Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Prince of Light - The Legend of Ramayana

Ramayana: Rama-Oji Densetsu; animated fantasy adventure, India/ Japan, 1992; D: Yugo Sako, Ram Mohan, S: Arun Govil, Amrish Puri, Shatrughan Sinha

Ravana and his demons are terrorizing people, but Vishnu is embodied in prince Ram, the son of king Dasharatha from Ayodhya. Ram and his brother Lakshmana defeat the demons and gain sacred weapons from gods. Due to an intruige by an old woman, one of Dasharatha's wives forces him to promise to banish Ram, his wife Sita and Lakshmana into the forest for 14 years so that her son can inherit the kingdom. The misdeed is revealed, but Ram decides to stick to his father's wish. When Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, Ram teams up with an army of monkeys in order to battle him on the island of Lanka. Monkey warrior Hanuman is his biggest ally. In a duel, Ram slays a mutating Ravana and thus saves Sita.

One of the curiosities of the Japanese anime in the 80s and 90s was this excursion into the Indian mythology when adapting the famous epic "Ramayana", officially credited to poet Valmiki and dated somewhere between the 5th and 4th century BC. Accordingly, some of the text is archaic and today difficult to understand (for instance, after it was discovered that Ram was unjustly banished from the kingdom because his father was tricked into ordering so, one would expect that he would return back. However, Ram decides to remain in exile regardless (!) because he wants to respect his father's wishes, even when they were faked), which depletes this exotic story about a hero saving a princess from the bad guy's castle, whereas the lukewarm execution and standard animation did not help either (though there are exceptions, for instance in the scene where Ravana descends with his carriage from the sky and is "darkened" by a shadow of a tree). Talking monkeys, flying horses and giants all inhabit this fantasy epic that is more bizarre than cohesive, yet it gives a few noble Hindu messages about life that are universal, with two leitmotifs that contribute to its uniqueness: insisting on ethical behavior even during unjust, dark situations (dharma) and constant repeat of separation which, according to Indian belief, gives the reader (here the viewer) a feeling of compassion. "The Legend of Prince Ram" is occasionally a patchwork and more suitable to viewers with an open mind, yet it has some interesting scenes, like when Ram insists that they bury their enemies together with their soldiers because they are "now dead and not enemies anymore".

Grade:++

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Stalin

Stalin; drama, USA, 1992; D: Ivan Passer, S: Robert Duvall, Julia Ormond, Maximilian Schell, Jeroen Krabbe, Joan Plowright

Svetlana Alliluyeva narrates the 29 years of reign of her father: Iosif Dzhugashvili, who later took the nickname Stalin - i.e. 'Man of steel' - arrived from the Siberian exile in order to overthrow the Tsar and help establish the Soviet Union and communism during World War I. At first, Lenin is in charge of the new government, but after his death Stalin outplayed all his opponents and took control. With time, he gathered more and more power from Moscow, creating famine, gulags and purges of his opponents, turning even more ruthless after his wife Nadezhda committed suicide. After his victory in World War II, he considered himself unstoppable. In '53, he died, while Nikita Khruschev revealed the scale of his crimes.

A long overdue biography on one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century, who apparently caused the death of about 7-10 million people over a span of three decades, "Stalin" is a solid, fluent and competent, but too simplified TV movie that left too many good parts out of the picture, even though its running time is two and a half hours. For instance, the event known as Holodomor, where about 2,8 million people starved in the Ukraine during the Soviet industrialization, was reduced to only one brief sequence where Nadezhda sees a mass of hungry peasants from her train and one woman shouts to her: "Tell comrad Stalin about this! He must know!" The entire World War II was practically skipped since it was reduced to only five minutes, and of no better fate was the portrait of gulags that were practically omitted from the story. One of the few events where director Ivan Passer and writer Paul Monash did not take an approach of a vignette but actually gave enough screen time was the great purge that was shown in detail, especially the grim fate of Zinoviev and Kamenev in the aftermath of the suspicious assassination of Sergei Kirov (compared directly with a false flag operation), even though the story takes too much speculations at times (historians never found out if Ordzhonikidze truly died from a "heart failure" or if he committed suicide like it was shown here in one rather theatrical sequence). Due to a flat approach, the interesting story did not manage to ignite to the fullest, however it has one undeniable source of power, the brilliant, entirely convincing performance by Robert Duvall as Stalin, for which he won a Golden Globe as Best Actor - Miniseries or Television Film.

