Thursday, July 31, 2014
A middle aged man returns to his come place, to the island of Cres, to attend a funeral. An excavation site triggers his childhood memories: as a child, he admired his father, the governor of a piece of land that is owned by Countess Valeria. Her daughter, Ines, went to a cave with him and awakened his sexual desire when the two kids were alone on a boat in the sea. However, he was quickly disappointed by his father, who was a notorious penny pincher and nitpicks against every employee, whether they caught fishes or picked grapes. When his father groped a 19-year old girl, an employee slapped him. After World War II, his father was killed by the partisans. Back in present, the man visits the grave of his father and laments to a man that his "bones are already in that grave".
After experimental film "The Emperor's New Clothes", and acclaimed 'straight-forward' dramas "The Birch Tree" and "Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh", director Ante Babaja delivered his 4th and penultimate film, the intimate "Lost Homeland", which is arguably his best achievement: both nostalgic and anti-nostalgic at the same time, this adaptation of Slobodan Novak's short novel is assembled in the form of 'stream-of-consciousness', but unlike many films of that format that quickly fall apart due to a too vague narrative, Babaja leads the whole storyline with an incredible oversight, wisdom, elegance and light hand, always keeping it under a tight grip. From the opening scenes where the hero is travelling in a ship back to his home place, the island of Cres, while two 'hippies' are humming Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" on their guitar, one can sense this is not going to be your average confrontation with childhood memories.
He remembers his father, one of the most (amusingly) annoying bosses who liked to nitpick against others for every little detail ("Don't eat too much grapes. You will have diarrhea"; "Why are you picking grapes in that shirt? It will get dirty") and realized how disappointing that world is. In a masterful transition, where he returns as a partisan, Babaja conjures up the 'frequency' of post World War II times with a single take, where a giant slogan is painted on a ruined wall: "Tito". A social revolution was implemented, where his father, the exploitative boss, was killed, but problems still remained. A slight controversy was caused in the scene where he, as an 11-year old, felt sexual sensation for the first time when he observed the breasts of a (15-year old?) girl, Ines, lying on the dock of the boat in the middle of the sea, but remarkably, it is done with taste and actually works. The shot composition - even though the Yugoslav cameras were inferior compared to the ones in the West - is wonderfully aesthetic and overlaps perfectly with he 'Mediterrenaean' environment and landscapes, the melancholic music is reminiscent of Morricone and direction itself of Pasolini. At the end, both worlds, pre and post war, are not perfect, and thus the hero mirrors Babaja often theme of an outsider, an individual who observes injustice and thus feels alienated in this world.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Three police vans are roaming across the Anatolian landscape one night in search for a corpse. The convoy is overseen by Dr. Cemal, district attorney Nusret and police commissioner Naci, who listen to instructions of two suspects who confessed the murder of a man, but forgot where exactly they buried him. The vans thus travel at various locations, but do not find anything, so they stop by for a drink in a local village. In the morning, they manage to find the location and the corpse. They transport the corpse to the local hospital and stop the people from lynching the suspect. During the autopsy, Cemal ignores a finding of a cruel death and observes kids through the window.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" starts out great and refreshingly 'low key', since its first 50 minutes revolve only around three police vans straying across a provincial landscape, trying to pinpoint the place where two suspects allegedly buried a corpse - its minimalist touch, aesthetic mood (the cars drive at night), untypical situations (commissioner Naci wonders why the second police car is not moving in front of him, until the driver in it tells him that they should lead the convoy instead, because he is not familiar with the roads in the area) and wonderful shot compositions reach almost the heights of "Blood Simple" and easily give the film momentum. Unfortunately, instead of naturally continuing with such a strong vibe, "Anatolia" simply gives up and just spends the rest of the film in "empty walk": the next 50 minutes, where the police officers babble too much about nothing in the village, is already losing focus, while the last 50 minutes just waste the viewer's time since they do not add anything new to the overall narrative - the scenes of Dr. Cemal walking through the streets and the attorney talking endless, dry bureaucratic formalities about the corpse in the hospital are bland. The shot compositions in the second and third half are still good, but not great, nor that exciting to carry the whole film. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan may have aimed at showing "24 hours in a local police station", and managed to give a good, cozy and unassuming little portrait of it, yet only the first "8 hours" were interesting enough to be up to the task.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Phoenix, Arizona. Marion Crane, a secretary in a real estate company, steals 400,000 $ from a client, but finds an untimely end when she decides to sleep over in a motel after a long flight, where she is killed while taking a shower. The owner of the motel, Norman Bates, hides her corpse in a car and sinks it in the swamp. A private detective, Arbogast, investigates Bates, but is stabbed and killed as well. When Marion's sister, Lila, and Sam investigate the case, they discover that Norman's mother is long dead, but he still has her corpse in his house, imagining she is still alive. Bates committed the murders because he has a split personality and imagined his mother was jealous of Marion.
