Thursday, 22 June 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, 21 June 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, 16 June 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, 15 June 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;++

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux; drama, Mexico / France / Netherlands, 2012; D: Carlos Reygadas, S: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Willebaldo Torres

A child wonders along the prarie, observing cows. A red, glowing silhuette of a Pan creature enters a house and walks across the corridors. Juan, a lumberjack, cuts some trees in the forest. He returns home to his wife, Nathalia, and their two little kids, Rut and Eleazar. Juan attends an alcohols-anonymous meeting where he talks to a friend, Seven. Juan and Nathalia celebrate Christmas with the relatives, visit a spa for swingers... However, Juan complains to Nathalia that she ignores him and avoids having sex with him. Their relationship falls apart in the rural life: he becomes sick, she takes the kids and leaves him. Finally, Juan goes to a meadow and rips his own head from his shoulders.

After striking a magnificent chore with some early excellent films, director Carlos Reygadas was rightfully panned by the critics for his disappointing film "Post Tenebras Lux", a movie that seems to have fallen into the trap of those loose art-films that follow a vague 'stream-of-consciousness' narrative and that all appeared near the beginning of the 21st Century. Just like them, "Lux" is an achievement without a plot — actually, the first hint of anything of what this should actually be about happens an hour into the film, when Juan has an argument with his wife Nathalia — roughly exploring the collapse and dissolution of a relationship of a couple with two kids, yet it is overburdened with a self-indulgent, chaotic and random style that exacerbates the already huge effort of the viewers to try to undertsand the film. The cinematography is great, with Alexis Zabe showing talent for handling the camera, but, unfortunately, the sequences and episodes are so arbirtrary and disjointed — the family playing on the beach; Juan and Nathalie driving on the road with the two kids sleeping in the car; dogs running; a party with the family relatives... — that make "Lux" almost seem like a family photo album at times. The lack of a clear story — and some magnificent style to compensate — debilitate the overall impression of this experimental film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Hard Target

Hard Target; action, USA, 1993; D: John Woo, S: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Yancy Butler, Wilford Brimley

New Orleans. Natasha is searching for her homeless father, Binder, whom she hasn't seen ever since he divorced her mother. When she is attacked by robbers, she is saved by Chance Boudreaux, another homeless man. Natasha offers him money to help her find her dad and Chance accepts. When the police find Binder's corpse, little by little Natasha and Chance discover a web of intrigues led by Fouchon, who colludes with millionaires who are so bored with their lives they pay him to hunt, shoot and kill homeless men in the city at night. One of their victims was Binder. Natasha and Chance hide at his uncle's place in the swamp, lure the millionaires and Fouchon in an old warehouse, and then kill them.

John Woo's 1st feature length film for the American market, and the first big budget US film directed by an Asian director, "Hard Target" is today a curiosity in the director's filmography, serving as his "adjustment phase" in a new country, yet still works as a good action film, with that typical flair of the 90s involving a stranger with little words who takes on the much stronger bad guys, which is reminiscent of S. Leone's films, especially his Dollars Trilogy. A thin, simplistic story with a rather abrupt ending, a couple of clumsy scenes or 'stilted' slow motion shots, somewhat one-dimensional characters and a few silly moments (the snake sequence) narrow the enjoyment value of the film, yet it still serves as a competent, fast, dynamic, thrilling and all-around energetic action ride, with 'tongue-in-cheek' irony that refuses to take itself seriously (Randall is holding a cigar in his mouth, and Chance lights up a match — but just when Randall leans forward to light up his cigar, Chance blows out the match; Wilford Brimley in a humorous guest appearance as Chance's uncle who rides a horse and shoots at the villains...). Naturally, Woo again rises to the occasion in several great action sequences — one is when the robbers assault Natasha (she opens the door of her car, but one of the thugs shuts it by kicking the door; a thug swings with a bottle at Chance, but he catches his arm and just bends it backwards to let the bottle hit him) and the other is when Chance charges with a motorcycle that leaks gasoline at the bad guys, smashes it into their car and shoots at the gasoline, thereby igniting it into an explosion, which is a fine example of action, easily one of Van Damme's finest hours.

Grade;++

Monday, 5 June 2017

Intimate Headshot

Intim fejlövés; drama, Hungary, 2009; D: Péter Szajki, S: Gyözö Szabó, Tibor Gáspár, Lehel Kovács, Zsolt Huszár, Eszter Nagy-Kálózy, Kata Gáspár 

Several stories unravelling during 24 hours: Gabor is about to get married to Eva, but she shocks him when she admits that she was once a man who underwent transgender surgery. Angered, Gabor trashes the house and goes to a striptease club... Tomi is a 27-year old virgin who is horny, and meets Kati who lives in the neighboring apartment. He gets drunk and tries to seduce her, but she thinks he wants to rape her and bites his nose. Kati later apologizes and admits she only came here because she wanted to cut all her ties with her abusive ex-boyfriend. When Tomi wants to ask her out again, he finds Kati having sex with her ex-boyfriend. Disappointed, Tomi goes to a strip club... After he met a girl over a chat website who talks suggestive things, Akos wants to kiss her, but she runs away. Back at home, Akos' wife leaves him because she suspects an affair. Disappointed, Akos goes to a strip club... Balazs finds out his girlfriend, Hajni, has an affair with his best friend. Disappointed, he goes to a strip club.

