Thursday, October 30, 2014

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo; comedy, USA, 2011; D: Cameron Crowe, S: Matt Damon, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Haden Church

After his wife died, Benjamin Mee decides to quit his job and resettle with his two kids, the 14-year old Dylan and 7-year old Rosie. They browse for numerous houses, until they find the right one - the only catch is, it comes with a Zoo. Benjamin thus accepts the challenge and moves in with his kids: he decides to use the remaining Zoo keepers, including Kelly and Peter, to restructure the enclosures and prepare the animals for the July opening, which would repay the high costs of the Zoo. In the end, Benjamin manages to open the Zoo in time and pass the inspection, while the visitors make the thing profitable.

In the 90s, Cameron Crowe established himself as the modern B. Wilder - except that his protagonists were young adults - when he made films that were both comically and emotionally satisfying. "We Bought a Zoo" is a good film, but, alas, just as it was the case with "Elizabethtown", it is not quite clear why such a thin story warranted the attention of such a high profile author in the first place. The first 30 minutes are excellent and gather momentum, because the interaction between Benjamin and his kids manages to generate emotional engagement and wit (Benjamin reacting to Dylan's repeated use of the word 'whatever' with: "You know what? 'Whatever' is the laziest word of the 20th century! I've had it with whatever! I don't wanna hear it again in this century, ever again. 'Whatever' is over!"), whereas at least one dialogue by Duncan ("Human interaction is a good thing. take it from a guy who spent six months on a commercial fishing boat in Bali trying to find himself... You know what I found? I miss people.") is a perfect Cameron Crowe line. However, when the main plot sets in, some 30 minutes into the film, instead of taking off, the movie starts moving a gear slower until the end. The adventures of protagonists taking care of animals are all right, yet never have that full swing: it seems as if Crowe wanted to take more care about his human characters, but lost them along the way in the flora and fauna of the Zoo. Overall, it is a good film, yet one simply wonders how Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon would have interacted had they received the true Crowe treatment as Dorothy and Jerry in "Jerry Maguire" or as Janet and Cliff in "Singles".


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Alien 3

Alien 3; science-fiction horror, USA, 1992; D: David Fincher, S: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, Lance Henriksen

Just when Ripley and her crew managed to escape from the aliens, one of those creatures causes a malfunction on board and crashes their spaceship on a planet penal colony. Only Ripley survives, and finds out the planet is inhabited only by men, mostly criminals serving their sentence. However, one alien managed to survive still, and starts killing the inmates one by one in the dark base. With the help of Clemens, they manage to kill the alien by luring him in the steel mill of some sorts. When Ripley finds out she has one alien embryo inside her and that the military wants to use it as a biological weapon, she commits suicide by jumping into the steel mill as well.

Out of all the films in the original "Alien" quadrilogy, "Alien 3" offers the least: it is a clear testimony that perfect cinematography, editing, set design and high production values cannot brink a movie when its essence - the story - is simply no good. Many critics correctly pointed out that the concept of having every character shave their head was pointless and counterproductive, since we have here dozens upon dozens of bald characters who are all hard to distinguish; the setting on some sort of a gulag-planet was stupid and without any point whereas Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley turned out disappointingly pale compared to the previous film, Cameron's "Aliens", where she had a strong feminist charisma. Not only that, but it is unclear why the screenwriters simply took Cameron's previous story and then had to trash it by killing off all the surviving characters from the 2nd film, including the 12-year old girl Newt, who could have been used in the storyline. Finally, not much is going on in the story, anyway, and the endless monotone dialogues contribute to nothing, at least until the finale. David Fincher hereby delivers his feature length debut film, but rarely rises to the occasion or offers sophisticated build up of suspense from his future films, with the couple of exceptions - for instance, the scene where the doctor gives Ripley a needle while the alien shows up behind the curtain, is effective, whereas the finale, where the inmates are trying to lure the alien through the long corridors, has moments of delicious chills since it shows alien's POV through a fish eye lens while he is running at high speed on the ceiling, chasing them. Fincher would go on to direct the excellent thriller "Seven" three years later, while the "Alien" franchise was given one last shot of freshness in "Alien Resurrection" when the talented Jeunet-Caro team twisted it further still by giving it the unexpected - humor.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Easy Life

