Monday, December 30, 2019

The Smiling Madame Beudet

La Souriante Madame Beudet; silent short drama, France, 1923; D: Germaine Dulac, S: Germaine Dermoz, Alexandre Arquillière, Jean d'Yd

Mrs. Beudet is married to a slob of a husband, Mr. Bedeut. While she enjoys playing a piano and is sensitive, he is crude, vulgar and vile, often playing a "suicide practical joke" in which he takes a pistol from his desk drawer and pulls the trigger while aimed at his head. He invites her to a play of Faust, but she refuses. She imagines having a better looking husband than him. She goes to his room, puts bullets into the pistol and hopes he will accidentally kill himself while playing his suicide practical joke next time. She gets bad conscious. He takes the pistol and shoots at her as a joke, but hits the wall. He mistakenly thinks she placed the bullets because she wanted to kill herself.

Germaine Dulac's drama on marriage problems, "The Smiling Madame Beudet" is a rightfully forgotten film from the silent era. It is a good, somber, realistic and unglamorous essay on a deterioration of marital lives, yet it does not stand out from a mass of other films from its era. The closest the film came to that is when Mrs. Beudet has a hallucination of a much more "athletic" man coming to her room (filmed through double exposure), compared to her overweight husband whose ugly photo stares at her from the wall. The plot point in which her husband jokingly plays pulling a trigger of an empty pistol at his head is a contrived set-up aimed to, of course, create a convenient situation in which she places bullets in his pistol, hoping he will kill himself and she will be free of this routine life. A convoluted storyline, yet it has some interesting early observations about quiet, taboo topics of people who are frustrated by their "underwhelming" existence, offering a bitter commentary on society.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049; science-fiction crime, USA, 2017; D: Denis Villeneuve, S: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista

Los Angeles, 2049. Replicants, artificial humans, work as the lower class for humans. One of the replicants is police officer K, who works as a Blade Runner, an officer in charge of eliminating runaway replicants. Upon finding the skeleton of Rachael, a replicant, LAPD discovers she actually gave birth, previously thought as impossible for replicants. K is sent to find the child, now a grown up. In the ruins of Las Vegas, he discovers Deckard still alive, who is the father of the said child. Wallace, CEO of the successor corporation in charge of creating replicants, sends agent Luv to get the child before K. Luv kidnaps Deckard, but K saves him and kills Luv. K sends Deckard to reunite with his child, a daughter, now a grown up, Dr. Ana Stelline, a replicant memory designer.

35 years after the stand-alone Sci-Fi classic "Blade Runner", director Dennis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green delivered a sequel nobody expected: they stayed rather faithful to the design and aesthetics of the original, but went way overboard with the slow pace, 'autistic' narrative (especially in the second half, where it is sometimes not clear what is going on) and an incomplete, interrupted ending—in fact, the ending could have made for the start of a better film. Several good ideas in the first half justify the existence of the initial concept—the highlight is probably the fascinating invention of a hologram girlfriend, who acts as some sort of a companion and sweet illusion for the lonely K in his apartment, indicating how the future technology might have various new solutions for problems of the masses. Villeneuve's direction is tight and with a clear infatuation for the science-fiction genre, but it is a pity the script crafted a story with two major omissions, since two important subplots are introduced, but are puzzlingly forgotten and never brought up again. One is the underground replicant freedom movement, and the other is the bad guy, Wallace. Both disappear and are not resolved by the end of the movie. Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, with a dignified, though rather underwhelming role this time around. "Blade Runner 2049" delivers a careful continuation of the 1st film, but it lacks the mood of the original, sometimes ending just as a collection of random pretty pictures without a thread that gives them a purpose.

Grade:++ 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The King and I

The King and I; musical, USA, 1956; D: Walter Lang, S: Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Maureen Hingert, Martin Benson, Rex Thompson

1862. English teacher Anna and her son Lois arrive with a ship to Bangkok, Siam, upon invitation of the King Mongkut who wants her to teach his children English and science, hoping to get the best of both worlds. Anna finds out that the King has 15 children who need an education. When an English staff thinks the King is a "barbarian", Anna persuades the King to invite the English to his palace for a cultured dinner, thereby showing them the opposite due to his good manners. One of the King's concubines, Tuptim, fell in love with a Burmese lad Tuptim. This upsets the King so much he wants to beat Tuptim, but grudgingly abandons the punishment when Anna is appalled. Anna wants to leave the palace, but stays when she hears that the King is dying in his bed.

Despite good critical reception, "The King and I" has not aged well with time, and does not improve the reputation of the term "stiff-kitschy musicals from the 50s". The memoirs of Anna Leonowens have an interesting basic premise, showing how the educated heroine is able to improve and refine the King, yet the movie loses that in the process of bland, unmemorable musical and dance numbers. A few good jokes do appear and manage to liven things up, such as when Anna removes the old map of Asia, showing an incorrect, oversized scale of Siam, and presents the correct world map, causing some kids to complain ("Why is Siam so small on this map?!") or when she has some exchanges with the King ("False lies!"). However, these good parts are far between, and thus they never get off the ground. Yul Brynner's performance is solid, yet his character needed "more juice" and better jokes to entrench himself better in people's memory: for one thing, his King is a person who tries to be an enlightened reformist, and is thus at least an interesting character to begin with. Several plots come and go (for instance, the subplot involving Tuptim's love for another man disappears just like that), making "The King and I" an easily watchable, yet not that engaging experience.

Grade:+

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey; erotic drama, USA, 2015; D: Sam-Taylor-Johnson, S: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora

Anastasia "Ana" Steele makes an interview with Christian Grey, a 27-year old billionaire in his office. Even though the interview is formal, there are sparks between them. Christian visits Ana while she is working at a hardware store. One night, Ana becomes drunk at a bar, so Christian carries her to sleep over at his hotel room. Ana admits she is still a virgin, and the two have sex together. Christian then reveals his "pleasure room" to her, admitting he is a sadomasochist. He offers her a contract for his hard-core way of sex, but Ana is reluctant to sign it. To demonstrate what she could expect, Christian ties Ana up in his room and has sex. Finally, he shows what really turns him on: he slaps Ana's butt with a belt six times. Revolted by his pleasure with pain, Ana leaves his home.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is notable for being the first hard-core sadomasochist erotic film in American mainstream cinema. If that bizarre feature were to be removed, it would be a pale, unmemorable soap opera love story. It starts off as a harmless love story between Ana and Christian, until more and more of his perverted side is shown, especially in the second half of the film, where he ties up and even beats Ana to get aroused. Both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are good actors, but are "reduced" in this narrowed down story with minimum, truncated character development. Ana seems to be a nice person, and thus it is not clear why she is attracted to Christian, who can not connect to anybody. When he says "I don't do romance", and demands that she signs a confidentiality agreement (!) just to have a relationship with him, one would expect that a large question mark would appear over Ana's head and that she would run away from these kind of alarm signs. He refuses to have an emotional side, or to show any kind of kindness to her, and thus their relationship never seems to get off the ground. It seems that "Shades" appeals to the 'gold-digger' and 'sugar-daddy' instincts of some women, who are willing to go a long way provided their boyfriend is rich and spoils them with gifts. Instead of an ending, the film is "interrupted" and leaves several plot points unfinished. Audiences who are turned on by BDSM might be excited, but others will just be turned off by this depiction of "contaminated" sexuality.

