Monday, 30 December 2013

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire; drama, USA, 1964; D: Anthony Mann, S: Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren, James Mason, Alec Guinness, Mel Ferrer, Omar Sharif

The Roman Empire, 180 AD. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius has spent 17 years fighting against the invading Germanic tribes along the Danube frontier. He wants to make peace and promises all the nations in the Empire the opportunity to gain citizenship, but does not want that his son Commodus succeed him, but General Livius. Commodus poisons Aurelius and thus automatically inherits the position of the Emperor. Commodus' sister Lucilla falls in love with Livius. Commodus' egoistic and megalomaniac behavior triggers a rebellion in the east, led by Lucilla. Livius is sent to crush the rebellion, but joins it instead. He has a duel in which he kills Commodus in Rome, but leaves the city while the unstable fight for power continues.

Even though it was such a commercial failure that it signalled a slow end of the expensive Hollywood monumental genre, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" is actually quite a well made and different sprout of the epic films revolving around the Roman Empire, avoiding overemphasis on Christianity and covering a rarely talked about time period in which the Germanic tribes on the northern border and the turmoil of the government signalled the beginning of the end of the Empire three hundred years later, in 476 AD. A somber, sharp and untypical edition of the genre (the Roman fortress covered by snow), though still slightly overlong and "dry" here and there, with a finale that absolutely abandons any criteria for historical accuracy. Sophia Loren is probably the strongest among the cast as Lucille, but Stephen Boyd is refreshingly natural and convincing as well as Livius: a few sly touches are welcomed, such as the sequence where Livius and Commodus are having a contest in drinking vine - Livius is blond and wears golden clothes, to signal that he is the good guy, whereas Commodus has black hair and wears black clothes, to signal that he is the bad guy. It would have been better if the film followed the history records more closely, instead of trying to appeal to the action and spectacle hungry audience, yet it offers enough surprisingly intelligent features to justify its resistence to get forgotten by time.

Grade;++

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Moskva slezam ne verit; romantic tragicomedy, Russia, 1980; D: Vladimir Menshov, S: Vera Alentova, Irina Muryanova, Aleksey Balatov

Moscow, '58. Katerina, Lyudmila and Antonina are three young girls who moved to the capital from the province. They share an apartment and try to set foot in the city, while Katerina tries to enlist in a university while working as a mechanic. When Lyudmila has to take care of an empty apartment of an uncle who went to a vacation, she persuades Katerina to pretend they are noble students in order to invite rich men and find an easy life with a wealthy husband. In an act of carelessness, Katerina has unprotected sex with Rachkov and - stays pregnant. Rachkov does not want to have anything with the pregnancy, so she has the baby, Alexandra, and decides to raize her herself. 20 years later, Alexandra is a grown up girl and Katerina a director of a company. She finally finds a right husband, Gosha, but he leaves her when Rachkov visits Katerina to see his daughter. But Nikolai finds him and reunites the couple.

One of only four Russian films of the 20th century that won the Oscar for best foreign language film, gentle humorous drama "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears" is weaker than other striking winners "War and Peace" and "Dersu Uzala", but is still a kind-spirited, unassuming and quiet chronicle of a provincial woman who raizes her daughter all by herself in Moscow. Sometimes stiff and stagy, and definitely overlong for such a light story, "Moscow" is nonetheless a pleasant watch centering around small people and their fates, and even unobtrusively adding a subtle socialist element in the subplot where Lyudmila only wants to marry a rich man, a man of status, but does not find happiness as Katerina did, who found a decent husband from the working class. The humor is scarce, but just enough to wrap up the melodramatic story in a better package, and those comical moments work the best. In one such moment, Katerina and Gosha are lying in bed until she realizes that her daughter will be back home any minute, so they quickly get dressed up, pack the portable bed back in the couch and quickly turn on the TV when the teenage daughter arrives. The other is when Nikola is searching for Gosha, who left Katerina, so he shows up in front of a woman on a door and pretends to be a KGB-like agent, asking her: "Grigory Ivanovich, or Gosha, or Goga, or Yuriy, or Gora, or Zora...Does he live here?!" "Moscow" could have been better, yet, overall, it is a positive viewing experience with emotions and understanding of people.

Grade;++

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Smurfs

The Smurfs; fantasy comedy, USA, 2011; D: Raja Gosnell, S: Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara, Jonathan Winters (voice), Katy Perry (voice)

In a fairytale forest, Gargamel and his cat Azrael find the secret location of the Smurf village, and in the ensuing chase, they and six Smurfs - Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Clumsy, Grouchy, Brainy and Gutsy - fall into the forbidden waterfalls, where they enter a portal and land in New York. The Smurfs find refuge in the apartment of Patrick, an advertisement specialist, and his pregnant wife Grace, while Gargamel is still trying to find them in order to exploit them for his superpowers. After a lot of misadventures, Patrick is able to help the Smurfs get back to their world via the portal during a Blue Moon.

Every now and then, certain live action adaptations of fantasy animated shows would send the characters into the real world. And while that was not quite welcomed in "Masters of the Universe", where the heroes landed in California, it was a welcomed turn of events to send the big screen adaptation of the "Smurfs" in New York, because there is simply not much to hold on to a feature length film revolving only around their village. Talented comedian Neil Patrick Harris saved the film, and that's pretty much it. Raja Gosnell's "The Smurfs" are a politically correct, but bland and uneventful film with no jokes worth mentioning. There is a subplot where Gargamel gains followers when he transforms an older lady into a younger woman, but it is suddenly dropped since it leads nowhere. Likewise, in one sequence, the Smurfs enter a store, but nothing happens except for empty breaking up stuff. That is because the screenwriters did not know what to do with those storylines, they just start and then drop them before they amount to anything. Naturally, though, it would have been a challenge to make something out of this vague concept even for B. Wilder. With only one truly funny joke (Patrick's swearing: "Smurf me!"), and a lot of well meant, but sadly lost performances in the thin, insipid plot, this is only a watchable flick that is even weaker once the hype is 'turned off'.

Grade;+

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn; animated fantasy, USA/ UK/ Japan, 1982; D: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr., S: Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Tammy Grimes, Christopher Lee

In a forest, a unicorn overhears the conversation of two hunters who speculate that she is the last of her kind. Curious, and willing to find out what happened to other unicorns, she travels across the country, but is captured by a witch, Fortuna, who uses her as a circus attraction. A clumsy, young magician, Schmendrick, releases her and they continue their quest together with Molly. In order to save her from the Red Bull, an entity that is persecuting unicorns, Schmendrick transforms the unicorn into a woman. They arrive at a castle near a beach, where it turns out that the king, Haggard, is collecting all the unicorns because they make him happy. His adoptive son, Lir, falls in love with the woman. Transforming back into the unicorn, she defeats the Red Bull and saves all the captured unicorns from the sea.

The long awaited big screen adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's eponymous novel, "The Last Unicorn" is, just like most US animated films for adults, a mixed experience. On one hand, it is touching, but that unfortunately wonders off into syrupy-melodramatic way too often, also aggravated by the 'ecstatic physiognomy' design of the characters, especially the maudlin look of the unicorn. Also, it is a prime example of how only two stupid scenes can "contaminate" and disrupt the whole rest of the storyline, here evident in the cringe worthy, bizarre moment where Schmendrick is tied to a tree and uses his magic to make it come to life, only to almost get suffocated by the female tree's "breasts" and the excessive sequence where a skeleton imagines to be drinking from an empty bottle. However, there is something enchanting in the core story of the unicorn who thinks she might be the last of her kind, speaking of some themes as loneliness, but also platonic love, transience and the extinction of innocence in the subplot when she transforms into a woman and discovers the alien feeling of lost love for the first time, resulting in a poetic line ("No sorrow will live in me with that joy - save one. And I thank you for that part, too"). Overall, the lines are the best ingredients in the film, and some are so good they break you heart ("It is a very rare person who is taken for what he truly is"; "I've had time to write a book about the way you act and look, but I haven't got a paragraph. Words are always getting in my way"), which hints that they worked in better harmony in its original, written form. Still, it is appropriately fairytalesque and opulent, with a naive, but optimistic happy ending, and has a different feel than many films of its kind.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Gremlins 2: The New Batch; horror comedy, USA, 1990; D: Joe Dante, S: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Dick Miller, Hulk Hogan

New York. Tycoon Clamp destroys the building of the Chinese salesman, causing the gremlin Gizmo to escape. Billy and Kate work in Clamp's huge business building and discover that Gizmo is held there in a laboratory. The janitor accidentally splashes Gizmo with water, causing the creation of several evil gremlins that multiply, spread and soon put the whole building under siege. After all the customers and staff employees are evacuated, Billy advises Clamp to put dark sheets around the building in order to fool gremlins and lure them into the lobby, where the Sun will destroy them. Unfortunately, just then, the clouds cover the Sun, but after Murray splashes gremlins with water, Billy uses electricity to electrocute them to death.

