Friday, December 28, 2018

Earth

Zemlya; silent drama, Ukraine, 1930; D: Alexander Dovzhenko, S: Semyon Svashenko, Stepan Shkurat, Yuliya Solntseva, Yelena Maksimova, Nikolai Nademski

Ukraine during the beginning of Soviet collectivization. Grandfather Semyon dies, leaving the farm to Opanas and grandson Vasyl. The news of the mandatory collectivization is mixed: some farmers, mostly kulaks, would rather kill their livestock than to give it away to strangers, but the younger generation, led by Vasyl, embraces the change. Tractors are brought to the rural area, speeding up plowing for the harvest. One night, as he was dancing from joy, Vasyl was killed by an unknown assassin. Opanas holds a mass funeral for Vasyl, refusing priests or religion ceremonies. During the funeral, a man goes crazy and admits he killed Vasyl, while Vasyl's wife is in agony.

The last great Soviet silent film, "Earth" is a propaganda film that was elevated to something beyond, to a genuine, lyrical art-film thanks to the skills of director Alexander Dovzhenko who refused to focus only on the political dimension of the story. Remarkably simple, and yet so effective, "Earth" was enriched with aesthetic shot compositions (a man holding a speech while the background is covered with thousands of faces from the crowd who listen to him; the contrast between close up shots of people's faces and wide shots of the vast farms; the dynamic parallel montage of the funeral, the assassin admitting his crime and Natalya's madness as she is jumping naked in the house; branches of trees are "brushing" Vasyl's face as his corpse is carried through the village) and director's intervention. It is also full of symbolism, pertaining to the circle of life and man's connection with nature—in the opening shots, grandfather Semyon dies, signalling the end of an old era and a beginning of a new one (collectivization and industrialization of farming) while Vasyl's funeral is treated as part of the cycle, where man is born from nature and is returned back to nature after death (the final scene)—as well as a few unusual scenes that "spice up" the movie (farmers urinating into the tractor's cooler to make it start). Dovzhenko crafted a fine movie language which allowed him to shape and lead the story into an experience that stimulates the viewers more through their subconscious and emotional level than their rationality.

Grade:+++

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Taxi

Taxi; documentary / docufiction, Iran, 2015; D: Jafar Panahi, S: Jafar Panahi, Hana Saeidi, Nasrin Sotoudeh

Tehran. Equipped with a secret camera, film director Jafar Panahi is driving a taxi car, picking up people, but charging them nothing for the drive. He just wants to hear their stories and way of thinking about Iran's society. The first customer is a man supporting capital punishment for a man, he hears, who was charged with stealing car tires, but a female teacher opposes the death penalty. Next customer is Omid, who sells bootleg copies of films, and wants Jafar to assist him, since Jafar's recommendations caused a film student to buy more films from Omid. Jafar picks up two women holding two fish in a glass of water; afterward his 10-year old niece Hana sits in the passenger's seat, telling about her assignment in school: she has to make a short film. When Jafar exits the car, Hana films a boy taking some money that fell from a passing couple. Next is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer, who is carrying flowers with her. Jafar and Hana exit the cab and walk away, while a robber breaks in and steals their camera.

For his 3rd film since Iran's 20-year old ban on him making movies, director Jafar Panahi proved once again his resilience: he is such a cineast that he is a film-addict, an author who either has to continue making movies or he will die. It is in his blood. "Taxi" is a highly unusual, almost Godard-like inventive evasion of the ban: he is driving a taxi and listening to passengers coming and going in his cab, listening to their thinking. It is unknown which way he achieved this. He probably toured driving a taxi, recorded real people entering his cab with a secret camera, but then went on to re-stage these events with actors playing these passengers, in an untypical docufiction film essay. While at first the viewers might feel reluctant to engage in the movie upon hearing that it is just a set of static episodes of people talking in a cab, with time—just like a good conversation—it grows on them, since there are some really interesting, sometimes comical characters popping up.

One example is Omid, a seller of films on bootleg DVDs, who tells Jafar he has the newest film for him, Allen's "Midnight in Paris". When a film student shows up, Omid suggests several titles, ranging from Kurosawa to Hollywood hits, so the student asks Jafar for his opinion on which movies he should watch, and then buys from Omid all what Jafar recommended. The movie also features a very cool moment where Jafar's problem solving skills rise to the occasion: two women are in the cab, holding a giant bowl of water with two fish in them, yet when the cab abruptly stops, the bowl breaks, leaving the fish on the floor, but Jafar simply exits the car, goes to the trunk, pours water from a container in a plastic bag and puts the fish in them, thereby saving them—like a king. Another sweet character is the 10-year old niece, Hana, who has to make a short film for her school homework: there is a neat scene where she uses her photo to film a boy taking some money that fell off from a passing couple, so she talks with him and tries to persuade him to return the money, so that he can "be the hero of her film", and do the right thing. Another great "guest" in the cab is human rights lawyer Nasrin, who does an irresistibly metafilm joke: she "gives" a rose flower to the camera, saying: "This is for the audience. Becuase one can always count on the movie viewers". It is remarkable how elegant and fluent the movie is, even though, by its concept, it shouldn't be, since it once again shows that life is made up out of small things which all form a part of its pleasure.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York; comedy, USA, 1992; D: Chris Columbus, S: Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O'Hara, John Heard, Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, Brenda Fricker, Devin Ratray, Hillary Wolf, Kieran Culkin, Ally Sheedy, Donald Trump