Grade:+

Friday, December 27, 2019

Minions

Minions; CGI animated comedy, USA, 2015; D: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda, S: Pierre Coffin, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Steve Carell

The little yellow Minions have been around on Earth for quite some time. Their instinct is to find the biggest villain, serve him and thus survive. However, due to their clumsiness, they would often ruin the plans of their masters, including the Pharaoh, Dracula and Napoleon. They find refuge in a cave, but feel bored. Three of them—Kevin, Bob and Start—leave the cave and take on a journey to find a new purpose. They shipwreck in New York in the 1 9 6 0s, and decide to take a trip to Orlando for a Villain-Convention. There, the Minions are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, the first female villain, and her boyfriend, Herb. Scarlet plans to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth of England. The Minions try to steal the crown, but flee from the guards, and pull out a sword from the stone, thereby being proclaimed as the new Monarchs of England. After a lot of commotion, the three Minions are reunited with the other Minions in London, and the Queen thanks them. They also meet Gru, still a kid.

A spin-off movie of the popular computer animated "Despicable Me" series, "Minions" are a fun and fast comedy of the absurd. The characters of yellow Minions never talk coherently, and instead just use random gibberish throughout, but therein lies the main problem of the film: all the best jokes arrive through the lines of supporting characters, and thus the supporting characters overshadow the Minions. The storyline is all over the place—the Minions go to New York, only to go to Orlando, only to go to London, when they could have simply landed in London right from the start—whereas the jokes are a "hit-or-miss" affair, since some ideas are hilarious, some are forgettable, yet writer Brian Lynch has such a contagious enthusiasm that it is easily able to gain sympathies of the viewers. The best jokes involve a Villain-Con (!); comical lines (when villain Scarlet Overkill gets a silly postcard from her lover Herb, she says: "I wanna dig up that William Shakespeare so he can see what true writing is.") or just plain funny sight gags (three minions standing on top of each other to feign they are a grown up, a woman, but the big goggles of the Minion in the middle "sticks" out in the pink sweater, as some sort of "fake buxom"). The voice actors in the ensemble live it up, while the design of Queen Elizabeth is surprisingly charming. "Minions" are like a fast revolving sushi bar: hundreds of dishes pass through the customers, hoping to hide the lesser dishes through sheer speed of exchange.

Grade:++

Thursday, December 26, 2019

An Affair to Remember

An Affair to Remember; romance, USA, 1957; D: Leo McCarey, S: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson

News headlines pronounce that rich "Casanova" Nickie Ferrante is finally engaged, to rich Lois Clark, and is ready to settle down. However, on a ship route from Europe to New York, Nickie meets Terry—a woman who is engaged to someone else. Nickie and Terry fall in love, despite commitments to other people. As the ship docks at New York, Nickie and Terry make a deal: if they end their respectful engagements, they will meet in six months on the top of the Empire State Building. As the day arrives, Terry rushes, but is hit by a car on the street. Nickie waits for her at the top of the building, but gives up when she doesn't show up. Later, Nickie arrives at Terry's home, and finds out she now cannot walk anymore and needs a wheelchair. They embrace each other.

The director Leo McCarey's last significant movie, "An Affair to Remember" is a tepid soap opera-romance that, unfortunately, did not age that well. While the concept of a couple who falls in love despite being already engaged to other people is interesting, the execution is strangely uneventful, boring and unexciting, leaving a standard movie without highlights. Cary Gramt still has some charm here and there, yet his role as Nickie is routine, whereas his interaction with Terry has no chemistry. It is kind of naive and illogical that Nickie and Terry promise to meet each other in six months at the Empire State Building, without ever exchanging phone numbers or leaving room for alternative contacts in case that something happens to one of them (which, of course, it does) which could easily ruin their plan. In the entire film, there is only one inspired moment: the one where Terry stands on the balcony, while the door swings open, until it stops, revealing the reflection of the Empire State Building in the mirror next to her. Sadly, the rest of the movie is without such imagination or creativity. Even more surprisingly, it never shows Terry using a crutch or the wheelchair, and treats it as some sort of an unspeakable taboo, as if the viewers are unprepared for such dark thought. After the accident, Nickie is just shown sitting. This is the most obvious in the bizarre sequence where Nickie enters her room, but the wheelchair is off screen, and his shock is left without a context, as if paraplegics have to be censored from the mind.

Grade:+

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Cold War

Zimna Wojna; romance / drama, Poland / France / UK, 2018; D: Paweł Pawlikowski, S: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar

Poland, 1 9 4 9. The Communist system holds auditions for hundreds of peasants, hoping to find a few good singers among them. Wiktor, one of the judges, is fascinated by the blond Zula, who is on parole after attacking her abusive father. Wiktor and Zula become lovers. The state-sponsored folk music ensemble is pressured into inserting pro-Stalinist propaganda into their songs. While touring East Berlin, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee to the West, but she fails to show up. Years later, Wiktor works in Paris as a composer, and meets Zula again, who married an Italian to obtain a Visa. He tries to help her make a career as a singer, but Zula is alcoholic, jealous of his previous girlfriend and thus has an affair with Michel. Zula returns to Poland. Whe Wiktor goes to Poland after her, he is sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. Zula marries Kaczmarek, a Communist official, has a child with him, and thus Wiktor is freed in 1 9 6 4. Wiktor and Zula escape. They go to an abandoned church, swallow suicide pills and wait to die together, in love.

"Cold War" is a movie that works twofold: both as a character study of a love couple, and as an allegory on the Communist system which separated and ruined the lives of people. Similarly as Szabo's "Lovefilm", it manages to blend these two themes, romantic and political, by showing the exile of the couple in Paris and their tumultuous relationship, even though Pawel Pawlikowski's film is rather less clear as to why the two are constantly arguing, since some of their break-ups come out of nowhere. Just as Pawlikowski's "Ida", "Cold War" is also an ambitious and good, yet rather standard black-and-white European art-film, without much inspiration in either directing or writing, or some other kind of ingenuity to truly "match" its hype and high critical acclaim and awards. A few surprising moments are refreshing (when Wiktor asks Zula as to why she was sentenced for attacking he father, she gives a feisty response: "He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference!") whereas Pawlikowski leads an economic story, since every scene is justified to lead to the next chapter, trusting that the audience is intelligent enough to "read between the lines" in some more subtle depictions or solutions (for instance, the way Zula freed Wiktor from a labor camp by marrying official Kaczmarek). The brief episode on the Split riviera, where Wiktor witnesses Zula's guest performance, is also well done. However, "Cold War" is a good film that rarely truly traverses into greatness, since its grey approach did not lead to some more colorful creativity.

Grade:++

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Alfie

Alfie; drama / comedy, UK, 1966; D: Lewis Gilbert, S: Michael Caine, Vivien Merchant, Julia Foster, Millicent Martin, Shelley Winters, Jane Asher, Alfie Bass, Denholm Elliott

London. Alfie is a dashing womanizer who exchanges women like socks, refusing to commit to anyone of them. However, one day, his current girlfriend, Gilda gets pregnant. Alfie recommends she has an abortion, but she decides to give birth to the baby. Alfie is uninterested in the kid, so Gilda breaks up and starts a relationship with Humphrey, a bus conductor. Alfie continues to have sex with many women: Ruby, an American; Annie, who came to London to start a new life; Siddie... When he lands in bed with Lily, the wife of one of his friends, Harry, she gets pregnant. Alfie arranges for an abortion, but later regrets it. He tries to build up a lasting relationship with Ruby, but finds out she found a younger lover. Alfie ends up alone on a bridge.

