Sunday, September 27, 2015

Upside Down

Upside Down; fantasy / romance, France / Canada, 2012; D: Juan Diego Solanas, S: Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall

In an alternate Universe, two worlds live side by side: one with normal gravity, and the other over it, with the opposite gravity. Adam falls in love with a girl from the world above, Eden, and they meet over two very high mountains that almost touch each other, but while returning to her world with a rope, the police from Adam's world shoots and Eden falls back to her world and suffers from amnesia. Years later, Adam finds a job as a facelift scientist at the Transworld company, the only link between two world in form of a skyscraper, in order to meet Eden again. He even uses the inverse matter to jump upside down and walk on her world. The company, forbidding any contact with the two worlds, banishes Adam back to his world. But thanks to his formula, his friend Bob manages to reverse Eden's gravity, so that she can live in Adam's world.

Finding an original and fresh movie concept in modern cinema is so rare that Juan Diego Solana's "Upside Down" really stands out, shines and gives the viewers a blast with its outline, even though it is overall not as great as it could - and should - have been. Its concept, where besides a normal world there is also an upside down world with people who feel antigravity, really tickles the imagination and you enjoy crunching it down in your mind, whereas at least three sequences that stem from it are so magical they send shivers down the spine: one is the frog perspective that observes Adam looking up at the building, while there is also the upside down city landscape in the "sky", standing above them ever still. Unfortunately, unlike other classics of inventive-unusual storylines, like "Groundhog Day", "The Truman Show" and "Memoirs of an Invisible Man", who use them for a broader character development (learning from your mistakes; the nature of intimacy and privacy; loneliness as a metaphor for 'invisibility' in the society), "Upside Down" has strangely inept, bland and uninventive characters.

We never get why Adam and Eden are in love. They are a humorless, uninteresting couple, and not a single scene with them at least conveys charm to the viewers, to help them understand why there is a bond between them, save for the fact that they are from opposite worlds and thus have a forbidden relationship (upper class and lower class have rarely been so symbolically presented as here, admittedly). The opening 3-minute long narration, which gives a ponderous description of the physics of the two worlds, is overlong and didactic, unnecessarily spelling all out for the audience (maybe the producers imposed that intro?) even though this is a fantasy and everything is quite clear later on in the film, anyway, which thus ignores the classic movie rule: show, don't tell. Likewise, there is a problem with the cinematography which features either too many over-saturated or under-saturated colors, though this is a general problem with the 'hyped up' look of the 21st century cinema. The ending also seems untypically underwhelming and abrupt, as if the conclusion was ordinary and predictable. Because of such underwhelming characters, without humor or spark, the film lacks an emotional dimension which disrupts its overwhelming concept. It is interesting to point out that a similar movie appeared that same year, "Patema Inverted" - and while "Upside" has more daring ideas (urinating "upwards"; Adam taking off his anti-gravity shoes in the water and then falling "up", back to the water of his world), "Patema" is a better version due to much more dear, adorable characters, though both could have been much better movies, even instant classics, if they had a more versatile exploitation of their concepts and emotional depth.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

When the Wind Blows

When the Wind Blows; animated drama / disaster movie, UK, 1986; D: Jimmy Murakami, S: John Mills, Peggy Ashcroft

Jim and Hilda are a retired couple in their 60s, living peacefully in a rural area in England. Disturbed by an unknown crisis during the Cold war, Jim decides to put several boards leaned on to the wall, hoping to serve as an improvised shelter, together with food supplies, pursuant to instruction found in the government leaflets. Just then, the Soviet Union bombs England with an atomic bomb, in order to perpetrate a nuclear Holodomor. Because they were on the edge of the explosion, they survive, but stay in the shelter for 48 hours. Afterwards, they exit, sweep away the debris in their damaged home and have some tea. However, the radiation causes more and more health concerns to them, until they eventually die in their bed.