This anthology film assembled out of four stories by director and writer Peter Szajki is a proportionally well made achievement, enriched with dark humor and linked with a single theme of four men who were (sexually) disappointed by women and thus all meet in the finale in the striptease club, yet the movie seems to be missing that final act that would offer some more meaningful connecting tissue or a bigger point than just that the four protagonists meeting at the striptease club, the end. "Intimate Headshot" works the best during several comical moments, such as when Kati asks Tomi what he is doing outside his apartment with only one slipper on his foot, and he replies with: "I'm looking for the other one", or when the wife, suspecting an affair, asks Akos where he got that scratch on his hand, and he gives a lame excuse that a "big pigeon attacked him", upon which the wife says: "Well, greet your little female pigeon". However, more could have been done since the movie is not that funny nor emotional nor as inspired as it could have been. Overall, a good little film that can be easily watched, with a fine cast that all give very good performances.

Grade;++

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Year One

Year One; comedy, USA, 2009; D: Harold Ramis, S: Jack Black, Michael Cera, June Diane Raphael, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde, David Cross, Hank Azaria, Paul Rudd, Oliver Platt

Zed and Oh are two friends who live in a tribe somewhere in the jungle. When Zed eats from the forbidden fruit, nothing happens, but the shaman still banishes them both from the tribe. On their way to explore the world, Zed and Oh encounter two farmers, Cain and Abel, and spend the night at their place. When it is found out that Cain killed Abel, Zed and Oh flee again. They meet Abraham and stop him from killing his child, Isaac, but flee once again when Abraham demands circumcision. In Sodom, they find that Maya and Eema, two girls from their tribe, are held there as slaves. They manage to start a rebellion, overthrow the king and save Maya and Eema, as well as princess Inanna. Zed parts ways when he decides to lead the people of Sodom to Egypt.

Harold Ramis' final film is a sad and unworthy conclusion to his career, his weakest film, a one where he returned to the vulgar humor from his early days when he wrote "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "Caddyshack", except that this edition is worse, with several ill-considered ideas ranging from coprophagia, farting up to lame jokes of a high priest who enjoys when someone pours hot oil on his hairy chest, all of which undermine and sink the film. "Year One" is a bizarre film: it starts off as a satire of the Bible with the premise that the Tree of Knowledge, Abraham, Cain and Abel and Sodom and Gomorrah all happen in the same time period and thus the two protagonists go from story to story, yet it isn't sure what this is all about whereas it spends a disproportionate amount of time on the Sodom segment which features several vile moments. At best, the film manages to spoof and expose some absurdities of religion — for instance, Zed and Oh interrupt Abraham who wanted to stab his kid, Isaac, which leads to a comic exchange ("I didn't want to kill him! I just wanted to sacrifice him!" - "I don't think that matters to him."); in Sodom, people sacrifice virgins to the gods, so Oh conveniently saves a girl, a virgin, by having sex with her and there is a satire on the pointlessness of circumcision ("They cut a part of it, but there is plenty more where that came from!") — yet it seems even Ramis' sixth sense for comedy exhausted itself, leading to several misguided or empty moments. This is one bizarre moment after another, and you wait for it to finally end, and then it does and that's it. Indeed, an unecessary final film entry from a good director and writer.

Grade;+

Monday, 29 May 2017

Dumb and Dumber To

Dumb and Dumber To; comedy, USA, 2014; D: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, S: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner, Laurie Holden, Rob Riggle, Rachel Melvin, Don Lake, Steve Tom, Tembi Locke, Brady Bluhm, Paul Blackthorne, Bill Murray 

For 20 years, Harry is visiting his friend Lloyd in a mental asylum, who was left allegedly paralyzed in a wheelchair after Mary broke up with him. However, Lloyd finally reveals to Harry that he was just playing a prank on him for the last 20 years, and that he was OK all along. Back home, Harry receives a letter from a woman he slept with, Fraida, who informs him that he has a daughter, Penny who was adopted by a famous scientist, Bernard, 22 years ago. Harry and Lloyd embark on a road trip to El Paso for the KEN conference to meet Harry's daughter. At the same time, Bernard's wife Adele and her lover Travis are trying to kill Harry, Lloyd and Penny so that Adele can inherit his large fortune. The police stop that, however, and Adele is arrested, while Fraida reveals that Penny is not Harry's daughter, but that she just deceived him.

