Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Brief Excursion

Kratki izlet; mystery / experimental film, Croatia, 2017; D: Igor Bezinović, S: Ante Zlatko Stolica, Mladen Vujčić, Željko Belan, Iva Ivšić

Stola is a guy who spends his summer in a tourist camp in Istria, where he meets various people who party and drink all the time. One day, their bus stops in the middle of a forest and Roko decides to lead a group of seven people, which includes Stola, to a long journey on foot to visit some frescos in a secluded monastery. On their long walk through the nature, they encounter three women in an empty village; bulls; people in costumes; they drink in a house made of stone; they take a swim in a river... Little by little, people leave the group, until only Roko and Stola arrive at the monastery. They enter the catacombs, and only Stola exits out on the street in an unknown town.

This unusual and bizarre surreal road movie is only suitable for a selected art-house audience, since its overbearing metaphors and a refusal to tell any coherent narrative will strain the patience of some who will try to understand it. Director Igor Bezinovic copes the best with a few aesthetically pleasant panorama shots of the nature, capturing some sort of contrast between the Mediterranean wilderness and the seven people from civilization who aimlessly wonder for miles in search for a monastery, yet he is unable to extended the movie into anything more than a few neat frames and pictures, since the lack of any point turns "A Brief Excursion" into a bland and tiresome experimental film that drags. As some people start leaving the group, one by one, the viewers will inevitably wonder if some actors decided to simply quit the film. The concept of a group that follows a man, Roko, who leads them nowhere through the forest, is a symbol for something, yet it isn't quite sure for what. At best, it may be seen as an analogy for people who blindly follow empty authority figures, even though it makes no sense to do so, and some of that has merit in the overall picture. However, the movie needed more ingenuity and color to work: someone like D. Lynch could have made this work by adding more surreal highlights, yet here this is reduced only to the group encountering a herd of bulls on the meadow or some men dressed in strange costumes. Without these ingredients, it is not quite clear why the viewers should care or be invested into the film when there is not much to enjoy in it, anyway.


Thursday, December 28, 2017


Brat; crime drama, Russia, 1997; D; Aleksei Balabanov, S: Sergei Bodrov Jr., Viktor Sukhorukov, Svetlana Pismichenko, Mariya Zhukova, Yuri Kuznetsov

After being demilitarized, Danila (20) is lost and does not know what to do with his life. His mother sends him to Saint Petersburg to find work at his brother, Viktor. There, Danila befriends Hoffman, a homeless German man; Kat, a drug addict; and Sveta, whom he wants to protect from her violent husband. Viktor, who turns out to be a hitman working for the mafia, passes on an assignment to Danila who shoots a man at a market, but gets wounded. Danila gets another assignment, to shoot a man together with two mobsters, but they find another man in an apartment and are thus forced to wait for hours. When their target returns, the two thugs kill him, but Danilo kills them. He buys a gun and shoots the main mafia boss who took Viktor hostage. Sveta abandons him for her husband, so Danila leaves for Moscow.

As it is often the case with the largest hits from foreign countries, many of them are relatively unknown or unpopular outside of their homeland. Such is the case with "Brother", that unexpectedly emerged as one of the highest grossing films in Russia, yet it had little appeal to international viewers who had little understanding for it outside that country. While it was interesting for the Russian audiences to watch a movie tackle the taboo topic of the St. Petersburg mafia, the sole movie is disappointingly conventional and ordinary, assembled like a random set of episodes and events that never align into some purposeful whole. It simply lacks highlights, getting stuck into typical social drama cliches of a young lad who becomes an accomplished criminal / assassin for the underground. All the episodes involving supporting characters (Kat, Sveta, Hoffman) lead nowhere, whereas the dialogues are boring. The viewers expected some twist to this crime story seen a hundred times, yet no twist ever showed up. The only memorable sequence is when Danila and two mobsters are sent to shoot a man, but find another person in the apartment. When Stepan, a radio director, knocks on the door by accident, he is also sent into the apartment and kept there, as the mobsters wait for their target to finally appear, but Danila remarkably promises that Stepan will not be harmed. When the "target" finally shows up in the apartment and is killed, the thugs want to kill Stepan, as well, but Danila intervenes and instead kills the two mobsters. He then has a drink with Stepan and simply let's him go, keeping his word, which is probably the biggest surprise in the entire film, yet also serves as an example of how pale all the rest of sequences are, in this solid, but forgettable patchwork.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Ms. 45

Ms. 45; thriller, USA, 1981; D: Abel Ferrara, S: Zoë Tamerlis Lund, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto, Helen McGara

Thana is a mute girl who works in a fashion store in New York. While returning home from work, she is raped by a criminal. Back in her apartment, another criminal breaks into her room and rapes her, as well, but in an act of rage she kills him with an iron. She hacks up the corpse and throws its parts across the city. When a guy wants to return her bag, she shoots and kills him with a pistol. This triggers her campaign against men, killing even innocent ones: pedestrians, model photographers, rich Arabs... During a costume party, Thana disguises herself as a nun and starts randomly killing men. She is stopped and killed by a woman.

With a running time of only 75 minutes, thriller "Ms. 45" (sometimes also known as "Angel of Vengeance") managed to exploit its modest, independent budget to the fullest by creating an excellent mood and an untypical story — a sort of inversion of trashy thrillers about a revenge killer — thereby helping to promote Abel Ferrara into a highly noticed director and screenwriter. There are flaws which are unavoidable for such a controversial, polarizing topic with unabashed audacity, bordering on the exploitation genre, yet Zoe Tamerlis Lund gives a great performance as the mute (anti)heroine Thana (her name, a pun of the mythological figure "Thanatos" which means "death", already foreshadowing her journey), even though she does not speak a single word throughout the film. Her muteness is a symbol for the helplessness of women who were rape victims in the first half of the story, whereas in the second half it transforms into another kind of symbol, a one of a mad killer who is denuded from any kind of personality, since the leitmotiv of the film is violence that dumbs down and inhibits the people's mind, bravely showing how Thana undergoes a journey from a victim to a perpetrator in her irrational generalization of hate for men. One of the best sequences is the one where Thana aims her pistol at a depressive man and pulls the trigger — but nothing happens. However, he notices her move, takes her gun away — and then kills himself. Ironically, in the end, Thana is stopped precisely by a woman, which displays Ferrara's clever playing around with feminism and cliches.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Rooster's Breakfast

Petelinji zajtrk; drama / comedy, Slovenia, 2007; D: Marko Naberšnik, S: Primož Bezjak, Vlado Novak, Pia Zemljič, Dario Varga, Davor Janjić, Janez Škof, Severina Vučković

David "Đuro" is an auto mechanic who, after getting fired, finds a new place to work in Gornja Radgonja, at Gajaš's auto repair shop. Gajaš is often ridiculed by the local pimp, Lepec, who constantly brings his smashed cars for repair, but rarely pays his debts. Đuro starts an affair with Bronja, Lepec's wife. Lepec tries to erase his debts by giving Gajaš a prostitute for a night stand. Gajaš is fascinated by the Croatian singer Severina and is thrilled when Lepec brings him a ticket for her concert. However, one night Lepec brings Gajaš "Severina" who has sex with him. The next morning, Gajaš finds out that it was just a prostitute who looked like Severina and that Lepec made a prank at his expense. Gajaš then shoots and kills Lepec, enabling Đuro to be with Bornja.

"Rooster's Breakfast" turned into a surprise phenomenon when it sold 126,275 tickets at the Slovenian box office, advancing into the highest grossing Slovenian film of its time. However, as with many other huge hits from foreign countries, "Breakfast" is another example of a "misplaced hype", and many viewers will probably ask themselves: "What was the big deal, anyway?" The story revolving around an auto mechanic having an affair with a married woman is nothing special and with a running time of over 120 minutes, it is decisively overlong: the first hour seems almost like a soap opera at times, with bland, empty, uninteresting vignettes ranging from a celebration up to some guy playing Severina's songs on a synthesizer, yet the second half somehow "twitches" itself from this "sleep mode" when it adds some interesting moments, most noticeably when Gajaš and his friends visit Lepec's brothel or when Đuro and Bronja have a rather well crafted sex sequence in bed. Numerous plot points are utterly pointless and lead nowhere: randomly, out of nowhere, Gajaš and his friends hear that their pal, the dentist, bit off the clitoris of a woman and was exposed to be a pedophile, which even makes headlines in the newspaper. When the dentist later on arrives with his car at the auto mechanic shop, this leads to the best joke when Gajaš shouts at him: "Don't you dare to step out of the door! Get out! You embarrassed the whole town!" Unfortunately, this subplot is entirely irrelevant to the narrative. Gajaš is played energetically by the great Vlado Novak (in one sequence, he remembers how he saw "Bonnie & Clyde" in the cinema, with "that lady, Fayneway"), who almost steals the show from the protagonist Đuro and his underdeveloped relationship with Bronja. And Severina has an effective cameo near the end. Still, these small crumbs of pleasure cannot bring life to this film, which never quite comes together.


