Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kin-dza-dza!

Kin-dza-dza!; science-fiction satire, Russia, 1986; D: Georgiy Daneliya, S: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Yury Yakovlev, Yevgeny Leonov, Irina Shemyova

Moscow. Construction manager Vladimir and violinist Gedevan meet a man on the street who asks them what galaxy he is on because he got lost. Thinking he is joking, Vladimir presses the button on the man's remote control - and is teleported together with Gedevan to a desert planet Plyuk in galaxy Kin-dza-dza. The two Earthlings thus start their quest to find a way back home. They meet Uef and Bi, two humanoid aliens in a flying pot who explain them that matches are very valuable here and that the society is divided to the upper class (chatlanians) and the lower class (patsaks). After numerous misadventures, including playing a violine in order to earn some cash, Vladimir and Gedevan are returned back in time to Moscow. Their memories are erased, but they recognize each other on the street when they perform a ritual from Plyuk.

Even though it enjoys a cult status in some circles, Georgiy Daneliya's science-fiction satire "Kin-dza-dza!" is a massively overhyped, overlong and overbearing film that seems like a Monty Python sketch on hold, a bizarre patchwork with long pauses between jokes, unless you think that people wearing bells under their nose or constantly saying "koo" is something very funny. The movie has a great opening sequence: two ordinary people, Vladimir and Gedevan, meet a man on the streets who claims he can travel to another galaxy thanks to a remote control. Thinking he is joking, Vladimir presses the button - and in the next scene, he and Gedevan are in the middle of the desert planet Plyuk, reminiscent of "Mad Max" and "Dune". Unfortunately, the movie does not go anywhere in particular after that, instead just presenting random bizarre people and cyberpunk technology in the desert, aggravated further by sometimes confusing editing or stale music. However, there is one aspect where the story truly gains some momentum: in the satirical views on the  society on Plyuk, that mirrors our own division between the upper class (bourgeoisie) and lower class (proletariat) in such scenes as the one where the people who wear yellow pants are treated with the ultimate respect, which some have interpreted as clothes from certain brands, like Gucci, that symbolize the status in society. This culminates in the best joke, where Bi rebels against Gedevan's view because "a society with pants without a difference in colors has no goal". An uneven achievement that would not have been only for certain tastes had it articulated its satire and comedy better.

Grade;++

Monday, April 22, 2013

Somewhere

Somewhere; drama, USA, 2010; D: Sofia Coppola, S: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan

Hollywood. Johnny Marco, while recovering from an injury on his hand due to a dangerous stunt in a film, is a famous actor without a goal or a direction in his life. He spends his days in a hotel, driving cars or attending monotone promotional interviews. His ex-wife Layla leaves their 11-year old daughter Cleo to stay with him. He gladly welcomes a break from his routine and goes no to bond with Cleo, even bringing her to Italy for the premiere of his new film. Eventually, Cleo returns to her mother while Johnny is left with an even bigger feeling of emptiness in his life.

Well meant, patiently crafted and emotionally honest, Sofia Coppola's fourth feature length film, "Somewhere", in the end goes nowhere - unfortunately, the hero's ennui eventually becomes synonymous for the whole film. A minimalistic movie should always find a right balance when something is going on and when nothing is going on, yet here that was not achieved to the fullest - the scenes of Johnny (Stephen Dorff) driving in his car, sitting in the hotel or playing video games with his daughter are all small vignettes that do not connect as a whole, which was already the problem in "Lost in Translation", though few would admit it. At times, those scenes almost seem like some family home video of random clips, whereas the subplot where Johnny and his daughter Cleo go to Italy and have trouble adjusting almost seems like "Lost in Translation part 2". Where is the life in this story? Where is the energy? Where is the power that hooks you? Surprisingly, even though the director is a woman herself, all the women Johnny has affairs with are all superficially presented, just as quick display of nudity. The most was achieved thanks to Elle Fanning who steals almost every scene she is in, while another plus point goes to the intention of unmasking the glamorous world of Hollywood actors as actually quite unglamorously banal and common. The only point the movie makes is near the end, when Johnny says "I am sorry I wasn't around" and when he calls his ex-wife to say how he thinks he is "nothing".