"Gremlins 2" are a rare kind of sequel that is not one, but actually two steps above the original. Unlike the dumbed-down "Gremlins" that chronically lacked fun or a point, Joe Dante filled the 2nd part with fantastic humor so that the critters from the title almost reach the anarchic point of the Marx brothers. Already the intro is a surprise: in an animated segment, Bugs Bunny introduces the film in front of the Warner Bros. logo, but is interrupted by Duffy Duck who takes over the lead. The satirical tone is continued thanks to a wide range of shrill characters, from the rich Clamp (hilarious John Glover) up to numerous great little lines: in one howlingly funny moment, the police are forbidding the curious people in the crowd from entering the building under siege, but one persistent reporter insists upon entering, which leads to this golden exchange with the police officer: "You have to let me in! I was in Beirut!" - "Oh yeah? I bet they miss you there." The control technicians are mocking Billy's rule which states that gremlins should not eat after midnight ("And what if he eats something in the plane and crosses the time zone?") whereas even metafilm levels are reached when critic Leonard Matlin gives a negative review of the 1st film in a TV show. Billy is, unfortunately, again a bland character, and the story does enter a few empty stretches in the first half, yet the number of inspired jokes is staggering (depending on which version you watch, there is an intermission in which either John Wayne shoots the gremlins or Hulk Hogan threatens them to continue with the screening of the film, but both are so good you have to kneel in front of them; the gargoyle statue joke...) so that one can only pose the question why Dante did not wake up such untrammelled fun already in the 1st film.

Grade;+++ 

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Howling

The Howling; horror, USA, 1981; D: Joe Dante, S: Dee Wallace, Dennis Dugan, Patrick Macnee

TV news anchor Karen White plays a decoy for the police in order to lure and capture a serial killer. When he tries to rape her, the police intervene and kill him. Karen is unharmed, but plagued by nightmares, which causes her husband Bill to bring her to a psychiatrist, Waggner, who advises them to spend some time in a small, desolate settlement near the forest. However, Karen discovers that the inhabitants there are werewolves. When even Bill gets bitten and transforms into one, Karen and an acquittance, Chris, use silver bullets to fight the werewolves. While reading news on TV, Karen herself transforms into a werewolf and is shot and killed in the studio.

Werewolf horrors are a dime a dozen. "The Howling" is congruent to Joe Dante's dark-scary taste, and even though the heroine Karen, played by Dee Wallace, is rather bland, the sole execution of the already hundred times used genre is surprisingly impressive, maybe because, among others, the screenwriter was director John Sayles. The locations around the dark forest full of fog, inhabited by the beasts, are especially spooky and moody, and even a few shrill characters elevate the impression as a whole, like a doctor who on one side of the table holds a sandwich and on the other an organ that he dissects. The scene where the heroine transforms into a werewolf, live on TV, in front of the cameras, is remarkably original in the genre where the media presence was ignored. Despite the above mentioned plus points, "The Howling" nonetheless lacks more wit and spirit, since its humorless tone and often standard storytelling of the theme do not leave more room for a better grade, and it is difficult not to notice that Landis' "An American Werewolf in London" already gave a superior example of how that genre is done down to a T.

Grade;++

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Gremlins

Gremlins; horror comedy, USA, 1984; D: Joe Dante, S: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Francis Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Judge Reinhold

Freelance inventor Peltzer buys a strange, but cute furry creature, a Gremlin, from a Chinese store for his son Billy for Christmas. However, that same night, Billy fails to follow the rules: the Gremlin comes in contact with water, producing disgusting off-spring, and they in turn eat after midnight, transforming into hideous little monsters. Billy and a girl, Kate, thus try to battle with thousands of Gremlins spreading throughout their town. They manage to eliminate them by trapping them inside a cinema and setting it in an explosion though gas.

Joe Dante's most commercial film, black horror comedy "Gremlins" demonstrates that not every cult film from the 80s holds up well today. A bizarre mess, "Gremlins" start out as a satire on Christmas gifts and the tendency of decadent people holding exotic animals as pets, only to degenerate into a buffoonish plague of the little monsters - watching them break stuff the entire film is too little to hold the thin story, whereas the human characters act too much like extras, except for Billy's dad, a clumsy amateur inventor, or the grumpy neighbor, Murray. You do not know what is more misguided here: to have scenes of mom killing Gremlins by making them explode in the oven or setting the whole film on Christmas. Maybe the concept is an allegory of the Eastern philosophy or values (Gizmo was obtained from a Chinese salesman) getting distorted in the Western world, or an allegory of consumerism gone wild, but either way, that was not incorporated into a quality relation with the rest of the events. One of the few truly expressionistic moments with a point is the sequence of thousands of Gremlins cheering while watching "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" on the big screens, in a peculiar sight of both cute and disgusting interacting together. Almost like 'Muppets' on acid, the film has a few moments of inspiration (Billy trying to grab a Gremlin before he jumps into a pool of water, thereby creating an explosion of proliferation), but overall, watching "Gremlins" is about as fun as watching a dozen cockroaches roam through a kitchen.

Grade;+

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Riddick

Riddick; science-fiction action, USA, 2013; D: David Twohy, S: Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matthew Nable, Katee Sackhoff

Riddick is abandoned on a desert planet. This happened after he refused to convert to the Necromonger religion, even though he was their leader, so He wanted to get out, but was double crossed by Krone who wanted to kill him. Even though the conditions there are tough, Riddick is able to adapt an even find a pet, a giant alien dog. two spaceships land on the planet, because two bounty hunter groups, one led by Santana, and the other by Johns, want to get him. However, Riddick is able to eliminate most of them and make the others his accomplice if they want to get alive from the planet.

The third instalment of an 'improvised' trilogy that went into rather different directions after a surprisingly good cult original, "Pitch Black", "Riddick" switched the mood of the 1st film from an existentialist science-fiction film to a simplified science-fiction "Rambo", but, despite its flaws and known cliches, it is a 'guilty pleasure'. Riddick, played by Vin Diesel, is in a way so much fun because he is an invincible good guy, that even the film's unintentional humor manages to sway the viewer to a certain level. The hero's abilities are so over-the-top that they cannot be described in any other way - there's a bizarre sequence where Riddick gives himself small amounts of poison to get immune and then going on to challenge a giant, 7-foot tall scorpion coming out of the lake. The scorpion bites him on the leg, but Riddick just calmly keeps standing - as if he doesn't care - and then eliminates the beast. The sequence where he is chained to a chair, but still manages to eliminate the main bad guy with his legs, is also one of those "Come on!" moments, but a few more down-to-earth, realistic and plausible moments do work in the cat and mouse game between Riddick and the bounty hunters who are persecuting him on the planet. Except for the first expressionistic 25 minutes on the desert planet, realized almost without any dialogues, "Riddick" is a rather predictable and standard action film, suitable more for fans of the Riddick franchise.

Grade;+

Monday, 16 December 2013

Pleasantville

Pleasantville; fantasy/ drama/ comedy, USA, 1998; D: Gary Ross, S: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy, Paul Walker, Jane Kaczmarek, Don Knotts

One evening, while fighting over the remote control, two teenage twins from the 90s - the introverted David and extroverted Jennifer - get transported into a black and white TV show from the 50s, "Pleasantville". In that picturesque city, everything is perfect, but boring and monotone. With their unusual thinking and behavior, David and Jennifer inadvertently cause a shift in the way people behave, and bring sex, emotion and creative thinking. However, that way people gain color and the old folks, still in black and white, see them as a danger. David and Bill, owner of a snack bar who painted a nude picture, are brought on trial, but manage to defend themselves. David returns back home, while Jennifer stay to study.

