Friday, October 15, 2021

Squid Game

Ojing-eo Geim; mystery thriller survival series, South Korea, 2021; D: Hwang Dong-hyuk, S: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi  

After winning money at a horse bet, but having it stolen by a pickpocket, Seong Gi-hun has had it: in order to pay off his huge debt to the loan sharks, he accepts the offer of a shady man to enlist in a mysterious tournament game on a remote island. The prize: 45.6 billion won. He is given the number 456, being the last of the over 400 participants. He meets other players there: Sang-woo, whose firm went bankrupt and is sought by the police; Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector; an old man suffering from brain tumor; Deok-su, a bully; Ali, a Pakistani immigrant... The games are various, but the losers always lose their lives: Red Light, Green Light; having to carve up a triangle, circle or an umbrella from a cookie; two teams pulling a rope over a high altitude; walking over a bridge made out of solid or fragile glass platforms... The games are played to entertain spoiled rich people wearing masks. In the end, only Gi-hun and Sang-woo survive to the finale, the squid game. However, Gi-hun refuses to win and wants to cancel the game, but Sang-woo commits suicide, making Gi-hun the winner by default. Back on the streets, he meets the old man again, who admits of being one of the rich people who orchestrated the games for fun. The old man dies, while Gi-hun contemplates to take revenge on the game hosts.

Netflix’s most watched TV series at that time, “Squid Game” is a Korean variation of “Rollerball”, “The Running Man”, “The Prize of Peril” and other dystopian survival films from the 70s and 80s that predicted how the very powerful may one day get so bored that the only thing that amuses them is to watch people playing games for life or death, as some sort of modern deterioration back to the mindset of the Gladiator games. “Squid Game” is a giant dark allegory on capitalism, showing how poor people would do the strangest things just to get money from rich people in charge. Even greed outside games is rewarded, obvious in an episode when a bully beats up a man to death, which just increases the reward money, since there are now fewer contestants. In episode 2, the contestants vote to leave such a brutal game tournament, since over 200 of them were shot in the first round, but that is tantamount to quitting a job—they are free, but back on the streets in debt, and thus decide to return “back to work” to get money. The message of inequality and the clash between the upper and lower class is shaped far better here than in Bong’s clumsily written social issue film “Parasite”.   

“Squid Game” is also an allegory on integrity, presented in the honest hero, and on power, depicting a strange dictatorship of the spoiled tycoons who perversly watch these bloody games for entertainment, because they feel they have superior power over others. This series is strange and hermetic at first, but it is a world which is so addictive that once you enter it and see only 2-3 episodes, you have to see it to the end. The writing is rather conventional, since the dialogues are standard, and it is not that suitable for repeated viewings once you have seen it, losing its surprise factor, yet it is suspenseful when you watch it for the first time. The characters are mostly archetypes, nameless players reduced to numbers, but are sufficiently modeled to recognize them: from the religious fanatic who thinks God will save him; through the immigrant who wants to stay polite and kind in this rough game of competition; up to the bully whose brute selfishness knows no limits (and is thus immediately set-up for the viewers to cheer for his fall). Sadly, the last two episodes are underwhelming, ending on an anticlimactic note—yet the high impression was still achieved previously, confirming Korea's pop-culture "new wave" in the early 21st century.

Grade:+++

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Spirit of the Beehive

El espíritu de la colmena; art-film / drama, Spain, 1973; D: Victor Erice, S: Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria, Teresa Gimpera, Fernando Fernan Gomez 

A small Castillan village after the end of the Spanish Civil War. A truck screening movies arrives, and screens “Frankenstein” to the public. Among the viewers are little sisters Ana and Isabel, who are fascinated by the movie. They live in a remote house with their mother and father, a poet and a beekeeper. Ana goes to a desolate shack and finds a wounded Republican soldier there; he is later shot during the night. Ana flees to the forest and imagines meeting Frankenstein’s monster there. A search party is sent after Ana. She returns back home.  

