Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Head of State

Head of State; comedy, USA, 2003; D: Chris Rock, S: Chris Rock, Dylan Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Robin Givens, Tamala Jones, Nick Searcy, Bernie Mac, James Rebhorn

Washington, D.C. Alderman Mays Gilliam is surprised when his worst day in life—his girlfriend breaks up with him, his bicycle is run over, he is broke—is suddenly followed by his best day in life when he is chosen by the Party to run as the first African-American candidate for President of the US. Mays accepts and is given assistants Martin and Debra. However, Mays is unaware that he was chosen because Senator Arnot assumes the Party is going to lose anyway, since the polls indicate that their rival, Brian Lewis, has a 90% approval rate. Arnot thus hopes to gain minority sympathy when he will run for President himself at the next election. However, Mays, running with his brother as Vice President, surprisingly becomes more popular and wins the election, while also finding a new girlfriend, Lisa.

After Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President in history, many film critics retroactively gained new interest in Chris Rock's comedy "Head of State" filmed five years earlier, which predicted and satirized the process of the said minority running for the White House. Surprisingly underrated, "Head of State" is a fun little film that owes 90% of its charm to Rock's comedic talent, and some of his jokes, delivered through wise-cracking one-liners, occasionally show his comedy potentials to the fullest ("Your mother's ass is so big that when she sits she is three ft taller!"; "America is the richest, most powerful country in the world! If America were a person, she would be a big titty woman!"). The sole sequence where the protagonist Mays hears he is chosen to run, already sets up the tone in a delicious way ("We want you to run for President." - "President of what?" - "Of the United States." - "Of what?" - "Of America." - "Which America...?" - "North!"). The idea of Mays as the unlikely hero works as a comedy, though not as a political satire since it never truly scratches into some more complex socio-economic or political layers of the situation at that time, nor is it that subversive to gain some new insights into the election system. Also, nobody of the other characters gets a chance to shine as much as Rock, which is especially noticeable in the pale, underwritten character of Lisa, Mays' love interest, or Bernie Mac's character, who delivers only one good gag in the entire film. While not as a great as "The Candidate", "Head of State" is still a good piece of entertainment which accidentally announced a new era in politics.

Grade:++

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Three Men and a Baby

Three Men and a Baby; comedy, USA, 1987; D: Leonard Nimoy, S: Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson, Michelle Blair, Lisa Blair, Margaret Colin, Celeste Holm

San Francisco. Peter, Michael and Jack are three friends living together in the same apartment. One day, Jack flies off to Turkey to star in a movie, but a producer tells him he will send him a "package" to the apartment, which will be picked up by the producer's associate. The next morning, Peter and Michael find a baby in front of their doorstep, with a note saying it is the child of one of Jack's girlfriend, Sylvia. Shocked, they have troubles feeding the infant and changing its diapers. When Jack returns, the trio finds out that the producer's "package" was actually heroin, which is claimed by two gangsters, but the trio manage to film the gangsters at a warehouse and hand them over to the police. When Sylvia shows up and wants to take over the baby, Peter, Michael and Jack persuade her to stay with them.

Following his unexpected "revival" with the "Star Trek" film series, actor Leonard Nimoy enjoyed a mini-"silver age" in the 80s and used it to direct a few films. One of these films surprisingly turned out to be the biggest commercial success of his career, "Three Men and a Baby", a remake of the '85 French comedy "Three Men and a Cradle", yet it is forgotten today even though it was the biggest hit at the American box office of 1987. A gentle, harmless, benign and innocent little film, this comedy doesn't offer any higher inspiration or versatility than the basic simple concept of three men having trouble having to take care of a baby, yet it is sweet and mildly fun. The opening scenes ignite interest, especially thanks to a snappy opening song, "Bad Boy" by the Miami Sound Machine, whereas the three main actors, Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson, are charming, albeit underused, in the leading roles. A few good jokes grace the screen: when Peter, who dressed up in his fancy suit, hears from Michael that someone needs to change the baby's diaper again, he goes: "I'll give you a 1,000$ if you do it!" In another, Jack is seen performing a play at the theatre, until he walks towards the camera and turns, and it is revealed that the baby is strapped behind his back. The subplot involving some gangsters trying to find a package of drugs, which was given for a pick-up, is in stark clash with the rest of the storyline, as if the writers were afraid that the main story was too thin to carry the entire film, so they resort to this subplot, which is unnecessary. While it offers a too neat conclusion, the movie is surprising just for how good-natured and innocent it is.