Many movies are a product of their time, and "Alfie" is a commentary on the 'swinging sixties', when for the first time a whole new generation emerged, a generation which was uninterested in a lasting relationship or building a family, and was only interested in short-term hedonism and polygamy. Alfie, played brilliantly by competent Michael Caine, becomes a symbol-character, a person who dumps women as soon as he gets bored of them, but ends up alone in the finale, faced with the prospect that "his time is up" when he gets older, embodied in the allegorical image of him walking with a stray dog, since both of them are like aimless, wondering ships unconnected to anybody. "Alfie" has a great, aesthetically inventive opening act: Alfie exits a car and looks directly into the camera, addressing the audience, while the titles "Alfie" show up on the screen. Alfie then goes: "My name is...", but is interrupted when his lover calls him from inside the car: "Alfie!" While this "breaking the fourth wall", in which Alfie directly talks to the audience, is an amusing trick, the film starts to lose its inspiration and wit after some 30 minutes, stagnating until it settles for a good, albeit standard quality until the end of the film. A few comical or snappy moments still show up, though intermittently, such as the one where Alfie, holding a cigarette, is giving a long kiss to his new girlfriend in his car, but as a new car passes by and illuminates them, Alfie ends the kiss and puffs out smoke he kept in his mouth the whole time. Except for the dark subplot involving abortion, "Alfie" refuses to become preachy or force any moral message, yet is a comical contemplation about where a lack of human connection and lost opportunities can lead.

Grade:++

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Moonlighting

Moonlighting; drama, UK, 1982; D: Jerzy Skolimowski, S: Jeremy Irons, Eugene Lipinski, Jirí Stanislav, Eugeniusz Haczkiewicz, Denis Holmes

Four Polish workers—Nowak, Banaszak, Wolski and Kudaj—fly from Warsaw to London. Nowak is the only one who speaks English. At the British customs, Nowak feigns they are just here for a tourist visit, but in reality, the four settle at an old house to renovate it and work illegally for a Polish official, since Polish workforce will cost him only a 1/4 of a price than if he would have hired British workers. Nowak dreams of seeing his girlfriend, Anna, again, and goes to buy food while the other three are hiding in the house and working all day. From the news, Nowak finds out about the Soviet crackdown against he Polish solidarity movement, and that martial law was imposed, thereby severing all ties to the Polish state. Nowak keeps this a secret from the three. Since their official was probably arrested as well, they are not paid for their work. At 2am they start a six hour walk to Heathrow airport. Nowak finally tells them about the martial law, and the three attack and beat him up.

"Moonlighting" was assembled as director Jerzy Skolimowski's answer to the crackdown on the Polish Solidarity movement, and thus the whole story has several allegorical motives, though it also encompasses the director's semi-biographical notions, including the immigrants' nostalgia for his homeland. The London house where the four Polish workers are doing construction work is a symbol for Poland, and Nowak for Polish officials (from the Communist era) who are trying to keep the status quo by concealing and censoring bad things happening, thinking they are doing the right thing by keeping the morale of the workers, only to in the end make the things even worse when the people find out. After the fall of Communism, "Moonlighting" feels somewhat not that fresh anymore, since several of its plot points became dated. One detail in particular: Nowak is short on money, so he devises elaborate schemes to get food from a store by using the same receipt of a bread, potatoes, carrots and other food to smuggle the same food again and again, feigning he just forgot the goods in the store. However, in modern era, receipts now have a date on them, and goods have computer chip codes which signal if they are removed from the store, making the whole affair seem dated. "Moonlighting" is an art-film where nothing much happens, and thus a broader spectrum of a viewing experience is missing. Likewise, the abrupt ending feels like a cheat, as if someone "stole" the conclusion and final act of the film. The scene where Banaszak is electrocuted by holding a wire feels staged. Nonetheless, Jeremy Irons is great in the leading role and manages to lift the film even during its lesser moments.

Grade:++

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror; horror, USA, 1979; D: Stuart Rosenberg, S: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Murray Hamilton

Amytville, New York. An unknown assassin storms a house at night and shoots a mother, father and their four children in their beds. A year later, the empty house is sold to a new couple, George and Kathy, who move there with their three kids. Kathy is uneasy about living on a "murder location", but George brushes it off as superstition. A priest, Delaney, arrives to the house to bless it, but gets sick and has to escape from it. Strange things start happening in the house: their daughter Amy claims she is talking to an invisible girl, Jody; a window falls and injures the hand of one of the boys; noises are heard outside during the night. A friend, Carolyn, claims that the house is built on the land of former devil worshippers, and cracks open a wall in the basement, finding a chamber inside with red walls. One night, a storm and blood coming from the walls cause George and Kathy to pick up their kids and run away from the house.

Allegedly based on true events—though obviously over-exaggerated and over-dramatized for the sake of sensationalism in order to attract the audience—"The Amytville Horror" achieved what it set out to do, and became the second highest grossing movie of the year at the American Box office. Looking from today's perspective, the movie is hardly a classic, yet it has some flair because the 20th century horror films were done obviously differently than 21st century horrors which rely only on quick editing, jump scares and frenetic banalities: for one, this 'haunted hause' flick has some cozy mood established thanks to a slow burning pace which allows the storyline to set itself up, as well as likeable characters and some emotions. "Amytville" seems to be surprisingly thematically close to Kubrick's "The Shining", since both have the same concept of a family feeling persecuted by ghosts of a building in which murders occurred, causing the father to lose his sanity—and here he also uses an axe to attack his family. At best, "Amytville" has some scary moments of inspiration (for instance, the quiet, calm entrance of the saleslady with George and Kathy into the bedroom by opening the door, is followed by the dark, threatening 'jump cut' to a flashback of the killer opening the door of the same bedroom and shooting at the family sleeping in bed), yet at worst, some of them seem forced or ludicrous, especially in the unintentionally comical sequences involving priest Delaney, which came dangerously close to a caricature (the scene of Delaney spotting hundreds of flies on the window; the scene of pieces of a statue of an angel in church crumbling and falling down from the ceiling). The ending is kind of abrupt, yet "Amytville" is able to sufficiently craft a good mood of fear and threat without turning too bloody or too disgusting.

Grade:++

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Slacker

Slacker; experimental film / comedy, USA, 1990; D: Richard Linklater, S: Mark James, Stella Weir, John Slate, Louis Mackey, Teresa Taylor, Kim Krizan, Abra Moore, Richard Linklater

24 hours in Austin, Texas. A passanger talks to an uninterested cab driver about how dreams might be their own fractured reality. A driver hits a woman on the street crossing and flees. Two police officers later arrest a man in his apartment. Three guys arrive at a bridge and throw a tent into the river, because the ex-girlfriend of one of the guys had sex with him in the tent, and he doesn't want her to have sex with anybody else in the tent. An old anarchist discovers a man wanting to rob his library, but instead just makes friends with the latter and goes for a walk with the lad. An unemployed man gives an interview. An old man walks on the street. Some people are making home videos in the outdoors.

There have been numerous anthology films throughout the history of cinema, but rarely the likes of Richard Linklater's second feature length film, the independent comedy "Slacker", where there is no main protagonist, and the episodic film just follows around 40 people throughout its running time, with each character getting only around two minutes of screen time. Moreover, the "jump" from one episode to another is equally as arbitrary, with the camera mostly following one person walking, and then switching to follow another person walking on the street. The big flaw is that "Slacker" is ultimately a 'hit-or-miss' affair: some episodes are better, some are weaker. Likewise, you cannot engage on a deeper level with these characters, since they are all shown so briefly. Yet, there is some positive energy in depicting these people, and a sense that Linklater captured the time, the feeling and the mentality of all these small people living around his hometown of Austin. Several humorous dialogues are refreshingly daft, such as the episode where a conspiracy nut is following a young lad to spread his "ideology" ("We've been on the Moon since the 50s!"); the unemployed hitchhiker who despises work ("Hey, look at me, I'm making it! I may live badly, but at least I don't have to work to do it!") and others. And there are also some more philosophical words hidden here and there, such as when a girl at a restaurant has some deeper thoughts ("Perhaps human beings weren't made for being happy or free. We constantly try to enslave each other."). "Slacker" is an early exercise of Linklater's, but he already showed small crumbs of greatness in a little scene near the end, when an old man walking on the street has a quote full of wisdom: "The tragedy of life is that man is never free yet strives for what he can never be. The thing most feared in secret always happens. My life, my loves, where are they now? But the more the pain grows, the more this instinct for life somehow asserts itself. The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely. Only later will it clarify itself and become coherent."

