Sunday, October 20, 2019

Zombieland: Double Tap

Zombieland: Double Tap; horror comedy, USA, 2019, D: Ruben Fleischer, S: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stona, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Bill Murray, Anthony Dilio

Several years after the last events, Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita and Little Rock are still fighting against the Zombies, but manage to find refuge in the abandoned White House. When Columbus proposes to Wichita, she and Little Rock flee with their vehicle. However, Wichita returns when Little Rock fled from her in order to live with her new boyfriend, musician Berkley, in Babylon, a hippie commune. Tallahassee, Columbus and Wichita, together with a dumb blond Madison, go to search for her. Once in Babylon, their weapons are confiscated and melted, which proves detrimental when an army of Zombies attack. Luckily, Tallahassee manages to trick all the Zombies into following him to the top of the building and falling from it into their doom. Little Rock breaks up with Berkley while Wichita accepts Columbus' marriage proposal.

10 years after the sleeper cult film "Zombieland", all the cast and film crew joined their forces to deliver a sequel which did not quite justify for such a long wait: there is too much improvisation which is just there to fill the running time, as if the actors and screenwriters were making stuff up as they went along, whereas the inspiration is scarce. "Double Tap" is thus one of those "tolerable good films": they work overall, but do not overwhelm or engage the viewers. The director Ruben Fleischer follows the expectation pattern of the sequel, which involves more danger and more new characters for the protagonists, some of which do not have that much of a function in the story (Madison, Albuquerque), though the original cast is still contagiously fun and sometimes stumble upon a good joke (such as when Columbus has to put post-it papers over the eyes of a painting of Abraham Lincoln while he is about to land in bed with Wichita). The film works, albeit in a very routine manner. However, two moments of sheer creativity raise the level through the roof. One is Bill Murray's "comeback" cameo in the film. The other is a small comic chef-d'œuvre, an insane outburst of untrammelled ingenuity in the "Zombie kill of the year" sequence in which an Italian guy lures Zombies on the street and then uses a jack to tip the Leaning Tower of Pisa (!) in order for it to fall and squash the Zombies, triumphantly shouting "Vaffanculo!", which perfectly encapsulates that temperamental nature of the indestructible Italian spirit. That sequence alone is about two levels above the rest of the film.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game; war drama, USA, 2014; D: Morten Tyldum, S: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong

Britain, World War II. Mathematician Alan Turing joins a secret British operation consisting out of cryptologists Hugh Alexander, John Cairncross, Peter Hilton, Keith Furman, Charles Richards and Joan Clark in order to decipher the "Enigma machine", the Nazi device which sends coded messages about attacks around Europe. Turing's antisocial behavior irritates his colleagues; the superiors want to shut him down fearing his proto-computer device is a waste of money whereas he marries Joan even though he is gay. Figuring out that each coded message is signed with "Heil Hitler", Turing is able to program his device to decipher the Nazi messages, but must keep it a secret. Cairncross is outed as a Soviet spy, but the British government let's him send only controlled information. With the help of the decoded messages, the war ends, but Turing is forced into a therapy to suppress his gay side, which was banned by the government at the time. He commits suicide at the age of 41.

Excellent biographical war drama about Alan Turing is easily one of the best movies of the 2 0 1 0s, one of the weakest cinema decades in history, standing out as a highlight in 2014, the year which marked a rare return of great films in that era. While it may sound like a predictable "award bait" film at first in its concept (a gay outsider; a World War II topic), "The Imitation Game" rises above these cliches thanks to a sovereign, genuine, creative and honest screenplay by Graham Moore, who, it seems, uses it as a personal therapy since he was gay himself: he avoids turning Turing's life into a hagiography, and instead shows even his flawed side (he was way too antisocial and even a jerk at times), but always keeps respect towards his positive achievements, placing him as a person who marked a new era, the era of intellectual breakthrough and innovation. Moore imbibes his characters with fascinating little details and personality traits which make them feel alive: for instance, when he was a kid, Turing would obsessively separate his green peas from his orange carrots on his plate during lunch, already hinting at his specific need for making order out of chaos. In another, during school, some bullies locked him up in a coffin of sorts, sadistically enjoying listening to him crying for help, so Turing cleverly decided to simply remain passive and indifferent, thereby taking away their satisfaction, and ultimately making them go away in boredom. It is an "actor's film", allowing for the ensemble to deliver a few wonderful, touching dialogues, mostly by its two main cast, Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley as Turing and Joan Clark. In one of the most fascinating moments, Turing reveals that he is gay to Joan, with whom he is engaged, but she just shrugs it off, as if it is just a minor inconvenience ("But we're not like other people. We love each other in our own way, and we can have the life together that we want!"). Other lines also shine, coming either from his superior ("You are exactly the man I always hoped you would be.") or Joan when she tells Turing it was good that he was not normal like the others. It is indeed rare to find modern films with such wisdom, sharpness and universal appeal, worthy of the "golden age" of cinema from the classic era of Hollywood.


