Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Queen

The Queen; drama, UK, 2006; D: Stephen Frears, S: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory

In '97, Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in a car crash in Paris. While the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is swift on offering condolences to the public, at the other side of the spectrum, Queen Elizabeth II wants to stay formal and not comment on the issue, among others because she was never at good terms with Diana. As the public is turning against the Royal Family, Blair manages to persuade the Queen to make a public statement and show herself in front of the public, much to her dismay. After the funeral, Blair and the Queen talk about the future of the country.

"The Queen" is a correct, but boring and forgettable biopic that stubbornly refuses to explore the interesting part of the story (the life of Princess Diana and her relationship with the Royal family) and instead just depicts the most uninteresting clog in all this scheme, Queen Elizabeth II, even though there is not much to see in her, anyway. Helen Mirren is great in the leading role, but there are limits to her performance as well in the thin character of the Queen, who is like a lifeless rock, a robot who only serves the rules and customs, which does not make for an engaging storyline. The film works the best when it depicts the magnitude of the event of Diana's funeral, with thousands of people crying on the street or angrily pointing out that the flag is not on half-staff on the palace, upon which Tony Blair points out at the insensitivity of the Royal family: "We must save them from themselves!" However, except for a few standard comical puns ("Did the Queen grease the breaks of the car?", asks someone after the infamous car crash), there is not much to justify why the viewers should be spending their time watching this particular aspect of the story. The Queen remained a one-dimensional character, and except for two brief moments (her mourning after a killed deer; her final speech in front of Blair, telling him that serving the public comes first, and her self last), she is more appropriate as a supporting character than a leading one. The whole movie is solid, but just as the Queen gets stuck with her jeep in the middle of the river, "The Queen" itself runs out of steam after 40 minutes and turns into a stranded, broken car that does not know where to go in all of this.

Grade;+

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Altered States

Altered States; science-fiction / horror, USA, 1980; D: Ken Russell, S: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore

Eddie Jessup is a young scientist who is fascinated with altered states of consciousness and thus spends hours in dark, isolated chambers filled with water in order for his colleague, Arthur, to record his subconscious brain activity through the lab instruments. Eddie meets anthropologist Emily and they marry. Several years later, Eddie has a mind shattering hallucination induced through a Mexican drug, and thus returns back to Boston to analyze the substance with Arthur and Mason. These trips cause Eddie to lose his mind, and he imagines to be a caveman who kills a goat in the Zoo. Emily begs him to stop with the experiment, but Eddie is determined to continue. Finally, realizing that there is nothing behind these primordial states, Eddie abandons them and declares that he loves Emily.

Paddy Chayefsky's final screenplay was an unworthy farewell to the brilliant screenwriter's career, an inarticulate mess of a movie that is equally as inconsistent thematically and narratively as the bizarre, grotesque hallucinations that it depicts on the screen. Loosely based on the experiments of neuroscientist John C. Lilly, "Altered States" cannot cope with its own terms as what it wants to be: first it mentions Eddie's religious beliefs when he was younger, then to move to his exploration of primeval thought circuits, then to switch to his mental degeneration, all of which do not lead to any point, except for the protagonist to suddenly proclaim his love for Emily towards the end. Even in the sequence where he transforms into a cave-man who is in a Zoo, behind bars, only to transform back to a human, only to be arrested and sent to jail, behind bars, the movie refuses to draw some parallels towards our modern society or deliver a commentary on the human culture. Nor does it offer a scientific approach, instead relying on pseudoscience which today seems rather dated. A bizarre patchwork that is just an excuse for surreal hallucinations (a crucified man on a cross wearing a goat's head; phantasmagorical bubbles; Eddie imagining that his hand is mutating...), of which only two are expressionistic-poetic (the remarkable "flow-of-time" moment of Eddie and his naked wife lying on the ground, while they are slowly covered by a wind of sand, as if they are slowly fading in time; the "whirlpool" in the laboratory), which signalled a symbolic end to these "drug hallucination" films that started in the 60s, since they themselves dissolved into experimental films in search for a point.

Grade;+

Friday, December 8, 2017

Don't Torture a Duckling

Non si sevizia un paperino; thriller, Italy, 1972; D: Lucio Fulci, S: Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Marc Porel, Florinda Bolkan, Irene Papas, George Wilson

A small town in the Italian South. Three little boys occasionally go to a desolate hut and peek to watch two locals who hire prostitutes for sex. Not long after that, one by one, the three boys are found dead. The police arrests a local idiot, Barro, but it seems he only found the corpse of one boy and decided to blackmail the parents to pay him money. A witch is the next scapegoat, who is beaten to death by some men at a graveyard. The murders continue, though. A reporter from Milan, Martelli, and a woman, Patrizia, team up to investigate. They discover that a mute child, Malvina, ripped the head of a rubber duck, and suspect she imitated the murder she observed. It turns out that a local priest, Don Alberto, is the serial killer, because he wants to prevent boys from discovering sexuality. Alberto atempts to throw Malvina from a cliff, but Martelli stops this and instead throws the priest down to his death.

Even though it is ostensibly a typical "giallo" film, "Don't Torture a Duckling" is also one giant allegory at the neurotic relation of Catholicism towards human sexuality, thus delivering also a somewhat wider, thought provocative topic in this social commentary in which the serial killer is the priest who kills preadolescent boys in order to stop them from exploring sexuality. Even though some critics attacked director Lucio Fulci for "anti-Catholicism", the story has much wider implications, tackling fundamentalism as a chore problem where some people are willing to use crimes and violence just to keep their rules, arguing that such a path can eventually lead to the extinction of an entire generation. This addendum gives the typical thriller genre a richer dimension, though it still has a few problems, most notably in Fulci's tendency to use exploitation methods in some violent sequences, some of which almost end up trashy, as in the scene of priest's falling down the cliff or the sequence of some men crippling a witch at the graveyard with violent blows. Likewise, the story takes a while until it figures out who is suppose to be the protagonist, since the episodic narrative constantly switches from perspective to perspective. Similarly like Chabrol, Fulci uses a crime story as an examination of a society and has rather good camera drives in some scenes, but also likes to film some "naughty" moments that border on the limits of censorship, most notably in the unusual sequence in which a blond woman, Patrizia, enjoys "tickling" the erotic imagination of a 10-year old boy, Michele, when she insists that he should look at her naked body while she is sitting on a chair, while he is serving her orange juice.

Grade;++

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann; drama / comedy, Germany / Austria / Romania, 2016; D: Maren Ade, S: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell, Vlad Ivanov

Winfried Conradi is retired, but still enjoys pulling pranks on people. After his old dog dies, he decides to travel to Bucharest to visit his estranged daughter, Ines, who works abroad as a manager for an oil company and rarely has time for anything else. After a few weird gags, Ines persuades Winfried to go back home because she is preparing herself for an important business meeting. However, he returns with wig and fake teeth, presenting himself as "Toni Erdmann" in front of all the guests at a party. Ines sees right through his mask, but Winfried still insists on playing this persona and accompanying her to meetings. After a nude party goes wrong, Ines runs after her father in a kukeri costume and hugs him. They return home to her grandmother's funeral.

One of the most overhyped European movies of 2016, "Toni Erdmann" is a strange patchwork that has a point revolving around a quirky father trying to renew a relation with his estranged daughter, yet it takes way too strange directions and dead ends to finally get there, and is not that particulary funny, either. With a running time of 160 minutes, the movie is definitely overlong and required better editing since at least an hour could have been cut from the 'empty walk' to make it more concise, whereas several scenes seem to have been invented and improvised on the spot, since many of them play absolutely no role in the storyline later on or lead nowhere. One example of a weird sequence that just screams "deleted scene"  is the one where Ines and a guy cuddle, but she orders him to masturbate and ejaculate on a cupcake, which she then eats. Strange does not always necessarily mean funny. The whole concept also makes no sense: why would Winfried insist on carrying a disguise and presenting himself as "Toni Erdmann" to everyone if a) his daughter immediately recognizes him and b) he is in Bucharest where nobody knows him, anyway? If Toni Erdmann acts the same as Winfried, what's the point of it all? There are two good jokes in the film: one is where Winfried goes to a bathroom, there is a photo of a tiger on the toilet seat and the man of the house jokes: "Watch out, he bites!"; the other is when Winfried barges in the house of a Romanian family and spontaneously starts playing "Greatest Love of All" on the piano to announce his daughter as "Whitney Schnuck", and she actually accepts and sings the entire song in front of the family. There are echoes of transience, the emptiness of modern business life and death, yet these 'ambitious art-themes' cannot compensate entirely for a lack of good writing. "Toni Erdmann" is difficult to understand, but it has a good underlying theme: the father tries to conjure up embarrassing situations for his daughter in order to "throw her" out of her boring balance, her grey routine, so that she can awaken feelings from which she distanced herself a long time ago. This enables her to take back the control of her life, and stop being led by artificial rules, which somewhat gives a sense to this weird movie.

