Saturday, 28 March 2015

Coogan's Bluff

Coogan's Bluff; action/ crime, USA, 1968; D: Don Siegel, S: Clint Eastwood, Susan Clark, Don Stroud, Lee J. Cobb, Tisha Sterling

Coogan is a crude and raw Sheriff in Arizona who catches outlaws and criminals using very direct methods. One day, he is sent to New York to escort a criminal, Ringerman, to Arizona. Coogan is confused by the big city and all the rules, since he has to wait for days to get an official document approving him to pick up Ringerman. Tired of waiting, Coogan tricks the jail guard into handing him Ringerman anyway. However, on his way back, Ringerman escapes. Too humiliated to return home empty handed, Coogan stays in New York searching for the criminal. Using Ringerman's girlfriend, he finds the outlaw, arrests him and the two return back to Arizona in a helicopter.

The first collaboration between director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood, "Coogan's Bluff" is not their best film, since it is obvious the scrambled script rushed the production too often, yet the basic premise - a rudimentary rural Arizona Sheriff who cannot cope with all the "fancy" rules and regulations in a big city, and feels like a 'fish-out-of-water', which is why the movie was translated in some parts of the world simply as "A Sheriff in New York" - gives it some genuine charm and helps carry the entire notion. The humorous situations and possibilities were not exploited to the fullest - at best, they are the most abundant in the first half when Coogan is annoyed that people always confuse him for a Texas man due to his cowboy hat, or when he has a comical exchange with a greedy taxi driver ("That's 2.95$, including the luggage." - "Tell me, how many stores are there named Bloomingdales in this town?" - "One, why?" - "We passed it twice." - "It's still 2.95$, including the luggage." - "Yeah, well here's 3 dollars, including the tip."), yet the reminder of the film is just a standard criminal flick, with a few ferocious moments (the most questionable being when Coogan pushes Ringerman's girlfriend around to force her to tell him where he is). However, the methods and manners with which Eastwood's character acts to solve the case, foreshadowed Siegel's future film "Dirty Harry", whereas a very similar concept was 16 years later used in a far more comical edition, in "Beverly Hills Cop".

Grade;++

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali; drama, India, 1955; D: Satyajit Ray, S: Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Subir Banerjee, Runki Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Chunibala Devi

A family lives in poor conditions in a commune somewhere in Bengali jungle: the mother, Sarbajaya, feels the weight of poverty every day watching her two kids - daughter Durga and son Apu - grow up in such conditions, sharing a roof with a crippled old aunt, Indir, since her husband, Harihar, cannot get a breakthrough as a writer and thus has to accept occasional jobs in far away villages. Durga is accused of stealing a necklace from a neighbor, but she denies it. The kids grow up playing in the jungle and observing a train pass by. Indir dies. During heavy rain, Durga gets pneumonia and dies due to inadequate care. Upon returning, the father is saddened and decides to leave the community. Before leaving, Apu finds the stolen necklace in Durga's plate, and throws it away in the swamp to hide it.

Satyajit Ray's feature length debut film, "Pather Panchali" is often hailed as one of the greatest debut films of the 50s, and it is definitely a quality made, unassuming little film - where the author had to speak up about the poverty of his country and show the conditions people in Bengal lived in - yet it still feels slightly overrated, overstretched and too thin to truly ignite that deeper appreciation of a movie goer. Ray follows the 'slice-of-life', almost documentary depiction of events reminiscent of Italian neorealism, but - except for the touching last scene where Apu throws the necklace into the swamp - very few sequences are truly decisive in establishing some greater payoff of inspiration that "clicks" with the viewers. The scenes of the kids observing a train in the meadow or the old aunt dying come swiftly, and slightly leave the same way they entered the film: on one hand, the protagonists give a natural feeling without acting, but on the other, it seems Ray and his film crew did still not get a hang of it as they later would. The storyline is sad and emotional, and often quite unsettling to watch due to its theme, and trying to glamourize these conditions would have been wrong. Ray would later make a whole trilogy using "Panchali" as his starting base, which were followed by "Aparajito" and "The World of Apu".

Grade;++

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Argo

Argo; thriller/ drama, USA, 2012; D: Ben Affleck, S: Ben Affleck, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Christopher Denham

In '79, the Iranian Revolution breaks out, which results in the overthrow of the unpopular pro-American government led by Shah Pahlavi. The anger spreads to demonstrators who storm the US embassy in Tehran. Numerous are taken hostage, but six embassy staff members manage to escape and hide in the Canadian embassy. In order to save those six Americans, the CIA approves a crazy plan by Tony Mendez: to use Hollywood figures John Chambers and Lester Siegel in order to feign a Canadian production of a fake sci-fi film, "Argo". Tony then enters Tehran, pretending to be a location scout for "Argo", and disguises the six embassy members as his film crew. The seven of them manage to board a plane and leave safely back home.