One of the best movies from the 80s, a wonderfully simple and unassuming little story, an adaptation of Raymond Briggs' eponymous comic book, Jimmy Murakami's "When the Wind Blows" is a bitter-sweet essay on the indestructible human spirit, which refuses to bend even when faced with death. Unlike other films about nuclear war, which tend to present a wide picture of events and characters, "Wind" takes the opposite, intimate approach: it is presented only from the perspective of two characters, the retired couple Jim and Hilda, who stoically carry on with their life routine in order to at least mentally escape from blood and carnage that comes knocking on their home door. Jim is such a nice man, always a sweet and polite gentleman, voiced perfectly by the brilliant John Mills, as is his caring wife Hilda, and thus it is heart-breaking watching them slowly die for the whole second half of the movie. At the opening, when Jim enters the house and says: "I'm afraid there's going to be a war, dear", Hilda just continues preparing lunch, and benignly asks: "Mashed or chips?" - "Chips, thanks." The sole sequence of the nuclear strike is intense stuff: the radio announcer just says that a missile will hit in 3 minutes, just as that, and in all the chaos, where Jim pushes Hilda in the shelter, she only worries if the cake in the oven will be burned.

The images of the effects of a nuclear wave sweeping across the green meadow, destroying houses and trees, is heart-breaking, but is only overshadowed itself by a camera drive through the meadow into the house, zooming in onto Jim's and Hilda's wedding photo, which for a second comes to life, showing all the vignettes from their life up to that point (exiting the church, smiling, walking down the meadow, dancing...) - and then breaking and falling down from the wall, in one of the most poetic illustrations of interrupted life ever put on film. Even after half of their house has been demolished, they give a perfect act of pretending to continue ("I need to get one of those with a stereo. I've only got two years to go." - "I hope Ron and Beryl got back all right." - "Oh yes, they will be all right. Our Ron is a very careful driver." - "I didn't mean the driving so much. More the bomb.") As such, these two protagonists become a synecdoche for all the victims of Goreshist Russia in the last 300 years: they are the deported Circassians. The last survival of the Ubykh people. The slaughtered Poles in Katyn. The starved Ukrainians in Holodomor. The massacred Chechens. The bombed Georgians... This is a rare kind of an intelligent, sophisticated doomsday drama: while so many others are going only for gore and melodrama, this one is remarkably subtle, sustained and humorous: so subtle, in fact, you do not even notice that your pleasant smile has been turned into tears at the end, which makes it all the more emotional.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Flower Girl

Kotpanum chonio; drama / musical, North Korea, 1972; D: Ik Kyu Choe, Hak Pak, S: Yong Hui Hong, Ren Rin Kim, Pak Hwa Son, Hu Nam Ru

Korea during the Japanese occupation. Koppun is a young girl who sells flowers on the streets. Her circumstances are dire: her younger sister, Sun Hui, became blind after the selfish landowner, Mrs. Bae, threw boiling water at her; her brother was arrested by the Japanese army when he rebelled against the Bae's, who are collaborators with the Japanese; whereas her mother is sick and works day and night to repay her debt to Mr. Bae, and to shield Koppun from falling into the debt trap herself. After her mother dies, Sun Hui cries all the time, so Mr. Bae sends her into the forest during winter, blaming her for his wife's illness. Finally, Koppun rebels against the Bae's, but is arrested. Luckily, her brother, who joined the resistance movement, shows up and frees her, finds Sun Hui and calls for a communist revolution,

The film adaptation of one of five North Korean revolutionary operas, apparently written by Kim Il-sung himself, "The Flower Girl" is a film that was made with a lot of care, since no expenses were spared to conjure up Korean costumes, traditions and mentality during the Japanese occupation, whereas one must particularly praise the crystal clear cinematography which looks remarkably modern. As for its ultimate quality, the result is mixed: the characters seem real and their problems are palpable, while the storyline is remarkably conservative and neutral - save for the propaganda finale - yet at two hours, the running time of this simple story is overlong and exhaustive, several moments are too melodramatic (Koppun and her little sister crying after their mother died, just as they saved enough money to buy medicine for her, for instance); the songs, sang off screen, appear as intruders at times, whereas the story is too didactic, too stiff and too artificial at times. Directors Ik Kyu Choe and Hak Pak chose a very conservative directing style, since any unusual or inventive ideas would have probably been deemed as too risky considering the national subject, but since North Korea's cinematography is so sparse, even this film version of "The Little Match Girl" seems rather exotic in this edition. Overall, ideological aspects aside, this is a humble and emotional little tale, and thus manages to seem neutral and universal most of the time.


