Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim; sciece-fiction action, USA, 2013; D: Guillermo del Toro, S: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman

Unknown aliens open an inter-dimensional portal, the "Breach", in the Pacific Ocean, from which they send giant monsters, the 'kaiju', to attack and destroy coastal cities, from Seattle through Vladivostok to Hong Kong. People counter by creating giant robots themselves, which will fight them, but they must be piloted by two people with the same mental link. After his pilot Yancy is killed, his co-pilot Raleigh quits the programme, but returns when his superior, Pentecost, creates a plan to throw a nuclear bomb in the portal, in order to shut it down. Raleigh teams up with Japanese pilot Mako, and they pilot a new robot against the 'kaiju'. Though faced with a lot of troubles, they succeed, and shut down the portal.

Just like Gordon's "Robot Jox", Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is also an American - and live action - movie adaptation of the Japanese 'mecha' genre, where giant robots are piloted by people in order to fight other giant robots or monsters. At first, it is appealing to watch such giants fight in the city or on the sea, yet the fights presented are monotone and banal, and thus after a while the viewers wish they get something more versatile to keep up the interest. Take away the inventive action, sophisticated style and psychological layers from "Evangelion", and you get "Pacific Rim". And take away the big budget special and visual effects from "Pacific Rim" and you get one of the many "Godzilla" B-movie sequels. The first battle in the film is already problematic because it plays out during night, on the sea, between two dark giants - a shark like 'kaiju' and a robot - which makes it difficult to distinguish what is going on. Others are better because they play out in the day or in they illuminated city, yet one can only go so far with a robot and a monster hitting each other with fists. One rare example of more inspiration is when the robot takes a giant ship and uses it as a club to hit the monster on the head. As such, the film is easily accessible, yet bland and overlong 2-hour 'wrestlemania' of the monsters, where the jokes are corny and the characters just one-dimensional, standard extras, with only Mako (brilliant Rinko Kikuchi) there to insert some life and wit into the conventional story.

Grade;+

Monday, 28 December 2015

Only Fools and Horses: Christmas Special I, II, III

Only Fools and Horses: Christmas Special I, II, III; comedy series, UK, 1981 / 1982 / 1983; D: Bernard Thompson, Ray Butt, S: David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Lennard Pearce, Peter Woodthorpe, Nora Connolly

Three episodes of the Trotter family set during Christmas. In the first, grandad fries the potatoes and undercookes the turkey, leaving Delboy and Rodney hungry, so they go out to a pub. There, they wait for too long to talk to two ladies, who go dancing with two other guys... Delboy falls in love with Heather, a single mother whose husband left her. Delboy puts a lot of effort into trying to play with her kid, while Rodney and grandad are suspicious. When her husband returns, Heather dumps Delboy who proposed her... Delboy and Rodney are shocked when their father returns to their home for Christmas after being absent for 18 years. Rodney, who was five when he left, tries to mend fences. He claims to have a hereditory blood disease, and tasks Delboy and Rodney to make a blood test. Dad causes a rift when he writes that Delboy's blood group is AB, instead of A, and insinuates that he is an illegitimate child. However, when it turns out that dad just robbed a hospital and wanted somewhere to hide, they throw him out.

The three Christmas specials of the mega popular "Only Fools and Horses" comedy series vary from episode to episode: the 1st one is not special at all, the last advanced into a small jewel whereas the middle episode situated its quality, accordingly, somewhere between those two. The only constant are the three enthusiastic performances by the reoccurring actors David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Lennard Pearce. The '81 instalment is set during Christmas, yet feels strangely out of place otherwise and gives the impression as if the holiday subplot was hastily added in the already written material: it has a few good jokes, a few corny ones, que end credits. The best joke is when grandad serves an undercooked, almost raw turkey on the table, and Rodney cannot resist but to express the snickering remark that the turkey is so underdone that "a kiss of life would revive it". Unfortunately, the remainder of the episode is wasted on the overstretched, contrived sequence where Rodney and Delboy are talking for way too long if they should approach two ladies in the pub, which is a weak second act. The 2nd special, "Diamonds are for Heather", shows signs of improvement, though it is still not as well written and versatile as one would hope for. Delboy's relationship with Heather could have provided for more potentials, though there is a delicious joke where the hero is so in love with her that he wrote the name "Del" and "Heather" on the windshield of his car, with Rodney remarking that he henceforth does not want to sit on the driver's seat with the "Heather" sign over him. The 3rd special, "Thicker than Water", is easily the best, featuring a great plot where dad returns into the lives of the Trotter family after 18 years on Christmas: you know it is going to be a great episode when Delboy reacts upon encountering him with: "We see Halley's comet more often than him!" Writer John Sullivan had several inspired lines in this one, and even gave a few touching moment which were not obtrusive.

Grade;++

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; crime, UK / USA, 2011; D: Guy Ritchie, S: Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams

London, 1891. Several bomb attacks were attempted, whereas Irene Idler is killed. Sherlock Holmes suspects that Professor Moriarty is behind all this, but needs evidence and a motive. After his friend, Dr. Watson, got married, he travels with Holmes to Paris, in order to meet an anarchist group, as well as a gypsy, Simza. After another bombing, the German industrialists Meinhard is killed: after his death, his weapons factory belongs to Moriarty. In a Swiss mountain town, a conference is to be held between several heads of states. Holmes meets Moriarty there, who plans to set of a World War in order for his weapons factories to yield a profit. Holmes pushes Moriarty and himself down a cliff. Watson presumes the detective is dead, but there are clues he might have survived.

By crafting, planning, ideas and execution, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" easily catapulted itself into one of those rare sequels that are superior than the original. Unlike the uneven 1st film, this time director Guy Ritchie rises to the occasion: the authors assemble an incredible pace which never lets down, but what is even more impressive is that their inspiration almost never lets down, either. The opening act, for instance, shows a sequence where Irene thinks she is safe when she talks to Moriarty while she is in a restaurant, full of people, yet the villain just gives the sign and every last guest exits the place, leaving them two alone. Equally clever is the sequence where Holmes is planning how to fight an assassin hiding on the ceiling, and imagines six different moves to disarm him. However, just as Holmes engages the assassin and makes the first move, the bad guy is already taken care off when the gypsy woman throws a knife into his chest. The train sequence - especially in the manner in which Holmes puts a fake bullet in the ammunition of his enemies - is arguably the highlight of the movie, and reached the level of a mini-bravura moment. There is a lot more humor and style this time around, whereas the sole story is an incredibly subversive allegory on the arms industry: Moriarty, who bought so many weapons factories, at one point even admits: "I created the supply. Now I need to create the demand." It is still a little bit unorthodox that Holmes never wears his trademark hat or suit, whereas Jude Law is still an odd choice for Dr. Watson, yet this time around the cast seems to have found their own way, and created surprisingly great performances.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Au Hasard Balthazar

Au hasard Balthazar; drama, France / Sweden, 1966; D: Robert Bresson, S: Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Philippe Asselin, Nathalie Joyaut
Marie, a little girl, persuades her family to buy a little donkey for their farm. Marie and Jacques, the child of the land owner, give the donkey a name: Balthazar. As a grown donkey, Balthazar has to endure several difficult tasks: plowing, pulling a carriage... he escapes and returns to the farm, where Marie is grown up as well. Her relationship with Jacques is plagued by the feud of their fathers, since the land owner is suing her father. Balthazar becomes sick, but is taken in and nursed by the alcoholic Arnold. However, when he gets violent, Balthazar runs away, and finds refuge in a circus. Later, he is used by the criminal youngster Gerard for smuggling stolen goods, and Marie sleeps with Gerard in order to leave Balthazar alone. During smuggling at night, the police shoot and wound Balthazar, who dies the next morning on the meadow.

One of the most unusual movies from the 60s, Robert Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar" has not lost any of its freshness or authentic awe which instilled appreciation during its premiere. Unlike most other movies where the hero is a human, here the main protagonist is an animal, a donkey, which gives the storyline a genuine feel, since Balthazar is an outsider observing the human nature and behaviour, which seems all the more educative. Bresson chooses a raw, 'rough' style, which is at odds with many modern, loud movies, yet gives it advantage since he accumulated some basic, elementary emotions, which mirror the Christian motive of the seven deadly sins. Balthazar is a symbol for innocence, and for life in general: he came into this world, without understanding it, without choosing it, and just wants to live peacefully, but is always a victim of cruelty, harshness and misery. He does not react to this, but is just a silent observer, as a testament of human evil. Yet the close up of his eyes really makes it difficult to restrain tears.