Gus Van Sant's only thriller - and only remake - in his career, "Psycho" is the closest of coming to a movie equivalent of "human shield": since it is almost an identical frame-by-frame recreation of the original, you cannot attack it from fear of not attacking the famed original at the same time. As such, the existence of an identical (color) remake seems questionable, if not superfluous, since it seems like a reflection of the original, whereas the weaknesses of the '60 film - which were overshadowed thanks to Hitchcock's mastery at the head - seem even more evident here, such as the too explicit explanation of Norman Bates' mentality at the end from the psychiatrist. The performances mostly do not live up to their full potential, but the 1st film was not an "actor's film" either, since it was pure stylistic marvel. However, the majority of the critics were too harsh towards Van Sant, since even if we deduct two plus points from it, the '98 film is still a good thriller with enough style, mood and fine shot compositions to work, with a surprisingly fine Vince Vaughn as the "modern" Norman Bates. Small detractions from the original attracted the most of attention (Bates masturbating while watching Marion take a shower; Lila discovering porn magazines in Bates' room), while some were not especially noteworthy (Lila having a Walkman).
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
In 2089, archaeologists Elizabth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover an ancient painting of a map in a Scottish cave, made tens of thousands of years ago. Using several ancients maps, they discover that they point to the same solar system, and send a spaceship, Prometheus, there to investigate it, sensing humans might have been created by aliens. Once on the moon with atmosphere, they discover a cave with artifacts from an alien civilization. Android David wants to test the fluid in it and puts it in the drink of Holloway who is infected by an unknown disease and dies. Elizabeth, who had sex with him, finds out an alien parasite is growing inside her, and uses a robot operation to remove it. One humanoid alien is found alive, but he kills the film crew, until Elizabeth kills him. Stranded on the moon, she uses David to escape to find the home world of the aliens.
Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" is a science-fiction film in the vein of the 'Ancient Astronauts' theory, but suffers from too many cliches that are bellow the golden standard of the classic of that subgenre, Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" - even the curious behavior of the humanoid android David (very good Michael Fassbender) is just a restructuring of HAL 9000's malfunction - while it overall only has one truly original take on it, namely that human ancestors, the aliens, are actually worse than humans and thus nullify the protagonists' expectations of finding an universal ideal. The first half of the film works the best thanks to an effective narrative that tickles the viewer's curiosity when the astronauts are exploring an alien world and find artefacts of a local base (a good sequence involving holographic depictions of the humanoid aliens walking through the corridor, resmebling almost like recordings of old VHS tapes in 3D, with the astronauts just standing by and observing the recording), but the second half starts falling apart fast, because too many plot points lead nowhere and are left more incomplete and vague, not subtle and thought provocative as it may have been intended. Likewise, this second half is not as bad as much as it is taking too much already seen scare tactics from Scott's classic "Alien". Some moments are also illogical (when Holloway is infected by the alien disease and pleads to get killed to be saved from agony, he is torched to death (!), which is nonsense: a quick shot in the head would have been much faster than a slow, heavy-handed heat death). Among the plus points are an effective horror sequence involving a surgery and a subtle hint that the alien base may have been deserted because it was a military base where a biological weapon went out of control, yet "Promatheus" could have still been a beter film.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
A successful actress, Christine, is found dead at the beach by one of her younger friends, Robert. He runs away to get help, but two witnesses see him and suspect he is running away because he killed her. Likewise, a belt is found near Christine, and Robert is detained by the police, even though he claims that his raincoat, which included the controversial belt, has been stolen. Robert flees in order to find the real killer, and is joined by Erica, the daughter of the Chief of police. In the countryside, they discover Will, a bum who has Robert's raincoat, and then go on to trace the man who gave it to him - they find him in the Grand Hotel, disguising as a musician, and it is Christine's jealous ex-husband.
