Sunday, July 30, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian et la Cité des mille planètes; science-fiction action, France, 2017; D: Luc Besson, S: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), John Goodman (voice), Mathieu Kassovitz, Rutger Hauer
In the far future, Earth Alpha station has merged with other space station from alien civilizations. It has grown to be the largest space station in the Universe, employing millions of workers from over a thousand planets. Federal agents Valerian and Laureline are summoned by commander Filitt to investigate a mysterious unknown sphere in the station. After alien creatures kidnap Filitt, Valerian and Laureline figure it must have something to do with a "converter", a small reptile-like creature that can multiply pearls. They enter the sphere and find out that Filitt, while fighting a war, used a powerful explosive and thereby committed genocide against planet Mul, which was destroyed as a collateral damage. The Mulian aliens just want to have the "converter" creature back to try to reconstruct their civilization. Valerian and Laureline oblige, while Filitt is arrested.

With a budget estimated to run somewhere between 170 and 200 million $, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" became the most expensive European film till date, signalling the Zenith of financial power of director Luc Besson who rallied all the talent from France and foreign specialists and who became the only non-English director in the history of modern cinema who managed to make a European film that topped Hollywood. Just for that treat alone, and the sheer audacity to film the popular eponymous Sci-Fi comics, "Valerian" should be respected more. Overall, the film is not perfect — more charm and humor should have been attributed to the two main leads, agents Valerian and (sometimes feisty) Laureline; the illogical plot holes become apparent in the finale where not everything is neatly tied up whereas some sequences, though pretty, were just added for the pure "eye candy" since they had no function in the storyline — yet it is simply fun and Besson's (French) ingenuity comes to full expression in the virtuoso directed 20-minute action sequence in which Valerian uses a cube on his hand to enter another dimension of a desert black market and escape from the villains who chase after him, which is played down to a T.

The stylistic highlights in that sequence arrive in various technical innovations, such as when a villain throws thousand metal marbles that get attached to Valerian's cube device on his hand, making him unable to run, but the agent escapes by using the heavy weight to crash down a manhole and fall several levels underground. When he finally falls on a stable surface, he throws one metal marble at another villain - and then reprogrammes all the other marbles to follow that marble as a magnet, and now all the weight is transferred to the villain - who now crashes down the next floor himself. The way Valerian and Laureline escape from a giant monster-dog that got attached to their spaceship by simply turning on the warp speed is elegant and fitting as well. Some of the dialogues between the two leads are neat ("Can you survive 20 minutes without me?"), though more such comic ideas could have been added. The main plot on the space station that accompanies over a thousand species sometimes falls into 'patchwork': numerous aliens are presented, though only for a couple of seconds, and thus they seem more like 'throwaway' material that seems more random than something that completes each other (for instance, the character of shapeshifter Bubble is cool, but is disposed off after only 10 minutes). "Valerian" is also different from many big-budget films by defying some Hollywood cliches, staying true to its European roots: there is no main bad guy, and instead the story is one giant allegory on genocide denial, contemplating if the protagonists have enough integrity to accept that someone is wrong from their own ranks. Several inconsistencies and a too colossal narrative may bring the movie down near the end, yet Besson again proved that he still has some freshness left in him.


Saturday, July 29, 2017


Timbuktu; drama, Mauritania / France, 2014; D: Abderrahmane Sissako, S: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Kettly Noel, Hichem Yacoubi

In 2012, Islamist Jihadists conquer Timbuktu and impose a theocracy: due to Sharia law, women are suppose to wear scarfs and gloves; football, music and smoking are forbidden. People who disobey are punished by lashes or, in extreme cases, stoning to death. Kidane, a cattle herder, lives a peaceful life with his wife and their 12-year daughter Toya. However, one day, a crying boy, Issan, tells him how fisherman Amadou killed his beloved cow GPS because it accidentally got stuck in his fishing net in the lake. An angry Kidane confronts and accidentally shoots Amadou. Kidane is brought to trial and sentenced to death. His wife tries to prevent this and thus they are both shot and killed.