In the opening act, Balthazar cannot stand the laborious task of pulling a carriage and thus tips it, escapes from the owner - and returns to the farm he grew up in, where Marie, a young girl, protects him. On the opposite of Marie, there is the mean-spirited, arrogant Gerard, who beats Balthazar, almost as if he is jealous that Marie loves the donkey more than him. In one scene, Gerard ties a newspaper to Balthazar's tale and puts it on fire. He later searches after the donkey, and finds him standing, hiding his head in a bush. Marie tries to protect the poor animal, and is willing to even sleep with Gerard, just to appease him into leaving Balthazar alone. A couple of drawbacks can be identified, though: Bresson's trademark is to not have the actors act, but to artificially say their lines, which sometimes inhibits the overall impression; likewise, it seems there are a couple of inconsistencies regarding Marie's relationship to Balthazar (there are no scenes which show how she reacts after the donkey is rented/sold to other owners, and why she is so passive to his fate at times) whereas the subplot involving Arnold seems like a fifth wheel, thereby making the narrative thematically uneven. However, overall, "Balthazar" is still an exceptional achievement: it is inherently one of the most spiritual movies of all time - a one that contemplated that life and sprituality are not only constrained to humans - and influenced numerous later ones involving an innocent protagonist who stoically faces injustices, such as "Breaking the Waves" and "Forrest Gump".

Grade;+++

Friday, 18 December 2015

F for Fake

F for Fake; mockumentary, France / Germany / Iran, 1973; D: Orson Welles, S: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, François Reichenbach, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Joseph Cotten

Orson Welles performs a magic trick for kids at a train station. He then goes to Ibiza to make an interview with the famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, who replicated various paintings which were sold for huge sums. Other people give interviews, contemplating if it is impossible to differentiate between real art and a copy. Welles also shows clips from his career, and his infamous "War of the Worlds" radio transmission, which fooled people into believing that Martains were attacking. He also speaks about Howard Hughes and Pablo Picasso, who allegedly made paintings of Oja Kodar.

Orson Welles' 12th and penultimate feature length film, "F for Fake" is a deliberately deceiving mockumentary that merged its style with its theme, resulting in a peculiar alloy where the art forger Emlyr de Hory becomes just a catalyst for the author playing with the movie style, demonstrating how everything can be forged in a movie itself: in one instance, after de Hory signs himself with "Orson Welles" on his forged painting, Welles ironically comments with: "A faked Orson Welles signature on a real Elmyr de Hory forgery". Welles also goes way beyond this story, and includes scenes of a black-and-white footage of UFOs attacking, in order to show how he himself "forged" reality in his "War of the Worlds" radio transmission, and also at times changes even the grain or the aspect ratio of the cinematography, to show the artificiality of the media. He 'breaks the fourth wall' a little too much, though, in the end creating a too vague, Godard-like film essay with a 'stream-of-consciousness' mood, where too many segments - such as Oja Kodar's episode where she is posing for Picasso's painting - run away and seem to be directing themselves, without Welles. "Fake" is thus a self-referential art-film for acquired taste. It is not among the ranks of director's best achievements, but then again, it would be unfair to set the bar so high and expect a new "Citizen Kane" from Welles - as it would be with any other director, anyway.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Frozen

Frozen; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2013; D: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, S: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff

Elsa, a little girl and Princess of Arendelle, has special powers with which she can create ice and snow. During one play, her powers accidentally wound her sister, Anna. Their parents thus wipe out Anna's memory of Elsa's powers, while Elsa has to keep away from her sister and always wear gloves that inhibit her powers. Years later, Elsa is crowned as the princess, but publicly reveals her powers and thus flees from the public who consider her a witch. Elsa creates her own ice castle and decides to live in isolation from the kingdom. However, he powers inadvertently caused an eternal winter, and thus Anna and Kristoff try to reach her to talk her to bring things back to normal, since other people want to kill her to bring back spring. In the end, Elsa learns how to control her powers.

One of the most popular CGI animated films of the 2010s, and a one that caused some critics to interpret it as a 2nd 'Disney Renaissance', "Frozen" is a film with two good moments - the great song "Let It Go", and the charming-comic encounter of Anna and a Prince (she is at the end of a boat, hanging from a dock, but a Prince falls on her when his horse - that was holding the boat with his leg - kneels to bow and tips the boat. The horse quickly brings the boat in balance, but this time Anna falls on him) - everything else is contrived. The film is imposing upon the viewers that Elsa should at one point be placed in the role of a villain only because she has powers that control the ice, and unfortunately, they built a whole story around this fake premise, even though it was obviously not well developed.

The viewers are thus left with a strange disparity of Elsa who did not want to turn the whole kingdom into ice on one hand, and Elsa who does not want to talk to her sister Anna to simply resolve this trivial problem on the other hand. We thus got yet another story built up entirely only on misunderstanding, whereas the jokes are nothing special - snowman Olaf is one of the lamest Disney comic sidekicks in a long while, with misguided jokes about him not being able to feel how he is decapitated and such stuff. Ironically, if the "Let It Go" song is ignored, which features a cool sequence of Elsa creating her own castle from ice, the only warm, good moments in the film involve spring, which is in minority: just like the ice-bound kingdom, the storyline is strangely cold, rigid and lax, with an overstretched segment where Anna and Kristoff wonder around the snow to find Elsa. A few refreshing feminist moments are welcomed (Anna is not saved by a Prince charming, in an unorthodox finale), yet they are sparse and cannot quite compensate for uninspired jokes and a confused narrative in search for a villain who isn't there. They broke some cliches, yet these novelties do not have the same effect as the classic ideas. As for the message of the film: it is that people should talk more with one another, to avoid misunderstanding. Somehow too little of a payoff for a reluctant adventure.

Grade;+

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Hospital

The Hospital; drama / satire, USA, 1971; D: Arthur Hiller, S: George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart

A young intern, Dr. Schaefer, is found dead in the hospital bed, because he overslept there and the nurse mistakenly thought he was a patient, and gave him insulin iv infusion. To Dr. Herbert Bock, who is already suicidally depressed and estranged from his family, this is the last thing he needs right now, especially since dozens of people are protesting against eviction of a building which is suppose to be used for the expansion of the hospital. Herbert meets a woman, Barbara, who brought her ill father to the hospital, and starts a relationship with her, which returns his spirit in life. After another doctor dies, and a nurse, due to maltreatment, Herbert and Barbara find out that her father was actually the culprit, since he intended to punish doctors by having them pass through their own institution while sick. Barbara and her father flee to the south, while Herbert refuses to escape with them, instead choosing to stay in the hospital.

Arthur Hiller's satirical drama "The Hospital" is a cinematic 'pyrrhic victory': on one hand, it features several moments of brilliance, mostly through the admirable dialogues and a triumphant performance by George C. Scott, which cannot be denied, but on the other hand, it seems strangely vague and inexplicably unsatisfying, almost hollow in structure, as if it exhausted itself through its own over-ambitious tone. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky again demonstrated a sixth sense for delicious, inspired lines, some of which deserve to be placed on the Pantheon of best writing in cinema, but, alas, unlike his other Oscar winning scripts, "Marty" - that talked about lonely people who cannot find a partner - and "Network" - that talked about the effects of TV and mass media on the lives of the people - this storyline seems as if it does not know what it is about - there are some vague references to the main protagonist, a doctor, who feels how his life and his hospital are sick and unhealthy - yet it is strangely vague and without a clear point, forcing the viewers to be left with the impression that the authors did not direct the flow of the episodic narrative into a cohesive whole.

The movie starts off with an excellent-satirical intro: an old man is diagnosed with angina and sent to a hospital, but the narrator says: "It is axiomatic that nursing home doctors are always wrong. The intern who admitted the patient, however, accepted the diagnosis and prescribed morphine, a drug suitable for angina, but not at all suitable for emphysema, which is unfortunately what the old man had." The old man died after an hour, and the intern, Dr. Schaefer used his empty patient bed to have sex with his girlfriend that night. The story makes yet another cynical twist, when Dr. Schaefer is found dead in the bed the next morning, because the nurse thought he was a patient and gave him an overdose of insulin. What this great little intro assembles, the remained of the movie does not quite follow up, though: the main storyline, revolving around Dr. Herbert, is indecisive and chaotic, whereas his relationship with Barbara, a one-dimensional character, is unconvincing, especially considering the ending, whereas the protestors subplot seems like a fitfth wheel. Still, as already mentioned, some of the quotes from the movie are fantastic ("Are you impotent?" - "Intermittently." - "What does that mean?" - "I haven't tried for so long that I don't know anymore." / "Some post-graduate came here and performed an autopsy?" / "Some cockamany 25-year old acid-head is going to assure me about menopause right now!" / "I'd like to know what you have against me, doctor?" - "This is the 3rd time in two years that we had to patch-up your patients. The other two died. You are greedy, unfeeling, inept, indifferent, self-inflating and unconscionably profitable. Other than that, I have nothing against you. I am sure you play one heck of a game of golf. What else do you wanna know?")

