Monday, January 29, 2018

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; fantasy action, USA, 2016; D: Dave Green, S: Pete Ploszek (voice), Noel Fisher (voice), Jeremy Howard (voice), Alan Ritchson (voice), Megan Fox, Stephen Amell, Brian Tee, Tony Shalhoub (voice), Laura Linney

New York. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo—are irritated that some guy took all the credit for the arrest of Shredder. However, they get a chance to rise to the occasion once again when Shredder is released from jail by the Foot Clan and joins scientist Baxter to open an interdimensional portal in order to bring Krang, a brain inside a robot, and his Technodrome, on Earth in order to rule the world. These villains are assisted by Beabop and Rocksteady, two criminals who were turned into a mutant rhino and warthog. Teaming up with April O'Neil, the Turtles manage to stop Krang and throw its Technodrome back into its dimension. They are thus awarded by a police officer.

This sequel to Liebesman's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film is a slight improvement, stacking up a few better jokes, yet they still needed to be doubled and the storyline better assembled in order for "Out of the Shadows" to pass that threshold of a good film. The authors, unfortunately, kept the ugly pseudo-"Shrek" designs of the Turtles, who look "too puffed" in this edition, yet the first 20 minutes are good and a couple of neat jokes are welcomed (in one of the best gags, just as the Technodrome starts to assemble itself from the interdimensional portal, one scared character spoofs the often cliche by asking April O'Neil: "Why aren't we going with the Turtles? When something bad happens, you want to be with the Turtles!"). April's first appearance is actually effective and shows that Megan Fox can have charm when given better written script sequences: she appears in disguise, with a blond wig and glasses, in order to approach scientist Baxter and download his secret information from his iPhone. However, the iPhone is handed over to his assistant who walks away before the download is 100% complete, so April decides to finish her job with a trick.

The first half of her trick is interesting (she ditches her wig, takes a skirt and ties up her T-shirt)—but the second half, the conclusion, is incompatible and irrelevant (she puts a cowboy hat on the assistant and pretends to be with some other girls in order to approach him, stall him for a few seconds and download until the end): if the only thing needed was for her to be a few yards away from him, why not simply walk at close distance behind him, without all this charade? One thing does not necessarily lead to the other. This seems to be the problem with the entire film: it is not fully thought out to the end. Other elements are also weirdly disjointed: Shredder, for instance, does not share a single scene with the Turtles (!) nor does he wear his helmet for 90% of his screen time—and when he finally puts it on, he is simply disposed off by getting frozen by Krang. This is terribly anticlimactic. Bebop and Rocksteady make their first film screen appearance, yet they play no real function in the storyline: except for a 20 second fight in the airplane, they do not even interact with the Turtles, and are beaten by—Casey Jones. The Turtles are again one-dimensional characters, only breaking this limitation on a couple of instances: one great moment of exception is when Casey spots Splinter and tells the Turtles: "Nobody move! There is a giant rat behind us!" More of these jokes would have been welcomed, since the story is all set-up, no pay-off. It is a solid film with a few moments, yet it seems as if the screenwriters just placed all these characters into routine directions because they had to, not because they had some real inspiration or reason in order to make them shine.

Grade:+

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3; thriller, USA, 1974; D: Joseph Sargent, S: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Jerry Stiller

New York. Four men wearing trench coats and fake moustaches, known only by their code names - Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown - storm a subway train, halt it and take 18 people inside as hostages. They contact Lt. Garber and demand a million $ ransom money in only one hour, or else they will shoot one hostage for every minute of delay. The mayor agrees and the police hand the criminals the beg of money. The criminals then attach a pipe on the gas pedal and cause the train to drive while they walk away on foot. However, due to differences, Mr. Grey is shot. Mr. Brown is killed by an undercover police officer, while Mr. Blue electrocutes himself to death in order to avoid Garber arresting him. The fourth accomplice is accidentally visited by Garber in his apartment. The Lieutenant recognizes him by his sneezing.

One of the classic thrillers from the 70s, "The Taking of Pelham 123" still holds up surprisingly well even today: it owes that freshness to some timeless themes about human greed; as well as a concise narrative; excellent performances by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, who portray the Lieutenant and criminal trying to outsmart each other; a fine pace; a smooth rhythm and a clever story that was carefully planned beforehand in order for every little detail to have a payoff at the end (the final sequence is so masterful, thanks only to one little detail involving sneezing, that it will make the viewers smile). Some minor complaints could be aimed at a few inconsistencies (the four criminals exit the train, but make it drive for miles thanks to a device that pushes the gas pedal: why didn't the passengers simply remove the device to stop the train once the criminals were not there anymore?) and the underused character of Lt. Garber in the first half, as well as a lack of surprises or a few conventional dialogues, yet other than that, director Joseph Sargent displayed an elegant hand in leading the story. "Pelham" is in touch with both the wishes of the critics and the audience, and thus crafts a fast and easy to follow plot that is entertaining and smart at the same time.

Grade:+++

Thursday, January 25, 2018

It's a Gift

It's a Gift; comedy, USA, 1934; D: Norman Z. McLeod, S: W. C. Fields, Jean Rouverol, Kathleen Howard

Harold is annoyed by his life: he is an owner of a shabby store, plagued by a blind customer who wrecks everything with his cane as well as an incompetent assistant; back at home, things are even worse thanks to his irritating wife who constantly scolds him for trivial omissions, while they have to kids, Mildred and Norman. When his uncle dies, Harold inherits some money which he uses to buy himself an orange farm in California, and thus takes a long trip in a car with his family to move there. In California, Harold discovers the farm is a desert, but an important race track needs to be built on the property, so he sells it for an astronomical fee and gets his orange farm in the end.

