Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Game of Thrones (Season 8)

Game of Thrones (Season 8); fantasy series, USA, 2019; D: David Nutter, Miguel Sapochnik, David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, S: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Jacob Anderson, Sophie Turner, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Iain Glen

In the North, the unlikely human coalition sticks together to fight the invasion of the Zombie "White Walkers" led by the Night King. The Zombies start the siege of the castle, killing numerous soldiers, and even use one of Daenerys' dragons, now also a Zombie, for the assault. However, just as the Night King approaches Bran, Arya assassinates the former with the Valyrian dagger, and thus the entire "White Walkers" army disintegrates. Daenerys then re-directs her army south to attack Queen Cersei. With her dragon, Daenerys burns and destroys the entire city of King's Landing, killing also every civilian in it. Disgusted by such insanity, Jon Snow kills Daenerys. In the aftermath, Tyrion suggests Bran as the new King, which is accepted by the six kingdoms, except the North, where Sansa declares independence. Jon is banished to live in the North.

The final season of the highly popular nihilistic fantasy series "Game of Thrones" ended not on a high note, but on a highly polarizing effect. The characters are all still here, but their personalities seem to have been lost somewhere in the previous season: congruently, it seems their random, contradictory actions and choices in the story are coming from some pre-designed plot points set up by the writers, and not from a natural unraveling of motivations of their personalities. The first two episodes are talkative and quiet, establishing a good mood of anticipation before the ferocious battle against the Zombie "White Walkers" in episode 8.3, which was done very well. This is then followed by episode 8.5, which is half-excellent, and half-detrimental. Its excellent half shows the battle for King's Landing with a lot of grandeur, style and 'raw' power, featuring epic scenes, which is all very cinematic (the dragon landing on Dubrovnik's landmarks; the Biblical fight between the Hound and Gregor on the stairs...). Its detrimental other half, however, is apparent. For one, Daenerys flies on a dragon to attack the port city, but she defeats the fleet defences way too easy. Considering that the fleet actually killed one of her dragons in the previous episode, 8.4, with a crossbow, one would have expected from her to concoct some sort of a strategy this time around—for instance, maybe to use her dragon to throw giant stones on the fleet from the sky, breaking holes in their ships and thus causing them to sink.

Another major controversy was the switch of her character: Daenerys orders the dragon to raze the entire city to the ground with its fire. Yes, sacking of cities was unfortunately common during the Middle ages, and war crimes or destruction against civilians on a massive scale are even in modern times perpetrated by dictators, for instance in Grozny or Aleppo. However, you don't establish one character to be good for 71 episodes, only to make her suddenly evil in just one episode before the end of the show. It is an undeserved twist. The twist involving Ned Stark at the end of Season 1 was also unexpected and shocking, but consistent, since the Lannisters were established as selfish and treacherous right from the start. It seems Daenerys was arbitrarily made the villain just to be liquidated in the last episode, 8.6, which is the weakest episode of the entire series. This final episode is a joke. For a story that built up such a high impression (at times), such a low, bland, schematic ending is a disappointment. The ending has no point, whereas its resolution is not earned. It is an anticlimax. Jon Snow ending as some sort of a watcher of a ski resort in the North and Arya turning into Christopher Columbus could not please anybody. It simply offers no satisfaction to this vast storyline. Maybe the original author George R.R. Martin is himself guilty for piling up a hundred characters and so many subplots that they simply could not be tied up in a neat bow at the end, but they could have offered at least some explanations of the mystical, especially regarding the origin of the Night King, Quaithe, the Lord of Light, the Three-Eyed Raven... This way, Bran's whole existence in the story has no point, even though it was announced that his visions would be essential. It seems the story itself is surprised at how the characters switch and change in certain episodes.

Grade:++

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ordinary People

Ordinary People; drama, USA, 1980; D: Robert Redford, S: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, M. Emmet Walsh, Dinah Manoff

A seemingly normal suburban family is hiding a troubling guilt problem: Calvin and Beth, husband and wife, try to live on after their teenage son Buck drowned in a sailing accident during the storm, but his surviving brother, Conrad, is plagued by bad conscience because he couldn't save Buck, and hanged on to the boat instead of swimming to rescue him. In high school, Conrad quits the swimming team, but starts dating Jeannine and seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. After Conrad finally speaks up about his guilt to Dr. Berger, and how his mother is cold towards him, Calvin and Beth separate on Christmas.

Roberd Redford's feature length debut film as a director is a competent, highly delicate and quiet little family drama, but, as its title already indicates, it is a tad too ordinary. During its premiere, it was heaped on with numerous awards and prizes, some of even for best film, and while some predicted that it would become a classic, with time this didn't happen: it is a good film, yet rarely goes beyond that—its extraordinary rarely surpasses the ordinary. The story about a teenager who has bad conscience because he survived a fatal boat accident, while his brother didn't, offers for a meditative psychological essay, yet not enough to truly carry or justify its running time of over 120 minutes. Some dramatic situations turned out melodramatic and overdone—for instance, in one sequence, Conrad announces how he quit the swimming team in front of his parents, and his mother, Beth, makes a huge drama out of it, as if it was some sort of a big deal. What for, though? Strangely enough, the movie seems to have missed the opportunity to use that plot point as Conrad's hydrophobia for some dark twist in the swimming pool, which never manifests.

Several other moments also seem somewhat awkward, such as the scene where Conrad gives a tragic description of his state, of how it feels like "falling into a hole", in front of Jeannine, only for this to be interrupted when some teenagers storm the diner and cheerfully parade around, causing Jeannine to laugh; or the moment where Beth and Calvin are going back and forth over who will make a photo for the album, only for Conrad to finally snap and shout: "Just give her the God-damn photo, already!" A little more finesse, ingenuity and creativity in dialogues would have been welcomed. If there is one thing that Redford knows how to do as a director, it is the way he manages to get the maximum from his cast, who all delivered emotional, strong performances. Timothy Hutton is brilliant as the teenage Conrad, suffering from anxiety, unable to move on from the emotional burden that was set on him, yet Donald Sutherland is also very underrated in his subtle performance as the father, who tries to understand and mend the problems in his family after the accident. One of the best sequences in "Ordinary People" is when Beth wakes up in the middle of the night and spots that her husband isn't in bed with her. She walks in the house and spots Calvin sitting in the living room, just crying, "in private". One of the most subtle details is that Beth actually loved the deceased child more than Conrad, which makes for a slow-burning mother-son conflict. The opening sequence featuring Canon in D major Composed by Johann Pachelbel in a choir is also an example of wonderful music. A good, honest depiction of inner problems that the past can leave.

Grade:++

Sunday, May 12, 2019

After

After; romance, USA, 2019; D: Jenny Gage, S: Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Shane Paul McGhie, Pia Mia, Khadijha Red Thunder, Selma Blair, Inanna Sarkis, Dylan Arnold, Samuel Larsen, Jennifer Beals, Peter Gallagher

Tessa (19) has just moved into College, leaving her high school boyfriend, Noah, to wait in her hometown. She shares a room with Steph. Tessa refuses to kiss Hardin, a dashing guy, in a "truth or dare" game during a party. He invites her for a drive to a lake and she accepts, where they swim together. Slowly, she falls in love with him and they kiss, causing a break-up with Noah. When her mother threatens her to quit Hardin and study or she will cut off her money, Tessa refuses. She moves together with Hardin and loses her virginity. However, she finds out from Molly that Hardin just started a relationship as a bet. Even though Hardin admits he fell in love with her, Tessa rejects him. However, the two meet again at the lake.

