Thursday, January 31, 2019

Yentl

Yentl; tragicomedy / musical, USA / UK, 1983; D: Barbra Streisand, S: Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving, Nehemiah Persoff, Steven Hill

Eastern Europe, 1 9 0 4. Yentl is a young woman who is fed up with the discrimination of women by her Orthodox Jewish community. In her village, she is not even allowed to buy the Talmud without a man accompanying her. When her father dies, Yentl mourns for seven days and then decides to enlist at a Jewish religious school, yet even there, only men are allowed to study. Yentl thus decides to disguise herself as a man: she cuts her hair and presents herself as Anshel. She manages to enlist, but has to share her room with student Avigdor, in whom she falls in love with. He is engaged to the shy Hadass, but lost his honor since his brother committed suicide. Hadass is thus married to Yentl. Discomforted by the charade, Yentl finally admits to Avigdor that she is a woman. He stays with Hadass, whereas Yentl takes a ship to America.

Barbra Streisand fulfilled her dream project by taking on the leading role—and the directing position—in the feminist film adaptation of "Yentl" in which she plays a woman who disguises herself as a man. From today's perspective, "Yentl's" reputation is highly polarizing—the positive reviews complimented the film's message about emancipation of women, whereas the Golden Globes even awarded Streisand as best director, making her, almost congruently with the film's theme, the first woman to achieve this equal status once only held by men, but the negative reviews were also very loud, especially in the often spoofed "Papa Can You Hear Me?" song—yet in the end, it is a good and honest little film, despite some heavy handed or kitschy moments. The main problem is that Streisand is trying hard, but is never quite believable while playing a man, unlike her counterparts in "Tootsie" and "Victor/Victoria", both released the previous year, who achieved an almost fantastic gender transformation. The story sometimes traverses into a musical, which also seems forced at times and takes you out of the film, yet Streisand showed a surprisingly good sense for directing, conjuring up a cozy "Jewish mood" with measure, handling a critique of a rigid tradition just right. The best comic twist is the one in which Yentl is forced to marry a girl, Hadass, whereas her relatives tell Yentl they "expect grandchildren in nine months", so Yentl has to constantly find ways to postpone their first wedding night. Through the story, several gay themes are presented, but the main theme is still Yentl's quest to achieve her own dignity: as a man, she is finally given equality in the community, which announced a huge progress of women's rights in the 20th century.

Grade:++

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ordered to Forget

Prikazano zabyt; war drama, Chechnya, 2014; D: Hussein Erkenov, S: Shamkhan Mitraev, Kheda Akhmadov, Timur Badalbeyli, Roza Khayrullina, Movsar Ataev

Chechnya. A man and his son bring grandmother, Seda, from Grozny to the rural area of Khaibakh, a mountain, where they pray at a grave. The boy asks how come the grave has two dates of the deceased, one in 1 9 4 4 and the other in 2 0 1 1. The grandmother remembers: during World War II, Chechnya is experiencing an uprising against the Soviet occupation, with the rebels demanding independence. One man, Daud, becomes a rebel himself and hides in the mountains after the Soviet secret police arrested his father, while his mother died from mourning. Seda, a girl from the neighboring house, joins Daud and they get married. Soviet soldiers suddenly start amassing in the area. One day, the enter the homes of the Chechens and start deporting them together with the Ingush. Since Khaibakh is too steep, and the trucks are unable to get there, the NKVD commander orders the Red Army to lock up hundreds of Chechens in a barn and burn them all alive. One boy escapes through the window. Daud shoots the Soviet soldier who wanted to shoot the boy, thereby saving the kid.

