Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Book of Stone

El Libro de piedra; horror, Mexico, 1968; D: Carlos Enrique Taboada, S: Marga Lopez, Joaquin Cordero, Norma Lazareno, Lucy Buj

Julia is hired to be a private teacher for a peculiar 10-year old girl, Sylvia, in an isolated mansion. The child's father Eugenio and her stepmother Mariana, warn of Sylvia's weird behavior: she imagines to be playing with Hugo, a statue of a boy in the nearby lake. Strange things start happening, indeed: Julia loses her brooch in the lake, but someone returns it to her; a voodoo doll is found with needles on the exact same place where Mariana feels pain; Carlos tries to get rid of the statue, but dies in a car accident... Julia finds out that Hugo is the son of a witch, who comes to life as a statue, and teaches Sylvia black magic from his book. Eugenio destroys the statue with an axe, but the next day, a statue of Sylvia is found.

One of the more hailed horrors from Mexico, "The Book of Stone" is a good one, though more could have been done from the promising concept: for all its quality, today it seems more like a museum example of a movie. Except for the eerie opening shot of the fog and a few images of the scary, "jinxed" statue, the story is tame - the first half is almost boring, though the suspense does start to slowly rize in the second half - with too much empty walk and ordinary, standard family talk of the worried father about his daughter, whereas some scenes were clumsily directed. The paranormal tangle gives a frequency of unease, with an interesting end, which seems to have been enough for director Carlos Enrique Taboada who did not intend to enrich the straightforward story any more than it was. "Book" needed more imagination, though, yet it has its moments (Carlos wanting to paint near the lake, until he spots that the statue is missing).

Grade;++

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Bride Wars

Bride Wars; comedy, USA, 2009; D: Gary Winick, S: Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, Bryan Greenberg, Candice Bergen

Emma and Liv are best friends, all until the wedding planer books their two weddings on the same day by mistake. Even though their boyfriends-fiancees, Nate ad Fletcher, don't mind, Emma and Liv try to persuade each other to move their wedding for another date, as to not be mutually exclusive. This culminates in heated arguments and sabotage plans: Emma secretly delivers Liv chocolate hoping she will become to fat for her dress, Liv spreads rumors that Emma is pregnant...Even though this escalates on the wedding, the two realize that the fight is pointless and make up.

"Bride Wars" fell victim to the annual scapegoat seekers among the critics, as it scored only a 3.3/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. Even though this sugary film is thin, sometimes silly, shaky and predictable, such a low rating is indeed too harsh and unfair, as it has enough good jokes and ideas to justify its existence, and avoids vulgarity, bad taste or moronic moments often found in other films of that genre. The sole plot of two brides fighting for the same time slot to have their wedding is simply fun, whereas the majority of the charm is given by the two actresses, especially Anne Hathaway who is simply unstoppable in displaying her talent no matter in what film she appears in. The first half has the best jokes (after Emma got engaged, Liv simply cannot resist but to run to her boyfriend's office and angrily demand: "Honey, when are you finally going to propose me?!"), though the second half sometimes disintegrates into a tit-for-tat bitch fight, but even that segment has it moments (Hathaway's "wild" dance while trying to overshadow Hudson's character is so insane it has to ignite at least a chuckle among the audience). Far from a great achievement, but for a movie that only wanted to offer a carefree, light fun, it succeeded.

Grade;++ 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Paperman

Paperman; animated romantic comedy short, USA, 2012; D: John Kahrs, S: John Kahrs, Kari Wahlgen

A man stands on a train station. One of his papers is blown out of his hands into the face of a woman, and her lipstick remains on the document. The two chuckle, but part ways. The man spots the woman one morning in the neighboring building, and throws thousands of paper planes in order to make her notice, but fails. He gets out on the street, but the paper planes come to life and help him meet the woman again.

There's a certain time span into the storyline when you know a movie is a masterpiece. John Kahrs "Paperman" has one of the fastest time spans to get there: already some ten seconds into the film - when a document of the hero is blown into the woman's face, and as he retrieves it he finds out she "kissed" it by inadvertedly leaving a smooch on the paper - it manages to reach the highest level of awe, sympathy and simple wit. Unfortunately, that high level is not kept for the rest of the story and it seems we are watching a film slowly disintigrate as its running time goes on: the second act, of the man throwing paper-planes out the window, is very good, but a lot weaker, whereas the finale unfortunately derailed into a silly fantasy where the paper-planes come to life and bring the couple together, which is naive kitsch. Even though its momentum is falling down fast, like a slide, "Paperman" is overall still a quality short, executed almost without any dialogues and stylish black-and-white cinematography, and as such it is a valuable example of a sweet, charming animated romance in the US.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