Even though it is considered a comedy classic in some critics' circles, "It's a Gift" is a 'hit-and-miss' affair, an uneven film assembled out of various episodes: some sketches work, others do not. It achieves the most out of comedian W.C. Fields, who manages to traverse the entire film with even energy from start to finish, and some of his cynical moments are highlights: two of the best jokes are the one with his introduction (he is shaving in the bathroom, but his daughter enters and opens the door with the mirror on it to get some make-up, so he has to constantly change places to see himself in the reflection, until he gives up and decides to shave until the end on the reflection of a can) and the picnic sequence (the wife tells him to give half of his sandwich to their kid, so Harold opens the two loafs of breads, folds the ham on his side - and then gives the empty half of the sandwich to the kid). Another good moment if when Harold and his family are about to drive to California, all the people around them wave goodbye, but the car starts - and then stops after it moved for only one yard. Unfortunately, not all of the gags are on the same level as these ones, and thus several lesser moments feel contrived, forced or just plain too long (the grocery sequence, for instance, is more irritating than it is funny) whereas the chaotic meandering of the story seems arbitrary, especially since some of the subplots, such as the one involving Mildred's boyfriend, are forgotten and unresolved in the end.

Grade:++

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Killers

The Killers; crime, USA, 1964; D: Don Siegel, S: Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan

Charlie and Lee, two hitmen, assassinate a man, Johnny, in a school for the blind. Perplexed by Johnny's indiffirent reaction, Charlie and Lee decide to find out more about his life. They talk to an automechanic, who tells them how Johnny was a professional car driver, but after he started an affair with a mysterious woman, Sheila, it turned out she is the girlfriend of gangster Jack Browning, who sabotaged the tire of Johnny's car during a race, causing a crash that left Johnny in a hospital. However, Jack later hires Johnny to be a driver who will block a mail truck so that his criminals can rob a million $ from it. The plan worked, but the jealous Jack decided to double cross Johnny, frame him from stealing a million $ from the gangsters and then wounded Johnny by shooting. Upon exiting a building, Jack shoots at Charlie and Lee. A wounded Charlie arrives at Jack's home and shoots him together with Sheila. Charlie then dies while trying to get the million $ from the house.

A hard-boiled crime-thriller, "The Killers" is a surprisingly good film about the consequences of greed and dishonesty among human relations, yet today it is remembered the most for featuring the last film performance of the future US president, Ronald Reagan, who here uncharacteristically plays the bad guy (!), gangster Jack Browning, who even slaps his wife, Sheila, in one brutal scene. Even though Reagan was uneasy with this role, he delivered a proportionally good performance, together with other veteran actors, mostly the charismatic Lee Marvin. The story gives an interesting twist to the typical hitman subgenre, by first showing the two hitman killing their victim, Johnny, only for them to later on decide to explore who he was and curiously question people about Johnny's life, thereby slowly assembling a giant puzzle, which is refreshing. The storyline still seems stiff, especially during the corny dialogues involving Johnny's love story with Sheila, which seem as they were written from the 50s, yet director Don Siegel still overturns that thanks to a few of his typical sober, dark "wake up" calls, from Sheila's betrayal of Johnny just to be an obedient servant to Jack up several violent scenes (Charlie and Lee threating to throw Sheila from her 10 stories apartment window if she does not tell them the location of the money) and an depressive ending. These extensive flashback sequences involving Johnny give the movie spark and competence, yet some of the flaws are still apparent, from a few moments of empty walk up to a couple "shaky" directions of the storyline.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Wind

The Wind; silent drama, USA, 1928; D: Victor Sjöström, S: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Dorothy Cumming, Edward Earle

Late 19th century. Letty is a young girl who wants to escape from poverty, and thus travels from Virginia to Sweetwater, Texas, to be with her cousin, Beverly. On a train, she meets the ominous cattle owner Wirt. Upon arrival, Letty is picked up by Beverly's neighbors, Lige and Sourdough, but is shocked to find out the whole area is plagued by a neverending desert wind. Beverly's wife, Cora, is jealous of Letty and wants to get rid of her. Letty thus decides to marry Wirt, but finds out he is already married and just wants her as an affair. Letty then decides to marry Lige, but feels isolated in his desolate house in the desert. When a wounded Wirt is brought to Lige's house, he tries to assault Letty, who shoots him in self-defence and buries his corpse in the back yard. When Lige returns, she confesses his love for him and pronounces she is not afraid of the wind anymore.

Director Victor Sjostrom's excursion into American cinema paid off appropriately since "The Wind", an adaptation of the eponymous novel, was critically recognized and with time reached that desired status of a classic. An excellent little film that delivers a subtle psychological character study thanks mostly to aesthetically pleasant landscapes of the desert and the neverending wind that pounds the area, by which it gains a highly stylish tone: the hidden leitmotiv is the everlasting harshness of nature and time that slowly corrode the futile idealistic actions of individuals who try to survive or keep up their spirit in the cold world. Already the sole arrival of the heroine at her destination via train is directed in an interesting manner, showing a desert storm at night that makes her new future highly inhospitable, while she is picked up by two men on a carriage, who claim to be her cousin's nearest neighbors, located 15 miles away from him. Another highlight is the ultra-masterful performance by Lillian Gish: with her facial expressions and charismatic looks she manages to deliver a thoroughly convincing portrayal as Letty, who undergoes a change from an innocent girl to a depressive, isolated, broken woman, thereby confirming her status as one of the main stars from the silent film era. From some daring and unusual camera drives at that time (the sequence in which the camera follows Letty dancing through the hall) up to the expressionistic finale (the wind blows out the peak of the buried corpse, making the man's face visible in the sand; Wirt opens the door after the sandstorm, only for two feet of accumulated "sand avalanche" to enter the house), "The Wind" is a worthy contribution to cinema and an apex in Sjostrom's film career.

