's perspective, and "Brazil", which showed it from a grown-up man's perspective) by displaying the title hero at an old age, who finds a new esprit, a rejuvenation of some sort, to live in these therapuetic fairy tales in which he undergoes a transition from a useless man at deathbed (the leitmotive of a skeleton with wings, a personification of Death, appears several times in the story) to a hero who matters in society.

The middle part of this cult film strays too often into pointless episodes (as refreshing as Robin Williams' cameo is as the floating head of the Moon King, his segment is superfluous to the narrative), some of which really are too bizarre and may strain the efforts of the viewers to understand them, yet the opening and the closing act rise to the ocassion and offer a few comical moments. Eric Idle almost steals the show as the superfast Berthold, who ignites the most laughs: one of the highlights is the finale in which a Turkish soldier shoots at Munchhausen, yet Berthold starts running at such a speed that he is at the same pace as the bullet, then tries to grab it with his bare hands, but it rotates too fast, so he runs to a piece of armor and intercepts the bullet by bouncing it off the metal object. The special effects of dust left behind after his running are also amusing, especially in the scene in which Berthold trips and falls off a hill. Another great moment involves Gustavus, who puffs and blows out dozens of Ottoman soldiers in the wind, whereas superstrong Albrecht swings and catapults three ships at the said army. The sequence in which Munchausen flies on a cannon fired from the city, flies over the Ottoman soldiers, and then jumps on to a Ottoman cannon to fly back behind the city walls, is also exquisite, and more of such moments with a punchline would have been welcome, yet it still brings across its message about the triumph of imagination over the powers of grey routine, in its own weird way.


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; drama, USA, 2017; D: Martin McDonagh, S: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Željko Ivanek, Peter Dinklage

"Raped while dying". "And still no arrests." "How come, Chief Willoughby?" These are the sentences displayed on three billboards on a road near Ebbing, Missouri, paid for a year by Mildred Hayes, who wants to put pressure of Sheriff Willoughby to find the criminal who raped and killed her teenage daughter, Angela. After Willoughby commits suicide because he had cancer, the local townspeople are even more against Mildred, but she still wants to continue with the billboards. Mildred is also plagued by her divorce and her other teenage kid, Robbie. Police officer Jason overhears a man bragging about rape in a bar and thus gets into a fight with him to get some of his blood. The DNA analysis is negative, though. Jason and Mildred become friends and go on a trip to kill the man, anyway.

Better in its concept than in its execution, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is a good and lively independent drama film that speaks about the determination of a mother who wants justice for her killed child, despite enormous opposition, and works first and foremost due to its excellent actors who give it spirit, especially Frances McDormand as a strong, stoic woman who rather kicks ass than to cry, and Sam Rockwell, whose character of police officer Jason undergoes a transformation from an unlikeable racist to a more understanding and peaceful man. The film works the best in its first quarter due to its plot, yet somehow loses its energy later on due to too much empty walk and an overstretched running time: it became somewhat flat in its second half, and needed some director's intervention or more inspired writing to add it more versatility. Some of the dialogues are still very good, from the exchange between Mildred and Jason in the police station ("So, how's it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?"- "It's 'Persons of color'-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.") up to a golden little, intimate moment where a crushed Mildred is sitting on her bed, comforting herself by "talking" through her two pink bunny slippers on her feet ("What are you gonna do, Mildred? You're gonna crucify 'em? [rabbit voice] Yeah, I'm gonna crucify 'em."). However, as great as McDormand is, she cannot completely amend everything in the film, because the final act simply does not work. A plot point near the end in a pub hinted at a different conclusion than we got in the end, which unfortunately abrogated Jason's character arc half-way through. The film ends on a very incomplete note, on an anticlimax, since it hints at a fourth act which never materializes, which weakens the strong impression at the start.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How Iva Left on September 16, 2016

Kako je Iva otišla 16. rujna 2016.; drama short, Croatia, 2016; D: Tomislav Šoban, S: Nika Mišković, Pavle Matuško, Petra Mikolić, Ivica Gunjača, Dino Mileta

Iva (30) graduated from University, but could not find work in Croatia. She thus studies Norwegian language to prepare herself to emigrate to that Scandinavian country. She has a tender farewell with her boyfriend one last time before she departs at the airport.

One of the most mature and grown up movies to ever come out of Kino Klub Zagreb, Tomislav Soban's 18-minute short is a movie that defies the cliches of the Croatian "social drama" genre: even though its topic is about unemployment and young people emigrating out of their homeland, it refuses to be melodramatic, sentimental or sappy, and instead presents all of these issues so subtly, so neutrally that many will not even be bothered by them while they watch the film. "How Iva Left" has two erotic sequences that stand out, both of which are surprisingly sad and melancholic: one is the sequence in which Iva is lying on her bed in underwear, nostalgically masturbating one last time at her home before departing into an unknown country where she will be a stranger, and part of this moment is filled from another building, as the camera films her through the window. The other is when she is in a freezer storage room, to simulate the cold Norwegian weather, and gives her boyfriend a hand job (off screen) one last time before their inevitable break up. "Iva" is a tender, though also bitter film, with astringent and uncouth beauty, where Soban chooses a shaky, hand-held camera to give it a more authentic feel of realism, whereas its main actress Nika Miskovic is an astounding discovery in the independent film world.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Drama is Overrated