20 years after the hyped, vulgar, crude, yet rather funny 1st film, directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly actually attempted a very late sequel which is decent — equally as vulgar and crude as the original, just less funny. The introduction to the two lead characters, and what they were doing for the last 20 years, is just outrageously insane enough to justify the return to their story, though the storyline loses a lot of inspiration in the 2nd half which copies too many jokes already seen in "Dumb and Dumber" whereas it offers a terrible, cop-out ending which just simply aborts a character arc for Harry and Lloyd and leaves them without a proper conclusion. In that sense, this sequel could have worked better as a short film than a overstretched feature. Some of the jokes are also terrible, with the grandmother in the retirement home sequence reaching a low point of the entire series. The Farrellys still prove to have some remains of a sixth sense for comedy here and there, and thus, luckily, some of the jokes in the first half are hilarious: the one where a Meth cook (Bill Murray in a cameo hidden behind a Hazmat suit) prepares his goods, and a cat randomly jumps to lick the drug, only for the "drugged" pet to be later seen hanging from a chandelier in the background, is a small comic highlight, almost worthy of the Marx brothers, while another wonderful joke is when Harry and Lloyd meet the 50-year old Fraida and ask her to identify herself since the young Fraida they knew has a "smiley face" tattoo on her back — she shows her back, and it now has a "sad face" due to her saggy skin. Jim Carrey is again in good shape and shows his hunch as a comedian, though Jeff Daniels is his worthy partner. Overall, a solid sequel, with a few funny moments, though it is a pity that the characters were not expanded, and instead just stayed one-dimensional caricatures.

Grade;+

Summer with Monika

Sommaren med Monika; drama, Sweden, 1953; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg, Dagmar Ebbesen

Harry (19) and Monika (18) are teenagers in love, but plagued by problems since they work poorly paid, ungrateful jobs in a storage and a vegetable store, respectfully. They also do not have a peaceful place to make love, since they still live with their parents. Fed up with her alcoholic father, Monika persuades Harry to escape from the city in a boat and spend the summer in a deserted beach. However, they run out of money and Monika even resorts to stealing food from a house. Upon finding out she is pregnant, they return home. She gets a baby, but gets bored with her housemaid life, yearning for adventure and money which the poor Harry cannot afford. She leaves him and he is left with the baby alone.

One of Ingmar Bergman's "lesser films", "Summer with Monika" is nonetheless a refreshing entry in his filmography since it departs from his routine existentialist themes and instead just presents a light, simple story about two teenagers in love who escape to spend the summer alone in nature, though the director's trademark dark observations about human alienation and isolation still "tick in" in the pessimistic ending. It seems Bergman tried to deliver a modern, "hip" film about the lives of the youth, evident even in a few untypically comical moments for him: for instance, Harry and Monika start making out at his home, lying on the couch, but are then interrupted when they hear his father entering the room. The couple quickly start putting their clothes back on, while Harry even asks: "Do I look I was just about to do it?" Upon having nothing to eat but mushrooms, Monika laments to Harry: "Mushrooms for lunch, mushrooms for diner... If this keep up, our child is going to be a mushroom, not a human". However, once they escape to spend the summer alone in nature, the movie predictably turns into a "stranded whale", not knowing what to do with them, wasting too much time on empty walk or random episode in order to try to cover up for this overstretched segment, though it received attention for a (timid) scene of Harry observing the naked Monika running towards the sea on the beach, which secured Sweden the title of a "liberal cinema" of Europe. An interesting little film, good, though not great, which seems more like an exercise of the director.

Grade;++

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Naked

Naked; drama, UK, 1993; D: Mike Leigh, S: David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Greg Crutwell

Johnny is a nihilistic misanthrope who steals a car and flees from Manchester after his street sex with a woman turns violent. He finds refuge in London, in the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Louise. He seduces Sophie, Louise's flatmate, but ignores her after sex. Wondering the streets at night, Johnny meets a security guard, Brian, with whom he has philosophical conversations at night in the building he is watching over. Sophie encounters Sebastian, her landlord, who forces her into sex. When Louise finally returns to the apartment, she makes up with Johnny while Sebastian leaves the premises. However, despite his leg injury, Johnny suddenly stands up and leaves the apartment, aimlessly walking down the street.

Mike Leigh's breakthrough film, "Naked" is his most untypical achievement, depicting explicit sex scenes and sometimes even direct violence, abandoning his trademark subtle observations about social issues. This is not a film about a story. It is a film about a character, a highly bizarre, nihilistic young philosopher, Johnny (David Thewlis) who wonders the streets aimlessly and refuses to settle or "take roots" anywhere. Just like Robert Dupea in "Five Easy Pieces", Johnny is actually a highly intelligent person, but for some reason rejected his talent and society and only knows how to escape from a problem. He is also full of contradictions: on one hand, he is plagued by the problems and injustice in the world, yet on the other hand, he himself emits troubles and injustice towards others, especially towards the women with whom he has sex, only to later on run away from them. It is almost as if he is some sort of a teenage Friedrich Nietzsche whose wild, juvenile nature was left untamed despite his education.

