Monday, 22 May 2017

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair; romantic crime, USA, 1999; D: John McTiernan, S: Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Fritz Weaver, Frankie Faison, Ben Gazzara, Faye Dunaway

New York. Several robbers infiltrate the Metropolitan Museum of Art disguised as employees of the museum, but are recognized and the staff sounds the alarm. In all the commotion, millionaire Thomas Crown slips into the gallery and swiftly steals a painting by Monet, smuggling in into his briefcase and exits as all the attention of the police is focused on the arrested imposters. NYPD Detective McCann has no clue as to who stole the Monet painting, until investigator Catherine Banning is brought on the case. She suspects it was Thomas and thus proceeds to seduce him. He brings her with a plane to a Caribbean island where they make love. Back in New York, the police are on Thomas' trail. Thomas returns the painting and implores Catherine to escape with him from the country. She boards a plane and suspects it is empty, but then finds out Thomas is there waiting for her.

Contrary to all the expectations, John McTiernan's highly competent "The Thomas Crown Affair" is one rare example where a remake is equally as good as the original, delivering a refreshingly elegant, smooth and stylish heist story, but even adding an emotional-romantic dimension to it, since it is implied that the title protagonist was unstable since he could not find the real woman he loves, until he found the investigator who follows him, which also gave a sly excuse for the star of the original film, Faye Dunaway, to deliver a worthy cameo in the frame story of Thomas talking to his psychotherapist. The sequence of the robbery at the museum is just plain clever (Catherine observes the heat-detector surveillance footage of the gallery from which the painting was stolen, yet the video consists just out of "white", blank screen since someone raised the temperature in the room so much that it was equal to the human body temperature, thereby rending it useless since the two cannot be differentiated anymore), the humor between the main protagonists is wonderful (after taking her from New York with a plane for an excursion, Thomas returns Catherine in another plane, yet when she spots a green, tropical island, she laments: "That island isn't Manhattan"), the romantic subplot is surprisingly touching whereas Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo have great 'chemistry', and the authors do not shy away from their sex scene. Maybe the ending is a little bit too happy for Hollywood standards, and maybe the movie does indeed rely too much on fantastic cinematography instead giving more room for the story and character development, yet it all works nicely, whereas Denis Leary has a delicious little role as the cynical NYPD Detective.

Grade;++

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair; crime, USA, 1968; D: Norman Jewison, S: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke

Millionaire Thomas Crown, owner of a respected company, secretly hires the coiled Erwin and four other associates for an assignment of which they will find out only later on. One day, he gives them the instruction to rob a bank: the four men steal the bags with the money in the building and place them in Erwin's car. He, in turn, leaves the bags in a trash can in a graveyard. There, Thomas picks the money, a sum total of 2.6 million $. The police and Inspector Malone cannot find any clues to the perpetrator, until investigator Vicky Anderson is brought to the case. She finds out that Thomas recently opened a Swiss bank account and assumes he is the mastermind behind it all. Vicky seduces Thomas, but then falls in love with him. When the police set up a trap, Thomas escapes, leaving Vicky behind.

An interesting and proportionally stylish crime film, "The Thomas Crown Affair" is a smart, slick and appropriately unusual achievement of its genre that attempted to become timeless, yet in the end still remained "trapped" in the 60s. The occasional impression of a dated and/or overstretched feeling of the film is still only a marginal complaint compared to a wealth of virtues, from an innovative use of the split-screen technique all up to the excellent performance by Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway who ignite a certain 'chemistry' when interacting, which is especially palpable in the inspired chess sequence in which she is seducing him only through her looks. Norman Jewison directs the story with elegance, though it still lacks humor, and needed more charm and emotions, delivering a good film which is at the same time a little essay about the investigative detective profession, just a step away from a real manual for detectives.