Friday, December 22, 2017


Scanners; science-fiction horror, Canada, 1981; D: David Cronenberg, S: Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill

Cameron is a "scanner", one of the rare people who have the ability of telekinesis. After a woman says a snickering remark against him in a mall, he uses his power to give her a seizure, but is thus exposed and arrested by two secret agents who bring him to a laboratory of Dr. Paul Ruth. He persuades Cameron to join his fight against another scanner, Revok, a criminal who uses his powers to kill people. Cameron meets another group of scanners, but all are killed by Revok's men, except for Kim. After Revok's men shoot Paul, Cameron uses his power to cause their chemical factory to explode. Revok intends to use a drug, ephemerol, in pregnant women in order to breed a generation of scanners who will take over the world. Revok also reveals that Ruth was his and Cameron's father. In a telekinetic duel in the office, Cameron's body burns out, but his mind is transferred into Revok's body.

David Cronenberg's early hit, "Scanners" gained a small underground cult following. Cronenberg was not interested in the concept of telekinesis for some philosophical, emotional or psychological explorations, as much as he was interested in extracting a simple shock, gore, violence and horror value out of it, which makes "Scanners" almost seem like an exploitation film at times. While this is a rather thin one-note take on it, it still has some chilling moments, such as the (in)famous sequence of the evil scanner, Revok, sitting next to a man at a table and using his telekinesis to cause the latter's head to explode, in a very bloody manner. Other of Revok's methods are equally as scary, such as using his power to cause a man to use his own gun to commit "forced suicide", and thus it is reasonable why Dr. Ruth and the good scanner Cameron are trying to stop him, representing two camps, one trying to use that power for good, and the other for evil. Despite a limited budget, Cronenberg managed to craft a fluent and rather gripping little thriller, and this audacity later gave him a strong reputation. The storyline takes rather strange turns and meanders (most notably in the peculiar plot twist that is a forerunner to the one in "The Empire Strikes Back"), while it polarizes the viewers and critics too much, as well, but is overall a condensed affair, with a highlight being the final telekinetic duel between Cameron and Revok, who use their powers to mutilate each other from a distance, in a shocking finale with a twist.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross; drama, USA, 1992; D: James Foley, S: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce

Ricky Roma, Shelley Levene, Dave Moss and George Aaronow are all salesman working for Williamson in a small company called "Premiere Properties" held by Mitch and Murray. One evening, a motivational coach, Blake, arrives at their office and warns them that they will all be fired if they don't sell their quota of units of a worthless land, Glengarry and Glen Ross, by the end of the month. The salesman are given only two contacts each, but their phone calls cannot convince the people to become their clients and buy the land. Moss and Levene thus break into their own office at night to steal the better contacts as to finally be able to sell to some wealthy people. The next morning, Levene caves in and confesses everything to Williamson. Roma sells a unit of land to James, but the latter's wife convinces him to try to annul the deal.

More than anything else, David Mamet's critically recognized salesman drama is one giant commentary on Darwinian capitalism that emerged somewhere around that era, a film so scary and disturbing in its existentialist depiction of characters who can lose their jobs (and their life, as well) any time precisely because it is based on reality. In this "capitalist horror film", all the human relations (loyalty, friendship, love, honor...) are irrelevant and the salesman are reduced to Homo Capitalis, their only meritocracy being how much money do they earn for their boss. Already in the opening act, the salesman are introduced to a motivational coach in the office, Blake, who warns them that they have to fulfill their quota of sales: "We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired." When one employee, Dave, complains at this kind of talk, Blake is quick to attack him: "You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an 80,000 $ BMW. That's my name! And your name is you're wanting... That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much did you make? You see, pal, that's who I am, and you're nothing!"

Mamet's screenplay observes how in such a set of rules, where earning money is the only thing of importance (even though it is implied that there is a recession and the people don't have that much money to spend, anyway), ethics quickly dissolve and the characters resort to corruption, lying, stealing and double-crossing to survive. The cast is fantastic with all the actors giving excellent performances, from Jack Lemmon through Ed Harris up to Al Pacino, who delivered another highly competent role. "Glengarry Glen Ross" is not without (black) humor, as well, as in the sequence where the once desperate Levene brags how he suddenly managed to sell eight full units of land to a couple, the Nyborgs, for 82,000$, triumphantly shouting at his boss—until, in a twist, it turns out the check of the Nyborgs bounced because they are a broke, insane couple without money. The sharp, clever dialogues help contribute to the film, creating a giant case study  without a clear main protagonist: the whole phone salesman industry is the main protagonist of the story. One major omission is the final act that ends on a rather vague note: the ending is anticlimatic, without a clear point that circles out all of these events set during 24 hours, which leaves the storyline feeling somewhat incomplete, yet that is a minor flaw in the overall very good example of intelligent filmmaking in this film.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Rogue One

Rogue One; science-fiction action, USA, 2016; D: Gareth Edwards, S: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker

A long time ago, in a Galaxy far away... As a little child, Jyn witnessed how the Imperial troops killed her mother and kidnapped her father, Galen, forcing him to work on a weapon of mass destruction. Now, Jyn is rescued by the rebels and decides to join them. A small faction, led by Cassian, discovers that the Galactic Empire created a "Death Star", a giant space station capable of destroying planets. However, Galen designed a fatal flaw inside it before getting killed. Jyn, Cassian and several other rebels storm Scarif, an Imperial planet under a force field, and manage to find the plans of the weakness of the Death Star and send it to the rebels, before getting killed by the Empire.

Even though many feared a pure "Star Wars" exploitation flick, Gareth Edwards and his screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy proved to be quite competent authors when they kicked off the "Star Wars" anthology film series with a surprisingly good instalment, "Rogue One", that can "camouflage" itself perfectly as a "Episode 3.5" of some sorts. One of the reasons that justify the existence of "Rogue One" is that is helps illustrate a broader picture of events in that Universe: one of the major problems of the original "Star Wars" trilogy was that it utterly neglected to show the effects of the establishment of a Galactic Empire on ordinary people across many planets (unlike "Legend of the Galactic Heroes"), and without that sense of an oppression, it was left open as to what would motivate people to join the ranks of the rebellion. The opening act of this film helps correct that by showing that feeling of repression: among others, Jyn witnesses how Imperial soldiers storm her home and attack her family while she is sent to a labor camp on a distant, cold planet.

Whereas the original trilogy was more of a fairy tale, this film is surprisingly more realistic, gritty and tragic, since it is obvious the protagonist are sent on a suicide mission from the get go. The battle of the underground rebels against the Stormtroopers and their armored vehicle on the streets of Jedha City reminds almost of Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers". Their struggle and sacrifice carry much more weight than expected, and this in turn contributes to the feeling of understanding the determination of the rebellion. Some "fan service" was again shoehorned into the story (such as the unnecessary "cameo" by Ponda Baba and Evazan from the cantina sequence, for instance) whereas, except for Jyn, all other characters were thinly developed, and thus stayed unmemorable, yet several epic action sequences are impressive (in one scene, the Death Star tries out its laser and shoots and destroys Jedha City from the orbit, while the Imperial commanders are observing a giant pillar of dust rising to space from the planet; the Scarif planet, where the Empire has placed a giant force field around the entire planet) while it was even interesting to watch CGI "recreate" Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher as they were back in '77. The dialogues are rather stale, except for a few exceptions of "raw" inspiration ("Trust goes both ways."), yet "Rogue One" ends on a remarkably natural and logical conclusion, a one that leaves Episode IV seem as a genuine follow-up to these events, whereas the last word of one character at the end are almost magical.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Beverly Hills Cop II

Beverly Hills Cop II; crime comedy, USA, 1987; D: Tony Scott; S: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Jürgen Prochnow, Brigitte Nielsen, Dean Stockwell, Ronny Cox, Paul Reiser, Gill Hill, Hugh Hefner, Chris Rock

Just as Detroit Police Detective Axel Foley thought everything was over, the circumstances force him to go back to Beverly Hills: his friend, Police Captain Bogomil was shot and wounded while he was exploring the explosive "Alphabet Crimes", involving several robberies, and thus Axel decides to take over the investigation, together with his old friends Billy and Sargent Taggert. They discover that the mastermind behind these crimes is Maxwell, who tries to frame everything on an associate he killed in order to freely escape and sell smuggled weapons to Central America. However, in a shootout around his oil field, Axel, Billy and Taggert stop his gang.

