Sunday, August 31, 2014

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Tini zabutykh predkiv; drama, Ukraine, 1964; D: Sergei Parajanov, S: Ivan Mikolaychuk, Larysa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva

Western Ukraine, 19th century. Ivan is a boy living in a small village under the Carpathian mountains. While in church, he asks his father if the devil is depicted on a painting inside, but his dad replies that the devil can not be found in the church, but only among people. In a feud, his father is killed, but Ivan falls in love with Marichka, the daughter of the man who killed his father. As a lad, Ivan leaves his home and mother to work and earn money from a shepard. However, when he returns, he finds out Marichka drowned while trying to save a lamb. He spends years living alone in his home, until he finally marries Palagna. However, they cannot have kids, and Palagna starts cheating on him. He dies by hallucinating that he is with Marichka again.

One of the best films from the 60s, and among the best films of the 20th century, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" immediately caught Sergei Parajanov on the right foot, who hereby crafted his feature length debut film and gave a homage to Ukrainian culture at the same time. Parajanov simply has a fantastic visual style, practically inventing his own camera technique: the camera always moves, is fluid and, it seems, relies only on the author's intuition when crafting scenes, but the superior awe is there nonetheless, and feels genuine. Parajanov's camera goes to staggering efforts and lengths in making ordinary scenes look extraordinary: in the opening in the forest, the lens takes the POV of a tree falling directly above Ivan before he is pushed away and rescued by a man; there is a 'tour-de-force' crane shot of a Ivan and Marichka as kids descending down a hill, who go from above the camera to under it, to take a plunge in a creek, all the while the camera moves above them as if it was floating; the underwater shot of Ivan drinking at the top of the river's surface; the scene where Palagna walks by the fence at night, while she is illuminated by a patch of light...

The effect is smashing, a joy to watch, and gives the simple Romeo and Juliet in a village story power. As is often the case, Parajnov even here relies more on mood than on a clear narrative, and reduces the amount of dialogues to a minimum, letting the cavalcade of opulent images speak for themselves, but also allowing details of the Ukrainian folklore (the amusing wedding ceremony, where Ivan and Palagna are "joined" by a "wedding latter"). The Soviet censors reacted negatively to Parajanov's untrammelled style, but even though they had more power, it could not be helped: Kiev was right, and Moscow was wrong. Parajanov simply did not care for someone dictating how he should make art, and the result is far superior than the amassed amount of dated 'Soviet realism' films. The last 30 minutes almost enter stream-of-consciousness territory and the surreal, yet the magic of detaching from the reality and creating a new world from the 'grey drama' genre - that this could have conventionaly been - is so supreme that one simply has to admit that this is a shining film.

Grade;++++

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Being Human

Being Human; drama, UK/ Japan, 1994; D: Bill Forsyth, S: Robin Williams, Helen Miller, Charles Miller, Bill Nighy, Hector Elizondo, John Turturro, Lorraine Bracco, Robert Carlyle, Ewan McGregor, Vincent D'Onofrio, William H. Macy

An ancient Celt hesitates and thus loses his children and wife who are taken away by Vikings at the shore... Ancient Rome. Hector is a slave of a foolish master, Lucinnius, who wastes a fortune for petty clairvoyance tellers. Lucinnius commits suicide, but Hector does not join him, instead running away with a slave girl and forgetting about his old family... In the Middle ages, Hector, a Crusader, returns home to Scotland and falls in love with an Italian woman, even though they cannot speak each other's language. He arrives at her home, with two children, but abandons her to return to his own wife and family... Hector is among many Portuguese missionaries trying to spread Christianity in Africa. Even though they are shipwrecked, he decides to return home by foot... In the present, Hector abandons his duty in a job for a vacation with his two kids, after the divorce. They spend a pleasant evening at the beach.