An adaptation of Anna Todd's eponymous novel, this romance film is appropriately emotional, uncynical and honest, yet not that much inspired. Too much of its storyline seems like an ordinary teenage love story found a dime a dozen, just combined with the concept of that all-time classic "Dangerous Liaisons", to go somewhere new and do something fresh. The best parts are found in the first act, where the two main protagonists, Tessa and Hardin, show some moments of charming character development, as in the amusing sequence in the classroom where they are angrily debating over whether Elizabeth was in love with Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" or not. More of such moments would have been welcomed, since a fair share of scenes seem too melodramatic or sappy at times, with some questionable choices (would Tessa really allow for Hardin, a stranger to her, to drive her in his car in the middle of the woods?). It is interesting that the director Jenny Gage breaks with the "male gaze" tradition and instead focuses her camera shots into "female gaze" since she lingers more on the male body of her protagonist during love moments, than on the girl. While thin and overstretched at times, there is one beautiful moment of poetic romance: it is the one where the couple is in a bathtub, and Hardin is "typing" letters on her back with his finger, daring her to try to "decipher" what he wrote, and in one moment writes "I L-O-V-E Y-O-U" on her back.

Grade:++

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies; drama / mystery, Hungary, 2000; D: Béla Tarr, S: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla, János Derzsi

An isolated city during autumn. Janos is a young lad delivering newspapers. He lives in a house with György, an older intellectual who contemplates about the disharmony of the musical scale defined by Andreas Werckmeister. One night, a circus shows up on the street, consisting just out of one truck charging people to see a stranded whale inside, and a performer known as the "Prince". Rumors of crimes start spreading. György's ex-wife, Tünde, shows up, threatening him to accept the task of enlisting dozens of people for "clean up the town movement" or else she will move back with him. György reluctantly accepts. Janos sneaks into the truck and overhears how the circus master cannot control the "Prince", a Slavic foreigner, who wants to be a revolutionary. The masses accept the "Prince's" cult and start a mob that attacks a hospital. They are dispersed and Janos is wrongfully arrested, sent to an asylum. György observes the abandoned truck with the corpse of the whale.

While a lot more concise and "reasonably long" than his excessive 7-hour "Satantango", this film once again confirms the director Bela Tarr's frustrating filmmaking: great composition of long takes, but too cryptic and 'autistic' assembly which is difficult to decipher, which in turn aggravates the viewers' attempt to understand what is going on. Tarr crafts "Werckmeister Harmonies" as a surreal allegory, consisting just out of some 40 takes, but he has difficulty to align them into a coherent narrative. Consequently, these scenes work when isolated, but not that much together as a film. The opening 10-minute scene at the tavern is great, showing how Janos persuades three men to play the Sun, the Earth and the Moon in orbit, with the former standing still, and the latter walking around him, in a comical moment à la Three Stooges. The plot tangle, where a mini-circus shows up in the city during night, after which bad things start happening, reminds of "Sailor Moon SuperS", painting a metaphor: the circus truck charges people to see a whale outside a tank (!), on dry, thus already implying how people are attracted to something impossible, something contradictory, in this case the "Prince", a figure in the shadows, who appears only once in the film, and on top of that off-screen. The "Prince" is a symbol for any emergence of a new ideology which deludes the masses, and which inevitably turns violent in order to overthrow the current system, to take a foothold, since it cannot do it with reason. This is where the film takes off. It culminates in a brilliant sequence of masses walking on the streets, and then erupting into a riot in the hospital, which is so artificially staged it seems almost grotesquely fake, especially in the scene where one rioter is dragging a man from his bed. Unfortunately, the whole first 70 minutes could have easily been cut, since too much time is wasted on "empty walk" of Janos eating or walking, when the whole film could have as well started from this scene of Janos overhearing the "Prince" trying to dominate the society.

Grade:++ 

Friday, May 3, 2019

Pharaoh

Faraon; drama, Poland / Uzbekistan, 1966; D: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, S: Jerzy Zelnik, Piotr Pawłowski,  Emir Buczacki, Krystyna Mikołajewska, Wiesława Mazurkiewicz, Leszek Herdegen

Ancient Egypt, 1100 BC. Two scarabs walk strangely in the sand, and the high priests interpret this as a divine sign that the Egyptian army should walk around an area. Consequently, they have to bury a canal to cross over it, causing a farmer to commit suicide. Prince Ramses XIII, who led the military exercise, is annoyed by the priests, led by Herhor, who control the country too much, even influencing and advising Ramses' father, the Pharaoh. Ramses wants to attack the Assyrians to get more money for Egypt's failing economy, but the priests press for a peace agreement. Dagon, a Phoenician merchant, designs a plan to persuade Ramses to attack the Assyrians, employing Phoenician Kama who becomes Ramses' mistress, replacing his wife, Sara, a Jew. When his father dies, Ramses becomes the new Pharaoh and plans to get rid of the priests. He incites people to attack their temple, containing the labyrinth with gold, but the priests use a Sun eclipse to feign the intervention of the gods, thereby dispersing the rebellion. Ramses is killed by his double, Lykon.

One of the most untypical movies from the Polish cinema, both by its scale and setting, Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Pharaoh" is a set up almost as some sort of a lesson towards American monumental epics, since it is an intimate essay on politology and the struggle for power, much closer to Machiavelli's "The Prince" or the animosity between the High Sparrow and Cersei in "Game of Thrones" than "The Ten Commandments". Kawalerowicz also has an aesthetic visual style which helps him stand out sharply from the stiff shot compositions of the above mentioned monumental epics: the film starts off with a long camera drive as it follows a priest running through hundreds of Egyptian soldiers standing in a line in the desert, from his front. The fact that he insists that the entire military should walk around a whole area because of the movement of two scarabs, already neatly sums up the motivation of the protagonist, Ramses XIII, considers them a superstitious 'parasite' caste that almost has more power than the Pharaoh himself.

Other great visual moments include a tracking shot of soldiers walking up and down across sand dunes as they approach their enemies from afar, while dozens of them fall when hit by spears, in the end even switching to a POV shot of a soldier who is hit, when the entire screen is filled with red blood. In another creative set piece, a line of thousands people march across the horizon, over the dune, but constantly stop to kneel down, almost as a set of dominoes. The tricks, ploys and intrigues with which Ramses and the priests try to outsmart each other are fascinating, albeit a little dry and dialogue driven, and one never knows who will prevail, especially when there is also a third party, the Phoenician merchants, who want to weaken them both. The highlight is probably the storming of the temple, incited by Ramses: upon hearing of the plan, the high priest actually encourages the rioting people to attack as soon as possible. One soon finds out why: the priests have knowledge of astronomy, and thus use a Sun eclipse to scare off the ignorant masses by claiming it is a divine punishment. "Pharaoh" is a dark allegory on the reign of autocracy, where the only way of reform or change is through bloodshed and violence, and an essay on atavistic class trying to cling on to power, assembling an overlong, but clever little exotic film with great details, unknown to the most of moviegoers. Krystyna Mikołajewska is excellent as Ramses' "forbidden" Jewish mistress, Sara.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Step Brothers

Step Brothers; comedy, USA, 2008; D: Adam McKay, S: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn

The unemployed Brennan (39) lives with his single mother, Nancy. In another part of the city, the unemployed Dale (40) lives with his single father, Dr. Robert. When Nancy and Robert meet, they fall in love and move in the same house. Consequently, now as one family, Dale now has to share his home with Brennan. At first they argue, but then join forces since they both hate Brennan's successful brother, Derek. Moreover, Derek's wife Alice starts an affair with Dale. Robert and Nancy plan to cruise the world with their yacht, but once Dale and Brennan accidentally wreck it while trying to make a music video, the couple files for divorce. Brennan and Dale find stale jobs and help Robert and Nancy make up. Robert then persuades them to open up a karaoke bar.

