Sunday, August 20, 2017

Life of an American Fireman

Life of an American Fireman; silent drama short, USA, 1903; D: Edwin S. Porter, S: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughan, James H. White

A fireman has a dream of a woman and a child in trouble. Later, an alarm goes on and several firefighters rush from a fire station to their carriages in order to go to a house on fire. The fireman breaks the window, enters the house on the first floor, and saves a woman and her child from the burning building by climbing with them down the ladder.

One of the movies from the early days of cinema, "Life of a Fireman" is also an example of an "exercise" in cinema, a time when film was a new medium and various directors and pioneers still had no ways of finding out how their stories should look like or how to achieve that, except through a long 'trial-and-error' process while making movies. Like most movies in the 1900s, this one is also "rudimentary", presented in static, long wide shots — except for an interesting, albeit rudimentary example of the cross-cutting technique: the scene of a bedroom burning is presented in an interior shot, showing the fireman entering through the window and saving the woman and the child by carrying them outside; and this scene is then repeated again in the exterior shot of the house. This is not quite an example of cross-cutting, since it is shown only once in the entire film, while it also seems more like an error since the action is repeated, instead of switching from one half of the scene to another. Still, some film scholars thus often cite it as helping in the progress of cinema techniques. The only other interesting moment is the scene where the fireman has a "dream bubble" of a woman in danger, while the rest is routine, standard, though still valuable from the perspective of cinema ontology.

Grade;++

Under the Skin

Under the Skin; experimental film, UK / USA, 2013; D: Jonathan Glazer, S: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Kevin McAlinden, Krystof Hádek

Somewhere in Scottland, (an alien in the form of (?)) a woman is driving a van on the streets at night, trying to pick up men. One man is attracted to her, she brings him to a desolate house and undresses. As he undresses as well, and walks towards her in the dark, he falls into a liquid - and his body is dissolved in it, leaving only his skin. Sometimes, the woman also walks on foot and browses several bars. One night, she picks up another man, who has a disfigured face and never had a girlfriend. He is also absorbed in the liquid in the house. However, after that, the woman leaves the van and escapes. She tries out a piece of cake, but it is disgusting to her. She meets a man, stays in his house and tries to have normal sex with him. She leaves again, stumbles upon a logger in the forest who tries to rape her, but only accidentally peels her skin away, revealing her black alien body. The logger then pours gasoline on the alien and sets her on fire.

Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" polarized the audience, since many were surprised to encounter a rare example of a pure experimental film featuring one of the most popular Hollywood stars of that time, Scarlett Johansson, who plays a nameless (alien) woman in a very vague, cryptic story that deliberately refuses to go anywhere particularly. Even though it is ostensibly a science-fiction movie, "Under the Skin" is highly allegorical and may be interpreted similarly like Polanski's "Repulsion", namely an exploration of a woman's genophobia, i.e. fear and disgust of sex. She seemingly picks up men and brings them to her desolate house, but they then fall into a liquid naked and are killed. This seems like a radical feminist revenge tale, except that all these men never did anything (on screen) to deserve this. Their demise is presented in peculiarly-hermetic-stylistic shots of the woman and the man seen in front of a completely black background, until he makes a few steps forwards towards her and sinks bellow into the unknown. One encounter makes a difference, though, and is highly interesting: when the woman picks up a 26-year old lad with a disfigured face, who claims to have never had a girlfriend. He is also ultimately killed, but this seems to trigger a change inside of her. Did she feel pity for the first time? Did she recognize the lad's loneliness and his wish to find someone to love, which she defiled? Was she in human form for so long until she started to feel human emotions and empathy as well? All these are interesting points, but are presented frustratingly cold and indifferent, only objectively following the woman wondering aimlessly in the last third, without preparing a point at the end. This "empty walk" and a lack of situations to identify with exacerbates the effort of the viewers to "decipher" the movie, yet it might please some more 'adventerous' cinema buffs keen to find something alternative in cinema.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Time

Sigan; drama, South Korea / Japan, 2006; D: Kim Ki-duk, S: Ha Jung-woo, Seong Hyeon-a, Park Ji-Yeon

Seh-hee and her boyfriend Ji-woo have been in a romantic relationship for two years now. However, she is perplexed at him for staring at other girls from time to time, and thinks he might have gotten bored with her. Without any explanation, Se-hee leaves him and decides to have a plastic surgery that will change her face. 6 months later, Ji-woo meets a woman and starts a relationship with her. But he finds out it is actually Seh-hee with a new face. He then leaves her and undergoes a plastic surgery as well. A lonely Seh-hee tries to find him, but without success. She runs after a man she thinks might be Ji-woo, but the man runs away and gets killed by a truck on the street. Seh-hee then undergoes another plastic surgery.

"Time" is ofers Kim Ki-duk in "light" form, since the director does not raise to the occasion in this edition. Many of Ki-duk's stories can be basically summed up in five pages of a script, yet at occasions, he manages to justify prolonging them to feature length movies thanks to his (often Buddhist inspired) contemplation of spiritual beings living in a harsh, crude material world. Such is not quite the case with this film which, as the title reveals, contemplates about the transience and how a love couple copes with that: the girl thinks she might be getting old for her boyfriend, so she undergoes a facial plastic surgery, signalling a "rebirth" into a new person, in order to "rejuvenate" their relationship. However, since her "rebirth" is fake, her nirvana will also be fake. She expects happiness from things which are impermanent, and therefore cannot attain real happiness. There are some interesting philosophical thoughts presented subtly throughout the story (if her boyfriend changes his face during the surgery, and is a complete stranger afterward, is he basically "dead" anyway?) wrapped up in the interesting final image which speaks about time that "floods" all beings, and the highlight is the Baemikkumi Sculpture Park (including a sculpture of two giant hands with fingers that allow people to climb up on them like stairs), yet the movie seems overlong and overstretched, with too much banal dialogues, all of which start exhausting the viewers concentration, revealing that he should have stopped the story an hour into the film, instead of continuing it artificially for another half an hour of empty walk.

Grade;++

Monday, August 14, 2017

Round the Bend

Round the Bend; comedy series, UK, 1988; D: John Henderson, S: Jon Glover, Jonathan Kydd, Philip Pope, Kate Robbins 

Doc Croc is the host of an underground sewage TV show, using his associates - Vincent and other rats; David Colemole, the sports commentator; John Potato's newsround - to run the program. They broadcast several cartoons for the viewers, among them "Wee-Man", "Loud Lucy", "Pzycho the Magnificent", "Spambo", "Ricky" and others.

Independently produced "Round the Bend" was briefly shown in the UK during its premiere in the late 80s and after that disappeared in a "bunker", never even receiving a DVD release, thus quickly affirming unbelievable cult reputation as a "lost treasure". Even from today's perspective, it is still a remarkably fresh TV show consisting out of a live action (puppets) and animated (short cartoon clips) segment that form a blend of sheer delight. "Round the Bend" is one of the rare examples of a comedy show that is both unbelievably grotesque-bizarre and yet innocent, benign, harmless and childish at the same time: even though not all jokes work (the parody "False Teeth From Beyond the Stars" looks particularly dated and unfunny, for instance), many of its concoctions conquer with an incredible wit, ingenuity and comic inspiration.

For instance, one cartoon clip is called "Loud Lucy" and features an eponymous 10-year old girl who always talks annoyingly loud. One episode has Lucy in the church commenting at the people around her out loud, from her cousin who has acne ("Why does cousin Kevin smell so much?! Is it because his spots keep buuursting, mom?!") up to the bride ("Gosh, she looks even uglier than you said, mom!"). Many other cartoons are spoofs of numerous popular animated shows, from "He-Man" ("Wee-Man", featuring the hero who wears a diaper), through "Care Bears" ("Couldn't-Care-Less-Bears", featuring bears who fart, bathe in mud or outright pick their nose) up to "Batman" ("Botman", featuring the hero who has a giant butt, yet when he only puts away his mask, nobody can recognize his distinguished rear), very often ending in hilariously exaggerated satire. The highlight is arguably a howlingly funny animated parody on Little Red Riding Hood, which reaches cosmic heights of hilarity ("What snaggly, yellow teeth you got... And what bad breath you got... And what hairy legs you got...", says Riding Hood, until the old lady warns her that she in the wrong house again, and stands up from bed to shoot at the girl). The ratio of humor between the live action and animated segment is 1:3, making the Doc Croc segment sometimes irrelevant, yet it is still a worthy example of children's satire that also appeals to grown ups as well.