A rare film adaptation of Aardakh, the Soviet deportation of Chechens and Ingush, this film is a modern testimony how some war crimes are never forgotten, since their damage echoes through generations. The director Hussein Erkenov crafts a good depiction of events, though "Ordered to Forget" is less interesting in the first, somewhat pale half, and much more interesting in the second half which slowly builds up suspense stemming from the beginning of the deportation. The opening act sets up a good framing device, depicting a family arriving on a hill to pray at a grave. The kid is wondering how come their grandfather's tombstone says that he died in 1 9 4 4 and 2 0 1 1, until it is later revealed that he died once, physically, but also died before that, from a broken heart, during the deportation. The characters of Daud and Seda do not have that much character development, since the story's focus is more on other people in Chechnya as a whole, though he has a few sharp criticism against Goreshist Russia ("They kill people by such plentiful, they stopped feeling someone else's pain"). The second half conjures up much more drama and pathos by depicting the tragedy of the said deportation: a Soviet soldier has pity on an old farmer and tells him to prepare food because the Karachay were already deported six months ago and died massively from hunger; a pregnant Chechen woman is arrested by two Soviet soldiers at her home; Soviet soldiers even enter a hospital and question about if any patients are Chechens or Ingush, showing any lack of compassion while following their orders. This all culminates in the dark, disgusting, unbearable finale depicting the Khaibakh massacre, revealing the event as what it is: a crime against humanity.

Grade:++

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Dhadak

Dhadak; romance / drama, India, 2018; D: Shashank Kaitan, S: Ishaan Khattar, Janhvi Kapoor, Ashutosh Rana, Ankit Bisht, Shridhar Watsar 

Udaipur. Madhu is a student who is secretly in love with Parthavi, a daughter of a wealthy man, Ratan, who is aiming to become the new mayor. Madhu and Parthavi become a couple, but their families are of a different caste and thus oppose their love. After winning the election, Ratan adopts an autocratic rule and imprisons Madhu. Parthavi frees Madhu and flees with him on a train to Mumbai, to a relative, who in turn sends them to Kolkata, to a Christian friend who runs a hostel. Living in a small hostel room, the couple is devastated, yet Madhu finds work in a restaurant and Parthavi in a call center. They get a baby. Gokul and Purshottam visit them. Roop, Parthavi's brother, shows up with his gang, allegedly to reconcile. Parthavi exits the house to buy some candy, but as she returns, Madhu and the baby are thrown from the balcony in front of her, which kills them.

A remake of the acclaimed film "Sairat", this Indian version of Romeo & Juliet is a deeply emotional, but also a deeply bitter commentary on the atavism called "honor killings", showing this archaic intrusion as a crime against humanity. Part of "Dhadak's" appeal lies in its remarkably honest, genuine way it treats the romance between Madhu and Parthavi, without any cynicism or ridicule, which is refreshingly sincere. The first, "optimistic" part of the film shows their gradual bond with a lot of humor and spirit: for instance, in order to charm Parthavi, Madhu films and uploads a video with his friends, Gokul and 4 ft tall Purshottam (a hilarious Shridshar Watsar), which he sends to Parthavi's cell phone, and then even sings the "How Much I Love You" song to her in front of the entire University—in English! After he gave her his phone number, Madhu spends the entire night on the balcony, waiting for her call, while his two friends sleep over for support, in a sympathetic scene of loyalty and friendship. When Parthavi finally calls in the morning, but he doesn't answer, so she calls him again, there is this comical exchange with Madhu: "Why didn't you pick up the phone the first time I called?" - "Sorry, I was too busy dancing from excitement."

Parthavi is also a surprisingly strong female character ("You can take your big mansion and throw it away in the lake!"). The second, dark part of the film arrives as a shock: instead of other fairy tale love stories where the couple escapes from the wrath of their parents, here Parthavi and Madhu travel to Kolkota, and have a terrible time adapting to a new lifestyle in poverty, where they do not speak the Bengali language. The realism is almost unbearable and in stark contrast to the idealistic opening act, while it also paints a good picture of other characters, such as their Christian tenant. While melodramatic at times, the story is lead by a steady hand by director Shashank Kaitan, who aims to engage the viewers with the message about unnecessary plight of a couple and the need for people to live their own life, without the intrusion of any dogma or fundamentalism. The ending is masterful: filmed in a single 3-minute long take, it arrives as swiftly as it turns into its exact opposite, in an emotional finale that will stay in the viewer's memory for a long time.

Grade:++

Monday, January 28, 2019

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat; fantasy action, USA, 1995; D: Paul W. S. Anderson, S: Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Every now and then, the forces of good and the forces of evil contest over who will rule over Earth. This is decided in a fighting tournament called Mortal Kombat. Since the forces of evil won nine out of ten matches in a row, Raiden summons three warriors to fight for good: Liu Kang, who wants to avenge his brother's death; Johnny Cage, a film action star who wants to prove his fighting skills for real and Sonya, a Special Forces agent. They board a ship to the island of the tournament. Despite enormous odds against fighters who use magical powers, including a four armed monster, Liu battles and kills the main antagonist, Shang, thereby ending the tournament.