Grade:++

Monday, January 14, 2019

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2; fantasy, UK / USA, 2011; D: David Yates, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Julie Walters

The final showdown has begun: Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron begin a quest to find the last of Lord Voldemort's Horcruxes in order to kill him. Using the help of  goblin Griphook, they enter Lestrange's vault. They find the Horcrux, a cup, and escape on a flying dragon. They return to the Hogwarts school and banish Severus from it. They then prepare with the students and Professors for Voldemort's attack. After Voldemort kills his associate, Severus, Harry finds out that Severus was actually a double agent: Severus only killed Dumbledore to gain Voldemort's loyalty. Many years ago, Voldemort tried to kill Harry when the latter was a baby, but failed, and a part of Voldemort's soul merged with Harry. Accepting that Voldemort can only die if he himself dies, Harry decides to allow Voldemort to zap him. However, Harry wakes up and, in a final duel, kills Voldemort. 19 years later, Harry, Ron and Hermione escort their kids on a train to Hogwarts.

The 8th and final instalment of the "Harry Potter" franchise, "Deathly Hallows 2" is a proportionally worthy conclusion to the film series. Since it signals the maturing and growing up of the teenage protagonists, it is appropriately one of the darkest contributions in the series, almost without any humor, with a very raw, bleak finale about self-sacrifice for a higher cause and friendship. The characters were not given much room to shine, though, since Ron and Hermione almost act like extras for long parts of the storyline, whereas other side characters almost disappear after a minute (John Hurt and Warwick Davis, for instance). On the other hand, Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman are excellent, giving more charisma to their characters than it was actually in the script. While competent, the story seems rather routine and predictable (the good guys beats the bad guy at the end) and did not offer that many surprises, except for a twist involving Severus, yet it at least reduced the useless subplots to the minimum, avoiding 'fillers' from the previous films in order to advance the plot and bring it finally to a point. The dry, schematic ending bothers, since it seems strangely rushed, and lacks any sort of a cathartic charge that was intended. Nonetheless, director Peter Yates crafts a suspenseful, dynamic and energetic film, bringing the final chapter of the saga to a rather satisfying conclusion.

Grade:++

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; fantasy, UK / USA, 2001; D: Chris Columbus, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, John Cleese

Wizard Dumbledore saved the infant Harry Potter from Lord Voldemort, who killed Potter's parents, and placed him to live at his relatives. On his 11th birthday, Harry is visited by the imposing Hagrid who reveals to him a secret: Harry is actually a wizard and is accepted to study magic at the Hogwarts Wizard school. Harry is dispatched to Hogwarts and fits in, while he also makes friends with kids Ron and Hermione. They stop a Trol in a school, whereas Harry gets a cloak of invisibility for Christmas. In a secret basement, Harry discovers that Professor Quirrell is evil, and and has Voldemort living on the back of his head, so Harry stops him in his intent to steal the philosopher's stone. Due to his courage, Harry is applauded.

The only film with which Chris Columbus topped his own "Home Alone" hit (though "Home Alone" is still his highest grossing film when adjusted for inflation and by the number of tickets sold), "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" kicked off a wildly popular eight-part film series which would span a whole decade, and is a good, though also at times inappropriately scary film for kids. Since this was the 1st "Harry Potter" film, Columbus set the tone for the remainder of the series, and his vision was followed by the other three directors. At times, it seems a somewhat exploitative flick intended to cash in on the popularity of the wizard and sorcery trends at the beginning of the 21st century: there isn't much humor here, whereas Harry Potter is too one-dimensional of a character, without much charm or self-consciousness, yet overall, the movie works. In spite of its running time of 150 minutes, its pace flows smoothly, without turning boring, and it has mystery: several good ideas involving a cloak of invisibility (only from the outside, while it looks like a normal cloak from inside of the person wearing it) or paintings that move, though the best part is the broomstick tournament at the stadium, a sort of football on flying broomsticks. It is a spectacular sequence, but the rest of the story is nowhere near as exciting. A few horror elements are puzzling, as if they intended to make a hybrid subgenre of a "horror for kids" (the idea of Voldemort growing out of the back of the Professor's head is dumb). The performances are all-great, from Daniel Radcliffe as the title hero up to Robbie Coltrane as the lovable "giant" Hagrid. "Harry Potter" has magic, yet it only transfers on to the viewers to a limited degree.

Grade:++

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; fantasy, UK / USA, 2009; D: David Yates, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Warwick Davis, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Julie Walters

Harry Potter (16) boards a train from London to go the Hogwarts wizard school, which he attends with his friends Ron and Hermione. He also finds a book of spells by a certain "Half-Blood Prince". The headmaster of the school, Dumbledore, approaches Harry and tells him about the evil former student at Hogwarts, Tom Riddle, who later became their nemesis, Lord Voldemort. Harry manages to convince his Professor Slughorn to reveal a part of his memory when he talked with Riddle. This causes Dumbledore to transport himself and Harry to a cave where they destroy one of Voldemort's hidden Horcrux, which grant the villain strength. Upon returning, a student, Malfoy, was asigned by Voldemort to assassinate Dumbledore. He hesitates, and thus Severus assassinates Dumbledore instead. Severus is revealed to be the "Half-Blood Prince". Harry is shocked and left uncertain at what will happen next.

