Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar; western, USA, 1954; D: Nicholas Ray, S: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine

The Wild West, 19th century. Johnny Guitar arrives to a desolate saloon because he was invited there to play music by his ex-lover Vienna, who opened the joint hoping to cash in on passengers of an upcoming railroad station. However, she is being harassed by Emma and Mr. McIvers from the nearby town, who want to chase her away and steal her land, and thus put all the blame on her whenever he other ex-lover, Dancing Kid, and his gang, are suspected of robbing a carriage. When the Dancing Kid robs a bank, one his wounded friends, Turkey, finds an asylum at Vienna's saloon. Emma, McIvers and others find him there and, as punishment, burn the saloon and hang Turkey. However, Johnny saves Vienna from hanging and the flee to the Dancing Kid's hideout. In a gun duel, Vienna manages to shoot Emma and thus reunites with Johnny.

Even by today's standards, "Johnny Guitar" is one of the most bizarre westerns of the 20th century since screenwriter Ben Maddow decided to deconstruct it by designing such a "male genre" as a feminist film in which the men are mostly just passive observers while the main protagonist and the main antagonist are both women, Vienna and Emma, played brilliantly by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (who allegedly couldn't stand each other privately during filming, which just contributed to their tension). Actually, it is puzzling why the movie is titled "Johnny Guitar", anyway, instead of "Vienna". Such a modern take on it gave the film freshness, yet a part of that freshness was still deducted due to an overlong running time, a few clumsy sequences (Emma shoots Tom, who then accidentally shoots the Sheriff) and wooden dialogues, especially in the first half where there are too many explanations and introductions featured in overlong dialogues between the characters who just meet, yet they have to tell everything to the audience. Director Nicholas Ray copes good with the film, even adding a few neat touches (in the lynching sequence, Emma and her evil gang all wear black clothes, while Vienna wears a white dress; when Tom is shot trying to protect Vienna, his dying words are: "Look... everybody's looking at me. It's the first time I ever felt important!", almost summing up the fate of every supporting character in every story) whereas Vienna's tough posture as the boss of the saloon gives the film a strong feminist touch for the 50s (She even says: "All a woman has to do is slip - once. And she's a "tramp!" Must be a great comfort to you to be a man!"), though even feminist tones can only go so far, since the film needed more humor and satire which should have sprouted naturally from such an unusual, upside-down concept.

Grade;++

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai; war drama, UK / USA / Sri Lanka, 1957; D: David Lean, S: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne

Burma, World War II. The Japanese army brings a group of captured British soldiers to a POW camp in the jungle, ordering them to build a bridge over the river Kwai, needed for their railroad transportation. Colonel Saito insists that every POW, including officers, must work in order to complete the bridge by the 12 May. However, Colonel Nicholson refuses to work, citing the Geneva Conventions that exempts officers from forced labor. Saito thus orders Nicholson to be sealed off in a solitary confinement. However, Nicholson doesn't give in, and Saito yields to his demands. Once Nicholson is declared in charge of commanding the construction, the bridge is built in time. Commander Shears manages to escape from the camp, contact the US army and return with a small platoon with the assignment to blow up the bridge. Upon finding out the bridge is wired, Nicholson actually intends to stop the platoon, but is hit, falls on the detonator and blows it up, anyway.

One of the classics from the 50s, a widely critically recognized film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" still seems as fresh as on its day of premiere thanks to David Lean's elegant direction and smooth pace: you just watch the first 7 minutes of it, and you immediately want to see it until the end. 50s movies have a different philosophy of telling a story than modern ones, insisting more on classic narration and longer scenes, yet when a story is interesting, it is timeless. The basic premise is simply fascinating: it starts off like a typical POW war drama, yet it quickly turns into a clash of two individuals with integrity — between the strict-by-the-law, disciplinary Colonel Nicholson who insists that officers cannot do forced labor and the rigid, goal-oriented Commander Saito, who insists that every prisoner must work. Their clash of stubbornness is captivating and you never know who may blink first, turning almost into a duel between a British Sheldon Cooper and a Japanese Sheldon Cooper, who both insist the other one is wrong.

Alec Guinness is simply excellent as Nicholson, giving him a sense of dignity and stoic endurance as a person who would rather starve to death in solitary confinement than budge an inch from his principles. Yet he can also be contemplative, especially in his memorable monologue on the bridge: "But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything." Though Sessue Hayakawa is equally as great as Saito, who is sardonic: when he is informed three prisoners died while trying to escape from the camp, he just says: "It was a pointless task. It was like an escape from reality".  A third contribution in the film is the very good William Holden as Commander Shears, who gives the story spice thanks to a few cynical lines. In one scene, he speaks to a military nurse on the beach: "Don't call me Commander, it's very unromantic! How would you like it if I called you 'Lieutenant Lover'?" A small complaint is that the last third loses a lot of energy and ends up rather dry at times, exhausting itself only with the monotone scenes of Nicholson and his men building the bridge, even though their "Stockholm syndrome" was already explored sufficiently, since longer doesn't always necessarily mean better. Still, this is compensated through a finale that almost reaches Hictchcockian levels of suspense in the long sequence where the platoon placed explosives under the bridge, but didn't reckon with the water level drop which leaves the wires suddenly visible above the river, all ending in a finely tuned ending that also speaks about the meaninglessness of war: everything is built only to be destroyed in it.

Grade;+++

Monday, 17 April 2017

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth; drama series, Italy / UK, 1977; D: Franco Zeffirelli, S: Robert Powell, Ralph Richardson, James Farentino, Olivia Hussey, Ian McShane, Anne Bancroft, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Cyril Cusack, Ian Holm, Michael York, Stacy Keach, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, Claudia Cardinale

In Canaan of the 1st Century AD, Joseph is engaged to Mary who gives birth to Jesus Christ after she heard a dream of God who told her that her child is going to be the Messiah. The Three wise men visit her and give her presents. 33 years later, Jesus starts to gather disciples from fishermen around the Sea of Galilee, among them Peter and Matthew. Jesus is also baptized by John the Baptist in Jordan, but the latter is arrested and executed by the Roman guards. Jesus becomes a popular religious teacher and even starts healing the sick and disabled. He travels to Jerusalem where he raises Lazarus from the dead and attacks the merchants for defiling the temple with their money and goods. Zealot Barabbas approaches Jesus in order to try to create a unified Jewish front against the Roman occupation, but Jesus refuses any violence. Finally, Judas betrays Jesus to the Roman soldiers, hoping to force him to perform miracles in front of them. Pontius Pilate is reluctant to convict Jesus, but the crowd votes to free Barabbas instead, and thus Jesus is cruficied. However, three days later, his body is gone and he appears in front of his disciples again.

One of the most expensive and ambitious TV projects of the 70s, this 4-part miniseries was met with huge approval by the Christian audiences: unlike other standard Bible movies depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, director Franco Zeffirelli attempts a slightly different approach here and there, trying also to "fill in the blanks" between some Gospels which were left underdeveloped or incomplete. One such example is found in the first episode, depicting Joseph as an elderly bachelor who gets engaged to the young Mary. Upon finding out she is pregnant, even though they never slept together, he asks a man for advice who informs him that stoning is the punishment for infidelity, and later Joseph has a dream where he imagines men chasing and stoning Mary, which  terrifies him. This episode serves its purpose, because it expands Joseph from a one-dimensional sketch into a character who has no heart to complain against Mary, which works really well, even later on (it basically rhymes with the sequence where Jesus saves an adulteress from stoning).

Another great example of expanding the story is when young boys throw a balloon with alcohol into fire, causing it to explode, in order to tease Mary Magdalene in her home, who is, it is implied, a prostitute. These two moments are welcomed and refreshing, but once Jesus shows up, the story basically goes back to "autopilot" and follows the Gospels rather conventionally, refusing to add any surprises or new, invented moments. This leaves "Jesus of Nazareth" a little bit dry and stale, yielding to predictable formula of other adaptations of the New Testament, especially in decision to have Robert Powell just stare into the camera at times, portraying more his holly, mythical feature than his human character. A small delight are great, exotic locations in Morocco and Tunisia, which give it an aesthetic touch, as well as an star ensemble in small roles, with two standing out the most: Ian McShane as Judas (!) and Rod Steiger as Pilate ("How do you govern these people?"). A few neat dialogues are also welcomed ("Men must change before kingdoms do.") and the emotional, yet also sober tone of the series gives it a certain charm that helped it hold up fairly well to this day.

