Thursday, May 31, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War; fantasy action, USA, 2018; D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, S: Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt (voice), Pom Klementieff, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Don Cheadle, Peter Dinklage, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, William Hurt

New York. Despite all their differences, Iron-Man / Tony Stark, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Black Panther, Vision, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Winter Soldier, augmented by the "space calvary" in the form of Peter Quill and his Guardians of the Galaxy—Drax, Gamora, Groot, Rocket and Mantis—join forces to stop the autocratic Thanos, who wants to collect all eight Infinity Stones, which would make him the most powerful being in the Galaxy and make his vision come true, namely to save the Galaxy from decay of overpopulation by killing half of every living intelligent life across all the planets. Despite their enormous efforts, Thanos gets the final Mind Stone and activates the disintegration of half of all life across the Universe, causing many of the Avengers to simply disappear.

Despite many believing that the story could not grow anymore in scale, the 19th film in Marvel's Cinematic Universe film series, which started a decade ago, "Avengers: Infinity War" decided to set the bar even a notch higher, handing over a movie diptych whose ambition attempts to make it the "Ben-Hur" among the superhero movies. While its epic scale certainly is colossal, its character interactions, ingenuity and versatility of events are still as thin and simplistic as all the previous comic-book films, making it seem like an overblown bubble at times. One of the major problems the screenwriters had to face was how to construct a story that would encompass 18 heroes (!) in one, since each one of them had to say at least a couple of lines, threatening of rendering the entire story overstuffed with babble or excess, as it was the case with "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", yet screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely managed to assemble a surprisingly well crafted script that always keeps its balance, adjoining just enough lines to everyone—except for the underused Black Widow, Captain America, Falcon and Winter Soldier, who just did not get anything more than a few minutes of screen time.

Luckily, the Guardians of the Galaxy did not disappoint since all their scenes are the most fun in the entire film: the dramatic talk between Gamora and Quill is deliciously interrupted when they hear Drax eating nuts and realize he was listening to them the entire time, whereas Quill's argument with the Avengers is refreshing ("Flash Gordon? That's a compliment. Don't forget, I'm half human. So that 50% of me that's stupid that's 100% you!"). The second most lively character is once again Tony Stark / Iron-Man (very good Robert Downey, Jr.), who also manages to eclipse many other stiff-grey characters and rise through the ranks thanks to his wit: near the opening, when the two aliens show up in New York in order to get the Stone, he just says to them: "We're sorry, the Earth is closed for today!". Certainly, the visual effects team tries to make the action sequences equally as engaging, but they fail since this kind of wit is far more direct, whereas the constant CGI overkill makes some battles look like a video game. Even the villain, Thanos, is not presented as a 'run-of-the-mill' bad guy who just wants to conquer the Universe just for the sake of his egoism, but a more complex personality who has a weird philosophy that there needs to be a balance in the Universe, and that half of all life across the planets has to be killed to stop the decay of overpopulation. However, this is still illogical: if Thanos now has the magical Infinity Stones, including the Reality and Time Stone, and can do anything, why not simply change, expand and re-write the entire Universe so that this overpopulation is not a problem anymore? Why killing the sick if one has the power to cure them? These and other omissions somewhat clash with the more mature, dark content of the story—some of which is almost dancing on R rated territory—yet the film still marks a welcomed trend: finally, a big budget Hollywood film with a decent story and style.

Grade:++

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Moartea domnului Lăzărescu; drama, Romania, 2005; D: Cristi Puiu, S: Ioan Fiscuteanu, Luminița Gheorghiu, Doru Ana, Sterian Șerban


One Saturday evening, Dante Lazarescu (62) calls the ambulance because he is suffering both from a headache and stomach pain. While he waits for the ambulance, he calls his neighbors to ask if they have any painkillers. The ambulance finally arrives and the nurse, Mioara, directs Lazarescu to a nearby hospital, yet it is too crowded there due to a recent bus crash, so he is sent to another hospital. In the other hospital, the doctor suspects Lazaerscu has stomach cancer, but he sends him to a third hospital for a CT scan. After the scan, Lazarescu and Mioara have to go to a fourth hospital for a surgery of a hematoma, even though he has dysarthria and thus cannot clearly speak anymore.

