Monday, February 29, 2016
America, 19th century. Hugh Glass is a guide of an expedition of some 40 trappers who hunt for fur in the forest. They are attacked by Indians and have to flee along the river, losing over half of the men in the process. When Glass is attacked and crippled by a bear, the crew decides to move on and leave him behind, leaving Fitzgerland, Jim and Glass' son Hawk to watch over his stretcher. Fitzgerald kills Hawk and persuades Jim to leave Glass alone in the forest, figuring he will die anyway from his wounds. However, Glass recovers and makes a 200 mile walk to the fort. Upon realizing he was left to die, his associate Henry decides to hunt for Firtzgerald. In a duel, Glass wounds Fitzgerland and throws him into the river.
After a surprising comic turn with "Birdman", director Alejandro G. Inarritu expressly assembled his next film the following year, "The Revenent", in which he returned to his depressive-bleak worldview. It is a well-crafted film, with great camera work, but lacks real ingenuity or imagination, since it is basically just another banal revenge story in its essence, in this case presented as a survival drama in wilderness, that appeals too much to the most primitive urges and instincts than to some more sophisticated stylistic means. It has a whole array of dark, dismal, even vile moments (a man shoots a horse; Glass has to resort to eating leftovers of bones of a skeleton or raw meat from a buffalo to survive; Glass removes the intestine of a dead horse in order to enter its body naked to warm up during the cold, freezing night...), but except for the impressive 7-minute bear attack sequence or the scene where Glass runs with a horse over the cliff, the style does not outweigh their primitivism or depraved nature. Also, at 2.5 hours, its running time is way overstretched. Leonardo DiCaprio puts a lot of effort into the role of Glass, and gives a powerful performance, though the role is trapped by its too brute, dismal urges. Overall, "The Revenent" is a good film, but it is more dispiriting than inspired, since the quality of a film was never measured just by how much depressive it can get, but just by how much sophistication it can conjure up.
Friday, February 26, 2016
In the 2030s, humans set first step on Mars. However, a storm hits and the crew is forced to abandon one astronaut, Mark, whom they presume died, and head with their vessel Hermes back to Earth. However, Mark survived and returns to their base. Now alone, he uses the food rations wisely and creates a greenhouse to plant potatoes. NASA headquarters finally pick up satellite images that there is movement on the base, and conclude Mark is still alive. NASA chief Ted rushes an expedition back to Mars to save Mark, but one scientist concludes that it is much more practical to swing Hermes back to Mars. After a year and a half, the Hermes crew manages to pick up Mark and return him safely back to Earth.
After every previous Sci-Fi film about humans on Mars was treated seriously - from "Armitage III" up to "Mission to Mars" - "The Martian" came as a surprise since it finally decided to treat the stale topic with a fresh and healthy dose of humor and vitality. Based on Andy Weir's inspired (self-published) eponymous novel about 'Robinson Crusoe on another planet', this film adaptation offered a science-fiction story with a human face, since all the characters are easy to identify with, and thus it is much more engaging for the viewers to cheer as "all eyes are on Mars" trying to bring back the main hero, Mark, back to Earth alive. The first 10-15 minutes are a standard, ordinary Mars film with little hints that anything new might happen, but as soon as Mark returns to the base and displays a sense of humor while recording a video log, the story lifts up and just grows exponentially thanks to only small details (when he uses the feces from the toilet as a fertilizer for the potatoes, he opens one bag and says grudgingly: "Johanssen, Jesus...!"; upon returning from a shower, with disco music playing in the background, he goes: "I'm definitely going to die here... If I have to listen any more to this god-awful music."; he travels across half of planet to dig up Pathfinder in order to communicate with Earth). This gives the movie sympathy that carries the entire film, and Matt Damon is both charming and innocent enough to make the audience root for him. However, some extra, additional humor would have been welcome, since the wise-cracking humor depletes itself in the last third, which ends slightly conventional, and feels as if the film overstretched itself for way too long, even though that is a tolerable flaw.