A quiet, meditative, minimalist film, "Timbuktu" found its way to widespread critical recognition due to its honest tone and emotional characters the viewers can identify with: even though its story speaks about the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu in 2012, this is also a 'slice-of-life' movie that depicts the customs, mentality and philosophy of the daily life of its people. Even though a Muslim himself, director Abderrahmane Sissako crafted a rejecting picture of Islamist fundamentalism and its negative effects through theocracy: at times, "Timbuktu" seems almost like a local version of "Idiocracy" insofar that it shows how backward people impose their will on everyone: in one scene, a Jihadi kidnapped a girl and married her by force, and when the girl's mother comes to complain, the Jihadi leader just brushes it off; in another, kids play "invisible" football on the field because the ball is forbidden; the Jihadis stage a video, but during recording the lighting malfunctions. Sissako shows violence, but unlike many other African directors, he does so with measure: the murder of a cow, for instance, is shown with emotion, with lingering shots of its legs faltering, showing sympathy for the creature, while the stoning of a couple is reduced to only three seconds. Did the fisherman kill the cow due to negative effects of the Jihadis who introduced violence as means of solving everything? In a time where so many directors just show violence explicitly, a director who does it subtly is something worth complimenting. The storyline is episodic and long at times, yet its center was nicely found in cattle herder Kidane, who confronts the fisherman and tries to do the right thing. Another plus point are the aesthetic images of the old city of Timbuktu that give the movie another layer and speak about some ancient traditions (and emotions) that last even in modern times.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Expanse (Season 1)

The Expanse; science-fiction crime series, USA, 2015; D: Terry McDonough, Jeff Woolnough, Rob Lieberman, S: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cas Anvar, Chad Coleman, Florence Faivre

In the future, human colonies exist both on Mars and on Ceres in the asteroid belt. However, the "Belters", people in the asteroid colonies, are denoted to de facto slave labor, performing dangerous extraction of gas, water and other resources from asteroids for Mars and overpopulated Earth. Detective Joe Miller is given the assignment to find Juliette Mao, the missing daughter of a rich man. At the same time, ice trawler Canterbury is destroyed by mysterious spaceship Scopuli, and only workers Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex survive. They meet Fred Johnson, the leader of the militant OPA faction that fights for the rights of the Belters, who gives them the assignment to retrieve the only survivor of Scopuli. Holden, Naomi and Amos team up with Miller at Eros station, where they find out that the only survivor from Scopuli was Juliette, who died from an unknown virus. A martial law is proclaimed, while both Mars and Earth suspect the other created the virus as a biological weapon.

The first season of "The Expanse" sets up an interesting premise: the anger of the "asteroid mine workers" who contemplate fighting against their exploitation from Earth and Mars reminds of a futuristic vision of Emile Zola's novel "Germinal"; the various political ploys played by the UN politicians on Earth are reminiscent of a science-fiction "Game of Thrones" whereas the finale even adds another ingredient in the formula when it introduces a mysterious virus which could be used as a biological weapon. Unfortunately, for some reason, "The Expanse" follows the often trend of TV shows of its time: since the first 10 episodes last for about 7 hours in total, it takes way too much time to set up its storyline, and thus the real plot tangle, a one that awakens the most interest, only starts in the last two episodes — which leaves the viewers forced to watch season 2. The plot involving Detective Miller (played brilliantly by the charismatic Thomas Jane) works the best, yet the plots revolving around Holden, the UN Assistant Undersecretary Avasarala and the OPA leader Fred Johnson often cause the viewers to question why so much running time is invested upon them.