When watching some of director Adam McKay's earlier comedies, such as "Step Brothers", one realizes the creative quantum leap he made later on with "The Big Short" and "Vice". "Step Brothers" is the darnedest thing: it is so funny, and yet so stupid and primitive. The movie is wrecked with typical "bad comedy" cliches, since its vulgar, misguided ideas kill it (farting; licking of dog feces; Brennan unzips his pants to play the drums with his testicles; throwing up...), as if the authors had no self-confidence that their concept would hold the viewers' attention on its own merit. Will Ferrell's juvenile performance already signalled his dated comic skills, but he hasn't got much to work with. The movie is utterly demented, obnoxious and batty, but precisely because of that tone it is almost guaranteed that the viewers will sooner or later burst into laughter from all these deranged combinations: in one of the most howlingly funny sequences, Brennan shouts at Dale's father up the stairs: "...you sit down and you write Dale and Brennan a check for $10,000. Or I'm gonna shove one of those fake hearing devices so far up your ass... you can hear the sound of your small intestine as it produces shit!" And then Dale's angry father descends down the stairs and beats him up. In another hilarious moment, Brennan and Dale are sleeping in the same bedroom, and then Dale starts a conversations while whispering ("Hey, you awake?" - "... Yeah". - "I just want you to know I hate you." - "Well that's fine. Cause guess what? I hate you too. And this house sucks ass." - "Well the only reason you're living here, is because me and my dad decided that your mom was really hot, and maybe we should just both bang her, and we'll put up with the retard in the meantime"). There are some isolated moments of genuine laughs, but they are wrapped up in a very narrow, juvenile film. There is a difference between the comedies of B. Keaton, Chaplin, B. Murray and "Step Brothers". The former appealed towards the highest in humanity. The latter appealed towards the lowest in humanity.

Grade:+

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame; fantasy action, USA, 2019; D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, S: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, Karen Gillan, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Brie Larson, Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbatch, Pom Klementieff, Idris Elba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Dave Bautista, Tilda Swinton 

Weeks after Thanos used the Infinity Stones to disintegrate half of all intelligent life across the Universe, the world is in disarray. Hawkeye lost his entire family, while Iron-Man / Tony Stark—who was saved by Captain Marvel in space—is furious at Captain America for not listening to him. The surviving Avengers find Thanos on a distant planet, but he destroyed the Stones. Thor then kills him. When Ant-Man returns from the quantum space, five years have passed, though he was missing for only five hours. Tony calculates that it is possible to travel back in time, as well. Using the shrinking suits, the Avengers travel years back in time to get the Stones before Thanos. Black Widow dies in the process. They get the stones, Hulk puts them on the glove and undoes Thanos' mass murder. Thanks to Nebula, Thanos and his army enter through the time portal and attack. Dr. Strange, Spider-Man and others, now revived, fight and stop Thanos' army, but Tony dies. Captain America returns back to his time.

"Avengers: Endgame" is a worthy conclusion to Marvel's Avengers, though it is still a little bit weaker than it predecessor, "Infinity War". The opening act kicks off with a surprisingly subtle and sombre sequence: Hawkeye, now retired, enjoys his free time with his family on an idyllic countryside. However, when he turns, he notices that his daughter is missing. Looking across the countryside, he realizes in shock that everybody from his family disappeared, off screen, as the effects of Thanos' mass murder dissolution strike like a whimper. The whole first act is a quiet drama, a fascinating essay on Posttraumatic stress disorder, on people trying to move on after a huge loss, almost as a huge global allegory on a post-Holodomor era where the survivors are scrambling to rebuild their world. Little details give it spark, such as when Ant-Man returns and finds a memorial cemetery in San Francisco, filled with hundreds of walls with lists of all the people who disappeared. However, considering the mass effects of such a democide, more of such details would have been welcomed. For instance, what happened to the cities round the world, or even on other planets? How did the people react when searching for the missing? Nonetheless, its first act is great, the finale is good, but the middle act is disappointing.

The middle act shoehorned the time travel concept in order to simply rollback and reverse everything, which is equally of a cheat as the ending in the original '78 "Superman". The deaths of many of the Avengers in "Infinity War" had a weight to them, it was an expressionistic finale that shocked because it showed that sometimes disappointment and loss are inevitable in life, even in superhero movies, which was monumental. "Endgame", unfortunately, nullifies all of this a bit, by presenting an "anything goes" scenario where nothing has any consequences because everything can be corrected. The time travel segment seems more like a lazy "Best of" compilation of the previous films, with numerous scenes done only for fan service, than a real effort. Several time travel plot holes are also inevitable, all corroding the impression—for instance, why not simply travel back in time and arrest Thanos while he is a kid? Or simply travel back before the final battle, and help themselves while they were fighting Thanos? Still, a few good jokes are refreshing (the sole sequence where Hulk travels to a sea port to find a resigned Thor who became fat slob from drinking too much beer is almost something from an experimental territory; three fan kids want a selfie with Hulk, but not with Ant-Man) and the finale is redeemingly emotional and sincere, showing a very energetic and almost magical conclusion of a character arc. While Tony Stark's time travel visit to his father seems overlong at first, it contains a foreshadowing hidden in one little line (when the father sadly claims that "overall good" never outweighed his own interests). Due to such a powerful ending, "Endgame" somewhat compensates for its flawed concept, offering spectacle done to the tenth of power.

Grade:++

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Room with a View

A Room with a View; romance / drama / comedy, UK, 1985; D: James Ivory, S: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Rupert Graves, Judi Dench

Florence, 1 9 0 0s. The young Lucy Honeychurch and her uptight older cousin Charlotte are on a tourist visit, but are disappointed with the view from their pension. Upon hearing that at a meal, British Mr. Emerson and his son George persuade them to switch rooms, since the latter have a good view. The depressive George loosens up and kisses Lucy in a barley field, causing Charlotte to hastily depart with Lucy. UK. Lucy accepts an arranged marriage with Aristocrat Cecil, but starts doubting herself when George and Mr. Emerson move to a nearby house. George kisses Lucy again, but she tells him to leave. She then breaks up with Cecil and intends to take a long journey to Athens. Upon visiting Mr. Emerson, Lucy finally admits she loves George and they take a trip in Florence in spring.

Historical period dramas are a dime a dozen, but luckily, "A Room with a View" is one refreshing exception: as unexciting as its plot sounds, so much it is an excellent adaptation of E. M. Forster's eponymous novel, a wonderful little film about awakening of dormant emotions that is full of life, elegance and subtle humor that almost make it a comedy at times. It is widely considered the apex in the triumvirate careers of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant in one. It stays true to its literature origins, depicting the concept of human love in the British upper class, which is in a rift between the conservative, restrictive (Charlotte) and liberal, progressive (Mr. Emerson) view. The title thus becomes a symbol for the narrow or wide view on life of these two sides. Little details, dialogues, nuances and gestures manage to conjure up these characters and their relations. The young Lucy (an underrated performance by Helena Bonham Carter) wants to act polite, but slowly realizes one cannot be polite about your emotions. In the Florence dinning room sequence, George already seizes her attention when he makes a question mark out of peas on his plate.

Denholm Elliott is great as his father, Mr. Emerson. He does not have that much screen time, but each and every one of his scenes is a gem. During a sight seeing tour, he has a very honest and revealing dialogue with Lucy about the depressive George, which is a defining moment in the film: "My poor boy has brains, but he is very muddled." - "But why should he be?" - "Well of you to ask. For the way he was brought up, free from all the superstition that leads men to hate one other in the name of God." - "I must go." - "I don't require you to fall in love with my boy, but please try to help him. If anyone could stop him from brooding... And on what? The things in the Universe." It speaks about the therapeutic effects of love and passion in healing depressive people. Surprisingly, Ivory allows for some downright burlesque moments: in one of them, George, a friend and even the vicar strip naked to take a bath in a lake in the forest, but, of course, Lucy and her company just happen to be taking a walk there, spotting them. In another great little, almost metafilm moment, an oblivious Cecil reads a novel set in Florence in which the author almost identically described how George kissed Lucy in a barley field, which stimulates George to follow Lucy and kiss her again later on. Rarely do you get a chance to see a historical drama which seems as timeless (and universal) in its characters and emotions as if it plays out in modern times, all adding to its delight, which is understated, low-key and builds up slowly, yet works from every aspect later on: these characters are all so charming they cause a smile on the viewer's face.