The 4th live action film adaptation of a video game, "Mortal Kombat" relies more on brutality and shock than on creativity and ingenuity, as it was the case with the famed martial arts films by B. Lee and J. Chan. The director Paul W. S. Anderson actually crafts a good picture in the first 20 minute due to a good build-up of mood, mystery and a sense for some stylish scenes involving the play with lights and shadows, though he already experiences a few problems with common sense early on (for instance, in the first sequence in which Sonya is introduced, her SWAT team shoots in the middle of a disco, yet the people just keep on dancing (!) as if that is of no concern to them, when in reality they would all panic). However, once the three protagonists set their foot on the island, they seem to enter the Island of Dr. Moreau: too many of the creatures fighting them (such as Goro, a 10ft tall man with four arms or a ninja who has a metal snake emerging inside the palm of his hand during an attack) are misguided, trashy and more suitable for some horror film. Disappointingly, all the characters are one-dimensional and bland, their only distinguishing feature being how they kick differently during a fight, with the only exception of brightness being Johnny Cage, a refreshingly comical film actor whose humor refuses to take this story too seriously. He is the bright spot of the film. Some of best bits include him trying to exit from a boat carrying half a dozen suitcases, only to spectacularly fall into the water; challenging the undefeatable monster Goro to a duel, only to kick him in the crotch and then run away or commenting Sonya wearing "sacrifice clothes" during the finale ("Nice dress"). Unfortunately, the main hero, Liu, pales in comparison, whereas the 70-minute 'Wrestlemania' becomes monotone fairly quickly, consisting just out of endless fight scenes that seize the attention only through violence, though the film was toned down a bit to avoid going too far with this.

Grade:+

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; comedy, USA, 1999; D: Jay Roach, S: Mike Myers, Heather Graham, Michael York, Mindy Sterling, Seth Green, Rob Lowe, Verne Troyer, Robert Wagner, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Hurley, Jerry Springer, Rebecca Romijn, Woody Harrelson, Tim Robbins, Charles Napier

After the tumultous previous adventures, spy Austin Powers is shocked when it turns out that Vanessa is actually an android who blows up in order to kill him. Austin is then given a new assignment from his boss Basil: to use a time machine, go back in time, to the 60s, and stop Dr. Evil who threatens to destroy the White House with a laser unless he is paid a huge ransom. Complicating matters is Dr. Evil's henchmen, Fat Bastard, who stole Austin's mojo from the cryo chamber. Teaming up with Felicity, Austin goes to the the Moon base, stops Dr. Evil, returns to the 90s and regains his mojo.

Compared to the fun 1st film, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" is the 'Mini-Me' of "Austin Powers". While in the original film every vulgar, questionable joke was at least compensated by two good gags, in this sequel, the 2:1 ratio is reversed in favor of the vulgarity. Part II borrows too many plot points from the original, but just done worse: Dr. Evil's new henchmen is introduced, Mini-Me (even though he doesn't do practically anything purposeful in the story, anyway); there are puns on the differences between the 60s and 90s (which is pointless this time, since people in the 60s cannot fathom Dr. Evil's references from the 90s); Will Ferrell again returns with the same joke of being wounded, but still alive; Mike Myers plays another character in the story (Fat Bastard)... Looking from today's perspective, after all the hype is gone, it is obvious that little of this has any satisfactory power since it lacks inspiration. A rehash of old jokes simply isn't that effective. Surprisingly, Myers plays three characters, yet their comic output is weak: Fat Bastard is a rare example of a comedian dressing up into someone and failing to deliver a single good joke throughout. He has 0% successful jokes. Next, Austin Powers himself only has some 10% of successful jokes. Which again leaves only Dr. Evil to carry the comedy, though even his performance is a "hit-or-miss" affair. Some jokes are amusing, such as the Jerry Springer show featuring Dr. Evil, yet others are a disappointment. Simply put, jokes about someone mistaking shit for coffee and drinking it; farting; sexual innuendo or kicking in the crotch can be done by anyone, but a good comedy can only be done by the few talented ones. Heather Graham is the only highlight here, since her character Felicity is much more genuine than Vanessa from the 1st film, even though she is given little to do.

