Monday, April 27, 2015

Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys

Code inconnu; Recit incomplet de divers voyages; drama, France/ Germany/ Romania, 2000; D: Michael Haneke, S: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Ona Lu Yenke, Alexandre Hamidi, Josef Bierbichler, Luminita Gheorghiu

Actress Anne just completed her new film, "The Collector", a thriller. Her lover, Georges, a war photographer, went to Kosovo, and she is visited by his little brother Jean, who wants to stay at their apartment since he does not want to live and work in his grandfathers farm. Anne gives him the key to their apartment, but the angry Jean throws a piece of paper to the lap of a woman who is begging on the street: he thus gets confronted by an African lad, Amadou. The police intervenes, and as a consequence both are arrested, while the woman who was begging turns out to be an illegal migrant and is thus sent back to Romania. Anne thinks she overheard a man abusing a child in the neihgborhood, and confronts Georges about it: he does not want to get involved into other people's business, yet they decide to have a baby.

"Code Unknown" starts off with a brilliant 7-minute scene filmmed in one long take that engages the viewers and "warms up" for the film: in it, Anne (excellent Juliette Binoche) encounters the younger brother of her boyfriend, Jean, and they walk from left to right on the street. However, just as she leaves the frame, Jean starts going back the alley from right to left, and throws a piece of paper in the lap of a beggar's woman, which causes a heroic reaction from an African lad Amadou, who confronts him for humiliating that woman and demands Jean to appologize to her. As in the previous scene, where mute children are trying to decipher what a child is trying to say on stage, this scene also shows the dual nature of the storyline, where a lot of things turn out different than we previously expected: the police don't just arrest Jean, but Amadou as well, whereas the beggar's woman, Maria, actually gets the worst deal, since it turns out she is an illegal migrant and has to return to Romania. It is remarkable how director Michael Haneke manages to grip the viewers so fast and simple - and equally remarkable how he is able to lose them, failing to follow up with the potential of the opening. Namely, instead of building up on what happened next, Haneke just queues random scene after scene, which all do not connect in any way, until the viewers are fed up with the episodic vignettes and give up on the film. For instance, Maria returns to Romania, and we follow her talk with her family and on a wedding, etc., since Haneke does not know what to do with that subplot, he is lost with it. The same goes for Amadou: what happened to him after his heroic stance for the weak? Nothing. He goes on a date with a girl, participates in a drumming contest, but what does any of this have to do with the narrative of the film? Nothing. There are echoes of racism, poverty, illegal migrants, passivity of the upper class and rural-urban relationships, but each one of them is a stub. Ironically, just as the title says, the film is a collection of incomplete tales, and thus we get here five underdeveloped stories which are more appropriate for a first draft than a finished script with a clear storyline and a point, despite well directed scenes.

Grade;++

Variola Vera

Variola vera: thriller, Serbia, 1982; D: Goran Marković, S: Rade Šerbedžija, Dušica Žegarac, Varja Đukić, Rade Marković, Erland Josephson, Peter Carsten, Bogdan Diklić

A Yugoslav Muslim makes a pilgrimage to an Arab country, and buys a flute infected with smallpox. As he returns to Yugoslavia, to Belgrade, he becomes sick, but is misdiagnosed with an penicillin allergy in the hospital. When he dies and the test results show he died of smallpox, the alarm bells go off: the authorities seal off the entire hospital, with some 200 patients and doctors inside, in order to prevent a mass epidemic in Europe. A doctor from the UN shows up in the hospital, covered with a white protective suit, and helps the medical staff take care of the infected and evacuate the remaining healthy patients to another floor. A librarian who fell in love with a nurse enters the hospital and is found dead on the roof - but he died from sunburn. After a month, the disease has been eradicated thanks to vaccination, and the hospital is unsealed.

