Friday, 30 May 2014

Time of Eve

Eve no Jikan; animated science-fiction/ comedy/ drama series, Japan, 2008; D: Yasuhiro Yoshiura, S: Jun Fukuyama, Kenji Nojima, Rina Sato

In the future, androids are so perfectly anthropomorphic that they are obliged to turn on a fluorescent light ring over their head, to distinguish them from humans. Student Rikuo treats his female house-droid Sammy as an object, until he discovers she secretly visits an underground cafe, "Time of Eve", where androids can turn off their rings and act like humans. The owner of the cafe is Nagi. Rikuo and his friend Masakazu meet a lot of nice people, many of whom turn out to be androids, which in turn causes a change in their character, and from there on they start treating androids like equals.

This is a kind of anime that takes all the themes already explored in "Blade Runner" and yet manages to restructure them anew in order to give the viewers a fresh take on the possible blurring of the line between humans and artificial humans, in this case androids. Unlike Scott's classic film noir, this story takes a pleasant 'slice-of-life' approach, since it plays out almost entirely inside the "underground" cafe and the simple conversations between humans and androids while drinking beverages, whereas it even has a hilarious little reference on "Blade Runner" in episode 2, as well. "Time of Eve" is very short, spanning only six episodes, but achieves a fine balancing act: it is simple, fun and accessible, yet clever and thought provoking at the same time. The storyline is scarce, yet it achieves what is sets up to do.

The catch is that androids can only be distinguished when they turn on their "light ring" above their head, and already the pilot episode establishes a very inspirational moment: students Rikuo and Masakazu enter the "Time of Eve" cafe, where such a rule is forbidden, and meet a very talkative, lively girl, Akiko. She talks fast and asks them all sorts of questions. The two guys like her, and the next day, while in the classroom, they meet Akiko again. The camera shows Akiko from the head down, while Rikuo and Masakazu stare at her in puzzling silence - until the camera tilts up, revealing Akiko has a ring above her head!  It uses humor to broaden the relationship between Rikuo and androids (there is a funny running gag in one episode where he constantly stars at the bust of a woman in the cafe) and has a great visual style (despite animation, the camera is fluent and moves in dynamic fashion, and even turns 360 degrees in the scene where the two heroes talk with a robot at the table). The symbolic plot also has a wide spectrum of interpretations regarding discrimination (you can, for instance, regard it as an allegory of antisemitism in Europe in the 30s, where the rings the androids have to carry resemble the armbands the Jews had to wear). The major flaw, though, is that the relationship between Rikuo and his android Sammy is left so underdeveloped, which, together with a very vague ending, left a feeling as if the story was left unfinished.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

5 Days of War

5 Days of War; war/ drama, USA, 2011; D: Renny Harlin, S: Rupert Friend, Emmenuelle Chriqui, Richard Coyle, Johnathon Schaech, Andy Garcia, Val Kilmer, Rade Šerbedžija, Dean Cain, Mikko Nousiainen

In August 2008, dictator Vladimir Putin orders the Russian army to cross the international border and invade Georgia, ostensibly to protect Georgia's break-away provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but in reality to carve up two new loyal puppet states. War reporter Thomas travels to Gori to witness the war and its victims. Together with Tatia, a Georgian woman, and reporter Sebastian, they have to bring a memory card containing footage of a Russian war crime to the public, thus turning into a target. They make it, while Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili pledges to keep its country independent.

Despite its lukewarm reception and biased approach, "5 Days of War" is a much better film than expected, with a few bitter contemplations about how pointless any war is: it actually starts with the Iraq War, where the hero reporter loses his friend (Heather Graham, whose character dies already after 3 minutes), only to move to the next insanity, the Russian-Georgian War. Overall, this makes for a more cynical theme, namely how the main protagonist Thomas, a war reporter, figures that his profession is actually to be a vulture during disaster times. The storyline is often one-dimensional - for instance, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili (very good Andy Garcia) is practially shown as an angel who never did anything wrong, even though the incidents around South Ossetia were far more complex - and suffers from a few cliches, most memorably from the 'hero-saved-in-the-nick-of-time', whereas the thin characters needed more development (one of the few exceptions is Val Kilmer's character, the 'goofball' reporter who even tries to lighten up Thomas, Sebastian and Tatia by saying: "Cheer up, it's only a war!") and the action sequences required more inspiration. However, the film flows smoothly, its authenticity is helped by the fact that it was actually filmed in Georgia, and it has a few moments, such as the shocking scene where a Russian paramilitary takes an old lady from the crowd and shoots her in the river, or the macabre, almost sardonic bloody duel under Stalin's statue in Gori. A fair war movie, yet due to the above mentioned omissions, it is not among the best films about the consequences of Russian imperialism, such as "Charlie Wilson's War" or "The Unbearable Lightness of Being".