Here we go again: the large McCallister family is again traveling for Christmas, this time to Miami, and they again displace Kevin (11) who mistakenly boarded a plane for New York. Alone in the big city, Kevin uses his dad's credit card to make a hotel reservation and stay overnight. However, on the street, he meets the two burglars again, Marv and Harry, and overhears that they plan to rob a toy store for Christmas. Kevin thus foils their plan and lures them into an abandoned apartment where he sets up numerous booby traps for them. Thanks to a help from a pigeon lady, Kevin manages to beat Harry and Marv who get arrested by the police. He is then reunited with his family.

The same jokes, just a different background: the inevitable sequel to the highest grossing comedy film of its time, "Home Alone", managed to encompass the entire crew from the 1st film, yet it offered very little of new ideas or innovations to justify the continuation of the storyline. The opening act is arguably the best, managing to actually conjure up two surprisingly good jokes: Kevin records his own voice on a tape recorder and then plays it in slow motion, to make his voice sound slow and deep, like that one of an adult, in order to make a phone reservation of a hotel room. He also has a charming scene when he uses the hotel pool wearing a giant swimsuit. Unfortunately, the story quickly loses its power and gets trapped into routine, with too many scenes recycled from the 1st film (the black and white gangster film is again used to trick people into thinking its a real person talking; Kevin again bonds with an outsider who was ostensibly scary, but turns out actually a kind person, in this case, a pigeon lady). While the action finale was suppose to be the highlight, in reality it proved to be misguided: looking from today's perspective, all the numerous traps set up to hurt and maim burglars Harry and Marv now seem almost like a torture chamber from the "Saw" movies. Not only that, but they are not funny. Just weird, especially when Daniel Stern is exaggerating with his insane screaming. The only good bit is actually when hundreds of pigeons "attack" Harry and Marv who are covered with bread crumbs. A solid, yet spasmodic sequel. 

Grade:+

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Vanishing

Spoorloos; thriller / drama / mystery, Netherlands / France, 1988; D: George Sluizer, S: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus

Rex and Saskia are a Dutch couple traveling from the Netherlands to France. Their car runs out of fuel and stops in the middle of a tunnel, so Rex leaves Saskia alone to fetch some gas in a can. Resuming their drive, the couple makes up and stop at a rest area. Saskia goes into the store to buy some drinks, but never comes back. Rex contacts the police, but to no avail. Three years later, Rex is still searching for Saskia and plasters the streets with her missing posters. Finally, he is contacted by the perpetrator: Raymond, who invites him to drive in his car to France. Raymond, a seemingly normal family man, then reveals he kidnapped and chloroformed Saskia and offers to tell Rex what happened to her if he drinks coffee with a sleeping pill. Rex does, falls asleep and wakes up inside a coffin, buried under the earth.

A rare example of a 'minimalist thriller', George Sluizer's most famous film is also highly untypical and unconventional in its structure: the murderer is revealed already 24 minutes into the film, whereas it contains only a single scene of violence, yet its creepy tone keeps the viewers intrigued until the end. Not since Myers from "Halloween" or the unknown killer from "Zodiac" has there ever been such a disturbing murderer as Raymond Lemorne, precisely because he is, just like the said villains, a symbol for evil without a motive. Unlike other killers, he is perfectly rational and without any urge. His murder is not motivated by hate, nor by any self-interest or ideology. Neither was he interested in raping Saskia, nor was his act caused by loneliness, since he is a happily married man, a chemistry teacher with two kids. He is what makes the whole story so unsettling, so puzzling, since his reasons cannot be comprehended. This is also what distinguishes Sluizer from Hitchcock: despite several thrillers and crime mysteries, Hitchcock's main character was always the good guy, while here Sluizer picks the bad guy as the main character.