The script is filled with a wealth of fantastic, philosophical quotes which are a joy to listen and form highlights in this 'slice-of-life' storyline by speaking volumes about some truths in life ("That's the trouble with everybody: you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you and you're bored with it, you've had the living body explained to you and you're bored with it, you've had the Universe explained to you and you're bored with it. So now you want cheap thrills and like plenty of them."; "No matter how many books you read, there is always something in this world that you never ever ever ever understand."; when Louise asks him "How did you get here?" when she finds him in the apartment, he cynically replies with: "Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat."; "Have you ever thought, right, but you don't know, but you may have already lived the happiest day in your whole life and all you have left to look forward to is sickness and purgatory?"). The excellent Katrin Cartlidge stands out the most in the cast with her performance as the 'daft' Sophie, finely balancing both her fragile and confused nature. The only flaws are the subplot revolving around the supporting character of sexual predator Sebastian, who is unnecessary in the story, whereas the last quarter of the film is rather pointless, which somewhat reduces the quality as a whole.

Grade;+++

Friday, 26 May 2017

Horn of Plenty

El cuerno de la abundancia; comedy / drama, Cuba, 2008; D: Juan Carols Tabio, S: Jorge Perugorria, Annia Bu Maure, Laura De Ia Uz, Enrique Molina, Paula Ali, Yoima Valdes

Bernardito Castineiras, an engineer living in a small Cuban village, is married to Marthica and they have a child together, but are unhappy with their low income, noticeable in their old home. One day, they hears of news of an inheritance which was left by nuns for every member of the Castineiras family, whose grandfathers protected them from pirates and have since then deposited the gold to Britain, which corresponds to 123 billion $. Hundreds of people with the family name Casteineiras apply to claim the inheritance, among them Bernardito who travels to Havana, and has an affair with Zobeida, a woman who works with him. However, in the end, an American brought the bank and thus the money is blocked due to the US embargo against Cuba. Bernardito reconciles with Marthica and they deicde to keep waiting for the inheritance.

"Horn of Plenty" is an uneven comedy that took a completely wrong direction from its initial premise and thus strayed away from all the rich possibilities for humor: instead of focusing on timeless themes of human greed and selfishness for wealth, as well as exaggerated antics that stem from these, reminiscent of Moliere's classic "The Miser", it bizarrely and puzzlingly persistently refuses to do so and spends more time on Bernardito's affair with Zobeida as well as his marriage with Marthica. The storyline is overstretched and thin, scarce with humor, and when it finally delivers, the humor is again not about the people expecting an inheritance, but about Bernardito's sex scenes: just as their kid goes out of the house, Marthica shuts the door and immediately takes her clothes off to sleep with Bernardito in bed, but they are interrupted when his mother enters the house. In another scene, Bernardito tries to have sex with Zobeida while sitting on the flush toilet, but due to all the shaking, it breaks and a stream of water erupts beneath them. Even worse, the idea of the inheritance is strangely abandoned in the ending which just stopped the plot without resolving it, leaving the characters (and the viewers) frustrated by having to wait what will happen, but then it ends. This is an incomplete ending. Many golden opportunities were missed: since hundreds of people from the Casteinerias family claim the huge fortune, why not have them fight against each other? Why not have them clash or try to dispute each others' last name? The only good joke is that they spend some money on a wedding expecting a fortune, only to be disappointed. The actors are all very good, though, which somewhat alleviates the overlong storyline that took too many strange paths.

Grade;+

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Once Upon a Crime

Once Upon a Crime; crime comedy, USA, 1992; D: Eugene Levy, S: Richard Lewis, Sean Young, James Belushi, Cybill Shepherd, John Candy, Ornella Muti, Giancarlo Giannini, George Hamilton, Elsa Martinelli

Rome. Phoebe is broke, but teams up with unemployed actor Julian when they find a lost dog and want to bring it to Madam Van Dougan who offers a 5,000 $ reward for his return. When they arrive at her mansion, they find her dead and are subsequently arrested by the police for murder. A couple, Neil and Marilyn, get broke while gambling in Monte Carlo, Monaco, while someone frames them with a suitcase containing Van Dougan's body parts. They are also arrested. Augie Morosco, another gambler, is also suspected of the murder and arrested, also finding out that his wife, Elena, had an affair with playboy Alfonso, who is also a suspect. The Inspector questions them all, until it is found out that the murder was perpetrated by the maid and her husband, the butler. The other suspects are released while Alfonso runs away with the dog that inherited Van Dougan's fortune.