Grade;++

Monday, December 4, 2017

Smoke

Smoke; drama, USA, 1995; D: Wayne Wang, S: Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Harold Perrineau, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Jared Harris, Ashley Judd

Auggie is the owner of a small tobacco shop store and friends with a writer, Paul Benjamin, whose wife has been killed a few years ago by a criminal. Paul is saved by an African-American teenager, Thomas, from a truck on the street, so Paul offers him to stay at his apartment. However, Paul finds out that Thomas allegedly witnessed a bank robbery and took a package that was dropped, which contained 5,814$. The criminal "Creeper" is thus searching for him. Thomas finds a job at Auggie's place, but the water from the sink ruins the store's cigars. In order to make it up to him, Thomas gives 5,000$ to Auggie, who in turn gives the money to his ex-girlfriend, Ruby, who claims that he is the father of her 18-year old daughter. Thomas meets his long lost father, Cyrus Cole, an auto mechanic, and they make up. Finally, Auggie tells Paul a Christmas story.

One of the surprise early hits by independent production company Miramax, "Smoke" is a relaxed and casual 'slice-of-life' anthology that follows the lives of ordinary people in a Brooklyn neighborhood. It does not aim to demonstrate some high concept or a higher movie knowledge, which might set some viewers off, yet its unassuming characters and situations offer just enough to keep the attention of the public. Some episodes work better, some less, but all are delivered with the same enthusiasm by excellent actors Harvey Keitel and William Hurt, as Auggie and Paul, respectively. Writer Paul Auster could have delivered better dialogues with a point, though. One of the more interesting features is when Paul and Thomas are talking about an alleged anecdote, a one wheret Mikhail Bakhtin used the pages of his own manuscript to roll them into cigarettes during the siege of Leningrad, debating if a writer would ever destroy his own work just for a smoke, or when Auggie is making a photo of a street crossing each morning at the exact same time for 4,000 days, from the 70s, in order to capture a giant time lapse of the change of the people in his album. A lesser subplot involves a typical, cliche family reunion of Thomas and his long lost father, Cyrus: despite a great performance by Forest Whitaker, who plays him with a hook, the segment seems routine and already seen a thousand time in various melodramas. It is all circled out by a 10-minute sequence in which Auggie tells Paul a rather touching Christmas story, a one where he chased after a shop lifter who dropped his wallet, and then went to the latter's adress just to meet the robber's frail grandmother and spend the holiday with her. "Smoke" is like hanging out with good friends: outsiders may find the anecdotes boring, but those who are willing to get involved may discover that they actually have a nice time.

Grade;+++

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited; drama, USA, 2011; D: Tommy Lee Jones, S: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

New York. A janitor saved the life of a professor who wanted to commit suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. In the janitor's apartment, the janitor tries to talk the professor out of repeating that again. Their views are different: the professor is pessimistic, an atheist and a nihilist who think that life has no purpose, while the janitor is an ex-convict who believes in God and thinks that all the troubles have a purpose and a conclusion in the end. Finally, the professor leaves the apartment, unimpressed, and it is unknown is he will try to commit suicide again.

Tommy Lee Jones' 4th directorial work is an highly unusual, minimalistic chamber play that unravels only inside one location, an apartment, and only between two nameless people talking to each other, yet, unlike similar "My Diner with Andre", "The Sunset Limited" was not so completely philosophically deep to truly cover for such a thin concept and keep the viewers engaged until the end. Jones and Samuel L. Jackson play basically two opposing philosophies at life which are at clash from the dawn of the age of Englightenment: the atheist, cold, rational and depressive one vs. the religious, faith-based Leibnizian optimism. Their dialogues are what the movie is made off, yet too much of them end up too lengthy without a clear point or a purpose. One of the best moments is when the janitor tells his story about how the beat up a prison convict to a cripple, which made him change and become religious, only for the professor to mock him that a man actually had to be turned into a cripple just for him to find God. This existentialist art-film is not for everyone, especially not for who annot concentrate, but it has a few interesting quotes that stimulate into thinking ("Moral-leper colony"; "You give up the world line by line..."; "Show me a religion that prepares one for nothingness, for death. That's a church I might enter. Yours prepares one only for more life, for dreams and illusions and lies. Banish the fear of death from men's hearts and they wouldn't live a day."; "The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different.").

Grade;++

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Return of Katarina Kožul

Povratak Katarine Kožul; drama, Croatia / Germany, 1989; D: Slobodan Praljak, S: Alma Prica, Mustafa Nadarević, Jadranka Matković, Fabijan Šovagović, Ivo Gregurević, Annemarie Wendl

Herzegovina. Vinko and Katarina get married and get a child, but the unemployment in the area in unbearable. Vinko decides to emigrate to Germany to find work and support the family, but plagued by loneliness and depression, he commits suicide by jumping off a construction building. Katarina thus has to emigrate to Germany herself to find work, and meets an Italian man, Silvio, with whom she stays pregnant. He is unwilling to have a baby with her, so she has an abortion. She brings her son to Germany, but a sense of isolation from her homeland is slowly destroying her. Her grandparents hold a funeral for her when she returns dead in Herzegovina.

One of only four films directed by Slobodan Praljak, this "Gastarbeiter" social drama is a boring soap opera with too much empty walk and too little true ingenuity or something more that would engage the viewers throughout its overstretched running time of 100 minutes. Since one of the characters, Vinko, is eliminated fairly quickly, after some 20 minutes, it is not quite clear why his segment was not cut entirely to enable the movie to start right from the title heroine's emigration to Germany in order to find work abroad. The dialogues are predictable, sterile, humorless and lifeless, whereas the storyline is flat, without any richer stratification of events, yet one must acknowledge that the author gathered a surprisingly quality cast, ranging from Alma Prica up to always excellent Ivo Gregurevic, whereas there are some traces of truth and genuine sadness in the seemingly neverending cursed fate of the Yugoslav area, where every generation has to leave their family to find work in a foreign country, which in the end slowly consumes them all, obvious when Katarina says that she is "tired of life". It is interesting that one of the characters, Vinko, commits suicide, which is indicative since director Praljak followed suit when he himself spectacularly took his own life 18 years later at the ICTY.

Grade;+

Friday, December 1, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron; fantasy action, USA, 2015; D: Joss Whedon, S: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, James Spader (voice), Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård

The Avengers, consisting out of Tony Stark / Iron-Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Natasha Romanoff and Hawkeye, attack a Hydra outpost in a Eastern European country of Sokovia. Hydra experimented on two twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. After Hydra's base is overrun, Stark gets Loki's scepter and takes a gem from it in order to create an artificial intelligence, "Ultron", used as a global defense program. However, Ultron takes on a robot body, goes insane and decides to wipe out mankind. Ultron uses his powers to carve up a giant city in Sokovia and fly the land up in order to crash it on Earth like a meteorite, but Stark's other program, J.A.R.V.I.S., in a synthetic body, stops and kills Ultron. The landmass is destroyed in an explosion before impact.

The sequel to the overhyped, but OK superhero hit "Avengers", "Age of Ultron" decided to change a few of the ingredients: while the 1st film seemed without weight or real excitement, since the superheroes just fight off hundreds of villains without a single scratch, almost as a minor "inconvenience", here the stakes have been raised a bit, with the protagonists getting challenged and one character even dies. Moreover, the main villain, Ultron, is actually their own creation gone crazy, which at least gives a few crumbs of a subversive touch in showing that these guys are not always ideal. Still, a few typical flaws and cliches were not avoided, including a too rushed finale (the scenes unravel too fast, without giving time for the characters to express awe and wonder) and a CGI overkill, whereas it seems they crammed too many Marvel superheros: as a consequence, this seems like a play with too many kids and too little lines for them all.

