Friday, January 27, 2017

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story; romantic comedy, USA, 1940; D: George Cukor, S: Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler

Philadelphia. Tracy Lord, a rich and wealthy girl, quickly divorced her husband, yacht designer C. K. Dexter Haven. Two years later, she is about to get married for the second time, to a rich tycoon, George. Kid, the editor of the spy magazine, wants to have an exclusive story about the top secret wedding, and thus sends his two reporters, Macauley Connor and Liz, to go there - with Dexter as a ploy to get them in. Dexter indeed manages to persuade Tracy to let the reporters in, since Kid has a compromising story about Tracy's father cheating on his wife. However, Dexter is still in love with Tracy, while the situation is further complicated when Macauley falls in love with Tracy as well. After getting drunk with Macauley, Tracy ends her engagement with George - but instead decides to go on with the wedding, with Dexter again as her husband.

One of George Cukor's most famous and critically recognized films, "The Philadelphia Story" is a classic from the 'golden age' of Hollywood — and the last of the four films starring Katherine Hepburn-Cary Grant, but unlike their previous collaboration, "Bringing Up Baby", this one is not such a wild or crazy 'screwball comedy' as much as it is introverted and very measured. A rare film exploration of Philadelphia's upper class and nobility, the story pokes fun at their expense with delight (in one sequence near the begining, reporters Macauley and Liz look in awe at the vast rooms in the mansion of the Lords, with her joking that she "lost her compass" and him adding that they are in the "South-Southwest living room"), but what is most interesting is that screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart uses their world to explore the nuances of Tracy's character: she is at first snobbish, conceited and too perfect, but slowly changes when she learns to accept her imperfect side. The whole story is basically a thought experiment in which Tracy has to choose between three potential husbands: Macauley and George love her the way she is, but she is attracted to her ex-husband Dexter precisely because he points out that she lacks something ("You'll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty. It's a pity your foot won't slip a little sometime."), and thus inspires her to be a better person. Her jump into the pool almost seems like a "resurrection" of character.

The screenplay is remarkably well written, dense and rich with an almost neverending array of juicy quotes ("To hardly know him is to know him well."; when the 14-year old Dinah is being taken away by her mother from uncle Willie who is flirting with Liz, she says: "I can say there is something going on, because I'm being taken away..."; near the opening act, Macauley openly admits he doesn't like his boss, Kid, in his office. Upon that, Kid asks Liz: "Do you hate me, too?", and she, afraid for her job, nervously replies: "...I can't afford to hate anyone!"), some of which are said so fast that the viewers will have to probably watch the film twice to get them all or risk missing important plot points needed for understanding the latter case of the storyline, whereas it is cleverly set up during the night before the wedding. "Philadelphia Story" becomes a clash between two opposing views, the conservative-uptight (Tracy) and the liberal-relaxed (Dexter), which gives room even to other characters, especially Macauley, who works as a reporter in a sensationalistic tabloid, but is privately a poet with a soul, which is delivered beautifully in the scene where Tracy reads his book in the library ("I can't make you out at all now..."- "Really? I thought I was easy". - "So did I. But you're not. You talk so big and tough, and then you write like this."). All the actors are great, as well, from James Stewart up to Virginia Weidler who almost steals the show as Tracy's 14-year old sister. However, the film has two flaws which might inhibit certain people from enjoying it: first off, it is schematic, which sometimes sounds as if it lacks energy; and secondly, it focuses too much on Macauley at the expense of Dexter, when compared to the actual ending and with whom Tracy actually ends up at the wedding. Macauley was given undue weight, since, after his romantic interaction with Tracy, Dexter almost seems superfluous, which seems rather inconsistent and incompatible in the finale.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cutie Honey

Cutie Honey; animated fantasy action comedy series, Japan, 1973; D: Tomoharu Katsumata, S: Eiko Masuyama, Katsuji Mori, Kazuko Sawada, Kousei Tomita, Noriko Watanabe

Honey Kisaragi is a mischievous and bored teenage girl who is attending an all-girls Catholic academy. This changes, however, when an evil organization known as Panther Claw, led by Sister Jill and Zora, kills her father, a scientist. His hologram informs Honey that she is an android and that she has a special element manipulation device which can transform her into a superheroine, Cutey Honey, and also disguise her into any costume. Teaming up with reporter Seiji, his little brother and father, Honey battles the forces of the Panther Claw that want to get her device in order to conjure up various jewels and diamonds for themselves. Honey kills Jill in her castle, but Zora is still out there.