The 6th installment of the popular "Harry Potter" film series is just for fans: it is too narrow to truly ignite interest from other viewers or groups. The main problem is the thin story: it is an obvious filler which exists not because of inspiration, but because of commercial motives to "milk" the franchise for as much as possible, when in fact the only noteworthy event happens at the end (the death of an important character), anyway. But to get to that important part, the viewers have to pave their way through a routine, schematic, overlong storyline with artificial subplots which are irrelevant for the overall story arc. This should have been a 30 minute film, but was overstretched into a running time of two and a half hours. Luckily, unlike some of its predecessors, "Half-Blood Prince" at least has some measure, refusing to resort to shock scenes or moments of disgust. The characters are also underused and underwritten: the only charming moment is Ron's love relationship with a girl, Lavender, who mischievously puffs a "foggy" mirror and draws a heart sign for him during a train ride. Harry and Hermione are pale, in comparison. They lack true "magic" to seize the viewers interest. An occasional comical scene shows up to to liven up the grey mood (a student throwing up over Severus's feet, who tells him he now has a month worth of detention), but the movie needed more of them. Overall a solid film, yet it made the error of relying only on "empty walk" and empty dark mood, since all the character seem to just "sleep walk" through these elaborate set designs.

Grade:+

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Passionate Friends

The Passionate Friends; romance / drama, UK, 1949; D: David Lean, S: Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Reins

A British woman, Mary, travels in a plane to a hotel along the Swiss Alps. Unbeknownst to her, Steven accidentally also booked at the same hotel, next to her... Nine years ago, Steven and Mary were madly in love, and he proposed her, but she rejected him because she "wanted to belong to herself". Shortly after, Mary was married anyway, to Howard, a rich banker. However, passion ignites between Steven and Mary again, and they secretly met. Howard caught them when they were not on a planned theater visit. Mary then admitted her affection and asked Steven to leave from her life... Back in present, Mary and Steven meet at the hotel and go to spend some time on the mountains. Howard shows up, catches them again, and files for divorce. Upon seeing that Steven is now married to another woman, Mary decides to abandon him. However, Howard still wants the divorce. Mary intends to kill herself by jumping in front of a subway train, but is saved by Howard and them reconcile.

A sort of restructuring of his own previous film, "Brief Encounter", this love triangle between a married woman and another man she loves is a good, though not a great film from director David Lean. Two great sequences: in the first one, Mary feigns she is going to see a play at the theater with Steven, but her busy husband Howard is suspicious. He notices that she went off, but forgot to take the two tickets with her. Howard then goes to the theater himself and looks at the marked tickets, spotting just two empty seats, while the mood is brilliantly completed by sounds of laughter from the play in the background. As Mary returns, Howard invites Steven inside, and then asks them about the play, in a very tense and revealing questioning that unravels almost like a ticking time bomb, with the inevitable outcome. In the second one, Mary meets Steven again after nine years at her Swiss vacation, and he tells her he married in the meantime and had two kids. As they have a picnic on the mountain, Mary has a vision of that moment, that she asks him the same question, but imagines that he answered that he could "never marry anybody else" but her, instead, and that they kissed. While the movie flows elegantly and smoothly, the rest of its events never quite reach the high level of the said two emotional sequences. Lean explores their emotional states, but the whole thing doesn't quite seem genuine due to the dishonest, two-faced character of Mary (who claims she doesn't want to marry, but then marries a rich banker, anyway) and the tendency of the story to slow down almost to the point of a soap opera at times.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Claymore

Claymore; animated horror-fantasy series, Japan, 2007; D: Hiroyuki Tanaka, S: Houko Kuwashima, Aya Hisakawa, Hana Takeda, Hiroaki Hirata, Kikuko Inoue, Motoki Takagi, Koji Yusa




A continent on the level of the Middle ages. Youma, shapeshifting demons, often take the form of a human in a given village and then secretly kill people during the night to eat them. The Claymore are there to stop and kill the Youmas and protect the villages. The Claymores are all women, wearing huge swords, but are a hybrid of Youmas and humans, which gives them strength. One of them is Clare, ranked as the lowest in the team, no. 47, who saves a kid, Raki, from a Youma. Raki thus decides to follow her. A long time ago, as a kid, Clare was herself saved from a Youma by Claymore Teresa. But when Teresa attacked a rapist, she breached the Claymore rule which forbids them from harming humans. Claymore Priscilla was summoned and killed Teresa, but in the process, Priscilla mutated into a semi-Youma, an "Awakened Being". Several Claymores unite to fight against the super-strong Youmas in the North, led by Isley. A mutated Clare fights the mutated Priscilla, but spares her life when Raki appeals to her. Back to normal, Clare flees with Raki from her own Organization.

