Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Judge Priest

Judge Priest; comedy, USA, 1934; D: John Ford, S: Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Anita Louise, Henry B. Walthall, David Landau, Rochelle Hudson, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit

A small town in Kentucky, 1890. William Priest is a kind, amicable man who works as the only judge in the small town. When an African-American, Pointdexter, is charged before the court for stealing a chicken, Priest acquits him and even becomes his friend. Priest's nephew, Jerome, is in love with Ellie, but Jerome's mother objects to their relationship since Ellie's father is unknown. When some men make rude comments about Ellie's heritage, a certain Gillis attacks them to protect Ellie's reputation, but is charged with assault in front of the court. The Prosecutor, Maydew, makes sure that Priest is removed from the position of the judge for this case, citing conflict of interest, while Gillis is defended by Jerome. In order to help them all, Priest brings a Reverend to testify, who confirms that Gillis was a brave, noble man fighting in the Civil War, and that he is Ellie's father. Upon that, a patriotic feel breaks out and Gillis is acquitted of all charges.

One of John Ford's forgotten films, "Judge Priest" is indeed one of his 'lighter' achievements that isn't a classic, yet even in his weaker edition, the master director still has enough charm and spark to deliver a good film. A gentle, nostalgic 'slice-of-life' comedy, a one that tries to illustrate the life and mentality of small, but lovable people of the South at the turn of the 20th century, "Judge Priest" owes 90 % of its charm to its main actor, excellent comedian Will Rogers, who unfortunately died a year later, and thus some view this as one of his finest performances by pure default. In one the best moments, Priest wants to help Ellie get rid of a primitive suitor, Flem, in order to be with her beloved Jerome: the Priest thus hides behind the bushes and changes his voice to imitate, ostensibly, a conversation between two men talking about Ellie's jealous lover who is coming to shoot Flem ("There ain't a thing that I can do about it, my job don't start until they get him all laid out in the morgue..."), while Flem "accidentally" overhears everything while sitting at the porch, and congruently flees as fast as he can. While the episodic storyline is a tad overstretched, uneventful and without a clear purpose, all until the intriguing 20-minute finale in the courtroom, some dialogues still reveal that typical Ford-ian excellence (when accosted at trial by the Prosecutor, Gillis replies:"I ain't the one looking for trouble. But I ain't the one to run away from it, either!"), thus helping alleviate some less inspired periods of the narrative, while the actors are great.

Grade:++

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Why Does Mr. R. Run Amok?

Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?; psychological drama, Germany, 1970; D: Michael Fengler, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, S: Kurt Raab, Lilith Ungerer, Franz Maron, Hanna Schygulla

Mr. Raab is an ordinary drafting technician living a boring, routine life. He is married, has a kid, lives in an apartment and often endures long, accosted conversations with his mother-in-law when she drops by for visit. His life is uneventful: he goes to a store to ask for help in identifying a song he heard on the radio; his boss nags him; he and his wife are summoned in school because a teacher found their son lacking in concentration and comprehension skills; their neighbors drop by to chat. One evening, a woman drops by and talks loudly with Raab's wife. Raab cannot hear the TV from her and has to adjust the volume. Finally, Raab suddenly snaps, takes a candle holder and uses it to hit and kill the woman, his wife and their son. At work, the police discover Raab hanged himself in the toilet.

"Why does Mr. R. Run Amok?" stirred up quite a hype during its premiere by covering a dark topic of an ordinary everyman who seemingly leads a routine, average life until he suddenly snaps and goes on a killing spree, thereby contemplating about the ever unpredictable impulses of violence hiding in human subconsciousness, since they can resurface anywhere without warning. The movie was credited as being directed by both Michael Fengler and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, even though by some accounts Fassbinder spent only two days on the set, while an alternative source even claims that he didn't contribute to the film at all. Either way, it is a movie that is deceivingly static and quiet for 90 % of its time—except for the last 10 minutes in which the murders happen in the apartment, and thus this contrast between the peaceful and the violent creates a certain dose of anticipation, since the viewers know something bad is going to happen near the end.

