Sunday, April 29, 2018

Rocky 2

Rocky 2; sports drama, USA, 1979; D: Sylvester Stallone, S: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Tony Burton

Even though he lost the boxing match against Apollo Creed by a single vote of the judges, Rocky Balboa cannot complain: the girl he loves, Adrian, accepted his marriage proposal, and with the money from the match, they bought a great new home. However, the money is quickly running out, as Rocky refuses to engage in boxing anymore since the match left him with an injured eye. He thus has to accept humiliating jobs, including the one of a janitor. Still, due to a mountain of hate mail from fans who think he was bribed to be too lenient towards Rocky, Apollo publicly challenges Rocky to a re-match, in order to show that he can knock out the Italian boxer. Rocky vehemently agrees, and is again trained by Mickey. Adrian gives birth. In the match, Rocky fights, and this time manages to win against Apollo.

Even though many were skeptical towards the prospect of a sequel, especially with him taking over on the front of a director, as well, Sylvester Stallone managed to prove himself when "Rocky II" turned into a surprisingly good film in which he succeeded to drain a few more moments of quality, before the film series would later sink into the sea of repetitiveness. The story is more or less a rehash of the 1st film, yet Stallone is still surprisingly effective when he plays his Rocky Balboa as a charming and humorous guy: upon being released from the hospital during winter, he walks Adrian into the Zoo and tries to propose her: "Adrian, I was wondering, like, what do you think you're doing for the next 40-50 years?" Adrian is perplexed and asks him to repeat the question, upon which he takes her earmuff off and asks her: "Will you marry me?" When she agrees, he joyfully cheers and even jokingly talks to the tiger in the cage ("Hey, we are getting married! Do they let you out during the weekends? I'll send you an invitation!"). After the wedding, Rocky and Adrian go to bed, and she says a loving sentence to him: "You'll never get tired of me?" These are probably the sweetest and most tender moments of the entire film series. Burgess Meredith is once again excellent in the dignified role of Rocky's mentor and trainer, Mickey, whose support goes way beyond the professional, and into the personal: there is a great little moment just before the boxing match, when he finds Rocky in the church and says a fantastic line ("If you wanna blow this thing, if you wanna blow it, then damn it, I'm gonna blow it with you. If you wanna stay here, I'll stay with ya."). The subplot involving Adrian falling into a coma is too melodramatic, whereas the narrative does feel slightly contrived into repeating a match with Apollo, yet the ending is electrifying and cathartic (especially when both Rocky and Apollo fall on the ground), making "Rocky 2" a rather worthy continuation of the original story.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Tribe

Plemya; crime drama, Ukraine, 2014; D: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, S: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikov, Roza Babiy, Oleksandr Dsiadevych

Sergey, a deaf lad, is a new student at a boarding school for the deaf. He is quickly forced to integrate into a local gang, "The Tribe", and join other teenagers who rob people in a train or simply earn money by sending two girls as prostitutes to have sex with truck drivers. Sergey is assigned to be the next pimp of the two girls, but is attracted to one of them, Anna. They have sex. She gets an abortion. He assaults a teacher and robs his place, giving the money to Anna before forcing sex from her on her bed. When the two girls get passports to travel to a foreign country, Sergey tears Anna's passport, and thus the gang hits his head with a bottle. The next night, Sergey sneaks into the shared bedroom, takes two heavy closets, and crushes the heads of the four boys who were part of the gang.

An extremely raw and astringent film experience, this art-drama is a highly daring little film that decided to follow a logical thematic step and present the world of the deaf through a story without any dialogues or even subtitles, thereby demonstrating the world of the protagonists. A lot of kudos should be given to writer and director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy who decided to go through this brave experimental approach and set up "The Tribe" almost as an silent film. The cinematography and  camera drives are very modern, especially in several long tracking shots of the main character, among them when the camera follows him descending from a hill, entering an apartment complex, knocking the professor unconscious and then going from room to room to try to find some money from his place. At least two sequences are very difficult to sit through: one is the agonizingly long, ugly and dark moment of Anna having an improvised abortion by an older lady, sitting on a bath tub, and the other is when the main character secretly enters the boarding school at night, then the bedroom of the two boy criminals, and then simply kills them by crushing one's head with a closet, and then the other one's head as well: nobody can hear anything, anyway, since they are all deaf. However, Slaboshpytskiy decided to craft the entire film in long takes (allegedly there are only 34 cuts in the entire film), yet this might have been a mistake: since there are no words and no subtitles, "The Tribe" should have relied more on telling the story visually, with more cross-cutting, details and close up shots to elaborate on the characters' feelings. A majority of the scenes are done in wide shots, and thus it is sometimes difficult to decipher what is going on in particular scene or to follow the story. For instance, when Sergey and Anna have sex, it comes as a surprise since there was practically no interaction between them. This would have worked if he relied on close-up shots and detailed gestures between them, of them interacting, but it seems rather "far-flung" in this edition. The director understood the sign language very well, but still did not quite fully understand the movie language in order to better present this story.