Despite the overarching story leading to a point in the last two episodes, the said three plots are not always inspired, but sometimes insipid, with your 'run-of-the-mill', standard dialogue. This could have been condensed into only 5 episodes, not 10. The futuristic setting has some interesting details in the first episodes — for instance, a couple has sex in zero gravity, floating two feet above their bed. When one astronaut runs out of oxygen in his spacesuit, the other astronaut saves him by attaching his suit to his own oxygen supply. There is also a poetic moment of Miller on Ceres colony observing a bird that flaps its wings only sporadically, since the lower gravity allows it to fly with only half of effort. However, these technical wonders are abandoned in later episodes, when the plot focuses more on character development and political intrigues. Sadly, some of these plus points are nullified by humorless, lifeless episodes, which cannot be quite camouflaged by great cameras or effects. The 1st season is thus a good "origins" series — it spans a colossal narrative range from Earth to the asteroid belt — yet its true "boiling point" and inspiration seem to be left for the next season.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam; comedy, USA, 1987; D: Barry Levinson, S: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Chintara Sukapatana, Tung Thanh Tran, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, J. T. Walsh, Richard Edson

Saigon during the Vietnam War. Adrian Cronauer is brought from the US to work as a radio DJ for the American soldiers. Adrian's insane comedy broadcast is an instant radio hit for the listeners, but he makes fun of everyone, including Richard Nixon and the US military. Adrian also wants to start a relationship with a local girl, Trinh, and also becomes friends with her brother, Tuan. Private Eddie loves Adrian's show, but Lieutenant Hauk constantly argues with Adrian, who is free-spirited and refuses to follow his guidelines and constrictions. After a bomb kills people in a building, Hauk wants to censor the information - but Adrian reports it on the radio anyway, and is thus fired. After hundreds of letters, Adrian is brought back, but is shocked to find out Tuan planted the bomb because he considers every American an occupier. Adrian's relationship with Trinh leads nowhere due to their differences, and thus he leaves back for the US.

A rare comedy based on the Vietnam War, "Good Morning, Vietnam" marked the beginning of the "golden age" of Robin Williams' career which would last for a whole decade, and rightfully so since the comedian here is such a sensation that it is unbelievable: his casting was simply perfect since he brings a rarely matched energy, vitality and irresistible charm to the role of Adrian Cronauer (even though the majority of the storyline was fictional or amended for the film). Williams fits ideally as a radio DJ with a big mouth and non-stop jokes, and he acts almost like Jerry Lee Lewis: it doesn't matter if he destroys everything in sight as long as he entertains his audience. Already in the opening, when Adrian exits from the plane in Saigon and meets Private Eddie, does he prove a distinctive comic wavelength in their dialogue about the weather ("That is warm." - "Warm? No, this is the setting for London broil!").

The movie owes 90% of its appeal to his improvisational skills, and without Williams this wouldn't be half as fun, whether the jokes are politically incorrect ("The Mississippi broke through a protective dike today... what is... what is a protective dike? Is it a large woman standing by the river going: "Don't go near there!"), political (the fake interview featuring the voice of Richard Nixon) or just plain defying authoritarian figures (after a major argument with his superior, Seargent Dickerson, Adrian, before leaving the office, says this legendary reply: "You are in more dire need of a blow job than any other white man in history"). Unfortunately, the last third of the film lost inspiration and ended on a routine note: the sequence where Adrian talks to the soldiers who all want him to return as the radio DJ is not that funny, and neither is the lame baseball game featuring fruits instead of a ball at the end. Adrian's love interest with a local girl, Trinh, could have been handled better, as well: the only highlight is when he spots her in an English class and spontaneously jumps in as replacement to the teacher, in order to find out more about her. It is interesting that both "Vietnam" and another Williams film "Dead Poets Society" feature the same theme: an individual arriving to an authoritarian institution that turns against him for his free spirit and disobedience, only to leave heartbroken that nothing changed. Easily the best out of three collaborations between Williams and director Barry Levinson, "Vietnam" still seems fresh today, and although it is not as versatile or as focused as "M*A*S*H", it is still a sadly neglected (and rarely talked about) quality film.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Machete; action, USA, 2010; D: Robert Rodriguez, S: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan

Machete was once a Mexican Federal who fell into a trap and was betrayed by his partner, Torrez, who advanced into a drug lord. Years later, Machete now works as an illegal immigrant in Texas. He is approached by a certain Booth who offers him $150,000 to assassinate the far right Senator McLaughlin, who wants to forcibly eradicate every Mexican in the US. Machete accepts, but quickly figures it was a set-up: McLaughlin will win the re-election by claiming a Mexican wanted to kill him - even though Booth works for him - while the police are now after Machete. Luckily, with the help of Luz, agent Rivera and Mexican immigrants, they manage to expose McLaughlin and his ties with Torrez. In a duel, Machete kills Torrez while Rivera falls in love with him.

The eternal supporting cast member Danny Trejo was finally given a leading role in the action exploitation film "Machete", a spin-off of Robert Rodriguez's fake trailer for the "Planet Terror" film, who even went so far to give such stars like Robert De Niro and Jessica Alba a second billing. "Machete" is a homage to stupid B-action movies from the 80s and, just like Tarantino's films, dances somewhere between trash and inspiration: there are some good scenes and some bad scenes, yet Trejo is very sympathetic, humble in the leading role and several ironic moments give this a 'tongue-in-cheek' feel that refuses to take itself seriously, thankfully, whereas Rodriguez even managed to insert a surprisingly relevant theme about illegal immigration, Xenophobia and racism in the US, which gives it a dose of the subversive that increases its meaning - among others, Senator McLaughlin brags about building a wall along Mexico and even calls Mexicans "terrorists". There are a few good jokes here (for instance, Machete was shot at, but the bullet was stopped - by a previous bullet already inside his body) and even some moments that twist the expected cliches: when the attractive girl Rivera (Alba) is drunk and lies in her bed, we see Machete taking his jacket off and "jumping" into the bed. However, the surprise is next morning, when Rivera wakes up in her clothes and spots Machete simply sleeping next to her side, in clothes as well. She then smiles and calls him a real "gentleman". For such class alone, the movie deserves some extra credit. The inspiration wears off in the exaggerated, routine and over-the-top action finale, which ends predictably, though "Machete" is still a good 'guilty pleasure' - and is notable for being one of only two good movies trash actor Steven Seagal ever starred in his entire career (the second being "Under Siege").


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz; comedy, UK, 2007; D: Edgar Wright, S: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall, Olivia Colman, Timothy Dalton, Edward Woodward, Paul Freeman, Martin Freeman

Police Constable Nicholas Angel is one of the most successful and award-winning people in the history of police in London. A little bit too successful, in fact, since he makes the London police "look bad" in comparison and thus his office decides to transport him to a small provincial town of Sandford. Nicholas is annoyed by the lazy police without any effort, especially by his new partner Danny. However, when several people start dying in mysterious circumstances, he suspects there is a mass killer on the run. He uncovers a conspiracy: the village officials - Skinner, manager of a supermarket; Frank, the police Inspector, and others - who kill people who are "disrupting" the perfect reputation of the village. In a grand shootout, Nicholas and Danny manage to arrest the bad guys.