Even though it was very popular, horror-fantasy anime series "Claymore" is a tiny bit overrated: it starts off well, even mysterious, but with time just sinks into the waters of endless-routine action and battle sequences, which are very monotone after a while. The shapeshifting Youmas, who can take the perfect form of any human in a village, evokes the "chameleon" paranoia from Carpenter's "The Thing" (one memorable sequence has Clare attacking Raki's brother, only for the brother to reveal his true form and transform into a Youma, even adding how "his previous body is crying", as a side effect of still having some traces of affections for Raki; another has a Youma finding a perfect place to hide inside a church: to shapeshift into a corpse of a relic saint), yet it is quickly dropped for the story to focus on the inter-fighting between the Claymores themselves in the second half of the storyline. However, their "civil war" is not particularly satisfying nor as engaging as it was planned. The characters are grey and stiff, and another problems is that Claymores all look similar: all of them are pale, blond women, mostly with short hair, making it difficult to distinguish them all. The finale, where the Claymores are fighting against the "Awakened Beings" in the North, is cozily set in a winter village covered with snow, yet, as said, their battles become tiresome after a while. The series is often very brutal, with several splatter violence moments (in one episode, in a duel, Ophelia even slashes the legs of Clare, yet the latter is able to regenerate them back thanks to her powers; in another episode, a Youma uses its tongue to literally pierce the stomach of a Claymore woman), little of whom have a justification for such an extremist approach, except for to sustain the interest of the viewers, who probably started to realize there is only a limited amount of value to this anime.

Grade:++

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ant-Man

Ant-Man; fantasy action, USA, 2015; D: Peyton Reed, S: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip "T.I." Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian 

Rehabilitation isn't a piece of cake: after being released from jail, Scott has problems finding a job. Worse still, his ex-wife refuses to allow him to see their daughter, Cassie, while her new boyfriend is a police officer. Upon breaking in into a top secret vault, Scott finds a strange suit, puts it on, and realizes it has the ability of shrinking him the size of an ant. He is quickly contacted by the suit's inventor, Dr. Pym, who wants Scott to train with his obedient ants. Their goal is to stop Pym's ex-partner, Darren, who wants to perfect the atom shrinking formula and sell it as a weapon to the shady Hydra organization. After a lot of misadventures, Scott manages to destroy Darren's headquarters and shrink Darren into molecular levels. Scott falls in love with Pym's daughter, Hope.

When the director Edgar Wright left the project, doubts were conjured up regarding the future of "Ant-Man". However, with Peyton Reed on board as the new director, the final result is a fun and entertaining superhero film with several moments of comedy, though still "standardized" to fit into the mold of Marvel's Cinematic Universe. It's "Oceans 11" meets "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", and works surprisingly well—except for two disturbingly dark moments (the murder of Frank by shrinking him into a patch of blood; the lab experiment of trying to shrink a goat) which seem out of place, the whole rest of "Ant-Man" is cheerful, colorful, 'light' and optimistic, rehashing some old stereotypes, but giving them a few twists thanks to the refreshing humor. The sequence alone where Scott uses the suit to shrink the size of an insect for the first time, filmed in a wide lens to underline the sudden gigantic size of a bathtub, is expressionistic, whereas other ideas are also amusing, especially the one that ordinary ants are "recruited" to help, even by holding a cube of sugar for his cup of tea. Michael Douglas stands out the most in the role of Dr. Pym, giving weight to the story due to his charismatic performance. The finale is probably the highlight, conjuring up several ideas which almost turn the movie into a comedy (Scott escapes from his cuffs in a police car by putting his helm on and conveniently "out-shrinking" them; the insect light trap scene; Cassie watching the contrast between the "epic" fight of the shrunk Scott and Darren, but which is actually silly since they just throw some puny toy trains around her room). Despite created on Marvel's assembly line, "Ant-Man" has moments of inspiration and charm.

Grade:++ 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Bestowal

The Bestowal; experimental film / drama / mystery, USA, 2019; D: Andrew de Burgh, S: Sam Brittan, Sharmita Bhattacharya

Steven wants to commit suicide with a pistol inside his home. However, out of the blue, a woman appears in his room and claims to be an inter-dimensional being who wants him to reconsider. He speaks about his disappointment with the world, where bad things happen to good people while bad persons are rewarded, but she insists that there are forces of good and forces of evil in the Universe, and that he should try to change the world himself by doing good deeds to help strengthen the forces of good. 20 years later. She shows up again in Steven's room. He tells her he followed her advice and spent time on the Indian subcontinent and Africa doing charity. He remembers how a girl he loved from his school, Sara, died when a car hit her a long time ago. 20 years later. She visits Steven again...