Grade:++

I Yabba-Dabba Do!

I Yabba-Dabba Do!; animated comedy, USA, 1993; D: William Hanna, S: Henry Corden, Frank Welker, Jean Vander Pyl, Megan Mullally, B.J. Ward, Jerry Houser, Janet Waldo

After Fred Flintstone lost a fortune on a bet as well as his job, he is not at all overwhelmed when his daughter Pebbles announces an expensive wedding with Bam-Bam. While trying to save as much money as possible with cheap clothes and an improvized music band featuring only Barney, Fred inadvertently causes an argument between Pebbles, Wilma and Bam-Bam. The young couple run away to Rock Vegas to get married there in peace, while Fred and Barney get in chased by a wedding gang there. In the end, Barney wins a fortune on a bet and the wedding turns out to be a success.

One of the last Flinstones animated TV films, "I Yabba Dabba Do!" is an easily watchable, though standard restructuring of "The Father of the Bride", passing the torch over to Bam-Bam and Pebbles (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Megan Mullally). "The Fintstones" were never truly laugh-out-loud funny - unlike (the early) "Simpsons" that often turned towards the grotesque and gave the family life some edge - but they always had at least two things going for them: they were honest and they were humane. This movie starts off fine, building a neat little story about Fred's and Barney's kids trying to get married, offering situations from life many can identify with, with an occasional good line ("He can wait until the dinosaurs are extinct, I am not appologizing!") a charming scene (Bam-Bam proposing Pebbles) and even an occasional daring one (the bachelorette party including Wilma, Pebbles and Betty), yet starts to get more and more contrived and chaotic in the second half, from the typical cliche that a girl will overreact and cancel the engagement over the smallest bauble up the silly misadventures Fred and Barney experience in Rock Vegas when they are chased by a "wedding gang", with the resolution towards the finale that brings a happy ending requires tolerance for five 'deux ex machina' gimmicks. Overall, a light, yet more or less amusing conclusion of a circle in the Flintstones storyline.

Grade:+

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2; science-fiction action, USA, 2010; D: Jon Favreau, S: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson

After the world find out he is Iron Man, Tony Stark is under double pressure: not only is he denying his technology to the government, but the palladium core arc reactor which keeps him alive is, ironically, slowly poisoning him. He places Pepper to run his industry. His new assistant, Natalie Rushman, turns out to be a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and her boss Fury gives Tony a new element that prevents further poisoning. After that, a new nemesis shows up, Ivan Vanko, who thinks that Tony's father stole the armour invention from his late father.

Among the several movie adaptations - including "Thor", "Captain America" and "Hulk" - covertly planted by Marvel Comics over a span of several years in order to prepare the ground for their all-star gathering in "The Avengers", "Iron Man" was one that enjoyed the most favorable reception among the viewers and critics, even though it was severely overhyped by some reviewers. Its sequel is different, but almost equally as fun and well conceptualized, again showing that the untypical choice for the director, Jon Favreau, proved to be a refreshing experiment since he managed to again deliver a good product. It is a dynamic, fun and fluid action adventure, even though nothing new was added to the genre while the second part drags behind, whereas Mickey Rourke is very good as the expressionistic (though one-dimensional) bad guy as well as Scarlett Johansson as Tony's helper Natalie Rushman, situating herself somewhere on the verge between fan service and useful plot point (at least in the wider context later on in "The Avengers"), yet she is charismatic either way. The storyline seems slightly standard, with the audacious finale on the Expo borrowing a little bit from "RoboCop 2", but overall this is an accessible and amusing sequel.

Grade:++

Gunga Din

Gunga Din; adventure, USA, 1939; D: George Stevens, S: Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe

The British Raj, 19th century. After 30 years, a mysterious cult called Thuggee reappeared again, continuing with its practice of worshipping the godess Kali by killing as many people as possible. MacChesney, Cutter and Ballantine, three friends and members of the British Army, discover the cult in Tantrapur, where they caused a mass exodus of villagers. MacChesney and Cutter and, however, also concerned with Ballantine quitting the army to get married. When his friend Gunga Din finds out the Thugee temple, Cutter is captured. Din manages to bring MacChesney and Ballantine to the location, but they are captured too. Still, they manage to take the cult's guru which causes a stalemate. When the British army shows up and is suppose to fall into the trap of the Thuggee, Din is able to warn them, but is killed and buried as a soldier.