Grade:+++

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments; silent drama, USA, 1923; D: Cecil B. DeMille, S: Rod La Rocque, Richard Dix, Leatrice Joy, Edythe Chapman, Theodore Roberts, Charles De Roche

First story: Ancient Egypt. Moses sends plagues until pharaoh Ramses concedes and allows the Hebrew slaves to walk free. But the pharaoh changes his mind and sends the Egypt army to attack the Hebrews, yet they are drowned in the Red Sea. On Mt Sinai, Moses gets the 10 commandments from God... Second story: atheist Danny and his brother, carpenter John, have a religious mother, Martha. When Danny finds a girlfriend, Mary, he leaves the house because he does not believe in the 10 commandments. Danny becomes a corrupt contractor, using too little cement to gain profit, but when his cathedral collapses, it kills his mother. Plagued by guilt, he demands pearls he gave to a prostitute. She refuses, Danny kills her and flees on a boat during a storm, crashing and dying.

Director Cecil B. DeMille is one of the few authors who themselves directed a remake better than the original, yet that was not such a difficult task to accomplish in the case of this 1923 film—"The Ten Commandments" from '56 is not a great film, yet it is easily superior to the very flawed and preachy original. For one thing, the 1923 version is kind of a cheat: only the first 40 minutes depict Moses and the Exodus story, while the remaining 80 minutes depict a modern story about atheist contractor Danny and his rejection of the 10 commandments, yet they are exhaustingly boring, didactic and strain the viewers' attention. DeMille's remake focused only on the Exodus, abandoning the modern story, which was enough by default to surpass the original, which fell deeply into the territory of Christian propaganda. The sole 1st segment is fairly interesting, with rudimentary yet fascinating special effects (parting of the Red Sea; the "reverse shots" of explosions announcing the 10 commandments on the Sinai) and a few monumental images (a queue of thousands of Hebrew people stretching across the desert dunes) which indicated DeMille's sense for the spectacle. The 2nd segment is terribly thin and overlong by comparison, a dated and blatantly obvious religious morality play—atheist Danny is predictably ruined even though the 10 commandments never mention corruption, with the melodramatic scene of his mother dying from the collapsed cathedral built by corrupt cement, whereas there is even a scene where Danny escapes on a boat named "Defiance". This disparity damages the film, but the 1st story has enough power to save it.

Grade:++

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Boyz n the Hood

Boyz n the Hood; crime drama, USA, 1991, D: John Singleton, S: Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Tyra Ferrell, Angela Bassett

Tre Styles (10) caused trouble once again in school, defying his teacher during class, and thus his divorced mother Reva sends him to live at the house of his father, Furious, at South Central Los Angeles. Seven years later. Tre (17) is an intelligent teenager and intends to go to college, as well as his friend, Ricky, but their other friend Doughboy is a gang member. Tre is also in a relationship with Brandi. After a dispute with Ferris, a member of a rival gang, Ricky is shot from the back by Ferris in a car. Tre wants to avenge Ricky's death, but his dad persuades him to not endanger his own life. Doughboy and his friends drive in a car t night, find and shoot Ferris and his gang. Doughboy then talks to Tre and is willing to accept the consequences of his actions.

"Boyz n the Hood" was one of the more notable 'hood films' of the 90s, depicting the African-American lower class and their subculture with very bitter details, full of realism, but also in an intelligent, earnest and emotional manner. Director and screenwriter John Singleton added several auto-biographical elements, though he did not fully escape some cliches of that subgenre, including the depiction of primitivism among some characters, or a few melodramatic moments. The opening act sets up a great mood: during a class at an elementary school, the teacher explains Thanksgiving to the kids, adding that it was established by the "Pilgrims", but Tre (10) cannot resist to say a wisecrack joke and calls them "Penguins", upon which the class erupts in laughter. The teacher then invites Tre to go to the blackboard and teach the kids himself, if he knows everything. The consequences echo even at his home, when the mother, Reva, reminds Tre of their contract in which he vowed not to get into trouble at school or he will live at his father's place, even adding Tre the paper he signed himself. This half-an-hour opening act is wonderful, but the main segment, involving around a teenage Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) somehow never repeats that high impression from the first act and lacks inspiration. The rest of the story is good, though not that outstanding. The best job was delivered by excellent Laurence Fishburne as father Furious, who becomes Tre's mentor and gives him wisdom, nurturing him away from street gangs and drugs. Furious even goes to ask Tre if he already had sex, upon which Tre tells him a ludicrous story about how he was sleeping with a girl, but had to flee when her grandmother returned home from church. Later on, however, Tre admits to a friend he is still a virgin, terrified of the idea of having a baby. The episodic story is rather conventional and its ending anticlimactic, yet it has sense in depicting a deeper theme of an individual trying to break away from the limitations of his environment, and its determinism.

Grade:++

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame; drama / tragedy, USA, 1939; D: William Dieterle, S: Maureen O'Hara, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Edmond O'Brien

Paris, 15th century. Louis XI, the King of France, is willing to accept progress in the form of the printing press, but his Chief Justice of Paris, Jean Frollo, is still a superstitious fundamentalist. The gypsies are persecuted and forbidden from entering Paris, but one of them, dancer Esmeralda, defies the orders to attend a street festival. She escapes the guards by finding sanctuary in the Notre Dame Cathedral, where Frollo falls in love with her and orders Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer, to kidnap her. Gringoire, a street poet, calls the guards who save Esmeralda and sentence Quasimodo to public whipping. The jealous Frollo stabs Phoebus, Esmeralda's love interest, and thus Esmeralda is wrongfully accused and sentenced to death by a court. However, Quaismodo saves her and they hide in the Notre Dame. Clopin, a beggar, orders a mob to storm the Notre Dame to save Esmeralda. Quasimodo kills Frollo by throwing him from the church tower, while Esmeralda is pardoned by Louis XI and falls in love with Gringoire.

The second feature length film adaptation of Victor Hugo's famous eponymous novel, William Dieterle's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a rather faithful adaptation, and thus, congruently, a dark, bitter, dirty, naturalistic tragedy, barely "softened" by the Hays Code of that time, which contemplates about two themes: the status of outsiders in society and the damaging effects of superstitious fundamentalism which wants to prevent any kind of progress. The first theme is nicely presented in the form of two main "outcast" protagonists, gypsy Esmeralda (rejected because of her ethnic origin) and the deaf Quasimodo (rejected because of his physical looks), whereas the second one is presented through Louis XI, the King of France, who is in stark contrast with Frollo who accosts Esmeralda ("Honest people don't live by witchcraft and magic!" - "If we really had the power of magic, do you think we'd choose to be outcasts, to be poor and persecuted always?"), and the Notre Dame serves as a symbol for the high art and cultural heritage, as opposed to primitive masses happening beneath her. Full of vile details, the story is not for everyone's taste, especially in the underdeveloped character of Quasimodo who is deaf and thus almost never speaks, and in some heavy handed symbolism or questionable metaphors, yet some moments of inspirations shine through, such as in the sequence where Quasimodo is about to be publicly whipped, which causes a great dialogue between two spectators, again speaking about the irrational and the rational ("He gets what he deserves!" - "If all the noblemen would get what they deserve, we would run out of all artillery"). Charles Laughton is great in the title role, occasionally delivering more layers in it than it was initially intended.

