Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Glory

Glory; war drama, USA, 1989; D: Edward Zwick, S: Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Andrew Braugher, Denzel Washington

American civil war, 1862. Union's Captain Robert Shaw is given an assignment to create the first African-American infantry unit, the 54th Regiment. After intellectual Thomas becomes their first volunteer, hundreds of African-Americans enlist. The training is plagues by difficulties, though: many people are inexperienced, and Shaw has to intervene for his superiors to send them enough boots or to resolve why they are paid less then White soldiers. In South Carolina, Shaw is angered that they are only allowed to sit aside while other units fight. Finally, they are given the assignment to attack Fort Wagner - where they all die.

A film about the 54th Infantry Unit, one of the first official army units consisting entirely of African-Americans in the American civil war, Edward Zwick's "Glory" is, unlike its title, thankfully a very realistic and honest achievement - despite its significant topic, the events are far from glamorised, and least of all idealised. Rather, it a bitter disillusionment of problems in the real world and practise. Despite being trained by the Union, the African-American characters themselves experience crypto-racist remarks among their ranks, which is even evident in their 2nd class treatment (they don't have enough boots, and are paid only 10$ compared to White soldiers who get 13 $), and things do not improve on the battlefield, either, since their commander Robert Shaw is shocked when their first assignment is to commit a war crime of plunder and destruction of civilian homes, since the army does not intend to seriously rely on them in a real combat, as well as being faced with corruption at the highest rank (Shaw's remarks in General Harker's office, where he points out how the later "smuggled tons of cotton to the North, to an unknown buyer"). Denzel Washington gave a very good role as Silas, though the role would have been even better if it had more emotional dimension or if it was just a tiny bit more versatile than just relaying so much on the scene where he is whipped and the viewers find out he was a former slave from the South based on his scars on the back. Morgan Freeman is once again the best among the cast. Maybe the film does indeed over-rely on political correctness and its social issues, yet it avoids pathos and gives a sober, ambitious tragic feel to the story.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Daria in 'Is It Fall Yet?'

Is It Fall Yet?; animated comedy / drama, USA, 2000; D: Karen Disher, Guy Moore, S: Tracy Grandstaff, Wendy Hoopes, Russell Hankin, Carson Daly

The summer has arrived, and Daria is surprised that her friend Jane is going off to an art camp to a different town, probably because she is still resentful that Daria is now dating Tom. In the camp, Jane meets Allison, but backs off when she finds Allison is bisexual. In Lawndale, Daria manages to renew her relationship with Tom, help an antisocial kid, Link, grow in a summer kids camp whereas Quinn discovers her intellectual dimension when a tutor, David, stimulates her to not be only an empty pretty girl of the fashion club.

Against all expectations of a predicted standard TV special, "Daria's" authors Glenn Eichler and Peggy Nicoll used all their brains, imagination and ingenuity to finally deliver a funny, intelligent, unusual, transcendental, emotional, philosphical - in short, an all-encompassing animated feature film, or to put it another way, a truly special TV special. Except for a pointless intro, everything else works in "Is It Fall Yet?", since the authors did not rely too much on the fans already knowing the original chef-d'œuvre - and thus following it no matter what - but also gave a run for their money by having many highlights in this story as well, which works as a transit between "Daria's" season 3 and 4. Only the finest artists manage to say scores of messages, ideas and food for thought through only one single moment, and one of these is the scene where tutor David becomes fed up with Quinn constantly talking about fashion on the phone, which causes him to say something beautiful and remarkable: "You are boring." Quinn then gives this exchange: "I'm popular!" - "You're only popular because of your good looks. But looks don't last forever. And once they are gone, what could someone talk about you at all? You show no intellectual curiosity. Do yourself a favor, and give your college post to someone who really wants it." A second one is at a kid's summer camp, when Daria spots a kid with glasses, Link, who makes his intellectual isolation worse by deciding to give up on contact with the others and just be an 'island for himself', inadvertadly ruining his summer - and thus finds a parallel with herself, which causes her to connect with Tom after all - since you do not necessarily have to be an outcast to be an individual. To say so much with so little is a master's touch, and to have so many of these moments causes even more awe, thereby consolidating the impression that "Daria" marked the 'golden age' of MTV's animation - with herself as the only representative of it.