"Gunga Din" is today a rather dated blend of adventure and 'Three Stooges' style comedy that at times seems as if it was inspired by B-movie standards too much. The opening act where the three British sergeants go to investigate what happened to the isolated village of Tantrapur after all communications were cut off but find the place entierly deserted is truly stimulative and has that spark of mystery, Cary Grant delivers another good performance as Cutter whereas it is interesting to point out that the Thuggee cult that killed people truly existed in India up until the 19th century. Unfortunately, the storyline does not continue with that finely established mood but instead reduces itself by wasting too much time on cheap antics (the whole punch sequence is stupid) and poorly written structure since practically the whole second part of the film is one huge plot hole, from MacChesney and Ballantine going to rescue Cutter from hundreds of Thuggee members all by themselves (which is why they get captured themselves) up to the bad guy explaining his plan to his captives so that they can ruin it for him. Director George Stevens is competent, though, which is a reason why this did not turn out into a complete disaster, managing to turn it into a light, naive and ironic little adventure flick that does not need to be analysed too much.

Grade:++

Monday, May 21, 2012

Up in the Air

Up in the Air; tragicomedy, USA, 2009; D: Jason Reitman, S: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

Ryan works in a corporation that informs employees around the US about losing their job since their bosses are too afraid to do it themselves. He travels a lot and it suits him perfectly since he is detached from the traditional values such as a family, a wife or a fixed setting. On his travel, he meets Alex and starts an affair with her. When Ryan's work colleague Natalie "infects" him with the idea of marriage and a lifelong companion, he starts to deepen his relationship with Alex. However, it turns out she is married and already has a family.

Winner of a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for best screenplay as well as an New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor (Georgey Clooney), "Up in the Air" used the late 2000s financial crisis not only as the basis to build the storyline (dozens and dozens of real life people who lost their job appear as extras in the movie in order to express their anger and resentment over such an outcome towards the protagonist Ryan whose job is to fire people in a rather clumsily invented fantasy job almost set in an alternate reality) but also as an wider allegory of the way of life in corporate capitalism where everyone is "replaceable" not only professionally but also privately, romantically and emotionally - evident in the ironic twist ending. Even though it not as strong as Reitman previous film, "Juno", and even though it has a messy start, "Up" slowly advances into a fine little humorous drama about loneliness and the absence of true love - an unusually frequent theme in Clooney's movies - and reflection about differences between living a traditional and unorthodox, 'detached' life. The best ingredients of this 'slice-of-life' movie are naturally those authentic ones, when characters talk like adults, such as when Natalie asks Ryan why he never thinks of getting married, and he asks her to try to "sell marriage" to him, the final monologue ("The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over...") as well as the neat idea of Ryan making photos of paper clips of his sister and her fiance in front of places they never were. Occasionally artificial and uncertain (the luggage speech is pointless), but overall a fine little film with a strong ending that says something about two people living on two different wave lengths and not even realizing it.

Grade:+++

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Man with a Movie Camera

Chelovek s kinopparatom; silent art-film, Russia/ Ukraine, 1929; D: Dziga Vertov, S: Mikhail Kaufman, Elizaveta Svilova

A man with a camera films every day life in Kiev and Moscow: people attend a concert; passerbys walk though the streets; workers work in a steel mill; a daily routine in a hair saloon and tourists on a beach in Odessa; a magician entertains little children. Here and there people are puzzled by the camera. After the editing, the film is shown to the audience in the cinema.

Dziga Vertov's most famous film, "The Man with a Movie Camera" is a pure experimental film without a story, an avant-garde exercise in exploiting all possible cinematic techniques from every day events caught on celluloid: slow motion and fast motion (very inventive at that time, used only on a couple of occasions before, like Murnau's "Nosferatu"), double-exposure, split screen, footage played backwards (pigeons flying and landing in reverse), huge close ups, focus from out of focus (the camera "sharpening" the image of flowers out of focus), stop-motion animation (the tripod "walking" and the camera "jumping" out of the box on top of it) as well as metafilm ideas (the editor, Vertov's wife Svilova, assembling the filmed footage in the editing room; viewers watching this film in the cinema near the end). Despite a spontaneous anti-narration and its artificial setting, "Camera" is still an interesting and stimulative documentary that was enriched with 'anti-documentary' stylistic means, aimed at separating it from other art forms like theater and literature. Similarly like the Russian cinema made a tremendous leap forward with Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" that showed all the rich possibilities of an "active"-dynamic editing and filled several gaps in the early days of cinema, Vertov's "Camera" showed all the potentials of cinematic techniques in the 20s, which is why some consider it a pure film and a major influence on avant-garde cinema and its successors (Godard, Cocteau, Cassavetes), diverting the history of that art form into a more advanced and complex direction.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Whisper of the Heart