One of the most underrated movies from the 90s, Gary Ross' debut "Pleasantville" is also one of the most unlikely allegories about the resistance to any Totalitarian tendencies and a fabulous essay about how a standard should never become uniformity. Overshadowed by the seemingly similar "The Truman Show", "Pleasantville" is actually a different kind of film, a one where the relationship between the people and the media actually doesn't even matter - what matters here is the relationship between those people who conform and those who do not. David and Jennifer are indeed yin and yang, symbols for conservatism and liberalism, who bring "color" in the 'positive North Korean-like' black and white Pleasantville world and change it. But the message here is not that a liberal life is better than a conservative one, but that people should move away from a pattern imposed on them. Jennifer changes Skip by teaching him how to have sex, yet he gains color, while she stays in black and white. She, a 'cool' girl, changes colors only when she puts on glasses and starts reading a book for the first time in her life. Likewise, the timid David changes color only when he stands up to bullies who were teasing Betty.

Therefor, the change in color is not a signal of a change from right to left wing, but the acceptance of your hidden, suppressed emotions, of the one who you really are in life. Joan Allen's Betty stands out as she goes a long way from a one-dimensional extra to one of the most complex characters in the plot. A few ideas are banal (no toilet seats, an overkill used to show how everything is "too clean") and the entire subplot involving the mysterious TV repairman (played by Don Knotts) should have been cut, because it just bothers the storyline, where no reason for the kids entering the TV show would have worked far better. Everything else works, from palpable allegories ("true" citizens; segregation of "colored" people who are a danger to the society...) up to a simply smashing final scene that brings down the house. In one scene, David spots his mother crying, and it is implied that her husband is leaving her. He wipes a tear on her face and they have this exchange: "I had the right life, I had the right house, I had the right car..." - "There is no right life." - "I mean, I'm 40 years old. It's not suppose to be like this...." - "It's not suppose to be like anything." That's a beautiful point. Life is not suppose to be like that and that, but not to be like anything else, where everyone has his or her own way.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Cherry, Harry & Raquel!

Cherry, Harry & Raquel!; erotic crime, USA, 1970; D: Russ Meyer, S: Charles Napier, Linda Ashton, Larissa Ely

Harry is a local sheriff with a busty girlfriend, Cherry, a nurse. He lives in a small town near the Mexican border. His boss, the bedridden Franklin, orders him to kill "Apache" because he interferes with their marijuana smuggling business. "Apache" survives the assassination attempt, and kills Franklin and Enrique, Harry's associate. He then has a shootout with Harry while Cherry and Raquel enjoy marijuana and hang out naked.

"Cherry, Harry & Raquel!" admittedly have a very confusing plot, but for Russ Meyer a story is supported here only insofar as to have a reason to show large breasts, either in a cleavage or nude. The crime tangle about some vague smuggler ring and a silver mine is half-hearted, but it wouldn't have been such a problem if the sole movie was at least more fun. The movie starts out with a fantastic opening text aimed against fanatic moral purists ("There are still those who concentrate their puny efforts in areas where no concern is needed. They call love evil...human body obscene...where they can never be anything other but beautiful"), but except for that, nothing else is fantastic anymore in the film (the beautiful actresses excluded), which is one long empty walk filled with random scenes. Still, at least one moment is an example of inspirational erotic, the one where a nude Cherry is buried in sand and Harry is slowly putting his hands in the sand, searching and digging out her breasts and legs. Likewise, Charles Napier here gave the most positive role as opposed to his others in the Meyer films, like the unbearable villain in "Supervixens".

Grade;+

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Chronicle

Chronicle; science-fiction drama, USA, 2012; D: Josh Trank, S: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Ashley Hinshaw

Seattle. Teenager Andrew buys a new camera and uses it to record everything around him. His mother is sick and his father sometimes beats him. He is also bullied in school. One night, his friends Steve and Matt invite him to see a strange hole in the woods, which leads to a cave with strange crystals. After returning to the surface, they find out they have grown telekinetic powers. At first, they use it to make pranks, like making a teddy bear float in a store or to move a parked car. They are even able to fly. During a storm, Steve tries to calm Andrew, but the latter looses his control. A lightning bolt kills Steve. Andrew considers himself superior due to his powers, and kills four bullies to take their money away. When he lands in a hospital, his father blames him for the mother's death, which causes Andrew to start flying and wrecking havoc in the city. In order to stop him, Matt kills him.

"Chronicle" is almost like a hidden good Superman vs. fascist Superman story, an upside down retelling of the superhero Hollywood matrix, showing the bad guy as the main protagonist and how he became that way, caused by bullies and isolation in the society. However, the slightly overused "found footage" genre is a burden to the film since the storyline takes too many overconstructed means and shortcuts to tell the story only from the POV of home (or surveillance) cameras. Like, how many times have you seen a guy talking private stuff like "I think my mom is cheating on my dad" while someone is recording him? Or a teenager not stopping his camera while he is arguing with someone? Sometimes it is simply necessary to tell the story from the director's, "all-knowing" camera. The first half is slightly problematic, too, because it wastes too much time on the buffoonery of three teenagers, though it has a few moments (Andrew making the silhouette of the holly Mary in his soup to fool the waitress; the camera recording itself in the mirror while floating in the air; Andrew and Steve performing "magic tricks" in front of the puzzled audience). The second half takes a more welcomed philosophical approach, and the emergence of the old "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" theme. The story could have went in thousands of directions, yet this one is also a good version, with the action finale reaching almost the level of "Superman II".

Grade;++

Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs; comedy/ satire/ drama/ romance, USA, 2010; D: Edward Zwick, S: Jake Gylenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Josh Gad, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria

The 90s. Jamie Randall works as a sales representative of a pharmaceutical company, and tries to sway doctors to prescribe its product, Zoloft, instead of Prozac. While pretending to be a doctor's assistant, he meets Maggie, a 26-year old who is one of the youngest diagnosed patients of Parkinson's disease. Even though she is cynical at first, he manages to charm her and have sex with her. His overweight brother, Josh, is annoying him while staying at his apartment. Jamie hits it big when Viagra is introduced to the market, but Maggie breaks up with him so that she will not be a burden with her disease. However, he decided to stay with her in the end.

"Love & Other Drugs" is a strange patchwork that blends four different subplots into a more of a chaotic than a harmonious whole. It starts off as a comedy, then becomes an erotic love story, then switches to a satire on pharmaceutical industry and the arrival of the Viagra, only to conclude as a tragic handicap drama (the main heroine is one of the youngest patients of Parkinson's disease and her health is deteriorating). In the end, we get some sort of erotic comedy version of "Philadelphia". It could have worked, but a more concise storyline was needed than this one, that jumps from one plot to another, all of whom seem as if they could have been a good film on their own, but not joined together when they all nullify each other. Too many supporting characters are annoying and unnecessary, especially Jamie's slob brother, the low point of the story, but the two main characters really shine and are played with great energy by Jake Gylenhaal and, especially fantastic, Anne Hathaway, who did not shy of showing skin and were both nominated for a Golden Globe as best actors in a musical or comedy. Another great little plus point is a sequence that shows Jamie trying to sway a doctor to prescribe his product, Zoloft, instead of Prozac, that gives a good insight into the system. The director tried to counterbalance the melodramatic last third of the story with comedy, avoiding it to turn too sentimental, but the result is mixed when it was done through such tasteless jokes as the one where Jamie catches brother Josh watching his sex video he recorded while sleeping with Maggie.

Grade;+

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Hitler from Our Village

Hitler iz našeg sokaka; war/ drama/ comedy, Croatia, 1975; D: Vladimir Tadej, S: Nikola Simić, Boris Dvornik, Ružica Sokić, Dušan Bulajić

Vojvodina, a few days before the outbreak of World War II. In a small village, people from various ethnicities live together. After the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, the Volksdeutsche, local, native Germans, become collaborators with the invading German soldiers. Among them is German Leksi, a drunk who suddenly becomes a Nazi patrolman. The position rises to his head and his ego cannot resist but to show off and belittle the locals. His neighbor Marko is secretly seducing his wife Anika. In order to save himself from going to the East front, Leksi agrees with Marko to get shot in the leg and go the hospital. Marko doublecrosses him and refuses to pay him. In anger, Leksi shoots Anika, and Marko Leksi. 25 locals are rounded up and executed as punishment.