Go Nagai's early manga adaptation, "Cutey Honey" is a an example of anime exploitation genre featuring a wide array of action and thrills to appeal to the mass audience, yet it quite unexpectedly changed the anime landscape thanks to two trendsetting features that tapped into the unexplored territory: for one, it became a forerunner to the mega-popular 'magical girl' genre (its influence is more than apparent on "Sailor Moon"— among other things, Honey transforms into a superheroine while naked for a few seconds, whereas she also calls herself: "Ai no senshi"), and secondly, it established the Bakunyu genre in anime, since it dwells on Nagai's fascination with giant breasts (almost every female character has them, including the demon-women, one of which is even called "Breast-Claw"), proving that he is an "anime R. Meyer". Even though it was allegedly toned down compared to his manga series, "Cutey Honey" is incredibly grotesque at times, especially in the first 12 episodes, listing several bizarre gags (Honey's teacher, Ms. Alphonne, has a small moustache on her lip; a little girl princess has a mucus drop hanging from her nose the entire episode; in episode 8, a black panther assaults a museum at night, and one security guard pees into his pants from fear, while later the panther swings its paw so fiercely that it rips Honey's robe revealing her naked butt — even though she was disguised as a nun in the temple!) as well as crude writing, obvious in a couple of violent moments (in one scene, Cutie Honey even uses an axe to chop off the heads of the panther Claw thugs - though the thugs are always depicted as "vanishing" after being hit, implying that they are not conventional beings out of flesh and blood).

The majority of the storyline is basically all of the same—Cutey Honey battling the Panther Claw gang who either want to steal jewels or her element transformation device—with very little to offer some versatile touch, not even in character development (for instance, the only thing we find out about Seiji and his little brother is that they love Honey. That is pretty much their only feature), though the story is a 'guilty pleasure' and is pretty darn fun. Honey transforms into various alter egos, from a racer, a singer, and once even into Chaplin. The best episodes are #9 and #13, since the latter actually sets up a rather clever concept that inventively exploits Honey's transformation ability: she transforms into a Panther Claw thug (!) and thus joins the other criminals, driving their car and sending it down the cliff with them before she escapes. It also for the first time gives the story an emotional dimension: when Seiji, his brother and father discover that Honey is actually an android, she runs away from shame and cries, but they comfort her by saying that everything is all right. It would have been nice if the authors exploited more of those dramatic potentials, and delivered more such richer episodes, instead of focusing only on action. Mischievous and naughty, but at the same time honest and nice at times, "Cutey Honey" is the darnedest thing: it displays rudimentary writing — "Sailor Moon" was honest about the 'magical girl' genre, while "Cutey Honey" is pure fan service — and was even topped by the better remake "Cutey Honey Flash" released 23 years later, yet its essence proved to be absolutely indispensable for future anime, and thus must be recognized, regardless of its omissions.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle; drama, Germany, 1974; D: Werner Herzog, S: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira, Reinhard Hauff

The 19th century. Kaspar Hauser is a man who grew up in captivity in a cellar, chained to the ground, isolated from the world except for a nameless man in a black coat who brings him food. One day, the man releases Kaspar and leaves him in the middle of a city. Shocked by his first contact with the outside world, Kaspar at first stand motionless on the square, until some people bring him to the police. He is adopted by Professor Daumer, who decides to teach him how to read, talk, think and be part of the society. Kaspar quickly learns how to act completely normally, and even finds out how play a piano. However, the same man in the black coat attacks him in the garden, killing him.

Werner Herzog's 5th feature length film, based on a real life story from the 19th century, "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" is a movie less preoccupied with a clear narration then with exploring the human conditions and states. Herzog does so in a much more poetic way than many other directors would: the sole concept of the title hero who grew up in a dungeon his entire life, isolated from the outside world, could have amounted to very disturbing and depressive scenes (as it was the case with the explicit "Bad Boy Bubby" or "Room"), yet Herzog is luckily subtle, leaving that opening to the minimum, refusing to use shock or elaborate on details that could stem from such a dark situation, softening it thus, also among other thanks to the great music of Pachelbel's Canon. The opening act doesn't last more than 5 minutes, and Herzog is more interested in what happens afterwards, when Kaspar is freed and has his first contact with the civilized world, which offers a few contemplative messages about the clash between the untreated and cultivated people, between the human raw nature and human norm of civilization, and mostly between the honest and fake people. It is a quiet, meditative, minimalistic film, yet a one that seems a little bit overstretched, lukewarm and uneventful at times. The film has its moments, however, such as it is implied that Kaspar might be an illegitimate child from a nobility, and was thus kept hidden from the world, or when he answers the famous "two villages of truth tellers and liars" riddle from a philosopher with his own answer ("I would ask them if they are a frog."). The most was achieved from Bruno S., who is very genuine in the title role of a "grown up child" who has to learn everything from anew, but Herzog's sense for nature is also again strong, though he tends to "wonder" off from the topic here and there.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Turkish Delight

Turks fruit; erotic drama, Netherlands, 1973; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Rutger Hauer, Monique van de Ven, Tonny Huurdeman, Wim van den Bink, Hans Boskamp

Eric is a sculptor who constantly has sex with as many women as he can. However, he is never satisfied and recounts his happy days with the girl of his dreams, Olga, two years ago: after escaping from a dinner party, he hitchhiked at the highway and was picked up by Olga in her car. They had sex at a parking lot, but the car went out of control and crashed, injuring Olga. Further complications arose when Olga's mother was against Eric. Still, Eric and Olga got married and enjoyed a lot of sex. Her father died from an illness, she had to find a job and then started cheating on Eric with another man. Back in present, Eric meets Olga again, who returned from the US after separating from an American businessman. It turns out she has a brain tumor. Eric supports her in the hospital, but she dies. He throws her wig into trash.