Mimi wo sumaseba; animated drama, Japan, 1995; D: Yoshifumi Kondo, S: Youko Honna, Kazuo Takahashi, Takahashi Tachibana

Teenage girl Shizuki lives with her sister and parents in a small apartment, writing humorous lyrics about Tokyo in her song Concrete Roads, a spoof of Take Me Home, Country Roads. After reading numerous books she finds interesting, Shizuki discovers that all of them were coincidentally read by a certain Seiji. She would like to meet him, but doesn't know anything about him. Until she one day follows a cat and stumbles upon Seiji, who crafts violins. Inspired by his grandfather's toy of a cat Baron, Shizuki finally decides what to do with her life and writes a story about it. Seiji also declares he loves her.

Unlike the fantasy spin-off "The Cat Returns", "Whisper of the Heart" - the only anime film directed by animation expert Yoshifumi Kondo, a staff member of studio Ghibli - is a harmonious and refreshingly sincere realistic story that confined the fantasy elements involving the cat Baron from both films only to a five minute subplot involving the heroine writing a story about him. Written by Hayao Miyazaki, "Whisper" is a semi-biographical slice-of-life story revolving around a teenage artist who finds out what she wants to do with her life and finds her place in the world, extracting a gentle drama in the process and a fine minimalistic portrait of mentality of Tokyo's residents. The minute the viewers hear John Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (!) in the opening credits, in one of the most unusual musical inclusions in an anime ever, they are engaged and the authors take it from there, sustaining the quality tone until the rather overstretched ending that should have concluded some loose ends sooner since such a one-note film cannot support its running time for so long. The song serves as a leitmotiv throughout "Whisper", even giving the best scene in the film when Shizuki starts singing its lyrics while Seiji is playing the melody on a violine - until his grandfather and his two fellow musicians enter the house and spontaneously start playing the music with them, achieving amazing synergy. A few pale situations aside, this is a worthy and wonderful little film, similarly like Mochizuki's "Ocean Waves"

Grade:+++

Monday, May 14, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express; crime, USA, 1974; D: Sidney Lumet, S: Albert Finney, Martin Balsam, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, Rachel Roberts, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Widmark

On his way to England from Istanbul, famous detective Hercule Poirot boards a train and meets his friend Bianchi. During the night, between Vinkovci and Slavonski Brod, a passenger is killed, Mr. Ratchett, but not discovered until morning, when the train is stuck in snow. Poirot discovers that Ratchett was a mobster who ordered the kidnapping of Mrs. Armstrong's child a few years ago, and that almost all passengers had a motive to kill him, among them Mrs. Armstrong's sister, cook and mother. It turns out it was a 'joint criminal enterprise', but Poirot allows Bianchi to accept an alternative, more simple view that it might have been a mobster murder.

"Murder on the Orient Express" is in some circles considered to be one of the best adaptations of Agatha Christie's crime-mystery novels, with Albert Finney receiving an Oscar nod for best actor - the first and till date the only actor for playing Hercule Poirot - and Ingrid Bergman even winning the award - along with a BAFTA - for best supporting actress (even though her role is too small to truly ignite a delight, but her character's four minute interrogation was filmed in one take which gave it more weight). Even though it was directed by the untypical-opulent director Sidney Lumet, and even though the most unorthodox story was picked from Christie's opus (obvious in the unusual ending that defies her previous crime standards), "Orient" is still a rather standard-typical "whodunit" story that has spark, but needed more individual touches to advance into something more special. The ensemble cast is fantastic - among them even Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall and John Gilegud! - whereas it is interesting how Lumet decided to portrait Poirot not as a charming detective, but as an slightly autistic outsider, yet more could have been done to create a truly unique achievement, which an individual of Lumet's calibre could have done. Still, the setting - a train trapped in snow - is perfect, numerous dialogues have wit (Mrs. Hubbard: "Don't you agree the man must have entered my compartment to gain access to Mr. Ratchett?" - Princess Dragomiroff: "I can think of no other reason, madame...No other reason..."), the cinematography is sharp whereas Poirot's final 30 minute speech is exquisite, as in most of his cases.