Sunday, April 15, 2018


Sholay; action / western, India, 1975; D: Ramesh Sippy, S: Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, Hema Malini, Jaya Badhuri 

Gabbar is a notorious criminal whose gang descends from the hills to repeatedly attack a small village in the valley and force them to give them food. Thakur, a retired police officer, summons two small-time crooks, friends Veera and Jai, who are in their 20s, to hire them to capture Gabbar and end his reign of fear. Veera and Jai at first plan to rob the safe and flee, but change their mind when they see how villagers suffer from Gabbar's thugs. Moreover, they discover that Thakur once arrested Gabbar, but the criminal escaped from prison, killed Thakur's three children and his grandchild, and then cut both of Thakur's hands. In a battle around Gabbar's outpost in the hills, Jai is killed, but Veera manages to capture Gabbar. Thakur wants to kill Gabbar with his feet, but stops and hands him over to the police, instead. Veera leaves the village in a train, but falls in love with Basanti, a carriage girl.

One of the highest grossing and most popular Indian films of the 20th century, "Sholay" is a 'Hindi-Western' that manages to encompass some universal themes about humanity (friendship, honor, loyalty, problem of evil) and translate them into its own mentality. A blend of the "Seven Samurai" (except that there are only two protectors of the village here, and they are both young lads wearing modern 70s disco clothes and jeans) and "48 Hrs.", "Sholay" somehow manages to pull this bizarre syncretism through, but owes a lot of its influence to S. Leone's style since director Ramesh Sippy crafted a few surprisingly effective hypnotic-lingering-absorbing shots that give it weight, many of which are reminiscent of "Once Upon a Time in the West", whereas the score by R. D. Burman is great: while at first it may seem too simplistic, it grows on you with time. The main villain, Gabbar (excellent Amjad Khan) is a remarkably strong character, and even though he appears very late, over an hour into the film, almost every sequence he is in is great: he has a frightening presence, an embodiment of a survivalist, extreme authoritarianism and violent selfishness. One memorable sequence, which plays out in his open base on the hill, has him line up three of his henchmen as a punishment for failing an asignment, in front of his entire gang, and taking a pistol. He says: "Six bullets are not worthy for these three men!" and then shoots three shots in the sky. With three bullets left, he then plays roulette and decides to randomly aim and pull the trigger at the three henchmen from behind—yet all three triggers were empty. Gabbar then turns around and jokes that these three are "very lucky" and then everyone starts to laugh in relief—but then violently turns back and pulls the trigger three more times, this times discharging bullets and killing the three, anyway.

Even though it is a classic western and a 'good vs. evil' story, "Sholay" is puzzling to audiences of the West for also straying away from this genre and randomly traversing to different levels, including slapstick comedy, dance and a love story. One of the most bizarre comedy episodes is the segment where Veera and Jai are in a prison run by a warden who has a moustache and mannerisms of Hitler (!), but whose authority is often disrupted by clumsiness (a pigeon flying right in front of his face); Veera driving a bicycle by sitting on it backwards in order to impress girl Basanti whereas there are four pseudo-musical sequences present, one of which involves Gabbar forcing Basanti to dance for him on the canyon. While some have criticized it for being a "patchwork", "Sholay" is a film that shows how, even in the worst hardship and loss, life is never black-and-white, and always has some small moments of color and happiness hidden somewhere which should be included for a broader picture. The highlight is arguably the long sequence in which Takhur's all three grown up children are shot and killed near their house, while the suspense is heightened as the little grandchild spots Gabbar on a horse with a gun, slowly descending towards him from the hill, juxtaposed with a swing that is slowing down on swinging, and stops in tune to Gabbar final shot. The shot composition in that sequence is exquisite. "Sholay" is flawed: with a running time of three hours, it is overlong; some of its hectic camera zooms and camera drives are too shaky; some of its elements lean towards the exploitation genre, yet Sippy limns every character with a purpose, until the satisfying conclusion, creating a movie world that is its own and unique, regardless of all limitations. If all these ingredients worked in the 'Spaghetti-Westerns', there is no reason for them not to work even in India.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Code Geass (Season 1)