Grade:++

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Housemaid

Hanyeo; psychological drama, South Korea, 1960; D: Kim Ki-young, S: Kim Jin-kyu, Lee Eun-shim, Ju Jeung-ryu, Um Aing-ran, Lee Yoo-ri

Mr. Kim is married and has two kids, a boy and a daughter who has to use crotches to walk. Mr. Kim is a piano teacher and sometimes gets love letters from infatuated girl students at a music dormitory, but declines them because he is married. Since his pregnant wife, who is constantly sewing, cannot keep up with the chores at home, Mr. Kim accepts the tip from Cho, one of his students, and hires a housemaid, Myung-sook. However, the maid is infatuated with Mr. Kim and blackmails him to have sex with her, threatening to accuse him of rape otherwise. When the maid becomes pregnant, Mr. Kim admits everything to his wife, who in turn persuades the maid to fall from stairs to have a miscarriage. The maid then lives with them in the house, threatening to go to the police otherwise. When she kills the boy, Mr. Kim persuades the maid to drink poisoned drink with him, so they both die.

"The Housemaid" is "Fatal Attraction" done right, a dark, disturbing psychological horror-drama reminiscent of Polanski's early works, which encompasses several themes, from the consequences of polygamy and obsessiveness, up to the potentially manipulative deviations of the "female victim" notion by the title heroine who abuses it to shamelessly achieves her interests. The director Kim-Ki young creates a slow build up of unsettling mood, starting off with idyllic images of Mr. Kim's life: he is a music teacher, but he finds a love letter when he opens his piano, since one of the girl students is infatuated with him, already foreshadowing the main tangle which will turn such a potentially sweet love story into its disturbing opposite. These threats are conjured up through psychological methods, almost without any violence at all: one sequence stands out the most, the one where the maid brings a glass of water to the two kids, but the little girl tells her little brother not to drink it, since she fears the maid may have poisoned it. The maid then takes a sip, and the brother drinks the whole glass, assured of its safety. As the maid takes the empty glass back, she malevolently spits out the sip she took, causing the little boy to panic from fear. Another interesting touch is the cage with the running wheel for the squirrel, symbolic for Mr. Kim who is trapped inside his own home with the maid. One subplot does not work, though: after what she did to the little boy, it is inconceivable that Mr. Kim and his wife would still keep the maid in her house, since she is a threat to their other two kids. In any version, after the said incident, the maid would have been removed henceforth, regardless of her threats of going to the police. Young still managed to create an effective 'kammerspiel', a minimalistic psychological drama equipped with an interesting (metafilm) plot twist that breaks the 'fourth wall', since he taps on to the humans' two deepest fears: an invasion and disruption of the safety of his/her home; and the phobia that one wrong decision can leave a neverending stream of problems one can never get rid off.

Grade:+++

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Talk to Her

Hable con ella; drama, Spain, 2002; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Geraldine Chaplin

During a play in a theater, Marco and Benigno cross paths for the first time, but don't notice each other. Benigno works in a hospital as a nurse of his girlfriend Alicia, who is in a coma ever since her car accident: he met her while she was a ballerina. Marco writes tourist guides, but decided to write an article about Lydia, a female bull fighter. However, during a fight, the bull gouged Lydia, who also landed in a coma. Marco meets Benigno. When Alicia becomes pregnant by Benigno, he lands in prison for rape, but it ends in a miscarriage. Lydia dies, Beigno commits suicide in prison. Alicia wakes up from her coma and starts a relationship with Marco.

Winner of several awards, "Talk to Her" is a serious, somewhat even bitter drama about fatalism by depicting the topic of two women in a coma and their two tragic lovers, who philosophize: "A woman's mind is always a mystery. Especially in this state", or "Your relationship is a monologue". Pedro Almodovar describes this frustrating, debilitating state of the two lovers, which makes for a sometimes depressive watch, sometimes with very realistic details (Alicia's hair is washed above a bucket, while in a black humored moment a nurse pours practically half a gallon of shampoo between the comatose woman's legs to clean her during her period), yet it seems he somehow lacks inspiration, humor and agility for such a dark concept about disability. Almodovar was nominated for best director for several prizes, but not quite justifiably: he loses subtlety on several occasions, though one has to admire him for the allegorical depiction of a rape of a comatose woman in the form of a fictional black-and-white film "The Shrinking Lover", in which a 6-inch tall man is wallowing between the breasts of his huge girlfriend, and in the end enters into her genitalia. The sole concept wasn't especially well used and feels overstretched, though it has a point. Rosaria Dawson is excellent as Lydia, but only before she is in a coma. In the movie "A Thousand Words", the critics rightfully complained that it was misguided to put E. Murphy, a comedian known for his verbal skills, into a narrowed role where he is not allowed to speak. The similar complaint can be detected here: the two leading actresses are great, but we don't get anything out of them as soon as they are reduced to extras and placed into a coma where they waste the rest of the story just lying in bed.

Grade:++

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

I'm So Excited!

Los amantes pasajeros; comedy, Spain, 2013; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces, Raúl Arévalo, Cecilia Roth, Lola Dueñas, Antonio de la Torre, Hugo Silva, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Laya Martí, Blanca Suárez, Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Paz Vega

From the excitement of the news that his wife is pregnant, a technician forgets to remove chocks from the wheels of an airplane at an airport. When the said airplane takes flight from Madrid to Mexico City, it turns out that the chocks clogged its wheels, and thus the pilots have to fly in circles and wait for an airport to clear the runaway to land. There is a rich crew on board: three gay flight attendants; Bruna, a passenger who thinks she has psychic powers which predict the future; Ricardo Galan, an actor who calls upon his two ex-girlfriends; Norma, a Dominatrix who falls in love with her assassin... Finally, the plane lands safely at La Mancha airport.

One of Pedro Almodovar's lesser films, "I'm So Excited!" is a wacky patchwork of a comedy set on an airplane flight 90% of its running time, yet a one that is neither that particularly amusing nor that particularly inspired. The episodic story revolves around a dozen or so characters, yet few of them manage to sustain the viewers' interest. A few good jokes are reminiscent of Almodovar's better days, such as when the flight attendants comment that the passengers in the economy class are "suffering from economy class syndrome" or when a woman gives a fellatio to her boyfriend while sleepwalking during the night, yet the movie needed more of such moments. The three gay flight attendants only have their moment in the mildly amusing sequence when they are dancing in tune to The Pointer Sisters' song "I'm So Excited!", yet the storyline is mostly boring and tiresome, full of empty walk and lukewarm gags, with several omissions. Watching these people stuck on an airplane is as fun as watching a traffic jam.

Grade:+

Monday, April 1, 2019

Highway Patrolman

El patrullero; crime drama, Mexico, 1991; D: Alex Cox, S: Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Pedro Armendáriz Jr.

Mexico city. The young Pedro Rojas graduates at the Police Academy and is assigned as the highway patrolman along the US-Mexican border. Idealistic at first, he accepts his first bribe to allow a farmer pass with a truck full of pigs without a permit. Pedro marries Griselda, they get a baby, but is disenchanted by her egoistic nature and thus starts an affair with drug-addicted prostitute Maribel. Upon stopping a speeding car, Pedro is shot at and wounded in the leg. Later, his partner Anibal is killed by drug smugglers. Spying on the shipment of drugs, which are delivered by a helicopter, Pedro shoots at the smugglers from an ambush. He also confiscates a part of drugs and hides it in a buried suitcase. Pedro quits from the police and works as a truck driver of workers for Griselda's enterprise, but also supports Maribel in order to keep her off drugs.