Grade;++

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lovefilm

Szerelmesfilm; drama / romance, Hungary, 1970; D: István Szabó, S: András Bálint, Judit Halász, Edit Kelemen, András Szamosfalvi, Flóra Kádár

Jancsi, a man in his 30s, finally gets the permission to travel from Budapest to Paris to see Kata, whom he hasn't seen for years. During his train trip, he remembers their childhood: during World War II, his father died and Kata teased him for that, but he could not be angry at her. They witnessed hunger and how their neighbor was killed. Kata and Jancsi became friends, but as students, when he tried to kiss her, she refused. Later on, they still became lovers. However, in '56, the Hungarian Revolution marked another crisis, and Kata was among the many thousands of refugees who fled to the West. Back in present, Jancsi meets Kata and they spend a couple of romantic days in her apartment. They also travel to the sea. However, Jancsi departs back to Budapest. He tries to stay, but feels like a stranger in Paris. He marries another woman in Budapest, Jutka, and recieves a letter from Kata, who said that she got married to an Englishman in Paris.

Istvan Szabo's 3rd feature length film is a melancholic, tragic and gentle elegy of a failed romance of a young couple, who in the end lament about their "rotten childhood" during World War II and the '56 Hungarian Revolution, and thus also symbolically represent the lost generation of that failed era, whose lives were ruined. Similarly like Fellini's "Amarcord", "Lovefilm" also has a 'stream-of-consciousness' narrative, structured like a vague recollection of childhood memories of the protagonist, except that Szabo's movie is far more bleak and sad, with only a couple of minuscule moments of humor that manage to liven up the mood (in one example, Jancsi remembers how he and Kata, when they were kids, planned to dissect a dead fish, but wanted to make sure it is dead so they decided to electrocute it with wires from the doorbell - but only caused a power outage in the whole street). There is some undermining tragedy in Jancsi and Kata who are surrounded by war and turmoil, but who insist on trying to live their fragile lives normally, through snow sledding or falling in love, trying to make "the best days of their lives" during the worst times. This makes even their romantic reunion in Paris bitter, since they became citizens of two separate worlds in the time of being apart. However, at a running time of 120 minutes, the movie is slightly overlong and exhaustive, lacking a certain ingenuity or inventiveness to truly cover up for the slightly routine episodes here and there, which could have been presented in a far more compact way.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone; drama, USA, 2010; D: Debra Granik, S: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser

Ree (17) lives with a poor family in the Ozarks: she has a sick mother and thus has to take care of her younger brother (12) and sister (6). Her family in is trouble: Ree's dad, previously arrested for cooking "Meth", has disappeared for weeks, and unless he shows up at the court hearing, her family is going to lose their home that was set up as the bail bond. Ree thus decides to find her dad and travels from house to house, including her uncle Teardrop, but to no avail. Finally, after a lot of trouble, some women bring Ree to a lake where she finds her father dead. They cut of the hands of the corpse from the lake to serve as proof that he is indeed dead. This is sufficient for the court to decide not to evict Ree's family.

Despite critical acclaim, this is a routine social drama, a movie genre that is a dime a dozen. "Winter's Bone" presents a story in which the heroine, Ree, goes from door to door to search for her missing father. The thing is - why should anyone care? The characters, events and situations are all standard, conventional, lifeless, humorless and bland. The whole movie is, unfortunately, completely unmemorable. So unmemorable that, in two-three years, the viewers will probably not be able to remember any scene, situation or dialogue from it. It is not a good sign when the only thing you might remember about a certain film is Ree teaching her younger brother how to skin an animal and removes its intestine. The dialogues all unravel like a typical, everyday writing on "autopilot", with actors reciting long and ponderous lines that are obvious and redundant. That may have been the intention, but it was a wrong intention: if the movie is boring, why make it? If it does not stand out at all, why bother? If it is mundane, why should it be considered special, anyway? It may be realistic, but is makes for a very unexciting watch. And then the finale just shows up and the movie just ends there, without any conclusion. It is a solid movie, yet one wishes that the authors inserted just a tiny bit ingenuity, energy, creativity or life in it, something that would offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience than this.

Grade;+

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Neighbors

Neighbors; comedy, USA, 1981; D: John G. Avildsen, S: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker, Lauren-Marie Taylor, Tim Kazurinsky

Earl is a middle-aged man living with his wife Enid in a suburban home. One night, neighbors move to a house next door and introduce themselves: Vic and Ramona. Earl is immediately annoyed by Vic who borrowed his car and 32$ to buy a dinner in the city, only to keep the money and hastily prepare spaghetti in his own house. Ramona constantly pretends to seduce Earl, only to always betray and trick him. Further problems arise when Earl's teenage daughter Elaine shows up. The next morning, Vic accidentally burns his own house with a small airplane. When Enid and Elaine leave, Earl decides to escape into the unknown from his life together with Vic and Ramona in the car.

Comedian John Belushi appeared in only eight films in his entire career, before his much too early death, four of which involved a collaboration with his friend Dan Aykroyd. And while some hoped that their teaming up would again result in a phenomenal comedy such as "The Blues Brothers" or "The Rutles", their final film was the disappointing mess "Neighbors". It is peculiar how a film that starts off with such a stimulating and good opening can exhaust all its potentials and sink into juvenile buffoonery so fast. The first 40 minutes of this "annoying friends that won't go away" flick are comedy gold: director John G. Avildsen shows a good sense for comic timing thanks to observational humor or measured comic exaggerations, from the tantalizing scene where the coiled Earl hears a doorbell and opens the door when he spots the attractive Ramona in front of his entrance (equipped with almost cartoonish music) up to his interaction with the extroverted Vic who borrows his car and 32$ under the pretext that he will "buy him dinner" in the city (there is a deliciously long sequence of Earl sneaking off into the night to peak at his neighbor's window, only to spot Vic how he parked the car behind the house, kept the money and lazily just prepared spaghetti in his kitchen, nonchalantly picking up pasta that fell on the floor).

Unfortunately, 40 minutes into the film, and there is nothing more to see since "Neighbors" completely lost all of its good ideas for the rest of the running time. The remainder is only assembled out of crude, cheap or lame attempts at jokes, all of which backfire. In one sequence, Vic, wearing some diving mask, shoots at Earl in his back yard, but then recognizes him, invites him for some coffee, mentions his daughter's sex life, and then they both kick each other in the crotch. Why waste so much time on such a long, elaborated and pointless sequence that leads nowhere? In another, Earl's teenage daughter presents her edible panties and gives them to Vic to eat them. Again, a pointless scene. Even more problematic, the character's motivations change to complete opposite without explanations: throughout the film, Earl wants to get rid of Vic and Ramona, only to in the end invite them to stay and even join them on their trip and escape from his house. Why? Why would Earl suddenly switch his hate from Vic to his wife? All of this is left unexplained, leaving an uneven taste in the viewers' mouth. "Neighbors" would have worked as a short that ends after 40 minutes, because it forcefully tries to extend the thin storyline into a feature, and it shows. It was obvious someone fiddled with the script by the talented Larry Galbert, since the story seems as if someone else wrote the whole last two thirds by inserting crazy concoctions, completely ignoring the first point, though Belushi shows his comic talent as the coiled Earl in the opening act, and the movie should be seen only for this intro alone.

Grade;+

Monday, August 7, 2017

Re-Animator

Re-Animator; horror, USA, 1985; D: Stuart Gordon, S: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton

Medical student Dan Cain has a relationship with Meg, the daughter of the dean of the medical school, Dr. Halsey. Dan accepts the eccentric Herbert West, a new student, as his lodger. However, Cain finds out that West is performing an experiment with a green liquid that manages to bring dead back among the living. Unfortunately, the re-animated corpses are all mindless zombies who attack people, and Dr. Halsey is one of their victims. When his professor, Hill, finds out about the invention, he wants to steal it, so West decapitates him, but revives both Hill's severed head and body. Hill escapes and captures Barbara in a morgue. West injects too much liquid into Hill's body, causing it to mutate and melt away: its intestine attacks West. Barbara is killed, so Cain inject her with liquid, reviving her.

Even though it gained cult status, Stuart Gordon's horror grotesque is a fairly routine and standard film, settling to seize more attention of the viewers with gore, violence, blood and disgust than with intelligence, sophistication or some ingenuity. There isn't much to see: the first third is a soap opera, the last third just a standard cheap scare. "Re-Animator" has two great scenes of a visual style: the one is when West shuts the door while the camera follows its movement and swings to the left, towards Cain and Barbara; the second is when Barbara enters the hallway of the morgue, while the camera drives away from her. Unfortunately, that is basically it, since the jokes all backfire or seem just plain forced (one is the grotesque sequence of the decapitated head of Dr. Hill ordering his body to get something, but its body constantly stumbles upon something) whereas the finale falls too often into trash (the sequence of the body tying up Barbara naked to the table, only to hold Dr. Hill's decapitated head that wants to lick her between the legs; a mutated body whose intestines attack West). The critics mostly complimented Gordon for managing to achieve such good effects despite his limited budget, yet the story is an ill-conceived mess whose blend of horror and comedy are uneven.