Grade;++

Saturday, 20 May 2017

I Even Met Happy Gypsies

Skupljači perja; drama, Serbia, 1967; D: Aleksandar Petrović, S: Bekim Fehmiu, Velimir Bata Živojinović, Gordana Jovanović, Olivera Vučo, Mija Aleksić

A Gypsy village somewhere in the Banat region, Vojvodina. Bora is a Romani who is constantly plagued by tough luck: he loses all his money in a bet; he doesn't care for his wife; his baby died of a disease, whereas his rival, Mirta, is barging in on his "territory" and buying off geese feathers from farmers. Bora falls in love with Mirta's stepdaughter, the 14-year old Tisa, and asks to marry her, but Mirta refuses because he finds her attractive as well. When Mirta tries to rape Tisa, she runs away and Bora marries her in secret, ditching his previous wife. Hoping to escape into a better life, Tisa goes off to Belgrade to be a singer, but finds out her relatives are living there as beggars. While hitchhiking, she is raped by a Turkish driver and dumped into her village. Bora kills Mirta with a knife. The police investigate the case, but cannot find Bora who vanished.

A widely critically recognized achievement, "I Even Met Happy Gypsies" is one of the saddest films of the 60s, unflinching while openly showing all the misery and poverty of the life in a Romani village, showing sympathy for their status of a minority where they are de facto 3rd class citizens who are shunned and frowned upon by everyone, as some sort of category of collective outsiders from which there is no escape. Director Aleksandar Petrovic crafts the film without a real storyline or a clear narrative, instead focusing more on an ethnographic 'slice-of-life' study into the customs and traditions of the Romani people, which is reflected even in the dual language of the protagonists, demonstrating exceptional realism, patience and authority in handling all their episodes — except maybe for the weird, abrupt ending. Occasionally, the mood is 'livened up' through a few comical episodes, the most notable being the one involving Tisa in the arranged marriage with a 12-year old boy who doesn't know what to do on their Honeymoon in bed, so she kicks him out, which degenerates into an absurd fight from the two families, who were spying on them through the window all the time, expecting the boy to "fulfil" his duty as the husband. There is sadness and melancholy by the author for the protagonists, knowing that their tragedy is inevitable and inescapable, and the whole movie is somber, dirty and grim, accordingly — except for small "rays of light" associated with the scenes involving geese and their feathers who serve as the only "intruders" of poetry and beauty in this grey world, some of which are simply outstanding and magical (Bora throwing feathers from a truck, thereby transforming the whole road into white; the three men entering the village during wedding, so a flock of geese moves away to let them through; the ontological sequence of a knife fight between Bora and Mirta, who fall and disappear into the endless mass of feathers).

Grade;+++

Friday, 19 May 2017

National Class Category Up to 785 ccm

Nacionalna klasa; comedy / drama, Serbia, 1979; D: Goran Marković, S: Dragan Nikolić, Bogdan Diklić, Gorica Popović, Rade Marković, Olivera Marković, Milivoje Tomić, Bora Todorović, Danilo 'Bata' Stojković

Branimir "Floyd" is a lad obsessed with cars and races, but surrounded with problems and disapproval of his lifestyle by everyone: his father, the butcher, considers him a "social parasite" who cannot find a job; the authorities want to draft him in the army so he constantly enlists as a student wherever he can to avoid the military; his girlfriend announces she is pregnant with him, even though he fell in love with another girl, Senka; a man is filing charges against him for scratching his car... Branimir's life goal is to win the 1st place in an upcoming race, which will guarantee him a higher status of a professional driver and lift him above the "National class" category of amateurs. He wins the race, but is disqualified because his car broke down and only passed the finish line because another car pushed him after ramming it from behind. Branimir thus marries his pregnant girlfriend, abandons his car and goes to the army.