The movie is filmed in long takes, with the camera "circling" to encompass a room, and there are only some 30 cuts in the entire film, thereby giving a sense of naturalism and an unbearably grey, uneventful routine. However, there are two problems with this concept. Firstly, these ordinary and boring dialogues are themselves ordinary and boring, and thus the viewers start losing interest after a while, since some richer director's intervention would have been welcomed. Secondly, the authors failed to give a sufficient motivation for Raab's action in the finale. While his life is indeed boring and lifeless, it is not enough to make his actions in the finale seem like a natural conclusion, and thus his "outburst" seems as if it came from a completely different movie. The only scene where his interior is explored is the one where his son reads a homework in which he observed a hawk in a Zoo, claiming the bird seemed "sad a trapped", while the camera lingers on Raab's face, indicating he identifies with his own "cage". Unfortunately, the story was not convincing in exploring the modern dysfunctional, destructive society since it failed to show a clear oppression, pressure or Raab's dream life that he would rather be in compared to the life he actually has. For example, in "Dead Poets Society", Neil studies to be a doctor, but his dream is to be an actor, and thus when his father forbids his dream, Neil commits suicide. Raab is nowhere as clear as Neil, and thus remains a rather vague character.

Grade:++

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Mother India

Bharat Mata; drama, India, 1957; D: Mehboob Khan, S: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Kanhaiyalal, Kumkum

Radha gets married to farmer Shamu. With time, they get four kids, but Shamu's loan from Sukhilala, a money shark, leaves them with a permanently bad contract that demands that Sukhilala takes 3/4 of their harvest each year. In order to survive, the couple decides to expand their farm, yet while trying to remove a giant rock from the land, it falls on Shamu's arms, which thus have to be amputated. As a disabled man, Shamu one night leaves the farm from shame and disappears. A flood destroys the village, causing a famine, two of Radha's kids die, but she decides to stay and rebuild the farm. As grown ups, their two sons, Birju and Ramu, are very different. When after numerous teasing of the girls one of them provokes Birju, he goes mad and attacks Sukhilala for his exploitation of their farm. Birju flees and returns with a gang of bandits to kill Sukhilala and kidnap his daughter Rupa during her wedding. Radha shoots Birju because she wanted to save Rupa.

Even though it is considered one of the most recognizable and famous Hindi films of the century, "Mother India" is an overrated soap opera whose three hours of running time brought it closer to boredom than to an epic. Just like the family's farm is exploited by a loan shark, the whole movie uses their suffering to exploit it to almost intolerable, exaggerated proportions, without almost any sense for subtlety, ingenuity or creativity in cinematic language. Its more complex themes cover abuses in lending and usury, delivering at least some thought-provoking ideas, such as when it is implied that Birju became grumpy and aggressive as a kid due to this poverty, and that this translated into his violent nature as a grown up, which ultimately made full circle when he takes revenge against the loan shark of the village. However, this can only go so far as an excuse, since Birju is a very unsympathetic, irritating character, and thus the audience in the end cheers more that he should get killed than the loan shark.

Actress Nargis is another virtue, giving a strong, dedicated performance as the allegorical mother who sacrifices herself completely for her children: the iconic sequence of her holding a plow and dragging it across the field is almost reminiscent of Jesus holding a cross, indicating at the symbolic burden that every person has to endure in his or her life. She even says: "It is easy to contemplate suffering when you are sitting at the throne". Moments illustrating her rural life include Radha sneezing while trying to pick up the spilled chili powder or holding her kids and possessions in the house on a wooden suspension, even though the water is up to her neck due to a flood, while a snake swims towards them, searching for a dry place from the water. Unfortunately, the majority of the story is banal, grey and one-dimensional, especially during the heavily syrupy moments in which the brute Birju just gets worse and worse, while his mother just loves him more and more: this 'undue love' causes dramatic boredom. The musical sequences are unnecessary, most notably during the unintentionally comical moments of the mother singing when she and Birju are walking in the forest, after having fled from a mob in the forest. The only interesting moment is the surprising ending, i.e. Radha's determined action, yet the viewers first have to plow their way through a melodramatic story to get to that good part at last.

Grade:+

Friday, October 19, 2018

Cinema Paradiso

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso; drama, Italy, 1988; D: Giuseppe Tornatore, S: Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attilli, Agnese Nano

Rome. Director Salvatore is surprised when he gets the news from his mother in Giancaldo, Sicily, that his old friend Alfredo has died. Salvatore has not been to his hometown for over 30 years, but still clearly remembers his childhood: as an 8-year old, Salvatore was fascinated by movies and often attended the only cinema in town, Paradiso, and became friends with its operator, Alfredo. Salvatore's father died in World War II, leaving his mother a widow. A fire burned the cinema, leaving Alfredo blind, but was rebuilt by a rich local. As a teenager, Salvatore became the new cinema operator and fell in love with Elena, but her father wanted her to marry a rich businessman's son. Alfredo advised Salvatore to leave the province and live in Rome, which he did. Back in Giancaldo, the now middle-aged Salvatore attends the funeral and discovers Alfredo's reel with all the cut movie kisses through the decade.