Grade;+

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Boys Town

Boys Town; drama, USA, 1938; D: Norman Taurog, S: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull, Frankie Thomas, Bobs Watson


Father Flanagan visits a convict in jail who is sentenced to a death penalty. Before his execution, the man blames the state for not being there to help him when he was an orphan and had to become a criminal to survive. This deeply affects Flanagan who decides to found an orphanage for juvenile delinquents, named "Boys Town". He gets a mortgage and establishes a place that takes care of 200 children, hoping to correct them all so that they can leave as honest citizens when they turn 18. However, a new kid, the 14-year old Whitey Marsh, strains the community by rudely acting exclusive. When a kid, Pee Wee, is injured by a car for trying to prevent him from leaving "Boys Town", Whitey feels remorse. He meets his criminal brother, Joe, who robs a bank. In order to escape being charged himself, Whitey tries to beg Joe to give himself in. Flanagan and the boys storm the hideout and arrest Joe. Whitey returns to "Boys Town" and gets elected as the president there.

"Boys Town" stayed remembered for securing Spencer Tracy his second Oscar for best actor, after "Captains Courageous" from the year before, making him the first actor in history to win that award twice in a row. Peculiarly, both films share the same theme: a problematic kid who is reformed thanks to a wise mentor. It is basically a tale as old as time — a heartless person undergoes a colossal change and finds his humanity at the end — yet still works here thanks to the classic style from the "Golden age of Hollywood" where characters and emotions were the highlight, not various technical gimmicks. Unobtrusive, unassuming, honest, touching and remarkably effective despite its conventional narrative, "Boys Town" is a prime example of a movie with class from that era, a one that also contemplates about some problems in society at the same time, without being preachy: the opening is remarkable for clearly establishing why Father Flanagan decided to form the eponymous orphanage after he hears how a convict, sentenced to death, had no other means to survive as an orphan kid than to turn to crime. This hit the nerve of the viewers, who were still recovering from the poverty of the "Great Depression" just a few years before.

Upon seeing so many angry, aimless orphaned kids on the streets who fight and destroy private property, Father Flanagan decides to save them from such social determinism, claiming "These boys were cheated on for a chance to live a decent life" and this makes for an engaged storyline. He is a truly fascinating character, noble, dignified, yet also complex and practical, while Tracy plays him wonderfully and compassionately. Mickey Rooney almost surpasses him, however, in the fantastic role of the tough, problematic kid Whitey. One of the funniest moments in the film arrives when Whitey is reluctantly brought to Boys Town and is annoyed by the innocent, naive 8-year old mascot of the refuge, Pee Wee, who constantly follows him. Pee Wee is carried at one point by another kid 'piggyback' style, and then turns and asks: "Why don't you carry me, Whitey?" who replies sarcastically: "No, I might drop you!" Rooney gives a 'tour-de-force' performance, and even though he was praised by the critics, he was not nominated for any award for this film. The highlight of the film is definitely the dialogue between Flanagan and a wounded Whitey near the end, which displays some pure humanity and emotions rarely seen in modern cinema: "I've always said that there is no such thing as a 'bad boy' in this world. You're the only boy in all these years who never had a heart somewhere, I could not reach somehow, sometime." It is a beautiful moment, a sequence with an aura, a one that amends all complaints and elevates it to heights for a brief moment despite some previous omissions.

Grade;+++

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Last Men in Aleppo

Last Men in Aleppo; documentary, Syria / Denmark, 2017; D: Firas Fayyad, S: Khaled Omar Harrah

Aleppo. The Syrian war rages on while the city is constantly under siege. In 2016, the Syrian government launches another offensive against the rebels, while the civilians are caught in the middle. Khaled, a father of two children, is a volunteer for the White Helmets, an emergency organization that saves wounded people under the rubble. He runs in ambulance from apartment to apartment, but the casualties just keep mounting. He contemplates fleeing, but it is already to late. In the end, Khaled dies in bombardment while trying to save a family.

More than being a documentary, "Last Men in Aleppo" is a horror film. But even more than being a horror film, it is a monument to life and humanity of its protagonist, Khaled Omar Harrah, who sacrificed his life trying to save others, making this a chronicle of his last days. The battle of Aleppo received little attention in the media in the West, and thus this film by Firas Fayyad gives a rare, brave glimpse inside hell on Earth: it is brutal, depressive, sad and unbearable, but it forces the viewers to think. It makes not only for a strange chronicle of how something like this can happen in the civilized world of the 21st century, but is also a document to war crimes committed by those who were pounding these people to death: the Syrian government and Goreshist Russia. The film shows a clip of Khaled saving a living baby buried under a tone of destroyed walls, through which he became famous, but also follows him on his daily drive to fresh rubble, trying to save other wounded people under the rubble. It is like watching the modern day Sisyphus: no matter how many he saves, war planes strike and kill some more. It just goes on and on. Several scenes illustrate the bleak, dark situation these people are in: a war plane dropping forbidden white phosphorus that glows in night or cluster bombs that explode throughout entire neighborhoods. A cat crawls under and enters a house, trying to find safety, but its lower legs are almost crippled. Khaled buys some living fish on the market, thinking it can be used as food in case hunger breaks out due to siege. The film does not take any side in the war. It just follows and objectively shows things how they were in Aleppo. It is full of contrasts: on one side, we have heroes, the White Helmets, who are seen and who save the people, and on the other we have villains who are hiding, cowardly killing from far away. It also contemplates about some bigger issues in life, such as helplessness and frailness of good among the people. This film is a tough watch. It is like watching people being destroyed through a meat grinder for an hour and a half. But is refuses to turn away, through which it implores the viewers to think about the value of life and the importance of humanity in dark times.

Grade;+++

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian et la Cité des mille planètes; science-fiction action, France, 2017; D: Luc Besson, S: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), John Goodman (voice), Mathieu Kassovitz, Rutger Hauer
In the far future, Earth Alpha station has merged with other space station from alien civilizations. It has grown to be the largest space station in the Universe, employing millions of workers from over a thousand planets. Federal agents Valerian and Laureline are summoned by commander Filitt to investigate a mysterious unknown sphere in the station. After alien creatures kidnap Filitt, Valerian and Laureline figure it must have something to do with a "converter", a small reptile-like creature that can multiply pearls. They enter the sphere and find out that Filitt, while fighting a war, used a powerful explosive and thereby committed genocide against planet Mul, which was destroyed as a collateral damage. The Mulian aliens just want to have the "converter" creature back to try to reconstruct their civilization. Valerian and Laureline oblige, while Filitt is arrested.

With a budget estimated to run somewhere between 170 and 200 million $, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" became the most expensive European film till date, signalling the Zenith of financial power of director Luc Besson who rallied all the talent from France and foreign specialists and who became the only non-English director in the history of modern cinema who managed to make a European film that topped Hollywood. Just for that treat alone, and the sheer audacity to film the popular eponymous Sci-Fi comics, "Valerian" should be respected more. Overall, the film is not perfect — more charm and humor should have been attributed to the two main leads, agents Valerian and (sometimes feisty) Laureline; the illogical plot holes become apparent in the finale where not everything is neatly tied up whereas some sequences, though pretty, were just added for the pure "eye candy" since they had no function in the storyline — yet it is simply fun and Besson's (French) ingenuity comes to full expression in the virtuoso directed 20-minute action sequence in which Valerian uses a cube on his hand to enter another dimension of a desert black market and escape from the villains who chase after him, which is played down to a T.

The stylistic highlights in that sequence arrive in various technical innovations, such as when a villain throws thousand metal marbles that get attached to Valerian's cube device on his hand, making him unable to run, but the agent escapes by using the heavy weight to crash down a manhole and fall several levels underground. When he finally falls on a stable surface, he throws one metal marble at another villain - and then reprogrammes all the other marbles to follow that marble as a magnet, and now all the weight is transferred to the villain - who now crashes down the next floor himself. The way Valerian and Laureline escape from a giant monster-dog that got attached to their spaceship by simply turning on the warp speed is elegant and fitting as well. Some of the dialogues between the two leads are neat ("Can you survive 20 minutes without me?"), though more such comic ideas could have been added. The main plot on the space station that accompanies over a thousand species sometimes falls into 'patchwork': numerous aliens are presented, though only for a couple of seconds, and thus they seem more like 'throwaway' material that seems more random than something that completes each other (for instance, the character of shapeshifter Bubble is cool, but is disposed off after only 10 minutes). "Valerian" is also different from many big-budget films by defying some Hollywood cliches, staying true to its European roots: there is no main bad guy, and instead the story is one giant allegory on genocide denial, contemplating if the protagonists have enough integrity to accept that someone is wrong from their own ranks. Several inconsistencies and a too colossal narrative may bring the movie down near the end, yet Besson again proved that he still has some freshness left in him.