Thursday, September 17, 2015


Midnight; comedy, USA, 1939; D: Mitchell Leisen, S: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Francis Lederer, Mary Astor

Eve, a broke American showgirl, arrives to Paris and spends the night searching for a job thanks to a friendly taxi driver, Tibor Czerny, who decided to drive her for free. Eve manages to smuggle into a noble party by pretending to be Baroness Czerny. There, she catches the attention of playboy Jacques. The next morning, she finds herself in a fancy hotel, where the wealthy Georges admits he has seen through her charade, but that he is willing to pay her to seduce Jacques - away from Helene, George's wife, who seems to be attracted to Jacques. At a new party, Tibor shows up, pretending to be count Czerny in order to win Eve from Jacques. This ends with a lot of misunderstanding, where Eve and Tibor go to a court to demand a divorce, even though they never were married - and subsequently decide to get married.

A charming modern retelling of "Cinderella", "Midnight" is a good "screwball" comedy, but still one of the 'lighter' films from the "Golden age of Hollywood", not quite strong enough for the status of a classic. Its strongest points are the opening 15 minutes, equipped with fantastic, inspired dialogues, where the writing by screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder show their full potential: one of the best moments is when Tibor offers Eve a taxi ride while it is raining outside, but she explains to him that she doesn't have anything in her purse, except for a penny with a hole in it, or when she observes the wet newspaper ("I don't know if I should read it or drink from it"). Bizarrely, the minute Eve enters a party, it seems she fell into a different film, a one where the mood is still sustained, but only at half-speed and half-effort of the previously established and polished intro, since the spark of the storyline does not manage to ignite to the fullest. The masquerade and impersonation tricks become a tad too contrived after a while, though they get to a few good moments, such as when Tibor disguises himself as count Czerny in order to unmask that Eve is not countess Czerny, but she just manages to persuade all the guests that he is actually an impostor, not her. The ending left a fair deal of the story unfinished, but gave a worthy conclusion where just enough was said in a satisfying manner to get the bigger picture. This may be slightly dated today, but at least it is nobly dated.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo

Evangerion Shin Gekoijoban: Kyu; animated science-fiction drama, Japan, 2012; D: Hideaki Anno, Mahiro Maeda, Kazuya Tsurumaki, S: Megumi Ogata, Akira Ishida, Yuko Miyamura, Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi

14 years after the last events. Asuka and Mari use their Evangelion bio-mechanical robots to get Shinji Ikari sealed away in the Earth's orbit. Shinji is arrested and taken to the headquarters of WILLE, a new organization led by Misato, who is now on a quest to destroy NERV and Evangelions. It turns out that Shinji's awakening of Evangelion caused Third Impact and inflicted heavy losses on Earth. He also finds out that Rei Ayanami is a clone of his mother, and also has parts of herself in his Evangelion. Shinji and Kaworu, the First Angel, pilot Evangelion into the Terminal Dogma and release the spear from Lilith, causing her to disintegrate into LCL. This sets the stage for Fourth Impact, but it is luckily avoided and stopped when Kaworu kills himself. Asuka and Rei retrieve Shinji and take him away.

How to remake a masterwork as a mediocre film. Something like that could be applied to describe the third film in the "Rebuild of Evangelion" film series, "Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo". Even though the previous film, "Evangelion 2.22", came as a very pleasant surprise and offered new hope for the new film series, this represents a debase of a talent: "3.0" seems as if Hideaki Anno decided to write a fancfiction - or a rip-off - of his own work. The whole story is so extremely weird and estranged from the characters of the brilliant original anime series that it simply isn't "Evangelion" anymore. It is a counterfeit. There are by this point too many versions of the franchise, which only seem to continue for profit, not creativity. What was the point of having Shinji awaken 14 years after the previous film, in the year 2029? This way, it seems as if they skipped a whole era of the narrative. Furthermore, it seems unconvicing that all the Human Intrumentality Project would just wait all that time for Shinji to activate itself again. A few good lines of wisdom ("It is easy to destroy the world. But it is difficult to repair it."), the opening action sequence in which Evangelions are in Earth's orbit and sly parallels between the situation of Shinji and his father Gendo (Shinji tried to save Rei Ayanami, but unintentionally triggered a catastrophe, just like Gendo is trying to revive Yui Ayanami by playing with the potentially catastrophic Human Instrumentality Project) help somewhat alleviate the downside of the film, but they are not enough to compensate for the mess of an ultra-depressive story with several confusing moments. Even the original anime was confusing, yet managed to somehow integrate it into a deeper image of psychoanalysis and symbolism where the Angels act as Shinji's unexplained fears and anxiety, and thus need to be conquered in order for him to achieve a normal, balanced personality. But here, on its own, "3.0." does not manage to get to that part, thereby leaving all the burden on the fourth and final film.