Three years after the 1st film advanced into the 6th highest grossing movie of the 80s, the producers delivered one of the most routine sequels in Hollywood history, a tiresome and inept achievement that was nonetheless still a hit at the box office. While "Beverly Hills Cop" was an ordinary story with some extraordinary jokes, and thus worth the viewers' time, "Beverly Hills Cop II" is an ordinary story with ordinary jokes. It is never a good sign in a comedy when the protagonists are laughing and chuckling more than the viewers themselves. But this nervousness of the crew is justified, since nobody prepared a good story beforehand, and thus too much of the improvisations were made on the spot, yet without any clear payoff. Even Eddie Murphy cannot save the thin story: all of his five sequences where he is pretending to be someone else are unconvincing, cringe worthy and lame (would construction workers truly just leave all of their jobs on a house unfinished and simply go home just because some random guy told them to do so, without any legitimization? Would a secretary truly believe that there is a heat-seeking missile inside a donut bag just because some guy told her so?), beneath his talent, selling him too short, whereas even other kind of jokes lead nowhere (in one desperate attempt at a cheap laugh, Murphy takes a turtle in Billy's home and asks: "Where is its penis?"). Shockingly, the first good joke appears only some 40 minutes into the film (!), when Axel observes the endlessly long legs of the very tall blond woman, Karla (Brigitte Nielsen), and nonchalantly asks: "How long does it take to shave your legs?" The only aspect of the movie that is superior to the previous installment is the crystal clear cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball, whereas it at least marked the film debut of comedian Chris Rock, who appears as the parking valet. Other than that, this is a sad, uninspired and forced crime film that pretends to be a comedy: it is astounding how much the characters can talk without reaching anything truly funny.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Game of Thrones (Season 7)

Game of Thrones (Season 7); fantasy series, USA, 2017; D: Jeremy Podeswa, Mark Mylod, Matt Shakman, S: Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage, Aidan Gillen, Sophie Turner, Conleth Hill, Iain Glen, Rory McCann
In the North, Zombi White Walkers are steadily approaching and threatening nearby towns, so Jon Snow decides to risk everything to go towards South to meet Daenerys Targaryen, who arrived at Dragonstone with her army and three dragons, in order to persuade her to join forces and join the more important battle: the dead vs the undead. Daenerys ceases her battle over the throne against Queen Cersei Lannister, and accepts Jon's reasoning. Jon, the "Hound", Jorah and the others manage to kidnap one White Walker from the North, but one of Daenerys' dragons is killed by the Night King. Jon, Daenerys and the others then go to King's Landing and display the Zombie to Cersei and her generals, begging her to agree upon an armistice and direct their armies together against the most urgent threat to whole of humanity, the White Walkers. Cersei ostensibly agrees, but later on admits that she lied, hoping that Daenerys' alliance and the White Walkers are going to destroy each other, which causes her brother, Jamie, to quit in disgust as her commander. On the North, the Night King turned the dead dragon into a Zombie, and used it to destroy the wall in order to start the invasion against humans.

The 7th and penultimate season of the "Game of Thrones" series managed to continue the high quality streak of the saga, offering again several exciting battle sequences and clever, sometimes even philosophical thoughts on the nature of the neverending greed for more power. The concept of the "rightful throne" alone is subversive and questions the whole system of monarchy-dictatorship through a triple dilemma: inheritance through lineage (Joffrey as the illegitimate child of king Robert Baratheon), usurpation (the right of the stronger) and insanity of the ruler (Targaryen as a "mad king", which makes him unfit to rule), all clashing with each other to show the flaws of each argument. It seems the authors refined some of the 'rough' edges of the storyline, expanding on expertize and delivering a more concise season overall by narrowing it to only seven episodes, thereby abandoning some of the 'empty walk' or overlong babble in previous segments (seasons 2, 3 and 5), and also toning down some of the unnecessary violence. Some of the dialogues are just plain inspired (when Daenerys questions Varys' loyalty, since he switched sides many times, he says this: "Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty... You wish to know where my true loyalty lie? Not with any king or queen, but the people. The people who suffer under despots and prosper under just rule.") or resonate in a "delayed reaction" when the viewers are reminded of their brilliance from previous seasons (such as when Bran repeats "Littlefingers'" legendary quote: "Chaos is a ladder") or are just plain concluded full circle (Jamie discovers that Olenna poisoned Joffrey, explaining to Cersei that this is logical since Olenna's granddaughter, Margaery, could have controlled her second husband, the insecure Tommen, much more than the first, the wild Joffrey).

As with many previous seasons, this one also starts off slow, yet picks up speed with time and ends on a high note. The unexpected plot twists give it spark, since the viewers are never sure whom of the characters might be executed next: there are simply no rules, and sometimes even the leading characters bite the dust, which causes surprise and suspense. Two highlights are definitely the excellent, virtuoso 20-minute battle sequence between Daenerys' warriors, including the three dragons, and Jamie's army on the field in episode 7.4, which is arguably the best action sequence of the series till date (it starts off by Jamie observing how the Dothraki warriors approach on their horses, with the three dragons flying above in the sky; just as it seems that the dragons have the upper hand, since they burn all the soldiers with their fire, another twist unravels, when one of the soldiers reveals a giant crossbow that aims at them) and Jon Snow's dangerous excursion deep inside the White Walker's territory, in order to capture one of the Zombies in episode 7.6, which ends in a dangerous stalemate on a rock on a frozen lake. The White Walkers are maybe an allegory on some global problems that threaten life (climate change, environmental pollution, infertility...) but are so abstract that they are unnoticed by the ordinary minds in charge who are so preoccupied with their greed and interests that they neglect the future in the long term. Some of the locations are also an incredible find (Gaztelugatxe, for instance, which is an island connected to the coast through a wall). The story does not work on all levels, though: the feeling of "endless stalling" is still somewhat present in a few redundant subplots, a couple of routine, ponderous lines and a final episode, 7.7, which is somewhat an anticlimax since it ends once again, for the third time, in the White Walkers marching. While not as strong as the great previous season 6, this is still a very good addition to the saga.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda; animated fantasy adventure series, USA, 1989; D: John Grusd, S: Jonathan Potts, Cyndy Preston, Len Carlson

Link is mischievous, but overall good knight who protects Princess Zelda in her castle from the evil wizard Ganon and his henchmen, the Moblins, who want to steal the "Triforce of Wisdom" and conquer the kingdom. Link has a crush on Zelda and wants a kiss, but they are often interrupted by fighting. Together with fairy Spryte, they resist Ganon's attacks.

One of the few successful animated adaptations of a popular video game, "The Legend of Zelda" still holds up surprisingly well due to its charm, wit and innocent, genuine characters who make it worthwhile for the viewers. The biggest kudos should be given to screenwriter Bob Forward, the "mastermind" behind the show, who consistently wrote easily the best episodes, some of which are remarkably comical and irresistible: in his vision, there is no room for Princess Zelda to be a one-dimensional, passive side-character, as many other similar shows erred, and instead promoted her to a strong woman, an equal to hero Link, sending her on adventures to fight with him, and even save him at times, whereas he also refused that the villain should be more interesting than our heroes. This way, "Zelda" is much more appealing than expected. Already in the first episode, which starts with Link looking at Zelda wearing her nightgown in the castle from above, saying "Now that's a view! Especially from this perspective!", and ends with the two of them putting a belt around their waists as they fight back to back against the villains, does the storyline already establish that it is not your boring 'run-of-the-mill' TV show.