Grade:++

Jennifer's Body

Jennifer's Body; horror satire, USA, 2009; D: Karyn Kusama, S: Amanda Seyfried, Megan Fox, Johnny Simmons

Needy is an unpopular teenage girl living in a small provincial town, but has an "ace" in her sleeve - her best friend is the popular cheerleader Jennifer. One evening, after a fire destroys a bar, music band Low Shoulder kidnaps Jennifer in order to sacrifice her to the devil in the forest, mistaking her for a virgin, in order to gain success in exchange. However, since Jennifer is not a virgin, she survives and mutates into a vampire, covertly killing people in the town. When Needy kills her, she is sent to a prison. However, Needy manages to find Low Shoulder members and kill them.

After screenwriter Diablo Cody achieved world success with her first screenplay adapted for the big screens, "Juno", she was given practically a free hand for studios producing her second script, a far more bizarre and difficult to digest story. Despite a brilliant opening line ("Hell is a teenage girl.") and an occasional inspirational humorous monologue ("I am not even a backdoor-virgin anymore."), occult-horror black comedy "Jennifer's Body" is a mess, a disjointed patchwork that otherwise has little in common quality-wise with Cody's excellent debut. Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox both deliver good performances, the feminist touch is interesting whereas the "Faustian" tangle where an unknown music band decides to sacrifice the (fake) virgin heroine to the devil in exchange for world fame is a surprisingly subversive allegory of modern pop-culture "success at all costs", but "Jennifer's Body" is overall heavy handed, flat and full of cheap scares, in the end turning into an easily watchable, but forced flick where good jokes do not all add to a harmonious whole, but to mending of a distorted story.

Grade:+

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ilya Muromets

Ilya Muromets; fantasy adventure, Russia, 1956; D: Aleksandr Ptushko, S: Boris Andreyev, Shukur Burkhanov, Andrei Abrikosov, Natalya Medvedeva, Ninel Myshkova

Middle ages. Kievan Rus' is terrorized by Tugars of the Mongol Empire. One man, Ilya Muromts, helplessly observes them since he cannot move his legs. Until some travelers give him a magic potion that gives him great strength, and also Svyatogor's sword. Ilya marries Vassilisa and goes to Kiev in order to defend it from Tsar Kalin, the leader of Tugars. Due to an intrigue, the Kiev prince Vladimir thinks that Ilya wants to take over his throne and thus puts him in the dungeon. Still, he later releases Ilya, who defeats the Tugars and kills Kalin and his three-headed dragon.

Aleksandr Ptushko's "Ilya Muromets" was an attempt at creating a fantasy spectacle with special effects outside the US, similarly like other audacious European films from that time, like von Baky's "Munchausen" and Nanovic's "The Magic Sword": in that adaptation of the Russian eponymous mythical hero, several folklore legends of that nation were incorporated into a rather clear narrative that tried to give rudimentary-simplistic visual effects (two that stand out the most are "bending" trees caused by Nightingale the Robber's blowing and a rubber-stiff three-headed dragon appearing some last five minutes into the film, which seems as if it came from the "Mothra" series) yet achieves far bigger effect with proportionally high production values evident in good costumes, opulent castles and landscapes (melting ice floating on a river) as well as impressive use of masses (in one good take, the camera makes a 360 degree turn from a post on top of a castle in order to show how many Tugars have surrounded it on the meadow). Kitschy, pompous, artificial and with too many theatrical dialogues, a rushed ending, but with a few examples of extravaganza (Vassilisa singing to the birds while a stork is using a spinning wheel!), this is a cult 'guilty pleasure' that does not have as much artistic value as sheer enthusiasm that allowed it to stand out from the standard fare produced back then.

Grade:++

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Lives of Others

Das Leben der Anderen; thriller-drama, Germany, 2006; D: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, S: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur

East Berlin, mid 80s. Officer Wiesler, member of the East German state security service Stasi, is appointed with spying on playwright Dreyman. After Dreyman's apartment is covertly planted with a microphone, the audio surveillance can start. Wiesler is surprised when he finds out who ordered the surveillance: the Minister of Culture, Hempf, who wants to lock up Dreyman in order to get his girlfriend Christa-Maria. She is only seeing Hempf because of his pressure and power. Wiesler, himself without any family, finds sympathy for Dreyman and Christa-Maria. After Dreyman writes a critical article for Der Spiegel, in which he mentions the large suicide rates in East Germany, the Stasi decides to find his typewriter machine to jail him. Wiesler hides the evidence, but Christa-Maria cannot stand betraying Dreyman under pressure, committing suicide. A few years later, the Berlin Wall falls, and with it the Stasi. Dreyman writes a poem thanking Wiesler.