One of the most significant movies from the Romanian New Wave, this dark and depressive drama explores the uncomfortable situation of helplessness and frustration of people who have to rely on the sad state of the public health care system in Eastern Europe where there are not enough doctors, nor funds, while the patients are treated as things, not as humans. Similarly like "Umberto D.", "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" also shows old age as an ever sinking state with no way of saving, yet the director Cristi Puiu did not conjure up that much ingenuity or sense for a richer spectrum of a viewing experience than just the one presented at face value: the film is too simplistic and banal in its structure, with no clear strategy of where it is going, exacerbated further by a sudden open ending that leaves nothing resolved. At 153 minutes, it is also unnecessary overstretched: the first 50 minutes could have been easily cut altogether, since they waste too much time on pointless scenes of the two neighbors waiting at Lazarescu's home, waiting for the ambulance to show up, when in fact the entire story could have started right when the ambulance arrives. When 10 sentences are used in something that could have been said in only one, then that is problematic. A few cynical lines aside ("You called an ambulance on Saturday. Don't expect them to come here soon!"), Puiu maintains a rather serious tone, yet lacks highlights. The title protagonist traverses four hospitals, yet only the third one offered some truly interesting moments in the sequence where a doctor is inspecting Lazarescu and asks him to name the objects he is holding: when he points at the watch, Lazarescu says "time", and when he points at a pen, he says "writer". As an indictment of the entire distorted system, where the doctors are either impolite or uninterested for their patients, the movie works, yet it can only go so far before it exhausts the viewers concentration due to its 'one-note concept', because it also plays out as a more boring, literal version of "Dr. House", just without its spark and energy.

Grade:++

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Room

The Room; drama, USA, 2003; D: Tommy Wiseau, S: Tommy Wiseau, Juliette Danielle, Greg Sestero

San Francisco. Johnny is a successful banker who is engaged to Lisa. However, Lisa is bored with him and has an affair with Johnny's best friend, Mark. Her mother advises her to stay with the financially stable Johnny, but Lisa is not interested. During a party, a suspicious Johnny finally finds out Lisa is cheating on him with Mark. Johnny goes crazy, takes a gun and shoots himself.

Some films disappear during their premiere, but later resurface and establish a puzzling cult reputation that transcends their limited background. Tommy Wiseau's feature length debut film, "The Room", should be included among them, since its reputation actually exploded a decade after its premiere and advanced into an Internet meme. While some critics resorted to superlatives to describe its alleged errors and disastrous mistakes, many of those comments were in fact exaggerated: nothing in "The Room" is particularly bad, but, sadly, nothing is particularly good, either. Its biggest sin is that is simply a bland, boring soap opera, a typical "girlfriend cheats on boyfriend" run-of-the-mill fodder, and nothing else, where nothing much happens and all the dialogues are so ordinary and melodramatic, without any ingenuity or creativity. It is basically an average flick, nothing different than TV-dramas from the 80s. However, the movie is still a 'guilty pleasure': it has some aura of bizarreness that makes all these predictable ingredients at least fun to watch. Much of this stems from some surreal, unusual and downright demented scenes and character's action that don't make much sense.

Director and writer Wiseau is fascinating persona: nobody knows when he was born, or where, but he somehow came to the US, gained a fortune, and made this film about the characters he doesn't understand. It's almost as if Wiseau is a man from the year 3000 who travelled back in time to the 21st century: he cannot understand these people, his actions are of an complete outsider, so he just tries to pretend to direct them into a drama because all the other movies from that time had these features. And yet, he has such sheer enthusiasm that one simply cannot get angry at him. One instance of his inconsistencies is the sequence on the rooftop where Mark tells a sad story about a girl who slept with a dozen men, so one of the guys got jealous and beat her up so much that she landed in a hospital. Johnny's reaction? He just laughs and then continues with some irrelevant anecdote. The best moments are precisely those where the humor was intentional: when Michelle enters and spots a guy in the room, she tells him "XYZ" ("eXamine-Your-Zipper") or the scene where Michelle is "slapping" Lisa with a pillow in a loving way. It is difficult to pinpoint Wiseau. Just imagine Godard, W. Anderson, J. Coen and Q. Tarantino, just even more autistic. And then imagine them without their creative-expressionistic style. And then imagine them directing just an ordinary soap opera story, but with themselves in the leading role. This comes close to "The Room": if it is a cult film, then at least it shouldn't have been so placid.