The best parts are when these characters interact, with one comical moment involving Thor saying that nobody can lift up his hammer, so the guys, including Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, all "accept the challenge" and try to lift it, but it won't budge, and thus later even speculate about its laws ("But if you put the hammer in an elevator?" - "It will still go up!"). There is a neat sequence where the Avengers hide in a desolate house, where Hawkeye's wife and kids live peacefully. There are some small sparks of awe as the kids look curiously at the superheroes, with the girl even calling Natasha "aunt". This is contrasted with a dark scene when Natasha later admits that she was sterilized after her training, giving weight to her character who yearns for kids and a potential family. Unfortunately, except for that, she is a one-dimensional extra for the rest of the film, since it takes ten movies to finally give her some character development. There are a few other comical one-liners that give the story some freshness and vitality (Ultron's robot mocks Captain America for helping civilians: "You can't save them all! You'll never...!", but Captain just interrupts him by throwing his shield at the robot and throwing him down the cliff, just to then casually reply: ""You'll never what?" You didn't finish!") but the villain's motivation is terribly confusing (why does he think that destroying mankind in a giant explosion will save the world?) whereas more highlights would have been welcomed in the rather standard story which is just a neverending repackaging of Marvel's other superhero movies.

Grade;++

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Three Men of Melita Žganjer

Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer; comedy, Croatia, 1998; D: Snježana Tribuson, S: Mirjana Rogina, Sanja Vejnović, Suzana Nikolić, Goran Navojec, Filip Šovagović, Ivo Gregurević, Ljubomir Kerekeš, Ena Begović, Rene Bitorajac

Even though she adores the Mexican soap opera "Slave of Love", the overweight Melita does not have luck with love in her own life. She works in a pastry shop and likes Janko, a cook who delivers cakes to the place, but he is ashamed to say a single word because he stutters. Melita's two friends, Eva and Višnja, try to find her a boyfriend, but to no avail. A man, Jura, seduces Melita and sleeps over at her place, but only because his wife divorced him and he had no place to stay. Finally, Juan, the actor from "Slave of Love", arrives to Zagreb to shoot a film, and Melita meets him while playing an extra. However, he disappoints her as well when he pays more attention to his lost sunglasses, so Melita cries and runs towards Janko for comfort. This helps her to finally start a relationship with Janko.

One of the most famous films directed by female filmmaker Snjezana Tribuson, this Croatian forerunner to "Bridget Jones' Diary" is a sympathetic little comedy that refuses to be primitive or rely on swearing, as it was often the case with many other Croatian comedies of that time, and instead gives a straightforward story about the problems of a modern, overweight woman trying to find love. The opening sequence starts off with a brilliant gag: Melita is meticulously placing paper clips in different colors to create a collage of flowers and meadows on a sheet, yet as soon as her friend opens the door to calls her for lunch, the draft blows out all the clips away from paper in a second. "The Three Men of Melita Žganjer" is divided, congruently, into three chapters, and the first chapter of the story works the best, entertaining with a wide range of jokes and puns (for instance, Melita tries to lose some pounds through exercise, but as she tries to do pull-ups, the pole above collapses from her weight), yet the second and third chapter feature a lot less highlights, offering only routine "entertainment-light". Many scenes unravel, yet they do not feature a worthy pay-off, and even the heroine's encounter with her idol from a soap opera does not amount to much (despite a great performance by Filip Sovagovic who does a fantastic Spanish accent). One of the funniest moments can only be found near the finale, when Melita and the shy Janko finally start to talk because she cried, and Janko's friend cautiously backs away with the two women, as to not interfere with this sudden "breakthrough". The story runs out of ideas after 40 minutes, yet it is still a decent and neat fun, with excellent actors, Ivo Gregurevic delivering another highlight as Jura.

Grade:++

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau; science-fiction drama, USA, 2011; D: George Nolfi, S: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stramp

New York. Congressman David Norris accidentally meets a mysterious woman, Elise, who kisses him, but suddenly runs away. Inspired by this, he dumps his in advance prepared speech and instead delivers an honest one in front of the audience, which makes him a star overnight. Some time later, David meets Elise again in a bus and gets her phone number, but mysterious people kidnap him and warn him not to see her again, because they are the "Adjustment Bureau", an organization that runs the grand scheme of the destiny of the world for humans, dictated by the Chairman, and threaten David to erase his brain if he tells anyone about them. Thee years later, David accidentally meets Elise again and they start a relationship. Harry, one of the "men with hats", helps David run away with her, even though the plan envisaged for them to never meet again. David persists, and after a chase, the men with hats allow him to be with Elise.

More than anything, science-fiction drama "The Adjustment Bureau" is an allegory on the trials and tribulations of ordinary people who have to overcome all odds against the "invisible fingers" of destiny to achieve their goal, and as such it should be treated more symbolically than realistically, which somewhat vindicates the lack of explanation or details of the mysterious "men with hats", some sort of modern day Moirai, who tailor the lives of humanity irrespective of their wishes. The schemes of the men with hats, who use various "accidents" to prevent David from seeing Elise (among others, a power outage, which prevents him from phoning her; or a car crash that conveniently slows him down) are a little bit too similar to the ones used by TV producers who wanted to stop Truman from leaving the city in "The Truman Show", which makes this a little bit standard, whereas the dialogues were rather bland, ordinary and routine. For such a high concept, not all of the rich possibilities were exploited to the fullest. Still, the two main actors, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, have charm while interacting, whereas the movie carries a sympathetic and sweet little message across, a one about how friendship, loyalty, love and determination can sometimes be stronger than fatalism and bleak doom.

Grade;++

Friday, November 17, 2017

Once Upon a Time in China

Huang Feihong; action, Hong Kong / China, 1991; D: Tsui Hark, S: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan

Foshan, China, 19th century. Martial artists Wong Fei-hung cannot tolerate the British and American colonialists who are imposing their rule on the area more and more, exploiting the land and the people. He also has to take care of his 13th aunt, Siu-kwan. The criminal Shaho Gang teams up with the American official Jackson in order to get rid of Wong, but their assassination attempt during an opera performance fails. They kidnap Siu-kwan in order to use her and many other women for human trafficking, but Wong and his apprentices, Wing, So and Kai save her. In a fight, Wong defeats Yim and kills Jackson.

The originator of the popular Hong Kong movie hexalogy which spanned another five sequels in the next six years, "Once Upon a Time in China" was a smash hit in 1991, and even though it features a thin (and decisively overlong) storyline which is basically just an excuse for the virtuoso martial arts fights featuring Jet Li, it still holds up well today. One of the ingredients that probably appealed to the audience was the element of patriotism embodied in the folk hero Wong Fei-hung who rebelled against the British colonialism and irredentism, turning into a "Chinese Hasan Israilov", yet director Tsui Hark refused to turn the film into a Hong Kong version of "Braveheart" and instead delivered a relaxed, unassuming and fun little action flick without pathos, thereby avoiding any potential accusations of Xenophobia. The film is unusually humorless and bitter at times, especially in the sequences where the foreigners capture the 13th aunt to use her as a prostitute for human trafficking, yet the movie's energy and vitality are assured in several great battle sequences, from Wong using his umbrella to fight off a bad guy to him and the villain Yim swinging from ladder to ladder across the warehouse. Hark has sympathy for the Wuxia mythology, yet concedes that times are changing with the turn of the century in the sequence where one fighter is shot by a bullet, and before his death says this to the shocked Wong who is holding his bloody hand: "Our kung fu cannot compete with their guns!" It may be a considered as a dark commentary on the Wuxia genre which was slowly disappearing at that time. All the actors delivered a good job, which together with a few neat camera moves and lighting choices give an overall good impression of "Once Upon a Time in China", which took on a heavy theme, yet presented it in a light way.

Grade;++

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes; drama, UK, 1948; D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, S: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Leonide Massine

A ballet is performed by impresario Lermontov, but one of the music conservatory students, Julian Craster, is disappointed that part of his music was plagiarized by his professor. Julian writes a letter to Lermontov, in which he confesses his dream to work for him as a composer, and surprisingly, Lermontov accepts the proposal. Lermontov oversees the ballet rehearsals in the theatre, and also gives another person a chance to join: dancer Victoria Page. During a performance of Swan Lake, Victoria is so fantastic that Lermontov decides to give her the lead in The Red Shoes. Victoria falls in love with Julian, but Lermontov insists that an artist cannot focus on his work when in love, and thus fires Julian. Victoria then leaves the company as well. Victoria returns to perform The Red Shoes again, but Julian shows up and gives her an ultimatum: she must leave with him or he will leave alone. Unable to decide between love and art, Victoria dances in her red shoes and jumps off the balcony into death.