Grade;+

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead; horror, USA, 1981; D: Sam Raimi, S: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich

Two guys - Ash and Scotty - and three girls - Cheryl, Shelly and Linda - drive with their car to a secluded old cabin in the woods. However, that night they find a tape recorder and play it, thereby inadvertently summoning the demons through the words of a researcher who explored the Book of the Dead. Cheryl goes outside and is assaulted by trees. One by one, the five of them are possessed by demons, except Ash who fights them and tries to survive until morning. Cheryl and Scotty, possessed, attack Ash, but he manages to destroy them by throwing the Book of the Dead into the fire.

While numerous other independently produced horror B-movies were lost in the sands of time, Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" managed to "survive" and acquire cult status, though more thanks to the superior sequel "The Evil Dead II" which advanced into such an institution that it even retroactively pulled the 1st film with it. Take away the (thorough) style and humor from "The Evil Dead II", and you have "The Evil Dead". It is a good piece of horror that manages to conjure up a fantastic eerie mood, all until the scares truly start, which appeal to the cheaper means here and there and seem more like a standard horror. Still, it has two great examples of suspense that not even Hitchcock would be ashamed off: the first one where the five heroes have dinner but are interrupted when the door of the basement suddenly opens all by itself, while Scotty goes downstairs to check it out but does not come back, and the second one where Ash buries the corpse, then wants to reach for a necklace on the floor but the hand of the corpse emerges from earth and grabs him. The rest in also scary, but not particularly sophisticated, nor as inventive as the comical part 2, nor that clever. Likewise, the grotesque make-up does tend to become an overkill towards the end, and some scenes are slightly sloppy (would a woman in a bathrobe really go out into the woods - at night - all by herself - to check out a strange noise? A force breaks the window next door, Scotty goes to check it out - while Ash just remains sitting on the couch as if he does not care?), though they do not take a too huge toll on the film as a whole.

Grade;++

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hold-Up

Hold-Up; crime comedy, Canada/ France, 1985, D: Alexandre Arcady, S: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Kim Cattrall, Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Marielle

Crook Grimm and his friend Georges stumble upon their dreadful acquaintance, Lasky, who suspects they are planning something in Montreal. Grimm and Georges manage to escape from him and soon go on to apply their plan of robbing a bank: dressed as a clown, Grimm manages to steal over 2 million $ and escape with Georges and accomplice Lise since all three disguise themselves as hostages. However, getting to the airport is equally of a challenge, because they again stumble upon Lasky while a taxi driver suspects they are robbers. They manage to get to the airport, but are too late to get on the plane with Lise to Paris.

Based on the novel by the brilliant Jay Cronley, Arcady's heist comedy "Hold-Up" is a good film, but its flaws get more apparent when one compares it with the same film that avoided them, Franklin-Murray's "Quick Change" made five years later, a rare remake that outranked the original. While Jean-Paul Belmondo "clowned" too much while disguised as a clown during the bank robbery sequence, Murray had absolute comic authority and avoided sinking into silly territory; "Hold-Up" already showed the "disguise" trick to the audience at the beginning, whereas "Quick Change" made it more interesting by revealing the "twist" only after the trio left the bank with the cash; "Quick Change" had a more versatile, better executed theme that it is easier to rob a bank than to get to an airport in time in a huge city, whereas the three robbers in "Hold-Up" get to the airport fairly quickly, after only three incidents, including an unnecessary subplot involving clumsy character Lasky, who was sacked in the '90 film. Only Jean-Pierre Marielle managed to outshine even the legendary J. Robards in the brilliantly, down to a T performed supporting role of Inspector Labrosse that is a joy to watch from start to finish, delivering a small comic gem. However, despite some heavy handed executions, even Arcady's version is clever and funny, managing to give a worthy viewing experience.