Hailed as one of the highlights of Spanish cinema, included in Roger Ebert's Great Movies list, “The Spirit of the Beehive”, one of only three feature length movies directed by Victor Erice, is a gentle, minimalist, but anti-nostalgic recollection of growing up in Francoist dictatorship. Almost everything here is allegorical: the four-member family is never shown together in a frame, and mother and father are almost always shown separately in the house, to illustrate the emotionally torn up state of the country under the regime; their desolate home is surrounded by a wasteland, to depict Spain’s isolation under Franco; the leitmotif of bees in a beehive are akin to blind obedience to one absolute ruler; whereas the two little girls are glimmers of hope that their generation may live to see a change. However, symbolism alone does not make a great movie. A cinematic vision is more than that, and sadly the movie is at times boring and heavily overstretched, not always offering a more versatile viewing experience or achieving some universal appeal outside its country of origin. The opening act of kids joyously welcoming a cinema truck, and the projectionist promising them they will see the best movie ever, as well as their petrified faces while they are watching a screening of "Frankenstein", is endearing and magical, yet it is a pity the entire film never repeats that simple perfection. Such scenes as Isabel and Ana pouring soap on her chin, to pretend she is shaving, are cute, but not that great. The minimalist story shows very little. So little, in fact, that it becomes too little to keep the attention of the viewers to the fullest.

Grade:++

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Skyfall

Skyfall; action, UK / USA, 2012; D: Sam Mendes, S: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney

An unknown agent managed to steal a list of top secret undercover MI6 agents, and is now revealing five new agents each week online. The head of MI6, M, is accosted for such a failure and pressured to retire, with Mallory as her possible successor. British agent James Bond is sent to investigate. As he falls in love with Severine in Macau, they are both abducted by cyberterrorist Raoul Silva, an ex-MI6 agent who wants to take revenge on M for leaving him behind when he was exposed and tortured in '97 by the Chinese soldiers. Severine is shot by Silva, but the latter is arrested by the MI6. However, he escapes in London and wants to kill M. Bond and M flee to Bond's childhood home in Scotland, where they set up a trap. In the shootout, M and Silva are killed. Bond's new superior is now Mallory.

The 23rd film of the James Bond franchize, and the 3rd one featuring Daniel Craig in the title role, is one of the better 21st century Bond films, mostly thanks to the competent directing by Sam Mendes, an unusual but refreshing choice for this action spy genre. The opening action chase sequence in Istanbul is great, featuring one genius moment where Bond is pursuing an agent on a speeding train carrying cargo, but as the agent starts shooting at him, Bond simply enters an excavator on one of the wagons, turns it on, and swings its bucket at the agent as a shield. The ensuing chase ends on a high note "cliffhanger", when Moneypenny wants to shoot the agent, but accidentally shoots Bond who falls down from the train into a river—in any other movie, this would ignite suspense and uncertainty, but, predictably, here Bond survives without much problems, as if it was just a minor inconvenience to him. Such deus ex machina solutions reduce the realism of the storyline, yet Bond movies rarely went out of their mainstream comfort zone, anyway. Luckily, the authors manage to compensate with a lot of style, great action choreography and fast pace. Among the flaws is the main villain, Silva, because he at one point practically gains superpowers akin to the Joker in "The Dark Knight", since he has a plan-within-a-plan-within-a-plan that enables him to always have the upper hand, even when he is arrested, so he is unstoppable, which is unconvincing and far fetched. Actress Berenice Marlohe is sadly underused in the story. The most nostalgic and surprising moment arrives when Bond goes back to his origins, to his derelict childhood home in Scotland, where he wants to set up a trap for Silva's henchmen, reminiscent of "Home Alone" in a more action oriented edition. While mostly stale at its core, "Skyfall" gave a momentum of spark and passion, and features a very unusual ending that speaks about the passage of time, almost as an intruder in this genre.