The 1972 Yugoslav smallpox outbreak, the last case of a smallpox epidemic in Europe's history, made for quite an interesting and suspenseful story-dramatization in "Variola vera", a film made only a decade after these events. Director Goran Markovic seems to insert a few inappropriate 'horror' elements in the storyline, yet except for the first patient - who is seen throwing up blood and leaving a bloody trail all over the walls of the hospital - it luckily did not show too many explicit or crude details, instead focusing more on the conditions of the hospital staff that was sealed off by the authorities and turned into a quarantine zone (a patient complains to the doctors that he cannot leave the hospital, even though he just checked in that day, and is thus "stuck" with the rest of them; a doctor is accused off secretly stealing medicine since there are not enough vaccination packages; the authorities are informed about the newspaper reports from the West, which proclaimed them the "defenders" of Europe from a smallpox epidemics, which causes an even bigger burden on their shoulders...). Unfortunately, the story is overlong and the characters are too episodic to truly stand out and develop into real protagonists: ironically, the most memorable of them all is the UN epidemiologist, whose face is - except for the final scene - never seen since he carries a white suit and protective mask, but whose wisdom and calm helps alleviate the tension in the hospital a lot. A too bland and standard, yet still engaging Yugoslav forerunner to "Outbreak", with a few good paranoia moments.

Grade;++

Friday, April 24, 2015

Manhattan Melodrama

Manhattan Melodrama; crime drama, USA, 1934; D: W. S. Van Dyke, S: Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy

Childhood friends and orphans, two men grow up on the opposite spectrum of the law: "Blackie" Gallagher becomes an owner of an illegal casino whereas Jim Warne becomes the new district attorney. Since Blackie does not want to get out of his shady underground business, his girlfriend Eleanor leaves him and falls in love with Jim. When Blackie kills Mr. Snow, who wanted to blackmail Jim due to his Governor candidacy, the police arrests him. A man of integrity, Jim sends Blackie to a death penalty on trial. In the last minute, when he finds out his motive, Jim wants to change the penalty into a life in prison, but Blackie declines, since he does not want to spend his entire life in jail. After the execution, Jim quits his position.

This good crime drama gathered acclaim for very good performances and a competent direction, yet one is left with a semi-satisfied feeling since the story could have been far more intense, intriguing and inventive had it been developed better. As such, it is a fine example of that 'good-old-school' filmaking from the golden age of Hollywood, yet it is too simplistic and flat to truly encompass a greater quality. For one, it lacks highlights. Everything presented is fine, but needed more interesting moments and dialogues with a point. One of the few memorable exceptions is a neat sequence near the beginning, when Blackie (very good Clark Gable), an illegal casino owner, orders all the customers and staff to hide their chips in their pockets and flip the gambling tables by 180 degrees to "transform" them into ordinary pool tables, just before the police shows up to inspect the location. Unfortunately, a lot of juicy stuff seems to have been left out: the viewers are not shown how Blackie and Jim grew apart, and neither is Blackie's trial shown, except for the closing arguments, which thus undermined a lot of potential for conflict and anguish of his friend, Jim. The death penalty finale seems strangely out of place and questionable by today's standards. Still, the storyline flows smoothly, whereas it is interesting no notice William Powell and Myrna Loy before they would team up in the "Thin Man" series.

Grade;++

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Avengers

The Avengers; fantasy/ action, USA, 2012; D: Joss Whedon, S: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders

Asgardian Loki shows up on Earth in order to use the power of the Tesseract to open up a portal that will allow the alien race Chitauri to arrive from the other side of the Universe and conquer the planet. Nick Fury, director of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency thus recruits the top superheroes, the Avengers, to fight the danger: Tony Stark, aka Iron Man; Captain America, Dr. Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk; Thor; Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow and Hawkeye. Even though they are outnumbered by the alien army, the Avengers manage to stop the attack on Manhattan, close the portal and throw a nuclear bomb on Chitauri in space.

 Even though it became the highest grossing movie of the decade and accumulated an incredible 92% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, "Marvel's The Avengers" is a film for kids, a too simplistic variation of the superhero genre equipped with the typical "cartoonish" action. The idea to assemble all of the popular superheroes into one film is good, but since they gathered them all, they should have at least given them an especially good script that would assemble all of the best ingredients of the superhero genre into one, as well. For a movie with six superheroes in one, it does not have a sixfold of quality, but only one sixth of the actual power of these figures (for instance, the first "Iron Man" was a better film than this, and, ironically, Tony Stark was the only superhero in that story). Despite their flaws, "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" at least had subversive and thought-provocative ingredients at times. There is none of that here.