Experimental film "The Bestowal" is the darnedest thing. It's deeply philosophical, but not very cinematic: dry and exhausting at times, since watching just two people for 90 minutes requires a lot of focus. It's more like a podcast. Maybe it would have worked better as a short film. It reminds of the T. Lee Jones film "Sunset Limited", where we also have a semi-monodrama with just two characters, one of which is trying to persuade the other not to commit suicide. It also evokes, to a certain degree, memories of "My Dinner with Andre", where the entire film was also just two people having a conversation. But it needed a lot more ingenuity to sustain the interest and engage the viewers, such as fresher or more memorable lines. Too much of the lines between the man and the mysterious woman is just the same thing again and again, running around in circles, with observations about life and society which were already done. Too didactic at times, instead of also showing these emotional changes within Steven, with some pretentious monologues (such as when Steven recounts how he "looked into the eyes" of a man and saw "the reflection of God"), though there were a few interesting contemplations, such as when Steven laments about the greed in Capitalism, but she just points out that this greed is actually just a manifestation of something that was always inside such people. Admittedly, "The Bestowal" has one strong, rewarding feature: the ending is surprising, emotional and remarkably satisfying, almost cathartic. It achieves this since it speaks about some abstract existentialist themes in a very touching manner, including trying to find inner peace, closure in life through companionship—but also the motive of eternal return (and self-improvement), showing how a lonely, but charitable man is rewarded in the next life with that what he wanted or missed.

Grade:++ 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman; drama / romance / tragedy, USA, 1948; D: Max Ophüls, S: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jordan, Mady Christians, Marcel Journet

Vienna, 1 9 0 0. Stefan receives a letter from a seemingly unknown woman who tells her story: Lisa is a teenage girl who moves with her family to a large apartment block. She falls in love with one of the tenants there, the "Casanova" piano player Stefan, but is too shy to tell him anything. Her mother wants to move to Linz. A few years later, Lisa returns to Vienna and works as a dress model, and stumbles upon Stefan on the street. He kisses her and they spend some time together as a couple. However, Stefan goes to a concert in Milan, but forgets about Lisa and never returns. Lisa gives birth to his child, a boy, and marries officer Johann. Years later, she again encounters an aging Stefan and he invites her to his home, but she is disappointed that he doesn't remember her at all. Her son dies from typhus, and she succumbs herself. Stefan reads the letter and realizes his mistake.

Max Ophuls returned to his European surroundings with "Letter from an Unknown Woman", a tragic love story that also gives a remarkably detailed portrait of Vienna during the beginning of the 20th century (several details are included, such as a fake train "drive" where the bicycles driver actually just runs a long sheet of panoramas of various countries in front of the window for the passengers; vendors selling sweets on the street; an employee preparing newspapers inside a cafe for the morning...). Make no mistake about it: it is kitsch, but an elevated kitsch. Deprived of any humor, stand-out dialogues, a more complex story or an inventive style, "Letter" is a simple story that embraces its concept with surprising honesty and seriousness, though more creativity would have been welcomed. The most was achieved from its two main actors, excellent Joan Fontaine and Louis Jordan, who play the doomed love couple, while Ophuls uses mostly long, elegant camera drives to encompass the set designs around them, also displaying several of his bitter themes about life, from fatalism, end of idealism, missed chances up to the realization that people should cherish what they have before it is gone. Nonetheless, "Letter" is still a tiny bit overrated: it is contrived by shoehorning several ploys to wreck the relationship of the two (the low point is when Stefan kisses Lisa and tells her he is only leaving for two weeks to Milan for a concert, but never comes back!), it is sometimes melodramatic and one-dimensional, whereas one cannot shake away the feeling that the whole story is doomed because it shows an underdeveloped couple: a romance between a man who forgets everything and a woman who takes 20 years to say something.

Grade:+++

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Bravo!

Aferim!; drama, Romania / Bulgaria / Czech Republic / France, 2015; D: Radu Jude, S: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Toma Cuzin, Alexandru Dabija, Mihaela Sirbu

Wallachia, 1835. A Gypsy, Carfin, had an affair with Sultana, the wife of a powerful local boyar, and fled. The boyar thus hires policeman Constadin and his son Ionita to track down Carfin and bring him back for punishment. Traveling on their two horses, Constadin and Ionita wander aimlessly through the countryside. They encounter several people: a group; an antisemitic priest; a fisherman... Finally, thanks to a tip, they enter a farm and find Carfin and a Gypsy boy hiding there. They sell the boy to a slave market and continue to stop at a brothel. When Carfin tells them that Sultana initiated their love encounter, Ionita tries to persuade Constadin to let the man go. However, Constadin follows the law and returns Carfin to boyar, who, as a punishment, cuts Carfin's testicles off. Disgusted, Constadin and Ionita leave the estate.