Grade;++

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Kumo no muko, Yakusoko no Basho; animated romantic science-fiction drama, Japan, 2004; D: Makoto Shinkai, S: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Yuuka Nanri, Masato Hagiwara

In an alternate history, Japan is split between two states: on the north, Hokkaido has been occupied by the Soviet Union, while the south is in alliance with the US. Two guys, Hiroki and Takuya, are friends with a girl violinist, Sayuri, and live in Aomori, from which they can see Hokkaido, where the Union constructed a giant tower that is intended as a weapon, since it can replace the matter around it with matter from another universe. Sayuri disappears for three years, until it is discovered that she is in a come, and while she is "sleeping", the power of the tower is kept under restraint because it was constructed by her grandfather. Hiroki, still in love with her, takes Sayuri's body and flies via an airplane to Hokkaido, just as the Union and the US declare a war on each other. Sayuri awakens from her coma, and the tower is destroyed.

"The Place Promised in Our Early Days" is a film with a strange dichtomy: its setting in an alternate history world, that reminds of a Japanese version of the division of Korea or the Crimean crisis (Hokkaido is under the occupation of the "Union"), is more fascinating than the main love story, but deliberately underdeveloped and "held back", while the love story is pushed as the main event, yet it never ignites fully and, it seems, does not have the same potential as the setting. After two excellent anime films, "Voices of a Distant Star" and "5 Centimeteres per Second", hopeless romantic Makoto Shinkai again picked a romance, delivering a touching and proportionally well made film, yet a one that lacks the emotional punch of his two above mentioned titles. The love triangle is not developed enough, the characters are good, but slightly humorless and dry, whereas Shinkai's 'autistic' directing gave the storyline a rather vague feeling of a 'stream-of-consciousness' resembling T. Malick. A better grip and a more articulate story would have been welcomed, obvious in the rushed finale which treats a war between the Union and the US only as a footnote hardly worth mentioning. However, Shinkai still has a lot virtues in his sleeve, from the melancholic mood up to the great animation, and a few moments are poetic, such as the line that "the Universe may be dreaming" as well.

Grade;++

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Eyes Wide Open

Einayim Pkuhot; drama, Israel, 2009; D: Haim Tabakman, S: Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker, Ravit Rozen

Jerusalem. Aaron is an ultra-Orthodox Jew working in a butcher shop, married and father of two kids. One day, after placing an ad that he needs an assistant in the shop, a young lad, Ezri shows up, who wants to study the Thora. Ezri is a good student - but gay. When he starts drawing a portrait of Aaron, Ezri tries to kiss him. Aaron is at first confused, but likes the lad and eventually they start a relationship. Word of mouth reaches other religious people, who consider homosexuality a sin, and they place ads that Aaron's butchery is "unclean". Aaron does not know what to do. He confesses everything to his wife and takes a ritual bath.

"Eyes Wide Open" is another gay drama set in a forbidden-unorthodox setting - while "Yossi & Yagger" were set in an IDF unit, and "Brokeback Mountain" challenged some cowboy cliches, director Haim Tabakman takes an even more daring move, by unfolding a male-male love story in the backdrop of an Orthodox Jewish community, a highly unusual choice that enabled him to dwell not only on some issues regarding bigotry and intolerance, but also on the negative effects when such vice is commanded by certain extremely conservative religious rules. On the other hand, the spatial setting of a butchery where the hero, Aaron, works in, is one of the most inappropriate settings for any love story to develop. Tabakman leads a minimalistic, honest and emotional storyline that explores some "dead ends" in people's lives (Aaron is happy while with Ezri, but also unhappy because all his friends do not want to accept his sudden homosexual side), and gives a dignified plea to humanity and understanding, whereas all the actors are great, especially Zohar Strauss in the leading role. A good and ambitious film, but a one that does not offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, sole for one, and one only: a grey, existential drama.