The incredible rescue operation of six Americans from Tehran as part of the so called "Canadian Caper" operation, is such an amazing story that it is a wonder Hollywood took so long to finally make a movie about it. Following three different award ceremonies where "Argo" won the best film award, it retroactively triggered an angry backlash, which was exaggerated: it is evidently not the best film of 2012, yet it has so many virtues it would be wrong to minimize them. For one, after so many bombastic 21st century films with over-edited, bloated tricks, "Argo" was seen as a refreshing surprise since it took a 'good-old-school' filmmaking approach and simply told a simple, good story in a normal way, even adding a nice homage to 70s and 80s thrillers evident already in the opening Warner Bros. logo which was used in the 70s. The sequences of the Iranian Revolution are directed with life, the supporting Hollywood characters played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin who try to feign a fake movie are deliciously self ironic for a Hollywood film ("If I'm doing a fake movie, it might as well be a fake hit!"; "I took this meeting out of respect, because I wanted to say 'no' to your face...") whereas numerous little details are meticulously crafted (for instance, the US embassy shredded all documents before the storming of the location, but the Iranian guard takes its time to browse through tens of thousands of shredded vertical papers-stripes in order to construct the faces of the members, almost as a puzzle). There are several omissions - the Iranians are sometimes portrayed in black-and-white; the numerous factual accuracies are evident, especially in the too many fictional "saved-in-the-nick-of-time" moments in the finale that have a tendency of overdramatize the situation - yet the flaws never outweigh the virtues. Ben Afflack also matured remarkably as an actor, and displayed a very stoic performance, yet it is even more interesting to notice how he matured as a director as well, since "Argo" is so elegantly crafted it flows by in a time that seems like only a moment.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo; animated fantasy drama, Japan, 2011; D: Makoto Shinkai, S: Hisako Kanemoto, Kazuhiko Inoue, Miyu Irino

Teenage girl Asuna lives alone in her house on a countryside with her mother, but still often thinks about her late father. One day, she is attacked by a giant lizard on the bridge, but saved by a boy, Shun, who claims to be from the mystical country Agartha. After Shun is found dead, Asuna follows her teacher, Morisaki, who crosses the barrier into, Agartha, the world of the dead, to find his deceased wife there, Lisa. Asuna hopes to find her dead father. On their way, they encounter bizarre creatures, and Shun's brother, Shin, who helps them survive. They reach their destination and a strange creature that uses Asuna's body to channel Lisa. Shin destroys the crystal that enables that process and Asuna is back to her body. Asuna and Morisaki thus leave and go back to the surface.

After several critically acclaimed short and feature films, director Makoto Shinkai surprised rather unpleasantly with his 3rd feature length anime film, "Children Who Chase Lost Voices", which is a step back compared to his excellent "Voices of a Distant Star" and "5 Centimeters Per Second". A retelling of Orpheus, "Children..." is a bizarre patchwork that is never really sure what it wants to be, and the incomplete ending - which makes all these goals of the protagonists obsolete, and is unusually syrupy and dishonest - leaves an incomplete feeling as well. Actually, the film is more bizarre than it is harmonius. It has one great sequence of elevated suspense (during sunset, Asuna and a little girl are trying to escape from a desolate place by staying on the sunny side of the ground, because the bizarre humanoid rock creatures that want to attack them cannot stand light and can only walk in the shadow) and a couple of fine emotional moments (Asuna is about to cry, but Shin tells her: "Don't just cry now!" However, as soon as he says that, he bursts out crying first), yet the fantasy world is overall not that grand whereas the dramatic conflicts seem confusing at times, especially the painfully prolonged story of Morisaki who wants to be reunited with his deceased wife. Shinkai once again has some stylistic tricks that justify this film, albeit they seem rather schematic and overlong in this edition. A nicely animated and rather good film, yet surprisingly poor with that true inspiration.

Grade;++

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Charulata

Charulata; drama, India, 1964; D: Satyajit Ray, S: Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, Sailen Mukherjee, Shyamal Ghoshal

Calcutta, towards the end of the 19th century. Charu lives in a wealthy mansion, but her husband, Bhupati, is never there for her since he is constantly busy with publishing a newspaper, "The Snetinel". In order for her not to be lonely all the time, he invites Charu's lazy brother Umapada to be his finance manager, and Bhupati's own brother, Amal, is called to keep her company. Amal, a sensitive writer, sparks Charu's talent in writing, and her text is published in a newspaper. However, she falls in love with him. When it is found out that Umapada fled the mansion with unpaid bills, Amal decides to leave the house as well, feeling Charu has feeling for him. Charu is devastated, and Bhupati finds out she loved Amal all the time. However, he returns home and they reconcile.