The jokes arrive swiftly and hit the point. In episode #3, for instance, a perfect, blond Prince Fasade appears and fascinates Zelda who is so carried away that she misintroduces Link as "Stink." However, Fasade's perfection soon turns from an advantage into adversity, when he is so obsessed with staying clean and pretty that he doesn't want to save Zelda from a swamp, fearing he might get himself dirty, which gives Link the upper hand in the end, serving also as a good moral lesson. In episode #8, Link sleepwalks on a rope towards Zelda's bedroom, but the Princess wakes him up by splashing him with a glass of water. Afterwards, Link asks for a kiss with these words: "Whether I'm asleep or awake, you are always the girl of my dreams." - "That's the sappiest line I ever heard in my entire life!" - "...Did it work anyways?" In episode #4, Link fights with a dragon, chasing him around and around in circles, until Zelda says "it is time to end this game" and simply throws a banana peel which causes the reptile to slip and stop. Other screenwriters were less inspired and delivered routine, standard episodes that do not stand out, which somewhat reduced the enjoyment value of the storyline, most notably in some stale dialogues by villain Ganon. Likewise, as many TV series, it does not feature a beginning nor an ending that concludes these 13 episodes. Still, in the long run, there is much more to enjoy than to ignore, which serves as a good point for this series.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Queen

The Queen; drama, UK, 2006; D: Stephen Frears, S: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory

In '97, Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in a car crash in Paris. While the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is swift on offering condolences to the public, at the other side of the spectrum, Queen Elizabeth II wants to stay formal and not comment on the issue, among others because she was never at good terms with Diana. As the public is turning against the Royal Family, Blair manages to persuade the Queen to make a public statement and show herself in front of the public, much to her dismay. After the funeral, Blair and the Queen talk about the future of the country.

"The Queen" is a correct, but boring and forgettable biopic that stubbornly refuses to explore the interesting part of the story (the life of Princess Diana and her relationship with the Royal family) and instead just depicts the most uninteresting clog in all this scheme, Queen Elizabeth II, even though there is not much to see in her, anyway. Helen Mirren is great in the leading role, but there are limits to her performance as well in the thin character of the Queen, who is like a lifeless rock, a robot who only serves the rules and customs, which does not make for an engaging storyline. The film works the best when it depicts the magnitude of the event of Diana's funeral, with thousands of people crying on the street or angrily pointing out that the flag is not on half-staff on the palace, upon which Tony Blair points out at the insensitivity of the Royal family: "We must save them from themselves!" However, except for a few standard comical puns ("Did the Queen grease the breaks of the car?", asks someone after the infamous car crash), there is not much to justify why the viewers should be spending their time watching this particular aspect of the story. The Queen remained a one-dimensional character, and except for two brief moments (her mourning after a killed deer; her final speech in front of Blair, telling him that serving the public comes first, and her self last), she is more appropriate as a supporting character than a leading one. The whole movie is solid, but just as the Queen gets stuck with her jeep in the middle of the river, "The Queen" itself runs out of steam after 40 minutes and turns into a stranded, broken car that does not know where to go in all of this.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Altered States

Altered States; science-fiction / horror, USA, 1980; D: Ken Russell, S: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore

Eddie Jessup is a young scientist who is fascinated with altered states of consciousness and thus spends hours in dark, isolated chambers filled with water in order for his colleague, Arthur, to record his subconscious brain activity through the lab instruments. Eddie meets anthropologist Emily and they marry. Several years later, Eddie has a mind shattering hallucination induced through a Mexican drug, and thus returns back to Boston to analyze the substance with Arthur and Mason. These trips cause Eddie to lose his mind, and he imagines to be a caveman who kills a goat in the Zoo. Emily begs him to stop with the experiment, but Eddie is determined to continue. Finally, realizing that there is nothing behind these primordial states, Eddie abandons them and declares that he loves Emily.

Paddy Chayefsky's final screenplay was an unworthy farewell to the brilliant screenwriter's career, an inarticulate mess of a movie that is equally as inconsistent thematically and narratively as the bizarre, grotesque hallucinations that it depicts on the screen. Loosely based on the experiments of neuroscientist John C. Lilly, "Altered States" cannot cope with its own terms as to what it wants to be: first it mentions Eddie's religious beliefs when he was younger, then to move to his exploration of primeval thought circuits, then to switch to his mental degeneration, all of which do not lead to any point, except for the protagonist to suddenly proclaim his love for Emily towards the end. Even in the sequence where he transforms into a cave-man who is in a Zoo, behind bars, only to transform back to a human, only to be arrested and sent to jail, behind bars, the movie refuses to draw some parallels towards our modern society or deliver a commentary on the human culture. Nor does it offer a scientific approach, instead relying on pseudoscience which today seems rather dated. A bizarre patchwork that is just an excuse for surreal hallucinations (a crucified man on a cross wearing a goat's head; phantasmagorical bubbles; Eddie imagining that his hand is mutating...), of which only two are expressionistic-poetic (the remarkable "flow-of-time" moment of Eddie and his naked wife lying on the ground, while they are slowly covered by a wind of sand, as if they are slowly fading in time; the "whirlpool" in the laboratory), a movie that signalled a symbolic end to these "drug hallucination" films that started in the 60s, since they themselves dissolved into experimental films in search for a point.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Don't Torture a Duckling

Non si sevizia un paperino; thriller, Italy, 1972; D: Lucio Fulci, S: Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Marc Porel, Florinda Bolkan, Irene Papas, George Wilson

A small town in the Italian South. Three little boys occasionally go to a desolate hut and peek to watch two locals who hire prostitutes for sex. Not long after that, one by one, the three boys are found dead. The police arrests a local idiot, Barro, but it seems he only found the corpse of one boy and decided to blackmail the parents to pay him money. A witch is the next scapegoat, who is beaten to death by some men at a graveyard. The murders continue, though. A reporter from Milan, Martelli, and a woman, Patrizia, team up to investigate. They discover that a mute child, Malvina, ripped the head of a rubber duck, and suspect she imitated the murder she observed. It turns out that a local priest, Don Alberto, is the serial killer, because he wants to prevent boys from discovering sexuality. Alberto atempts to throw Malvina from a cliff, but Martelli stops this and instead throws the priest down to his death.

Even though it is ostensibly a typical "giallo" film, "Don't Torture a Duckling" is also one giant allegory at the neurotic relation of Catholicism towards human sexuality, thus delivering also a somewhat wider, thought provocative topic in this social commentary in which the serial killer is the priest who kills preadolescent boys in order to stop them from exploring sexuality. Even though some critics attacked director Lucio Fulci for "anti-Catholicism", the story has much wider implications, tackling fundamentalism as a chore problem where some people are willing to use crimes and violence just to keep their rules, arguing that such a path can eventually lead to the extinction of an entire generation. This addendum gives the typical thriller genre a richer dimension, though it still has a few problems, most notably in Fulci's tendency to use exploitation methods in some violent sequences, some of which almost end up trashy, as in the scene of priest's falling down the cliff or the sequence of some men crippling a witch at the graveyard with violent blows. Likewise, the story takes a while until it figures out who is suppose to be the protagonist, since the episodic narrative constantly switches from perspective to perspective. Similarly like Chabrol, Fulci uses a crime story as an examination of a society and has rather good camera drives in some scenes, but also likes to film some "naughty" moments that border on the limits of censorship, most notably in the unusual sequence in which a blond woman, Patrizia, enjoys "tickling" the erotic imagination of a 10-year old boy, Michele, when she insists that he should look at her naked body while she is sitting on a chair, while he is serving her orange juice.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann; drama / comedy, Germany / Austria / Romania, 2016; D: Maren Ade, S: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell, Vlad Ivanov

Winfried Conradi is retired, but still enjoys pulling pranks on people. After his old dog dies, he decides to travel to Bucharest to visit his estranged daughter, Ines, who works abroad as a manager for an oil company and rarely has time for anything else. After a few weird gags, Ines persuades Winfried to go back home because she is preparing herself for an important business meeting. However, he returns with wig and fake teeth, presenting himself as "Toni Erdmann" in front of all the guests at a party. Ines sees right through his mask, but Winfried still insists on playing this persona and accompanying her to meetings. After a nude party goes wrong, Ines runs after her father in a kukeri costume and hugs him. They return home to her grandmother's funeral.