Robin Williams moved outside his "comfort zone", risked and sometimes picked independent and (very) experimental films, refusing to stay only a well paid mainstream comedian. One of those bizarre risks was Bill Forsyth's unusual "Being Human", an anthology of five episodes in which Williams plays a man in several time periods, from ancient Rome up to the modern times - almost as some sort of forerunner to future films about alternative universes, "Sliding Doors" and "Mr. Nobody" - yet the movie did not pay off as much as it could have. "Being Human" is too overstretched, with an unnecessary narration (allegedly imposed by the studio, even though the first sentence of it is actually poignant: "This is the story of a story. Once upon a time there was this story, and the said to itself - how should I begin?"), whereas the first two episodes are bland thus making the narrative only "take off" by the third story, the charming tale of Hector falling in love with an Italian woman, even though they cannot speak a word of each others language. It is unknown what the original ending was before the studio intervention, but the one present here lacks a point. Still, the main theme of a man constantly messing it up by placing his duty above his family, only to get it right in the final episode when he neglects his duty and places his family first, has some bitter-sweets points about learning from your mistakes on one hand, but also accepting fatality and inevitability at the same time. There is a very pleasant moment when in the modern story Hector has a cozy evening with his two kids at the beach. The sun is setting. Hector is not quite satisfied, but his daughter just says: "This is it, dad. Maybe it doesn't get any better than this. This just might be your greatest moment in life. Just enjoy it." Indeed, maybe there will never be such a thing as a perfect life, but at least people can get accustomed to enjoying and appreciating little things in life.

Grade;+

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bullets over Broadway

Bullets over Broadway; comedy, USA, 1994; D: Woody Allen, S: John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Chaz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly, Jack Warden, Mary-Louise Parker, Joe Viterelli, Tracey Ullman, Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner

New York, early 20th century. Young playwright David wants to make it to Broadway, but has to make a huge compromise: in order for a gangster, Valenti, to finance his play, he must give a role to the latter girlfriend Olive, who is an awful actress. However, David is happy that at least he managed to get his idol, actress Helen Sinclair, for the lead role. Olive's bodyguard, gangster Cheech, suggest a few surprisingly good improvements to the play, and quickly advances into the main "ghost writer" for David. In order to complete his work, Cheech even kills Olive and thus enables a better actress to complete the impression, but is killed himself. The play is a hit, but David abandons that life and returns to his girlfriend.

Critics frequently exaggerate Woody Allen's "crisis phase" in the late 80s and early 90s since he managed to direct a masterwork, "Crimes and Misdemeanors", in between his lesser films from '87 to '94, but they are generally right that "Bullets over Broadway" signalled his "comeback": even though it is set on Broadway, this film obviously has a few poignant references and jabs at the modern film making business that involves painful compromises (finance through the mafia; accepting a lesser actress) and slyly asks the obvious bigger question, namely is it possible for an author to ever achieve his perfect vision of a story in this world? And are all films and plays just a pale glance of the original idea? Allen has a very elegant and sure directing hand, allowing for the characters to clash and interact in his own play, and the film has many of his characteristically good comical lines and dialogues ("If you entered a burning building and had the choice, would you save the last copy of Shakespeare's play or some anonymous human being?"; "I'll have a double anything"; David lamenting that the gangster has an "IQ of minus 50"...) and Rob Reiner almost steals the show in his small role of a philosophical playwright. However, it won't be until "Mighty Aphrodite" and "Deconstructing Harry" until Allen recovered completely, since the last 20-30 minutes of the film are routine and bland, whereas a few "empty walks" show up here and there. Among the most interesting features is the ending that shows how the hero simply abandons his potential glamorous life in show business and simply returns to his humble life, figuring he can only live in his honesty and reality, not in fake art, a completely different conclusion than the one reached in Allen's own "Harry".

Grade;+++

Saturday, August 23, 2014

2 Days in Paris

2 Days in Paris; comedy, France/ Germany, 2007; D: Julie Delpy, S: Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Daniel Bruhl, Adan Jodorowsky

Returning back from a vacation in Venice, a young couple, Marion, French, and Jack, an American, stop for 2 days in Paris, at her parents' home. What was suppose to be romantic, unfortunately quickly becomes anything but: Jack is a hypochondria, cannot speak French and is annoyed by Marion's dad. Marion in turn has endless arguments with taxi drivers or a former lover, whom she meets by accident in a restaurant. When her ex, Mathieu, sends her a lascivious text message, Jack breaks up with her. However, they meet again on the streets and make up.

