Friday, 26 May 2017

Horn of Plenty

El cuerno de la abundancia; comedy / drama, Cuba, 2008; D: Juan Carols Tabio, S: Jorge Perugorria, Annia Bu Maure, Laura De Ia Uz, Enrique Molina, Paula Ali, Yoima Valdes

Bernardito Castineiras, an engineer living in a small Cuban village, is married to Marthica and they have a child together, but are unhappy with their low income, noticeable in their old home. One day, they hears of news of an inheritance which was left by nuns for every member of the Castineiras family, whose grandfathers protected them from pirates and have since then deposited the gold to Britain, which corresponds to 123 billion $. Hundreds of people with the family name Casteineiras apply to claim the inheritance, among them Bernardito who travels to Havana, and has an affair with Zobeida, a woman who works with him. However, in the end, an American brought the bank and thus the money is blocked due to the US embargo against Cuba. Bernardito reconciles with Marthica and they deicde to keep waiting for the inheritance.

"Horn of Plenty" is an uneven comedy that took a completely wrong direction from its initial premise and thus strayed away from all the rich possibilities for humor: instead of focusing on timeless themes of human greed and selfishness for wealth, as well as exaggerated antics that stem from these, reminiscent of Moliere's classic "The Miser", it bizarrely and puzzlingly persistently refuses to do so and spends more time on Bernardito's affair with Zobeida as well as his marriage with Marthica. The storyline is overstretched and thin, scarce with humor, and when it finally delivers, the humor is again not about the people expecting an inheritance, but about Bernardito's sex scenes: just as their kid goes out of the house, Marthica shuts the door and immediately takes her clothes off to sleep with Bernardito in bed, but they are interrupted when his mother enters the house. In another scene, Bernardito tries to have sex with Zobeida while sitting on the flush toilet, but due to all the shaking, it breaks and a stream of water erupts beneath them. Even worse, the idea of the inheritance is strangely abandoned in the ending which just stopped the plot without resolving it, leaving the characters (and the viewers) frustrated by having to wait what will happen, but then it ends. This is an incomplete ending. Many golden opportunities were missed: since hundreds of people from the Casteinerias family claim the huge fortune, why not have them fight against each other? Why not have them clash or try to dispute each others' last name? The only good joke is that they spend some money on a wedding expecting a fortune, only to be disappointed. The actors are all very good, though, which somewhat alleviates the overlong storyline that took too many strange paths.

Grade;+

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Once Upon a Crime

Once Upon a Crime; crime comedy, USA, 1992; D: Eugene Levy, S: Richard Lewis, Sean Young, James Belushi, Cybill Shepherd, John Candy, Ornella Muti, Giancarlo Giannini, George Hamilton, Elsa Martinelli

Rome. Phoebe is broke, but teams up with unemployed actor Julian when they find a lost dog and want to bring it to Madam Van Dougan who offers a 5,000 $ reward for his return. When they arrive at her mansion, they find her dead and are subsequently arrested by the police for murder. A couple, Neil and Marilyn, get broke while gambling in Monte Carlo, Monaco, while someone frames them with a suitcase containing Van Dougan's body parts. They are also arrested. Augie Morosco, another gambler, is also suspected of the murder and arrested, also finding out that his wife, Elena, had an affair with playboy Alfonso, who is also a suspect. The Inspector questions them all, until it is found out that the murder was perpetrated by the maid and her husband, the butler. The other suspects are released while Alfonso runs away with the dog that inherited Van Dougan's fortune.

It was probably nostalgia that swayed legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis to remake his own Italian 'whodunit' comedy "Crimen" by M. Camerini, yet the final result pleased almost nobody: it starts off nicely, yet quickly depletes itself with too much empty walk and too many subplots and side characters that drown and overburden the initial simple story. Many great comedians are here, from John Candy up to James Belushi, yet the thin screenplay has little to nothing for them to work with, whereas while it was initially charming to watch the characters' confused or panicked faces, these grimaces can only go so far. It seems the screenplay was so meagre that each comedian recieved only one good joke each (Belushi with the dialogue: "Are you finished?" - "Are you Swedish?"; Richard Lewis impersonating an Italian accent while trying to report the murder to the police on the phone, so he identifies himself as "Rocky Balboa"; Candy while sliding and falling down the roof) whereas for the rest of the film they have nothing left anymore, leaving their potentials underused and unexploited. A light and uneventful crime farce that simply lacks highlights — there is little here to write about — yet it is notable for surprisingly demonstrating that Sean Young has a very charming gift as a comedian in her role as the clumsy Phoebe.

Grade;+

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair; romantic crime, USA, 1999; D: John McTiernan, S: Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Fritz Weaver, Frankie Faison, Ben Gazzara, Faye Dunaway

New York. Several robbers infiltrate the Metropolitan Museum of Art disguised as employees of the museum, but are recognized and the staff sounds the alarm. In all the commotion, millionaire Thomas Crown slips into the gallery and swiftly steals a painting by Monet, smuggling in into his briefcase and exits as all the attention of the police is focused on the arrested imposters. NYPD Detective McCann has no clue as to who stole the Monet painting, until investigator Catherine Banning is brought on the case. She suspects it was Thomas and thus proceeds to seduce him. He brings her with a plane to a Caribbean island where they make love. Back in New York, the police are on Thomas' trail. Thomas returns the painting and implores Catherine to escape with him from the country. She boards a plane and suspects it is empty, but then finds out Thomas is there waiting for her.

Contrary to all the expectations, John McTiernan's highly competent "The Thomas Crown Affair" is one rare example where a remake is equally as good as the original, delivering a refreshingly elegant, smooth and stylish heist story, but even adding an emotional-romantic dimension to it, since it is implied that the title protagonist was unstable since he could not find the real woman he loves, until he found the investigator who follows him, which also gave a sly excuse for the star of the original film, Faye Dunaway, to deliver a worthy cameo in the frame story of Thomas talking to his psychotherapist. The sequence of the robbery at the museum is just plain clever (Catherine observes the heat-detector surveillance footage of the gallery from which the painting was stolen, yet the video consists just out of "white", blank screen since someone raised the temperature in the room so much that it was equal to the human body temperature, thereby rending it useless since the two cannot be differentiated anymore), the humor between the main protagonists is wonderful (after taking her from New York with a plane for an excursion, Thomas returns Catherine in another plane, yet when she spots a green, tropical island, she laments: "That island isn't Manhattan"), the romantic subplot is surprisingly touching whereas Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo have great 'chemistry', and the authors do not shy away from their sex scene. Maybe the ending is a little bit too happy for Hollywood standards, and maybe the movie does indeed rely too much on fantastic cinematography instead giving more room for the story and character development, yet it all works nicely, whereas Denis Leary has a delicious little role as the cynical NYPD Detective.

Grade;++

The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair; crime, USA, 1968; D: Norman Jewison, S: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke

Millionaire Thomas Crown, owner of a respected company, secretly hires the coiled Erwin and four other associates for an assignment of which they will find out only later on. One day, he gives them the instruction to rob a bank: the four men steal the bags with the money in the building and place them in Erwin's car. He, in turn, leaves the bags in a trash can in a graveyard. There, Thomas picks up the money, a sum total of 2.6 million $. The police and Inspector Malone cannot find any clues to the perpetrator, until investigator Vicky Anderson is brought to the case. She finds out that Thomas recently opened a Swiss bank account and assumes he is the mastermind behind it all. Vicky seduces Thomas, but then falls in love with him. When the police set up a trap, Thomas escapes, leaving Vicky behind.

An interesting and proportionally stylish crime film, "The Thomas Crown Affair" is a smart, slick and appropriately unusual achievement of its genre that attempted to become timeless, yet in the end still remained "trapped" in the 60s. The occasional impression of a dated and/or overstretched feeling of the film is still only a marginal complaint compared to a wealth of virtues, from an innovative use of the split-screen technique all up to the excellent performance by Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway who ignite a certain 'chemistry' when interacting, which is especially palpable in the inspired chess sequence in which she is seducing him only through her looks. Norman Jewison directs the story with elegance, though it still lacks humor, and needed more charm and emotions, delivering a good film which is at the same time a little essay about the investigative detective profession, just a step away from a real manual for detectives.