Director Edgar Wright picked another right thing when he decided to make a comic 'buddy cop film', something which is rarely produced in British cinema, and thus delivered a refreshing flick. Basically following the same formula of a conspiracy in a small town which would be used in his other Simon Pegg collaboration, "The World's End", "Hot Fuzz" is a peculiar and daft film which cannot quite get pinned down, yet it is a fun comedy that is simple and accessible. Some heavy handed moments contaminate the innocent tone of the storyline, mostly revolving around sometimes unnecessary crude or gory blood scenes of murder, whereas not every joke works, yet those that do ignite with delight (one irresistible joke, for instance, has Angel answering a phone call at the police station: a man, in all seriousness, called the police because a "swan escaped from the castle", but the protagonist has to oblige and try to catch the bird, even though he thinks this is clearly beneath his honor), whereas Wright gives the 'Mary Sue' protagonist cop Nicholas Angel a neat story arc in which he manages to both change (by accepting to 'lighten up' and stop being so aggressively perfect all of the time) and stay the same (his work ethic and integrity manage to crack the criminal conspiracy, after all) at the same time. A light fun. At least one sequence is howlingly hilarious, though, and demonstrates Wright's delight on comic territory which reaches cosmic heights, easily forming a highlight of the entire film: it is the insane finale in which Angel returns to the village, only to get attacked by retired locals who are aged 65+. One grandmother even calls him a "fascist" and then starts shooting  at him with a machine gun. And just when you think this cannot be topped, it gets topped - when a priest implores Angel to stop, appealing to the church - only to draw two guns and start shooting himself! If anything, this sequence is a small comic gem.


Friday, July 21, 2017

The World's End

The World's End; comedy / science-fiction, UK / USA, 2013; D: Edgar Wright, S: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan

Gary King, an unemployed alcoholic in his 40s, rallies all his high school friends - Andy, Pete, Oliver, Steven - to travel from London back to their childhood town, Newton Haven, and have one final round of beers across all of the 12 pubs, including the last one they initially missed out, "The World's End". They also meet Gary ex-sweetheart, Sam. However, Gary and the gang soon find out all the inhabitants were replaced with blue-blooded humanoid robots and thus have to spend the night dodging them while running from pub to pub. Finally, at "The World's End", Gary and Andy find the secret underground hideout to the "Network", an alien intelligence that has been replacing people with robots in order to enlighten and advance the human civilization, so that it won't be the most backward in the entire galaxy. However, Andy and Gary refuse this offer and thus the "Network" abandons the plan and pulls out all of its technology with it that was shared with Earth. The Earth is thus left without technology, and people have to start all over again.

Edgar Wright's final film in his semi-trilogy of sorts, which included "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz", "The World's End" is a peculiar, daft achievement that starts out as your 'run-of-the-mill' nostalgia flick about middle aged friends trying to recapture the magic from their youth, only to make a dazzling turn some 38 minutes into the film in order to become an unpredictable science-fiction parody about alien invasion, an amalgamation of "The Stepford Wives" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Leaving the rather overloaded (and unnecessary) 5-minute opening prologue with the protagonists as teenagers, "End" works rather smoothly, encapsulating small traits and features of the mentality of people in a small town, whereas the main actor Simon Pegg has a field day playing the leading character Gary King. Some of the best bits in the opening act arrive through comical dialogues between him and his reluctant friend Andy ("We are going back to Newton Haven!" - "Newton Haven is a black hole." - "That's because we are not there!") and such comical spirit that is not afraid to be wacky can be found even in the second half of the film: for instance, when one robot manages to assemble itself back again, putting legs instead of his arms, and attacks Sam, Gary shouts: "Get your feet off her!"

Some of this does work, though some does not, since some parts are not that much inspired, which leaves some scenes just ending up looking weird. Likewise, the ending is somehow strangely incomplete, among others because it abandoned Gary's story arc: what did he learn in the end? What did he achieve? What difference did it make? Basically none, and this seems slightly lacking. Still, Wright shows a sixth sense for pure comedy in a finale that is irresistibly hilarious and contagiously fun, with the likes of analytical humor not seen since the verbal duel between the astronaut and the bomb in "Dark Star" or Ray and Gozer in "Ghostbusters": when the two protagonists find out the hideout of the alien "Network", which explains that it is only trying to cultivate the human civilization, the most backward one in the galaxy, Andy starts objecting to its motivation ("Whoa whoa whoa! Who put you in charge? Who are you to criticize anyone? Now, you might think Gary is a bit of a cock and he is a bit of a cock, but he is my cock!") while Gary verbally outright insults it ("Intergalactic asshole!"; "Go back to Legoland!"), and they both defend the human right to be flawed ("We are more belligerent, stubborn and idiotic than you can imagine!").