One of the most overhyped European movies of 2016, "Toni Erdmann" is a strange patchwork that has a point revolving around a quirky father trying to renew a relation with his estranged daughter, yet it takes way too strange directions and dead ends to finally get there, and is not that particulary funny, either. With a running time of 160 minutes, the movie is definitely overlong and required better editing since at least an hour could have been cut from the 'empty walk' to make it more concise, whereas several scenes seem to have been invented and improvised on the spot, since many of them play absolutely no role in the storyline later on or lead nowhere. One example of a weird sequence that just screams "deleted scene"  is the one where Ines and a guy cuddle, but she orders him to masturbate and ejaculate on a cupcake, which she then eats. Strange does not always necessarily mean funny. The whole concept also makes no sense: why would Winfried insist on carrying a disguise and presenting himself as "Toni Erdmann" to everyone if a) his daughter immediately recognizes him and b) he is in Bucharest where nobody knows him, anyway? If Toni Erdmann acts the same as Winfried, what's the point of it all? There are two good jokes in the film: one is where Winfried goes to a bathroom, there is a photo of a tiger on the toilet seat and the man of the house jokes: "Watch out, he bites!"; the other is when Winfried barges in the house of a Romanian family and spontaneously starts playing "Greatest Love of All" on the piano to announce his daughter as "Whitney Schnuck", and she actually accepts and sings the entire song in front of the family. There are echoes of transience, the emptiness of modern business life and death, yet these 'ambitious art-themes' cannot compensate entirely for a lack of good writing. "Toni Erdmann" is difficult to understand, but it has a good underlying theme: the father tries to conjure up embarrassing situations for his daughter in order to "throw her" out of her boring balance, her grey routine, so that she can awaken feelings from which she distanced herself a long time ago. This enables her to take back the control of her life, and stop being led by artificial rules, which somewhat gives a sense to this weird movie.


Monday, December 4, 2017


Smoke; drama, USA, 1995; D: Wayne Wang, S: Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Harold Perrineau, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Jared Harris, Ashley Judd

Auggie is the owner of a small tobacco shop store and friends with a writer, Paul Benjamin, whose wife has been killed a few years ago by a criminal. Paul is saved by an African-American teenager, Thomas, from a truck on the street, so Paul offers him to stay at his apartment. However, Paul finds out that Thomas allegedly witnessed a bank robbery and took a package that was dropped, which contained 5,814$. The criminal "Creeper" is thus searching for him. Thomas finds a job at Auggie's place, but the water from the sink ruins the store's cigars. In order to make it up to him, Thomas gives 5,000$ to Auggie, who in turn gives the money to his ex-girlfriend, Ruby, who claims that he is the father of her 18-year old daughter. Thomas meets his long lost father, Cyrus Cole, an auto mechanic, and they make up. Finally, Auggie tells Paul a Christmas story.

One of the surprise early hits by independent production company Miramax, "Smoke" is a relaxed and casual 'slice-of-life' anthology that follows the lives of ordinary people in a Brooklyn neighborhood. It does not aim to demonstrate some high concept or a higher movie knowledge, which might set some viewers off, yet its unassuming characters and situations offer just enough to keep the attention of the public. Some episodes work better, some less, but all are delivered with the same enthusiasm by excellent actors Harvey Keitel and William Hurt, as Auggie and Paul, respectively. Writer Paul Auster could have delivered better dialogues with a point, though. One of the more interesting features is when Paul and Thomas are talking about an alleged anecdote, a one wheret Mikhail Bakhtin used the pages of his own manuscript to roll them into cigarettes during the siege of Leningrad, debating if a writer would ever destroy his own work just for a smoke, or when Auggie is making a photo of a street crossing each morning at the exact same time for 4,000 days, from the 70s, in order to capture a giant time lapse of the change of the people in his album. A lesser subplot involves a typical, cliche family reunion of Thomas and his long lost father, Cyrus: despite a great performance by Forest Whitaker, who plays him with a hook, the segment seems routine and already seen a thousand time in various melodramas. It is all circled out by a 10-minute sequence in which Auggie tells Paul a rather touching Christmas story, a one where he chased after a shop lifter who dropped his wallet, and then went to the latter's adress just to meet the robber's frail grandmother and spend the holiday with her. "Smoke" is like hanging out with good friends: outsiders may find the anecdotes boring, but those who are willing to get involved may discover that they actually have a nice time.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited; drama, USA, 2011; D: Tommy Lee Jones, S: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

New York. A janitor saved the life of a professor who wanted to commit suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. In the janitor's apartment, the janitor tries to talk the professor out of repeating that again. Their views are different: the professor is pessimistic, an atheist and a nihilist who think that life has no purpose, while the janitor is an ex-convict who believes in God and thinks that all the troubles have a purpose and a conclusion in the end. Finally, the professor leaves the apartment, unimpressed, and it is unknown is he will try to commit suicide again.

Tommy Lee Jones' 4th directorial work is an highly unusual, minimalistic chamber play that unravels only inside one location, an apartment, and only between two nameless people talking to each other, yet, unlike similar "My Diner with Andre", "The Sunset Limited" was not so completely philosophically deep to truly cover for such a thin concept and keep the viewers engaged until the end. Jones and Samuel L. Jackson play basically two opposing philosophies at life which are at clash from the dawn of the age of Englightenment: the atheist, cold, rational and depressive one vs. the religious, faith-based Leibnizian optimism. Their dialogues are what the movie is made off, yet too much of them end up too lengthy without a clear point or a purpose. One of the best moments is when the janitor tells his story about how the beat up a prison convict to a cripple, which made him change and become religious, only for the professor to mock him that a man actually had to be turned into a cripple just for him to find God. This existentialist art-film is not for everyone, especially not for who annot concentrate, but it has a few interesting quotes that stimulate into thinking ("Moral-leper colony"; "You give up the world line by line..."; "Show me a religion that prepares one for nothingness, for death. That's a church I might enter. Yours prepares one only for more life, for dreams and illusions and lies. Banish the fear of death from men's hearts and they wouldn't live a day."; "The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different.").


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Return of Katarina Kožul

Povratak Katarine Kožul; drama, Croatia / Germany, 1989; D: Slobodan Praljak, S: Alma Prica, Mustafa Nadarević, Jadranka Matković, Fabijan Šovagović, Ivo Gregurević, Annemarie Wendl

Herzegovina. Vinko and Katarina get married and get a child, but the unemployment in the area in unbearable. Vinko decides to emigrate to Germany to find work and support the family, but plagued by loneliness and depression, he commits suicide by jumping off a construction building. Katarina thus has to emigrate to Germany herself to find work, and meets an Italian man, Silvio, with whom she stays pregnant. He is unwilling to have a baby with her, so she has an abortion. She brings her son to Germany, but a sense of isolation from her homeland is slowly destroying her. Her grandparents hold a funeral for her when she returns dead in Herzegovina.

One of only four films directed by Slobodan Praljak, this "Gastarbeiter" social drama is a boring soap opera with too much empty walk and too little true ingenuity or something more that would engage the viewers throughout its overstretched running time of 100 minutes. Since one of the characters, Vinko, is eliminated fairly quickly, after some 20 minutes, it is not quite clear why his segment was not cut entirely to enable the movie to start right from the title heroine's emigration to Germany in order to find work abroad. The dialogues are predictable, sterile, humorless and lifeless, whereas the storyline is flat, without any richer stratification of events, yet one must acknowledge that the author gathered a surprisingly quality cast, ranging from Alma Prica up to always excellent Ivo Gregurevic, whereas there are some traces of truth and genuine sadness in the seemingly neverending cursed fate of the Yugoslav area, where every generation has to leave their family to find work in a foreign country, which in the end slowly consumes them all, obvious when Katarina says that she is "tired of life". It is interesting that one of the characters, Vinko, commits suicide, which is indicative since director Praljak followed suit when he himself spectacularly took his own life 18 years later at the ICTY.


Friday, December 1, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron; fantasy action, USA, 2015; D: Joss Whedon, S: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, James Spader (voice), Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård

The Avengers, consisting out of Tony Stark / Iron-Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Natasha Romanoff and Hawkeye, attack a Hydra outpost in a Eastern European country of Sokovia. Hydra experimented on two twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. After Hydra's base is overrun, Stark gets Loki's scepter and takes a gem from it in order to create an artificial intelligence, "Ultron", used as a global defense program. However, Ultron takes on a robot body, goes insane and decides to wipe out mankind. Ultron uses his powers to carve up a giant city in Sokovia and fly the land up in order to crash it on Earth like a meteorite, but Stark's other program, J.A.R.V.I.S., in a synthetic body, stops and kills Ultron. The landmass is destroyed in an explosion before impact.