Grade;++

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Commando

Commando; action, USA, 1985; D: Mark L. Lester, S: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Vernon Wells, Dan Hedaya, James Olson, Alyssa Milano

John Matrix is a former Delta Force specialist, who left his wild profession behind him and now only wants to enjoy his quiet life, together with his daughter Jenny. However, when all his former Delta Force members get assassinated, John becomes a target himself when former South American dictator Arius kidnaps Jenny and blackmails him to go to the country of Val Verde and assassinate the president, or else he will kill his daughter. John boards a plane to Val Verde, but secretly manages to get out before the take off, and then figures he only has 10 hours before Arius finds out he never arrived a this destination. He uses the time to meet a stewardess, Cindy, find weapons and trace Arius hideout on an island, where he shoots and kills everyone, saving Jenny.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's first action film after "Conan" and "The Terminator", "Commando" is a 'guilty pleasure'. Its storyline and characters are so reduced and simplified, it is almost banal, yet it has that '80s action flick charm' that carries it, and if the viewers are willing to simply relax and not take it seriously, it is just plain fun. The moment Schwarzenegger shows up, carrying a giant log on his shoulder, the viewers are well aware this will be a light, 'tongue-in-cheek' flick, and the rest of the film follows accordingly, except for the final 20 minutes when the action cliche overrun it, which is problematic considering they did not contain any humor (John has infinite ammunition; he can shoot practically a hundred people while nobody can shoot him; he always knows what to do). A typical product of Reagan's America, "Commando" features a tough and strong hero who fights the enemies of his countries and sometimes promotes traditional values, yet it is just plain pure entertainment, and features that good old crystal clear cinematography from the 80s and 90s, before the arrival of digital cameras. The viewers never find out much about John, except that he can fight, nor from the other characters, though Rae Dawn Chong and a young Alyssa Milano are small jewels as Cindy, John's unwilling assistant, and Jenny, his daughter.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis; drama, USA, 1951; D: Mervyn LeRoy, S: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn, Patricia Laffan

Ancient Rome, around 64 AD. A Roman commander, Marcus Vinicius, returns after the campaign in Britain, and falls in love with a slave girl, Lygia, who was adopted by a Roman couple. However, Lygia is a Christian, and Marcus is frustrated by her religion. When he wants to take her by force, she disappears, and he spots her during a mass in the open, When emperor Nero burns Rome, Marcus runs to help Lygia and Christians from the fire. In order to find a scapegoat, Nero blames Christians for the fire, and has them arrested and killed in the area by lions, whereas Peter is crucified upside down. Marcus, now converted to Christianity, manages to save Lygia and turn the mob against Nero, who flees and commits suicide. Now married, Marcus and Lygia leave Rome.

Hollywood films about Ancient Rome around the time of early Christianity were a dime a dozen in the 50s, and a good deal of them feels stiff and dated by today's standards. Among those which fare a little better is Mervyn LeRoy's "Quo Vadis", the adaptation of eponymous Polish novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, that managed to find a good balance despite its obvious pro-Christian bias and historical inaccuracies. The (Christian) characters are rather stiff, bland and rigid, since their religion was too forcefully imposed as something theatrically idealistic and perfect, including the main hero, Marcus, who undergoes a transition from a Roman commander to a Christian convert after falling in love with a Christian girl, and thus the majority of the wit (inadvertently) comes from the undisputable highlight of the film, emperor Nero, played by brilliant Peter Ustinov, since his comic antics and dialogues with his servant Petronius still feel fresh and alive today, including several great moments where he has a field day (one of the highlights is when Petronius cynically lies that Nero's awful verses are "worthy of Virgil, Ovid and Homer, but not fo Nero"; the scene where Nero is trying to squeeze a tear from his eyes to put them in a glass as "proof" that he mourned after Petronius).

Ustinov's performance was so effective that Nero widely stayed remembered as a madman and arsonist for decades after the film, even though historical records show the opposite, that he probably did not start the fire of Rome, and used his own guards to help the wounded. Several details manage to lift up the film from its predictable, standard construction (one of them is a slave who is shaving Marcus' back with a sickle in the bath scene) and the stunts in the arena are impressive and dangerous, since they displayed lions interacting with real people and a man holding a bull by his horns. Also, a couple of famous actors have a cameo of only a couple of seconds (Bud Spencer, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor). "Quo Vadis" seems rather pompous today, yet still managed to ensure a rather universal message of little people surviving during the times of troubles thanks to their sprituality and devotion.

Grade;++

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Mr. Mike's Mondo Video

Mr. Mike's Mondo Video; satire / grotesque, USA, 1979; D: Michael O'Donoghue, S: Michael O'Donoghue, Paul Shaffer, Mitch Glazer, Dan Aykroyd, Rhonda Coullet, Jane Curtin, Teri Garr, Joan Hackett, Margot Kidder, Gilda Radner, Sid Vicious, Bill Murray

The opening disclaimer says: "Warning: the film you are about to see is shocking and repulsive beyond belief. If older people with heart conditions are watching or persons under psychiatric care, make them sit close so they won't miss anything. Do not allow children of an impressionable age to leave the room". Two people on the beach of the Mondo world chant that nations should finally drop the bomb on them... People attend the church of actor Jack Lord... Dan Aykroyd announces that he is a mutant and shows his synadctyly on his toes... Passer-bys are asked if they think capital punishment should be implemented on elephants... Spies observes the footage of a secret weapon: women wearing a bra that shoots lasers... Sid Vicious cannot sing a song due to copyright... A skeleton of a cat is eaten by rats, and left with flesh and fur... People on an island worship lava lamps.

Two great jokes: in the first, a swimming instructor drops cats in slow motion in the middle of the pool, and then watches them swim back to the shore. The second is a howlingly funny satire on religion, observing people attending the church to worship the Lord - Jack Lord - and erupt in mass hysteria when the hair of the painting of the actor moves and combs itself, causing a woman to drop her crotches only to fall on the ground while attempting to walk towards him. Unfortunately, the rest is far bellow that level, and features too much nonsense, trash and insanity instead of inspired humor. Set as a collection of sketches imitating Monty Python, "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video" is a mess, a chaotic exercise in the absurd that loses a sense for a good gag in the second half - the only exception is a one minute cameo by Bill Murray as a passer-by who is interviewed if he thinks deaf people should talk with their hands while driving. While it is sympathetic to watch these characters pretend to be 'radical' and 'shocking', when mostly they are just benign, it does not quite reach the cohesive mood of elevated comic-dadaism of the Marx brothers: too many scenes miss any point, and it seems it takes on forever for the last 20 minutes to finally end, even though the running time of the entire film is only 71 minutes. As a short film, taken the right jokes, it would have worked, but in this edition, it is exhaustingly overstretched, and there is too much space between the good parts.

Grade;+

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Red Psalm

Még kér a nép; drama, Hungary, 1972; D: Miklós Jancsó, S: Andrea Drahota, József Madaras, Gyöngyi Bürös, Erzsi Cserhalmi, Ilona Gurnik

Hungary towards the end of the 19th century. Peasants start a rebellion against the government exploatation, ranging from too low wheat prices up to a 16-hour work day. They strike and walk around the meadow, protesting and chanting for a socialist revolution, while the government officials keep mounting officers who keep telling them to stop. The officers surround the villagers, and shoot them. However, one woman takes a pistol and shoots all the officers afterwards.

One of the most famous films by director Miklos Jacso, "Red Psalm" is a very strained and artificial film essay, and the viewer's impressions will be the same, accordingly. The entire film is directed in only 28 cuts, playing out on the meadow where the peasants dance and protests against injustice, but since it is also partly a propaganda film, it is deliberately set as unreal, almost like a Godard picture - except without the all the dazzling film innovations - and the viewers never identify with the endless array of nameless characters who come and go, without anyone of them taking on the lead role, whereas the long takes are not that impressive as some would make you want to believe. One example is the scene where topless girls carry a pigeon in their hands, the camera pans towards the left, an officer shoots at them, and then the camera returns back to show a girl raising her hand covered in blood: since she makes no expression on her face, not even a smallest hint at pain, but just continues walking like a robot, as if nothing happened, it all seems contrived. A few moments of inspiration manage to "twitch" the film from its mechanical mood, such as the semi-comical socialist version of Our Father prayer ("Our Father, whom you will be in form of a president, hallowed be your name. Socialism, your kingdom come, at us, and on the world. People, let there be your will, give us our daily tax reduction on bread...") or the radical scene where the socialist peasants lock up a priest and put the church on fire. "Red Psalm" has a few strong moments, but seems dated today, since more emphasis was put on the propaganda than on art, characters or storyline.