This is especially disappointing considering that they gave the film to a talented director like Joss Whedon, who previously showed quite a witty, fun and inventive frequency in "Buffy" (for instance, the musical episode). The people who choreographed the fantastic action sequences in "Superman 2", "Terminator 2" and "Hard Boiled" can only chuckle at the ordinary action in here, which is as simplistic as the corny storyline. Tony Stark/Iron Man and Black Widow are the only two interesting characters (Widow has a great, delicious intro sequence at the start, where it turns out that, despite being tied to a chair, she is actually interrogating some thugs, and not vice-versa; Tony has a few cynical jokes) yet Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye and the Hulk are bland and do not have their moments. Theoretically, they could have added Superman, Spiderman, Batman and 20 other superheroes as well, since the latter four do not do anything much besides being there. However, the finale has some fun ideas (Loki captures and intercepts a flying arrow with his hand, but just as we think he saved himself, the arrow exploes and gets him anyway), which shows that Whedon still had some crumbs of inspiration, which could have been developed far better if he was given a free hand to allow the storyline to get unconventional and surprising. Silly, but fun.

Grade;++

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Oblivion

Oblivion; science-fiction, USA, 2013; D: Joseph Kosinski, S: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

In 2077, Jack and Victoria have been told that their memory was erased to cope with the tragedy of a an alien invasion of Earth, which resulted in aliens leaving but the Moon being destroyed. They are told their mission is to repair droids who protect giant stations that suck ice and water from Earth in order convert them into energy for all the humanity which has left for Titan, since Earth is contaminated by radiation. Little by little, Jack starts deducting this is not the case: the surface aliens turn out to be humans. One of the survivors, Julia, turns out to be his wife. Jack is namely a clone of the original Jack, an astronaut who was brainwashed by the aliens on the space station Tet. The energy stations are actually aliens' and they are destroying the remains of Earth, feigning to be ignorant, Jack arrives at the Tet station and detonates a nuclear bomb, thereby destroying them and saving Earth,

Compared to many other big budget Hollywood Sci-Fi films, where everything revolves only around mindless action, Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion" is a step forward since it dared to be unusual and different from the standard, yet still not enough to edge itself into brilliance. A lot of its strong points derive from a huge plot twist in the second half, which is indeed original and strong, and therefor one cannot dissect it too much without revealing many of its clues - sufficient to say that it is a sly allegory on the autocratic tendency to restrict information in order to get only an 'abridged' vision of reality - yet a couple of images are expressionistic as well (the semi-shattered Moon, flattened like a pancake, seen on the night sky; the post-apocalyptic scene of the iconic San Francisco bridge buried half way by sand). However, the storyline is sadly sterile, grey, humorless and lifeless, which undermines the characters to truly come to life. As much as Tom Cruise gives a good performance, it is way too serious and standard than his funny, humble and warm performance as Jerry Maguire, where he was so much more genuine. Morgan Freeman is great as always, yet his character is too 'abridged' as well to fully engage. This is particularly noticeable when one has in mind that Michael Arndt co-wrote the screenplay, yet his witty and comical sparks obvious in his previous films ("Little Miss Sunshine", "Toy Story 3") are not here. However, it flows smoothly and elegantly, whereas the finale is a real stunner.

Grade;++

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cain and Mabel

Cain and Mabel; romantic comedy, USA, 1936; D: Lloyd Bacon, S: Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Allen Jenkins

Due to his fault, waitress Mabel gets fired from a restaurant, so reporter Reilly decides to find her a new job. An impostor presents himself as producer Sherman and offers Mabel a place in a Broadway show. The real Sherman shows up, but hires Mabel anyway. She cannot stand a boxer, Cain, but the management decides to place the news in the media that they are a love couple for publicity. The audience is hooked, and the annoyed Mabel and Cain are thus stuck pretending to love each other. However, they indeed fall in love.