Grade;++

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Timbuktu

Timbuktu; drama, Mauritania / France, 2014; D: Abderrahmane Sissako, S: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Kettly Noel, Hichem Yacoubi

In 2012, Islamist Jihadists conquer Timbuktu and impose a theocracy: due to Sharia law, women are suppose to wear scarfs and gloves; football, music and smoking are forbidden. People who disobey are punished by lashes or, in extreme cases, stoning to death. Kidane, a cattle herder, lives a peaceful life with his wife and their 12-year daughter Toya. However, one day, a crying boy, Issan, tells him how fisherman Amadou killed his beloved cow GPS because it accidentally got stuck in his fishing net in the lake. An angry Kidane confronts and accidentally shoots Amadou. Kidane is brought to trial and sentenced to death. His wife tries to prevent this and thus they are both shot and killed.

A quiet, meditative, minimalist film, "Timbuktu" found its way to widespread critical recognition due to its honest tone and emotional characters the viewers can identify with: even though its story speaks about the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu in 2012, this is also a 'slice-of-life' movie that depicts the customs, mentality and philosophy of the daily life of its people. Even though a Muslim himself, director Abderrahmane Sissako crafted a rejecting picture of Islamist fundamentalism and its negative effects through theocracy: at times, "Timbuktu" seems almost like a local version of "Idiocracy" insofar that it shows how backward people impose their will on everyone: in one scene, a Jihadi kidnapped a girl and married her by force, and when the girl's mother comes to complain, the Jihadi leader just brushes it off; in another, kids play "invisible" football on the field because the ball is forbidden; the Jihadis stage a video, but during recording the lighting malfunctions. Sissako shows violence, but unlike many other African directors, he does so with measure: the murder of a cow, for instance, is shown with emotion, with lingering shots of its legs faltering, showing sympathy for the creature, while the stoning of a couple is reduced to only three seconds. Did the fisherman kill the cow due to negative effects of the Jihadis who introduced violence as means of solving everything? In a time where so many directors just show violence explicitly, a director who does it subtly is something worth complimenting. The storyline is episodic and long at times, yet its center was nicely found in cattle herder Kidane, who confronts the fisherman and tries to do the right thing. Another plus point are the aesthetic images of the old city of Timbuktu that give the movie another layer and speak about some ancient traditions (and emotions) that last even in modern times.

Grade;+++

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Expanse (Season 1)

The Expanse; science-fiction crime series, USA, 2015; D: Terry McDonough, Jeff Woolnough, Rob Lieberman, S: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cas Anvar, Chad Coleman, Florence Faivre

In the future, human colonies exist both on Mars and on Ceres in the asteroid belt. However, the "Belters", people in the asteroid colonies, are denoted to de facto slave labor, performing dangerous extraction of gas, water and other resources from asteroids for Mars and overpopulated Earth. Detective Joe Miller is given the assignment to find Juliette Mao, the missing daughter of a rich man. At the same time, ice trawler Canterbury is destroyed by mysterious spaceship Scopuli, and only workers Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex survive. They meet Fred Johnson, the leader of the militant OPA faction that fights for the rights of the Belters, who gives them the assignment to retrieve the only survivor of Scopuli. Holden, Naomi and Amos team up with Miller at Eros station, where they find out that the only survivor from Scopuli was Juliette, who died from an unknown virus. A martial law is proclaimed, while both Mars and Earth suspect the other created the virus as a biological weapon.

The first season of "The Expanse" sets up an interesting premise: the anger of the "asteroid mine workers" who contemplate fighting against their exploitation from Earth and Mars reminds of a futuristic vision of Emile Zola's novel "Germinal"; the various political ploys played by the UN politicians on Earth are reminiscent of a science-fiction "Game of Thrones" whereas the finale even adds another ingredient in the formula when it introduces a mysterious virus which could be used as a biological weapon. Unfortunately, for some reason, "The Expanse" follows the often trend of TV shows of its time: since the first 10 episodes last for about 7 hours in total, it takes way too much time to set up its storyline, and thus the real plot tangle, a one that awakens the most interest, only starts in the last two episodes — which leaves the viewers forced to watch season 2. The plot involving Detective Miller (played brilliantly by the charismatic Thomas Jane) works the best, yet the plots revolving around Holden, the UN Assistant Undersecretary Avasarala and the OPA leader Fred Johnson often cause the viewers to question why so much running time is invested upon them.

Despite the overarching story leading to a point in the last two episodes, the said three plots are not always inspired, but sometimes insipid, with your 'run-of-the-mill', standard dialogue. This could have been condensed into only 5 episodes, not 10. The futuristic setting has some interesting details in the first episodes — for instance, a couple has sex in zero gravity, floating two feet above their bed. When one astronaut runs out of oxygen in his spacesuit, the other astronaut saves him by attaching his suit to his own oxygen supply. There is also a poetic moment of Miller on Ceres colony observing a bird that flaps its wings only sporadically, since the lower gravity allows it to fly with only half of effort. However, these technical wonders are abandoned in later episodes, when the plot focuses more on character development and political intrigues. Sadly, some of these plus points are nullified by humorless, lifeless episodes, which cannot be quite camouflaged by great cameras or effects. The 1st season is thus a good "origins" series — it spans a colossal narrative range from Earth to the asteroid belt — yet its true "boiling point" and inspiration seem to be left for the next season.

Grade;++

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam; comedy, USA, 1987; D: Barry Levinson, S: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Chintara Sukapatana, Tung Thanh Tran, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, J. T. Walsh, Richard Edson

Saigon during the Vietnam War. Adrian Cronauer is brought from the US to work as a radio DJ for the American soldiers. Adrian's insane comedy broadcast is an instant radio hit for the listeners, but he makes fun of everyone, including Richard Nixon and the US military. Adrian also wants to start a relationship with a local girl, Trinh, and also becomes friends with her brother, Tuan. Private Eddie loves Adrian's show, but Lieutenant Hauk constantly argues with Adrian, who is free-spirited and refuses to follow his guidelines and constrictions. After a bomb kills people in a building, Hauk wants to censor the information - but Adrian reports it on the radio anyway, and is thus fired. After hundreds of letters, Adrian is brought back, but is shocked to find out Tuan planted the bomb because he considers every American an occupier. Adrian's relationship with Trinh leads nowhere due to their differences, and thus he leaves back for the US.

The first comedy based on the Vietnam War, "Good Morning, Vietnam" marked the beginning of the "golden age" of Robin Williams' career which would last for a whole decade, and rightfully so since the comedian here is such a sensation that is unbelievable: his casting was simply perfect since he brings a rarely matched energy, vitality and irresistible charm to the role of Adrian Cronauer (even though the majority of the storyline was fictional or amended for the film). Williams fits ideally as a radio DJ with a big mouth and non-stop jokes, and he acts almost like Jerry Lee Lewis: it doesn't matter if he destroys everything in sight as long as he entertains his audience. Already in the opening, when Adrian exits from the plane in Saigon and meets Private Eddie, does he prove a distinctive comic wavelength in their dialogue about the weather ("That is warm." - "Warm? No, this is the setting for London broil!").

The movie owes 90% of its appeal to his improvisational skills and without Williams this wouldn't be half as fun, whether the jokes are politically incorrect ("The Mississippi broke through a protective dike today... what is... what is a protective dike? Is it a large woman standing by the river going: "Don't go near there!"), political (the fake interview featuring the voice of Richard Nixon) or just plain defying authoritarian figures (after a major argument with his superior, Seargent Dickerson, Adrian, before leaving the office, says this legendary reply: "You are in more dire need of a blow job than any other white man in history"). Unfortunately, the last third of the film lost inspiration and ended on a routine note: the sequence where Adrian talks to the soldiers who all want him to return as the radio DJ is not that funny, and neither is the lame baseball game featuring fruits instead of a ball at the end. Adrian's love interest with a local girl, Trinh, could have been handled better, as well: the only highlight is when he spots her in an English class and spontaneously jumps in as replacement to the teacher, in order to find out more about her. It is interesting that both "Vietnam" and another Williams film "Dead Poets Society" feature the same theme: an individual arriving to an authoritarian institution that turns against him for his free spirit and disobedience, only to leave heartbroken that nothing changed. Easily the best out of three collaborations between Williams and director Barry Levinson, "Vietnam" still seems fresh today, and although it is not as versatile or as focused as "M*A*S*H", it is still a sadly neglected (and rarely talked about) quality film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Machete

Machete; action, USA, 2010; D: Robert Rodriguez, S: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan

Machete was once a Mexican Federal who fell into a trap and was betrayed by his partner, Torrez, who advanced into a drug lord. Years later, Machete now works as an illegal immigrant in Texas. He is approached by a certain Booth who offers him $150,000 to assassinate the far right Senator McLaughlin, who wants to forcibly eradicate every Mexican in the US. Machete accepts, but quickly figures it was a set-up: McLaughlin will win the re-election by claiming a Mexican wanted to kill him - even though Booth works for him - while the police are now after Machete. Luckily, with the help of Luz, agent Rivera and Mexican immigrants, they manage to expose McLaughlin and his ties with Torrez. In a duel, Machete kills Torrez while Rivera falls in love with him.