"Young and Innocent" seems to be a weaker version and restructuring of Alfred Hitchcock's own classic film that brought him fame a few years before that, "The 39 Steps", even though it roughly follows the director's often theme of a man wrongfully accused of a murder who decides to flee and find the killer himself, because it gives the impression as if the 'master of suspense' was still practising before giving a true punch in his later thrillers. It is a light 'whodunit' mystery crime that suffers from a few naive elements typical for that time period, including the too simplistic resolution at the end, which give a more relaxed narrative than expected, but Hitchcock still managed to show a few accumulated examples of inspiration, such as the comical sequence in which the accused, Robert, escapes from the trial by hiding among the audience in the court (!) or the most virtuoso scene in the entire film, the one in which the camera pans across the Grand Hotel, gives an overview of the guests dancing in the hall, and then, after passing over 50 yards, comes very close to a crucial character playing the drums. More of such humor and more of such virtuosos touches would have been welcomed in order to give the story a tighter grip, even though it is an overall a successful and unassuming little film, which is not a highlight among Hitchcock's opus, but represents a step closer to achieving those highlights.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
A German born Jewish family finds itself in a 'catch 22' situation in Lodz during the Bolshevik-Nazi carve up of Poland, which triggers World War II. The 14-year old Salomon and his brother Isaak flee towards east, and are separated. Salomon finds himself in an orphanage in Grodno, where he is indoctrinated by the Bolsheviks. Just then, the Third Reich invades the Soviet Union, and Salomon manages to save himself by pretending to be Josef Peters, a Volksdeutscher, an ethnic German. It works, and he is employed by the German army as an translator. Since he is a minor, he is sent to Berlin to attend school, where he is indoctrinated by the Nazis. He falls in love with a girl, Leni, but is afraid to have sex with her. When the Soviet army takes over Berlin, Salomon finds his brother again and they move to Palestine.
Agnieszka Holland's "Europa Europa" quickly became a cult film upon its release and caused quite a stir, since the plot - based on a true story by Salomon Perel - was probably a new take on the World War II concept back then and deserves to be made into a film: the storyline about a German born Jewish refugee who flees to the Soviet Union and then later pretends to be a German when the German army invades, only to return to Germany, is a great concept, but its execution is sometimes slightly spasmodic and stiff. A war often seems to be very filmable event, but through the hero Salomon, "Europa Europa" also slowly builds a universal theme of lost identity and pliability since the protagonist has to be an even bigger chameleon than Allen in "Zelig" in order to survive (he is even afraid to have sex with a German girl from fear that she will see he is circumcised), while his destiny mirrors some dark messages about the "crazy years" of the 20th century Europe, such as that Salomon can easily switch from the Bolshevik to the Nazi side since these Totalitarianisms are so difficult to distinguish. Unfortunately, while these messages are noble, the film is not nearly as energetic as it could have been, when compared to the very similar "Seven Beauties": the war and action sequences seem too modest, probably due to a limited budget, whereas the quiet dramatic moments are better, yet also seem slightly staged, underdeveloped or rushed at times (the very fake looking sex scene in the train, for instance, or the 'shriek music'). However, the movie has its fair share of inspiration, since there are great dialogues ("Is it difficult to be an actor?" - "Easier than to be yourself.") and a deliciously ironic little dream sequence where Stalin and Hitler are dancing together in each others' arms.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Four boys use a boat to enter a cave and follow the stream of a river to find themselves on a journey through Earth's past: first the river leads them to the Ice age of the Pleistocene, where they observe a mammoth. As the peddle further down the river, they discover other mammals, from the unitatherium to the giraffe. They go even further down the river, and realize they entered the Mesozoic era, witnessing dinosaurs on the shore. As they travel further and further, they eventually go to the Paleozoic, until they eventually reach the Precambrian era, when the first life evolved in the seas.