Grade:++

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Plea

Vedreba; art-film, Georgia, 1967; D: Tengiz Abuladze, S: Spartak Bagashvili, Tengiz Archvadze, Rasudna Kiknadze, Ramaz Chkhikvadze, Otar Meghvinetukhutsesi, Zurab Kapianidze

A Georgian village, 19th century. A Poet has a vision of Good, in the form of a woman in white robes, and Evil, in the form of a brute man hiding in shadows. The Poet tries to reform the villagers to stop killing animals and fighting with neighboring tribes, to reform them towards good, but gets rebuked... Khevsureti, a clan holding a town on the hills, sends Aluda to punish Mutsali from the neighboring clan, the Kistins, for stealing their animals. Aluda kills Mutsali, but refuses to cut off his right hand, as the tradition orders, because he realizes Mutsali has a family, and does not want to desecrate his corpse. Aluda is thus rejected by his clan when he returns, his house set in flames... In a mountain town, Jokola meets the wandering Zviadauri and invites him to be his guest at his home. However, when the local Kistins identify Zviaduri as the enemy clan, they tie him up, bring him to a desolate place and kill him, despite Jokola's objections... The Poet does not know how to bring good to the world, but accepts the message of Good that kindness can be found in every person.

If there is one spiritual analog to the abstract art-film "The Plea" by Tengiz Abuladze (brilliant Stalinist satire "Repentance"), it would be Pasolini's "Theorem": both present a highly subconscious tale that is aggravated by allegorical images that speaks about some universal human issues—and in this case, it is the problem of evil. "The Plea" is remarkable by unraveling almost like a completely different movie once you watch it for the second time, with scenes and images taking on a second, deeper meaning later on. It is framed by a story of a Poet who has a vision of Good, embodied in the form of a woman in a white robe, and a vision of Evil, embodied in the shape of a brute man hiding behind shadows. He is disturbed by the existence of evil in the world, but Good tells him: "I am alive as long as you are alive." Profoundly awakened, the Poet tries to reform people to become good, but the villagers scold him: "You say that killing animals and felling trees is a sin. Why consider it a sin if God has given it all to man?", as the camera shows a shot of the Poet standing over a lamb, almost as if he is trying to protect it. The villagers continue: "What shall we do, then, to those who trample on our land?" It immediately contemplates how difficult it is to maintain civility if both sides see the other one as the enemy, and refuse to try to understand and cooperate with the other. How to keep up a pacifist society if it can be destroyed in an instant when just a couple of brutes can attack them with force and cause an angry backlash?  

The two stories within this framework are of two men trying to understand and reach out to the other side, the enemy village / clan. In the first story, Aluda rejects the tradition of desecrating the enemy he killed, and is thus shunned by his own kinsmen. In the other, a mountain village kills a stranger for being from the enemy clan, even though he meant no harm. Both these stories tell of a fundamentalist dogma in which primitive men react violently to any kind of people trying to cause a change, a progress from their dogma of "we are good, everyone else is evil". The whole movie is thus a giant contemplation on trying to conquer evil within yourself and having the courage to do something good, even if it is not socially acceptable. While weird and alien, Abuladze's film is filled with wonderful shot compositions of the mountain settlements (huge contrasts of close ups of a person with tiny people in the far background walking down the mountain; the snowy landscapes...), but also with some disturbing imagery (a bull with a cut off head rolling down the hill). It also has some neat moments, such as when Jokola tells the stranger: "My village is just within a stone's throw". In the finale, men are shown digging graves, while the Poet laments such a state of mind which just causes more and more deaths. The woman is shown hanged, but as she falls, the light of the Sun is revealed above her, illuminating the camera. The woman then appears walking on the meadow, almost as a triumph of good: it cannot be killed, as long as there are people doing the right thing, it is alive—any person dedicating his or her life to creation, instead of destruction, keeps goodness alive. "The Plea" may seem frustrating at first, but the longer you endure it, the more you will get addicted to it. It is not meant to be fully understood rationally, but subconsciously. It is as close to a visual poem as it gets.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Inside the Circle

Inside the Circle; romantic comedy, USA, 2021; D: Javier Colon Rios, S: Stefy Garcia, Omar Mora, Justin Lee, Valeria Gonzalez  

Rocio is a woman working as a lawyer, trying to find the love of her life. She meets Giancarlo, a comicbook fan who designs apps. Even though their first encounter is clumsy, Rocio agrees to meet him again and go on a date. He even tells her about a circle he is doing on the floor, using toilet paper, wherein the person standing inside has to tell the truth. The two fall in love and become a couple, but their different worldviews start to burden their relationship. They break up. Two years later Rocio is about to get married to a different man, but suddenly changes her mind. Two years later, she is seen with Giancarlo and their kid together.  