"The Red Shoes" are on ode to both the art in its purest sense as well as people behind it, the artists who undergo various emotional states while trying to change themselves - and others - in order to obtain that ideal state of creativity. In this case, as it is implied in the title shared with the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, this dedication and orthodox obsession for perfection can lead to an overkill, until the art consumes the artists. This theme is summarized in Lermontov's single line, when he says: "Don't forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit!" Director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger craft the film in a remarkably fluent way, and the result is that the story still seems equally as modern today as it was back in its premiere in 1948. They achieve the most when they insert a few of unusual cinematic techniques (such as Victoria's POV when she is doing a pirouette, but as she turns on stage for 360 degrees, she constantly looks towards the audience, where Lermontov is sitting and observing her; the 15-minute sequence of the live performance of the ballet "The Read Shoes" without any dialogues, with a scene of a giant shadow of two hands falling on the ground around Victoria dancing), yet for the most part, they restrain their visual style and instead focus more on conventional narrative, in order to give room for the actors and the characters they are playing, most notably in the love triangle between Lermontov, Victoria and Julian - but also the love romb that encompasses a fourth component, the love for art (in this case, the ballet). All the actors are great, but the charismatic Anton Walbrook stands out the most as the harsh perfectionist Lermontov. Unfortunately, once the ballet "The Red Shoes" is over, the film seems to lose its inspiration and power, leaving the last third somewhat routine, stiff, until it is debased into a kitschy melodrama in the final act, with too much sentimental, ordinary dialogues that are in stark contrast with the creative first two thirds. The high impression is still not affected by it, yet sometimes, less is more.

Grade;+++

Friday, November 10, 2017

Electra, My Love

Szerelmem, Elektra; drama, Hungary, 1974; D: Miklós Jancsó, S: Mari Törőcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras 

Electra still cannot accept the state of things in which tyrannt Aegisthus is now the ruler, after killing her father Agamemnon several years ago. However, all the citizens and servants are obedient to the ruler and pretend that everything is perfect. Electra's brother, Orestes, returns to the kingdom pretending to be a messenger who claims that Orestes is dead. Electra stabs Orestes, but he comes back to life. They capture Aegisthus in a net and have him walk on top of a giant boulder. Electra and Orestes shoots Aegisthus, and then themselves. However, Electra and Orestes come back to life and enter a red helicopter that flies away.

Director Miklos Jancso once again used his cinematic technique of long takes to create a modern retelling of "Electra", crafting a film that has only around a dozen cuts throughout its running time of 70 minutes, with long takes that routinely last for 8-9 minutes, all of which are filmed in exteriors, yet, just like many political films, "Electra, My Love" does not hold up well by today's standards. Some of his long shots remind of Antonioni, yet the latter one was better in theme and style: while Jancso is only interested in political movements of the masses, Antonioni is interested in the individual. While Jancso is interested in political messages (in this case, Communist ones, showing Aegisthus as the oppressor of the proletariat) which will inevitably become dated as the flow of time washes away ideologies, Antonioni is interested in some eternal emotional states of the person, which makes him more compelling even today.

Jancso crafts some bizarre, puzzling and surreal images as his camera moves around and follows Electra, who walks between two rows of people lying on the ground, only for the said people to then hold each others hands and then roll down the meadow like cylinders. In another perplexing scene, the camera arrives at a human pyramid, consisting out of a naked boy, some peasants and a man looking at a topless girl. Not much sense can be made out of this 'patchwork', except to make the story more colorful, since the characters all seem like machines or walking propaganda pawns, and not like real people with feelings. The highlight is definitely Electra's long monologues at the end, which still has some genuine spark and flair among the artificial narrative overburdened with symbolism ("There was once upon a time, or it wasn't, but it was true. There lived a miraculous bird. It was brighter than the Sun, more luminous than the rainbow, prettier than the most beautiful jewel. Because she was born out of man's eternal wish. Her father was freedom, and her mother hapiness. Where ever the Fire-bird flew... the suffering of the people was eased... But her strength betrayed her because she gave all her strength to the people... When everyone can equally take from the casket of wealth... Then, and only then, will life on Earth become worthy to mankind").

Grade;++

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Deep

Djúpið; drama, Iceland, 2012; D: Baltasar Kormákur, S: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Joi Johannsson, Stefán Hallur Stefánsson, Jón Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, Thora Bjorg Helga

Westman Islands, south of Iceland, '84. Gulli and another four fisherman board a boat and sail into the Atlantic Ocean to catch fish. During night, their trencher catches too much weight, which capsizes their boat. Gulli and two other men, Palli and Jon, swam at the surface of the sea. However, the two vanish and Gulli is the sole survivor in the ocean, in the middle of the night. Despite freezing cold water, he manages to swim to the island, walk another two hours barefoot and reach a house to contact for an ambulance. Gulli recovers and is sent first to Reykjavik, and then to London for tests, since scientists cannot imagine how he managed to survive for six hours in the freezing water. Finally, Gulli returns home and visits the widow of one of the fishermen.

Based on true events, this is a solid, albeit conventional example of the 'survival film' subgenre, depicting a remarkable odyssey of a fisherman, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who managed to survive in the freezing Atlantic Ocean and swim back to the shore. Unlike "All is Lost", that narrowed the story only to Redford's character trying to survive in the ocean, "The Deep" takes the opposite approach and reduces this raw survival segment to only 10 minutes, in order to depict the protagonist's life before and after the event. The opening act is interesting, showing Gulli's routine (he wakes up early in the morning in his home; the fishermen throw bad fish out of the net back into the sea, thereby attracting dozens of hungry seagulls nearby...) and hits the high with his boat sinking, leaving him in the scary situation where he has to swim all by himself in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, once he reaches the shore and is saved, the remaining third of the film rides on a false momentum, never truly justifying why the story couldn't have simply ended there, instead of prolonging another 30-40 minutes on boring, tiresome sequences of scientists making tests on him in laboratory, trying to find out how the survived in the cold. The consequences or some sort of guilt that is implied to Gulli who survived, while other fishermen perished, seems contrived and misplaced, straining the patience of the viewers in this finale without a point. Still, director Baltasar Kormakur made a competent job, delivering an unassuming and interesting little film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Thomas in Love

Thomas est amoureux; science-fiction drama, Belgium, 2000; D: Pierre-Paul Randers, S: Benoît Verhaert (voice), Magali Pinglaut, Aylin Yay, Micheline Hardy

The future. Thomas (32) suffers from agoraphobia — a fear from open spaces — and thus it has been eight years since he left his apartment for the last time. He has sex with a CGI woman through a virtual reality world on a computer, whereas he uses Skype to talk to his mother or a mechanic when he needs a repair. A psychiatrists recommends Thomas to find a girlfriend. Thomas talks with Melodie through the monitor, and has sex with her through Internet, but this relationship falls apart. But then he meets Eva, which causes enough sparks for him to overcome his fear and leave the apartment to meet her in person.

"Thomas in Love" is one of the most unusual movies of the decade: the entire story, set in a near future, is filmed exclusively through the POV perspective of the title hero, and thus the main actor Benoit Verhaert is only seen in the final scene from the back, when he finally leaves the apartment, and the viewers mostly only hear his voice off the screen. This is both legitimate and problematic at the same time: on one hand, it stays true to the theme of alienation and deterioration of social skills in the modern (Internet) world, yet that way Thomas ends up as an un-affirmed character, while all the supporting characters (who show up on the visual telephone on his monitor) end up more effective. The opening 3-minute long sequence is highly interesting and memorable, since it shows a CGI animated space station in which a CGI woman is floating, taking her clothes off until she is naked and has "sex" with Thomas (again, all from his POV) — even though bizarre, it is an erotic and cleverly directed opening act, showing already how Thomas feels more comfortable interacting in a virtual than the real world. While not completely great, it is an interesting psychological drama with good moments (the driving psychiatrist talks with Thomas via the monitor, already showing their inappropriate relationship where private, intimate confessions are treated as fleeting routine) and a very solid theme that is worried about the future of humanity, a one where the whole society might become alienated and only have contact through the Internet, posing the question if real emotions can survive such an artificial state in the long run.

Grade;++

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron; black comedy, Sweden / Germany / Norway / France / Denmark, 2014; D: Roy Andersson, S: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson

Three people have a heart attack and die on three different places. Jonathan and Sam are two traveling salesmen who try to sell their useless "comical" products, including vampire teeth and masks. A man on a horse enters a bar and then leads the 18th century Swedish army into war, but they return wounded and decimated. An instructors teaches a class how to dance ballet. A girl recites a poem about a pigeon reflecting on existence in front of a school theatre. Jonathan and Sam argue over their business and separate. Jonathan has a dream about British men doing something terrible to some Natives and is plagued by this.

