Saturday, September 29, 2018

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet; romance, UK / Italy, 1968; D: Franco Zeffirelli, S: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Pat Heywood, Milo O'Shea, John McEnery, Robert Stephenson, Michael York

Verona, 16th century. Two families, the Montagues and Capulets, are bitter enemies. However, two teenage offspring of the rival families, Romeo and Juliet, meet and falls deeply in love. They hide this relationship and marry in secret. When Tybalt from the Capulets goes into an argument with Romeo, this escalates into a sword fight in which Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo's friend. Romeo then slays Tybalt, escalating the tension between two families. The Capulets decide to marry Juliet to Count Paris. Desperate, Juliet listens to a questionable advice by Friar Laurence and drinks a fake poison in order to fall into a fake death for two days, but later awaken and escape. Her family lays her body in a tomb. Unfortunately, Romeo did not know of this plan: when he finds Juliet in the tomb, he commits suicide by drinking poison. Juliet awakens and, upon seeing her Romeo dead, kills herself with a dagger.

One of the most popular and critically recognized adaptations of William Shakespeare's most famous play, Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" is an excellent movie transformation that achieves a rare double strike: it is both worthy of its literal source as well as of its cinematic movie language. While Shakespeare's words tend to be archaic, convoluted and too theatrical for today's times, his "Romeo and Juliet" finds him in his most inspired edition: a beautiful romantic prose floats during the entire story, revealing a true romantic poet. Remarkably, Zeffirelli achieves that the movie seems fresh and modern even today, and kudos should be given to the two brilliant, wonderfully genuine and sincere leading roles. Olivia Hussey is especially overwhelming and enchanting as Juliet, so much that she melts you away: rare is the treat in the movie world that an actress appears in her very first leading role and already achieves the performance of a lifetime. Leonard Whiting is great as Romeo as well. They first feel attracted to each other, but later discover something more, that they are soulmates. The whole story is a testament of this miracle: how something so pure, so full of love appeared in the world, regardless of how rare it is.

The movie is very faithful to the play: when Romeo meets Juliet, there is this wonderful "flirty" exchange ("Don’t saints and pilgrims have lips too?" - "Yes, pilgrim, lips that they use in prayer." - "Let hands do what lips do.") before he puts his palm of the hand on hers. Afterwards, there is again an inspired quote before they finally kiss ("From my lips, by thy, my sin is purged." - "Then do my lips now have the sin they took from yours?" - "Sin from my lips? Oh, trespass sweetly urged. Give me my sin again."). The balcony sequence is also easy to identify with, with Juliet sitting on it in her nightgown, as she finally encounters Romeo in the garden again. As he is about to depart, he gasps: "Will thou leave me so unsatisfied?", as she gives him that look that says a lot. Afterwards, he runs happily through the forest, and jumps to kick a branch from excitement of this encounter, and the whole sequence rings true and honest. Zeffirelli even allows for a quick, yet effective erotic scene in which a naked Romeo is sleeping besides Juliet in bed, connecting to the wild, revolutionary 60s spirit that rocked that era. The authors managed to break free from the standard mold of the source that was told a thousand times before, almost as if they act it out completely spontaneously, untrammelled with every move they make, leaving a lasting legacy in cinema.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Repentance

Monanieba; satire / drama, Georgia, 1984 / 1987; D: Tengiz Abuladze, S: Avtandil Makharadze, Zeinab Botsvadze, Ia Ninidze, Ketevan Abuladze, Edisher Giorgobiani, Merab Ninidze, Nano Ochigava

A small Georgian town. Ketevan, a pastry girl, hears that the autocratic ex-mayor of the city, Varlam, has died. After the funeral, people are shocked that his corpse keeps showing up, leaning on to a wall. The perpetrator is found out to be Ketevan, who keeps digging up Varlam's corpse, claiming he does not deserve to rest in peace. She tell her story at the court: as a young girl, Ketevan, and her parents, artist Sandro and Nino, witnessed how Varlam became the new mayor. Sandro begged Varlam not to destroy an old church, claiming it is a cultural heritage. Varlam showed up at Sandro's home and performed for him. Later on, though, Sandro was arrested and charged with being the "enemy of the people". Varlam's subordinates kept arresting scores of innocent people, always searching for new invisible enemies. Finally, after pestering the authorities about Sandro's fate, Nino was arrested and disappeared as well. Back in present, Abel does not want to accept that his father, Varlam, was a criminal. However, his child, Tornike, accepts that and commits suicide. Shocked, Abel digs up Varlam's corpse himself, and throws it down a cliff.

