Sunday, March 31, 2013

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams; fantasy drama, USA, 1989; D: Phil Alden Robinson, S: Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, Gaby Hoffmann, Burt Lancester

While walking through his cornfield, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice telling him: "If you built it, he will come". He builds a baseball field in the middle of his land and ghosts of dead baseball players show up to play on it, all of whom were involved in the Black Sox Scandal 70 years ago and were banned to play ever since. While on a meeting involving his wife Annie, Ray hears the second message, "ease his pain", and deducts that it must refer to retired writer Thomas Mann. He goes to meet him in Boston and then they follow further clues that direct them towards "Moonlight" Graham, a deceased baseball player. However, they pick up his ghost and bring him back to Iowa. Ray has the vision of the ghost of his dad and they make up, while people arrive to watch the game.

"Field of Dreams", one of the most popular movies from the 80s, is one of the rare examples where the authors conjured up such a magical mood that it even managed to conceal the obvious plot holes in the not always logical story. Baseball is here practically glorified into a religion while the main hero, Ray, is practically transformed into a modern day prophet for it, yet despite such a banal concept, it manages to create something esoteric, spiritual and emotional from it, a slice of 80s flair, cleverly sending a symbolical message about achieving one's dream, no matter how much all the others don't agree with you. The small humorous touches are refreshing, as in the PTA meeting involving Annie and another woman  ("And if you experienced even a little bit of the 60s, you would feel the same way, too." - "I did experience the 60s!" - "No, I think you had two 50s and moved straight into the 70s."), or the initial scepticism of writer Thomas Mann, played brilliantly by James Earl Jones, whereas the crystal clear cinematography and music almost create their own, separate tune of harmony. However, the flaws are still noticeable: the way Ray "concludes" what he has to do from the vague instructions of the voice make even less sense than clues from "The Da Vince Code" (for instance, during the meeting, Ray hears the voice saying "ease his pain" and somehow knows that it refers to the book of Thomas Mann - and not anyone from hundreds of people sitting around him during that moment); the time travelling subplot involving "Moonlight" Graham is questionable; the actions of the characters sometimes do not make sense whereas the ending is inconclusive, or better said, the ultimate cause does not justify the invested effort. Overall, though, there is something pure that draws you to this movie, even when you rationally complain about it.

Grade;++

Land of the Lost

Land of the Lost; science-fiction adventure comedy, USA, 2009; D: Brad Silbering, S: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride

Paleontologist Dr. Rick Marshall embarrassed himself during a TV interview while presenting his theory about travelling to parallel universes with the help of tachyon energy. However, he found one loyal follower, Holly, and decided to check out his invention - soon, the two of them and a certain Will get transported to a prehistoric world with dinosaurs, lizard-men and ape-men. They get tricked by a lizard-man, Enik, to bring him the device so that he can rule the world, but correct that mistake. Rick and Holly return to modern Earth while Will decides to stay.

"Land of the Lost" is one of those darnedest movies - it is trashy and appeals to audience in the cheapest ways way too often, but somehow its whole nonsense is here presented with such a consistency and an eye for detail that one cannot help but to at least call it 'guilty pleasure'. In '74, the TV fantasy show "Land of the Lost" about a family stranded in a prehistoric world reached cult proportions, even though it was little more than a stiff piece of the bizarre, so Brad Silberling's movie adaptation, as insane as it is, at least managed to surpass it in the humourous category. In the opening scenes in a TV interview, where Rick Marshall reaches out to shake hands, but the host, Matt, just ignores the gesture and moves on posing questions without any contact, comedian Will Ferrell almost reaches Murray's level of comic charm, but, unfortunately, the rest of the movie lacks these kinds of sophisticated jokes and instead just reaches for the primitive ones, from the ape-man groping Holly up to Rick pouring himself with dinosaur urine. Numerous sequences and almost tasteless ideas make no sense whereas the whole movie seems like a parody of the original show at times. However, the movie surprised with being one of the first to use dinosaurs in a comic interaction, noticeable in the quietly hilarious 'rivalry' between Marshall and T. Rex (after referring to him as "having a brain the size of a walnut", Marshall wakes up one day to find a giant, 3 foot wide walnut in front of his cave, while the T. Rex is hiding in a nearby cave) whereas the visual effects were refreshingly unique and daring, noticeable in the fish eye lens and unusual camera movements while dinosaurs are on the screen. A strange kind of movie that is both dumb and then smart at the same time.

