Saturday, 29 June 2013

Aelita

Aelita; silent science-fiction, Russia, 1924; D: Yakov Protazanov, S: Nikolai Tseretelli, Vera Orlova, Yulia Solntseva, Igor Ilynsky

Stations from all over the world receive a signal from space, but cannot decipher the message and thus decide to ignore it. However, in Moscow, a young scientist and inventor, Los, thinks the signals may be from Mars. Indeed, Aelita, the queen on Mars, is observing the Soviet society and admires it, but the strict ruling class, the Elderly, forbid her that hobby and rather focus on exploiting the Martian working class. After Los' wife, Natasha, is caught flirting with Ehrlich, Los shoots her. He disguises himself as Spiridonov and builds a spaceship in order to fly to Mars with two stowaways, Gusov and a clumsy detective. The Elders order their arrest, but Gusov manages to start a revolution, encouraging the Martian working class to rebel against the Elders. Los falls in love with Aelita, but awakens - it was all his fantasy. Natasha is alive, Ehrlich is arrested while Los burns his papers and decides to stop daydreaming.

The first Soviet film of the science-fiction genre, "Aelita" is only a half-interesting silent achievement: the events on Mars are stimulative and refreshing, but the routine scenes on Earth are too often boring and overlong, especially the tiresome love triangle between Los, his wife Natasha and Ehrlich. Director Yakov Protazanov crafted a solid, but conventional drama, which takes too much time around the centre of the film, alas the viewers are left with no alternative but to wait for the main highlight, the trip to the Mars, which occurs very late, only around some 25 minutes before the end. This is where "Aelita" truly takes off - it has only two scenes with humble visual effects (time lapse scene of Martian crystals re-arranging on the table; the view of Earth from the spaceship window), but the set design and the costumes of the Martian society are quite unique and original for that time, since they are almost reminiscent of Lang's "Metropolis" or Griffith's "Intolerance". The costumes seem to be a blend of Babylonian clothes and a few futuristic details (helmets), as does the palace of the title queen. In some circles, the film remained infamous for its Soviet propaganda and establishment of the "export revolution" idea, i.e. that the Soviet rule should be spread towards other places, which does not make this a run-of-the-mill variation of Melies' "A Trip to the Moon": Gusov gives a speech towards the suppressed Martian working class ("Do what we did!"), upon which images of a man breaking his chains and putting a sickle and a hammer on a table are inserted, culminating with a hilarious, unintentionally comical request: "Form the Federative Socialist Republic of Mars!" The abrupt, confusing ending is indicative because it took such an imaginative concept just to give an anti-imaginative message, namely that daydreaming is useless and that people should rather spend their time doing something useful for the state. Still, Yulia Solntseva is effective as Aelita, whereas the film has its fair share of merits.

Grade;++

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Landlord

The Landlord; comedy, USA, 1970; D: Hal Ashby, S: Beau Bridges, Marki Bey, Diana Sands, Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, Louis Gossett, Jr.

Elgar Enders is a 29-year old lad who never had to work for living due to his rich family. He decides to buy an apartment block in Brooklyn and evict all tenants from there. At first, he is shaken by the lower class tenants, African Americans, but gradually grows fond of them. He falls in love with mulatto Lanie, and even has sex with married tenant Fanny. Elgar's uptight mother Joy is upset by her son's "strange" behavior and disowns him. When Fanny gets pregnant by Elgar, her husband goes crazy and wants to kill him with an axe, but in the end chooses not to. Fanny gets the baby and leaves it to Elgar for adoption, who decides to live with Lanie.

When Norman Jewison volontarily abandoned the directing position of "The Landlord" to make room for his friend and editor, he practically paved the way for one of the most opulent directors from the 70s, the incredibly underrated Hal Ashby. However, looking at it from today's perspective, the movie is slightly dated in its relationships between blacks and whites, arguably the weakest achievement from Ashby's most creative phase, the 70s, and it can be sensed that he was unsure how to make it: numerous scenes are pretty to look at, but one can feel they are "not right" and should not have been there in the first place. "The Landlord" is a patchwork, with too much random ideas scattered throughout it, instead of aligning them into a harmonious whole. The story turns into a serious drama in the last 30 minutes, transforming into a 'coming-of-age' essay where the hero Elgar decides to live his life, awakened by the tenants in the apartment block who are primitive, but somehow so alive that they awaken his dormant existence. This is where "The Landlord" gets to the point, but alas, it takes too long for the journey to really pay out. Ashby's often theme of celebration of life even during untypical situations is already established here, in the best sequence, where, after sex with Fanny, who says it didn't "mean anything", Elgar is seen running through the streets in pure joy nonetheless, in tune to Al Kooper's music in the background. A small jewel here is Lee Grant as Elgar's uptight mother, nominated for an Oscar, who is interesting even when her lines are not that inspiring, and especially when they are ("I can't remember...Which husband did I marry?").

