Sunday, January 26, 2020

Shoah

Shoah; documentary, France, 1985; D: Claude Lanzmann, S: Richard Glazar, Rudolf Vrba, Raul Hilberg, Filip Müller, Mordechaï Podchlebnik, Simon Srebnik, Jan Karski

Director Claude Lanzmann interviews various witnesses of the Holocaust, including those Jews who survived the said ethnic cleansing of the World War II. Some of the events covered include testimonies from the Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps, the Warsaw ghetto and gas vans. The film concludes with the interview of the surviving members of the Jewish Combat Organization, which led the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

One of the most elaborate and all-encompassing documentaries ever made, Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" is a harrowing collection of memories of the Holocaust, the worst genocide in human history. With a running time of over 9 hours, it is overlong, and yet, one could not name a single episode that could have been cut. This is a movie that transcends time and creates its own frequency of film experience. "Shoah" is both a fascinating and therapeutic experience, interviewing some 30 survivors and witnesses, allowing for their memories to be recorded and remembered in history, but refuses to use archive footage, and instead just films the now empty locations of the crime, including the deserted barbed wire of modern Auschwitz. Lanzmann even uses an inconspicuous secret camera to make a "sneak" recording of German perpetrators, including an interview with Franz Suchomel, who claims he only thought he would be a guard at a workshop, and was shocked when he arrived and found out the Treblinka camp was a place to murder people, Franz Schalling and Walter Stier, which is used to corroborate the crimes, since their testimonies overlap with those of the victims and survivors.

Several stories will remain entrenched in the viewers' memory. In one of them, a Polish man recounts how people would bring water to the Jewish people trapped in trains through the window, and how a woman with a child tried to escape but was shot by a soldier in the heart. A farmer allegedly worked on his field just a 100 yards away from a death camp. Filip Muller, an Auschwitz survivor, recounts an episode where new inmates started singing in defiance, and suddenly stops the interview and collapses crying, remembering how he wanted to die with them back then, since he felt his "life was not worth anything anymore". There is also a fascinating "excursion" into the island of Corfu, to interview the local survivors. Jan Karski, a Polish resistance member, barely manages to tell his story of how he was smuggled under a tunnel into the Jewish ghetto, struggling to recollect his traumatic "paralyzed" reaction by what he saw, including naked corpses on the ground, Hitler Youth boys roaming and malnourished people. He also adds a comment he heard: "The Allies will win the war. But what good will it do to us? We will not survive this war". "Shoah" is a film of peculiar duality: it is both disturbing and full of tranquility at the same time; both angry and calm; both emotional and distanced; both inhumane and deeply humane; both intimate and objective, dwelling on an intellectual historical analysis of what happened and how to interpret all of these events, without any ideology or secret agenda. A giant monument to victims of the dictatorship, it is a unique and cathartic experience, a true "movie event". 

Grade:+++

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Parasite

Gisaengchung; drama, South Korea, 2019; D: Joon-ho Bong, S: Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Park So-dam, Jeong Ji-so

The Kim family—father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, teenager son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong—is unemployed and barely survive through various tricks and ploys. One day, Ki-woo's friend asks him to be an English instructor for Da-hye, the teenage daughter of the rich Park family, who live in a mansion. Ki-woo gets the job, but then suggests to the mother of the Park family to hire an arts instructor for her son, Jessica—in reality Ki-woo's sister Ki-jeong. Later, the Kim's manage to get the driver of the Park's fired, and suggest they hire a new driver—in reality Ki-taek, Ki-woo's father. They fire the maid, Moon-gwang, and hire their mother as the new maid. Now the whole Kim family is employed at the Park's. But Moon-gwang returns to the mansion, revealing that her husband Geun-sae was living under its bunker, hiding from a loan shark. When the Parks return, the Kims kick and throw Moon-gwang down the bunker, who dies. Upon being freed, Geun-sae takes a knife and stabs Ki-jeong during a party, but is killed by Chung-sook, while Ki-taek stabs Mr. Park. Ki-taek hides in the bunker, while Ki-woo wovs to earn enough money to buy the mansion to see him again.

