Sunday, 28 June 2015

Three

Tri; drama/ war, Serbia, 1965; D: Aleksandar Petrović, S: Velimir Bata Živojinović, Voja Mirić, Slobodan Perović, Senka Veletanlić

Yugoslavia during World War II. The young Miloš encounters death three times: while hundreds of peasants are waiting for a train to bring them food and evacuation, Miloš is a student and observes how partisans wrongfully accused and shot a reporter, suspicious of his foreign accent. However, his wife and child show up and confirm he was innocent... As a partisan, Miloš is being chased by a Totalitarian Nazi unit through the forest. He meets another partisan and they head towards the sea. The two of them separate in a swamp, but the other one is caught and sent into a burning house to die... Near the end of the war, Miloš is a high ranking partisan officer. Several Axis collaborators are brought to his outpost, and he is unable, or unwilling, to save a girl among them from the firing squad.

One of the prime examples of the Yugoslav 'black wave' - among others, it was even nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, only the third (ironically) Yugoslav film that managed to do so - "Three" demonstrated director Aleksandar Petrovic's poetic touch, and thus it is not really a typical partisan World War II film, but instead a dramatic essay about the hero's three encounters with death, which is timeless. The three part story jumps from segment to segment abruptly, and only lasts as long as its theme is encircled. The first segment is chaotic (unnecessary scenes of a gypsy performing with a chained bear on the train station to entertain the partisans), yet it is interesting the protagonist Miloš (Velimir Zivojinovic) appears only briefly in it, and the death of a "suspicious" man, who is labelled a "fifth column traitor", is perpetrated by the partisans themselves, which is quite brave and unorthodox compared to the Yugoslav partisan genre where they were showed almost exclusively from the positive side at that time. The story is good, but not outstanding. The second segment, where Miloš is being persecuted by a Nazi unit through a forest, is arguably the best in the film, since it strikes a perfect balance between black poetry, realism and emotions. This time, death appears closer, to someone he grew an emotional connection to, since his new friend, a partisan, is executed. The editing and pacing are meticulous there, and the grim finale is expressionistic. Ironically, just as the partisans were perpetrators in the first story, only to become victims in the second story and the Axis forces taking the role of the perpetrator, in the third and final segment the Axis forces become the next target of death, where Miloš can use his influence to save a girl among them. As the most crucial segment, it somehow falls flat: there is great chemistry between Miloš and the captured girl, established only through their looks, since they do not exchange a single word, but Miloš's passivity and indifferent stance fails to create an emotional charge to round up the story, and does not go in the right direction it could have went.

Grade;++

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson; drama, UK, 2012; D: Roger Michell, S: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams

In '39, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, has a secret, intimate relationship with his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" and they meet in the country estate in Hyde Park. The British King George VI and his wife Elizabeth arrive to the US to visit Roosevelt and ask for his help due to the ever growing threat of German Totalitarianism in Europe. George VI has a complex of lesser value due to his stutter, but Roosevelt manages to calm him, reminding him about his own paralyzed legs. Margaret is shocked that Roosevelt also has other affairs, but forgives him.

A 'micro-biopic' about one event in the life of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in '39, Roger Michell's film is competent and without any major flaws or glaring errors (if the historical accuracy regarding his alleged intimate relationship with Margaret is disregarded), and yet, at the same time it is strangely spiritless, tasteless, bland and uninteresting. All the events are presented with elegance and filmed with a professional hand, but they lack a soul: the storyline is a one giant empty walk without a clear point or a punchline that makes something "click" in the viewers' heads, and is in the end just a lukewarm biopic, a harmless, yet too insipid, too light film. The most was achieved from Bill Murray who gave yet another great performance, this time with an untypically fragile persona of Roosevelt, bound to a wheel chair, but who has charm and warmth: when the British King George VI is despairing because he suffers from stuttering ("Damn this stutter!"), Roosevelt comforts him by pointing out his own physical flaws: "What stutter? This damn child polio". He also has one faint, but refreshing example of humor: when his mother protests against the British guests, she has this exchange with Roosevelt: "This is my house!" - "I'm the President!" The frequency of events conjured up was left lacking since they are too scarce to sate anyone, yet overall "Hyde Park on Hudson" is a well made little film.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth; romantic comedy, USA, 1937; D: Leo McCarey, S: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D'Arcy