One of Satyajit Ray's highest rated films, "Charulata" - also known as "A Lonely Woman" - is a wonderfully sincere, simple little film, with a storyline and characters so cultured, sensitive and emotional that it is a delight. The love triangle story is handled so exquisite, with such meticulous patience, that it always avoids the melodramatic in favor for an artistic, quality and ambitious narrative where the emotions are thus even stronger because they are so subtle and the characters are trying to restrain them. Ray's visual style is sustained, yet he has a great sense for aesthetic images (the scene where the camera is in front of Charu's head and follows her as she is swinging up to the top of tree and down on her swing; the tracking shot of Charu walking, "intermingled" by bars on the balcony...) which are completed by delicious characters, who know how to be both convincing and funny at times (Amal watching Charu on the swing and joking: "Have you heard they are planning to bring a tax on swinging?"; "Mediterranean... That sounds like running your fingers over the string of a tanpura"; Bhupati and his wife Charu exchanging this dialogue: "Are you lonely?" - "I got used to it." - "No one should ever get used to being lonely."), whereas the black and white cinematography gives the story that 'good-old-school' charm, since the 20th century cinematography seemed somehow warmer, somehow more humane than the high-resolution, but cold and grey digital cinematography of the 21st century. A few moments are slightly overlong here and there, which sometimes disrupts the fine mood, but overall, everything here is done just right, especially the famous ending with "frozen" last images, which all lead up to the inevitable conclusion that this is a classic.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Zagreb Cappuccino

Zagreb Cappucino; drama/ comedy, Croatia, 2014; D: Vanja Sviličić, S: Nela Koscis, Mila Elegović, Igor Kovač

Zagreb. After a divorce, Petra is now is her 40s and still single, just like her best friend Kika, who visits her from a German town. Kika stays at Petra's apartment and the two women chat about life with a cup of Cappuccino. They go to a night club and bring back two men for a one night stand. Kika reveals she is pregnant and that she wants to have an abortion. However, she changes her mind and decides to keep the baby.

The feature length directorial debut film by Vanja Svilicic - the wife of acclaimed director Ognjen Svilicic - is a light, yet unexciting and bland dramedy that rarely manages to engage the viewers. Even though is revolves around two blond women, best friends who quietly lament about their lives, the storyline is disappointingly flat and scarce with ideas. Almost nothing happens throughout the film, and even for a 'slice-of-life' movie, something has to happen, even if it just the build up of mood or emotions. "Zagreb Cappuccino" gains the most from the excellent performance of brilliant actress Mila Elegovic in the role of Kika, who manages to ignite the film here and there. In one of the best moments, Petra is sitting on a couch in her apartment, while Marina Perazić's fantastic song "Program tvog kompjutera" is heard in the background on the radio. Completely spontaneous, Kika stands up, pumps up the volume and starts singing and dancing in tune to the song to cheer up the mood, and for moment, the whole film is excellent. This excellence lasts only for two minutes, and loses steam as soon as the song is over, yet it still gave a small spark of energy and a hint that Vanja Svilicic can do better if she tries.

Grade;+

Saturday, 7 March 2015

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front; war / drama, USA, 1930; D: Lewis Milestone, S: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray

World War I. After a propaganda speech by an ultra-nationalist teacher in a German school, several students, among them the naive Paul, enlist in the army to fight in the war. After a training, they are sent to the Western front and experience the hell of war: explosions kill most of them, whereas hunger, rain and dirt make it unbearable for them even during peace time. Paul kills a French soldier who jumps into his trench, but regrets it. After almost all of his friends were either killed or became crippled, Paul spots a butterfly on the battlefront. As he reaches for it, a sniper kills him.