“Inside the Circle” is “Annie Hall”-light, a bitter-sweet grown up romantic comedy about the trials and tribulations of a couple, though it is far less stylistically playful or innovative as the former. Some of its best bits arrive in the first half, when the story is both funny and brutally honest: the first meeting between Rocio and Giancarlo at a party, for instance, isn’t as ideal as most romantic comedies would put it, since Giancarlo returns back to the sitting Rocio and whispers to her in Spanish that her pants ripped on the front, a hole revealing her red shirt underneath. He just tried to warn her, but she takes it as an insult. Still, Giancarlo is such a different type on a personality that Rocio cannot resist but to go on a date with him. During a walk, he reveals his peculiar philosophy: “If I date because I need to date, I feel like I’m wasting my time. If I’m not doing it, I do other things that I love.” Rocio wonders what would happen if he stays alone during old age, and he even has an answer to that: “It means I did what I loved with the time I’ve had.” Later on, he even admits his ideal relationship would be four days with the person he loves, and the rest of the week free time off for himself. The movie thus explores people adapting to each other to try to change and do what is best for both, not just for the one. Occasionally, the movie is fun while toying with some ideas, such as presenting each chapter as a printed text somewhere, as it appears on a blackboard, a parking ticket or even on the screen of a mobile phone. Unfortunately, the main actress, Stefy Garcia, is a much better actor than her counterpart, Omar Mora. Likewise, after 50 minutes, the film runs out of steam and inspiration, and we are left with dry, standard dialogues and a soap opera-like relationship drama for the next half an hour, up until the very refreshing and tantalizing ending. The leitmotif of a circle, including a painting of it in Rocio’s room, symbolizes the full circle the couple undergoes (even in the form of a ring). The movie has its moments, and yet one just wishes it had more of them, and on a higher level.  

Grade:++

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The House of Yes

The House of Yes; black comedy, USA, 1997; D: Mark Waters, S: Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, Tori Spelling, Freddie Prinze Jr., Geneviève Bujold  

During a hurricane, Marty arrives with his fiancèe Lesly to Virginia to introduce her to his bizarre family: his brother Anthony; eccentric mother; and mentally unstable twin sister Jackie-O, who is obsessed with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie-O is puzzlingly jealous of Lesly, until Anthony finds out Jackie-O had incest with Marty, who she still loves. Anthony reveals that secret to Lesly, who has sex with him as revenge, but then regrets it. Yet Marty also had sex with Jackie-O that night. Unwilling to let him go, Jackie-O shoots Marty, while Lesly flees from the house in panic.  

“The House of Yes” is an unusual black comedy which, although shaky in the finale, still announced the future shrill side of the debut director Mark Waters (“Freaky Friday”, “Mean Girls”). Some parts in the film are brilliant, mostly in some deliciously snappy dialogues which at times almost reach the level of E. Lubitsch or P. Chayefsky (“One day I woke up stupid”. - “What’d you do?” - “I went back to bed.” - “That was wise”; “Pennsylvania is just this state that’s in your way when you’re trying to get someplace else.”), and there is even one touching little line by Marty, who says he saw Jackie-O apply make-up, and then just wash it away in tears, at which point he knew he had to go to New York. Underrated actress Parker Posey is excellent as the feisty Jackie-O and steals the show with her sharp antics, whereas a couple of moments even have some higher directorial touch, such as the hilarious moment where, inside the house, Jackie-O has invested a lot of energy to make her own hair look good, but someone opens the door and the breeze just “blows out” her hairdo into a mess. However, the film has two problems. Firstly, what does the title even mean? It is never truly explained and thus remains confusing. Secondly, the whole subplot of Jackie-O being obsessed with Jacqueline Onassis leads nowhere and feels like an intruder, and should have thus been simply removed from the film. It distracts from the main theme of this incest satire. The movie even starts off with archive footage of Mrs. Onassis interwoven with Jackie-O dressed into the former’s pink dress, and the viewers always wonder where the movie is going with this, but unfortunately, it seems it itself doesn’t know, since it plays no role (Jackie-O is already sufficiently depicted as mentally unstable without this masquerade) which makes the confusing ending feel incomplete and arbitrary. “The House of Yes” needed some polish, but you still enjoy in its spicy-macabre dish, and cannot say “no” to it.  