Some films are rightfully forgotten with time, yet resurface here and there due to their sheer weird concept or strange title that seizes the attention. Among them is the solid, but standard humorous partisan film "Hitler from Our Village", a lifeless and mechanical 'museum example' of a movie, though it has such a cynical title that it managed to "survive" enough to get screened here and there. The sole concept is very good: it tackles the rarely shown perspective from the Volksdeutsche (native German minority of a country, here Yugoslavia) during the Axis occupation, and one of them, Leksi (very good Nikola Simic), sees this as an opportunity to rize though the ranks and turn from a nobody to a local bully. Except for three or four comical moments (in one of them, Leksi spots farmer Toma holding his hand up in the air in front of two other farmers and sees this as a sign to make the Hitler salute. However, after he does that, Toma says to his friends: "My dog was so happy to see me that he jumped this high"; Leksi urinating while looking at a wanted poster), the remainder of the film is overlong and did not exploit all the rich potentials of the starting idea, with too much empty walk and a whimsical end that does not seem like a harmonious conclusion to the whole.

Grade;+

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Book of Stone

El Libro de piedra; horror, Mexico, 1968; D: Carlos Enrique Taboada, S: Marga Lopez, Joaquin Cordero, Norma Lazareno, Lucy Buj

Julia is hired to be a private teacher for a peculiar 10-year old girl, Sylvia, in an isolated mansion. The child's father Eugenio and her stepmother Mariana, warn of Sylvia's weird behavior: she imagines to be playing with Hugo, a statue of a boy in the nearby lake. Strange things start happening, indeed: Julia loses her brooch in the lake, but someone returns it to her; a voodoo doll is found with needles on the exact same place where Mariana feels pain; Carlos tries to get rid of the statue, but dies in a car accident... Julia finds out that Hugo is the son of a witch, who comes to life as a statue, and teaches Sylvia black magic from his book. Eugenio destroys the statue with an axe, but the next day, a statue of Sylvia is found.

One of the more hailed horrors from Mexico, "The Book of Stone" is a good one, though more could have been done from the promising concept: for all its quality, today it seems more like a museum example of a movie. Except for the eerie opening shot of the fog and a few images of the scary, "jinxed" statue, the story is tame - the first half is almost boring, though the suspense does start to slowly rize in the second half - with too much empty walk and ordinary, standard family talk of the worried father about his daughter, whereas some scenes were clumsily directed. The paranormal tangle gives a frequency of unease, with an interesting end, which seems to have been enough for director Carlos Enrique Taboada who did not intend to enrich the straightforward story any more than it was. "Book" needed more imagination, though, yet it has its moments (Carlos wanting to paint near the lake, until he spots that the statue is missing).

Grade;++

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Bride Wars

Bride Wars; comedy, USA, 2009; D: Gary Winick, S: Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, Bryan Greenberg, Candice Bergen

Emma and Liv are best friends, all until the wedding planer books their two weddings on the same day by mistake. Even though their boyfriends-fiancees, Nate ad Fletcher, don't mind, Emma and Liv try to persuade each other to move their wedding for another date, as to not be mutually exclusive. This culminates in heated arguments and sabotage plans: Emma secretly delivers Liv chocolate hoping she will become to fat for her dress, Liv spreads rumors that Emma is pregnant...Even though this escalates on the wedding, the two realize that the fight is pointless and make up.

"Bride Wars" fell victim to the annual scapegoat seekers among the critics, as it scored only a 3.3/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. Even though this sugary film is thin, sometimes silly, shaky and predictable, such a low rating is indeed too harsh and unfair, as it has enough good jokes and ideas to justify its existence, and avoids vulgarity, bad taste or moronic moments often found in other films of that genre. The sole plot of two brides fighting for the same time slot to have their wedding is simply fun, whereas the majority of the charm is given by the two actresses, especially Anne Hathaway who is simply unstoppable in displaying her talent no matter in what film she appears in. The first half has the best jokes (after Emma got engaged, Liv simply cannot resist but to run to her boyfriend's office and angrily demand: "Honey, when are you finally going to propose me?!"), though the second half sometimes disintegrates into a tit-for-tat bitch fight, but even that segment has it moments (Hathaway's "wild" dance while trying to overshadow Hudson's character is so insane it has to ignite at least a chuckle among the audience). Far from a great achievement, but for a movie that only wanted to offer a carefree, light fun, it succeeded.

Grade;++ 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Paperman

Paperman; animated romantic comedy short, USA, 2012; D: John Kahrs, S: John Kahrs, Kari Wahlgen

A man stands on a train station. One of his papers is blown out of his hands into the face of a woman, and her lipstick remains on the document. The two chuckle, but part ways. The man spots the woman one morning in the neighboring building, and throws thousands of paper planes in order to make her notice, but fails. He gets out on the street, but the paper planes come to life and help him meet the woman again.

There's a certain time span into the storyline when you know a movie is a masterpiece. John Kahrs "Paperman" has one of the fastest time spans to get there: already some ten seconds into the film - when a document of the hero is blown into the woman's face, and as he retrieves it he finds out she "kissed" it by inadvertedly leaving a smooch on the paper - it manages to reach the highest level of awe, sympathy and simple wit. Unfortunately, that high level is not kept for the rest of the story and it seems we are watching a film slowly disintigrate as its running time goes on: the second act, of the man throwing paper-planes out the window, is very good, but a lot weaker, whereas the finale unfortunately derailed into a silly fantasy where the paper-planes come to life and bring the couple together, which is naive kitsch. Even though its momentum is falling down fast, like a slide, "Paperman" is overall still a quality short, executed almost without any dialogues and stylish black-and-white cinematography, and as such it is a valuable example of a sweet, charming animated romance in the US.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

L'Albero degli zoccoli; drama, Italy, 1978; D: Ermanno Olmi, S: Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli

Lombardy, end of the 19th century. Four farmer families live in a commune in order to work from there on the land of the wealthy landlord. The families are very poor, but have patience and understanding. One widow, mother to six children, says a prayer to Christ so he may save her sick cow, her only income. The widow takes some water from a creek and gives it to the cow, which is indeed healed the next morning; grandfather Anselmo hopes to plant his tomatoes first; the farmers butcher a pig. One farmer, Batisti, is father of three children. His son Minec goes to school, but his wooden shoe breaks, so Batista hacks a tree in order to make him a new shoe. The landlord eventually finds out, and punishes Batista by expelling him and his family from his property.

One of those fake masterworks, art drama "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" won the Golden Palm in Cannes and is occasionally mentioned by cineasts and film critics as a great piece of filmmaking, but is an overrated and overlong minimalist rural drama. Director Ermanno Olmi strives towards realism, without any fakery or glamour: he shows four farmer families who live in very poor conditions, walk in mud because there are no streets or put chicken droppings in the soil for fertilizer with their hands, and does not even shy from unpleasant moments (two shocking and graphic sequences of butchering a goose and a pig), whereas even the actors seem like authentic people, without any false pathos. However, the movie is without a poetic touch of a Pasolini or a Fellini, too straight-forward and monotone, with a, nota bene, too intrusive forcing of Christian religion. "The Tree" has only two wonderful sequences stemming from the 'slice-of-life' choice of style - the sweet moment where two girls are switching turns while sitting on a wheelbarrow while the other drives it and the charming subplot where grandpa Anselmo shows his granddaughter how to plant and raise ripe tomatoes before everyone else - which is enough for a good film, but not for a great one, since the rest of the film's events are rather bland and it will depend for whom they will suffice to carry a running time of three hours. It never reaches the magic of a 'slice-of-life' of a Miyazaki or a Takahata. However, it has a great little sequence where Batista chops a tree and then spends the whole night in devotion by modelling it to fit his son's wooden shoe.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

One Week

One Week; silent comedy short, USA, 1920; D: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, S: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Buster and Sybil are married and get a special wedding present: parts for a build-it-yourself house. However, a jealous man who wanted Sybil for himself, deliberately meddles with their instruction kit, which results in an "athwart" house. Buster nevertheless tries to make as best of a home as he can. When they have to relocate, Buster puts barrels under the house and moves it with a car, but it gets destroyed when a train collides with it.

Along with "Sherlock, Jr.", "One Week" is probably Buster Keaton's best short film, a shining comedy. Keaton somehow hits the vibe of inspiration the most when he includes some spectacular object to play with or destruction on a large scale - such was the case with the epic tornado sequence in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and the epic train chase in "The General" - as is the case here, where a whole housing unit is a part of the joke, used often to full potentials (brilliant - and magnificent - jokes where a strong wind spins the whole house around its axis, and makes the people inside feel like in a merry-go-round; the "abstract" design of the house, almost reminiscent of "jagged" buildings in the expressionistic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), though here even "smaller", humble everyday jokes manage to ignite all the way to the top (the scene where Keaton hits a police officer, takes his hat and uses it to stop the traffic, i.e. the car in which his bride was kidnapped, and then return the hat to the officer is among the pinnacle of cool). Filled with meticulous details, a strong pace, charm and an elegant style, "One Week" truly is among the greatest short films ever made and offers Keaton in a very cool edition.