Grade:+++

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Ministry of Love

Ministarstvo ljubavi; satire / drama, Croatia / Czech Republic, 2016; D: Pavo Marinković, S: Stjepan Perić, Dražen Kühn, Ecija Ojdanić, Olga Pakalović, Ksenija Marinković, Bojan Navojec, Alma Prica, Hristina Popović

It is recession. It order to implement austerity measures and reduce budget deficits, the Croatian government decides to establish a new department that would spy on widows from the Croatian War and take away their pensions if it turns out they got remarried. The two officials assigned to this ungrateful task are Krešo and Josip, who use various ploys in Dalmatia in order to find out if widows are still single or not. Krešo falls in love with one of the widows, Dunja, but she leaves him after she finds out she lost her pension due to his report. Disgusted by this work, and after finding out his wife cheated on him, Krešo quits and applies for a job as a biologist.

"Ministry of Love" caused quite a hype when certain Croatian nationalists wanted to ban the film, yet it is overall a refreshing satire that spoofs several Croatian patriotic myths, in this case how the Croatian government is more preoccupied with austerity and budget deficits than the costly legacy of the Croatian War, in this case the financing of war widows. The concept is fictional, yet its sharp observations about the government exploitation of its citizens and its meddling into their private lives are still easily identifiable, which causes several chuckles in the first half (most notably in the ploys Krešo uses to find out if the widows have found new partners in the meantime, presenting himself as an insurance salesman offering great deals for couples or a gay representative inside the house of a lesbian couple). Except for making fun of imaginary patriotism, the film also gives a commentary on modern, 21st century trends, most noticeably in the appearance of "unethical jobs" and job alienation (Krešo is a biologist who has been sent to work in the department that is outside his preferences, and even begins to get ashamed of it). Unfortunately, director Pavo Marinkovic seems to run out of ideas and inspiration fairly quickly, settling for a good, yet standard film with several forced dramatic moments in the overlong second half, as well as too much empty walk to camouflage that not much is going on until the rather sudden end.

Grade;++

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Your Name

Kimi no Na wa; animated fantasy romance, Japan, 2016; D: Makoto Shinkai, S: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Etsuko Ichihara



Teenage girl Mitsuha lives in Itomori, a desolate town around a lake, together with her little sister and grandmother. Mitsuha is bored and wishes she would have been born as a boy in the fancy Tokyo. One day, she notices that people around her are acting strange, telling her that she acted as if she was crazy the day before. The next morning, she wakes up inside the body of a teenage boy, Taki, in Tokyo, and realizes that he was in her body that particular day. She enjoys going to his school and touring Tokyo. The next day, Mitsuha is back in her own body. Taki and Mitsuha swap bodies from time to time, and then return back to normal. While in his body, Mitsuha arranges a date with a girl who works in a restaurant with Taki. This phenomenon suddenly stops and Taki goes to Itomori, only to find out that the city was destroyed when pieces of a comet fell on it 3 years ago, killing Mitsuha and 500 other people. When he is sent to Mitsuha's body once again, he helps evacuate the people from the city and thus save their lives. Back in their bodies, Taki and Mitsuha forget what happened and don't know eahc other's names. 5 years later, they meet in Tokyo and ask each other's name.

Makoto Shinkai's 5th feature length film, an unusual romantic restructuring of the "Freaky Friday" concept, "Your Name" beat all expectations when it became the highest grossing anime film of its time, surpassing even Miyazaki's "Spirited Away". Shinkai is a melancholic auteur who slowly established a distinctive style with time: there is no swearing in his movies, nor vulgarity or violence, whereas he displays a finesse in crafting a rich mood just through colors in animation, all centering around a love story set in a fantasy concept (in this case, what would happen if a guy and a girl would swap bodies for a few days). A tender, gentle and patient film, "Your Name" displays that 'good-old-school' style of anime thanks to excellent, opulent characters, who all contribute to the setting, while it also dwells on the relations between rural and urban areas, past and present as well as individuality and collective tradition. It is also refreshing to spot Shinkai's humor at times, most noticeably in the opening act that plays out almost as a comedy (Mitsuha is surprised that everyone around her keep telling her that she acted strangely yesterday, as if "she was not herself", until it is later shown how Taki's mind appeared in her body, touching her own breasts to see if this is not a dream).

Some neat stylistic touches are also great (Taki/Mitsuha raises his iPhone to make a photo of a cake, and as he lowers the mobile phone, it dissolves to an empty plate; the "jump cut" between Mitsuha on the left side and Taki on the right side of the same location on the edge of the crater, as they try to find each other even though they are "invisible" from each other's perspective). However, some small omissions are still there: the movie is too episodic at times, spending only around 60 seconds on some sequences instead of elaborating more on them (Taki's date was very superficially shown; instead of showing what Taki did while in Mitsuha's body, in order to make her stand out in school, the audiences are just told what happened), which seems as if the narrative suffers from ADHD at times, whereas the ending is somewhat contrived by randomly introducing how Mitsuha and Taki experienced "amnesia" and forgot each other's names (when they could have easily written each other's name on paper or on the mirror right from the start) since this finale of emotionally close people who pass by each other, yet forgot all their past, was thematically too similar to the ending in "Sailor Moon" season one. Still, "Your Name" is a refreshing and welcomed return of uncynical, genuine emotional anime without turning too sentimental, a story of two people linked by some destiny that defies rigid reality, thus again advancing into another Makoto Shinkai gem.

Grade;+++

Friday, January 12, 2018

Elle

Elle; psychological drama, France / Germany / Belgium, 2016; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Christian Berkel, Anne Consigny, Virginie Efira

Paris around Christmas. Michele, a middle aged woman, is raped in her house by a burglar with a mask who then runs away. She has many suspects: since she works as a boss in a video game company, many employees hate her due to stress and time constraints. Michele also has other problems: her ex-husband, Richard, is seeing another woman; her old mother announces that she is getting married only to have a stroke and die in the hospital; her son, Vincent, has a baby with Josie, but Michele suspects Josie is only with him for the money. Finally, it is revealed that her neighbor, banker Patrick, raped her because he can only reach an orgasm through rape fantasies. He helps Michele from the car after she crashed into a tree. Michele decides not to see him anymore, but he assaults her again, until Vincent kills him with a ram.