Grade;++

Monday, 30 November 2015

House, MD (Season 3-5)

House, M.D.; drama series, USA, 2007-2009; D: Greg Yaitanes, David Straiton, Daniel Attias, Miguel Spochnik, S: Hugh Laurie, Jesse Spencer, Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard, Lisa Edelstein, Peter Jacobson, Olivia Wilde, Kal Penn, Anne Dudek

Since he fired his assistant, Chase, and the other two of his members - Foreman and Cameron - left his team, Dr. House is now left alone in the hospital department. Since needs a diagnostics team, ordered by the head of the hospital, Cuddy, House starts a doctor's audition featuring about 40 candidates which he eliminates one by one after each case. In the end, House opts for Dr. Taub, Remy "13" and Kutner, whereas one of the eliminated candidates, Dr. Amber Volakis, starts a relationship with House's friend, Wilson. Kutner commits suicide, which leaves House with "13" and Taub. At the end, House starts exhibiting signs of hallucinations, caused by his Vicodin intake, which threatens his career.

After the first two seasons kicked off with a rather shaky start, seasons 3 to 5 finally saw the rise of the creative level of the real "House MD" and consolidated the title character, who hereby imbibed the form he would be remembered for the most. The writers were presented with the typical formula of the show - a patient arrives with a disease no one is able to identify, until House solves the mystery at the end - but what they did when they played and twisted the formula standards to give something original was, at times, pure magic. Episodes 3.3 and 3.4, in which a girl (Leighton Meester) developed a crush on House, was sweet and featured a few good lines ("I was listening to her heart. It went: 'Greg House. Greg House'"), though the whole third and fourth season were simply superabundant with a whole array of inspired, delicious and incredibly witty dialogues that are music to the ears ("I get why you don't want to go to rehab. But only an idiot goes to prison because he is stubborn." - "Only an idiot stands between Ahab and his whale! Move it!"; "I always look on the bright side of life. I think Cuddy's C-cup is always half-full."; House and Wilson arguing: "Ah, yes, if it isn't Dr. Ironside!" - "Ah yes, if it isn't Dr. I had no friends when I was growing up so all I did was watch TV by myself, so now I can make constant pop culture references which no one understands but me!"; a kid misreads what House wrote on the board: "What's "extension of pastoring"?" - "It's when you're molested by priest's cousin."; the howlingly funny sequence when Cameron interrupts House in the most awkward timing, when he is wondering about hypogonadism: "What causes headaches, rage, personality disorder and hypogonadism?" - "...Where's Foreman?" - "He is still mad at me." - "Why?" - "No reason... Male genitals are controlled by pituitary gland... (House turns around to Cameron as if to assure her) We're not talking about Foreman anymore").

However, the Cameron-Chase-Foreman interaction with House became somehow strangely stiff and lax after a while in season 3, which is why it was a good idea to have them "take a break" for a while and start the 4th season with a completely new cast, opening the way for House's hilarious audition of some 40 doctors which will become his new team. One of the highlights is episode 4.2, "The Right Stuff", written by Doris Egan and Leonard Dick: from the fantastic sneaky candidate character of Amber (when the candidates get the assignment to wash House's car, Amber publicly protests that they, the doctors, are "too good for this" and leaves, which causes numerous others candidates to follow her and quit in disgust, except for Kutner. After a while, though, Amber suddenly returns to wash the car, anyway, which causes the puzzled Kutner to ask her: "Changed your mind?" - "No." - "Then why are you back?" - "I never intended to quit. I intended everyone else to quit.") up to the childish, common sense jokes (Kutner, candidate with the number "6", is fired by House, but he secretly returns in the class with the upside down number "9"), everything is done right in this small chef-d'œuvre, one of the best episodes of all time. Anne Dudek also probably gave the role of a lifetime as Amber, perfectly balancing out her cynicism and charm.

Even in this arc, some episodes tend to become tiresome and routine, but are always refreshed by several inventive plots: episode 3.18, "Airborne", for instance, which features House sealed off in an airplane flying over North Pole, who is faced with an epidemic of a sick man and has no team for support (so he makes one boy mimic Chase's Australian accent and another passenger to always agree with him, like Foreman, to conjure up the mood in the clinic), or 4.11, "Frozen", where House has to diagnose a sick psychiatrist (excellent guest appearance by Mira Sorvino) on the South Pole only via skype: brilliant concept, brilliant episode. Of course, the final two episodes, 4.15 and 4.16, "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart", need to be mentioned as well. "House's Head" is an instant classic - he wakes up in a strip club, figures he has a head injury and cannot remember how he got there, and then exits to find a crashed bus, and figures he was one of the passengers, going on  a quest to assemble what happened - and presents flawless writing with such a strong 'plot twist' that it is better not to talk about it too much. 4.16 is also good, though overhyped and weaker, evidently making a questionable decision to remove one of the best new characters from the show. Season 5 is somewhat weaker, though it still has several great dialogues ("Look at the time! It's half past Taub lying about Kutner!") and ends with 5.22-5.24, which offer a strong, magnificently directed finale that intrigues genuinely. Seasons 3-5 may be considered House's annus mirabilis since they gave a lot from the concept, and nicely circled out the arc - so nicely, in fact, many will not resist to watch the next seasons immediately afterwards.

Grade;+++

Friday, 27 November 2015

Happy End

Happy End; comedy, Czech Republic, 1967; D: Oldřich Lipský, S: Vladimír Menšík, Jaroslava Obermaierová, Josef Abrhám

Bedrich life is told in reverse, though he narrates it straightforward: the guillotine goes up and his head is attached to his body, bringing him to life, whereas the police officers and the executioner return him to his prison cell. The story back to when he was handed a death sentence, and to when he is released from prison. He finds himself with a suitcase and goes to his home to find the chopped up body parts of a woman. Using his knife, he "un-cuts" them and assembles the woman who comes back to life, Julia. As the narration goes further back, Julia is seen cheating on Bedrich with Jene, a man whom he saved from drowning. Their child gets unborn, they get unmarried and Bedrich returns to his previous wife, Finally, he returns to being a child.

A masterpiece of surreal-black comedy cinema, one of the best movies from the 60s, Oldrich Lipsky's 'reverse movie' "Happy End" contains such a dazzling and meticulously crafted storyline that later similar achievements such as "Memento" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" seem like child's play in comparison. Lipsky crafts the whole storyline in reverse time, starting from the hero's death and ending with his birth, but the protagonist refuses to depict it as such and instead narrates it straightforward, which gives it irony and sharpness. However, the author went even a step further, and wrote an almost careful codification of dialoges which give a different meaning when the sentences are spoken in reverse chronological order, something not even Pietro Bembo would have been ashamed off: one example is the courtroom dialogue between Bedrich and the judge ("Yes, I did it." - "So, you have done it? Your denial is useless?" - "As I said before, I didn't kill anybody!" - "I am asking you for the last time: did you kill your wife and her lover?" - "I didn't notice anything." / "...You were born?" - "Not at all!" - "Any mental disorders?").

This was a conventional story - a man kills his wife and her lover out of jealousy - but by telling it in reverse, it became unique: the movie is virtuoso assembled, with a couple of incredible moments (the lover "falling up" from the street, through the window into the apartment, and as he is chased in reverse though the room by Bedrich, causing less and less feathers to fall from the pillow, the hero narrates how an "intruder" crashed through his window, but he "forced him to clean up"), with the humor stemming from oddball dialogues (as the fish are flying backwards from the seals into Jene's hands, the narrator says how Jene was "stealing fish from the animals in the zoo") or by director's method (Bedrich tripping with his suitcase in reverse). "Happy End" is highly artificial - everything is style, everything is exaggerated, the characters are all caricatures - but these concoctions conquer with an incredible intelligence and wit, and just like the grotesque characters in the movies by Fellini and the Coen brothers, they are still based on some truths from everyday life, which is why even moments with highly burlesque kind of black humor seem to be done with taste and class.

Grade;++++

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact; science-fiction, USA, 1996; D: Jonathan Frakes, S: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, James Cromwell, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige, Robert Picardo

In 2373, the Borg, a highly hostile and invasive alien cyborg race, sets a course to attack Earth. Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain of the spaceship USS Enterprise, manages to destroy their spaceship, but a small Borg capsule flies back in time to the year 2063. The Enterprise follows them. On Earth, a small team led by Riker tries to convince Cochrane, an alcoholic, to proceed with his first ever war drive, which will change the course of history towards the better. Back on Enterprise, the crew is fighting the Borg who are slowly taking over the spaceship. Picard, who was once almost assimilated by them six years ago, manages to prevail, thanks to Data, who smashes a coolant tank on the dock, whose liquid destroys the Borg. The Enterprise returns to the future afterwards.