One of the most famous European films of the 80s, equally recognized both by the critics and the audiences alike, "Cinema Paradiso" is both a nostalgic semi-autobiography and an ode to cinema, a one that managed to rejuvenate the Italian film after a slump in the said decade. In a time when Fellini lost his touch, Tornatore stepped in and offered an "Amarcord"-like comic recollection of the past, just without the grotesque, and with a lot more innocence and emotions. Unlike other directors who tend to make movies as complicated and demanding as possible, Tornatore crafts "Cinema" as a simple, accessible story about growing up, yet his light touch also managed to subtly instill several genuine themes and messages about life, most notably about transience. Several humorous moments stand out the most: from the ultra-conservative priest who stages an early screening of each film at the cinema and rings a bell whenever he wants to censor a kiss, whereas Alfredo puts a sheet of paper on the reel which he will cut later, so the people in the audience later lament at the obvious lack of a scene ("I haven't seen a kiss on screen in 20 years!"), up to a moment of magical realism in which Alfredo turns the projector through the window to screen a movie on a wall of a house (when the house owner exits on the balcony, he is in the middle of the huge picture, causing the audience outside to shout that he should go back inside).

There are even a couple of metafilm touches in the story: a fire erupts at cinema Paradiso during the screening of the movie "The Fireman of Viggiu", while Salvatore's maturing emotions and love affections seems to parallel those of the maturing of the cinema that started to incorporate a few more adult, raunchy elements in the 50s. The elegant mood is completed by the enchanting, melancholic music by Ennio Morricone which is simply fabulous. The two hour version is better, since the director's cut is weaker, which is surprising: with a running time of three hours, the director's cut is definitely too long, lingering on some details until they become repetitive, whereas it also offers a twist ending that heavily pollutes the sympathy for the character of Alfredo, since it is revealed he demolished Salvatore's crucial relationship, which is an undue interference into someone's private life. As the famous scene of Salvatore watching all the cut movie clips of kisses that Alfredo assembled into a reel 'montage' illustrates, all the events, whether good or bad, will ultimately one day become just a collection of memories. The 'kiss montage' reel thus serves as one giant kiss to cinema, complimenting it as the ultimate storage device for these memories, framed in a movie, thus keeping it as a treasure for generations to come.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Jerk

The Jerk; comedy, USA, 1979; D: Carl Reiner, S: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jackie Mason, Mabel King, Richard Ward, Catlin Adams, M. Emmet Walsh

As a baby, Navin Johnson was left in front of the hut of an African-American family and raised by them. As a grown up, Navin is naive and stupid, and decides to head off to St. Louis after hearing great music broadcast on the radio. He finds his first job at a gas station, but after an assassin persecutes him, Navin finds another job at a circus, where he loses his virginity with Patty, a daredevil who drives her motorcycle through a ring on fire. He then meets blond Marie and runs away with her, but she runs away from him later on. He accidentally invents an Opti-Grab for glasses, and an entrepreneur shares 50 % of his profits of the invention with him, making Navin a millionaire. However, after Carl Reiner sues him because Opti-Grab causes crossed-eyes, Navin goes broke and lands on the street. He is found by his family and Marie and brought back home.

Steve Martin's debut as a leading actor in a feature length movie, "The Jerk" is one of those cheap populist comedies that think that the masses only laugh at the "Look at how dumb he can be!"-situations, and rarely does something clever come out of this concept of a stupid protagonist. Unlike many other of those "idiot comedies", which are vulgar and dumb, this one is at least only dumb, yet its 'hillbilly jokes' are a hit-or-miss affair: some work, some don't. The story is highly episodic and thus it seems as if there were four films glued into one: characters and events come and disappear as random as they appeared. One example: at the circus, Navin had sex with Patty, a daredevil woman who dominates him and forbids him to see any other women. However, he goes out on a date with the blond Marie. Patty shows up with her motorcycle, claims she is together with Navin, and then Marie punches her. Cut to a scene of Navin and Marie singing on the beach at night (?), without ever mentioning Patty again. Did Marie complain to Navin for seeing another woman? The strangeness of this sudden shift seems to suggest that there was another sequence that was cut from the finished film.