Grade;+

Friday, March 29, 2013

Arrietty

Kari-gurashi no Arietti; animated fantasy drama, Japan, 2010; D: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, S: Mirai Shida, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Shinobu Otake

Sho is a teenage boy who suffers from a heart disease and awaits a surgery. He is brought to stay with his aunt in a secluded house in nature. However, there he meets "Borrower" Arrietty, a dwarf human as big as a thumb, who secretly lives underground with her mother and father. The "Borrowers" are very suspicious of humans, whereas Sho and Arrietty's relationship is strained by the maid who wants to capture the "Borrowers" with the help of pest control. Still, Sho and Arrietty become friends and she says farewell when her family moves out to find a new place where no human knows of them.

Even though the script was written by Hayao Miyazaki, "Arrietty" is among studio Ghibli's 'lesser' anime films, not achieving a real momentum like movies from their golden age from the 80s and 90s, which are unassuming classics ("Kiki's Delivery Service", "Only Yesterday"). "Arrietty" is not more than a footnote in Ghibli's opus, yet is overall still a good and proportionally fairy talish achievement that here and there manages to conjure up a moment of "calm awe" typical for Miyazaki, like the sequence where the hero Sho defends himself from a crow with one hand while gently defending and shielding 'Thumbelina' heroine Arrietty with his other hand, or the moment where Arrietty and her father have an elaborated entrance into the bedroom to get a handkerchief at night, but then she figures Sho has been quietly observing them the whole time from his bed. The animation is fluent, the music opulent whereas the story has a remarkably calm, minimalistic mood reminiscent of Ozu, yet some ideas are slightly questionable, especially the inappropriate existential subplot for the younger audience revolving around the "Borrowers" dying out, showing that not everything can be re-arranged to fit into any given genre.

Grade;++

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia; drama/ adventure, USA/ New Zealand, 2007; D: Gabor Csupo, S: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Zooey Deschanel

Jesse lives in a financially struggling family, feels like an outsider to his two older sisters and thinks that his dad favor his little sister May Belle. In school, he is bullied, but the new transfer student, Leslie, finds his drawings appealing. Leslie proves to be a very unique girl and brings Jesse across a river into a forest, where they imagine their own kingdom, Terabithia. Leslie plays a prank on the bullying girl Janice, but she finds out that she is aggressive only because her father beats her, they become friends, too. Unfortunately, Leslie dies while swinging on a rope that broke and falling into a creek. Jesse is devastated, but decides to continue imagining the Terabithia.

One of the most touching kids fantasy movies, a one that entirely avoids the corny cliches of that genre, the second movie adaptation of "The Bridge to Terabithia" is a far better version than the first one from '85 and a completely different movie than you might expect from the misleading trailers. Unlike similar "a dime a dozen" post-"Lord of the Rings" fantasy novel adaptations, like the standard "Spiderwick Chronicles" or "Prince Caspian", this movie does not send the message that all you need to do is have a good fight and everything will be all right, because the story does not even contain action or a conflict between good and evil. Refreshingly, only 10 % of the story is a fantasy, while 90 % is a subtle study of two outsiders in school who become friends, played wonderfully by Josh Hutcherson and especially the amazing AnnaSophia Robb, whose charm is simply irresistible. The mood is fabulously realistic, transporting the feeling of high school life to the viewers with ease, the chemistry between Jesse and Leslie is felt the minute he imagines "bubbles" around her while she is reading out her essay about scuba diving, the cinematography by the legendary Michael Chapman (in his last film) is crystal clear, the build up of the story is completely untypical whereas the blend of drama and fantasy works despite a few strange decisions (in one scene, the face of Janice is seen on a giant troll, though even that can be seen as symbolic since she transforms from a foe to a friend) since Terabithia is just an extension of Jesse's and Leslie's wish for escapism from the 'rough' world, reminiscent of Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro". The ending is one of the saddest of the decade. A rare example where a slice-of-life drama outranks special effects, a big surprise and a movie that is truly one of a kind.