Grade:++

Monday, December 16, 2019

K-On! (Season 1)

K-On!; animated musical comedy, Japan, 2009; D: Naoko Yamada, S: Aki Toyosaki, Yoko Hikasa, Satomi Sato, Minako Kotobuki, Ayana Taketatsu, Asami Sanada

Clumsy teenage girl Yui does not know what to do with herself, nor what club she should join in high school. However, she eventually joins the music light club, thereby saving it from being abandoned due to a lack of participants. The other three girls who are members quickly form a rock band: Mio is the bassist, Ritsu is the drummer, Tsumugi plays the keyboard while Yui plays the guitar. The four girls are clumsy and doubt if they can make one good song. After they play they first song on high school stage, they get a fifth member, Azusa. Together, they become friends and play on a real stage.

"K-On!" is a fun depiction of a creation of a girl rock band, filled with a lot of humor and charm, yet it is presented through the lackadaisical 'slice-of-life' format, "Azumanga Daioh"-style: some episodes are really good, some are less interesting, and some have too much 'empty walk'. The consistent plus points are the two excellent characters of the clumsy, but lovable Yui and the rather more strict, charismatic Mio, who dominate the storyline, yet the other two band members, Tsumugi and Ritsu, are underdeveloped. The only thing we find out about Tsumugi is that she is rich, whereas Ritsu at times seems like a copy of Yui. It takes a while until "K-On" gets going after a long set-up, yet it rewards the viewers in excellent episode 6, which is a highlight of this anime: the movements, stylish gestures and charming attitudes of the four heroines come to full expression in this episode.

In one scene from the said episode, Ritsu wants to bolster the confidence of the girls for the upcoming first performance on stage, so she gleefully pretends she holds a microphone and is introducing the band members—she points to Tsumugi, says: "On keyboard, the graceful, cheerful, slightly ditzy princess, Kotobuki Tsumugi!", and Tsumugi takes it from there, raising her hands in the air, pretending to be playing keyboards—but then introduces Mio as "She's really bad with scary and painful stories, the dangerous queen of the Light Music Club...", and is interrupted when Mio hits Ritsu in the head, objecting to being called "dangerous". There is also a peculiarly, inexplicably aesthetically pleasant moment after Yui finishes her Sumo wrestler impression, and Ritsu, while sitting, taps the table with her pencil, then taps the floor with her foot and raises her arm to call the next people in line. One has to admit, their song, "Fluffy Fluffy Time", is melodic perfection, and their two performances on stage, in episode 6 and 12, really are fantastic, with the latter episode ending in an irresistible little moment when Yui raises her hands up in the air on stage, shouts "I love Keion!" and then the screen "shrinks" in the form of a heart sign. "K-On!" would have benefited from removing the superfluous episodes—the Christmas episode, the beach episode, the episode where Yui has to learn for her test—yet when the right kind of episodes show up, they can engage more than expected from such a light concept.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Colossal

Colossal; fantasy black comedy, USA, 2016; D: Nacho Vigalondo, S: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson

New York. Gloria is unable to find a job for over a year, and struggles with alcoholism, so her boyfriend Tim breaks up with her. Gloria moves back to her suburban place in New England, but stumbles upon Oscar, her childhood friend, who gives her a job at his bar. One day, Gloria spots news of a giant monster walking through Seoul, causing damage, and then disappearing. Surprisingly, Gloria finds out that however she enters a secluded playground at 8:05 am, the monster manifests and mimics her exact moves, until she exits the location. Oscar finds out about this, discovers that he can conjure up a giant robot, and threatens that he will also walk and stomp across the playground around that time, and thereby kill many people in Seoul, unless Gloria subordinates to him. Disgusted, Gloria finally leaves for Seoul. When Oscar again enters the playground, thereby creating the giant robot, Gloria makes a few steps, and her monster appears in front of Oscar, killing him.

Unlike what many others would have done, the director and screenwriter Nacho Vigalondo took the "Godzilla"-type attack of a monster on an Asian city not as as the main focus of his story, but actually the relationship between the main heroine, Gloria, and her shady friend, Oscar, who find out they can control two giant monsters at the other end of the world, "Avatar"-style, when they enter an American playground. The sole monster and the giant robot wreaking havoc in Seoul are practically reduced to just some 5 minutes of screen time, since "Colossal's" theme is of a different interest: to allegorically show the abuse of power, or—even worse—what happens when power is attributed to an immature, selfish, underdeveloped personality who uses it to blackmail people, in this case Oscar, who slowly turns into the main villain of the film. "Colossal" is bizarre and meandering in its plot points, creating several subplots which are ultimately not needed in this theme—for instance, Gloria's alcoholism or trouble finding a job are not connected to the main plot tangle, nor resolved in the end—yet Anne Hathaway delivered another great performance as Gloria. One of the most amusing scenes is when she figures out she can control the monster in Seoul, and then dances and thus makes the monster dance as well, or when she ocassionaly makes a daft comment ("It's like a Wes Anderson movie in here!" - "I wish the music was better"). Some ideas were left unexplored: for instance, wouldn't Gloria try to somehow make a fence around the playground, or shut it down in some other way to prevent some kids or a stray dog entering it and creating another monster in Seoul? Yet, overall, "Colossal" has a point, even if it is presented through some very outlandish fantasy premise.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Witch

The Witch; psychological drama / horror, USA, 2015; D: Robert Eggers, S: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

New England, 17th century. Because of his own interpretation of the Bible, William is banished from a settlement due to heresy. His entire family—wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and twins Mercy and Jonas—follows him into the forest, where they live in a shack. Their new baby suddenly disappears, and they presume it was taken by the wolves. In order to scare her sister, Thomasin says that she is a witch who took away the baby. The family is suffering from hunger since the harvest was weak. When Thomasin goes with Caleb into the forest to check a trap, their horse goes wild. Caleb gets lost in the woods and meets a mysterious woman. Caleb is later found naked, and brought back to the shack, where he hallucinates and dies. William and Katherine blame Thomasin and think she is a witch. The black goat attacks and kills William. Katherine blames Thomasin and attacks her. Thomasin kills her mother with a knife in self-defence. All alone, Thomasin hears voices and gathers at a fire with witches, who start levitating.

Robert Eggers' feature length debut film is a bizarre psychological essay on how the dark times of depravity and scarcity make people susceptible to conspiracy theories and paranoid delusion, in order to try to find some sort of flimsy explanation for all the bad luck around them, yet this mostly just ends in the blame falling on a scapegoat, in this case the teenage daughter and protagonist Thomasin (very good Anya Taylor-Joy). "The Witch" is raw, astringent and a difficult film, not for everyone's taste, and never makes it easy for the viewers to "get into it". The setting is eerily placed on an isolated outcast farm near the forest, from which dangers can pop out anytime, yet the characters are strangely cold and distant, never managing for the viewers to root for them when things go wrong. "The Witch" is not interested in banal scares or shocks, but in disturbing mood which makes the entire film seem unpleasant. Somewhere in the middle of the film, there is a really disturbing sequence in which the boy, Caleb, is lying sick in bed and hallucinating, even throwing up blood, which will be difficult for some viewers to sit through. "The Witch" touches upon the themes of religious dogma and its scary enforcement, yet its ending is deliberately vague, again using the notion that it all could have been either real or just a form of delusion. It is a good dark film on its own right, yet it lacks more ingenuity, versatility or more colorful execution in this grey storyline.