One of the most noticed examples of Scandinavian "Neo-Dadaism" and surreal humor, Roy Andersson's bizarre film is a strange experiment without a plot, revolving only around episodic vignettes that show up and disappear without any sense of urgency to the storyline, framed only by two travelling salesmen, yet its 'daft' mood and peculiar sense of humor assure it a certain (hermetic) charm. Just as the title hints at, "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is a film essay about the banalities, contradictions, peculiarities and mysteries of human existence, and Andersson crafted them almost as if the characters are watched by some aliens puzzled by this life form: the entire storyline is filmed in static wide shots, without any cross-cutting, or without a single close-up even, all adding to its distant tone, with an almost comic-book mise-en-scene, following a strange rule that each sequence is narrowed down to only one scene. Even the two main protagonists are distant and elusive. Andersson follows his theme by making fun out of art, including dance and theatre, as well as patriotism and war, de-masking them as human constructs, and thereby showing the human limitations that need to be transversed. This is also evident in the two most disturbing sequences: a scientist is making a phone call, asking if a person is all right, all the while ignoring a small monkey "crucified" onto a lab equipment, getting electric shock every once in a while; a group of 19th Century British soldiers locking up Natives in a giant barrel and setting it on fire underneath, which is reminiscent of the Khaibakh massacre — they both show how human existence can be completely indifferent to the suffering of other existences around them. As Jessica Kiang proposed in her review, the modern day depression of people may lie in this guilt from the crimes in the past, "a kind of original sin, a stain in the blood". "Pigeon" is not for everyone's taste, yet its strong shot compositions and uneasy thought provoking points assure it validity.

Grade;++

Monday, October 23, 2017

Spring in a Small Town

Xiao cheng zhi chun; drama, China, 1948; D: Fei Mu, S: Wei Wei, Li Wei, Shi Yu, Zhang Hongmei

A small town in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yuwen is a sympathetic woman married to Liyan Dai, who has been sick for six years. They respect each other, but love eludes them, as Liyan thinks he is a burden to his wife who always have to take care of him, and feels guilty for the destruction of his family estate during the war. He has a younger sister, Xiu (16). One day, an old family friend, Zhang, now a doctor, returns after 10 years to visit them. He still feels affection for Yuwen, but does not want to intrude on her marriage. Liyan contemplates about marrying Xiu to Zhang, but he refuses, considering her too young. Feeling as a burden, Liyan drinks an overdose of sleeping pills in order to commit suicide. However, Zhang saves him, and then leaves. Yuwen waves goodbye to Zhang as she stays with Liyan.

Near the beginning of the 21st century, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association released a list of Top 100 Chinese films, and Fei Mu's last film, "Spring in a Small Town", was ranked first place on that list. While that reputation is a little bit overrated and misplaced, since many better Chinese films appeared during the 20th century, "Spring" still conquers today with its elegance, calm, minimalistic style, as well as sympathetic characters whose problems are easy to identify with, whereas its restrained, authentic and genuine performances, especially by excellent actress Wei Wei, give it an additional touch. "Spring" owes a part of its high reputation to the therapeutic "healing after a devastating war" subgenre that appeared in many countries after World War II (its equivalents are found in many films, such as the German "And the Heaven Above Us", Italian "Bicycle Thieves" or Yugoslav "The Unconquered People"), obvious even here in the character of the sick husband Liyan who is a symbol for the devastated, small Chinese man after the war who feels lost and aimless (he laments to his wife that he has been "married to her for eight years, six of which he was sick", and thus feels like a burden to her and contemplates suicide), yet Mu gave a far more optimistic note to it, suggesting that life goes on, that people should just keep standing and that this simple investment can blossom into a bright future. Similarly like Y. Ozu, even Mu decided to focus only on subtle details and nuances (in one sequence of the characters on a boat on a river, Yuwan, Liyan and Xiu are happily singing - except for Zhang, standing behind them, who has a serious face, mirroring his concern for the frailness of this family), and thus "Spring" revolves only around these four characters and their possible love triangle. The film really is too slow at times, with too much empty walk and lingering shots, as well as a too "modest" style to offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, yet its emotional depth still evokes power, especially in the contemplation that loyalty and friendship can be stronger than fatalism.

Grade;++

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Attack on Titan (Season 1)

Shingeki no Kyojin; animated fantasy action series, Japan, 2013; D: Tetsuro Araki, S: Yuuki Kaji, Marina Inoue, Yui Ishikawa, Daisuke Ono

In a post-apocalyptic future, mysterious, 200 ft tall giants appeared, called Titans, and killed off most of humanity. The remains of mankind live in a town shielded by giant walls, yet Titans attack once again and kill the mother of teenager Eren Yaeger, who thus swears revenge and joins the military to fight the Titans. His friends are Armin and Mikasa. During another attack, Eren is eaten by a Titan, but somehow mysteriously survives and finds out he can transforms into a Titan himself when he is wounded. The military capture a female Titan, who turns out to be also a human, Annie. This gives military the reason to explore further.

One of the most hyped animes of the decade, "Attack on Titan" is basically a restructuring of the popular "mecha genre", except that instead of giant robots, the people have to fight humanoid, Zombie giants, yet the story lacks highlights, pathos and the grandeur of "Evangelion" to truly overwhelm on a higher level. The setting is mysterious and stimulative, posing many questions about the origins of the Titans that attack and eat humans, yet, unfortunately, the 1st season refuses to answer any of those, leaving the viewers rather stranded and frustrated by a lack of any conclusion. The characters are one-dimensional, humorless and stiff, which exacerbates the impression (especially since Eren, Armin and Erwin all have a similar sounding name, which leads to confusion at times), yet the action sequences do have their moments of impact, especially the "Spiderman"-style way the warriors use wires to swing from building to building to maneuver around the Titans in order to try to hit the back side of their neck, their only weak spot.

The best episodes are arguably 17, 18 and 19, because they display a genius strategy of the warriors who leave the walls for their expedition: since they have no technology, they ride on horses and disperse on a meadow for several miles, acting as a "human radar" since flare guns fired by the edge of the group will be seen from the horizon and signal if a Titan is nearby, thus allowing for the core of the group to avoid dangers by going left or right on their route. This leads to several exciting situations, aesthetic shot compositions and a sense for adventure in the open, culminating with a group having to go through a forest to ditch Titans running after them. Unfortunately, except for maybe episode 25 (featuring several great sequences, including a religious community attending a mass that gets squashed by a female Titan when its foot crashes through the church, or the epic scene of the female Titan grabbing onto a wall with its fingers to stop, thereby causing several people to get ejected from the windows of the building) and a few deeper meanings (the leitmotiv of birds that fly over the walls as a symbolism for the protagonist's yearning for freedom), a majority of the episodes suffers from a too slow pace which takes too much time to finally get going, relaying too much on a dark tone, yet it cannot compensate for the standard execution. Answers will be found in season 2, but on its own, the viewers are simply stuck with the impression that season 1 did not progress and develop the storyline to a truly satisfying level.

Grade;++

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire; drama, USA, 1951; D: Elia Kazan, S: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Peg Hillias


New Orleans. Blanche DuBois, a woman nearing 40, lost her family estate, "Belle Reve", as well as her job as a teacher in Laurel, Mississippi, and thus, now bankrupt, has to stay at the apartment of her pregnant sister, Stella. Blanche is cultured and refined, which causes her to clash with Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, a Polish worker. Blanche meets Mitch and starts a relationship with him, hoping that she will finally marry and settle down. She also feels guilty for the death of her husband, who committed suicide after she scorned him for sleeping with another man. However, Stanley discovers her dark secrets: back in Laurel, Blanche slept with numerous men, even with her students. This causes Mitch to give up on his plans to marry her. As Stella goes into labor in the hospital, Stanley again argues with Blanche and rapes her. Blanche loses touch with reality and is thus sent to a mental asylum.

One of the most critically recognized films of the 50s, "A Streetcar Named Desire" is still an excellent film adaptation of the eponymous play, even by today's standards — though it is somewhat overburdened with too much symbolism and excessive dialogues here and there. It is an "actor's film", and thus director Elia Kazan decided to minimize his director's interventions in order to maximize the focus on the four actors who carry the film, all of which are fantastic, ranging from Marlon Brando up to Vivien Leigh, and their electrifying dialogues. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who was gay, constructed "Streetcar" to reflect his often theme of society's prejudice towards an individuals inner desire: despite the censorship of the conservative Hays Code, it is obvious that Blanche caught her husband in a gay relationship and caused him to commit suicide due to her intolerance towards his desire. This theme goes full circle, since she is also intolerant towards Stanley's hedonistic desire, which she considers primitive, while Stanley and Mitch later judge Blanche due to her promiscuity. Blanche is also the one who judges Stella's desire in the form of a sexual addiction towards the brute Stanley: in one scene, Stella is in bed after reconciling with her husband, and has an interesting exchange with Blanche ("He smashed all the lightbulbs with the heel of my slipper". - "And you let him? Didn't run, didn't scream?" - "Actually, I was sorta thrilled by it!").