Grade;++

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Tomorrow May Never Come

Kal Ho Naa Ho; comedy / drama / romance, India, 2003; D: Nikkhil Advani, S: Preity Zinta, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Jaya Bachchan, Sushma Seth

New York. Naina Kapur (23) is an student of an Indian expatriate family. She lives with her widowed mother, Jennifer, and two younger siblings, Shiv and Gia. Their Indian restaurant is running badly, and this, together with her father's recent suicide, exacerbates Naina's depression. Her friend Rohit is in love with her, but she regards him nothing more than a friend. One day, a young man, Aman, moves to the house next door and quickly gains sympathy of the Kapur family. He lovable attitude, jokes and his help to reform the restaurant into a successful joint cause Naine to fall in love with him. However, Aman is hiding that he is suffering from a terminal disease, and thus decides to help Rohit conquer Naina's heart is six days. Upon finding out about his disease, the Kapur family says farewell to Aman in the hospital.

This Indian version of the "Cyrano de Bergerac" story, just with a terminally ill man trying to help a shy friend gain the heart of a woman he loves instead of the French protagonist with a huge nose, was met with appropriate warm welcome by the audiences and critics alike, and signalled the feature length debut film by director Nikkhil Advani. Set in New York, with the often Bollywood topic of the family of Indian immigrants living abroad for an exotic touch, "Tomorrow May Never Come" suffers from too many unnecessary supporting characters instead of focusing only on the love triangle as well as an too melodramatic finale, yet it has a lot of virtues evident in fresh, modern and highly comical set-up of the storyline, a one where the protagonists don't just sing their problems away, but actually try to tackle them in real life, which is refreshing for Bollywood, whereas Shah Rukh Khan delivered on of his finest performances as lovable and comical Aman, who remains optimistic despite knowing that his days are numbered, and even manages to comfort Naina and bring her out of her depression.

There are several solid jokes here — in one scene, Naina and her friend 'Sweetu' are sitting on a ship, when Aman shows up and introduces himself to 'Sweetu': "Hi! I'm the new neighbor of grumpy!", pointing at Naina. Upon finding out that 'Sweetu' fancies a hip-hop guy, Frankie, Aman stages a scene where he shouts that 'Sweetu' dumped him because she loves Frankie ("Frankie, this girlfriend of mine wants me to leave me for you. She says you are cool, sexy, she says your hairstyle is wow!"), which causes Frankie to approach 'Sweetu' and invite her to a party. In another sequence, the 'golddigger' Camilla knows that Rohit is rich, and thus she inserts a ring in the glass during their dinner in a restaurant and feigns to every guest that she "accepts" Rohit's marriage proposal, despite his utter confusion. Luckily, Aman helps him out of the trap and tells Rohit to say to Camilla that he renounced all his fortune. When Rohit returns back to the table, he tells her just that — and in the next jump cut, we see Aman sitting in Camilla's place, jokingly saying to Rohit: "I accept!" Not every joke works, yet many of them are sweet and sympathetic, as well as modern: for instance, in the period when Aman tries to help Rohit gain the heart of Naina in six days, there is a neat touch of a waiter looking directly into the camera and saying: "Day One"; then the next day some student girls looking into the camera and saying "Day Two", etc. Likewise, when he gets serious, Aman can be very mature (the scene where he says to Naina: "You cannot wish your father's tears, but you can stop him from crying by smiling. Is that a wrinkle showing up?"). A couple of musical moments typical for Bollywood are superfluous, yet even they have their moments (such as the funky Hindi version of "Pretty Woman" sung on the street), all ending in a very good, unassuming little film.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Carrie

Carrie; drama / romance / tragedy, USA, 1952; D: William Wyler, S: Jennifer Jones, Laurence Olivier, Miriam Hopkins, Eddie Albert

After moving from a rural area to Chicago, the young Carrie is stuck doing a poorly paid job in a factory. After her finger gets caught in the sewing machine, she is fired and contacts a man she met on the train, Charlie, and he allows her to move in with her. They start a relationship, but Carrie falls in love with George, the manager of a restaurant. George runs away with her to New York and leaves his wife, Julie, children and job behind. However, out of work, the happy couple quickly starts succumbing to harsh poverty, since nobody wants to hire George since he took money from his old employee's vault to flee with Carrie. Finally, Carrie finds a job as a dancer and leaves George. Some time later, she finds out he became homeless and decides to return back to him. Upon finding out how rich she is now, an embarrassed George now leaves her.

Starting as a typical, idealistic love story between two people who are already married/engaged to someone else, "Carrie" shocks the viewers even more with its second half that works almost as an inversion of many other movies that end with a "happily ever after" —  showing instead how the happy couple now lives in poverty and misery after running away, turning darker and darker, until it ends in one of the most tragic endings of the 50s, an indignation that in capitalism there can be no true romance. It is almost as if the story presents a world where people can have only one thing in life — either they can be in love and live in poverty or live a wealthy life without love — but not both. William Wyler once again proves what an competent director he is, whereas Laurence Olivier immediately proves that he is a rare actor with class (he knows his wife controls all his money, but he still wants a divorce to be with Carrie: "I found someone who loves me and I'm going to have that before I die!"; the sequence in the New York bar that shows his humiliation when he now has to work as an ordinary waiter...), yet this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel "Sister Carrie" turned the socially critical context a little bit too melodramatic and syrupy, especially in the overlong running time, whereas the dialogues are plain. A richer writing would have been better, thought the movie is still quality made.

Grade;++

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Ender's Game

Ender's Game; science-fiction, USA, 2013; D: Gavin Hood, S: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Aramis Knight

In the future, an alien ant-like species, called the Formics, attacks Earth and kills millions. However, they are stopped by pilot Mazer, who crashes his plane into their queen ship, and thus disabled all of them. 50 years later, Ender Wiggin is a teenage cadet who is bullied by his older brother, but adored by his sister. His intelligence is noticed by Colonel Graff who enlists him to train on a space station because he needs a commander who will allegedly counter-attack the Formics. Due to his ingenuity and creativity, Ender rises through the ranks and is brought to a former Formic planet, close to the home world of the alien race. Ender meets Mazer there, who is still alive, and who helps train him. Ender and his unit engage in a computer simulation of the attack on the planet of the Formics and destroy it - however, he soon finds out it wasn't a simulation, but the real thing. He is shocked that he committed genocide and is convinced the Formics only had defensive units, not offensive anymore. Ender quits the army and meets a dying Formic queen on the planet. He takes her egg and decides to help it recover on another planet.

The film adaptation of Orson Scott Card's eponymous and critically recognized novel, "Ender's Game" is a terribly underrated film, displaying a rare, intelligent and philosophical example of science-fiction films, but, alas, the majority of the audiences just want simplistic action without having to learn anything, and thus the movie had a box office result which sells (or rewards) its quality way too short. Even though it was released almost three decades after the novel was first published, the movie's dialogues and themes still seem as fresh as ever, thanks to Card's timeless writing, with only minimal flaws when translating it to the screen, since the story is simply clever, starting as a strategist military plot (Colonel Graff places high hopes in the intelligent outsider Ender, hoping to create the right conditions to ferment a "new Napoleon" who will fight against the alien race of the Formics) only to sweep the expectations in the dark, bitter plot twist near the end, contemplating about some high concepts revolving around the propaganda of the military that tricks even the brightest people into thinking that offensives are only defensive, and thus justified, which leads to terrible consequences and trauma.

Some of the dialogues are comical ("You cheated!" - "Your mother cheated, that's why you look like a plumber!") or smart (when Bonzo forbids him to train with others in front of everyone, Ender asks him to step outside. Ender knows Bonzo can change his mind, yet doesn't want to look like a coward in front of everyone, so he goes:  "If you wan't, I can pretend you won this argument. Then tomorrow you can tell me you changed your mind"; "We won! That's all that matters!" - "No. The *way* we win matters."), and all of them display a grand scheme in which Ender figures what the others want and tries to make the mill run his way by persuading them to follow his goal. Harrison Ford is remarkable in the role of Colonel Griff, convincingly portraying a man willing to do anything to achieve his goal, and who thus serves almost as a warning to what Ender may become as a grown up. The story is dense and there is no empty walk at all, though it seems slightly rushed at times whereas the open ending hints at a sequel that never happened — however, wanting even more from a story is a good sign. The cast is immaculate, the directing surprisingly restrained and calm whereas the film offers food for thought, and thus, despite a few shortcomings, it is wonderful that this movie got made at all.

Grade;+++

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Conquest of the Pole

À la conquête du pôle; silent fantasy short, France, 1912; D: Georges Méliès, S: Georges Méliès, Fernande Albany

At a meeting, scientists are trying to find ways how to reach and explore the North Pole, with several factions disagreeing on the methods. Professor Maboul takes his crew on a flying machine, while other expeditions fail trying to make such a long journey with cars or balloons. Finally there, Maboul and his expedition encounter a snow giant which attacks them, but they shoot it. They also discover the magnetic needle and climb onto it to spin around its axis.

