Thursday, October 31, 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.


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".


Tuesday, October 29, 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 subsequently 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 are accepted in order for the viewer to tune in to the events.

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).


Thursday, October 17, 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. One major detrimental flaw is too much 'empty walk' and ponderous talk of the storyline, which take way too long to finally get to a point. 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 several 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".


Monday, October 7, 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.


Friday, October 4, 2013


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".


Tuesday, October 1, 2013


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.