The sequel to the overhyped, but OK superhero hit "Avengers", "Age of Ultron" decided to change a few of the ingredients: while the 1st film seemed without weight or real excitement, since the superheroes just fight off hundreds of villains without a single scratch, almost as a minor "inconvenience", here the stakes have been raised a bit, with the protagonists getting challenged and one character even dies. Moreover, the main villain, Ultron, is actually their own creation gone crazy, which at least gives a few crumbs of a subversive touch in showing that these guys are not always ideal. Still, a few typical flaws and cliches were not avoided, including a too rushed finale (the scenes unravel too fast, without giving time for the characters to express awe and wonder) and a CGI overkill, whereas it seems they crammed too many Marvel superheros: as a consequence, this seems like a play with too many kids and too little lines for them all.

The best parts are when these characters interact, with one comical moment involving Thor saying that nobody can lift up his hammer, so the guys, including Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, all "accept the challenge" and try to lift it, but it won't budge, and thus later even speculate about its laws ("But if you put the hammer in an elevator?" - "It will still go up!"). There is a neat sequence where the Avengers hide in a desolate house, where Hawkeye's wife and kids live peacefully. There are some small sparks of awe as the kids look curiously at the superheroes, with the girl even calling Natasha "aunt". This is contrasted with a dark scene when Natasha later admits that she was sterilized after her training, giving weight to her character who yearns for kids and a potential family. Unfortunately, except for that, she is a one-dimensional extra for the rest of the film, since it takes ten movies to finally give her some character development. There are a few other comical one-liners that give the story some freshness and vitality (Ultron's robot mocks Captain America for helping civilians: "You can't save them all! You'll never...!", but Captain just interrupts him by throwing his shield at the robot and throwing him down the cliff, just to then casually reply: ""You'll never what?" You didn't finish!") but the villain's motivation is terribly confusing (why does he think that destroying mankind in a giant explosion will save the world?) whereas more highlights would have been welcomed in the rather standard story which is just a neverending repackaging of Marvel's other superhero movies.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Three Men of Melita Žganjer

Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer; comedy, Croatia, 1998; D: Snježana Tribuson, S: Mirjana Rogina, Sanja Vejnović, Suzana Nikolić, Goran Navojec, Filip Šovagović, Ivo Gregurević, Ljubomir Kerekeš, Ena Begović, Rene Bitorajac

Even though she adores the Mexican soap opera "Slave of Love", the overweight Melita does not have luck with love in her own life. She works in a pastry shop and likes Janko, a cook who delivers cakes to the place, but he is ashamed to say a single word because he stutters. Melita's two friends, Eva and Višnja, try to find her a boyfriend, but to no avail. A man, Jura, seduces Melita and sleeps over at her place, but only because his wife divorced him and he had no place to stay. Finally, Juan, the actor from "Slave of Love", arrives to Zagreb to shoot a film, and Melita meets him while playing an extra. However, he disappoints her as well when he pays more attention to his lost sunglasses, so Melita cries and runs towards Janko for comfort. This helps her to finally start a relationship with Janko.

One of the most famous films directed by female filmmaker Snjezana Tribuson, this Croatian forerunner to "Bridget Jones' Diary" is a sympathetic little comedy that refuses to be primitive or rely on swearing, as it was often the case with many other Croatian comedies of that time, and instead gives a straightforward story about the problems of a modern, overweight woman trying to find love. The opening sequence starts off with a brilliant gag: Melita is meticulously placing paper clips in different colors to create a collage of flowers and meadows on a sheet, yet as soon as her friend opens the door to calls her for lunch, the draft blows out all the clips away from paper in a second. "The Three Men of Melita Žganjer" is divided, congruently, into three chapters, and the first chapter of the story works the best, entertaining with a wide range of jokes and puns (for instance, Melita tries to lose some pounds through exercise, but as she tries to do pull-ups, the pole above collapses from her weight), yet the second and third chapter feature a lot less highlights, offering only routine "entertainment-light". Many scenes unravel, yet they do not feature a worthy pay-off, and even the heroine's encounter with her idol from a soap opera does not amount to much (despite a great performance by Filip Sovagovic who does a fantastic Spanish accent). One of the funniest moments can only be found near the finale, when Melita and the shy Janko finally start to talk because she cried, and Janko's friend cautiously backs away with the two women, as to not interfere with this sudden "breakthrough". The story runs out of ideas after 40 minutes, yet it is still a decent and neat fun, with excellent actors, Ivo Gregurevic delivering another highlight as Jura.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau; science-fiction drama, USA, 2011; D: George Nolfi, S: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stramp

New York. Congressman David Norris accidentally meets a mysterious woman, Elise, who kisses him, but suddenly runs away. Inspired by this, he dumps his in advance prepared speech and instead delivers an honest one in front of the audience, which makes him a star overnight. Some time later, David meets Elise again in a bus and gets her phone number, but mysterious people kidnap him and warn him not to see her again, because they are the "Adjustment Bureau", an organization that runs the grand scheme of the destiny of the world for humans, dictated by the Chairman, and threaten David to erase his brain if he tells anyone about them. Thee years later, David accidentally meets Elise again and they start a relationship. Harry, one of the "men with hats", helps David run away with her, even though the plan envisaged for them to never meet again. David persists, and after a chase, the men with hats allow him to be with Elise.

More than anything, science-fiction drama "The Adjustment Bureau" is an allegory on the trials and tribulations of ordinary people who have to overcome all odds against the "invisible fingers" of destiny to achieve their goal, and as such it should be treated more symbolically than realistically, which somewhat vindicates the lack of explanation or details of the mysterious "men with hats", some sort of modern day Moirai, who tailor the lives of humanity irrespective of their wishes. The schemes of the men with hats, who use various "accidents" to prevent David from seeing Elise (among others, a power outage, which prevents him from phoning her; or a car crash that conveniently slows him down) are a little bit too similar to the ones used by TV producers who wanted to stop Truman from leaving the city in "The Truman Show", which makes this a little bit standard, whereas the dialogues were rather bland, ordinary and routine. For such a high concept, not all of the rich possibilities were exploited to the fullest. Still, the two main actors, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, have charm while interacting, whereas the movie carries a sympathetic and sweet little message across, a one about how friendship, loyalty, love and determination can sometimes be stronger than fatalism and bleak doom.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Once Upon a Time in China

Huang Feihong; action, Hong Kong / China, 1991; D: Tsui Hark, S: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan

Foshan, China, 19th century. Martial artists Wong Fei-hung cannot tolerate the British and American colonialists who are imposing their rule on the area more and more, exploiting the land and the people. He also has to take care of his 13th aunt, Siu-kwan. The criminal Shaho Gang teams up with the American official Jackson in order to get rid of Wong, but their assassination attempt during an opera performance fails. They kidnap Siu-kwan in order to use her and many other women for human trafficking, but Wong and his apprentices, Wing, So and Kai save her. In a fight, Wong defeats Yim and kills Jackson.

The originator of the popular Hong Kong movie hexalogy which spanned another five sequels in the next six years, "Once Upon a Time in China" was a smash hit in 1991, and even though it features a thin (and decisively overlong) storyline which is basically just an excuse for the virtuoso martial arts fights featuring Jet Li, it still holds up well today. One of the ingredients that probably appealed to the audience was the element of patriotism embodied in the folk hero Wong Fei-hung who rebelled against the British colonialism and irredentism, turning into a "Chinese Hasan Israilov", yet director Tsui Hark refused to turn the film into a Hong Kong version of "Braveheart" and instead delivered a relaxed, unassuming and fun little action flick without pathos, thereby avoiding any potential accusations of Xenophobia. The film is unusually humorless and bitter at times, especially in the sequences where the foreigners capture the 13th aunt to use her as a prostitute for human trafficking, yet the movie's energy and vitality are assured in several great battle sequences, from Wong using his umbrella to fight off a bad guy to him and the villain Yim swinging from ladder to ladder across the warehouse. Hark has sympathy for the Wuxia mythology, yet concedes that times are changing with the turn of the century in the sequence where one fighter is shot by a bullet, and before his death says this to the shocked Wong who is holding his bloody hand: "Our kung fu cannot compete with their guns!" It may be a considered as a dark commentary on the Wuxia genre which was slowly disappearing at that time. All the actors delivered a good job, which together with a few neat camera moves and lighting choices give an overall good impression of "Once Upon a Time in China", which took on a heavy theme, yet presented it in a light way.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes; drama, UK, 1948; D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, S: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Leonide Massine

A ballet is performed by impresario Lermontov, but one of the music conservatory students, Julian Craster, is disappointed that part of his music was plagiarized by his professor. Julian writes a letter to Lermontov, in which he confesses his dream to work for him as a composer, and surprisingly, Lermontov accepts the proposal. Lermontov oversees the ballet rehearsals in the theatre, and also gives another person a chance to join: dancer Victoria Page. During a performance of Swan Lake, Victoria is so fantastic that Lermontov decides to give her the lead in The Red Shoes. Victoria falls in love with Julian, but Lermontov insists that an artist cannot focus on his work when in love, and thus fires Julian. Victoria then leaves the company as well. Victoria returns to perform The Red Shoes again, but Julian shows up and gives her an ultimatum: she must leave with him or he will leave alone. Unable to decide between love and art, Victoria dances in her red shoes and jumps off the balcony into death.