Grade;++

Saturday, 20 May 2017

I Even Met Happy Gypsies

Skupljači perja; drama, Serbia, 1967; D: Aleksandar Petrović, S: Bekim Fehmiu, Velimir Bata Živojinović, Gordana Jovanović, Olivera Vučo, Mija Aleksić

A Gypsy village somewhere in the Banat region, Vojvodina. Bora is a Romani who is constantly plagued by tough luck: he loses all his money in a bet; he doesn't care for his wife; his baby died of a disease, whereas his rival, Mirta, is barging in on his "territory" and buying off geese feathers from farmers. Bora falls in love with Mirta's stepdaughter, the 14-year old Tisa, and asks to marry her, but Mirta refuses because he finds her attractive as well. When Mirta tries to rape Tisa, she runs away and Bora marries her in secret, ditching his previous wife. Hoping to escape into a better life, Tisa goes off to Belgrade to be a singer, but finds out her relatives are living there as beggars. While hitchhiking, she is raped by a Turkish driver and dumped into her village. Bora kills Mirta with a knife. The police investigate the case, but cannot find Bora who vanished.

A widely critically recognized achievement, "I Even Met Happy Gypsies" is one of the saddest films of the 60s, unflinching while openly showing all the misery and poverty of the life in a Romani village, showing sympathy for their status of a minority where they are de facto 3rd class citizens who are shunned and frowned upon by everyone, as some sort of category of collective outsiders from which there is no escape. Director Aleksandar Petrovic crafts the film without a real storyline or a clear narrative, instead focusing more on an ethnographic 'slice-of-life' study into the customs and traditions of the Romani people, which is reflected even in the dual language of the protagonists, demonstrating exceptional realism, patience and authority in handling all their episodes — except maybe for the weird, abrupt ending. Occasionally, the mood is 'livened up' through a few comical episodes, the most notable being the one involving Tisa in the arranged marriage with a 12-year old boy who doesn't know what to do on their Honeymoon in bed, so she kicks him out, which degenerates into an absurd fight from the two families, who were spying on them through the window all the time, expecting the boy to "fulfil" his duty as the husband. There is sadness and melancholy by the author for the protagonists, knowing that their tragedy is inevitable and inescapable, and the whole movie is somber, dirty and grim, accordingly — except for small "rays of light" associated with the scenes involving geese and their feathers who serve as the only "intruders" of poetry and beauty in this grey world, some of which are simply outstanding and magical (Bora throwing feathers from a truck, thereby transforming the whole road into white; the three men entering the village during wedding, so a flock of geese moves away to let them through; the ontological sequence of a knife fight between Bora and Mirta, who fall and disappear into the endless mass of feathers).

Grade;+++

Friday, 19 May 2017

National Class Category Up to 785 ccm

Nacionalna klasa; comedy / drama, Serbia, 1979; D: Goran Marković, S: Dragan Nikolić, Bogdan Diklić, Gorica Popović, Rade Marković, Olivera Marković, Milivoje Tomić, Bora Todorović, Danilo 'Bata' Stojković

Branimir "Floyd" is a lad obsessed with cars and races, but surrounded with problems and disapproval of his lifestyle by everyone: his father, the butcher, considers him a "social parasite" who cannot find a job; the authorities want to draft him in the army so he constantly enlists as a student wherever he can to avoid the military; his girlfriend announces she is pregnant with him, even though he fell in love with another girl, Senka; a man is filing charges against him for scratching his car... Branimir's life goal is to win the 1st place in an upcoming race, which will guarantee him a higher status of a professional driver and lift him above the "National class" category of amateurs. He wins the race, but is disqualified because his car broke down and only passed the finish line because another car pushed him after ramming it from behind. Branimir thus marries his pregnant girlfriend, abandons his car and goes to the army.

The 2nd feature length film by the great hope of Yugoslav cinema, director Goran Markovic, "National Class" is an attempt to assemble a 'hip' and 'cool' modern Yugoslav film for the youth, yet its optimistic tone and sequences of car drives also feature a hidden, darker leitmotiv of the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. Such is the story of the main protagonist, Branimir 'Floyd', who aims to be a professional sports car racer, yet in the end turns into a man who has to give up on each and every one of his dreams and accept the grim fate from which he simply cannot escape, no matter what he tries. Luckily, there is enough humor to "sell" this bitter pill, and one of the best is the running gag of Branimir attempting to enlist as a film director in the Academy of Arts, yet not having any clue of the classic Eisenstein film "Battleship Potemkin" — when the title is first brought up, Branimir asks: "Oh, is that the movie with Steve McQueen and that blond?", and when he enters the screening room to watch it among the audience in the art cinema, he turns around, whistles and shouts: "Hey! Turn on the sound!" Dragan Nikolic is charming as the irresponsible, yet innocent hero, whereas the rest of the cast is great, as well, especially the little episode of legendary comedian Danilo Stojkovic as the man who is filing charges against Branimir because he scratched his car.

Grade;++

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Summer Interlude

Sommarlek; drama, Sweden, 1951; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjelin, Annalisa Ericson

Marie is a ballerina preparing for the production of the "Swan Lake", yet the rehearsal is interrupted due to technical difficulties. Someone sends her a diary of her ex-lover Henrik, and this causes Marie to leave the theatre and travel with a boat to the island where she met Henrik. There she remembers their encounter over a decade ago: as a teenager, she spent her summer on the island while visiting the house of uncle Erland and met Henrik. They fell in love and enjoyed swimming, but drifted further and further away since Marie wanted to dedicate herself to ballet. One day, Henrik jumped into the shallow sea and injured himself. He died from those injuries. Back in the present, Marie finds out Erland sent her Henrik's diary. She returns to perform the ballet, but with the feeling that her job is empty, just as her life without Henrik.

Even though it is often mentioned only as a footnote in film lexicons when touching upon Ingmar Bergman's filmography, "Summer Interlude" was the director's breakthrough film, the 1st achievement in which Bergman clearly, articulately, concisely and decisively established what he wanted to say and why in the story, which would influence all his other films for the next four decades. It is, in a way, a "Bergman-light" movie, yet it is still excellent, an example of a story in which he matured into the artist he would be critically recognized until the end, also touching upon his often existentialist themes and the leitmotiv of a protagonist who feels his/her life is empty and meaningless, as part of a wider, tormented notion that the whole human existence is just a passive, fleeting moment in time. The sequences in which Maria visits the empty vacation home during cold autumn is contrasted with the flashbacks of her warm days when she spent her teenage days there during summer, when she met her first love, Hernik, acting as an allegory of human life which goes from optimistic days of youth (summer) until the 'grey' days of adulthood when nothing more can be expected from it (autumn). Still, Bergman is untypical in a few comical, upbeat moments here and there: one of the best is the two minute long scene, filmed in one take, when Henrik is sitting at the dock and laments how he is jealous of Marie spending so much time with her uncle, upon which she leans on him, teases him ("Ah, jealous boy...") and then suddenly pushes him into the sea, bursting into laughter; as well as a few ironic dialogues (Henrik spends a long time trying to describe his feelings of being in love with her, comparing it to a sensation in the stomach and the chest, and asks how she feels, yet Marie just says: "How should I know, I'm not in love!"). Bergman's mise-en-scene is great, and his feeling of despair of the insignificance of the human existence is easily identifiable (an angry Marie saying that she would "spit on God" if she would meet him), all adding up to a complete film, despite a rather vague ending.

Grade;+++

Friday, 12 May 2017

They Called Him Bulldozer

Lo chiamavano Bulldozer; sports comedy / drama, Italy, 1978; D: Michele Lupo, S: Bud Spencer, Raimund Harmstorf, Joe Bugner

When a military submarine raises its periscope under it, it pierces the ship of sailor Bulldozer, who is thus forced to dock at a nearby coastal town. As he waits for his ship to be repaired, Bulldozer enters a bar and witnesses how American soldiers from a nearby military base, led by Sergant Kempfer, are using tricks and ploys to double-cross locals in card games and arm wrestling, stealing their money. Kempfer recognizes that Bulldozer is an ex-football player who woved never to play again since he was disappointed by foul play in sports. However, Bulldozer takes pity on the youngsters and becomes their trainer in an upcoming football play with the American soldiers. Even though the soldiers use brutality to beat the youngsters, Bulldozer steps in into the game and wins it for them.

