Saturday, 31 October 2015

Doel Belang

Doel Belang; mystery / drama short, Croatia, 2007; D: Veno Mušinović, S: Gordan Sarajlić, Lovro Lajoš, Marko Hrenović, Veno Mušinović, Iva Bunčić

A writer writes a book with the title "Doel Belang". Adam is a gardener in a picturesque orchard. After an apple falls on his head, a stranger, only known as Mobil, shows up and helps him stand up, but also inspires him to think about the nature of life when he poses a thought-provoking question if they are possibly all characters in a book with an author. Adam abandons his assignment of painting a fence and goes on a quest to find some answers. He meets a man buried up to his chest in soil; Thomas, a man without any opinion and a painter, who contemplates if their book was maybe left unfinished. Adam finally has a vision of a woman at night, and hears the voice of the writer who informs him that his task was to paint the fence - in the story in the book, Theodore's daughter Gudinne was suppose to return to her hometown after 20 years, which would be identified by a black fence. Since Adam did not paint it, she continued driving, and hit and killed Doel Belang, which will demolish the point of the book. Adam cries and the writer finishes his book.

Some films deserve to be taken out of the sands of time, since they display remarkable philosophical, spiritual and intellectual exercises, rarely seen in cinema. "Doel Belang" is an unassuming little short film created out of pure inspiration, which does not send its messages in a tedious-pretentious way, but instead does this with unbelievable elegance and simplicity. Its title is a Dutch wording for "the singificance of meaning". Its supposed theme at first is that characters that inhabit it wonder if they are just characters in a book with an author - but from it the film's real theme emerges, namely the questioning of reality, our world, the Universe and God. Adam, the main protagonist, is a symbol for the care-free person who is content with his simple life and his orchard. Until he is visited by a stranger, Mobil, who stimulates him intellectually by posing the question: "Do you ever wonder about the meaning?" Mobil does not know the nature of their world, either, but speaks hypothetically about the implications if they are inside a book: "Do you see how terrible that would be? It means that we had already been written, predestined for ourselves. Of course, it isn't terrible that you're predestined to be good or bad, terrible is the thought itself that you are predestined, that you are created unchangeable!" There is a rich, exquisite debate that follows between them about free will ("Every man can interpret a poem his own way, but she will always be the same - the way the poet imagined her"; "Maybe every one of us is a book for itself and everyone has its own writer"), and it ends with a notion that Mobil's thoughts are so strong they cause Adam to "move" outside his world ("I don't know why I influenced you to start thinking, instead of you influencing me to stop thinking").

This conversation proves as a major intellectual catalyst, sending Adam on a quest for meaning where he meets three characters on his path. The first one is a mysterious, bald man buried up to his chest in earth, stuck, trying to reach some apples around him, who represents the crippled, the disabled and the sick, and who thus reject the notion of an author (God) because life is awful. The second one is Thomas, a man hanging from a tree who does not have any opinion of his own, and who represents people who reject an author because life has no meaning. The third person is a painter (director Veno Musinovic himself), who represents creative people who are the closest to understanding an author, but who actually claims that the author may have abandoned reaching the conclusion of the final chapter of the book, and that they are stuck in this pretty, yet unfinished world, and thus may represent people keen of mysticism and alternative gnosticism. Finally, the movie ends in one of the most astonishing ideas to make a conclusion - namely that Adam is just a supporting character in the book, and that his life is thus subordinate to that of Doel Belang, the title character (who never makes an appearance). This is extraordinary and highly original, with an inversion of atheist questions about neglected people, by posing a restructured question if there may be a higher purpose - but a one where you, your world, or your Universe are just a supporting cog in the wheel, while the main raison d'etre is about something else, outside of known. What if the creator has a completely different concept of a meaning than the creation? "Doel Belang" is an incredibly rich, elevated philosophical essay, with wisdom rarely displayed anywhere else up to that point. Some works of art are unknown due to a lack of promotion - but good things cannot remain forgotten for too long, and will resurface one way or another.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Our Hospitality

Our Hospitality; silent comedy, USA, 1923; D: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone, S: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts

In a small town somewhere in the American south, the Canfield and McKay family have been at feud for generations, even though nobody knows what they were arguing in the first place. When her husband gets killed by one of the Canfield members, Mrs. McKay decides to send her son, Willie, to live with her aunt in New York, far away from all this hate. However, as a grown man, Willie takes a train to return to his hometown, since he intends to inherit the McKay estate. He meets a girl there, Vriginia, and she invites him to her home - as it turns out, it is the home of the Canfield family. Since the tradition prohibits that they kill someone who is their guest, Willie decides to stay in the house for as long as possible. In the end, after a lot of troubles, he save Virginia from a waterfall, and they get married, effectively ending the feud.