The 2nd feature length film by the great hope of Yugoslav cinema, director Goran Markovic, "National Class" is an attempt to assemble a 'hip' and 'cool' modern Yugoslav film for the youth, yet its optimistic tone and sequences of car drives also feature a hidden, darker leitmotiv of the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. Such is the story of the main protagonist, Branimir 'Floyd', who aims to be a professional sports car racer, yet in the end turns into a man who has to give up on each and every one of his dreams and accept the grim fate from which he simply cannot escape, no matter what he tries. Luckily, there is enough humor to "sell" this bitter pill, and one of the best is the running gag of Branimir attempting to enlist as a film director in the Academy of Arts, yet not having any clue of the classic Eisenstein film "Battleship Potemkin" — when the title is first brought up, Branimir asks: "Oh, is that the movie with Steve McQueen and that blond?", and when he enters the screening room to watch it among the audience in the art cinema, he turns around, whistles and shouts: "Hey! Turn on the sound!" Dragan Nikolic is charming as the irresponsible, yet innocent hero, whereas the rest of the cast is great, as well, especially the little episode of legendary comedian Danilo Stojkovic as the man who is filing charges against Branimir because he scratched his car.

Grade;++

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Summer Interlude

Sommarlek; drama, Sweden, 1951; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjelin, Annalisa Ericson

Marie is a ballerina preparing for the production of the "Swan Lake", yet the rehearsal is interrupted due to technical difficulties. Someone sends her a diary of her ex-lover Henrik, and this causes Marie to leave the theatre and travel with a boat to the island where she met Henrik. There she remembers their encounter over a decade ago: as a teenager, she spent her summer on the island while visiting the house of uncle Erland and met Henrik. They fell in love and enjoyed swimming, but drifted further and further away since Marie wanted to dedicate herself to ballet. One day, Henrik jumped into the shallow sea and injured himself. He died from those injuries. Back in the present, Marie finds out Erland sent her Henrik's diary. She returns to perform the ballet, but with the feeling that her job is empty, just as her life without Henrik.

Even though it is often mentioned only as a footnote in film lexicons when touching upon Ingmar Bergman's filmography, "Summer Interlude" was the director's breakthrough film, the 1st achievement in which Bergman clearly, articulately, concisely and decisively established what he wanted to say and why in the story, which would influence all his other films for the next four decades. It is, in a way, a "Bergman-light" movie, yet it is still excellent, an example of a story in which he matured into the artist he would be critically recognized until the end, also touching upon his often existentialist themes and the leitmotiv of a protagonist who feels his/her life is empty and meaningless, as part of a wider, tormented notion that the whole human existence is just a passive, fleeting moment in time. The sequences in which Maria visits the empty vacation home during cold autumn is contrasted with the flashbacks of her warm days when she spent her teenage days there during summer, when she met her first love, Hernik, acting as an allegory of human life which goes from optimistic days of youth (summer) until the 'grey' days of adulthood when nothing more can be expected from it (autumn). Still, Bergman is untypical in a few comical, upbeat moments here and there: one of the best is the two minute long scene, filmed in one take, when Henrik is sitting at the dock and laments how he is jealous of Marie spending so much time with her uncle, upon which she leans on him, teases him ("Ah, jealous boy...") and then suddenly pushes him into the sea, bursting into laughter; as well as a few ironic dialogues (Henrik spends a long time trying to describe his feelings of being in love with her, comparing it to a sensation in the stomach and the chest, and asks how she feels, yet Marie just says: "How should I know, I'm not in love!"). Bergman's mise-en-scene is great, and his feeling of despair of the insignificance of the human existence is easily identifiable (an angry Marie saying that she would "spit on God" if she would meet him), all adding up to a complete film, despite a rather vague ending.