Grade:+

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce; drama, USA, 1945; D: Michael Curtiz, S: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett

Monte is shot in his beach house while his wife, Mildred Pierce, is seen running away. After being brought to the police station, Mildred starts telling her story to the police officer: she was a housewife, but after her husband, Bert, a real estate agent, lost his job, they got into an argument and seperated. In order to take care of her two kids, Veda (16) and Kay (10), Mildred finds a job for the first time, as a waitress. She saves enough to open her own restaurant. Wally, Bert's ex-partner, is trying to flirt with Mildred, but she instead starts a relationship with the rich Monte. Kay dies from pneumonia, which makes Veda even more spoiled. Veda asks for more and more money, exhausting Mildred. Veda then marries a rich lad, only to divorce him to get 10,000$ out of his pocket. Mildred agrees to marry Monte and bring Veda back home. After she catches Veda and Monte kissing, a fight erupts. Monte doesn't want to marry Veda, who shoots him in an act of rage. Back in present, the police arrest Veda.

Even though director Michael Curtiz directed an astounding 102 films during his career in Hollywood, a part of them were not that great, among them "Mildred Pierce": it is a solid, but overall too routine and schematic drama, without much ingenuity. Too melodramatic, at times acting almost as a soap opera, "Mildred" is only occasionally interesting, mostly thanks to a good leading performance by Joan Crawford, who won several awards for her role of a mother who sacrifices herself completely for her kids, only to bitterly realize that her teenage daughter, Veda, is an exploitative gold digger. Veda's subplot is far more intriguing, her schemes being downright disturbing (she marries a naive, rich lad, only to then initiate a costly divorce and lie that she is pregnant in order to "milk" 10,000 $ from his family) and could have even served as the main plot, instead of the rather predictable Mildred. The writing is dated, especially in the corny dialogues by Wally ("Friendship is much more lasting than love!" - "Yeah, but it isn't as entertaining.") whereas it again uses the cliche of a "fake opening", only to then go into a flashback narrating how the characters all got to that point, which is a trick already done to death. A few noteworthy observations are about early feminism, since Mildred starts off as a married housewife, only to later on resort to finding her own job to be independent and survive.

Grade:++

Friday, January 25, 2019

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow

Se ying diu sau; martial arts film, Hong Kong / China, 1978; D: Yuen Woo-Ping, S: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu Tien, Jung-Lee Hwang, Dean Shek

China, 19th century. An old beggar, Pai Cheh, is travelling through the country. However, he is actually a legendary Snake-style kung-fu master, a rebel against the government. Pai couldn't pay his rent to a hotel owner, and thus arrives at the young, naive, but honest Chien Fu, who takes him in at his home. Chien earns his money as the janitor of a martial arts school, but everyone is teasing him. Pai decides to teach Chien martial arts techniques and is surprised by the lad's abilities. Together, they kill an assassin who was sent to murder Pai.

The year 1978 finally made a star out of Jackie Chan, thanks to two films, both directed by Yuen Woo-Ping: "Drunken Master" and "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow". While such a status was justified due to the worthy "Drunken Master", "Snake" is still an immature attempt at trying to exploit all of Chan's martial arts abilities to the fullest, though it seized the attention due to an unorthodox blend of martial arts and comedy. Already the sole sequences of people humiliating and demeaning Chan's character Chien are so pathetic, sloppy and amateurish that they immediately in advance sabotaged the film's further impression, whereas several examples of dumb humor bother as well. It already consolidated Chan's archetype of film: boring characters and an awful story are saved by brilliant action sequences. One such standout scene involves the hero dodging the hits of the overweight son of a rich man, and thus Chien defeats him by sheer exhaustion and tiredness, without ever striking back. Another good sequence involves Chien's inability to catch the plate on the head of his skillful teacher. While sloppy and crude, "Snake" at least proves as an interesting testing ground for future Chan's stunts, when he was still forging his style.