After a 10 year break, provocateur Paul Verhoeven returned in big style with this psychological dark crime drama that once again explores some uncomfortable, taboo topics about modern society: blasted by feminists and purists, but embraced by more open-mined critics, "Elle" works mostly thanks to a virtuoso performance by Isabelle Huppert who hereby decisively placed any problematic issues in the film "on the right side", creating an excellent character for which she was awarded with numerous prizes. The dark thriller elements, here presented through a daring-bizarre concept in which the main heroine, Michele, is attracted to a man (in one scene, she even masturbates in her room while observing him in the garden with binoculars) who is later revealed to be her rapist (!), but she actually finds out he can only reach an orgasm through these rapes, is understandably not for everyone, yet just like Chabrol and Hitchcock, Verhoeven also uses them for a broad picture of current times and thus gives a commentary on the 21st century society: the film is set around Christmas (!) but all the family relations are distorted or collapsing; work is not designed to be useful or helpful anymore, but just to earn money by appealing to the most primitive, hidden urges of the consumers (Michele's company designs a video game based only on violence); Michele's father was a mass murderer and thus she does not believe in any values, etc. Verhoeven's "excursion" into French cinema was appropriately recognized by critics, since the director stayed true to his naughty self who is bored with ordinary things in life, and thus scratches behind surface. Several dialogues are also well written ("Despite all our efforts and hard work, we still achieved success!"; Robert's exchange with Michele: "You cannot avoid me all night." - "Just watch me!"). The ending and resolution are somewhat weaker, lacking some overall point to circle out all these observations, yet the movie works just enough to intrigue.

Grade;++

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Mutiny on the Bounty

Mutiny on the Bounty; adventure drama, USA, 1935; D: Frank Lloyd, S: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Donald Crisp, Movita Castenada, Mamo Clark, Bill Bambridge

Portsmouth, England, 1787. Dozens of men are forcibly drafted into the Royal Navy, on board the ship Bounty which sets its course towards the Pacific Ocean for a planned two year voyage. However, the ship is commanded by captain Bligh, a tyrant who refuses to give crew enough food, and punishes anyone who complains by whipping. This is observed by lieutenant Fletcher Christian and midshipman Byam. The ship arrives at Tahiti where the crew meets the locals and their women, but also picks up breadfruit for their mission. On their way back, Bligh refuses to give water to his crew to have enough for the plants, which sparks a mutiny led by Fletcher who banishes Bligh and his loyal servants on a boat. Bligh, however, manages to reach land after 50 days on the sea. He returns to Tahiti, but Fletcher and the Bounty escape on another island. Byam and some other men are arrested and sent to a trial in England.

A somewhat historically inaccurate, but ambitious and quality adaptation of the famous mutiny on the Bounty, this film still holds up fairly well by offering some timeless themes about human integrity as well as the clash between common sense and blind obedience to the law. It managed to give a realistic depiction of the sailors who are trapped on the ship ruled by the infamous captain Bligh, who uses his authority as a prosthesis for his endless ego and low self-esteem: already in the opening shots, the crew is given a glimpse inside Bligh's character when he finds out that one accused man has died, yet still orders that his corpse must be whipped and punished, nonetheless. He also states: "A midshipman is the lowest form of animal life in the Royal Navy". Order details are presented during the course of the story, including low quality food for the crew (one sailor jokes that his "meat was mined in a rock quarry" while another one is so hungry that he even eats a bait from a hook intended to catch fish), and all contribute to a bigger picture of a multi-layered character study, involving not only Bligh, but also his officer, Fletcher, which makes it clear as to why he would rebel against his rule. Charles Laughton is excellent as the utterly unsympathetic Bligh, as is Clark Gable as the voice of his opposition. "Mutiny on the Bounty" is a very good film, but with time still failed to achieve that desired status of a classic: the middle-part of the film, playing out on Tahiti, offers a corny, cheesy love story that suits a soap opera more; the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory and incomplete whereas Frank Lloyd is not an auteur, but more of a standard director who is only as good as his script allows him to, yet fails to truly rise to the occasion on some other artistic fronts. "Bounty" is also mentioned in film lexicons for two interesting facts: it was awarded only one Oscar, the one for Best Picture, and thus remained the last film that won Best Picture without winning in any other category. Also, it formed a lucky streak for Clark Gable, who hereby became the only actor who starred in three Best Picture films in only one decade (the other two being "It Happened One Night" and "Gone With the Wind").

Grade;+++

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; science-fiction action comedy, USA, 2017; D: James Gunn, S: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (voice), Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Vin Diesel (voice), Sylvester Stallone, David Hasselhoff

Peter Quill and his alien team - Gamora, Drax, Racoon Rocket and a baby Groot plant - still work together, until they meet Peter's long lost father, Ego, who turns out to be an alien who created his own planet. On the planet, they meet Ego's associate, a naive girl called Mantis. However, it turns out that Ego killed Peter's mother and that he wants to kill all life across the Universe, in order to expand his own species. Peter and his team rebel and destroy his planet, but Peter's adoptive father, blue alien Yondu, dies while saving him in orbit. Gamora also makes up with her sister, Nebula.