Code Geass; animated fantasy series, Japan, 2006; D: Goro Taniguchi, S: Jun Fukuyama, Takahiro Sakurai, Yukana Nogami, Junko Minagawa

In an alternate Universe, Japan is invaded and annexed by the Empire Britannia, and subsequently given a derogatory new name, "Area 11". Now second class citizens in their own homeland, the Japanese strive for resistance and independence. Lelouch, an exiled teenager of Britannian blood whose mother was killed and sister Nunally left in a wheelchair, swears to his friend Suzako that he will get rid of Britannia. One day, he gets caught up in an armed clash involving a military vehicle, and opens its tank only to find a mysterious green-haired girl inside, C.C. The girl gives him a magical power, known as the "Geass": he can order any person to do whatever he says, but it can be used only once per person, and he has to look that person directly with his right, red eye. Lelouch is surprised by this new power, puts a helmet on and builds up a new identity as Zero, who commands The Black Knights, a group of rebels who want an independent Japan. They use giant robots to fight Britannians. However, things get complicated after Suzako joins the Britannians ranks, thereby getting in direct conflict with Lelouch.

Following the end of broadcast of "Death Note", a giant void was left on Japanese television, which just cried for a successor to try to fill the shoes of that instant anime classic about a special power that changes the world. "Code Geass" was seen as the closest attempt at that time, following a similar concept in which a complex protagonist-antagonist gains a special ability in order to challenge the establishment and achieve his goal, in this case "Geass", the ability to command anyone whatever he tells him or her to do, though it can be used only once. This ingenious premise offered an interesting commentary on some historical figures who come out of nowhere yet inexplicably rise through the ranks, becoming leaders in some groups, but it did not fully exploit all the rich potentials of such a juicy set-up—at least not in the 1st season—though it still has its moments. The 1st episode establishes that awe, when Lelouch is cornered by a dozen Britannian soldiers who aim their guns at him, yet decides to test his "Geass" and thus just orders them to shoot themselves, instead—and is surprised when they actually comply and commit mass suicide.

However, unlike the highly intelligent approach of "Death Note" that never tries to appeal to the wide audience, "Code Geass" does not reach that high level of authority, neither in style nor in execution, among others due to some banal, cheap elements (the rebels pilot giant robots, though this "mecha" genre is utterly unnecessary for this kind of story and disrupts the storyline through its heavy-handed action sequences; an occasional "fan service" moment in the Academy; some silly scenes, such as the episode in which Lelouch chases after a cat that stole his helmet in the Academy; a giant robot rotating a giant pizza at the school festival in episode 21...), as well as too many characters, of which not all are that memorable. The highlights are always connected when the anime is focused on this special concept. For instance, in one episode near the beginning, the rebels are caught in a battle with the Britannian army, and Lelouch/Zero simply goes to the enemy command center, "Geass"-tells a guard to simply let him in (!) and then goes directly to the commander, whom he "Geass"-orders to tell the army to surrender (!), and then simply shoots him. Another great moment is when Lelouch/Zero is seen interacting with Britannian commander Darlton, in episode 22, and this comes full circle during the battle in episode 24, when commander Cornelia, in her robot, is just about to kill Zero in his robot, but is suddenly pierced by a giant spike—thrown by her own subordinate Dartlon, who is confused why he is doing this. The fact that Zero "Geassed" Dartlon off-screen in episode 22, to attack his own superior if Zero is about to lose, is simply an exquisite checkmate and gives this plot twist intensity and spark. More of such moments would have been welcomed, though, since too much time is spent on Lelouch's internal conflicts, which are never on the same intensity as when he is using his "Geass". Simply put, "Geass" is more important than Lelouch, and not the other way around, which is rather indicative.