Il Sorpasso; road movie / drama / comedy, Italy, 1962; D: Dino Risi, S: Vittorio Gassman, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Catherine Spaak, Claudio Gora, Luciana Angiolillo, Linda Sini

A cheerful man, Bruno, stops by somewhere in his car in Rome, during a holiday when everything is closed. He spots a secluded student, Roberto, looking at him from his apartment window and asks if he can make a phone call. Roberto allows it, and before he can notice, Bruno invites him for a dinner, and then a drive through Rome. The initial short go out intention turns into hours of drive outside of Rome, with Bruno joking and trying to make Roberto enjoy life and relax. At night, Roberto meets Bruno's ex-wife and teenage daughter Lily, who intends to marry an older man. During a wild ride, there is a car accident: Bruno manages to escape, but Roberto is killed when the car falls down the cliff.

"Il Sorpasso" is an excellent little road movie that encompasses the archetypal notion of a wild character taking a timid one from his grey existence for a grand day out in order to enjoy life: not since Demme's "Something Wild" or Bogdanovich's "What's Up, Doc?" has there been such a pure example of  two yin and yang personalities that carry the film thanks to sheer joy, staying faithful to that concept throughout since as soon as the shy one, Roberto, starts loosening up and joking, it seems as if his seriousness is transferred to Bruno, who then switches from an all day happy man to a more somber, depressed individual when we learn that he is alone after his wife divorced him and his teenage daughter estranged herself from him. The opening is one of the most fluent - and quietly hilarious - transitions to the main plot ever, and immediately establishes the hyperactive-sanguine protagonist Bruno who randomly stops his car near an apartment and spontaneously asks a stranger, Roberto, who just happened to be looking at him through the window, if he can make a phone call: before he knows it, Bruno is already in Roberto's apartment, introducing himself and taking a shower, before persuading him to drive off in his car - just like that.

Jean-Louis Trintignant's reaction while playing Roberto in that confusing sequence is pure gold, almost as if a tornado took him out of his apartment by surprise. Bruno works as a fun power generator 24/7, driving through the road, commenting how he fell asleep during an Antonioni film or driving slowly when he spots two attractive women driving a car behind them ("Let's slow down so that the ladies can pass us, and then we can follow them!"). The only problematic ingredient are the last 30 minutes which seem somehow "lost" and without a clear function in the narrative, which is exacerbated by a very polarizing - and sudden - tragic ending, which some may find fitting, while other forced, even though it stays true to the main theme that there needs to be a balance between two yin-yang states or there will be chaos. Vittorio Gassman's performance as Bruno is one of the greatest ones of the 20th century cinema - so genuine, so funny, so compassionate and so full of life. Some great performances are designed to win awards, others, like his, are just genuinely great without any pretension.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Witches

Haxan; silent horor / documentary / experimental film, Denmark / Sweden, 1922; D: Benjamin Christensen, S: Maren Pedersen, Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontopiddan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt

The film examines people's superstition through the belief of the existence of witches in the Middle ages. The stories thus depict a witch preparing a magic love potion for a woman who wants a monk to fall in love with her; the paranoia belief that Satan scares monks and seduces women in their sleep; when a man gets sick, the family think he is bewitched and thus an old woman is arrested and tortured until she confesses being a witch and participating in demonic rituals; another women is accused of being a witch and imprisoned... Finally, back in present, a doctor explains that today such symptoms can be explained as hysteria and other medical conditions.

One of the most unusual achievements from the 20s, Benjamin Christensen's "Witches" uses a triple blend of horror, documentary and experimental film for a gigantic movie case study of witches in the Middle ages, and superstition in general. The opening 15 minute prologue is 'tour-de-force' example of imaginative educational films, depicting folklore paintings of demons considered to be the cause of all diseases in Persia; a set piece of a city in a pit, surrounded by mountains and several dozens of light bulbs over it, to demonstrate the obsolete Egyptian view of the world in which the sky is held by mountains and pillars as well; and the dated geocentric view of the Universe, in which God and his angels are making planets and stars rotate around Earth - even the teacher's stick is used to explain this images. This is juxtaposed when the movie shifts towards the narrative, showing six episodes involving witches, but a one which is fairly weaker: a certain disarray is caused between this sober, scientific approach at the beginning and the realistic depiction of demons and witches, without irony, which makes one wonder what Christensen intended to say. If he intended to show that this is all naive superstition, why did he spend so much time on elaborate make up and designs of demons?