Jerry has to assure his friend that he did not cheat on his wife, Lucy, even though he was not on a scheduled trip to Florida. However, when Jerry and his friends return home, he is surprised that his wife is also not at home, as scheduled, and that she was with a music teacher, Armand. Due to these inconsistencies, Jerry and Lucy do not trust each other and eventually file for divorce. Lucy starts seeing a man from Oklahoma, Dan, much to Jerry's jealousy, who hastily starts a relationship with a certain Barbara. When Lucy disguises herself as Jerry's sister to meet Barbara, Jerry and Lucy leave with a car and stop at her aunt's cabin. Spending the night there, they finally realize they love only each other.

Even though it is one of the lesser examples of the 'golden age of Hollywood', Leo McCarey's 'screwball' comedy "The Awful Truth" is still a joy to watch and better than most of modern comedies. A lot of the sequences and situations seem improvised, which can be felt here and there in the rather "abrupt" ending, yet this light comedy has a fair share to funny moments which all create a slow build up of comic timing. The opening sequence, when Jerry (very good Cary Grant) returns home only to find out that his wife Lucy (brilliant Irene Dunne) is in company of a dashing music teacher, Armand, thereby igniting his suspicion of her faithfulness, already leads up to a few great comical dialogues between the three of them ("I can assure you, Jerry, I am a great teacher, not a great lover!" - "Nobody can say that you are a great lover... Oh..."; "I don't know what to say." - "If you leave now, you won't have to say anything!"). However, McCarey seems to be very playful not only with sizzling lines, but also with sight gags and pure slapstick, some of which are remarkably relaxed and genuine (Jerry and Lucy unsuccessfully trying to call the dog in the middle to chose between one of them at the court during the divorce, until Lucy cheats by secretly offering him dog biscuits under her sleeve; the sequence where Armand is hiding from Jerry in Lucy's bedroom, until Jerry hides there as well upon Dan, Lucy's new lover, entering the home, which leads up to a delicious fight between Jerry and Armand off screen while Lucy tries to talk to Dan as if nothing is going on). Unfortunately, some of the subplots are rather pointless (Lucy masquerading as Jerry's sister) whereas a more romantic-emotional dimension is absent until the ending, which is why there were still room for a tighter structure despite many good moments.

Grade;++

Monday, 22 June 2015

Children of Paradise II

Les Enfants du Paradis (II); drama, France, 1945; D: Marcel Carné, S: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Herrand, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir, María Casares

Over six years after the last events, Frederick is now a successful theatre actor, but is openly ridiculing how bad the plays are he is in, and how he only plays them for money. By chance, when he goes to look at a play of his old acquittance, pantomime Baptiste, he finds their old love there, Garance, who returned to Paris with her rich husband Edouard. Frederick finds out she has been watching Baptiste's plays for weeks, and that she never forgot about him. Baptiste is now married to Nathalie and they have a child, but he forgets them and spends the night with Garance. Crook Lacenaire, who was also in love with Garance, returns and kills Edouard in a Turkish bath, but just decides to wait for the police to arrest him there. When Nathalie finds Baptiste with Garance in the apartment, she confronts her. Garance leaves in a carriage, while Baptiste unsuccessfully tries to stop her in a crowd of a carnival.

The second part of the famous French drama film "Children of Paradise" is even better than the first part due to a richer film language. While part I had an interesting, yet conventionally executed plot of four men trying to win a favor of a woman, Garance (Arletty), part II is quietly brilliant and inventive for actually showing the hero, actor Frederick, live six years after he lost the woman he loved to another in the main arc, in some sort of a 'post-story' world: he is a cynic and openly loathes the play in which he has to star, and even goes so far to turn it into a parody when he leaves the stage, goes to a balcony, presents himself with his real name and recites: "I am a criminal, but I am just the hand that follows orders, and the real criminals are the people behind the curtain, the authors of this play", whereupon he points at the three playwrights (!) on the other balcony, causing a burst of laughter from the audience. The main plot tangle starts to ignite the narrative even further when the woman of the four men, Garance, returns to Paris, and he finds her observing the play of pantomime Baptiste. Frederick is so jealous he brings himself to comment the situation with stoic irony: "Garance, you helped meNow I can play Othello".