While the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" film turned into a pleasant surprise, showing how big budget films can still end up being fun and relaxed, part II experienced a convalesce of all those typical 'sequel cliches', signalling that all of its virtues were rolled back towards the big studio executives mentality. Director and screenwriter James Gunn tries too hard to capture the feel of the 1st film, yet there is a nervousness this time around, a pressure that is felt in the story that seems convoluted and has too many cheap attempts at humor or appealing only towards tiresome action in the finale that is a CGI overkill. Worse still, all these charming characters seem only as pale shadows of their snappy personas from the 1st film: this is especially noticeable in Drax, who was the funniest of them all, but rarely does anything charming this time around and thus feels wasted and underused, except for his contagious trademark laugh here and there. A few good jokes show up, though, which manage to liven up the mood here and there: one of the best is an argument between Peter and raccoon Rocket while they are fighting over who will fly the spaceship ("I was genetically engineered to be a pilot!" - "You were genetically engineered to be a douchebag!") or when Peter finds out he can do whatever he wants on Ego's planet ("Well, get ready for a 800-foot statue of Pac-Man with Skeletor and Heather Locklear!"). Peter's subplot involving his father, alien Ego, seems to be a debate on the notion of a biological vs. adoptive father, and has a satisfying, fitting resolution. The supporting character of Mantis, a naive alien girl with antennas, is also charming. Unfortunately, this is not enough to camouflage that there isn't that much inspiration this time around, with too many side characters wrecking the already strained narrative, whereas the supporting role by Sylvester Stallone was unworthy to this presence: he was given only 30 seconds at the beginning and the end, without contributing much to the story.

Grade:+

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi; science-fiction action, USA, 2017; D: Rian Johnson, S: Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Benicio del Toro, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran

The First Order, ruled by Leader Snoke, is encroaching the rebels who try to restore the Galactic Republic. In the meantime, Rey is on the island, trying to persuade Luke Skywalker to help the rebels, but he wants to die in isolation so that the Jedi will die with him, claiming their legacy is the one failure. Kylo Ren captures Rey and brings her to Snoke. But then Kylo double crosses the Emperor and kills him with a light saber. Kylo tries to persuade Rey to destroy the whole past, both the Jedi and the Empire, and start anew, but she refuses and returns to the rebels. In a First Order attack on the rebel base on a salt planet, Luke's hologram tricks Kylo into buying the rebels time to escape. Luke then disappears on the island. Rey, Leia and the remnants of the rebels flee in the Millennium Falcon.

It seems the post-modern moral relativism and revisionism has reached even the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy, ruining it even there by suddenly presenting everything, even the classic good vs evil story as something relative and vague. Episode VIII, "The Last Jedi", seems almost as if it was directed by Red Letter Media. It is a cynical destruction of the entire "Star Wars" legacy. It is a disappointment because the main hero, Luke Skywalker, is a disappointment. "Puella Madoka Magica", for instance, was an intelligent deconstruction of the 'magical girl' genre, giving it refreshing new ideas. It tried something different, but with a point and measure. "The Last Jedi", on the other hand, is not so much a deconstruction of the saga, as much as it is spitting on it. When Rey finally encounters Luke Skywalker on the island and gives him her light saber, he just throws it away and refuses to help her or train her. Moreover, Luke claims that he wants to die in isolation, so that the "Jedi religion can die with him". Then he goes to some alien walrus, extracts green milk from its tits and drinks it. For some reason, he cannot even finish any dialogue with Rey without walking away in the middle of the conversation, and thus, ultimately, by the end of the day, they barely complete five sentences after walking for three miles in circles. When Rey finally wants to hear the reason as to why he is rejecting her, Luke says that "the legacy of the Jedi is failure" and that they were "romanticized and mythicized", just because a Jedi trained Darth Vader. This is a complete reverse of his character arc from the original trilogy.

Just as "The Force Awakens" was an unworthy ending to Han Solo, so much is this an unworthy ending to Luke Skywalker. He achieved all these Jedi powers only to in the end waste them. Worst of all, it makes no sense: even if Luke were to reject the Jedi, he would have surely reacted to Han's death and immediately went to help his sister, Leia, who is in danger. This incarnation shows Luke as a fake friend, a lost man without any purpose. Ultimately, one cannot shake away the impression that this "Star Wars" sequel trilogy took the wrong direction and that there could have been better ways to continue the saga, since the authors obviously did not have a grand strategy nor did they carefully plan the storyline beforehand. For instance, Episode VII showed Rey's visions of her parents, only for Kylo to tell her that her parents were ordinary junkyard people. These and other strange turns of the story leave these narratives feeling inconsistent, since every new movie negates the previous one. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson takes a lot of risks, which gives the movie a few surprises, and some of them result in a few good moments. There is a plot twist some 100 minutes into the film involving a villain that is so incredible and unbelievable that it is better than anything done in all of the prequel or sequel trilogies, and one cannot believe how the producers allowed Johnson to get away with such a delicious treat. Also, some ideas were clever, such the viewers finding out what would happen if a spaceship would deliberately crash into an Empire spaceship at the speed of light, or the humorous moment when Luke orders Rey to close her eyes and reach out in order to try to "sense the Force", only to tickle her hand with a stalk of grass. Unfortunately, when the concept of a story is bad, even these good moments cannot save it. Maybe this can be seen as a commentary on the destructive nature of nihilism, yet it contaminated the entire film. Imagine a sequel to "Ghostbusters" in which Peter Venkman claims that the Ghostbusters are frauds and that ghosts don't exist? Or a sequel to "Rocky" in which Stallone went to an island, and when one of his friends asks for help to train him, Rocky replies that boxing is for stupid people and that he is now a ballet dancer? Luke in "The Last Jedi" is very close to that misguided scenario. Because, if the main character does not care about anything, why should the viewers care?