1912 was the last year in which legendary pioneer of cinema, director Georges Melies, worked on before ending his movie career due to bankruptcy, and "The Conquest of the Pole" is thus one of his last achievements: slightly overlong and with obvious restructuring of the "exploration" concept from his own film, "A Trip to he Moon", with typical "static" shots where the camera doesn't move, yet it conquers the viewers with its sheer energy, charm and audacity, displaying the authors ingenuity from his best days. Though it lasts for 30 minutes, "Conquest" declines to explore the narrative or offer some better character development, instead relying only on cardboard set designs of walls and ice on the North Pole, yet it still has enough good moments that carry the film, among others thanks to its childishly-naive tone from a time when the majority of the world was still unexplored. The highlight is definitely towards the finale when the expedition encounters an "ice giant", but a one that is only shown from his chest up, emerging from a hole, grabbing some crew members with his hands, which offers interesting mise-en-scene and awe. "Conquest" is Melies "light", a film refusing to explore more of its own narrative only to explore a new world, yet it still works as an interesting cinematic artifact suitable for exploring the early days of cinema.

Grade;++

Monday, 3 April 2017

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier; science-fiction action, USA, 2014; D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, S: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, now works for the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. led by Nick Fury. Upon finding out he cannot access some of the data on his computer, and reporting it to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Pierce, Fury is wounded in an assassination attempt. In a surgery, he is pronounced dead. Rogers and Natasha Romanoff start to investigate and find a bunker with a secret supercomputer holding the digital memory of Arnim Zola, who reveals to them that the underground organization Hydra infiltrated agents into S.H.I.E.L.D. and persuades a new plan of a global totalitarian dictatorship: since the people resisted it in World War II, now Hydra wants to saw chaos and crisis in the world, persuading people to accept security at the expense of freedom. Fury reveals he has feigned his death and joins with others to stop Pierce, who is a Hydra agent and wants to send Helicarriers into orbit which will kill millions of people around the world, who are a threat to Hydra's plans. Fury, Natasha and the others stop that, whereas Rogers recognizes the assassin Winter Soldier as Buck Barnes, who underwent experimentation during WWII.

Despite a few good moments and some admirable efforts to make Marvel's superhero film franchise a tad more mature, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is basically a light cartoon version of "Three Days of the Condor", abandoning thought provoking questions for simplistic, fast action. The Marvel Cinematic Universe already became a too established franchise for any director or author to try out something truly unique, daring, risky or innovative which would stray away from the entrenched routine, though it was certainly an interesting choice by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to try to make a homage to 70s paranoia thrillers: one of the highlights is certainly the sequence where Natasha and Steve Rogers discover the secret bunker, where the computer programme tells them about the secret plan of the Hydra organization to saw chaos and conflicts around the world in order to try to persuade people to voluntarily give away their freedom in exchange for security, even pointing out how "people resisted and fought for their freedom during World War II", and now this new approach is taken. This is indeed a scary and frightening concept, with allusions to the time from when the movie was made, yet it is left surprisingly underdeveloped and scarce.

How were these crisis instigated throughout the world? What is the motivation of the Hydra agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. to proceed with it? What is their ideology? How far would they go? All these and many other interesting questions are left rather unanswered, and instead the story only relies on endless action, which isn't that great, anyway: the sheer amount of explosions does not equal inspiration. When Nick Fury seemingly dies from the assassination, this gives the film weight and credibility — and thus when it turns out he is alive later on, this seems like a cop-out which simply doesn't dare to try out something different from the safe terrain. The characters always encounter ostensibly hopeless situations, but they always survive, anyway, since sequels have to be made with them. Certainly, this stale formula could have worked with a tad more style, fun and ingenuity, yet they are absent as well. Still, having Robert Redford play the opposite role of himself in "Condor" is effective and gives for an refreshing casting. There is also a pivotal sequence somewhere in the first third: Natasha kisses Steve in public on the escalator to try to hide from agents looking for them. Later on, in the car, Natasha asks Steve this: "Alright, I have a question for you, of which you do not have to answer. I feel like if you don't answer it though, you're kind of answering it." - "What?" - "Was that your first kiss since '45?" This is when Natasha and Steve transform from one-dimensional sketches into genuine characters for a moment, and it is so charming because the viewers get the impression that there is more to them than just running and punching villains around. If there were more of such moments of them interacting like humorous people, like grown ups, this might have actually been a fun franchise.

Grade;+

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous; drama, USA, 1937; D: Victor Fleming, S: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine

Harvey Cheyne (12) is the spoiled child of New York millionaire Frank Cheyne. Harvey is so used to the power of his father that he uses and exploits his fatherly instinct to persuade him do whatever he wants. When he tries to blackmail a student in his private school and bribe a professor, Frank decides to teach Harvey a lesson on a ship. However, Harvey falls into the sea and is rescued by fisherman Manuel. Since the ship is suppose to spend three months in the Atlantic, the fishermen intend to have Harvey help them on board until they reach land. Harvey again tries to cheat in order to win a bet in fishing against Jack, but Manuel refuses this kind of behavior and scorns him. Eventually, Harvey finds a mentor in Manuel, but he drowns during a storm. Back on land, Harvey, now mature, is reunited with his father.

"Captain Courageous" is today brought up only as a footnote in film lexicons as being the movie that secured Spencer Tracy's first Oscar as best actor, a treat he would repeat again the following year with "Boys Town" where he plays a similar role of a mentor to a kid, yet other than that this sea drama does not hold up well with the flow of time nor does director Victor Fleming ever rise to the occasion, settling only for a good, though standard and predictable allegory of a spoiled kid being taught a lesson when he has to spend some time doing humble, hard labor. The 12-year old Freddie Bartholomew is great in the leading role of Harvey who basically self-taught himself to use his rich father as a magic wand to get whatever he wants, ranging from either sweet talking to him or playing victim trying to enrage him into hating his "enemies", and thus this opening act still seems relevant and applies to behavior of spoiled, rich kids.

Tracy shows up some half an hour into the film, and he really delivers a very good performance, but it is hindered a bit by the disappointing, archaic decision to have his character basically be a caricature lower-class immigrant who uses broken, improper English in his sentences ("You crazy. Nobody bad around here. You gonna' work or no?"; "Hey? What you doing?"; "I can do this as long as you can"), who thus doesn't have that much wisdom as the authors intended. Manuel works the best when he bonds with Harvey on a humorous level ("Don't laugh! You laugh no good! I-I-I-I-e.... Like a seagull!"; when teaching him how to prepare a bait for fishing, he goes: "This fish don't go to school and don't learn French, but he pretty smart!") yet gets heavy handed when he uses some typical, banal Christian preaching about the "fisherman and the savior" from that time. The writing could have been better, since it develops its message in a thin, simplistic way, though the story still impresses with its idealism and a few exciting sea sequences, such as when two ships almost collide with each other during the storm. Not a classic, yet still a good moral lesson.

Grade;++

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine Crisis; documentary / short, UK, 2014; D: Jacob Perkins, S: Adrian Hyde-Price, Lesya Branman, Michael Schulz, Alla Wallin, Marina Nistotskaya, Per Månson, Ilya Lebedev

In March 2014, mass murderer Vladimir Putin orders the annexation of Crimea in order to create Greater Russia. Regardless of all of this, Ukraine still managed to topple the pro-Goreshist president Yanukovich and elect an anti-Goreshist, pro-European government led by Petro Poroshenko. The eastern parts of Ukraine, backed by Goreshist Russia, create ISIL-like psuedo states, the Luhansk and Donetsk "Republics", which demand a secession and to be part of Goreshist Russia. This leads to the war in Donbass, since Ukraine wants to protects its territorial integrity. After the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down (and the Dutch commission confirmed the perpetrators were pro-Russian rebels), the EU, USA and other nations imposed sanctions against the Goreshist.