The conflict between the two main protagonists is the driving force of the storyline: Blanche is liberal, feminist, trying to be independent or at least equal to men, living in an imaginary world ("I don't want realism, I want magic!") serving as escapism from the harsh reality and her fear of staying alone as she approaches 40 ("I'm fading now! I don't know how much longer I can turn the trick!"), whereas Stanley is conservative, patriarchal, primeval, a lower class worker, and despises illusions since he wants to live in the world the way it is. In order to underline the clash between Blanche and Stanley, Kazan even added a metafilm touch by casting two actors of completely opposite ways of acting: the "raw", method acting of Brando which is juxtaposed with the "artificial", idealized acting of the old school Hollywood of Leigh, giving it another layer of dynamics. They are allegorical for id and super-ego, each trying to conquer the other one's psyche. Certain complaints could be aimed at the overlong running time and too lengthy, ponderous monologues that do not always have a clear point, as well as a "too theatrical" setting of the "confined" storyline at times, though the latter can be somewhat given amnesty since it was adapted from a play. Nonetheless, "Streetcar" is a strong, powerful and ambitious film, a one that works like a fuse on a dynamite that slowly burns until it explodes, congruent to the explosive inner dissatisfaction of the protagonists who simply have to snap near the finale.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Forgotten Ones

Los Olvidados; drama, Mexico, 1950; D: Luis Buñuel, S: Alfonso Mejía, Roberto Cobo, Stella Inda, Miguel Inclán, Alma Delia Fuentes

The slums of Mexico City: poverty caused groups of kids to rob people and turn to criminal activity. El Jaibo, a teenage delinquent who escaped from jail, returns as the head of one these gang and they plan to steal the money of a blind man singing on the street, but he stops them and hits the leg of one of them. As a revenge, Jaibo and his gang follow the blind man and later beat him up. Jaibo blames his prison sentence  to Julian and thus kills him, thinking the latter is a snitch. The murder is witnessed by Pedro, Jaibo's gang member. Jaibo visits the Pedro's poor family because he is attracted to Pedro's widowed mother. Pedro finds a job at a blacksmith, but when a silver knife is stolen, Pedro is blamed and sent to a farm school. Pedro is aggressive, but the principal gives him 50 pesos to buy him cigarettes, in order to build his trust. On his way, Pedro is robbed by Jaibo, who also stole the knife. Later, Jaibo kills Pedro. In an ambush, the police shoot Jaibo.

Often regarded by film critics as one of the finest movies of Mexican cinema of the 20th century, Luis Bunuel's "The Forgotten Ones" is a dark and depressive social drama that realistically takes a glimpse at the theme of poverty, which is even more intense since it is shown from the perspective of children and teenagers. Congruent with such an unglamorous topic, Bunuel crafted a blunt, direct, almost explicit film in order to show such reality without any "false idealism": teenage delinquent Jaibo and his gang want to rob a blind man, and later do not even hesitate to beat him up; Pedro's mother says this to the surprised civic service officer: "Why should I love my son? I don't even know who his father is."; Jaibo gropes and forcefully wants to kiss a girl, Meche, while her brother does not care when he hears his sister screaming while working outside; a kid drinks milk directly from the udder of a donkey in a farm.

The only break from this reality is Pedro's surreal dream, filmed in slow motion, which hints at the director's frequent fascination with fantasy as the escape from depression. Throughout these scenes, Bunuel illustrates a bigger strategy by giving a case study of poverty — already in the opening scenes of fancy, grand images of skyscrapers of a modern metropolis, the narrator says: "Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London hides behind its wealth poverty-stricken homes...", hinting at the divide between the upper class which is built at the expense of a lower class, almost as in Yin and Yang, whereas he even hints at the theories of poverty, such as restriction of opportunities and a distorted meritocracy in which the only way to survive and climb through the ranks is through theft, murder, violence and other criminal activity. Even Pedro, who is given a chance to reform in a farm school, is sunk back by his old friend Jaibo, giving the movie a gloomy perspective of social determinism in a cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, evident also in the dark ending. An excellent film, reminiscent of the 'raw' aesthetics of 'Italian neorealism', and a surprisingly "normal" storyline for Bunuel.

Grade;+++

Monday, October 9, 2017

Rick and Morty (Season 3)

Rick and Morty; science-fiction comedy series, USA, 2017; D: Juan Meza-Leon, Bryan Newton, Dominic Polcino, S: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Sarah Chalke, Spencer Grammer

Rick manages to escape from prison and destroy the Galactic Federation by ruining their currency, even though he was also persecuted by Ricks from alternate dimensions, who wanted to kill him, as well. The aliens abandon Earth, but Jerry seeks divorce from Beth, since she is unwilling to choose Rick over her husband. Rick thus continues his many adventures with Morty into parallel Universes. Finally, Jerry and Beth reconcile while Rick is abandoned.

Season 3 was the tipping point where "Rick and Morty" definitely lost the balance between the good and bad, falling into meaningless, repetitive episodes without any kind of point or strategy. Each season was weaker than the previous, and congruently, season 3 offers the least: it has only two truly great episodes (3.1 and outstanding 3.7), while the remaining 8 are weak and fall too often into trash. Similarly like "South Park" or later seasons of "Family Guy", even "Rick and Morty" sailed into 'extreme entrtainment' by deciding to keep the viewers' attention through splatter violence, disgust, ill-conceived ideas, shlock and shock, instead of relaying on some sophisticated narrative and inspiration. Rick is far more interesting as a character when he talks about his cynical philosophy about life, yet here he was demoted to a simplistic action figure. Episode 3.3, in which Rick has transformed himself into a small pickle, and thus has to battle cockroaches in the sever, is probably the worst episode of the show till date, whereas bad ideas run galore, from a giant Summer whose skin has been turned inside out by a laser ray in 3.5 through Morty vomiting a three feet long green worm hanging from his mouth for a minute in 3.8. Actually, in one episode, 3.9, it is discovered that a kid, Tommy, has been trapped in the imaginary world of "Froopyland", and thus mated with the creatures there so that they could breed creatures with human flesh, which he would then eat himself to survive, so Rick himself ironically says: "That's it! I'm out of here!", and then opens a portal and escapes as soon as possible with Beth. There is no reason for the viewers not to feel the same, as well. The only highlight is episode 3.7, a stroke of genius and intelligent writing, by showing the Citadel, a place where all the thousands of Ricks and Mortys from other dimensions gather to form their own society, yet fall into the same corruption and injustices against themselves - but alas, to get to that episode, the viewers have to pave their way through a mass of rubbish of inferior episodes.

Grade;+

Friday, October 6, 2017

Fast Five

Fast Five; action, USA, 2011; D: Justin Lin, S: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris bridges, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang, Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot

Dominic is about to be transported to a prison, but his sister Mia and friend Brian crash the bus with the convicts and free him. They also steal cars from a traveling train, but Dom and Brian are captured by criminal Reyes who wants to know the location of one specific car with a microchip in it that contains data about the drug lord's money. Brian, Dom and Mia then escape to Rio de Janeiro and decide to to escape Reyes' persecution by teaming up with Han, Roman, Tej, Gisele and others and steal Reyes' money. At the same time, agent Hobbs works with the Brazilian police to arrest Brian and Dom. Dom and his team break into the police station, attach the vault with Reyes' money and escape with cars. A car chase ensues in which Reyes is killed. Hobbs gives Dom a 24 hour break to escape. Brian and Dom split the money and enjoy their exile.