"Parasite" is a sly commentary both on nepotism and the clash of the upper and lower class in society, done with enough specific humor of the director Joon-ho Bong, though not to the fullest: the first half of the movie, establishing the Kim family's scheme to in insert each other into the employment of the rich Parks, is very good—but after a plot twist in the middle, the movie is de-toured and starts to irrevocably debase itself. A few delicious moments in the first half give "Parasite" spark: in one of the best, father Ki-taek is preparing himself for a dramatic speech in front of Mrs. Park, reading from a script while his son Ki-woo tells him to tone down the melodrama, in order to fire the maid by faking she has tuberculosis, and have her replaced with the mother of the Kim family. In another, Ki-taek is amazed at the computer skills of his daughter, Ki-jeong, who forges a document of Ki-woo's student status at a prestigious University, concluding: "If Oxford University had a department for forgery, my daughter would be the best student!" The shot compositions and the 'kammerspiel' concept, in which practically the entire film plays only on one location, the mansion of the Parks, are energetic, whereas Bong has a sense for establishing little details for later pay-offs even when the viewers don't register them: the opening act, for instance, shows how the Kims live in a basement, which later proves to play a crucial role during a heavy rain sequence. Unfortunately, the plot twist kind of "hijacks" the original movie and does not feel as harmonious as the first half. Father Ki-taek's drastic act in the misguided finale does not work—his motivation makes no sense and feels like an "intruder" in the plot, except if it is interpreted as a symbol for the lower class rebelling against the upper class—which takes away from the storyline. "Parasite" is good, but the director Bong can do better—he already did, with his "peak" creative phase with his two magnum opuses "The Host" and "Memories of Murder" a decade earlier.

Grade:++

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Joker

Joker; psychological thriller-drama, USA, 2019, D: Todd Phillips, S: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Glenn Fleshler 

Gotham City, 1 9 8 0s. Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian, but is hindered by his disorder which causes sudden uncontrolled laughter, his infirm mother and people avoiding him. He works as a clown, but get’s fired when he drops a gun inside a hospital, given to him by colleague Randall. His mother tells him that his father is the rich Thomas Wayne, but the latter rejects this, claiming she was only his maid, fired for insanity. Sick and tired of this existence, Arthur rebels: he kills his mother and then Randall. When he is invited at a live comedy show to be mocked, Arthur shoots its host, Murray Franklin. This causes an uprising among outsiders in the city.

DC Comics' biggest coup at the time dazzled the audience and the critics, but for all of its virtues, "Joker" is still a movie nowhere near as good as the hype surrounding it. It suffers from too much empty walk, 'autistic' direction, while it is not particularly inspired nor well written (the acts of violence and revenge are banal, without a clear or better thought out solution to the problem). However, if there is one thing that it did right, it is that it captured the essence of its time, namely by showing how we, as a society, treat those who are different: instead of helping an angry loner in a constructive way in order for him to get out of that state, the people rather choose the easy way of blaming the said loner for all his problems, isolating him further, which just exacerbates the situation, until he simply "snaps". Moreover, "Joker" implies that when these outsiders become a majority, and the neglect piles up, they will collectively rebel against the order. It is a dark essay on the origins of mass shooters, a frequent phenomenon in the US. In that regard, "Joker" is eerily reminiscent of "The Bicycle Thieves", by showing how a broken system creates its own criminals—which just break the system even more. It is a fascinating thought experiment, but it is hard to watch—because the movie is at times so bad. In this edition, "Joker" is sadly humorless and not that fun, except for a few minuscule moments involving a dwarf, Gary, such as when Randall asks him about "miniature golf" or when Gary is free to leave Arthur's apartment after a murder, but is unable to reach the high chain lock on the door. Joaquin Phoenix is very good, giving these depressive outsiders a sense of "coolness", whereas one cannot but not be shaken by his sentence he wrote in the notebook: "I hope my death makes more sense than my life". An experimental pseudo-comic-book art film with an appeal to include the outsiders, instead of exclude them into creating their own parallel anti-society.

Grade:++

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry

Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry; animated fantasy, Japan, 2017; D: Tatsuma Minamikawa, S: Tetsuya Kakihara, Aya Hirano, Rie Kugimiya, Yuichi Nakamura, Sayaka Ohara

After the villain Zash from the Kingdom of Stella, steals a magical staff, Dragon Cry, from a frozen fortress, the Kingdom of Fiore sends the Fairy Tail wizards—Natsu, Lucy, Happy, Gray, Erza Scarlet, Wendy—to get it back. Their plan in a tavern is disrupted and ends in chaos, though. Stella's King Animus is actually a dragon in disguise, while Zash wants to use the staff to destroy Fiore, which banished him for using dark spells. Sonya, Animus' aide, is reluctant to further escalate this situation. In a duel, Animus transforms into a dragon, but is defeated by Natsu, whereas the staff de-transforms into a ribbon.