In flashbacks, Sluizer shows him meticulously preparing for the misdeed: he buys a secluded cottage on the land and puts spiders into a table, causing his teenage daughter to scream. Later on, he asks a far away neighbor if he heard the scream, and when the farmer confirms he didn't hear anything, Raymond realizes the place is suitable for noise isolation due to its remoteness. He lies on a table and chloroforms himself, only to later on, upon waking up, look at his stop watch and write down in his notes that he was unconscious for 18 minutes and 54 seconds, which means his victim has to be no further than 17 minutes of car drive away from the cottage. While "The Vanishing" suffers from an overstretched running time and an occasional 'empty walk', especially in the second half, it has just enough tricks, ideas, taste and sophistication to fill its entire running time with something to see. There is something of a philosophical question by the villain: in a flashback, Raymond tells how he jumped from a balcony when he was 16, and broke his bones, just like that, to show that it is "not predestined", i.e. that his free will trump that he wouldn't jump. He then mentions he actually saved a girl from drowning in water, but something bothered him: "My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought that her admiration wasn't worth anything unless I could prove myself absolutely incapable of doing anything evil. As black cannot exist without white." As if he wanted to find out if he can go from one extreme (saving life) to another (taking life). His goal was not to gain something from self-interest, but in contrary, to lose a part of his own respect by showing that he is not worthy enough of his daughter's admiration due to his crime. The ending shows his own failure of idealism for actually going through with his own plan, in a dark vision of free will.

Grade:+++

Monday, December 24, 2018

Why Him?

Why Him?; comedy, USA, 2016; D: John Hamburg, S: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Kaley Cuoco (voice)

The middle aged couple Ned and Barb are invited by their daughter Stephanie (22) to California to spend Christmas with her new boyfriend, Laird. Upon arrival at his mansion, Ned and Barb discover that Laird is a rich CEO of a video games company, yet that he is a slob, and an unbearable one at that. Ned is especially frustrated as to why Stephanie would fall for such a guy. The mansion is high tech, which makes his stay there uncomfortable, while a party there turns into a drug orgy. When Laird announces that he bought Ned's shrinking company to save it, Ned hits him and leaves. However, when Laird lands with a helicopter with Stephanie at Ned's home, they all make up.

Actors Bryan Cranston and James Franco are dancing on the edge of career suicide: "Why Him?" is a terrible pseudo-comedy, indicating a trend that some people forgot how to make a good comedy and deluded themselves into thinking that scnes of shallow nonsense is some sort of talent. Crude, vile, bloated, dumb, where Franco's character has been reduced to just a primitive hillbilly, and where 50 % of all jokes are just based on sexual innuendo, "Why Him?" seems as if it was written by a 12-year old, where any bad idea is automatically accepted without further scrutiny, obvious in too many scenes of actors' improvisation—without any punchline at the end of these prolonged scenes. The opening has the typical "mass embarrassment" joke, where Ned and his entire team at job are having a Skype conversation with his daughter, Stephanie, while all of a sudden her boyfriend, Laird, enters her room and starts dancing with his naked butt, ostensibly unaware that dozens of people are watching on the big screen. Then Ned meets Laird's mansion, which has a dead moose "conserved" in a bowl of urine; Laird gets angry that his back tattoo didn't turn out good and then encourages Ned's 15-year old son to swear. And of course, Laird always talks about having sex with Stephanie, while her parents are standing just a couple of feet away from him. Needless to say, nothing of this is funny. It's a misguided waste of time. The only good joke is Ned sitting on the toilet and realizing that the modern high-tech mansion has a "paper-free toilet", so the butler has to come in and press the computer button for an automatic wiping of his butt. There are comedies that make a false note, but then "recover" and continue with good jokes to compensate. "Why Him?" is established on a false note, and embraces it until its done to death. As flawed as it was, "Meet the Parents" is miles better than this, both in humor and taste—and that's already saying a lot.

Grade:-

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Captain Blood

Captain Blood; adventure, USA, 1935; D: Michael Curtiz, S: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Lionel Atwill, Basil Rathbone

England, 1685. Summoned in the middle of the night, Dr. Peter Blood rushes to give medical care to a wounded man, a rebel against King James II, but when the Royal Guards show up, they arrest them both. Three months later, ostensibly because he helped a rebel, a court sentences Blood to slavery on a Caribbean island run by the notorious Governor Bishop. However, Bishop's niece, Arabella, likes Blood and treats him well. When a Spanish ship attacks the town, Blood and numerous other convicts steal the ship and become pirates who want to plunder to take revenge against the British government. Captain Blood saves Arabella from rival pirate Levasseur, and finally hears that James II has been replaced and that the new king will grant him amnesty if Blood helps in the war against the French. Blood's ship gains victory in a battle against the French, and thus he is given the position of the Governor, replacing Bishop.

The movie that catapulted Errol Flynn into stardom, this "swashbuckling" adventure is part pirate, part revenge film, yet it does not seem as fresh today anymore as it was back during the time of its release: while undeniably a good film thanks to the skills of competent director Michael Curtiz, and fine performances, most notably the new star Olivia de Havilland, it is somewhat too standard and too conventional made, especially in the tiresome ship battles at the sea in the finale, which somewhat reduces its appeal. Neither is it that fun as some claim it is, though it has a few deliciously humorous lines ("A man should not be late for his own hanging."; when Blood hears about the staged trial, and that anyone who even helped a rebel will be punished in the name of James II, he addresses the merciless judge: "What a creature must sit on the throne who lets a man like you deal out his justice."). It takes too long for the story to finally get going (Blood only becomes pirate Captain Blood an hour into the film), yet as it is, it offers that 'good old school' charm from the 'Golden age of Hollywood', when idealism, humanism and honest, wonderful heroes inhabited the screen, fighting for justice without too much grey area. The odyssey of the noble doctor Blood comes to full satisfactory conclusion at the end, when the tables are turned, which makes for a compelling watch.