Even though it does not reach the creative heights of his best movies, such as "The General", "Steamboat Bill Jr." or "Sherlock, Jr.", "Our Hospitality" is still a very good comedy from one of the pioneers of the silent era, Buster Keaton, and is somewhere even regarded as a neglected gem in his filmography. Actually, truth be told, the movie basically spaced out its entire storyline between just two highlights (the hilarious train trip with "flexible" rail track, which culminates with such absurd moments as the train and the waggons driving over a large "bump" on their path without problem or when the train even at one point continues driving on a road, needing no tracks what so ever (!); the spectacular stunt on the waterfall), while the middle is somewhat overstretched, with a couple of empty walks, yet the narrative is competent enough to pull it off in a very positive outcome, giving Keaton again room to demonstrate his inventive stunts and gags, as well as subtly sending a pacifist - and ironic - message of the pointless feud between two families united by love of their children, which can be interpreted as an allegory of numerous conflicts in history where two nations were battling each other and feeling animosity because it was their "tradition", even though nobody knows why they are still continuing it at all.

Grade;+++

Monday, 26 October 2015

Napoleon - Stanley Kubrick's 1969 Screenplay

In 1969, Stanley Kubrick completed a script based on French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The script has since been published online for everyone to have an opportunity to read it. Kubrick himself intended to make a three hour epic out of the 148 page screenplay, starring David Hemmings as the title hero - unfortunately, the producers refused to finance it, and the movie was ultimately never made, depriving cineasts from all around the world of a golden opportunity to perhaps see one of the classics of the cinema. With time, "Napoleon" thus gained an incredible reputation as one of those great movies that were never made, but is its cult reputation justified compared to the original script?

The story kicks off with the 4-year old Napoleon holding a teddy bear in his bedroom in Corsica, while his mother Letizia watches over him. It then switches to the hero, aged 9, attending the Royal Military College at Brienne. Unfortunately, both episodes are too gaunt and too short to justify being there in the first place, since in the latter the only moment that illustrates Napoleon's character is when he responds to teasing by slamming Dufour with a tin cup and fighting with Bremond. Better character development arrives on page 5, when the 16-year old Napoleon reveals a feeling of a pointless life: "Life is a burden for me. Nothing gives me pleasure; I find only sadness in everything around me." There is also an interesting episode with his encounter with a prostitute on the streets of Lyon, showing that Kubrick did not intend to glamourize his life, nor to show it as black-and-white. A decisive setting of the story arrives with the French revolution in 1789, when Napoleon has an entrance on the scene of events in grand style: as Varlac, a revolutionary leader, seems to enjoy the cheers of the crowd on the town square, Napoleon shows up with 25 French troops, and - alone on his horse - cuts through the crowd to talk to Varlac face to face. Napoleon informs him that he is under arrest for killing de Bouchy, his son, and setting his home on fire. This erupts in a tense moment that can go either way. Varlac, obviously, refuses to accept the authority of the King and advises Napoleon to "leave while he can", thinking he has the crowd as his shield. Napoleon, though, remains his cool ("Monsieur Varlac, do not pretend to speak for those good people whom you have mislead and inflamed with violent speech."), draws his gun and gives him five seconds to come with him. Varlac refuses, and Napoleon shoots him there, demonstrating his strong sense for law and order, regardless of the odds.

The Toulon siege, where Paul Barras, the (bisexual) Deputy of the Committee of Public Safety, is introduced, also presents one of Napoleon's finest hours, since his idea and intervention manage to assure the French integrity over the port controlled by the British. Strangely, though, the sole battle is not shown - just an animated map. After the death of Robespierre in 1794, France is once again thrown into chaos, and the Republic seems fragile and threatened. Kubrick inserted a small scene of Barras' music room where three women have sex with three men on the stage, in front of an audience, which could be interpreted ambiguously: either to show decadence of the French society, or to simply show how people were not as conservative back then, since they ironically observe "stage porn". A third great moment follows for Napoleon, when - faced with a 40,000 strong mob of Royalists who threaten the government on the streets of Paris, while he only has a 5,000 strong force at his disposal - decides to use cannons to disperse the crowd: "The numbers are not particularly relevant. You are not up against soldiers - this is a mob, and they will run as soon as things become sufficiently unpleasant". According to the instructions, the cannons firing point blank into the mob would have been filmed in slow-motion, without a sound, with only Napoleon's off-narration.

There are several memorable details here, such as when Napoleon creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid from wall to wall; and when his orderly enters and informs him that he sent away a certain Eugene de Beauharnais who wanted to see him, Napoleon (without looking up) asks: "What did you say his name was?", he orders him to let the lad in - Euegene's mother is Josephine de Beauharnais, and this gives Napoleon a chance to meet - and marry - her. It is interesting to point out that Josephine's and Napoleon's bed scene was to be filmed in semi-dark, only in candle light, with a special F.95 50 mm lens used for Aero Space photography, in order to give the viewers a feeling of authenticity, and that Kubrick tried out this technique anyway six years later in "Barry Lyndon". This segment also highlights Napoleon's disappointment with love ("They day upon which you should say 'I love you less', would be the last day of my love - or the last day of my life", "That the world is beautiful only because you inhabit it"), since Josephine cheats on him secretly.

Pages 37 to 40 demonstrate a great depiction of battles during the Italian campaign: the French army is 100 yards away from the Austrian army. When they are 50 yards away, the Austrians open fire, and a large part of the French fall, but continue marching towards them. Since the Austrians have no time to reload, and the French are 20 yards away, panic sets in and they start to run away - and only from this distance do the French finally open fire. Later, Napoleon narrates: "From that moment on, I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee beneath me, as if I were being carried away up to the sky."