Lloyd Bacon's romantic comedy "Cain and Mabel" is today a rather obscure title in the careers of Clark Gable and Marion Davies, yet it still has some irresistible charm that channels some best moments of the golden age of Hollywood. The basic premise in which a boxer and a dancer cannot stand each other, but grudgingly have to pretend to be in love for the media, is really sweet and gives an ironic jab at tabloid sensationalism, but the best parts are some incredible, inspired and deliciously snappy dialogue by writer Laird Doyle in the first half, some of which even rival Wilder's calibre of dialogue invention ("Your dance will make the swan lake look like a cooked goose!"; "If you ever lose that voice, you'll end up as a ventriloquist dummies"; "Just a minute! I don't care if you're Jake Sherman or the four Marx brothers, you cannot get away with calling me a chisler!"; the comment about the low audience interest, and how "the man in the box office played solitaire as to not be lonely"). The three long musical-dance sequences are tiresome and stiff, which makes for an unnecessary addition to the film, though luckily they are not frequent. Gable and Davies are very good in the leads, and some of their arguments have chemistry, yet their characters are not deeper developed, and it is unclear how they suddenly switch from anger to love out of the blue, just because Cain fancies her cooking in the kitchen. The resolution is a tad too simplistic, as if something is missing in the storyline, but overall this is a very fun and energetic film.

Grade;++

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes - the Original Script

I am going to make another rare excursion into a screenplay review, featuring "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond. It is one of those sad cinema genocides, since the available 125-minute film is only an abridged version of the original script and Wilder's and Diamond's vision. It is unclear how much exactly of the original footage was cut - and subsequently lost forever - yet the sole script is divided into four chapters:

1. Prologue: Up-Side-Down Room - 60 pages
2. Russian Ballerina - 32 pages
3. Naked Honeymooners - 17 pages
4. Dumbfounded Detective - 113 pages

That makes for a total of 222 page, and since no. 1 and 3 were completely deleted, they comprise about 35% of the entire film, or approximately 45 missing minutes.

The fact that a legendary director of Wilder's calibre was making a film about a legendary fictional hero of Sherlock Holmes' calibre was already astonishing by itself. It is a remarkable blend of two worlds. It would be, let's say, as if someone like Wes Anderson would chose to direct a movie about Superman today. The amount of potential was staggering, yet the sole 1970 movie was never quite there. It was good and had fresh moments, yet one could sense a large part of its narrative was missing. That notion bugged me so much over the years, I decided to find and read the original screenplay.

Needles to say, had they released the original film based on the screenplay, it would have been one of my favorite films of the 70s. The amount of the producers' bad judgement to cut 35% of the film is incomprehensible. Naturally, some films are indeed too long and need to be restrained in their weaker spots, but the cuts in this edition are practically suicidal: they deleted some of the best jokes in the film! They thus practically destroyed it themselves.

The first chapter starts in the modern day 1969 London, where Dr. Watson, the grandson of the Dr. Watson, is in Barclay's Bank and about to open the box containing the memoirs of Sherlock Holmes' life, much to the excitement of Mr. Havelock-Smith. There are some fabulous, inspired dialogues typical of Wilder and Diamond here, like when we find out that this Dr. Watson is actually a veterinary, or when Mr. Cassidy comments that the memoirs "don't look like much", causing Havelock-Smith to reply with: "To you, Cassidy, nothing looks like much unless it's wearing a mini-skirt." Havelock-Smith is so excited about the memoirs that Cassidy comments with: "You act like you discovered a new play by Shakespeare", causing this reply: "Shakespeare? He was a dilettante. Took him five acts to solve the Macbeth Murder Case - Gentlemen, if this should shed new light on the enigma of Sherlock Holmes, it may be the most important literary find since the Dead Sea Scrolls." The main narrative starts with Holmes and Dr. Watson having a comical encounter with an escaped Italian lover in the train, and continues back at their home, where Holmes is complaining how Dr. Watson exaggerated rumors about him, since he even got a request from Birmingham Symphony to appear as a soloist in the Mendelssohn Concerto. Though a more pressing thing is that Holmes is starting to bore himself, since no mystery is a challenge anymore. Here is where arguably the best joke of the chapter appears - the one where Holmes takes some bullets, opens the cartridges and puts the gunpowder into his pipe, mixing it with tobacco, before lighting it up - a moments that is so howlingly funny and unbelievably simple it is impossible to believe nobody actually put it on film ever since. As the title says, Holmes and Dr. Watson inspect a room where all the furniture is upside-down, and wonder if the dead man on the floor may have fallen from the bed on the ceiling above him. Overall, a great intro.

The second chapter is practically identical with the segment in the film, and features the great sequence where Dr. Watson is dancing with ballerinas, who are slowly getting exchanged by a male gay dancers who think he is gay as well.