The first 30 minutes of "2 Days in Paris" start off with a bang, quickly engaging the viewer thanks to numerous 'slice-of-life' observations and comical moments that show a more realistic side of a stressful, unromantic vacation of a young couple, Marion and Jack - the sequence where they are standing in line waiting for a bus, and Jack deliberately sends over a dozen American tourists, in search for the Louvre, to walk on the far end of the city and get lost, even though he does not know any directions, just to explain to Marion that he punished them "for re-electing Bush" and shortened the queue at the same time, is deliciously hilarious; the moment where Jack discovers that Marion secretly had another photo of a naked ex-lover with balloons, just the same as his own photo, is a sly example of "recycled turn on" - that even reminds a little bit of a female version of "Annie Hall", in terms of messy relationships (Julie Delpy directs and stars in the film), and "Chasing Amy", in terms of sex dialogues. Unfortunately, that level decays and wastes for the rest of the film, unnecessarily cramming scenes of poor taste (Marion's vile and primitive dad) that appeal too often to the cheaper audience, and not the more sophisticated at the start (too many lascivious talks about genitalia), thereby disrupting the higher impression and lowering it to a lesser enjoyment value. Delpy wanted to show that not even France is a perfect place in the world, but full of chaos, yet that chaotic feel spread to the whole film, as well. Likewise, she could have sent that message in a more subtle way.

Grade;++

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Fourth Protocol

The Fourth Protocol; thriller, UK, 1987; D: John Mackenzie, S: Michael Caine, Pierce Brosnan, Ray McAnally, Joanna Cassidy, Ned Beatty

In the nuclear weapons agreement, the fourth protocol forbids the use of those weapons through unconventional means. However, the Soviet spy Petrofsky is ordered to do exactly that: he infiltrates the border, presents himself as a British citizen and finds an apartment near the American military base Baywaters in order to there assemble a mini nuclear bomb that would detonate, thereby putting the blame on the US and causing the UK to withdraw from NATO. However, even though he was forcibly removed from his job by Irvine, MI5 agent Preston finds a small disk of polonium in a plate and slowly starts uncovering the conspiracy. He manages to stop the explosion, but is angered when he finds out representatives of MI5 and KGB worked secretly together on this all along.

One of the last Cold War thrillers, "The Fourth Protocol" is a clever and unassuming little film that once again demonstrated the competence of director John Mackenzie. There is an excellent sequence near the start, where Michael Caine's character, MI5 agent Preston, pretends to be drunk just to secretly break into the room of a suspicious fellow agent and detonate the safe just when the clock strikes midnight at New Year's Eve, in order to conceal the noise, that is deliciously and meticulously realized, without any dialogues, and that easily manages to grip the viewer's attention and keep until the end. Pierce Brosnan is great as the Soviet spy Petrofsky, who is almost as an antidote to his future James Bond character, since he is the exact opposite: he refuses to seduce women on his mission and is cold-blooded in his murders. Brosnan's story and Caine's story are separate throughout the film, until they become one in the finale. This is a thoroughbred 'minimalistic thriller', with very little dialogue and many great moments (one of the "stolen" stunt scenes is the one where the MI5 car arrives all the way to the train station and Preston barely manages to hop on the last waggon of the departing train), whereas the only complaint could be aimed at the rather rushed ending and a chaotic "plot twist" which does not seem as a natural follow-up to the previous events.

Grade;+++

Monday, August 18, 2014

Communion

Communion; science-fiction/ drama/ mystery, USA, 1989; D: Philippe Mora, S: Christopher Walken, Lindsay Crouse, Frances Sternhagen

Writer Whitley Strieber goes on a vacation to a cabin in the woods to write his next novel in peace, together with his wife and son, as well as two friends. However, that night, a strange light is seen outside the cabin, and Whitley has only a vague memory of what happened next. Several months later, Whitley was again in the cabin on Christmas, when lights were seen again outside that night. To ease his unexplained paranoia, Whitley undertakes a hypnosis and finds out he was kidnapped those two nights by bizarre goblins who brought him to a room with alien looking creatures. After coming to terms with the event, Whitley decides to write his next novel about them.