Winner of a BAFTA and an Oscar for best foreign language film, "The Lives of Others" is one of the best films of the 2000s, an excellent and excellently precise-clinical analysis of the surveillance of the Stasi in East Germany, that offers a few wider potentials for psychological and cultural interpretations. In one of the most obvious, the title does not only refer to the totalitarian government "not minding its own business", but also to voyeuristic people gaining a glimpse into the lives of normal "others" - the lonely middle-aged Stasi agent Wiesler, gains empathy for the couple he is spying on, because their lives actually seem more important than his own. One sequence, where playwright Dreyman is in bed with his beloved Christa-Maria, is juxtaposed with Wiesler's own life where he has sex with a prostitute, and is then left alone in his apartment, which finely illustrates these unusual yin-yang worlds. Unlike similar "The Conversation", "Enemy of the State" and "The Truman Show", "Lives" also have a rare plot twist where the "surveiller" interacts with the "surveilled" in order to help them - in one brilliant sequence, Wiesler leaves his surveillance post, goes to a bar and meets the woman he is spying on, Christa-Maria, talks with her in order to bring her back on the right path and thus makes her go back to her boyfriend, which changes the "course" of events to the positive. Ulrich Muhe, nominated for a BAFTA, is great as the stoic Wiesler, a man without family who does a right thing when his job forces him to do wrong, whereas director von Donnersmarck gives a masterful dark essay about one time period in a refreshingly direct, fluent and accessible way.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Irony of Fate

Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!; romantic comedy, Russia, 1975; D: Eldar Ryazanov, Igor Petrov, S: Andrey Myagkov, Barbara Brylska, Yuri Yakovlev

During the Brezhnev era, all of the apartment buildings were designed in identical way, so that people would "always feel like home" no matter what city they go to. This went to such an extent that the same locks were installed in several buildings. Moscow: while celebrating his engagement to Galya, Zhenya drinks too much during the New Years Eve. His friends send him to a flight to Saint Petersburg instead of Pavlik. However, Zhenya is so drunk that he still thinks he is in Moscow. He boards a taxi, goes to "his" address, Three Workers Street 25, apartment 12, unlocks the door and falls asleep. When the real owner of this parallel Saint Petersburg apartment shows up, Nadya, it causes a lot of commotion, especially since her lover Ippolit and Zhenya's fiance Galya both break up with them. Still, while waiting for his flight back to Moscow, Zhenya and Nadya fall for each other.

One of the most beloved Russian films of the 20th century, running traditionally every New Year's Eve on TV, comedy "The Irony of Fate" is still a proportionally fresh and fun little film, despite some heavy handed moments. Screenwriter Emil Braginsky took an annoying local "trademark" of that time, the monolithic-identical apartment designs in Russia, and managed to make something pleasant out of it in the story about a hero mistaking a woman's Saint Petersburg apartment with his own Moscow apartment - the idea is perfect, the execution is lukewarm. Trying to create a Russian screwball comedy, director Ryazanov relied more on humor than on romantic parts which could have been more exploited in such a sweet situation, whereas the three hour running time is definetely overstretched for such a simple one-note story, yet the idea is so fascinating that it still "echoes" with charm even when the viewers get use to it, whereas Barbara Brylska is especially sweet as the confused Nadya. The first interaction between Zhenya and Nadya is the best, arguing over who is the intruder in the apartment ("I already organized a party here!" - "Why would you organize a party in my apartment?"), yet even later on does the film manage to extract a few good gags (while Ippolit and Zhenya are waiting outside on the snow, Zhenya suddenly shouts: "Hooray! I forgot my briefcase in her apartment! Now I have an excuse to go back!"), though the hero's behavior - one moment he is considerate towards Nadya, the other he is rude and impolite - does tend to be inconsistent. Overall, the story carries the whole film, still has its lure whereas it even covertly manages to criticize one aspect of the Soviet system with a synecdoche potential for something more.