Even though it was met with critical acclaim (92% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), the 2nd film of the next generation and the overall 8th film of the "Star Trek" franchise, "First Contact" is a highly polarizing experience, and may in fact be the first instalment that broke the old rule that all "Star Trek" films with even numbers are good, while those with odd numbers are weak. It has a strong villain, the cyborg alien race Borg, who seem to be an allegory of the Bolshevik-Nazi regimes or some sort of a space ISIL, an extremist group that cannot be reasoned with, yet the film took several ill-conceived decisions, which made it seem convulsive. It starts off with an unnecessary, vile shot of Picard remembering how the Borg drill in his eye - not even the notorious scene with the worm in "Khan" was so explicit as this one. It then makes yet another turn into time travel territory - the 3rd "Star Trek" film to do so - without clearly explaining some loose ends (if the Borg could travel back in time, why do it in public, so that the Enterprise can follow them? And how could the Enterprise return back to the present?), yet the far bigger problem is that it has no function in the storyline.

It is set in the year 2063, but from the perspective of 20th century audience, the years 2063 and 2373 are equally as indistinguishable from one another. The screenwriters should have taken a note from "Star Trek IV", where the futuristic crew travels back to the present, which offers some great culture clash and jokes people can identify with since it contains two very distinctive eras. Even worse, even if the whole film played out in 2373 entirely, what role does Cochorane play in the Borg story, anyway? The only good moment is the joke where he freaks out listening to the statue that is going to be built in his name, yet the rest of the subplot - where Riker and the others are trying to persuade him to continue with his warp drive - can only go so far after a while, and feels like a fifth wheel. Several other inconsistencies bother: when a crew member is infected by the Borg after only 60 seconds, Picard kills him - but when Picard himself was infected, and successfully managed to recover, then it is OK for his crew to save him. The dialogues were mostly standard, except for a few good moments ("The Borg? Sounds Swedish."), and the finale too convenient. "First Contact" has one undeniable highlight: the excellent, deliciously long suspense sequence of Picard, Worf and another crew member in spacesuits trying to unlock a giant Borg antenna on the spaceship, with several inspired moments (they shoot at one Borg, the other adapts to the laser, so Picard shoots the ground under him, causing the cyborg to fly off into space). But in order to get to that good part, you have to dig your way through a mass of grey moments and characters in between.

Grade;+

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Number 55

Broj 55; war / action, Croatia, 2014; D: Kristijan Milić, S: Goran Bogdan, Alan Katić, Marko Cindrić, Dražen Mikulić, Marinko Prga

Central Slavonia during the Croatian war of independence. About 20 Croatian soldiers embark in an improvised tank into Kusonje, a village under Serb control. However, their vehicle gets immobilised by an anti-tank missile, and the 20 soldiers thus hide in an abandoned nearby house marked only with a number 55. During the following 24 hours, they will try to hold on the siege of the house by the Serb paramilitary and Yugoslav People's Army, despite a shortage of ammunition, waiting for the help to arrive. In the morning, they run out of ammunition, and the Serb paramilitary kill them.

The first film in the planned series of battles and clashes during the War in Croatia, Kristijan Milic's "Number 55" is a rather effective alloy of a war and action film (the latter genre is practically non-existent in Croatian cinema) and a proportionally noble, albeit exaggerated and too "Rambo-ish" depiction of a true event of a group of 20 Croatian soldiers who tried to hold out a siege of a house they were hiding in. From the technical perspective, the movie is assembled practically flawlessly and highly professionally (if the overused style of tedious "washed out" colors, reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan", is ignored), yet from the narrative-personal-artistic perspective it lacks in certain areas, the most problematic being that the 20 soldiers are all faceless, one-dimensional extras whose names and characteristics were highly neglected at the expense of just showing them fight, and as such there is no emotional attachment to them, while this in turn aggravates the attempt of the viewers to identify and care more about their fates. Indeed, after the closing credits, the viewers would probably not be able to name even one name of the soldiers, and as such Milic should have taken more care about the writing, not just the pyrotechnics, and could have taken a note or two from Carpenter's excellent (and very similar) siege thriller "Assault on Precint 13". Still, the pace is highly dynamic, no expenses were saved to conjure up explosions and realism (the slow-motion scene of one soldier getting hit in the arm and the other in the head), depicting how in war anyone can become dead or disabled in a matter of seconds, whereas one cannot deny the power accumulated in the mood.

Grade;++

Sunday, 22 November 2015

In the Crosswind

Risttuules; drama, Estonia, 2014; D: Martti Helde, S: Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song, Mirt Preegel, Ingrid Isotamm

In '41, Goreshist Russia invades and annexes Estonia. In June, Moscow starts the ethnic cleansing of the Baltic states in order to create a Greater Russia and to have slaves who will work in Siberia. Among the victims is a young woman, Erna, who is deported on a vagon train with her daughter Eliide and seperated from her husband Heldur. A tenth of the women die during the long journey, sealed off in the train for 26 days. Erna sends letters to Heldur, describing how Eliide died from hunger, and how she and others how to work in Siberia. After war criminal Stalin dies, Estonians and other nations are allowed to return to their homeland again. However, Erna finds out Heldur was executed a long time ago.

The feature length debut film by director Martti Helde, "In the Crosswind" is a very poetic and dreamy depiction of ugly and nightmarish events, the June deportations. As an Estonian himself, Helde was faced with a challenge to stay neutral and immune while depicting such an injustice, the ethnic cleansing of about 200,000 people from the Baltic states, and managed to do it with an innovative movie technique: while all the scenes in Estonia are filmed in normal fashion, all the scenes where the main heroine Erna is dislocated from her homeland and living in Siberia are filmed in 'Matrix' style, i.e. the camera drives around the people, while they stand motionlessly. It is a wonder to look at, since 80% of the film is assembled out of these "frozen scenes", but it has a meaning - to show how life "stopped" for Erna and all those people who had a home, a husband and a family before, and were left suddenly widowed and homeless afterwards. The viewers see these "3D-stills", reminiscent of Marker's "La jetee" just with a mobile camera, and observe these stills - Red army soldiers holding a family on a truck at gunpoint; soldiers pushing families in trains; a child holding its hands over its ears; a husband gently hugging his wife and daughter for the last time at the train station; Red army soldiers aiming at prisoners before execution... - but are presented with a gentle protective dislocation by not seeing the whole picture, just a frozen glimpse of it. This way, the movie protects from too much sentimentality, from too much pain, because it skips the complete action of seeing the soldiers actually shot and kill the prisoners - but precisely because of such a sustained depiction, it is all the more subtly emotional and says all there is to say about the insanity and tragedy of Goreshism through ages. Assembled only out of the narration of Erna's letters, "Crosswind" is an intimate movie that demands a lot of concentration, but rewards, and sends an unassuming message about the inherent power of the small and good people to survive the big and the evil.

Grade;+++

Les Vampires (part VI-VIII)

Les Vampires; silent crime, France, 1916; D: Louis Feuillade, S: Edouard Mathe, Marcel Levesque, Fernand Herrmann, Musidora

American millionaire George Baldwin has been robbed by criminal Norton, so the Vampires send Irma Vep to rob Norton's map showing the treasure hidden in the forest. However, she is captured by Moreno, who brings her to his hideout and falls in love with her. Moreno and Irma record Baldwin's voice and forge his signature in order to steal more money from him, but are arrested by the police thanks to Mazamette and Philipe. Moreno is executed, but Irma manages to escape when the ship transferring the captives is hit by cannons of Satanas, the grand Vampire. Satanas is arrested, but commits suicide.

Parts 6, 7 and 8 are more dynamic, but still not enough to warrant the overrated and overhyped reputation of Louis Feuillade's "Les Vampires" crime film series, which went on for way too long by spanning an unnecessary six hours of running time in total. The movie suffers from a very uneven pace, which ranges from empty to stacked with events, as well as some clumsy traits - such as the tendency of the actor playing Mazamette to often look into the camera - whereas the highlight is Musidora anyway, who here finally appears more often in her black "robber suit", which is so cool it secured her a place in the hall of fame in cinema, sparked numerous copycats in modern cinema and made it instantly clear why Moreno would fall in love with her when he meets her in person - even though she appears barely 5 minutes in it, while she wears her regular "civilian clothes" for the rest of the film series. The story is plain straightforward, and thus conventional, yet a few moments of spice manage to ignite here and there, such as when villain Satanas hides a bomb in his hat or the "split screen" scene where he is on the left side of the apartment wall, spying on Mazamette who is in the lobby, on the right side of the screen.