One of the unknown classics of cinema, Tengiz Abuladze's excellent satire is a colossal allegory on Stalinism, appearing during 'Perestroika', a time when the Soviet Union was cutting all ties with its inconvenient Stalinist past, yet the film still seems remarkably fresh, relevant and potent even today, since it achieved that desired timeless feel. Already from the opening scene in which a man in a brown uniform takes a piece of cake in the shape of a church and eats it, one gets the impression that "Repentance" is not your 'run-of-the-mill' art-film: Abuladze jokes around with several surreal images and ideas (for instance, even though it plays out in the present, all the guards of the authorities wear a knight's armour, symbolizing their medieval methods of oppression; during an interrogation sequence, a woman in a white robe playing a piano suddenly puts a blindfold and holds a balance and a sword, mimicking Lady Justice), yet they all have a point, a meaning and lead to a conclusion near the end. Varlam, even though he is modeled after Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria, is the symbol for all the monstrous dictators that have plagued humanity throughout history: "Repentance" is thus one giant commentary on the mental disease that is Totalitarianism, but through it, implicitly, also on sheer egoism, a state where people in power cannot admit that they are wrong, and thus everyone who is not of their opinion is predictably eliminated.

Abuldaze crafts the character of Varlam surprisingly subtle: near the beginning, Varlam is almost charming and seems to listen to Sandro, yet his threatening persona is all the more palpable when the artist suddenly gets arrested and Varlam holds a revealing speech: "It's hard to catch a black cat in a dark room - especially if it is not there. But we will catch the cat in the dark room, even if it's not there". The interrogation sequence involving Sandro has some genius quotes ("What good can the persecution of the innocent do for the common cause?" - "There's irrefutable proof that every "innocent" one is the enemy of the people.") and the absurdity is even done to the tenth of power when Mikhail "admits" that he was "digging a tunnel from London to Bombay", yet such laughter quickly turns very bitter when they both get convicted, anyway. Kovačević's "Balkan Spy" could go in the double-bill with "Repentance", since they both cover the same topic of the insanity and paranoia of Stalinists. The storyline is set up economically, simple, yet its 'invisible' style is still sharp: Varlam is a symbol for the criminal past, Abel for the present denial and teenager Tornike for the future generation which, ironically, has no future as long as it does not throw away its burden, admit its mistake and finally grow out of this atavism.

Grade:+++

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins (Season 1)

Nanatsu no Taizai; animated fantasy action adventure series, Japan, 2014; D: Tensai Okamura, S: Yuki Kaji, Sora Amamiya, Misaki Kuno, Aoi Yuki, Tatsuhisa Suzuki, Jun Fukuyama, Marina Inoue, Yuja Uchida


Fictional Kingdom of Britannia, Middle ages. Ten years ago, the Holy Knights, led by Hendrickson, banished and eliminated the Seven Deadly Sins, seven knights who were alleged to have plotted against the king. However, soon the Holy Knights stage a coup d'etat and overthrow the king themselves, so the king's daughter, Elizabeth, flees and seeks the help of the Seven Deadly Sins. She first meets the short, blond Meliodas and his talking pig, Hawk, who are running a tavern as a disguise while searching the rest of their team. They encounter the other Sins: Diane, Ban, King, Gowther, Merlin. After Elizabeth gets kidnapped, the Sins attack the capital. It is discovered that Hendrickson injected demon blood into himself and the other Holy Knights and that he plans to break the seal and unleash demons again into the human world, hoping to have an enemy, and a purpose, for the Holy Knight. Meliodas defeats him and saves Elizabeth, while the king rehabilitates the Sins.

"The Seven Deadly Sins" are an anime series that starts off far better than it ultimately ends up to be. The first two episodes are so fantastic, fresh and creatively fun that you immediately ask yourself: "How can they possible keep up such a high level for the rest of the story?" Unfortunately, they  cannot: the remaining 22 episodes are good, but routine. The first two episodes shine: a damsel in distress, Elizabeth, is looking for one of the eponymous Sins, Meliodas, in a tavern led by a short, blond teenager and his talking pig. Meliodas is depicted as a tall, dashing man with a goatee on a wanted poster. Throughout the entire episode, the name of the mysterious blond guy is never brought up. However, just as a knight thug chases and attacks Elizabeth, demonstrating his power that can level a quarter of the forest, he is confronted by the blond guy who defeats him. As the Holy Knight is catapulted in the sky, his armor destroyed, the blond guy then finally reveals his name—his image is "frozen" with a caption saying: "Meliodas, the sin of Wrath". And then the episode ends, with such a great, epic and cool cliffhanger. The 2nd episode also has grandeur thanks to a 'tour-de-force' sequence in which the evil Holy Knight Gilthunder throws a spear at a village located far away from his castle, but Meliodas intervenes, spots the spear in the sky and grabs it from a cliff: it plunges him into the village where it destroys half a house, but Meliodas is able to stop the spear and prevent any further casualties. Meliodas then catapults the spear back with equal ferocity, and it hits the castle, causing an explosion, hitting Gilthunder's chair—missing his head just by an inch. Unfortunately, once it builds up the viewers' appetite, waiting for further such 'tour-de-force' moments leads to no avail: "Sins" are riding on a false momentum for the rest of the storyline, exhausting its potentials from the start.