Grade:++

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Runaway Train

Runaway Train; action thriller, USA, 1985; D: Andrei Konchalovsky, S: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, John P. Ryan

Alaska during winter. Manny and Buck, two convicts, escape from an isolated prison through an underground sever. In order to get as far as possible from the prison, they arrive at a train station and board a train with three wagons. Unbeknownst to them, the train engineer died from a heart attack, and thus the train is running 80 miles per hour without a driver. When an employee, Sara, arrives at their wagon, they finally find out they are out of control. A traffic dispatchers team decides to re-direct the train to crash, in order to avoid a collision with a chemical plant. Manny decides to climb up to the main engine to press the "stop" button. When the prison warden, Racken, arrives via helicopter on the engine, Manny changes his plan: he dislodges the wagons with Sara and Buck into safety, while he continues to head towards doom together with Racken in the main engine.

An interesting forerunner to "Speed", "Runaway Train" is a simple, yet effective piece of action suspense, built around a great concept: three people stuck on a runaway train without a driver, driving 80 miles per hour, where they never know when the end of the tracks might signal their own end. While good, the movie rarely truly causes an adrenaline rush: unlike the similar "Wages of Fear", "Runaway Train" did not exploit all the rich possibilities to the fullest, lacking a true versatility of events and imagination of what could happen in this situation, since the three trapped protagonists in a wagon spend too much time arguing between themselves and just sitting passively, instead of doing something about their problem. The only exception is the ending, when Manny finally decides to crawl towards the main engine, but even that is interrupted by a pointless subplot where Manny's nemesis, warden Racken, randomly lands on the train via a helicopter, which is illogical (if he knows that the train is going to crash and kill everyone anyway, why go there to kill Manny?). Racken's entire opening act, the movie's first 20 minutes, should have been cut to allow the movie to start with the escape of the convicts. Excellent actors help the movie, especially Jon Voight as Manny, who proves his scale when he argues with Sara that he won't be "waiting for no miracle" in the train, but take the things into his own hands. The stunt work is phenomenal, especially when Manny or Buck are holding on to the top of the wagon while the train is driving like crazy, whereas the snowy landscapes give it a cozy aesthetics. While not quite able to slowly build up its suspense to the fullest, the story has a few great moments (when the train collides with the back side of a wagon that was trying to get out of the way to the neighboring track; it drives over a collapsing, frail bridge).

Grade:++

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Bear

L'Ours; drama, France, 1988; D: Jean-Jacques Annaud, S: Youk the Bear, Bart the Bear, Tchéky Karyo, Andre Lacombe, Jack Wallace

A mountain range. A bear mother and her cub are searching for honey on a hill. A land slide occurs and rocks fall and kill the mother bear. The bear cub, now alone, wonders through the meadow. It meets a wounded Grizzly and licks its wounds. Although initially reluctant, the Grizzly takes the cub as his own and teaches it how catch fish. A hunter who wounded the Grizzly, however, returns with dogs and is intent to kill the bear. Its dogs chase the two bears up a mountain, but they flee. One morning, as the hunter was washing under a waterfall, the Grizzly shows up and howls—but refuses to attack the hunter, and instead let's him leave. The hunter thus changes and decides to let the Grizzly live. As its starts to snow, the Grizzly and the cub enter and cave to go to sleep.

From time to time, a movie shows up where you really do not know how it was made. Wildlife drama "The Bear" is one of them: its protagonist is a bear cub, its mentor a grown up Grizzly bear, and thus director Jean-Jacques Annaud had to direct two bears throughout 80 % of the film. Except for two short dream sequences (which use stop motion to conjure up frogs and a bear), there are no visual effects in the film, all the animals in it are real, so stay faithful to its authentic feel. The task seems impossible—what prevented the bear to simply run away in the forest? How did the director tell the bears to climb up a mountain or jump in a river? How did the director tell the grown up bear to give a fish to a cub?—and yet, Annaud conquered that "impossible" and presented it for everyone to see and wonder. Raw, minimalistic, melancholic, emotional, calm, "The Bear" is indeed a wonder of a movie, a small jewel of the 80s cinema.  It abounds with astonishing real-life images: an orphaned bear cub wondering alone over a meadow, running after a frog near a lake; a puma cornering a bear cub, which stands on a branch over a river; a bear cub licking the wounds of a wounded Grizzly; the two bears chasing after a deer. The ending also offers a double transformation: not only that of the human hunter (Tcheky Karyo) who converts to an animal lover, but also that of a cub bear who finally falls asleep without nightmares. It is remarkable how simple of a movie "The Bear" is, and yet what a complex cavalcade of emotions and a catharsis it offers. It achieves so much from so little. Its two protagonists are animals—and yet, they are a synecdoche for the entire experience of harsh existence of life on Earth, their events covering such overarching themes as orphanage, loneliness, survival, the circle of life, compassion, friendship and growing up, which is universal, and applies even to humans. Maybe because it is telling us that all these traits are not just experiences in humans, but also in every living creature.