Grade;++

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians

Tajemstvi hradu v Karpatech; fantasy comedy, Czech Republic, 1981; D: Oldrich Lipský, S: Michal Docolomanský, Vlastimil Brodský, Milos Kopecký, Evelyna Steimarova, Rudolf Hrusinský

Carpathian hills, 1897. Count Teleke of Tölökö, a famous opera singer, enjoys the nature trip with his servant Ignac. When they find a man, Dezi, lying unconscious in the forest, they bring him back to his nearby village. It turns out he was investigating the mysterious castle on the hill, where strange things occur. The next night, Teleke and Dezi enter the castle and find it is inhabited by Baron Gerc and his mad scientist, Orfanik, who invented cameras and rockets. Teleke knows Gerc from before: Gerc was stalking Teleke's girlfriend and singer, Salsa Verde. When she had a heart attack, Gerc used Orfanik's inventions to conserve her dead body. When the army is about to storm the castle, Gerc blows the whole place up, but Teleke and Dezi manage to escape.

One of Oldrich Lipsky's final films, a comical adaptation of Jules Verne's novel "The Carpathian Castle", "The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians" is a surreal and surprisingly inventive fantasy comedy that - despite its flaws - demonstrates that the director did not gain a cult reputation and stood out from the Czech cinema for nothing. The movie has a slow, lax opening act, but quickly gains momentum and delivers a weird, yet fun and original storyline with a substantial amount of crazy scenes, while its best moments are when it simply indulges in the typical 'Czech' oddball jokes (the servant carrying a giant chair on his back while accompanying Count Teleke while climbing on the hill; in the middle of the opera, a postman arrives with his bicycle on the stage to deliver an urgent telegram to singer Teleke; the bad guy spreads his long beard, revealing he was hiding a machine gun on his chest; Teleke singing with such a high-pitch voice it causes the secret camera lens and microphone hidden in the eye and ear of a painting to break...), especially involving scientist Orfanik who has a mechanical hand which can be converted to several functions, from a tool to a grabbing hook. The opulent locations are a special bonus, since the castle on the hill is aesthetically pleasant. The story may have a few 'rough edges', notably in the chaotic-clumsy finale, and some situations are not as funny as they could have been, yet Lipsky has a field day by joking with all the impossible high-tech inventions set in the 19th century, and does not even shy away from black comedy in the ending where Teleke and his friend are having a fight with the villain Gerc and his gang.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Closed Curtain

Parde; drama, Iran, 2013; D: Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi, S: Kambuzia Partovi, Maryam Moqadam, Jafar Panahi

A writer arrives secretly at his mansion along the shores of the Capsian sea and closes all the curtains, hoping that the authorities will not find him while he is writing his new screenplay, together with his dog. He shaves his head so that nobody can recognize him. However, during a night, a girl, Melika, and her brother, find refuge in his mansion, after they were persecuted by the government for having a party at the beach. The brother leaves, while Melika stays and keeps asking questions about the writers life. At a certain point, director Jafar Panahi shows up and closes the curtains, and then has tea in the mansion, which is his. He sees Melika going into the sea.

Jafar Panahi's 7th feature length film was made during the phase when the director became subject to a "20 year ban on filmaking" by Iran's government, and as such it could not have remained immune to that injustice, nor have decided not to comment on the issue, even cryptically and symbolically. Panahi's own fate is mirrored in the main protagonist, the writer without a name, who is closing the curtains in his mansion and putting various black objects in order to have peace and privacy from the authorities - he finds himself in an absurd situation, where such a benign thing as writing a script became almost as illegal as drug trafficking. The scarce storyline is a little overstretched and may have been better as a short film, since not much could have been done out of the minimalistic concept in which the hero is hiding and never leaves his four walls, and the inclusion of a girl who questions his decision ("What truth about life can you find here?") is only of moderate enrichment of the viewing spectrum. The biggest impact arrives in the last third, when the director, Panahi, shows up randomly in the film itself, while the writer and the girl "disappear", in a baffling "metafilm" touch, almost as if he is showing that he "gave up" on directing the film, since the reality chooses to direct it itself - and his own destiny.

Grade;++

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice; crime / comedy, USA, 2014; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Jeannie Berlin, Michelle Sinclair, Martin Short, Martin Donovan

In the 70s, Californian private detective and hippie Larry "Doc" Sportello hears about a secret plan to put a rich real-estate developer, Wolfmann, in a mental asylum, from his ex-girlfriend Shasta. When she and Wolfmann disappear, he decides to investigate the matter, stumbling into a crazy world which includes Coy, a police informant who feigns to have died; a drug smuggling cartel called "golden fangs"; dentists; Detective Bjornsen "Bigfoot" as well as Puck, a man with a swastika on his skin. When Puck and Adrian kidnap him, Doc kills them and uses their drug to negotiate a release of Coy from a secret cult. Shasta returns and Doc rides with her.

"The Big Lebowski" meets "The Big Sleep" - Paul Thomas Anderson bravely decided to adapt the bizarre comic crime novel "Inherent Vice", but did not manage to make any sense out of it. While the story starts as a typical 'private eye' film, it soon goes deep, way too deep into the obscure - until ultimately it just turns into one giant assembly line with dozens of star cameos who do not contribute to anything in the plot. Author Thomas Pynchon made a critical mistake: one can over-complicate a plot and add too many characters - but only if it all amounts to a conclusive resolution of a mystery in the end. Pynchon, however, never really intended to assemble a puzzle, but just to either confuse or do something unorthodox in the 'whodunit' genre. This is further exacerbated by a strained sense for a comic timing. Still, Joaquin Phoenix is great as the confused 'hippie' hero; Anderson gave an impressive and refreshing casting (including comedians Martin Short and Owen Wilson) whereas "Inherent Vice" has some of the greatest lines and quotes of recent cinema, which are a small delight ("It's not what you think..." - "Thinking comes later."; "My tits aren't big. But it's the thought that counts."; when Sauncho orders a dish at a diner, the waitress says: "OK. It's your stomach."; while visiting a mental asylum, Doc says: "I don't normally visit the south side of the city", upon which the doctor cannot resist but to ask: "...And abnormally...?"). Outlandish, episodic and without a conclusion, but with a rather clever depiction of the 70s era.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Crimson Gold

Talaye Sorkh; drama, Iran, 2003; D: Jafar Panahi, S: Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayeji

Hussein, a giant and a war veteran, breaks into the jewelry store in order to rob it. However, the alarm goes off and the bars lock the door, so he kills himself... A few weeks earlier, Hussein and his friend Ali - who's sister he is about to marry - talk about how much they got from stealing a purse. Living in poverty, Hussein decides to take a job as a pizza delivery boy. He observes a party at a mansion, where Iran's guards are waiting to arrest people as they exit carefree. He disguises himself as rich man in order to enter the jewelry store and check it out. The next night, he continues delivering pizzas, and a rich man invites him into his apartment. Sick of poverty, Huseein decides to rob the jewelry store.

After the government banned Jafar Panahi from directing movies - which he humorously documented in his movie about himself - people all around the world suddenly massively decided to check out his early filmography, optative to get acquainted with his opus. One of his previously banned films, "Crimson Gold", sticks out like a sore thumb: people familiar with the Iranian conservative cinema will get the impression as if here Panahi deliberately decided to depict all the provocative things which are otherwise avoided in it, since he wants his films to be alive and untrammelled by any rules. "Crimson Gold" is incredibly subversive for Iranian cinema, almost reaching the limits of what can be shown there: not only is the main character a crook, but Panahi and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami show throughout the movie what made him go on such a path, since he encounters huge differences between the rich and the poor, the upper and lower class in Tehran - though numerous other "delicate" details are surprising as well (the sequence where Iran's soldiers are waiting outside a mansion where a party is underway, only to arrest two women who exit from it, seems almost like a cruel joke; the rich man hinting that red drops on his toilet may be blood from two women who visited him, only to later turn out to be just liquid from nail polish...). However, Panahi has a very elegant style as well - the almost 4-minute long opening scene, filmed in one take, where Hussein attempts to rob a jewelry store, is brilliant - and uses objective author's vision to give a thematically rich essay about the society he is living in, whereas the main (lay) actor, a gentle giant, is fantastically convincing in his role, and the viewers cannot but feel at least understanding for him.