Grade;+++

The Scarecrow

The Scarecrow; silent comedy short, USA, 1920; D: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, S: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Two farmer assistants, Buster and Joe, are living inside a very small house with only one room. They are in love with the daughter of the main farmer. Joe admits his love first, while a dog eats some cream and chases after Buster, who thinks the dog is rabid due to its cream on the jaw. Loosing his clothes in the chase, Buster takes the clothes of a scarecrow. He runs away with the farmer's daughter on a motorcycle and they are wed when they pick up a priest.

"Scarecrow" is a sketchy comedy with a vague plot, and not enough of a payoff compared to Buster Keaton's best films, but is still a very fun short film. The main lack in the story is the lack of a cohesive whole, evident in the very elaborated and meticulous breakfast sequence (salt and pepper grinders, ketchup and other spices are hanging tied to strings above the two protagonists, who just have to pick them "down"), but a one that lacks a point or a definite punchline, since a hanging salt pepper is not that much of a useful invention. Had they established that Buster and Joe are constantly misplacing or losing stuff in the house, such a string would have had a point in the story. The film should be enjoyed for its simple jokes that arrive swiftly and are great little fun: the dog "climbing" a ladder; for instance, or a scene where a character does not want to get his shoes wet, so he crosses a river by walking on his hands! The most charming jokes are so innocent it melts you away, such as the one where Buster "improvises" by giving his girlfriend a cog instead of a engagement ring.

Grade;++

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games; action adventure, USA, 2012; D: Gary Ross, S: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

In the future, the US had a civil war. After the secessionist movement was suppressed, the nation is divided into 12 districts and the rich Capitol. In order to celebrate that event, the Hunger Games are held annually: 12 boys and 12 girls from each district are chosen to fight in a televised broadcast until only one survives. When her 12-year old sister is selected, Katniss volunteers to go instead of her. The boy from her district is Peeta, who is secretly in love with her. The 24 candidates train in the Capitol for the games, and Peeta and Katniss are assigned with "mentor" Haymitch, an earlier winner. Once released in the forest, the teenagers start massacring each other. Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left and decide to commit suicide rather than kill each other. However, they are interrupted by the council who declares them both winners.

Even though it had a good critical acclaim and a smashing box office result, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins dystopian novel "The Hunger Games" is a standard action flick that turned out too much like "Running Man" and too little like "Rollerball" or "The Truman Show". Instead of developing a satirical and political dimension, it just dwells on the raw 'gladiator game' in the forest where the 24 teenagers are set on killing each other for the TV show, which in the end becomes the film's only perspective: that's maybe enough for action fans, but not for viewers eager for something more sophisticated and inventive. For one, the storyline is not articulate: it is not clear why the elite from the Capitol would set up such a drastic survivalist TV show where 23 out of 24 teenagers are killed. There is only one scene in the film that explains that, but it is insufficient. Such a practice would only make the system unstable, because parents from the 12 districts would become prone to rebellion in the long run in order to protect their kids from such a monstrosity. Overall, it simply makes no sense in the film. The sense of perspective also falls short: the fact that the 12 districts live in extreme poverty and only the Capitol has wealth is just a footnote in the film, because you never know if the place where Katniss lives in is just an exception or the rule in this world. On micro level, the scenes also tend to turn silly (Katniss spinning around her axis to "ignite" fire on her dress) or unconvincing (the typical cliche of a girl having the chance to kill off Katniss, but instead spending two-three minutes taunting her. And just when she is about to kill Katniss, she is, of course, "saved-in-the-nick-of-time"), whereas only a couple stand out as thrilling (the wasp nest sequence). "The Hunger Games" are a more humane version of "Battle Royale", but both are far from a good film.

Grade;+

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Melancholia

Melancholia; drama/ science-fiction/ disaster film, Denmark/ France/ Germany/ Sweden, 2011; D: Lars von Trier, S: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard

Part one: Justine marries Michael, yet they both arrive two hours late to their wedding reception. The guests are loosing patience, while Justine gets more and more depressed since her mother shuns her, her sister Claire complains about her behavior and Justine's boss about her work. Justine has sex with another man and Michael thus abandons her. Part two: Claire and her husband John take care about Justine in their mansion ever since she became a nervous wreck. Justine recovers, while a rouge planet, Melancholia, is about to cross paths with Earth's orbit. Even though the scientists predicted that Melancholia fly by, it changes course and heads towards Earth. John commits suicide, while Justine calmly makes a "magic cave" where she, Claire and her son Leo will await the end.

With time, director Lars von Trier's character made it more and more difficult to enjoy in his films: how else to describe an author who copes with his depression and repulsion towards society in such a way that he makes a film where he destroys Earth? "Melancholia" is a strange film, to say the least. The first half starts out as a normal drama and plays out exclusively during Justine's wedding: von Trier abandons definitely some rules of Dogme 95, but keeps the hand-held, shaky camera and cuts within frames. Unfortunately, the story has too much empty walk and too little scenes that connect in any way (we are not given that much of a reason why Justine would become depressed on her wedding day, except due to the bitting remarks of her mother and boss) whereas acting giants like John Hurt are wasted on silly scenes of him stealing everyone's spoons on the table.

The second half, that made a step into the science-fiction/ apocalypse genre, is far more engaging, though: probably taking the Nibiru pseudo-myth that was popular in the pre-2012 time, von Trier starts a second story of a rogue planet, Melancholia, that crosses paths with Earth's orbit. Some images there are expressionistic (the night sky showing the white Moon on the left and the blue Melancholia on the right; Claire's son Leo invented a ring that encompasses Melancholia's exact diameter on the sky, Claire waits for five minutes and then points the ring again towards it, and depending on if Melancholia is smaller or larger than the original ring, it is either approaching or distancing Earth) and Kirsten Dunst is strong as the sardonic heroine Justine, yet her character seems forgotten in that second half whereas it is puzzling why all the characters from the opening act (Justine's dad, mother, boss, lover...) are all excluded in part II, which makes this an incomplete disaster film that restricted the apocalyptic storyline only on the four protagonists of Justine, Claire, John and Leo. If anything, the film at least has a catharsic effect - so many human problems seem pale in comparison to this doomsday scenario - but a truly all-encompassing, humane and elaborated work of "planets colliding" was already made 30 years ago with Matsumoto's classic "Queen Millennia".

Grade;++

Monday, 4 November 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook; drama/ comedy, USA, 2012; D: David O. Russell, S: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Bree Bee

Patrick suffers from bipolar disorder and has just left a facility after treatment. He returns to his home, to live with his father and mother, but has to respect a restraining order because he attacked the lover of his wife Nikki. He meets the young Tiffany who has casual sex with strangers ever since her husband died in an accident. Patrick and Tiffany find a mutual bond because she also suffers from a disorder and rehearse dancing. When his father bets almost his whole fortune with a friend that Patrick and Tiffany will score at least a 5 out of 10 in a dance competition, the couple accepts. They indeed score a 5.0 and fall in love.

Even though it scored a very high critical acclaim, romantic tragicomedy "Silver Linings Playbook" is still a notch below that hype, a good achievement about bipolar disorder, yet a one that allowed that the tone of that neurosis gets spread out over the entire film, evident in numerous scenes that are sometimes more chaotic, messy and 'autistic' than harmonious and measured. However, despite the flaws and lack of humor, two features truly hold up and deserve universal acclaim: veteran actor Robert De Niro as the father and excellent actress Jennifer Lawrence who almost steals the show as the neurotic Tiffany. Her charm is already evident in the first sequence where she meets Patrick when they exchange a witty dialogue ("You look nice." - "Thank you." - "Oh, I'm not flirting with you." - "Oh, I didn't think you were.") In another great little moment, they have a heated argument on the street and she accuses him of harassing her, upon which local youngsters confront Patrick and a police officer even intervenes; seeing he will get in too much trouble, Tiffany steps in and suddenly defends him, telling the police officer that it was "the kids' fault" and that Patrick didn't harass her, claiming that she has a "sick sense of humor", instead. More of that warm moments would have been welcomed, and less those of empty walk of Patrick and Tiffany just dancing or avoiding each other. The characters played by Chris Tucker and Jacki Weaver were sadly "throw away" figures and the dance contest finale was OK, but superfluous and routine. Overall, a good film about two neurotic people balancing it out by being together.