Monday, April 2, 2018


Mayabazar; fantasy, India, 1957; D: Kadiri Venkata Reddy, S: S. V. Ranga Rao, Savitri, Akkineni Nageswara Rao, N. T. Rama Rao, Gummadi Venkateswara Rao, Chilakalapudi Seeta Rama Anjaneyulu

Ancient India. Princess Sasirekha is in love with Abhimanyu, but their relationship is under trouble: uncle Shakuni from the Kaurava clan cheats in a game of dice, thereby tricking the Pandavas and stealing their fortune. This gives Shakuni the power to blackmail Balarama into giving his daughter Sasirekha to the Kauravas, specifically to Duryodhana's son Lakshmana Kumara. However, Krishna decides to subtly intervene to save the couple: he redirects a carriage driving Abhimanyu into a forest where he meets Ghatotkacha. Using his magical powers, Ghatotkacha takes Sasirekha out of Kauravas palace, and instead takes her exact form to cause mischief before the wedding. Pretending to be Sasirekha, Ghatotkacha eats all their food and scares off Kumara. By standing on a magical box, Shakuni tells the truth about his trechery, and thus Ghatotkacha banishes him and the Kauravas by tying him up in a carpet, while the real Sasirekha and Abhimanyu marry.

One of the most popular and beloved Indian films of the 20th century, filmed in both a Telugu and Tamil version, "Mayabazar" feels a little dated and stiff by today's standards, thereby losing a part of its initial charm. With a running time of three hours, the movie is definitely overstretched, and it takes too long until it finally sets up its first act, yet the basic story is actually simple—a couple is in love, but feindish people want to trick the girl's family into giving her to them—whereas once the hilarious genie-like Ghatotkacha shows up (brilliant S. V. Ranga Rao), some 60 minutes into the film, and decides to advance into a patron of the couple and help them out, the whole story rises up a level higher thanks to humor that was inserted into it. The special and visual effects seem modest and scarce compared to modern movies, yet the viewers should still commend the authors for the effort of trying them out, since part of them turned out solid (the "path of fire" that goes through the forest to encompass the carriage; Abhimanyu shoots an arrow and it hits and stops a club in the mid air that Ghatotkatcha threw at him from a hill...) whereas at least one idea achieved cult status in India: a magical box whose lid can be opened to display a screen from the inside, and show images of a given person, which is today jokingly referred to as the "first example of a laptop". The highlight is the last quarter of the film, in which Ghatotkacha changes his shape into Princess Sasirekha (!) in order to cause mischief as her double and stop the forced-arranged wedding: some wonderful comical moments include (the fake) Sasirekha suddenly revealing hairy feet, singing in a deep, crispy male voice, causing all the maids around to look at "her", until "she" coughs and corrects it back to "her" feminine voice; Kumara taking the veil down to see "Sasirekha's" face, but "she" just makes a grimace with her eyes and sticks out her tongue; "Sasirekha" turning her face into a tiger to scare Kumara off or squeezing his hand in a handshake. The actress playing her, Savitri, is amazing, especially in this "mischievous" segment. "Mayabazar" sometimes feels rushed, naive and it takes very long until it gets to the good parts, yet its sincere messages about true love and assistance still ring true today.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Psycho-Pass: The Movie

Psycho-Pass: The Movie; animated science-fiction thriller, Japan, 2015; D: Katsuyuki Motohiro, Naoyoshi Shiotani, S: Kana Hanazawa, Tomokazu Seki, Hiroshi Kamiya

Tokyo, 22nd century. It's been four years since the death of criminal Shogo Makishima. The Sibyl system is still operating in Japan. Its police officer, Akane, is sent on a mission outside the country, to South East Asia Union (SEAUn), to find Kogami, her colleague who disappeared. She arrives to SEAUn's capital, atol Shambala Float, which aims to become the first importer of Sibyl system outside Japan in order to ends its bloody civil war and bring stability. The war is waged between the dictator Han and his commander Wong on one side and the rebels who want democracy. Akane encounters Kogami who joined the rebels and finds out SEAUn's army all have critical, criminal Psycho-Pass levels, but are concealed because they are useful to the system. In the ensuing fight, Wong is killed. Akane finds out that Han has been killed and replaced with a robot-clone by Sibyl in order to export its system throughout the world. Kogami escapes while Akane returns to Tokyo.