L'Albero degli zoccoli; drama, Italy, 1978; D: Ermanno Olmi, S: Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli

Lombardy, end of the 19th century. Four farmer families live in a commune in order to work from there on the land of the wealthy landlord. The families are very poor, but have patience and understanding. One widow, mother to six children, says a prayer to Christ so he may save her sick cow, her only income. The widow takes some water from a creek and gives it to the cow, which is indeed healed the next morning; grandfather Anselmo hopes to plant his tomatoes first; the farmers butcher a pig. One farmer, Batisti, is father of three children. His son Minec goes to school, but his wooden shoe breaks, so Batista hacks a tree in order to make him a new shoe. The landlord eventually finds out, and punishes Batista by expelling him and his family from his property.

One of those fake masterworks, art drama "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" won the Golden Palm in Cannes and is occasionally mentioned by cineasts and film critics as a great piece of filmmaking, but is an overrated and overlong minimalist rural drama. Director Ermanno Olmi strives towards realism, without any fakery or glamour: he shows four farmer families who live in very poor conditions, walk in mud because there are no streets or put chicken droppings in the soil for fertilizer with their hands, and does not even shy from unpleasant moments (two shocking and graphic sequences of butchering a goose and a pig), whereas even the actors seem like authentic people, without any false pathos. However, the movie is without a poetic touch of a Pasolini or a Fellini, too straight-forward and monotone, with a, nota bene, too intrusive forcing of Christian religion. "The Tree" has only two wonderful sequences stemming from the 'slice-of-life' choice of style - the sweet moment where two girls are switching turns while sitting on a wheelbarrow while the other drives it and the charming subplot where grandpa Anselmo shows his granddaughter how to plant and raise ripe tomatoes before everyone else - which is enough for a good film, but not for a great one, since the rest of the film's events are rather bland and it will depend for whom they will suffice to carry a running time of three hours. It never reaches the magic of a 'slice-of-life' of a Miyazaki or a Takahata. However, it has a great little sequence where Batista chops a tree and then spends the whole night in devotion by modelling it to fit his son's wooden shoe.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

One Week

One Week; silent comedy short, USA, 1920; D: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, S: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Buster and Sybil are married and get a special wedding present: parts for a build-it-yourself house. However, a jealous man who wanted Sybil for himself, deliberately meddles with their instruction kit, which results in an "athwart" house. Buster nevertheless tries to make as best of a home as he can. When they have to relocate, Buster puts barrels under the house and moves it with a car, but it gets destroyed when a train collides with it.

Along with "Sherlock, Jr.", "One Week" is probably Buster Keaton's best short film, a shining comedy. Keaton somehow hits the vibe of inspiration the most when he includes some spectacular object to play with or destruction on a large scale - such was the case with the epic tornado sequence in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and the epic train chase in "The General" - as is the case here, where a whole housing unit is a part of the joke, used often to full potentials (brilliant - and magnificent - jokes where a strong wind spins the whole house around its axis, and makes the people inside feel like in a merry-go-round; the "abstract" design of the house, almost reminiscent of "jagged" buildings in the expressionistic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), though here even "smaller", humble everyday jokes manage to ignite all the way to the top (the scene where Keaton hits a police officer, takes his hat and uses it to stop the traffic, i.e. the car in which his bride was kidnapped, and then return the hat to the officer is among the pinnacle of cool). Filled with meticulous details, a strong pace, charm and an elegant style, "One Week" truly is among the greatest short films ever made and offers Keaton in a very cool edition.

Grade;+++

The Scarecrow

The Scarecrow; silent comedy short, USA, 1920; D: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, S: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Two farmer assistants, Buster and Joe, are living inside a very small house with only one room. They are in love with the daughter of the main farmer. Joe admits his love first, while a dog eats some cream and chases after Buster, who thinks the dog is rabid due to its cream on the jaw. Loosing his clothes in the chase, Buster takes the clothes of a scarecrow. He runs away with the farmer's daughter on a motorcycle and they are wed when they pick up a priest.

"Scarecrow" is a sketchy comedy with a vague plot, and not enough of a payoff compared to Buster Keaton's best films, but is still a very fun short film. The main lack in the story is the lack of a cohesive whole, evident in the very elaborated and meticulous breakfast sequence (salt and pepper grinders, ketchup and other spices are hanging tied to strings above the two protagonists, who just have to pick them "down"), but a one that lacks a point or a definite punchline, since a hanging salt pepper is not that much of a useful invention. Had they established that Buster and Joe are constantly misplacing or losing stuff in the house, such a string would have had a point in the story. The film should be enjoyed for its simple jokes that arrive swiftly and are great little fun: the dog "climbing" a ladder; for instance, or a scene where a character does not want to get his shoes wet, so he crosses a river by walking on his hands! The most charming jokes are so innocent it melts you away, such as the one where Buster "improvises" by giving his girlfriend a cog instead of a engagement ring.