The 2nd feature length film of the popular fantasy anime series "Fairy Tail", "Dragon Cry" is flawed, but sporadically remarkably catchy, opulent and uplifting little flick. Viewers detached from the series will at times feel disoriented due to several elements tied to the main narrative, yet the movie has just enough charm and wit to stand on its own. The best moments arrive through some swift, deliciously "cartoonish" jokes and sweet ideas, which lift the movie up at times: in one of them, the Fairy Tail team decides to sneak up at the villain Zash in the Kingdom of Stella, and thus disguise themselves as staff in one of his favorite night clubs, so the busty Lucy is—of course—assigned to be the night club dancer, entertaining the male audience, wearing only a yellow bikini, causing her to comment to herself: "Why do I always have to do these kind of things?!", and Gray to reply behind the stage: "Stop complaining! You look good." Another golden moment is so good one has to kneel down in front of it: Happy, the cat-like sentient creature afraid of even the smallest dogs, has to confront Zash's monstrously big terror-dog, which is just slowly approaching Happy, who does not want to let it eat Sonya. The dog then roars threateningly, Happy shakes from fear, is taken aback, but then resumes a calm attitude—and then just defeats the dog with ridiculous ease by simply blowing fire at him, until the monster falls down. The typical good vs. evil story still has some universal appeal, which together with "Dragon Cry's" sympathetic tone compensates for lack of other characters, which do not get a chance to shine as much as Lucy or Natsu.

Grade:++

Monday, January 6, 2020

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla; fantasy / disaster movie, Japan, 2016; D: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi, S: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara

One day, a strange anomaly is spotted off the coast of Haneda. It quickly turns out to be a giant, reptile-like creature, nicknamed Godzilla, which arrives at the surface and starts wrecking havoc in Tokyo. 3.6 million people are evacuated. Various politicians and the military hold long meetings in order to decide what to do. The military attacks, but the explosions only make Godzilla stronger. Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, is teamed up with Kayoco Anne Patterson, Special Envoy for the President of the US. They find out that Godzilla feeds off nuclear energy. They thus manage to freeze Godzilla with a special coagulant which was inserted into its mouth by trucks.

After a 12 year lull, the Japanese "Godzilla" movie franchize returned with the 29th installment of the series, directed by Hideaki Anno: he managed to make the first good "Godzilla" film ever since the '54 original, which makes it better compared to the other editions of the monster series, but still weaker than some of Anno's best achievements. Anno seemed to have directed "Shin Godzilla" in the style of his masterwork "Neon Genesis Evangelion", except that he did not have that strong and memorable characters as in "Evangelion". "Shin Godzilla" is thus often marred in long, monotone, repetitive meetings of politicians, officials and military personal, with subtitles giving descriptions of this and that location, all talking ad nauseam as to what to do. While this can be seen as an allegory on the boring, ineffective bureaucracy, it also takes up way too much time and hinders the story. The only character that is worthy of Anno's "Evangelion" is the surprisingly lively Kayoco Anne Patterson (excellent Satomi Ishihara), a Japanese-American who sometimes does a few snappy lines with a charmingly bad English accent (upon complaining that she rushed to the meeting and didn't have time to change her clothes, she randomly asks: "Where's Zara?"), yet the other characters are just pale extras, speaking text only to disappear and not grow on the viewers. The action and destruction sequences are effective, thanks to great visual effects which improved the annoying rubber suit of previous "Godzilla" movies. Some great moments include a wide lens view of Godzilla's giant tail passing above the roof of a house; a POV shot of a vehicle driving through the street with Godzilla in the city seen in the background and the clever idea of the military shooting at the bottom of a tall skyscraper, which tips and fall on the monster's back, knocking it down on the ground. A huge step forward for "Godzilla" movies, but a step back for the "Evangelion" master.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 2, 2020

My Grandpa Is an Alien

Moj dida je pao s Marsa; science-fiction adventure, Croatia / Bosnia and Herzegovina / Luxembourg / Norway / Czech Republic / Slovakia / Slovenia, 2019; D: Marina Andree Skop, Dražen Žarković, S: Lana Hranjec, Nils Ole Oftebro, Petra Polnisova, Ozren Grabarić (voice)

Una (12) is an ordinary girl living with her two siblings, Alex and Sven, and her mother and grandfather in a desolate house. One night, a UFO takes away her grandfather, while her mother becomes inexplicably ill and must go to the hospital. Una discovers grandpa's little robot, Dodo, who reveals to the truth to her: he is from a far away planet, where aliens transformed into beings made just out of energy, but sent expeditions to Earth to see how people find happiness. However, several decades ago, the spaceship accidentally caused an explosion of the house, so the alien merged with grandpa, in order to save him from his wounds, and acted as a battery for the wounded mother. Now that grandpa has been taken away, mother is ill because her battery is too far away to sustain her. Una and Dodo take on a trip to find grandpa. They find him in an abandoned castle. Grandpa-alien dies in order to give his energy to mother, who survives. The aliens also find the solution to happiness: being friends.