The first case of annexation in modern, civilized Europe after 70 years, not recorded since the Bolshevik-Nazi regimes, was the topic of the short documentary "The Ukraine Crisis", which explored one of the most shameful acts of the 21st century, the resurgence of Russian irredentism and its genocidal, neverending path of blood needed to sustain their Goreshist territorial nationalism— a one which does not even shy away from again murdering the people who already barely survived their genocide, the Holodomor. For such a vast topic, the documentary is too short to truly give a worthy dissertation on the complexities and specifics of the crisis, yet gives a neutral, balanced and rather sober view, interviewing both sides and avoiding emotional or patriotic appeal. A major complaint could be raised that the authors neglected to mention the Crimean Tatars, whose ethnic cleansing led to the Goreshist seizing their land, whereas minor complaints could be raised towards editing or production values, as well as too short time given to the interviewees. Still, the movie flows nicely and in the end refuses to choose a side, instead giving an appeal towards a peaceful solution. It is also a welcomed and refreshing approach from many other propaganda films made about the topic, showing a creepy part of history, with an ironic subtext: a one where Russia annexed Crimea — and subsequently became the smallest country of Europe.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Punch Drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love; tragicomedy / romance, USA, 2002; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Barry works in a delivery company, has seven sisters who offend him and is feeling more and more crushed by his neverending loneliness. One morning, a car flips on the road while another one leaves a piano near the entrance of his company, which Barry takes in. He also buys large amounts of pudding for a promotion of frequent flyer miles, thinking it is based on a marketing error which could allow him limitless free flights. Out of loneliness, he calls call girl Georgie, but she starts harassing him, as well, demanding $750. Barry finally meets Lena who becomes his long awaited girlfriend. They have a romantic trip in Hawaii. In order to extract the money from Georgie's demand, four henchmen ram the car and injure Lena in it, which makes Barry go crazy. He meets the henchmen boss, Dean, and threatens him to leave his life alone. Barry then returns to Lena.

After finishing his epic 3-hour drama "Magnolia", the news that the critically recognized director Paul Thomas Anderson is making his next film with the panned comedian Adam Sandler, with a normal running time of only 90 minutes, came as a huge surprise for his followers, who feared it might end in a disaster. Luckily, Anderson managed to prolong his talent even on the field of a romantic comedy, giving Sandler an excellent, introverted, restrained, dignified, emotional and serious role, for which the latter received his first Golden Globe nod. Sandler could indeed be thankful for receiving such an opportunity, which features him in his finest hour — and also tackles Anderson's frequent theme of an outsider trying to cope with loneliness and/or searching for love. The opening act is rather bizarre (one car flips, while another one stops for the driver to leave a piano near the street), dwelling too much on symbolism; the hysteria and slightly mean-spirited tone start to dominate at a point of the film (seven sisters harassing their brother, Barry) whereas the thriller segment of the story, involving a call girl who tries to blackmail the hero, is unnecessary and rather incomplete, which leaves all these ingredients in the film feel slightly uneven. Still, the romantic segment of the film works fine, and this is where "Punch Drunk Love" plays it to the hill, nicely establishing Barry's loneliness (a comical moment where he asks Walter for help: "I wanted to ask you something because you're a doctor... I don't like myself sometimes. Can you help me?" - "Barry, I'm a dentist.") as well as his love, Lena, who "saves him", which gives him self-esteem (the suggestive scene where he hits the map of the US) and completes his character arc, and Emily Watson gives another typical excellent performance as his love interest. Overall, not one of Anderson's best films — but still easily one of Sandler's.

Grade;++

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Waterworld

Waterworld; science-fiction adventure, USA, 1995; D: Kevin Reynolds, S: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino, Dennis Hopper, Michael Jeter, Jack Black

In the far future, Earth's polar caps have melted and all of the land was flooded with water. The remains of remains of the human race resides on various ships and sea platforms, among them Mariner, a mutant who has developed fins and lives on his boat. He dives far to the sea ground and picks up land, which he then sells. When "smokers", pirates led by Deacon, attack a market, Mariner helps Helen and a little girl, Enola, flee to safety on his boat. The "smokers" kidnap Enola because she has a map tattooed on her back which shows Dryland, a small patch of land in the ocean. Mariner rescues Enola and sinks the ship of the "smokers". With Helen, old Gregor and other people, he flies on a balloon and truly finds land suitable for living.

The most expensive film at the time of its premiere, with a budget that soared to 175 million $ due to various delays and technical difficulties, "Waterworld" holds up surprisingly well today if one likes these types of films, acting as some sort of "Mad Max" on water, and is an apocalyptic, bitter warning with implied ecological subtext of the hypothetical consequences of global warming and climate change. The film starts out clever: the typical Universal logo starts, presenting Earth in space, but then starts to modify as it illustrates how the ice caps melt and the sea levels flood entire continents. The main protagonist, Mariner (Costner), is also introduced in a sly way, in the scene where he urinates into a cup, only to immediately put his urine into a distillation unit which then filters it back to drinkable water, already setting the tone for this world. More care should have been taken of the characters or the versatility of the storyline, since the endless fighting of people on rusty boats and ships in the sea can only go so far, which makes the film, ironically, "dry" at times, yet its entire setting on endless oceans already gave it a stylistic touch, some ideas are clever (a pound of land is worth a fortune), Dennis Hopper is effective as the sardonic pirate commander Deacon ("You can't kill me, you promised!", says one of the captured men who just gave him a valuable info, so Deacon simply gives the gun to another villain to kill him instead) whereas there are some refreshing instances of charm and humor which lift up the mood, mostly revolving around arguing between Mariner and the little girl Enola ("You talk too much!" - "That's because you don't talk at all!"). The sequence when they first discover land is also almost magical, because, just like "Soylent Green", this film also shows what the humanity has now and what it might lose if it continues a path of mindless selfishness and greed, indifferent to all the consequences.

Grade;++

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger; action, USA, 1993; D: Renny Harlin, S: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Leon Robinson

After he failed to save a friend hanging from a rope, who fell and died, ranger Gabriel Walker decides to quit his job and stay away from the mountain life, especially since his friend Hal resents him for her death. Meanwhile, former operative Eric Qualen and his gang manage to steal 100 million $ sealed in three suitcases from a plane thanks to treasury agent Travers, yet their plane crashes on the mountains and they thus summon Walker and Hal, and take them hostage, forcing them to find the three suitcases with money. Walker escapes and teams up with Jessie, trying to find the suitcases before Qualen and his henchmen. When all the villains are killed one by one, Qualen has a fight with Walker on a helicopter hanging from a cliff, yet it falls and kills Qualen. Walker and Jessie thus save Hal.

This mountain climber thriller is basically a big budget exploitation action film, trying to seize the attention of viewers by promising suspense and daring stunts, some of which are indeed great, yet feels overall flat and thin due to its forgettable, one-dimensional characters, standard writing and routine storyline which unfolds somewhat like "Die Hard" set on the mountains. These action stunts are impressive, but not to such a degree that they can compensate for the entire rest of the ingredients (directing, writing, acting, character development...) which are lazy and assembled without any effort. John Lithgow manages to lighten up the mood thanks to a few cynical lines: in one of the best moments, after Walker seems to have been swept away by a wave of avalanche on a cliff while trying to reach the suitcase with tens of millions of $ in it, he says: "Your friend just had the most expensive funeral in history!" More of such moments would have been welcomed, and less with Qualen just acting like a conventional villain, killing everyone. Even though his character of Walker is bland, Sylvester Stallone still manages to deliver a solid performance and make the most out of the predictable concept. Every once in a while, the heroes get into a situation that ostensibly feels like a dead end for them, yet they predictably always manage to survive, anyway, no matter how exaggerated it looks. Overall, "Cliffhanger" is an easily watchable, but also easily forgettable flick, not truly rising to the occasion except for a few moments of great stunts.

Grade;+

Monday, 20 March 2017

Mr. India

Mr. India; science-fiction action comedy, India, 1987; D: Shekhar Kapur, S: Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Amrish Puri, Satish Kaushik, Annu Kapoor, Sharat Saxena, Ajit Vachani

From his island, Villain Mogambo is commanding his henchmen to cause criminal activity so that he can take over the Indian subcontinent. In the meantime, Arun is a seamy, but good-hearted man who turned an old house into an orphanage for kids, which he runs together with cook Calendar. When the debts rise, he wants to place an add in the newspaper to rent a room in the house, and finds the tenant in reporter Seema — she at first didn't know about a dozen kids living there, but gets to like them. Arun finds out that his late father created a wrist watch which can turn anyone invisible. Arun wears it and becomes Mr. India, fighting against Mogambo's henchmen who want to banish the orphanage to create an outpost there. When Mogambo's bombs kill a kid, Tina, and the rest are abducted and brought to the island, Arun uses his invisibility to beat up Mogambo and blow up his fortress.