Grade:+

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Drunken Master

Zui quan; martial arts comedy, Hong Kong / China, 1978; D: Yuen Woo-Ping, S: Jackie Chan, Siu Tin Yuen, Jung-Lee Hwang, Dean Shek

China, 19th century. Wong Fei-Hung is a young lad training at his father's martial arts school. Wong mocks an assistant teacher; then he tries to trick a girl into kissing him, sparking a fight with the girl's female guardian; and then he meets and beats up a bully who refused to pay for an item from a poor seller. When Wong returns to his father, it turns out that the female guardian is his aunt and that the bully's father is an influential man. As punishment, father orders Wong to be trained by teacher So for a year, who can only fight while drinking vine. Wong flees from home, but is found by So. Wong flees once again, but stumbles upon and is beaten by Thunderfoot, an assassin. This causes Wong to return to So and complete the training. When a rival hires Thunderfoot to assassinate Wong's father, Wong saves him and kills Thunderfoot by drinking vine.

"Drunken Master", together with "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" which was released that same year and also directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, signalled the dawn of a new era, the era of a comedy kung fu film—and its new prophet, Jackie Chan, who hereby became a new movie star. Looking from today's perspective, it seems rather crude, with several lame, banal or silly attempts at humor (bodyguards beating up Wong's stomach, to make him throw up food for which he didn't pay at the restaurant), whereas its storyline is chaotic since it seems to be assembled out of four different stories, yet its martial arts and battle sequences are so meticulously choreographed and stylized they seem fresh even now. Chan already displays his virtuoso moves in the opening act, in which he finds a dozen different ways of constantly taking away the hat from the assistant teacher (dropping the hat, but when the assistant reaches for it, Chan's Wong picks it up first with his foot and then throws it back into his hand, and then twists the assistant's hand to again take the hat away), and also shines later on with "impossible" stunts. Another highlight is Wong's first fight with the dangerous assassin Thunderfoot: in one great moment, Wong catches Thunderfoot's shoe with both of his hands, but the villain just takes his foot off from the shoe and kicks Wong anyway, and then simply returns his foot back in the shoe, with incredible speed. Allegedly, the movie was an inspiration for some characters in manga "Dragonball", which is obvious in the bald man who attacks Wong with his head, "bull fight"-style, and the old teacher whose hands shake unless he has vine to drink. Chan gives it his maximum, but the rest of the crew doesn't, since no other aspect of the movie is up to his level, especially in a lack of a movie style or character development, yet the kung fu sequences are simply fun.

Grade:++

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Street Fighter

Street Fighter; action, USA, 1994; D: Steve E. de Souza, S: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raúl Juliá, Ming-Na Wen, Damian Chapa, Kylie Minogue, Wes Studi, Byron Mann, Roshan Seth, Andrew Bryniarski

Somewhere is Southeast Asia, general Bison and his henchmen want to acquire territory by force and establish his own pseudo-state, Bisonopolis. They also attempt to create a mutant soldier in a lab as a prototype for a future army to take over the world. Bison captures dozens of aid workers and threatens to kill them if he is not paid 20 billion $. The Allied Nations, led by Colonel Guile, are trying to stop him. Guile recruits two jail convicts, Ken and Ryu, as spies who infiltrate the gang of one of Bison's warlords. Chun-Li, a reporter, also wants to take revenge on Bison, who killed her father. Guile launches an assault on Bison's headquarters, beats him up in a fight and causes an explosion of the base. Guile, Cammy, Ken, Ryu, Chun-Li and the others rejoice.