Baltimore. The police department is given consent to investigate a drug network run by the ominous Avon Barksdale and his associate Stringer Bell. The police crew consists out of detective McNulty, commander Daniels, detective Kima, Herc, Carver, Bunk and others, while they are overseen from the Department by Commissioner Burrell. They use a secret wire to tap the pagers of Barksdale's henchmen who sell the drug on the streets, as well as a couple of snitches. Just as they were nearing a breakthrough, the are given order from above to shut down the investigation and arrest those they have. Kima is wounded in a shooting, while the incomplete investigation left Berksdale and Bell behind bars only with mild a sentences.
David Simon's crime TV series "The Wire" built up quite a following: it holds an incredible, unheard of 9.4/10 rating on IMDb. While that is definitely overhyped and overrated, "The Wire" is still a different kind of series in the genre, since it directly, unglamorously shows the dark side of America, the ghettos where teenagers are manipulated into selling drugs on the street, as well as a very vast depiction of a police department painstakingly tapping their pagers in order to build up a case and arrest them. There are several interesting characters that break some cliches of the genre: two that stand out the most are gangster Omar, who is actually gay, and D'Angelo, who undergoes a grand transformation from an obedient accomplice of Barksdale to a person who develops a conscience after so many people are killed and the mafia methods develop an almost Totalitarian grip around his life (in episode 1.13 he openly admits to the police: "I felt freer in jail than I was at home").
In the conventional wire tapping story, an interesting subplot emerges when the police find out that the trail of money leads them to high ranking politicians, who are given funds, and thus it comes as no surprise that the Commissioner is putting pressure on Lieutenant Daniels to finish the investigation before it gets "too deep" - in episode 1.12, he presents some files and says to Daniels: "FBI field reports. You came to a lot of money quick. You can go to jail just as quick if I start asking the right questions. This case ends or you are done." A couple of good details mange to intrigue as well: for instance, Omar, a wanted refugee, checks if his bubblegum is still attached to the door before entering his place, or a scene in 1.10 in which a detective demonstrates how to measure a distance in footsteps by attaching a 30 inch rope to Shardene's legs and then letting her walk a few steps to "remember" walking that precise distance. One of Omar's quotes in episode 1.8, during a failed assassination atempt, already became legendary: "If you aim for the King, you better not miss". However, "The Wire's" flaws are in the too cold approach to the narrative, with little vent for sympathy or humor, as well as in too much empty walk here and there which dissipates the storyline into some 30 characters, of which not everyone is that interesting to watch all the time. There is a rewarding finale with a point at the end of season 1, but it takes way too long to finally get there, and takes up way too much time. As such, it is a good, yet not an all-encompassing classic as some would wish it, since not every sequence is as a gem as the one where detectives McNulty and Bunk almost trick D'Angelo into confessing by writing a letter to the "children" of a killed witness - even though that is actually a photo of Bunk's children.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Ahmed is a small thief in ancient Baghdad. One night, he uses a magic rope to climb into the palace to rob it, but forgets about the gold when he spots the sleeping princess in her bed. The guards chase him away, but he decides to marry her by pretending to be a prince from a far away land, mingling together with three suitors for the princess: the Mongol Prince; Prince of Indies and Prince of Persia. The princess likes Ahmed, but the guards chase him away when it is found out he has no rank. The princess tells the suitors she will marry the one who finds the rarest treasure: the Persian Prince gets a magic carpet, the Princes of Indies a jewel, but the Mongol Prince poisons the princess and then cures her with a magic apple, thereby insisting that she should marry him because she owes him her life. Ahmed returns on a flying horse, having obtained a magic powder, he uses it to conjure up an army, chase away the Mongol Prince and save the princess.