Karel Zeman, one of the most imaginative and audacious directors of the Czechoslovak cinema, proved to be a 'Czech Spielberg' when he ignored all the budget constraints and still went on to create a charming kids' film, "Journey to the Beginning of Time", which accumulated enough prehistoric creatures, from mammoths to dinosaurs, to establish a small cult following. Most of the critics praized the imaginative "stop-motion" special effects which indeed reach the level of the veteran effects guru Harryhausen, while the majority of the critics rightfully pointed out the underwhelming, underdeveloped story in which the four kids just paddle on a river and watch the prehistoric creatures on the shore, and nothing more, since no humor, adventure or suspense are conjured up faced with such passive and faceless protagonists, making "Journey" feel more like an educational video than a film with a narrative, aggravated further by a weird open ending. However, even if the story is just an excuse for effects, Zeman has a field day and delivers a rare and refreshing fantasy film outside the English language cinema, and the highlight is obviously when the protagonists enter the dinosaur age some 50 minutes into the film, with a neat fight between a stegosaurus and a ceratosaurus.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
Watanabe, a middle aged Chief of Public Affairs, decides to quit his bureaucratic way of life after the doctors say he has an ulcer, but from talking to another patient, he realizes he actually has stomach cancer and only six months to live. Ever since his wife died, he has been living with his son, but he is only interested in inheriting all his money. Trying to live the remains of his life to the fullest, Watanabe gets drunk, hangs out at night clubs and spends the days in the company with a young woman, his co-worker. However, none of this fulfils him, until he decides to make a park out of an cesspit everyone was complaining about. Despite the opposition, he persuades the Mayor to build the park and dies happily there.
Long before "The Bucket List", "The Doctor", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and numerous other films, Akira Kurosawa was practically the first one to establish a subgenre about a man discovering he has only a short time more to live due to a terminal disease, and therefore decides to explore his life. "Ikiru" starts off as a refreshingly unusual story, with an almost metafilm opening: an X-ray of a stomach is the first scene of the film, and the narrators says: "This is the stomach cancer of our protagonist. But he does not know it yet." As the story then swings to the man in question, Watanabe, working mechanically as a bureaucratic civil servant, the narrator explains how he "hasn't been actually living at all. He is practically dead without knowing it". The roundabout way he discovers he has stomach cancer is kind of contrived (the doctor never tells him openly, but another patient based on his own symptoms), and the storyline is sadly formulaic and spasmodic at times (for instance, the son and his wife just happen to talk about having only interest in dad's pension when they walk into their room, just as dad was conveniently there all along), yet the main theme has weight: Watanabe is a person who lived all his time for others, and never for himself, and now wants to find some revelation, pleasure or cause in life, but simply does not know how. He starts out a lot of things, but realizes that's not it. This contemplation gives the film power, and a conclusion that the best way to fulfil it, is to do what you can to leave a positive legacy for others in the world. Unfortunately, "Ikiru" loses its momentum about 100 minutes into the film, and the last 40 minutes are sometimes painfully slow and unexciting, with a rather problematic point - building a park is not as meaningful as Kurosawa would want us to believe (a school or a hospital would have been far better), which leaves a half-hearted taste in the viewers' mouth, almost as if Watanabe wanted to do something big, but could not, and then decided to do something neat instead.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Popeye, Olive and Wimpy are relaxing at the beach when they hear of the 40 thieves led by Abu Hassan. The trio flies to the Middle East to confront them, but their plane crashes in a desert. Luckily, they manage to reach a city in an oasis, but just then Hassan and his 40 thieves start a raid of the place. They kidnap Olive and Wimpy, but Popeye follows them into their cave and manages to beat them up thanks to his spinach.