Grade;+++

Friday, 12 May 2017

They Called Him Bulldozer

Lo chiamavano Bulldozer; sports comedy / drama, Italy, 1978; D: Michele Lupo, S: Bud Spencer, Raimund Harmstorf, Joe Bugner

When a military submarine raises its periscope under it, it pierces the ship of sailor Bulldozer, who is thus forced to dock at a nearby coastal town. As he waits for his ship to be repaired, Bulldozer enters a bar and witnesses how American soldiers from a nearby military base, led by Sergant Kempfer, are using tricks and ploys to double-cross locals in card games and arm wrestling, stealing their money. Kempfer recognizes that Bulldozer is an ex-football player who woved never to play again since he was disappointed by foul play in sports. However, Bulldozer takes pity on the youngsters and becomes their trainer in an upcoming football play with the American soldiers. Even though the soldiers use brutality to beat the youngsters, Bulldozer steps in into the game and wins it for them.

Probably inspired by the huge success of "Rocky" and numerous Italian Association footbal clubs, Michele Lupo directed this sports comedy extravaganza with a few untypical dramatic moments for its main star, comedian Bud Spencer, and they would de facto remake the story four years later with "Bomber", just set in the boxing genre. "They Called Him Bulldozer" suffers from typical flaws of many Bud Spencer comedies from the 70s onwards: it starts off good, but half-way through the film crew suddenly seems to give up on any kind of effort and instead just settles for standard, routine empty walk and fist fights in the last hour. The same fate seems to have befallen this movie, though Spencer is again charming and funny as the unlikely hero, some jokes are good (the first fist-fight in the pub is amusing: as two soldiers charge with benches at him, Bulldozer just ducks between them and they hit each other whereas especially comical is the episode of a soldier so drunk that his cheeks are red — when he tries to attack Bulldozer, the latter just gives him a sip of drink, and the soldier suspends his swing half-way through before being knocked off by alcohol overkill) whereas Lupo manages to create a few unusual camera moves which work here and there (the horizontal alignment of the football players across the widescreen as the football flies over them in the sky). More could have been done out of the story, since the last hour lacks highlights, yet the movie is overall easily watchable and a light, albeit fun sports film.

Grade;++

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Last Year at Marienbad

L'Année dernière à Marienbad; drama, France / Italy, 1961; D: Alain Resnais, S: Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoeff

A play is being performed in a baroque hotel. After it, the guests mingle among each other. A man spots a woman and claims he recognizes who she is, insisting they met last year at the Marienbad garden. Her husband plays a game with sticks, Nim, with the man, and beats him each and every time. The man talks to the woman in the hotel, insisting they met and that she promised him to give her a year to make up her mind, though she denies it. Finally, from the stairs, the husband observes how the man and the woman walk away together from the building.

"Last Year at Marienbad" is one of those extreme French art-movies that go so far at being deliberately vague and obscure that they might as well constitute a film version of a Rorschach test, since the viewers have to decipher and assemble their own interpretation as to what they actually saw from the blank story. This is even more obscure than some of Godard's films. As such, it represents one of Alain Resnais' weaker films, yet it is not without at least some redeeming features, especially in the elegant camera drives across the corridors of the baroque hotel. Also, the hermetic story may still actually have a hidden meaning: the human fear of the passivity in the monolithic fate, the inability to free one's existence from the endless cycle of repeated variations of the same events.

This is illustrated in the 7-minute long sequence where the camera just endlessly drives through the corridors, while the narrator repeats the same sentences again and again ("...Silent rooms where one's footsteps are absorbed by carpets so thick, so heavy that no sound reaches one's ear..."); the Nim game in which the husband beats the man, again and again, not matter how much the latter tries to change the outcome; the man's narration ("It made no difference. It was always the same conversations, the same absent voices..."); the camera drive from the corridor towards the woman in the room, which is repeated six times — all to symbolize the endless cyclic nature of events. The main protagonist, the man, cannot change the opinion of the woman, no matter how much he tries, and thus remains an allegory of humans as a whole, who are just puppets in the crushing destiny of the Universe, the rigid order. The hidden leitmotiv is the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. However, the movie is exhaustingly slow, with empty, stale dialogues, debilitated narration and dry, boring moments, which all undermine the movie's impression, adding to its divisive nature.