Probably inspired by the huge success of "Rocky" and numerous Italian Association footbal clubs, Michele Lupo directed this sports comedy extravaganza with a few untypical dramatic moments for its main star, comedian Bud Spencer, and they would de facto remake the story four years later with "Bomber", just set in the boxing genre. "They Called Him Bulldozer" suffers from typical flaws of many Bud Spencer comedies from the 70s onwards: it starts off good, but half-way through the film crew suddenly seems to give up on any kind of effort and instead just settles for standard, routine empty walk and fist fights in the last hour. The same fate seems to have befallen this movie, though Spencer is again charming and funny as the unlikely hero, some jokes are good (the first fist-fight in the pub is amusing: as two soldiers charge with benches at him, Bulldozer just ducks between them and they hit each other whereas especially comical is the episode of a soldier so drunk that his cheeks are red — when he tries to attack Bulldozer, the latter just gives him a sip of drink, and the soldier suspends his swing half-way through before being knocked off by alcohol overkill) whereas Lupo manages to create a few unusual camera moves which work here and there (the horizontal alignment of the football players across the widescreen as the football flies over them in the sky). More could have been done out of the story, since the last hour lacks highlights, yet the movie is overall easily watchable and a light, albeit fun sports film.

Grade;++

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Last Year at Marienbad

L'Année dernière à Marienbad; drama, France / Italy, 1961; D: Alain Resnais, S: Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoeff

A play is being performed in a baroque hotel. After it, the guests mingle among each other. A man spots a woman and claims he recognizes who she is, insisting they met last year at the Marienbad garden. Her husband plays a game with sticks, Nim, with the man, and beats him each and every time. The man talks to the woman in the hotel, insisting they met and that she promised him to give her a year to make up her mind, though she denies it. Finally, from the stairs, the husband observes how the man and the woman walk away together from the building.

"Last Year at Marienbad" is one of those extreme French art-movies that go so far at being deliberately vague and obscure that they might as well constitute a film version of a Rorschach test, since the viewers have to decipher and assemble their own interpretation as to what they actually saw from the blank story. This is even more obscure than some of Godard's films. As such, it represents one of Alain Resnais' weaker films, yet it is not without at least some redeeming features, especially in the elegant camera drives across the corridors of the baroque hotel. Also, the hermetic story may still actually have a hidden meaning: the human fear of the passivity in the monolithic fate, the inability to free one's existence from the endless cycle of repeated variations of the same events.

This is illustrated in the 7-minute long sequence where the camera just endlessly drives through the corridors, while the narrator repeats the same sentences again and again ("...Silent rooms where one's footsteps are absorbed by carpets so thick, so heavy that no sound reaches one's ear..."); the Nim game in which the husband beats the man, again and again, not matter how much the latter tries to change the outcome; the man's narration ("It made no difference. It was always the same conversations, the same absent voices..."); the camera drive from the corridor towards the woman in the room, which is repeated six times — all to symbolize the endless cyclic nature of events. The main protagonist, the man, cannot change the opinion of the woman, no matter how much he tries, and thus remains an allegory of humans as a whole, who are just puppets in the crushing destiny of the Universe, the rigid order. The hidden leitmotiv is the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. However, the movie is exhaustingly slow, with empty, stale dialogues, debilitated narration and dry, boring moments, which all undermine the movie's impression, adding to its divisive nature.

Grade;++

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing; drama, USA, 1989; D: Spike Lee, S: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence

The hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. Sal is an Italian American who runs a pizzeria in an mostly black neighborhood. His son Pino, a racist, and Vito work in the pizzeria, as does African-American Mookie, who is still in bad relations with his girlfriend, Tina, with whom he has a child. There are also several other characters in the neighborhood: the old Da Mayor, who drinks to forget how his family is hungry; Smiley, a mentally disabled man who sells photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the street... When Buggin' Out complains that Sal's pizzeria doesn't contain a single photo of African-American on the wall, Sal throws him out. Buggin' Out thus wants to boycott Sal's place. That evening, he brings Radio Raheem who plays loud music on his radio in Sal's place. When Sal loses his temper and smashes the radio, it escalates into a fight, which ends in a police officer killing Raheem. This incites a riot in which people burn down Sal's pizzeria.

Spike Lee's breakthrough film that talks about racial relations in America is good, yet it once again proves one thing: that social issue alone doesn't always subsume genuine greatness. "Do the Right Thing" is one of those films without a real story, an episodic, 'slice-of-life' film that instead just follows 24 hours in life on a particular place, which is legitimate, yet not all episodes are equally great. For instance, the side-character of Ossie Davis' Da Mayor leads nowhere, nor does that of racist Pino — both of their arcs are left incomplete and do not connect at the end, and thus the storyline seems slightly unfocused and random at times. Lee is also contrived at times: would Buggin' Out really freak out and make such a fuss over a guy accidentally passing over his sneakers with a light bicycle? Isn't that overreacting? Isn't that silly? However, Lee proves to have a steady hand and directs the movie in an elegant way, whereas he has a talent for writing good dialogues here and there — for instance, when Buggin' Out, who has a "hip" hair due, wants to persuade three men to boycott Sal's pizzeria, one of them has an appropriate response ("You should boycott the goddamn barber that messed up your head!") or the sequence where Mookie talks with Pino and cannot understand his racism even though the man admits all his favorite basketball players, comedians and singers are all black (Magic Johnson, E. Murphy, Prince). It is also interesting how the film contemplates that nobody in the neighborhood is happy with their lives due to various problems (unemployment, low-income jobs, "grey" existence...) and thus the heat wave only serves as a catalyst for people to take out their frustrations on someone, the wrong one, even though that doesn't address their problems at all, nor does it give a solution. The most was achieved out of the brilliant Danny Aiello as Sal, who gives a truly excellent performance that carries the entire film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar; western, USA, 1954; D: Nicholas Ray, S: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine

The Wild West, 19th century. Johnny Guitar arrives to a desolate saloon because he was invited there to play music by his ex-lover Vienna, who opened the joint hoping to cash in on passengers of an upcoming railroad station. However, she is being harassed by Emma and Mr. McIvers from the nearby town, who want to chase her away and steal her land, and thus put all the blame on her whenever he other ex-lover, Dancing Kid, and his gang, are suspected of robbing a carriage. When the Dancing Kid robs a bank, one his wounded friends, Turkey, finds an asylum at Vienna's saloon. Emma, McIvers and others find him there and, as punishment, burn the saloon and hang Turkey. However, Johnny saves Vienna from hanging and the flee to the Dancing Kid's hideout. In a gun duel, Vienna manages to shoot Emma and thus reunites with Johnny.

Even by today's standards, "Johnny Guitar" is one of the most bizarre westerns of the 20th century since screenwriter Ben Maddow decided to deconstruct it by designing such a "male genre" as a feminist film in which the men are mostly just passive observers while the main protagonist and the main antagonist are both women, Vienna and Emma, played brilliantly by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (who allegedly couldn't stand each other privately during filming, which just contributed to their tension). Actually, it is puzzling why the movie is titled "Johnny Guitar", anyway, instead of "Vienna". Such a modern take on it gave the film freshness, yet a part of that freshness was still deducted due to an overlong running time, a few clumsy sequences (Emma shoots Tom, who then accidentally shoots the Sheriff) and wooden dialogues, especially in the first half where there are too many explanations and introductions featured in overlong dialogues between the characters who just meet, yet they have to tell everything to the audience. Director Nicholas Ray copes good with the film, even adding a few neat touches (in the lynching sequence, Emma and her evil gang all wear black clothes, while Vienna wears a white dress; when Tom is shot trying to protect Vienna, his dying words are: "Look... everybody's looking at me. It's the first time I ever felt important!", almost summing up the fate of every supporting character in every story) whereas Vienna's tough posture as the boss of the saloon gives the film a strong feminist touch for the 50s (She even says: "All a woman has to do is slip - once. And she's a "tramp!" Must be a great comfort to you to be a man!"), though even feminist tones can only go so far, since the film needed more humor and satire which should have sprouted naturally from such an unusual, upside-down concept.

Grade;++

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai; war drama, UK / USA / Sri Lanka, 1957; D: David Lean, S: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne




Burma, World War II. The Japanese army brings a group of captured British soldiers to a POW camp in the jungle, ordering them to build a bridge over the river Kwai, needed for their railroad transportation. Colonel Saito insists that every POW, including officers, must work in order to complete the bridge by the 12 May. However, Colonel Nicholson refuses to work, citing the Geneva Conventions that exempts officers from forced labor. Saito thus orders Nicholson to be sealed off in a solitary confinement. However, Nicholson doesn't give in, and Saito yields to his demands. Once Nicholson is declared in charge of commanding the construction, the bridge is built in time. Commander Shears manages to escape from the camp, contact the US army and return with a small platoon with the assignment to blow up the bridge. Upon finding out the bridge is wired, Nicholson actually intends to stop the platoon, but is hit, falls on the detonator and blows it up, anyway.