Grade:+

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Sopranos (Season 1)

The Sopranos; crime drama series, USA, 1999; D: John Patterson, Alan Taylor, Allen Coulter, Dan Attias, S: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Nancy Marchand, Jerry Adler

New Jersey. Tony Soprano is a mobster who is under great stress lately: his marriage with Carmela is on thin ice; he tries to hide his criminal job from his teenage kids, Meadow and Anthony; his senile mother, Livia, refuses to be sent to a retirement home; the main boss, Jackie, dies from cancer, leaving the new mob hierarchy under question. After suffering several panic attacks, Tony decides to go see a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. He confesses his problems to her, but leaves out the fact that he is in the mafia. Back at home, Tony decides that the new boss should be his uncle, Junior. However, after several quarrels with him, and upon finding out he is seeing a psychiatrist, fearing Tony might have revealed mafia secrets, Junior decides to assassinate Tony. In turn, Tony prepares for a counter-attack with his men, Paulie and Christopher, but this is interrupted when the FBI arrests Junior and his gang.

"The Sopranos" is one of the most hyped, awarded and critically acclaimed TV series of its time, yet it is—at least in its 1st season—still a little bit overrated. The concept of a mafia member trying to juggle with the criminal activity and his family life has already been explored several times before, and thus the only two new ingredients added to this formula are the subplot where the leading character, Tony, goes to a see a psychiatrist (which was later on copied in the comedy film "Analyze This") and the interesting insight that a mafia boss, Junior, would be too ashamed to admit that he gives a woman oral sex, yet the rest of the storyline does not hold up that well. "The Sopranos" became the "new kids on the block", signalling a new era in which HBO decided to give cable TV cinematic proportions, allowing for nudity and violence, but also mature themes, seemingly without any censorship, which would pay out royally some 10-15 years later, when mainstream movies became stories for kids, and TV shows stories for grown ups. However, grown up or dark themes cannot carry a whole story alone, and there are thus shortcomings and omissions in the first season of "The Sopranos". It takes on too many unnecessary subplots and side characters, dwelling too long with empty walks instead of getting to the point faster. Maybe there are conclusions in later seasons, but this one still seems a notch bellow all the hype. The only three truly excellent episodes are 1.5 and the finale in 1.11 and 1.12. Episode 1.5 works marvelously precisely because it does not rely on later episodes or directors to "complete the picture", but sets up a clear point and a pay-off from start to finish by following Tony who brings his daughter, Meadows, on a trip to browse a college, only to find a "snitch" in a town and try to assassinate him without his daughter noticing anything.

An occasionally inspired dialogue graces the screen ("Have you heard of the Chinese Godfather? They made him an offer he could not understand!"; in episode 1.2, Martin Scorsese shows up at a party, and one of the fans shouts: "Kundun! I liked it..."; "Octavian became Augustus..." in episode 1.6; when Junior tells Mikey that Tony is seeing a psychiatrist, they have this exchange: "I knew it it!" - "No you didn't! I just told you!"; when a greedy gangster music producer listens to a bad musician performing in front of an audience in episode 1.10, he just comments: "I like any music that turns shit into green.") and they are welcomed. Likewise, some surreal images here and there give the season spice, such the pilot episode in which Tony, in his bathrobe, enters the swimming pool to feed ducks in it, or Christopher's dream sequence without a sound, except for his dialogue with Emile whom he killed, in episode 1.8. The actors are all great, especially James Gandolfini who delivered the role of a lifetime as a character who is both scary and likeable, depending on the situation, as well as Jamie-Lynn Sigler as his teenage daughter who sees through his ploys. Producer David Chase also seems to give a commentary on oligarchy, arguing how nobody can make a few steps in this world without going through a web of various interests of several groups, who all clash and try to dominate each other, building a system where fear and violence are the only forms of meritocracy, a one in which the upper class controls the lower class (the weak and the innocent). The 1st season of "The Sopranos" is something of a case study of the problem of some modern TV shows—there is a great climax in the finale, but the viewers have to sit through 10 hours of overlong, laborious set-up to finally get there, which is not for everyone, instead of either cutting the unnecessary details or making these early episode interesting already from the start.

Grade;++

Friday, January 5, 2018

Animal House

Animal House; comedy, USA, 1978; D: John Landis, S: Peter Riegert, Tim Matheson, John Belushi, Tom Hulce, John Vernon, Donald Sutherland, Stephen Furst, James Daughton, Verna Bloom, Karen Allen, Kevin Bacon

Faber University, '62. Freshmen Larry and Kent try to enter the Omega fraternity, but fail to become members because they are judged unworthy. They thus enter the Delta fraternity, instead. The Deltas are lead by the most unrepresentable students, including Otter, Boon, Hoover and Bluto, and thus their house is full of drunks, wackos and motorcycles. Dean Wormer hates the Deltas and just waits for a pretext to throw them out. Niedermeyer, from the Omegas, terrorizes the students, so Bluto scares his horse that drops dead. Professor Jennings sells drugs whereas Boon ends a relationship with a girl. Since the Deltas have bad grades, the Dean expels them, so they take revenge by creating chaos on a street parade and later on actually find good jobs.

An early work of the director John Landis (excellent "The Blues Brothers" and "An American Werewolf in London"), this comedy about naughty University students beat all expectations when it became a smash hit and the 6th highest grossing movie of the decade, topping even the box office results of "Superman", "The Godfather" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". The humor here is broad and vulgar, but also frequently hilarious. In the opening act, freshman students Larry and Kent arrive at the house of the Delta fraternity and immediately witness their outrageous behavior when a puppet is thrown out the window, beer cans are constantly flying into the walls while motorcycles drive through the stairs. The Dean and his assistant have this exchange: "What is the worst fraternity on this campus?" - "That would be hard to say, Sir. They are each outstanding in their own way." When Larry is in bed with a girl, a small devil appears on his left shoulder, trying to talk him into using her, while on his right shoulder, an angel appears that tries to talk him out of it. And "National Lampoon" was probably the first movie that introduced one legendary joke that was copied a thousand times over the next decades: the one where someone hides an insult (*bullshit* and *eat me* in this case) inside a cough. Too bad all the characters are only of episodic nature, including the ostensibly leading role of Boon, which makes the story wonder all over the place in search for some focus or a lead to follow, ending up inevitably slightly chaotic and disorganized. Still, it has its moments for those who like 'slob comedies' where anything goes and there are surprises, and John Belushi is in good shape as the obnoxious Bluto, while the head writer was Harold Ramis, who would hereby start his movie career.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Calvary