The eternal supporting cast member Danny Trejo was finally given a leading role in the action exploitation film "Machete", a spin-off of Robert Rodriguez's fake trailer for the "Planet Terror" film, who even went so far to give such stars like Robert De Niro and Jessica Alba a second billing. "Machete" is a homage to stupid B-action movies from the 80s and, just like Tarantino's films, dances somewhere between trash and inspiration: there are some good scenes and some bad scenes, yet Trejo is very sympathetic, humble in the leading role and several ironic moments give this a 'tongue-in-cheek' feel that refuses to take itself seriously, thankfully, whereas Rodriguez even managed to insert a surprisingly relevant theme about illegal immigration, Xenophobia and racism in the US, which gives it a dose of the subversive that increases its meaning - among others, Senator McLaughlin brags about building a wall along Mexico and even calls Mexicans "terrorists". There are a few good jokes here (for instance, Machete was shot at, but the bullet was stopped - by a previous bullet already inside his body) and even some moments that twist the expected cliches: when the attractive girl Rivera (Alba) is drunk and lies in her bed, we see Machete taking his jacket off and "jumping" into the bed. However, the surprise is next morning, when Rivera wakes up in her clothes and spots Machete simply sleeping next to her side, in clothes as well. She then smiles and calls him a real "gentleman". For such class alone, the movie deserves some extra credit. The inspiration wears off in the exaggerated, routine and over-the-top action finale, which ends predictably, though "Machete" is still a good 'guilty pleasure' - and is notable for being one of only two good movies trash actor Steven Seagal ever starred in his entire career (the second being "Under Siege").

Grade;++

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz; comedy, UK, 2007; D: Edgar Wright, S: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall, Olivia Colman, Timothy Dalton, Edward Woodward, Paul Freeman, Martin Freeman

Police Constable Nicholas Angel is one of the most successful and award-winning people in the history of police in London. A little bit too successful, in fact, since he makes the London police "look bad" in comparison and thus his office decides to transport him to a small provincial town of Sandford. Nicholas is annoyed by the lazy police without any effort, especially by his new partner Danny. However, when several people start dying in mysterious circumstances, he suspects there is a mass killer on the run. He uncovers a conspiracy: the village officials - Skinner, manager of a supermarket; Frank, the police Inspector, and others - who kill people who are "disrupting" the perfect reputation of the village. In a grand shootout, Nicholas and Danny manage to arrest the bad guys.

Director Edgar Wright picked another right thing when he decided to make a comic 'buddy cop film', something which is rarely produced in British cinema, and thus delivered a refreshing flick. Basically following the same formula of a conspiracy in a small town which would be used in his other Simon Pegg collaboration, "The World's End", "Hot Fuzz" is a peculiar and daft film which cannot quite get pinned down, yet it is a fun comedy that is simple and accessible. Some heavy handed moments contaminate the innocent tone of the storyline, mostly revolving around sometimes unnecessary crude or gory blood scenes of murder, whereas not every joke works, yet those that do ignite with delight (one irresistible joke, for instance, has Angel answering a phone call at the police station: a man, in all seriousness, called the police because a "swan escaped from the castle", but the protagonist has to oblige and try to catch the bird, even though he thinks this is clearly beneath his honor), whereas Wright gives the 'Mary Sue' protagonist cop Nicholas Angel a neat story arc in which he manages to both change (by accepting to 'lighten up' and stop being so aggressively perfect all of the time) and stay the same (his work ethic and integrity manage to crack the criminal conspiracy, after all) at the same time. A light fun. At least one sequence is howlingly hilarious, though, and demonstrates Wright's delight on comic territory which reaches cosmic heights, easily forming a highlight of the entire film: it is the insane finale in which Angel returns to the village, only to get attacked by retired locals who are aged 65+. One grandmother even calls him a "fascist" and then starts shooting  at him with a machine gun. And just when you think this cannot be topped, it gets topped - when a priest implores Angel to stop, appealing to the church - only to draw two guns and start shooting himself! If anything, this sequence is a small comic gem.

Grade;++

Friday, July 21, 2017

The World's End

The World's End; comedy / science-fiction, UK / USA, 2013; D: Edgar Wright, S: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan

Gary King, an unemployed alcoholic in his 40s, rallies all his high school friends - Andy, Pete, Oliver, Steven - to travel from London back to their childhood town, Newton Haven, and have one final round of beers across all of the 12 pubs, including the last one they initially missed out, "The World's End". They also meet Gary ex-sweetheart, Sam. However, Gary and the gang soon find out all the inhabitants were replaced with blue-blooded humanoid robots and thus have to spend the night dodging them while running from pub to pub. Finally, at "The World's End", Gary and Andy find the secret underground hideout to the "Network", an alien intelligence that has been replacing people with robots in order to enlighten and advance the human civilization, so that it won't be the most backward in the entire galaxy. However, Andy and Gary refuse this offer and thus the "Network" abandons the plan and pulls out all of its technology with it that was shared with Earth. The Earth is thus left without technology, and people have to start all over again.

Edgar Wright's final film in his semi-trilogy of sorts, which included "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz", "The World's End" is a peculiar, daft achievement that starts out as your 'run-of-the-mill' nostalgia flick about middle aged friends trying to recapture the magic from their youth, only to make a dazzling turn some 38 minutes into the film in order to become an unpredictable science-fiction parody about alien invasion, an amalgamation of "The Stepford Wives" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Leaving the rather overloaded (and unnecessary) 5-minute opening prologue with the protagonists as teenagers, "End" works rather smoothly, encapsulating small traits and features of the mentality of people in a small town, whereas the main actor Simon Pegg has a field day playing the leading character Gary King. Some of the best bits in the opening act arrive through comical dialogues between him and his reluctant friend Andy ("We are going back to Newton Haven!" - "Newton Haven is a black hole." - "That's because we are not there!") and such comical spirit that is not afraid to be wacky can be found even in the second half of the film: for instance, when one robot manages to assemble itself back again, putting legs instead of his arms, and attacks Sam, Gary shouts: "Get your feet off her!"

Some of this does work, though some does not, since some parts are not that much inspired, which leaves some scenes just ending up looking weird. Likewise, the ending is somehow strangely incomplete, among others because it abandoned Gary's story arc: what did he learn in the end? What did he achieve? What difference did it make? Basically none, and this seems slightly lacking. Still, Wright shows a sixth sense for pure comedy in a finale that is irresistibly hilarious and contagiously fun, with the likes of analytical humor not seen since the verbal duel between the astronaut and the bomb in "Dark Star" or Ray and Zuul in "Ghostbusters": when the two protagonists find out the hideout of the alien "Network", which explains that it is only trying to advance the human civilization, the most backward one is the galaxy, Andy starts objecting to its motivation ("Whoa whoa whoa! Who put you in charge? Who are you to criticize anyone? Now, you might think Gary is a bit of a cock and he is a bit of a cock, but he is my cock!") while Gary verbally outright insults it ("Intergalactic asshole!"; "Go back to Legoland!"), and they both defend the human right to be flawed ("We are more belligerent, stubborn and idiotic than you can imagine!").

