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.