Grade;+++

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Dinner with Andre

My Dinner with Andre; experimental film, USA, 1981; D: Louis Malle, S: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn
New York. Actor and playwright Wallace is invited to have dinner in a restaurant with the man he has been avoiding for years, theatre director Andre. However, with time, the two of them have a very intimate and intriguing conversation, ranging from Andre's visit to a Polish forest, experimental plays, the Findhorn community and work with Jerzy Grotowski. Later on they talk about the human spirit, philosophy, how people became "dead machines" and the meaning of life. After the dinner, they leave.

One of the best cult movies from the 80s, a rare example of an experimental movie actually molding itself into a meaningful, purposeful and harmonius whole, "My Dinner with Andre" is still one of the most daring art movies in cinema: while "My Night at Maude" consisted out of a man and a woman just talking for about 60 % of the movie, here 100 % of the film consists just out of two people talking - and "nothing more". That is, "nothing more" only if viewers tend not to like words, but a lot to those who realize that words sum up (almost) everything we know about life. And that words can sometimes mirror and describe the essence of life. This may not be such an "unwatchable" concept as some critics speculated since people often get into a cozy discussion and don't even notice hours have passed due to fascinating topics. Director Louis Malle might even be aiming at a metafilm connection concerning our perception: that the movie audience was so used to fake events on the big screens that rarely or never happen (big explosions, monsters, superheroes who save the world...) that they find something so common and real like two people just talking as something foreign and inconceivable.

The first 50 minutes may be a little outlandish centring only around Andre's experimental trips and experiences, sometimes even stiff or questionable, but once Wallace joins in and they start taking about philosophical themes, the movie really takes off and becomes a fluid experience where words are the embodiment of passionate energy. Andre becomes fascinating with time because he practically gives a summary of his whole life experience, he is almost as one of those people who witnessed the last concert of the Beatles and are still alive and well to tell the tale and how that felt. Andre is esoteric, wild, with an open mind, while Wallace is comfortable, scientific, realistic, making their clash inevitable. Andre's monologue to Wallace about how "comfort can become dangerous because it can lull you to a dangerous tranquillity", the discussion about how all the people cannot go to Mt. Everest to find spirituality or why Mt. Everest should be "more real than a cigarette store" or the statement that the "1960s were the last outburst of the human race before it extinguished" all seem honest and stimulate the imagination. Andre's most memorable statement is probably this one: "OK, yes, we are bored now. But has it ever occurred to you that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks? And it's not just a question of individual survival, but that somebody who is bored is asleep, and will not say no?" The movie could have been a tad more versatile, but is already rich with accumulated wisdom about the civilization and life in general.

Grade;+++

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Rat Savior

Izbavitelj; fantasy horror, Croatia, 1976; D: Krsto Papić, S: Ivica Vidović, Mirjana Majurec, Fabijan Šovagović, Relja Bašić, Ilija Ivezić

An unknown European town, first half of the 20th century. Mass unemployment and poverty in the country just aggravate the position of poor writer Ivan Gajski who cannot sell his novel to a publisher. Eventually becoming homeless, Gajski meets an old friend, now a police officer, who finds him a place to stay over night in an abandoned building. However, Gajski there stumbles upon a secret society that enjoys in luxury when the country is starving. He meets Professor Bošković who informs him that the secret society actually consists of a rat race that impersonates humans and plants their agents in the high positions. Bošković is killed, but his daughter Sonja and Gajski continue the research and find a chemical that transforms fake humans back to rats. Gajski thus eliminates their leader.

Considering that up to 2012 the entire Croatian cinema made only five feature length science-fiction films (they can even be listed here: "Guests from the Galaxy", "Atomic War Bride", "The Show Must Go On" and maybe "Celestial Body"), Krsto Papic's fantasy horror entry "The Rat Savior" came as a huge surprise of unpredictable talent and even today enjoys a cult reputation despite some omissions. Just like "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "They Live", "The Rat Savior" follows the similar vein of stories of an alien race secretly infiltrating the human society by taking over all the highest positions, thus ridding on the paranoia wave of its main hero not knowing whom he can trust anymore since the bizarre agents (of the rat race in this edition) look and act just like normal people. However, the story is far more allegorical here, with scenes of poverty drawing parallels with the Great Depression as a useful environment for extremism to prosper and the human-rats acting like a symbol for the arrival of invisible fascism that takes a hold of people, one by one, yet also for any totalitarian regime in general, which is why the film was doomed "too provocative" by the Yugoslav authorities. Papic directed a few phenomenal scenes and conjured up a great mood, but it is obvious he lacked the budget to fulfil his vision to the fullest, since the second half starts to list too many heavy handed, 'rough' moments, as if someone clumsily edited a few crucial sequences, which is evident especially in the weak, confusing finale. All the special effects were done on the spot, without any post-production additions, consisting solely out of make up that gives an illusion of people with a "rat face" when they are exposed. A good and thought provocative political allegory, enough for Papic to direct a remake himself 27 years later, titled "Infection".