With over 3,338,000 tickets sold at the box office, Paul Verhoeven's 2nd film, "Turkish Delight", became the highest grossing Dutch film of its times, breaking all records at the cinemas in its homeland. "Turkish Delight" is one of those rare movies that cause a "meltdown" of critics when trying to pin it down in any category: it is extreme, wild, dirty, restless and crude — and yet, at the same time, it contains some genuine truths about life, as well as a very emotional story when the viewers see it to the end. It may sound like an oxymoron, but this is a movie without subtlety — yet, ironically, at the same time, with sophistication. Because despite each and every controversial scene, the story about a "wild" love couple is basically a message about living life to the fullest and enjoying it, since life is short and you may never know when its ultimate harshness will cave onto you and death may take away the people you love the most. This is evident in several memento mori details or scenes placed throughout the film, from the episode where Olga's father dies up to the moment where Eric finds out Olga's mother had breast cancer.

Still, the movie is remembered mostly for its quirky, cheerful moments of humor, combined with sex scenes, and the first 10 minutes alone make this almost a burlesque: Eric's one night stands are downright hilarious (when a girl asks him for a souvenir, he puts his penis on a piece of paper and gives her a drawing of his intimate part; he has sex with a woman who rocks a baby in a baby carriage placed right next to their bed (!)...), and there is even a scene where he randomly stumbles into a party, one overweight, middle-aged woman wants to kiss him, and then Eric kisses her with such intensity that she loses her wig. Verhoeven's worldview is the closest to director S. Imamura, who also wanted to include the unglamourous, "inconvenient" side of life, proposing that movies should show everything, both the "lower" and "higher" side of human existence. In such, there are such explicit scenes of the camera directly showing Olga's feces in the toilet when Eric "inspects" them after she thought she defecated blood. All this makes for a 'rough' movie, even though the emotional dimension compensates for it, just showing a couple being simply happy and free in resisting any social conventions or conservatism, whereas the debut actors Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven are great in the leading roles. "Turkish Delight" seems like a story written by a teenage Shakespeare: it is crude, vile, clumsy, and yet, at the same time, it says some genuine truths about life that hint at greatness.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Big-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride

Dilwale Dulhanie Le Jayenge; romantic comedy / musical, India / UK / Switzerland, 1995, D: Aditya Chopra, S: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Amrish Puri, Anupam Kher, Farida Jalal, Satish Shah, Mandira Bedi, Anaita Shroff Adajania

Simran is a teenage daughter of an Indian immigrant, Baldev, living in London. He notifies her of an upcoming arranged marriage in India, and she accepts it but decides to take a month off to go on a trip through Europe with her three friends one last time before that. On a train she meets an obnoxious guy, Raj, who is also a child of an Indian immigrant in London. Raj travels with his two friends, and they thus make friends with Simran's company. However, in Switzerland, Simran and Raj miss the train to Zurich and thus have to travel alone by foot. They find a cottage to spend the night. In Zurich, they separate, but realize they have fallen in love with each other. Raj travels to India and makes friends with Baldev, who is preparing for the wedding. Finally, realizing he wants to stop the wedding, Baldev expels Raj to a departing train, but Simran runs after him, boards the train and embraces Raj.

Director Aditya Chopra's feature length debut film "The Big-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride" became a smash hit and a 90s phenomenon in India — for instance, it attracted attention worldwide when it entered the Guinness Book of Records for playing for over 1,000 consecutive weeks in the Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai, displaying a staggering tenacity and appeal to the audience — yet its longest legacy is that it definitely established actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol as a star dream couple with a lot of chemistry, charm and innocence. The film plays homage to the classic Hollywood 'screwball comedies' from the 30s and 40s in which an unlikely guy and a girl would at first argue and bicker, only to later on fall in love, most noticeably to Capra's "It Happened One Night" with which it also shares a similar road movie format of a couple traveling on their own through a country and thus bonding. It also somewhat combines it with the concept of "Lost in Translation": just as the two Americans had to bond because they felt isolated and desolate in a foreign country, so do Raj and Simran have to cooperate in order to find their friends as Indians lost in Switzerland. This sense of solidarity of a diaspora or immigrants living abroad has some neat feelings of unity, comradeship and cozy familiar understanding, and it was also copied in numerous (lesser) later films about Indians living in the UK or America, from "Pardes" through "Sometimes there's Happiness".

The film is filled with numerous sweet comical moments in the first 2/3 of its running time: for instance, in her first scene, Simran's face is not even seen because the wind caused her hair to completely cover her face. It also displays several astonishingly sincere and genuine emotions or moments of wisdom: knowing she will get married to India to an unknown man, Simran begs her father to let her go one last time with her friends on a road trip through Europe, saying: "In that one month, I will live my whole life". While lost in Switzerland, they encounter several goofy situations, but stumbling upon a church, Kajol actually takes some time to uncharacteristically stop and make a sincere prayer in front of the altar — yet after she exits, Raj goes back towards the altar and secretly makes a prayer himself: "God, whatever she asked, please make the wish of that girl come true". This simple scene suddenly makes Raj a much more sympathetic, new character. Their interaction is gold, and the image of two Indians backpacking across the Alps is iconic, but unnecessarily weakened by overlong dance and musical sequences, some of which are downright silly (in the Swiss cafe, for instance). Also, this would have been a wonderful 2-hour film, but, unfortunately, Chopra prolonged it into a 3-hour film in which the last third, set in India where Raj tries to prevent Simran's arranged marriage, is a waste of time, falling into the territory of a soap opera. This is a huge pity, because they really had a genuine romantic comedy here, until the last third comes like an "intruder" in the storyline, like a completely foreign film. Still, there are even some small crumbs of inspiration even there, such as when Baldev returns to his homeland and meets his mother again, upon which she says: "I withheld my tears for 20 years. I cannot withhold them any longer".