One of the classics from the 50s, a widely critically recognized film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" still seems as fresh as on its day of premiere thanks to David Lean's elegant direction and smooth pace: you just watch the first 7 minutes of it, and you immediately want to see it until the end. 50s movies have a different philosophy of telling a story than modern ones, insisting more on classic narration and longer scenes, yet when a story is interesting, it is timeless. The basic premise is simply fascinating: it starts off like a typical POW war drama, yet it quickly turns into a clash of two individuals with integrity — between the strict-by-the-law, disciplinary Colonel Nicholson who insists that officers cannot do forced labor and the rigid, goal-oriented Commander Saito, who insists that every prisoner must work. Their clash of stubbornness is captivating and you never know who may blink first, turning almost into a duel between a British Sheldon Cooper and a Japanese Sheldon Cooper, who both insist the other one is wrong.

Alec Guinness is simply excellent as Nicholson, giving him a sense of dignity and stoic endurance as a person who would rather starve to death in solitary confinement than budge an inch from his principles. Yet he can also be contemplative, especially in his memorable monologue on the bridge: "But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything." Though Sessue Hayakawa is equally as great as Saito, who is sardonic: when he is informed three prisoners died while trying to escape from the camp, he just says: "It was a pointless task. It was like an escape from reality".  A third contribution in the film is the very good William Holden as Commander Shears, who gives the story spice thanks to a few cynical lines. In one scene, he speaks to a military nurse on the beach: "Don't call me Commander, it's very unromantic! How would you like it if I called you 'Lieutenant Lover'?" A small complaint is that the last third loses a lot of energy and ends up rather dry at times, exhausting itself only with the monotone scenes of Nicholson and his men building the bridge, even though their "Stockholm syndrome" was already explored sufficiently, since longer doesn't always necessarily mean better. Still, this is compensated through a finale that almost reaches Hictchcockian levels of suspense in the long sequence where the platoon placed explosives under the bridge, but didn't reckon with the water level drop which leaves the wires suddenly visible above the river during the day, all ending in a finely tuned ending that speaks about the meaninglessness of war: everything is built only to be destroyed in it.

Grade;+++

Monday, 17 April 2017

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth; drama series, Italy / UK, 1977; D: Franco Zeffirelli, S: Robert Powell, Ralph Richardson, James Farentino, Olivia Hussey, Ian McShane, Anne Bancroft, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Cyril Cusack, Ian Holm, Michael York, Stacy Keach, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, Claudia Cardinale

In Canaan of the 1st Century AD, Joseph is engaged to Mary who gives birth to Jesus Christ after she heard a dream of God who told her that her child is going to be the Messiah. The Three wise men visit her and give her presents. 33 years later, Jesus starts to gather disciples from fishermen around the Sea of Galilee, among them Peter and Matthew. Jesus is also baptized by John the Baptist in Jordan, but the latter is arrested and executed by the Roman guards. Jesus becomes a popular religious teacher and even starts healing the sick and disabled. He travels to Jerusalem where he raises Lazarus from the dead and attacks the merchants for defiling the temple with their money and goods. Zealot Barabbas approaches Jesus in order to try to create a unified Jewish front against the Roman occupation, but Jesus refuses any violence. Finally, Judas betrays Jesus to the Roman soldiers, hoping to force him to perform miracles in front of them. Pontius Pilate is reluctant to convict Jesus, but the crowd votes to free Barabbas instead, and thus Jesus is cruficied. However, three days later, his body is gone and he appears in front of his disciples again.

One of the most expensive and ambitious TV projects of the 70s, this 4-part miniseries was met with huge approval by the Christian audiences: unlike other standard Bible movies depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, director Franco Zeffirelli attempts a slightly different approach here and there, trying also to "fill in the blanks" between some Gospels which were left underdeveloped or incomplete. One such example is found in the first episode, depicting Joseph as an elderly bachelor who gets engaged to the young Mary. Upon finding out she is pregnant, even though they never slept together, he asks a man for advice who informs him that stoning is the punishment for infidelity, and later Joseph has a dream where he imagines men chasing and stoning Mary, which  terrifies him. This episode serves its purpose, because it expands Joseph from a one-dimensional sketch into a character who has no heart to complain against Mary, which works really well, even later on (it basically rhymes with the sequence where Jesus saves an adulteress from stoning).

Another great example of expanding the story is when young boys throw a balloon with alcohol into fire, causing it to explode, in order to tease Mary Magdalene in her home, who is, it is implied, a prostitute. These two moments are welcomed and refreshing, but once Jesus shows up, the story basically goes back to "autopilot" and follows the Gospels rather conventionally, refusing to add any surprises or new, invented moments. This leaves "Jesus of Nazareth" a little bit dry and stale, yielding to predictable formula of other adaptations of the New Testament, especially in decision to have Robert Powell just stare into the camera at times, portraying more his holly, mythical feature than his human character. A small delight are great, exotic locations in Morocco and Tunisia, which give it an aesthetic touch, as well as an star ensemble in small roles, with two standing out the most: Ian McShane as Judas (!) and Rod Steiger as Pilate ("How do you govern these people?"). A few neat dialogues are also welcomed ("Men must change before kingdoms do.") and the emotional, yet also sober tone of the series gives it a certain charm that helped it hold up fairly well to this day.

Grade;++

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Tomorrow May Never Come

Kal Ho Naa Ho; comedy / drama / romance, India, 2003; D: Nikkhil Advani, S: Preity Zinta, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Jaya Bachchan, Sushma Seth

New York. Naina Kapur (23) is an student of an Indian expatriate family. She lives with her widowed mother, Jennifer, and two younger siblings, Shiv and Gia. Their Indian restaurant is running badly, and this, together with her father's recent suicide, exacerbates Naina's depression. Her friend Rohit is in love with her, but she regards him nothing more than a friend. One day, a young man, Aman, moves to the house next door and quickly gains sympathy of the Kapur family. He lovable attitude, jokes and his help to reform the restaurant into a successful joint cause Naine to fall in love with him. However, Aman is hiding that he is suffering from a terminal disease, and thus decides to help Rohit conquer Naina's heart is six days. Upon finding out about his disease, the Kapur family says farewell to Aman in the hospital.

This Indian version of the "Cyrano de Bergerac" story, just with a terminally ill man trying to help a shy friend gain the heart of a woman he loves instead of the French protagonist with a huge nose, was met with appropriate warm welcome by the audiences and critics alike, and signalled the feature length debut film by director Nikkhil Advani. Set in New York, with the often Bollywood topic of the family of Indian immigrants living abroad for an exotic touch, "Tomorrow May Never Come" suffers from too many unnecessary supporting characters instead of focusing only on the love triangle as well as an too melodramatic finale, yet it has a lot of virtues evident in fresh, modern and highly comical set-up of the storyline, a one where the protagonists don't just sing their problems away, but actually try to tackle them in real life, which is refreshing for Bollywood, whereas Shah Rukh Khan delivered one of his finest performances as lovable and comical Aman, who remains optimistic despite knowing that his days are numbered, and even manages to comfort Naina and bring her out of her depression.

There are several solid jokes here — in one scene, Naina and her friend 'Sweetu' are sitting on a ship, when Aman shows up and introduces himself to 'Sweetu': "Hi! I'm the new neighbor of grumpy!", pointing at Naina. Upon finding out that 'Sweetu' fancies a hip-hop guy, Frankie, Aman stages a scene where he shouts that 'Sweetu' dumped him because she loves Frankie ("Frankie, this girlfriend of mine wants to leave me for you. She says you are cool, sexy, she says your hairstyle is wow!"), which causes Frankie to approach 'Sweetu' and invite her to a party. In another sequence, the 'golddigger' Camilla knows that Rohit is rich, and thus she inserts a ring in the glass during their dinner in a restaurant and feigns to every guest that she "accepts" Rohit's marriage proposal, despite his utter confusion. Luckily, Aman helps him out of the trap and tells Rohit to say to Camilla that he renounced all his fortune. When Rohit returns back to the table, he tells her just that — and in the next jump cut, we see Aman sitting in Camilla's place, jokingly saying to Rohit: "I accept!" Not every joke works, yet many of them are sweet and sympathetic, as well as modern: for instance, in the period when Aman tries to help Rohit gain the heart of Naina in six days, there is a neat touch of a waiter looking directly into the camera and saying: "Day One"; then the next day some student girls looking into the camera and saying "Day Two", etc. Likewise, when he gets serious, Aman can be very mature (the scene where he says to Naina: "You cannot wish your father's tears, but you can stop him from crying by smiling. Is that a wrinkle showing up?"). A couple of musical moments typical for Bollywood are superfluous, yet even they have their moments (such as the funky Hindi version of "Pretty Woman" sung on the street), all ending in a very good, unassuming little film.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Carrie

Carrie; drama / romance / tragedy, USA, 1952; D: William Wyler, S: Jennifer Jones, Laurence Olivier, Miriam Hopkins, Eddie Albert

After moving from a rural area to Chicago, the young Carrie is stuck doing a poorly paid job in a factory. After her finger gets caught in the sewing machine, she is fired and contacts a man she met on the train, Charlie, and he allows her to move in with her. They start a relationship, but Carrie falls in love with George, the manager of a restaurant. George runs away with her to New York and leaves his wife, Julie, children and job behind. However, out of work, the happy couple quickly starts succumbing to harsh poverty, since nobody wants to hire George since he took money from his old employee's vault to flee with Carrie. Finally, Carrie finds a job as a dancer and leaves George. Some time later, she finds out he became homeless and decides to return back to him. Upon finding out how rich she is now, an embarrassed George now leaves her.