Grade:++

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls; romantic musical comedy, USA, 1955; D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, S: Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully

New York. Nathan Detroit is a small time crook who organizes mobile gambling, but all of his previous locations were discovered by the police, so he now has to pay a 1,000$ to the owner of the Biltmore garage to use it for a new location. However, Nathan does not have the money, and thus makes a bet with gambler Sky Masterson: if Sky can persuade the uptight Christian missionary, Sister Sarah, to fly with him to Havana. Sky accepts, presents himself as a gambler who wants reform at Sarah's office, and actually manages to talk her into flying to Havana with him, where they fall in love. Nathan is also engaged to nightclub singer Adelaide, but is unwilling to quit gambling and find a decent job, per her demands. When Nathan gets into serious trouble while gambling with Chicago mobster Big Jule, who openly cheats with dice with no spots, Sky saves him and orders all the gamblers to go to the Mission's office for rehabilitation. Ultimately, Nathan marries Adelaide, while Sky marries Sarah.

17 years before he played the mafia boss Don Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando played a small time crook and gambler, Sky Masterson, in this underrated, wonderful little romantic musical comedy, an untypical venture from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who nevertheless delivered a charming and competent film. Presented almost as two stories—one showing the relationship between Sky and Sarah, and the other the relationship between Nathan and Adelaide—"Guys and Dolls" displays the former as the more recognizable concept in the vein of "Dangerous Liaisons", in which a guy tries to seduce a girl only to win a bet, but eventually truly falls in love, yet the other one involving Nathan and Adelaide has consistently better and more engaging comic quotes, some of which are a small gem. It already starts off with Nathan complaining that he is short on money, and that he cannot even afford a present for Adelaide, revealing a hilarious payoff: "It is mine and Adelaide's 14th anniversary. We are engaged 14 years today!"

This 'teasing' of their overlong engagement is a huge supply of inspiration for various jokes, from Nathan's associate commenting his infatuation ("I cannot believe that a No. 1 businessman like you could let himself go and fall in love with his own fiancee!") up to Frank Sinatra's comical singing in which he compliments Adelaide ("She wants to have five kids... to start"). However, while Brando is excellent while acting, he is strangely miscast in the musical sequences, since his singing feels strangely stiff and "off". Aggravating the issue is that these musical acts mostly feel dated and kitschy, typical for the era of the 50s, slowing down the narrative instead of enriching it, except in the brilliant choreography of the "fight-dance" sequence at the Havana night club, where Sarah loosens up—symbolically shown in her buttons on her clothes getting torn down—and punches a woman who gets catapulted backwards on a chair, and when a chair stops while hitting the stage, the woman just keeps on sliding on the surface of the stage. Sky occasionally has a few moments of charm, such as when he talks to Sarah at her Mission office ("You know, I imagine there's only one thing that's been in as many different hotel rooms as I have: the Gideon Bible"), yet he is clearly overshadowed by Nathan's and Adeladie's story, who have more snappy dialogue. Unlike many other musicals that have passed their expiration date, "Guys and Dolls" still seems fresh and alive today, speaking about both love and the necessity of people to find a balance between their id and super-ego to enjoy life and undergo a transformation into the best version of themselves.

Grade:+++

Monday, December 2, 2019

Last Christmas

Last Christmas; romantic comedy, USA, 2019; D: Paul Feig, S: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Boris Isaković, Rebecca Root, Peter Mygind

London. Kate is a nonchalant girl of Serb origin who works as an Elf in a Christmas shop for her Chinese boss, nicknamed Santa. She does not care for anyone except herself, until she meets Tom, a nice, kind man who volunteers at a shelter for homeless people. When she loses a place to stay, yet once again, Kate grudgingly returns to her parents' place, Petra, a housewife, and Ivan, a lawyer who now works as a taxi driver. Due to her negligence, Kate forgot to lock the shop before leaving, and thus it was robbed. Kate admits to Tom that she had a heart transplant a year ago. Tom suddenly disappears. Finally, Kate realizes that she talked to a ghost, since Tom died in a car accident a year ago, and that his heart was donated to her to survive. Kate thus becomes a good person and helps people at the shelter.

"Last Christmas" is one of those peculiar movies that did not do anything extraordinarily wrong, yet did not do anything extraordinarily good, either. It is a touching, emotional little film with a positive message, and yet, it feels somehow strangely calculative, so much, in fact, that you never quite let go and let yourself "get lost" into its world. Emilia Clarke is an excellent actress, and it is so refreshing to see how she shows her charming and humorous side as Kate — yet the whole movie is two levels bellow her, without much inspiration or ingenuity, and with too much routine stuff the viewers have already seen before, and thus her performance, as a whole, is ultimately a little inhibited. It is obvious what the story was trying to show: Kate's transformation from a selfish, cynical person into an altruist with a heart, yet it does not come across as such, since Kate never seems like a bad person, but more like a clumsy, absent-minded girl who makes errors by accident. It is also unnecessary to have a subplot showing how Kate is of a Serb background, since this does not contribute to the story, which wouldn't have lost anything without it, except that it is amusing to hear Clarke speak in Serbo-Croatian in two scenes. Director Paul Feig let's the characters talk too fast, without a sense when to slow down for the viewers to "catch up" and simply enjoy and absorb the jokes on the screen, which would have given them more room to engage. The plot twist near the end has a fascinating premise, but in this edition it does not quite work, and should have been rewritten in a better way to make it work, without the fantasy elements. Clarke manages to elevate the film, nonetheless, including a nice little romantic moment when Tom says they need to talk, and she just jokingly comments: "Oh no, here comes the 'I have to tell you something'-moment". Besides Clarke, the second best performance was delivered by Emma Thompson as her conservative mother Petra, who chastizes her other daughter and her girlfriend, by calling their tiramisu a "lesbian pudding".

Grade:++

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Just Say Goodbye

Just Say Goodbye; drama, USA, 2017; D: Matt Walting, S: Katerina Eichenberger, Max MacKenzie, William Galatis, Jesse Walters, Pamela Jayne Morgan

Massachusetts. Sarah is a teenage girl who is best friend with Jesse, an outsider who is constantly bullied by Chase in high school. Sarah intends to visit her dad in New York for the summer vacation, but is shocked when Jesse inadvertently tells her that he plans to commit suicide just a week away. Jesse's mother committed suicide 10 years ago, while his father Rick is an abusive alcoholic. Sarah tries to change Jesse's mind, but to no avail. But then an art University is interested in Jesse's drawings...

A sad and melancholic essay about the causes of suicide among people, "Just Say Goodbye" is an honest little film with several biographical elements interwoven into the storyline. An interesting footnote is that Matt Walting was 17 at the time when he directed the movie, making him one of the youngest feature length debut filmmakers. "Just Say Goodbye" starts with a "tragic bang": the 6-year old Jesse arrives home from school, pours himself some milk from the fridge and asks for his mom. He goes to the bedroom and sees her laying there, with dozens of empty pill bottles on the table. Jesse then just covers her with a blanket, pushes the bottles down to place his drawing on the table and just says: "Bye, mom." It is an effective and emotional intro, implying enough for the viewers to get the bigger picture. The main story works somewhat a little less: the constant bullying and abuse which a now teenage Jesse suffers in school, tends to end up rather banal, without much inspiration or ingenuity, whereas it also becomes too melodramatic and syrupy at times. However, there is one scene that is simply fantastic: after unsuccessfully trying to dissuade Jesse from his plan to commit suicide, including persuading him to call a suicide hotline, Sarah closes the door in his room and bashfully sits next to Jesse on his bed to say: "What if I sleep with you?" - "What?" - "If I sleep with you, will you change your mind?" The sheer spectrum of this scene is astounding, and it stands out as the highlight of the film. Some supporting characters ended up sadly cliche (Jesse's dad, Rick, as an abusive alcoholic; or Chase, who bullies Jesse only because he has a crush on Sarah) whereas the movie offers no solution to the problem, just an observation. Overall, it achieves what it sets out to be, and offers a dark peek into a grim topic many other movies dare not take.

