Saturday, April 29, 2017

Do the Right Thing

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Johnny Guitar

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

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

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


Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Bridge on the River Kwai

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

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

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

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


Monday, April 17, 2017

Jesus of Nazareth

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

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

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

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


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tomorrow May Never Come

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 11, 2017


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

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

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


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ender's Game

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

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

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

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


Friday, April 7, 2017

The Conquest of the Pole

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

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

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


Monday, April 3, 2017

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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

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

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

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


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Captains Courageous

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Ukraine Crisis

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

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

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