Grade;++

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; fantasy, USA, 2008; D: Andrew Adamson, S: William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes

The four siblings - Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmund - are back in London, and one year has passed since their last events. While in the subway, they are transported back to Narnia - where 1,300 years have passed in the meantime - because the horn to summon them was blown by Telmarin prince Caspian, who is the rightful heir, but is exiled since his uncle Miraz wants to take over his throne. Siding with Caspian are animals from Narnia. Resisting revenge, Caspian rejects the offer from the Witch and chooses not to kill Miraz in a duel - however, one of his own henchman kills Miraz in order to have an excuse to attack Narnians anyway. Aslan the lion shows up and helps the Narnians win against the Telmarins. The four kids return back to London.

The second adaptation of C. S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" novel series for the big screens, "Prince Caspian" is a solid and easily watchable, though too standard and conventional mainstream fantasy film. It manages to break away from the mainstream area on several occasions, most noticeably since it is more explicit in showing that sword fights can result in deaths, unlike the first film, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", where that was dimmed, but in all other aspects it seems like a half-hearted product where special effects and set-designs stand out more than the pale emotions or characters they are suppose to carry. The characters of the four children truly ended up one-dimensional, almost like underdeveloped extras - for instance, Susan has only one scene where Susan the personality emerges from Susan the character, in the London sequence where a student tries to flirt with her so she presents herself as "Phyliss" - who just say stiff lines but the sole story does not allow them to develop their more interesting traits to the fullest. When a talking mouse is a more fleshed-out character than the four live action protagonists, something is not right. More scenes should have been invested to bring Susan, Lucy, Edmund and Peter to life. One could also wonder why Aslan the lion was hiding throughout the story and helped the four kids only near the end? However, that is more or less pointless to ask since Lewis is more interested in bending everything to subordinate it to his Christian views and hidden messages than to actually craft a logical storyline. In that respect, he missed the point that Aslan could have showed up and help them win already at the beginning. Still, the story does have a few memorable, wise quotes that manage to lift the movie into something more compelling and spiritual (Caspian not wanting to take a life because "It's not mine to take"; the doctor saying: "You may be the most noble contradiction: a Telmarin who will save Narnia").

Grade;+

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Loulou

Loulou; erotic drama, France, 1980; D: Maurice Pialat, S: Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu, Guy Marchand, Humbert Balsan

Nelly is annoyed by her rich, but jealous and overtly aggressive husband Andre. In a disco, she meets the unemployed vagabond Louis, nicknamed Loulou, and spends the night with him. The next day, Andrew wants to throw Nelly from their apartment, but they make up eventually. Still, Nelly again goes back to Loulou. Andre tries to win her back, but she fell for Loulou's raw, macho charm. When she gets pregnant, her brother points out how Loulou does not want to have a job and that she will have to take care of everything by herself. During a diner with Loulou's mother, some of his friends start a heated argument. Realizing how she does not belong to this company, Nelly has an abortion.

Nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes, Maurice Pialat's restless, unflinching love-triangle drama "Loulou" is actually just a front for an honest, unpretentious exploration of class difference: the heroine Nelly leaves her upper class husband Andre because she is attracted to the "forbidden" lower class title hero, an unemployed,  wild example of "lumpenproleteriat" who is irresponsible and crude, but his honest nature somehow reveals that he is much more real. Pialat has a very loose structure, with scenes that sometimes seem almost as if he just threw them there spontaneously, which does take a slight toll on the narrative, yet despite a multi-layered approach of the love triangle, the director does not shy away from showing a few direct sex scenes, or sometimes very blunt sexual behavior. He also conjures up humor when you least expected it: for instance, Loulou and Nelly have sex, when all of a sudden they are "interrupted" when their bed breaks, so they burst into laughter, even after a neighbor shouts and complains about their loud noises. In another, Loulou is walking with his mother through the market. The mother compliments him how he manages to find girls so easy and he just shrugs: "That's life". The mother then goes on to say: "It never worked for me. Each time I tried it, I ended up becoming pregnant", while the confused Loulou just stares in sudden realization. The most was achieved from the actors, especially Isabelle Huppert and Gerared Depardieu in an untypical role of a slob, which all contribute to an ambitious, though slightly incomplete drama.