Unfortunately, there are two major flaws: the rest of the battles are handled with far less detail, effort or elaborate will. This is followed by the Egyptian campaign, which has only 9 pages - of which seven pages are used for Napoleon finding out Josephine cheats on him from the drunk Junot. Surprisingly, there are very few battles depicted in the script overall (there is no Ulm, nor Jena and Auerstedt, nor Borodino, nor Wagram, nor the Spanish invasion...) and practically all of his generals (Murat, Junot, Davout...) are mere extras and one-dimensional characters. They are all suddenly there. But it was not shown how they got there. Due to this skipping of large amounts of chronicles, the narrative is strained and episodic at times, which is disappointing. It seems Napoleon's life was simply too big to be encompassed for a three hour film, even for Kubrick.

Also, it seems Kubrick did not especially care for the sole essence of the French revolution or the Napoleonic Wars, in general. He mentioned the conflicts, but does not explain why they occur. It needs to be pointed out that Napoleon was, in some way, the forerunner of a fighter for democracy (=the Republic) and a fighter against dictatorship (=European monarchies) - even though, ironically, he later proclaimed himself an emperor (!) - not to mention that he abolished feudalism and applied Code civil (abolishing all the privileges that a minority had due to their birthright), which had an enormous impact on European history. Napoleon may have been defeated - but his ideas of democracy and Republic eventually prevailed and defeated the monarchies in Europe. However, even though it seems that Napoleon "stole" all the character development, his wit and sharpness shines at times ("I found the crown lying in the gutter, and I picked it up"), whereas his love-hate relationship with Josephine was presented with enough emotion. Even though the last third is the weakest by structure, even that part has some highlights - for instance, during the march towards Moscow, 200 Russian soldiers surround 50 French infantry on a hill, while a Goreshist shows up, ordering them to surrender - but the French officer just shoots him, anyway, which is a bravura moment. Also, it seems Napoleon gave at least one quote which influenced Kubrick's views on humanity: "Society is corrupt because man is corrupt - because he is weak, selfish, hypocritical and greedy. And he is not made this way by society, he is born this way - you can see it even in the youngest children. It's no good trying to build a better society on false assumptions - authority's main job is to keep man from being at his worst and, thus, make life tolerable, for the greater number of people." Napoleon was shown adequattely ambiguous: even though he was one of the most famed people in human history, he died alone, in isolation, without the love of his life, whereas his only child died at the age of 22, which sends a bitter message that even myth and fame cannot make a human life more meaningful or better.

Kubrick once said this was going to be "the greatest movie of all time". Judging by the script, he seemed to have exaggerated it a bit. Even if we accept some of his directorial interventions he might have used, some omissions would still be there. Though the movie would have still been a treat, of course. Therefore, hypothetically, "Napoleon" would have been better than the sometimes placid "Barry Lyndon", but still weaker than some of Kubrick's own best films, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Dr. Strangelove".

Grade;+++

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Umberto D.

Umberto D.; drama, Italy, 1952; D: Vittorio De Sica, S: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari

Rome. Umberto, a retired official of the Ministry, participates in a protest of elderly people demanding higher pensions. The authorities disperse the protesters, and Umberto returns to his apartment with his beloved dog Flaik, only to find his room was borrowed by his landlord, Antonia, to a couple for a fling. Antonia intends to throw him out if he does not pay the rent of 15,000 lira, so Umberto has to sell his watch and beloved book to collect some cash. His only friend in the apartment is Maria, but even she is preoccupied with her pregnancy, since she is not sure who the father is. Due to bad health, Umberto goes to the hospital, but then has to go to the dog pound to find Flaik, who ran away while he was away. Finally, Umberto decides to commit suicide with Flaik, but the dog bites him and runs away. Umberto follows him and plays with him in the park.

A magnificent masterpiece, a wonderfully simple and basic story, "Umberto D." is one of the most emotional and saddest movies of the 20th century, and arguably Vittorio De Sica's finest achievement. Some movies are assembled out of education, perfectionism, knowledge, film style and cinema rules - but every now and then a movie shows up that is assembled only out of pure humanity, and outperforms them anyway. "Umberto D." is able to be both neutral, professional and restrained as well as deeply emotional and compassionate due to a sophisticated, quiet, subtle, simple and considerate direction as well as restrained, authentic and unbelievably convincing performances by the actors, whose characters seem like real people and their small, "trivial" problems close and easily recognizable. The main protagonist Umberto cannot understand people around him, but these people do not understand him, either (when he meets his old acquaintance on the town square, it is obvious he is practically beging him to lend him money, but the man is unwilling - or unable - to do anything for him), and the leitmotiv in the story is his dog Flaik, his only true friend, while this owner-pet relationship seems to have influenced later films (Mazursky's "Harry & Tonto", for instance).