Kalvarija; drama / grotesque, Croatia, 1996; D: Zvonimir Maycug, S: Miran Javorović, Mato Pavelić, Vedrana Likan, Roswitha Mir, Dubravko Sidor

Under the pretext of writing an article about a village, a journalist travels from Zagreb to Desinić, to meet Slavko, his secret gay lover. Slavko lives in the Desinić castle, but earns his money by playing a harmonica. He is also in an unhappy marriage with his wife, yet they have two kids. The journalist sleeps with Slavko's daughter, claiming he loves her because she loves him, as well, much to Slavko's dismay. When the aunt catches Slavko and the journalist naked in bed, she dies from a heart attack. The journalist is engaged to the daughter, but her ex-fiance, a butcher, is jealous. The butcher stabs and kills someone in the journalist's bed, but neglects that he actually killed Slavko's son, Ivan, instead, under the blanket. The whole village blames the journalist and starts a hunt for him, armed with guns. Slavko wants to shoot the journalist, but stops when he finds out that his daughter is pregnant. The journalist and Slavko make up, while the mother manages to revive Ivan by praying to the cross.

Zvonimir Maycug's third film ultimately turned out to be his last one, since the distributors refused to distribute the movie in cinemas, which lead to the director's bankruptcy and a decision to never direct again. That's a pity, because even though "Calvary" is a weak achievement, it is nonetheless one of the most bizarre movies of all time, a one that blends a secret gay relationship, a ghost in the castle, a gluttonous woman eating as much as she can, J. Belushi and "Animal House" style as well as a "Rambo" like action finale in which the villagers even use a bazooka (!) to shoot at the journalist, causing a car and a hut to literally explode, which secured the film cult status: not since Takeuchi's "Wild Zero" was there ever such an insane "coming out" representation of a story that does not care about any rules, but just to serve its author's wishes. The levels of madness and trash are almost unbelievable to fathom, which is why this is a 'guilty pleasure' that abounds with unintentional humor.

One of the most demented sequences, with intentional humor, is when Slavko and the journalist are naked in bed, and the journalist jokingly announces: "I predict that your wife is going to enter this room soon and see us naked in bed, which will cause her to kill us with a chainsaw!" Ironically, just a few minutes later, someone indeed enters the bedroom, but it is the aunt, and she is carrying a knife, with the intent to truly kill them - but dies herself from a heart attack - with the nude journalist joking: "She died the way she always wished from God: by seeing male genitals!" The storyline just keeps listing unnecessary details and side characters, which do not play any role later on in the film. What was the purpose of the aunt praying to Veronika Desinić, and the latter's ghost to show up in a wedding dress, only for the ghost to not do nothing later on? What was the point of the overweight woman who eats in the tavern, if she does not play any role later on? What was the point of a woman who was infatuated with the journalist ("Will I get promoted?" - "Only over my naked body!") at the diner, if she does not play any role later on? Or the teddy bear sequence? It is curious how there is no billing during the closing credits, and thus Slavko is the only character with a name, while for all the others, it is unknown who plays whom among all these nameless characters. If there is one aspect on which "Calvary" works, it is a commentary on the religious bigotry, and through it fundamentalism and fanaticism of any shape, in this small community that refuses to accept people who are different. As ludicrous and exaggerated as all this is, there are some truths about this theme of intolerance. Likewise, the the locations are exquisite, since Slavko's family lives inside the Desinic castle. "Calvary" is a batty film that takes itself way too seriously, yet its enthusiasm and flaws are somehow strangely appealing.

Grade;+

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Character

Karakter; drama, The Netherlands / Belgium, 1997; D: Mike van Diem, S: Fedja van Huêt, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman, Victor Löw

The Netherlands during the 20s of the 20th century. Dreverhaven, an egoistical bailiff, has been found dead and stabbed, and thus the police interrogates one suspect, the young Jacob Katadreuffe. Jacob tells them his life story: he was born when his mother, Joba, was raped by Dreverhaven when she was his maid. Joba raised Jacob in poverty, refusing Dreverhaven's money or support. As a grown up, Jacob hanged out with Communists and tried to escape from poverty by opening a tobacco store, but became a victim of a fraud because a seller sold him the boxes filled with straw. Jacob finds out his loan came from Dreverhaven, so he decides to study law to pay his debts. When it is found out he knows English, he is employed in the office by Mr. Gankelaar. After graduation, Jacob had a fight with Drevehaven, but then left. The police concludes that Dreverhaven committed suicide, and also that he left his entire inheritance to Jacob.

The director's Mike van Diem's adaptation of the eponymous novel is a refreshingly quality made film from the Dutch cinema, establishing a tight pace without any empty walk that engages the viewers and never let's down despite its running time of 120 minutes. "Character" establishes an interesting father-son relationship, contemplating how their stubbornness of their character, their refusal to give in and try to change leads to an unavoidable crash, gaining a lot thanks to excellent actors, some neat stylistic touches (in one sequence, a judge is about to slam his hammer in the background, but stops and is interrupted when Dreverhaven's hand slams a pedestal in the foreground, since he is angry at the "postal war" between himself and Joba, who refuses to accept his money through the mail) and an occasional strong, electrifying line (when Jacob finds out that he might lose a court case when he is informed that he owes a merely 15 guilder, his boss and friend, Mr. Gankelaar, immediately offers to donate that amount in order to save him. Jacob refuses and wants to give up outside the court, but then stops when Mr. Gankelaar shouts in front of all the people: "Who taught you this pointless self-punishment?! You will accept my money as a gift! Because someone who cannot accept a gift, cannot give anything back in return, either!"). An overall very well made, clever, elegant and ambitious film, except maybe for the rather shaky ending that was not quite thought out: the authors wanted to show that nothing in these characters is black and white (that Drevehaven is not completely bad, since he donated all his money to Jacob; that Joba, the mother, is not a "saint" since she stubbornly refused to talk things out which ruined her life and the lives of others; that Jacob became heartless in his goal himself) yet this "character twist" turned out rather contradictory, inconsistent and confusing, since some of the previously established details do not add up.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Teleport Zovko