Grade;+++

Baby Boom

Baby Boom; drama / comedy, USA, 1987; D: Charles Shyer, S: Diane Keaton, Kristina & Michelle Kennedy, Sam Wanamaker, Sam Shepard, Harold Ramis, James Spader, Pat Hingle

New York. J.C. Wiatt, a career woman who sometimes spends up to 70-80 hours a week at work, is surprised when she "inherits" a little baby, Elizabeth, from a distant cousin who died in England. Completely unadjusted to real life issues, J.C. has huge problems balancing her career and the baby, while her partner Steven leaves her because of that. She decides to quit and go live in a small town in Vermont. There she meets and falls in love with a dashing veterinary, Jeff, and makes a business comeback by producing baby food.

A light comedy with a few emotional moments, "Baby Boom" is an easily watchable, but thin film with too much empty walk and schematic situations the heroine finds herself into that are banal in illustrating her problems, whereas it suffers too much from over-reliance on the "cute factor" of the baby - a few of such scenes are legitimate, yet it is not good when too much of the film seems to be assembled out of arbitrary moments involving the toddler, and too little out of the grown ups protagonists and their dramaturgy. Diane Keaton copes well with such a role, yet she can only go so far in such a simplistic one-note storyline. Harold Ramis makes for a charming, gentle supporting role in the first act as the heroine's love partner who slowly gets "pushed away" by the baby, whereas the story sets out to tell a few neat observations about people who became so alienated through their non-stop work in the modern cities that they forgot how to live and feel basic emotions at all, symbolic in J.C.'s leaving New York for a small country town, where people are still humans. A real surprise is the brilliant performance by the legendary Sam Shepard as Dr. Jeff, who shows up some good hour into the film - whenever he is on, the movie excels and feels much better (the charming moment when J.C. drops all her books in the library and he asks her: "Are you always so nervous around men or is it just me?"), but sadly, he should have been more in the film to salvage it.

Grade;+

Friday, 24 June 2016

Darker than Black

Darker than Black; animated mystery / fantasy series, Japan, 2007; D: Tensai Okamura, S: Hidenobu Kiuchi, Ikuya Sawaki, Masaru Ikeda, Misato Fukuen, Nana Mizuki

10 years ago, an inexplicable spatial sphere, nicknamed "Heaven's Gate", appeared in South America. Soon, a similar "Hell's  Gate" appeared on the other end of the World, in Tokyo. The stars disappeared from the night sky, and were replaced with fake stars. Several expeditions were sent into the "Hell's Gate", but all of the crew vanished. The area around it was sealed off with a giant wall. Simultaneously, some people have obtained special powers, known as Contractors, who murder in order to get their secret goal. One of these Contractors is a group of four - Li, Yin, Huang and talking cat Mao - who perform various espionage tasks for the Syndicate. In the end, Amber rallies several Contractors to stop Syndicate's plan to destroy the "Hell's Gate" which would also destroy all the Contractors, and Li has to decide which side to pick.

This anime mystery series has two fatal flaws: for one, it is presented in an episodic format of 13 two-part episodes, in which there is a new main protagonist for almost every new subplot, whereas the ostensible four main characters (Li, Huang, Yin, Mao) appear overall only as cameos in most of them. Secondly, too many plot points important for understanding the storyline are deliberately withheld from the viewers, almost as an experimental decision, and thus not everyone will have the patience to sit all the way through episode 20 without knowing what is going on, why are all these people and different factions fighting and even killing each other or who is after whom, and thus this inhibits the audience to invest themselves in the characters and the story. In one of the last episodes, Huang says to Li: "The Syndicate is cutting us out! I don't understand why!" But that's just it: since there is no context, there are no surprises. The Syndicate may have well double-crossed them, or not. Li may have double-crossed Huang, or not. Huang may have double-crossed Li or the Syndicate or gone either way. Since we do not know what is their hierarchy, anything goes. There were other anime series where a lot of things were left unspoken as well, such as "Neon Genesis Evangelion", but even there there was a very clear thread of who is on which side and what their goal is. Likewise, the first six episodes of "Darker than Black" were bad.