The third chapter, Naked Honeymooners, is the shortest and the least impressive. As such, it is the only one that somewhat justifies being cut from the film since its punchline at the end - namely that the two heroes were in the wrong room the whole time - is rather thin compared to the rest of the film, albeit it at least has a good idea where Holmes gives his hat to Dr. Watson who thinks he was taught so much from the famous detective that he can solve a case all by himself for once.

The fourth chapter is the one that remained in the film, and is mostly a 1:1 recreation. However, it lacks one important flashback sequence, as prude as it may be, where Holmes explains to Gabrielle why he has distrust in women - as a student in Oxford, he was fascinated by a beautiful girl, until he found out she is a prostitute when he won sex with her as a prize, which caused him to run away - since it foreshadows his "deceived" relationship with Gabrielle.

Overall, it's not that the abridged movie does not have its moments. It's that the original screenplay gave Holmes a much broader spectrum of a viewing experience. Some have complained that it does not feature any real mystery case, instead only fake ones, yet the point was to show a different, personal side to Holmes, as the title suggests, to show him as a man who is great as a detective, but weak as a human being, a complex character who was bored, who was lonely and who used his cocaine addiction to suppress these feelings of sadness. It was as if the myth created about his persona prevented him from simply being who he really is, since it would never meet the people's expectations. Both comical and emotional, the screenplay is excellent, and finally gives a complete impression.

Grade;+++ 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets; black comedy, UK, 1949; D: Robert Hamer, S: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Audrey Fildes

Awaiting his death sentence in prison, Louis Mazzini writes down his memoirs: his mother was a potential heir to the rich and noble D'Ascoynes family, but when she married a poor Italian man, she was dishonored. Louis thus grew up poor, seeking revenge on the D'Ascoynes family and aiming for the inheritance which he thought belongs to him. He had an affair with Sibella, the wife of alcoholic Lionel. Louis started killing the eight heirs of the D'Ascoynes family one by one, until he was the last heir in line, and thus inherited everything. He also fell in love with Edith, the widow of one of the D'Ascoynes members he killed. However, Louis was arrested when Lionel was found dead, and he was the main suspect. Sibella offers him an exchange: she killed her lover, and now Louis must kill his, Edith. Lionel's suicide note is thus found and Louis is freed - but his memoirs stayed in prison.

One of the most hyped classic of the British cinema, black comedy "Kind Hearts and Coronets" holds up indeed very well, though some superlatives attributed to it are a tad exaggerated. The cynical story in which a seemingly cultured man, Louis, climbs up the hierarchy of inheritance by killing off eight family members who are in front of line, is remarkably elegant, witty and has almost a codified choice of words which give it an opulent rhythm, a sense of a movie poem of its own (as Louis is about to shoot the balloon with Lady Agatha in it, he narrates: "I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkley Square."; when he is about to flatter Sibella, he says: "I'd say that you were the perfect combination of imperfections."; the line: "While I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith."). The storyline is also full of neat little twists, whereas the stand-out in the cast is the brilliant Alec Guinness in an octuple performance as eight members of the D'Ascoynes family, ranging from the young Henry, through the old Vicar up to Lady Agatha. Some ideas with which Louis kills the eight members are also quite inventive, such as the one where he kills Henry, a fan of photographic processing, by putting gasoline in the photography development liquid in his darkroom. However, the movie takes quite a long time to get fully going, whereas it is not universal, since a lot of those fine phrases are lost in translation outside the English language speaking world. A further point has to be detracted from it due to the overlong finale, which drags, though it has a neat ending which cements its overall very good impression.

Grade;+++

Friday, April 10, 2015

Planeta Bur

Planeta Bur; science-fiction, Russia, 1962; D: Pavel Klushantsev, S: Georgiy Zhozhonov, Vladimir Yemelyanov, Genadi Vernov, Kyuna Ignatova

Three spaceships from Earth, "Sirius", "Vega" and "Capella", arrive to explore Venus. One of the ships is destroyed by a meteorite, yet the other two decide to land to the planet. The crew consists out of Ilya, Alyosha, Bobrov, Scherba, Kern and one woman, Masha, who stays behind in the main ship in orbit. Three astronauts take a hovercraft, while the other two take a robot with them, John. They encounter man-eating plants, a dinosaur, Apatosaurus, and fish in the lakes. The robot malfunctions, but the two astronauts are saved by him from lava encroachment. As the five astronauts leave Venus, to head back to their main ship in orbit, a silhouette of an alien, humanoid, female creature is seen reflected in the lake.