A rare example of a foreign language superhero film, the highest grossing Indian film of 1987, "Mr. India" is a truly remarkable example of cinema audacity, courageously blending everything, from drama through action, science-fiction, musical up to pure slapstick comedy. Director Shakhar Kapur uses the typical American superhero motives and translates them to India's culture, changing and rearranging them until it all fits, whereas he finds great support in charming two actors, Srideva as reporter Seema and Anil Kapoor as Arun (it does help a lot that he resembles Lou Loomis from "Caddyshack"). The sequences in the improvised orphanage abound with a lot of humor, from Anil's arguments with cook Calendar, complaining that the latter always has "winter sleep", up to his method of waking up the kids from bed by turning on sprinklers above them, whereas the sole sequence where the kids hide because the new tenant, Seema, hates kids (even joking that it would be better if people "would come as grown ups into the world"), until Anil scares her with a cockroach in the room, upon which she agrees that anyone would help, and then he calls for kids for help, who run like a horde into the room and chase the bug away, is a riot. Srideva is also great in the hilarious, now already iconic sequence where she dresses up as Chaplin's tramp, using the invisible Mr. India to win in the casino. The storyline does tend to seem overlong with its unnecessary running time of three hours, since several dance sequences are again superfluous, whereas the ending seems rushed and conventional, yet "Mr. India" has such a contagious energy that every one of its flaws are always compensated at least threefold through sheer ingenuity, wit and pure good old fun.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Master

The Master; psychological drama, USA, 2012; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Jesse Plamons, Kevin J. O'Connor, Madisen Beaty, Jennifer Neala Page

After the end of World War II, war veteran Freddie is lost and doesn't know what to do with his life. He finds work as a photographer and a plantation worker, but always causes fights. One night, he sneaks into a yacht and finds out it is lead by Lancaster, a charismatic leader who wants to establish a cult, "The Cause", claiming he can cure people's trauma through hypnosis, when they lived different lives. Freddie joins their small group which starts getting new members, but doesn't really believe in their ideology, frequently resorting to alcohol and erratic behavior. Finally, Freddie quits "The Cause", finds a girl in England. Winn, and has sex with her.

Paul Thomas Anderson's 6th feature length film, "The Master" seems as if a great director is trying to make sense out of a vague, aimless story. There are moments of greatness, typical for Anderson's scope, such as the long, exquisite sequence of Freddie running away from the farmers across the plantation or Freddie going crazy in the prison cell, breaking everything, including the toilet seat — but one quickly realizes they are only isolated bubbles, unconnected and with no relation to the events of the rest of the film, and thus they seem more like "guests" than as parts of a larger, purposeful whole. Since the plantation incident is never mentioned again, it seems ultimately irrelevant in the context of the film. The actors are all great, though, especially Joaquin Phoenix and excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult leader Lancaster. Near the end of the film, Lancaster practically spells out the theme of the movie to the audience in a very sly quote: "If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history." In it, it is implied that Freddie (just like humans as a whole) always symbolically served a different addiction: he was a soldier in war (his master was patriotism), an employee (his master was job and money) and part of Lancaster's cult (his master was religion), yet he was always restless and anxious in all, until he finally found peace in the master he liked (sex). This theme works, yet it clashes in an odd way by spending a disproportionally long amount of time with Lancaster's cult "The Cause" (pointless scenes of the leader making Freddie go back and forth to touch the window and then the wall again and again), which in the end seems as if its second theme is dismantling the way cults are promoted into religions. These two themes clash, and it would have been better if Anderson chose one or the other.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Trust Me, I Am Here

Main Hoon Na; action / drama / comedy / musical, India, 2004; D: Farah Khan, S: Shah Rukh Khan, Zayed Khan, Amrita Rao, Sushmita Sen, Suniel Shetty, Kirron Kher, Boman Irani

In a TV studio, general Bakshi announces a plan to resolve the India-Pakistani conflict in a project of releasing prisoners on both sides. However, a Hindu nationalist, ex-Major Raghavan, storms the studio and kills the father of Major Ram. Bakshi gives Ram, who is in his 30s, the assignment to pose as a student and secretly watch over Bakshi's daughter, Sanjana, fearing Raghavan might strike her college next. Ram has troubles adapting to the life on college, yet falls in love with the chemistry teacher, Ms. Chandini. He also finds out he is an illegitimate child when his father had an affair, and thus wants to make up with his brother, student Lucky, and stepmother. When Raghavan disguises himself as a teacher and takes students and the principal as hostages in the college, Ram manages to save them and kill Raghavan. The prisoner exchange thus takes place.

A blend of "Back to School" and "Bodyguard", "Trust Me, I Am Here" is a highly unusual patchwork that decides it wants to combine two polar opposites, ranging from a serious action drama bravely tackling the taboo topic of the India-Pakistani conflict up to a cheerful and merry teen-comedy, resulting in a film that works sometimes, yet definitely feels overlong with its running time of three hours whereas it simply lacks highlights. The concept of Major Ram (sympathetic Shah Rukh Khan) having to feign to be a student to protect Sanjana is sweet, yet it bizarrely avoided the natural conclusion, namely that they would fall in love, and instead focused on Ram falling in love with the chemistry teacher, which left him somewhat disengaged and distanced from Sanjani and her friends. The subplot of Ram meeting his half-brother Lucky was clumsily shoehorned into the film, resulting in too much melodramatic and kitschy moments near the end, while it also suffers from several weakly written stereotypes — the idea that Sanjani is estranged from her father just because he wanted a son is a cliche, whereas it is highly unlikely that the mother would not recognize Ram, her stepson. Unfortunately, the writers were not quite inspired when bringing this sweet concept to life, since not much happens in college, anyway, except for superfluous dancing. A sequence in the professor's lounge illustrates the film's uneven tone: one of the best jokes  — a middle-aged professor laments about the popular Ms. Chandini, the new chemistry teacher ("If she is Ms. Moonshine, then I am Ms. Moon eclipse!") — is immediately followed by one lame one, the one where an overweight teacher spits while talking, and thus Ram bends and dodges his saliva in slow-motion, "Matrix" style. Too many of such corny jokes take up too much time, while some good ones are absent. Likewise, the way Ram finishes off the bad guy is too similar of the way the villain is eliminated in Coen's "Raising Arizona". "Trust Me, I Am Here" is a solid and easily watchable, but also easily forgettable flick, where a lot more of potentials were left unexplored or underdeveloped.

Grade;+

Sunday, 5 March 2017

No

No; political drama, Chile / France / USA, 2012; D: Pablo Larraín, S: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers

After 15 years of his rule, dictator Augusto Pinochet yields to international pressure and schedules a referendum in '88 which will allow citizens of Chile to decide if he should stay in power or resign. Rene is hired to create a TV spot for the "No" campaign, amidst the suspicion that the referendum will be rigged, anyway. He persuades the staff to conjure up a positive campaign, under the slogan "Chile, happiness is coming!" Both the "Yes" and "No" campaign will get 15 minutes each for their spots on TV. After the spots are broadcast and highly critical of Pinochet, Rene gets threats over the phone and thus leaves his child and his wife in another apartment. Finally, the plebiscite is held and the majority of people vote "No", ending Pinochet's rule.

One of the best movies of the decade, Pablo Larrain's "No" was critically recognized worldwide despite showing a local, confined historical event of a campaign on whether Augusto Pinochet should stay in power in Chile or not: the movie owns such a success mostly to the honest, quiet, subtle, simple and genuine direction as well as a restrained, authentic and unbelievably convincing performances by the actors, whose characters seem like real people and their small, "trivial" problems close and easily recognisable, equally as gripping as spectacular epics. Even more fascinating is that Larrain courageously dropped the HD digital cameras, went against the mainstream dogma and instead filmmed the entire story with the imperfect, grainy cameras of the 80s on magnetic tape, with deliberate errors (such as "over-illuminated" sources of light) thereby giving the story a highly authentic (and lively) feel. This is a dry political film, yet once the viewers get use to it, it manages to engage with ease, peculiarly melting the stale, conventional dialogues into something interesting, keeping the suspense of the outcome of the referendum until the end. One of its highlights are the wide array of comical TV spots for both "Yes" and "No" campaign: the "Yes" campaign predictably leans towards nationalism, "strength" and authority, scaring people with Communists and poverty if Pinochet is removed, even presenting an add with a steamroller flattening lamps and TV sets, threatening a child on the street, whereas the "No" campaign wants to be hip, cool, appeal towards the young and send a positive message — one of the best adds is when a poet opens his mouth and shows a "NO" paper sign on his tongue or when a woman gives a shrill speech: "For 15 years we had a dictatorship that started here (shows her butt), went over here (shows her forehead) and ends here (shows the palm of her hand with a "NO" paper sign on it)". Brilliant, concise, refreshingly relaxed and deliciously sympathetic, "No" is an excellent film that finds the right note and sticks with it.