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason; romantic comedy, UK / France / Germany / Ireland / USA, 2004; D: Beeban Kidron, S: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jacinda Barrett, Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent

London. Bridget Jones enjoys her relationship with Mark Darcy, but obstacles start to get in their way: during a lawyer's dinner and quiz, she accuses him of being too snobbish and conceited. Mark manages to mend fences, but another argument erupts when it is found out that Bridget is not pregnant, yet the two differ a lot about the plans for their potential life of a child. When Bridget suspects that Mark is secretly in love with assistant Rebecca, she breaks up with Mark and accepts a job of doing a tourist TV report about Thailand, together with her ex, Daniel. However, some guy hides drugs in Bridget's suitcase, and she is thus arrested. Luckily, Mark manages to get her released. Back in London, Bridget realizes that she was too harsh on Mark and two make up and get engaged.

Universally considered the be the weakest addition to the "Bridget Jones" film series by critics, part 2 is the ultimate example of a "mixed bag movie": the first half is actually good and has its moments, but once the 2nd part starts with, the Thailand travel segment, it all dissolves into a terrible mess, standing truly on the edge of reason. The only consistently good ingredient in it is another fantastic performance by Renee Zellweger, who truly achieved the role of her lifetime as Bridget Jones, even managing to keep up her sovereign and stoic attitude when confronted with utter garbage in the screenplay, such as feeling the effects from mushroom drugs or coping with a Thai prison. Still, as already noted, the first half of the movie works — truth be told, the authors copy too much tropes and ideas from the original film (Bridget falls with her butt on the camera from a parachute, similarly as she did when she fell from a firemen pole in the 1st film; she speaks sexual innuendo to Mark on the phone, not realizing she is on speakerphone and he is in the middle of a meeting, similarly as when she did when her mother was on the phone in the 1st film...), yet at least three scenes are small gems of romantic comedy: one is when Bridget enjoys just staring at Mark who is asleep in her bed, and the other is after they have an argument and she calls him on the phone from home, regretting it, but then realizes he is ringing at her doorstep ("Even though I called you an arrogant snob?" - "You see, the problematic thing is... I love you"). The endless flip-flopping between Bridget and Mark's relationship, who constantly separate over the most trivial things, seems contrived after a while, the ending looks forced whereas the constant streak of bad luck dumped on the heroine becomes annoying, yet this sequel is at least easily watchable thanks to the lovable Bridget who is always genuine and true to herself, which is rare. She is precisely so lovable because she is so imperfect. 12 years later, part 3 would improve the level of the franchise considerably.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

ABBA: The Movie

ABBA: The Movie; musical, Sweden / Australia, 1977; D: Lasse Hallström, S: Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog, Robert Hughes

The famous Swedish pop group ABBA is arriving to Australia to go on a tour and the fans are ecstatic. A reporter is sent to make an interview with the four singers for a radio show, but he never has the luck to meet them. ABBA travels from Sydney through Perth to Melbourne, but the reporter constantly fails to get in touch with them, since their bodyguard or other reporters always push him away. He thus makes interviews with other people about ABBA. Finally, just as he was about to give up, he accidentally enters an elevator with ABBA in it, and thus manages to assemble an interview for the radio.

"ABBA: The Movie" is basically a concert film that chronicles the 1977 grand tour of the famous Swedish group in Australia, just like "Woodstock" was a legitimate record of the mood and feel of the eponymous music festival. It shows the whole array of songs performed by ABBA on stage, yet it also features an "addendum" intercut with those scenes in the form of a subplot of a reporter who wants to interview the group, which thus leaves the film somewhat torn between two clashing sides: a documentary and a narrative feature film. Depending on the viewers' preference, and especially if they are ABBA fans, they will either more or less enjoy the movie, yet, just like all those promotional films about the Beatles, "ABBA" is also just a relaxed fun that manages to capture the feel and mood of the group, as well as their hype, embodied in scenes of sensational cheer of fans who literally want to jump over a fence to touch them. The movie should not be regarded as a movie in the strict sense of the term, but more as an audio-visual jukebox featuring ABBA's songs that go directly into the viewers' ears, from "Mama Mia!" up to "S.O.S.", with a few moments that manage to "align" into the narrative, such as the scene where the reporter cannot enter the concert because he cannot buy a ticket since he forgot his money, which is then ironically followed with a segment of ABBA singing "Money, Money, Money". A few scenes are also comical, such as the interview with two 12-year old girls: one of them says she thinks one ABBA singer is "sexy", and then repeats again that he is "sexy", upon which the other girl puts a hand on her mouth.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Cable Guy

