Sunday, March 31, 2019

Three Businessmen

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

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

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

Grade:+

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Aleksi

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

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

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

Grade:++

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Super Mario Bros. Super Show

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

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

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

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

Grade:+

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Ghost in the Shell

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

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

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

Grade:+

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Brave Little Tailor

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

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

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

Grade:+++

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Battle Angel Alita

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

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

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

Grade:++

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Ashes and Diamonds

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

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

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

Grade:+++

Friday, March 1, 2019

Vice

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

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

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

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

Grade:+++