Starting as a typical, idealistic love story between two people who are already married/engaged to someone else, "Carrie" shocks the viewers even more with its second half that works almost as an inversion of many other movies that end with a "happily ever after" —  showing instead how the happy couple now lives in poverty and misery after running away, turning darker and darker, until it ends in one of the most tragic endings of the 50s, an indignation that in capitalism there can be no true romance. It is almost as if the story presents a world where people can have only one thing in life — either they can be in love and live in poverty or live a wealthy life without love — but not both. William Wyler once again proves what an competent director he is, whereas Laurence Olivier immediately proves that he is a rare actor with class (he knows his wife controls all his money, but he still wants a divorce to be with Carrie: "I found someone who loves me and I'm going to have that before I die!"; the sequence in the New York bar that shows his humiliation when he now has to work as an ordinary waiter...), yet this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel "Sister Carrie" turned the socially critical context a little bit too melodramatic and syrupy, especially in the overlong running time, whereas the dialogues are plain. A richer writing would have been better, thought the movie is still quality made.

Grade;++

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Ender's Game

Ender's Game; science-fiction, USA, 2013; D: Gavin Hood, S: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Aramis Knight

In the future, an alien ant-like species, called the Formics, attacks Earth and kills millions. However, they are stopped by pilot Mazer, who crashes his plane into their queen ship, and thus disabled all of them. 50 years later, Ender Wiggin is a teenage cadet who is bullied by his older brother, but adored by his sister. His intelligence is noticed by Colonel Graff who enlists him to train on a space station because he needs a commander who will allegedly counter-attack the Formics. Due to his ingenuity and creativity, Ender rises through the ranks and is brought to a former Formic planet, close to the home world of the alien race. Ender meets Mazer there, who is still alive, and who helps train him. Ender and his unit engage in a computer simulation of the attack on the planet of the Formics and destroy it - however, he soon finds out it wasn't a simulation, but the real thing. He is shocked that he committed genocide and is convinced the Formics only had defensive units, not offensive anymore. Ender quits the army and meets a dying Formic queen on the planet. He takes her egg and decides to help it recover on another planet.

The film adaptation of Orson Scott Card's eponymous and critically recognized novel, "Ender's Game" is a terribly underrated film, displaying a rare, intelligent and philosophical example of science-fiction films, but, alas, the majority of the audiences just want simplistic action without having to learn anything, and thus the movie had a box office result which sells (or rewards) its quality way too short. Even though it was released almost three decades after the novel was first published, the movie's dialogues and themes still seem as fresh as ever, thanks to Card's timeless writing, with only minimal flaws when translating it to the screen, since the story is simply clever, starting as a strategist military plot (Colonel Graff places high hopes in the intelligent outsider Ender, hoping to create the right conditions to ferment a "new Napoleon" who will fight against the alien race of the Formics) only to sweep the expectations in the dark, bitter plot twist near the end, contemplating about some high concepts revolving around the propaganda of the military that tricks even the brightest people into thinking that offensives are only defensive, and thus justified, which leads to terrible consequences and trauma.

Some of the dialogues are comical ("You cheated!" - "Your mother cheated, that's why you look like a plumber!") or smart (when Bonzo forbids him to train with others in front of everyone, Ender asks him to step outside. Ender knows Bonzo can change his mind, yet doesn't want to look like a coward in front of everyone, so he goes:  "If you wan't, I can pretend you won this argument. Then tomorrow you can tell me you changed your mind"; "We won! That's all that matters!" - "No. The *way* we win matters."), and all of them display a grand scheme in which Ender figures what the others want and tries to make the mill run his way by persuading them to follow his goal. Harrison Ford is remarkable in the role of Colonel Griff, convincingly portraying a man willing to do anything to achieve his goal, and who thus serves almost as a warning to what Ender may become as a grown up. The story is dense and there is no empty walk at all, though it seems slightly rushed at times whereas the open ending hints at a sequel that never happened — however, wanting even more from a story is a good sign. The cast is immaculate, the directing surprisingly restrained and calm whereas the film offers food for thought, and thus, despite a few shortcomings, it is wonderful that this movie got made at all.

Grade;+++

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Conquest of the Pole

À la conquête du pôle; silent fantasy short, France, 1912; D: Georges Méliès, S: Georges Méliès, Fernande Albany

At a meeting, scientists are trying to find ways how to reach and explore the North Pole, with several factions disagreeing on the methods. Professor Maboul takes his crew on a flying machine, while other expeditions fail trying to make such a long journey with cars or balloons. Finally there, Maboul and his expedition encounter a snow giant which attacks them, but they shoot it. They also discover the magnetic needle and climb onto it to spin around its axis.

1912 was the last year in which legendary pioneer of cinema, director Georges Melies, worked on before ending his movie career due to bankruptcy, and "The Conquest of the Pole" is thus one of his last achievements: slightly overlong and with obvious restructuring of the "exploration" concept from his own film, "A Trip to he Moon", with typical "static" shots where the camera doesn't move, yet it conquers the viewers with its sheer energy, charm and audacity, displaying the authors ingenuity from his best days. Though it lasts for 30 minutes, "Conquest" declines to explore the narrative or offer some better character development, instead relying only on cardboard set designs of walls and ice on the North Pole, yet it still has enough good moments that carry the film, among others thanks to its childishly-naive tone from a time when the majority of the world was still unexplored. The highlight is definitely towards the finale when the expedition encounters an "ice giant", but a one that is only shown from his chest up, emerging from a hole, grabbing some crew members with his hands, which offers interesting mise-en-scene and awe. "Conquest" is Melies "light", a film refusing to explore more of its own narrative only to explore a new world, yet it still works as an interesting cinematic artifact suitable for exploring the early days of cinema.

Grade;++

Monday, 3 April 2017

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier; science-fiction action, USA, 2014; D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, S: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, now works for the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. led by Nick Fury. Upon finding out he cannot access some of the data on his computer, and reporting it to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Pierce, Fury is wounded in an assassination attempt. In a surgery, he is pronounced dead. Rogers and Natasha Romanoff start to investigate and find a bunker with a secret supercomputer holding the digital memory of Arnim Zola, who reveals to them that the underground organization Hydra infiltrated agents into S.H.I.E.L.D. and persuades a new plan of a global totalitarian dictatorship: since the people resisted it in World War II, now Hydra wants to saw chaos and crisis in the world, persuading people to accept security at the expense of freedom. Fury reveals he has feigned his death and joins with others to stop Pierce, who is a Hydra agent and wants to send Helicarriers into orbit which will kill millions of people around the world, who are a threat to Hydra's plans. Fury, Natasha and the others stop that, whereas Rogers recognizes the assassin Winter Soldier as Buck Barnes, who underwent experimentation during WWII.

Despite a few good moments and some admirable efforts to make Marvel's superhero film franchise a tad more mature, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is basically a light cartoon version of "Three Days of the Condor", abandoning thought provoking questions for simplistic, fast action. The Marvel Cinematic Universe already became a too established franchise for any director or author to try out something truly unique, daring, risky or innovative which would stray away from the entrenched routine, though it was certainly an interesting choice by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to try to make a homage to 70s paranoia thrillers: one of the highlights is certainly the sequence where Natasha and Steve Rogers discover the secret bunker, where the computer programme tells them about the secret plan of the Hydra organization to saw chaos and conflicts around the world in order to try to persuade people to voluntarily give away their freedom in exchange for security, even pointing out how "people resisted and fought for their freedom during World War II", and now this new approach is taken. This is indeed a scary and frightening concept, with allusions to the time from when the movie was made, yet it is left surprisingly underdeveloped and scarce.