As the title suggests, the 'paradis', the colloquial name for the 1st class balcony in the theatre, becomes a place for the review of the two actors on stage, Frederick and Baptiste, and thus the fact that Garance goes to watch them in different plays gives the film a metafilm touch since she judges not just who is a better lover, but also a better artist. The influence of the lives of actors on art and vice-versa starts to become palpable and gives the film further spark (Baptiste is a comedian and a pantomime, but he can switch to a mean and serious persona in a second on stage due to his bitter experience with Garance; Garance cheats on Edouard after the "Othello" play; a sad Baptiste in the carnival crowd, surrounded by dozens of his cheerful pantomime "clones"). The whole film flows so smoothly it is incredible and the viewers think it lasted only a moment, whereas all the actors are brilliant. Likewise, it is not quite an innocent love story, either, since Garance is a rather 'shady' character: she decided to marry one man, but then returns six years later with intentions that almost border on teasing Baptiste: the sequence where his wife, Nathalie, finds Baptiste and Garance in the apartment is cliche, but it is followed by a powerful, defining moment when she shuts the door and confronts Garance with a great quote: "It must be easy." - "What?" - "To leave and return later. You leave, while others suffer. The time does its thing and you return, even more beautiful than before. Oh yes, that must be easy. But to live with only one person, share your routine with him, that is difficult." This sums up Garance's character: she only enjoys flattering, but as soon as she has to commit to someone, she runs away. The film suffers from a "disappearance" of Frederick in the final act and a lack of a proper ending (though it can be interpreted that the story has no ending is and only a cycle of repeating patterns), yet it is excellent and one of the stronger French films of the 40s.

Grade;+++

Technotise: Edit & I

Technotise: Edit i ja; animated science-fiction, Serbia, 2009; D: Aleksa Gajić, S: Sandra Knežević, Nebojša Glogovac, Nikola Đuričko, Tatjana Đorđević, Igor Bugarski, Petar Kralj, Jelisaveta Sablić

Belgrade, 2074. Edit Stefanović is a girl who constantly fails at her psychology exams. She thus pays to illegally get a chip implanted in her body which will increase her memory. However, among her volunteer work is taking care of Abel, an autistic mathematical genius who can crack a formula for an all unifying energy formula. As she takes a glimpse at the incomprehensible formula, the chip inside calculates it, gets the result and becomes self-aware. She can from then on see the chip's manifestation in her mind, in the form of a man, and she calls him Edi. Edit persuades her horny boyfriend Bojan and other friends to help her escape from the government who are after her, seeing a huge potential in such knowledge. Edit falls into a coma, but Edi manages to extract the chip, which has developed nerves, from her body, and leave, which returns her life back to normal.

Even before the premiere, it was predictable that "Technotise: Edit & I" would attract a lot of attention for simply being the first ever Serbian feature length animated film, yet few could have predicted that it would also deserve attention even if it were not for that fact, since it simply a clever, fluent and original little film. Even though it swims across the 'cyber-punk' genre, "Technotise" continues further where other such 'acid' animated films for grown ups stop, such as the too grey "Heavy Metal" and "Ghost in the Shell", because it also offers a refreshing dose of humor and 'slice-of-life' elements, which make the story more human and natural. Director Aleksa Gajic offers a wide array of jokes: Bojan and his friend argue over whether he should have sex with a real girl once in a while, and not just with plastic robots; heroine Edit has troubles learning for her exams, and thus has a 'smart-chip' implanted in her, which enhances her IQ; grandpa has a small virtual rectangle on his nose which is a modern substitute for glasses; a TV commercial advertizes "powdered anti-mater" in a tetra pak...