Sunday, October 13, 2019

River of no Return

River of no Return; western / road movie, USA, 1954; D: Otto Preminger, S: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Tommy Rettig, Rory Calhoun

The Wild West, 19th century. Mark (9), a little kid living in an outpost, is picked up by his father, Matthew, who was just recently released from prison for shooting a man in his back, defending another man. Mark says goodbye to Kay, a Saloon girl who took care of him. Matthew and Mark live in an isolated farm, on the countryside, but stumble upon Kay again when she arrives with her boyfriend, gambler Harry, on a raft via the river. Harry wants to go to Council City, where he won a piece of land with gold on it in a gamble. Matthew does not want to lend Harry a rifle, fearing the farm might be defenceless against an Indian attack. Harry takes the rifle and a horse by force, but Kay stays behind to nurse the wounded Matthew. The Indians attack, and Matthew, Mark and Kay have to flee on a raft down the river, encountering many dangers. In Council City, Kay encounters Harry again and tries to persuade him to apologize to Matthew. Harry instead draws his gun at Matthew, but Mark uses the rifle to shoot Harry behind his back to save Matthew.

One of Otto Preminger's standard films, "River of no Return" is one of those westerns that were a dime a dozen in the 50s and 60s: while undoubtedly a good film, it has little to offer to stand out from so many other movies of the said genre. Setting the story as an "Anabasis" road movie of sorts, where the three protagonists (a man, a woman and a kid) try to evacuate themselves through the dangerous wilderness on a raft through the river, eventually forming a proto-family features, Preminger took a too conventional approach, presenting the story just at face value, instead of also going into some more creative or multi-layered levels. It all feels too much like a "contract job", and not a true labor of love for the director, with too many banal, routine dialogues, though it has its moments: the sequences where Indians on a cliff are throwing rocks down at the trio, trying to make holes in their raft and sink them in the river, or the attack of a puma, are expressionistic and have spark, whereas the plot point of Matthew having to justify his shooting of a man behind his back in order to defend another man comes full circle in the ending involving the little kid. Despite some plot holes and illogical moments (Matthew wrestling with an outlaw, while the other outlaw just continues eating meat, with no interest at helping his companion), the actors give the story a sense of dedication, with Robert Mitchum and the underrated Marilyn Monroe delivering fine performances.


Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Wire (Season 3)

The Wire (Season 3), crime series, USA, 2004; D: Ed Bianchi, Steve Shill, Rob Bailey, Dan Attias, Agnieszka Holland, Alex Zakrzewski, S: Dominic West, Idris Elba, Wood Harris, Robert Wisdom, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce, Domenick Lombardozzi, Aidan Gillen, Robert F. Chew

Baltimore. Due to constant pressure to lower crime rates in the city, police major Colvin has a radical idea: he will allow the drug dealers to deal drugs freely in an abandoned area, a sort of free zone nicknamed "Hamsterdam", far away from the city. This "evacuation" actually works, the crime rates decline, but when his superiors find out, including Commissioner Burrell, they have Colvin fired and hastily arrest anyone before shutting down the free zone. Councilman Carcetti wants to exploit this public anger to run for mayor. Avon Barksdale, the head of the Barksdale drug organization, is released from prison, and allows Omar and Mouzone to kill his lawyer, Stringer Bell, who wanted to set them up to kill each other and to build Federal buildings to legalize the crime business. Officer Jimmy McNulty and his crew used wired phones to catch Avon possessing weapons, in violation of his probation. Avon is thus again sent to prison, while his rival, Marlo, fills the vacuum with his own drugs.

The third season of the hyped crime series "The Wire" started to lose steam: only episodes 3.8 and 3.11 are great, while the rest is good, yet somehow strangely routine, predictable, calculative, mechanical and stale. A certain "The Wire"-fatigue can be sensed here. It is getting predictable that these kind of shows use "hit-and-miss" tactics by throwing 50 characters at some 20 stories, hoping at least some of them will stick. One of these subplots really does work: major Colvin's fascinating thought experiment on simply allowing drug dealers to deal in a far away "free zone", in order to remove them from the city, figuring that this is simply in their nature, and that fighting against this kind of determinism is futile. Other subplots fair less: Stringer Bell's plan to go into real estate and councilman Carcetti's ploys to get elected for mayor lead to lukewarm conclusions, without much payoff, whereas McNulty's wire tapping team seems too often like a rehash from the previous two seasons at times (a rare exception is a genius trick in which McNulty's men arrest Bodie and empty his pockets in order to take his mobile phone and secretly replace it with an identical, "wired" mobile phone, which they return to Bodie).