The only true foray into greatness was done in episodes 7-8, which displayed a refreshing oasis of comic (and creative) relief which grew exponentially - the guest characters of clumsy detective Kurasawa and his pink-haired girl assistant Kiko were a delight and almost every joke was spot on - as well as episodes 11-12 (an expressionistic image of a bus entering the tunel near the giant wall border that surrounds the "Hell's Gate") and the very touching episodes 13-14, which just might feature the series' finest hour while showing the only two episodes that truly say something about the extra Yin (she is a girl who was transformed into an emotionless, robotic servant, a "Doll", and thus Kiko, who has to take care of her, cannot resist but to put her two fingers on Yin's lip and make an artificial "smile" on Yin's face. Later on, when Yin bravely choses to stay in Li's team and abandon returning to her father's home, Li asks if she is OK with the decision - and she gives one of the highest expressions of human spirit ever, when she uses her own index finger to repeat this "smile" by pushing her lip up). This last tandem of episodes almost seems to hint at "Darker than Black's" theme - free will, i.e. how far would a Contractor go to obey even if he does not feel like it - but alas, it is under-explored and underused since Yin never gets another episode to shine again. Episodes 19-20 are not as good as they could have been, but the moment of the ugly Huang who drinks in a bar after remembering his only chance to find love is unforgettable. Rarely were there so many fine episodes drowned in the self-righteous, confusing and convoluted storyline as here.

Grade;++

Pocahontas

Pocahontas; animated musical adventure, USA, 1995; D: Mike Gabriel. Eric Goldberg, S: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers

At the eve of the 17th century, one ship sails off from England to America. When they arrive there, Governor Ratcliffe immediately orders the crew to cut off trees and dig the soil in search for gold. In the meantime, Captain John Smith meets Indian girl Pocahontas, manages to talk with her thanks to a magic tree and falls in love with her. However, when Smith is captured by the Indians, Ratcliffe sees this as a perfect pretext to order his men to attack the Indians. Thanks to Smith and Pocahontas, the war is avoided. The wounded Smith is shipped off back to England while Pocahontas looks at him from the distance.

Even though numerous film scholars agree that the era of the 'Disney Renaissance' lasted for a whole decade in the 90s, one can argue that the 33rd film of the Walt Disney studios, "Pocahontas", already marked the unofficial end of the period since it was the first one that lacked that genuine magic and awe of the previously established list of Disney films - "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", "The Lion King" - which all somehow hit the nerve of the audience, achieving so much with so little effort. "Pocahontas" seems forced and way too schematic in telling its tale of two people who fall in love despite their different race and (clashing) cultures, with too much of it seeming as if it is a rehash of "Dances with Wolwes", and the empty, 'throw-away' jokes involving the comic sidekick characters of a Raccoon and a dog playing mischief or the misguided idea of a magic, talking tree all add to the dubious impression, which is why it was the only Disney animated film from its 'Renaissance' period that collected less than 60% of positive reviews on the critics' site Rotten Tomatoes. However, the critics were still a tiny bit too harsh since it is overall still a good, sympathetic animated film with a wonderful message, brave dark themes (including colonialism and annexation), beautiful classic animation, a couple of aesthetic images (the great shot of the English ship being seen over the trees near the shore) whereas it still contains one obligatory hit song, Alan Menken's miraculous "Colors of the Wind". Still, Disney would not truly reach its previous level all until four years later with "Tarzan".

Grade;++

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Splash!

Splash!; romantic fantasy comedy, USA, 1984; D: Ron Howard, S: Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, John Candy, Eugene Levy

As a kid, Allen was saved from a little girl from drowning in the sea, not knowing she was a mermaid. 20 years later, Allen works as a manager of a fruit and vegetables distribution company in New York, and is feeling lonely since his girlfriend just left him - not even his brother Freddie can cheer him up. As he almost drowns in a sea for the second time, he loses his wallet and the mermaid from before decides to bring it back to him - by transforming into a normal human with legs. She is taught English from TV, is named Madison and makes love with Allen for the next week. However, one scientist splashes her and thus transforms her legs back into fins. With the help of Freddie, Allen saves Madison from a reserach laboratory - and despite her warning that he can never return back to the human world is he joins her, he follows her to live as a mermaid himself.

A fairy tale set in the modern times, "Splash!" manages to work thanks to the fact that director Ron Howard treats such an outlandish mermaid tale with a lot of humor and self-irony, never forgetting that it is light entertainment, yet he still enriched it with a surprising amount of honest romance and emotions, which gives it additional spark. Writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel elegantly set up the storyline elements in the opening act - from the scene where Allen (a great Tom Hanks) hears his girlfriend left him, which causes him to lose it at the wedding since she was invited as a guest as well, up to his decision to take a taxi to the sea on a whim - which all appertain the main symbolic theme, namely how the hero is a lonely outsider, but finds a soulmate in another outsider, a girl who is a mermaid, which might be symbolic for a foreigner with an entirely different culture. There are pleanty of laughs in the first half, and it is a delight seeing Hanks and Daryl Hannah in a pure comic spirit (the scene of a boat helmsan realizing the motor got broke, so he simply jumps into the water and swims away, leaving Allen alone in the middle of the sea; Madison, walking on the streets of New York for the first time, says "What's that?" and curiously runs towards a speeding car, which thus suddenly stops only for another car to crash into its rear), as well as having another fine supporting role for John Candy, which all alleviate the rather thin, attenuate writing in the weaker second half of the film. Despite the omissions and sometimes banal gags, the thing remembered the most about the film is its straggering ending: not only is it untypically romantic and emotional, but also speaks a lot about people finding their true place in the world and inner peace.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame; animated musical-drama, USA, 1996; D: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, S: Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline, Tony Jay, Paul Kandel, Jason Alexander, Mary Wickes