These episodic stories also seem unfinished and more bizarre than coherent, with only a few moments achieving an expressionistic charge here and there (such as the sequence of witches flying on brooms over a city). The elaborate sequence that depicts dozens and dozens of torture techniques in the Middle ages also seems out of place, and without a sense for measure (even though it offers a golden comment from the director when he writes: "You and I would also be driven to confess mysterious talents with the help of such tools, isn't that so?"). The last 15 minutes return the film on the right track by again embracing the analytical, rational mindset, in which the director explains that today many of these "witch traits" are explained with simple medical conditions. A morbid film, but with an interesting beginning and conclusion about the way people tend to imagine things and make them real purely by deciding to be so ignorant.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Welcome, or No Trespassing

Dobro pozhalovat, ili postoronnim vkhod vospreshchyon; satire, Russia, 1964; D: Elem Klimov, S: Viktor Kosykh, Arina Aleynikova, Evgeniy Evstigneev

In a Soviet Pioneer camp, kids are told that they have all the rights and all the decisions, but in reality, everything there is controlled by the strict supervisor Dynin. One of the kids, Inochkin, is especially refusing to yield to all the rules and simply wants to have fun. He swims to an island, which was forbidden, and is thus expelled from the camp, but secretly returns. He persuades kids to go into a field of nettles in order to feign a pandemic and thus stop annoying family members from visiting the camp, whic would reveal that he is expelled, but Dynin sees through their plan. During a parade, all the kids abandon the show and go to swim in the river, while Dynin is left alone.

The 1st out of only five feature length films he directed, Elem Klimov's "Welcome, or No Trespassing" is one of the grand satires of the 20th century: only he could have modelled a "Dennis the Menace" kind of children's storyline into a gigantic allegory on the Bolshevik dictatorship, even in the visionary end predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the opening "teaser" sequence - which says that "this is a film for grown ups. And for kids, because they will all one day be grown ups, as well!" - and the establishing shots of the children's camp where the main supervisor Dynin gives a Lenin-like speech in which he tells to all the kids that "they have all the rights here and take all the decisions", one can sense the camp is a sly and humorous allegory of the Soviet society. The main hero, Inochkin, is not just a rebellious kid, but a symbol for suppressed individuals who long for a free reign, and for re-questioning some pointless rules and restrictions. By setting the story in an innocent, kids' world, a genius charge was achieved; numerous "suspicious" scenes also seemingly 'taunt' the regime, and thus even a harmless moment where Inochkin ripped through the net of the swimming area and went to an island, which was forbidden, may or may not hold a deeper meaning, thus exonerating the author. Klimov already here demonstrated a sense for engaging visual style, stemming from the character's movements or shot compositions. which helps in the second, rather dry and less inspired half which contained a couple of empty moments. Overall, though, this is a successful satire, and the sequence where Inochkin imagines he is "flying/jumping" over the river may have even inspired Takrovsky to imitate it in his opening sequence for "Andrei Rublyov".


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; silent horror-drama, 1920; D: John S. Robertson, S: John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Charles W. Lane

Dr. Jekyll is a kind doctor who spends a lot of time on healing and helping sick people, which is why his friends warn him that he is neglecting his own life and suppressing his "wild" side while he is young. Shaken by such observation, Dr. Jekyll decides to yield his desire by drinking a potion which transforms him into a savage, wild man, Mr. Hyde, who enjoys women and alcohol. However, Hyde starts taking over more and more, and even kills a man. Fearing he cannot control his dark side, Dr. Jekyll does not want to see anyone. When Mr. Hyde wants to attack Jekyll's fiance Millicent, he commits suicide.