Grade:++

Friday, November 22, 2019

Bus Stop

Bus Stop; romantic comedy / drama, USA, 1956; D: Joshua Logan, S: Don Murray, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur O'Connell, Betty Field, Eileen Heckart, Robert Bray, Hope Lange

Beau (21) is a rustic, but honest cowboy who lives on a ranch in Montana. Upon taking a bus to Arizona for a rodeo, his friend Virgil encourages Beau to find a girl to marry, because "it is time". To Virgil's shock, Beau falls in love with a local bar singer, Cherie, and proposes her. Beau's and Cherie's relationship flip-flops back and forth, since they argue and she is unwilling to marry him. They take a bus to Montana, but Cherie secretly leaves, hiding in a diner covered by snow. Beau finds her and gets into a fight with the bus driver, who thinks he is abusing Cherie. Beau appologizes and abandones his dream of marrying her. However, this pleases Cherie, who now accepts his marriage proposal, and they thus leave for Montana.

The first film Marilyn Monroe made under a new contract, producing it under her own company, "Bus Stop" is an attempt of the actress to show her more dramatic side, but the storyline is rather underwhelming and thin. The concept where the honest "hillbilly" cowboy Beau tries a 'forced seduction' of bar singer Cherie throughout the movie seems strangely dated in the post-"MeeToo" era: back in the day, it may have seemed charming and amusing, but today it is rather closer to harassment, which makes the constant argument of the couple not quite suitable for a romantic comedy. Their first encounter is rather hard to accept: Beau spots Cherie singing on the stage, and then proceeds to talk to her backstage, in a full bar. Wouldn't the security stop him from doing that? Or wouldn't one of the men from the audience also get the same idea, and leave to talk to Cherie? Leaving these plot holes aside, this at least leads to a great little energetic moment, when Cherie tells Beau she likes him, and he immediately jumps and does a salto on a pole above him from all the excitement. Beau acts as a symbol of rural people who feel lost in the modern urban-dominated world, where more polite manners are now required. The viewers do not quite buy what or why suddenly makes Cherie change her mind and embrace Beau in the end, leaving that part of the film lacking, yet it does offer a nice little moment when he admits his love for her: "I like you the way you are, so what do I care how you got that way?"

Grade:++

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Hitchcock

Hitchcock; drama, USA / UK, 2012; D: Sacha Gervasi, S: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, James D'Arcy, Michael Wincott, Ralph Macchio

In 1 9 5 9, director Alfred Hitchcock is enjoying the success of "North by Northwest", but feels somehow "too safe", unsatisfied due to his lack of challenge. He thus decides that his next project will be the shocking horror-thriller "Psycho", and intends it to be without compromise. However, his wife and screenwriter Alma Reville feels she is always just in his shadow, and thus goes off to write a script together with Whitfield Cook on a secluded hut near a beach. Hitchcock suspects she is cheating on him, but she assures him the opposite and ditches Cook. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are in the movie, but Hitchcock becomes sick due to stress, yet recovers soon. Paramount gives "Psycho" a limited release, but Hitchcock is able to attract huge interest of the audience, making it a huge success.

"Hitchcock" is a wonderful little film that shows a small glimpse inside the life of the famous "Master of Suspense", in this case being restricted to him directing the cult film "Psycho", and its biggest highlight is the excellent actor Anthony Hopkins who gives a delicious performance of the director, nailing his impeccable English accent and charming sense of shrill humor. The portrait is intimate and surprisingly emotional: Sacha Gervasi shows Hitchcock as a man who was obsessed with blonds, but knew he was ugly, overweight and bald, without a chance for such an ideal love encounter, and thus felt as if he was stuck with his "underwhelming" wife Alma, with this rift causing outbursts of dissatisfied psychological projections onto Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, whom he tried to control and subconsciously "cast under his spell". It is as if his own life was boring, so he yearned for excitement and adventure in his films. Alma even jokingly tells him outright she is not one of his "contract blonds". The film shows how making "Psycho" was not an easy piece of cake: Paramount executives were reluctant to finance the controversial film, but there is a scene worth gold when Hitchcock's agent confronts Barney, the studio executive: "Barney, it's very simple. This is Mr. Hitchcock's next film. Are you in, or are you out?" Another nuisance were the censors, who objected to showing a toilet in an American film, prompting Hitchcock to reply: "Maybe we should make the movie in France, with a bidet?" Hitchcock even made every cast and crew member make a public oath on set, that they will not reveal any secrets from the film before the premiere. The hallucinations of Hitchcock seeing the real life killer, Ed Gein, fare less, whereas the supporting characters are nowhere near as interesting as the title protagonist, yet the cineasts were grateful for this adaptation from the cinema history.

Grade:++

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Wire (Season 4)

The Wire; crime drama series, USA, 2006; D: Joe Chappelle, Christine Moore, Seith Mann, Agnieszka Holland, Jim McKay, S: Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum, Tristan Wilds, Aidan Gillen, Jim True-Frost, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Domenick Lombardozzi, Andre Royo, Chad Coleman, Robert Wisdom, Dominic West

Baltimore. After the Barksdale crime gang was arrested, a new one appeared, led by Marlo Stanfield, who distributes drugs in even more vicious manner, employing kids as his clerks and killing any kind of opposition through his henchmen Chris Partlow and Snoop, who hide the corpses inside abandoned buildings. After Detective Freamon finds out about the pattern, the Police Department now has scores of corpses to identify. Councilman Tommy Carcetti manages to win the election for Mayor, beating the African-American Mayor Royce due to a crime wave. Ex-Detective Prez now works as a teacher in a high school, but has troubles reaching the rebellious teenagers, yet finds a friend in the neglected Duquan. His teenage friend Randy is assaulted because he reported about the murders by Marlo. Disgusted by his friend, Michael, who turned to Marlo's crime ring, Namond decides to quit this path and is adopted by ex-police major Colvin.

The fourth season of the popular series by David Simon shifted its focus on the arena of high school and position of the Mayor, confirming once again two things: "The Wire" is very good, but still a little bit overrated. Its major problems were never mitigated and remained even until this season: too much dry babble, without much inspiration in writing these standard, routine dialogues with too much exposition; whereas it is also indicative that the viewers respect these characters, they tolerate them, but never truly care or root for anybody of them—only Herc and Carver are truly sympathetic; there is a surprisingly touching minuscule relationship between Prez, now a teacher, who helps out impoverished teenager Duquan by washing his clothes; but for the majority, all the characters are just plagued by selfish, depressive, backward or aggressive behavior, which leaves little room to act anything else beyond such fatalism. The details give "The Wire" a sense of almost documentary realism: Marlo's men give 200$ to kids, "investing" into them in order to later "draft" them into selling drugs and the like, and thus there is an ironic moment when a police officer finds the said 200$ bill in the pocket of one of the kids. The kid resorts to lies, claiming his stepmother gave it to him, upon which the police officer keeps the money for himself and says: "Your stepmother gave you 200$? Tell her to come to the precinct and I'll return it to her!" The homicide department is afraid to pick up a call, fearing to get another unsolved "John Doe" corpse which will deteriorate their already low quota of solved cases. But when one of their associates gets a break, they say: "Better be lucky than to be good."