In the long history of cinema, it is quite a treat to find foreign authors who had the audacity to make Sci-Fi films outside the English language world, and among them is the cult space flick "Planeta Bur" by Pavel Klushantsev, who, despite a limited budget, managed to resolve some difficulties involving special effects and demonstrate a few neat tricks (a hovercraft, a robot that resembles "Robby" from "Forbidden Planet", clouds around the orbit...). The data of supposed life on Venus became dated and obsolete already a couple of years later when it was discovered that its surface temperatures reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit, yet despite these and other omissions (the six characters are scarcely developed, for instance; the "cameo" appearances of an Apatosaurus and a Pterodactylus last for only 10 seconds and are so stiff they disappoint for tickling the imagination only to drop it) the film has some charm for at least trying these kind of things, and creates an exotic, original and peculiar feel, a one that at least separates him from other Sci-Fi films from the 60s. The exteriors of a rock valley are exquisite, and the penultimate scene adds even a small touch of Erich von Danikan philosophy in the storyline. The dramaturgy could have been developed more sharply and eloquently, yet Klushantsev seems to have a field day with creating his very own world full of richly bizarre creatures, and such a rare blend of pure adventure, mystery and Sci-Fi secured the film attention even in other countries.

Grade;++

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Babette's Feast

Babettes gaestebud; drama, Denmark, 1987; D: Gabriel Axel, S: Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont

Denmark, 19th century. Sisters Martine and Philippa lead a small Christian community of only a dozen people after their father, who founded it, died. They never got married and spend their time preparing ascetic meals for the old inhabitants. They get support from a French woman, Babette, who is a refugee from the bloodshed in Paris. She helps them cook over the next 14 years. After Babette wins 10,000 francs from a lottery, she decides to spend the money to finally prepare a delicious, unrestricted feast for the community. The dinner is fantastic, a success, whereas Martine's former suitor Lorens also drops by to visit her.

Despite its critical acclaim, "Babette's Feast" is a slightly overrated achievement, a good film that becomes great only in two dialogue scenes spoken by general Lorens later on. The whole intro and the opening are slightly unnecessary, since the characters are never truly rounded up for such a long time invested in them, outside their religious beliefs, and the finale is the film's highlight anyway, since everything is built up to it, the gorgeous, rich and abundant 30-minute sequence of a feast that will finally sate the ascetic inhabitants who always ate only diet cuisine. Unfortunately, just as the commune's cuisine is bland in the first hour, such is the storyline as well, which seems to be inherent to the richness and quality of the food itself. Unfortunately, the dinner is a little meagre itself, or better said, it could have been elaborated more for the viewer to get a real feeling of exquisite food, which is why it is a too 'diet' achievement to become a real film-delicatessen about gastronomy, such as "Eat Drink Man Woman" or "Ratatouille". Director Gabriel Axel crafts the film in an elegant and refreshingly simple, humble way, though, showing "little people" who are modest and who find fulfilment in their modest, traditional lives. The two aforementioned moments where "Feast" finally becomes a true feast for a brink of a time, arrives in the form of two fantastic, contemplative and philosophical dialogues by general Lorens at the dinner, who is so overwhelmed by its taste he recalls a French cook who made dinners "like a love affair, where you could not distinguish between physical and spiritual taste anymore", and the second one is when he makes a toast about self-sacrifice, adding how later on "everything we rejected has also been granted. And yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together."

Grade;++

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness; science-fiction, USA, 2013; D: J. J. Abrams, S: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy

In the 23rd century, a terrorist attack kills Admiral Pike. The perpetrator is identified as "John Harrison", who fled to safety of the Klingon world Chronos, and thus Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Uhura, Scott and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew are sent to capture him in a top secret mission, since such a breach into the Klingon Empire may trigger a war with the Federation. They succeed, but "Harrison" is actually Khan, a genetically engineered super-human warrior from the past, who was used by the war obsessed Admiral Marcus to design secret weapons and militarise the Federation. Marcus thus attacks the Enterprise, in order to conceal that information. Luckily, Spock manages to capture Khan and save the spaceship from falling onto Earth.