Paris, 15th century. Judge Frollo persecutes Gypsies around the town, resulting in the death of a woman. He also wants to kill her deformed baby, but a bishop from the cathedral of Notre Dame forbids it and persuades him to take care of the child. Frollo raised Quasimodo as an obediant servant, who rings the bells and is never to leave the Notre Dame due to his deformity. However, Quasimodo disobeys him when he goes out to attend a festival in the street, where he meets a Gypsy woman, Esmeralda, and helps to save her from Frollo's army, with the help of dissident soldier Phoiebus. Frollo dies during the siege of the Notre Dame, and Esmeralda introduces Quasimodo to the crowd outside, who accept him and a part of their society.

This 34th animated feature length film from the Walt Disney studios is by far the closest they ever came to an actual animated film for grown ups till date: not only is it surprisingly dark by introducing some extremely difficult themes set in the late Middle Ages (racism; persecution of a national group; religious fundamentalism and intolerance; Plato's allegory of the cave) but it is unrelenting in breaking and twisting some old, established cliches of the studio by having a physically deformed hero, Quasimodo, thereby circumventing the standard that a protagonist is always beautiful and always gets the girl / prince, while the bad guy is always ugly, and thus the obligatory jokes and silly gags almost seem to bother in the this edition. The writing could have been more skillful, since the authors seemed to have in advance settled for a fair share of throw away musical revues or buffoonery (in one, the 'living' Gargoyle even dresses up as Esmeralda to sing for Quasimodo) - probably to somewhat relieve the dark mood as a compromise for being a Disney film after all - as well as too much empty walk in the singing, or giving up on a true foray into making Quasimodo into a really interesting, versatile character, instead of just settling on him being the "default protagonist" for the sake of argument. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" really seems like an 'unorthodox' Disney animated film, yet the finale set during the siege of Notre Dame offers the writers in their finest hour (a refrence to "The Wizard of Oz"; Gargoyle Hugo throws a catapult backwards on the ground, and it flips and hits the guards like a fly-swat) while it has a refreshingly different ending.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Wrong Cops

Wrong Cops; black comedy, USA / France / Russia / Belgium / Angola / Portugal, 2013; D: Quentin Dupieux, S: Mark Burnham, Eric Judor, Steve Little, Eric Wareheim, Arden Myrin, Jon Lajoie, Marilyn Manson, Eric Roberts Kurt Fuller

Police officer Duke sells drugs hidden inside dead rats to kids. He is a slob and doesn't care about anything while patrolling around in the streets in his police car. One day, he wants to sell drugs to police officer Sunshine, but since the latter does not have enough cash, Duke offers him a deal: Sunshine is to dispose of a half-dead man Duke accidentally shot in exchange for drugs. Sunshine wants to bury the man in his back yard, but accidentally finds 13,000$ in a bag and thus forgets about the deal. The half-dead man ends up in the apartment of policeman Rough, who wants to sell his music to a producer. When his daughter finds his photo in a gay porn magazine, Sunshine commits suicide. At the funeral, the drugged Duke accidentally gives a beautiful speech to the spectators.