"Communion" is one of the most bizarre alien films because, for one, it is never outright clear if the beings shown were truly aliens since they were accompanied by strange, dwarf goblins, and for the other, the main human protagonist, Christopher Walken, is actually more bizarre then those beings, which might have been one of the reasons why author Whitley Strieber disapproved the film. Walken plays the hero with a dose of 'tongue-in-cheek' irony that is so out of this world that it has to be seen: in one sequence, where he is in a room without clothes in front of the aliens, he says: "Look at me, I'm naked! I'm talking to you like you are real.", and there is even a silly scene where he suddenly starts dancing with the goblins, almost as if he does not care. The creature sequences are directed like a lynchesque surreal dream, making people speculate that it was implied that the creatures were just hallucinations caused by drugs. At any rate, all of this in very inconclusive and chaotic, without a real point, whereas some scenes look fake (Whitley talking under hypnosis, but keeping his eyes open). However, one has to hand it to the authors for crafting two moments that really give the viewers chills: one is the creepy scene of the cabin in the woods at night, where Whitley does not notice an alien "peeking" behind the wall, and the other is when he is in his bed and hears a noise behind the door - what happens next truly is almost as scary as a horror.

Grade;+

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ugetsu

Ugetsu monogatori; drama/ fantasy, Japan, 1953; D: Kenji Mizoguchi, S: Masayuki Mori, Mitsuko Mito, Eitaro Ozawa, Machiko Kyo

Japan during the civil war in the 16th century. Poor farmers Genjuro and Tobei figure they can make a huge profit by selling their pottery and take huge risks by travelling towards the settlements near the front lines. During a raid on a village, they have to hide in the hill. Upon repossessing their pots, Genjuro and Tobei leave their wives, Miyagi and Ohama, and take a dangerous journey to sell their wares in a village alone. Genjuro is seduced by the mysterious Lady Wakasa who brings him to her mansion, where he forgets all about his family and enjoys the luxury there. Tobei leaves his family as well, to be a samurai, but later regrets it when he finds his neglected wife became a prostitute to survive. When Genjuro wants to leave the mansion, Lady Wakasa disappears and he figures she was a ghost. He returns to his wife, Miyagi, but the next morning, she is gone and he is informed that she was killed long ago by a soldier.

One of Kenji Mizoguchi's last films, "Ugetsu" is a bitter morality tale about abandoning and neglecting what you have for trying to obtain something you cannot have. In presenting two husbands, Genjuro and Tobei, who forget about their families for either a new woman, Lady Wakasa, or the career of a samurai, Mizoguchi crafts a quiet, calm and ambitious period piece about the delicate balance of things in the world, of the old saying "you cannot have a cake and eat it, too", whereas Lady Wakasa, who is revealed to be a ghost, may even be only an allegory of illusionary dreams. A few sequences drag, though, or feel slightly too dry and conventional at times, which lowers the overall enjoyment value of "Ugetsu". The two most memorable moments are the long, excruciating scene where a soldier stabs Miyagi, who continues to crawl on the meadow and slowly die, while her child is crying while still holding on to her back, and the other is the very touching ending. "Ugetsu" is a very good film - but great it is not. One should openly reject the polls by Sight & Sound who regularly place it among the "best films of all time", which, it must be said, is overrated and misleading: for all its effort and care, it is easily overtrumped by the much fresher and livelier, sadly forgotten classic "A Chinese Ghost Story" made 34 years later.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Terminal Velocity

Terminal Velocity; action thriller, USA, 1994; D: Deran Sarafian, S: Charlie Sheen, Nastassja Kinski, James Gandolfini, Christopher McDonald

Arizona. Skydiving instructor Richard accepts a new client, the pretty girl Chris. However, just as they were about to make their first jump, Richard spots that the airplane doors are open and Chris is gone. He jumps out and spots someone falling to the ground. Richard investigates the event because everyone blames him for her death - until he discovers that Chris is actually alive and that she feigned the death, since a second plane dropped a corpse of her roommate, while she landed safely. Richard and Chris thus find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy by former KGB thugs who want to use stolen gold to finance a coup d'etat in Moscow and return the totalitarian USSR. Richard and Chris stop them and save the day.