It was probably nostalgia that swayed legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis to remake his own Italian 'whodunit' comedy "Crimen" by M. Camerini, yet the final result pleased almost nobody: it starts off nicely, yet quickly depletes itself with too much empty walk and too many subplots and side characters that drown and overburden the initial simple story. Many great comedians are here, from John Candy up to James Belushi, yet the thin screenplay has little to nothing for them to work with, whereas while it was initially charming to watch the characters' confused or panicked faces, these grimaces can only go so far. It seems the screenplay was so meagre that each comedian recieved only one good joke each (Belushi with the dialogue: "Are you finished?" - "Are you Swedish?"; Richard Lewis impersonating an Italian accent while trying to report the murder to the police on the phone, so he identifies himself as "Rocky Balboa"; Candy while sliding and falling down the roof) whereas for the rest of the film they have nothing left anymore, leaving their potentials underused and unexploited. A light and uneventful crime farce that simply lacks highlights — there is little here to write about — yet it is notable for surprisingly demonstrating that Sean Young has a very charming gift as a comedian in her role as the clumsy Phoebe.

Grade;+

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair; romantic crime, USA, 1999; D: John McTiernan, S: Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Fritz Weaver, Frankie Faison, Ben Gazzara, Faye Dunaway

New York. Several robbers infiltrate the Metropolitan Museum of Art disguised as employees of the museum, but are recognized and the staff sounds the alarm. In all the commotion, millionaire Thomas Crown slips into the gallery and swiftly steals a painting by Monet, smuggling in into his briefcase and exits as all the attention of the police is focused on the arrested imposters. NYPD Detective McCann has no clue as to who stole the Monet painting, until investigator Catherine Banning is brought on the case. She suspects it was Thomas and thus proceeds to seduce him. He brings her with a plane to a Caribbean island where they make love. Back in New York, the police are on Thomas' trail. Thomas returns the painting and implores Catherine to escape with him from the country. She boards a plane and suspects it is empty, but then finds out Thomas is there waiting for her.

Contrary to all the expectations, John McTiernan's highly competent "The Thomas Crown Affair" is one rare example where a remake is equally as good as the original, delivering a refreshingly elegant, smooth and stylish heist story, but even adding an emotional-romantic dimension to it, since it is implied that the title protagonist was unstable since he could not find the real woman he loves, until he found the investigator who follows him, which also gave a sly excuse for the star of the original film, Faye Dunaway, to deliver a worthy cameo in the frame story of Thomas talking to his psychotherapist. The sequence of the robbery at the museum is just plain clever (Catherine observes the heat-detector surveillance footage of the gallery from which the painting was stolen, yet the video consists just out of "white", blank screen since someone raised the temperature in the room so much that it was equal to the human body temperature, thereby rending it useless since the two cannot be differentiated anymore), the humor between the main protagonists is wonderful (after taking her from New York with a plane for an excursion, Thomas returns Catherine in another plane, yet when she spots a green, tropical island, she laments: "That island isn't Manhattan"), the romantic subplot is surprisingly touching whereas Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo have great 'chemistry', and the authors do not shy away from their sex scene. Maybe the ending is a little bit too happy for Hollywood standards, and maybe the movie does indeed rely too much on fantastic cinematography instead giving more room for the story and character development, yet it all works nicely, whereas Denis Leary has a delicious little role as the cynical NYPD Detective.

Grade;++

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair; crime, USA, 1968; D: Norman Jewison, S: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke

Millionaire Thomas Crown, owner of a respected company, secretly hires the coiled Erwin and four other associates for an assignment of which they will find out only later on. One day, he gives them the instruction to rob a bank: the four men steal the bags with the money in the building and place them in Erwin's car. He, in turn, leaves the bags in a trash can in a graveyard. There, Thomas picks up the money, a sum total of 2.6 million $. The police and Inspector Malone cannot find any clues to the perpetrator, until investigator Vicky Anderson is brought to the case. She finds out that Thomas recently opened a Swiss bank account and assumes he is the mastermind behind it all. Vicky seduces Thomas, but then falls in love with him. When the police set up a trap, Thomas escapes, leaving Vicky behind.

An interesting and proportionally stylish crime film, "The Thomas Crown Affair" is a smart, slick and appropriately unusual achievement of its genre that attempted to become timeless, yet in the end still remained "trapped" in the 60s. The occasional impression of a dated and/or overstretched feeling of the film is still only a marginal complaint compared to a wealth of virtues, from an innovative use of the split-screen technique all up to the excellent performance by Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway who ignite a certain 'chemistry' when interacting, which is especially palpable in the inspired chess sequence in which she is seducing him only through her looks. Norman Jewison directs the story with elegance, though it still lacks humor, and needed more charm and emotions, delivering a good film which is at the same time a little essay about the investigative detective profession, just a step away from a real manual for detectives.