The movie spin-off of the critically recognized anime series "Psycho-Pass" is a proportionally well made achievement that changed the setting from Tokyo to a (fictional) foreign country, yet still stayed faithful to its theme of "techno-Totalitarianism", as well as all the intelligent, ambitious and subtle ingredients that go with it, already established in the series. A small minus is that it builds up a fast pace without much explanation, and thus viewers unfamiliar with the show will be utterly lost as to what it happening and who is after whom. Another perplexing thing is that the story is rather grey and schematic at times, with only some occasional "lively" moments that 'twitch' it from this bleak-monochromatic atmosphere: one of the best is the sweet "stolen" scene in the opening act in which Akane punches air with her fists while talking with Ginoza about catching Kogami ("Punch him for me." - "No need for that. I'll bring him here, so you can punch him... yourself!"). As with the series, the storyline presents a futuristic world in which technology paved a whole new set of possibilities for convenience (one scene shows a girl looking at herself in the mirror, while her futuristic dress changes colors until she finds the one she likes), but also the possibilities for dictatorship through dangerous infiltration of technology into the private lives of people. It may also be a sly allegory on the Syrian Civil War (in the fictional state of SEAUn, engulfed in a civil war, dictator Han is using the "Poisoning-the-well" and demonization arguments by labeling every rebel automatically as a "terrorist", which is mirrored when mercenary Desmond cynically says that "violence has been privatized" and that the "state now has a monopoly on violence") and on corruption and dishonesty in general (Kogami jokes by posing the question what would happen in the Psycho-Pass criminal levels would be used to scan dictator Han, as well). A somewhat stilted and too serious, though undeniably clever and ambitious film adaptation of the series.



Creed; sports drama, USA, 2015; D: Ryan Coogler, S: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad

Los Angeles. Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate child of the deceased boxing champion, Apollo Creed. Adonis travels to Philadelphia and persuades Rocky Balboa to train him to be a boxer. Adonis also falls in love with a singer, Bianca. During his first match, he scores a win, much to Rocky's satisfaction. However, Rocky is diagnosed with a form of cancer, but refuses to undergo chemotherapy. Adonis manages to change his mind and persuade him to undergo the therapy. During a boxing match, Adonis holds up for several rounds. The judges award his opponent, Conlan, the title, but Rocky is still proud of Adonis and wows to train him further.

It is ironic that in 1 9 9 0, when the Rocky franchise was nearing its end with "Rocky V", a new beginning was unexpectedly rising somewhere else in the mind of the then 4-year old Ryan Coogler, who would 25 years later renew the film series with an informal 7th part, "Creed", that unexpectedly received wide critical recognition and achieved a rare treat: Slyvester Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor, the first time in history that an actor was nominated for that award for playing the same character after a time pause of 39 years. Truth be told, "Creed" is a little bit overrated and not quite worthy of the hype: the training sequences are routine; several examples of "over-editing" in the opening act are superfluous; Adonis' love story with Bianca is pale whereas the boxing sequences have no passion, emotion or ingenuity, except in the exciting finale that ends on a surprisingly sober tone. Some fans have even complained that "Rocky Balboa" was the right ending of the franchise.

Still, the story in "Creed" works thanks to the friendship and loyalty of these two characters, Rocky and Adonis, who have enough charm and comraderie to carry the film. It is not quite extraordinary, just variation of the previous films about one character mentoring the other to prepare for the match, yet some quotes of wisdom or pathos help to elevate the mood. One of them is when Adonis finally meets Rocky and asks him how he managed to beat Apollo, upon which Rocky replies: "Time beat him. Time, you know, takes everybody out. It's undefeated." The final match is also exciting, because Rocky is puzzled as to why the severely wounded Adonis insists on continuing the fight: "I have to prove it!" - "Prove what?" - "That I'm not a mistake!" It was somewhat predictable that the screenwriters would resolve to the "terminal-illness" sympathy card, when Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, yet his character is above that cliche due to some hiden wisdom in him: one of the most remarkable ones is his philosophy that Creed is not competing against the others, but only against himself, which transforms him in a state beyond victory or loss as he is just proving how far he can go, sumed up in one great line near the finale: "Hey, hey, it's *you* against *you*. He's just in your way. Get him out of the way!"