There is a quietly brilliant little sequence that slowly advances into a big highlight of the entire movie: after returning from hospital, Umberto finds out that Flaik ran away and immediately goes to the dog pound to search for him. The Taxi driver demands 200 lira, but Umberto has only a 1,000 lira bill, while the driver has no change. Umberto thus goes to some nearby shop and asks the clerk if he can change a 1,000 lira bill, but the vendor says he doesn't have any change. Umberto thus buys a cup from him for 50 lira, and gets 950 lira as change from that same vendor. Umberto gives the change to the Taxi driver, and in the same move, throws and breaks the cup on the street. He rushes to the dog pound and observes the room where dogs are killed. The moment when he finds Flaik is remarkable and beautifully all-encompassing. De Sica is able to slowly craft numerous wonderful little moments, all leading to a small jewel, which can be both interpreted as a slice of his neorealism movement depicting poverty (here among the senior citizens) as well as an optimistic fairy tale that subtly deviates from it. The ending is indeed one of his most discussed ones in De Sica's career, since it brought numerous interpretations due to rich symbolism, and one of most poignant ones could be that friendship and devotion can be stronger than tragedy.

Grade;++++

This Is Not a Film

In film nist; documentary, Iran, 2011; D: Jafar Panahi, S: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Director Jafar Panahi is in his Tehran apartment, awaiting the appeal on the verdict that placed him under house arrest and imposed a six year prison sentence as well as a 20 year ban of making movies due to "propaganda against the government". Out of boredom, Panahi thus decides to use a camera to make a documentary about himself, instead. He explains the outline for his unapproved script - a girl is locked inside the house by her parents who want her to prevent to apply to study in Tehran - and re-enacts some scenes in it, but stops, disillusioned about the process. He observes the fireworks outside, feeds his pet lizard and gets a visit by a neighbor who wants him to watch after her dog for a while. Finally, he exits with a garbage man in the elevator and takes a glimpse at the outside streets.

"This Is Not a Film" is a brave minimalistic meta-documentary by Jafar Panahi, a inventive Iranian director who seems to be able to make a movie out of anything. In this case, it is a 'one-man-show' - ironically, partially directed by the Tehran government itself, when it narrowed the possibilities on Panahi - by and about Panahi, who - not without irony - follows his own routine under house arrest while waiting for the appeal of the verdict that banned him from making movies for 20 years. Since it seems that he is a die-hard cineast, Panahi deliciously spoofs this decision by looking into the camera at times and declaring that "this cannot be considered a film" 'tongue-in-cheek' style, since there are no actors, while at the same presenting a script that was not approved by the authorities as well as clips from his previous films (such as the problematic moment when his child actress decided to abandon filming of "The Mirror"). There are several humorous situations (Panahi lamenting how the claws of his pet lizard are too sharp when the reptile is climbing on his shoulder; while surfing on the internet, he comments: "Everything is censored"...) and the irony is not lost even in the closing credits, some of which have the following text: "Special thanks: .......... .......... ........". One could argue that the pace is overstretched at times and that not much is happening between his four walls, but Panahi could theoretically even confront this argument with the counter-argument that even this is a authentic depiction of his time and age. It may be a sparse documentary, but it is all the more effective essay about the free human spirit.

Grade;++

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Power

Moć; experimental short, Serbia, 1973; D: Vlatko Gilić

In the middle of a city, there is an add for a hypnotist, with the title "How to rule others". The hypnotist sits on his table and makes a dozen of people watching him do whatever he is doing, from putting their hands in the position of a prayer up to simulating piercing their cheeks with a long needle. The hypnotist then teaches another man how to hypnotize, and hypnotist II tries out his power, enjoying making people do whatever he wants. Finally, hypnotist II orders the men to take their shirts off and then pierces their abdomen with a needle, connecting them all with a thread. Afterwards, the people leave the place.

One of the rare short films by director Vlatko Gilic, "Power" caused such a controversy during its premiere in Yugoslavia that the authorities made it more and more difficult for the director to make any further film, until he directed his last one only seven years later. Watching "Power" makes it immediately clear why some might feel nervous about its existence: it is an extremely pervasive and uncomfortable allegory of totalitarian regimes, and inherently an universal contemplation of why society should be divided into people who rule and people who are ruled at all. With no actor credited and no dialogue spoken, "Power" was somewhere wrongly described as an documentary, yet it is clearly a fictional film since many scenes are undeniably directed (the camera looking directly into the hypnotist's eyes; the perfectly centralized frame of the hypnotist waving his hand and ordering the dozen of people to move left or right...), and Gilic himself admitted that there was a casting, though at least two chilling moments were real (the hypnotist piercing his cheeks with a long needle and the second hypnotist piercing people's abdomen with a needle and a thread). It is an unabated essay about control and the perverted enjoyment of power, with several expressionistic scenes of the second hypnotist who makes intoxicated, grotesque smirks as he seemingly enjoys making people do whatever he orders them, such as the scene where he makes a hesitating man lick a white substance on his all fours. One can interpret this 30-minute short in numerous ways (a critique of the Bolshevik-Nazi regimes, the religious control and fanaticism, government media control, government making people unwillingly go to war...) though Gilic actually tapped at an non-political, universal theme in his frequent quest for research of the human essence - in this case if the instinct for domination (not just in masses, but in even smaller groups, like in a marriage between two people) is inborn in people.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes; horror-thriller, USA, 1977; D: Wes Craven, S: Martin Speer, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier, Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, James Whitworth

After tanking fuel at a desolate gas station, the 7-member Carter family gets off the main road and crashes into a stone in the middle of the California desert. At night, the family is besieged in their trailer and attacked by a family of cannibalistic savages, led by Papa Jupiter, who lives wildly in the hills. Mother and father of the Carter family are killed, as well as their daughter Lynne, but their children - among them Bobby, Brenda and Lynne's husband Doug - use their dog to strike back at Jupiter's family, killing him and his three sons, while his daughter Ruby refused to kill Doug's baby.