The Cable Guy; black comedy, USA, 1996; D: Ben Stiller, S: Matthew Broderick, Jim Carrey, Leslie Mann, Jack Black, George Segal, Diane Baker, Ben Stiller, Eric Roberts, Owen Wilson, Charles Napier, Janeane Garofalo

Steven has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Robin, and decides to thus treat himself with cable TV. However, the cable guy, Chip, starts to like him and wants them to be friends. Steven at first obliges, and goes together with Chip to the medieval times restaurant or has a karaoke night with him. However, Chip proves to be highly sociopathic, paying a prostitute to sleep with Steven without the latter knowing it, or playing basketball violently. When Steven decides to "break up" with him, Chip gets him arrested and fired. When he kidnaps Robin, Steven saves her, while Chip jumps from the tower onto a giant satellite dish, but survives.

As some critics already pointed out, "The Cable Guy" is a strange blend between "What About Bob?" and "Cape Fear". But these "annoying friend that won't go away" movies always walk a dangerous, fine line between the tolerable and the intolerable, and while "Bob" and the similar "A Pain in the Ass" work because they are done just right, with a lot of sense for measure, "The Cable Guy" loses its measure fairly quickly, delivering a misguided result, definitely a step back compared to Ben Stiller's 1st film as a director, "Reality Bites". The film actually starts out good, with a clever, long zoom out from Steven flipping through TV channels, as he nervously awaits the cable operator, who is late, lamenting on the phone: "He said he would be here somewhere between 8AM and my death." The cable operator's first appearance is also promising, amounting to a few sly lines ("I am kind of a prefectionist"). Unfortunately, already some 30 minutes into the film the story abandons any kind of effort and instead just queues one lame joke after another — what's so funny about Chip beating up a guy who was dating Robin on the toilet? What's so funny about the disastrous sequence where Chip forces Steven to play the guessing game with his mother featuring such words as "vagina" and "nipple"? What was the point of the running gag of Stiller playing a celebrity on trial on TV, when it doesn't contribute to the story in any way? A movie can recover after a few false notes, but when these false note sequences actually form a majority in the film, it inevitably sinks. A major detriment is also the annoying performance of Chip, since Jim Carrey, for some reason, plays him with lingering grimaces, forced humor and drawn-out antics. In contrast, Matthew Broderick is much better, delivering a very sympathetic and stoic performance as the likable Steven. A small cameo by Janeane Garofalo as the cynical waitress is a small delight, as well. Overall, "The Cable Guy" is like a truth-or-dare game: you chose the dare option, and then regret it for as long as it lasts.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Ex Machina

Ex Machina; science-fiction drama, UK / USA, 2015; D: Alex Garland, S: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno

Computer programmer Caleb is selected to travel to a desolate hut of Nathan, a rich CEO of a software company, and participate in a revolutionary test: to communicate with the first ever artificial intelligence, a humanoid robot named Ava. Nathan keeps Ava separated in her own compound, and Caleb thus talks to her through a glass wall separating them. They talk about Caleb's private life, as well as about Ava's, who also dresses up as real human when she puts on a wig and clothes. Nathan finally admits Caleb that he wanted to test Ava's intelligence by seeing if she could manage to trick Caleb into helping her escape. However, Ava manages to do just that when she kills Nathan and locks Caleb in the compound, leaving the place.

"Ex Machina" is another film that seems to have fallen victim of the studio that wanted to shoehorn more action and thrills in it to appeal to the wider audience, even though it completely clashed with the story's own philosophy. When it is a philosophical piece, "Ex Machina" is brilliant, posing several thought provocative questions about the relationship between human intelligence and the upcoming artificial intelligence, including the questions about free will and programming. Unfortunately, this high impression is heavily contaminated by a completely misguided finale, a one that resorted to cheap "Frankenstein" thrills despite itself: the whole finale is utterly false and seems to exist only so that the violence can fulfil the forced criteria of conflict — just because it is the norm judged for today's endings in movies.

Ava is no monster, and neither is Nathan, making their conflict in the end pointless. It also leaves several illogical plot points behind: for instance, why didn't he simply let her out? Why didn't he install the Three Laws of the Robotics into her? Why couldn't he simply order his other robots to restrain Ava, instead of doing it himself? The conclusion in the thematically similar movie "Her" is thus far more appropriate. Still, before it, the film has several juicy, delicious philosophical debates, which are a delight to listen, especially between Nathan and Caleb ("I programmed her to be heterosexual, just like you were programmed to be heterosexual". - "What...? Nobody programmed me to be straight!" - "*You* decided to be straight? Please! Of course you were programmed, by nature or nurture or both!"; "One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa"). A small jewel here is the great performance by Alicia Vikander, whose AI robot, without hair or skull, uses her expressionistic face to the maximum, and just like Data from "Star Trek: Next Generation", she has some sort of playful charm and innocence that really makes the viewers curious to wonder if there is even a fine line between human or AI.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

All is Lost

All is Lost; adventure drama, USA / Canada, 2013; D: J. C. Chandor, S: Robert Redford

A man is sleeping in his boat somewhere in the Indian Ocean. He is awakened when a floating container hits his boat and makes a hole in it. He manages to drift away from the container and patch up the hole as best as he can. However, this damage is exacerbated when a storm appears and further damages the boat. He escapes from the boat before sinking and floats in the ocean on a life boat. His food is running out, but he approaches the area used as a route for transport ships. Two ships pass him by. At night, he spots a boat and puts his life boat on fire to attract attention. He sinks, but the man in the boat saves him.