The narrative is not always smooth, but has a few 'rough' edges and flaws. For instance, grandpa's story about how he saw an alien come out of Slobodan Milosevic's head is just plain bizarre and has no connection to the rest of the film; the CGI animation is competent, but its movements and colors are drab compared to classic animated achievements, and a product placement for one of the sponsors, a certain bank, is seen at least eight times in the film (though it cannot be avoided since this independent film may have not been financed without it). However, the main plot about the 'smart-chip' developing its own consciousness inside Edit has weight, and offers a few philosophical and thought provocative ideas (for instance, since the chip can control some of her movements, it poses the question how she can know for certain when ever she is doing something is her own free will). The film lacks a proper ending - the one gives seems 'abridged' - yet the refreshing heroine, who is cynical and nice at the same time, and a fine build-up of the story, with numerous comical scenes, give it a refreshing feeling, and also a feeling that no feature length animated films was so modern and good on the area of the former Yugoslavia since the '86 classic "The Elm-Chanted Forest".

Grade;+++

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Signals Over the City

Signali nad gradom; war / drama, Croatia, 1960; D: Žika Mitrović, S: Aleksandar Gavrić, Ivan Šubić, Marija Točinoski, Miha Baloh, Dragan Ocokoljić, Velimir 'Bata' Živojinović

Karlovac during World War II. Tomo, the partisan member of the Chief of Staff, arrives in town, but is wounded and arrested by the Totalitarian Nazi-Ustashe forces, together with his Taxi driver Pero. In order to save him from the hospital, partisan Ranko and over 20 of his soldiers disguise themselves as a Ustashe unit, enter the hospital and get him out in a ambulance car. Ranko also meets his ex-girlfriend there, doctor Dinka, who wanted to stay in the city and work in a steady job. However, the Ustasha commander Lukarić stops the partisans at a bridge and opens fire on them. In the end, the bridge explodes, but the partisans manage to survive.

One of the early examples of the Yugoslav 'partisan genre', "Signals Over the City" is a proportionally well made World War II film mostly thanks to the balanced, elegant and highly even direction by Zika Mitrovic, who manages to keep it professional, though a few subtle moments of propaganda do show up here and there (for instance, when partisan Ranko talks with his ex-girlfriend, Dr. Dinka, in the hospital, she laments how "futile" his resistance is against the Axis powers: "What can you do against such a powerful war machine?"). The opening act where Toma is arrested at the main train station is effective and dynamic, yet the film loses steam and becomes tiresome after a while, until it continues to drag: it somehow seems overlong, or it lacked more of such suspenseful moments. The subplot where the partisans disguise themselves as an ustasha unit in order to secretly enter a hospital and save their fellow is original, yet not quite as brilliant or ingenious as a very similar situation in Lubitsch's "To Be or Not To Be". The acting is fine, though slightly timid and stiff, though typical for that era. The storyline never quite engages the viewers in the last third until the battle finale at the bridge, but overall, "Signals" is a decent attempt at an action-spy film that delivered more than enough to justify its existence.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Chinese Odyssey

Sai yau gei; fantasy/ drama/ comedy/ action, Hong Kong/ China, 1995; D: Jeffrey Lau, S: Stephen Chow, Ng Man-tat, Karen Mok, Athena Chu, Law Kar-ying, Jeffrey Lau

In ancient Asia, the Monkey King got annoyed by the endless babble of his master, the Longevity Monk, and thus abandoned him and even attacked the goddess Guanyin. However, the Monk insisted that she should give him another chance. 500 years later, the Joker is the leader of a bunch of thieves in a desert outpost. They are visited by two beautiful demon-women, Spider Woman and Bak Jing-jing, who are in search for the Longevity Monk in order to eat him and prolong their lives. In a chaos caused by the attack of the demon Bull King, Jing-jing commits suicide. In love with her, Joker uses Pandora's Box to travel back in time in order to save her, but goes 500 years back in time. There he meets a fairy, Zixia. He teams up with Pigsy, Sandy and the Monk, who claims that Joker is the Monkey King and that their destiny is to go fetch Buddhist sciptures in India to spread Buddhism in China. Joker refuses to believe this, but Jing-jing abandons him since she senses he loves Zixia. Joker finally transforms into the Monkey King, battles the Bull King but Zixia dies. In a desert city, Monkey King spots the reincarnations of Joker and Zixia, and helps them embrace each other. The Monkey King then leaves with Monk towards his journey.