Grade;+

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Detective Story

Detective Story; crime-drama, USA, 1951; D: William Wyler, S: Kirk Douglas, William Bendix, Eleanor Parker, Cathy O'Donnell, Horace McMahon, George Macready, Lee Grant

24 hours in a New York police precinct. Detective Jim McLeod wants to have a baby with his wife Mary, but she has trouble getting pregnant. His colleagues, Detective Lou and Lieutenant Monaghan, have a wide array of arrested people: a girl who stole a bag from a store; a kind lad, Arthur, who embezzled over 400$ from his boss to have some money to impress for his girlfriend; two burglars, Charlie and Lewis, are interrogated and admit many of their thefts. At the same time, McLeod has a personal grudge against Dr. Schneider, who performed illegal abortions and left several people dead, but there are no witnesses. After a while, it turns out that even Mary had an abortion at Schneider, and thus McLeod breaks up with her. He is shot by Charlie, and before his death, McLeod wishes that Mary would forgive him.

One of the unknown classics, "Detective Story" is an excellent example of a thoroughbred, detailed and virtuoso written crime flick that plays out almost entirely on one location - a New York police precinct - and a 'restrained' time scope of only 24 hours. The screenplay by Robert Wyler and Philip Jordan sets up a raw, dark and unglamourous view of the police routine, with a whole kaleidoscope of opulent characters, from the main protagonist Jim McLeod, whose over-eager and rigid stance at life will lead to a personal tragedy, through Dr. Schneider, who performs illegal abortions, something of a 'taboo' breaking theme back in the 50s, up to the almost innocent shoplifter girl, played absolutely brilliantly by Lee Grant, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress. Director William Wyler leads the tightly written story with a sure director's hand, but at the same time he leaves room for his characters to act. In one of the best scenes, Dr. Schneider's attorney shows up at the precinct and gives McLeod two photos of his client, nude, pointing out that his client must leave the precint in the same shape he came in, and "does not want to see any bruises or scars on him". In another, Lieutenant Monaghan interrogates Mary who is obviously hiding something from him. He asks her is she knows Dr. Schneider, but she says no. Still, Monaghan observes: "When I mentioned Schneider, you looked away." The only flaw is the overly melodramatic ending, that suddenly starts throwing prayers and Gospels around as if Wyler was warming up for "Ben Hur", which is untypically unsubtle compared to the rest of the strong film.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Agora

Agora; history/ drama, Spain/ USA, 2009, D: Alejandro Amenabar, S: Rachel Weisz, Oscar Isaac, Max Minghella, Michael Lonsdale

Alexandria, 391 AD. Hypatia is one of the rare Greek women who teach at the library, but during that time the Christians are slowly becoming the dominating religion in the Roman Empire and do not tolerate any other worldview. After a feud, where Christians attacked statues of ancient gods, a riot breaks out and the Christian destroy the 'pagan' library of the Serapeum. Hypatia's slave Davus becomes a Christian himself. 20 years later, Hypatia has a new theory in which she stipulates that the Earth may actually be revolving around the Sun, not vice-versa. Her former student, Orestes, is now the prefect, but comes into conflict with the radical views of Cyril. The Christians start attacking the Jews and ultimately demand that everyone converts to their religion. Hypatia refuses and is thus killed.

"Agora" should be appreciated for the sole fact that it was the first film about Hypatia, the revolutionary woman philosopher, as well as bravely choosing a rarely shown 'taboo' theme in history, namely that even early Christians were fundamentalists and extremists who caused great damage to knowledge. The movie has certain omissions, most notably because Hypatia's works were destroyed and thus director Alejandro Amenaber had the burden of practically inventing her scenes from scratch, yet the storyline has a point and can be viewed as a clash between feminism and religious fundamentalism, relevant even today, not only in ancient times. Several times, scenes of Earth from space are shown to emphasize Hypatia's fascination with astronomy, whereas in the sequences where Christians destroy the library because it contains 'pagan' ideas, the camera is tilted upside-down to symbolically say how the world values became all wrong, contrariwise. The genre of history film, especially from the ancient times, became almost extinct since the 70s, which is another reason to applaud Amenabar for having courage to make "Agora", and he was probably inspired because he realized the ironic parallels between Jesus Christ's execution by the Romans for having integrity, different worldviews and Hypatia's execution by the very same Christians for having integrity, different worldviews. "Agora" shows how Christianity was established on genocide/religioncide, just like numerous other big religions who expanded and did not tolerate other, older religions, and leaves the message open to interpretation to the viewers. It is an appeal for tolerance and knowledge over force.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; drama/ war, UK, 1943; D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, S: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Ursula Jeans