"Wrong Cops" is one of the most puzzling and opaque films of the 21st century, even for an independent black comedy, which is why, depending of everyone's taste, the viewers will either like it or hate it: that there is such a level of grotesque spoofing at all is almost inconceivable. A blend of "Police Academy" and "Weekend at Bernie's" with a bizarre humor to the tenth of power, "Wrong Cops" gives an almost ionescoesque example of (acid) absurdity, starting already with the opening scene where a kid wants to buy some drugs on the street - while the drug dealer is a cop, Duke (!) and the drugs are concealed inside a dead rat (!!), and continues with several episodes which shows exaggerated flaws of the police force who do not care about anything, whereas to make the whole thing even more weird, the entire film is deliberately shot with a too much exposure from the shutter. Some jokes indeed have a punchline - for instance, the episode where one man found that his neighbor committed suicide inside his apartment, and tells the police that he probably did it "because he didn't want to make his own place dirty" or the hilarious moment in the office of a music producer, where the police officer Rough tries to explain to him that himself and the half-dead man are not costumes - yet several episodes and jokes still seem strained and misguided. Director Quentin Dupieux really takes it too far, yet at least he did not go overboard with too much excess which at least gave the film some measure. It is a 'guilty pleasure', but strangely, even though it is fun, already in the opening act it leaves the impression as if it leads to a dead end, which indeed it does, since not much else could have been done with the material, anyway.

Grade;++

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Rondo

Rondo; drama, Croatia, 1966; D: Zvonimir Berković, S: Stevo Žigon, Relja Bašić, Milena Dravić

Zagreb. A young man, Mladen, a judge by profession, is invited by Fedja, an artist, to play chess at his place on Sunday, while Neda, Fedja's wife, observes them. This becomes a daily routine: each Sunday afternoon, Mladen arrives to Fedja's apartment to play chess. However, after some time, this routine becomes monotone. Mladen tries to add something new, by arriving on Saturday or celebrating his birthday at the same time, while Fedja shaves off his beard. During a firework display, orchestrated by Fedja, Mladen tries out an entirely different dimension of something new: he has an affair with Neda. Fedja is angry at him, but even after that, they return to their routine of playing chess.

One of the most famous and critically acclaimed films of Croatian and Yugoslav cinema, Zvonimir Berkovic's feature length debut "Rondo" is a highly static (and almost experimental) art-film which the director crafted in a very modern, European way: as the title already suggests, the relationship of three protagonists who always gather in an apartment on Sunday for a game of chess is stuck in a 'Rondo', an endless repetition of the same variation, thereby creating a highly charged "Groundhog Day" monotony which they try to 'breach' by inserting several little unexpected twists, but all of which end up only as temporary refreshment before they are overrun by routine again. This minimalistic ritual has no dramatic conflict or a clear plot, but mirrors the existential view of human life in general: after a while, whatever someone does, it becomes routine, predictable and stale. What was once fresh and exciting, becomes everyday and mundane with time. By endlessly repeating the chess game visit on Sunday, it seems that the time does not flow for the three protagonists at all, which escalates their desire to do something, anything that is different. Unfortunately, this monotone nature becomes slightly monotone as a viewing experience, as well, which kind of corrodes the film and loses the viewers' concentration, though one can respect it for its high ambition and class, as well as a few inspired dialoges which live it up a bit (Fedja mentions how he was a lighting technician, and when Neda laments how the street is dark at night, he jokingly adds: "I am not in charge of lighting the whole street!"; the ironic, metafilm moment when Mladen says to the two: "I am tired of today's films, it's always one and the same: two people either love each other or they don't, and then a third one shows up", cleverly setting up and announcing to the viewers what will happen to the film itself).

Grade;+++

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Wind Rises

Kaze Tachinu; animated drama, Japan, 2013; D: Hayao Miyazaki, S: Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishijima

A biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese airplane designer in the first half of the 20th century. Denied to become a pilot because he is nearsighted, Jiro decided to design planes in the interim period. He finds a job in a company run by the military, who wants to build fighter planes. Jiro is even sent to the Third Reich to study its plane design. Back in Japan, several of his test planes fail, but he meets Naoko, a young, yet sick girl, and they fall in love. During World War II, Jiro's new design, the Mitsubishi A5M, succeeds, but Naoko dies.

Hayao Miyazaki's 11th and final feature length anime film, "The Wind Rises" marks the end of the director's filmmaking career which spanned 34 years, but also an unorthodox, strange exception in his opus since it is his only non-fantasy film - and a political one, at that. It is puzzling why Miyazaki, who always made movies about life, decided to suddenly make a biopic about politics and history, yet he still managed to deliver a worthy, nostalgic, emotional and proportionally well made 'swan song', since the two hour long running time is directed with such elegance that it never drags (except maybe in the final act) whereas he once again demonstrated his masterful skill in one of the most impressive sequences of his entire career, the virtuoso earthquake episode where tremors bend the soil and railway tracks like a tidal wave on land, equipped with a very expressionistic moment of the hero passing through thousands of people and a bus in the city after the disaster. Miyazaki presents the protagonist, airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, as a dreamer, and thus one could direct some criticism for whitewashing his role in World War II, here through the quest for Greater Japan, yet the storyline never denied that during that time Japan was on the wrong side (Jiro's trip to the Third Reich subtly hints who was its ally) and focusing too much on that would be off-topic - the blame is not on Jiro who only wanted to design planes, but on the military who abused those inventions for a wrong purpose. Even Fellini's "Amarcord" focused on the 'slice-of-life' moments of people, not on the regime. Some of the (melodramatic) cliches bother (once again it shows a couple where one lover is terminally ill), yet the film is done with a lot of imagination and dreamlike moments (Jiro and Caproni walking on a wing of a flying plane), whereas its final shot congruently seems to melancholically evoke Miyazaki's own farewell to the audience, before he would go off into the sunset.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