The anime basically undergoes a "Dragonball-ization", offering endless fights, wrestling and clashes, but they become boring and tiresome since the style and inspiration from the start is never repeated. The protagonists are stabbed, impaled or thrown through the walls several dozen times, almost "Tom & Jerry"-style, but since they always use their superpowers to regenerate again, there is no real tension or stake in these fights. It as if they are made of rubber. Another problem is that each subsequent episode introduces at least one or two new characters, overcrowding the podium, with no sense of timing or measure, while the old characters are forgotten and neglected. This is especially jarring in episode 12, where, all out of the blue, Elizabeth's older sister, Veronica is introduced, but killed in the same episode: the viewers cannot invest themselves into Veronica since she is just one of thirty characters that just come and go without any time to "grow roots" into the storyline. Episodes 9-11 are just empty filler, introducing a fighting tournament which the protagonists have to attend in order to get Diane's weapon, a hammer, as a prize, yet it ends in an illogical plot point: only the Sins are left, but instead of just faking it to not waste time battling each other and get the hammer, since they will get it as a team no matter who of them wins, Ban and Meliodas actually fight for real (!) as if their life depends on it. Other ideas are misguided: why is Diane a giant? It makes for a very inconvenient feature when she interact with the other Sins, and serves no purpose later on. She could have had normal height. A few better moments show up here and there, yet only in small crumbs: for instance, Ban, with a beard, escapes from prison, Jericho attacks him by wielding a sword, but it turns out she only managed to "shave" him, since he is invincible for the rest of his body. While the animation is beautiful (the two characters of Meliodas and Elizabeth are drawn irresistibly cute) and the main theme interesting—the good guys are actually bad guys who are fighting against the bad guys who are actually the good guys—"Sins" should have spent more care on its style and fun than its empty fights which seem standard. Ultimately, it is an anime that just pretends to be great, while it is truly great only in the first two episodes.

Grade:++

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Servant

The Servant; psychological drama, UK, 1963; D: Joseph Losey, S: James Fox, Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig

London. Tony, a rich nobleman, hires Barrett to be his butler. While Tony spends his time with his girlfriend Susan, Barrett routinely cleans up his apartment and cooks. One day, Barrett takes in a young girl, Vera, claiming to be his sister. Tony falls for Vera and sleeps with her. Upon returning one night early to his home, Tony is shocked to find out Barrett having sex with Vera, who is actually his fiancé. Tony throws them both out of his home. Susan leaves Tony. He later meets Barrett again who begs Tony to return as his butler, since he is broke. Tony accepts, but Barrett refuses more and more to clean up after Tony. Vera shows up, claiming that Barrett ostensibly told her to fool Tony. Unable to live without Barrett and Vera anymore, Tony passively allows them to do whatever they now want in his home.

One of Joseph Losey's most famous and critically recognized films, "The Servant" is an engaging psychological-allegorical drama that gets more and more unsettling with its running time, until its almost Polanski-esque ending. The simple story about an Aristocrat and his butler serves as a slow-burning commentary on the (subtle) clash between the upper and lower class, and on the urge for dominance as a whole, with the finale showing a secret "revolution" in which the upper class is overthrown in a shift of powers: just as Barrett was at first dependent on Tony for money, now Tony is dependent on Barrett who becomes the new "man in charge". However, this transformation in the ending is somewhat chaotic and unclear, since its triggers were not quite determined. Is Tony dependent on Barrett because of his suppressed gay side? Or because he needs Vera after Susan left him? Either way, the ending is contemplating that it is not only important who owns what, but also who owns whom. One of the strongest metafilm touches is the sequence on the stairs near the finale, where Tony and Barrett constantly exchange their positions—first one is above the other, then the later ascends the stairs while the former descends down—to show the shifting of their power positions. Losey has a very good shot composition, using fluent camera drives and a wide lens to create an engaging mood. Several moments are very expressionistic, as well, such as the grotesque sequence where Tony and Susan return home early at night, and then quietly enter to listen to Barrett's and Vera's hedonistic enjoyment in the empty apartment, "Risky Business" style, with the shadow of a naked Barrett even appearing on the wall, framed by the light coming from the door. While it has a few omissions, "The Servant" is a strong essay on the human tendency to exploit the other in order to rise through the ranks.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero; comedy / satire, USA, 1944; D: Preston Sturges, S: Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn 




World War II. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith has been pretending that he is out of the country for a year, fighting in the Pacific, in order to oblige his mother, yet in reality, he was discharged from the army right from the start due to hay fever. In a bar, he buys a beer to six Marines back from the Battle of Guadalcanal, so the thankful Sergeant Heffelfinger decides to help him: they will return to his hometown, pretending that Woodrow really fought with them. Back home, Woodrow is shocked at the parade of the people in his honor, as well as the decision that he should run for Mayor against Mr. Noble in the upcoming election. Woodrow also finds out his girlfriend, Libby, is engaged to someone else. At a convention, Woodrow finally admits he never served a day in the army. He prepares to leave the town, but the people invite him to run for Mayor, anyway, amazed at his honesty.