Grade;++

Saturday, 20 May 2017

I Even Met Happy Gypsies

Skupljači perja; drama, Serbia, 1967; D: Aleksandar Petrović, S: Bekim Fehmiu, Velimir Bata Živojinović, Gordana Jovanović, Olivera Vučo, Mija Aleksić

A Gypsy village somewhere in the Banat region, Vojvodina. Bora is a Romani who is constantly plagued by tough luck: he loses all his money in a bet; he doesn't care for his wife; his baby died of a disease, whereas his rival, Mirta, is barging in on his "territory" and buying off geese feathers from farmers. Bora falls in love with Mirta's stepdaughter, the 14-year old Tisa, and asks to marry her, but Mirta refuses because he finds her attractive as well. When Mirta tries to rape Tisa, she runs away and Bora marries her in secret, ditching his previous wife. Hoping to escape into a better life, Tisa goes off to Belgrade to be a singer, but finds out her relatives are living there as beggars. While hitchhiking, she is raped by a Turkish driver and dumped into her village. Bora kills Mirta with a knife. The police investigate the case, but cannot find Bora who vanished.

A widely critically recognized achievement, "I Even Met Happy Gypsies" is one of the saddest films of the 60s, unflinching while openly showing all the misery and poverty of the life in a Romani village, showing sympathy for their status of a minority where they are de facto 3rd class citizens who are shunned and frowned upon by everyone, as some sort of category of collective outsiders from which there is no escape. Director Aleksandar Petrovic crafts the film without a real storyline or a clear narrative, instead focusing more on an ethnographic 'slice-of-life' study into the customs and traditions of the Romani people, which is reflected even in the dual language of the protagonists, demonstrating exceptional realism, patience and authority in handling all their episodes — except maybe for the weird, abrupt ending. Occasionally, the mood is 'livened up' through a few comical episodes, the most notable being the one involving Tisa in the arranged marriage with a 12-year old boy who doesn't know what to do on their Honeymoon in bed, so she kicks him out, which degenerates into an absurd fight from the two families, who were spying on them through the window all the time, expecting the boy to "fulfil" his duty as the husband. There is sadness and melancholy by the author for the protagonists, knowing that their tragedy is inevitable and inescapable, and the whole movie is somber, dirty and grim, accordingly — except for small "rays of light" associated with the scenes involving geese and their feathers who serve as the only "intruders" of poetry and beauty in this grey world, some of which are simply outstanding and magical (Bora throwing feathers from a truck, thereby transforming the whole road into white; the three men entering the village during wedding, so a flock of geese moves away to let them through; the ontological sequence of a knife fight between Bora and Mirta, who fall and disappear into the endless mass of feathers).

Grade;+++

Friday, 19 May 2017

National Class Category Up to 785 ccm

Nacionalna klasa; comedy / drama, Serbia, 1979; D: Goran Marković, S: Dragan Nikolić, Bogdan Diklić, Gorica Popović, Rade Marković, Olivera Marković, Milivoje Tomić, Bora Todorović, Danilo 'Bata' Stojković

Branimir "Floyd" is a lad obsessed with cars and races, but surrounded with problems and disapproval of his lifestyle by everyone: his father, the butcher, considers him a "social parasite" who cannot find a job; the authorities want to draft him in the army so he constantly enlists as a student wherever he can to avoid the military; his girlfriend announces she is pregnant with him, even though he fell in love with another girl, Senka; a man is filing charges against him for scratching his car... Branimir's life goal is to win the 1st place in an upcoming race, which will guarantee him a higher status of a professional driver and lift him above the "National class" category of amateurs. He wins the race, but is disqualified because his car broke down and only passed the finish line because another car pushed him after ramming it from behind. Branimir thus marries his pregnant girlfriend, abandons his car and goes to the army.

The 2nd feature length film by the great hope of Yugoslav cinema, director Goran Markovic, "National Class" is an attempt to assemble a 'hip' and 'cool' modern Yugoslav film for the youth, yet its optimistic tone and sequences of car drives also feature a hidden, darker leitmotiv of the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. Such is the story of the main protagonist, Branimir 'Floyd', who aims to be a professional sports car racer, yet in the end turns into a man who has to give up on each and every one of his dreams and accept the grim fate from which he simply cannot escape, no matter what he tries. Luckily, there is enough humor to "sell" this bitter pill, and one of the best is the running gag of Branimir attempting to enlist as a film director in the Academy of Arts, yet not having any clue of the classic Eisenstein film "Battleship Potemkin" — when the title is first brought up, Branimir asks: "Oh, is that the movie with Steve McQueen and that blond?", and when he enters the screening room to watch it among the audience in the art cinema, he turns around, whistles and shouts: "Hey! Turn on the sound!" Dragan Nikolic is charming as the irresponsible, yet innocent hero, whereas the rest of the cast is great, as well, especially the little episode of legendary comedian Danilo Stojkovic as the man who is filing charges against Branimir because he scratched his car.