Grade:+

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Get Carter

Get Carter; crime thriller, UK, 1971; D: Mike Hodges, S: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, John Osborne, Tony Beckley, Dorothy White, Rosemarie Dunham, Britt Ekland

London. Hitman Jack Carter gets the permission of his boss, gangster Gerald, to travel to his hometown Newcastle for his brother's funeral, Frank. However, Carter decides to investigate since he suspects foul play: Frank namely died in a car accident due to drunk driving. Settling in a motel, Carter captures a man who was spying on him and forces him to give him a name of the assassin, but the trail leads nowhere. Frank's mistress Margaret also supposedly knows nothing. After landing in bed with a woman, Glenda, Carter accidentally spots a porn movie featuring Frank's teenage daughter, Doreen, who is forced to have sex with Albert and Margaret. Leading upon this trail, Carter kills Albert and finds out Eric was the one who killed Frank, since he wanted to persuade Frank to clash with gangster Kinnear. Carter catches and kills Eric near a coal mine, but is himself assassinated by Gerald's hitman, since Carter had an affair with Gerald's girlfriend, Anna.

Similarly like Melville's "The Samurai", Mike Hodges' "Get Carter" is also a raw, "clinical", cold, bitter, brutal and unglamorous minimalistic gangster film that has no association or sympathy with its main "hero", a hitman, here played brilliantly by veteran actor Michael Caine. The whole movie is all style over substance—its revenge story is rather standard; its dialogues are scarce are banal; its scale is confined to only one town—and its episodic structure is unusual—for instance, Carter aimlessly searches for the killer of his brother and discovers nothing all until 70 minutes (!) into the film—yet it has some rough energy that engages the viewers throughout. Kudos goes to Hodges who used the telephoto lens in an intreresting way in order to create a few remarkable, aesthetic shots and conjure up a feeling as if he is filming Carter secretly from a distance, but also to create a confusing, distorted effect of the hitman feeling 'out-of-place' in his own old hometown. The whole film seems modern even today, from its quick, naturalistic death sequences (Carter, for instance, just stabs a man, or throws him from a building, never lingering on violence longer than he has to) up to its several erotic moments (the highlight is probably Carter having "phone sex" with his mistress, Anna, to whom he says to take her bra off and touch her breasts), which caused quite a shock to some conservative movie-goers during that time. With the passage of time, Hodges proved right, since "Carter" achieved that status of both as a cult film and a classic, giving a synthesis of European art-films and American gangster films, whereas the plot twist at the end comes as a real surprise.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Mummy - The Night of Counting the Years

Al-Mummia; drama, Egypt, 1969; D: Shadi Abdel Salam, S: Ahmed Marei, Ahmad Hegazi, Mohamed Nabih, Nadia Lutfi, Shafik Nour El Din

Egypt, 19th century. The Horbat tribe has been secretly stealing artifacts from a site of the tomb of Pharaohs from Ancient Egypt and selling them to Ayoub for the black market. One lad, Wanis, feels guilt for such desecration of the ancient past. When Ayoub arrives once again in his ship, Wanis takes the artifact away from him, so Ayoub's men beat him up, while the merchant threatens that he will not be buying anything from the Horbat tribe anymore and that they will starve from poverty. Uflinched by threats to keep quiet, Wanis approaches a ship of the authorities at night and contacts the Inspector. Upon hearing all of this, the Inspector's crew arrive to the cave where all the mummies and sarcophagus were kept, and transports them to their ship in order to get them to the museum.

Even though it is often cited by numerous local critics as one of the best movies of the Egyptian, and even wider Arab cinema in general, "The Mummy", sometimes also titled "The Night of Counting the Years", is a hermetic-grey art-film that lacks true highlights or ingenuity, thereby not managing to shake off the impression of an "only" good film. Director Shadi Abdel Salam crafts the film without a clear tangle, or even a classic three-act structure, and thus the viewers might feel confused at times, especially in the abrupt ending, yet he still offers a few symbolic messages through the allegorical plot of modern Egypt surviving by exploiting and selling its glorious ancient past, presented in the concept of grave diggers who sell priceless ancient artifacts for a cheap buck. Wanis, the protagonist, serves as the conscience of the tribe, trying to persuade them to find another way, realizing that the ones who destroy their own past probably have no future. Salam uses a few aesthetic images that are reminiscent of Antonioni's feeling of isolation and despair, just set in the Egyptian culture, and some of them are indeed opulent (the bird's-eye view of Wanis walking towards the wall; a sail "sticking" out from over the dune, indicating a ship behind in the Nile; the finale of dozens of people carrying the sarcophagi over the hills, passing through the natives observing them), just as are some of the existentialist dialogues ("Afraid of feelings and memory." - "What memory? Remembering weakens the will."- "What will? The will to forget what was truth for me yesterday?" / "Stranger, my pain is the whole life I've lived..."). Still, this minimalistic style left a lot of characters underdeveloped, since everyone except Wanis is just an extra, making this a 'one-note concept' that needed more versatility.

Grade:++