Acknowledged as one of the 10 best fantasy films by the American Film Institute, Raoul Walsh's "The Thief of Bagdad" is a typical Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling adventure, but unlike many other of his films, it has some aura of innocence and magic that helps it surpass many other movies of the same format. The timeless story of a thief who came to rob a palace, but dropped all the gold and riches when he spotted the beautiful sleeping princess, who stole his heart, mirrors some inherent subconscious traits of all fairytales—a humble, small protagonist who becomes a hero by fighting the powerful, evil villain; a damsel in distress; the power of innocence and love that can beat any obstacle—and was enriched with a lot of wit and life (when the princess wakes up and sounds the alarm, Ahmed ducks and thus her blanket falls on him, providing a convenient hiding; Ahmed is accused of stealing a purse, but then he manages to convince the guards that it is his by claiming to know its contents - and that it is empty) as well as romance ("I can endure a thousand deaths, a thousands tortures - but not thy tears", says Ahmed to the princess), which help pass by the sometimes overlong running time of two and a half hours of the storyline. An additional wonder is also the inclusion of several fantasy elements (a proto-animatronic of a dragon; Ahmed's fight with a giant spider under the sea; the magic carpet; the finale in which Ahmed uses the magic powder to create first six soldiers, and then doubling them until he has a whole army), which all help leave an opulent impression, from a time when such stories were a lot sweeter.
Friday, February 19, 2016
A woman on a swing. Woman's lips smiling several times by looking at a hat. A merry-go-round. Scenes of clogs in an engine ticking and working. An old woman carrying a bag on her shoulder climbing up the stairway. Several juxtaposed scenes of legs from a mannequin, that seem to be dancing when inter-cut several times. A sketch of a Tramp closes the film.
One of the major, significant experimental silent films from the Dadaist cinema movement, "Mechanical Ballet" seems to have lost its appeal today and fell more into the perspective of abstract, vague experimental films without a point, except as an example of early artistic exercises. Director Fernard Leger, with the help of co-director Dudley Murphy, assembles a subconscious film that plays with the cinematic techniques, and thus abounds with surreal, sometimes inventive scenes (a woman on a swing seen upside down; a ball swinging backwards and forwards towards the camera, which is seen in its spherical reflection; a 'fractured' split screen...), but despite its short running time of only 16 minutes, it drags since it has no plot or storyline, nor characters, and thus seems to move forward only extremely artificially and forcefully. A proto-Godard example of silent cinema, with an ironic jab at the beginning and end (an abstract sketch of Chaplin on the screen), yet a one that seems more like homework for the cineasts than as a pure joy of filmmaking.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Tanya is a nurse who is forced to occasionally work as a prostitute to earn enough money to survive, since she lives with her mother, a poorly paid school teacher, in an apartment. Her client, Swede Edvard, proposes her, and she accepts - however, the Soviet bureaucracy insists that she first gives a signed document of her father, who is not opposed that she leaves the country. Tanya thus goes to the apartment of her father, who left her, but he demands money for the signature. Tanya thus has sex with a client one last time, obtains a document and leaves Russia to live with Edward in Stockholm. However, she feels like a foreigner there, one guy tries to rape her while Edvard feels uneasy due to rumours that he married a prostitute. When she hears that her mother committed suicide in Russia, Tanya decides to slam her speeding car into the opposite traffic.
After the censorship of the Russian authorities subsided in the late 80s, numerous directors finally got the chance to direct films they actually wanted, and thus several taboos were broken: among them was Pyotr Todorovsky's drama "Intergirl", allegedly the first Russian film that explicitly tackled the theme of prostitution, and thus became the most visited film in Russian cinemas of 1989. While it starts frivolously, with a lot of humor (in the opening act, there are several comical moments, such as the one where the prostitutes give deliberately 'tongue-in-cheek' lame explanations at the police station - one claiming that a 100 $ bill in her purse was found in an elevator, and she thus intended to give it to authorities - or the scene where each time a topless prostitute stands up for a second in front of the jail bars, two horny boys throw money bills into her window), the second half starts to get a lot more serious and somber about its subject, illustrating how the heroine, Tanya, cannot escape her tragic fate even when she leaves her shady and selfish society, since the prejudice against her profession are everywhere (one very memorable sequence is when Tanya has to threaten some school boys from mocking her mother, their teacher). At 2.5 hours of running times, the storyline is definitely overlong and too much talkative, as well as shy (only one sex scene is depicted in the entire film, albeit implicitly) yet its biggest plus is the genuine, excellent performance by actress Elena Yakovleva, who can transverse from comic to fragile moments with ease, whereas a few hints at corruption that pervades the entire sphere of Russian society are done remarkably subtly, which overall gives power to this Russian version of "Pretty Woman".