When Freamon discovers a whole chain of corpses hidden in abandoned buildings, Seargent Landsman looks at the case board, now filled with red names of new unsolved cases, and calls him a "Vandal". Prez also has a genius random quote: "Nobody wins. One side just loses more slowly". A whole subplot involving an election race between Royce, the old Mayor, and Carcetti, the Councilman, is fascinating, demonstrating how Royce tries to conceal one murder case until everyone votes, and even hires a construction crew to drill the entrance of Carcetti's office with a jackhammer in episode 4.3, sending an angry message towards his rival. It is highly ironic that the murder case which caused such a negative publicity, and ultimately loss of office for Royce—since everyone assumed the protected witness was killed by criminals—turns out to be a "false alarm". Namely, in episode 4.7, Detective Kima goes to the crime scene to search for clues herself, looking at a bullet stuck in a drawer, and finds out that some kids were actually shooting at empty bottles, but that a stray bullet accidentally hit the protected witness, who was just randomly passing by the street. Upon hearing that, Norris sums up the entire case: "So our guy is dead because a bullet misses a bleach bottle, and Corcetti gets to be Mayor because of this stupidity. I f*** love this town!" Even though Corcetti truly wants to make a change, it seems the entire destiny of Baltimore is unchangeable, and the young new Mayor has to make compromises and concessions which ultimately leave the things just as they were. The most disturbing death is found in episode 4.10, where the criminal Chris Partlow beats Devar, Michael's stepfather, suspected of paedophilia, into pulp, implying that Partlow himself was abused as a kid, and that this cycle lead him into the world of crime, as well as that it foreshadows Michael's own future path. Unfortunately, the last four episodes of the season lose steam, and end on a rather standard, grey note, failing to truly circle out some threads into a more satisfying finale.

Grade:+++

Friday, November 8, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel; science-fiction action, USA, 2019; D: Robert Rodriguez, S: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley 

In the 26th century, cyborg technician Dr. Ido finds remains of a derelict cyborg which was thrown down into trash from Zalem, a floating city. Ido manages to revive the cyborg, giving it the name Alita. As she makes friends with teenage boy Hugo, Alita starts having flashbacks of her past, but she can only figure she was a fighter cyborg. Ido turns out to be a bounty hunter who is after Brewishka, a killer cyborg working for Vector, who in turn sells human organs to Zalem, which its Head, Nova, uses for rejuvenation. Alita enlists into a tournament in order to secure cash to help Hugo achieve his dream of going up into Zalem. But Hugo dies while trying to climb the cable connecting Zalem. Alita kills both Brewishka and Vector. She continues working as a fighter cyborg. 

Despite its three year long troubled production plagued by delays, the live action adaptation of the eponymous manga, "Alita: Battle Angel" is a surprisingly refreshing and alive achievement, containing enough energy to easily sway the viewers and turn equally as good as the ‘93 OVA "Battle Angel", though still less bloody than the latter. Kudos should be given to the excellent actress Rosa Salazar portraying the heroine - even though her eyes were artificially augmented by CGI in order to make her more anime-like, this actually made her even more expressionistic, whereas her character was already remarkably strong, feminine, charming and resourceful (when an assassin cyborg attacks her by throwing a chain that captures her leg, Alita simply unties herself and throws the chain into a nearby rotating metal grinder, which slowly pulls the cyborg attached to the chain, thereby squashing it). Several plot points regarding Alita’s lost past and the entire nature of the floating city Zalem were left rather vague, though that could be excused since the filmmakers intended for a sequel which would have elaborated on this world more. The relationship between Alita and Hugo could have been developed more, yet one has to admit that it has at least two endearing moments: one is a humorous scene in which a fallen Alita, lying on her back, still holds onto her control panel which keeps rotating the wheels of the roller blades on her feet in the air, the other being Alita’s crazy-sweet idea of removing her robotic heart from her chest for a second in order to tease Hugo that she is giving her heart to him. As with many movies with cyborgs or androids as protagonists, this one also follows the allegorical growing up of a child, from clumsy mistakes and naive innocence up to the bitter realization that the world has much more dark characters and an interwoven top-down system of crimes for them to be so beneath the surface than expected, which all give "Alita" a small round of applause

Grade:++

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home; fantasy action, USA, 2019; D: Jon Watts, S: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei 

Peter Parker embarks on a high school summer-trip to Europe with his classmates, and intends to reveal his feeling for MJ, in whom he has a crush on. However, once in Venice, they witness a giant water-monster appearing and wrecking havoc, but it is defeated by Mysterio, a superhero whose name is Beck, and who claims to be from another dimension, battling these kinds of creatures which allegedly threaten the world. Parker, as Spider-Man, becomes his ally when he hears that even Nick Fury believes him. Another creature attacks in Prague. However, Beck is actually one of Tony Stark's ex-employees, who was fired and thus has a grudge against Stark. All the creatures were just his holographic illusions created by his drones. When Spider-Man finds out, he is able to stop and kill Beck. MJ also finds about Parker's superhero identity.

The 23rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Spider-Man: Far From Home" pretty much sums up the entire film series in one: it is fun, positive, carefree and amusing, just don't expect anything deeper or more than its light surface level. Restructured as a school road movie, with several teenage problems, this edition is also dynamic, with several well already established elements from the franchise. The movie works the best during its pure comedy moments: whether it is the "stolen" little moment of MJ (Zendaya) holding out her hands to carry pigeons in Venice; the sequence where MJ simply figures out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man all by herself, so he just has to reluctantly admit it or the quietly hilarious sequence where Parker is in his Spider-Man costume in front of MJ, so when his friend Ned suddenly enters the room, he immediately has a "cover-up" reaction ("Oh, so you are ready... for that costume party..."), almost all of humorous moments work, even when they are rather corny or too simplistic at times. The main plot involving a villain, Beck, who uses holograms to trick people, works as well, yet it could have been much more subversive in the long run. Marvel movies became somehow predictable and strangely routine by this time, and thus even though it is a good film, "Far From Home" does show some traces of fatigue or a lack of closure in the long storyline. A small gem here is the closing credit sequence featuring Go-Go's song "Vacation", which is a blast.

Grade:++

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Aladdin

Aladdin; fantasy musical comedy, USA, 2019; D: Guy Ritchie, S: Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen

In some far away kingdom in the Middle East, Aladdin and his little monkey Apu live as small-time thieves to survive. The evil sorcerer Jafar, an advisor to the Sultan, persuades Aladdin to go into a dangerous cave to get him a mysterious lamp. The cave collapses, but Aladdin finds out the lamp is able to summon a blue Genie who can grant him three wishes. Escaping from the cave, Aladdin wants Princess Jasmine to fall in love with him, so he presents himself as a rich Prince Ali, thanks to the Genie. Jafar gets the lamp, topples the Sultan and intends to invade other countries. Luckily, Aladdin tricks Jafar into transforming into a Genie, thereby capturing the villain in a lamp. For his last wish, Aladdin sets the blue Genie free.

This live action remake of one of the most popular animated films from the Walt Disney studios of the 90s, "Aladdin", pretty much follows the well established "remake label" of the film critics: it is almost the same as the original, just worse. Directed by Guy Ritchie without any vision, creativity, ingenuity or passion, this film is just a mechanical "fast-food" product in the long assembly line of live action adaptations of their animated classics, their only point being, it seems, to recycle their profits twice. Everything here is boringly predictable, with little to no energy or wit that would engage the viewers familiar with the better original, with awkward and heavy-handed musical and dance sequences. One of the rare new jokes is the little scene where Princess Jasmine accosts Aladdin, posing as a Prince of a fictional kingdom of Ababwa, and demands of him to show her the location of his country on the map. Aladdin points at a blank spot, but the Genie just quickly draws a fake kingdom on the map, thereby appeasing Jasmine. Unfortunately, mostly due to the narrow writing, Will Smith is largely anemic as the blue Genie, and is not even able to hold a candle to the comedy genius of R. Williams from the original. It is ironic, and indicative at the same time, that one of the best moments in the film—Jasmine and Aladdin flying on a magic carpet while singing the enchanting song "A Whole New World"—is precisely that because it is almost a scene for scene copy of the identical sequence from the original, done 24 years ago. It shows that the original film should thus be given praise, and not this one.

