Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Breaking Bad (Season 1-2)

Breaking Bad; crime-drama series, USA, 2008-2009; D: Vince Gilligan, Adam Bernstein, Jim McKay, Tricia Brock, S: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk

Albuquerque, New Mexico. On his 50th birthday, the underpaid chemistry teacher Walter White discovers he has lung cancer. Refusing a sympathy offer by his ex-partner Gretchen and Elliot to pay for his treatment, Walter instead teams up with Jesse, his ex-student, in order to produce meth in an RV. He hopes to earn enough money to leave his family - son Walter Jr. and pregnant wife Skyler - a safe financial legacy. Walter and Jesse are plagued by numerous problems - their first sell out ends with two dead people; their potential distributor Tuco is a primitive brute; Walter's brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent, is trying to stop drug traffic in the city... - but they manage to team up with sleazy lawyer Saul and drug kingpin Gus and earn 480,000 $ each. However, sick of his lies and strange absence, Skyler leaves Walter soon after their daughter Holly is born.

Vince Gilligan's crime-drama series "Breaking Bad" caused quite a stir during its premiere which ensured it attention and critical acclaim. The first two seasons are not quite as good as you might want them to be, considering the series' reputation, but they have a steady build up of intrigue. The first season is the weakest, since it takes for way too long to set up the story, and features some strange or misguided moments. For instance, the situation in episode 1.2 where Jesse does not think and decides to decompose the corpse of a gangster in hydrofluoric acid in his bath tub, thereby causing the acid to create two holes through the ceiling, and a mass of blood falling down to the ground, is not the best ending to an story. Also, the way Walter and Jesse escape from drug lord Tuco in a deserted outpost in episode 2.2, is kind of sloppy and unconvincingly gimmicky. Some moments where Walter is suffering from cancer tend to become a tad too melodramatic. The dialogues are also not quite as inspired as, let's say, "House, MD". Still, the main concept slowly, but steadily creates a pervasive energy: Walter (brilliant Bryan Cranston) is a man who finds out he has cancer, that 99% of his life is thereby over, and thus decides to spend the rest of his 1% of life audaciously, without any fear, trying to secure a financial legacy for his family after his death by "cooking" meth.

His gradual shift from a quiet, decent guy to a determined, even selfish and evil person, is surprisingly engaging, and also surprisingly logical: even though he is an academic, an intellectual, poverty forces him into crime. Through his transformation, the storyline gives one of the most subversive dissertations about neoliberal capitalism ever: no criminal character is completely evil, they are all just victims of a system of limited resources and financial shortage, and thus battle each other only to survive. The film that instantly comes to mind in thematic similarities is De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" - it also shows that the system itself creates a criminal out of a father because he cannot secure his child's financial safety through legal means. Some of the best moments arrive when Walter uses his knowledge of chemistry to make the mill run his way: for instance, in episode 1.7, when he uses dozens of Etch-a-Sketches to extract the powder and create thermite in order to break into a factory; and the episode 1.6 when he seemingly enters the drug lord Tuco's hideout without any weapons, just with a crystal, but still manages to use chemistry as a weapon, is fantastic: sufficient to say that you will never forget Mercury(II) fulminate after you have seen it. Some of the characters are also great, and slowly grow on you: one that stands out the most is Walter's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a DEA officer, who is fascinating to watch due to his slow-burning character development, as well as Dean Norris, who probably gave the performance of a lifetime. Some of the violence is gruesome (at least four moments), yet there are episodes without any violence at all, which shows that drama and the series' theme are the main highlights and cylinder. The storyline becomes almost addictive in season 2, and reaches a climax in episode 2.11 - a one that strangely drops and falters in uncharacteristically slow and lukewarm final two episodes, which do not reach its level. Maybe the fault for that is that several directors exchange for each episode and thus cannot continue the previously established mood entirely. Still, the story is rich with symbolism (Walter achieved what he wanted financially, and yet, almost as a bad karma, he lost something on the other side of his life spectrum in 2.13), is very fluent and offers food for thought.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Stand Up Straight, Delfina

Ispravi se, Delfina; drama, Macedonia, 1977; D: Aleksandar Đurčinov, S: Neda Arnerić, Slobodan Dimitrijević, Darko Damevski, Dime Ilijev, Sabina Ajrula

Delfina is a young girl who loves to swim in the Ohrid lake, in Macedonia during Yugoslavia. However, her mother thinks swimming is a waste of time, and disapproves, while her father is a passive alcoholic. Delfina works as a waitress and meets a nice lad, Petko, but goes to study in Skopje. There, she meets sports manager Mladen who becomes her lover, but disappoints when he demands that she makes an abortion in order to focus on her swimming career. Mladen sets up various shows and contracts to exploit more money from her, which in the end causes Delfina to leave him. Finally, her first manager Atanas sets up her highlight: Delfina swims across the La Manche channel, becoming the first person from Yugoslavia to succeed in that.