"Terminal Velocity" is today remembered for a fantastic, 'tour-de-force' suspense sequence where Charlie Sheen (in one of his better movie roles) has to save Nastassja Kinski's character who is trapped in a falling car released from a plane: not only is this an impossible sequence to write, but equally impossible to film, but there it is. The middle of the film has too much standard action and chase scenes, whereas the "plot twist" in the first act is more of a plot hole, yet it gave the storyline a sense of unpredictability, whereas the screenplay by David Twohy does not take itself too seriously but manages to relax and simply have a fun time. Other virtues are a few comical dialogues ("For someone who never slept with me, you sure f*** me right"), James Gandolfini's strong and surprising role as the villain whereas Deran Serafian has a very good visual style, daringly filming parachute scenes at low altitudes, even flying between skyscrapers. A little more invention and cliche breaking would not have been bad, yet as it is, this is still one of the best skydiving films.

Grade;++

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sokol Did Not Love Him

Sokol ga nije volio; drama/ war, Croatia, 1988; D: Branko Schmidt, S: Fabijan Šovagović, Filip Šovagović, Krunoslav Šarić, Nada Subotić, Ivo Gregurović

A small village somewhere in Slavonia during World War II. Šima is an ordinary farmer who kept good relationships with friends who are now wearing different uniforms, from Toma, who is now a ustasha, a fascist collaborator, up to Andrija, who is now a partisan. However, Šima does not want to let his son Benoša back in the ustasha army and hides him in his home, hoping to "skip" the conflict altogether. Benoša copes very hard with this, since he is in love with a Volksdeutsche girl from the neighborhood. Ultimately, the ustashe find Benoša and forcibly draft him. As the war ends, they find out Benoša is among many Axis collaborators who were forced to march back to Yugoslavia, but thanks to Andrija, they are able to spare his life. After years in a labour camp, Benoša returns to his family. However, startled by the arrest of farmers who are now refusing to give up their land to the collective, Šima takes out his rage on his horse Sokol (Hawk), who kills him in self-defence.

Branko Schmidt's feature length debut film, an adaptation of the eponymous play, "Sokol Did Not Love Him" caused a lot of controversy in Yugoslavia during its premiere - not only for being the first Croatian film of showing the Bleiburg repatriations in one sequence - yet it advanced into a classic and Schmidt's best film, meaning that a lot of those initial complaints were just of ideological nature. World War II films are a dime a dozen, yet the thing that makes this one stand out is the staggering way it breaks the cliches of that genre: Schmidt bravely filmed a scene where two young lads, one a fascist and the other a partisan, embrace and welcome each other, and it was not meant as some sort of slap at antifascism, but as a simple message that the two of them were friends since childhood, and decided to remain so, regardless of the two conflicting ideologies that were imposed on them from some politicians in far away lands.

The story is not aimed at whitewashing fascism, either, since it clearly shows the cruelty of the ustasha regime in the scene where a farmer is moaning for being taken away by ustasha soldiers from his village ("Why do I have to go to a camp? Why? Of all the people... Tell me, what did I do to deserve this fate?"), nor at humanizing the regime, just to show that there were exceptions as well, embodied in the excellent character of Toma, an ustasha soldier who has a heart: in one crucial scene, he tells Šima that he is proud for not killing anyone in the the entire war, since he chooses only to shoot in the air, and despite knowing that Šima is hiding his son from the army, he pretends he doesn't know and just says: "This was a raid. I haven't found anything." All this underlines the deeper theme of the storyline, namely that people should stay true to themselves, and not follow norms others expect from them. Fabijan Sovagovic gave a fantastic role as the main protagonist who does not care for any side in the war, but just wants to live his life in peace, whereas the narrative is fluent and elegant, and some wise observations come so swiftly as if they were the main theme of "Sokol" (the expulsion of the native Germans; the ever lasting change of events). The only problematic element is the black horse Sokol, a symbol for uncontrollable fate, since Šima takes out his frustrations on him, beating him, which was a heavy handed and slightly tedious allegory that unnecessarily stumbled into animal cruelty, but since it is limited to only two scenes, the film manages to overcome it.