Grade;++

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Dogville

Dogville; drama, Denmark/ USA/ UK/ France, 2003; D: Lars von Trier, S: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, Željko Ivanek, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, James Caan

City of Dogville, early 20th century. Running away from gangsters, Grace arrives to the city. Tom persuades the poor inhabitants to help her find refuge. However, in return for her sanctuary, Grace is soon forced to do more and more chores for them, all the men rape her and she is even tied to a chain so that she will not escape. The gangsters finally arrive at Dogville and it turns out Grace is actually the daughter of the mafia boss. As revenge, the mobsters kill every inhabitant and raze Dogville to the ground.

Inspired by the Bertolt Brecht's drama "Die Ballade von Seerauber Jenny", "Dogville" is a weird 3-hour movie in which the seemingly kind inhabitants soon transform into selfish-arrogant psychos whereas the seemingly evil gangsters in the end turn out to be the good guys. Director Lars von Trier directs the film again in the Dogme 95 style, but signs of madness of his vision do start to become apparent, which will culminate in his later films. The innovation, though, is the set-design looking like a cheap stage: everything is drawn with a chalk. Houses do not exist but are just illustrated in 2-D squares that have the words "Tom's house", "Ben's house", etc. written on them. Thus, even when the actors leave the house on the street, they pretend to open "invisible" doors. There are no background, either: during day, exteriors are in white, and during night in black color. This gives "Dogville" a fascinating feature of a stylistic experiment and an additional layer over the already slightly worn out Dogme 95 hand-held camera look, and the story is interesting, showing once again von Trier's portrait of the bottom of human moral, yet he turns out to be, unfortunately, much more colder and cynical than in his previous films. Nicole Kidman is great as the mysterious Grace who "buys" her stay in Dogville by performing various kinds of chores for the inhabitants, though some moments do turn out excessive (every man rapes her; she is even chained as to not escape). The movie is uneven, with a lack of measure and sophistication, and von Trier's decisions are once again questionable, yet he is able to create a strong and raw allegory of revenge.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark; drama/ musical, Denmark/ USA/ France/ Iceland, 2000; D: Lars von Trier, S: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse

Czech emmigrant Selma suffers from an inheritable disease that threatens to make her blind. The disease was inherited by her son, too. In order to afford eye surgery for him, Selma found a job in the US and started saving money. Her friend Cathy tries to help her whenever she can. One day her neighbor Bill asks some money from her, but she refuses. After that, Bill steals the money and she kills him in self defence. Selma is sentenced to death. She refuses to have a new lawyer in order to have enough money from her son's surgery and thus gets executed.

Drama "Dancer in the Dark", the final part of Lars von Trier's "Golden hearts" trilogy where heroes stay innocent even when the society imposes painful injustice on them, won the Golden Palm in Cannes and brought the main actress Bjork a nomination for a Golden Globe as best actress in a drama, for one of her only a handful of movie roles. When watching the exposition, the viewers may at first think that someone is making fun of them: the first four minutes only show abstract drawings accompanied by music, just like the experimental opening of musical "West Side Story". But once the main plot sets in, it intrigues with ease because it portraits a raw, suggestive and emotional story whereas Selma's daydreams in which she imagines to dance in a musical are a welcome refreshing ingredient in the film that breaks the 'grey' mood. One of the best moments is when the short sighted Selma has problem seeing during the night shift, but suddenly Cathy (brilliant Catherine Deneuve) shows up and helps her manage. The Dogme 95 style uses shaky, hand-held camera and grainy cinematography to create a very realistic picture, while von Trier once again leaves the viewer shocked and smashed, but never indifferent, even though he does resort to a few cheap melodramatic scenes here and there just to get a reaction.

Grade;+++

The Idiots

Idioterne; drama, Denmark, 1998; D: Lars von Trier, S: Jens Albinus, Bodil Jorgensen, Anne Louise Hassing

Karen meets two supposedly mentally handicapped men in a restaurant and goes to the car with them. She discovers that they are not handicapped at all, but normal people who just feign retardation in order to see the reaction of the environment. Karen joins their group, "Idiots", led by Stoffer, and plays a mentally handicapped as well. The "Idiots" visit a factory, public bathing resort and neighborhoods. But when really disabled people are invited, Stoffer reacts with repulsion. After member Josephine is taken away by her father, the group starts to fall apart. Karen starts pretending to be disabled in front of their parents, but gets slapped.

After his breakthrough film "Breaking the Waves", director Lars von Trier made the second film in his Dogme 95 movement, "Idiots", that already signalled the flaws and saturation of raw style of the above mentioned movement, since it did not manage to compensate for a pointless concept, even though it has a few brilliant and well made moments. The story of a group of normal people who pretend to be disabled in order to get the attention and special care of the people around them, is distorted and almost obscene, and von Trier is not able to make a great movie out of that no matter how he tries, nor is he afraid to shock the audience with the sequence of the group sex in a few explicit takes, but he does show the hypocrisy of the group members who at first comically claim that "to be or to play an idiot is a luxury! The idiot is the man of the future!", just to react very nervously and negatively when they encounter real disabled people. The movie is serious as a drama, however. The dispersion of characters and, finally, a lack of a point left the movie a step back from "Breaking the Waves".

Grade;++

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves; drama, Denmark, 1996; D: Lars von Trier, S: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Adrian Rawlins, Jean-Marc Barr, Jonathan Hackett, Udo Kier

Bess MacNiell is a naive cleaner who lives in a rural, strict and very religious community in Scotland. She marries a Danish worker, Jan, but he departs to work at an oil rig. There, he has an accident that leaves him paralyzed. Since he cannot have sex with her anymore, he urges Bess to have sex with other men, claiming that will give him the will to live on. Clumsily searching for men to have sex with, Bess inadvertently gets shunned by the church and the community, while only her friend Dodo and Dr. Richardson are trying to understand her. While going to have sex with a criminal on his ship, Bess is injured and subsuquentlly dies. Jan indeed recovers and while on the oil rig, he and his friends hear bells from the sky.

The movie that established and gave credit to the Dogme 95 movement and Lars von Trier as an acclaimed director, "Breaking the Waves" is a raw, realistic and emotionally devastating film that still holds up well, though it is a tiny bit overhyped and overrated (for instance, some critics even called it the "best film of the 90s"). The first half is brilliant and indeed excellent: Emily Watson is simply fantastic as the naive and simple-minded Bess, but with a heart of gold, and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as best actress. She is able to transmit the elementary human emotions in Bess: in the scene where she is hypnotized while watching a movie in cinemas, Jan is seen observing her, as if he is falling love with her innocence, not with her personality. Likewise, the honeymoon sequence also works surprisingly fine and is so natural: in any other film, when Jan lies on the bed naked and Bess starts giggling when she observes his penis until they both burst into laughter, the scene would have ended up banal and unintentionally comical, but here it seems entirely sincere. Von Trier insists on hand-held camera, with nervous, shaky frames, edits and "grainy" cinematography, sometimes even with blurry scenes, that look as if they came from someone's home video, but thanks to Watson's monumental performance, all those features and eventual flaws take a back seat.

Unfortunately, the second half is by far a lot weaker, and at times even slightly gives the impression as if von Trier was himself not sure what he wanted to say. It is not clear why Jan, after getting paralyzed in an accident, would persuade Bess to have sex with other men. At best, he wanted her to find a mediator, a third person that would keep their physical circle pulsating or was hoping that she would fall in love with someone else and start a new life with a healthy man, but at worst, he seems like a "dirty old man who wants to play peeping Tom", as Dr. Richardson put it. Neither is it clear how Jan could have overlooked the fact that Bess would get in a lot of trouble for sleeping around with men in a such religious community. Again, at best it could be seen as an allegory that people tend to find causality in everything, such as Bess who thinks that by having sex with other men she will help Jan heal, but the explanation is not entirely convincing. These heavy handed ploys, a few overlong sequences and some melodramatic-theatrical moments (Jan trying to commit suicide with the pills; Bess getting thrown out of the church) inevitably come off as flaws, though they do pave the way for a very tragic and touching ending that has religious symbol of bells reminiscent of Tarkovsky and Bresson. Despite the unbalanced nature of the first and second act, this is still a very strong film with a few great moments that pay off (the use of Bowie's song "Life on Mars?" in the final chapter).