A rare example of a feature length science-fiction film in Croatian cinema, this modern retelling and restructuring of "E.T." is a sympathetic little film that comes as a refreshing contribution to the country's movie market. "My Grandpa Is an Alien" is still rather standard and old-fashioned, nonetheless: it lacks that more elevated humor expected from modern movies, where jokes work both for kids and for the more demanding grown ups. A consequence of that is mostly felt on the lacking personality of the main protagonist: Una is a rather underwhelming character, a one who only has time to shine sporadically, which is a pity, since she is played by Lana Hranjec, who is a much better and more charming actress than the movie lets her to be. A rare moment where Una shines is the one where the boat gets stuck on a top of a small waterfall, with her and the robot Dodo in it, but Una just loses her patience, stands out of the boat (!) and steps into the water, until she pushes the boat down the stream again. The story needed more of these kind of moments, since several sequences that had potential for more, such as Una's confrontation with bullying girls in school, ended up rather underdeveloped. Among the plus points are great visual effects, surprisingly up to the task for a country outside Hollywood, as well as an interesting little subplot in which the aliens are described as beings who transitioned into a state made out of pure energy, reminiscent of Clarke's idea from his novel "2001: A Space Odyssey". "My Grandpa Is an Alien" is a neat little film that somehow enabled Croatian cinema to expand its horizons, shyly taping into some more unusual and unique genres outside of the usual safe drama genre prevalent in the country.

Grade:++ 

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Smiling Madame Beudet

La Souriante Madame Beudet; silent short drama, France, 1923; D: Germaine Dulac, S: Germaine Dermoz, Alexandre Arquillière, Jean d'Yd

Mrs. Beudet is married to a slob of a husband, Mr. Bedeut. While she enjoys playing a piano and is sensitive, he is crude, vulgar and vile, often playing a "suicide practical joke" in which he takes a pistol from his desk drawer and pulls the trigger while aimed at his head. He invites her to a play of Faust, but she refuses. She imagines having a better looking husband than him. She goes to his room, puts bullets into the pistol and hopes he will accidentally kill himself while playing his suicide practical joke next time. She gets bad conscious. He takes the pistol and shoots at her as a joke, but hits the wall. He mistakenly thinks she placed the bullets because she wanted to kill herself.

Germaine Dulac's drama on marriage problems, "The Smiling Madame Beudet" is a rightfully forgotten film from the silent era. It is a good, somber, realistic and unglamorous essay on a deterioration of marital lives, yet it does not stand out from a mass of other films from its era. The closest the film came to that is when Mrs. Beudet has a hallucination of a much more "athletic" man coming to her room (filmed through double exposure), compared to her overweight husband whose ugly photo stares at her from the wall. The plot point in which her husband jokingly plays pulling a trigger of an empty pistol at his head is a contrived set-up aimed to, of course, create a convenient situation in which she places bullets in his pistol, hoping he will kill himself and she will be free of this routine life. A convoluted storyline, yet it has some interesting early observations about quiet, taboo topics of people who are frustrated by their "underwhelming" existence, offering a bitter commentary on society.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049; science-fiction crime, USA, 2017; D: Denis Villeneuve, S: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista

Los Angeles, 2049. Replicants, artificial humans, work as the lower class for humans. One of the replicants is police officer K, who works as a Blade Runner, an officer in charge of eliminating runaway replicants. Upon finding the skeleton of Rachael, a replicant, LAPD discovers she actually gave birth, previously thought as impossible for replicants. K is sent to find the child, now a grown up. In the ruins of Las Vegas, he discovers Deckard still alive, who is the father of the said child. Wallace, CEO of the successor corporation in charge of creating replicants, sends agent Luv to get the child before K. Luv kidnaps Deckard, but K saves him and kills Luv. K sends Deckard to reunite with his child, a daughter, now a grown up, Dr. Ana Stelline, a replicant memory designer.