Grade;+++

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Steins;Gate

Steins Gate; animated science-fiction drama series, Japan, 2011; D: Hiroshi Hamasaki, Takuya Sato, S: Mamoru Miyano, Asami Imai, Kana Hanazawa, Tomokazu Seki

Rintaro Okabe, who calls himself Houin and a "mad scientist", is a university student who founded a small improvised laboratory in an apartment, consisting only out of his friends, the overweight Daru and the girl Mayuri. As he attends a conference about the possibility of a time machine, he meets the red-haired girl Kurisu - who is later found dead by stabbing. As Okabe sends an SMS about this incident, he suddenly finds himself alone on the street and Kurisu alive, thus realizes his text message was sent back in time by accident since it was sent to an mobile phone attached to an experimental time travel microwave. He contacts the mysterious John Titor on the internet, who claims that he is from 2036, when CERN established a world dictatorship thanks to the invention of a time machine, and is thus trying to stop this in 2010. When Okabe discovers that Titor is actually a girl, Suzuha, they team together to find an old IBN 5100 machine and undo all the SMS Okabe sends back in time in order to return back to the original timeline and then foil the invention of the time machine, by saving Kurisu from stabbing and burning the time machine documents which her father intended to sell to Moscow.

Even though it was ranked no. 1 on Anime News Network's top 100 anime list, "Steins Gate" is an interesting and sometimes intriguing, but overall slightly overhyped and overrated anime series. It has an excellent concept - that daringly involves John Titor and today's CERN research facility that established a world dictatorship by 2036 thanks to its supremacy caused by the invention of a time machine, whereas the main character, Okarin, has to stop this from happening in 2010 - however, a lot of this storyline and procedures were already seen in previous films about time travel, such as "The Terminator", "Back to the Future", "12:01" and "Groundhog Day", so that "Steins'" story is not that fresh anymore. Unfortunately, the majority of the 24 episodes do not revolve around Okarin fighting the CERN agents, but instead around his endless time leaps 48 hours ago in order to undo all his SMS he sent back to the past, to restore an "uncontaminated", original timeline, which is not as exciting as the Titor subplot and becomes tiresome after a while. Also, the 'filler' episodes and fan service do not help, whereas the characters are somehow distant and autistic: even though they tried to explain why Okarin pretends to talk to his "hang up" mobile phone and shout how he is a "mad scientist" all the time, it just seems weird, nonetheless.

"Steins" has moments of greatness and inspiration: the plot twists in episodes 14 - where the true identity of Titor is revealed - as well as 20 and 23 have a point; the first episode, where Okarin is walking on a street full of people, sends an SMS and all of a sudden he finds himself on the street alone, is a neat example of subtly "leaping through time", whereas there is one later episode which is very poignant since it shows that Okabe can either have a timeline where the world is saved or a one where Feyris dad is alive, but not both. The rest fairs to a lesser degree: for instance, in a subplot, CERN agents kill Mayuri, but Okabe leaps back in time in order to save her. However, Mayuri then dies in a car crash. Okabi leaps again - and this time, Mayuri dies by tripping and falling under the subway train. This all is so ridiculous it is suitable more to Hyatt in "Excel Saga". Not enough was done to explain why Mayuri's death is so inevitable, nor how that can be nullified by restoring the original timeline. The joke where Kurisu touches the androgynous Ruka's crotch to see if he is really a girl or not, is a very cheap atempt at a joke as well. The resolution in the final episodes does not have sense, which means that - despite a carefully constructed structure where events have a double meaning later on - a degree of contrived time travel plot holes was not avoided.