The excursion of British director Alex Cox into the Mexican cinema resulted in an energetic and authentic little independent film which works thanks to its enthusiasm and wild audacity, but also owes a lot of its charm to the excellent leading actor, Roberto Sosa, who creates a palpable character of police officer Pedro who starts off with high idealism, only to "adapt" to imperfections and disappointments of reality. Cox directs the film in delicious long takes, each of them encompassing a wealth of information about the setting and characters in them, while he also avoids the glamour of mainstream films in favor of authenticity. There are also some traces of quirky humor: in one sequence, Pedro stops a truck full of plantage workers because they are standing, and are thus in a security violation, but the driver, Griselda, asks him to drop by at her home later on. Pedro does, and stops by for dinner at her kitchen, until Griselda "reminds" her father that he has to go somewhere. When her father leaves the house, Griselda stays alone with Pedro. Cut to a home video of their wedding. These and other clever plot points give "Highway Patrolman" flair and spark. Another great sequence has Pedro rushing to his partner's help, Anibal, but his old police car will not start its engine. Pedro finally starts the car, and is driving across the highway, but the viewers are not shown in what trouble Anibal has found himself, just that he is screaming: "They are armed to their teeth!"  All goes wrong, and Pedro's car breaks down, so Pedro, limping on one leg, exits the car with a machine gun and continues walking on foot on the highway. He finds Anibal's deserted car, and follows the trail of blood into the desert. Such excitement and passion in that sequence really elevate the film into a high impression.

Grade:+++

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Three Businessmen

Three Businessmen; experimental film, UK, 1998; D: Alex Cox, S: Miguel Sandoval, Alex Cox, Robert Wisdom, Isabel Ampudia

A traveling salesman, Bennie, arrives at a hotel in Liverpool. The hotel seems deserted. When he goes to the empty lounge, he meets another salesman, Frank. The two decide to search for something to eat themselves, and thus walk across the streets of Liverpool in search for a restaurant. They talk about life along the way. They find one and order a huge dinner, but Bennie has  panic attack and runs outside. Bennie and Frank walk and find themselves in Rotterdam, then Hong Kong, Tokyo, and finally in Almeria. They find a third businessman, Leroy, and then go to a small house and order beans. Inside a cottage, they find a family celebrating the birth of their baby. The three businessmen then part their ways.

Peculiar director Alex Cox, author of such cult films as "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy", added another strange achievement to his opus, experimental film "Three Businessmen", which can be basically described as "My Diner with Andre" with walking. However, unlike "Andre", "Businessman" does not have that many memorable dialogues, and seems rather aimless and "lost", especially in the forced (and abrupt) ending with the three businessmen (the last one appears only 10 minutes before the end of the film (!), which is also puzzling) as some sort of Three Kings visiting a modern day Nativity in a stable in Almeria. The problem is that the whole film up to that seems like a completely different film, or as if someone "misplaced" a different ending from a different script. There are some charming, humorous moments in the first third of the film: Bennie arrives at an empty hotel, and then says "Ring, ring!" at the reception desk. His walking and talking with Frank does have a few amusing lines, such as when they are arguing over the bizarre names of modern cars ("The Existentialist! The reindeer slayer!") or how to make conscious machines ("Just program the computer to feel fear and despair! This guy says this is what makes us the thinking animals that we are!"). While it is amusing that the two salesmen are walking across Liverpool, and in their search for a restaurant do not even notice that they are in completely different cities (Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Almeria)—which can be interpreted as some sort of commentary on human dislocation from their environment, and their self-absorbed nature which does not see anything past their own ego—the storyline is thin and aimless, with too much "empty walk", which is not very cinematic. For such a "movie about nothing", the authors needed to craft a lot more highlights to engage the viewers than presented here.

Grade:+

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Aleksi

Aleksi; drama, Croatia, 2018; D: Barbara Vekarić, S: Tihana Lazović, Goran Marković, Sebastian Cavazza, Leon Lučev, Jason Mann, Neda Arnerić, Lidija Bačić, Nataša Janjić

Pelješac peninsula. Aleksi (28) returns to her parent's home after failing to find a job as a photographer. Her parents would love her to take over their vine business, but she wants to apply to work in Berlin. After she is rejected by the Berlin company, Aleksi starts an affair with the divorced Toni, who is 20 years older than her; then with a local musician, Goran; whereas she also flirts with Christian, an American tourist. When Goran finds out that she is also seeing other men, he leaves her. Aleksi asks Toni if she can move with him to Paris, but he rejects her.

Barbara Vekaric's feature length debut is a restless portrait of a young generation who don't know what to do with their lives, think only about themselves and lack any accountability. Refusing to fall prey to typical cliches of the social drama genre, "Aleksi" nonetheless feels strangely vague and aimless in its episodic storyline, without a clear point as to where it is going. The most was achieved out of the main protagonist, Aleksi (excellent Tihana Lazovic), who is stubbornly immature, but also a very funny and sympathetic character at the same time. She is shown masturbating in her bed or urinating in the bushes, and in the latter sequence the character of Goran urinates on her from a cliff, unaware that she was squatting in the bushes. The film's motivations are inconsistent: for instance, nobody buys that she would all of a sudden kiss Toni, a man with a grey beard, 20 years older than her, and start an affair all out of the blue. However, one can sense these flings are all symbolic for her wishes: Toni is a divorced man with two kids, and thus she subconsciously wants to have kids with him, as well; whereas Goran is the embodiment of her male self, a "wild", carefree musician. The best moment arrives when Goran finally confronts her: "Do you care about me? Then why did you go for me so much if you don't care?" Aleksi doesn't know what to answer. "You know what? You don't know what you want. You are selfish, and use others just to feed your ego." These moments lift the film, which would have benefited from more inspiration and "tighter" writing, since its ending is rather vague and abrupt.

Grade:++

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Super Mario Bros. Super Show

The Super Mario Bros. Super Show; animated-live action comedy series, USA, 1989; D: Dan Riba, S: Lou Albano, Danny Wells, Harvey Atkin, Jeannie Elias, John Stocker

Animated segment: Brooklyn plumbers Mario and Luigi help Princess Toadstool and her sidekick Toad in stopping evil King Koopa from attacking various lands, including crime land, rap land, jungle land, caveman land, river world, the Wild West... Live action segment: Mario and Luigi are living inside their Brooklyn apartment, and are visited by various guests: Alligator Dundee, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Vincent Van Gook, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pam Matteson, Magic Johnson, Cyndi Lauper...

An early prototype of a Super Mario animated show, this late 80s extravaganza doesn't quite hold up, though it is a sight to behold due to its sheer audacity. Its main problem is that the authors, led by producer Andy Heyward and writers Bob Forward and Phil Harnage, were only scarcely inspired in conjuring up the adventures of Mario and Luigi, and thus out of 52 episodes, only some ten are good, near the beginning and the ending of the series. A lot of blame should be attributed to their wrong "translation" of the video game: instead of building up a clear narrative, they instead resorted to different parodies for each animated episode, which leaves a very inconsistent and intangible feeling. They could have written a stable storyline—as it was the case in the improved follow-up "Super Mario Bros. 3" where the heroes are always on one location—and not resort to lazy, empty spoofs of "Indiana Jones", "Star Wars", "Three Men and a Baby", "Jack and the Beanstalk", "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior", "The Untouchables", "Godzilla" and what-not, all of which form a (very protracted) low point of the series. Why would Koopa be disguised as Genghis Khan or as Darth Vader, for instance? It makes no sense in this bizarre patchwork of disparate stories and styles.