Grade;+++ 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Game of Thrones (Season 1)

Game of Thrones; adventure series, USA, 2011; D: Tim Van Patten, Brian Kirk, S: Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Emilia Clarke, Mark Addy
In an alternate history world, where winter can last up to ten years, the large Seven Kingdoms span continent Westeros. On the north, they are sub-governed by Ned Stark who is in charge of protecting the Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the unknown land. Ned is invited to the capital on the south by his friend and king Robert Baratheon and intends to investigate why the king's right hand was killed in mysterious circumstances. Ned finds out the king's wife, Cersei Lannister, actually had an illegitimate son, the cruel Joffrey, but is not able to inform Robert who dies in an accident while hunting. Ned is arrested and hushed up by being sentenced to death. However, Ned's family starts a war with the Lannisters because of that. In the meantime, the banished heirs to the former king, Daenerys and her brother Viserys Targaryen, join forces with the nomad war tribe headed by Khal Drogo to get back the throne of the Seven Kingdoms.

When HBO decided to adapt George R. R. Martin's novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire" for the small screens, they picked right and gave a series that at times almost seems as if it is meant for the big screens. A complicated, ambitious but engaging project, "Game of Thrones" observes off-stage plots, intrigues and ploys by several fractions that all want to take over the throne and rule the fictional Seven Kingdoms, yet shows complicated characters (except for the one-dimensional bad guy Joffrey) that refuse the tempting cliche of good and bad descriptions and present a multitude of perspectives. In episode three, for instance, kingsguard Jamie Lannister tells how he killed the mad king Aerys Targaryen because the latter wanted to kill all children and women. In doing so, Jamie probably saved thousands of lives, but history will always remember him only as the "King murderer". At the opposite side, the exiled Targaryen heirs thus despise the Seven Kingdoms and want to re-gain the throne because they consider themselves victims of an illegal coup-d'etat; Viserys Targaryen thus arranges his sister Daenerys to marry the brute leader Drogo of a war tribe so that he can use his army to return to the throne, and even says to her: "I would let all 40,000 of his soldiers fuck you as long as they help me march back to the throne."

Some lines are an example of inspired writing: when king Robert slaps his wife, she remains calm as she refers to her bruise: "I will wear this as a badge of honor!" After king Robert was mortally wounded by a boar during a hunt, he jokes that the capital should organize a farewell feast to remember him - and serve the boar that killed him as the main dish! The storyline is not perfect, however: the subplot of the Wall in Winterfall does tend to give an appearance of a "third wheel" here and there, and not as a natural cohesive whole to the main plot in season 1. Likewise, the first five episodes, directed by Van Patten and Kirk, were the strongest, while the remaining five, directed by Daniel Minahan and Alan Taylor, are good, but make several 'rough' solutions or too brutal moments (Viserys' death is an awful ending to episode six; the vile scene of Daenerys eating raw meat), the "trial by combat" in episode six is ridiculous, whereas episodes nine and ten were pretty bad. Still, the density of events manages to compensate in this season, kudos also to very memorable characters Ned Stark (brilliant Sean Bean), dwarf Tyrion who jokes that being the brother of the queen is his "biggest accomplishment" and always great Sibel Kekilli as Shae. "Game of Thrones" accomplished a strong impression in season one, with numerous great moments, but there was still something missing to be considered a true classic of epic 'raw' politology such as "Legend of the Galactic Heroes".

Grade;+++

Monday, 7 October 2013

Cyborg 009

Cyborg 009 gekijo ban: cho ginga densetsu; animated science-fiction action, Japan, 1980; D: Masayuki Akihiro, S: Kazuhiko Inoue, Banjou Ginga, Kazuko Sugiyama

The nine cyborgs, from 001 to 009, called Joe, live normal lives and have integrated into society. However, a space ship lands into the sea and an alien child, Saba, warns how the evil emperor Zoa destroyed his planet and will sooner or later arrive to conquer Earth because he wants to rule the universe. The cyborgs return back to duty and fly in a spaceship to stop that. On their way, the land on a planet and meet princess Tamara, but she and her capital are also destroyed by Zoa's army. Arriving at his space fortress, 004/Heinrich sacrifices and blows himself up to destroy it. 009/Joe goes to the Vortex, a mysterious power that created the universe, and wishes for Zoa to disappear and 009/Heinrich to resurrect. His wish is granted by the Vortex and the cyborgs return to Earth.

Entrenched firmly in naive style of the 60s anime show it was based upon, the feature length anime adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's "Cyborg 009" is a strange patchwork of science-fiction, adventure and superhero elements that only marginally manages to justify such a concept that avoids all storytelling rules: the impressive vibe lasts only for the first three minutes thanks to the fantastic opening depiction of the Big Bang, equipped with aesthetic images of space and colors, yet once the simplistic story starts, where the nine cyborgs go to save the universe from Zoa, it plunges into lower areas and remains there until the rather interesting finale featuring that space Vortex energy again. Overlong, too bizarre (a cyborg baby!), with over-the-top character designs, a completely unnecessary half an hour subplot involving a planet destroyed by Zoa's army (as if not enough was done to make the viewers hate the bad guy enough), burdened by a lack of humor, wit and something original, and a typical black-and-white bad guy Zoa (who just destroys planet after planet because - that's the only way he can rule the universe?), this a rump version of "Space Battleship Yamato". Still, for all its cheesy lines and standard goods vs. bad cliches, "Cyborg 009" is still easily watchable fun without ambitions, fine cinematography and animation despite its collision with naive character designs, and as such it enjoys cult status from the fans.

Grade;+

Friday, 4 October 2013

Gravity

Gravity; drama/ science-fiction, USA, 2013; Alfonso Cuarón, S: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice)
When a satellite is blown up and destroyed, its debris flies across the space as fast as bullets and crosses paths with a space shuttle in orbit. The only two survivals in the commotion are astronaut Kowalski and biologist Stone, who was catapulted away into space. Kowalski manages to save her, but on their way to the International Space Station (ISS), he is only able to secure her arrival there, while he is lost in space. Inside the ISS, Stone enters and starts a capsule in order to fly to the nearby Chinese space station, hoping to enter it and get back to Earth.

Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is a bravura directed movie about space: the way he handles the camera and mise-en-scene in space is incredible, how he is using locations and areas, perspectives as well as frame set-up in order to tell the story is almost unrivalled in the modern cinema of his generation. The whole film is just about two characters in space - and that is enough for Cuaron to create a minimalist 'kammerspiel' that does not need anything more. At least three sequences are fantastic - one especially memorable is the one where Stone is crying while her tear is floating at zero gravity - but what is even more incredible is that he even manages to use his long takes without a cut in space, noticeable already in the amazing 14-minute opening scene of the space shuttle in orbit. Cuaron even stayed faithful to realism because there is no sound during explosions in space, a temptation that 99% of all movies of the space genre are not immune to. He has a remarkable visual style, gives interesting observations about the relationship between humans and the universe, yet also manages to create an emotional, unassuming little story about the heroine, Stone, who at first does not intend to survive but slowly becomes a symbol of tenacity of life. The only bothersome flaw are the last 15 minutes that simply had too much of an overkill of over-dramatization - it is like there is no end in sight of what impossible ways anything can go wrong for Stone - which slightly reduces the overall impression. Still, even with it, this is a shining film, Sandra Bullock is excellent and carries half of the story all alone, though George Clooney is great as Kowalski as well, which ranks "Gravity" among the classics of Sci-Fi/space genre, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Legend of the Galactic Heroes" or "Queen Millennia".

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Android

Android; science-fiction, USA, 1982; D: Aaron Lipstadt, S: Don Keith Opper, Brie Howard, Klaus Kinski, Norbert Weisser

In the future, after an android uprising in Munich, all humanoid robots are forbidden on Earth. That is why Dr. Daniel is continuing with his experiment - Max 404, an android that looks like an ordinary human - on a space station. Their idyll is interrupted when they are visited by three outlaws, Mendes, Keller and Maggie, fleeing from space police. Dr. Daniel at first wants to get rid of them, but changes his mind when he spots a woman among them, because he wants her as a model for a female android. After Mendes kills Maggie and Keller, Dr. Daniel programs Max to kill Mendes. Max rebels together with Cassandra, the female android, and they get rid of Dr. Daniel. The police arrive and think they are humans so they manage to get to Earth.