The subplot involving Dennis is interesting at first, showing how the character is so disenchanted by hard work of mowing the lawn that he decides to take the easy way out and work for Avon Barksdale as a criminal, only to realize he cannot kill people, and thus changes his mind again and returns back to his normal life. But this happens already half-way into the season, and it is puzzling why the rest of the season is wasted on just showing Dennis training boxing, again and again, even though this does not serve any purpose in the story anymore (at least not in this season). Too much of this is repetitive, and one feels these 12 episodes could have easily been summed up into just four or five. The series needed more inspiration akin to episode 3.8 (one genius moment has Barksdale set up a "date-trap" for his nemesis Marlo, but goofs when one of Barksdale's solders exits the van and goes to buy some drinks at the restaurant, and is recognized by Marlo's friend Snoop) or 3.11 (the significant conversation on the rooftop between Avon and Stringer Bell is ostensibly about business, but in reality one is giving the reasons for why the other must be eliminated) and a better editor to trim down this whole affair, since just randomly cramming more and more subplots does not automatically make for a great series.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Second Service

Second Service; crime, USA, 2017; D: Serge Bodnarchuk, S: Matthew K. Lane, Shane Rhoades, Coral Lamar, R. Scott Purdy, Guy Wicke

John Greene, a washed up private detective, gets a new intern in his office, Tim, and explains him the bad sides of the job. Luckily, a new client shows up: she is Natalie, who asks Greene to find out who is following her. Greene tracks down her stalker, Hodges, and through him finds his boss, the rich Bradford Guinness. Greene feigns he is willing to spy on Natalie, but Guinness rejects him. Still, Greene visits him again and asks why he is following Natalie. Guinness admits he wanted to recruit her for his shady business of camgirls, intending to bring back virtual brothels and the mob back in Chicago. Greene had the conversation recorded and talks with Natalie and Tim about trying to find a lawyer to sue Guinness.

Serge Bodnarchuk's feature length debut is an amusing independent movie in the vein of film noirs such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep", and thus it is easily identifiable that the main actor Matthew K. Lane is trying to conjure up the "frequency" of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, though with a stronger emphasis on the comical side. At times, Bodnarchuk demonstrates that he has inspiration, whether it is in elegant visual ideas (for instance, the aesthetically pleasant opening scenes: the camera pans over a table, and all of a sudden the main protagonist, Greene, "stands up" into the frame, in tune to the credit "Matthew K. Lane" showing up on the screen), clever observations (at a bar, Greene points out to Tim that a couple at the table wears two different wedding rings on their fingers, deducting that they must be having an affair) or shrill dialogues ("Thank God for the Hindenburg, or else that would have been the worst idea in human history!", says the cynical Greene after hearing a crazy proposal on his phone). Sadly, the story starts losing energy and steam in the second half, which is too often marred on routine dialogues, when the boring lines start slowly replacing the good ones. A good deal of these could have been either cut or written in a more interesting way, whereas it is a pity that the main heroine, Natalie, does not have that much to do or place to shine in the story, leaving her a too passive of a character for a female lead. Throughout the film, Greene is trying to find out one thing: why is Natalie being followed by Guinness? The resolution is disappointingly anti-climatic, illogical and silly. However, Guinness is at times a fascinating bad guy, a person who actually has reasons why he is a villain, set as a metaphor for the greed in corporate world, whereas at least two of his lines—the Tunnel-Perspective-Vortex comment from the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the rare historical footnote from the Battle of Ramla (1102) in which the Muslims defeated the Christians, but one Crusader, Conrad, was so undefeatable and killed everyone that they had to allow him to be peacefully evacuated—are so deliciously written that not even Tarantino or Chayefsky would have been ashamed of them.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights; romance / drama / tragedy, USA, 1939; D: William Wyler, S: Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Flora Robson

Barren Yokrshire moors, England, 19th century. During a winter storm, a man enters an isolated cottage in search for shelter. After imagining he heard someone say said the words "Cathy", the owner, Heathcliff, runs outside. Housekeeper Ellen tells Heathcliff's tale: 40 years ago, the owner of the house, Mr. Earnshaw, returns from his trip in Liverpool with an orphaned gypsy kid, Heathcliff, and adopts him. Mr. Earnshaw's biological children act differently: Catherine becomes his friend, but Hindley hates and abuses Heathcliff. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley turns Heathcliff into a servant. Heathcliff falls in love with Catherine, but she marries the rich Edgar Linton, their neighbor. Heathcliff returns from America as a rich man and marries Edgar's sister, Isabella. When Catherine falls ill, she kisses Heathcliff before she dies. Back in the present, Heathcliff dies in search for Catherine in the snow.

