Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Minus Man

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

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

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

Grade;++

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Krabat – The Sorcerer's Apprentice

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

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

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

Grade;+

Monday, 20 February 2017

Juliet of the Spirits

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

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

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

Grade;++

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Arrival

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

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

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

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

Grade;++

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Attack!

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

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

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

Grade;+++

Monday, 13 February 2017

When Worlds Collide

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

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

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

Grade;+

Friday, 10 February 2017

People Out There

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

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

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

Grade;++

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Play Me a Love Song

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

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

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

Grade;++

Dogtooth

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

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

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

Grade;++