Grade;+++

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; adventure, USA, 1991; D: Kevin Reynolds, S: Kevin Costner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater, Gerladine McEwan, Mike McShane, Brian Blessed, Jack Wild, Sean Connery

England, 12th century. After escaping from a torture chamber in Jerusalem following the Crusades, Robin of Locksley returns to his homeland with an accomplice, Moor Azeem, but finds people are oppressed there by the autocratic Sheriff of Nottingham, who wants to take over England due to the long absence of King Richard. Teaming up with several rebels, they establish a base in the Sherwood Forest where they rob from the rich and give to the poor. When the Sheriff destroys his base and kidnaps Maid Marian in order to force her to marry him, Robin Hood and his men storm the castle. The Sheriff is killed, Robin is married to Marian while King Richard returns to the country.

Away back the 2nd highest grossing film of 1991, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" shows one thing: nostalgia sometimes cannot hide the fact that a film can feel very dated by today's standards. It seems there was a huge disparity between what the authors wanted the film to be: a syncretism of very realistic, dirty elements of the Middle Ages and the light-hearted, at times even romantic adventures from the 'golden age of Hollywood', and these two contradictory tones clash badly with each other throughout. They should have had one or the other, but not both. The opening already illustrates this, showing a dark sequence of Robin Hood in the torture chamber in Jerusalem, equipped with such shocking scenes as cutting of the hands of the prisoners — was this really necessary for a Robin Hood film or wouldn't it have been better to simply cut that sequence altogether?

The scenes involving witch Mortianna are equally as gruesome, with several disgusting moments, such as her mixing her blood with her saliva for a ritual, whereas the now infamous sequence of the Sheriff of Nottingham trying to rape Marian while the priest is standing next to them holding a prayer is also a disaster. Such vile and ill-conceived ideas contaminate the film, leaving the viewers with a rather uneven taste in their mouths. Overall, though, this is still a very solid film with at least a couple of things going for it: one of them are fantastic locations, from the gorgeous forest up to the opulent Carcassone castle; the cinematography involving several camera drives is a delight; Bryan Adams magical song "Everything I Do" is simply perfect whereas a couple of comical moments lift up the mood (during an ambush, Azeem informs Robin Hood that 20 soldiers are coming in the forest. Robin then informs his men that only "five" enemies are coming. He then explains to Azeem that his men "can't count anyway") and Kevin Costner gives a relaxed, sympathetic performance. This is a mishmash of a film, yet it is still fun at times.

Grade;+

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Search for John Gissing

The Search for John Gissing; comedy, USA / UK, 2001; D: Mike Binder, S: Mike Binder, Janeane Garofalo, Alan Rickman, Sonya Walger, Allan Corduner

Matthew and his wife, Linda, arrive from the US to London because he was transferred for a job. Matthew was told that a certain John Gissing will meet him at the airport, but he doesn't, and thus the couple wonders the streets of London, trying to find their hotel. The next day, Matthew even misses an important meeting because he was informed it was an hour later. He finds out that Gissing is behind it all, trying to fire Matthew as soon as he arrived, because Gissing is afraid the CEOs want to remove him from an important deal with a German company. Matthew takes revenge by foiling Gissing's important meeting, too. Finally, Gissing and Matthew decide to work together to complete the deal, and succeed.

Mike Binder's 6th feature length directorial achievement, independent comedy "The Search for John Gissing" is a film that deserves to be seen until the end, since a lot of subplots are explained and given a context later on, aligning the initial chaos into a grand scheme of scams set in the business world. The first third follows the misadventures of a couple, Matthew and Linda (great director-actor Mike Binder and Janeane Garofalo) who are lost in London and stumble upon several mishaps — only to find out all of this was orchestrated by the title character who wants them fired even before they start their new job. Binder has a good grip of the storyline, yet his jump cuts often seem unnecessary and only disrupt the viewers from engaging, whereas the story suffers from several bad jokes near the finale (especially the one involving an older, senile German woman who goes on about her sex life with her late husband). Still, several jokes manage to ignite and are refreshingly anarchic, whether through dialogues ("You don't argue when a CEO has a seizure... from shouting too much at you!"; "I just hit the wall... I was so excited to see you that I hit the wall.") or through sight gags (Gissing suspiciously observing his coffee cup, even though he knows Matthew planned a revenge for his meeting, but then taking a sip, holding for a long time - only to spit it out on a nearby guy, anyway). Alan Rickman delivers another fine performance as the conniving title character, and the movie gives a few satirical jabs at the corporate world, contemplating how uncomfortable it can get.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Minus Man

The Minus Man; psychological cime drama, USA, 1999; D: Hampton Fancher, S: Owen Wilson, Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, Janeane Garofalo, Dwight Yoakam, Meg Foster, Sheryl Crow

Vann is a serial killer who wonders across the country in his car and randomly kills people by giving them an amaretto drink with poison. He moves into a new town and rents a room in the house of a middle-aged couple, Brian and Jane, whose daughter is missing. Brian helps Vann find a job in the post office. Vann also meets a local girl, Ferrin, who is infatuated with him, but he is uninterested. However, he kills another man, a football player. When Jane is found murdered, the police arrests the increasingly unstable Brian. Vann decides to leave the town in his car.

The only directorial work delivered by Hampton Fancher, the screenwriter know the most for the legendary "Blade Runner", is a peculiar psychological drama "The Minus Man" — even though it handles the topic of a serial killer, not a single scene of violence is shown, since antihero Vann prefers to kill his victims with poisoned amaretto, and instead relies on character development or an almost esoteric mood conjured up thanks to a fantastic, crystal clean cinematography. By not giving any reason for Vann to kill random people, it also contemplates that the mindset of murderers cannot be logically analyzed or deciphered, leaving them without any context, which just adds up to the subtly creepy tone. The film works thanks to small details and cinema tricks, yet its ending is left surprisingly vague and without a clear point: the "why" or "what for" used when the viewers wonder about why a movie was made in the first place are rather evasive, and thus it seems that Fancher's film is more of a stylistic exercise than a truly inspired story with a raison d'etre. Janeane Garofalo stands out again in a gem of a small role as Ferrin who falls in love with Vann — in one of the best sequences, Vann is signing the "get-well-soon" postcard in the post office, and Ferrin shows up, jokingly saying that he should write this as well: "'If you don't hurry back soon, this girl's gonna die of a broken heart. No pun intended. Love, Ferrin." — and the film would have been better if it gave her a bigger role in the storyline.

Grade;++

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Krabat – The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Čarodějův učeň; animated fantasy, Czech Republic / Germany, 1978; D: Karel Zeman, S: Ludek Munzar, Jaroslav Moučka

Lusatia, 18th century. Krabat is a homeless orphan who has a tough time when winter arrives. One night, while hiding in a barn, a raven appears and tells him to follow him to a mill. There, a man offers Krabat the chance to be his apprentice in the mill, and the boy accepts. He meets eleven other boys who also work in the mill. However, it turns out the master is a sorcerer, and now Krabat cannot escape from the mill anymore. The sorcerer uses boys to extract money from the villagers in various tricks: for instance, Krabat is transformed into a bull, sold for a high price to a peasant, only to escape and return to the mill. Each winter, the sorcerer challenges one of the boys to a duel, and kills one. Krabat falls in love with a girl in a village, and transforms into a raven to sneak out to see her. When the girl wants to free Krabat, the sorcerer makes a bet: if she identifies Krabat wearing a blindfold, she will save him. She does, and the sorcerer and his mill go out in flames, thereby liberating all the apprentices.

One of Karel Zeman's lesser films, "Krabat" is a patchwork – even though it was an adaptation of Otfried Preussler's eponymous novel, it is a dark film for grown ups and of questionable value for kids, yet it lacks highlights, whereas its cutout animation and the grotesque design of the sorcerer seem more bizarre today than inspired. "Krabat" offers very little true spark, ingenuity or fun of some of Zeman's best adventure films, instead relying more on disturbing moments, from the fact that the title hero, a boy, is transformed into a bull in order to be sold on the market as a ploy, up to the pity that a subplot  – in which Krabat liberates a captured Marshall by transforming him into a horse and riding away with him right in front of the noses of the Ottoman guards – was just dropped and left bizarrely forgotten and unfinished. A few nice moments (Krabat and his friend want to sneak out of the mill and thus transform into mice to go under the door, but the sorcerer counters and stops them by transforming into a cat), yet the storyline seems uneven, disjointed and all over over the place, failing to truly engage the viewers. The surreal cutout animation gives the film an unnatural, spurious feel, though the animators did play around with the macabre to their benefit here and there, such as the design of the crows and the phantasmagorical landscapes.