One of Wes Craven's most famous cult films, this horror is a raw essay on the nature of evil. It takes a wonderfully chilling concept of a family stuck with their trailer in the middle of the California desert, and combines it with some classic elements of Western siege and survival thriller -  which tend to be crude and vile at moments, but carry an actually overall finely packed message around it. The story has a sly yin-and-yang structure, since the evil family of savages, led by Papa Jupiter, is just an antipode to the perfect, seemingly innocent Carter family, and as much as some goodness manages to pass over to them (Ruby, who refuses to harm the baby), more aggression transverses to the Carter family (Doug, Bobby). There are even some allegories to the Vietnam war: the Carters are intruders, they trespass to a foreign territory and their superior technology is always there to disappoint them, whereas the savage family uses guerrilla tactics to attack them, and is quick to find cover on their mountainous terrain. However, it would have been better if Craven managed to elaborate these parallels in more detail, since some storylines are left as bare stubs. Still, at its chore, it gives a thought-provoking message: the savage family was born and raised evil, while the Carters were raised good and civilized, yet it is strange how fast they would fall and become evil themselves (at night, the savage family attacks and kills members of the Carter family, while at day, the opposite happens, and - it seems - as if violence against the members of savage family is suddenly, and shockingly, much more "acceptable" then against the Carters). This is a horror without monsters. Instead, it is a movie with people who enter the mentality, the state of a monster. And as such, the message in the end, of that state prevailing, makes it even more monstrous.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Die Delegation

Die Delegation; mockumentary, Germany / France / Italy, 1970; D: Reiner Erler, S: Walter Kohut, Hans Häckermann, Stephan Orlac

Reporter Will Roczinski died in a mysterious car crash. A TV host presents the last of Roczinski's footage to the audience: the reporter was fascinated with UFO sightings and made several trips to research the topic - a UFO conference; a trip to New York where military officials inform him that UFOs can be dismissed, while a psychiatrist presents his opinion to the contrary; a trip to Canada, where a farmer shows him photos of a bunch of UFOs over his farm... He gets a small glass pyramid as a present, which is supposedly of alien origin, and then interviews astronomers about alien signals. Finally, he goes to investigate the Nazca lines, where his cameraman dies on a hill. Roczinski also interviews a man in a monastery, who claims that aliens are disappointed that humans "made technical progress, but no spiritual progress", as they are still agressive.

One of the earliest examples of the mockumentary (and 'found-footage') genre, "Die Delegation" is not at the same time one of the best contributions to it. It takes an interesting topic of a TV reporter investigating UFO sightings, but instead of turning into a suspenseful and gripping puzzle while the viewers are slowly presented with archive footage of his TV interviews, it stays as a placid, lukewarm essay - that consists out of pretty much identical, never ending clips of the hero endlessly chasing ghosts from Germany, through the US up to South America - yet failing to discover anything decisive, which ultimately becomes monotone after and a while. As all these traces lead nowhere, no true sense of a bigger picture nearing its conclusion is built, and the running time of 125 minutes is indeed overstretched, though some small crumbs of humor or unusual situations manage to 'twitch' the storyline from its grey mood, such as the interview with a man on a UFO conference who claims that UFOs were observing the situation during World War I and II and "directing the course of events", which is later contrasted with an ironic interview with an army official, who wonders why a superior civilisation would waste their time spying on such primitive and aggressive species like the humans, as well as the comical moment when the hero and his camera crew is pushed out of a Bronx apartment.

Grade;++

Monday, 19 October 2015

Fantomas Against Scotland Yard

Fantomas contre Scotland Yard; crime comedy, France / Italy, 1967; D: André Hunebelle, S: Jean Marais, Louis de Funès, Mylène Demongeot

Fantomas returns and this time shows up in Scotland, where he threatens to kill Lord McRashley and a dozen other millionaires if they do not pay him a large amount of cash. Commissioner Juve, reporter Fandor and his girlfriend Helene are all summoned to Scotland to stay in Lord McRashley's castle and protect him. However, Fantomas kills Lord McRashley and takes his place by disguising himself as the latter. He tricks Juve into giving him the large amount of diamonds and then escapes. The war planes bomb his rocket, but Fantomas actually escaped on a bicycle.

The third part of the "Fantomas" film trilogy is by far the weakest, severely lacking inspiration and charm to continue the franchise after part II proved to be surprisingly clever and inventive. Unfortunately, the good ideas wore thin after three films, and thus "Fantomas Against Scotland Yard" has too much empty walk and too little jokes. Louis de Funes is once again energetic and gives a strong comic performance, but alas, he cannot compensate for the scenes where he is not in, and in which little to nothing good happens. The fox hunt sequence, for instance, is bland and terribly conventional, resulting in several lame jokes, whereas the numerous conventional action and battle sequences start to become tiresome, especially since the (open) ending disappointingly concludes just like in previous two films - as there was never a 4th film, they left the film series incomplete, without a proper ending. The only good jokes are the "driving bed" on wheels, with Juve in it, and the comical moment where Juve "accidentally" loses a diamond in his sleeve, whereas at least the film location in the castle is moody.