While on leave from the Second Boer War, soldier Clive Candy is angered when he reads a letter from a certain Edith in Berlin who informs him that a certain Kaunitz is spreading lies there about the English crimes in Africa. Candy travels to Berlin and confronts Kaunitz, but accidentally insults the German army, too, and thus accepts a fencing duel with Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. However, the two become friends and he allows Theo to marry Edith, even though he had feelings for her. In World War I, Candy met a girl who looked like Edith, Barbara, and thus married here. He met Theo again. In World War II, Candy intervenes and thus Theo is granted asylum to the UK, after fleeing Nazi Germany. British soldiers stage a surprise attack, as an exercise, and capture Candy. He is angered, but later on agrees to fight according to the new, dirty rules in war.

One of the cult films of the famous Powell-Pressburger directing tandem, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" is a very good, but still a little bit overrated achievement that is not among the best films of the two directors. It starts out as a typical World War II film, with a military exercise where a young British soldier, Spud, storms a Turkish bath and captures an old general, Candy, who is only wearing a towel, as his prisoner - and makes fun of his "grandpa" moustache. However, this is where the film disconnects from the typical and switches to original: in any other film, Candy would have been just an episodic character who would yield to surrender, but here he refuses - he is not just a face in the crowd, he has a story to tell, among them how he got those moustache 40 years ago. The old Candy uses his bare fist to kick Spud into the pool and then the camera slowly pans away from him to the other end of the pool, where a young Candy emerges from the water, thereby triggering a flashback to his life 40 years ago.

The structure of the film is the strong point: it is divided into three chapters, all encapsulated exclusively during a war period (Second Boer War; Word War I, World War II), emphasizing that an Englishman and a German (Candy-Theo) can be friends throughout those three chapters, even when their countries are at conflict. Still, by taking such an approach, it went too much into width and occasionally too little into depth (the flaws are obvious in the poorly developed character of Barbara, who is almost an extra; we find out very little about what Theo did between the war, and not a single scene is dedicated to Edith's death, one of the crucial protagonists). Likewise, unlike other Powell-Pressburger films, this one is more conventional than it is inventive, with one of the scarce, but noticeable exceptions being the imaginative sequence where a blank wall is shown, then the sound of Candy's hunting gun is heard, and then the stuffed heads of lions, deers and other animals "appear" on the wall, one by one. The films is also overlong and the final quarter degenerates into a too obvious military patriotism (though that is predictable since the World War II was still going on during that time). Still, the "invisible", unobtrusive writing and directing have power, wit and quality ideas (Candy meets his fiance on the last evening of World War I, during a diner in a convent), the actors are all great and the thread of the message can be sensed throughout the film.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi; experimental film/ documentary, USA, 1982; D: Godfrey Reggio

A pictogram in Utah... Archive footage of the Saturn V rocket being launched... Images of clouds, a desert and a canyon... Fields of flowers are exchanged for fields of several power plants... A series of buildings are destroyed in a controlled demolition... A metropolis at night, with the moon and clouds passing by the skyscraper. Thousands of cars drive at night... People working at an assembly line... Passer-bys walking on the streets... Images of microchips are juxtaposed with satellite images of a city... The movie then finally returns back to the Saturn V rocket and the pictogram.

Similarly like Herzog's "Fata Morgana" - but without any narration - Godfrey Reggio decided to make an experimental documentary film where the main protagonist is Earth itself, not its inhabitants. "Koyaanisqatsi" ultimately advanced into a cult film, paving the way for future similar documentaries that present raw images of the world and just allow viewers to 'decipher' deeper meanings by themselves, like "Samsara" and "Baraka". There is no plot in "Koyaanisqatsi" - no action, no events - the main action is just Earth's essence, what is all around us. As such, the film is unusual and original, since Reggio decided to try out something daring, yet as a whole the magic of the mood is not that all-encompassing or intense, whereas the concept was slightly disrupted when it allowed human characters in it, who seem unnecessary, since it started out just as an observation of nature, since those kind of scenes sometimes reached almost a dreamy mood (clouds "flowing" down a mountain just like a waterfall; fields of flowers), as opposed to the human world, not its civilization per se, since even that has a few aesthetically pleasant moments (the fast motion scene of a car driving through a city at night, leaving a long streak of several lights). The stock footage is also uneven, an "intruder" in the structure, yet the movie does indeed present our common, daily world with new eyes, as if viewed through the perspectives of an alien from another planet.

Grade;++