"The Red Shoes" are an ode to both the art in its purest sense as well as to people behind it, the artists who undergo various emotional states while trying to change themselves - and others - in order to obtain that ideal state of creativity. In this case, as it is implied in the title shared with the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, this dedication and orthodox obsession for perfection can lead to an overkill, until the art consumes the artists. This theme is summarized in Lermontov's single line, when he says: "Don't forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit!" Director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger craft the film in a remarkably fluent way, and the result is that the story still seems equally as modern today as it was back in its premiere in 1948. They achieve the most when they insert a few of unusual cinematic techniques (such as Victoria's POV when she is doing a pirouette, but as she turns on stage for 360 degrees, she constantly looks towards the audience, where Lermontov is sitting and observing her; the 15-minute sequence of the live performance of the ballet "The Read Shoes" without any dialogues, with a scene of a giant shadow of two hands falling on the ground around Victoria dancing), yet for the most part, they restrain their visual style and instead focus more on conventional narrative, in order to give room for the actors and the characters they are playing, most notably in the love triangle between Lermontov, Victoria and Julian - but also the love romb that encompasses a fourth component, the love for art (in this case, the ballet). All the actors are great, but the charismatic Anton Walbrook stands out the most as the harsh perfectionist Lermontov. Some of the lines are good, as well ("Who's in charge in here?" - "There are 5-6 around here who think they are."). Unfortunately, once the ballet "The Red Shoes" is over, the film seems to lose its inspiration and power, leaving the last third somewhat routine, stiff, until it is debased into a kitschy melodrama in the final act, with too much sentimental, ordinary dialogues that are in stark contrast with the creative first two thirds. The high impression is still not affected by it, yet sometimes, less is more.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Electra, My Love

Szerelmem, Elektra; drama, Hungary, 1974; D: Miklós Jancsó, S: Mari Törőcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras 

Electra still cannot accept the state of things in which tyrannt Aegisthus is now the ruler, after killing her father Agamemnon several years ago. However, all the citizens and servants are obedient to the ruler and pretend that everything is perfect. Electra's brother, Orestes, returns to the kingdom pretending to be a messenger who claims that Orestes is dead. Electra stabs Orestes, but he comes back to life. They capture Aegisthus in a net and have him walk on top of a giant boulder. Electra and Orestes shoots Aegisthus, and then themselves. However, Electra and Orestes come back to life and enter a red helicopter that flies away.

Director Miklos Jancso once again used his cinematic technique of long takes to create a modern retelling of "Electra", crafting a film that has only around a dozen cuts throughout its running time of 70 minutes, with long takes that routinely last for 8-9 minutes, all of which are filmed in exteriors, yet, just like many political films, "Electra, My Love" does not hold up well by today's standards. Some of his long shots remind of Antonioni, yet the latter one was better in theme and style: while Jancso is only interested in political movements of the masses, Antonioni is interested in the individual. While Jancso is interested in political messages (in this case, Communist ones, showing Aegisthus as the oppressor of the proletariat) which will inevitably become dated as the flow of time washes away ideologies, Antonioni is interested in some eternal emotional states of the person, which makes him more compelling even today.

Jancso crafts some bizarre, puzzling and surreal images as his camera moves around and follows Electra, who walks between two rows of people lying on the ground, only for the said people to then hold each others hands and then roll down the meadow like cylinders. In another perplexing scene, the camera arrives at a human pyramid, consisting out of a naked boy, some peasants and a man looking at a topless girl. Not much sense can be made out of this 'patchwork', except to make the story more colorful, since the characters all seem like machines or walking propaganda pawns, and not like real people with feelings. The highlight is definitely Electra's long monologues at the end, which still has some genuine spark and flair among the artificial narrative overburdened with symbolism ("There was once upon a time, or it wasn't, but it was true. There lived a miraculous bird. It was brighter than the Sun, more luminous than the rainbow, prettier than the most beautiful jewel. Because she was born out of man's eternal wish. Her father was freedom, and her mother hapiness. Where ever the Fire-bird flew... the suffering of the people was eased... But her strength betrayed her because she gave all her strength to the people... When everyone can equally take from the casket of wealth... Then, and only then, will life on Earth become worthy to mankind").


Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Deep

Djúpið; drama, Iceland, 2012; D: Baltasar Kormákur, S: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Joi Johannsson, Stefán Hallur Stefánsson, Jón Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, Thora Bjorg Helga

Westman Islands, south of Iceland, '84. Gulli and another four fisherman board a boat and sail into the Atlantic Ocean to catch fish. During night, their trencher catches too much weight, which capsizes their boat. Gulli and two other men, Palli and Jon, swam at the surface of the sea. However, the two vanish and Gulli is the sole survivor in the ocean, in the middle of the night. Despite freezing cold water, he manages to swim to the island, walk another two hours barefoot and reach a house to contact for an ambulance. Gulli recovers and is sent first to Reykjavik, and then to London for tests, since scientists cannot imagine how he managed to survive for six hours in the freezing water. Finally, Gulli returns home and visits the widow of one of the fishermen.

Based on true events, this is a solid, albeit conventional example of the 'survival film' subgenre, depicting a remarkable odyssey of a fisherman, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who managed to survive in the freezing Atlantic Ocean and swim back to the shore. Unlike "All is Lost", that narrowed the story only to Redford's character trying to survive in the ocean, "The Deep" takes the opposite approach and reduces this raw survival segment to only 10 minutes, in order to depict the protagonist's life before and after the event. The opening act is interesting, showing Gulli's routine (he wakes up early in the morning in his home; the fishermen throw bad fish out of the net back into the sea, thereby attracting dozens of hungry seagulls nearby...) and hits the high with his boat sinking, leaving him in the scary situation where he has to swim all by himself in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, once he reaches the shore and is saved, the remaining third of the film rides on a false momentum, never truly justifying why the story couldn't have simply ended there, instead of prolonging another 30-40 minutes on boring, tiresome sequences of scientists making tests on him in laboratory, trying to find out how the survived in the cold. The consequences or some sort of guilt that is implied to Gulli who survived, while other fishermen perished, seems contrived and misplaced, straining the patience of the viewers in this finale without a point. Still, director Baltasar Kormakur made a competent job, delivering an unassuming and interesting little film.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Thomas in Love

Thomas est amoureux; science-fiction drama, Belgium, 2000; D: Pierre-Paul Randers, S: Benoît Verhaert (voice), Magali Pinglaut, Aylin Yay, Micheline Hardy

The future. Thomas (32) suffers from agoraphobia — a fear from open spaces — and thus it has been eight years since he left his apartment for the last time. He has sex with a CGI woman through a virtual reality world on a computer, whereas he uses Skype to talk to his mother or a mechanic when he needs a repair. A psychiatrists recommends Thomas to find a girlfriend. Thomas talks with Melodie through the monitor, and has sex with her through Internet, but this relationship falls apart. But then he meets Eva, which causes enough sparks for him to overcome his fear and leave the apartment to meet her in person.