One of the earliest film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous short horror story, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is not among the best versions of it, but it certainly has a sense for achieving a fine balancing act between a horror and a symbolic drama. While some have interpreted it as a representation of split personality or schizophrenia, the basic storyline is actually an allegory on yin and yang, on the old perspective that every person has an integral good and a bad side, thereby channelling the struggle over which side will prevail. John Barrymore is outstanding as the (double) title (anti)hero who wants to awaken his suppressed "wild" side, only to realize it becomes such a burden that the dark side might completely take over. While the film is good, it lacks true suspense - except in one great, eerie and expressionistic little sequence where the hero is in his bed, but has a nightmare about a giant spider in the room - and is too much bound by timid rules of that era: one can safely conclude that, ironically, the whole film could have used a little bit more of Mr. Hyde's "wild side" itself. The rushed ending and a few unnecessary scenes do not improve the impression, yet overall the film offers enough emotion and wisdom to satisfy.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Hands of Orlac

Orlac's Hände; silent horror-drama, Austria, 1924; D: Robert Wiene, S: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner

After a train crash, pianist Orlac loses his hands. His wife Yvonne is devastated, but a doctor manages to transplant new hands to Orlac. However, Orlac is shocked when he finds out that the hands once belonged to Vasseur, allegedly a killer who was sentenced to death. Plagued by fears and hallucinations that he cannot control his new evil hands, Orlac is even more disturbed when his rich father is murdered and the fingerprints match those of Vasseur. He is contacted by con artist Nera who wants to blackmail him by telling the police that Orlac performed the murder, since he now has Vasseur's fingerprints. However, the police arrest Nera, who killed the father and made gloves with Vasseur's fingerprints. Even more, Vasseur was innocent all the time.

"Orlac's Hands" has a very chilling concept about transplanted "murder" hands that makes it one of the forerunners of the 'body horror' subgenre, with the exception that there is no awful degeneration of those hands, just the notion that they are foreign and uncontrollable, thus sending a subtle subtext about split personality and schizophrenia. However, unlike Robert Wiene's much more famous - and better - "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", "Orlac" exhausts its premise already after the first third, and then fails to build up real suspense since it is dramaturgically flat, whereas the mood is too pale to carry the whole storyline where not much happens: there is only one murder throughout the film, and even that is not treated with enough skill to shape the rest of the gaps in the film's pace. It suffers from too much empty walk - the constant repeats of Orlac only walking with his hands stretched out again and again can only go so far - and an overlong running time, which nullifies a part of its pleasure, at least until the strong plot twist near the end. The possibilities of the concept were not exploited to the fullest, and a few didactic scenes bother, whereas the ending is almost uplifting, yet at least it managed to give a slice of eerie suspense in the psychological state of the hero.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

City on Fire

City on Fire; crime drama, Hong Kong/ China, 1987; D: Ringo Lam, S: Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Sun Yueh, Carrie Ng

A gang robs a jewelry story in Hong Kong and escapes. In order to catch the gang, Inspector Lau persuades the unwilling cop Chow to infiltrate its circle by pretending to be an arms smuggler. Chow however wants this to be his last assignment since he is fed up with the police job, among others because he cannot focus on his relationship with girlfriend Hung. Chow manages to enter the crime gang and pretend to be one of the thieves, and even worse, becomes friends with gangster Fu. He informs the police who prevent another robbery of a jewelry, but they follow them to a desolate cabin, which ends in a bloody shootout. Chow dies, while Fu gets arrested.

Ringo Lam's "City on Fire" retroactively gained fame in the West after Tarantino admit it as a major influence on his debut crime film "Reservoir Dogs": however, while Tarantino's story focused on what happened to a crime gang after the robbery, Lam's film focused the story more on what happened before, thus enabling a longer time for anxiety that leads up to the final jewel robbery and the finale, which paved the way for great character development of his main hero, reluctant cop Chow (excellent Chow Yun-fat), who has to suffer privately and professionally for being a "mole" in a criminal circle. The film is not among the best titles coming from the Hong Kong cinema, obvious in a few clumsy scenes and a rather rushed ending, but it has that 80s flair that carries the storyline with ease, while managing to stay suspenseful to the end. It also has a few "relaxing" moments, in probably one of the funniest and goofiest marriage proposals ever caught on film, in the scene where Chow pulls out a ring from his mouth and proposes his girlfriend while they are both taking a shower! The most memorable scene is arguably the one where three gangsters take Chow to the top of the hill overseeing Hong Kong and threaten to kill him in the graveyard since they suspect he might be a police snitch. Overall, Lam proved a sixth sense for crafting aesthetically pleasant crime films, delivering a very good tuition for other filmmakers.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Gulag; drama, USA, 1985; D: Roger Young, S: David Keith, Malcolm McDowell, Eugene Lipinski, David Suchet