Grade;++

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games; action adventure, USA, 2012; D: Gary Ross, S: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

In the future, the US had a civil war. After the secessionist movement was suppressed, the nation is divided into 12 districts and the rich Capitol. In order to celebrate that event, the Hunger Games are held annually: 12 boys and 12 girls from each district are chosen to fight in a televised broadcast until only one survives. When her 12-year old sister is selected, Katniss volunteers to go instead of her. The boy from her district is Peeta, who is secretly in love with her. The 24 candidates train in the Capitol for the games, and Peeta and Katniss are assigned with "mentor" Haymitch, an earlier winner. Once released in the forest, the teenagers start massacring each other. Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left and decide to commit suicide rather than kill each other. However, they are interrupted by the council who declares them both winners.

Even though it had a good critical acclaim and a smashing box office result, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins dystopian novel "The Hunger Games" is a standard action flick that turned out too much like "Running Man" and too little like "Rollerball" or "The Truman Show". Instead of developing a satirical and political dimension, it just dwells on the raw 'gladiator game' in the forest where the 24 teenagers are set on killing each other for the TV show, which in the end becomes the film's only perspective: that's maybe enough for action fans, but not for viewers eager for something more sophisticated and inventive. For one, the storyline is not articulate: it is not clear why the elite from the Capitol would set up such a drastic survivalist TV show where 23 out of 24 teenagers are killed. There is only one scene in the film that explains that, but it is insufficient. Such a practice would only make the system unstable, because parents from the 12 districts would become prone to rebellion in the long run in order to protect their kids from such a monstrosity. Overall, it simply makes no sense in the film. The sense of perspective also falls short: the fact that the 12 districts live in extreme poverty and only the Capitol has wealth is just a footnote in the film, because you never know if the place where Katniss lives in is just an exception or the rule in this world. On micro level, the scenes also tend to turn silly (Katniss spinning around her axis to "ignite" fire on her dress) or unconvincing (the typical cliche of a girl having the chance to kill off Katniss, but instead spending two-three minutes taunting her. And just when she is about to kill Katniss, she is, of course, "saved-in-the-nick-of-time"), whereas only a couple stand out as thrilling (the wasp nest sequence). "The Hunger Games" are a more humane version of "Battle Royale", but both are far from a good film.

Grade;+

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Melancholia

Melancholia; drama/ science-fiction/ disaster film, Denmark/ France/ Germany/ Sweden, 2011; D: Lars von Trier, S: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard

Part one: Justine marries Michael, yet they both arrive two hours late to their wedding reception. The guests are loosing patience, while Justine gets more and more depressed since her mother shuns her, her sister Claire complains about her behavior and Justine's boss about her work. Justine has sex with another man and Michael thus abandons her. Part two: Claire and her husband John take care about Justine in their mansion ever since she became a nervous wreck. Justine recovers, while a rouge planet, Melancholia, is about to cross paths with Earth's orbit. Even though the scientists predicted that Melancholia fly by, it changes course and heads towards Earth. John commits suicide, while Justine calmly makes a "magic cave" where she, Claire and her son Leo will await the end.

With time, director Lars von Trier's character made it more and more difficult to enjoy in his films: how else to describe an author who copes with his depression and repulsion towards society in such a way that he makes a film where he destroys Earth? "Melancholia" is a strange film, to say the least. The first half starts out as a normal drama and plays out exclusively during Justine's wedding: von Trier abandons definitely some rules of Dogme 95, but keeps the hand-held, shaky camera and cuts within frames. Unfortunately, the story has too much empty walk and too little scenes that connect in any way (we are not given that much of a reason why Justine would become depressed on her wedding day, except due to the bitting remarks of her mother and boss) whereas acting giants like John Hurt are wasted on silly scenes of him stealing everyone's spoons on the table.

The second half, that made a step into the science-fiction/ apocalypse genre, is far more engaging, though: probably taking the Nibiru pseudo-myth that was popular in the pre-2012 time, von Trier starts a second story of a rogue planet, Melancholia, that crosses paths with Earth's orbit. Some images there are expressionistic (the night sky showing the white Moon on the left and the blue Melancholia on the right; Claire's son Leo invented a ring that encompasses Melancholia's exact diameter on the sky, Claire waits for five minutes and then points the ring again towards it, and depending on if Melancholia is smaller or larger than the original ring, it is either approaching or distancing Earth) and Kirsten Dunst is strong as the sardonic heroine Justine, yet her character seems forgotten in that second half whereas it is puzzling why all the characters from the opening act (Justine's dad, mother, boss, lover...) are all excluded in part II, which makes this an incomplete disaster film that restricted the apocalyptic storyline only on the four protagonists of Justine, Claire, John and Leo. If anything, the film at least has a catharsic effect - so many human problems seem pale in comparison to this doomsday scenario - but a truly all-encompassing, humane and elaborated work of "planets colliding" was already made 30 years ago with Matsumoto's classic "Queen Millennia".