New Police Story

Xin Jing Cha Gu Shi; action / crime, China / Hong Kong, 2004; D: Benny Chan, S: Jackie Chan, Nicholas Tse, Charlie Yeung, Daniel Wu

Hong Kong. Police inspector Chan Knowk-wing is summoned to capture a gang of five rich, spoiled youngsters who just robbed a bank. However, while entering a warehouse, they fall into their trap and nine of Chan's men are killed in a sadistic game, while the gang escapes. Devastate, Chan becomes an alcoholic, but is slowly corrected with the help of a lad, Frank, who claims he is his new police partner. Together, they investigate the gang of the youngsters. Finally, in a showdown, the youngsters are killed while Chan manages to capture the leader of the gang, Joe, who just wanted to take revenge because his father is an abusive police officer. Chan is engaged to Sun Ho Yee. Chan then remembers that 20 years ago he comforted a little kid whose father died while trying to steal him some food - the kid's name was Frank.

After an 8 year hiatus, the popular "Police Story" film series was continued with the 4th part, "New Police Story", which works almost as some reboot of sorts, in which newcomer Benny Chan took over the director's position. Unlike the previous instalments, this film offers Jackie Chan in a more serious edition, touching upon some darker, realistic themes (most noticeably, his character becomes an alcoholic after failing to cope with the depression of losing nine men in a police raid), yet that still does not mean that the famed martial arts actors doesn't have a few tricks up in his sleeve, demonstrated in the sporadic, but still exciting and virtuoso choreographed action sequences: already in the opening act, where one man keeps a woman as a hostage, holding a grenade in one hand, and a pistol in another, does Chan prove his sixth sense for ingenuity when his character grabs his trigger and grenade and thus blocks them, engaging in an exciting fight to completely disarm him. The storyline is a tad overlong and drags here and there; the main motivation for the teenage leader of the gang, namely that he just wanted to rebel because of his abusive father, a police officer, is shaky, whereas the ending is heavily melodramatic, yet these plot points are only there to trigger massive action sequences, anyway, and they are still impressive: the highlight is arguably when Chan tries to stop a bus out of control, which crashes through several stores and seems to have levelled half of town to the ground. Also, the 'twist ending' is surprisingly touching.

Grade;++

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Passion of Joan of Arc

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc; silent drama, France, 1928; D: Carl Theodor Dreyer, S: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Maurice Schutz

In 1431, Joan of Arc is interrogated in prison by judges and clergy for her role in saving France from Greater England in the Hundred Years' War. Joan insists that she was chosen by God to lead the French, which causes several contentious protests from the judges. After being subject to torture, Joan is coerced into signing a statement in which she renounces all of her statements and admits guilt. However, in the last moment, she withdraws her confession and again insists that she was following God. She is sentenced to death by burning at the stake, and this causes mass unrest by the people against the authority.

Often acknowledged as one of the classics of the 20s and the silent movie era in general, Carl Theodor Dreyer's film - sometimes credited as being a prototype for the first court drama in cinema - is a visual case study on the mentality, motivation, beliefs and integrity of Joan of Arc, as well as her influence in history, and rightfully received widespread critical acclaim: restricting the story to only one day, which plays out almost exclusively only around the heroine being interrogated by the judges and the clergy in prison, Dreyer narrowed down his choices, but still rose to the occasion thanks to an exquisite visual style (long camera drives; huge, almost grotesque close ups of the judges' faces; unusual camera angles, such as tilting the camera until is is upside down while it follows people entering the castle; the shadow of a window on the floor which looks like the cross or the shot of people swinging a man reflected on the surface of a lake, until it is 'interrupted' by his splash into it), a devoted, compassionate narrative as well as an expressionistic performance by Renee Jeanne Falconetti, in her only film role. The only flaw is the slightly overlong, lax final act, and possibly the curiosity to learn more about Joan of Arc than just one day, yet the offered events have already enough power, accumulated either in long dialogues ("How do you know a difference between a good and a bad angel?"; "When will you stop wearing men's clothes?" - "When the mission that God has entrusted to me is over, I will again dress as a woman"; "You claim that I am sent by the devil. It's not true. To make me suffer, the devil has sent you!") or through director's intervention (Joan's close ups are separated from those of the judges, thereby indicating her 'seperate' state from them).