"Thomas in Love" is one of the most unusual movies of the decade: the entire story, set in a near future, is filmed exclusively through the POV perspective of the title hero, and thus the main actor Benoit Verhaert is only seen in the final scene from the back, when he finally leaves the apartment, and the viewers mostly only hear his voice off the screen. This is both legitimate and problematic at the same time: on one hand, it stays true to the theme of alienation and deterioration of social skills in the modern (Internet) world, yet that way Thomas ends up as an un-affirmed character, while all the supporting characters (who show up on the visual telephone on his monitor) end up more effective. The opening 3-minute long sequence is highly interesting and memorable, since it shows a CGI animated space station in which a CGI woman is floating, taking her clothes off until she is naked and has "sex" with Thomas (again, all from his POV) — even though bizarre, it is an erotic and cleverly directed opening act, showing already how Thomas feels more comfortable interacting in a virtual than the real world. While not completely great, it is an interesting psychological drama with good moments (the driving psychiatrist talks with Thomas via the monitor, already showing their inappropriate relationship where private, intimate confessions are treated as fleeting routine) and a very solid theme that is worried about the future of humanity, a one where the whole society might become alienated and only have contact through the Internet, posing the question if real emotions can survive such an artificial state in the long run.


Monday, October 30, 2017

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron; black comedy, Sweden / Germany / Norway / France / Denmark, 2014; D: Roy Andersson, S: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson

Three people have a heart attack and die on three different places. Jonathan and Sam are two traveling salesmen who try to sell their useless "comical" products, including vampire teeth and masks. A man on a horse enters a bar and then leads the 18th century Swedish army into war, but they return wounded and decimated. An instructors teaches a class how to dance ballet. A girl recites a poem about a pigeon reflecting on existence in front of a school theatre. Jonathan and Sam argue over their business and separate. Jonathan has a dream about British men doing something terrible to some Natives and is plagued by this.

One of the most noticed examples of Scandinavian "Neo-Dadaism" and surreal humor, Roy Andersson's bizarre film is a strange experiment without a plot, revolving only around episodic vignettes that show up and disappear without any sense of urgency to the storyline, framed only by two travelling salesmen, yet its 'daft' mood and peculiar sense of humor assure it a certain (hermetic) charm. Just as the title hints at, "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is a film essay about the banalities, contradictions, peculiarities and mysteries of human existence, and Andersson crafted them almost as if the characters are watched by some aliens puzzled by this life form: the entire storyline is filmed in static wide shots, without any cross-cutting, or without a single close-up even, all adding to its distant tone, with an almost comic-book mise-en-scene, following a strange rule that each sequence is narrowed down to only one scene. Even the two main protagonists are distant and elusive. Andersson follows his theme by making fun out of art, including dance and theatre, as well as patriotism and war, de-masking them as human constructs, and thereby showing the human limitations that need to be transversed. This is also evident in the two most disturbing sequences: a scientist is making a phone call, asking if a person is all right, all the while ignoring a small monkey "crucified" onto a lab equipment, getting electric shock every once in a while; a group of 19th Century British soldiers locking up Natives in a giant barrel and setting it on fire underneath, which is reminiscent of the Khaibakh massacre — they both show how human existence can be completely indifferent to the suffering of other existences around them. As Jessica Kiang proposed in her review, the modern day depression of people may lie in this guilt from the crimes in the past, "a kind of original sin, a stain in the blood". "Pigeon" is not for everyone's taste, yet its strong shot compositions and uneasy thought provoking points assure it validity.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Spring in a Small Town

Xiao cheng zhi chun; drama, China, 1948; D: Fei Mu, S: Wei Wei, Li Wei, Shi Yu, Zhang Hongmei

A small town in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yuwen is a sympathetic woman married to Liyan Dai, who has been sick for six years. They respect each other, but love eludes them, as Liyan thinks he is a burden to his wife who always have to take care of him, and feels guilty for the destruction of his family estate during the war. He has a younger sister, Xiu (16). One day, an old family friend, Zhang, now a doctor, returns after 10 years to visit them. He still feels affection for Yuwen, but does not want to intrude on her marriage. Liyan contemplates about marrying Xiu to Zhang, but he refuses, considering her too young. Feeling as a burden, Liyan drinks an overdose of sleeping pills in order to commit suicide. However, Zhang saves him, and then leaves. Yuwen waves goodbye to Zhang as she stays with Liyan.

Near the beginning of the 21st century, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association released a list of Top 100 Chinese films, and Fei Mu's last film, "Spring in a Small Town", was ranked first place on that list. While that reputation is a little bit overrated and misplaced, since many better Chinese films appeared during the 20th century, "Spring" still conquers today with its elegance, calm, minimalistic style, as well as sympathetic characters whose problems are easy to identify with, whereas its restrained, authentic and genuine performances, especially by excellent actress Wei Wei, give it an additional touch. "Spring" owes a part of its high reputation to the therapeutic "healing after a devastating war" subgenre that appeared in many countries after World War II (its equivalents are found in many films, such as the German "And the Heaven Above Us", Italian "Bicycle Thieves" or Yugoslav "The Unconquered People"), obvious even here in the character of the sick husband Liyan who is a symbol for the devastated, small Chinese man after the war who feels lost and aimless (he laments to his wife that he has been "married to her for eight years, six of which he was sick", and thus feels like a burden to her and contemplates suicide), yet Mu gave a far more optimistic note to it, suggesting that life goes on, that people should just keep standing and that this simple investment can blossom into a bright future. Similarly like Y. Ozu, even Mu decided to focus only on subtle details and nuances (in one sequence of the characters on a boat on a river, Yuwan, Liyan and Xiu are happily singing - except for Zhang, standing behind them, who has a serious face, mirroring his concern for the frailness of this family), and thus "Spring" revolves only around these four characters and their possible love triangle. The film really is too slow at times, with too much empty walk and lingering shots, as well as a too "modest" style to offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, yet its emotional depth still evokes power, especially in the contemplation that loyalty and friendship can be stronger than fatalism.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Attack on Titan (Season 1)

Shingeki no Kyojin; animated fantasy action series, Japan, 2013; D: Tetsuro Araki, S: Yuuki Kaji, Marina Inoue, Yui Ishikawa, Daisuke Ono

In a post-apocalyptic future, mysterious, 200 ft tall giants appeared, called Titans, and killed off most of humanity. The remains of mankind live in a town shielded by giant walls, yet Titans attack once again and kill the mother of teenager Eren Yaeger, who thus swears revenge and joins the military to fight the Titans. His friends are Armin and Mikasa. During another attack, Eren is eaten by a Titan, but somehow mysteriously survives and finds out he can transforms into a Titan himself when he is wounded. The military capture a female Titan, who turns out to be also a human, Annie. This gives military the reason to explore further.

One of the most hyped animes of the decade, "Attack on Titan" is basically a restructuring of the popular "mecha genre", except that instead of giant robots, the people have to fight humanoid, Zombie giants, yet the story lacks highlights, pathos and the grandeur of "Evangelion" to truly overwhelm on a higher level. The setting is mysterious and stimulative, posing many questions about the origins of the Titans that attack and eat humans, yet, unfortunately, the 1st season refuses to answer any of those, leaving the viewers rather stranded and frustrated by a lack of any conclusion. The characters are one-dimensional, humorless and stiff, which exacerbates the impression (especially since Eren, Armin and Erwin all have a similar sounding name, which leads to confusion at times), yet the action sequences do have their moments of impact, especially the "Spiderman"-style way the warriors use wires to swing from building to building to maneuver around the Titans in order to try to hit the back side of their neck, their only weak spot.

The best episodes are arguably 17, 18 and 19, because they display a genius strategy of the warriors who leave the walls for their expedition: since they have no technology, they ride on horses and disperse on a meadow for several miles, acting as a "human radar" since flare guns fired by the edge of the group will be seen from the horizon and signal if a Titan is nearby, thus allowing for the core of the group to avoid dangers by going left or right on their route. This leads to several exciting situations, aesthetic shot compositions and a sense for adventure in the open, culminating with a group having to go through a forest to ditch Titans running after them. Unfortunately, except for maybe episode 25 (featuring several great sequences, including a religious community attending a mass that gets squashed by a female Titan when its foot crashes through the church, or the epic scene of the female Titan grabbing onto a wall with its fingers to stop, thereby causing several people to get ejected from the windows of the building) and a few deeper meanings (the leitmotiv of birds that fly over the walls as a symbolism for the protagonist's yearning for freedom), a majority of the episodes suffers from a too slow pace which takes too much time to finally get going, relaying too much on a dark tone, yet it cannot compensate for the standard execution. Answers will be found in season 2, but on its own, the viewers are simply stuck with the impression that season 1 did not progress and develop the storyline to a truly satisfying level.