Grade;++

Monday, August 4, 2014

Miracle in Milan

Miracolo a Milano; comedy/ fantasy, Italy, 1951; D: Vittorio De Sica, S: Francesco Golisano, Paolo Stoppa, Brunella Bovo, Emma Gramatica

An old lady finds a baby among the cabbage in her garden and adopts it. After a decade or so, the lady dies and the boy, now a teenager, Toto, lands on the streets. Always happy and cheerful, Toto helps establish a slum for the homeless people in Milan. Unfortunately, a rich man, Mobbi, buys off the land they are on and decides to chase all the homeless people away when oil is found there. The lady's ghost shows up and gives Toto a magic dove that can fulfil each of his wish, and he uses it to stop the police and bring coats, furniture and other stuff for the poor people. The police finally arrests and deports the homeless, but Toto uses the dove to escape on flying brooms with everyone.

Even though it won the Golden Palm in Cannes, some critics never forgave director Vittorio De Sica for betraying the Italian social neorealism and making a social anti-realist fantasy "Miracle in Milan": unlike his depressive and bitter poverty classic "The Bicycle Thieves", De Sica here crafted the story about homeless people in a slum fighting against eviction as a chaplinesque comedy, an optimistic fable where anything goes thanks to the magic powers of the hero Toto, which at times almost seems like an Italian version of "Pipi Longstoking". However, unlike "Pipi", De Sica has a great sense for comedy and inventive ideas with a meaning, and many vignettes are downright hilarious: the bargaining of the two rich tycoons for a piece of land ends with the two men de facto grawling at each other; a man is chased away by a dozen of flying black hats; the slum organizes a "lottery", with the main prize being a cooked chicken, and pronounces the winning number is "90", but after nobody from the crowd replies, one desperate guy lamely says: "I have 89!". Always cheerful and with a blisful smile, the main hero Toto is the embodiment of innocence and thus truly refreshingly uncynical and honest, whereas one can analyze that he is not a real character anyway, but an allegory for happiness in modern times - he tries to cheer up the bums in the slum and even saves one man from suicide, telling him "life is beautiful". For all its escapist and idealistic tone, it seems De Sica actually hinted at a more sober message, namely that class difference and social justice can only be achieved in fairy tales, and not in our world.

Grade;+++

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Enemy Mine

Enemy Mine; science-fiction drama, USA/ Germany, 1985; D: Wolfgang Petersen, S: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr., Brion James

In 2092, humans are fighting reptile aliens, the Dracs, over claim for far away planets. One human pilot, Will, tries to shoot down a Drac spaceship, but they both crash and get stranded on a strange planet. Will is at first hostile towards the surviving Drac, Jeriba, but they learn to understand and respect each other since their cooperation assures their survival there. Over the years, Drac dies, but since he was a hermaphrodite, he gave birth to a baby Drac, Zammis, and Will raises him. When a human spaceship lands, they take Zammis as a slave. However, Will is also found by his unit and returns to save Zammis and other Dracs from slavery.

"Enemy Mine" is a SF version of "Hell in Pacific" - just much more tedious and pathetic. Director Wolfgang Petersen and screenwriter Edward Khmara talk about noble messages, such as tolerance and antiracism, but they send them in such a blatantly obvious manner that the viewers may cringe from the process. The opening act actually works thanks to Petersen's directing skills, and has a few good examples of humor (Will trying to speak the Drac's language with a horrid accent) and drama (upon hearing the Drac's holly book, the Talman, which says that Dracs should respond to their enemies with love, Will says that he already heard that in the "human version of the Talman". Jeriba responds to him: "Of course you did. Truth is truth."), and it was a noble attempt to do an unorthodox SF film, a one that was not action oriented but just restricted to two stranded protagonists, but the 'kammerspiel' intention does not work because it quickly gets obvious that "Enemy Mine" is more suitable for a short than a feature length film: after 40 minutes, the story cannot go anywhere from there and it becomes a 'standed whale'. Realizing that concept cannot carry the whole film, Petersen thus switched to a 'single parent-abandoned baby' concept in the 2nd act - and then even to a slavery concept in the 3rd act. Needles to say that all these contradicting acts are incompatible and thus nullify each other, whereas the sappy-melodramatic scenes become unbearably preachy. Unfortunately, with time, getting stranded on a strange planet became equally of a pain for the two protagonists as much as it did for the viewers.