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Saint Seiya (Arc 5-6)

Saint Seiya; animated fantasy action series, Japan, 1987-1988; D: Kozo Morishita, S: Toru Furuya, Ryo Horikawa, Hirotaka Suzuki, Keiko Han, Hideyuki Hori

In Japan, the Bronze Knights - Seiya, Shun, Shiryu and Hyoga - find out the Sanctuary, located in Greece, is run by a fake Pope who became corrupt and disloyal to Athena's rule. The Pope even wanted to kill Athena when she was a baby, but she was saved by Aioros, who was stigmatized by the Pope who called him a "rebel". Athena and the Bronze Knights thus arrive to the Sanctuary to topple the fake Pope. Athena is wounded by an arrow and thus the Knights have only 12 hours to go through 12 temples which represent the 12 constellations leading to the Pope's temple, who can only save Athena - but each temple is guarded by a Golden Knight. The Bronze Knights thus battle each Golden Knight in each of the 12 temples. Finally, Seiya reaches the fake Pope, who is actually usurper Gemini Saga hiding behind a mask. Seiya uses a shield to reflect a ray that heals Athena. She then goes to the top temple and kills Saga.

Even arcs 5-6 of the famed 80s anime "Saint Seiya" divided the opinions: some consider them an epic, monumental and immense saga, while others find them a tiresome, bland, overlong and dry set of endless, repetitive fights. Unfortunately, arcs 5-6 also lean more towards the latter, exhausting themselves in too many fights that all seem so the same they become monotonous after some 20 episodes. Unlike the previous arcs, which were all over the place, the storyline here finally aligned into a clear point since the story here is articulate and clear — Seiya and his Bronze Knights have to pass through 12 temples and fight 12 Golden Knights in less than 12 hours in order to save a wounded Athena — but, sadly, it all quickly gets stuck into the same old formula which is repeated ad nauseam: the protagonist encounters his opponent; he tells the protagonist how powerful he is; his kicks or lasers cause the protagonist to fall down; the protagonist is at his low-point, near death, but then remembers the power of friendship, stands up and defeats the opponent. Next temple. Cue this formula to be repeated for the whole 12 temples, from episode 42 to episode 71. And the sad thing is: if the viewers were to skip 29 episodes, and just jump from episode 42 to episode 71, they would not miss a thing. This just proves how superfluous and unnecessary all these 12 temple fights are, and what an empty walk they are.

Also, it is never established why the Bronze Knights would feel such loyalty to each other since their friendship is never established: they are humorless, one-dimensional warriors, and almost never experience something in private to bond. They do what they are told to, not what they feel what is right naturally. One such example is when a young Shun is "training" on Andromeda island in episode 69 by being chained between two rocks, while the sea level is slowly drowning him: why would anyone feel loyal to such misguided trainers and their methods? However, one has to admit there is some anticipation, some spark in episodes 39-41, when Seiya is sitting with a girl at a dock in Japan at night, preparing to go to Greece to fight the bad guy, whereas some of the locations in the Sanctuary are exciting, especially the Ionic pillars and the stairs, evoking the magic and historic legacy of the Ancient Greece, and some shots are opulent (episode 68, when Seiya and Shun are near the top of the hill at night, while the temple is illuminated above them; episode 72, when Mu is standing near a temple, but its background turns into a transparent view of stars in space behind him). An additional plus point is the usurper, the fake Pope in the Sanctuary, whose philosophy about power and justice resembles the one from Blaise Pascal ("Strength is of only importance. If justice is defeated, it will be remembered as evil."). "Saint Seiya" arc 5-6 is basically a 10 hour 'Wrestlemania': it is fun at first, but after so many hours, it becomes boring and lifeless — while one longs for a broader, more versatile spectrum of a viewing experience.