Grade:+++

Monday, December 17, 2018

L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential; crime drama, USA, 1997; D: Curtis Hanson, S: Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn

Los Angeles, 1 9 5 3. Police Seargent Ed Exley is an idealistic, "by the book" kind of guy. When several police officers take justice into their own hands and beat up Mexican prisoners suspected of assailing police officers, Ed is the only one willing to testify against Stensland, who is thus removed from police force. This angers officer Bud White. When Stensland is found among a dozen coprses mysteriously shot in a bar called "Nite Owl", Ed and Bud investigate together with their boss, Captain Dudley. Intially, they arrest three African-Americans, but all are leter killed in a shooutout. However, Ed thinks something is not right about the case and investigates further. He finds out about a web of corruption that leads all the way to Dudley, who wanted to take over the drug market racket and used prostitutes who look like Hollywood actresses, including Lynn, to make photos of sex and then later blackmail Councilmen into his biding. In a shootout, Ed manages to kill Dudley, and survives together with Bud.

One of the most critically recognized movies of the 90s, already proclaimed a modern classic at the time of its release, "L.A. Confidential" is the closest modern Hollywood came to distilling a modern version of a film noir from its 'golden age'. Director and screenwriter Curtis Hanson even deliberately tried to avoid modern cinematic techniques and a more complicated visual style in order to give the experience of a thoroughbred, juicy, 'old school' example of a crime film that relies only on its characters and intelligent story, similarly like film noirs did in the 40s and 50s of the 20th century. The movie is remarkably well done: it starts out slow, yet builds up speed, and thus engages the viewers to such an extent that they won't even notice that two hours have already passed. It owes this a lot to some brilliant dialogues which instill awe. In one example, officer Bud knocks at the door of prostitute Lynn, but she is with some cocky man in underwear. Bud tells the man to beat it, but the man brushes off: "Maybe I will, maybe I won't". Finally, Bud shows his police badge: "LAPD, shitbird. Get outta here or I'll call your wife to come get you!" The man then hurriedly picks up his stuff and walks away out in his underwear, but not before a final, polite exchange with Bud ("Officer." - "Councilman").

When Bud and Lynn talk, the dialogue already foreshadows a progress in their relationship ("You're the first man in five years who didn't tell me I look like Veronica Lake inside of a minute." - "You look better than Veronica Lake"). It also follows the theme of the end of idealism: at first, Ed insist on being an honest cop, insisting it is his duty to follow the law, but as practice quickly shows, he finds himself killing a suspect in an elevator, and having to compromise to get the job done. Bud is brutal, but at least idealistically believes he is doing it for a greater good, to protect women from abusers, until this reaches a full circle when he, in an act of rage, slaps Lynn himself. However, the said episode is one of the flaws of the movie, since it is a cliche of a hero becoming what he was fighting against. Another flaw is the too convoluted storyline which is at times hard to follow, leading to a conventional resolution of a bad guys motivation (he just wanted more money), whereas Kim Basinger's character Lynn could have been developed in a richer way. Still, the cast is incredible, including even Danny DeVito as a sleazy reporter who goes in a symbiotic relationship with a cop, and the narrative tight and dense, delivering an excellent little film.

Grade:+++

Sunday, December 16, 2018

World on a Wire

Welt am Draht; science-fiction drama, Germany, 1973; D: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, S: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Günter Lamprecht, Ulli Lommel




The Institute for Cybernetics and Future Sciences (IKZ). The technical director of the program, Vollmer, is agitated and wants to announce something important to the security advisor, Lause. However, Vollmer is soon found dead, electrocuted in mysterious circumstances. His successor is Fred Stiller, who announces the new project of the IKZ to the press: Simulacron-1, a supercomputer that hosts over 9,700 artificially created virtual identities, who all think they are just ordinary humans. The purpose of this project is to run projections of future economic demands for steel in the industry. The only link with the real world is Einstein, a contact-entity. However, when Fritz, an IKZ employee, decides to "visit" this virtual reality world, Einstein switches his personality with him to escape to the real world. Fred is suspicious that even he and everyone around him are also just a computer simulation, and is thus given a break from the IKZ due to a suspected nervous breakdown. When two men die, including Fritz, Fred is accused of being the perpetrator. He is visited by Eva, who informs him that they are both just projections of real people in the real world, and that he is a much nicer Fred than the evil Fred in the real world. Fred is shot by the police, but Eva managed to switch his personality with that of the real world Fred, and thus they are now free in the real world.