The 2nd out of three Technicolor Popeye adaptations from the Fleischer Studios, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's 40 Thieves" is a remarkable, opulent and vibrant animated short that features a stimulating blend of animation and live action sequences, as well as a very interesting early use of colors. Overshadowed by Disney's classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "40Thieves" still holds up surprisingly well today and does not seem to have lost any ground at any field compared to modern animated achievements: just like he proved later with "Gulliver's Travels", director Dave Fleischer has a natural sense for creating a fun and clever cartoon, demonstrating it again here in the form of an engaging, accessible, but also highly energetic and inspiring narrative that features numerous catchy jokes (Popeye and Olive cannot read an Arabic menu, so the waiter simply folds the paper and "creates" a Latin script; the 40 thieves plunder everything to such an extent that they even steal a sausage from Wimpy's fork; the almost meticulously choreographed fight between Popeye and the 40 thieves), some of which even border on experimental film, delivering - together with "Popeye and Sindbad", released a year earlier - arguably the best animated version of Popeye, a one that stayed faithful to his comic persona and vitality.
üggisball; drama, Estonia, 2007; D: Veiko Õunpuu, S: Rain Tolk, Taavi Eelmaa, Juhan Ulfsak, Tiina Tauraite, Marja Jakobson, Sulevi Peltola
"Autumn Ball" is one of the many popular 'multiple parallel storylines' films that appeared in the 00s after Inarritu's "Amores perros", yet, just as it is often the case with impersonators, it is only sporadically interesting, because its five stories are uneven: some are pretty good, while others are typical grey 'existential dramas' without any color. Director Veiko Ounpuu has inspiration only intermittently, which results in the fact that some plot points are throw away material, which is further aggravated by its overlong running time of over 120 minutes. However, its ambitious tone, great actors and honest depiction of Estonian (and human) society - both in its good and bad sides - are welcomed virtues, as well as a few refreshing, unusual scenes. Some of them are erotic (one character, a sex addict, shaves his chest, and then his penis before having sex with one woman, while the other watches from the kitchen since it is not "her turn" anymore), while others are even humorous (a coatroom attendant breaks the monotony of his work by dancing and humming Jackson's song "Beat It"). The movie is the strongest when it adds these small touches of vitality that break its 'grey' mood, since it is a quality and professional drama, yet a certain greater punchline of the mosaic at the end is not there.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
In the year 2092, the 118 year old Nemo Nobody is the oldest man in the world and his upcoming death attracts media attention. He tells his life to a reporter: as a boy, he had a feeling that he remembers his future. When his mother and dad separated, his life separated as well: in one parallel universe, Nemo stayed with his father, had a motorcycle accident and died in a coma. In another parallel universe, he met Elise, but she left him. In another, he managed to persuade her to marry him, but she developed a mental disorder. In his opposite choice, Nemo with his mother and met Anna, but lost contact with her when she left for New York. In another universe, Nemo married Jeanne. Just as Nemo is about to die, the expansion of the universe reaches its end, and starts shrinking, thereby causing the time to go reverse. Nemo is happy because he will now see the girl he loved again, Anna.