An astringent and bitter achievement, "Bravo!" is a pessimistic commentary on the history and era of a 19th century mentality, summarized in the finale where the two protagonists lament how it is useless to try to reform and change the people in the world, based on selfishness and narrow-mindedness. Director Radu Jude films "Bravo!" as a typical European art-film, with static long takes and even in black-and-white cinematography, but combines it also with the typical American style of a road movie: the two protagonists wander through the countryside, searching for the fugitive, which offers Jude a chance to cram as many side-characters as possible on their journey, which all have something to say about the Eastern European society of that time: the Jew-hating priest, for instance, is a symbol for antisemitism; the farmers illustrate the life of poverty of the lower, working class, etc. Through all these episodes, Jude encompasses many themes: life, death, poverty, slavery, integrity, sex (in the brothel episode), injustice, fate and fatalism. The notion of injustice is especially interesting: policeman Constadin follows the law by the book, but is disappointed that there is no trial by the law from the boyar, just savage revenge. While the writing is too routine and schematic, some dialogues manage to ignite here and there ("The poor pray to God much more than the rich"; "What kind of a country is this when the ass becomes the head..."). Unfortunately, the movie is a tad too monotone, overlong and grey, thus not suitable for everyone's taste.

Grade:++

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Clyde Cooper

Clyde Cooper; crime / mystery, USA, 2018; D: Peter Daskaloff, S: Jordi Vilasuso, Abigail Titmuss, Richard Neil, Aria Sirvaitis, Isabella Racco, Joanna Fyllidou

Clyde Cooper is a private detective who gets a new assignment: to find Vincent's missing girl, the blond Denise Morgan. Cooper goes to Denise's house, but only finds a different woman, who claims to be Denise Morgan, even though she doesn't look like her, and that she never saw the blond Denise who Cooper is looking for. Another clue is a man who shot himself while spending the night with two prostitutes: his cellphone has a photo of a woman who looks like the missing Denise. Strange things occur: Cooper finds a woman covered in cellophane in a house, and chases after a suspect, but when he returns, the woman is gone. A shady man threatens Cooper to stop his investigation. Finally, Cooper concluded that a prostitute ring is being run. He meets Denise, but her name is Nina—and she is a robot. The police arrive and take away the two robot prostitutes, while Vincent is angry at himself for falling for a fake.

"Clyde Cooper" is an independent film that evokes the mood of classic 'hard boiled' film noirs of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, while even its title protagonist acts like a 21st century version of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe: he is slick, cynical and audacious, yet also has class and calmness to stay professional when things around him lead to an ever more perplexing mystery puzzle. Actor Jordi Vilasuso manages to keep this character's persona going. While the writing and the dialogues are somewhat too ordinary and conventional at times, there are moments when a lightning stroke of inspiration strikes: for instance, in one sequence, Cooper wants to speak to Loretta Berman due to an outrageous urgency ("Do you have an appointment?" - "No, but I'm pretty sure she is dying to see me." - "What makes you so sure?" - "We met at a hotel yesterday. She showed me her dark side."), but a certain woman in a red dress refuses to let him inside the mansion. Cooper thus puts his foot down to block the door, leading to this exchange with the angry woman: "Take your foot out or I'm gonna show you my dark side!" - "You take me to Loretta Berman, and you can show me what ever side you want." Some ideas are refreshing (Cooper wants to walk upstairs inside a mansion he is investigating, but is amused when he finds out that the stairs are shaped like keyboards—and make a loud music sound whenever someone steps on them, so he nonchalantly walks up and down to make some music), though the movie needed more of them to fully engage, since a couple of moments seem strangely irrelevant for the bigger picture later on. The biggest problem and setback of "Clyde Cooper" is the twist Sci-Fi ending—you don't introduce a completely new genre 10 minutes before the end of the film. Throughout its story, such a twist is never hinted at (the story seemed like a classic detective story), and thus it seems strangely out of place—as if someone took away a proper ending and explanation of the mystery, and resorted to deux ex machina shortcuts. Nonetheless, an interesting achievement.

Grade:++

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Great Runaround

La Grande Vadrouille; war comedy, France / UK, 1966; D: Gérard Oury, S: Louis de Funès, André Bourvil, Terry-Thomas, Claudio Brook, Mike Marshall, Marie Dubois, Pierre Bertin, Andréa Parisy, Mary Marquet

Paris during World War II. German soldiers shoot a British war plane over the city, and thus the three British pilots—Reginald, Peter, MacIntosh—parachut and disperse over the city. One lands on a building of a painter, Augustin, who flees with him inside the apartment of Juliette, a puppet player, to hide him. Another British soldier hides inside the theatre of conductor Stanislav. Unwillingly, after being persecuted by Nazi soldiers, Augustin and Stanislav join forces and find the third British soldier. The six of them thus decide to flee towards South, to the free zone, where the Allies will pick up the three British pilots. However, because they missed the train, Peter took off by himself, and was caught by German soldiers. Stanislav and the others took a postal van to south. Dressing up as German soldiers, they set up a fire inside a German base and use the chaos to free Peter. They thus manage to reach the free zone.