Grade;++

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Tit and the Moon

La Teta y la luna; erotic drama, Spain/ France, 1994; D: Bigas Luna, S: Biel Duran, Mathilda May, Gérard Darmon, Miguel Poveda, Abel Folk, Laura Mañá

Tete is a 9-year old who is plagued by two things: he cannot climb a human castle, and is disappointed when his mother gives birth to his baby brother, because now she breast feeds only him. Tete wants to find perfect breasts for himself and stumbles upon a beautiful dancer, Estrellita, who lives in a trailer by the coast and performs together with her French husband Maurice. She is also adored by other people in town, including teenager Miguel. When Miguel's friend Stallone dies in a motorcycle accident, Estrellia finds pity in his mourning and allows him to have sex with her. However, Maurice is angry at her infidelity. Finally, Tete manages to climb up the human tower and has a fantasy of Estrellita and his mother breast-feeding him.

If a filmmaker is allowed to make an ode to music, poetry, nature or an ode to his/her homeland, should we really ban or attack another filmmaker for simply making an ode to eroticism? "The Tit and the Moon" is not the kind of movies we would encourage, exclusively because at first sight the viewers may feel really uncomfortable with the main protagonist Tete, who wants to find perfect breasts for himself, is only 9 years old, and not older, but director Bigas Luna takes this crazy, bizarre concept and daringly juggles with it almost inexplicably even, skilfully avoiding the paedophilia threats and simply crafting a surreal Felliniesque fantasy that has some honest power, among others because Tete is only a curious observer, not an active participant in events, that slowly shift from his perspective to the focal point of the grown up Estrellita (great Mathilda May) and her relationship with her partner Maurice.

One of the strangest cult movies from the 90s, "The Tit and the Moon" is definitely not a film for the conservative viewers, and some choices it takes may seem questionable, but its dreamy mood simply melts you away, as strange as it seems. There is no doubt that Tete is actually Bigas Luna himself, even in the two most daring sequences (Estrellita "sprays" milk from her breast into Tete's mouth and Tete imagines to be breast-fed by his mother), but the strange thing is that despite them, the only sequence that seems wrong or "off" in the entire film is something entirerly different, the annoying one where Maurice entertains the audience by farting. Likewise, Luna never takes himself seriously and eases the storyline with irony (i.e. the scene where the parents are overwhelmed by the baby brother, but Tete looks at him and only sees a pig in bed). One almost wonders how he sold the movie to the producer. Because of his honest dissection of themes, Luna has been jokingly described by some as one of the "best directors of breasts". Those viewers who cannot accept that Luna extracts his aesthetics from the eroticism, should avoid his erotic films in general, but just like J. Medem and C. Reygadas, he has a sense for crafting sexuality, even if it is more "harmless" here.

Grade;+++

Friday, March 8, 2013

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

Mirisi, zlato i tamjan; drama, Croatia, 1971; D: Ante Babaja, S: Sven Lasta, Ivona Petri, Milka Podrug-Kokotović

A desolated Dalmatian island during Christmas. Mali and his wife Draga take care of the elderly Madona who is probably around 90 years old. They live at her place and have to endure the cranky behavior of the ultra-religious, bed-ridden granny. Draga leaves for a few days to Zagreb to see their children, while Mali stays with Madona, feeding her and sometimes arguing with her. Her large land was confiscated by the state while Mali is an ex-partisan living from a pension. Draga returns. While carrying a pipe at the coast, Draga starts crying because of their ill fate, but gets a hold of herself.

Ridding on the "black wave" of the Yugoslav cinema, adapting the grotesque eponymous novel by Slobodan Novak, director Ante Babaja crafted a gloomy drama that is surprisingly fascinating due to his tight directing skills and a great sense for the movie language. Cynically paraphrasing the Biblical tale of the three magi - gold (lack of money and wealth), frankincense (the smell of the 90-year old granny) and myrrh (rubbing oil on the granny's back) - Babaja's film is not so much a movie about how the lives of a young couple are burdened by taking care of the old granny or about old age, as it was the case with Haneke's similar "Amour", as much as it is the thematic twin of Teshigahara's "The Woman in the Dunes" - the universal unease of them both radiates from the common human fear of fatalistic destiny from which there is no escape - whether someone is sick, ugly, has to do a job she/he doesn't like or live a life he/she didn't choose, the viewers can identify with the story about how life puts people in a situation they never really wanted.