Grade;+

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Schoolgirl's Diary

Han nyeohaksaengeui ilgi; drama, North Korea, 2007; D: Jang In Hak, S: Mi-hyang Pak, Jin-mi Kim, Cheol Kim, Yeong-suk Kim

Soo-ryeon is a teenage girl who lives with her younger sister, Soo-ok, mother and grandmother in a village near Pyongyang. She is annoyed that her father is never at home, working in the city to obtain a PhD. During an argument, she slaps Soo-ok, who runs away and tries to drown herself, until Soo-ryeon appologizes for hitting her. They get a permission to move to the city, but grandmother wants to stay in the countryside. When the mother gets sick and undergoes an operation, Soo-ryeon is even more angry at her father for neglecting the family for research. However, when he completes his work - a computer controlled assembly line - he explains to Soo-ryeon that he has done so for the benefit of the society, and she accepts that, finding parallels with their president.

"The Schoolgirl's Diary" is a refreshing attempt at a modern and relaxed depiction of a life of a North Korean teenage girl, until it falls in the typical didactic policy in the disappointing last third. Director Jang In Hak shows a fine sense for slowly developing his story, even inserting humor (very untypical for North Korean cinema) in the opening act, mostly revolving around the tomboyish sister Soo-ok (her uncle gives her sport's clothes as a present, and she clumsily drops her pants in front of him to change; when she hears the father returned home at night, she jumps and causes the paper wall to fall with her...) as well as giving a neat and relaxed view on the life of the teenage heroine, Soo-ryeon, whereas he even applies a few elementary, but here seldomly used movie techniques (slow motion, unusual camera angles here and there). Unfortunately, the story collapeses in the last third when it turns the relaxed, innocent 'slice-of-life' story, which is inherently non-political, into the typical North Korean political message, which is extremely imposing and contrived. The major theme of the story was that Soon-ryeon could not understand that her father is neglecting her family for research, while the final message is, predcitably, that individuals should yield their lives for the greater good of the society, mirroring the perceived parallels with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il who is doing the same, which is painfully unnecessary. As such, the movie leaves yet again a mixed feel, since almost every North Korean film, no matter the topic, in the end turns into something like a promotional campaign for the party - which is uncalled for.

Grade;++

My Beautiful Country

Die Brücke am Ibar; drama / war, Germany / Serbia / Croatia, 2012; D: Michaela Kezele, S: Zrinka Cvitešić, Mišel Matičević, Andrija Nikčević, Miloš Mesarović, Ema Šimović

Serbia during the Kosovo war. Danica is a Serb widow who lives with her two children, Vlado and Danilo, after her husband died in the war. Things are dim following Slobodan Milosevic's policy which led to the NATO bombing. When a wounded Albanian, Ramiz, arrives to their house, Danica decides to nurse and hide him from the neighbors. The two develop an attraction. When Danilo, who stopped talking after his father's death, runs away to the Albanian side, Ramiz goes to bring him back home. Danice is reunited with her child, but Ramiz, who wore a Serbian uniform, is killed by Albanian soldiers who thought he was a Serb soldier.

The feature length debut film of German director Michaela Kezele is an interesting, but thinly developed story which would have been far better suited as a short. It tackles the often used theme of a love relationship developing between two different nationalities during the Yugoslav Wars (used in films like "Life is a Miracle", "In the Land of Blood and Honey", "Zvizdan" and others) - here between a Serb woman and an Albanian man - which leads to a few emotional, noble and honest moments, yet not as powerful or as inspired enough to get to a stronger point, whereas a huge problem is the overstretched storyline which contains too much empty walk, resulting ultimately in a few boring scenes. The movie's biggest asset is another excellent performance by the main actress, Zrinka Cvitesic, who is brilliant as the widow Danica - from the bizarre opening where she is slowly dancing and lifting her skirt up in front of her late husband's grave up to the humorous exchange with Ramiz: "From what did your husband die from?" - "From war" - but even her contribution shows signs of cracks faced with a pale development of the conventional narrative, since she is too expressionistic and too intense for such a simplistic dramaturgy. Several omissions bother (for instance, it is unrealistic that Danica would simply stand there, passively, while the children are watching a corpse getting taken away to a car, without asking them to turn away for instance) while several subplots lead nowhere (Vlado trying to buy a bicycle), which gives an overall good, yet indecisive and unsure movie at times.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Slayers Great

Slayers Great; animated fantasy comedy short, Japan, 1997: D: Kunihiko Yuyama, Hiroshi Watanabe, S: Megumi Hayashibara, Maria Kawamura, Kikuko Inoue

Sorceresses Lina Inverse and Naga arrive in a remote village and save a girl, Laia, from a Golem-bull. She brings them to her father, Galia, who is producing numerous Golem-robots for entertainment, and is in clash with his son Huey who only wants to build erotic Golem-women. Galia is approached by Lord Haizen and Granion, who want to rule the village between their two castles, because they want him to build a Golem-army in order to battle each other. Instead, Huey and Galia build a giant Golem of Naga and a giant Golem of Lina, and put them into those two in order to let them fight. The fight is ridiculous, and Haizen and Granion abandon their idea after Naga and Lina destroy the Golems.