One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's most famous achievements, "World on a Wire" is a fascinating forerunner to future simulated reality science-fiction movies like "The Matrix", "Dark City", "The Truman Show" and "The 13th Floor", a one that stimulates the viewers to think by presenting a colossal meditation on Plato's allegory of the cave. Structured like a two-part TV movie, and a sci-fi without any visual effects, "World on a Wire" suffers from an overlong running time of three hours: it has highlights, yet it takes a very long time to get to these good parts due to several overstretched and unnecessary sequences of parties and theatre visits of the hero, Fred. Still, it is interesting how modern and far reaching the vision is in this concept: one remarkable scene has Fred paying a "visit" to the virtual reality world by placing a wired helmet on his head and entering inside the programmed personality of an artificial bus driver, presented as a POV scene of him driving a bus on a street, while his thoughts are heard in the background ("Why are there so few people on the streets? Get away from the road, kid, or there's gonna be trouble!"), until this is interrupted when a giant title shows up over the screen that says: "Fred, come back!"

The art-deco set design is scarce, yet effective, especially in the giant supercomputer control room where Fred and other employees can watch the lives of artificial people on several screens, while the blue color of the cinematography completes the futuristic look. The philosophical questions start popping up in the second, better half of the storyline: in one sequence, Fred created an identical "clone" of his boss Siskin in the simulated world, making him a happy medic in a hospital, while the real Siskin is amused while watching this farce on the screen. Yet Fred points at the fake world and says: "These simulations can go infinitely downwards, as well as they can go infinitely upwards". Later, during a meeting, Fred again talks to one of his co-workers: "Why is the coffee brown? Maybe it's purple in the real world, and some guy just created a brown one in our world as to make it funny while they watch us". Fassbinder directs the movie so that the viewers always sense something is "off" in it, to conjure up the feeling of paranoia in the finale: it features several great moments presented especially through the "subtle" ways in which the computer is trying to eliminate Fred. All of a sudden, a dog shows up from the forest and attacks Fred. Minutes later, a tree suddenly falls just a couple of yards away from Fred. And just as Fred runs away from his hut, it "conveniently" explodes. The implications are profound, and ethical questions are raised: if artificial computer entities can feel pain, is it moral to create pain for them, even if we know that their world is not real? Are their feelings of a lesser value or not? And if a computer can create a perfect simulated copy of a human being, is there a point to talk about a difference between the real and the fake world anymore? Are bizarre, stupid coincidences just coincidences, or a convenient 'deus ex machina' of a higher force to do its biding? All these make "World on a Wire" much more relevant today than during the time when it was made.

Grade:+++

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Justice League

Justice League; fantasy action, USA, 2017; D: Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, S: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, J. K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen, Ciaran Hinds

After Superman's death, alien dictator Steppenwolf thinks it is the right time to try to invade a weakened Earth with his parademons, and thus aims to obtain three boxes scattered across the globe: by uniting them, he will terraform Earth into his own planet, destroying previous life. Batman thus goes on a mission to rally as many allies as possible, including Cyborg, Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman, while they also manage to revive Superman. Together, they join forces and stop Steppenwolf and his army from destroying Earth.

The critics were far too harsh towards "Justice League", DC's alternative to Marvel's "The Avengers", since they seemed to have been sucked into the quagmire of negative news and bad rumors regarding its troubled production, yet as time goes by, it is becoming clear that it is a perfectly decent superhero film. Joss Whedon saved the film—he rightfully concluded that another humorless parade of pretentiousness of Zack Snyder's would be simply too much, and thus he added a lot of freshness during re-shoots which gave the movie some humor, energy and charm. Almost all of Whedon's added scenes stick out like a sore thumb, but in a good way: they are like oases in a desert, since without them, the movie would simply be just another boring run-of-the-mill routine. Yet he realized that DC's franchize needed to stop taking superhero movies so seriously. Ezra Miller's character of super-fast Barry / Flash is one of the comedic highlights—his very first intro sequence makes an impression, showing that he is so fast that is able to use a marker to draw a moustache and glasses on a bully's face in a fraction of a second, without the latter even noticing it. Wonder Woman's introduction is also rather cool, as she is seen standing, not without irony, on a statue of Lady Justice just as a crime is underway. Aquaman also has one of the funniest moments in the entire film, a one which is simply comedy gold—during a meeting, he slips that he finds Wonder Woman pretty and suddenly starts mumbling about being afraid and insecure, until Batman points out that Aquaman was accidentally holding Wonder Woman's "lasso of truth" the entire time: delicious.