Untypically, it seems the old rule that the "Star Trek" movies with odd numbers are weaker than the ones with the even number applies even in the reboot franchise, since part II, "Star Trek Into Darkness", is a surprising improvement compared to the overhyped first film. Not only does the crew seem to be getting a hang of it, since the old chemistry of the classic Enterprise crew is igniting, but the story has much more common sense compared to the preposterous time travel plot holes of the 1st film, since it speaks about some political themes and even touches about the notion of the military-industrial complex of the Federation, and the slightly annoying "hip" 21st century modernization of the franchize is restrained, though it has a few setbacks as well (the unecessary scene where it is implied Kirk had a threesome, for instance). Leaving the pointless opening on the planet Nibiru (!) aside, the narrative is so much more normal here, and steadily raises the level of suspense. It takes the story from "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan", and re-structures it into a new story, where only the ending seems like a rehash of the '82 film. Benedict Cumberbatch may not be as natural and genuine Khan as R. Montalban, but he has his moments, whereas there are even a few examples of inventive action ideas in the "Star Trek" Universe, and two stand out the most: the sequence where Enterprise is flying at Warp speed, until Admiral Marcus' spaceship catches up at them from behind, and opens fire at them in the Warp tunnel, which was unheard off; and the wonderful sequence where Kirk and Khan are flying in spacesuits from the Enterprise to Marcus' ship, and - almost as a two in one - Scott opens the door for them to enter, and causes a pressure drop which sucks out a bad guy, aiming his phaser at him, into space at the same time. As strange as it was to show a relationship between Spock and Uhura, it actually helped to develop that character better, whereas Leonard Nimony once again has a small, but effective cameo as the original Spock, his last one ever. Overall, better than "Star Trek I", but still not quite as good as "Wrath of Khan".

Grade;++

Sunday, April 5, 2015

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; comedy, USA, 1963; D: Stanley Kramer, S: Sid Caesar, Spencer Tracy, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters, Dorothy Provine, Dick Shawn, Peter Falk, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis

After a car accident on a curve, crook "Smiler" reveals to five accidental passer-bys - dentist Melville, furniture mover Pike, Bell, Benjamin and entrepreneur Russell Finch - that he buried 350,000 $ under a "W" sign in the Santa Rosita park, before passing out. This triggers a mad race between the five drivers, who all want to reach the money first. After numerous misadventures and chases via plans and automobiles, the number of people who reach the park reaches twenty, but the money is taken away by police Captain Culpeper. However, he tries to steal the cash as well, and is chased by the gang, until in all the commotion the money is dispersed on the streets and picked up by a crowd.

Stanley Kramer's first excursion into a comedy was not only untypical thematically - he is known for complex social dramas like "Inherit the Wind" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" - but also for its megalomaniac intent to make a "comedy to end all comedies". On the plus side, he must be given credit for managing to rally almost half of all Hollywood comedians, some of which make only a ten second cameo (Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton...), and giving a comical take on greed that causes people to go crazy in its race to reach a buried money first, whereas the best jokes arrive in the first third of the film, most in the form of insane over-the-top action stunts (the five vehicles driving on the both sides of the road, pushing away all other cars arriving from the other side from their way; Melville and his wife are shaken while a small airplane from 1916 takes off only to go back on the ground again; tied up to a pole, Pike pulls it off and demolishes a whole gas station...). It is difficult to pinpoint who stands out the most in this sea of an ensemble, yet the brilliant Sid Caesar really feels the most genuine and charming of them all. However, Kramer unnecessarily expanded the scale of the story into an epic three hour length, which was way too much for such a simple one-note concept, causing it to go pass its prime and turn into an overlong excess, with too many contrived, forced and pompous subplots, which is why in the finale "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" even became slightly boring, causing the viewers to thank that this affair finally came to an conclusion.

Grade;++

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe; drama/ comedy, USA, 1941; D: Frank Capra, S: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan

When she finds out her column is about to be terminated due to a budget cut, out of desperation, reporter Ann Mitchell decides to write a sensationalistic article for New Bulletin newspaper, and makes up a letter of a fictional man, John Doe, who plans to jump off from city hall on Christmas because he is unemployed and cannot stand the injustice in society anymore. Unexpectedly, the article is such a hit that the editors have to hire a man, Willoughby, to play John Doe. Spontaneously, thousands of people start John Doe clubs and initiate philanthropy. However, when the media tycoon D.B. Norton decides to exploit the movement to run for office, Willoughby rebels and is punished and demonized by the media. He decides to jump off the building on Christmas, but Ann dissuades him.