Grade;++

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Deluge

Potop; historical film/ drama, Poland, 1974; D: Jerzy Hoffman, S: Daniel Olbrychski, Malgorzata Braunek, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Kazimierz Wichniarz, Wladyslaw Hancza

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1655. Andrzej Kmicic is an unpredictable and wild colonel, and his soldiers are even more savage. Therefor, noblewoman Olenka is not at first pleased about her arranged marriage with him. When his companions get killed in a tavern quarrel, Kmicic takes revenge by pillaging the village of the Butryms. However, this is all overshadowed by the Deluge, the event in which Carol Gustav ordered the Swedish army to invade Poland. By a trick, Hetman Janusz Radzwill makes Kmicic promise his loyalty to him - but Kmicic regrets his promise instantly when he hears that Radzwill betrayed the Polish king Jan Casimir and instead changed his loyalty towards Gustav. Kmicic still manages to save his friends who stayed loyal to Poland and were sentenced to death by Radzwili, but because of that Kmicic is considered traitor on both sides. He takes up the name Babinich and saves a monastery from the Swedish siege. He goes to Silesia and persuades king Casimir to return to Poland. Together with mercenaries, such as the Crimean Tatars, the army defeats the opposing forces. Kmicic is rehabilitated and reunited with his beloved Olenka.

Jerzy Hoffman's film "The Deluge" is one of the few cinematic depictions of the rarely talked about historical event known as Deluge - the 17th century invasion of Swedish army of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which, combined with the Russian invasion, may have caused up to a million dead - based on the Polish novel with the same title by Henryk Sienkiewicz, yet even though it was one of the most popular movies in Polish cinemas and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, today it is a rather dated and stiff achievement. A huge blow to its level of enjoyment is the slow pace - which is not a problem on its own, but since "The Deluge" has a running time of 5 hours (!), such a choice is detrimental. By watching "The Deluge", you start appreciating other epics like "Gone with the Wind" and "War and Peace" even more because they struck a correct chore and knew exactly how to be monumental 'the right way', without turning lax, overlong and stiff like here. The fictional hero Kmicic is an allegory of a patriot who always stays faithful to his homeland, in a story in which, faced with a strong invading army, some Polish nobles took the easy route and decided to switch their allegiance towards the Swedish forces and betray their homeland, and thus enabled an exploration of the theme of such a rift between integrity and pliability, which combined with opulent set-designs, thousands of extras and high production values gave the film high ambition.

Unfortunately, many sequences feel too often staged, and too rarely genuine - especially the paper-thin love story between Kmicic and Olenka - and some are even unintentionally comical (Kmicic is deadly shot, stabbed and injured five times during the film, and always somehow survives), whereas there is always an hour between the battle scenes, which in turn seem often sparse (the exception is the Swedish siege of a monastery, and Kmicic's suicidal assignment of planting an explosive device under the strongest cannon at the gates). One of the few truly excellent characters is the chubby Zagloba, who gives the only funny moment  of the entire film, when - while captured and escorted in a waggon by guards - he persuades his captor, the naive officer Kowalski, that he is his uncle, gains his trust, makes him drunk and then takes his clothes when the latter falls asleep. Some details are also quite realistic (men without shirts washing themselves in the exterior by putting snow under their armpits during winter; Kmicic using his own blood as ink to write on paper). Overall, "The Deluge" is a good film, yet one cannot shake the impression as if all the great moments were put aside, making this a standard depiction of a story that could have been much greater.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Millennium Actress

Sennen Joyu; animated drama, Japan, 2001; D: Satoshi Kon, S: Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa, Shozo Iizuka, Masaya Onosaka
Genya and his cameraman Kyoji are assigned of making a documentary of an studio that is being torn down. Genya though sees this as a great chance to interview the meanwhile 75-year old actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, of whom he is a great fan of for decades. The two meet Chiyoko in her house and she starts narrating her life: as a teenager, she met a painter who was the government rebel and saved him from the police. He gave her a key and she fell in love with him. Since he was sent to Manchuria, she accepted a role in a film that was filmed there, hoping to find him. In the post Word War II period, she made many movies, hoping he will see and contact her. Finally, she gave up and retired from acting. Back in present, she becomes ill and goes to the hospital, while Genya confesses to Kyoji that an old Japanese soldiers told him he tortured and killed the painter back when she was a teen.