Unfortunately, they comprise only three out of six superheros in the story: the other three—Batman, Superman, Cyborg—are surprisingly unmemorable and bland. Batman, for instance, doesn't rise to the occasion at all: his super high IQ is never noticeable in these events, and thus he is reduced to someone who just punches the bad guys (as if others couldn't do that as well). They simply don't stand out like Flash, Wonder Woman or Aquaman. Another problem is the inconclusive narrative: going back to the opening bank robbery that is stopped by Wonder Woman—what is the motivation of the criminals? And if they had a bomb that could blow up several blocks anyway, what was the point of breaking into the bank in the first place? They could have simply detonated outside. This wasn't well thought out to the end. A third problem is the main villain: Steppenwolf is disappointingly one-dimensional, without any background or a coherent character development. Even Skeletor from the "Masters of the Universe" film had more charm than him. Worse still, it's just another "conquer the world" story, and a one about terraforming it, which was already done in "Man of Steel". The finale seems to have lost any goals for innovation and just resorted to a typical superhero ending on autopilot. Despite a rushed writing, "Justice League" has its humorous moments that make the viewers smile (such as the scene where insect-humanoids, parademons, start a siege of a house, and a little girl prepares some bug spray for defence), indicating that even in this 'abridged' edition Whedon still had moments of inspiration.

Grade:++

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Trumbo

Trumbo; drama, USA, 2015; D: Jay Roach, S: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Dean O'Gorman, Alan Tudyk, John Getz

During the start of the Cold War, numerous American film artists are placed in the cross hairs by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Among them is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, because he was a member of the Communist Party of the USA. When he refuses to answer the questions of the Committee, Trumbo is eventually jailed for contempt of court, but his wife, Cleo, and their three kids, including Nikola, wait for his release. Back in freedom, Trumbo is blacklisted and thus cannot find any job from the film studios. He decides to pen scripts under a pseudonym or to give them to another screenwriter who will take credit for them. When Trumbo's movies "Roman Holiday" and "The Brave One" win Oscars, actor Kirk Douglas asks him to pen "Spartacus" and Otto Preminger to write "Exodus". In both movies, Trumbo's name is finally listen in the credits.

This biography of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo serves as an interesting essay on the "democratic deficit" in the US during the early stages of the Cold War, an unpleasant reminder that even in democratic countries built on the rule of law such a rule of law can be violated towards dissidents. However, while this injustice in the form of the blacklist is legitimate, the movie is sometimes presented in black and white solutions, presenting Trumbo almost always in a positive light, while ignoring some of his own questionable standpoints (as a footnote, even Nikita Khrushchev denounced and distanced himself from Stalinism). "Trumbo" owes a majority of its virtues to the excellent performances by Bryan Cranston who delivers a worthy and emotional portrait with a lot of pathos, serving as a symbol for people who stand up to their believes even under persecution: one of the greatest moments is when John Wayne, a staunch anti-Communist, has a fierce argument with Trumbo, but the latter has a witty response ("If you're gonna talk about World War II as if you personally won it, let's be clear where you were stationed: on a film set, shooting blanks, wearing makeup. And if you're going to hit me, I'd like to take off my glasses"). John Goodman also gives a very fine supporting role as Trumbo's loyal supporter, Frank King, a B-movie producer who is the only one willing to openly hire Trumbo during his "embargo", which eventually leads to the dissolution of the blacklisting. While more preoccupied with its message and social issues, "Trumbo" is still an interesting piece of "unknown history".

Grade:++

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Burn the Stage: The Movie

Burn the Stage: The Movie; concert film, South Korea, 2018; D: Park Jun-soo, S: Kim Nam-joon, Kim Seok-jin, Min Yoon-gi, Jung Ho-seok, Park Ji-min, Kim Tae-hyung, Jeon Jung-kook 

The movie follows the grand 2018 world tour of the popular South Korean boy band BTS, consisting out of seven members. BTS thus travel through several cities, including Santiago, Sao Paolo, New York, Los Angeles, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul. Some of their concerts and already sold out and thousands of (girl) fans are constantly cheering at them. They rehears their performances on the stage, while stopping to enjoy all the foreign cities, such as when they buy hot dogs in New York. On their final concert, they thank the fans.

A concert film commemorating the world tour of the South Korean boy band BTS gave at least some hints as to why they managed to rise through the ranks of many other bands on the global music stage. "Burn the Stage: The Movie" follows them through their tour which spans South and North America, as well as Asia. The editing and its pacing are fast and dynamic, trying to cram as many scenes and little events as possible, yet one complain should be aimed from this approach: it was an error to not include a single of their songs from start to finish, as to help the "uninitiated" part of the viewers to hear their style of music. Likewise, their concerts feel strangely "abridged", since the movie spends sometimes only 20 seconds on their stage act. Slowing down to dwell more on their songs and performances would have been a better choice, even though the movie would have been longer. Quite often, "behind the stage" scenes are the most fascinating to watch: the opening, for instance, shows how the guys are rehearsing a song, but their director tells them it would be better if they would just stand still after the ending, and then disperse through the stage. While the viewers do not find out much about the guys privately, some of their "off stage" moments are funny: the Los Angeles barbecue party, for instance, is a blast, showing them spontaneously jumping into the pool with a "selfie stick". Another humorous moment has one of the guys take a small, hairy puppy and joke that it is his purse. While the movie does not quite reach  the heights of other concert movies, some of these comical outbursts give it charm.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Little Men