Grade;++

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Summer Interlude

Sommarlek; drama, Sweden, 1951; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjelin, Annalisa Ericson

Marie is a ballerina preparing for the production of the "Swan Lake", yet the rehearsal is interrupted due to technical difficulties. Someone sends her a diary of her ex-lover Henrik, and this causes Marie to leave the theatre and travel with a boat to the island where she met Henrik. There she remembers their encounter over a decade ago: as a teenager, she spent her summer on the island while visiting the house of uncle Erland and met Henrik. They fell in love and enjoyed swimming, but drifted further and further away since Marie wanted to dedicate herself to ballet. One day, Henrik jumped into the shallow sea and injured himself. He died from those injuries. Back in the present, Marie finds out Erland sent her Henrik's diary. She returns to perform the ballet, but with the feeling that her job is empty, just as her life without Henrik.

Even though it is often mentioned only as a footnote in film lexicons when touching upon Ingmar Bergman's filmography, "Summer Interlude" was the director's breakthrough film, the 1st achievement in which Bergman clearly, articulately, concisely and decisively established what he wanted to say and why in the story, which would influence all his other films for the next four decades. It is, in a way, a "Bergman-light" movie, yet it is still excellent, an example of a story in which he matured into the artist he would be critically recognized until the end, also touching upon his often existentialist themes and the leitmotiv of a protagonist who feels his/her life is empty and meaningless, as part of a wider, tormented notion that the whole human existence is just a passive, fleeting moment in time. The sequences in which Maria visits the empty vacation home during cold autumn is contrasted with the flashbacks of her warm days when she spent her teenage days there during summer, when she met her first love, Hernik, acting as an allegory of human life which goes from optimistic days of youth (summer) until the 'grey' days of adulthood when nothing more can be expected from it (autumn). Still, Bergman is untypical in a few comical, upbeat moments here and there: one of the best is the two minute long scene, filmed in one take, when Henrik is sitting at the dock and laments how he is jealous of Marie spending so much time with her uncle, upon which she leans on him, teases him ("Ah, jealous boy...") and then suddenly pushes him into the sea, bursting into laughter; as well as a few ironic dialogues (Henrik spends a long time trying to describe his feelings of being in love with her, comparing it to a sensation in the stomach and the chest, and asks how she feels, yet Marie just says: "How should I know, I'm not in love!"). Bergman's mise-en-scene is great, and his feeling of despair of the insignificance of the human existence is easily identifiable (an angry Marie saying that she would "spit on God" if she would meet him), all adding up to a complete film, despite a rather vague ending.

Grade;+++

Friday, 12 May 2017

They Called Him Bulldozer

Lo chiamavano Bulldozer; sports comedy / drama, Italy, 1978; D: Michele Lupo, S: Bud Spencer, Raimund Harmstorf, Joe Bugner

When a military submarine raises its periscope under it, it pierces the ship of sailor Bulldozer, who is thus forced to dock at a nearby coastal town. As he waits for his ship to be repaired, Bulldozer enters a bar and witnesses how American soldiers from a nearby military base, led by Sergant Kempfer, are using tricks and ploys to double-cross locals in card games and arm wrestling, stealing their money. Kempfer recognizes that Bulldozer is an ex-football player who woved never to play again since he was disappointed by foul play in sports. However, Bulldozer takes pity on the youngsters and becomes their trainer in an upcoming football play with the American soldiers. Even though the soldiers use brutality to beat the youngsters, Bulldozer steps in into the game and wins it for them.

Probably inspired by the huge success of "Rocky" and numerous Italian Association footbal clubs, Michele Lupo directed this sports comedy extravaganza with a few untypical dramatic moments for its main star, comedian Bud Spencer, and they would de facto remake the story four years later with "Bomber", just set in the boxing genre. "They Called Him Bulldozer" suffers from typical flaws of many Bud Spencer comedies from the 70s onwards: it starts off good, but half-way through the film crew suddenly seems to give up on any kind of effort and instead just settles for standard, routine empty walk and fist fights in the last hour. The same fate seems to have befallen this movie, though Spencer is again charming and funny as the unlikely hero, some jokes are good (the first fist-fight in the pub is amusing: as two soldiers charge with benches at him, Bulldozer just ducks between them and they hit each other whereas especially comical is the episode of a soldier so drunk that his cheeks are red — when he tries to attack Bulldozer, the latter just gives him a sip of drink, and the soldier suspends his swing half-way through before being knocked off by alcohol overkill) whereas Lupo manages to create a few unusual camera moves which work here and there (the horizontal alignment of the football players across the widescreen as the football flies over them in the sky). More could have been done out of the story, since the last hour lacks highlights, yet the movie is overall easily watchable and a light, albeit fun sports film.