Grade:++

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Armed and Dangerous

Armed and Dangerous; comedy, USA, 1986; D: Mark L. Lester, S: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Meg Ryan, Robert Loggia, Kenneth McMillan, James Tolkan

After he was framed for stealing, police officer Frank loses his job and thus decides to eductate himself to work as a security guard. He becomes friends with the ex-lawyer Norman, who in turn falls in love with supervisor Maggie, the daughter of Cpt. O'Connell. After a robbery of a warehouse, Norman poses as a tricky question; where does the 4 million $ union money go to? It turns out that union president Carlino wants to take the union money by having his men steal the van during the route, use it to finance Colombian drugs, and collect the insurance money. For that purpose, union treasury Lou is shot, and Frank and Norman are framed for his murder. However, Frank and Norman foil the kidnapping of the money van, get rehabilitated, whereas Carlino is arrested.

Canadian comedians Eugene Levy and John Candy starred in seven movies together, but ''Armed and Dangerous'' is often considered one of their weakest efforts, a tiresome, underwhelming comedy. The entire movie looks like anyone could have written it, even a 12-year old based on some simplistic jokes, since the screenwriters (among them even Harold Ramis) seem to have saved their better gags for some other movie. It is puzzling as to how little humor it has, how little it has to offer, and how little inspiration it has to even warrant doing this story in the first place. The opening sequence starts off sympathetically—the main protagonist, cop Frank, climbs up a tall tree to save a cat on top, but once there, realizes he is afraid to climb down, so a fireman truck is called for help, while Frank just tells them to hurry, ''because the cat is scared''—but the viewers will soon be disappointed to find out it is practically the only good joke in the entire film. Too many ideas lead nowhere, are too banal or in a cheap shot, such as the sequence where Frank and Norman hide inside an aerobic class, lie down and watch women's behinds in front of them, or when they disguise themselves as a gay couple—Frank as a transvestite, Norman as a man in a leather costume, which has two holes behind revealing Levy's butt-cheeks. The obligatory car stunt sequence at the end is there to try to save the movie, but the viewers have by that time already wasted their time. Unfortunately, one cannot escape the overall impression of ''Armed and Dangerous'': it is running on empty. 

Grade:+

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Beauty, Brains, and Personality

Beauty, Brains, and Personality / Girls' Night In; comedy, USA, 2021; D: Emmett Loverde, S: Alexis Phillips, Tiana Tuttle, Samantha Skelton, Samantha Elizabeth Johnson

A girl is narrating a tale about three women: Jessica, Lynette and Candace are best friends. Jessica is considered attractive and popular with men, but is kind of dimwitted; Lynette is the intelligent one, but lonely, as she has been single for three years now; Candance has a positive personality. One evening, Jessica proclaims that she is the "beauty", while Lynette is the "brains" and Candance the "personality" of them three. Angry about these remarks, Lynette and Candance break contact with Jessica. However, they each decide to prove they are more than said labels: Jessica applies for a job as a secretary; Lynette applies to pose nude as a supermodel; while Candance decides to undergo artificial insemination and raise a baby by herself. The three make up. The girl narrator is revealed to be Candance's baby, Maddie, as she welcomes the three for a visit.