Overshadowed by the thematically similar "Blade Runner" released the same year, that said almost everything about replicants (=biological androids), their identity, "artificial" emotions and their interaction with real humans, Aaron Lipstadt's "Android" did not manage to intrigue with the same repertoire, only set on a space station, yet a few neat surprises and interesting touches assured it a minor cult status. With too little of Klaus Kinski and inspiration, and too much of Max (very good Don Keith Opper) as a human and not as a robot, "Android" does not have the density, wit or charm to engage, which is why those scenes that do work and are good stand out too much from the rest of the storyline - in one example, the angry Max prepares a dinner for his "creator" Dr. Daniel (Kinski) who is on a date with Maggie. Upon arriving at the table, Daniel is angered when he finds out Max cut his flowers, orchids, in the garden as an excuse to put it on the table for Maggie as a "present". Another clever exchange comes up when Dr. Daniel is shouting at him for doing many things wrong lately, and Max replies: "Maybe you made a miscalculation in my memory circuit, Sir." There are traces of android rebellion, but also themes of a child growing up and resisting his/her parent, though they should have been done with more sharpness. If there is one highlight that lifts the movie up to almost something better, then it is the clever ending that neatly tied all the loose ends together.

Grade;+

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon; animated crime series, Japan, 2006; D: Sunao Katabuchi, S: Daisuke Namikawa, Megumi Toyoguchi, Mami Koyama

Rokuro is a Japanese businessman who lives with his "head low", humbly and insignificantly, because he is afraid of his strict bosses. When he is sent to Borneo to deliver a disc for his company, he is taken hostage by the pirate ship Black Lagoon consisting of African Dutch, blonde Benny and wild girl Revy. Upon realizing how quickly his company abandons Rokuro because they do not care about their employees, Dutch takes pity on him and decides that he should join their team as Rock. Now living in Thai city Roanapur, Rock and Black Lagoon encounter numerous adventures, ranging from hijacking, smuggling, deliveries and involvement with the mafia Hotel Moscow, led by Balalaika.

"Black Lagoon" is a 'down-to-earth' version of "Cowboy Bebop", flickering on the same frequency ranging from the stylish mood, cynical-pessimistic view on harsh life and 'tough girl' Revy who reminds a lot of Faye Valentine, except that the main hero here, Rock, is indeed an exception and an untypical protagonist who is the complete opposite to Spike. The first episode works and engages precisely because he turns from an obedient businessman wimp in his company into a rebel who had it up to here with such kind of fear and decides to live with his "head up", whereas the story gives a sly-cynical comment: when the pirate boss Dutch "adopts" him in his team, it shows that even gangsters have more dignity and honor than corporations. This leads to a fascinating example of courageous integrity in episode 7 when he stops Revy's gun from shooting him and gives a remarkable rant about how she has become almost like his former bosses.

"Lagoon" works the best when it steps into the territory of comedy: for instance, episode 17 is almost hilarious when showing how Jane is running away from gangsters through the hotel from one side to another, following drawn arrows on the walls, which lead her to smuggler girl Eda - disguised as a nun! - who can "save" her, for money, of course. The following battle is very good, too: since their hideout is under siege from gangsters, Revy goes to other side to shoot, but says to Eda before leaving: "Survive this." The submarine episode, though uneven, also has a strong moment when Rock asks Revy is she has any ideals, and she just replies how "money and guns are so much better than God, and a lot more useful, too". Unfortunately, due to its episodic tone, the storyline's level goes up and down. Episodes 13-15, involving underage (!) assassin twins are so deliberately offensive beyond measure (the twins are incestuous, star in paedophilia movies, kill and enjoy torture) that it is almost a joke, whereas the other half of the 'Black Lagoon' team, Dutch and Benny, get less and less screen time until they are almost made to "go away" in the second half of this anime. The uneven tone is further deteriorated when one has in mind that the last five episodes are not even about Rock and Revy anymore, but about supporting characters who are introduced as late as episode 19 (!): teenage girl Yukio in love with yakuza Gin. That way, you almost get the impression that another team of authors "pushed out" the original team and made the finale about something else than originally planned. And some ideas really are silly (the cliche that Gin and Revy can kill a dozen gangsters without even getting a scratch; Gin slicing a shot bullet in half). It is no wonder that the anime left an impression of unfinished business, which is why a sequel OVA series was made four years later.

Grade;++

Thursday, 19 September 2013

In a marriage with the Swiss

U braku sa Švicarcem; documentary, Croatia, 2013; D: Arsen Oremović, S: Vedrana Rudan, Jadranka Kosor, Zoran Milanović

The documentary explores the strange case of mortgage loans in Croatia after it entered the capitalistic system, specifically the mortgages involving Swiss francs. At first, when the exchange rate of Croatian kunas to Swiss francs was 4,8:1, the banks persuaded citizens to massively take mortgage loans in francs instead of euros or kunas, because they were "easier to pay off". However, in a few years, by 2011 the exchange rate increased to almost 7,2:1, which effectively doubled the loans ordinary citizens had to pay. Numerous debtors thus became stuck with astronomically increasing money they have to pay back, and at least one girl died from stress. It is estimated that they amount to 130.000 people, or over 3% of Croatia's population.

A long suppressed topic in Croatia, the affair of Croatian citizens being tricked into taking a mortgage loan in Swiss francs, a currency that almost doubled in a few years and thus brought their debt to skyrocket to such an extent that only Bill Gates would be able to pay it off, was just crying to be put on the screen, and it was done by none other than the legendary film critic Arsen Oremovic. Even though he is a debtor himself, he gave a proportionally neutral and objective presentation of the situation, while the absence of bankers, who refused to participate in the film, is indicative: refusing to answer is also a kind of an answer. A fine amount of sarcasm wriggles through "In a marriage with the Swiss", too: the opening titles says: "A state that does not care about the fate of its own citizens, a state that allows its own citizens to perish, is doomed to perish as well"; a debtor says how he now has to "pay off a loan for two additional apartments besides his own" after the jump of exchange rates and thus interest rate loans whereas one woman jokingly says how, considering that her own husband shares his debt with her, she should "kill her husband". The presentation is simple, accessible and without unnecessary flashy film tricks to allow the viewers to focus on the people themselves, even raising the question if making a mortgage loan in foreign currency was legal in the first place. Lastly, and most importantly, the movie is simply engaging and interesting to watch, succeeding in being both a social commentary, a document of a time and an very good piece of entertainment.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

iCarly

iCarly; comedy series, USA, 2007-2013; D: Steve Hoefer, Adam Weissman, David Kendall, S: Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Kress, Jerry Trainor, Noah Munck

While having to film a casting for new talents for their school, two teenage girls hosting the event, Carly and Sam, start making wisecrack jokes about the candidates. Their cameraman and classmate, Freddie, finds them so much funnier and more interesting than the candidates that he uploads a small clip of them on the Internet. Carly and Sam are at first outraged, but once the fan mail starts to pile up, they decide to make their own web comedy show, "iCarly", in their basement while Freddie would film them. Quickly, the web shows gains fame and they are aided occasionally by Gibby and Carly's older brother Spencer.

"Wayne's World" with teenage girls - "iCarly" may have picked up some traits of the above mentioned film, yet also picked up its contagiously fun, shrill and positive vibe, just presenting it in a more harmless edition here to align itself with the family friendly Nickelodeon network standards. As with most movies and TV shows, a large part of the storyline relies on the charisma and talent of its main protagonist, and Miranda Cosgrove and Jennnette McCurdy truly carry the show thanks to their relaxed charm and wit, whereas the show's creator and producer Dan Schneider allows for a care-free fun, though with a few 'rough' edges here and there (in the later seasons, for instance, too much of the show degenerated only into empty vessels of Sam being mean to Freddie or Spencer doing wacky things that aren't funny). This may be a kids' show, but some jokes truly are very funny (the hilarious slow-motion scene of Carly's and Sam's lips while making the horse neigh noise; Freddie showing up all excited and saying: "You know who just contacted us? Kevin Colt!", upon which Sam replies in an equally "excited" language: "Kevin Colt?! *The* Kevin Colt I never heard of?!"; Carly jokingly rotating while sitting on a rotating chair, but when she stands up she is dizzy and almost falls to the ground) whereas at least one episode, the one where Sam and Carly travel to Hollywood to confront lazy writers of a TV comedy show that constantly steals their jokes from "iCarly" but say they cannot do anything about it, is an example of comedy gold that could qualify for the World Heritage Site. For a long time, the viewers may wish for Carly to show another layer or extension of her character, another feature of her persona, but she remained only defined by one feature solely, a simple funny girl, not that it is necessarily a bad thing. Overall, a good and fun show that demonstrated how the most childish storylines can be plausible. And one supporting character almost eclipsed the heroine near the end of the show - "Gibeeeeh".

Grade;++