Grade;++

White Lions

Beli lavovi; tragicomedy, Serbia, 2011; D: Lazar Ristovski, S: Lazar Ristovski, Gordan Kičić, Hristina Popović, Vuk Kostić, Zorica Jovanović, Mira Banjac, Nikola Simić, Monika Kiš

The financial crisis has no end, and among the people affected is the socialist Dile, a union leader for workers in a closed factory. His son Gruje is a director who cannot find a job for 10 years and has to do humiliating work as a stripper, while his girlfriend Bela is equally unsuccessful in finding work as an opera singer. They are hapless: Dile finds the grand prize of 1 million euros on a cap, but it is taken by robbers. When Dile has an idea for an organization where people would dress into white lions and robb the kids of the mobsters, they get caught and beaten. On Gruje and Bela's wedding, Dile wovs to start a socialist revolution for a better world.

"White Lions" is a much better film than some would admit, a surprisingly pessimistic and depressive social commentary ridding on the wave of the 2009 financial crisis and thematically in the company of "Inside Job", "Capitalism: A Love Story", "Debtocracy" and others. More so, the story about the hero whose family - and entire country - struggle to survive in a system where all the money has been sucked out from public, seems like a more universal example of social drama movies in cinema, from Chaplin's "The Kid", Ritt's "Norma Rae", through Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" up to Gleyzer's "The Traitors" and others. This is already evident in the sharp, cynical and concise opening dialogue between Lazar Ristovski and his interrogator: "I live like a dog, but you complain when I bark... Why should we pay the price? We haven't ordered this kind of life... If it weren't for justice, we would all be equal". Some slogans of protestors are also quite fresh and original: for instance, one board says: "Since we already sold our brains, we might as well sell our factories, too", while the other is even better and says: "We don't have money for a funeral. That is keeping us alive". "White Lions" are unfortunately clumsy and primitive at times, whereas the episodic story, in form of vignettes, does not seem to have a clear structure, yet director Ristovski manages to find a fine balance between drama and comedy, even during some strange solutions. The production values are also on a higher level, whereas even though the critics lamented about how the hero is too passive, even that can be seen as a small symbolic message aimed towards the passivity of the people around the world during the abrogation of their rights in the financial crisis.

Grade;++

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ajami

Ajami; drama, Israel, 2009; D: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani, S: Fouad Habash, Ibrahim Frege, Scandar Copti, Shahir Kabaha

Several interwoven stories in Ajami, an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa. A Bedouin thug demands a racket from a cafe, but the owner shoots him. However, now the Beduin family wants to take revenge on the whole family of the owner, including the innocent nephew Omar. Thanks to the influential christian Abu Lias, a truce is declared and a wise old man is sent as a mediator. He decides that Omar's family must pay 35,000 dinars to the Bedouins... Teenager Malek works for Abu Lias in a restaurant. In order to finance a treatment for his sick mother, he mistakenly takes sugar from Binj, thinking it is a drug, and gets in trouble for trying to sell it to a drug dealer... Dando is informed that the body of his dead brother has been found in the Palestinian territories... Abu Lias' son Binj has to hide drugs for Sis in his apartment. Malek sees the drug, but leaves before Binj flushes it down the toilet and replaces it with sugar... Abu Lias wants to separate his daughter Hadir from Muslim Omar, so he sets up a trap for him during a drug deal.

The third Israeli movie in a row nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, "Ajami" has been riding on the wave of anthology films which were popular at that time, especially after the works by director Inarritu and the acclaimed "Crash", here presenting five interwoven stories which all get connected towards the end. The directing duo Copti-Shani has a good sense for the realistic, unglamorous portrait of their city, as well as a fine rhythm of working with non-professional actors, which gives it a seal of authenticity, yet the 'seperate, but interwoven stories' concept has already been done so many times that something more unique or new should have been expected from them. The five stories are good, yet rarely original or fresh, and only two of them advanced into truly fleshed out examples of fine narrative: the first one (involving a great little sequence of a wise old man who is sent to be a mediator between two families in a feud, so he sets up a high price at first, but then starts reducing it for a third because the family member has been shot, and then reducing it again for a third "for the prophet Muhammad") and the last story where a christian does not want his daughter to be with a Muslim. "Ajami" has a punchline towards the end, but one must wait a long two hours to get there. Overall, it is an ambitious, honest and unassuming example of independent film making.