The third anime movie based on the "Slayers" franchise, "Slayers Great" is sort of like an alloy of three very funny episodes of the series, without any further mediocre or lukewarm follow-up episodes which would potentially disrupt the high impression left on the viewers. Equipped with deliciously crispy animation, a fast pace, a cordial mood thanks to a wonderful setting of a picturesque village situated in a valley over which two castles reside, an auto-ironic jab at the 'mecha' genre in anime (in the finale, Lina pilots a giant Lina Golem, and Naga a giant Naga Golem), as well as one of the most irresistibly cute drawn anime characters ever, the pink haired Laia, "Great" is such a simple delight that some viewers felt betrayed for not getting anything more out of the storyline, yet nothing more is needed, anyway, when the jokes are so much fun. From the opening gag where Lina and Naga save the life of Laia, only to follow her across the village in order to "subtly" impose a guilt in her of giving them some sort of a reward, through the magic-duel between the two heroines at night interrupted by angry villagers who throw pots at them for not letting them sleep in peace, up to the silly Golem battle which mimics and spoofs "Gundam" and "Evangelion", this is a relaxed and childish short - but it is so much fun when the authors know how to find a right balance of the content.

Grade;+++

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Battle of Algiers

La battaglie di Algeri; war / drama, Italy / Algiers, 1966; D: Gillo Pontecorvo, S: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef

The Casbah during the French occupation of Algiers in the 50s. Ali La Pointe is an Arab lad who joins the National Liberation Front (FNL), an underground organization that wants Algiers to gain independence. The FNL performs several assassinations against French soldiers and police officers, which in turns causes the French to put a bomb in an Arab neihgborhood. The FNL replies by having two women put bombs in two locals, killing a lot of French civilians. These guerilla tactics go back and forth, until the French bring in Coloniel Mathieu who starts arresting and torturing the commanders of the FNL. In the end, they manage to find La Pointe in an apartment and blow him up. However, after two years of calm, the people of Algiers start mass demonstrations - until Algiers gains independence in '62.

One of the classics of the 20th century cinema, excellent "The Battle of Algiers" is a raw, yet very energetic experience that slowly, but steadily builds up its intruige factor as time goes by. While preparing for the film adaptation of one of several decolonization events of the 20th century, the Algerian War of Independence, Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo refused to make a nationalistic epic with black-and-white characters, as was the case with "Braveheart", and instead wisely chose to make an unbiased, concise and as objective as possible portrait of the independence movement, filmming on authentic locations, employing non-professional actors who speak in French and Arabic, as well as giving room for both sides (brutalities of both sides are shown, and even the French are not shown as typical bad guys, since some of their officials themselves dennounce violence by their own troops, yet do not know how to cope with all the chaos in Algiers), which gives the movie an almost documentary feel at times.

Some scenes seem staged at times (when shot, people do not bleed but just spasmodically drop on the floor) and there is no deeper character development, since historicity is more important than the episodic characters, yet Pontecorvo still manages to compensate for these two omissions thanks to several virtuoso directed moments. One is the almost 10-minute long sequence where two Algerian women rearrange their hair and wear modern clothes to pose as French, pass a checkpoint and leave two baskets with bombs inside a cafe and a disco before leaving, after which the bombs explode and kill dozens of French civilians. When later on asked by a reporter how to justify these terrorist methods, FNL commander Ben M'Hidi gives an unforgetable quote: "If we had your war planes, it would be a lot easier for us. Gives us your bombers, gentlemen, and you can have our baskets." There are many other highly authentic sequences (the bomb explosion at the stadium during a horse race, which happens in the same shot with the actors (!); the French soldiers slapping Algerians into opening their shops to stop the FNL 8-day strike, only to later give bread to the people in order to try to win their hearts and minds...) which chronicle this 'war of atrocities', capturing some sort of an universal history lesson about the world (the strong opessing the weak; the small resisting the control of the big; the unavoidable savagery and primitivism of war; the stray means desperate use to achieve their goal...) which gives "Algiers" a timeless feel.

Grade;+++

Friday, 9 October 2015

Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage; drama, USA, 1934; D: John Cromwell, S: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee

After presuming that he has no future as a painter, Philip Carey returns from Paris back to London, in order to study medicine. He has a club foot, and thus has a low self-esteem, which is exploited by a waitress, Mildred, in whom he is in love. She plays with him and treats him as a disposable toy. When Philip proposes her, she announces that she will marry Emile, another of her many suitors. However, after she gets pregnant and Emile leaves her, Mildred returns to Philip to ask him for money. She leaves him again for other men, but once broke, returns humbly to ask for more money in order for Philip to take care of her baby. Finally, Philip loses his patience and throws her out of his home. Mildred dies from a disease, while Philip marries Sally.