Grade;+++

The Go-Between

The Go-Between; romantic drama, UK, 1971; D: Joseph Losey, S: Dominic Guard, Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Edward Fox, Margaret Leighton, Michael Redgrave

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the 13-year old Leo spends his summer at a Norfolk country house. There he is quickly "drafted" by a noble girl, Marian, to be her secret messenger and deliver her letters to a dashing peasant, Ted, who lives in a nearby farm. Marian's aristocratic family would be outraged of any contact between her and the peasant Ted. When Marian is engaged against her will to Hugh, she runs off to spend one last night with Ted - but is caught by Mrs. Maudsley and Leo. Several decades later, an old Leo is summoned one last time by Marian to deliver a letter to her grandson - who reminds him of Ted.

Awarded with the Golden Palm in Cannes, Joseph Losey's adaptation of L. P. Harley's eponymous novel, "The Go-Between", is a melancholic, gentle romantic drama that speaks about the means and ways of a couple to communicate in a relationship forbidden by norms and traditions. The sole concept where the protagonist, the 13-year old Leo, has to secretly deliver love letters between Marian and peasant Ted (brilliant Julie Christie and Alan Bates) is deliciously sweet and nostalgic, since such a precious way of communication is lost in modern times of telephones and Internet, but a big flaw is that the viewers never get a chance to read what is actually written in them (except in one occasion), and thus a part of their potentials is lost and we are not completely invested in these characters. Losey directs the film in a conventional manner, with several empty walks in the slightly overlong storyline, yet this way he stayed true to the classic, old times he portraits. One of the most powerful moments arrives when Leo delivers a letter to Ted, who reads it and instantly throws it into the oven, only to nonchalantly quickly offer him with some tea heating on the stove, which underlines both his intensity, emotional attachment and anger at Marian for not being able to talk to her directly, but only through a 'proxy'. A little more emotional intensity would have been welcomed, though the film is ambitiously, well made.

Grade;++

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Serial Experiments Lain

Serial Experiments Lain; animated science-fiction series, Japan, 1998; D: Ryutaro Nakamura, S: Kaori Shimizu, Yoko Asada, Rei Igarashi, Sho Hayami

Lain is a secluded, distant teenage girl who has no friends in high school, yet Alice, a girl from her class, still tries to help her "mingle" more by inviting her to the local Cyberia caffe with other girls. At home, Lain is surrounded by her distant mother, sister Mika and computer obsessed father, who buys her the newest high-tech PC, a so called Navi. However, Lain encounters strange things, like seeing her image in the Wired (a version of the Internet), and Alice asks her about things she never did. Two Men in Black also seem to observe her. Finally, Lain discovers that she was actually initially created as an AI software in the Wired and downloaded into her physical body, in order to erase the border between the Wired, the virtual world, and the real world. Lain erases everyone's memories of her and denotes Eiri, a man who became a de facto God in the Wired.

Accidental or not, around 1998 and '99 several movies were released - "Dark City", "The Truman Show", "The 13th Floor", "The Matrix", "Existenz" - that all broadly covered the same topic: a protagonist not knowing if he/she is living in a simulated/virtual reality world, or the increasingly evasive border between the physical and the virtual reality. One such contribution to this philosophical 'brain in a vat' thought experiment was also given from Japan, in one of the most hyped, cult animes from the 90s, "Serial Experiments Lain". Written by Chiaki J. Konaka ("Armitage III"), "Lain" is a thought provokative and highly unorthodox anime, an inversion of the concept of "The Sims", set in the future where the Wired represents the Internet to the tenth of power, and almost every character is addicted to computers. The opening five episodes conjure up a weird mood, where everything seems normal in the suburb where the title heroine lives in, yet the viewers always have the impression that something is "off", evident is several details (for instance, the shadows on the street seem to reflect a black world with "red pools" beneath the surface; Lain spots two kids raising their hands and looking into the sky that "splits" and reveals a naked Lain in the clouds looking down).