The highest grossing French film of its time, a one which set a record with over 17,000,000 tickets sold at the box office, "The Great Runaround" is set in Paris during World War II, but director Gerard Oury refuses to treat it as such, and thus—in spite of its dark-serious setting—it is simply a fun, optimistic and cheerful 'light' comedy. The rescue mission of the three British pilots turns into a comic road movie, but it shows its overstretched running time since the repeated motive of the protagonist just running away, and running away, and running away from the German soldiers does get repetitive in the last third, which has too much 'empty walk' and too little inspiration for something more versatile. Nonetheless, comedian legend Louis de Funes again has a field day as conductor Stanislav, delivering a few delicious gags. The highlight is the boarding house sequence: during the night, Stanislav accidentally enters the wrong bedroom and lies on the bed, not realizing that the person covered with a blanket and sleeping next to him is not his friend, Augustin, but actually his enemy—a German officer, who is snoring. Oblivious, Stanislav thus remembers that Augustin told him to "whistle" if he starts snoring, so Stanislav whistles to cause the snoring to stop. But since it doesn't work, Stanislav uses all kind of outrageous squeaks, peeps and "duck sounds" to make him stop snoring, in a moment of hilarious insanity. Nobody else in the movie, not even comedian Bourvil, is close to reaching even a tenth of de Funes' comic scale here. There are also other amusing scenes (a British soldier falling with a parachute over a Zoo, trying to avoid to land in the lion's cage; a miniature statue with the Hitler salute on a cake...), but the last third seems too mechanical and routine to truly ignite into something more ambitious.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Zootopia

Zootopia; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2016; D: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, S: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J. K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira

After a long and discouraging process, bunny Judy Hopps finally completes her training and becomes the first rabbit police officer. She goes to the police precinct in the city of Zootopia, but is assigned to only write parking tickets. At the same time, a mysterious case is plaguing the city: 14 predator animals are reported missing. Judy makes a bet with her Police Chief: if she can solve the case in 48 hours, she will become a full fledged police officer. If she fails, she resigns. Judy joins forces with a fox, Nick, a con artist. The two find an asylum where the 14 predators are held, who have all gone mad. The police then arrests Mayor Lionheart for holding the asylum. It turns out only predator animals develop these symptoms of madness, while herbivorous animals are exempt, sparking a rift of mistrust between the two in Zootopia. Judy however discovers that it was all just a ploy from Bellwether who became the new Mayor and who uses these scare tactics to stay in power. Bellwther is thus arrested.

Surprisingly thought-provocative and subversive, this CGI animated film rightfully seized the attention of both the critics and the audiences alike. It owes this to a story that works both as an entertaining 'buddy' comedy as well as a more complex, multi-layered commentary on multiculturalism and the clash between biological determinism and free will. Another plus point is the excellent heroine, bunny Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), whose charm and enthusiasm engage the viewers. The only problem is the size of some animal characters: some are huge (such as elephants), some are small (such as mice), creating a disproportionate ratio at times. The jokes work and have inspiration: the opening has the two parents trying to "subtly" discourage their kid, Judy, from pursuing her dream as a police officer, with her dad even saying: "If you never try anything new, you never fail!" Judy, as a police officer, is presented remarkably super-ambitious: when assigned to be a parking inspector, she announces: "I'm going to write 200 parking tickets before noon!" There are numerous sight gags (the animal nudist camp) and satirical jabs at society (the highlight being the greatest spoof of bureaucracy on film, in the sequence where Judy is annoyed that sloth animals are assigned at the office, who work and talk, almost literally, in slow motion), but it also gives meaning to the characters in the finale, in a remarkable commentary on the trends of its time, the notion of politicians resorting to ultra-nationalism and inventing "enemies" from the "others" in order to stay in power based on fear, remarkably shaming and exposing Putin, Trump, Dodik and the others alike. Luckily, "Zootopia" refuses to dwell too long on politics, therefore avoiding to try to turn into liberal mouthpiece, and presents all these elements naturally, since they are imbibed in the story and the character interaction. "Zootopia" shows how, sometimes, "kids' movies" can be more fun than movies for grown ups.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

La La Land

La La Land; musical / drama / romance, USA, 2016; D: Damien Chazelle, S: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Jessica Rothe, J. K. Simmons

Los Angeles. Mia is a waitress who is an aspiring actress. She attends almost every audition, but always fails to get a role. She meets Sebastian, a pianist who aspires to open his own jazz club, in a time when jazz is dying out. The two of them fall in love. Eventually, Sebastian succeeds as a pianist in a hit band and plans to go on tour with them, but his obligations cause him to miss Mia's monodrama in a theatre. Mia gives up upon her dream, but a casting agent calls Sebastian and Mia thus lands a role in a hit film shot in Paris. Some time later, Mia is a famous actress, married to David and mother of a child. During a traffic jam, David and Mia de-tour and land in a night bar, coincidentally owned by Sebastian. He plays a song conjuring up how he wished he could have kissed her from day one, married her, had a child with her, experienced adventures, toured Paris, until everything returns to reality. Mia, crushed by this "what if" emotion, walks away from the night club.