Thursday, July 13, 2017


Leviathan; science-fiction horror, USA / Italy, 1989; D: George P. Cosmatos, S: Peter Weller, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, Richard Crenna, Hector Elizondo, Daniel Stern

Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, an underwater station is performing mining of metals at the bottom of the sea. The station is led by Steven Beck, and consists out of seven crew members, including Elizabeth, Dr. Thompson and Jones. One day, the find a sunk ship, Leviathan, with a safe containing some files and vodka. When one crew member, Sixpack, drinks the vodka, he becomes sick and dies, while an unknown creature mutates inside of him. It seems that the sunken ship may have experimented with mutagens. The monster spreads and kills one crew members after another. Beck calls the company to pick them up, but a hurricane is preventing any rescue. Finally, Beck, Elizabeth and Jones manage to flee into the sea and escape to the surface. The monster attacks them, but Beck kills it with a bomb, while a helicopter saves them.

"Leviathan" is a solid amalgamation of such horror films as "Alien" and "The Thing", yet it offers overall too little to deliver anything new, creative or original in the already tried out subgenre of a monster chasing a crew sealed off inside a limited location. Appearing in a year that was marked by underwater Sci-Fi films, most notably "The Abyss", "Leviathan" finds its own way, yet it is too standard and conventional, lacking real highlights that would justify its predictable formula. The characters are one-dimensional and bland, rarely managing to live it up and show some life, humor or wit: one such example is when Steven Beck gets angry at Sixpack and says: "And Sixpack, if you call me Becky one more time I'm going to pop your tops, all six of them." There is also one good scare moment that actually used some sophistication: it is when the camera zooms out only to a shadow of the monster on the wall, whose shape is still unknown to the viewers. More of such moments in the film would have been welcomed. Sadly, it takes too long for the monster to show up, and once it does, it is bound by too fast cuts that are so erratic that the viewers are sometimes confused as to what is going on in a single scene. That is probably because the monster is a puppet operated underneath, and in order to conceal that we never get a full wide shot of it, but just frenzy glimpses of its head or claws, which is disorienting. A simple, normal editing with a clear establishment of where the monster is and where it is going would have been far better. Even the finale is routine and lacks some freshness. Still, the set designs are very good, whereas the film features one of the greatest posters of the 80s, a one that promises more than the film actually delivers.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Before the Rain

Pred doždot; drama, Macedonia / France / UK, 1994; D: Milčo Mančevski, S: Gregoire Colin, Labina Mitevska, Rade Šerbedžija, Katrin Cartlidge, Jay Villiers, Silvija Stojanovska

Three stories: Kiril is a young Orthodox monk who holds up his 2-year vow of silence in a Macedonian monastery. One night, he finds an Albanian girl, Zamira, hiding in his bed because a Macedonian militia is accusing her of murder and wants to kill her. Kiril helps her hide in the monastery. When older monks find this out, they expel him from the monastery. Kiril and Zamira flee and fall in love, but they are caught by her grandfather. When she wants to run away with Kiril, her brother shoots her... London. A Macedonian war photographer, Alexander, gives his mistress, Anne, an ultimatum. She is pregnant, but chooses to stay with her husband, so Alexander leaves. However, in a restaurant, a man from the Balkans causes a shooting spree and kills Anne's husband... Back in Macedonia after 16 years, Alexander meets his old love again, Albanian woman Hana. He saves her daughter, Zamira, from captivity of an angry mob, but they shoot him in revenge.

Milcho Manchevski scored it big time with his feature length debut film that was critically recognized and awarded with several prizes, and it is a matter of a quality, unassuming little film that reflects upon ethnic conflict and rule of violence in the Balkans, though it is not without its flaws since such a topic is sometimes presented in heavy handed, banal ways. Balkan primitivism was never truly cinematic, which is problematic even in "Before the Rain", yet Manchevski managed to still deliver a worthy and touching film about intellectuals and gentle souls trapped and hindered by a backward society, using a similar episodic three-part structure like "Pulp Fiction" that same year, where one story completes the other and it all adds up in the end. Out of three stories, the first one is great, yet the other two are melodramatic and too standard to truly rise to the occasion.