One of the milestones of early cinema and of the war movie genre, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's pacifist novel of the same title, "All Quiet on the Western Front" is an undated, raw, fresh and powerful anti-war film that tells about some things that are otherwise frequently ignored by other war movies. It has two unforgettable sequences: in one, the young soldier Paul kills a man for the first time, a French soldier who jumped into his trench, with a knife. But then he realizes what he has done and says this to the deceased man: "But you are a man just like I am, and I killed you. Forgive me comrade... Oh God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, the two of us." He then finds a photo of the man's family and says: "I'll write to your wife. I promise she will not want for anything. And I'll help her, and your parents, too". You are never going to see something like this in any other war film. The other one is the penultimate sequence, where Paul spots a butterfly on the ground and reaches for it, amazed of the contrast of such beauty and innocence in all of the ugliness and degenerate hate around him. Lewis Milestone crafts the war sequences with dynamic, energetic style, but some of the peace moments seem strangely stiff and bland by comparison, especially in some schematic scenes where there is too much talk, whereas some subplots are unnecessary (the men who find the French women on the other side of the river bank; Paul's mother...), which is why the long, 150 minute cut is actually weaker, and the shorter, 120 minute cut better and far more concise. Either way, this is a classic and contains some bravura directed moments.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Boyhood

Boyhood; drama, USA, 2014; D: Richard Linklater, S: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Marco Pellera

Texas. The 6-year old Mason and his 8-year old sister Samantha grow up with her mother Olivia, who divorced their father who is a nice guy, but is still pursuing a career in a rock band instead of finding a real job. Olivia marries Bill, a divorced teacher, but regrets it soon when he turns out to be an autocratic tyrant who abuses her and the kids. Olivia moves out and marries her third husband, an Iraq War veteran, but he turns out to be aggressive as well. Throughout these years, Mason and Samantha grow up and never lose contact with their father. As a teenager, Mason develops a sense for photography and gets a scholarship for college. He moves out of his home and leaves.

"Boyhood" is one rare modern example of courageous inventive (thematic) approach to the film medium, not seen since Godard. In it, director Richard Linklater filmed the story over a period of 12 years in order to give an authentic feel to his protagonist, Mason, growing up from the age of 6 to 18. Just for that simple, yet genius concept, he should be congratulated. And what a risk he took. He was lucky the main protagonist, Ellar Coltrane, did not decide to quit on a whim, or that one of his actors did not die, or that the studio financing the project did not close down from bankruptcy throughout all that time. The four main actors also did a phenomenal job: each one of their performances encompasses a whole decade of effort, and it is incredible that they managed to stay in character for such a long time span. When you look at Patricia Arquette, she is 34 years old at the beginning of the film, and 46 by the end of it. The same goes for Ethan Hawke, he is 32 at the start, and 44 at the end. As Hawke put it nicely, this is a 'time-lapse of a human being', and these changes in time arrive so swiftly, so subtly, it is heart-breaking: one can even sense Hawke's voice changed and that he got grey hair. The viewers can really feel the weight of time and of growing up in the film.

Linklater envisaged the film as a 'slice-of-life' story, consisting out of small vignettes, in order to give an unobtrusive, quiet portrait of life. Several sequences do have sharpness, spark and a point. For instance, the great scene filmmed in one take of a girl on a bicycle talking to Mason about how she is "the only girl who does not like 'Twilight'". The dialogue between Olivia and the autocratic stepfather, Bill ("I have to draw a line." - "But you have so many lines, Bill. Everything is a line for you."), which mirrors the main theme of contradiction: Mason's real father was unemployed and poor, but he was always there and he would care for the kids, while Bill the stepfather was wealthy and there was always food on the table, but if you said anything against him, he would make your life into hell. Also, at least one dialogue is one of the greatest and most philosophical movie quotes of the decade ("You know how they always say seize the moment? I'm kind of thinking it's the other way around: the moment seizes us." - "I know. It's constant. It's like it is always right now.") Some less impressed critics lamented that except for the main concept, there is not much else to see in the film, complaining that Mason is just a passive character who does not react to events, that the events are ordinary and that the storyline seems too improvised, without a clear point at the end. Some of these complaints have merit, especially some strange moments of politics (clips of the Iraq War; the Obama/Biden campaign) which seem like an "intruder" to this innocent story, yet the virtues are so strong they outweigh the flaws. Truffaut tried something like this with his Antoine Doinel character ("400 Blows", "Stolen Kisses", "Bed and Board"...), but that was a film series. Mikhalkov tried something like this with "Anna: 6 to 18", when he filmmed his daughter growing up, but that was a documentary. But there has never been a director who used a long filming for a narrative in a single feature length film, and Linklater should be congratulated for it.