This is spiced up further with a few philosophical quotes ("If we assume that it was the development of electricity and phones that brought about the Wired, then I wonder if another world was created at that moment… It may be that the God of the Wired may already have enough power to affect the real world in some instances."; "The Earth's population is nearing the number of neurons in the brain. Douglas Rushkoff proposes that the consciousness of the Earth itself might be awakened when all humans on Earth become collectively networked"). Unfortunately, the 'autistic' direction, lifeless characters and a strained storyline aggravate the viewers' understanding and connecting to the events, whereas it is further overburdened by several vague subplots (Men in Black, an alien, Majestic 12 document all pilled up in episode 9) which lead nowhere and are thus pointless. The ending is anticlimatic, as well, which makes for another problem since it was such a long, cryptic walk through 13 grey episodes to get to it, and is thus not a full payoff (not to mention that it reminds of the ending in "Revolutionary Girl Utena" and "Sailor Moon" Season 1). Overall, "Lain" is better than the "Matrix", but "The Truman Show" is better than both of them.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors; comedy, USA, 1988; D: Howard Deutch, S: John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Stephanie Faracy, Annette Bening, Robert Prosky

Chester and his wife Connie take their two kids, Buck and Ben, for a vacation in the forests and a lake in Wisconsin. However, they are annoyed when Chester's brother-in-law Roman, and his family - Kate, Mara and Cara - also show up at their hut without any announcement. Forced to share their vacation with them, Chester encounters numerous misadventures, while Buck falls in love with a local teenage girl, Cammy. Finally, Roman admits that he is broke and only showed up to try to pull Chester into an investment of his. When a storm breaks out, a scary, bald bear enters their hut, but Chester manages to banish him by shooting in his butt.

One of John Hughes' lesser screenplays ended up accordingly into a thin, weak 'summer-vacation-comedy' flick "The Great Outdoors", where neither director Howard Deutch nor its two main stars, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd, managed to make something more out of it, thus inevitably resulting in a meagre, sometimes insufficient achievement. Hughes, it seems, did not put that much effort into the storyline, which unravels almost accidental, as if anything that the author comes up with ends ultimately in the film, without much inspiration or further thought. Several sequences also seem "off", epitomized in the finale where a bald (!) bear storms the hut and attacks the protagonists: it was a way too dangerous, risky sequence with high stakes for such a thin, light chuckle without much payoff in the end. Too many "useless jokes", too little highlights. The main delight are the locations, since the lake and the nature are often the only marvel to look at.

Grade;+

Thursday, 2 June 2016

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave; drama, USA, 2013; D: Steve McQueen, S: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt

In 1841, Solomon Northup, an married African-American violonist living in Saratoga Springs, New York, is tricked into playing music at a circus, only to be drugged and later sold into slavery by two men. Solomon is renamed into Platt and sent to work on a cotton farm in New Orleans, run by Edwin Epps. During those years, he witnesses injustice against other African-American slaves - among others when Edwin has sex with Patsey, cheating on his wife - and tries to escape by sending a letter to his family, but the messenger betrays him. Finally, a construction worker, Samuel, finds pitty on him, informs the sheriff, and thus Solomon is freed and returns to his family.

Based on true events, "12 Years a Slave" is an ambitious example of socially engaged cinema that puts the spotlight on the enslaved protagonist Solomon, and through him the viewers get the bigger picture of injustice of slavery done in that time - one of its biggest virtues is that it makes palpable that unpleasant, disturbing situation the hero finds himself in, and thus instills respect and compassion towards his fate. Director Steve McQueen impresses more through his theme than through his direction, yet still managed to craft a remarkably well done storyline, with several emotional moments (one especially remarkable is the bitter market sequence, where an African-American mother may be sold to one owner, and thus seperated from her children, which causes disgust at the lack of humanity of the slave owners), and gains plus points thanks to great performances, most notably by Michael Fassbender as the heartless owner Edwin, who is also sexually attracted to one slave girl. Brad Pitt stands out as well as the almost idealistic Samuel, who looks and acts like Jesus Christ, and that symbolysm is probably intentional. A few black and white solutions, overreliance on the sole theme and less on the imagination of style and narrative, a couple of unnecessary, crude examples of sadism instead of subtle depictions of the message of Solomon's plight and an anticlimatic ending reveal that the film is not perfect, but flawed, yet still managed to deliver an important story that should have been told, and give an appeal for humanity.

Grade;+++