Grade;+

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Educating Rita

Educating Rita; tragicomedy, UK/ Ireland, 1983; D: Lewis Gilbert, S: Julie Walters, Michael Caine, Michael Williams

The 26-year old hairdresser Rita wants to complete her education and pass exams in literature before having a baby, and thus hires Frank Bryant, an alcoholic university professor, to educate her. Even though she is clumsy and immature at first, Frank realizes she is a very honest soul and acquaints her with Ibsen, Chekhov, Forster and others. As months pass by, Rita leaves her boyfriend Denny and finds a new apartment. The now divorced Frank falls in love with Rita, but they both know they cannot be together. In the end, Rita passes her exams while Frank leaves to lecture in another country.

A wonderful unassuming little film, "Educating Rita" is an excellent character comedy that is refreshingly built on human relationships and quiet observations, and not on loud "attention grabbers" or melodramatic excess. The emotions and dramatic conclusions arrive subtly and swiftly - Rita changes with years, evident not only in the change of her hair and voice, but also by the way she reacts - and the serious theme of a woman who wants to overcome her limitations in society and achieve something more with her life is so unobtrusive that it went over some viewers' heads, whereas Willy Russell's screenplay is packed with delicious dialogues and inspired scenes (the alcoholic Frank hides his drink in the book shelf, behind the novel "The Lost Weekend" (!); "Dr. Bryant, I don't think you're listening to me." - "Mr. Collins, I don't think you are saying anything to me"; Rita gives Frank a pen as a present, that is engraved with the words "Must only be used for poetry"). Finally, the two leading actors, Michael Caine and Julie Walters, are simply genuine and fantastic, and thus probably gave the roles of a lifetime, rightfully both winning a BAFTA. A few weaknesses - an occasionally staged scene; the pointless subplot of Rita's friend trying to commit suicide; the slightly weak last 20 minutes of the storyline; the 'peculiar' albeit emotional synthesiser music - are compensated thanks to the above mentioned virtues, whereas the ending is inherently one of the most beautiful essays about Platonic love ever.

Grade;+++

Aloa - Festivity of the Whores

Haloa - praznik kurvi; erotic drama, Croatia, 1988; D: Lordan Zafranović, S: Neda Arnerić, Ranko Zidarić, Stevo Žigon, Dušica Žegarac

Manfred is a middle aged German who takes a summer vacation on the island of Hvar, together with his young Croatian wife, Majra. However, she fancies a younger lad, whose mother, Marija, rented a room to the couple at her house. Sparks soon fly and the lad and Majra have an affair. Manfred takes him with them on a costume festival, not knowing about the affair. However, he soon finds out which leads to friction. At the end, it turns out Majra is Marija's long lost daughter, who took revenge on her by seducing her brother, the lad, because of her poverty ridden childhood. As Manfred and Majra leave the place, a black dog attacks them in the car and they crash behind a hill.

Lordan Zafranovic's penultimate feature length film, not including a couple of documentaries made later on, "Aloa - Festivity of the Whores" is a bizarre patchwork that has an attractive love triangle as a good starting point, yet loses it among too much empty walk and strange moments. The title references the Ancient Greek festival Aloa, and tries to juggle with Greek tragedy and mythology a couple of instances, but none of them seem to have a point or a reason in the story, which is further exacerbated by an insane (incest) surprise ending, and then by another, even more bizarre surprise ending after that, which both got dangerously close to trash. Even the erotic aspect is thin and unsatisfying, consisting only of two meagre sex scenes that last less than a minute. A positive point of interest is only the elegant camera work and aesthetic locations on the island of Hvar, that are neat to look at. Likewise, Zafranovic, a well informed cineast, crafts the film to look very modern, and thus the clothes and the settings seem almost as if they came from Beverly Hills, even though the prominently featured German song "Mayra", that was intended to be cool and hip, seems more "weird" than anything else.

Grade;+