Grade;+++

Farewell until the Next War

Nasvidenje v naslednji vojni; war/ drama, Slovenia, 1980; D: Živojin Pavlović, S: Metod Pevec, Boris Juh, Hans Christian Blech, Milan Puzić, Tanja Poberžnik

While on vacation in a Spanish city, an old Yugoslav, Berk, watches a bullfight: the wounded bull triggers memories of a wounded soldier in World War II. Berk meets a German gentleman, Bitter, and finds out they fought on the opposite sides in Yugoslavia during World War II. Berk remembers that time: he was a young student of medicine, and enlisted into Partisans to fight against the Totalitarian Nazi occupation. His best friend there was Anton, who fought in the Spanish civil war. However, Berk was suspicious of the Communist movement, as well, and lamented about them frequently. He witnessed death, pain and how Partisans shoot their own members for rebelling. After the war ended, Anton was killed by accident when Partisans cheered and shot randomly around them.

Sometimes mentioned as one the best films of Slovenian cinema of the 20th century, "Farewell until the Next War" is rather one of the most untypical Partisan films of the Yugoslav cinema, ostensibly a film about a young lad in a Partisan unit fighting in World War II, but who is in reality cynically mocking and criticizing the (pseudo)Communist party throughout the entire film, which is quite remarkable, thereby announcing the loosening of Yugoslav film censors. Directed by a Serb director, Zivojin Pavlovic - since it was a common practice in Yugoslavia that directors make films in different Republics - this is a quality, ambitious war film with quite an impressive level of production, noticeable in the impressive battle sequences, yet the unorthodox, "blasphemous" details for that genre stand out the most and break several cliches. For instance, protagonist Berk speaks with a fellow Partisan in a wan about this: "I am against Hitler and Mussolini, but I don't like that Stalin guy, either. I don't like the notion of a one-party system, in general." While several Partisans are celebrating, one of them has this exchange with Berk: "You know, this is a revolution! From now on, people will finally take destiny into their own hands! This is the birth of a new man!" - "Funny. I don't see any new men, just old ones." Anton and Berk also frequently joke in other areas: "I would rather be a bull than one of us. Because a bull at least that one goal in life. And what goal do we have?" Several other details stand out, as well, such as one of the Partisan protagonists has sex with a local woman and is then later on seen unzipping his pants and rubbing his penis with water from a creek. Still, the film is too long by at least half an hour and drags heavily because we get the point fairly quickly, yet it goes on and on with just repetitive events, and the confusing ending does not help, either, which restrains the enjoyment value somewhat.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Patema Inverted

Sakasama no Patema; animated science-fiction drama, Japan, 2013; D: Yasuhiro Yoshira, S: Yukiyo Fujii, Nobuhiko Okamoto, Shintaro Oohata

Decades after an experiment of creating energy from gravity went awfully wrong, Patema, a young girl, lives inside a sealed off city, underground. A photo of a sky - something she never seen before - causes her to explore a world outside, but when she falls down a hatch, she finds out she is actually falling up, since she lands on Earth's surface and is saved from a boy, Eiji, from falling and disappearing in the sky. The two of them fell in love, but she is kidnapped by an extremist leader of a cult that hates all the "inverted people" because he thinks they are to blame for the disaster that has befallen them. Eiji and other "inverted" people save Patema, and cause a crack of the surface - it is then revealed that Patema and her people where actually on the right side of the gravity, while Eiji and the others are "inverted" and that their surface was a fake one.

For all the praise that has to be given to "Patema Inverted", it is not as great of an anime as it should have been - if such a fantastic concept had been used by Miyazaki or Takahata in the 80s and 90s, it would have been a masterwork with ease. This edition is very good, but not completely brilliant, though. The magic of the simple, yet genius original idea - what if there were people who have an effect of inverted gravity, "antigravity", in the same world as we with the effect of normal gravity - gives "Patema" spark and carries the storyline with ease. This gave rise to two sequences that are so irresistibly cute and refreshing that they simply cause a smile on viewers' faces: the first one is when Patema and Eiji meet for the first time. She is holding on to a fence as to not fall up, and he helps her by grabbing her and walking her to a small cabin where she can safely "fall" on the ceiling, and the sight of them two - he walking downwards, and she sticking up her two feet above him - is smashing. The second is the long moment where Patema, attached to a heavy "anigravity" weight on her leg, is falling up, endlessly in the sky, while holding Eiji, and this seems like an parachute dive in reverse. However, the storyline is somehow too simplistic - Patema and Eiji fall in love, but it is not quite clear why; the bad guy, a fanatic, is one-dimensional - and seems somehow as if it lacks a more versatile development of the plot. "Patema" is just like Yasuhiro Yoshira's previous film, "Time of Eve": refreshingly new and unique, but there is still something missing - some truly courageous example of narrative and emotions, a broader spectrum of viewing experience - to be considered an all-time anime classic, since rarely some of them play it this safe.

Grade;+++