"Beauty, Brains, and Personality", alternatively also known as "Girls' Night In", is a solid, but surprisingly inconsequential film built solely on one wrong remark said by one of the three female protagonists. Despite a very good cast of the three, played well by Alexis Phillips, Tiana Tuttle and Samantha Skelton, the thin story is always a notch below their talent, never truly igniting or inspiring them to do anything more than just to be 'meagre cute'. There is no real story per se, it is more of a 'slice-of-life' film about these three characters interacting, but their dialogues are just so bland, negligible, trivial and unimportant. It is unusual how such three attractive women can be so boring in a movie. The jokes are simply not funny. They play out like a sitcom with only a handful of good moments. In the opening act, Jessica is introduced as the attractive-dumb one, lamenting about how she is worried about her skin, causing an exchange with Lynette: "Goop dries out my skin. If I have a dry skin, I'll look old. I'm not gonna go out looking old!" - "People do it all the time". Jessica also wants to borrow Lynette's apartment for her date, because Lynette's apartment "looks smart". How can an apartment look "smart"? By the appearance in the movie, one does not get the impression of it. Already this beginning shows the rather scanty foundations of the film. 

The main tangle is a bit of a stretch: one could in theory accept that Jessica would proclaim that she is the "beauty" of the group (though, ironically, she is actually the least attractive woman of the three), and that Lynette is the "brains", but what does she mean when she labels Candance as the "personality" of the group? What personality? Feisty, cynical, introverted, emotional, determined...? It is unclear. Yes, she is described as someone with a sunshine smile, but what does that have to do with a personality? Moreover, why wouldn't someone with a brain have a personality? Ultimately, while one could accept that someone could be categorized as either "brain" or "beauty", the "personality" label is an intruder since it is rather vague. The three women then go out to try to prove they are more than just these labels. Lynette, the "brain", decides to try out to be a supermodel, to prove she can also be the "beauty", which makes sense. Jessica, the "beauty", decides to find a job in a high profile company, to prove she can also be the "brains". Also makes sense. But Candance's path makes no sense. She wants to become pregnant and raise the baby all by herself. Why? What does that have to do with having something more than the (vague) notion of "personality"? She is the weak link. At least there is a funny scene at the sperm bank, where Candance can't make up her mind about which of the men on the photos she wants to pick to become pregnant, so she asks the doctor: "Can I get two donors and mix them up in the test tube?" Another good comical moment with a point is when the viewers hear Jessica's answering machine: "If you are male, and you're cute, and you are looking for Jesse, you maybe in luck." Unfortunately, the rest of events are just too thin to carry the film, and thus, despite a sweet reveal of the identity of the narrator at the end, the movie rarely engages. 

Grade:+

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Instant Karma

Instant Karma; fantasy drama, USA, 2021; D: Mitesh Kumar Patel, S: Stew Jetson, Samantha Belle, Nancy Mercurio, Karl Haas, Ac Larkin, Keegan Luther

Just as Jeff finally finds a job as a driver for U-Lift, his car breaks down, and he is helped by a homeless man, Harry, to push it away from the street. The next day, Jeff's girlfriend Samantha informs Jeff that her friend left for a visit to India, and thus left his car to her, so she gives it to Jeff so that he can drive again. As a reward, Jeff gives Harry a couple of dollars. Later, Jeff is surprised when he finds ten times more dollars in the back of his new car. Some time later, when meeting him again on the street, Jeff gives Harry some food. Later, Jeff finds ten times more food in the back of his car. Samantha and Jeff realize that they they will be recouped ten times for what ever they give out to anyone, not just Harry, while driving that specific car. A woman with a gun takes some money from Jeff. Later, he drops off a gangster, but finds a bad in the back of the car, containing a million $. Samantha and Jeff are overwhelmed, but the gangster calls them, claiming they stole his money. Jeff is forced to give the gangster the money to save his life. He had a small statue of Shani, the god of karma.