How were these crisis instigated throughout the world? What is the motivation of the Hydra agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. to proceed with it? What is their ideology? How far would they go? All these and many other interesting questions are left rather unanswered, and instead the story only relies on endless action, which isn't that great, anyway: the sheer amount of explosions does not equal inspiration. When Nick Fury seemingly dies from the assassination, this gives the film weight and credibility — and thus when it turns out he is alive later on, this seems like a cop-out which simply doesn't dare to try out something different from the safe terrain. The characters always encounter ostensibly hopeless situations, but they always survive, anyway, since sequels have to be made with them. Certainly, this stale formula could have worked with a tad more style, fun and ingenuity, yet they are absent as well. Still, having Robert Redford play the opposite role of himself in "Condor" is effective and gives for an refreshing casting. There is also a pivotal sequence somewhere in the first third: Natasha kisses Steve in public on the escalator to try to hide from agents looking for them. Later on, in the car, Natasha asks Steve this: "Alright, I have a question for you, of which you do not have to answer. I feel like if you don't answer it though, you're kind of answering it." - "What?" - "Was that your first kiss since '45?" This is when Natasha and Steve transform from one-dimensional sketches into genuine characters for a moment, and it is so charming because the viewers get the impression that there is more to them than just running and punching villains around. If there were more of such moments of them interacting like humorous people, like grown ups, this might have actually been a fun franchise.

Grade;+

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous; drama, USA, 1937; D: Victor Fleming, S: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine

Harvey Cheyne (12) is the spoiled child of New York millionaire Frank Cheyne. Harvey is so used to the power of his father that he uses and exploits his fatherly instinct to persuade him do whatever he wants. When he tries to blackmail a student in his private school and bribe a professor, Frank decides to teach Harvey a lesson on a ship. However, Harvey falls into the sea and is rescued by fisherman Manuel. Since the ship is suppose to spend three months in the Atlantic, the fishermen intend to have Harvey help them on board until they reach land. Harvey again tries to cheat in order to win a bet in fishing against Jack, but Manuel refuses this kind of behavior and scorns him. Eventually, Harvey finds a mentor in Manuel, but he drowns during a storm. Back on land, Harvey, now mature, is reunited with his father.

"Captain Courageous" is today brought up only as a footnote in film lexicons as being the movie that secured Spencer Tracy's first Oscar as best actor, a treat he would repeat again the following year with "Boys Town" where he plays a similar role of a mentor to a kid, yet other than that this sea drama does not hold up well with the flow of time nor does director Victor Fleming ever rise to the occasion, settling only for a good, though standard and predictable allegory of a spoiled kid being taught a lesson when he has to spend some time doing humble, hard labor. The 12-year old Freddie Bartholomew is great in the leading role of Harvey who basically self-taught himself to use his rich father as a magic wand to get whatever he wants, ranging from either sweet talking to him or playing victim trying to enrage him into hating his "enemies", and thus this opening act still seems relevant and applies to behavior of spoiled, rich kids.

Tracy shows up some half an hour into the film, and he really delivers a very good performance, but it is hindered a bit by the disappointing, archaic decision to have his character basically be a caricature lower-class immigrant who uses broken, improper English in his sentences ("You crazy. Nobody bad around here. You gonna' work or no?"; "Hey? What you doing?"; "I can do this as long as you can"), who thus doesn't have that much wisdom as the authors intended. Manuel works the best when he bonds with Harvey on a humorous level ("Don't laugh! You laugh no good! I-I-I-I-e.... Like a seagull!"; when teaching him how to prepare a bait for fishing, he goes: "This fish don't go to school and don't learn French, but he pretty smart!") yet gets heavy handed when he uses some typical, banal Christian preaching about the "fisherman and the savior" from that time. The writing could have been better, since it develops its message in a thin, simplistic way, though the story still impresses with its idealism and a few exciting sea sequences, such as when two ships almost collide with each other during the storm. Not a classic, yet still a good moral lesson.

Grade;++

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine Crisis; documentary / short, UK, 2014; D: Jacob Perkins, S: Adrian Hyde-Price, Lesya Branman, Michael Schulz, Alla Wallin, Marina Nistotskaya, Per Månson, Ilya Lebedev

In March 2014, mass murderer Vladimir Putin orders the annexation of Crimea in order to create Greater Russia. Regardless of all of this, Ukraine still managed to topple the pro-Goreshist president Yanukovich and elect an anti-Goreshist, pro-European government led by Petro Poroshenko. The eastern parts of Ukraine, backed by Goreshist Russia, create ISIL-like psuedo states, the Luhansk and Donetsk "Republics", which demand a secession and to be part of Goreshist Russia. This leads to the war in Donbass, since Ukraine wants to protects its territorial integrity. After the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down (and the Dutch commission confirmed the perpetrators were pro-Russian rebels), the EU, USA and other nations imposed sanctions against the Goreshist.

The first case of annexation in modern, civilized Europe after 70 years, not recorded since the Bolshevik-Nazi regimes, was the topic of the short documentary "The Ukraine Crisis", which explored one of the most shameful acts of the 21st century, the resurgence of Russian irredentism and its genocidal, neverending path of blood needed to sustain their Goreshist territorial nationalism— a one which does not even shy away from again murdering the people who already barely survived their genocide, the Holodomor. For such a vast topic, the documentary is too short to truly give a worthy dissertation on the complexities and specifics of the crisis, yet gives a neutral, balanced and rather sober view, interviewing both sides and avoiding emotional or patriotic appeal. A major complaint could be raised that the authors neglected to mention the Crimean Tatars, whose ethnic cleansing led to the Goreshist seizing their land, whereas minor complaints could be raised towards editing or production values, as well as too short time given to the interviewees. Still, the movie flows nicely and in the end refuses to choose a side, instead giving an appeal towards a peaceful solution. It is also a welcomed and refreshing approach from many other propaganda films made about the topic, showing a creepy part of history, with an ironic subtext: a one where Russia annexed Crimea — and subsequently became the smallest country of Europe.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Punch Drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love; tragicomedy / romance, USA, 2002; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Barry works in a delivery company, has seven sisters who offend him and is feeling more and more crushed by his neverending loneliness. One morning, a car flips on the road while another one leaves a piano near the entrance of his company, which Barry takes in. He also buys large amounts of pudding for a promotion of frequent flyer miles, thinking it is based on a marketing error which could allow him limitless free flights. Out of loneliness, he calls call girl Georgie, but she starts harassing him, as well, demanding $750. Barry finally meets Lena who becomes his long awaited girlfriend. They have a romantic trip in Hawaii. In order to extract the money from Georgie's demand, four henchmen ram the car and injure Lena in it, which makes Barry go crazy. He meets the henchmen boss, Dean, and threatens him to leave his life alone. Barry then returns to Lena.

After finishing his epic 3-hour drama "Magnolia", the news that the critically recognized director Paul Thomas Anderson is making his next film with the panned comedian Adam Sandler, with a normal running time of only 90 minutes, came as a huge surprise for his followers, who feared it might end in a disaster. Luckily, Anderson managed to prolong his talent even on the field of a romantic comedy, giving Sandler an excellent, introverted, restrained, dignified, emotional and serious role, for which the latter received his first Golden Globe nod. Sandler could indeed be thankful for receiving such an opportunity, which features him in his finest hour — and also tackles Anderson's frequent theme of an outsider trying to cope with loneliness and/or searching for love. The opening act is rather bizarre (one car flips, while another one stops for the driver to leave a piano near the street), dwelling too much on symbolism; the hysteria and slightly mean-spirited tone start to dominate at a point of the film (seven sisters harassing their brother, Barry) whereas the thriller segment of the story, involving a call girl who tries to blackmail the hero, is unnecessary and rather incomplete, which leaves all these ingredients in the film feel slightly uneven. Still, the romantic segment of the film works fine, and this is where "Punch Drunk Love" plays it to the hill, nicely establishing Barry's loneliness (a comical moment where he asks Walter for help: "I wanted to ask you something because you're a doctor... I don't like myself sometimes. Can you help me?" - "Barry, I'm a dentist.") as well as his love, Lena, who "saves him", which gives him self-esteem (the suggestive scene where he hits the map of the US) and completes his character arc, and Emily Watson gives another typical excellent performance as his love interest. Overall, not one of Anderson's best films — but still easily one of Sandler's.