Jaco Van Dormael's cult fantasy film "Mr. Nobody", the most expensive Belgian film at that time, polarized the critics: some called it a brilliant experiment, while others called it pretentious and simply unwatchable. The movie indeed opens up with confusing sequences: the main hero, Nemo (Jared Leto) is killed in a space station. Then he is killed when a man shoots him in the bath tub. Then he drowns in a car that falls in a lake. And in a fourth moment, just as he is driving, a gas truck explodes in front of him. As hermetic and 'autistic' as all this seems, its bizarre storyline is actually a straightforward visualization of the parallel universe theory: here, the universe expands and then collapses in itself, again and again, and each time, Nemo is brought back in this universe, but has a chance to explore his life and take a different path. This also explains why he has 'deja vus' as a child, because all of this already happened. In one parallel universe, Nemo thus marries Jeanne, in another he marries Elise, while in the third, he still longs for his teenage love Anna. And figuring out which one of these (six?) lives is the 'right one' is one of the main themes of the film, even though each option has its bitter disappointments and no life is perfect, which is summed up by the 118-year old Nemo: "Each of these lives is the right one. Each path is the right path! Everything could have been anything else, and it would have just as much meaning!"
Van Dormael actually has quite a rich movie language: in one scene, as the camera circles around the room, little Nemo is seen in his bed, while the conventional music for the song "Mr. Sandman" is heard, yet all of a sudden, the music changes into a "rebellious" tone, into a rock n' roll tune, while the camera pans back to the bed, revealing now a teenage Nemo. In another clever scene, just as Nemo ends the shooting of his science show, he asks for another take, yet a girl from the crew tells him, ironically, that you "don't get two or three takes in life". Also worth mentioning is the visualization of Nemo and Anna meeting in a station and hugging, while the people around them are walking in fast forward speed - all of which is filmed with the camera circling around them! However, as clever and inventive all this is, Howitt's much simpler "Sliding Doors" was better because it focused on only two life options and had genuine emotions, while here the movie is indeed overburdened because Van Dormael crammed the storyline with too much excess, until "Mr. Nobody" becomes exhausted from itself, and this aggravates the access of the audience to the already hermetic film. As chaotic the film is at the beginning, so much it is harmonious at the end: it truly has a point that is gold and is worth seeing, because it reaches cosmic proportions through the small destiny.
Saturday, July 5, 2014
Janek is a peculiar scientist who voluntarily prolonged his stay in a secluded meteorological station in the Austrian Alps for five years. The other three scientists cannot understand that. One day, they discovers a glacier spilling blood, and are shocked to find it causes mutations of local fauna, such as mutated foxes and a giant insect. Soon, the station is under siege by a giant ram, and complicating matters is the fact that a Minister, Mrs Bodicek, came there to visit it with her associates. Among the visitors is also Tanja, Janek's former fling. Managing to kill off the mutants, the crew is saved by a helicopter, but Tanja takes a mutated human baby with them, that awakened her maternal instinct.
Finding a science-fiction film outside the English language sphere of cinema is always refreshing, and congruently Martin Kren's "Blood Glacier", which paraphrases and restructures Carpenter's horror classic "The Thing", caused a solid hype not only in Austria, its country of origin. However, if "The Thing" was just a simple horror then anyone could have replicated it, since Carpenter's film was not just bare suspense but also a sly commentary - the invisible enemy can show up in anyone subtly - whereas "Blood Glacier" never tries to set a more ambitious grasp, not even in its half-hearted ecological subtext. Even though it starts out fine and unusual - with the unsightly scientist Janek exiting the frosty station in the Alps in his underwear - it fairly quickly becomes obvious that "Glacier" only goes for banal scares of its audience, until it degenerates from the typical "B.S.V.D." cliches of cheap horrors: suspense from "boo" scenes; suspense from splatter violence and suspense from disgust. A more elevated example of fine suspense is rarely found. The disgusting creatures - a mutated ram and a mutated insect - create a lot of suspense, but little style. A small saving grace is the middle aged actress Brigitte Kren, whose character of Minister Mrs Bodicek is refreshingly comical and daft, with such delicious scenes as her shouting at a scientist for eating a banana while their station is attacked by mutants or using a drill to fight off a giant mutant ram!