Later on, Marie leaves Navin, and again the motivations of her actions (and that of other characters) are never quite explained. However, it at least leads to one of the best jokes in the film, the one where a naked Navin takes two small dogs to cover his intimate parts, and exit the house to walk on the garden, looking for Marie. The best gag involves director Carl Reiner appearing as himself on TV, suing Navin because his glasses caused him to become cross-eyed, which caused Reiner to yell "Cut!" too late, with a clip showing an actor thus driving a car down a hill. Other jokes, while dumb, at least have a good punchline here and there. One such cartoonish example has Navin attaching a car with three robbers to a nearby church with a rope, but the robbers just drive away with a demolished portion of a church attached to them, anyway, albeit in a slow pace. Navin then describes the criminals to the police on the phone: "No, I didn't get their license number, but you cannot miss them: they are driving a blue Chevy pulling a part of a church". M. Emmet Walsh is sadly wasted in his random, thin role of a sniper assassin. While a solid film, "The Jerk" is still a rather lame comedy that builds its story on humiliating its lead comedian, by showing him in an edition beneath his dignity, instead of the opposite, in an edition with class.

Grade:+

Friday, October 12, 2018

F20

F20; thriller / drama, Croatia, 2018; D: Arsen A. Ostojić, S: Filip Mayer, Romina Tonković, Mladen Vulić, Alen Liverić, Lana Ujević, Alma Prica

Martina works as a pizza delivery girl in a joint run by her autocratic father, who became too protective of her after Martina's mother died when she was a kid. Martina often delivers pizza to Filip, a blond guy who often plays first-person shooter video games in an empty apartment. The two start a relationship. Her friend goes to the island of Pag for the Zrće party, but Martina's father forbids her to go there, as well. Martina thus decides to take her father's money and run away with Filip to Zrće during the night. However, unbeknownst to her, Filip suffers from paranoid schizophrenia: when Martina's ex-boyfriend attacks him in a night club, Filip shoots him with his gun. Filip then takes Martina hostage and forces a taxi driver to drive them to a cottage in the countryside. It turns out Filip killed his parents there. Upon chasing Martina in the woods, the police arrive and shoot Filip.

Considering that any genre outside the social drama immediately sparked interest in Croatian cinema for trying out something different, psychological thriller "F20" by Arsen Ostojic caught a lot of attention for being fresh and unusual. A lot of praise should be given to the two excellent actors in the leading roles; Romina Tonkovic as Martina, and especially the maestro Filip Mayer, the new hope of Croatian actors, who balanced a fine line between a psychopath and a normal, gentle person, refusing to succumb to typical cliches about people with schizophrenia on film. It should also be noted that "F20" signaled a point where the Croatian film lost its virginity: even though they are very brief, the two sex scenes are very modern and effective (one is when Martina is filming her sex with Filip in bed; the other is when Filip "takes" her from behind in his apartment). A few moments of black humor are also a plus point; in one scene, a police detective licks his finger and then touches his own nipple to "arouse" himself while watching a porn. In another, Martina is running and fighting for her life in the woods, while her oblivious friend is sending her selfies from the Zrće party beach. However, the movie works far better in the first half, as a love story, than in the second half, as a thriller, since some of its sudden outbursts of violence are not that inspired nor unique, settling for a rather predictable, standard finale with a "sudden", somewhat incomplete ending.

Grade:++

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Fourth Man

De vierde man; erotic psychological drama, Netherlands, 1983; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Jeroen Krabbé, Renée Soutendijk, Thom Hoffman, Dolf de Vries

Amsterdam. Gerard Leve is a cynical novelist struggling not only with alcohol, but also with his faith in Catholicism on one hand and his bisexual urges on the other. He arrives in a different city for a lecture in front of his fans, where he later meets the blond Christine. The two have sex at her home. However, Gerard has strange hallucinations during his stay in the city. He finds three film reels, plays them and is shocked that it shows Christine's three former husbands, all of whom died from mysterious circumstances: one died when his parachute failed to open; the other was killed by a lion; the third in a boat accident. When Christine's lover, Herman, shows up, Gerard warns him that Christine might be planing to kill her fourth husband. Gerard is also attracted to Herman and makes out with him at the cemetery. While driving, Herman dies when a hanging construction metal pierces him in the car. Gerard is traumatized in the hospital, while Christine finds a new lover.