The third live-action film adaptation of a video game, "Street Fighter" has the same attributes as the first two said film adaptations, "Super Mario Bros." and "Double Dragon": a patchwork that isn't that much inspired, but at least it has heart. Director Steve E. de Souza refuses to take the obligatory good vs. evil story too seriously, and thus some charm can be found in this cheesy, relaxed, sometimes even humorous approach. Raul Julia, in his final film role, plays villain Bison deliciously over-the-top, and easily overshadows all other actors combined. In one great moment of pure comic-book villainy, Chun-Li gives a long speech about how Bison's army attacked her village and killed her father, after which Bison nonchalantly replies that he "doesn't even remember" that episode: "For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday..." However, while Julia gave it his best, the others didn't: one of the weakest links is the main protagonist, Guile, who is disappointingly bland and boring, and almost seems like a supporting character in the first half of the film, where Bison appears much more frequently. When the bad guy is more interesting than the good guy, then that is a problem. The writing, which encompassed several characters and subplots, one even involving a mutant soldier nurtured in a lab, is thin and lacks highlights, whereas the editing is abrupt and rushed during some battle sequences. However, one simply cannot be angry at "Street Fighter" for two reasons: for one, it is one of the rare movies featuring Kyle Minogue in a role. For the other, the supporting character of Zangief, one of Bison's henchmen, is a small comedy gem: when everyone watches a live TV transmission of a truck full of explosives heading at their headquarters, Zangief shouts: "Quick, change the channel!", whereas the ending even has the best joke when he has a self-critical realization ("Wait, Bison was the bad guy?!"). A 'guilty pleasure'.

Grade:+

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk; adventure drama, USA, 1940; D: Michael Curtiz, S: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains, Henry Daniell, Donald Crisp, Flora Robson

1585. King Philip II wants to spread his Spanish Empire over the entire world, and sees England as his only opposition in this plan. He is thus secretly building an armada that will attack England. During a trip, a Spanish ship is attacked by the "Sea Hawks", a group of British pirates led by Thorpe, who aim to plunder the Spanish in order to contain their expansion. Spanish ambassador Alvarez is captured, together with his niece, Dona Maria, but are released upon being brought to Queen Elizabeth I who publicly scorns Thorpe for attacking the ambassador. However, in private, Elizabeth is in good relations with Thorpe, who persuades her to allow him to steal the Spanish gold in Panama. However, Alvarez and Lord Wolfingham, an English minister who is a Spanish collaborator, find out about the plan and set up an ambush. Thorpe and his men are captured and become slaves in a ship. However, they manage to free themselves and obtain a secret plan that confirms that the armada is being used for a planned war. With the help of Maria, he returns to England and warns Queen Elizabeth just in time, who in turn orders England to build their own fleet.

The 10th cooperation between director Michael Curtiz and actor Errol Flynn, "The Sea Hawk" is arguably their apex, a thoroughbred adventure flick that also serves as a neat history lesson about the circumstances leading to the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585. Unlike their previous "swashbuckling" films, which were aimed more towards fun, kitschy adventures taken just at "face value", "The Sea Hawk" is a much darker, complex and realistic film, a one which tries to build up interest of other audience groups, for whom dashing beaus fighting the bad guys with swords is usually not their cup of tea. Already the opening scene, filmed in a wide-angle lens, where Spanish King Philip II looks at the world map in his throne room and proclaims his irredentist plan ("...we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will have ceased to be a map of the world. It will be—Spain!"), the viewers immediately detest his selfishness and lean towards Englishman Thorpe who is fighting to contain the Spanish expansionism. Upon attacking a Spanish ship, Thorpe frees the convicted slaves on it, proclaiming that the Spanish Inquisition is not valid in law, thereby boosting his sympathy. There are several great situations stemming from the story—Alvarez and Lord Wolfingham enter the office of a chart maker and discover the map for Thorpe's ship Albatross, showing a snippet of an isthmus and the constellation of Orion over it at its Zenith. Using this info, a geographer concludes for them that it must be somewhere between the Equator and the 10th parallel north, picking Panama as the only isthmus along this line. Another exciting moment has Thorpe and his men peddling on a boat after an ambush on land, but as they approach their ship on the sea, they notice it is suspiciously empty, and fear approaching it. Using aesthetic shot compositions, Curtiz crafts a fluent story that offers enough suspense and flair to work even today.

Grade:+++

Friday, January 18, 2019

Half Nelson

Half Nelson; drama, USA, 2006; D: Ryan Fleck, S: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen

Dan is a history teacher at a high school. He takes up a lot of effort to present the teaching at a more unusual level, presenting it as a clash of two worldviews. One day, while taking cocaine at the locker room, he is found by his 13-year old student, Drey, who helps him recover. Drey becomes his friend. Dan tries to persuade Drey to stay away from Frank, a local drug dealer. Drey tells him a joke, and Dan uses it to impress a teacher, Isabel, who came to his apartment for dinner. Even though they have sex, the next morning, Dan is uninterested in talking to Isabel. When Drey agrees to sell Frank's drugs, she finds out one of the buyers is Dan. Soon, a new history teacher is brought for replacement. Drey arrives at Dan's apartment and helps him shave.