Surprisingly though, while overall a weak series, there are still some "isolated" moments of greatness that can cause a smile on the viewers' face. When they put some effort into it, the authors come up with a few really good moments of humor, and a large part of them involves Luigi being just plain silly. The live-action pilot episode is a good example: even though Luigi wants to help Nicole Eggert, who was splashed by water from the sink, she just gets messier by the minute in a series of accidents, when she gets dirt from the oven, steps on a cake, sits on a pizza and is then placed under a garbage disposal. Another good episode is the one involving the intimidating wrestler Roddy Piper, who assigned Luigi to fix his bagpipe. Mario then has this exchange with Luigi: "You meatball, we're plumbers, we don't fix bagpipes!" - "I know that, but try telling that to Roddy Piper!" It then turns out that Mario turned the bagpipe into a vacuum cleaner. Several animated episodes also shine when Luigi is in top-form: in "Crocodile Mario", Mario and Luigi toss a Crocodile-repelling statue between themselves, as they try to run away from Koopa who is trying to steal it back. One golden moment of pure hilarity has Mario returning to the city, the Crocodiles want to attack him, but just then Luigi throws the statue at him and the reptiles flee. As Luigi runs behind him, the Crocodiles return to try to attack him, but just then Mario throws the statue back to Luigi, and the reptiles flee once again. "King Mario of Cramalot" also has a delicious joke: Mario summons Luigi to swim across a lake and lower a bridge for them to enter a castle. Just as Luigi is in the middle of the jump, Mario adds: "By the way, watch out for the killer-Piranha fish!", as Luigi backs up and tries to dodge the water. Unfortunately, this "funny Luigi" vanishes in later episodes, and all we are left with is a "routine Luigi" who just acts as an extra who walks after Mario. Despite these underwhelming features and thin writing, some guest stars are amusing (Magic Johnson and Cyndi Lauper standing out the most) whereas it is rare to find such contagiously optimistic and happy characters as Mario and Luigi in modern TV shows.

Grade:+

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell; science-fiction, USA, 2017; D: Rupert Sanders, S: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Carmen Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche

In the future, people are getting more and more integrated with robotics. A human brain is transplanted into a cyborg body of a woman, Mira Killian, who is told by Hanka Robotics that her family was killed by cyberterrorists and that only her brain survived the deadly attack. Since Killian doesn't remember anything, she is thus assigned as a police agent who will work with Batou and Togusa under Chief Daisuke of a secret department. Killian stops a murder spree of Hanka Robotics officials by a robotic geisha, who was under control of an Internet entity Kuze. It later hacks and takes control of two sanitation workers in a truck and orders them to kill Hanka's Dr. Ouelet, but this is also stopped by Killian. She finds Kuze, who tells her that he is a rejected cyborg prototype, and is thus taking revenge against Hanka. Killian leaves the department. In a duel where Hanka's Cutter attacks with a robot tank, Kuze and Cutter are killed. Killian returns to work for the department.

A live-action remake of the eponymous '95 anime, Ruper Sanders' "Ghost in the Shell" is solid, but lifeless. While the cinematography and production designs are excellent, these technical aspects cannot compensate for the rather "grey" drama with little emotion or psychological examination, since all the characters are too stiff and pale to truly invest the viewers, though these problems also plagued the original 1st film. One interesting feature about this edition is that is explains the heroine's origins in a more clear way, beginning with the scene of her brain being transplanted into a cyborg body, and also depicting how she is unaware of her previous memories, until she starts exploring and finds her mother. While these and similar issues about human vs. artificial consciousness and memory were already explored in "Blade Runner" and "RoboCop" (not to mention the philosophical original anime), they still manage to raise a few interesting points. Some sequences were directed almost frame by frame compared to the anime, such as the fight with the sanitation worker on water or the battle with the robot-tank where the heroine uses all her power to open its motor, thereby breaking her own muscles in the process. Scarlett Johansson is good in the leading role, as well as Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet, her "mentor" and secret ally, though all other characters are unmemorable, including Major's sidekick Batou. While not an improvement compared to its source material, this film at least seizes the attention with its audacious attempt to make a live-action version of an anime.

Grade:+

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Brave Little Tailor

Brave Little Tailor; animated fantasy short, USA, 1938; D: Bill Roberts, S: Walt Disney, Marcellite Garner, Eddie Holden

The Middle Ages. A village is desperately seeking someone who will battle a giant. When Mickey Mouse, a tailor, brags about killing seven flies with one blow, the people misinterpret him as if he killed seven giants. Mickey is brought to the king who promises him awards and marriage with his daughter, Minnie, if he kills the giant. Mickey realizes the mistake, but it is too late to withdraw. The giant stumbles upon a farm and sits on a house, accidentally picking up Mickey when he rolled a haystack into a cigarette. Mickey hides inside the giants sleeve, and ties him up. The giant falls unconscious, and is assigned to power a windmill with his snore for an amusement park serving Mickey, Minnie and the king.

An excellent animated short, this is one of the most famous and creative films featuring Mickey Mouse (voiced here by Walt Disney himself!) in his early cinema days, cleverly playing with the notion of the small title protagonist who has to battle a giant. This simple, accessible, fun, yet also surprisingly witty story rises to the occasion, exploiting its possibilities to the fullest given its short running time of 8 minutes. "Brave Little Tailor" is mostly remembered for the finale, which is its highlight, featuring several (humorous) epic wide shots of the giant: from the scene of him sitting on a house; Mickey trying to get out of the giant's mouth; the giant taking a haystack to fold a cigarette for himself up to the elaborate, inspired sequence of Mickey hiding inside the giant's sleeve, and then quickly using his tailor skills to "patch up" the sleeve and capture the giant's left hand while trying to grab the mouse in the sleeve of his right hand. While the ending and the conclusion are somewhat rushed and "abrupt", "Tailor" is still a remarkably ambitious and 'bigger-than-life' take on a simple little story about bravery.

Grade:+++

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Battle Angel Alita

Gunnm; animated science-fiction, Japan, 1993; D: Hiroshi Fukutomi, S: Miki Ito, Shunsuke Kariya, Kappei Yamaguchi, Mami Koyama

Sometimes in the future, a giant Utopian city, Zalem, is floating above the Earth. Zalem throws its trash down on Earth, and scientist Daisuke Ido finds a damaged, abandoned cyborg in the pile, and repairs her into a girl, Gally. She meets a young boy, Hugo, who wants to earn enough money to escape to Zalem. While defending Ido from an aggressive cyborg, Gally displays incredible fighting skills nd becomes a bounty hunter. Chiren is a woman who desperately wants to return to Zalem, and thus offers sex to Vector, who wants to use Gally in one of his gladiator fights. Hugo tells Gally about how his family was killed by Gime because Hugo's brother planned to fly off to Zalem. Gime appears again and slays Hugo, but is killed by Gally. Ido revives Hugo as a cyborg. Hugo climbs up the cable connecting Zalem, but is badly damaged by its defensive ring. Gally holds his hand from the cable, but the falls and dies.

This two-episode OVA is a rather rump adaptation of the popular manga "Battle Angel", and such a condensed approach which encompassed only the first chapter of the comic-book left a rather rushed impression, since many details were left unfinished for some other adaptation. Nonetheless, it is a quality piece of anime, displaying both high-tech elements and emotions, embodied in the tragic figure of Hugo who yearns for reaching the floating city of Zalem above the Earth, thereby advancing into the modern version of Icarus, a person who dreams to reach for the impossible heights in order to escape from the impoverished world around him, only to get badly burned. Other characters are also given enough room (Ido finding cyborg Gally and reviving her almost seems like a modern form of adoption of a daughter) and there are a few stylistic ideas with a punchline (for instance, in one scene at a dirty bar, Chiren extinguishes her cigarette on a cockroach climbing her table, signalling her feisty persona). As Zalem stands for the upper class, and Earth as the lower class, the story could have developed more in that direction, since some of the action and battle sequences end up in sometimes extreme violence (a cyborg killing a dog, for instance, and Gally using its blood to draw herself "fighting" stripes in order to take revenge on the said cyborg). Despite an abridged story, which is just half of deal, "Battle Angel" has aesthetic images and polished designs, never allowing for the cyberpunk to completely take over the human side, whereas its touching ending gives it more weight than expected.