Grade;+++

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Les Vampires (part I-V)

Les Vampires; silent crime, France, 1915; D: Louis Feuillade, S: Edouard Mathe, Marcel Levesque, Fernand Herrmann, Delphine Renot, Musidora

Part I: Philipe is a reporter who wants to expose a secret criminal organisation, the Vampires. His assistant at the newspaper is Mazamette. Philipe goes to a castle owned by Dr. Nox, and finds the decapitated head of an inspector there, whereas it turns out that the Vampires only disguised a man as Dr. Nox... part II: Philipe's girlfriend Marfa is killed by a ring because she performed on stage dressed in the uniform of the Vampires. Philipe is abducted, but saved by Mazamette, who wants to abandon the Vampire organisation...part III: Irma Vep, a member of the Vampires, disguises herself as a maid and works at Philipe's home, hoping to assassinate him. But she has to flee when he exposes her... Part IV: the Vampires kill Metadier in a train, hoping for Irma to take his money for him at a bank. However, another criminal, Moreno, finds Metadier's corpse and disguises himself as the latter, in order to get the money. Philipe exposes him... Part V: using a sleeping gas, the Vampires knock several guests at a party unconscious, and rob them.

Once regarded as a hyped and controversial hit that caused quite a stir during its premiere, the time was not kind towards Louis Feuillade's movie series "Les Vampires", which encompassed 10 parts with a total of six hours of running time. Today, the movies seem dated and mostly benign, since Feuillade directed them in a very conventional manner, and little to none inventive film techniques (for instance, there is even a scene in part I where a member of the Vampires descends from a roof down the stairs, in agonising three minutes without a cut), whereas the overlong running time exacerbates the overall impression and deteriorates it further. The only thing worth seeing in "Les Vampires" is the performance by Musidora, as the seductive villain Irma Vep, but, alas, since she appears for so little in the first five parts (she has a bigger role only in parts 3 and 4), and even less in her cool black suit (30 seconds in part V, whereas another actress plays her with "bat wings" on stage in part 2, which last for less than 60 seconds, anyway), the majority of the storyline is without highlights. As such an 'abridged version', it is an interesting find from the perspective of film history, whereas a few comical touches manage to live it up a bit (Mazamette gives a note that says how he is such a good undertaker, because "nobody from his customers ever complained"; Irma dressing up as an employee in the bank named Juliette, so the titles call her "pseudo-Juliette"), but it seems in neglected it potentials instead of using them as assets over the rather standard crime storyline.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Scream

Scream; horror, USA, 1996; D: Wes Craven, S: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore

In Woodsboro, a teenage girl who answered an anonymous phone call, Casey, was stabbed and killed in her home one night. The small town is agitated, especially Sidney, whose mother was killed almost one year earlier under similar circumstances. The murders keep continuing, and a masked man with a black hood seems to be behind them. With the help of a sleazy TV reporter, Gale Weathers, Sidney manages to apprehend the killers: it was her boyfriend Billy and his friend Stuart. Billy also killed her mother, because she had an affair with his father, and thus caused his parents to separate. Luckily, Gale and Sidney escape and kill them.

During the time of its premiere, "Scream" caused quite a hype and sensationalism, yet after closely watching it even today, it seems to justify its cult reputation since screenwriter Kevin Williamson crafted a rather inventive meta-film take at the horror genre, demolishing its cliches, which at times almost seems as if it was directed by Godard - except that director Wes Craven refused to make it too artificial, thereby preserving its suspense and vitality. The murders are at times presented disappointingly ordinary (except Tatum's, Casey's and the sequence where the cameraman in the TV van observes the killer behind a lad on the couch on the screen, but then realizes he is watching a 30 seconds delay) and the last 15-20 minutes seem to have lost track, since they contain a fair share of sloppy, clumsy narrative without much motivation or conclusion of the bad guy, yet the sheer amount of inspired writing and innovative-auto ironic ideas is simply staggering (Sidney presenting Billy with her idea of their "PG-13 relationship", by exposing he bust in front of him; Sidney talking with the killer on the phone about why she dislikes horror movies: "It is always the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It's insulting"; in the video store, Randy observes Billy and asks his friends: "If you were the prime suspect, would you be standing at the horror section?"), thereby making all the horrors after it in need for something fresher, and the intense pace never lets down. It may not reach the creative heights of such all-time horror comedies like "An American Werewolf in London" or "Evil Dead II", yet it is a remarkably fresh take at some plot concepts and ideas of the horror movies that became too-recycled after decades, and presents a clever meta-film touch: it is not the killer who is threatening the characters, it is the movie genre itself - and they know it, so they try to cut to the chase by outsmarting it with new ideas.

Grade;+++

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Doel Belang

Doel Belang; mystery / drama short, Croatia, 2007; D: Veno Mušinović, S: Gordan Sarajlić, Lovro Lajoš, Marko Hrenović, Veno Mušinović, Iva Bunčić

A writer writes a book with the title "Doel Belang". Adam is a gardener in a picturesque orchard. After an apple falls on his head, a stranger, only known as Mobil, shows up and helps him stand up, but also inspires him to think about the nature of life when he poses a thought-provoking question if they are possibly all characters in a book with an author. Adam abandons his assignment of painting a fence and goes on a quest to find some answers. He meets a man buried up to his chest in soil; Thomas, a man without any opinion and a painter, who contemplates if their book was maybe left unfinished. Adam finally has a vision of a woman at night, and hears the voice of the writer who informs him that his task was to paint the fence - in the story in the book, Theodore's daughter Gudinne was suppose to return to her hometown after 20 years, which would be identified by a black fence. Since Adam did not paint it, she continued driving, and hit and killed Doel Belang, which will demolish the point of the book. Adam cries and the writer finishes his book.

Some films deserve to be taken out of the sands of time, since they display remarkable philosophical, spiritual and intellectual exercises, rarely seen in cinema. "Doel Belang" is an unassuming little short film created out of pure inspiration, which does not send its messages in a tedious-pretentious way, but instead does this with unbelievable elegance and simplicity. Its title is a Dutch wording for "the singificance of meaning". Its supposed theme at first is that characters that inhabit it wonder if they are just characters in a book with an author - but from it the film's real theme emerges, namely the questioning of reality, our world, the Universe and God. Adam, the main protagonist, is a symbol for the care-free person who is content with his simple life and his orchard. Until he is visited by a stranger, Mobil, who stimulates him intellectually by posing the question: "Do you ever wonder about the meaning?" Mobil does not know the nature of their world, either, but speaks hypothetically about the implications if they are inside a book: "Do you see how terrible that would be? It means that we had already been written, predestined for ourselves. Of course, it isn't terrible that you're predestined to be good or bad, terrible is the thought itself that you are predestined, that you are created unchangeable!" There is a rich, exquisite debate that follows between them about free will ("Every man can interpret a poem his own way, but she will always be the same - the way the poet imagined her"; "Maybe every one of us is a book for itself and everyone has its own writer"), and it ends with a notion that Mobil's thoughts are so strong they cause Adam to "move" outside his world ("I don't know why I influenced you to start thinking, instead of you influencing me to stop thinking").

This conversation proves as a major intellectual catalyst, sending Adam on a quest for meaning where he meets three characters on his path. The first one is a mysterious, bald man buried up to his chest in earth, stuck, trying to reach some apples around him, who represents the crippled, the disabled and the sick, and who thus reject the notion of an author (God) because life is awful. The second one is Thomas, a man hanging from a tree who does not have any opinion of his own, and who represents people who reject an author because life has no meaning. The third person is a painter (director Veno Musinovic himself), who represents creative people who are the closest to understanding an author, but who actually claims that the author may have abandoned reaching the conclusion of the final chapter of the book, and that they are stuck in this pretty, yet unfinished world, and thus may represent people keen of mysticism and alternative gnosticism. Finally, the movie ends in one of the most astonishing ideas to make a conclusion - namely that Adam is just a supporting character in the book, and that his life is thus subordinate to that of Doel Belang, the title character (who never makes an appearance). This is extraordinary and highly original, with an inversion of atheist questions about neglected people, by posing a restructured question if there may be a higher purpose - but a one where you, your world, or your Universe are just a supporting cog in the wheel, while the main raison d'etre is about something else, outside of known. What if the creator has a completely different concept of a meaning than the creation? "Doel Belang" is an incredibly rich, elevated philosophical essay, with wisdom rarely displayed anywhere else up to that point. Some works of art are unknown due to a lack of promotion - but good things cannot remain forgotten for too long, and will resurface one way or another.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Our Hospitality

Our Hospitality; silent comedy, USA, 1923; D: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone, S: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts

In a small town somewhere in the American south, the Canfield and McKay family have been at feud for generations, even though nobody knows what they were arguing in the first place. When her husband gets killed by one of the Canfield members, Mrs. McKay decides to send her son, Willie, to live with her aunt in New York, far away from all this hate. However, as a grown man, Willie takes a train to return to his hometown, since he intends to inherit the McKay estate. He meets a girl there, Vriginia, and she invites him to her home - as it turns out, it is the home of the Canfield family. Since the tradition prohibits that they kill someone who is their guest, Willie decides to stay in the house for as long as possible. In the end, after a lot of troubles, he save Virginia from a waterfall, and they get married, effectively ending the feud.