"All is Lost" is a minimalist survival drama, filmmed almost without any dialogues, with only one actor — Robert Redford, who still proves he can carry a film after all these years, even in a very physically demanding role — but it is just enough to conjure up a moderately suspenseful story about a man trying to survive on a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean. This film is a purely visual experience, and some of its best moments arrive in the form of small, quiet details, such as the underwater shot of a small fish under the hero's life boat or his idea to create fresh water from the sea by using a water container and a plastic wrap. Naturally, as with most of these kind of films, the forces of nature have him cornered, and it is gripping seeing how his chances for survival are getting more and more narrow with each day. It is a proportionally well done, yet in the end somewhat monotone 'one-note' story that lacks more ingenuity to offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, not just the obvious 'survival' lore at face value, since the viewer's concentration starts to deplete already 30 minutes into the film. More color, more director's intervention and more character development would have helped the viewers to invest themselves more in the character who is left without a context.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Scream 2

Scream 2; horror, USA, 1997; D: Wes Craven, S: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O'Connell, Liev Schreiber, Jada Pinkett, Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Metcalf, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson

A year after the infamous events in Woodsboro, a studio released a movie called "Stab" in cinemas depicting the murders, much to the annoyance of Sidney, who survived that carnage. However, when two people are murdered during the screening of the film by a man wearing the same mask as the first killer, the local authorities sound the alarm and put Sidney under the protection of two agents. She gets help by news reporter Gale and deputy sheriff Dewey, as well as her new boyfriend, Derek. The chase culminates on the stage of a play, where the killer is revealed to be Mickey, her friend, who teamed up with Billy Loomis' mom, who wants to take revenge against Sidney for her dead son. However, they are saved by Cotton, who kills the two killers.

This expressly assembled sequel, released only a year after "Scream", is one of those rare sequels that justify their existence, offering another round of ironic metafilm playing with the cliches and conventions of the horror film genre: already the opening proves this when an African-American couple goes to the cinemas to watch the fictional horror film "Stab", but the girl, Maureen, complains to her boyfriend that the "horror genre is historical for excluding the African-American community", only to have the "honor" to be "included" in the film when they become the first victims of the masked killer. Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have a field day in this story, cleverly poking fun at the genre and its inconsistencies (while watching "Stab" in the cinemas, Maureen publicly laments at the girl endlessly talking to the killer on the phone: "Just hang up the phone, girl!"; Tori Spelling plays Sidney in the film, even though Sidney hated that idea in the original...), as well as pointing out the bizarreness of commercial exploitation of such murders for the masses as a form of movie entertainment, probably inherent to some urges for thrills and excitement among some viewers of the horror genre. This culminates in a philosophical, 'tour-de-force' metafilm sequence during the film class debate, where the students and the professor are debating whether sequels can surpass the original film, or whether violence on film can motivate violence in real life. Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox are again great in this edition, but the final third of the film loses its energy, and its murder scenes are again too explicit and banal, which somewhat reduces the overall enjoyment value. A highlight, though, is surprisingly a very romantic sequence: the one where Derek sings "I Think I Love You!" in front of the entire class for Sidney is so honestly sweet and cute that it melts you away, which proves that "Scream 2" works on much more levels than some would admit it.


Friday, January 6, 2017

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye; crime drama, USA, 1973; D: Robert Altman, S: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson

Los Angeles. One night, private detective Philip Marlowe is approached by an old friend, Lennox, who says he is in trouble and needs a lift to Tijuana. Marlowe obliges, but the next day he finds out that Lennox is sought by the police for the murder of his wife. Quickly, Lennox is himself found dead near Tijuana. Marlowe investigates and stumbles upon writer Roger and his wife Eileen. It turns out that Lennox was suppose to transport 350,000 $ from gangster Marty to Tijuana, but when Lennox' wife found out he had an affair with Eileen, she wanted to snitch him and thus he killed her. In Tijuana, Marlowe finds out Lennox feigned his death to make a clean new start. Marlowe finds Lennox and kills him.

United Artists picked a strange choice when they gave art-director Robert Altman the assignment to helm Raymond Chandler's novel "The Long Goodbye", yet he managed to give a fresh, albeit sometimes very ironic and cynical take on the source material, not also because of the cast of the main character: Elliott Gould is excellent as a "New Age" Philip Marlowe because he resembles Bogart, but also because the movie is set in modern times, which leaves the impression as if the 40s Marlowe is lost in this 70s 'counterculture' world of L.A. As with most of Chandler's novel featuring Marlowe, this one also has a meandering story with two or more seemingly different plots who all become one in the end, and Altman uses his trademark 'casual' style to conjure up an elegant mood that flows smoothly, even when things are not quite logical at times. The greatest moments arrive in the form of a few quietly hilarious moments, such as when Marlowe approaches Harry, the man who is suppose to spy him and follow him in the car, and gives him a note, saying: "This is the address where I'm going, in case you lose me in traffic", or the running gag of Malibu Colony guard impersonating various celebrities to cheer up the drivers passing by (the Walter Brennan impersonation is pure gold). However, it seems the ending lacks a certain point, leaving a somewhat 'light' impression, as if not that much was left on the dramatic front, whereas not every episode works. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a cameo appearance as one of Marty's bodyguards, in his early cinema role.