A set of two films, "A Chinese Odyssey I: Pandora's Box" and "A Chinese Odyssey II: Cinderella", this is one of the most unusual achievements from the Hong Kong cinema, in an impossible blend between silly slapstick, serious drama, lush fantasy elements and inconceivable action stunts. Even though at first glance this may seem like a mess, "A Chinese Odyssey" delivers a surprisingly measured and even balancing act between these four elements, and refuses them to clash with each other - instead treating each one as an equal ingredient of its own - thereby assembling an opulent, rarely experienced mood that secured it cult status. The opening act seizes the attention of the viewers thanks to the comedy elements that are not afraid to go over-the-top at full speed: the Joker (excellent Stephen Chow) wants to attack the demon woman in the bath and tears the axe hidden behind his back, but this causes his pants to fall down; in the next scene he is walking with his hands when chased by a giant spider demon at night and when his pants go in flames, his dumb assistant tries to extinguish them by pounding his crotch with his leg. If this may seem like a stupid comedy at first, it quickly makes a transition to fantasy and drama elements. The first part is thus excellent, and as a bonus offers one of the most romantic moments of the 90s: when the crying Jing-jing is holding her head down on her knees, she puts Joker's hand on her shoulder, giving him a hint that he should try to comfort her. She continues crying, but puts his arm around her shoulder. Finally, she stops crying and embraces him. They start passionately kissing and undressing. However, Joker's knot on his belt will not go down, and Jing-jing helps him, but suddenly stops, and resumes crying, upon which he gives up because she is now fragile again. This switch from comical to romantic melts you away.

The second part, "Cinderella", is weaker and slightly suffers from a 'rough' structure: the sudden disappearance of Jing-jing and her replacement with Zixia seems weird; there is less rich ideas in it and it takes for too long until the final action battle starts. However, some jokes even here catch you off guard (the demented scene where the Longevity Monk suddenly starts singing The Platters' song "Only You" (!) with different lyrics to persuade Joker to join him on his destiny, because "Only You can bring the scriptures..."). The bizarre creatures, loosely based on the Chinese classic novel "Journey to the West", may seem totally out of place for anyone not familiar with these mythologies (Bull king, Monkey King, Pigsy...), yet this just gives the film unique flair. The set designs are astonishing for the audacity of the director Jeffrey Lau to try to achieve anything even though he hasn't got a Hollywood budget at his disposal, and the fantasy scenes really do work (the blue fog in the background, while red colors are seen on Monkey King's face at night; the "floating" piece of rock on which Monkey and Bull King are fighting; the unusual camera angles and zooms...), or it may just be that Asian films can get away with some extravagant features Western movies cannot. The ending is also untypically sad, with some contemplations about the possibilities of having two options at the same time. Despite the fact that part II is weaker, this is a remarkable epic that manages to be light and deep at the same time, with a wonderful pace and great actors, all completing a bigger picture: it has some deep themes about the hero's conflict between his private life and his destiny; between what he wants from life and what life wants from him, thereby encompassing some Buddhist messages: only by seeing the two films until the end can you get the full impression and grand vision of what the director was intending to say.

Grade;+++ 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Batman & Robin

Batman & Robin; fantasy / action, USA, 1997; D: Joel Schumacher, S: George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Chris O'Donnell, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, John Glover, Vivica A. Fox, Jesse Ventura

Two new villains wreck havoc in Gotham: one is Mr. Freeze, a former scientist who wants to steal diamonds to help cure his cryogenically frozen wife from a disease, and the other is Poison Ivy, a mutated botanist who wants to eradicate humanity in order for the plant life to start all over again. Bruce Wayne and his partner Dick thus put on their capes again and become Batman and Robin in order to stop them. They manage to apprehend and arrest them, while Batman even manages to persuade Freeze to help cure his sick assistant Alfred.