Grade:+

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

The Kid Who Would Be King; fantasy adventure, UK / USA, 2019; D: Joe Cornish, S: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Doris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart

Alex (12) is living with his single mother. In school, he stands up to his friend Bedders who is bullied by two older kids, Kaye and Lance, but figures the world cannot be changed in the long term. One night, he pulls out a sword stuck in concrete in a construction site, and it turns out to be Excalibur. Merlin, in the form of either a teenager or an older man, shows up and tells Alex that he is chosen to stop the witch Morgana because she will attack the world in four days, during the eclipse. Reluctantly, Lance and Kaye decide to yield and serve under Alex's command. When Morgana's army attacks, the whole school fights them, while Alex kills off Morgana, now turned into a semi-dragon, by cutting her head off.

An amusing modern retelling of the King Arthur myth, Joe Cornish's "The Kid Who Would Be King" is a good, but rather uninspired little flick. It uses the plot points to articulate its theme of an outsider kid overcoming bullying by turning his enemies into his allies and gaining self-respect and self-esteem by fighting against witch Morgana, which works as an escapist-therapeutic tale that intends to give a boost to the small people who want to change the world towards better. All the actors are great, yet, as a whole, "The Kid" never really seems like a truly passionate film with some genuine energy that will grip the viewers to the fullest and elevate it to something more. Everything is done correctly, but it simply lacks highlights. The most was achieved out of the double depiction of Merlin, who appears both as a daft teenager (Angus Imrie) at whom students start throwing their plastic cups at during lunch, and a wise old man (Patrick Stewart). Another nice bit is when Alex decides to prove to his mother that something not so normal is happening by ordering a hand holding Excalibur to show up in his bathtub.

Grade:++

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Wandering Earth

Liu lang di qiu; science-fiction / disaster film, China, 2019; D: Frant Gwo, S: Chuxiao Qu, Jin Mai Jaho, Jing Wu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Mike Kai Sui




In the future, the expanding Sun starts turning into a Red Giant, threatening to engulf Earth in 300 years, and then the entire rest of the Solar System. In order to save Earth, humanity unites and builds giant thrusters which start moving the Earth out of the Solar System. Liu Qi is one of the surviving 3.5 billion people living in underground cities, still bitter at his astronaut father Li Peiqiang who abandoned him as a kid in order to help coordinate Earth's evacuation from its nearby orbiting space station. Qi and his adoptive sister DuoDuo secretly leave to see the Earth's surface, now frozen while far away from the Sun, but their truck malfunctions on the trip. While passing by Jupiter, it was predicted that its gravity will catapult the Earth away, but it actually starts pulling it towards it. Earth's collision with Jupiter is prevented, though, thanks to Peiqiang's sacrifice: he flies the space station into Jupiter's atmosphere, causing an explosion which propels Earth outside of its orbit. The Earth then continues its journey towards Alpha Centauri.

A rare example of a Chinese science-fiction film, based on Liu Cixin's acclaimed eponymous novel, "The Wandering Earth" became one of the highest grossing films in Chinese cinemas during its premiere, yet leaves a rather mixed impression. Its sole concept is incredible and monumental: scientists create thrusters which enable a colossal migration of Earth outside of the Solar System towards the Alpha Centauri. While the '62 disaster film "Gorath" also had a similar idea of thrusters "moving" the Earth away from its orbit, it was done only a little bit, whereas here it involves a complete "evacuation" of Earth away from the Solar System. The problem is that the story shows only one small episode from this space journey—Earth passing by Jupiter—but completely ignores all the rest steps and perspectives, thereby not exploiting all the potentials of the imaginative concept. The story starts in medias res, with the frozen Earth already travelling, while the prologue just gives a short summary of how this all started, thereby narrowing its narrative. For instance, what happened when the Moon was left behind? What happened to all the animals? Have some of the animals been placed in underground cities to support the human population? Is life on surface possible around volcanoes which still generate heat? What happened when Earth passed by Mars? Or what will happen when the Earth travels 2,500 years to Alpha Centauri? All these elements were ignored, when the concept offered for a much more versatile storyline.

Another detriment is that all the characters are very bland and featureless, acting only as insects trying to frantically ensure its biological survival. Sadly, the majority of its running time is spent only on Liu Qi and his crew trying to fix a broken truck stranded on the frozen surface or on his father Peiqiang trying to fix a problem from his space station, yet watching this for two hours gets exhausting quickly, especially since the director's style is grey, lifeless and immotile. The image of a giant Jupiter seen through the clouds of a snow storm in the sky is impressive, and one wishes the movie had more of such moments. The themes of obedience, self-sacrifice and resilience of life have a few plus points, as well. The finale tends to become too melodramatic and syrupy for its own good, unable to somehow steer away from it, until the bizarre abrupt ending. Instead of showing a bigger picture of psychological and philosophical aspects of people faced with such a total disaster, as it was done in such a simple and effective way as in the animated series "Queen Millennia", "The Wandering Earth" wastes too much time on lessons of obedience or fixing technical stuff, yet still has several attractions, including very good visual effects and set designs.

Grade:++

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Last Metro

Le Dernier Metro; war drama, France, 1980, D: François Truffaut, S: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Heinz Bennent, Jean Poiret  

Paris during World War II. Theater Montmartre is preparing a new play, "Disappearance", but its Jewish director, Lucas, fled from the Nazi dictatorship. His wife, Marion, is thus the sole owner of the theater, taking the burden of preparing it herself, since she also plays the leading role in the play. Bernard has been cast as the male protagonist. Unbeknownst to all but Marion, Lucas never fled but is actually hiding beneath the theater, in the cellar, while Marion visits him at night. The play is a hit, but the regime journalist Daxiat attacks it in his review based on antisemitism. The German secret police inspects the cellar, but fails to find Lucas. After the war, Daxiat fled the country, while Lucas returns to direct the play. Marion had sex with Bernard, but he rather decided to leave her alone with Lucas.

In his own elegant-laconic style, the director Truffaut is telling a restructuring of sorts of his previous film, "Day for Night", with the exception that here he is not observing the insider problems of artists trying to make a movie, but to put a play on stage - with an additional burden that the story plays out during the German occupation in World War II. The actors are equally as relaxed, staying in tune with Truffaut’s vision which is amusing, but never just light entertainment. Several humorous moments give "The Last Metro" elan: Bernard tries unsuccessfully to flirt with a woman working on the play, even "reading" from the palm of her hand and concluding there are two women inside of her, only to receive a quick response: "And neither of these women wants to sleep with you!" In another, Bernard chases away Marion’s suitor who gave her roses, claiming that "its thorns made her hands all bloody". The subplot involving the Jewish director Lucas hiding under the theater, listening to rehearsals, could have been handled much better, though: as some sort of unlikely Phantom of the Opera, Lucas could have tried to influence the rehearsal through Marion much more, which would have led to clashes with the substitute director, or even disguise himself as a new director, but except for two or three scenes, his involvement with the play was disappointingly passive. Despite a rather rushed and lukewarm finale, "The Last Metro" has charm in its own way (the sly finale in which the destinies of Lucas and Daxiat are switched), making it a pleasant viewing experience.

Grade:++