Grade;++

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Saint Seiya (Arc 5-6)

Saint Seiya; animated fantasy action series, Japan, 1987-1988; D: Kozo Morishita, S: Tohru Furuya, Ryo Horikawa, Hirotaka Suzuki, Keiko Han, Hideyuki Hori

In Japan, the Bronze Knights - Seiya, Shun, Shiryu and Hyoga - find out the Sanctuary, located in Greece, is run by a fake Pope who became corrupt and disloyal to Athena's rule. The Pope even wanted to kill Athena when she was a baby, but she was saved by Aioros, who was stigmatized by the Pope who called him a "rebel". Athena and the Bronze Knights thus arrive to the Sanctuary to topple the fake Pope. Athena is wounded by an arrow and thus the Knights have only 12 hours to go through 12 temples which represent the 12 constellations leading to the Pope's temple, who can only save Athena - but each temple is guarded by a Golden Knight. The Bronze Knights thus battle each Golden Knight in each of the 12 temples. Finally, Seiya reaches the fake Pope, who is actually usurper Gemini Saga hiding behind a mask. Seiya uses a shield to reflect a ray that heals Athena. She then goes to the top temple and kills Saga.

Even arcs 5-6 of the famed 80s anime "Saint Seiya" divided the opinions: some consider them an epic, monumental and immense saga, while others find them a tiresome, bland, overlong and dry set of endless, repetitive fights. Unfortunately, arcs 5-6 also lean more towards the latter, exhausting themselves in too many fights that all seem so the same they become monotonous after some 20 episodes. Unlike the previous arcs, which were all over the place, the storyline here finally aligned into a clear point since the story here is articulate and clear — Seiya and his Bronze Knights have to pass through 12 temples and fight 12 Golden Knights in less than 12 hours in order to save a wounded Athena — but, sadly, it all quickly gets stuck into the same old formula which is repeated ad nauseam: the protagonist encounters his opponent; he tells the protagonist how powerful he is; his kicks or lasers cause the protagonist to fall down; the protagonist is at his low-point, near death, but then remembers the power of friendship, stands up and defeats the opponent. Next temple. Cue this formula to be repeated for the whole 12 temples, from episode 42 to episode 71. And the sad thing is: if the viewers were to skip 29 episodes, and just jump from episode 42 to episode 71, they would not miss a thing. This just proves how superfluous and unnecessary all these 12 temple fights are, and what an empty walk they are.

Also, it is never established why the Bronze Knights would feel such loyalty to each other since their friendship is never established: they are humorless, one-dimensional warriors, and almost never experience something in private to bond. They do what they are told to, not what they feel what is right naturally. One such example is when a young Shun is "training" on Andromeda island in episode 69 by being chained between two rocks, while the sea level is slowly drowning him: why would anyone feel loyal to such misguided trainers and their methods? However, one has to admit there is some anticipation, some spark in episodes 39-41, when Seiya is sitting with a girl at a dock in Japan at night, preparing to go to Greece to fight the bad guy, whereas some of the locations in the Sanctuary are exciting, especially the Ionic pillars and the stairs, evoking the magic and historic legacy of the Ancient Greece, and some shots are opulent (episode 68, when Seiya and Shun are near the top of the hill at night, while the temple is illuminated above them; episode 72, when Mu is standing near a temple, but its background turns into a transparent view of stars in space behind him). An additional plus point is the usurper, the fake Pope in the Sanctuary, whose philosophy about power and justice resembles the one from Blaise Pascal ("Strength is of only importance. If justice is defeated, it will be remembered as evil."). "Saint Seiya" arc 5-6 is basically a 10 hour 'Wrestlemania': it is fun at first, but after so many hours, it becomes boring and lifeless — while one longs for a broader, more versatile spectrum of a viewing experience.

Grade;+

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Leviathan

Leviathan; science-fiction horror, USA / Italy, 1989; D: George P. Cosmatos, S: Peter Weller, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, Richard Crenna, Hector Elizondo, Daniel Stern

Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, an underwater station is performing mining of metals at the bottom of the sea. The station is led by Steven Beck, and consists out of seven crew members, including Elizabeth, Dr. Thompson and Jones. One day, the find a sunk ship, Leviathan, with a safe containing some files and vodka. When one crew member, Sixpack, drinks the vodka, he becomes sick and dies, while an unknown creature mutates inside of him. It seems that the sunken ship may have experimented with mutagens. The monster spreads and kills one crew members after another. Beck calls the company to pick them up, but a hurricane is preventing any rescue. Finally, Beck, Elizabeth and Jones manage to flee into the sea and escape to the surface. The monster attacks them, but Beck kills it with a bomb, while a helicopter saves them.

"Leviathan" is a solid amalgamation of such horror films as "Alien" and "The Thing", yet it offers overall too little to deliver anything new, creative or original in the already tried out subgenre of a monster chasing a crew sealed off inside a limited location. Appearing in a year that was marked by underwater Sci-Fi films, most notably "The Abyss", "Leviathan" finds its own way, yet it is too standard and conventional, lacking real highlights that would justify its predictable formula. The characters are one-dimensional and bland, rarely managing to live it up and show some life, humor or wit: one such example is when Steven Beck gets angry at Sixpack and says: "And Sixpack, if you call me Becky one more time I'm going to pop your tops, all six of them." There is also one good scare moment that actually used some sophistication: it is when the camera zooms out only to a shadow of the monster on the wall, whose shape is still unknown to the viewers. More of such moments in the film would have been welcomed. Sadly, it takes too long for the monster to show up, and once it does, it is bound by too fast cuts that are so erratic that the viewers are sometimes confused as to what is going on in a single scene. That is probably because the monster is a puppet operated underneath, and in order to conceal that we never get a full wide shot of it, but just frenzy glimpses of its head or claws, which is disorienting. A simple, normal editing with a clear establishment of where the monster is and where it is going would have been far better. Even the finale is routine and lacks some freshness. Still, the set designs are very good, whereas the film features one of the greatest posters of the 80s, a one that promises more than the film actually delivers.

Grade;+

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Before the Rain

Pred doždot; drama, Macedonia / France / UK, 1994; D: Milčo Mančevski, S: Gregoire Colin, Labina Mitevska, Rade Šerbedžija, Katrin Cartlidge, Jay Villiers, Silvija Stojanovska

Three stories: Kiril is a young Orthodox monk who holds up his 2-year vow of silence in a Macedonian monastery. One night, he finds an Albanian girl, Zamira, hiding in his bed because a Macedonian militia is accusing her of murder and wants to kill her. Kiril helps her hide in the monastery. When older monks find this out, they expel him from the monastery. Kiril and Zamira flee and fall in love, but they are caught by her grandfather. When she wants to run away with Kiril, her brother shoots her... London. A Macedonian war photographer, Alexander, gives his mistress, Anne, an ultimatum. She is pregnant, but chooses to stay with her husband, so Alexander leaves. However, in a restaurant, a man from the Balkans causes a shooting spree and kills Anne's husband... Back in Macedonia after 16 years, Alexander meets his old love again, Albanian woman Hana. He saves her daughter, Zamira, from captivity of an angry mob, but they shoot him in revenge.

Milcho Manchevski scored it big time with his feature length debut film that was critically recognized and awarded with several prizes, and it is a matter of a quality, unassuming little film that reflects upon ethnic conflict and rule of violence in the Balkans, though it is not without its flaws since such a topic is sometimes presented in heavy handed, banal ways. Balkan primitivism was never truly cinematic, which is problematic even in "Before the Rain", yet Manchevski managed to still deliver a worthy and touching film about intellectuals and gentle souls trapped and hindered by a backward society, using a similar episodic three-part structure like "Pulp Fiction" that same year, where one story completes the other and it all adds up in the end. Out of three stories, the first one is great, yet the other two are melodramatic and too standard to truly rise to the occasion.

The first segment seems to draw its inspiration from wonderfully aesthetic landscapes of the Macedonian monastery on the Ohrid lake, which truly delivered a few great shots, yet the story is also intriguing as it symbolically speaks about the Macedonian "Romeo and Juliet" concept in which a Macedonian falls in love and protects an Albanian girl, who escapes from the extremists from the other nation only to fall victim to the extremists from her own nation. Gregoire Colin stands out the most in that segment as the good-hearted Kiril who follows a wow of silence, while a few comical moments all add up (in one scene, some kids are holding two sticks on the shells of two turtles, imagining they are fighting and calling them "Ninja Turtles"). The second and the third story seem like intruders, though, showing the Balkan mentality more the way the West wants to see it than the way it truly is, with several pretentious ideas (it seems "normal" for the Western viewers that a Balkan guy would suddenly start a shooting spree in a London restaurant just because he has an argument with a waiter, it seems) and explicit details (a man gunning down a cat on the roof; a close up of a sheep giving birth...) which reduce the subtle approach from the opening act. Rade Serbedzija is fantastic in the third story, though, charismatically portraying an intellectual who somehow managed to emerge from such a backward area, escape from it and still deciding to go back and change it towards better.