Grade;++

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Waterworld

Waterworld; science-fiction adventure, USA, 1995; D: Kevin Reynolds, S: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino, Dennis Hopper, Michael Jeter, Jack Black

In the far future, Earth's polar caps have melted and all of the land was flooded with water. The remains of remains of the human race resides on various ships and sea platforms, among them Mariner, a mutant who has developed fins and lives on his boat. He dives far to the sea ground and picks up land, which he then sells. When "smokers", pirates led by Deacon, attack a market, Mariner helps Helen and a little girl, Enola, flee to safety on his boat. The "smokers" kidnap Enola because she has a map tattooed on her back which shows Dryland, a small patch of land in the ocean. Mariner rescues Enola and sinks the ship of the "smokers". With Helen, old Gregor and other people, he flies on a balloon and truly finds land suitable for living.

The most expensive film at the time of its premiere, with a budget that soared to 175 million $ due to various delays and technical difficulties, "Waterworld" holds up surprisingly well today if one likes these types of films, acting as some sort of "Mad Max" on water, and is an apocalyptic, bitter warning with implied ecological subtext of the hypothetical consequences of global warming and climate change. The film starts out clever: the typical Universal logo starts, presenting Earth in space, but then starts to modify as it illustrates how the ice caps melt and the sea levels flood entire continents. The main protagonist, Mariner (Costner), is also introduced in a sly way, in the scene where he urinates into a cup, only to immediately put his urine into a distillation unit which then filters it back to drinkable water, already setting the tone for this world. More care should have been taken of the characters or the versatility of the storyline, since the endless fighting of people on rusty boats and ships in the sea can only go so far, which makes the film, ironically, "dry" at times, yet its entire setting on endless oceans already gave it a stylistic touch, some ideas are clever (a pound of land is worth a fortune), Dennis Hopper is effective as the sardonic pirate commander Deacon ("You can't kill me, you promised!", says one of the captured men who just gave him a valuable info, so Deacon simply gives the gun to another villain to kill him instead) whereas there are some refreshing instances of charm and humor which lift up the mood, mostly revolving around arguing between Mariner and the little girl Enola ("You talk too much!" - "That's because you don't talk at all!"). The sequence when they first discover land is also almost magical, because, just like "Soylent Green", this film also shows what the humanity has now and what it might lose if it continues a path of mindless selfishness and greed, indifferent to all the consequences.

Grade;++

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger; action, USA, 1993; D: Renny Harlin, S: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Leon Robinson

After he failed to save a friend hanging from a rope, who fell and died, ranger Gabriel Walker decides to quit his job and stay away from the mountain life, especially since his friend Hal resents him for her death. Meanwhile, former operative Eric Qualen and his gang manage to steal 100 million $ sealed in three suitcases from a plane thanks to treasury agent Travers, yet their plane crashes on the mountains and they thus summon Walker and Hal, and take them hostage, forcing them to find the three suitcases with money. Walker escapes and teams up with Jessie, trying to find the suitcases before Qualen and his henchmen. When all the villains are killed one by one, Qualen has a fight with Walker on a helicopter hanging from a cliff, yet it falls and kills Qualen. Walker and Jessie thus save Hal.

This mountain climber thriller is basically a big budget exploitation action film, trying to seize the attention of viewers by promising suspense and daring stunts, some of which are indeed great, yet feels overall flat and thin due to its forgettable, one-dimensional characters, standard writing and routine storyline which unfolds somewhat like "Die Hard" set on the mountains. These action stunts are impressive, but not to such a degree that they can compensate for the entire rest of the ingredients (directing, writing, acting, character development...) which are lazy and assembled without any effort. John Lithgow manages to lighten up the mood thanks to a few cynical lines: in one of the best moments, after Walker seems to have been swept away by a wave of avalanche on a cliff while trying to reach the suitcase with tens of millions of $ in it, he says: "Your friend just had the most expensive funeral in history!" More of such moments would have been welcomed, and less with Qualen just acting like a conventional villain, killing everyone. Even though his character of Walker is bland, Sylvester Stallone still manages to deliver a solid performance and make the most out of the predictable concept. Every once in a while, the heroes get into a situation that ostensibly feels like a dead end for them, yet they predictably always manage to survive, anyway, no matter how exaggerated it looks. Overall, "Cliffhanger" is an easily watchable, but also easily forgettable flick, not truly rising to the occasion except for a few moments of great stunts.

Grade;+

Monday, 20 March 2017

Mr. India

Mr. India; science-fiction action comedy, India, 1987; D: Shekhar Kapur, S: Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Amrish Puri, Satish Kaushik, Annu Kapoor, Sharat Saxena, Ajit Vachani

From his island, Villain Mogambo is commanding his henchmen to cause criminal activity so that he can take over the Indian subcontinent. In the meantime, Arun is a seamy, but good-hearted man who turned an old house into an orphanage for kids, which he runs together with cook Calendar. When the debts rise, he wants to place an add in the newspaper to rent a room in the house, and finds the tenant in reporter Seema — she at first didn't know about a dozen kids living there, but gets to like them. Arun finds out that his late father created a wrist watch which can turn anyone invisible. Arun wears it and becomes Mr. India, fighting against Mogambo's henchmen who want to banish the orphanage to create an outpost there. When Mogambo's bombs kill a kid, Tina, and the rest are abducted and brought to the island, Arun uses his invisibility to beat up Mogambo and blow up his fortress.

A rare example of a foreign language superhero film, the highest grossing Indian film of 1987, "Mr. India" is a truly remarkable example of cinema audacity, courageously blending everything, from drama through action, science-fiction, musical up to pure slapstick comedy. Director Shakhar Kapur uses the typical American superhero motives and translates them to India's culture, changing and rearranging them until it all fits, whereas he finds great support in charming two actors, Srideva as reporter Seema and Anil Kapoor as Arun (it does help a lot that he resembles Lou Loomis from "Caddyshack"). The sequences in the improvised orphanage abound with a lot of humor, from Anil's arguments with cook Calendar, complaining that the latter always has "winter sleep", up to his method of waking up the kids from bed by turning on sprinklers above them, whereas the sole sequence where the kids hide because the new tenant, Seema, hates kids (even joking that it would be better if people "would come as grown ups into the world"), until Anil scares her with a cockroach in the room, upon which she agrees that anyone would help, and then he calls for kids for help, who run like a horde into the room and chase the bug away, is a riot. Srideva is also great in the hilarious, now already iconic sequence where she dresses up as Chaplin's tramp, using the invisible Mr. India to win in the casino. The storyline does tend to seem overlong with its unnecessary running time of three hours, since several dance sequences are again superfluous, whereas the ending seems rushed and conventional, yet "Mr. India" has such a contagious energy that every one of its flaws are always compensated at least threefold through sheer ingenuity, wit and pure good old fun.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Master

The Master; psychological drama, USA, 2012; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Jesse Plamons, Kevin J. O'Connor, Madisen Beaty, Jennifer Neala Page

After the end of World War II, war veteran Freddie is lost and doesn't know what to do with his life. He finds work as a photographer and a plantation worker, but always causes fights. One night, he sneaks into a yacht and finds out it is lead by Lancaster, a charismatic leader who wants to establish a cult, "The Cause", claiming he can cure people's trauma through hypnosis, when they lived different lives. Freddie joins their small group which starts getting new members, but doesn't really believe in their ideology, frequently resorting to alcohol and erratic behavior. Finally, Freddie quits "The Cause", finds a girl in England. Winn, and has sex with her.