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Four episodes from the X-files: in the first, agents Mulder and Scully encounter Clyde Bruckman, a psychic who has the ability to foresee the deaths of people. They try to use him to help catch a serial killer... Mulder and Scully investigate the appearance of a monster-man in a small town, which has even been turned into a comic-book, "The Great Mutato" by local teenager Izzy. They discover that Mutato is actually a product of mutation experiments by local Dr. Pollidori. They help him visit a Cher concert... After he killed a guy thinking he was a vampire, Mulder is vindicated when the guy indeed turns out to be one... Mulder somehow shows up on a passenger ship, Queen Anne, floating in the Bermuda triangle during World War II. A woman there looks remarkably like Scully. With the help of the crew, he fights off the Nazis who boarded the ship in search of a scientist who will invent nuclear weapons. Mulder jumps into the sea and returns back to the present.
While "The X-Files" had their ups and downs, and steered too much into routine in some later seasons, four episodes from seasons 3, 5 and 6 outperformed the entire series by a landslide, and gave the fans true reasons to be one. Episode 3.4, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" has a remarkably fresh script by Darin Morgan, who struck a fine balancing act between morbid mystery and black humor, whereas the guest appearance by the brilliant Peter Boyle was a stroke of genius: he plays the title character, a psychic who can forsee how people will die, and even sees his own death and disintegration of his corpse, yet stays remarkably calm, posing some thought provoking questions about the clash between fatalism and free will. There are also many little nice touches, such as the killer grabbing a palm reader, only to tell her: "You're a fortune teller, you should have seen this coming." Episode 5.6., "Post-Modern Prometheus", is filmed entirely in black-and white and is a homage to "Frankenstein". While the narrative 'limps' here and there, it has moments of humor (the diner adapted to the rumours of a mutant in town by offering "Mutant Grape Fruits" on the menu) and ends in a dreamlike, cozy finale where Mulder and Scully demand that the comic-book author of "Mutato" gives them a "better ending", and thus dance in tune to Cher's concert, only to be "frozen" into an animated picture.
"Bad Blood", written by "Breaking Bad"-creator Vince Gilligan, is the funniest "X-Files" episode of all time, which uses the vampire cliche only as a howlingly funny take on "Rashomon", in this case where Mulder and Scully tell the same story in two opposite, sometime contradictory ways, In the opening, Mulder kills a guy suspected of being a vampire, but Scully realizes the guy's fangs were only fake teeth, and thus Mulder goes "Oh shiiii..." but is interupted on cue by the "X-Files" intro. The running gag is that Mulder pretends that he always spots details important to the case, but completely misses the implications that Sheriff Hartwell (Luke Wilson in a surprising, comic guest appearance) has an overbite - whereas Scully tells her story with Hartwell without the overbite, as a dashing and handsome lad. "Why is it important to mention he had an overbite?" asks Scully. "I only wanted to be precise", replies a slightly jealous Mulder. This episode also has arguably the sweetest, cutest and most charming edition of Scully in the entire series (her cynical remarks and complains in Mulder's version of the story). "Triangle" is a slightly confusing, yet remarkably well directed take on "The Wizard of Oz", in which Mulder somehow travels back in time, to a ship during World War II, since the entire episode is directed in long takes, and features only some 4-5 cuts, whereas the moment where Mulder and Scully 'switch' for the split-screen is just plain clever. Chris Carter took a more experimental and demanding approach with this episode, and he got a winner.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
A Nazi concentration death camp, World War II. Saul is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner working as a Sonderkommando member, i.e. a person who cleans up after the killing of the Jews. One day, among the hundreds of dead in a gas chamber, he finds a boy who is still alive, but dies shortly afterwards. Saul tries to convince the doctor not to perform an autopsy, claiming the boy is his son, and that he wants a Rabbi to properly bury him. Saul's friend, Abraham, tries to convince him to start an uprising, since he claims that they might be next in the line of death. After the uprising, a dozen people run away, among them Saul with the corpse of the boy, but he loses it in the river. The Nazi soldiers find and kill them in the forest.