Frank Capra's last cooperation with screenwriter Robert Riskin, "Meet John Doe" does not hold up as well as their first films - the storyline is overstretched pass its prime at a running time of 120 minutes, and some solutions seem like a rehash of Capra's and Riskin's previous elements in thematically very similar "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", which makes them not that fresh anymore - yet the sole concept is so delicious it coined the term 'John Doe' as the American figure of speech. There are a few great satirical touches (the exquisite opening where the sign "Free Press", written in stone, is chiseled off by a worker with a drill in order to put another sign on its place, "New Bulletin Press") and the basic idea is rich, posing some thought provoking questions about the creation of any ideology, how such a momentum can be hijacked by the elite for their own purpose and the power of the media to distort facts and keep a myth alive for millions of people who need hope, and not grim reality. Cooper seems to be reprising his character of Mr. Deeds, but it is still good enough to work, especially since his character here wonders if by saying the truth, that he is not the idolized John Doe, but just a product of the media editors, will shatter all the dreams of his followers (when he wants to propose Ann, he confesses to her mother this: "I'm afraid she is not in love with me, but in the man she created. I cannot compare with him."), which even has religious implications. The dialogues are not as memorable as the above mentioned classics, yet the finale is dramatic: just like in "Mr. Smith", a media tycoon uses his power to control the public opinion by spreading negative word-of-mouth in the press against John as soon as he is not obeying him anymore, thereby even showing Capra in a darker, pessimistic edition, who shows how it is getting more and more difficult for the people to change something if the elite does not want it, and a darker ending would have thus been even more appropriate.

Grade;+++

Friday, April 3, 2015

Death Wish

Death Wish; crime/ action/ drama, USA, 1974; D: Michael Winner, S: Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, William Redfield, Hope Lange, Steven Keats, Stuart Margolin, Christopher Guest, Jeff Goldblum

Paul is a liberal, well paid architect who lives with his wife Joanna and daughter Carol in New York. One day, three thugs break into their apartment and beat and rape Joanna and Carol. Joanna dies, while Carol is sent to psychiatric care. This causes a suppressed rage inside Paul, who takes a gun and starts walking around the city at night as a vigilante, killing any thug trying to rob someone on the streets. Lieutenant Frank investigates these murders. When Paul is wounded, Frank is ordered to tell him that the police will let him go if he moves out of town, because the District Attorney does not want the low crime rates to drop if the public finds out the vigilante has been caught.

The originator of the long action film series, "Death Wish" caused quite a stir of controversy during its premiere, triggering a heated debate of the vigilante phenomenon and men taking justice into their own hands, yet putting its ideological features aside, as a pure film, it is a good achievement, and still far superior than the four sequels that followed and strayed into simpler action worlds reminiscent of the "Rambo" franchise. The storyline is a tad too simplified at times (for instance, all the thugs are one-dimensional bad guys, and nothing is said about them or why they turned to crime) and its dramaturgy slightly 'abridged' overall, yet it offers just enough to carry the film, and some emotional scenes are welcomed (after his wife died from the thugs, Paul's hands start trembling; after he shoots the first criminal, he has to throw up...). Also, some of its more complex themes arrive swiftly and never seem imposed on the viewers, especially some difficult questions that arise - what causes a man to transition from a left-wing to a right-wing spectre? Can a person rely on the government to stop violence on the streets and protect his family? In order to stop criminals, does a vigilante become a criminal himself, and thus only continues the circle of evil? - whereas Charles Bronson is surprisingly effective as the leading (anti)hero, though Vincent Gardenia simply steals the show as the deliciously genuine NYPD Lieutenant. A more frequent examples of sophistication is unfortunately rare, though some exceptions arise (even though he goes on the revenge spree, Paul never catches the three thugs who assaulted his family, and thus, it is implied, a clear solution is not in the picture), and some scenes are just plain fun (in an empty subway train, a bully rips Paul's newspaper with his knife through the middle - and he just shoots him).

Grade;++