Paul Thomas Anderson's 6th feature length film, "The Master" seems as if a great director is trying to make sense out of a vague, aimless story. There are moments of greatness, typical for Anderson's scope, such as the long, exquisite sequence of Freddie running away from the farmers across the plantation or Freddie going crazy in the prison cell, breaking everything, including the toilet seat — but one quickly realizes they are only isolated bubbles, unconnected and with no relation to the events of the rest of the film, and thus they seem more like "guests" than as parts of a larger, purposeful whole. Since the plantation incident is never mentioned again, it seems ultimately irrelevant in the context of the film. The actors are all great, though, especially Joaquin Phoenix and excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult leader Lancaster. Near the end of the film, Lancaster practically spells out the theme of the movie to the audience in a very sly quote: "If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history." In it, it is implied that Freddie (just like humans as a whole) always symbolically served a different addiction: he was a soldier in war (his master was patriotism), an employee (his master was job and money) and part of Lancaster's cult (his master was religion), yet he was always restless and anxious in all, until he finally found peace in the master he liked (sex). This theme works, yet it clashes in an odd way by spending a disproportionally long amount of time with Lancaster's cult "The Cause" (pointless scenes of the leader making Freddie go back and forth to touch the window and then the wall again and again), which in the end seems as if its second theme is dismantling the way cults are promoted into religions. These two themes clash, and it would have been better if Anderson chose one or the other.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Trust Me, I Am Here

Main Hoon Na; action / drama / comedy / musical, India, 2004; D: Farah Khan, S: Shah Rukh Khan, Zayed Khan, Amrita Rao, Sushmita Sen, Suniel Shetty, Kirron Kher, Boman Irani

In a TV studio, general Bakshi announces a plan to resolve the India-Pakistani conflict in a project of releasing prisoners on both sides. However, a Hindu nationalist, ex-Major Raghavan, storms the studio and kills the father of Major Ram. Bakshi gives Ram, who is in his 30s, the assignment to pose as a student and secretly watch over Bakshi's daughter, Sanjana, fearing Raghavan might strike her college next. Ram has troubles adapting to the life on college, yet falls in love with the chemistry teacher, Ms. Chandini. He also finds out he is an illegitimate child when his father had an affair, and thus wants to make up with his brother, student Lucky, and stepmother. When Raghavan disguises himself as a teacher and takes students and the principal as hostages in the college, Ram manages to save them and kill Raghavan. The prisoner exchange thus takes place.

A blend of "Back to School" and "Bodyguard", "Trust Me, I Am Here" is a highly unusual patchwork that decides it wants to combine two polar opposites, ranging from a serious action drama bravely tackling the taboo topic of the India-Pakistani conflict up to a cheerful and merry teen-comedy, resulting in a film that works sometimes, yet definitely feels overlong with its running time of three hours whereas it simply lacks highlights. The concept of Major Ram (sympathetic Shah Rukh Khan) having to feign to be a student to protect Sanjana is sweet, yet it bizarrely avoided the natural conclusion, namely that they would fall in love, and instead focused on Ram falling in love with the chemistry teacher, which left him somewhat disengaged and distanced from Sanjani and her friends. The subplot of Ram meeting his half-brother Lucky was clumsily shoehorned into the film, resulting in too much melodramatic and kitschy moments near the end, while it also suffers from several weakly written stereotypes — the idea that Sanjani is estranged from her father just because he wanted a son is a cliche, whereas it is highly unlikely that the mother would not recognize Ram, her stepson. Unfortunately, the writers were not quite inspired when bringing this sweet concept to life, since not much happens in college, anyway, except for superfluous dancing. A sequence in the professor's lounge illustrates the film's uneven tone: one of the best jokes  — a middle-aged professor laments about the popular Ms. Chandini, the new chemistry teacher ("If she is Ms. Moonshine, then I am Ms. Moon eclipse!") — is immediately followed by one lame one, the one where an overweight teacher spits while talking, and thus Ram bends and dodges his saliva in slow-motion, "Matrix" style. Too many of such corny jokes take up too much time, while some good ones are absent. Likewise, the way Ram finishes off the bad guy is too similar of the way the villain is eliminated in Coen's "Raising Arizona". "Trust Me, I Am Here" is a solid and easily watchable, but also easily forgettable flick, where a lot more of potentials were left unexplored or underdeveloped.

Grade;+

Sunday, 5 March 2017

No

No; political drama, Chile / France / USA, 2012; D: Pablo Larraín, S: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers

After 15 years of his rule, dictator Augusto Pinochet yields to international pressure and schedules a referendum in '88 which will allow citizens of Chile to decide if he should stay in power or resign. Rene is hired to create a TV spot for the "No" campaign, amidst the suspicion that the referendum will be rigged, anyway. He persuades the staff to conjure up a positive campaign, under the slogan "Chile, happiness is coming!" Both the "Yes" and "No" campaign will get 15 minutes each for their spots on TV. After the spots are broadcast and highly critical of Pinochet, Rene gets threats over the phone and thus leaves his child and his wife in another apartment. Finally, the plebiscite is held and the majority of people vote "No", ending Pinochet's rule.

One of the best movies of the decade, Pablo Larrain's "No" was critically recognized worldwide despite showing a local, confined historical event of a campaign on whether Augusto Pinochet should stay in power in Chile or not: the movie owns such a success mostly to the honest, quiet, subtle, simple and genuine direction as well as a restrained, authentic and unbelievably convincing performances by the actors, whose characters seem like real people and their small, "trivial" problems close and easily recognisable, equally as gripping as spectacular epics. Even more fascinating is that Larrain courageously dropped the HD digital cameras, went against the mainstream dogma and instead filmmed the entire story with the imperfect, grainy cameras of the 80s on magnetic tape, with deliberate errors (such as "over-illuminated" sources of light) thereby giving the story a highly authentic (and lively) feel. This is a dry political film, yet once the viewers get use to it, it manages to engage with ease, peculiarly melting the stale, conventional dialogues into something interesting, keeping the suspense of the outcome of the referendum until the end. One of its highlights are the wide array of comical TV spots for both "Yes" and "No" campaign: the "Yes" campaign predictably leans towards nationalism, "strength" and authority, scaring people with Communists and poverty if Pinochet is removed, even presenting an add with a steamroller flattening lamps and TV sets, threatening a child on the street, whereas the "No" campaign wants to be hip, cool, appeal towards the young and send a positive message — one of the best adds is when a poet opens his mouth and shows a "NO" paper sign on his tongue or when a woman gives a shrill speech: "For 15 years we had a dictatorship that started here (shows her butt), went over here (shows her forehead) and ends here (shows the palm of her hand with a "NO" paper sign on it)". Brilliant, concise, refreshingly relaxed and deliciously sympathetic, "No" is an excellent film that finds the right note and sticks with it.

Grade;+++

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; adventure, USA, 1991; D: Kevin Reynolds, S: Kevin Costner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater, Gerladine McEwan, Mike McShane, Brian Blessed, Jack Wild, Sean Connery

England, 12th century. After escaping from a torture chamber in Jerusalem following the Crusades, Robin of Locksley returns to his homeland with an accomplice, Moor Azeem, but finds people are oppressed there by the autocratic Sheriff of Nottingham, who wants to take over England due to the long absence of King Richard. Teaming up with several rebels, they establish a base in the Sherwood Forest where they rob from the rich and give to the poor. When the Sheriff destroys his base and kidnaps Maid Marian in order to force her to marry him, Robin Hood and his men storm the castle. The Sheriff is killed, Robin is married to Marian while King Richard returns to the country.

Away back the 2nd highest grossing film of 1991, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" shows one thing: nostalgia sometimes cannot hide the fact that a film can feel very dated by today's standards. It seems there was a huge disparity between what the authors wanted the film to be: a syncretism of very realistic, dirty elements of the Middle Ages and the light-hearted, at times even romantic adventures from the 'golden age of Hollywood', and these two contradictory tones clash badly with each other throughout. They should have had one or the other, but not both. The opening already illustrates this, showing a dark sequence of Robin Hood in the torture chamber in Jerusalem, equipped with such shocking scenes as cutting of the hands of the prisoners — was this really necessary for a Robin Hood film or wouldn't it have been better to simply cut that sequence altogether?

The scenes involving witch Mortianna are equally as gruesome, with several disgusting moments, such as her mixing her blood with her saliva for a ritual, whereas the now infamous sequence of the Sheriff of Nottingham trying to rape Marian while the priest is standing next to them holding a prayer is also a disaster. Such vile and ill-conceived ideas contaminate the film, leaving the viewers with a rather uneven taste in their mouths. Overall, though, this is still a very solid film with at least a couple of things going for it: one of them are fantastic locations, from the gorgeous forest up to the opulent Carcassone castle; the cinematography involving several camera drives is a delight; Bryan Adams magical song "Everything I Do" is simply perfect whereas a couple of comical moments lift up the mood (during an ambush, Azeem informs Robin Hood that 20 soldiers are coming in the forest. Robin then informs his men that only "five" enemies are coming. He then explains to Azeem that his men "can't count anyway") and Kevin Costner gives a relaxed, sympathetic performance. This is a mishmash of a film, yet it is still fun at times.

Grade;+