Satoshi Kon's 2nd feature length film, "Millennium Actress" is arguably the best of all his four films: a gentle, melancholic, wonderfully emotional story with humor that is at the same time a sly homage and synechdoche to Japanese cinema as a whole. The 75-year old heroine Chiyoko - loosely based on the life of actress Satsuko Hara - narrates her life and film career, yet Kon used a genius, inventive idea of the two interviewees - fan Genya and his cameraman Kyoji - getting so sucked in into her narration that they find themselves in the middle of her films, almost as a "3-D narration", which gives the conventional biopic storyline a fresh, comical and creative momentum. For instance, in one scene, Chiyoko plays a princess in a film set in the Middle Ages, but just as she is about to get killed by a collapsing wall, she is saved by a samurai - whose face belongs to Genya! This is especially memorable for Genya, who was Chiyoko's fan all his life, and actually saved her life for real when he was an assisstant working on her last film as a teenager. This even goes so far that a middle-aged Genya finds himself in the same scene with the teenage Genya.

Similarly like "Perfect Blue", Kon again uses a trick that an event suddenly turns out to be just a clip from a film, but here he developed a better sense for characters and their emotions, which gives the film spark. The story is also a clever essay on the fan-idol relationships: Chiyoko became an actress only to meet her idol again, a painter she met when she was a teenager, and continued making films hoping he will see and contact her one day. The tragic resolution of his fate at the end is both heartbreaking and romantic at the same time. However, this is again mirrored in Genya, who considers Chiyoko an idol, even though their platonic love is also destined to fail. "Actress" is filled with subtly touching emotions that always seem natural and even, never forced or melodramatic (in the midst of WWII ruins, Chiyoko finds her portrait on a destroyed wall, evidently from her painter), whereas the finale is clever (Chiyoko runs after recieving the letter of her painter, and this transforms into all her film characters in a dozen of scenes aligning into running in search for someone), all amounting to a shining anime.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Robot Carnival

Robot Carnival; animated science-fiction, Japan, 1987; D: Atusko Fukushima, Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, Hidetoshi Omori, Yasuomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Mao Lamdo, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Takashi Nakamura

Numerous stories linked only by the theme of robots: in a desert village, people hide in their houses when they hear about the upcoming "Robot Carnival" sign... Two girls enter a futuristic amusement park. One girl runs away when she sees her boyfriend with another girl. In a joyride, she experiences an action adventure involving robots... A robot child wanders through a panorama with cloud images in the background... Robot ships invade a city and kidnap a girl, but a cyborg-man saves her... A married man secretly built a robot girl in his basement because he needs "basic love". He smashes the robot when it/she develops a strong personality. As an old man, he is again visited by the robot-girl... A scientist builds a robot in his laboratory... In the 19th century Japan, people operate two two giant, wooden robots fighting each other... In a city at night, freaky robots come to life and are controlled by a strange being. A bum witnesses the event and is chased by the robots. But they stop at sunrise.

Nine directors were given free hand to do whatever they want for nine short stories - as long as they respect the main theme, robots - and the result was anime anthology film "Robot Carnival", which is overall predictably eclectic: styles, moods and themes clash and blend, since we have everything, from drama, comedy, action up to pure experimental avant-garde. As such, the quality is inevitably uneven and restricted to each episode - even the animation quality - but not a single segment is bad. Excluding the opening and closing segment, which serve more as an (teaser) intro and outro, there are seven stories here, while only two have dialogues. Four stories are solid, but your run-of-the-mill action or SF, and one is very good, "Nightmare", where machines come to life one night in Tokyo, and only one bum is witness to the scary spectacle, which is a fine blend of paranoia, surreal and the subconscious fear that nobody will believe if you witnessed something out of this world.

However, two episodes surmount the rest: Yasuomi Umetsu's "Presence" and Mao Lamdo's "Cloud". They are the only two episodes worthy of a deeper analysis. Excellent "Presence" is thought provoking - is it moral for a married man to simply "construct" and "audit" his own girl robot in a basement? Is the main hero actually an antihero, since he wants the robot girl not for a romantic love, but for "something more basic"? - and has a touching ending that said a lot about human-AI relationships, long before Jonze's "Her". However, "Cloud" even surmounts "Presence": Lamdo directs one of the most beautiful experimental shorts in the history of cinema, consisting only out of a robot-kid walking across a panorama while clouds change shapes in the background. There has been a lot of discussion what this "static ride" represents - since cloud shapes of a dinosaur, a naked man, a mushroom cloud and a rocket are shown, some have argued that it represents the history of Earth, yet the clouds go even further than that, showing even UFOs, waves and fairies, which makes this even more mysterious - and on top of all, the travelling robot-kid may not even be a robot, but simply a foreign being experiencing our galaxy in a different perception, but either way, "Cloud" is a small masterwork and advanced into an anime jewel.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Everything Happens to Me