Grade:++

Monday, May 7, 2012

All of Me

All of Me; comedy, USA, 1984; D: Carl Reiner, S: Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Tennant

Lawyer Roger is assigned to a terminally ill but insanely rich Edwina who hired a swami to put her soul into the body of a woman called Terry, who allegedly does not mind that since she will join the "comic unity". Also, all of Edwina's fortune will then be signed to Terry. In a mishap, after her death, Edwina's soul accidentally lands in Roger's half of the body, while Terry gets all of her fortune and turns out to be a con-artist. In a lot of misadventures, Roger is able to bring Edwina's soul into Terry, while Terry's soul is voluntarily sent inside a horse.

Steve Martin copes well in the demanding role of playing a 'shizophrenic' hero who has to share half of his body with a woman, gaining for his performance a Golden Globe nod and even winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award, whereas his partner, the underrated comedian Lily Tomlin, is equally as good. However, while their contribution is admirable, the sole movie "All of Me" is, just like previous Reiner-Martin collaborations - except for their good "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" - only a flat comedy in which the best you can expect is a good joke here and there. Consisting out of crude, blatant or spasmodic jokes (one would expect that Roger speaks to himself out loud when communicating with Edwina or have a 'feminine' walk in the first couple of minutes after the "soul migration", but definitely not after that when he is in public, which seems contrived) as well as plot holes (i.e. the story contradicts even itself: if Edwina was bound to a wheelchair for so long, would she be able to suddenly walk so perfectly after she entered Roger's body?; the plot solution near the end is entirely silly), with only a few sparse emotional moments showing up near the end, when the two of them start to bond as friends. However, despite no spiritual dimension, "All of Me" still has a few hilarious jokes, like when Roger says to a blind African-American Saxophone player that he is actually white or when Edwina's funeral mass is completely empty, except for the priest reading out condolences of her clients ("She was a great customer - Jay and Jay wheelchairs...She will be sorely missed - Orthopaedic mattresses Inc.").

Grade:+

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Officer with a Rose

Oficir s ružom; romantic drama, Croatia, 1987; D: Dejan Šorak, S: Ksenija Pajić, Žarko Laušević, Dragana Mrkić, Vicko Ruić, Boris Buzančić

Zagreb just after World War II. The partisans won the war and established a new socialist Yugoslavia, massively arresting anyone who cooperated with the Axis forces. At first sentenced to six month of hard labour just because her late husband was friends with a German commander who went to college with him, bourgeois Matilda is nonetheless acquitted of all charges thanks to the intervention of partisan Petar Horvat. The 18-year old partisan girl Ljiljana is sent to Matilda's large apartment by the authorities in order to "use the empty space", but her boyfriend Petar falls in love with Matilda. The authorities do not want a partisan to be influenced by a bourgeois, so he is sent away in a different town. He marries Ljiljana eventually, but dies in a clash.

Even though often melodramatic, Dejan Sorak's romantic drama "The Officer with a Rose" is a surprisingly touching and engaging film that works in that 'good old school' straight-forward way, relaying more on character development and pure emotions than some audacious-bombastic effects. In the opening scene, the partisans walk across the Zagreb streets and sing "The holy land is where we pass", but during night that is juxtaposed with their members secretly collecting their opponents at night and driving them away into the unknown: it is a quiet and relatively brave film that openly criticizes both the partisan myths and the pseudo-communist government in one, while Croatia was still part of Yugoslavia, covertly also already showing back then, four years before its Independence, how Croatia was uneasy living in that federation. Sorak was acclaimed for "sophisticated erotic scenes", but they are overrated, basically rather ordinary and scarce, and despite his somber tone he still "slipped" with a few banal moments, like when the immature Ljilana unbuttons her shirt and shows her (small) breasts to Matilda to ask her: "What do you think? Are my breasts pretty?" or when she wants to take a bath with her, explaining it with such cheesy line as: "It will be as if I am taking a bath with my mom!" The sole love triangle sealed off in an apartment has spark, though it is not quite clear why or how Matilda would fall in love with the man she hates so much, Petar, the narrative is fluent and clear whereas the final scene with Matilda holding Petar's letter in her hand still seems poetic and touching.

Grade:+++

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Mirror

Zerkalo; drama, Russia, 1975; D: Andrei Tarkovsky, S: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Larisa Tarkovskaya, Alla Demidova, Anatoli Solonitsyn

A child turns on the TV to watch a woman questioning a guy who stutters...Mother Maria sits on a wooden fence in front of her house in the forest while a doctor shows up to ask for directions. A few days later, her two children observe the barn on fire... Alexei, now a grown up suffering from depression, talks with his mother over the phone...Back in the past, Maria is taunted by a colleague for overlooking a mistake in the printing press... After World War II, the children are reunited with their father... Back in the present, Alexei is suicidal while the doctor tries to talk him out of it mentioning what that would do to his mother... An older mother is walking with the children through the meadow.