Grade;+

Monday, 20 February 2017

Juliet of the Spirits

Giulietta degli spiriti; fantasy comedy, Italy / France, 1965; D: Federico Fellini, S: Giulietta Masina, Sandra Milo, Mario Pisu, Valentina Cortese

Giulietta is a middle-aged woman seemingly happily married to Giorgio. The two of them live in a mansion with maids. During their wedding anniversary, one of the guests, a medium, performs a spiritual seance with everyone, calling upon ghosts. Later, Giuletta suspects Giorgio is cheating on her and hires a private detective to spy on her husband. Unfortunately for her, the inspector indeed confirms that Giorgio is having an affair with a younger woman, a model. The voice of the ghosts invites Giulietta to hang out with promiscuous Suzy and have an affair herself at her party. However, just as she was about to have an affair with a man, she hears another voice of the spirits that change her mind. One of the spirits may be her high school friend who drowned herself. Upon banishing the spirits, Giulietta seems to find peace with herself.

Federico Fellini's 9th feature length film, his first picture in color, "Juliet of the Spirits" is a patchwork that belongs in the second phase of his career, where the director abandoned the classical narration and instead focused on surreal images, non-linear narration and his own feelings when crafting scenes that evoke the subconscious. Except for the excellent "Amarcord", and to a lesser extent "8 1/2", which was walking on "thin ice", this did not amount to much, at least compared to the fantastic films Fellini directed previously. "Juliet" is basically an allegorical, psychological exploration of the title heroine who tries to cope with the realisation that her husband, Giorgio, is cheating on her (in one memorable scene, she says to Suzy: "He became my whole world: a lover, a husband, a friend."), and it is an elegant, yet strangely slow film, losing its potentials in Fellini's overlong, ponderous symbolic sequences of the spirits which are, truth be told, not quite as meaningful as some would have loved them to be, whereas his tendency to constantly force circus and carnival motives seems out of place. Also, one must complain that Giulietta Masina is not even 10% as charming as were her unforgettable roles in Fellini's masterworks "Nights of Cabiria" and, especially, "The Road", which had her in one of the greatest roles of the 20th Century cinema. Still, Fellini's iconography still causes awe, and at least two sequences are a small gem: one is when Giulietta remembers how she played a Christian who was about to get burned in the Roman Empire when she was a 10-year old in a school play, but it was interrupted when her grandfather came to the stage and demanded them all to stop, protesting that such serious topics are not suitable for children; and the other is when the Spanish guest thanks Giulietta for a lovely evening ("But it was only one moment." - "Sometimes, one moment can mean everything!"). There are clashes of visions, regrets and memories, yet the storyline is still less a true of an insight into the human spirit.

Grade;++

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Arrival

Arrival; science-fiction / drama, USA, 2016; D: Denis Villeneuve, S: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

When 12 mysterious, black, oval spaceships appears all around the world, linguist Louise Banks is given an assignment by the US Army to go to Montana and try to figure out the speech of the aliens and ask them what they want. Together with physicist Ian, she and a couple of other crew members enter the spaceship and encounter the aliens that look like walking squids, yet their communication is aggravated since the creatures only use written signs in form of circles. Upon mistranslating that they "offer weapon", the Chinese army decides to attack the spacecraft if it doesn't leave, but by learning how to read the alien language, Louise also gains their perception of time - she can now see in the future and manages to prevent a strike by calling the general. The aliens say that they gave the people this power of seeing the future since they will need human help in 3,000 years. Louise has a vision of having a baby that will die from a terminal illness.

Denis Villeneuve's breakthrough film, "Arrival" is an untypical science-fiction film since it treats the alien encounter scenario from a different perspective: its point of convergence is actually the language barrier between the two civilizations, a some sort of "Lost in Translation" between humans and aliens, and it spends most of its time depicting how difficult it would be to find a common link with a more advanced and less advanced intelligence, since the aliens communicate only visually, with circular signs, which is incompatible with the human language that is based on speech. The first half an hour is excellent, portraying a wide array of circumstances on Earth if several alien spaceships landed, ranging from fear to panic; the long helicopter take of the oval, black spaceship just standing on the meadow while clouds from the mountain are descending beneath it causes awe, whereas the sole first entrance of the heroine Louise and other scientists into the spaceship, when they encounter the aliens that look like walking squids, is extremely suspenseful and intense. Unfortunately, the ending makes no sense — actually, once you think about it, you realize that it is so illogical that it retroactively undermines the whole story up to it.

*Spoilers* The concept of trying to figure out alien communication works up until it is revealed that they actually have the ability to see everything in the future, "Slaughterhouse-Five"-style — but in that case, they should have already knew how to talk to humans, since they would have already known all of this. Also, since the aliens are more technologically advanced, wouldn't it have been their burden to better articulate their language to the humans? Even worse, the story actually proposes that, once they could learn how to read the alien language, humans could also obtain the alien ability to see into the future (without any technology!), which is preposterous. Imagine a man who always falls on ice, but is amazed when he sees a Norwegian guy who can ice skate with perfection, like a professional. Once the man would learn how to speak Norwegian language, would he then also automatically become the best ice skater in the world? Of course not. Simply put, by learning a new language, people simply don't get supernatural powers. This is where the film, just like "Interstellar", traversed from a quality, serious science-fiction into a fairy tale, and such a disparity is a pity. *Spoilers end* Another complaint is that the storyline has a serious deficit of character development. All of the characters, from Ian up to the Colonel Weber, are just one-dimensional extras. Even the heroine is meagerly developed: how could the viewers describe Louise as a character? Except that she is a kind mother, there is not much else what can be said about her (dry and humorless) personality. Still, "Arrival" is interesting for symbolically talking about fatalism and free will, using the whole Sci-Fi story as an analogy for Louise's own personal coping with a tragedy and the ways to come with peace faced with it.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Attack!

Attack!; war drama, USA, 1956; D: Robert Aldrich, S: Jack Palance, William Smithers, Eddie Albert, Robert Strauss, Lee Marvin

World War II, the Western Front, Europe. During an attack on the enemy positions, platoon leader Costa is horrified when the US Army captain, Cooney, refuses to send support to the battle, leaving thus many of Costa's men on the open to be shot down by the enemy. An alcoholic who is only interested in pleasing his dad, who is running for a judge, Cooney is an extremely unpopular commander of the unit, but Lieutenant Colonel Bartlett refuses Harry's suggestion to give Cooney a desk job instead, since he is a friend of Cooney's family. A new attack is ordered, this time on town La Nelle, and Costa once again leads his unit deep into the territory and conquers a small house, but Cooney once again fails to give them support, fearing the Nazi tanks, and thus many soldiers die while Costa has to retreat. In the Nazi counter-attack, Costa's hand is run over by a tank and he dies. Cooney wants to surrender in the basement, but is shot by Harry. When the Allies arrive, Bartlett refuses to punish Harry, instead agreeing to blame the enemy for Cooney's death.

Just like almost all of his films, Robert Aldrich's "Attack!" is a bitter, dark, dirty, unglamourous, restless, cruel and fierce picture, even for a war film, and especially for the 50s cinema, bizarrely playing out with an unheard-off concept in which the rivalry between the enemies on the battle front is actually almost completely overshadowed by the sheer hate and rivalry between the people in the same unit, the soldiers and their own captain, Cooney, who is an alcoholic klutz whose incompetence costs them more and more lives out on pointless military actions. The fact that Cooney is covered by his friend, Lieutenant Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin in another fantastic 'tough' performance), just leads the soldiers to privately mock him too, as well: while waiting in row for coffee, one of them says this: "When you salute to Bartlett, you have to apologize to your own hand!" The sole sequence where the platoon is ordered to storm a house in the city, but they die like flies by the enemy fire because Cooney never fulfilled his promise about support for them, reminds of the senseless dying in Charge of the Light Brigade-style: rarely was war shown in such a cynical, even derisive way, which is why Aldrich was denied access to assistance by the US Army. The ending is creepy, showing the agony of slow death of wounded soldiers in a very memorable manner, advancing thus into a small "dark pearl" of the war genre. In Aldrich's world, there is no ideal, and even after the war, human relations will still carry the same signs of betrayal, lies, selfishness and violence in peace. Efficient and competent, "Attack!" is one of the better war films of the 50s.

Grade;+++

Monday, 13 February 2017

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide; science-fiction / disaster film, USA, 1951; D: Rudolph Mate, S: Richard Derr, Larry Keating, Barbara Rush

One Observatory in South Africa makes a frightening discovery and sends a courier, Randall, to travel to New York and give the data files personally to astronomer Dr Hendron. He concluded that the calculations made no error: a giant rogue planet, Bellus, is heading towards Earth, and it will destroy it in a year. The only thing that can be done, according to Dr. Hendron, is to use the money of the rich, wheel-chair bound Stanton, and construct a modern "Noah's Ark", a rocket which will bring animals, food and 44 people who will try to reach Zyra, a planet orbiting Bellus, which may have similar conditions as Earth. On the day of the predicted collision, the rocket starts with Randall and the crew, and lands on Zyra, which has a habitable climate and vegetation.