Part five of the long and hyped "Fast and Furious" action film series was probably the first contribution that amounted to a good film, managing to somewhat lift itself up from the routine chase sequences, even though the writing and dialogues are still often dry, ordinary and conventional. The convoluted plot takes a while until it agrees with itself where it wants to go, but once it does, it sends the franchise outside the usual car races and instead turns it into a heist film, offering a few interesting new elements that give it freshness, whereas it also helps that the plot does not take itself too seriously, often resulting in amusing irony. One of the best examples is when Gisele (excellent Gal Gadot, who is especially responsible for adding more charm to the cast) walks towards criminal Reyes in a bikini and sits on his lap, whereupon he touches her butt. However, later on, it is revealed Gisele did that only because she had a special layer on her bikini which captured Reyes's fingerprints, which her team intends to use for the heist, which is amusing. The final 10-minute chase sequence in which the two cars are dragging a giant vault across the streets of Rio de Janeiro, which sometimes smashes into cars and walls during the street curves, all the while being pursued by police cars, is great and almost reaches the insanity of "The Blues Brothers" in its sheer comic destruction. The simplistic storyline was thus saved thanks to a few new ideas, as well as by performances of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.

Grade;++

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Zulu

Zulu; war / action / adventure, UK, 1964; D: Cy Endfield, S: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, James Booth, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, Mangosuthu Buthelezi

The British Army has established a base in Rorke's Drift, serving as its outpost for colonialism and irredentism into Southern Africa. On 22 January 1879, some 150 soldiers assembled into the 24th Regiment on Foot find themselves surrounded by a 4,000 men strong Zulu tribe that wants to attack and destroy their base. Even though greatly outnumbered, Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead are determined to stop the attack. The Zulu tribe attacks them from both sides, some of their soldiers manage storm into the base and set the hospital on fire, but the Regiment manages to repel them and survive. The next day, the Zulus retreat.

One of the most popular British movies of the 60s, a real life  depiction of a British army Regiment resisting a siege of an army 20 times their size in 1879, "Zulu" still seems fresh and exciting even today, owing that to a good sense for suspense and action sequences, as well as authentic locations in South Africa, which are aesthetic and offer good shot compositions. Even though some of its themes are rather dated or seem questionable (especially by reversing the event to seem as if the Zulus are the enemy for resisting, and not the British colonialism and imperialism which tried to enslave the peoples of that area), "Zulu" is still a fine film and even established the then unknown actor Michael Caine as the new hope of British cinema. The first half drags, spending too much time on the life of the British army in the base, even though numerous characters are so flat they are barely distinguishable from each other, yet that is overturned an hour into the film when the Zulu siege starts, displayed through exciting images and anticipation of suspense: the camera pan of a thousand Zulu warriors standing at the top of a whole giant hill, overlooking the base, still sends shivers down the spine. Equally as great is the moment when the British soldiers are confronted with Zulu warriors shooting at them from the hills, almost as if they are standing right above them or the long line of hundreds of Zulu warriors stretching across the meadow, to a warrior in a close up. This siege last for the almost the whole second half of the film, and works splendidly. "Zulu" is basically a British 'African western', depicting a stand-off where the weaker ones manages to stop the enemy despite all odds, and despite a slow start, it manages to ignite and keep the viewers attention for the whole second act.

Grade;++

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism

W.R.: Misterije organizma; documentary / erotic satire, Serbia / Germany / USA, 1971; D: Dušan Makavejev, S: Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg, Zoran Radmilović, Jackie Curtis

A film crew is making a documentary about the controversial German scientist Wilhelm Reich who escaped from Europe to the US and developed a theory in which sex is the ultimate means of liberation of people, and that all the dictatorships were just manifestations of repressed sexuality. He died while his books were declared pseudoscience and burned. Numerous people are interviewed... A man with a machine-gun is walking through the streets... Women are sent to sexual therapy... In Belgrade, Milena is highly sexualized woman who thinks that Communism should include sexuality. She meets a Soviet artists, Vladimir Ilyich, a highly political communist, and tries to seduce him. He reaches an orgasm - but immediately kills Milena by cutting her head off, not being able to cope with the liberation of his repressed sexuality.

Dusan Makavejev's bizarre satire "W.R.: Mysteries of Organism" became the only film from the whole of Yugoslav cinema that Roger Ebert included into his "Great Movies" list, yet it seems that this is more the result of the critic's lack of knowledge about the cinema from that country than some genuine greatness of the movie in question. Dozens of superior Yugoslav movies were made, yet "W.R." was remembered for its numerous controversies, resulting in a ban from Yugoslav authorities, and even by today's standards the movie can shock the conservative audiences. A part of its disconcerting impression lies in the fact that this is practically five short films glued into one, yielding a narratively confusing picture, since the film starts off as a documentary about Wilhelm Reich (claiming that each person has an average of 4,000 orgasms during their lifetime), then switches to numerous interviews about artists and their sexual art (one scene even has Nancy Godfrey stroking the penis of a lying man, only to then make a cast of his erection), then finally to the main story involving Milena (excellent Milena Dravic) who wants to promote free sexuality.

Her highlight is obviously her comical "political" speech towards people in an apartment complex ("No excitement can ever equal the elemental force of the orgasm. That's why politics attracts those among us whose orgasm is sub-standard, defective, disturbed or premature!... Deprive them of free love, and they'll seize everything else! That led to revolution. It led to fascism and doomsday. The goose-stepping, mass-marching orgasm! The bloodstream orgasm of the alcoholic or junkie! The cerebral orgasm of dogmatics or religious mystics!"). It implies that all the dictatorships are just manifestations of sexual repression, resulting in a black humored, but delicious ending in which a Russian communist reaches an orgasm - only to then kill Milena, unable to cope with the fact that all his loud ideology was just a sexual compensation for his virginity and impotence. This message was so subversive, even implying the Tito-Stalin split as a fight of sexual liberation, that the movie was even banned in the USSR, as well. Makavajev's attempt to blend sexual revolution with communist revolution is not for everyone's taste, especially since numerous archive footage is sometimes garbage and could have been cut, yet there is a deeper meaning in all of this mess, when one thinks about it at the end, which makes its cult reputation somewhat justified.

Grade;++

Monday, September 25, 2017

Rick and Morty (Season 2)

Rick and Morty; science-fiction comedy series, USA, 2015; D: Wes Archer, Bryan Newton, Dominic Polcino, S: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Sarah Chalke, Spencer Grammer

Morty is again doing crazy adventures with his eccentric scientist grandfather Rick, travelling through various dimensions or alien planets: Rick meets his ex-girlfriend again, an alien beehive entity called Unity; an alien instills fake memories in them and disguises as hundreds of absurd cartoon characters, claiming to be part of the family in the house; Rick has to visit a miniature AI world inside his battery, created to generate energy for him; Jerry and Beth undergo an alien marriage counseling; after a wedding goes awfully wrong and the groom, Birdperson, is killed, Rick gives himself in to the Federation so that his family can return safely to Earth.

Even the second season of the highly popular "Rick and Morty" comedy series did not manage to lift itself up from the level of a "mixed bag", since it contains both moments of genius which are then followed by several ill-conceived or misguided ideas, most notably in a couple of disturbing depictions of murder which are treated with an incompatible lightness, as if nothing happened, which is suppose to be funny, but only falls flat as morbid. Two and half great episodes — 2.1, 2.3 and one half of episode 2.5 (the first half involving a satire on religion is brilliant, but the other half involving Rick and Morty trying to sing for the giant heads in the Universe are lackluster and lame) — yet the remaining seven are a lot weaker, whereas this is also a ratio that is weaker than the first season — meaning that in reality its quality is still a notch bellow all the hype surrounding it. The worst episode is probably 2.7, involving a bizarre marriage alien counselling in which a machine depicts Jerry's vision of Beth as a black Xenomorph while Beth has a vision of Jerry as a slimy, disgusting worm, and their visions then escape and start killing everybody for no good reason justifying this concept, while the worst joke is probably found in episode 2.10, where Rick and his family go to an exile on an Earth-like planet — only for the Sun to rise and "scream" at them, which is just plain stupid. Yet, it deserves to be seen for two highlights: one is episode 2.1 which features a "fractured" time, presenting a split screen in which Rick, Morty and Summer are in two parallel times, with only minimal differences: the viewers will have to pay twice as much attention to notice all the details in it. The second one is 2.3, featuring a surreal metaphor of Rick having a relationship with the "beehive" alien entity Unity whose consciousness spans millions of people on a planet, which offers him the opportunity to sleep with several women wearing Unity's mind at the same time. And it ends with a striking philosophical, even emotional contemplation about how even controlling a million people cannot compensate for the emptiness of life, the nature of free will and Totalitarianism, the question if a character is willing to either change to keep his love or to stay alone to keep his own identity he loves. There are some interesting themes here in several episodes, ranging from artificial intelligence, infinite regress or the unreliability of memory, but it would have been far better if all the garbage surrounding them was edited out.