Precijenjena dramaturgija; documentary / satire / short, Croatia, 2017; D: Sunčica Ana Veldić, S: Sunčica Ana Veldić, Goran Dević, Igor Bezinović, Nikica Gilić, Bruno Kragić, Hrvoje Turković

Suncica Ana Veldic is doing a documentary about herself, from her life on a farm, her job as a veterinary up to, finally, her love for film as she studies at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, where she often clashes over how to direct a film with her professor Goran Devic.

One of the best movies from Kino Klub Zagreb of the decade, "Drama is Overrated" is an incredibly fresh, playful and ironic metafilm documentary that shows that an art-film can be a fun form, as well. Just like Charlie Kaufman was frustrated with the assignment to adapt a screenplay for the "The Orchid Thief", and thus instead wrote a movie about himself writing a movie in "Adaptation", so did Suncica Ana Veldic overturn the assignment given to her to make a documentary by making a metafilm movie about herself making a movie. Unlike many authors who clumsily slipped over this self-referential task, Veldic delivers an incredibly even balancing act that is always elegant and fluent, while she at the same time spoofs the tendency of indoctrination of filmmakers by the Academy, advocating that their creativity should be given more liberty.

There are two fantastic sequences in the film: the first one is the opening scene filmed in reverse, showing how Veldic and her dog are walking backwards from the entrance into the Academy, symbolically displaying how she is a rebellious outsider who always goes "against the flow". The other one is a delicious sequence that first shows a clip from "The Limits of Control"—just to then "jump" to another level to Nikica Gilic commenting on the said clip from the film in the class—just to then switch again another level to Goran Devic looking at the said clip of Nikica Gilic and complaining to Veldic that her process of making a movie is questionable because she "cannot just randomly film professors at her class"—just to then switch again (!) to a neighbor watching the said clip of Devic on a computer screen and commenting on the whole thing. Veldic has a field day playing with the film medium, taking her frustrations out in creative ways (while she extracts weeds from her garden, she mentions that she was taught from the Academy that a "movie should be cleaned from unnecessary parts, like weeds"), while she managed to assemble a whole array of endlessly quotable lines: "I don't feel inhibited. I feel badly directed"; "Dramaturgy is overrated"; "You will never finish this film, because this film is the truth!" A nicely done playing around with structure, fun and accessible, with the only complaint being that "Drama is Overrated" feels too short with a running time of 21 minutes—the viewers would have certainly loved to see even more.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon; action, Hong Kong / China / USA, 1973; D: Robert Clouse, S: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Shih Kien, Ahna Capri

Superlative martial arts fighter Lee defeats his opponent at a tournament. He is then approached by a British investigator who pleads for Lee's help: criminal Han killed a lot of people and is selling drugs with impunity, so Lee's assignment is to go to his island in Hong Kong and collect evidence against Han. Lee uses a fighter tournament as a guise to enter the island, where he also finds American Roper and Williams. During the day, Lee fights, but investigates during the night. In a duel, Lee kills brute O'Hara, who used illegal tricks, such as broken bottles, to attack Lee. Han kills Williams and shows Roper a cave where he produces drugs, but Roper refuses to join his forces. Lee raids the hideout, the prisoners are freed. In a duel, Lee kills Han and waits for the police.

Martial arts film "Enter the Dragon" is good, yet would have been quickly forgotten due to cliches, a conventional storyline and some 'rough edges' hadn't it been for Bruce Lee's legendary performance. His charismatic looks, a blend of wisdom and coolness, are the main highlight of the story: the movie is ordinary, yet his virtuoso fighting is extraordinary. Due to Lee's efforts (and his unfortunate early death which secured him cult status), the martial arts subgenre of the 70s hit the ceiling, leaving an unprecedented cultural impact and world success, leaving the West in fascination with Eastern fights the following decades. Lee participates in only five battle sequences, which makes for a sparse, though precious time in which they are used in the film. Unlike the meticulously choreographed fight sequences by Jackie Chan (who appears in the film as one of the villain's henchmen whom Lee kills in a quick 10 second fight), Lee uses a 'down-to-earth', realistic and grity style, without glamour. Despite a rather routine, standard writing, there are a few refreshing moments outside the fighting sequences that stand out: one example is the sequence in which a bad guy asks Lee how he can "win a battle without a fight", so Lee tells him to enter a boat, only to then hold the said bad guy captured on the sea by holding the rope attached to the boat. The episodic characters sometimes lead the storyline too much, and one of the curiosities involves the villain Han who exchanges his fake hand with an iron claw in the finale. It is impossible to predict how Lee's career would have prospered had he lived after the huge success of the "Dragon", yet the film offers just enough to stand as a monument to the actor's ability and talent.