Grade:++

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Ashes and Diamonds

Popiół i diament; drama, Poland, 1958; D: Andrzej Wajda, S: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński, Adam Pawlikowski

Maciek and Andrzej, two ex-Home Army soldiers, ambush two vehicles driving towards a chapel and shoot the men inside, hoping they assassinated the communist Commissar Szczuka. Returning to Warsaw, they hear of the German peace treaty, which ends World War II on 8 May 1 9 4 5. As they stop in a hotel, they find out that Szczuka survived, and thus Maciek rents a room next to his, aiming to finish Szczuka after the latter returns from a festivity celebrating the end of the war. Maciek sleeps with Krystyna, a barmaid, and visits the ruins of a local church with her. When Szczuka returns that night on foot, Maciek shoots him on the street. In the morning, their secret agent Drewnowski wants to join Andrzej, but only manages to scare and chase the latter away. In the commotion, Maciek is shot by three communist soldiers and dies.

Widely recognized as one of the most influential and notable Polish films of the 20th century, "Ashes and Diamonds" is a peculiar patchwork, most notably because it stubbornly refuses to accept its World War II genre, and instead creates an unusual syncretism with a "Young Rebel" subgenre thanks to its main star, Zbigniew Cybulski, the "Polish James Dean" who untypically wears sunglasses throughout the story, chewing the scenery. However, this 'old-modern' duality reflects the major theme of the film, which is a meditation on Poland torn between the West and the East during that era. The director Andrzej Wajda starts off the movie with a fantastic opening sequence: Maciek and Andrzej lie in the meadow, until they hear two vehicles approaching a church, and then machine-gun the drivers in an ambush, hoping they fulfilled their goal of assassinating the communist Commissar Szczuka, already signaling that, even though World War II is over, the war between the democratic and communist Polish forces will wage on for several decades in the future. The twist where Szczuka actually survived unharmed, and checks in at the precise Warsaw hotel where the two are staying at, is deliciously undermined with Maciek lowering his newspaper upon hearing his target walking in next to him. Bizarrely, and most unsettling, this main story then "vanishes" for a whole hour, and the movie shifts its focus on a dozen episodic characters roaming the hotel and the bar, who are all "off-topic", but all paint a bigger picture of Poland during the war through small lines and interactions: for instance, Krystyna casually mentions how her father died at Dachau; a drunk man accosts an official for collaborationism; a sly dialogue depicts the situation in the country ("Everything is closed down. Except for the prison") whereas the surreal image of the giant crucifix hanging upside down in a devastated church clearly shows how religion was abrogated during communism. Cybulski's Maciek is a such a daft character, who constantly acts "cool", that it is surprising, as if he came from a different movie (the sequence where he asks Krystyna out for a date, but she just sticks her tongue out towards him, really was unheard off for the genre back then), and such a freshness perforates the entire film, until it returns back to its assassination story near the end, which is slightly anti-climatic, though still memorable.

Grade:+++

Friday, March 1, 2019

Vice

Vice; satire, USA, 2018; D: Adam McKay, S: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Alfred Molina

Wyoming, 1 9 6 3. Dick Cheney dropped out of Yale and was stopped by police for drunken driving, so his wife Lynne orders him to pull himself together. He does, in fact, more than expected: he becomes Donald Rumsfeld's intern during the Nixon administration. After the Watergate affair, Cheney's sweet words earn him the place of White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford, and later chairman of the House Republican Conference during Ronald Reagan. Cheney aims for more, for the Presidential position, but his campaign gains almost no interest. However, in 2 0 0 0, George W. Bush persuades him to be his Vice President. When Bush is elected as the new US President, and 9/11 takes the country by surprise, Cheney takes much more control and influence than he should: he orders US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as kidnappings of people suspected to be Islamic terrorists and telephone tapping of anybody suspicious. The Bush administration is extremely unpopular and ends on a low note in 2 0 0 8.

Excellent "Vice" is a tour-de-force satire that is both remarkably ambitious and winningly funny at the same time, staying faithful to director-screenwriter's Adam McKay's specific comic taste: a rare cinema highlight of the American film of that decade. Unlike the very safe and calculative "Green Book", "Vice" takes a 'social issue' topic, but presents it in a hilariously creative, fresh and inventive manner, worthy of the movie language in full expression: there is almost nothing calculative in this biopic, since you never know what McKay is going to do next. When a movie starts off with this opening text: "The following is a true story. Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history. But we did our f*** best!", you know you will not have a boring 'run-of-the-mill' biopic. McKay enriches the film with witty dialogue ("Kissinger is overrated!"), strong character interaction (during a lecture, a young Donald Rumsfeld, played by brilliant Steve Carell, seizes the attention of the audience by hitting the microphone repeatedly on the wall. Later, when asked which Party he wants to join, an impressed Cheney looks towards Rumsfeld and says: "What Party was that guy we just heard?" - "Republican." - "Perfect. Because that's what I am!"), unusual ideas (the reveal of the narrator's identity at the end is delicious; the fake "closing credits" in the middle of the film) and clever sight gags.

The sequence where George W. Bush is trying to persuade Cheney to be his Vice President is a little school of directing in itself: it is intercut with clips of a fishing rod, since it shows that Bush thinks he is luring Cheney, but in reality, the seemingly reluctant Cheney is actually fishing Bush into giving him much more control and leverage than a Vice President should have. Cheney's small metafilm laugh during the conversation is the cherry on top of this sequence. McKay presents Cheney as a man fascinated by power and dominance: he is excited to serve it, but even more excited to be in power and dominate himself. Just like almost any life story, even "Vice" cannot be that neatly summed up into a three-act structure with a clear message at the end, since a lot of his motivation is unknown, and thus the ending is somewhat vague, yet that what was shown managed to explain a lot. Kudos should also be given to Christian Bale in the leading role, who underwent a long transformation from his own look to a completely different physique as Cheney, delivering one of the best film performances in his career—not because he gained weight, but because the greatness simply stems from inspired writing to every aspect of this film. McKay demonstrated passion and energy rarely seen in modern films.

Grade:+++

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Green Book

Green Book; drama / comedy / road movie, USA, 2018; D: Peter Farrelly, S: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, Brian Stepanek

New York, 1 9 6 2. After a night club is shut down, bouncer Tony Vallelonga has to search for a new job to feed his family, wife Dolores and two kids. He finds a part time job as a chauffeur and personal assistant of the wealthy African-American musician Don Shirley, who intends to spend two months going on a tour with his band, Oleg and George, to perform in the American South. While Tony's "raw" attitude initially annoys him, Don becomes his friend during the trip. They encounter several racist people in the South, and Don is even forbidden to dine at a place where he was about to play the piano. Returning back to New York on Christmas, Tony invites Don to spend the evening with his family.

Peter Farrelly managed one of the greatest comebacks in film industry with "Green Book", a calm, untypically solemn and serious 'social issue' film for him, which garnered several awards. "Green Book" is a good film, but its main problem is that it would have left a far higher impression if it was released in the 60s, and not in 2018, when such moral anti-racism stories are rather routine and a dime a dozen. It is basically a restructuring of "Driving Miss Daisy", except that the two roles are reversed: unlike "Daisy", here the upper class, educated boss is African-American, while the White man is the driver "simpleton". Their friendship works mostly thanks to the two excellent performances by Viggo Mortensen as the "raw" Tony and Mahershala Ali as the cultured Don, who complete each other (Tony becomes more sophisticated while the stiff Don livens up) equipped with Fareelly's inclination towards comedy which gives it some spark. One of the funniest running gags is watching how Tony enjoys eating food non-stop, and at one instance buys Kentucky Fried Chicken to give some to Don during the drive, and to teach him to simply throw bones out the window. Another funny bit has Tony mispronounce Don's "Orpheus" album as "Orphans". However, while noble and with its heart at the right place, the storyline is at times incomplete: the most puzzling moment is the sequence where Tony finds out that Don was arrested in a spa for having gay contact with a man. The notion that Don is gay is never brought up again in the film (!), not even by Tony, which makes this scene stand out as if it was shoehorned more to increase Ali's chances to win more awards than as a plot point that has a function in the story. "Green Book" is a touching little film about friendship and mutual understanding, yet as time goes by, its narrative is more and more absorbed by explicit preaching, instead of being the other way around.

Grade:++