The first segment seems to draw its inspiration from wonderfully aesthetic landscapes of the Macedonian monastery on the Ohrid lake, which truly delivered a few great shots, yet the story is also intriguing as it symbolically speaks about the Macedonian "Romeo and Juliet" concept in which a Macedonian falls in love and protects an Albanian girl, who escapes from the extremists from the other nation only to fall victim to the extremists from her own nation. Gregoire Colin stands out the most in that segment as the good-hearted Kiril who follows a wow of silence, while a few comical moments all add up (in one scene, some kids are holding two sticks on the shells of two turtles, imagining they are fighting and calling them "Ninja Turtles"). The second and the third story seem like intruders, though, showing the Balkan mentality more the way the West wants to see it than the way it truly is, with several pretentious ideas (it seems "normal" for the Western viewers that a Balkan guy would suddenly start a shooting spree in a London restaurant just because he has an argument with a waiter, it seems) and explicit details (a man gunning down a cat on the roof; a close up of a sheep giving birth...) which reduce the subtle approach from the opening act. Rade Serbedzija is fantastic in the third story, though, charismatically portraying an intellectual who somehow managed to emerge from such a backward area, escape from it and still deciding to go back and change it towards better.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bound for Glory

Bound for Glory; drama, USA, 1976; D: Hal Ashby, S: David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, John Lehne, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Randy Quaid

Texas during the Great Depression. Woody Guthrie does not know what to do with his life: he cannot find a job as a sign painter and thus feels ashamed that he cannot support his wife Mary and kids. Hearing rumors that there is no unemployment in California, he one day randomly starts his journey westwards by secretly sneaking with other stowaways  in train wagons. Finally in California, he witnesses how immigrants live in slums, only rarely getting poorly paid jobs in plantations. He also starts an affair with a rich woman, Pauline. Woody meets activist and singer Ozark, who tries to organize a strike and form a syndicate in order for the workers to get a decent pay. Ozark helps him find a job in a radio show, where Woody proves to be a gifted musician. Woody brings his wife and kids to California, but they argue and she leaves him due to his activism. When the radio forbids him to sing music about poverty and inequality, Woody resigns and leaves the state.

If there is a spiritual forerunner to Hal Ashby's biopic about Woody Gutherie, then it is Ford's great classic "The Grapes of Wrath", since both depict the grim events of the Great Depression in America and characters migrating westwards to California in order to find a job, thereby implicitly pleading for a better, fair system, for social equality. More so in "Bound for Glory", even: the hero is basically a socialist musician, but a one that became a socialist not by his own will, but simply by living in such hardship and poverty. Ashby once again manages to craft a quality, quiet film with an emotional understanding and sympathy for his characters (Woody cheated on his wife when he had a chance, yet it is difficult to completely shun him when a random girl says she "doesn't mind doing it" after hearing him play the guitar, upon which he says: "This town ain't dead yet!"), unobtrusively building the story, whereas it is interesting to spot the early use of steadicam in a couple of scenes, albeit scarce one (one is the camera following Woody through the slum, as dozens of people walks pass him as he approaches Randy Quaid's character), as well as a few impressive shots (the wide shot of a giant dust cloud approaching the Texas town, for instance, as Woody runs through the cloud to his home). Unfortunately, for a running time of over two and a half hours, "Bound for Glory" simply exhausts itself in far too much empty walk or repetitive scenes, especially if the viewers are not such fans of folk music (which is played by the protagonist abundantly). This is exacerbated by several episodic scenes which all add to the film's episodic tone (in Texas, one man randomly approaches Woody on the porch and says: "I don't know if you know it, but you are watching at an insane man!"). A decent 'social issue' film, yet a one that feels sadly standard, lifeless and conventional at times.