Preston Sturges' final film for Paramount is a biting satire on World War II mythomania, a pathological tendency to exaggerate and tell lies in the name of patriotism, exposing them as a trait of people who want to cover a void in their empty lives, which reaches almost a universal message (the film is practically an accidental parody of the reputation of Ahmadiyya Jabrayilov). However, "Hail the Conquering Hero" is not particularly funny, exhausting its inspiration at face value of this concept, since the second half, in which Woodrow is pressured to run for Mayor, seems almost "off-topic", as if this political subplot was shoehorned into the story. Moreover, the character of Woodrow's live interest, Libby, is very underwritten. William Demarest almost steals the show and easily outshines everyone in the supporting role of Sargeant Heffelfinger, who does not shy away from bending the truth. One of the best jokes is near the start when he tries to order six beers at a bar and intend to pay it with, as he claims it, "General Yamatoho's tooth", but the bar owner beats him to the chase and presents numerous mementos that he already has ("MacArthur's suspenders! The first bullet that landed in Pearl Harbor... you can take your pick. A piece of a Japanese submarine.And if you look at it this way, it becomes a German submarine. And this way it's a piece of a shell that just missed Montgomery!"). The second best joke is the sequence where he is trying to persuade the coiled Woodrow to accept his role and play that he is a war hero who fought with them ("They want heroes? All right, we got six of them! All right, we throw a seventh for good luck, who's counting?... Who's telling lies upfront? Everyone of those boys is telling the truth, except they changed the names a little so as to not give out military information!"). Unfortunately, nobody else of the characters is even half as captivating as him. While somewhat abridged, "Hail the Conquering Hero" still has its moments of brilliance that will appeal to both the audience and the critics.

Grade:++

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Lady Bird

Lady Bird; tragicomedy, USA, 2017; D: Greta Gerwig, S: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Timothée Chalamet, Lois Smith

Sacramento, 2 0 0 2. Christine, who gave herself the nickname "Ladybird", is a teenage outsider preparing for her last day at a Catholic high school. She often clashes with her overcontrolling mother, Marion, while Christine's dad is in depression since he lost his job, complicating her plans to attend an expensive college in New York. Christine's best friend is the chubby Julie. Even though she falls in love with Danny, Christine is angry to find out he is actually gay. Nonetheless, she loses her virginity with another guy, Kyle. She also prepares to star in a school play. Due to an argument, Marion refuses to say farewell to Christine before the latter departs for New York, which she regrets. In New York, Christine is lost, but enters a church and then phones her parents to express her gratitude.

A nostalgic and gently cynical 'coming-of-age' tale, this unassuming little bitter-sweet comedy film is a semi-biographical essay without a clear storyline, instead relaying more on a 'slice-of-life' style that just follows the protagonist through life as she learns something along the way. Writer and director Greta Gerwig emulates several events from her teenage life in "Lady Bird", which thus feel genuine, whereas she has a lot of support from the leading performance, the excellent Saoirse Ronan, who already advanced into a classic actress by that time. One of the best jokes is Christine's and Jenna's prank in which they "decorate" the automobile of the nuns with a "Just married to Jesus" sign; when Christine screams on the street after experiencing her first kiss; when Christine is acting all "tough" at the store where he brother Miguel works at ("In here, I'm not your sister, I'm a customer!") or when she has a comical line after being intimate with her boyfriend for the first time ("How we are not virgins anymore. We deflowered each other."). Some omissions bother, though: the story structure feels strangely rushed, hectic and chaotic at times (especially the preparations for the stage play, which barely last several seconds of vignettes); some side characters are neglected (brother Miguel; Danny, whose gay side is suddenly mentioned but never brought up later); the ending is a little inarticulate (Christine lost in New York could have been a great little subplot on its own right) whereas some scenes of Christine arguing with her mother sometimes feel too melodramatic. It is a wonderful, very good film, refreshing in its humanity and emotions in an era of movies of special effects and sequels, yet it still missed some deeper inspiration to be considered a true classic of teenage comedy tales among the ranks of "Daria", "Heaven Help Us" or "Juno". One sequence illustrates this: in preparation for a play, the priest gives this challenge to the students: "Who ever cries first, wins". He himself then starts sapping first. And then it just cuts to another scene? A very abrupt shift. A true master, though, would have elaborated this interesting sequence even more, to not let it just randomly disappear like that.

Grade:+++