Moscow during the rule of the Totalitarian Bolshevik regime. Athlete Mickey Almon visits the country to attend a sports event, when he is approached by a man who asks him if he can smuggle an allegedly secret document to the West. After thinking it over, Mickey accepts, and is promptly arrested by the KGB who planted the trap. He spends weeks in jail until he is forced to make a recording where he "confesses" of being an American spy. Even though he was told he will be released, the KGB stays true to its rotten nature and lies, sending him to a gulag for 10 years. In the concentration camp, Mickey manages to escape with inmates Kenneth and a Cossack, by constructing a double wall and hiding behind it in a train. The Cossack dies in the snow, but Mickey and Kenneth manage to escape by crossing the Norwegian border.

It is estimated that about 14 million prisoners went through the Soviet concentration camps, the gulags, which left a staggering number of 1,600,000 deaths. This bottom of the human civilization provides, nonetheless, a great source for films, even though it was rarely covered in cinema. Roger Young's "Gulag" is a fair attempt at capturing that insanity on film, even though it made a crucial historical error by placing the film in the present time, the 80s, since the gulag system was already abolished by the late 50s. The story is directed without passion or intensity, whereas the presentation of life in the Soviet concentration camps has been somewhat undermined by having the protagonist only work in the sewing factory, even though in reality the prisoners were used for the worst kind of hard labor exploitation - the only exception is the scene where a guard takes revenge on a prisoner in the forest by having two other guards hold him while he first shoots his left hand, then his right hand, and then his legs. The highlight is definitely the suspenseful escape sequence, where the three inmates prepared a double wall in the train in order to dodge the inspection of the guards and flee. More could have been done with this topic, yet the story flows smoothly, has a couple of moments of inspiration (Mickey voluntarily jumps in the sever canal, laughs, then takes Kenneth with him and then pushes a guard, as well) whereas the best performance was done by David Suchet in a small, but great little role as the wise camp inmate.


The Scene of the Crash

Putovanje na mjesto nesreće; drama, Croatia, 1971; D: Zvonimir Berković, S: Ana Karić, Rade Šerbedžija, Emil Kutijaro, Nataša Maričić, Stevo Žigon

On his trip from Split to Zagreb, Vlatko encountered a car that stepped into his side of the road. In the ensuing chaos, the car crashed and fell to the beach. Luckily, the driver survived. Vlatko travels to Zagreb and meets the driver's wife, Jelena, but tells her that the driver does not want to see her in the hospital, because he has a mistress. Vlatko seduces the 10 years older Jelena, and she falls for him, until she seeks out her husband's mistress - and finds out that Vlatko tried to seduce her, as well, using Jelena's money. She breaks up with Vlatko who returns to driving his car.

"The Scene of the Crash" is an overall successful attempt at an early modern film in the Yugoslav cinema of the 70s: the opening scenes of the main protagonist (very good Rade Serbedzija) driving in his cabriolet along the highway on the Dalmatian coast is very 'cool' and reminiscent of Italian existential films from that era; the visual style is excellent, using a dynamic, movable camera that gives even ordinary scenes a sense for the aesthetic (old people sit at the table at the retirement home, and then the camera "flies" above them; the long intro where the camera follows Vlatko climbing up the stairs in the apartment block; the meadow scene, where the camera descends from a tree...) and reminds a lot of the style of director Parajanov whereas the "plot twist" near the end gives the storyline a different perspective and plays with the contemporary themes of an antihero, far from the simple love stories from the 50s. The first third is excellent, but unfortunately, director Zvonimir Berkovic does not know how to handle the remaining two thirds of the films, which are filled with monotone, long monologues, melodramatic scenes and too much empty walk, whereas the visual style cannot carry it all the time (despite a great little scene where Vlatko and Jelena are talking near the bank of the Sava, while a purple fog, floating above the river, is illuminated at nigh). It seems Berkovic did not know what he wanted to say at the (inconclusive) end, leaving the impression that the film would have been better as a short.