The feature length debut film by director Laszlo Nemes, "Son of Saul" is a quality and ambitious Holocaust piece, yet very tough and depressive film to sit through. Nemes chooses long takes, with the camera following the protagonist Saul behind his back, and presenting the events only from his perspective, never from an objective point-of-view with a wider oversight: this is already evident in the expressionistic opening 10-minute shot filmed in one take, where the camera walks after Saul who gathers the inmates, walks with them into the concentration camp and then holds the door shut after them, hearing their screams as they die in the gas chamber, in a horrifying scene. After he cleans up the blood in the chamber, the camera keeps the background out of focus, even though there is unmistakably a mountain of naked corpses in the room. The second most shocking scene is in the second half, where the Nazi soldiers just round up the prisoners as they show up in the forest, and shoot them on spot over a giant mass grave, in a lingering, articulated vision of Totalitarian hell. It seems Nemes also inverts the film rule in which a protagonist "has to have a goal in the story" by having Saul trying to bury a dead boy, which is a futile goal in itself. "Son of Saul" is a strong film, but a Pyrrhic victory: it did everything right, and yet, it lacks some true ingenuity, freshness and a spirit, since the theme has already been covered in numerous previous films before, whereas this story does not add anything new to it, feeling thus slightly exhausted towards the end.
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Dave Skylark is the host of the super-popular talk show, "Skylark Tonight". One day, his producer, Aaron, gets an offer to make an interview with Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea. Dave and Aaron accept, but are persuaded by the CIA to poison Jong-un and assassinate him. Once in Pyongyang, Jong-un manages to sway Dave into believing that the country is OK, until he finds out that everything is faked. Dave makes a live, globally broadcast interview with Jong-un, and exposes his mismanagement of North Korea. With the help of dissident Sook-yin, they board a tank and hit the helicopter with Jong-un inside. This causes the overthrow of the government and first democratic elections ever.
After an alleged North Korean hacking of the production company Sony and threats to any cinema that would screen the film, the campaign backfired and "The Interview" became the most worldwide talked about film of the year and gained instant cult status - the wave of solidarity was mirrored even in the fact that it became the only film with a 10.0/10 rating on IMDb for a couple of weeks. All the fuss was definitely exaggerated: had the same kind of overdramatization been applied in "The Naked Gun", where in the opening L. Nielsen comically beats up Gaddafi, Idi Amin, the Ayatollah, Castro and Ceausescu, there would have been a backlash from a quarter of the world. However, without all the hype, "The Interview" would have been forgotten fairly quickly: the opening 20 minutes are brilliant (from the opening song where a North Korean girl sings about the "damn Americans", wishing their "women should be raped by beasts from the jungle" up to the quietly hilarious, genius cameo by Eminem in the talk show, where the host reads his lyrics about an old lady aloud: "Why you drive so slow for? Don't you wanna get where you're going faster, since you'll probably die tomorrow?"), but after that it all goes downhill when the rest of the film consists almost entirely out of typically crude, tasteless and vile jokes, and thus mediocrity takes over. One would have wished that the authors would have come up with more imaginative jokes at Kim Jong-un than just the leader having a harem with women, drinking alcohol and farting. After the good Stalin joke ("In my country, it is pronounced Stallone"), the next 40 minutes there is nothing more to write home about, and an empty walk without inspiration ensues, until it finally ends with an - admittedly inspired - finale featuring Katy Perry's song "Fireworks". However, just for the bravery and sheer audacity, something rarely seen in American film at that time, "The Interview" has sympathies, and has a few crumbs of ingenuity, such as the finale featuring Scorpions' song "Wind of Change". B. Wilder's settlement of accountes with pseudo-communism in comedy classics "Ninotchka" and "One, Two, Three" still remains an untouched ideal, though.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Chicago is hit by the worst snow storm of the decade. This is especially troublesome for an airport, where the runaways have to constantly get cleaned from snow, which is a hassle for its manager Mel and TWA mechanic Joe. Another nuisance is an old lady who was caught being a stowaway for years now. As the next airplane takes off, heading for Rome, its pilot, Vernon, finds out that a man intends to blow up the plane with a bomb, to cash in on the insurance. The bomb explodes and causes a small hole in the back of the plane, wounding Gwen, the stewardess and Vernon extra martial affair. However, Vernon manages to turn the plane back and land safely in Chicago, where the doctors nurse the wounded.