Paul Verhoeven's final Dutch film before his departure to the US is a peculiar erotic psychological drama that is an "aborted thriller", since it starts with hints and foreshadowing of a danger (namely that the girl ostensibly intends to kill the protagonist, "black widow"-style), only to in the end ditch such a repertoire and consolidate itself into another, drama direction: the result is a clash of different genres and perspectives, and not a clear insight into what the movie truly wants to be. Already from the opening scenes of a spider crawling all over a crucifix, and the protagonist Gerard Leve (the name of the author of the eponymous novel) waking up from his bed, standing up to reveal his penis, one already gets the impression that this is not a 'run-of-the-mill' European film, confirming once again Verhoeven's fascination with the "lower" part of the social structure, similarly as was S. Imamura. There are also several creative moments: in one of them, Gerard stops an undertaker when he thinks he sees his name on a coffin, only for the undertaker to take the folded ribbon that says "Ger-ar" and 'straighten' it out, revealing the full name of the ribbon: "Guido Hermans". In another, while holding a lecture, Gerard tells to the audience: "I lie the truth". However, initial suspense elements fade away in the final third, since "The 4th Man" actually has a different theme: Gerard's hallucinations are actually one giant internal strife caused by his rift between the (conservative) Catholicism and his (liberal) gay attraction looming inside him, as well as his existential impossibility to comprehend the meaninglessness of death, so he tries to find patterns and explanations where there are none. This is summed up in his hallucination of seeing Herman on a cross in church, and pulling down Herman's underwear. While these bizarre elements stray too far away into several contradictory directions, "The 4th Man" is still an affective experimental film.

Grade:++

Monday, October 1, 2018

Landscape in the Mist

Topio stin omichli; drama / road movie, Greece / France / Italy, 1988; D: Theo Angelopoulos, S: Tania Palaiologou, Michalis Zeke, Stratos Tzortzoglou, Vasilis Kolovos

Athens. An underage brother and sister, Voula and Alexandros, board a train to Germany, but are caught by the conductor for not having tickets. At a nearby train station, the kids are brought to their uncle who explains to the policeman that the kids were told by their mother that their father is in Germany, but in reality, she just wanted to conceal that they are the result of one-night stands by unknown men. The kids do not want to believe this and run away to go to Germany, anyway. They meet Orestis, a van driver for a dissolving theatre group of actors who have no audience. The kids are picked up by a truck driver, who later rapes Voula. The kids meet Orestis again who has to sell his motorcycle. Finally, reaching the river on the German border, a security guard shoots at the boat with kids in it. The kids are seen walking on a meadow towards a tree.

By restructuring the old tale of people searching for something only to in the end never find it, found from the legends of the search for the Holy Grail up to Dorothy's journey in "The Wizard of Oz", director Theo Angelopoulos crafted an art-film about the futility of a quest, observing how life is everywhere the same and one cannot (geographically) escape from its problems and miseries, yet still understanding its two protagonists, the two kids, for attempting to find something unobtainable (here the illusion of an idealistic father). Angelopoulos crafts the film with elegant camera drives, often in 3-minute long takes, which is especially aesthetically pleasant in the scene on the beach, in which the camera pans across several actors preparing for their history play, until this is interrupted when a car stops in the background and a man runs towards them to tell that the audience isn't coming, only for the camera to complete its 360 degree turn to go to the kids observing this.

However, neat as these camera drives are, there is no clear strategy where this storyline is going, since it lost itself with too many "off-topic" subplots which stray away from its main theme, ending thus in isolated, episodic images which do not connect in the end nor do they offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience due to their sometimes "empty walk" and "empty talk". The image of a helicopter flying over the sea, carrying a giant marble hand attached with rope, is expressionistic, but it makes no sense and has no purpose in the story, and thus feels shoehorned. Of the two kids, Voula is arguably too young for this role: her actress, Tania Palaiologou, is 12 or 13 years old, but there are scenes (a truck driver rapes her in the truck, and she just emerges holding her skirt down and looking at blood on her fingers; Orestis wants to dance with her) that would have worked and made far more sense if she was at least a few years older, a teenager, and not a tween. Bizarrely, the rape is never brought up again, and thus it seems as if it came from another movie, like many other subplots, which just raise the suspicion that Angelopoulos had a good basic concept for a short film, but failed to properly develop it (the kids finally leave Greece only in the last 10 minutes of the film), and thus artificially prolonged it with rather overstretched, and misplaced subplots.

Grade:++