The naturalistic details (close up of Mali's face while he is putting the bowl under granny's butt so that she can urinate; Draga throwing the urine through the window; Mali and Draga having sex while the granny is seen in the next room, lying in bed, symbolizing how she is ever present with them) all constitute this theme about the two protagonists having to simply accept their fate. In one sequence near the end, while carrying a pipe, Draga starts crying because she realizes the full magnitude of their lives, but then gets a hold of herself. Mali just brushes it off by saying: "You can run from life, but after a while you will have to pause to take a rest. And then you will find out that an abyss if behind you as well as it is in front of you. It's all the same." Allegorically, the granny can also be seen as a symbol for the past, the tradition dying out, while Mali is the new generation coping with the new world that has yet to assimilate the past. Babaja's film is no piece of cake, sometimes he makes a misstep (the infamous chopping the head of a chicken) and the existentialist tones are really hard to sit through, but numerous sequences are simply phenomenal, anyway (Mali outside of the church while the song "Narodi nam se" is heard).

Grade;+++

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Black Swan

Black Swan; drama/ mystery, USA, 2010; D: Darren Aronofsky, S: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Nina is one of the many ballet dancers eager to get the main role in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The director, Thomas, thinks she is great for the role of the white swan, but too timid to really pull off the role of the evil black swan. However, Nina gets the double role eventually and starts practicing for the premiere. Strange things start happening to her: she wakes up to find scars on her skin; she has hallucinations and agrees to take drugs with dancer Lily in order to "prepare" for her dark side as the black swan. At the premiere, she has a hallucination of killing Lily, but wakes up to realize she just injured herself with glass. She does a great performance and dies as well on stage as in real life, fulfilling a (too) convincing performance.

"Black Swan" is one of many modern movies whose critical acclaim and numerous awards are not proportional to its actual quality - it is an artistic placebo. It is a mess of a movie whose insane events and surreal ideas only get explained and justified in the conclusive ending, a sly, satirical jab at not knowing where to stop in "method acting", but in order to get to those last five minutes in the finale, you have to endure almost a 100 minutes of preposterous moments. Unfortunately, director Darren Aronofsky too often resorts to cheap attempts at sustaining the viewers' attention - cue shock music to Nina suddenly turning around to see Beth behind her; cue shock music to Nina suddenly taking a step back and stumbling into a nurse behind her; cue shock music to Nina masturbating in bed only to suddenly turn around and realize her mother is in the room... - mostly because the sole storyline has little to show, anyway, while the abstract-symbolical motives sometimes turn into camp, like in the much hyped lesbian sequence that is throw away material without any use in the movie. In Darononfsky's defense, he made a few good back-up constructions that parallels the sole Swan Lake story (for instance, Nina starts experimenting with her "dark side" in order to play the black swan; her rivalry with Lily over the leading role which mirrors the rivalry between Odette and Odile...), yet they are of limited compensation for the rest of the movie. Some argued that the reoccurring scenes where Nina sees blood on her finger is an allegory for her masturbation and loss of virginity, but even if it is, could it have been more cheaper than this? 13 years ago, Kon directed "Perfect Blue" that had a similar story, and even though it was not one of his best films, it is still far more coherent than "Black Swan".

Grade;+

Sunday, March 3, 2013

True Grit

True Grit; western, USA, 2010; D: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, S: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Ever since Tom Chaney killed her father Frank, the 14-year old Mattie decided to catch and punish him. However, since he fled into the Indian territory, the Sheriff cannot go there, so Mattie hires the drunk Marshal Rooster Cogburn to get him. After a lot of arguments, he agrees to take her with him, together with Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. They find the track of Chaney, but lose it. Still, Mattie accidentally stumbles upon him at the river. He kidnaps her, but she manages to shoot him, yet falls into a deep pit. A rattlesnake bites her into the hand, so Cogburn rushes her to a far away doctor. Her hand gets amputated, but 25 years later Mattie visits Cogburn's grave.