A tiresome and overlong achievement, George Seaton's film is very dated by today's standards, and seems more as if it was made in the 50s, not in the 70s due to its cheesy dialogues and characters, yet it became very popular during its time, turning even into the 2nd highest grossing film of the year at the US box office. "Airport's" main problem is that in the first 100 minutes nothing is going on: it is just one long empty walk while it observes its melodramatic, stiff characters who are basically in a soap opera - the only episode that stands out is Helen Hayes as the old lady who uses her fragile and "helpless" look to constantly sneak in on board as a stowaway. Unfortunately, the dialogues are boring, conventional and shabby, whereas the style of the film is equally as ordinary and unmemorable.
The setting of a snow storm that seized the whole area is cozy, yet even that evaporates after a while since it cannot progress forward due to the stale storyline with unconvincing subplots (a man trying to blow himself on the plane to collect insurance) which were later spoofed deliciously by Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker's "Airplane!". The interest finally starts to grip a little bit in the last 40 minutes when the bomb explodes and causes a small hole in the back of the plane, forcing it to land as soon as possible, and a few comical moments manage to 'twitch' the film from its monotone constitution - in one moment, a nun in the plane drinks a whole bottle of alcohol from stress, whereas the always excellent George Kennedy manages to finally ignite some spark with some funny lines ("Are you out of your mind?" - "No, but I'm out of runaways", says a man who cannot sweep so much snow anymore from the airport). Unfortunately, it is all in the vein 'too little, too late', and the sole tangle on the plane is never as suspenseful as it could have been since the film seems almost scared to go into any darker territory, instead preferring a 'pleasant' tone, though it had a tremendous influence on establishing the disaster film as a popular genre in the 70s, with Spielberg's "Jaws" reaching a peak of that movement.
Monday, February 1, 2016
New York during Christmas. Dr. Bill is seemingly happily married to Alice, all until one night, under the influence of marijuana, she confesses that she had sexual fantasies with a man she met a year ago, and wanted to run away with. Shocked by this revelation, Bill wonders through the streets: he meets a prostitute, but decides not to have sex with her. He encounters an old friend, Nick, who tells him about a costume party that ends with an orgy, and Bill thus rents a costume to go there. In the mansion, Bill is exposed and forced to take his clothes, but a masked woman offers herself in his place. The next day, he reads that an ex-model dies from drug overdose. Bill's friend Victor tells him the costume party was all a charade, and that nobody was hurt. Back home, Bill confesses everything to Alice, who tells him they need to have sex.
"Eyes Wide Shut", his final feature film, offers Stanley Kubrick-'light', where the director does not rise to the occasion neither in style nor in content - and instead just settles for a vague, conventional art-film. His trademark visual style is still good, yet compared to his previous films - "The Shining", "A Clockwork Orange", "2001: A Space Odyssey" - where it was wonderfully inventive and adventurous, here is seems too static and standard. Unfortunately, the story itself is also meagre and unsatisfying as well: it can be interpreted both ways, either as literal or as simply the protagonist's dream state, which is alluded in the title, since the characters he encounters all mirror his subconscious stance about sexuality (a prostitute, a gay hotel concierge, the costume orgy as the symbol for group sex) - but a big error is that Tom Cruise actually has more sex in "Jerry Maguire" than in this film, which does not feature a single real sex scene, and thus seems to cheat and undermine its own theme. The costume party that ends in a (scarce and obscured) orgy is a prime example to the indecisive tone of the film: it can either be interpreted as some sort of a secret society cult, or simply just as a plain swinger club for the celebrities who want to have sexual encounters anonymously. Only the second interpretation works - since the first one would be so complex it would make the whole subplot strangely unexplored since the story ends just when it got to be good. Cruise and Nicole Kidman are good in their roles, yet since the characters are not especially explored, they cannot channel their energy into something greater.