A loose biopic about Atina Bojadži - nicknamed "Dolphina" due to her swimming abilities and the first Yugoslav person to swim across the English channel - Aleksandar Djurcinov's sports drama is a an interesting and fairly well made film that gives an appropriate homage and bow towards the great achievement of the title heroine, at the same time also showing that her life path was probably maybe even an tougher ordeal than her swimming challenge. A fair share of the storyline seems routine, schematic and standard, with very little surprises, yet the film has that charming 70s flair and aesthetic, pleasant landscapes of the Macedonian Ohrid lake. A few interesting moments show up from time to time and lift the film up from a couple of melodramatic moments (for instance, Delfina asks her manager a thought-provocative question: "Does having more money guarantee more happiness?"; the long, marathon swim through the English channel, upon which she must not touch a ship accompanying her and has to drink soup in a cup while floating in the sea). "Stand Up Straight, Delfina" presents her life in flashbacks during the English channel swim, and thus it subconsciously creates a neat little feeling that Delfina loses her energy and finally stops and wants to give up almost parallel with the ever more increasingly darker flashbacks of her life, as if those memories are catching up and taking an ever increasing toll on her. A fair and good biopic, and a great deal of credit has to be given to the main actress, Neda Arneric, who did a wonderful job in giving her a sense of fragility and humbleness.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Ieri, oggi, domani; comedy, Italy, 1963; D: Vittorio de Sica, S: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Aldo Giuffre, Armando Trovajoli

Three stories: in Naples, the times are tough and Adelina has to resort to selling tobacco on the streets illegally in order to feed her child and unemployed husband Carmine. However, she is caught and the police threatens to arrest her. Luckily, through a loophole in the law, which says that pregnant women cannot be arrested, Adelina quickly becomes expecting and avoids jail. Over the decade, she gets seven children in order to avoid jail, but gets arrested when she cannot get pregnant again. Luckily, the locals collect enough money to free her... Renzo is disappointed that his mistress Anna is far more interested in fancy cars than in people... Mara is a prostitute who has a very aroused client, Augusto, dropping by in her apartment frequently. However, when her neighbor, a young lad, decides to stop pursuing a career as a priest, Mara makes a promise to his grandmother that she will avoid sex for a week if he returns to the convent. When the lad indeed resumes his path as a priest, Mara thus keeps her promise for a week, much to Augusto's dismay.

Director Vittorio de Sica demonstrated that he has a wide array of interest in topics, ranging from bleak, depressive existential dramas ("Two Women", "The Bicycle Thieves") up to optimistic, cheerful comedies ("Miracle in Milan"). His 22nd film "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" belongs in the latter category, and is a light, episodic comedy without too much meddling, which benefits from the very popular Italian screen duo of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni teaming up once again, and proving once again that they have chemistry, playing three different roles in each segment. The general consensus is that the first and the third story are the best, while the middle one seems incomplete and immature, which is correct. The first story, revolving around a woman who constantly gets impregnated to dodge getting arrested, is fun (the most comical moment is when Carmine's friend jokingly volunteers to "help him out" if he ever has any further problems impregnating his wife), though it runs out of inspiration fairly quickly and ends just in time. The second story - the most serious - revolving around an upper class woman and a man driving in a Rolls Royce through the countryside, could have offered a lot more than we got, and seems more like a filler than a truly good story with a point. The third story is arguably the best, featuring Mastroianni this time as a very horny client, Augusto, who cannot wait to visit his prostitute, Mara, in her apartment, and who gives few very comical lines ("Make a grimace so that you will look ugly and I can finally leave", he says. After Mara makes a grimace, he adds: "No! Even that's hot! Now I'm even more turned on!"; when he reaches the bedroom, he points to the bed: "I want to die there! I will grow roots there and won't get up anymore!"), whereas the erotic highlight is also Loren's striptease near the end, which garnered fame throughout Europe. However, besides that, the film is not that clever as it could have been, and offers good, though not great entertainment.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Highschool of the Dead

High School of the Dead; animated horror-harem series, Japan, 2010; D: Tetsuro Araki, S: Junichi Suwabe, Marina Inoue, Miyuki Sawashiro, Eri Kitamura, Yukari Fukui

Teenager Takashi is shocked when his high school is invaded by a horde of Zombies, massacring every living person. Together with students Rei, Saeko, Saya and Kota, as well as high school nurse Shizuka Marikawa, they board a bus and manage to escape out of town. They encounter numerous problems on their journey to the mansion of Saya's parents, where there are enough supplies. At top of all problems, a nuclear strike is launched against the Zombie invasion. Takashi and the team thus find refuge on an idyllic tropical island.