Among the curiosities of the cinema is this 3rd sequel in the superhero franchise, starring George Clooney (!) as Batman and featuring one of the most bizarre and insane collection of ideas not seen since the eponymous campy TV show from the 60s. "Batman & Robin" is so over the top that it almost seems like a self-conscious parody of Batman: Freeze's henchmen are hockey players on ice (!); sub-villain Bane is a caricature; the sheer number of silly and goofy one-liners is staggering (Robin saves Batgirl from falling off a building and says: "So this is where you hang out"; Poison Ivy turns off the cryogenic chamber of Freeze's wife and says: "Who needs a frigid wife, anyway?"; Freeze's endless array of dumb lines involving ice, from "You will not send me to the cooler", "Allow me to break the ice" up to "Adam and Evi-l") whereas numerous plot holes strain even the logic and common sense (Freeze uses his laser gun to freeze Robin - but not to finish off Batman as well, since he just says: "I'll finish you off next time" (?!); Poison Ivy intends to help Freeze put the whole planet on ice - and thus destroy the whole ecosystem - in order to save the ecosystem from humans, etc.). The film is a mess, and it is difficult to pinpoint what is worse in it: the meaningless dialogue or the poor actors who have to speak out those rubbish lines. What is puzzling is that director Joel Schumacher actually made a good Batman film two years ago, yet here he delivered trash. The only good ingredient is a subplot involving Alfred's disease, which surprisingly offers a refreshingly dramatic and serious moment, especially when Batman begs for his life to Freeze, which is something you rarely see in superhero films, yet it is too little to salvage the overall impression.

Grade;+

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man; documentary, Sweden/UK, 2012; D: Malik Bendjelloul, S: Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman, Dennis Coffey, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Clarence Avant, Eva Rodriguez

In the 70s, South Africa was isolated under sanctions during the Apartheid regime, and they longed for music outside. One of the most popular music artists was US singer Sixto Rodriguez, whose records were sold - either officially or by bootleg - in at last half a million copies. However, what they didn't know - is that Rodriguez actually stayed rather unknown in the US himself, since his records did not sell there. South African fans, including Stephen and reporter Craig, finally managed to track him down in '97 and were surprised that he is actually alive, since rumors circulated that he shot himself on stage. Rodriguez, who survived by accepting hard labor jobs, went on a sold out tour in South Africa in '98.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is one of the most positive documentary films seen in quite a while, and offers a fascinating, unbelievable and captivating theme based on a true story, the one how someone is "unknown in his homeland, yet big overseas". It chronicles the incredible life odyssey of music artist Sixto Rodriguez whose music went unnoticed in the US - but gathered a huge following in South Africa, where he was seen as popular as the Rolling Stones or Elvis. This is indeed a story that deserved to be put on film, one way or another, and here it is reconstructed as a investigative documentary, where fans from South Africa - Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom - explain how, in a pre-Internet era in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they tried to find out any info about their idol, Rodriguez, but without luck. Director Malik Bendjelloul crafts the film in a simple, accessible and elegant way, but not without irony, either, since so many contradictions in this tale are obvious: on one hand, Rodriguez was a celebrity in South Africa, and yet, on the other, he lived a humble life in Detroit, where he worked ordinary hard labour jobs. It is as if he sent a frequency boomerang with his music, and it missed the US and went on and on, but came back from the most distant spot on the Earth where it struck ground and rewarded him. The archive footage of Rodriguez's concert in South Africa in '98 is astonishing, as if he got a "payback" for all the fame he missed out, and now received there. Likewise, he is a refreshingly positive, humble and kind person, a soul of a man, and his energy is so contagious it grips the whole film, just like his catchy song "I Wonder". Some criticism of the film (for instance, how it was omitted that Rodriguez was also popular in Australia, is off-topic and eventually suitable for a different film) is irrelevant, and thus the film works almost as a tale about a modern Phoenix.

Grade;+++