Grade;++

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Last Year at Marienbad

L'Année dernière à Marienbad; drama, France / Italy, 1961; D: Alain Resnais, S: Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoeff

A play is being performed in a baroque hotel. After it, the guests mingle among each other. A man spots a woman and claims he recognizes who she is, insisting they met last year at the Marienbad garden. Her husband plays a game with sticks, Nim, with the man, and beats him each and every time. The man talks to the woman in the hotel, insisting they met and that she promised him to give her a year to make up her mind, though she denies it. Finally, from the stairs, the husband observes how the man and the woman walk away together from the building.

"Last Year at Marienbad" is one of those extreme French art-movies that go so far at being deliberately vague and obscure that they might as well constitute a film version of a Rorschach test, since the viewers have to decipher and assemble their own interpretation as to what they actually saw from the blank story. This is even more obscure than some of Godard's films. As such, it represents one of Alain Resnais' weaker films, yet it is not without at least some redeeming features, especially in the elegant camera drives across the corridors of the baroque hotel. Also, the hermetic story may still actually have a hidden meaning: the human fear of the passivity in the monolithic fate, the inability to free one's existence from the endless cycle of repeated variations of the same events.

This is illustrated in the 7-minute long sequence where the camera just endlessly drives through the corridors, while the narrator repeats the same sentences again and again ("...Silent rooms where one's footsteps are absorbed by carpets so thick, so heavy that no sound reaches one's ear..."); the Nim game in which the husband beats the man, again and again, not matter how much the latter tries to change the outcome; the man's narration ("It made no difference. It was always the same conversations, the same absent voices..."); the camera drive from the corridor towards the woman in the room, which is repeated six times — all to symbolize the endless cyclic nature of events. The main protagonist, the man, cannot change the opinion of the woman, no matter how much he tries, and thus remains an allegory of humans as a whole, who are just puppets in the crushing destiny of the Universe, the rigid order. The hidden leitmotiv is the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. However, the movie is exhaustingly slow, with empty, stale dialogues, debilitated narration and dry, boring moments, which all undermine the movie's impression, adding to its divisive nature.

Grade;++

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing; drama, USA, 1989; D: Spike Lee, S: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence

The hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. Sal is an Italian American who runs a pizzeria in an mostly black neighborhood. His son Pino, a racist, and Vito work in the pizzeria, as does African-American Mookie, who is still in bad relations with his girlfriend, Tina, with whom he has a child. There are also several other characters in the neighborhood: the old Da Mayor, who drinks to forget how his family is hungry; Smiley, a mentally disabled man who sells photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the street... When Buggin' Out complains that Sal's pizzeria doesn't contain a single photo of African-American on the wall, Sal throws him out. Buggin' Out thus wants to boycott Sal's place. That evening, he brings Radio Raheem who plays loud music on his radio in Sal's place. When Sal loses his temper and smashes the radio, it escalates into a fight, which ends in a police officer killing Raheem. This incites a riot in which people burn down Sal's pizzeria.

Spike Lee's breakthrough film that talks about racial relations in America is good, yet it once again proves one thing: that social issue alone doesn't always subsume genuine greatness. "Do the Right Thing" is one of those films without a real story, an episodic, 'slice-of-life' film that instead just follows 24 hours in life on a particular place, which is legitimate, yet not all episodes are equally great. For instance, the side-character of Ossie Davis' Da Mayor leads nowhere, nor does that of racist Pino — both of their arcs are left incomplete and do not connect at the end, and thus the storyline seems slightly unfocused and random at times. Lee is also contrived at times: would Buggin' Out really freak out and make such a fuss over a guy accidentally passing over his sneakers with a light bicycle? Isn't that overreacting? Isn't that silly? However, Lee proves to have a steady hand and directs the movie in an elegant way, whereas he has a talent for writing good dialogues here and there — for instance, when Buggin' Out, who has a "hip" hair due, wants to persuade three men to boycott Sal's pizzeria, one of them has an appropriate response ("You should boycott the goddamn barber that messed up your head!") or the sequence where Mookie talks with Pino and cannot understand his racism even though the man admits all his favorite basketball players, comedians and singers are all black (Magic Johnson, E. Murphy, Prince). It is also interesting how the film contemplates that nobody in the neighborhood is happy with their lives due to various problems (unemployment, low-income jobs, "grey" existence...) and thus the heat wave only serves as a catalyst for people to take out their frustrations on someone, the wrong one, even though that doesn't address their problems at all, nor does it give a solution. The most was achieved out of the brilliant Danny Aiello as Sal, who gives a truly excellent performance that carries the entire film.

Grade;++

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 during the day, all ending in a finely tuned ending that 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 one 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 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;+