If there was ever an extremely polarizing example of 'guilty pleasure', then it was anime series "High School of the Dead": it takes one of the most worn out, the most exhaustingly overused concepts - Zombies - takes a very conventional approach in the survival of the characters, has practically no inventive ideas that break its cliches and has too many examples of fan service, to such an extent that they overshadow the entire story. However, the fan service is so grand, so honest and so 'tongue-in-cheek', one can almost forgive it for everything. The authors basically gave a Zombie story in a R. Meyer world, the so called Bakunyu subgenre: the main focus point are definitely the buxom girls, and the fascination with their large breasts is obvious not only in the most obvious episodes (the bath tub sequence in 6 and island sequences in 13). Namely, the authors are so sly that all the girls with small breasts die fairly quickly in the series, while only those with large breasts survive and continue their quest with Takashi, conveniently, especially blond nurse Shizuka Marikawa with a cup size F or larger, who is so clumsy that only the director's gimmicks guarantee her survival from the Zombies, despite all the odds. This would not be a problem if there had been other ingredients that would sustain "H.O.T.D."s interest independently from large breasts - some style, some truly comical or inventive ideas - but alas, except for the great animation, there is basically nothing else besides it. Supporting characters come and go, and the story just goes around in circles, with only a few unusual moments that stand out (for instance, when two astronauts in a space station observe in horror that nuclear strikes are being launched on Earth's surface). If anything, male viewers will at least enjoy the beach sequence in episode 13 with girls in the bathing suits. Overall, great it is not, but it is hot.


Monday, July 6, 2015

The Gendarme of St. Tropez

La gendarme de Saint-Tropez; comedy, France, 1964; D: Jean Girault, S: Louis de Funès, Genevieve Grad, Michel Galabru, Jean Lefebvre

Ludovic Crouchot is a strict gendarme who loves to enforce law and order. He is overwhelmed when he is promoted and moved out of a provincial city into the prestigious and luxurious sea resort St. Tropez. When he arrives there, he meets other gendarmes - Gerber, Fourgasse, Merlot and others - and together they try to apprehend people in a nudist resort. However, his teenage daughter Nicole falls into a rebellious gang and ends up stealing a red car. In order to cover for her, Crouchot rushes to return the car, but gets into a series of troubles since it belongs to a gangster who stole a Rembrandt painting. Luckily, Crouchot saves Nicole, arrests the gangster and gets promoted, again.

This French forerunner to the "Police Academy" series, "The Gendarme of St. Tropez" - also sometimes translated as "The Troops of St. Tropez" - unexpectedly became a huge box office hit in its country of origin and spanned five sequels over the next 18 years, as well as one of the most recognizable roles of the beloved comedian Louis de Funes. Besides de Funes' indisputable charm and a sense for explosive, burlesque comic timing, the film does not have much going for it, since it is a light, sometimes even too relaxed storyline, yet it still has flair. One of the best jokes are the opening five minutes which are filmed in black and white (!) to undermine how gendarme Crouchot is unsatisfied with working in a small, grey provincial city - and features a few delicious gags: for instance, Crouchot captures a man selling a fish which is smaller than the regulations demand ("How long is this fish?" - "12 centimetres." - "And how much is the regulation?" - "22 cm". - "How much is 22-12?" - "Ten." - "Exactly. Ten days in prison!") while he hides behind a corner and imitates a chicken to attract a chicken thief closer and arrest him - only to switch to color film as soon as he reads the notice that he was promoted and sent to the hot spot St. Tropez, where all the action is. A few empty moments bother, since the pace is not dynamic enough, yet several jokes still manage to ignite even in the second half of the film (the fast driving nun being a small comic jewel) as well as send a few neat contemplations about Crouchot's rebellious daughter Nicole who figures the errors of her ways. A modest, but amusing fun.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe

Édes Emma, drága Böbe - vázlatok, aktok; drama, Hungary, 1992; D: István Szabó, S: Johanna ter Steege, Enikö Börscök, Peter Andorai, Eva Kerekes

Budapest. After the fall of the Bolshevik Totalitarianism, the Russian language is not forcefully imposed on schools anymore. However, two Russian language teachers, Emma and Böbe, are thus now faced with being a burden to the school and have to re-orient by teaching English. Emma has an affair with principal Stefanics, but he is unwilling to leave his wife and family for her. Faced with money shortage, Emma and Böbe try meeting rich foreigners to leave the country, or auditioning for a film featuring nude extras. When the principal finds out that Böbe earned money as a part-time prostitute, he fires her, and Emma leaves with her. Faced with humiliation and changes in the society, Böbe commits suicide by jumping off a window.

For his first film after the end of the Cold War and Totalitarianism in Europe, director Istvan Szabo chose a rather contemporary topic of two teachers who are faced with problems in adapting to the changes in society since Russian language is not taught in schools anymore. The result, "Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe", was a rather Szabo 'light' since its scarce storyline, consisting out of grey moments or empty walk, is burdened with too much symbolism, though it did offer food for thought in the theme that whenever something changes in society, even for the better, there will always be people who will find themselves in a worse situation. The most is achieved when the film is "twitched" out of its grey existence, for example in the highly unusual and surreal dream sequence of Emma sliding down a dune naked at night, or the untypically, almost sneaky funny sequence where she reports a sex maniac whom she meet on the street to a police officer, but he seems to be almost turned on by her details ("His penis was visible." - "But you said he was dressed?" - "He was unzipped." - "And did he ask to touch it?" - "No. He ordered me to take my pants off." - "And did you...?"). The main actress, Johanna ter Steege, delivers a fine performance as the hapless heroine, plagued by financial and love troubles, yet she deserved a richer script than this one, which meanders too often and is not always right to the point despite its ambitious approach.