Grade;++

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bound for Glory

Bound for Glory; drama, USA, 1976; D: Hal Ashby, S: David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, John Lehne, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Randy Quaid

Texas during the Great Depression. Woody Guthrie does not know what to do with his life: he cannot find a job as a sign painter and thus feels ashamed that he cannot support his wife Mary and kids. Hearing rumors that there is no unemployment in California, he one day randomly starts his journey westwards by secretly sneaking with other stowaways  in train wagons. Finally in California, he witnesses how immigrants live in slums, only rarely getting poorly paid jobs in plantations. He also starts an affair with a rich woman, Pauline. Woody meets activist and singer Ozark, who tries to organize a strike and form a syndicate in order for the workers to get a decent pay. Ozark helps him find a job in a radio show, where Woody proves to be a gifted musician. Woody brings his wife and kids to California, but they argue and she leaves him due to his activism. When the radio forbids him to sing music about poverty and inequality, Woody resigns and leaves the state.

If there is a spiritual forerunner to Hal Ashby's biopic about Woody Gutherie, then it is Ford's great classic "The Grapes of Wrath", since both depict the grim events of the Great Depression in America and characters migrating westwards to California in order to find a job, thereby implicitly pleading for a better, fair system, for social equality. More so in "Bound for Glory", even: the hero is basically a socialist musician, but a one that became a socialist not by his own will, but simply by living in such hardship and poverty. Ashby once again manages to craft a quality, quiet film with an emotional understanding and sympathy for his characters (Woody cheated on his wife when he had a chance, yet it is difficult to completely shun him when a random girl says she "doesn't mind doing it" after hearing him play the guitar, upon which he says: "This town ain't dead yet!"), unobtrusively building the story, whereas it is interesting to spot the early use of steadicam in a couple of scenes, albeit scarce one (one is the camera following Woody through the slum, as dozens of people walks pass him as he approaches Randy Quaid's character), as well as a few impressive shots (the wide shot of a giant dust cloud approaching the Texas town, for instance, as Woody runs through the cloud to his home). Unfortunately, for a running time of over two and a half hours, "Bound for Glory" simply exhausts itself in far too much empty walk or repetitive scenes, especially if the viewers are not such fans of folk music (which is played by the protagonist abundantly). This is exacerbated by several episodic scenes which all add to the film's episodic tone (in Texas, one man randomly approaches Woody on the porch and says: "I don't know if you know it, but you are watching at an insane man!"). A decent 'social issue' film, yet a one that feels sadly standard, lifeless and conventional at times.

Grade;++

Friday, June 30, 2017

Baby Driver

Baby Driver; action / crime / thriller / comedy, USA / UK, 2017; D: Edgar Wright, S: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez
Baby is a young guy whose job is to be a super-fast getaway driver as soon as bank robbers enter his car, in order to evade the police chase. He works for the mysterious gangster Doc in order to repay his debts, and the team members are constantly changing for each new robbery. Baby survived a car crash which left his parents dead, but left him with a tinnitus in his ear, so he always wears headphone to listen to music to help him forget the noise. After his last job, Baby wants to start a new, normal life and asks a waitress, Debora, out for a date. However, Doc orders him to return to the world of crime again. A robbery goes wrong and two get killed. Baby thus kills one gangster, "Buddy" and tries to escape with Debora, but is arrested by the police.

In a decade when many lost all hope in the future of film, which many feared found itself on the rocks due to constant, routine sequels, prequels or remakes, director Edgar Wright struck the screen like a lightning bolt: his film "Baby Driver" is an untrammelled, dazzling and refreshing piece of filmmaking with style that grips the viewers and never let's go. Wright crafts the storyline with so many twists of cliches and surprises that you never know what might happen next: one moment a gangster character poses such a threat that the tension is electrifying, and the next a daft, innocent joke shows up and causes a big laugh. Unlike many films that are going to unravel according to the A-B-C-D scheme, "Baby Driver" unravels around his own A-Z-H-R-X-B scheme, and such an unpredictability gives it spark and vitality. The way one of the villains, "Bats", gets eliminated, for instance, is so creative it is simply pure genius and you never could have seen it coming.

One must also recognize Wright for his genius dialogues, which are abundant ("He puts the "Asian" into "Home Invasion"!"; a gangster has a heart sign next to his tattoo of the word "Hat" to cover up the "e" at the end; after "Bats" constantly tries to intimidate everyone with his erratic behavior, "Darling" finally tells him: "You think you're the last word in crazy? Well you're not!"). The film creates excellent characters and then let's them clash with each other, whereas a very good support is given in the sympathetic protagonist Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is an untypical, peculiar guy, but with his heart on the right spot: he just wants to get out of this criminal world and lead a normal, everyday life so that he can drive cars. The film is so playful that even some gun shots are synchronized in tune to beats from a song. Naturally, despite all this, the story is still a sly morality play, in the end showing how the life of crime may be tempting and easy at first, but that it ultimately leads to huge consequences. Wright previously directed small, independent films, and it is so refreshing to see that he managed to direct a big budget film and still stay faithful to his cheerful, humorous identity. Super-fast action films are a dime a dozen - but action films with sheer ingenuity, intelligence, wit and inspiration are still very rare. This is one of them.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Passion Play

Passion Play; drama, USA, 2010; D: Mitch Glazer, S: Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, Bill Murray, Rhys Ifans, Kelly Lynch

Nate is a musician who is simply on a bad streak: not only does his boss withhold money for his gigs regularly, not only does he owe money to gangster Happy Shannon, but on top of all he gets kidnapped by a thug who wants to shoot him inn the middle of the desert. Nate is saved by some Indians and he arrives by foot to a circus that features freaks. Nate is fascinated by a 20-year old girl, Lily, who has angel-like wings growing out of her back. He runs away with her and plans to sell her to Shannon to repay his debts. When Lily finds that out, she leaves him. Nate feels remorse and realises he loves Lily. Nate storms into one performance by Shannon, escapes with Lily to the roof of the building - and they jump and fly off into the sky together.

"Passion Play" is a bizarre, almost surreal allegory on outsiders who are regarded as freaks by people around them and who thus feel isolated and misunderstood, and by having the protagonist Lily (Megan Fox) be a girl who has angelic-like wings growing out of her back really seems like one of those outlandish metaphors from scripts by Charles Kaufman, including, of course, religious implications which are interwoven with a theme about remorse and redemption by the main hero, Nate (very good Mickey Rourke). Unfortunately, the film suffers from a too long running time and too much empty walk, featuring several sequences where nothing is going on and where the storyline just keeps going on artificially. This could have had potentials as a short film, but it collapses in the overstretched feature length format. If the interesting, symbolic ending is excluded, "Passion Play" has basically only two good scenes: one is when Nate implores Lily to return back to him, saying: "We belong together", upon which comedian Bill Murray cannot resist but to reply with his superior wit: "Now he is even talking in song titles"; and the other is the almost poetic moment when Nate and Lily are making love in bed, her wings covering him, and then a feather drops to the floor. Unfortunately, except for that, the film simply lacks highlights. It is easily watchable, but definitely needed more inspiration that would let these characters do so much more in the storyline.

Grade;+

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Rambo

Rambo / First Blood; action / drama, USA, 1982; D: Ted Kotcheff, S: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett, Michael Talbott, David Caruso

John Rambo, a retired Vietnam war veteran, arrives at a hut to visit his old war colleague, but finds out he died from cancer. Wandering aimlessly, Rambo arrives at a small city, but the local Sheriff, Will, escorts him out before he can even step foot in the place. When Rambo heads back to the city, Will arrests him. The police officers are brutal, and they bully Rambo until he snaps, beats them up and escapes to the mountain. Will assembles a team to kill him, but Rambo kills many of his officers in the forest, instead. Escalating more and more, the situation reaches a critical point when Rambo steals a military truck, gets a weapon and starts shooting across the town, killing Will. However, Rambo's former commander, Colonel Trautman, persuades him to give himself up to the police.

Even though Sylvester Stallone made over 80 films, he will arguably be remembered for playing only two characters: Rocky and Rambo. Even though it suffers from various problems, inconsistencies and an elision of common sense — the cause for the conflict between Sheriff Will and Rambo is as convincing as the one in "Batman vs. Superman", since in both their trivial misunderstandings could have easily been solved by simply talking to each other as grown ups — "Rambo" still tries to deliver a commentary on the post-war mentality of war veterans, giving a sly message: war veterans only know how to fight, but while that is required from them during war, once peace returns and they are back in their society, they (and their urge to fight) seem misplaced and inappropriate. This is evident near the finale, when Colonel Trautman talks to Rambo and tries to persuade him to finally stop fighting, but he just replies with: "Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off!" This speaks volumes about people who are stuck in one state and are unable to move on. "Rambo" also seems to be a critique of "Dirty Harry" and the "shoot first, ask later" mentality: it shows such tendency in the authoritarian Sheriff Will and his officers, who communicate only through violence and bullying, arguing that this extreme right-wing behavior leads in a dead end, in a state of endless escalation from people who fight back. Despite its somewhat rudimentary approach, "Rambo" advanced into a cult film and became the voice of the 80s, capturing its flair and mood, featuring an exciting score by Jerry Goldsmith, spanning a whole mythology of American "one-man-army" heroes during Reagan's era. Despite its more dramatic (and tragic) look at violence and action, the film was followed by three sequels which abandoned the original vision and embraced violence and action as pure, carefree fun, even though critics didn't approve.