"Half Nelson" seems to be an antithesis to "The Simpsons" classic episode "Lisa's Substitute": while in that episode we have Sam Etic, a funny, creative teacher with wisdom, who bonds with Lisa in a genuine way, in this film, we have Dan, a teacher who is a slob, an aimless mess who doesn't know where he is going or what he is doing, whereas his bond with a 13-year old student, Drey, never quite manages to develop that much charm or compassion to begin with. And this pretty much sums up the problem of the entire film. Filmed with a shaky, hand-held camera, "Half Nelson" seems as if the whole strategy of the story wasn't that well planned out beforehand: the storyline seems to be invented or improvised on the spot, with meagre events that never connect into a purposeful whole, since many ideas lack a point later on. It is, for instance, unimaginable that a person of Dan's intellect would make such a blunder to take cocaine at the school's public locker room, instead of the safety of his own apartment. Some neat scenes appear, such as when an angry Dan throws and hits a referee with a baseball, or when he confronts Frank ("I hate to be that person, but you should stay away from Drey!"), yet, as said, there is never a genuine, believable build-up of a relation between him and Drey. And as a junkie, he is never as good of a character as if he would be if he was as wise or constructive as Sam Etic or John Keating, for instance. While realistic and authentic, the story seems empty, and the "social issue" subplot revolving around African-American drug dealers didn't save it, either.

Grade:+

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Make Way for Tomorrow

Make Way for Tomorrow; drama, USA, 1937; D: Leo McCarey, S: Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter

During dinner, Barkley and Lucy Cooper, a retired couple in their 60s, announce that they lost their home to the bank due to too high financial costs. Their five grown ups children are in a quandary: none of them is willing to accommodate their parents, since each of them is raising their own family. Lucy is sent to live in a small room in the New York apartment of her son George, while Barkley goes to the rural area, in the home of daughter Cora. Lucy seems to be a burden to George's wife Anita and teenage daughter Rhoda. Barkley tries to find a job to regain an own home, but catches a cold, which Cora uses as an excuse to try to send him to his other child, living in warm California. Before departing for California, Barkley spends a few hours with Lucy together, who is being sent to a retirement home.

Legend has it that when he received the best director Oscar for "The Awful Truth", Leo McCarey allegedly said: "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture", alluding to the ignored drama "Make Way for Tomorrow", which he directed that same year. While "Duck Soup" is McCarey's best achievement, "Make Way" is also a very interesting film, an unassuming, bitter and depressive drama about the lack of any perspective during old age, which observes how a retired couple is faced to accept that their lives became redundant to the society. Elderly care is not quite a "high concept" for a film, yet it courageously dares to tackle the unpleasant topic through a low key, simple narrative built on small nuances and subtle observations about human relations. In one of the most memorable sequences, Anita asks her 17-year old daughter Rhoda to take grandmother Lucy out of the apartment, since their friends want to play bridge in peace. Rhoda takes Lucy to a cinema, but then exits the theatre to go out on a date. Two hours later, Rhoda hurriedly returns to the cinema and asks a woman to give her a summary of the film. Rhoda then finds Lucy waiting for her outside, feigning she liked the movie, until grandmother tells Rhoda she saw her exiting her boyfriend's car. Another sad moment has one of Lucy's daughters agreeing to take Lucy at her home, but her husband is against the idea: "When we married, I didn't ask my mother to live with us, did I?" It is a slow burning tragedy watching Lucy and Barkley getting tossed left and right, as if they are a burden, and the movie itself seems to not know what the solution might be. However, McCarey directed the movie in a too monotone way at times, with a few 'rough' edges (why was it necessary for Lucy and Barkley to be separated? Wouldn't it have been far more constructive to have them stay together at a one of their kid's home?) and lack of inspiration, especially in the rather pointless last 20 minutes, though the main theme is so true and genuine one can forgive its flaws.

Grade:+++

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 resorted 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' 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 Rains

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:+++