Instant Karma Independent fantasy drama "Instant Karma" is a gentle contemplation on whether people do good deeds only because they know they will get some sort of a reward for it, or if they do good deeds out of their own honest, altruistic conviction. The basic premise—a car magically reimburses the driver Jeff tenfold for every item he gives out to someone—is intruiguing, acting almost as some sort of a "guaranteed investement", and has a certain degree of awe and excitement in the first half. The movie has some neat little details and artistic touches, such as the supporting character of the homeless Harry who has a few humorous signs on the street (such as "Blah, blah, blah...Money... Blah, blah, blah... Food... Who reads signs anyway? Please help" or "My wife told me to wait here. That was 10 years ago") or the idea that singer Josh West enters Jeff's car and accepts to sing to Samantha on the iPhone, upon which the movie transitions elegantly from the lyrics Josh West sings live to the lyrics Josh West sings in the song in the music montage, in which Jeff driving the car and giving items to Harry. The cinematography is great, using several drone shots which give the movie a modern look. However, the story loses steam in the middle, effectively not being able to "squeeze" much more out of this concept in the second half. The remaining plot rides on a repetitive wave, since there are no more surprises or further versatile takes on said plot, except in the strange finale, where the movie suddenly shifts to a crime film, which feels shoehorned. Despite giving the movie intensity, this crime finale came way too late into the story to feel like it fits, and instead feels more like an "intruder". Though it has a clever little trick: a gangster tells Jeff he has the chance to pick his own outcome on a piece of paper—on one paper, it is written "Let you go", and on the other, "Kill you". However, the gangster writes down "Kill you" on both papers. Jeff, however, outfoxes him when he picks one paper, and eats, claiming that since the other paper has "Kill you" written on it, he must have picked the "Let you go" paper. While it could have been more inspired in exploiting all the potentials of the concept, "Instant Karma" offers some thoughtful observations on balance in the world, selfishness, honesty, and righteousness.

Grade:++

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Ordet

Ordet; drama, Denmark, 1955, D: Carl Theodor Dreyer, S: Henrik Malberg, Emil Hass Christensen, Birgitte Federspiel, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Cay Kristiansen  

A farm somewhere in Denmark, run by the Borgen family. The 27-year old Johannes lost his mind and now preaches in the meadow to nobody, thinking he is the reincarnation of Jesus; his brother Mikkel is losing his faith, and awaits his third child with his pregnant wife, Inger; the youngest brother, Anders, is in love with Anne Petersen, but her father is against the marriage because they belong to a different religious denomination than the Borgens. Anders’ father Morten tries to persuade Mr. Petersen to allow the marriage, but to no avail. During childbirth, Inger delivers a stillborn baby, and dies herself later. Johannes disappears, but returns for the funeral and invokes God to bring Inger back to life. Miraculously, Inger indeed awakens, and hugs Mikkel.  

Included in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s penultimate film, and his only one filmed in the 19 50s, “Ordet” is a simple, minimalist, but demanding contemplation on the power of faith made in the raw, ascetic style of Tarkovsky and Bresson—who also incorporated Christian themes of suffering in the cruel world until salvation and nirvana in one way or another, bringing about a catharsis, almost as a reward for the characters enduring the hardships while keeping their good heart. “Ordet” is indeed very good, but still a little bit overrated. It is better written in the first half, where it has some inspired dialogues ("I believe a lot of miracles happen secretly", says Inger), as opposed to the second half which has too much conventional, almost soap opera-like lines. Likewise, its pacing is uneven, sometimes absorbing and fascinating, sometimes lingering for so long until it starts to drag. Its biggest problem is that the story is deeply entrenched into an ideology (in this case, religion), and thus lost its appeal to the non-religious viewers.  

The dialogues are pretty clever in the first half. Mikkel is a symbol for the rational man to whom religion plays less and less of a role in his life, claiming that he doesn’t even have “faith in faith” anymore, whereas his brother Johannes is his extreme counterpart, so religious that he thinks he is Jesus. Their father Morten laments that “miracles aren’t happening anymore”, establishing a crisis among them, until a rejuvenation in the finale. A few neat symbols are displayed, such as the long take in the meadow, where Johannes goes to the left, and Morten, Mikken and Anders go after him—almost to place a subliminal image that they will be following him in the end. The doctor, after helping save Inger’s life, later gently teases Morten: “What do you think helped more: my medicine or your prayers?” That is the only moment in the film that takes a more critical review process of religion, which should have used more of that, since similar movies such as Bergman’s “Winter Light” and Allen’s “Hannah and her Sisters” seem much fresher today due to their more objective observations. As a movie promoting the power of religion, it is misleading and disingenuous. But it is powerful as an allegory of people trapped inside a single mindset, unable to change their grey lives, until they accept an outsider with an open mind, thinking outside the box, who shows them how to transform, restructure their lives for the better.  

Grade:+++