Grade;++

Monday, 4 November 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook; drama/ comedy, USA, 2012; D: David O. Russell, S: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Bree Bee

Patrick suffers from bipolar disorder and has just left a facility after treatment. He returns to his home, to live with his father and mother, but has to respect a restraining order because he attacked the lover of his wife Nikki. He meets the young Tiffany who has casual sex with strangers ever since her husband died in an accident. Patrick and Tiffany find a mutual bond because she also suffers from a disorder and rehearse dancing. When his father bets almost his whole fortune with a friend that Patrick and Tiffany will score at least a 5 out of 10 in a dance competition, the couple accepts. They indeed score a 5.0 and fall in love.

Even though it scored a very high critical acclaim, romantic tragicomedy "Silver Linings Playbook" is still a notch below that hype, a good achievement about bipolar disorder, yet a one that allowed that the tone of that neurosis gets spread out over the entire film, evident in numerous scenes that are sometimes more chaotic, messy and 'autistic' than harmonious and measured. However, despite the flaws and lack of humor, two features truly hold up and deserve universal acclaim: veteran actor Robert De Niro as the father and excellent actress Jennifer Lawrence who almost steals the show as the neurotic Tiffany. Her charm is already evident in the first sequence where she meets Patrick when they exchange a witty dialogue ("You look nice." - "Thank you." - "Oh, I'm not flirting with you." - "Oh, I didn't think you were.") In another great little moment, they have a heated argument on the street and she accuses him of harassing her, upon which local youngsters confront Patrick and a police officer even intervenes; seeing he will get in too much trouble, Tiffany steps in and suddenly defends him, telling the police officer that it was "the kids' fault" and that Patrick didn't harass her, claiming that she has a "sick sense of humor", instead. More of that warm moments would have been welcomed, and less those of empty walk of Patrick and Tiffany just dancing or avoiding each other. The characters played by Chris Tucker and Jacki Weaver were sadly "throw away" figures and the dance contest finale was OK, but superfluous and routine. Overall, a good film about two neurotic people balancing it out by being together.

Grade;++

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Dogville

Dogville; drama, Denmark/ USA/ UK/ France, 2003; D: Lars von Trier, S: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, Ċ½eljko Ivanek, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, James Caan

City of Dogville, early 20th century. Running away from gangsters, Grace arrives to the city. Tom persuades the poor inhabitants to help her find refuge. However, in return for her sanctuary, Grace is soon forced to do more and more chores for them, all the men rape her and she is even tied to a chain so that she will not escape. The gangsters finally arrive at Dogville and it turns out Grace is actually the daughter of the mafia boss. As revenge, the mobsters kill every inhabitant and raze Dogville to the ground.

Inspired by the Bertolt Brecht's drama "Die Ballade von Seerauber Jenny", "Dogville" is a weird 3-hour movie in which the seemingly kind inhabitants soon transform into selfish-arrogant psychos whereas the seemingly evil gangsters in the end turn out to be the good guys. Director Lars von Trier directs the film again in the Dogme 95 style, but signs of madness of his vision do start to become apparent, which will culminate in his later films. The innovation, though, is the set-design looking like a cheap stage: everything is drawn with a chalk. Houses do not exist but are just illustrated in 2-D squares that have the words "Tom's house", "Ben's house", etc. written on them. Thus, even when the actors leave the house on the street, they pretend to open "invisible" doors. There are no background, either: during day, exteriors are in white, and during night in black color. This gives "Dogville" a fascinating feature of a stylistic experiment and an additional layer over the already slightly worn out Dogme 95 hand-held camera look, and the story is interesting, showing once again von Trier's portrait of the bottom of human moral, yet he turns out to be, unfortunately, much more colder and cynical than in his previous films. Nicole Kidman is great as the mysterious Grace who "buys" her stay in Dogville by performing various kinds of chores for the inhabitants, though some moments do turn out excessive (every man rapes her; she is even chained as to not escape). The movie is uneven, with a lack of measure and sophistication, and von Trier's decisions are once again questionable, yet he is able to create a strong and raw allegory of revenge.

Grade;+++