Even though I appreciate him, director Andrei Tarkovsky was somehow never truly close to me, not even with this abstract personal movie shaped as a giant steam-of-consciousness put on a screen where he contemplates about his childhood. "The Mirror" is a certain delight, but never a complete one. In that slightly pretentious art-patchwork the famous director did not offer enough links that would connect all the vignettes into a meaningful whole, even though some scenes are poetry (a bird gently landing on a boy's hat; the mother floating above the bed; a steam "stain" slowly "melting" away on a cold mirror, signalling how fragile memories can fade away) whereas the sole idea that the main hero, Alexei (the director himself, obvious in one scene where the poster of "Andrei Rublyov" is seen on the wall), is never seen as a grown up, but just acts as a narrator, is rather inventive. Takrovsky has a masterful shot composition, yet his sole visual style is rather conventional when it could and should have been more "adventurous" on this occasion when he tried to capture a dreamy mood, but mostly did not (for instance, ironically, his first film "Ivan's Childhood" has a far more dreamy scene than any scene here when the title boy Ivan is seen floating over the meadow).

It is interesting how Tarkovsky plays with the medium in a couple of occasions, almost reaching metafilm proportions (his real mother has a small role near the end; the poems of his real life father are narrated and thus "rediscovered" in art) whereas he tries to contemplate how any period in time could be "captured" in its essence on film (i.e. in one sequence, the archive footage of World War II is juxtaposed with the images of a boy in the same time period, but playing in the snow oblivious to all those important historical landmarks happening around him, showing how "big" things in life are recorded, while "little" things are forgotten), even adding the leitmotiv of slightly distorted mirrors (broken or oval) to show how the objects and faces reflected on them are not identical, allegorically showing how even memories cannot be stored identically to how they happened. Some actors even play dual roles to deliberately confuse even more the foundation of memory. Unlike Peckinpah, who (in)famously had over 3,500 takes in his film "The Wild Bunch", Tarkovsky's takes are somehow more "precious" since there are only about 200 cuts in this film that say more, yet even when all is said and done, the story is simply poor with true emotions and thus the joy is damped. "The Mirror" is a heavy existential drama, but it is more experimental than cohesive in its (too)hermetic anti-narration.

Grade:++

Summer Wars

Summer Wars; animated comedy-drama, Japan, 2009; D: Mamoru Hosoda, S: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura

Teenage math genius Kenji has a part-time job in supporting OZ, a virtual reality social network where billions of people are registered. However, he drops it immediately when a cute girl, Natsuki, invites him for a "special job" to attend her grandmother's 90th birthday in Ueda. It turns out she wants her grandmother to believe they are engaged. After solving a math code sent on his mobile phone, Kenji is blamed for hacking OZ, which in turns causes chaos since many users linked their account with their PCs. It turns out that grandmother's grandson Wabisuke created an AI, Love Machine, that stole Kenji's account and took over OZ. With the help of computer expert Kazuma, Kenji and Natsuki manage to advert a satellite crashing on their house and destroy Love Machine.

Similarly like his previous film, "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time", director Mamoru Hosoda again showed a sympathetic sense for blending positive drama and slice-of-life teenage comedy in the well made anime "Summer Wars", a gentle satire on facebook and warning about people trusting and giving every control to the virtual system which can crash like a set of domino blocks. The two sets of narrative, one revolving around teenager Kenji enjoying playing a sweet role of a fiancee to a girl he secretly has a crush on, Natsuke, in front of her family, the other being the OZ, a fictional social network going berserk HAL 9000 style that causes chaos to the whole world, do not quite work as a harmonious match (especially since the weird CGI OZ avatars are crap), yet the excellent-fluent animation and a rather sure director's hand assure a positive experience. "Summer" is a delight, but only to a certain extent, not a full delight since it should have been more intense and emotional (for instance, the relationship between Kenji and Natsuke is surprisingly overshadowed by all those computers, which made the virtual relationships more actual than real ones). Hosoda adds small touches of family, integrity, friendship and genuine over ideal, all giving a fun little flick that stands out from the standard anime norm.

Grade:++