Described as the best film adaptation of Emily Brontë's eponymous classic and her only novel, William Wyler's "Wuthering Heights" is a tragic meditation on unrequited love. It explores this through the relationship of the main couple, which is hindered by social circumstances: Catherine decides to ignore her love for the adopted Heathcliff, who is full of vitality, but poor, in order to marry Edgar, who is a wimp, but rich, which underwent several thematic interpretations—she aims for climbing up the social hierarchy (which is given an interesting twist when Heathcliff returns later as a rich man himself, thereby obtaining "equal status" in order to adapt to her needs); or for dedicating herself to nurturing reason at the expense of completely neglecting her passion and nature; the detrimental nature of stubbornness; whereas others have even seen the story as a secret incestuous fantasy. A fascinating dialogue between them manifests when Heathcliff comments her empty marriage with Edgar: "If he loved you with all the power of his soul for a whole lifetime he couldn't love you as much as I do in a single day."

Another strong quote arrives when Heathcliff is torn between sadness and anger: "Cathy, I never broke your heart. You broke it! Cathy, you loved me! What right did you have to throw away love?" Laurence Olivier delivers one of his finest performances as Heathcliff, showing both his brutish and vulnerable nature in one, whereas the desolate barren land in the middle of nowhere gives the film a touch of isolation. The highlight is the long sequence where a woman plays Mozart's "Rondo Alla Turca" while all is said in just the facial expression of Catherine and Heathcliff who watch each other at the party, in a moment of exquisite subtlety. Some small omissions bother here and there, though, preventing "Wuthering Heights" to turn into a true classic equal to the best movies appearing in 1939, one of the strongest movie years in American cinema: it is never explained how Heathcliff found his fortune; his more morbid elements from the book were toned down in favor of a more romantic approach; the final act from the book is omitted; the ending is rushed whereas a couple of melodramatic moments "slip" in several scenes.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin; satire / black comedy, UK / France / Belgium, 2017; D: Armando Iannucci, S: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse

In 1 9 5 3, bank robber Joseph Stalin dies. Since he just happened to be the leader of the Soviet Union, the other politicians already start wondering who will succeed him: Nikita Khrushchev represents the camp that wants to reform the country and turn it more humane, while the Head of the NKVD, the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, intends to become the new leader and continue the hardline course of the dictatorship. Georgy Malenkov is placed as the temporary leader, but is clearly manipulated by Beria. After Stalin's funeral, Khrushchev is able to gain support by Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army, as well as Vyacheslav Molotov: the army stages a coup which arrests and executes Beria. Khruschev then eventually takes power.

Armando Iannucci's satire on dictatorship, in this case the Soviet Union, is a contemplative lesson in history: had it not been a comedy, this would have been one of the most depressing movies to sit through. Iannucci cleverly observes that each dictatorship, including Stalinism, is just one grotesque, immature manifestation of someone's Narcissistic personality disorder, unable or unwilling to tolerate any kind of self-review of self-criticism. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale look nothing like Nikita Khrushchev and Lavrenity Beria, respectively, but they deliver a heck of a performance in each role. The movie abounds with surreal, batty jokes and situations: for instance, after Stalin, who pissed himself in his pants, is found unconscious in his living room, lying on the floor after a stroke, Beria enters the room but forbids calling the doctor, ostensibly waiting for the Committee to arrive in full capacity for a quorum to bring a decision, already showing his true opportunistic and selfish nature, aiming to take over. It is even more satirical than that: after the Doctor's Plot, good doctors have been eliminated, and thus they have to be imported into Moscow to check Stalin's health. After Stalin's death, as soon as the Committee departs, upon Beriya's orders the NKVD soldiers arrive and immediately start removing all traces of Stalin from his mansion (his bust, paintings, and even his staff is evacuated outside; his lookalikes are informed that their "contract is up"), and as these people are transported in trucks, they see in distance one soldier already shooting the other standing next to him, starting the "blood inheritance" battle. The irony that even the wife of Deputy Premier Molotov, Polina, was convicted of treason, or that Stalin's own son, Vasily, had no say in inheritance of power, is not lost on the movie. Despite some historical "straining" and a lot of babble, the movie succeeds as a political satire, revealing Soviet Russia for what it was: an idiocracy.