Grade;++

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Victor and Victoria

Viktor und Viktoria; musical comedy, Germany, 1933; D: Reinhold Schünzel, S: Renate Müller, Hermann Thimig, Anton Walbrook, Hilde Hildebrand

Viktor is a struggling actor, but cannot find a job because his dramatic interpretations are often comical. During an audition, he meets actress Susanne who also cannot find a job. Viktor informs her that he sometimes plays a woman, Viktoria, in a Cabaret, but since he has a flu, he persuaded Susanne to jump in to save the show. Susanne thus pretends she is a man playing a woman, and finds great success among the audience. An agent approaches Susanne and she signs a contract to continue performing. In London, she meets Robert, who falls in love with her, insisting that she is a woman, even though Susanne tries to pretend she is a man. Even more problems arrive when a woman, Ellinor, falls in love with Susanne, thinking she is Viktor, a man. Finally, Susanne and Robert kiss, while Viktor takes over the role of Viktoria as a comedy act.

Even though it was met with overwhelming enthusiasm by German film critics during its premiere, and subsequently gained the status of a classic in its country of origin, Reinhold Schunzel's transvestite comedy "Victor and Victoria" feels dated by today's standards due to its stiff narrative and dry-overlong musical sequences, some of which are even used in ordinary dialogues that rhyme. It is axiomatic that Edwards' film "Victor/Victoria", filmed 49 years later, is easily superior, displaying a rare situation where an American remake towers over an original. While the two main actors, Herman Thimig and Renate Muller, are very good, they are not convincing at playing the opposite gender, which is especially aggravating for Muller who is suppose to carry the film as a woman pretending to be a man playing a woman on stage, since her high, feminine voice leaves little ambiguity. Worse still is that all the rich potentials of the tantalizing premise were scarcely exploited, leaving many situations underused. Some of the best jokes still arise from the man-woman confusion  — for instance, Viktor releases four geese from a cage so that the two performers have to chase them and leave the male locker room, giving Susanne a chance to change clothes without anyone noticing that she is not a man. In another good scene, Robert jokingly informs Viktor that he is challenged to a pistol duel due to a bar fight, so Viktor shockingly leaves the room, only to accidentally stumble into some sound stage where a performer wearing Cowboy clothes is randomly practicing shooting. While good is exploring the men-women relationships and identities, "Victor and Victoria" still seems like a 'rump' version of these themes, too timid to truly give them justice, most noticeably in the abrupt ending, though it has charm.

Grade;++

Friday, September 15, 2017

Rick and Morty (Season 1)

Rick and Morty; animated science-fiction comedy series, USA, 2013; D: John Rice, Bryan Newton, Stephen Sandoval, S: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Sarah Chalke, Spencer Grammer

The 14-year old Morty is annoyed by his eccentric grandpa Rick, a scientist who often brings him along on his misadventures, ranging from trips to another dimensions through aliens to problems involving Rick's inventions going out of control. Morty's sister Summer and their parents, Jerry and Beth, whose marriage is on thin ice, also unwillingly get involved into Rick's misadventures.

Justin Roiland's and Mark Harmon's surprise hit animated show is the ultimate example of a mixed bag: episodes 1.3, 1.4 and 1.10 are excellent, but the quality of the rest of the first season is highly uneven, since some are solid, some OK and some outright bad. Aggravating all of this is the fact that even in some bad episodes the authors can still conjure up some incredible examples of wisdom about life, using the most surreal and bizarre grotesque as a metaphor for something in our society. It is almost like 'Sophocles meets "Family Guy"': rarely has there been a show that offers a whole spectrum of quality, ranging from genius to garbage. Episode 1.3 is one of the best, turning into the most black humored Christmas episode in TV history: in it, Rick brings a man dressed as Santa Claus home, but the latter falls into a coma, so Rick shrinks Morty to a size of a microorganism and sends him into the man's body. At the end, Rick simply loses his patience since he cannot find a microscopic Morty, so he takes the naked dead body of the Santa Claus, flies off into space and instead enlarges the man's body ten thousand times, thereby inevitably returning Morty back to his normal size. This results in a Zenith of absurdist humor, rarely seen anywhere, with the expressionistic sight of a giant naked Santa Claus floating in orbit over the whole of America, his toes being spotted in L.A. and his head in New York. Episode 1.10 also rises to the occasion, involving a situation in which Rick is confronted with hundreds of Ricks from hundreds of parallel Universes, which gave a wealth of potentials, ending in a remarkable "hidden" compliment Rick makes to his Morty: "I am the Rick-est of them all, which means you are the Morty-est of all Mortys". Throughout these wacky stories, "Rick and Morty" displays a secret philosophy on life and the Universe, yet it is not always presented in an intelligent way. Episode 1.4 is a sly satire on the 'brain in a vat' argument, but episode 1.7, on the other hand, is a rather lackluster take on sexism: the concept of an alien civilization in which women rule while men are kept as an inferior race does not offer anything new that hasn't already been explored in "He-Man" episode "Trouble in Arcadia", for instance.

Too many episodes focus only on degenerate monster aliens (the above mentioned episode 1.7 has these women having extra hands on their ears (!?)) or shock, and attempt to seize the attention of the viewers more through bizarreness than through some genuine inspiration. Aren't the praying-mantis-human mutants in episode 1.6 pure trash, for instance? Isn't the alternate Universe TV commercial in episode 1.8 of two people eating Leprechaun's intestine pure junk? And yet, just when the viewers dismiss such stuff, the authors suddenly redeem themselves thanks to an unexpected example of genius. Episode 1.6, for instance, is terrible, but has a fantastic beginning and an ending, by presenting Rick who explains to Morty his unrequited love:"Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people call "love" is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage!" Episode 1.8 is also just a random collection of inconceivable, surreal and disturbing TV channels from alternate Universes, but it ends in one of the most inexplicable, genuine, miraculous, virtuoso and beautifully touching endings ever seen, a small gem: throughout the episode, it has been established that Morty's and Summer's dad, Jerry, has never married in an alternate Universe and became a major movie star. At the same time, Beth finds out that without being married to Jerry and not having kids, she could have pursued a great career as a real surgeon in that world. This leads a crisis of their marriage. But at one point, Jerry observes his alternate Jerry driving in underwear on the street on alternate TV. At the same time, Beth is watching her alternate ego through special goggles, living alone in a house with birds. Suddenly, these two realities become one when alternate Jerry stops and knocks on the door of alternate Beth, to announce: "Beth Sanchez, I have been in love with you since high school. I hate acting, I hate fame... I wish you hadn't had that abortion and I never stopped thinking what might have been." Jerry and Beth, back in the real world, then realize that they are living precisely in that 'what if?' Universe, drop everything, reconcile and kiss in the living room. This is a highlight that, although unable to fully compensate for all the questionable content before, is still going to be remembered for a long time.

Grade;++

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer; silent drama / musical, USA, 1927; D: Alan Crosland, S: Al Jolson, Mary Dale, Eugenie Besserer, Warner Oland

Jackie Rabinowitz wants become a jazz singer, but when he is caught singing in a pub, his strict, orthodox Jewish father forbids him to continue and beats him up, because he wants Jackie to succeed him and become a cantor in a Synagogue. Jackie flees from home and makes great progress as a singer in New York, falling in love with Mary, a stage dancer. Now renamed, Jack returns to his home to see his mother, but is again chased away by hist father. On the premiere of a career defining performance on stage, Jack decides to not show up and instead sing as a cantor in a Synagogue because this was the last wish of his dying father. However, he gets another chance and performs as a singer in a theater.

"The Jazz Singer" signalled a new era of cinema, an era of sound film, yet even though it was a smash hit and the highest grossing movie for almost a decade, it was kind of a cheat: the movie is 20% a sound film and 80% a silent film. It was still an incomplete, semi-sound film where the audio was used only for the singing of the hero and one sequence when he talks with his mother while playing the piano for her, yet the majority of the story is still a silent film, even using intertitles for dialogues of the characters for most of the time. Despite this technical innovation, "The Jazz Singer" remained only a footnote in film lexicons since it feels very dated by today's standards. It is basically a simplistic story of a man torn between following his dream and the tradition of his family, yet it never rises to the occasion, neither in writing nor in execution. This storyline is a dime a dozen, basically almost a soap opera with banal narrative flow, whereas it simply lacks highlights. There is very little to see, stylistically or story-wise, and the long sequences of singing tend to become tiresome and dry. That is why "The Jazz Singer" is today only valuable formally for the cineasts, yet does not hold a special place in the heart of many movie goers.

Grade;+