Grade;++

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing; drama, USA, 1989; D: Spike Lee, S: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence

The hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. Sal is an Italian American who runs a pizzeria in an mostly black neighborhood. His son Pino, a racist, and Vito work in the pizzeria, as does African-American Mookie, who is still in bad relations with his girlfriend, Tina, with whom he has a child. There are also several other characters in the neighborhood: the old Da Mayor, who drinks to forget how his family is hungry; Smiley, a mentally disabled man who sells photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the street... When Buggin' Out complains that Sal's pizzeria doesn't contain a single photo of African-American on the wall, Sal throws him out. Buggin' Out thus wants to boycott Sal's place. That evening, he brings Radio Raheem who plays loud music on his radio in Sal's place. When Sal loses his temper and smashes the radio, it escalates into a fight, which ends in a police officer killing Raheem. This incites a riot in which people burn down Sal's pizzeria.

Spike Lee's breakthrough film that talks about racial relations in America is good, yet it once again proves one thing: that social issue alone doesn't always subsume genuine greatness. "Do the Right Thing" is one of those films without a real story, an episodic, 'slice-of-life' film that instead just follows 24 hours in life on a particular place, which is legitimate, yet not all episodes are equally great. For instance, the side-character of Ossie Davis' Da Mayor leads nowhere, nor does that of racist Pino — both of their arcs are left incomplete and do not connect at the end, and thus the storyline seems slightly unfocused and random at times. Lee is also contrived at times: would Buggin' Out really freak out and make such a fuss over a guy accidentally passing over his sneakers with a light bicycle? Isn't that overreacting? Isn't that silly? However, Lee proves to have a steady hand and directs the movie in an elegant way, whereas he has a talent for writing good dialogues here and there — for instance, when Buggin' Out, who has a "hip" hair due, wants to persuade three men to boycott Sal's pizzeria, one of them has an appropriate response ("You should boycott the goddamn barber that messed up your head!") or the sequence where Mookie talks with Pino and cannot understand his racism even though the man admits all his favorite basketball players, comedians and singers are all black (Magic Johnson, E. Murphy, Prince). It is also interesting how the film contemplates that nobody in the neighborhood is happy with their lives due to various problems (unemployment, low-income jobs, "grey" existence...) and thus the heat wave only serves as a catalyst for people to take out their frustrations on someone, the wrong one, even though that doesn't address their problems at all, nor does it give a solution. The most was achieved out of the brilliant Danny Aiello as Sal, who gives a truly excellent performance that carries the entire film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar; western, USA, 1954; D: Nicholas Ray, S: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine

The Wild West, 19th century. Johnny Guitar arrives to a desolate saloon because he was invited there to play music by his ex-lover Vienna, who opened the joint hoping to cash in on passengers of an upcoming railroad station. However, she is being harassed by Emma and Mr. McIvers from the nearby town, who want to chase her away and steal her land, and thus put all the blame on her whenever he other ex-lover, Dancing Kid, and his gang, are suspected of robbing a carriage. When the Dancing Kid robs a bank, one his wounded friends, Turkey, finds an asylum at Vienna's saloon. Emma, McIvers and others find him there and, as punishment, burn the saloon and hang Turkey. However, Johnny saves Vienna from hanging and the flee to the Dancing Kid's hideout. In a gun duel, Vienna manages to shoot Emma and thus reunites with Johnny.