35 years after the stand-alone Sci-Fi classic "Blade Runner", director Dennis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green delivered a sequel nobody expected: they stayed rather faithful to the design and aesthetics of the original, but went way overboard with the slow pace, 'autistic' narrative (especially in the second half, where it is sometimes not clear what is going on) and an incomplete, interrupted ending—in fact, the ending could have made for the start of a better film. Several good ideas in the first half justify the existence of the initial concept—the highlight is probably the fascinating invention of a hologram girlfriend, who acts as some sort of a companion and sweet illusion for the lonely K in his apartment, indicating how the future technology might have various new solutions for problems of the masses. Villeneuve's direction is tight and with a clear infatuation for the science-fiction genre, but it is a pity the script crafted a story with two major omissions, since two important subplots are introduced, but are puzzlingly forgotten and never brought up again. One is the underground replicant freedom movement, and the other is the bad guy, Wallace. Both disappear and are not resolved by the end of the movie. Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, with a dignified, though rather underwhelming role this time around. "Blade Runner 2049" delivers a careful continuation of the 1st film, but it lacks the mood of the original, sometimes ending just as a collection of random pretty pictures without a thread that gives them a purpose.

Grade:++ 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The King and I

The King and I; musical, USA, 1956; D: Walter Lang, S: Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Maureen Hingert, Martin Benson, Rex Thompson

1862. English teacher Anna and her son Lois arrive with a ship to Bangkok, Siam, upon invitation of the King Mongkut who wants her to teach his children English and science, hoping to get the best of both worlds. Anna finds out that the King has 15 children who need an education. When an English staff thinks the King is a "barbarian", Anna persuades the King to invite the English to his palace for a cultured dinner, thereby showing them the opposite due to his good manners. One of the King's concubines, Tuptim, fell in love with a Burmese lad Tuptim. This upsets the King so much he wants to beat Tuptim, but grudgingly abandons the punishment when Anna is appalled. Anna wants to leave the palace, but stays when she hears that the King is dying in his bed.

Despite good critical reception, "The King and I" has not aged well with time, and does not improve the reputation of the term "stiff-kitschy musicals from the 50s". The memoirs of Anna Leonowens have an interesting basic premise, showing how the educated heroine is able to improve and refine the King, yet the movie loses that in the process of bland, unmemorable musical and dance numbers. A few good jokes do appear and manage to liven things up, such as when Anna removes the old map of Asia, showing an incorrect, oversized scale of Siam, and presents the correct world map, causing some kids to complain ("Why is Siam so small on this map?!") or when she has some exchanges with the King ("False lies!"). However, these good parts are far between, and thus they never get off the ground. Yul Brynner's performance is solid, yet his character needed "more juice" and better jokes to entrench himself better in people's memory: for one thing, his King is a person who tries to be an enlightened reformist, and is thus at least an interesting character to begin with. Several plots come and go (for instance, the subplot involving Tuptim's love for another man disappears just like that), making "The King and I" an easily watchable, yet not that engaging experience.

Grade:+

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey; erotic drama, USA, 2015; D: Sam-Taylor-Johnson, S: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora

Anastasia "Ana" Steele makes an interview with Christian Grey, a 27-year old billionaire in his office. Even though the interview is formal, there are sparks between them. Christian visits Ana while she is working at a hardware store. One night, Ana becomes drunk at a bar, so Christian carries her to sleep over at his hotel room. Ana admits she is still a virgin, and the two have sex together. Christian then reveals his "pleasure room" to her, admitting he is a sadomasochist. He offers her a contract for his hard-core way of sex, but Ana is reluctant to sign it. To demonstrate what she could expect, Christian ties Ana up in his room and has sex. Finally, he shows what really turns him on: he slaps Ana's butt with a belt six times. Revolted by his pleasure with pain, Ana leaves his home.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is notable for being the first hard-core sadomasochist erotic film in American mainstream cinema. If that bizarre feature were to be removed, it would be a pale, unmemorable soap opera love story. It starts off as a harmless love story between Ana and Christian, until more and more of his perverted side is shown, especially in the second half of the film, where he ties up and even beats Ana to get aroused. Both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are good actors, but are "reduced" in this narrowed down story with minimum, truncated character development. Ana seems to be a nice person, and thus it is not clear why she is attracted to Christian, who can not connect to anybody. When he says "I don't do romance", and demands that she signs a confidentiality agreement (!) just to have a relationship with him, one would expect that a large question mark would appear over Ana's head and that she would run away from these kind of alarm signs. He refuses to have an emotional side, or to show any kind of kindness to her, and thus their relationship never seems to get off the ground. It seems that "Shades" appeals to the 'gold-digger' and 'sugar-daddy' instincts of some women, who are willing to go a long way provided their boyfriend is rich and spoils them with gifts. Instead of an ending, the film is "interrupted" and leaves several plot points unfinished. Audiences who are turned on by BDSM might be excited, but others will just be turned off by this depiction of "contaminated" sexuality.

Grade:+