Teleport Zovko; science-fiction comedy short, Croatia, 2013; D: Predrag Ličina, S: Linda Begonja, Krešimir Mikić, Bojan Navojec, Ana Stunić

In 2048, the teleportation services are finally available in Croatia. A husband and wife, together with their two children, thus arrive at the premises of the "Zovko Teleport" in order to try out their services, but are disappointed that they cannot go to Vis because there is still no installation at that island. They thus decide to go to Dubrovnik, instead, but are informed that the nearest teleport installation is at Čepikuće, and they will have to travel 30 km by foot to Dubrovnik. Also, they have to be teleported naked, but when the mother accidentally leaves her metal cross around her neck, the installation makes an error and teleports her to Međugorje in '81, where the kids mistake her for the Holy Mary.

Excellent science-fiction comedy short "Zovko Teleport" is a refreshing departure from the grey 'social drama' genre in Croatian cinema, using its futuristic setting as a clever commentary on the mentality of Croatia and the Balkan area in general: even though the technology is making huge progress, some sleazy deceits and dishonest frauds remain always the same (for instance, the family believes the commercial add that they can get teleported anywhere, only for the secretary to explain to them that they cannot go to Vis because there are still no installations on that island yet). It also seems to be a satirical jab at Croatia's prolonged accession into the EU, actual at that time (the family discovers that they can only be teleported while naked, because Croatia is still not a member of the International Teleport Network, with the technician going: "We still need to wait for another seven years! But Serbia will probably never enter!"), as well as some trends in society (such as the Yuan is the acceptable currency). The movie is only 17 minutes long, but it conquers thanks to some delicious dialogues (when the father spots the teleportation devices, he compares their "cheap look" with some "contemporary art"), great actors, an inspired premise as well as a grand comical ending that spoofs the Međugorje apparition, Predrag Licina's "Zovko Teleport" is a story that was clearly assembled beforehand to work faultlessly from start to finish.

Grade:+++

The Chicken

Kokoška; drama short, Croatia / Germany, 2014; D: Una Gunjak, S: Iman Alibalić, Mirela Lambić, Esma Alić, Mario Knezović

During the siege of Sarajevo, the 6-year old Selma gets a live chicken from her father, who goes away to fight in the Bosnian Army. The girl is saddened by the chicken in the bathroom and sets it free through the window. Her mother thus has to catch the chicken outside, while a Serb sniper shoots at her. The mother returns to the apartment, kills the chicken with a knife and prepares a meal for Selma and her sister.

Una Gunjak's directorial debut is a realistic, 'raw' 15-minute drama short that depicts a survivalist tale about a family during the siege of Sarajevo, almost as a mini-document or a small 'slice-of-life' story during these kind of crisis times. The depiction of humiliation of the mother and her two kids who cannot get out of the apartment out of fear from sniper fire is palpable, though it is presented in a neutral and objective manner, while it also contemplates about some dark aspects of existence, from the one in which the stronger try to kill the weak (the sniper fire that opens on the mother) up the observation that in order to survive even those weak have to kill others (the gruesome sequence in which  the mother uses a knife to kill the chicken in the bathtub in order for her family to have something to eat). It is a small episode from their life, with too much unnecessary shots in the first half, yet it works nonetheless.

Grade:++

Monday, January 1, 2018

The King's Speech

The King's Speech; drama, UK, 2011; D: Tom Hooper, S: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce
London. Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York, has a problem that has been plaguing his entire life: he stutters. In order to finally cure him, his wife, Elizabeth, persuades Albert to visit the office of a certain Lionel Logue, who claims to have had success in treating stammer. Albert at first wants to give up, but changes his mind after he hears a recording of his own voice while reading Hamlet. As time goes by, Lionel is able to relax Albert and make him talk smoothly. It turns out that Lionel is not a doctor, but an actor, yet his methods work: Albert is proclaimed King George VI and gives an important speech about the British declaration of war against the Third Reich during World War II.

Even though curing stuttering is not exactly a 'high concept', "The King's Speech" turned out to be a good, unassuming little film about the topic that showed how sometimes little things in life, such as normal talking, are often taken for granted and have an unobtainable, precious status among people who do not have it. The biggest virtues are the two splendid actors, Colin Firth as Prince Albert, and Geoffrey Rush as the sympathetic Lionel who tries to cure his stammer, but also turns out to be a good friend who likes to listen to his problems (Albert complained how he was left-handed, but that his parents forced him to become right-handed, which is often the case with people with stutter problems; also mentioning how he was teased by his family for his speech): their friendship and loyalty has some emotional honesty and understanding that is pleasant to observe as it unravels through time. Some of Lionel's methods are humorous, as well, such as when he persuades Albert to wobble his lips or to swear to "relax". Still, nice as all of this is, the topic is not enough to carry the entire film, especially not at a running time of 120 minutes, and after an hour the inspiration is gone, leaving the authors forced to resort to artificially prolonging the entire second act, which is often unexciting and uneventful. As it was the case with Frears' "The Queen", it shows that the Royal family is not the most thankful topic to be translated into cinema. The last hour is tiresome and bland, losing that charm from the opening act, yet, as it was often the case with movies from that time, it included the "World War II card" at the end, which immediately enabled it a surge among the award seasons, which gave this good film misplaced superlatives among the award categories.

Grade:++