It is a peculiarity how such a stimulative concept can be executed in such a tiresome and bland manner. But precisely such a thing befell Rudolph Mate's film adaptation of the popular novel "When Worlds Collide" by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, which basically shows only a narrow perspective of what would happen if humanity found out a rogue planet is going to collide with Earth. The characters are boring, speaking out tiresome, monotone dialogues, whereas the story only focuses on the crew building the space rocket, instead of also showing what is going on around the world when people find out about such a catastrophic and dark upcoming event. For instance, planet Bellus was discovered in an observatory in South Africa, but we are never shown what happens to the astronomers after that. How would the people react around the world? Would they commit mass suicide? Dig underground caves? Spend all their money before the end? Reconcile and solve all their conflicts one last time before the disaster? The film shows nothing of that (save for a vague stock footage of evacuation of civilians and a prayer of people in black and white), and thus the viewers do not get a scale of such a cosmic threat nor all the rich possibilities the story could have offered. Even more bizarre, there is not a single shot of space until the last 10 minutes, and the only threat that manifests is the red planet Bellus getting bigger and bigger in the sky. But it gets even more uneven than that, since we are never shown if Bellus really destroyed Earth or not, since all of that is not mentioned once the rocket flies away. A similar "Nibiru" concept was filmmed 11 years later with the weak "Gorath", but it wasn't all until the excellent "Queen Millennia" that this concept was given justice when Matsumoto exploited all the rich potentials of it to the maximum.

Grade;+

Friday, 10 February 2017

People Out There

Cilveki tur; crime drama, Latvia, 2012; D: Aik Karapetian, S: Ilya Scherbakov, Agnese Frisfelde, Semyon Serzin, Andris Gross, Viktoria Kondratenko

Yan is a lad in his 20s who cannot find a job and thus got involved with thugs and delinquents, among them with "Kreker" and "Shokolad", who wants to earn money by having a girl, Ilona, perform striptease on a porn website. Kreker and his younger brother often steal and beat up people, while Yan lives alone with his grandfather in an apartment. Yan is in love with Sabina, a girl from "high society", but her father, an evangelist who he robbed once, forbids him to contact her. When his grandfather tells him the truth, namely that he is not his grandson, but just a bastard child of a woman he once met and who ran away, Yan decides to join Kreker in a robbery of a party for rich teenagers. He meets Sabina there, but she rejects him. While running away, their car gets hit by another vehicle. Kreker dies, while a wounded Yna boards a train to the unknown.

A Latvian version of "Trainspotting", "People Out There" is a surprisingly strong and bitter film in the end, outgrowing its standard art-film repertoire and actually offering several suspenseful, genuine and engaging moments that grip the viewers. By following the empty lives of juvenile delinquents without any perspective in life, director and screenwriter Aik Karapetian managed to capture the mood of economic depression, and through it give a wider depiction of society, whereas this was helped by a great cast, especially the leading actor, Ilya Scherbakov: his one line sums up his whole situation when he speaks to his grandfather ("It seems the older I get, it gets more and more difficult to live"). The storyline suffers somewhat from its pace which features a few empty walks, grey mood or routine dialogues, yet it features at least three sequences that amounted to greatness — the grandfather's reveal of a secret to Yan; the 3-minute long camera drive of Kreker walking through the street and entering an apartment block to interrupt a web recording, all done in one single take; a car crash filmmed with an unusual perspective by having the camera placed inside the car, behind the driver's seat. The story "heats up" near the finale, and although it would have been better if it was climatic non-stop, it still manages to conjure up a quality picture of a lives of "underdogs".

Grade;++

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Play Me a Love Song

Pjevajte nešto ljubavno; drama / comedy, Croatia, 2007; D: Goran Kulenović, S: Ivan Herceg, Ivan Đuričić, Ivan Glowatzky, Hrvoje Kečkeš, Enes Vejzović, Olga Pakalović, Žarko Potočnjak, Helena Buljan, Ksenija Marinković, Damir Lončar, Hana Hegedušić, Mila Elegović

Zagreb. Struja, Mario, Deni and Zlajfa are four members of the underground rock band "When Dirty Harry Met Dirty Sally", but never manage to finally find their big break. They play in the KSET club, but it is interrupted by a police raid, where officer Siniša is targeting Zlajfa, trying to arrest him for marijuana possession. Struja is also indecisive about his relations with ex-girlfriend Anja, since he is unsure if he loves her. Finally, the four accept an ofer to play love songs at a wedding, but once there, they are in shock — it is a wedding between Siniša and Anja. Struja plays provocative songs, which causes Siniša to lose his temper and kidnap Struja and Anja in his car. Siniša brings them to an abandoned factory and wants to shoot Struja, but the other rock members and police officers intervene and stop him. Anja admits she is pregnant with Struja.

Director Goran Kulenovic, a fresh hope of Croatian cinema, proved his sense for humor and character development in such TV shows as "Bums and Princesses" and the nostalgic "Black & White World", yet his 2nd feature length film, "Play Me a Love Song", didn't quite catch him on right foot, since he rarely rises to the occasion in the storyline. Even though it is set in the rock 'n roll world, and even though it starts with an exquisite 4-minute long camera drive from the exterior into the KSET club interior, the movie fails to truly ignite, featuring too much empty walk, though the actors are all great, especially Kulenovic's associate in "Bums and Princesses", excellent Hrvoje Keckes as the "ageing" rock band member Zlajfa who delivers the best jokes in the film (in one of them, he says to his colleagues: "Real beauty comes from within", after which he burps). A few neat moments, yet the film is decisively bellow some of the best rock 'n roll movies, such as "Singles". A major detriment are the final 20-30 minutes which fall into excessive-melodramatic nonsense typical for the Croatian cinema: in it, the bad guy Sinisa actually draws a gun and points it at Struja — at his own wedding, in front of all the witnesses! Even dumber, he points the gun at the father of the bride (!) and later kidnaps Struja and the bride and ties them up in an abandoned factory. What does he think to accomplish? To kill Struja in front of her and then she will love him? This whole "action" finale is so utterly false and misguided that the viewers will get headache from all the illogical plot holes of such a stupidly written direction of the story. This undermines the impression, though the movie would not have been great without it, either, since it lacked that certain ingenuity or energy to catapult itself into greatness.

Grade;++

Dogtooth

Kynodontas; psychological drama, Greece, 2009; D: Yorgos Lanthimos, S: Angeliki Papoulia, Christos Stergioglou, Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis, Michelle Valley

Two parents have raised their three teenage kids — two daughters and one son — in complete isolation from the outside world. They can come out of the house, but have never stepped foot outside their garden. Father purposely teaches them wrong concepts and words, and forbids them from watching movies. Father goes to work in his car every day, and sometimes brings a woman to have sex with the son. When the woman shows the older sister movies on VHS, the father slaps her. However, the older sister gets more and more rebellious. The parents claim that they can leave once their dogtooth falls off. The older sister breaks her two teeth away and hides in the father's car, thereby exiting the outside world when he goes to work.

It is only fitting that Plato's allegory of the cave was given an adaptation in modern Greek cinema with "Dogtooth" in which writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos gives a sly synecdoche of totalitarian regimes where the one-party system is the only one allowed and its subjects are kept in a narrowed state of mind. The story is deliberately left without a context (do the parents keep their three teenage kids in isolation from the world because they were born out of incest? Or do they simply want to keep them under a strict, ultra-conservative education?), but that just gives it spark and stimulates the viewers' attention, whereas Lanthimos has a very dry sense for humor in some situations stemming from the bizarre-absurd concept: one of the most hilarious moments is when the father plays Sinatra's song "Fly Me to the Moon" and in all seriousness says to the kids that its the recording of their grandpa singing, even randomly "translating" the English lyrics with such gibberish words as "I love my home and I am proud to live here". Whether it is an analogy of religious or political fundamentalism (the fact that the older sister secretly watches forbidden Hollywood films on VHS in itself thematically reminds of the documentary "Chuck Norris vs. Communism"), "Dogtooth" gives an engaging metaphor of a fight against authoritarianism and the cry for freedom—the most impressive moment is thus when the older sister (brilliant Angeliki Papoulia) suddenly starts dancing "suspiciously" during the anniversary of their parents' marriage, until it becomes obvious she defiantly dances in tune to "Flashdance", in a genius moment of inspiration. Unfortunately, the story is destroyed by an ending which is simply no good: it feels anticlimactic, unsatisfying and disappointing, as if someone "stole" the last 10-20 minutes of the conclusion. "The Truman Show" is thus still a better version of this concept.

Grade;++