In a time of 'dark realism', director-screenwriter Damien Chazelle surprised the viewers and critics with this movie that is a piece of innocence, a gentle, lovable semi-fairy tale that stands out like a sore thumb due to its genre, yet still managed to pull it through thanks to his honest, genuine ode to the plight of people who follow their dreams even when the whole world is discouraging or ridiculing them. Why a musical? It is unknown, since the story would have worked as a 'straight forward' narrative, anyway, yet Chazelle loves music so much he wanted to risk. "La La Land" is a highly untypical modern film "against the norm" that pays homage to classic musicals from the 50s, yet its thematic core works on a higher level. It has two problems, though: the middle part is somewhat stale, routine; whereas Sebastian's story is of lukewarm interest—but Mia's story is simply excellent, showing her long journey of trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood, and genius actress Emma Stone raises to the occasion, giving her both an emotional, charming and humorous dimension.

There are a lot of highlights: the opening 4-minute scene, filmed in one take, where people dance during a traffic jam, is exquisite; the dance sequence where Mia and Sebastian are sitting on a bench and for a brief moment even dance just by tapping their feet is stylistically irresistible whereas it is a lot of fun watching Mia enduring ridiculous auditions from uninterested casting agents, since the viewers can identify with her ("Because I’ve been to a million auditions and same thing happens every time. Where I get interrupted because someone wants to get a sandwich. Or, I’m crying and they start laughing. Or, there’s people sitting in the waiting room, and they’re like me - but prettier and better!"). Some choice of the music is very refreshing, as well (A-ha's "Take on Me", for instance). "La La Land" is the movie equivalent of a person you fell in love with even though he/she was not your type: it is so idealistic and unusual, it is almost puzzling, yet its charm sweeps you over despite these flaws. It has numerous sweet moments, but ends on a sober, deeply sad note. The ending is both enchanting and disillusioned, speaking about some sad observations that people can enjoy in naive love only up until a certain point in life, since when they grow up, they have to take on a more pragmatic path that signals their loss of idealism. Rarely has a director ever crafted such a unique ending where the viewers watch surreal-fantasy "what if" images for 3-minutes, not knowing what is going on—until they reach the "punchline" at the end and "get it". But when they "get it", everything suddenly fits like a giant piece of dominos suddenly falling into place.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Aloha

Aloha; comedy, USA, 2015; D: Cameron Crowe, S: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Jaeden Lieberher, Ivana Miličević

Having recovered from an injury in an Afghan operation, military contractor Brian grudgingly flies to Hawaii to join an operation in which billionaire Carson plans to launch a satellite and start a space center. He meets his ex-girlfriend there, Tracy, who is now married with another man and has two kids. He also starts a relationship with Air Force Captain Allison, who persuades him that space should only be used for pacifist research, and should stay off limits for military build-up. Upon learning that Carson plans to launch a nuclear payload in the satellite, Brian hacks and programs it to self-destruct in orbit. At first, his superiors are furious, but Brian gains affection of Allison.

When the news spread that brilliant director-screenwriter Cameron Crowe managed to rally genius actors Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Bill Murray for his next film, hopes were high that such an ensemble of talent will lead to a small gem. Unfortunately, their collaboration, "Aloha", is a mediocre, routine drama-comedy without inspiration. The main problem is the thin story that meanders from subplot to subplot, involving several storylines which clash without much sense for a purpose, or even a sense for anything. Crowe was always at his best while observing human characters and letting them interact in comical stories, yet in his later films, from "Elizabethtown" onwards, he had less and less highlights to show, and here these characters never manage to rise to the occasion or lead to some brilliant scene. One rare example when he proves a "right hunch" is the party sequence where Brian holds two drinks in his hands, but a military officer tells him that tycoon Carson wants to talk to him. Brian asks when, and the officer takes both of his drinks from his hands and replies: "Now". While a neat set-up, the following dialogues with Brian and Carson is strangely pointless and boring. At least it also features a neat sequence where Emma Stone and Bill Murray are dancing with each other. The love triangle between Brian, Tracy and Allison never ignites, resulting in a routine achievement, and a "shoehorned" satellite launch near the end, proving a strangely lackadaisical and un-engaging film for Crowe.

Grade:+