Saturday, April 27, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

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

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

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

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

Grade:++

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Room with a View

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

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

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

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

Grade:+++

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Ten Commandments

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

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

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

Grade:++

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Boyz n the Hood

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

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

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

Grade:++

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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

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

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

Grade:++

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Housemaid

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

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

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

Grade:+++

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Talk to Her

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

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

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

Grade:++

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

I'm So Excited!

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

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

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

Grade:+

Monday, April 1, 2019

Highway Patrolman

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

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

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

Grade:+++