Chissa perche... Capitano tutte a me; science-fiction comedy, Italy, 1980; D: Michele Lupo, S: Bud Spencer, Cary Guffey, Robert Hundar

After the chaotic events, Sheriff Hall travels with the alien kid H7-25 across the country in order to hide his extraterrestrial identity. He finally finds a new place where he can apply for the Sheriff, in the small town of Munroe, where crooks reign. Hall quickly established law and order there, but a bigger challenge awaits him: hostile aliens took over a nearby military base and produce androids in order to take over the world. After they kidnap H7-25, who discovered them, Hall goes into their base, pretending to be brainwashed by their mind control machine, and there beats up the machines, including the alien boss.

A quick sequel to Bud Spencer's SF comedy hit "The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid", "Everything happens to Me" feels like one of those hastily assembled follow ups where not much effort was invested into actually conjuring up an interesting story that would justify the continuation of the 1st film, except that even the original was little more than a harmless guilty pleasure. This sequel is equally as harmless, with cartoonish fist fights typical for Spencer's films, yet also unfortunately bland, thin and uneventful - it is notable how little it has to offer, and how even the best jokes barely ignite a lukewarm smirk (in one instance, Hall scolds the alien kid H7-25 because his gadget that can do wonders could expose them. H7-25 uses the gadget and makes a plate full of pork chops appear on the table, and Hall scolds him once again, ordering him to "return everything to its original state", upon which the kid uses the device to turn the pork chops into a live pig, i.e. its "original state"). Not much is bad in the film, but not much is good, either. If anything, the music by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis has a great melody in the finale, when the Sheriff is walking alone in through the city, and the amusing, long awaited fist fight between Spencer, who pretends he has been brainwashed to enter the base, and robot humanoid aliens, has some 'guilty pleasure' charm.

Grade;+

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Gran Torino

Gran Torino; drama, USA, 2008; D: Clint Eastwood, S: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley

Walt Kowalski is a retired Korea War veteran who has prejudice against Asians in Michigan. After his wife died, he is left alone in his house, while his son lives with his family in another town. One night, Thao, a teenager of the Hmong people and his neighbor, tries to steal Walt's car, the Gran Torino. Walt stops him thanks to his gun, but later finds out Thao was forced to break in because of a local gang. As a punishment, the family orders Thao to work for Walt for a whole week. Walt makes friends with Thao and his sister Sue, and even helps them stand up against the gang. However, after the gang uses guns, Walt goes to their place and tricks them into shooting him, thereby inevitably putting them behind bars and saving Thao.

A retired 'Dirty Harry' in an anti-racist essay - after his overhyped (and melodramatic) films "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby" started to show a tendency of standard filmmaking, Clint Eastwood returned once again in great style with this excellent, intimate and unpredictable drama that flows smoothly and is subtly emotional. Walt Kowalski is at first a seemingly stereotypical Eastwood character - he is tough, stubborn, cynical (when surprisingly many people show up at his wife's funeral and subsequent meal, he just comments with: "I guess they smelled the ham") and presumes everyone a nitwit at even the slightest misunderstanding (the 77-year old Walt has to go to the basement to get more chairs for the guests in his house, but when his granddaughter half-heartedly asks if she can help, he just says: "Don't bother, you just had you nails polished"; when a young priest keeps bothering him to make a confession, Walt cannot resist to say: "I think you're an overeducated 27-year old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies.") - but as the storyline progresses, he turns out into a complex, honorable and fair person with a heart. The main tangle - Walt's friendship with his Hmong neighbors, which destroys his racism - is built incredibly even, and even subversive ideas (Asian "takeover" of America; an African-American teenager being racist toward the Asian girl Sue) are knitted carefully into the story, whereas Walt's final showdown with the gang seems almost like an upside down ending of Eastwood's own "Unforgiven". A small jewel here is Ahney Her as the clever Sue, who has more than a fair share of a clever persona (when a member of the gang, about her own age, asks about her, she says: "Mentally, I'm way too old for you").

Grade;+++