Grade;++

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Circle

Dayereh; drama, Iran / Italy / Switzerland, 2000; D: Jafar Panahi, S: Nargess Mamizadeh, Maryian Parvin Almani, Mojgan Faramarzi, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee 

Tehran. A child is born in the hospital. The grandmother finds out it is a girl, even though the ultrasound indicated it was suppose to be a boy, and thus runs away from the hospital, fearing what the father will say... On the street, two women were released from jail, but one of them gets arrested for wanting to sell a necklace and flee the city. The other girl, Nargess, buys a bus ticket to a city abroad, but hesitates to enter it... Another woman, Pari, runs away from her home when her two angry brothers storm in. She is pregnant and wants to make an abortion, but she needs a permit from her husband, who in turn was executed. She finds a mother who abandoned her little daughter on the street. Pari enters a car, but the driver turns out to be a police officer. Pari escapes. The police stop a woman who was driving with a man who is not her husband, suspecting she is a prostitute. The man is released while the woman is brought to the prison. In there, all the previous women find themselves in the same cell.

Jafar Panahi is among only a handful of directors whose film starts off seemingly as boring only to by the end grip the viewers to such an extent that they are electrified and do not want it to end without a resolution. In this film, Panahi ripped through the standard conventions of Iran's picture-book cinema in order to show something different, an untypical, dark, realistic feminist film in the form of one giant commentary on the misogyny of the society that already starts in the opening scene with the birth of a baby girl, whose grandmother fears that her own gender already disappointed her father. Even though it is somewhat burdened by the heavy "social issue" use, "The Circle" manages to rise above such a predictable delivery of a message thanks to four stories of women without a protagonist, meandering and switching from one story to another thanks to wonderful elegance and swift editing. Through the actions of the women, Panahi speaks out about the discrimination of women (when Nargess wants to buy a shirt for a man in a store, but doesn't know his size, the clerk says: "You women, you always forget everything!"; when she wants to buy a bus ticket, the clerk warns her that she cannot without the permit of a man or a proof that she is a student; when a woman is arrested for driving in the car with a man to whom she is not married, the police let him go, but arrest her...), assembling thus a cyclic structure of the problem which corresponds to both its title and the ending that returns to the opening story. Panahi is subtle — at times, even too subtle, since some themes can only be hinted at due to the restrictions of the Iranian government (abortion, prostitution...) — yet his honesty and humanity simply come to full expression.

Grade;+++

Friday, June 16, 2017

When Marnie Was There

Omoide no Mani; animated drama, Japan, 2014; D: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, S: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Hana Sugisaki

After Anna Sasaki (12) collapses from an asthma attack, her foster parents send her to spend a few weeks with her aunt in a small town near the coast. Anna suffers from anxiety and feels reluctant to invest any trust into anybody, still resenting her unknown biological parents for abandoning her without a reason. She has recurring dreams of a blond girl, and is surprised when she actually meets her one night in a mansion. The blond girl identifies herself as Marnie, lamenting how she is abused by the maids in the mansion. The two girls spend some time together, but Marnie acts mysterious and suddenly disappears. Anna and another girl, Sayaki, finally hear the whole story from painter Hisako: a long time ago, Marnie was the only child of a rich couple who neglected her. When she grew up, Marnie married and had a daughter. When her husband died, Marnie had to take care of her granddaughter after her daughter died in a car crash. Anna then finally figures that Marnie was her late grandmother.

Another famed anime film by the Ghibli Studio, "When Marnie Was There" is a proportionally well done therapeutic journey which tracks down the source of the heroine Anna's psychological problems, dismantles them and offers some solutions to them. While this is done with enough care, delicacy and measure, the sole result is still somewhat lax, slow and boring at times, since a lot of the features of the storyline were already done in numerous films before. All the scenes are good, yet "Marnie" still lacks highlights: too many scenes revolve only around routine, schematic situations such as picking up tomatoes or going to a festival, while the only great moment where the film rises to the occasion is the plot twist at the end, yet spoiling that would take away that one genius pay-off. It takes simply too long to get to the "juicy" part, the ending, which makes "Marnie" a notch bellow some of Ghibli's previous classics, not managing to rival its golden age from the 80s and 90s, though it is a gentle, honest and sincere little film that has understanding about the troubled orphaned heroine.

Grade;++

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki (Season 1-2)

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki; animated science-fiction comedy series, Japan, 1992-1995; D: Hiroki Hayashi, S: Masami Kikuchi, Yumi Takada, Ai Orikasa, Chisa Yokoyama, Yuko Mizutani

Curiosity was just too big for teenager Tenchi. When he hears from his grandfather about a legend that a demon was sealed off in a cave by one of their ancestors centuries ago, Tenchi unlocks the cave and stumbles upon female demon Ryoko who attacks him in school at night. However, when Tenchi defeats her, Ryoko changes and falls in love with him. It turns out she is actually a space renegade who attacked planet Jurai 700 years ago, and Princess Ayeka and her sister Sasami travel with their spaceship from Jurai to Earth to confront Ryoko because they are looking for Ayeka's brother and fiance, Yosho. Even clumsy space police officer, blond Mihoshi, arrives to Earth to capture Ryoko. They all fall in love with Tenchi and decide to live in his house. It turns out that Tenchi's grandfather is Yosho, who fled to Earth. Space villains Kagato and Dr. Clay attack Tenchi's house, but they are defeated in the spaceship.

One of the most popular animes from the 90s, "Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki" is still in reality a notch bellow of all the high hype that surrounds it. More beloved by male than female viewers, "Tenchi Muyo" is funny and amusing, yet basically just a prototype of the future harem animes, a cryptic adolescent male fantasy in which the protagonist is surrounded by three women who are all in love with him, while a fourth one also shows potential interest in him (Mihoshi). In episode 7, Ryoko even accuses Ayeka of trying to steal Tenchi away from her, saying: "I can smell your pheromones!" It doesn't take much intellect to conclude that this was written by a man. Disregarding the disparity stemming from this cliche concept — if Tenchi likes one of them, why not simply be honest and announce which girl he loves? Otherwise, he displays a rather rotten, dishonest nature for playing all the three girls against each other ad nauseam, and also ignores their feelings — "Tenchi Muyo" also has other flaws which are often overlooked, among them an extremely meandering storyline which doesn't know where it is going, leading to several subplots that all unravel in sometimes just two episodes and are then forgotten for the rest of the show.

One moment, Ryoko is a space pirate that must be arrested by Mihoshi, and then this is all forgotten. Another time, villain Kagato shows up, attacks and this all leads to a giant space battle for two episodes, and is never mentioned again afterwards. Another time, Sasami admits to Ayeka that she is not her sister, but all of this doesn't matter, anyway, since it is never mentioned again in later episodes, and is thus without weight. Such arbitrary tone just consolidates the impression that the author was making this stuff up as he went along, and that it doesn't matter that all the girls are aliens, since all that matters is to establish a plot about three girls "hanging" over a guy. Several fan service moments seem to confirm this (for instance, in episode 3, Ryoko backs up, while Tenchi's grandfather sneaks up behind her and grabs her breasts). This anime works the best when it actually abandons the "harem" concept and simply enjoys its pure comedy. For instance, when bounty hunter Mihoshi lands on Earth, she picks up a signal of her "scary" target and aims at it, which turns out to be an adorable, cat-rabbit like creature, Ryo-Ohki, which bites a third of her gun. In episode 10, the girls are watching a TV romance in which two alien, egg like creatures start passionately kissing, upon which Sasami covers the eyes of the little Ryo-Ohki, while her sister, Ayeka, covers Sasami's eyes. More of such humor would have been welcomed, since the gags about wacky spaceships crashing in the lake or the girls making grimaces can only go so far. The animation is excellent, while a highlight is definitely the song in the closing credits, "Talent for Love", one of the most positive and contagious songs from the 90s, a small gem. Overall, a good comedy anime, yet since this plays out in an isolated house, in which many girls are trying to get the affection of a guy, one cannot shake away the impression that one is watching "The Bachelor" reality show at times.

Grade;++