Even by today's standards, "Johnny Guitar" is one of the most bizarre westerns of the 20th century since screenwriter Ben Maddow decided to deconstruct it by designing such a "male genre" as a feminist film in which the men are mostly just passive observers while the main protagonist and the main antagonist are both women, Vienna and Emma, played brilliantly by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (who allegedly couldn't stand each other privately during filming, which just contributed to their tension). Actually, it is puzzling why the movie is titled "Johnny Guitar", anyway, instead of "Vienna". Such a modern take on it gave the film freshness, yet a part of that freshness was still deducted due to an overlong running time, a few clumsy sequences (Emma shoots Tom, who then accidentally shoots the Sheriff) and wooden dialogues, especially in the first half where there are too many explanations and introductions featured in overlong dialogues between the characters who just meet, yet they have to tell everything to the audience. Director Nicholas Ray copes good with the film, even adding a few neat touches (in the lynching sequence, Emma and her evil gang all wear black clothes, while Vienna wears a white dress; when Tom is shot trying to protect Vienna, his dying words are: "Look... everybody's looking at me. It's the first time I ever felt important!", almost summing up the fate of every supporting character in every story) whereas Vienna's tough posture as the boss of the saloon gives the film a strong feminist touch for the 50s (She even says: "All a woman has to do is slip - once. And she's a "tramp!" Must be a great comfort to you to be a man!"), though even feminist tones can only go so far, since the film needed more humor and satire which should have sprouted naturally from such an unusual, upside-down concept.

Grade;++

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai; war drama, UK / USA / Sri Lanka, 1957; D: David Lean, S: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne




Burma, World War II. The Japanese army brings a group of captured British soldiers to a POW camp in the jungle, ordering them to build a bridge over the river Kwai, needed for their railroad transportation. Colonel Saito insists that every POW, including officers, must work in order to complete the bridge by the 12 May. However, Colonel Nicholson refuses to work, citing the Geneva Conventions that exempts officers from forced labor. Saito thus orders Nicholson to be sealed off in a solitary confinement. However, Nicholson doesn't give in, and Saito yields to his demands. Once Nicholson is declared in charge of commanding the construction, the bridge is built in time. Commander Shears manages to escape from the camp, contact the US army and return with a small platoon with the assignment to blow up the bridge. Upon finding out the bridge is wired, Nicholson actually intends to stop the platoon, but is hit, falls on the detonator and blows it up, anyway.

One of the classics from the 50s, a widely critically recognized film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" still seems as fresh as on its day of premiere thanks to David Lean's elegant direction and smooth pace: you just watch the first 7 minutes of it, and you immediately want to see it until the end. 50s movies have a different philosophy of telling a story than modern ones, insisting more on classic narration and longer scenes, yet when a story is interesting, it is timeless. The basic premise is simply fascinating: it starts off like a typical POW war drama, yet it quickly turns into a clash of two individuals with integrity — between the strict-by-the-law, disciplinary Colonel Nicholson who insists that officers cannot do forced labor and the rigid, goal-oriented Commander Saito, who insists that every prisoner must work. Their clash of stubbornness is captivating and you never know who may blink first, turning almost into a duel between a British Sheldon Cooper and a Japanese Sheldon Cooper, who both insist the other one is wrong.

Alec Guinness is simply excellent as Nicholson, giving him a sense of dignity and stoic endurance as a person who would rather starve to death in solitary confinement than budge an inch from his principles. Yet he can also be contemplative, especially in his memorable monologue on the bridge: "But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything." Though Sessue Hayakawa is equally as great as Saito, who is sardonic: when he is informed three prisoners died while trying to escape from the camp, he just says: "It was a pointless task. It was like an escape from reality".  A third contribution in the film is the very good William Holden as Commander Shears, who gives the story spice thanks to a few cynical lines. In one scene, he speaks to a military nurse on the beach: "Don't call me Commander, it's very unromantic! How would you like it if I called you 'Lieutenant Lover'?" A small complaint is that the last third loses a lot of energy and ends up rather dry at times, exhausting itself only with the monotone scenes of Nicholson and his men building the bridge, even though their "Stockholm syndrome" was already explored sufficiently, since longer doesn't always necessarily mean better. Still, this is compensated through a finale that almost reaches Hictchcockian levels of suspense in the long sequence where the platoon placed explosives under the bridge, but didn't reckon with the water level drop which leaves the wires suddenly visible above the river during the day, all ending in a finely tuned ending that speaks about the meaninglessness of war: everything is built only to be destroyed in it.

Grade;+++