The first film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's eponymous novel, John Cromwell's "Of Human Bondage" is a bitter - and brutally honest - tale about the taboo topic of a "gold digger", i.e. an attractive woman who only exploits a good man for money by pretending to be in love with him - and then leaves as soon as his money runs out. Due to its timeless topic, the film caused quite a controversy during its premiere, and was subsequently one of the last pre-code films, yet precisely because of these elements, it still has sharpness. Leslie Howard is an excellent actor, and nails the timid, insecure protagonist Philip, but Bette Davis steals the show in a fantastic performance as Mildred, except for a minor flaw - she is too ugly to play a vamp woman, especially since Philip's other neglected women who fancy him, Norah and Sally, are far more prettier than her. Be it as it may, this does not stop Davis from conjuring up Mildred as a subtly selfish person, and one line of her early in the film - driving in a car after a date, Mildred turns around to Philip and says to him: "If you don't take me out, someone else will!" - perfectly sums up her character. The storyline is somehow too straightforward, lacking better dialogues or situations, and features a rather abrupt happy ending, yet it is overall a well made film, with the two stand-out performances.

Grade;++

Monday, 5 October 2015

Fantomas Unleashed

Fantômas se déchaîne; crime comedy, France / Italy, 1965; D: André Hunebelle, Haroun Tazieff, S: Jean Marais, Louis de Funès, Mylène Demongeot

Police commissioner Juve is decorated for getting the world rid of the criminal Fantomas. However, that award turns out premature, since Fantomas shows up again and kidnaps a scientist working on a hypnotizing machine, with which he could control people and rule the world. Juve, journalist Fandor and his girlfriend Helene team up in order to prevent Fantomas of kidnapping another important scientist, Professor Lefebvre, by disguising Fandor as Lefebvre during a press conference in Rome. Fantomas kidnaps them all and brings them to their hideout, but they manage to free themselves and the scientists. Juve and Fandor chase the fleeing Fantomas, who escapes in a flying car.

The sequel to the megapopular crime comedy "Fantomas", based on the eponymous French novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, managed not only to rally the whole team from the 1st film, but also to encompass the quality of the original: a well made movie with numerous jokes that spoof the action genre, especially the stiff James Bond film series. The main highlight is again brilliant comedian Louis de Funes as commissioner Juve, who is so contagiously fun that he almost steals the show and makes every scene interesting and amusing - unfortunately, unlike de Funes, just like in the previous film, the main hero, beau Fandor, played by Jean Marais, is much more conventional and sometimes even boring, and thus the level of the storyline is not always consistent. Juve's scenes are great, Fandor's are mediocre. "Fantomas Unleashed" this time around turns into a disguise festival, and some of the best jokes arrive when Juve uses his masks to disguise his weapons, such as the hilarious coat with "three arms" or the genius scene where he cleverly eliminates two of Fantomas' thugs by giving them cigars with hidden guns in them, which activate and thus kill each other. The pace of the storyline is sometimes slow, and the execution is lukewarm at times, which is exacerbated by the rather predictable ending, yet the trilogy is still far more fun than many modern spy or crime flicks.

Grade;++

Friday, 2 October 2015

Whore

Whore; drama, USA, 1991; D: Ken Russell, S: Theresa Russell, Benjamin Mouton, Antonio Fargas

Liz is an L.A. prostitute who works on the streets, though she has seen better days. She talks about her strangest encounters: once she naively entered a van and was gang rapped by a couple of thugs who left her on the street; one of her customers was an older man who was aroused when she spanked him; another client was aroused just by licking her shoe; once she witnessed a prostitute getting stabbed, and managed to save her from bleeding out... All the time she is under pressure by her violent pimp, Blake, who constantly thinks she is hiding money from him. The only thing that is still keeping her going is her child. One night, after having sex in a car, the client dies from a stroke, and Blake shows up to rob him and harasses her, but she is saved by a homeless man.

It seems that eccentric director Ken Russell saw "Pretty Woman" and decided to make "Whore" as an answer to that film - but even though his story is much darker, "Pretty Woman" is still a better film. It just goes to show that being pessimistic or optimistic, upbeat or downbeat has little to do with a quality of a certain film. While "Pretty Woman" went overboard with the sugarcoating, Russell exaggerated in the opposite, the darkcoating, turning the film into such a dirty, vile and unglamourous tale about prostitution that it itself became unrealistic. Where is the realism in such scenes where Liz's husband would walk into their home, stop just over the table and vomit precisely over her lunch; a guy touring in a car with his best friend in the back (!) in search for a prostitute (as if men would prefer a threesome with two men, instead of two women) or a client masturbating while lying on bed, fully dressed in his best suit and a tie (!), as if ejaculating does not leave any stains when it falls all over someones clothes? In trying to only unglamourize the "oldest profession in the world", Russell lost track of some basic things, clumsily constructing a dark fantasy instead of trying to give a fair, unbiased portrait. A lot of issues presented here stand, yet the storyline is stilted, and the only truly good moments are the Godardian 'breaking-of-the-fourth-wall', where Liz looks directly into the camera and addresses the audience about her problems. For all of its flaws, "Pretty Woman" at least had some charm and pathos. It seems Russell removed them altogether here, thinking they would only bother him in the major theme.

Grade;+