Grade;++

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain; silent adventure short, USA, 1918; D: Willis O'Brien, S: Herbert M. Dawley, Willis O'Brien

One summer day, an uncle decides to tell a story to two bored kids. In the story, he tells how he went on a picnic to Slumber Mountain, together with a friend and a dog. They were near a secluded cabin in the woods that belonged to a man who died. One night, while sleeping in the wild, he heard a voice and followed it. The uncle met the ghost of the cabin who gave him a telescope to watch dinosaurs from the hill. When a T. rex started to chase him, the uncle woke up from the dream.

The 2nd earliest example of stop-motion effects used to conjure up living dinosaurs in cinema, next only to Willis O'Brien's own short film "The Dinosaur and the Missing Link" (Griffith's "Brute Force" contains only a 20 seconds scene of an unmovable dinosaur puppet), 20 minute silent adventure "The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" is more of an exercise and an excuse to have preistoric animals in a vague story in order for the visionary to train his visual effects skills than a fully developed film, though it was eclipsed by his own work seven years later with "The Lost World" that became a box office hit and a sensation over night. This film daringly traverses from a story-within-a-story, something yet unexplored in the early cinema, framed as a tale told by an uncle to two kids, the old fashioned presentation of camping in the woods has a certain raw charm, yet the ghost subplot is uneven, while the obvious highlight is the 2 minute sequence of a T. rex and a Triceratops fighting at the end, that overshadows everything previously seen in the film. Throughout the history of cinema, here and there human fascination with dinosaurs was mirrored, yet only a handful of them really advanced into truly great achievements, like "Jurassic Park", "The Land Before Time", "Fantasia" or "King Kong".

Grade;++

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Caché

Cache; drama/ thriller, France/ Austria/ Germany/ Italy, 2005; D: Michael Haneke, S: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Lester Makedonsky, Maurice Benichou

A Paris couple, Georges and Anne, are disturbed and puzzled because someone is sending them anonymous video tapes of their house exteriors. One tape, however, shows a certain street and a certain apartment, so Georges goes to investigate. It turns out that Majid lives in the apartment - an Algerian whose parents were killed in the '61 Paris massacre, so Georges' parents wanted to adopt him, but the then 6-year old Georges tricked Majid into killing a rooster in order to get rid of him and transport him into an orphanage. The now 50-year old Majid, however, denies he sent him any tapes. After Georges' threats, Majid commits suicide. Georges' son Pierrot and Majid's son are later seen talking in front of the school, suggesting that they sent the tapes, possibly to try to reconcile their parents.

After his overhyped "White Ribbon" and "Love" both won the Golden Palm, many critics started to explore director Michael Haneke's earlier career and remembered his arguably best film, "Hidden", that won three awards at the Cannes film festival, including best director. "Hidden" is an anti-thriller, an intelligent, concise and sophisticated art drama (except for the infamous, badly directed scene with the chicken) that subtly challenges Europe's polished image by questioning France's taboo colonial past and the '61 Paris massacre where numerous Algerians were killed. Not only can the film be read as an political allegory, but also as a generational, since the dark past from the 20th century here plagues the hero even in the 21st century, Georges (great Daniel Auteuil), who cannot get rid of it. The story is rich with nuances and layers that can be analysed from almost a dozen perspectives, and it is quite interesting how it builds a 'sustained intensity' with so little actual suspense - the tapes of George's home can be seen as a threat, or simply as an reconciliation attempt, as is later implied in the final shot - and the sequence where the Algerian teenager hesitates but then suddenly quickly enters the elevator together with Georges is exquisite example of unsettling tension that is reminiscent of Hitchcock and (especially) Chabrol, who used to give certain statement about society in his movies. However, despite such an unusual, borderline 'twist ending', one should criticize Haneke for not directing it in a clearer, more expressionistic manner. As it is, it is, unfortunately, almost lost on the viewers, instead of being more articulate. Even thought it borrowed the anonymous video tapes idea from Lynch's "Lost Highway", this is a static, but engaging example of food for thought.

Grade;+++