Thursday, January 5, 2017


Targets; drama / thriller, USA, 1968; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Tim O'Kelly, Boris Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Peterson, Monte Landis, Nancy Hsueh

After seeing his latest B-movie production, Byron Orlok, an ageing horror film actor, decides to quit and retire. This shocks the studio, and especially young director Sammy who wanted to make a dramatic, serious film with Orlok in the lead. However, Orlok's secretary Jenny manages to persuade him otherwise. In the meantime, Bobby, a young Vietnam war veteran, goes berserk and shoots his mother, wife and neighbor in his home. he takes his guns, goes to the roof of an oil raffinery and starts shooting at driving cars on the highway. When the police starts chasing him, Bobby flees with his car into a drive-inn cinema, where Orlok's film "The Terror" is shown. Bobby starts shooting at the people in the cars, all until Orlok shows up and slaps him, causing him to stop shooting. The police then arrests Bobby.

Even though it is set up as an exploitation film that appeals towards the audience seeking thrills and action, Peter Bogdanovich's feature length debut "Targets" is a surprisingly clever independent film, done with a lot of finesse and subtlety, whereas it also proved to have a sly metafilm touch by having veteran horror film actor Boris Karloff play a fictional version of himself, Orlok, and even featuring clips from his (real) movies under this name, Hawks' "The Criminal Code" and Corman's "The Terror". It is a minimalistic thriller, with very little dialogue, exploring the issues of violence and how, once it is triggered, it goes out of control and offers no explanations (though a very subtle scene reveals that Bobby was a Vietnam War veteran, with just enough implications for the story to work), and it is interesting how these two stories — the sniper Bobby and the horror film star Orlok — combine in the finale. Critics rightfully praised two sequences of almost Hitchockian suspense — the first one where Bobby goes on the roof of an oil refinery in order to shoot randomly at driving cars on the highway, and the second one where he hides behind the screening canvas, using a small hole to aim and shoot at viewers in their cars while the horror movie "The Terror" is playing on the screen, which gives it a chilling "3-D" context. However, Karloff's role is rather thin in the finale, not enough to truly give him a worthy farewell (it was one of his last roles), and more could have been done to link the two stories into a single point, a one that could have used the viewers' obsession with horror films (and thereby violence) with a stronger conclusion than the rather lukewarm ending which seems like an anti-climax


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War; action / science-fiction, USA, 2015; D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, S: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, William Hurt

During a routine assignment to apprehend bad guy Crossbones, the Avengers accidentally catapult his explosion away from themselves and into a building in Lagos, which leaves scores of people dead. In order to avoid this in the future, the US Secretary informs the Avengers that 117 countries assembled special accords that intend to put them under the supervision of the UN. While Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, signs the accords and insists such a control is welcomed, Captain America and others refuse to do so, because they don't want to wait to stop villain Zemo, who used a brainwashing technique to influence Bucky, aka Winter Soldier, to go on a killing spree. Iron Man and Captain America have a huge fight when it is discovered that Bucky was brainwashed into killing Tony's parents. It turns out Zemo did this out of revenge because his parents died in Sokovia when the Avengers where fighting there.

With each subsequent Iron Man film, it seems that Marvel's "The Avengers" are becoming less and less of a movie, and more and more of a pure product placement. Even though it was the highest grossing film in 2015, "Captain America: Civil War" is another standard big budget blockbuster where the superheroes are marred in endless fighting and punching, yet while some of their previous instalments at least had a few inspired moments here and there, this edition ended up strangely tiresome. A CGI overkill, equipped with too many superheroes that leaves the impression of a play with too many kids and not enough lines for them all, "Civil War" at least has some traces of thought provocative themes in the story where the superheroes are split on whether they should be placed under the control of the UN, which offers a few psychological rifts between them. Still, the logic in the plot is highly strained—why are the Avengers getting all the blame for the destruction when they were just stopping the alien creature Chitauri from invading Earth? The movie simply ignores the concept of mens rea. Had they not reacted, the whole world would have been doomed. Also, why couldn't Captain America simply wait for the UN to grant him permission to go after Zemo, instead of simply causing a rift among the Avengers? He could have at least *tried* to get the permission first. Some of the battle and action sequences are good, yet not enough to overcome the overall bland, grey, routine and mechanical feel of the movie, which is ultimately very forgettable. A few cameo appearances, such as Spider-Man who is brought in to help Tony Stark, do not manage to live it up a bit, since they are not given enough time for character development, whereas the jokes are mostly lame—when the best joke is only a pun on Tony Stark's name ("Tony Stank"), you know not much can be said about it. The addition of Ant-Man, who can shrink to the size of an ant and enter Iron Man's armour, decimates the strive for any kind of realism in the story — if that shrinking is possible, then they might as well could have summoned Leprechauns and Dumbledore to help them out, as well.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Hatari!; adventure comedy, USA, 1962; D: Howard Hawks, S: John Wayne, Elsa Martinelli, Red Buttons, Hardy Krüger