Malenkie lyudi; tragicomedy, Kazakhstan / France, 2003; D: Nariman Turebaev, S: Erjan Bekmuratov, Oleg Kerimov, Mira Abdulin, Lyazat Dautova, Anna Kolesnikova, Anna Krasnova, Sevik Nurebokov

Almaty, Kazakhstan. Max and Beck are two friends who live in the same apartment and work for the same company called Gamma. Every morning, they go to the streets dressed in fancy suits and sell things which are not useful to people, such as a hand lamp, key chains or indestructible cups. Max is much more successful and even gets praise from the company, so he can afford prostitutes, yet Beck is constantly alone and that is depressing. When he fails to find a girlfriend, Beck calls a radio show, "Love at First Sight", and insults the entire city. Max suggest they migrate to Europe, yet then they still decide to go to some Australian city.

"Little Men" affirmed director Nariman Turebaev as the Kazakh version of Jarmusch or Kaurismäki: his protagonists are optimistic friends whom are in sharp contrast with the grey-bleak society that destroys them, while the movie around them is built on a minimalistic style, raw-astringent mood and 'slice-of-life' vignettes without a real story. Besides wonderful panorama shots of the Kazakh city Almaty, the movie impresses the most with its occasional dry humor: in the opening act, Beck lights a cigarette. Max takes it away from him by explaining: "It doesn't suit you." Max then starts smoking himself, saying: "There is nothing better than a cigarette in the morning." Even later on the comical touch is prolonged, such as when the aunt complains at the two protagonists due to their messy apartment ("What did you do with the toilet?" - "Nothing." - "Exactly. Nothing!"), yet the empty walk and the overstretched running time weaken the movie as a whole, since it did not lead to some more inspired moments that would enrich it to a higher level of a viewing experience.

Grade:++

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Expelled from Paradise

Rakuen Tsuiho; animated science-fiction, Japan, 2014; D: Seiji Mizushima, S: Rie Kugimiya, Shinichiro Miki, Hiroshi Kamiya, Megumi Hayashibara, Minami Takayama, Kotono Mitsuishi, Toru Furuya

In the future, 98 % of humans don't live in a physical, but in a cyber world, their personalities uploaded into a giant virtual reality CGI world run by a computer on a space station called DEVA. Upon another hacker attack from Earth, special agent Angelica is given the assignment to find the perpetrator. She gets uploaded into a 16-year old woman's body and flies to Earth, now a desert planet, where she meets her partner, Dingo, one of the few remaining "traditional" humans in flesh. They find and locate the hacker, a robot with a personality, Frontier Setter, who is still building a giant interstellar spaceship, following a long defunct plan to send computerized humans to new planets, and was thus searching for DEVA personalities to inhabit it. Angelica returns to DEVA, but is punished for not destroying Frontier Setter, even though the latter promised not to bother DEVA anymore. She thus returns to her physical body again and joins with Dingo, helping Frotier Setter to still launch his spaceship and save it from destruction by DEVA.

Screenwriter Gen Urobuchi, known for his thought provocative and philosophically stimulating developments of stories that break the typical cliches of the genre ("Puella Madoka Magica", "Psycho-Pass") delivered another worthy contribution with "Expelled from Paradise", an anime film that tackled the topic of people living more and more in virtual reality worlds, instead of the real one, again using a popular genre (in this case, a Sci-Fi action) just as a front for a more ambitious, aspirational theme of a clash between escapism and realism. The said transhumanist concept of a brain upload into a computer is already established in the opening act, where ordinary people are seemingly enjoying playing at a beach, until the waves "freeze" while the heroine Angelica transforms into a special agent, and the audience realize they are just in a virtual reality world that is being hacked. Ethical question are also posed when Angelica's cyber personality is being uploaded into a physical body of a 16-year old girl, in order to land on Earth and search for the hacker. While there is a clear story that rules the events, its obvious point is to cause the viewers to think and contemplate about the implication of these human and computer integration, the highlight being when Dingo, a "real" human out of flesh, and Angelica, a virtual reality upload, debate about these two forms of existence ("As a cyber personality, your sensory limits can expand as far as your excessful memory allows. I've had a chance to listen to a gama ray burst that was 10 billion light years away. I've even felt around for subatomic particles with my fingertips. But still, using your bones to listen to sounds, it's the first time I've heard of that."). A major flaw is the tiresome, obligatory action finale, since the battle on a higher, intellectual level, was far more interesting, whereas the ending is somewhat incomplete and unsatisfaying, yet the authors still achieved a very good futuristic re-telling of Adam and Eve.

Grade:+++