Even though it does not reach the creative heights of his best movies, such as "The General", "Steamboat Bill Jr." or "Sherlock, Jr.", "Our Hospitality" is still a very good comedy from one of the pioneers of the silent era, Buster Keaton, and is somewhere even regarded as a neglected gem in his filmography. Actually, truth be told, the movie basically spaced out its entire storyline between just two highlights (the hilarious train trip with "flexible" rail track, which culminates with such absurd moments as the train and the waggons driving over a large "bump" on their path without problem or when the train even at one point continues driving on a road, needing no tracks what so ever (!); the spectacular stunt on the waterfall), while the middle is somewhat overstretched, with a couple of empty walks, yet the narrative is competent enough to pull it off in a very positive outcome, giving Keaton again room to demonstrate his inventive stunts and gags, as well as subtly sending a pacifist - and ironic - message of the pointless feud between two families united by love of their children, which can be interpreted as an allegory of numerous conflicts in history where two nations were battling each other and feeling animosity because it was their "tradition", even though nobody knows why they are still continuing it at all.

Grade;+++

Monday, 26 October 2015

Napoleon - Stanley Kubrick's 1969 Screenplay

In 1969, Stanley Kubrick completed a script based on French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The script has since been published online for everyone to have an opportunity to read it. Kubrick himself intended to make a three hour epic out of the 148 page screenplay, starring David Hemmings as the title hero - unfortunately, the producers refused to finance it, and the movie was ultimately never made, depriving cineasts from all around the world of a golden opportunity to perhaps see one of the classics of the cinema. With time, "Napoleon" thus gained an incredible reputation as one of those great movies that were never made, but is its cult reputation justified compared to the original script?

The story kicks off with the 4-year old Napoleon holding a teddy bear in his bedroom in Corsica, while his mother Letizia watches over him. It then switches to the hero, aged 9, attending the Royal Military College at Brienne. Unfortunately, both episodes are too gaunt and too short to justify being there in the first place, since in the latter the only moment that illustrates Napoleon's character is when he responds to teasing by slamming Dufour with a tin cup and fighting with Bremond. Better character development arrives on page 5, when the 16-year old Napoleon reveals a feeling of a pointless life: "Life is a burden for me. Nothing gives me pleasure; I find only sadness in everything around me." There is also an interesting episode with his encounter with a prostitute on the streets of Lyon, showing that Kubrick did not intend to glamourize his life, nor to show it as black-and-white. A decisive setting of the story arrives with the French revolution in 1789, when Napoleon has an entrance on the scene of events in grand style: as Varlac, a revolutionary leader, seems to enjoy the cheers of the crowd on the town square, Napoleon shows up with 25 French troops, and - alone on his horse - cuts through the crowd to talk to Varlac face to face. Napoleon informs him that he is under arrest for killing de Bouchy, his son, and setting his home on fire. This erupts in a tense moment that can go either way. Varlac, obviously, refuses to accept the authority of the King and advises Napoleon to "leave while he can", thinking he has the crowd as his shield. Napoleon, though, remains his cool ("Monsieur Varlac, do not pretend to speak for those good people whom you have mislead and inflamed with violent speech."), draws his gun and gives him five seconds to come with him. Varlac refuses, and Napoleon shoots him there, demonstrating his strong sense for law and order, regardless of the odds.

The Toulon siege, where Paul Barras, the (bisexual) Deputy of the Committee of Public Safety, is introduced, also presents one of Napoleon's finest hours, since his idea and intervention manage to assure the French integrity over the port controlled by the British. Strangely, though, the sole battle is not shown - just an animated map. After the death of Robespierre in 1794, France is once again thrown into chaos, and the Republic seems fragile and threatened. Kubrick inserted a small scene of Barras' music room where three women have sex with three men on the stage, in front of an audience, which could be interpreted ambiguously: either to show decadence of the French society, or to simply show how people were not as conservative back then, since they ironically observe "stage porn". A third great moment follows for Napoleon, when - faced with a 40,000 strong mob of Royalists who threaten the government on the streets of Paris, while he only has a 5,000 strong force at his disposal - decides to use cannons to disperse the crowd: "The numbers are not particularly relevant. You are not up against soldiers - this is a mob, and they will run as soon as things become sufficiently unpleasant". According to the instructions, the cannons firing point blank into the mob would have been filmed in slow-motion, without a sound, with only Napoleon's off-narration.

There are several memorable details here, such as when Napoleon creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid from wall to wall; and when his orderly enters and informs him that he sent away a certain Eugene de Beauharnais who wanted to see him, Napoleon (without looking up) asks: "What did you say his name was?", he orders him to let the lad in - Euegene's mother is Josephine de Beauharnais, and this gives Napoleon a chance to meet - and marry - her. It is interesting to point out that Josephine's and Napoleon's bed scene was to be filmed in semi-dark, only in candle light, with a special F.95 50 mm lens used for Aero Space photography, in order to give the viewers a feeling of authenticity, and that Kubrick tried out this technique anyway six years later in "Barry Lyndon". This segment also highlights Napoleon's disappointment with love ("They day upon which you should say 'I love you less', would be the last day of my love - or the last day of my life", "That the world is beautiful only because you inhabit it"), since Josephine cheats on him secretly.

Pages 37 to 40 demonstrate a great depiction of battles during the Italian campaign: the French army is 100 yards away from the Austrian army. When they are 50 yards away, the Austrians open fire, and a large part of the French fall, but continue marching towards them. Since the Austrians have no time to reload, and the French are 20 yards away, panic sets in and they start to run away - and only from this distance do the French finally open fire. Later, Napoleon narrates: "From that moment on, I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee beneath me, as if I were being carried away up to the sky."

Unfortunately, there are two major flaws: the rest of the battles are handled with far less detail, effort or elaborate will. This is followed by the Egyptian campaign, which has only 9 pages - of which seven pages are used for Napoleon finding out Josephine cheats on him from the drunk Junot. Surprisingly, there are very few battles depicted in the script overall (there is no Ulm, nor Jena and Auerstedt, nor Borodino, nor Wagram, nor the Spanish invasion...) and practically all of his generals (Murat, Junot, Davout...) are mere extras and one-dimensional characters. They are all suddenly there. But it was not shown how they got there. Due to this skipping of large amounts of chronicles, the narrative is strained and episodic at times, which is disappointing. It seems Napoleon's life was simply too big to be encompassed for a three hour film, even for Kubrick.

Also, it seems Kubrick did not especially care for the sole essence of the French revolution or the Napoleonic Wars, in general. He mentioned the conflicts, but does not explain why they occur. It needs to be pointed out that Napoleon was, in some way, the forerunner of a fighter for democracy (=the Republic) and a fighter against dictatorship (=European monarchies) - even though, ironically, he later proclaimed himself an emperor (!) - not to mention that he abolished feudalism and applied Code civil (abolishing all the privileges that a minority had due to their birthright), which had an enormous impact on European history. Napoleon may have been defeated - but his ideas of democracy and Republic eventually prevailed and defeated the monarchies in Europe. However, even though it seems that Napoleon "stole" all the character development, his wit and sharpness shines at times ("I found the crown lying in the gutter, and I picked it up"), whereas his love-hate relationship with Josephine was presented with enough emotion. Even though the last third is the weakest by structure, even that part has some highlights - for instance, during the march towards Moscow, 200 Russian soldiers surround 50 French infantry on a hill, while a Goreshist shows up, ordering them to surrender - but the French officer just shoots him, anyway, which is a bravura moment. Also, it seems Napoleon gave at least one quote which influenced Kubrick's views on humanity: "Society is corrupt because man is corrupt - because he is weak, selfish, hypocritical and greedy. And he is not made this way by society, he is born this way - you can see it even in the youngest children. It's no good trying to build a better society on false assumptions - authority's main job is to keep man from being at his worst and, thus, make life tolerable, for the greater number of people." Napoleon was shown adequattely ambiguous: even though he was one of the most famed people in human history, he died alone, in isolation, without the love of his life, whereas his only child died at the age of 22, which sends a bitter message that even myth and fame cannot make a human life more meaningful or better.

Kubrick once said this was going to be "the greatest movie of all time". Judging by the script, he seemed to have exaggerated it a bit. Even if we accept some of his directorial interventions he might have used, some omissions would still be there. Though the movie would have still been a treat, of course. Therefore, hypothetically, "Napoleon" would have been better than the sometimes placid "Barry Lyndon", but still weaker than some of Kubrick's own best films, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Dr. Strangelove".

Grade;+++