Sean leads a group of several men, consisting among other out of Kurt, Pockets, and the "Indian", who catch wild animals, like a rhinoceros and a zebra, in East Africa in order to sell them to the Zoo. Their routine is disrupted by the arrival of an attractive woman, Dallas, who is sent there to make photos of animals. Sean acts tough in front of her, but Dallas manages to gain his heart and they fall in love. She also adopts three little baby elephants and takes care of them in the camp. Pocket also invents a rocket that throws a giant net over monkeys on a tree, enabling their capture. Angry at Sean's cold nature towards her, Dallas departs to the airport, but Sean manages to persuade her to come back and they get married.

"Hatari!" is one of the examples of how dated some of John Wayne's movies seem today: it is marked by complete disregard for animal rights or sense for ecology, and some of the scenes would have been extremely scrutinized if they were filmed 30 years later (especially the infamous moment where a centuries old tree is chopped off just for the protagonists to capture monkeys for the Zoo) – because, as much as the sequences of Sean sitting on a hood of a speeding car trying to catch running giraffes or a rhinoceros with a sling are impressive, they are equally as misguided (in ethical sense). As some critics pointed out, the viewers cheer much more for the animals to escape. It would have worked much better if the protagonists were veterinaries, helping out the animals, since it would have made it much easier to gain some sympathy with them. However, one has to hand it to classic director Howard Hawks: his stories are consistently elegant and relaxed, with strong characters managing to carry the film, among others thanks to their friendship and loyalty, evident even in "Hatari!".

One of the most hilarious moments arrives when Dallas (excellent and very underrated actress Elsa Martinelli) is having a bath, but gets scared when a leopard enters the room and licks her knee (reminiscent of Hawks' own movie "Bringing Up Baby" also featuring a leopard), only for Pockets to arrive and "heroically" chase the cat away – until Sean points out that Pockets probably let the leopard enter in the first place, just to have an excuse to see Dallas in the bath. It is a well done homage to old school filmmaking, with a lot of humor and charm, whereas the landscapes are a delight, yet it is a curiosity at how the film has so much sympathy for some cute animal scenes (such as Dallas leading three baby elephants to take a bath in a lake) while managing to stay so indifferent towards their kidnappings for the Zoo at the same time. A good antidote for "Hatari!" is the Spencer-Hill comedy "I'm for the Hippopotamus" filmed 17 years later, where the protagonists were actually on the right side of this issue.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Jean de Florette

Jean de Florette; drama, France, 1986; D: Claude Berri, S: Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Yves Montand, Elizabeth Depardieu

The French Provence, early 20th Century. Ugolin is a peasant who wants to grow flowers in order to sell them to the florist in town, but he needs land with a good water source for it. His friend, the old Papet, sees a chance to help him when their old neighbor dies and his land is inherited by his sister's son, the hunchback Jean from the city. Ugolin and Papet plot to ruin Jean and his family, a wife and daughter, in order to cheaply buy off the land: first they cement the water source, leaving Jean dependent on a mule carrying water from downhill. Jean plans a great farm with vegetables and rabbits, yet the drought destroys it. Upon dynamiting a well in order to find a water source, Jean is injured and dies. Ugolin and Papet quickly rush to unblock the source, which is seen by Jean's daughter, Manon.

Part of a wider trend of the French cinema in the 80s to celebrate and promote French culture, habits, regions and mentality, the first part of Claude Berri's duology on greed and land grab, "Jean de Florette" was once an excellent film, but today seems somewhat depleted of its energy, and fairs only as a good, but not great achievement. Interestingly set up (the main protagonist, Jean, appears only some 27 minutes into the film, which gives the story anticipation), equipped with a fine cinematography, great locations in Provence and fabulous performances from Gerard Depardieu up to veteran actor Yves Montand, "Jean de Florette" explores the issues of human selfishness, yet it does so in a very transparent, banal and mundane manner, with obvious "greed is evil" messages that cannot quite carry the overlong running time of 120 minutes. For some reason, it spends too much time on overlong explanations of the characters, and the apex of that is when Jean spends dire 15 minutes to spell everything out to Ugolin, of how he wants to plant vegetables and grow a rabbit farm, which could have been handled better or simply cut. Show, don't tell. The best part is somewhere in the middle of the film, in the "garden-thriller" segment, when Jean, similarly like the heroine in "Places in the Heart", races with time to save his crops in the garden by bringing water before the drought destroys it all, which manages to engage the viewers by presenting a simple peasant's life as a suspense piece. Unfortunately, the rest of film does not manage to engage that much, presenting several moments in overtly melodramatic fashion, whereas the writing is only sporadically inspiring (in the tragic finale, when Papet asks Ugolin why he is crying, the latter replies: "I'm not crying. My eyes are."). A proportionally well made film, though it tends to drag, whereas there is a solid amount of critics who prefer its 2nd part, "Manon des Sources", because it deciphered a much more sly point.