"True Grit" is a worthy re-telling (and apparently, not a remake) of the eponymous novel where the Coen brothers showed a triple surprising, untypical sense: for straight-forward storytelling, set for them unorthodoxly in the western genre and even showing them in a very, very rare edition, where they allowed some sort of a honest emotional attachment for the characters. Even if it is not a remake, their "True Grit" is better than the '69 "True Grit". The opening act is so brilliant, so natural and fluid that they almost topped their best film of the later phase in their career, "No Country for Old Men", showing exquisite sense for a perfect balance between their oddball humor and the feel of the novel, already obvious in the perfect introduction of Rooster Cogburn who is in the toilet while Mattie tries to talk to him outside ("The jakes is occupied." - "I know it is occupied, Mr. Cogburn. As I said, I have business with you." - "I have prior business!") while Hailee Steinfeld delivers a performance that brings down the house, a fantastic example of natural acting that gives her character charm and wit, for which she was deservedly nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar.

Unfortunately, while the stale second act can still be compensated thanks to the first, by the time the third act sets in the story is ridding on false momentum: in all honesty, the true energy is spent well before the final showdown since the sole pursuit of Chaney is not that intriguing, and one soon realizes that Steinfeld is the only one carrying the film. Some found fault with casting Matt Damon, but his performance is fine, it is Jeff Bridges who gives a rather mismanaged performance as Rooster Cogburn because he plays him too much like a slob, with too much "drunk talk" and annoying mumbling, which nullifies a large part of effort at chemistry and charm with his interaction with Steinfeld. In that respect, Wayne was better in the '69 film, precisely because he kept his ground in giving a more dignified performance that damped the drunkenness aspect as the only one of Cogburn's persona. The ending seems also slightly inconclusive, since Cogburn's actions were not made believable. Had the movie been as fun and inspirational as the opening act, it would have been excellent, yet as it is, it is a refreshingly honest film where the Coens took a more "normal" approach and got a noble result.

Grade;++

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Rollerball

Rollerball; science-fiction sports drama, UK/ USA, 1975; D: Norman Jewison, S: James Caan, John Houseman, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Maud Adams

In the future, the corporations dictate everything in society, but reward with a lot of commodity. A sport, Rollerball, in which two teams of players fight in an arena to throw a metal ball into a goal, is the most popular form of entertainment, and one player, Jonathan, rises to heights. However, because the corporations want to promote the game as an "example of futility of individuality", executive Bartholomew orders Jonathan to retire. He refuses, so executives use a ploy - abrogation of rules and ever more increase of violence - to scare him into quiting. However, in the final game, even though several of his players get killed, Jonathan wins and refuses to stop, thus achieving freedom of choice.

"People chose commodity over freedom." - "Commodity is freedom". - "No, it's not." This is one of finest dialogues ever heard on film and serves as a guide to the abstract cult science-fiction drama "Rollerball", a very unusual and challenging movie that borrows elements from Huxley's "A Brave New World" and Zamyatin's "We", but setting them in the world of sports. "Rollerball" isn't a movie about a sport as much as it is a movie about suppressed individuality. Director Norman Jewison crafts a morality play, but does it very subtly, never explicitly sending the message, sometimes even posing the questions subconsciously - for instance, the sequence where bored party guests take a gun, shoot and put six old trees on fire "for fun", actually says a lot about decadence and the sneaky, subtle changes in the balance of the human spirit caused by glorification of violence - while the setting of the film, though not articulated enough because more details should have been shown (like the library scene, where Jonathan is informed that there are no more books, because they are all "summarized in a computer"), is clever and satirical, by showing the world of the future as a corporate state that uses the old Latin saying "Bread and games", where the title sport is used as a form of distraction so that the masses will not question the established order. Some sequences may be slightly clumsy, the storyline may not sweep the viewers as much as it could have, yet the main theme is strong: Jonathan knows that executives took away his girlfriend, and now demand that he retires, but by defying them and still playing on, he achieves his own personal freedom of choice. Today, one could wonder why some critics were "shocked" at the violence back in 1975, because the three sequences of the game in the arena seem tame and stylized, except for maybe the last one, where it degenerated into pure fight, and despite some uneven moments, some critics point out that "Rollerball" today seems equally as relevant.

Grade;++